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Flexible-Style Tours Put You in the Driver's Seat : Trends: Self-drive packages, which include accommodations and sometimes a rental car, give travelers the chance to go at their own pace.

February 02, 1992|JACK ADLER

Self-drive tours, which allow travelers more independence while still getting some of the advantages of a package tour, are growing in popularity, according to travel industry sources.

Such programs are offered throughout North America--the Canadian Rockies is an especially popular area--and to an increasing number of destinations in Europe and the South Pacific.

Self-drive tours provide land arrangements such as hotel accommodations and car rentals. Meals are included in some tours. Air travel may be included also, just as with standard package tours. What makes self-drive tours different is that travelers proceed on land in a rental car--or possibly their own car. This means that you can get up when you want, leave the hotel when you want and see what you want while proceeding at your own pace.

And while traveling independently, participants still get discounts on hotels, car rentals and meals through the volume purchasing power of the tour operators.

Some self-drive tours are offered on a plan, where the tour operator sets up hotel stays along a specific itinerary for a certain amount of nights. However, other self-drive programs can be totally unstructured.

"Self-drive tours are definitely on the increase as travelers become more sophisticated and more comfortable driving in a foreign country," said Martha Scott of Glendale Travel. "They're also less expensive than an escorted program to the same area for the same amount of time, but travelers have to do more homework to make sure they see and do what they want, and know how to get from place to place and how much time it will take.

"The potential problem with pre-planned itineraries is that if you find a charming village or place you want to stay longer than scheduled, it throws the rest of your program off."

Collette Tours in Pawtucket, R.I., began offering self-drive tours to destinations in North America two years ago as a way to attract travelers who had been to an area and wanted to return, but who preferred a more flexible style of travel. According to general manager Tom Souza, only "a couple hundred" people took advantage of the program when it was first offered. Last year, the number grew to about a thousand. This year, he expects several thousand to sign up. Collette has expanded its destinations for planned self-drive tours in 1992 to cover France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece and New Zealand.

On a Collette self-drive tour, participants get vouchers for hotels, meals and sightseeing attractions included in the itinerary. They follow the same route as those on an escorted tour, but not necessarily at the same time. The amount of driving varies, but it's seldom more than a couple hundred miles a day, and often there's a two-night stay at some destinations.

Collette offers an eight-day, self-drive tour to the Canadian Rockies, with rates ranging from $899 to $1,099 per person, double occupancy, including eight meals and accommodations. The cost of a car rental, depending on the type of car, would be in the $200 range, not including two or three gas fill-ups costing another $50 to $75, Souza estimated.

By contrast, Collette's escorted eight-day Canadian Rockies tour, with land rates ranging from $1,099 to $1,299 per person, double occupancy. The price includes 13 meals, hotels, motor-coach transportation and a tour guide.

"On a self-drive, we offer mostly full breakfasts and the final dinner, whereas on an escorted basis, the participants would get more dinners," Souza added. "Lunch is usually on their own in both versions of the same tour."

Chicago-based Cartan Tours offered its first self-drive tours to the Canadian Rockies in 1990 and attracted about 450 customers. According to a spokesman, that number is expected to reach 1,200 this year.

"Self-drive tours will grow in popularity, especially to areas like the Canadian Rockies where hotel rooms are at a premium," predicted Connie Sykes, executive vice president of Cartan. "These kind of tours are especially popular with couples and families, where the driving can be shared. If you have to drive all the time, you can't enjoy the scenery as much."

Sykes said Cartan's programs are developed by themselves and aren't variations of an escorted package. "Our self-drive tours may follow the same route, and use some of the same hotels as on an escorted tour, but they're not offered at the same time. Self-drive tours stand on their own. You don't get as many meals, there's no sightseeing included as part of the package, and there's no guide. You're totally on your own."

Moreover, though the same hotels may be used on both an escorted and a self-drive package, the escorted version is likely to include a better category of rooms. "On a self-drive tour, participants may get rooms anywhere in the hotel, while on an escorted tour, we offer higher-priced rooms," Sykes said.

With Cartan's self-drive tours, the longest driving stretch between any two points is about 250 miles, between Calgary and Jasper.

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