Before looking for a group tour, know the difference between a tour operator and a travel agent. Tour operators arrange packaged vacations that usually include lodging, some or all meals, land transportation, activities and admission fees. Travel agents sell these packages on behalf of the operators.
One of the best sources for finding a company is the U.S. Tour Operators Association (800-468-7862, www.ustoa.com) in New York. Association members have been in business for at least three years, provide references and must participate in a consumer protection plan by posting a $1 million bond. That last point is key -- if a tour outlet goes under and the company isn't insured, you could lose whatever you've paid. Plus, USTOA members must pledge honest advertising.
For a list of travel operators, search the association's Web site by your destination or the state in which you live. The site is quite comprehensive; 15 tour operators are suggested for trips to Brazil, for example.
Another organization is the National Tour Association (800-682-8886, www.crosssphere.com), a Lexington, Ky., association that claims 4,000 members in 25 countries. Six American-based tour operators on this group's Web site arrange tours of Brazil (some of those operators are USTOA members, too).
For its part, the Federal Trade Commission suggests being wary of mega-discounted vacation packages that you might receive via postcard, fax or certificate-style mailings to your home.
To find a travel agent representing reputable tour operators, contact the American Society of Travel Agents (703-739-2782, www.astanet.com) in Alexandria. Seek word-of-mouth recommendations, too.
Complaints about tour operators and travel agencies that are filed with the Better Business Bureau (202-393-8000, www.bbb.org) can be viewed online. The reports, though, tend to be vague. The categories of complaints are general -- "refunds," "advertising issues" and "customer service issues," for instance -- so you don't know if a grievance is relevant to your concerns. And even highly regarded companies have marks against them; Abercrombie and Kent, a longtime high-end tour company, has two. Still, it doesn't hurt to check.
If you question the legitimacy of a tour operator or feel scammed, consider informing the FTC's Consumer Response Center (877-382-4357, www.ftc.gov).
-- Elissa Leibowitz Poma