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The Pros to using a Tour Operator to travel to Costa Rica (or anywhere)

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Hey Fodorite friends. I am sorry that I have fallen out of the habit of posting on the forum lately. Just amazingly busy. It is a good problem to have, but I miss the exchange of ideas with my Fodor's buddys. I will try to come back more often. Fodor's popped up as a "Google Alert", and led me back to a thread in the Costa Rica forum. Thanks to volcanogirl for mentioning me.

I didn't pop in to solicit the original poster's business. But I did notice a lot of people telling them to skip the travel agents, and book themselves. I think what I do for a livingis worthwhile.

So I just want to just share the tour operators point of view, and offer some general information about the pros of working with a tour operator. Please note that most of the time when I am saying "I" or "we", I mean tour operators in general. Not just me. Again, I am not writing this to merely blow my own horn.

Please also notice that I said tour operator, not travel agent. A tour operator is a travel agent who specializes in one destination. It is an important difference. That is what I do. Pre-Internet, I sold retail trips. But I worked more as a wholesaler. I packaged Costa Rica for resale to travel agents. I got into the business because I fell in love with Costa Rica. I have now been in this industry for twenty one years, and I still love my job. I have also learned a few things along the way. I am happy to share my thoughts.

A reputable tour operator does not charge a fee, or mark up from what you pay for your trip. You should be able to purchase the same service online for the same price. So we are a FREE service. Though sometimes, a tour operator can get special "net rates", and offer the same hotel for an even lower price than the hotel might offer. But you don't work with a tour operator solely because of a lower price.

You work with a tour operator because of our knowledge and expertise of the destination. I go to Costa Rica at least twice a year, and usually more than that. I am always looking to tour a new hotel, or look over a local destination that I haven't checked out. It drives my wife crazy, as I can get a little obsessive. But if someone mentions a hotel at a particular beach, I have probably at least inspected it. I know what is good or bad, and I know the other hotels in that area to compare it to.

That guy in your office may have loved the resort hotel he took his wife and kids too, and anyone can book that for you. But that is probably the only hotel he knew about in that area. Sure HE loved it, and it probably is nice. But if you are going on a honeymoon or anniversary trip, a tour operator can steer you to a romantic adult hotel. One without kids doing cannonballs in the pool. Or if you are bringing the family, there could be a more suitable hotel choice, or a completely different beach, or just a better value that your friend had no clue about.

Everyone is different. A "just the girls" trip is different than a bachelor party fishing trip. Some people want to dangle from bungie cords or rapel down the side of a cliff. Others want to add to their birding life list. One size does not fit all.

The most important part of a tour operator's job is listening. So many people call me with an idea of what they want to do in Costa Rica. Sometimes, the activities don't match the region they want to visit. Or they are just confused by all the hype online. Often my job is to educate them, and guide them in a direction more suitable to their interests or expectations. Costa Rica is a diverse destination. If someone just wants to sell you something, without listening to what you expect your trip to be, Move on.

We know what things should cost. We are in the market everyday. For example, right now there is a large beach hotel that is offering a "buy two nights, get a third night free!" special. Sounds great. Except they increased their prices by over 50% before they offered that special. So you are actually paying slightly more for that room, than you would have before it was on "special". And I am not sure it was worth the old price to begin with, let alone the inflated new rack. But if you are looking at it for the first time, you probably think you are seeing a great bargain.

Contrary to popular belief, we also usually don't have a vested interest in what you buy. Commissions in our industry are pretty consistent. We are like stockbrokers. We get paid if you buy a great hotel, or a dump. So we usually don't have a financial interest in putting you in a particular hotel. But in the Internet age, our reputation is everything. So my interest is in giving you the best experience possible. Good experiences drive referrals and repeat business to our in box.

We love repeat business. I booked a honeymoon for a young lady this week. She told me she was a repeat customer. It turned out I had booked a trip for her family when she was tem. Her dad still had my card. If I had put them in a substandard hotel that paid me an extra 5% commission, would they have remembered me? Looking out for them brought me a nice piece of business a dozen years later. Isn't that cool?

Think of your tour operator as the "quarterback" for your trip. We can make sure that the private van or rental car shows up, and is on time. We coordinate your day tours, and know the best activities in each particular area. We know how many days you should spend in a particular region, or when you are trying to do too much in a short time. We know what car rental companies import their own cars and keep them in good repair. The ones with multiple offices and 24 hour help lines. Oh yeah, we also know who is most likely to charge for phantom damage or overbook.

By the way, do you want to know the latest rental car scam? Rear floor mats. It sounds funny. But suddenly I am hearing tales of a rash of "stolen" floor mats. Who checks these when they rent a car? Customers (not mine) are being charged at some companies for returning their cars without the rear floor mats. Must be a huge market out there for these. They keep disappearing, and you have to pay $80.00 a pair to replace them.

Sadly I also know of a couple hotels that are in trouble, and probably won't survive low season. They are trying their best, and are still accepting reservations and deposits. We have had to back away from them.

No one wants to talk about this part of our industry. With the poor economy, many hotels have experienced huge difficulties over the last few years. The problem is that they built when the economy boomed, and overextended themselves. A couple of the major players out there are now owned by the banks. Others just went out of business. They could not keep the ship afloat in the poor economy. Some of them, were folks we worked with on a regular basis. We are not going to send your funds to someone that is not going to be there. When we see the warning signs, we adjust accordingly. It is an unpleasant part of the job. But someone needs to be paying attention to this kind of thing.

If you should encounter a problem while you are there, we are in a better position to negotiate for you. If you book a hotel or tour directly, you are a one time customer. You don't have a lot of leverage. You need an advocate.

Tour operators have relationships with the hotels, transportation companies and tour companies. Most hotels get the bulk of their business from wholesalers and tour operators. They value these relationships (as do we), and want to nurture them. So our relationships are pretty amicable. Chances are that if we booked it, we know the owner or general manager. We are at a much better starting point to negotiate a solution.

Or if you have to cut the vacation short due to an emergency at home, we can handle all the cancellations and get you to the airport on time. We can negotiate the refunds or credits. And we do it while you are on the plane home. Unfortunately, I have had to do this a couple dozen times in the last twenty years. But we have almost always been able to come to a solution that satisfies everyone. It is one less thing to worry about. If something happened that was so bad you had to leave the country, do you really want to stress about the canceled arrangements?

If the problem is a flight delay or missed connection on your way into the country, your tour operator can help there too. We can make sure that everyone is aware of your situation and keep you in the loop. This way the van will be there to meet you that evening, or the next day when you finally do arrive. If this causes a ripple effect elsewhere in your itinerary, we can smooth those out with the hotels or tour companies too. A tour operator can rebook when necessary, and send new vouchers to the first hotel stop. This kind of thing happens more frequently than you might think.

Oh yes. If you work with a US based tour operator, you pay for it here in the US. And you only pay once. You are not emailing your credit card information to multiple entities in a foreign land. If for some reason a refund is due, that is coming from here in the US too. You are not trying to negotiate with the front desk in another country.

In a nutshell. No matter how you book your trip, you are spending a tidy sum. The services of a tour operator are FREE to you. You are buying the services for the same price as a direct booking. Why would you not want to work with someone in your home country, who is an expert in your destination? Our advice is free, and we can make sure that everything flows smoothly. We know the pitfalls, and can prevent a problem from happening in the first place. If something does go wrong, our support is there if you need us.

No matter what happens, we can also tell you about that great little tapas restaurant with the fantastic sunset view, or give you directions to the rocking chair factory in Sarchi.

My advice is that before you start booking everything directly, you call a couple of tour operators. Talk to them, and get a feel for them. If they don't make you more comfortable or you don't feel confident, then move on. You can still book it yourself.

But I feel that if you find the right tour operator, they can greatly enhance your experience. And make the process easier at the same time.

I hope this helps! Let me know if I can offer more advice.

Warm Regards,

Pat Hewitt
Travel Professional

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