Booking a single flight, easy. Booking a detailed itinerary online can be confusing at best and once you leave your local comfort zone, selecting who to work with in another country, another language can be a challenge. We hope this tutorial clears up some of the mystery, expectations and terms used in the industry.

There can be confusion about the difference between Tour Operators, Travel Agents and OTA (Online Travel Agency e.g. Orbitz, Travelocity, Kayak, CheapCaribbean).  What exactly makes them different and what roles do they play in the planning of your vacation?  Even the most Internet-savvy travelers, those that think they are, and even travel industry personnel can stumble, making DIY or independent booking more complicated than it needs to be.  At the end of this summary, you will have completed Tourism 101 and will be a much wiser and savvy travel consumer.

The main difference is that a tour operator is responsible for operating and providing your vacation through the contracting, booking and packaging together of the various components or moving parts of your tour such as your hotel, transportation, meals, guides, optional tours and sometimes flight.  Many tour operators are considered land only operators and focus on the aspects of your package once you have arrived at your destination. (Inbound/Destination Tour Operator or sometimes called DMC – Destination Management Company). Tour operators sell to and through travel agents and in some cases, consumer-direct. Typically the required profit margin is built into their price and when sold through a travel agency, the agency receives a commission. If a tour operator does sells direct to consumer, they typically sell at the same price that your travel agency could secure the booking for.

TIP: A consumer-direct transaction does not necessarily mean lower cost and in doing so, the consumer assumes additional liability for details that a knowledgeable travel consultant will pay attention to.

Travel Agents and Agencies, the business entity that agents work for, hold the role of selling and administering travel for a client based on what they’re looking for and what suits each client best.  A great agency can address all client travel needs, including: Independent, FIT (Foreign Independent Travel), packages from tour operators as described above, cruise ship itinerary, luxury or economy travel.

TIP: The best professional agents and consultants can help clients coordinate use of their frequent flyer awards and attend to the exacting needs of a customized itinerary.

GEOGRAPHIC EXPERTISE – Due to complexity and logistical moving parts involved in building a tour itinerary, many tour operators focus on a few select destinations while travel agents can specialize in a broader range of destinations because they can rely on the expertise of a tour operator for the “details” of the arrangements.  We prefer our agents have destination-specific expertise and minimally a certification for areas served and to disclose first-hand experience of a destination or supplier (or lack thereof). This way a knowledgeable agent can truly help narrow down options for your specific goals based on budget, preferred travel style and interests.  Your agent or consultant will work behind the scenes with providers to obtain the necessary details for your journey, including cancellation and reschedule policies, reservation deadlines, deposits and payments and more.

ONLINE TRAVEL AGENCY (OTA) – Is normally the first place people start but rarely finish a transaction. OTA are really a computer database engine that displays flights, tours, packages and a lot of moving parts on one browser screen. Accuracy and ultimately, your buying experience is based upon the availability and validity of the information provided by its suppliers, fact, fiction, garbage in equals garbage out. Flights tend to be accurate as they instantly search the major airline global distribution systems (GDS) but can include some wacky routing, schedules and layovers that you need to pay keen attention to. Buying a package, well we think you are already smart enough to sniff that out. Electronically piecing together a package from disconnected piece parts and tidbits of inaccurate data may lead to a Frankenstein itinerary.

TIP: Accommodations in most destinations already include two or more in the nightly rate, often with breakfast. Internet packaging often sells based on per-person packages instead of per-room to create a more appealing price point. Use basic math skills and make sure your not paying 50% or more for the same room because the per-person rate looked so sweet. It’s not to say that great deals don’t exist, they do. but… if it sounds too good to be true?

BUY IT NOW – While you can book immediately with a travel agent, another great benefit of a qualified travel agency is their ability to work with their vendors, including airlines, to book and hold your reservation with an “agency hold” pending deposit or final payment. While this does not “instant gratification” this does give you both the opportunity to fine tune and make sure you understand everything before paying. Internet booking sites often push for a quick sale with blinking Buy-It-Now buttons, often before you can find and review the cancellation or reschedule policy, resort fees, off-hour schedules, layovers and the all important list of inclusions and exclusions; the fine print. If you don’t know the terms and conditions, fully understand the options, we recommend that you do not use an online purchase option, even on our site.  Work with a live agent to complete your booking.

CUSTOM ITINERARY MODIFICATIONS – Said another way, a Tour Operator’s business is to produce a specific set of packages, itinerary and departure dates that a generalist travel agent can sell.  Selling the same itinerary over and over brings economy of scale to an offering.  Modifications are usually discouraged and if allowed, not all agents are willing to take custom itinerary because well, it takes a lot of extra work and knowledge. An agent must be confident that the client will book with them or they will have wasted a significant amount of time and resource only to lose commission. If you encounter hesitance from an agent, it’s likely they have been burned providing free advice and research. Please be respectful of your travel professional.

INTERNET DIRECT – With the Internet now in every pocket or purse, many believe Internet-based sites and self booking are the best deal, always accurate and fully legit. True, while the internet adds a breadth of travel information, it also adds complexity and confusion. Generalizations aside, we believe a considerable amount of common sense and scrutiny need be applied before booking anything online.  Obfuscation rules the internet. While two retail sites selling the same brand of shoe and size may yield excellent results, travel is different; not all travel offers are equal. Many sites represent themselves as the Tour Operator and while they may well be the direct operator, many simply hide the details and claim it as their own.

TIP: Avoid no-name offers, those that don’t disclose in advance verifiable names of suppliers until after you book. Let’s say you are considering a canopy zip line tour, a hang-from-a-wire adventure; we think it’s prudent to know by whose wire you will be dangling. Don’t you?

So while some tour operators elect to deal direct to consumers as well as to agents for their packages, removing the middleman in a direct transaction does not necessarily benefit you with a better deal, it clearly benefits the supplier with a more profitable $ale. Many people still prefer to use a knowledgeable travel agent to sort through the weeds and hype and to apply their industry expertise to the task of researching your best options.

MUCH SMARTER – STILL HUMAN – Being a prepared and informed consumer might not be enough to protect you from some compelling, too good to pass up “deals” or unscrupulous sellers.  We think that when qualified help is available, it may be wise to take advantage of it.  We hope you’ve gained enough to peek behind the curtain before you book your next travel adventure; don’t ever feel pressured. It’s your right to choose and choose wisely; to know who is standing behind your travel options. Be bold, satisfy every curiosity behind the website; drill down on your own to find out if the company or tour operator is legit, a registered seller of travel, how your funds are handled, what companies, airlines, hotels or transport company will be provided in your booking. Be sure to request sufficient detail to determine reliability, safety, consumer rating or reviews. You may be surprised how many consumers show up at their destination without this information and nobody to greet them when they arrive. Booking on your own does nothing to prevent this; even the smartest people make mistakes. We strongly recommend teaming up with a qualified professional who can help arrange what you are hoping to experience.

Vida Travel operates as a boutique retail Travel Agency, as a Tour Operator for custom itinerary and as a wholesale tour operator, meaning we package and resell to other agents and agency. In all roles, we share the same goal; providing you with an unforgettable, uncommon and stress free vacation.

Vida Travel is a dba of Vida Travel Group, LLC, a California Seller of Travel CST #2112604-40 and Travel Consumer Restitution Corporation TCRC #601318. Regulation of California Sellers of Travel is administered by the California Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General. Vida Travel is a registered business entity in the County of San Diego, CA USA and the City of Escondido, CA.

Just to see how well you like to read the fine print required of you when you book online. California requires all sellers of travel to register with the Attorney General’s Office and to display the registration number on all advertising. While not assuring that a company is reputable, a valid registration signals that the seller of travel has at least followed the law to be registered by the OAG. You may verify California registration by inserting our CST number here. Other states have similar registration and operating requirements to protect consumers; California is particularly stringent, including how consumer funds are handled. Where is your online agency registered? Is it? What is your recourse? Likely none and and the CORONA VIRUS Pandemic has made bad decisions even worse as scores of trusting travelers lost their entire vacation cost by not paying attention before booking, by simply reading fine print.
“Registration as a seller of travel does not constitute approval by the State of California.” (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17550.24.)
Under certain circumstances, California consumers may recover money they paid for travel services not provided by a registered seller of travel. For more information, see “Consumer Refunds“.  If you are solicited for business or otherwise encounter a company arranging travel that is not currently registered as a seller of travel, please let us know. There are many that think it inconvenient. What do you think?