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TRAVEL INSIDER

On Budget Package Tours, Lodgings May Disappoint

Bargains * One couple's experience with an airless Paris hotel room offers a case in point. Remember, you get what you pay for.

March 19, 2000|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

A cautionary tale of travel is upcoming here, complete with hot, stuffy Parisian lodgings and a billing battle. But before I get to the story of Delia Abascal and Cosmos Tours, let me say there are many good reasons to use a tour operator, especially if you're seeing a foreign country for the first time.

If you don't want the burden of finding your way in a foreign land or if you want someone to guide you through the complexities of a new destination, an escorted tour can simplify your travels.

Also, if you buy an air-and-hotel-only package from a tour operator, you gain simplicity but remain independent, free of escorted activities and mandatory bus itineraries. .

Because tour operators can deliver many customers and because they bring travelers year after year, they usually can find more attractive prices, including better room rates and air fares, than an individual can.

This year, the New York-based U.S. Tour Operators Assn. projects that its 129 member companies (the largest and best-known U.S. tour companies) will take 10 million Americans on vacation, grossing $8 billion, or about $800 per traveler.

But things do go wrong now and again.

Every month or so, I get a letter from a traveler who has relied on a tour operator to take care of everything, then is disappointed with one (or more) of the operator's chosen hotels. The most recent such letter came from Delia Abascal of Fountain Valley, who wound up with her husband, Miguel, in a stuffy Paris room in August and said she couldn't get Cosmos' help in finding a better place.

The Abascals flew to France on a budget tour, and through Cosmos arranged to extend their stay in Paris at trip's end from two to five days. They paid in advance.

Their Paris hotel room had no air-conditioning, windows that opened only a few inches and a bright light right outside. Because both have histories of heart trouble, they viewed the stuffy room as a health threat. After the first night, they asked the tour director to re-book them, but Cosmos could not help them. Abascal's husband found another hotel. For the last three nights, Abascal said, they paid about $165 a night for the new hotel, on top of the $90 a night for the room they had abandoned.

On return, the Abascals tried to get a refund from Cosmos, but seven months later, they have received nothing.

Have they been wronged or were they expecting too much?

Barbara Bauerle, a spokeswoman for Cosmos, part of Colorado-based Globus/Cosmos Tourama, the world's largest operators of budget escorted tours, said she could not address specifics of a customer complaint. But she noted that Cosmos sends a list of lodgings so travelers or their travel agents will know what to expect. She said the company also tells customers it uses mostly "superior tourist class" and "tourist class" hotels in the category system of the Official Hotel Guide.

On the guide's 10-step scale, "superior tourist" and "tourist class" rank eighth and ninth. (The OHG top-to-bottom pecking order: super deluxe, deluxe, moderate deluxe, super first class, first class, limited service first class, moderate first class, superior tourist, tourist class and moderate tourist class.)

These kinds of lodgings allow Cosmos to price its trips affordably. A typical Cosmos French vacation this summer includes five nights in Normandy, Brittany and elsewhere in the countryside, along with three nights in Paris, seven breakfasts and three dinners, for $539 per person, excluding air fare, or $1,360 with air fare from Los Angeles.

Travelers need to recognize the trade-off in relying on a tour operator for hotel bookings: You've paid in advance, and you have little room for negotiation.

That shouldn't be a big problem if you and your tour operator communicate well. If you're on a budget or midrange tour in Europe, for instance, most operators use utilitarian hotels, typically lodgings in the $70- to $120-a-night range, probably one with more than 100 uniform rooms and easy bus access but not much character. But some travelers expect more.

"That's the No. 1 complaint I get from people who take package tours--disappointment with the room," said Robert Whitley, director of the U.S. Tour Operators Assn. "But you get what you pay for."

If you're dissatisfied, what can you do? First, calmly but firmly tell the desk or your tour guide that you require a cooler (or quieter or whatever) room in the same hotel. Next, contact the tour company and ask for a hotel upgrade. It will cost you (and it may not be possible), but it's something tour companies routinely do.

Unless there's demonstrable deception, seeking more than that may be fruitless. Susan Henrichsen, a deputy state attorney general in San Diego who specializes in the travel industry, noted that as a disappointed tour traveler, "you only have a leg to stand on [legally] if there's been some sort of misrepresentation."

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