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How Can I Find the Right Tour Operator?

An old friend recently submitted a seemingly straightforward A&A question about an upcoming trip:

“We have been having some difficulties finding tour operators that cover all of Indonesia. We can find plenty for Bali but we want to see other islands while we’re there. Off the top of your head, do you know of any top-notch companies?”

The short answer to this reader is simply, “No, off the top of my head I don’t know of any operators, other than the big name outfits that cover the entire world.” But I can certainly explore the ways you or I could search for the right operator. And this question raises the broader issue of locating a tour operator for just about anywhere.

Check the Big Associations

The most important trade association for tour operators is the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA). Membership guarantees, among other things, that each operator is financially stable and strong. Although it does not guarantee that any given operator would provide a top-notch experience on any given trip, by and large the members are generally among the better choices for just about any trip.

The USTOA website provides a membership database searchable by destination. In the case of Indonesia, my search resulted in a manageable 15 choices, which I could winnow down fairly quickly based on the type of trip, price, itineraries, and such.

However, Indonesia is not a big focus area for tour operators, generally. With a more popular region—or even a single country— the list could be too large to use this way. For example, more than 50 operators each are listed for China, France, and Italy, with England, Greece, and Israel not far behind. Clearly, these lists are far too long to narrow your choices to a manageable level.

Also consider checking regional tourist associations. Presumably, operators that belong to these organizations have a special interest in running tours to the sponsoring areas. For Indonesia, you’d check the Pacific Area Travel Association (PATA), where you find less than a dozen tour operator members based in either the U.S., Canada, (or wherever else your home may be), or in Indonesia. Similarly, although the European Travel Commission doesn’t have tour operator members, the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA) membership list shows several dozen operators, including a relatively few based in the U.S. or Canada.

Affiliation with the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) is also worthwhile. ASTA is the only trade association in the entire travel industry with a consumer protection process.

Check the Big Airlines

Most of the world’s major airlines offer package tours to their primary destinations, through affiliated or subsidiary tour operators. For Indonesia, you’d start by checking Garuda, where you find a link to Garuda Holidays, with a handful of local packages. Because Indonesia is generally not a popular tour destination, I found no other airline offering packages there. However, for more popular areas, the big U.S., Canadian, Asian, and European lines and their destination-based competitors typically offer all sorts of package and sightseeing options.

Google It

A quick Google search for “tour operators Indonesia” returned several useful portal sites, with links to multiple tour operators, including WorldTravels, Indo, a Yahoo directory, WillGoTo, BugBog, and World Tourism Directory, along with information on a handful of individual tour companies. Many of these sources—and certainly the basic technique—would work equally well for just about any area of the world.

Narrow the Field

Even for a country as relatively unpopular with tourists as Indonesia, these searches can produce unmanageably long lists of candidate operators. You can make your job much easier by narrowing your search somehow. First, you’re probably better off with a tour operator based either in your home country or in the country you plan to visit. A home-country location assures an operator familiar with typical standards and requirements of local travelers—and is at hand if you have a complaint. And an in-country operator probably knows the local landscape better than a foreign one.

You can often narrow your list of candidates on the basis of the kind of trip you’re seeking. Do you want adventure travel? Trekking? Bicycling? Educational travel? Cultural travel? Do you want fully escorted tours or just hotel/air packages plus local transportation and some local sightseeing? Are you interested in luxury, midprice, or bare-bones accommodations? Answer some of these questions and you can narrow your search quickly.

Yes, But Is it Any Good?

Although finding and listing possible tour operators requires nothing more than a bit of time online, the next questions become tougher. I often hear from readers seeking “reliable” tour operators or travel agencies (whatever they mean by that), and almost anyone would be interested in finding out as much as possible about an operator’s reputation.

Sadly, when it comes to traveler reviews, tour operators are an information desert. About the only site I know with a relatively extensive backlog of traveler comments is Epinions, which currently posts 273 reader comments about tour operators. The cupboard is bare for my reader, as Epinions posts no comments about tour operators to Indonesia, and only two covering tours to nearby Malaysia and two to Singapore (same two companies). In those cases, readers give good marks to Pacific Delight and Vacationland.

Again, the field is more fertile for more popular areas. Epinions posts 50 or more reviews for five countries and close to that for many more. Here, you get a range of responses, although the range is usually pretty narrow for any individual operator. As a quick observation, it seems to me that many bad tour operator reviews actually focus on airline problems rather than problems with the tours, in general. No surprise there.

What does surprise me is that none of the big U.S.-based hotel review sites has added a section dealing with tour operators. Clearly, there’s a need here—and likely an opportunity for someone. And Better Business Bureau findings might locate tour operators with financial problems, they don’t have any data on general customer satisfaction.

Travelers outside the U.S. have more resources. Several sites in the U.K. publish extensive tour operator reviews, including Ciao, Review Centre (both free access) and Which?, the British equivalent of Consumer Reports, for a fee. These sites concentrate on U.K.-based tour operators but include a few of the big internationals. I even found one site in India, Mouth Shut, which is posting a beta version for the U.S.

Try a Travel Agent

Presumably, one of the reasons you use a travel agent is to take advantage of an agent’s specialized knowledge. That extends to tour operators, and a good agent that specializes in Southeast Asia should be able to steer you to a good choice. But check prices from a few sources before you contact an agent so that you’ll know when you see a good deal.

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