Q: Dear Peter,
I have been invited to travel with a group to China. The itinerary sounds wonderful, and the costs are extremely reasonable. However, I have been unable to find out any information about the travel agency that is organizing the tour. I have checked the directories with ASTA and USTOA, but this agency is not listed. They do have an office here in California, and are listed as a corporation, but the Secretary of State has no record of this business. I checked with the Chamber of Commerce in the city where the office is located, but there is no record of a travel agency or business with the name of the agency. The agency does have a Web site, but the site does not list a license number or provide any business references of any kind. Do I have a reason for concern? I really would like to make this trip, but I am very uneasy about the travel agency. Is there any other place I can check on this agency? Thank you for any help or suggestions you may have for me.
Laguna Woods, Calif.
A: Your first step should be to call the travel agency directly. Some companies put a wealth of information on their Web site, but others don't. So call and inquire about what industry associations the company belongs to, if any, whether they are insured (and with what company), and whether they are licensed (and in what state).
Do they put your deposit money in an escrow account, and if so, at what bank? Find out how long they've been in business, and what hotels and airlines they use. If they're not major ones, that is a red flag that the company may be cutting corners. You may also want to ask if the travel specialists have any certifications such as CTC (Certified Travel Counselor) or CLIA (California Lodging Industry Association).
Most travel agencies and tour operators are members of the United States Tour Operators Association, the American Society of Travel Agents, or the National Tour Association. These organizations require members to carry a certain amount of insurance and adhere to specific professional and ethical standards to ensure that customers have a good experience.
Some agencies are not members of any of the above organizations, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're scam artists. In fact, even some member companies can rip you off. Also, not all tour companies and travel agents are required to be licensed and registered as such; that depends on the state. To weed out the good from the bad, do your due diligence.
Start by checking with the Better Business Bureau in the company's home state to find out the number and types of complaints that have been lodged against the company. Look into how or if they were resolved. If you should find a long list of problems, cross the firm off your list. Try to get the company to give you references of satisfied customers. This can tell you a great deal about their customer-service and planning skills.
Regardless of whether the company belongs to an industry association, make sure you always read the cancellation and refund policies thoroughly, and pay with a credit card. This gives you protection should you have to dispute a charge. And lastly, buy travel insurance, but not from the agency itself. This will give you peace of mind that you can recoup your investment should the company turn out to be a bad egg.