Question: My daughter and I would like to take a tour of Scandinavia next year. We have narrowed our choices to two escorted companies, one of which is based in Washington state and the other in Sweden. The one in Sweden has returned email inquiries quickly, but it has no U.S. phone number to ask questions. That makes me uncomfortable.
Answer: First rule of travel: Don't start a trip being uncomfortable. Second rule of travel: Always listen to your intuition. Third rule of travel: Trust and verify.
Taken together, this means finding a travel professional you trust and letting that person use his or her expertise to guide you.
It may cost you an extra farthing, but you will sleep better. Here's why, in part:
"I am their advocate before and after their travel," said Terry Jones, a full-service travel agent who is also affiliated with Cruise Inc. "I'm there during the planning to make sure wants and needs are met, and while they are traveling if they need help, anything goes wrong or they want to add something."
The trick, of course, is to find an agent you like and trust — and, in this case, has the expertise to make your trip happen the way you want it to happen and within your budget. (Money discussions are never easy, but they're imperative.)
If someone you know has had a good experience with an agent or tour company, that is a check in the plus column. But what if that travel agent isn't an expert on the area you want? Jones said she will often refer a customer to another agent because that's in the client's best interest.
If you don't want to take a chance, you can start by perusing lists of specialist agents. Condé Nast Traveler's Wendy Perrin puts together a hand-curated list that is as fine a resource as any out there.
The American Society of Travel Agents also offers help in finding an agent. You can search by specialty, and although I found some Northern European specialists that way, I found Joann Adso Scott, of Travel by Scott in North Hollywood, by specifying someone who spoke Norwegian. (Scott is Danish but speaks several languages.)
In five minutes on the phone with her, I got more tips than five hours online would have netted me. One great suggestion: Attend the Cal Lutheran Scandinavian Festival, April 5 and 6, in Thousand Oaks, for a taste of those countries. Scott, by the way, says she can do a combination of escorted and independent travel, which is what Dyson said she was looking for.
You also can go the fully escorted route, of course, and if you do that, make sure you choose a tour organization affiliated with the U.S. Tour Operators Assn. Terry Dale, its president and chief executive, explained part of the protection travelers have with groups that are part of USTOA: It's the $1-million bond or letter of credit the member has "that is held by USTOA in the unlikely case [the organization] ceases business or declares bankruptcy."
The "U.S." part of the name doesn't preclude using tour groups in foreign countries, Dale said. Foreign operators may be associate members, but they generally have a U.S. partner who is a USTOA member. That out-of-country "ground operator is someone who has been vetted by the USTOA member," Dale said. "You can go in with confidence that you are going to have people who live and breathe and eat in the … country. They call it home and know how to showcase their country as it should be seen."
Doing it yourself can be rewarding, but if it's the trip of a lifetime, I'd bank on a pro, just as I would if I were taking on a major home improvement project. The crooked, crummy-looking shelves in my home office, where I wrote part of this, are a testament to the wisdom of that.
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