International tour packages which allow one to purchase only the actual tour--not including flights to and from, and between points within it--are offered by many tour operators, giving travelers more flexibility and the chance to save money by arranging their own air fares. But the practice, called a land-only option, can also be confusing since policies among tour operators vary.
Some operators allow travelers the option of buying their own air fares from the United States to the point at which the tour begins overseas. Others may permit travelers to also purchase flights within the tour itself, while many operators don't permit this option. And still other operators may include intra-tour flights as part of their "land-only" packages.
An example of whole-tour compared to land-only rates: Ladatco Tours of Miami offers a 22-day "Mystery Explorer" tour to Chile, Bolivia and Peru. Land-only rates, based on double occupancy at hotels, starts at $3,148. With air fares, including round-trip flights from Miami, and counting intra-package flights, the rates begin at $5,351.
"Land-only tours are a subject which can confuse consumers as well as travel agents," said Ada Brown, president of Seaside Travel in Long Beach and head of the Southern California chapter of the American Society of Travel Agents. "Travelers have to be clearly informed on exactly which, if any, flights are covered since tour operators handle this aspect differently."
"Land arrangements can be confusing," admitted Tyler Tanaka, president of San Diego-based Japan & Orient Tours. "We train our people to explain when our tours are strictly land-only, both verbally and in writing, and some people still don't get the message. There are many geographical variations concerning land arrangements, and buying them alone is not always the best deal."
What are the advantages and disadvantages of buying land-only packages?
Land-only arrangements begin with check-in at the first hotel on the itinerary. It's up to the traveler to get to this hotel whether by air, land or sea. After joining the group, all other land arrangements on the itinerary, including the last night's hotel stay, are provided. If a return flight to the United States is not part of the package, getting to the airport is the traveler's own responsibility.
Chances are, however, that land-only travelers will be accepted aboard transfer vehicles at terminals if they meet their group at the designated times. But don't count on you or your luggage being afforded whatever measure of standard insurance protection that the tour operator normally provides on those vehicles. Purchasing travel insurance that covers these areas may be a worthwhile investment.
Reconfirming flights is another task facing the land-only traveler. This job is normally done by the tour manager. Being bumped from a flight or dealing with a lost reservation are hazards more likely to be experienced by the individual traveler than someone in a tour group.
Perhaps the key advantage of land-only arrangements is the greater degree of flexibility they offer in not having to meet a group at a specified time, both for departure and return. This advantage can be diluted, however, for the relatively inexperienced passengers who may have to contend with making connections at busy airports, coping with language and luggage mix-ups, finding the right buses, haggling with cab drivers, et al.
The big question on land-only arrangements is whether travelers can do better buying their own air fares, perhaps even utilizing frequent-flier miles.
The problem is that many tours involve a number of flights. For example, tours through the Far East and South America crisscross through several countries. Unlike Europe, where traveling by motor coach is often the mode of travel used, packages in other parts of the world often use flights between destinations. Travelers are more likely to buy their own air fares when a single destination is involved in the tour. With more flights, the advantage usually lies with buying the tour operator's fare. There's also the convenience factor as well.
Travcoa, a Newport Beach-based tour operator, offers all of its packages with land-only options. "We offer the best available air fares, but not non-refundable fares, and the reason is that there may always be changes in the dates or routes of the tour," said Angela Miller, a spokeswoman for Travcoa. "That's why we recommend that travelers think twice about buying a non-refundable fare."
Travcoa's land-only passengers are responsible for any air-fare charges within the tour package. "Some travelers think such flights are part of the land arrangements and they aren't," Miller said. "We provide one overall air rate that covers all flights involved, both to and from the U.S. and within the package itself.