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Choose the Right Bus Tour for You

By GENE MALOTT; ADELE MALOTT

© St. Petersburg Times


Mature travelers face a bewildering number of choices when picking a bus tour, even among tours going to the same places. But those who do their homework and read brochures carefully can make smarter choices.

For example, one small travel agency we checked carries 11 catalogs offering tours to the show town of Branson, Mo. Some of the tours are from nationally known companies, some from regional packagers. Some Branson tours are part of bigger, music-oriented packages that include New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville, and others use Branson as the centerpiece for a regional tour of the Ozarks.

Though it might seem that there's a great difference in cost, you have to consider the number and quality of shows and meals included, accommodations, side trips and the like. It gets down to which tour best suits your taste. Indeed, an array of choices such as Branson's makes it imperative to know yourself.

Here are some tips to help evaluate the trip for you from information that is easy to find: The cost

When we travel, we like a good evening meal at an authentic local restaurant. Thus, on a motor-coach trip through Portugal we were surprised to find that only about half the meals were included, and few of them were evening meals. Although we were feeling short-changed, our companions never complained. Most, it turns out, weren't used to eating big evening meals, and they liked the money saved on the basic cost of this tour.

We came to like that feature, too, because it gave us the opportunity to find great meals at hideaway places that would never have been included on a tour.

But whatever your preference, the meals included do bear on the cost of a tour, and brochures almost always itemize them.

Some tours are priced "land-cost only," others include round-trip air fare from gateway cities. Other extra costs to look for are airport transfers and port transfers. And, even if the brochure says that tips are included, Americans are so used to tipping directly that is hard to resist chipping in as the hat goes round to thank the bus driver or guide.

These extras can add 10 percent to 20 percent to the cost of a bus tour, we estimate, perhaps as much as $275 for a weeklong trip. The experience

Read the day-by-day itinerary printed in the brochure and be alert for the catch phrases.

-- Does the brochure give a clear idea of the kind of place where you'll be staying: "standard," "deluxe," "first-class," etc.? Be aware that in many other countries, deluxe and first-class are not comparable to America's posh hotels that wear these labels.

-- Will you be driving past an attraction, often noted in brochures with such phrases as "you will view," or actually stopping for a tour?

-- Are attractions and side trips included as part of the trip, or are they "available," which means you pay extra to see them?

-- Do the planned stops match the area's key features, or will you miss something you've always wanted to see?

-- Is there a chance to meet local residents, to try hands-on things such as panning for gold, creating local cuisine, watching native artisans or dancers?

-- Does the trip's pacing allow for independent touring other than shopping?

-- Does the adventure or endurance of the experience match your physical capacity? A picture is worth ...

Tour operators offer an important message through the photos in their brochures. Are they your kind of people -- are there gray heads having fun over dinner, or swinging young couples romping in the surf? Those people pictures are the kind the tour is planned for.

Is the group you'll be with mixed in terms of age, travel experience, couples, families, home towns, primary language? Are most members of a special travel club, church or organization? Your travel agent can tell you.

Can your individual needs be accommodated -- wheelchair access, special meals and the like -- and at what extra cost?

If you get sick or have a family emergency at the last minute, will you be liable for the cost of the trip, lose just your deposit or get some kind of refund? Read the company's cancellation policy in the fine print.

A tour company's safety rating is easily available from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Don't travel with an operator that isn't rated "satisfactory" by the DOT; other ratings are "conditional," "not rated" or "unsatisfactory." Call the DOT's Safety Hotline, (703) 280-1749, or ask your travel agent to do so.

For additional advice on what to look for and how to understand travel terminology, contact U.S. Tour Operators Association, 342 Madison Ave. #1522, New York, NY 10173 and ask for a free copy of How to Select a Tour or Vacation Package and The Smart Traveler's Planning Kit; call (800) 468-7862.

A rating sheet to help you compare one tour with another and pick the right one for you is included in our special report, Motorcoaching It! For a copy, send $5 to the Mature Traveler, P.O. Box 50400, Reno, NV 89513. SC:

Originally published July 6, 1997



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