Package Tours May Be Just the Ticket, but Watch Fine Print

Article excerpt

DOLLAR for dollar, it's hard to beat a package tour.

Working through a travel agent, you deal with only one company, which arranges your air travel, your hotel and the transportation between them. That company negotiates a better price for the whole package than you can because it gets volume discounts for delivering thousands of customers yearly to the airlines and hotels.

And just because you've come on a package tour doesn't mean that you have to run with an escorted group and spend all day in buses. Most package travelers set their own agendas, keep their own hours and choose their companions. But - you knew there had to be a "but" - package tours and the companies that offer them are far from perfect. Over the last couple of weeks, in planning a package trip for my wife and myself, I've been dealt several reminders of that. Our destination is the South Pacific. The trip has been arranged, through a travel agent, by Tahiti Vacations, a well-regarded veteran tour operator that specializes in the area. But the problematic issues can crop up from Azusa to Zimbabwe. The brochure. Naturally, it's designed to show the destination at its best and the prices at their least. Page 23 says in inch-high type that for the nine-day journey I have in mind, prices begin at $1,749 per person, assuming double occupancy, including transpacific flights on Air France. So far, so good. The season. The added costs start with the tour operator's "seasonal supplement" charge. Tour operators often charge more for travel during periods of highest demand, but this operator doesn't draw great attention to that fact. Warned by my travel agent, I notice an asterisk at the bottom of Page 23, which directs me to a small box on Page 5, which notes that my summer departure carries an extra $100 cost per person. OK, fine, add $200 to the tab. The carrier. More surprises. Though Page 23 suggests that Air France is the only carrier offered with this itinerary, the only booking available for me is through lesser known AOM French Airlines. The miles. I had expected to rack up 8,232 Air France mileage credits and later use them on United flights, since Air France and United have a reciprocity agreement. But it develops that AOM French Airlines has no comparable frequent-flier partners, so I lose that opportunity. Later, I discover that United's agreement with Air France excludes Pacific routes like mine - so I wouldn't have gotten mileage credit with United anyway. …