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What to Ask Before You Join the Group

By Carol Sottili
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page P06

When it comes to group tours, a good travel agent can help scout the offerings. But for those who prefer doing their own research, or want to be knowledgeable about choices when they sit down with an agent, key issues should be addressed before you plunk down your credit card.

Here are some questions you should be asking -- and what you should be looking for in the answer.

_____Group Tours_____
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How to Find a Group Tour Operator
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Graphic: Italy Group Tours

Q What is the maximum number of people on the tour?

ABudget tours often take five to 10 more people per tour than pricier options, which means more time waiting for fellow travelers at rest stops, getting on and off the bus, and crowding around the tour leader. The number of travelers will also sometimes dictate whether a large motorcoach or a smaller bus is used. Look for no more than 50 people on a budget tour. Also, ask if the tour guide uses headphones, which allows tourgoers to hear the leader 300 feet away. What kind of bus will be used?

Most European tour companies use air-conditioned motorcoaches, although this is not usually the case in England. Large buses often come with restrooms. Small buses, often used by luxury tour operators that handle smaller groups, can sometimes get closer to the sites.

Does the tour company sublet its tours to local operators or does it only use its own employees?

Local operators can do just as good a job as U.S.-based tour operators, but there is more accountability when your tour guide is an employee of the company you paid. Rod Fernandez, co-owner of Affordabletours.com, says subletting is far more common among smaller tour operators. U.S. companies are also more likely to hire tour leaders who speak English clearly.

Is the tour leader a native English speaker?

This cuts both ways. A tour leader who is a native of the country you are visiting brings insights that can be very valuable. But if the person doesn't have a good command of English, it can be very difficult to follow the lectures.

Is the tour in English?

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