When it comes to planning a group tour, we are well aware that choosing a tour provider is one of the biggest decisions you will make.
It’s easy to get excited by an itinerary that offers your group 10 days in Greece and Italy or a similar time in the USA for $5000 (we have recently seen both offers), but when you look beyond those headlines, any offer that seems a little too good to be true probably is.
With such a large number of educational tour providers and travel agents around, how should you start?
Regardless of where you are considering travelling with your group, or what type of tour you are planning, there are a number of questions that we always recommend you ask:
What type and level of hotel are we staying at?
If you are not familiar with the hotel, ask about its location. Staying in a hostel with backpackers is not the same as a quality hostel designed for school groups and a 2 star hotel in Europe – or anywhere for that matter, is not the same as a quality 3 star hotel in a good location. This is probably NOT where you want to end up unexpectedly on tour…
If the tour operator can tell you the hotel before you have even booked the tour, then it’s likely they may have to change this when you do book. This is because you can never guarantee that a hotel has the space for you at the time you want to go, until the tour operator actually makes the booking. If they can guarantee that hotel, then you are dealing with a huge operation that has so many tours, they probably don’t take the time to really customise your experience and very possibly roll out the same tour to everyone who is going to the same location – or at least the same hotels. Do these suit you?
Are you dealing with a tour operator or a travel agency?
By this we mean that a travel agency uses third party ground operators in most or all of their tour locations. That means they are not as in control of what’s happening with your tour as is a tour operator. Your tour is being booked and organised by someone else and this means that when something goes wrong, you won’t be dealing with your tour co-ordinator – you’ll be dealing with someone you don’t know, at a different organisation.
A tour operator books and organises nearly all elements of a tour themselves. This means that they solve any issue that arise and do not expect you to deal with anyone but them.
Is your itinerary inclusive of “free days” or are all your activities included for every day? What workshops, activities, entrances, shows and tours etc are pre-paid and organised for you? Do you have a booked time for your tour or entrance? Where do you have a tour guide?
One of the biggest factors in pricing a tour is what is actually pre-paid and included in the tour itself. Do you have to pay extra to fill in the free days? The costing you receive from a travel agency or educational tour company may be less expensive because you have free days where nothing is included. It’s worth looking at how many activities you have in the itinerary in comparison to other organisations and how relevant those activities are to what you want your students to learn/experience. A good educational tour company will take it for granted that you don’t want to pay anything extra when you get there – that all your activities should be included and paid for before you go. Is your sightseeing tour booked in advance with an appointment time? This can help you skip the lines in many cases and make the most of your time away. An experienced tour guide booked specifically for your group can impart imperative knowledge so that students really learn about what they are seeing. What’s the point in travelling all that way and not learning the background, history and nuances of something you have wanted to see forever? Guides usually have some great stories to tell too!
Before you choose a tour provider, ensure that you have gone over their inclusions with a fine toothed comb. If that information is not obvious in an itinerary or quote then you need to ask why?
Does your itinerary include experiential learning activities, and if so, how many?
Make sure that any itinerary that you are considering includes carefully designed projects and experiential learning, so that students get the most out of their tour. We think that it’s rare to find these experiences included in many of the itineraries developed by educational tour companies or travel agents. Usually, a high percentage of your tour will be sightseeing and we question if this is the best way for your students to learn, though of course it is important to see the iconic sights wherever you go! Workshops, clinics, classes, themed guided tours, Q & A sessions, simulations and more are all an integral part of our itineraries, so that students are thoroughly engaged in the learning process. You may only get one or two of these kinds of activities (if you get any) from other providers.
Is your itinerary truly linked to the curriculum you teach?
Most tour operators specialising in educational tours will tell you that their tours are curriculum based. That’s because they look at the major topic heading of the curriculum. So they know you are teaching the Russian Revolution or that you are teaching French or that this is a Performing Arts tour. Do they dig down into the curriculum documents to know the electives you can choose, the difference between Years 11 and 12 French and the International Baccalaureate Language Acquisition subject, or even what experiential learning is out there for all the STEM genres.
Most itineraries you will see are not custom designed for your curriculum, but are standard tours that are offered to every school. That’s no help if the electives or choices you have made about what you are teaching in History are different from the school down the road. Make sure that you know that you are getting a tour that has been thoughtfully crafted specifically for your needs – and very definitely for the curriculum you teach.
Does your tour include experiences and sights that challenge your students to develop an intercultural and ethical understanding or to become active and informed citizens, to name two important goals? Does your provider understand the cross-curricular requirements of the curriculum?
Ask your tour or travel company if they have any understanding of the other skills and qualities that you are required to teach your students. Have they included activities that will assist in that teaching?
When designing a tour, do they understand and take into account considerations like the IB Learner profile or the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, as well as skills and cross-curricular knowledge required by the Australian Curriculum.
Is your tour custom designed for you? Does the travel agency/tour company or tour operator with whom you are dealing really understand and include special activities and locations, to ensure the end result is what you are seeking?
Every school and every teacher has different needs and ideas about what they want in their tour. It’s not only about the location to which you are travelling, but about designing an itinerary that’s linked to the curriculum you teach, as well as the learning outcomes you would like your students to achieve while they are away on tour. There are all sorts of specific requirements that each teacher has and these need to be respected and included in your tour, where at all possible.
Do you have a tour director and specialist guides included in your tour?
We think a tour director is essential. Your tour director will organise all the logistics for you, ensuring everything runs smoothly. They liaise with your tour co-ordinator almost on a daily basis. The tour director assists with ensuring that everyone is safe and that you get to where you need to be in good time to have a great experience. Not only do they make sure the tour goes off without a hitch, but they are also licensed guides and will be able to effectively offer knowledgeable commentary along the way.
Specialist guides are often trained in the subject or area you are studying and will be able to impart really useful knowledge and information. A great example is in the Western Front where the guide will be well versed in the Australian experiences of World War I, so the information is immediately relevant to your students’ studies. Make sure that you are getting carefully thought out guides and that a tour director is included in your quotation.
Tour escorts are literally that. They are there to organise logistics and get you from A to B. There are local laws in relation to whether you are allowed to be the guide for your group in many cities. Guiding without a credentialled guide can result in fines. Ask whether the organisation you are dealing with knows the laws in each country, in relation to whether you are allowed to guide your group yourself. Make sure that you ask the question of the travel agency or tour company, so you can rest assured that, if they don’t offer a tour director or guide, you are safe in the knowledge that you are allowed to do the guiding for your group.
Are you getting the service you expect?
All travel companies will tell you that their service is second to none, but in our experience there are many areas that are not taken care of. A good tour provider will have a list of services that they provide – services that are an essential part of their responsibility to ensure you get away safely and with everything you need – and more! Are other companies concerned with the important paperwork you need to take with you, including waivers, visas, letters of introduction etc?
How many meals are included and is this the best idea for your tour?
When planning a tour you should be asked to consider how many breakfasts, lunches and dinners are included. The answer may not be as clear cut as you expect and you may be surprised that including all meals may not always be the best option for your group. In some countries it may be less expensive to purchase your own lunches and it may be the same for your dinners. This is where you will benefit from dealing with a tour provider that knows its destinations really well. The answer to including meals or not can depend on so many factors and only a really good tour provider will know what is best for your group. Make sure you ask why they are recommending what to include and that you are happy with the answer.
We also suggest that you check out the ratings of the restaurants you are being given for meals – just in case they are not at the level you will be expecting!
How many and what city tours are included as part of the program?
Many brochures list multiple sights and city tours as being included in a tour program when, in fact, it would be impossible to tour all of them in a few days. Others indicate ‘visits’ to locations, which really aren’t tours at all, but you’ll just see the place passing by. Ensure that you know what you are really doing each day and that if you are expecting to stop and visit a site, ensure a tour is included. Make sure you have complete control over what happens every day on tour and that your tour co-ordinator is willing to work with you to customise your program based on your interests. You’ll quickly find that when you start customising the pre-priced packages offered by some companies, they aren’t quite the bargains that they may have seemed to be!
Ask for what you want!
Remember that this is your tour. You should work with a tour operator who is willing to bend over backwards to make your program an incredible experience for your group. Look for a tour co-ordinator who knows your destination well enough to give you a good sense of how much you can really see and include during your stay and also how long it takes to get from one place to another. The best idea is to have your tour full, but not jam packed with too much. Find a tour co-ordinator with whom you are comfortable discussing your preferences and who can offer you options that fit within your budget.
What will give you peace of mind?
Planning a tour for your group is a big responsibility. Firstly – find a company and a tour co-ordinator with whom you are comfortable and ask for references if you don’t know anything about them or they haven’t been recommended to you. Are they a good enough tour operator to have partnerships with teaching associations?
What sort of insurance does this organisation offer and do they understand enough about insurance to read and review your school insurance to ensure its suitability for this tour?
Make sure that the organisation you are dealing with understands insurance and can offer you a great product that you do not have to pay too much for. Ensure your tour co-ordinator has been trained in insurance and has the understanding of how to read the Product Disclosure Statement to explain to you just what the insurance covers. Please don’t take anything for granted when it comes to travel insurance cover – and please – never use your credit card insurance alone. We can nearly guarantee that all of us involved in travel would say the same thing!
If your school has an insurance policy for tours make sure your tour provider is knowledgeable enough to check this over to ensure you are covered and safe. Existing school policies, like credit card policies, may not be the best option for your group.
Additionally, you should ask to see a Certificate of Currency of the Public Liability insurance that the organisation has as a Tour Operator. You want to know that the organisation you work with has top notch insurance just in case something happens.
If you are considering travelling anywhere, you will likely get quotations from different tour companies. Compare proposals, and if they do not contain enough detail insist on getting that information in writing. If a tour operator cannot or will not provide you with this detail, you cannot really compare one quote to another.
There is no reason to be unpleasantly surprised at any time during your tour. A good tour operator knows your destination and will do all they can to give you what you want. At the same time, a good tour operator doesn’t make false promises. If something is pending in your itinerary, this should be completely clear. During the planning and contracting stage for a group tour, there is no reason that you should not feel completely confident about what your group is going to get for their money. If you have doubts or questions, get answers to those questions and erase the doubts. If you can’t get the answers you need – look elsewhere!
How accurate is your quote?
How does the tour company present your quote? Many tour providers forward plan an exchange rate and bulk up the quote to compensate if the exchange rate drops. A good company will be much more transparent with their costs and will provide you with a quote based on three exchange rates: the current exchange rate, points higher and points lower. This is so you can see the differences if the currency exchange rate changes. This means you are paying less if the exchange rate goes in your favour – this money is not kept by the tour provider.
Does your travel operator meet with you or conduct presentations?
It is important that your tour company gets to know you well. One way is for the company to meet with you. Additionally, it is important that the parents and guardians of your students feel comfortable with the organisation that you have chosen. Does the tour operator offer opportunities for teachers, students and parents to meet them? How accessible are they if you have a concern? Do they provide a lot of extra information and additional items for you to take that contribute to safety and preparedness for the tour? It is vital to ensure that everyone is prepared, knows what to bring and what to organise prior to departure.
How important is safety to the tour company?
Safety is an imperative. Please ask your organising company what safety protocols they have in place to ensure your safety and ask them how they solve a problem if something goes wrong.
What accreditations should my travel company have?
The most important accreditation that your provider must have is ATAS – the AFTA Travel Accreditation Scheme. AFTA is the Australian Federation of Travel Agents. If your provider is not accredited, then they are not required to provide their financials and other important information, to ATAS each year to ensure that they are solvent and not in financial trouble. ATAS accredited organisations are also required to meet certain minimum standards. These standards are listed below:
- Agree to abide by the Code of Conduct and Charter
- Sign a declaration (Deed Poll) to confirm that your corporate policies, procedures & any consumer marketing activity will comply with the Australian Consumer Law (ACL).
- Be a ‘Fit and Proper Entity’, be a registered Australian Business Number (ABN) holder, comply with relevant sections of the ASIC administered Corporations Act 2001 as required and provide certified financial accounts to prove solvency.
- Provide evidence of adequate Public Liability Insurance and Professional Indemnity insurance.
- Demonstrate adequate level of staff education and training.
- Provide evidence of an adequate complaint handling policy and procedures.