James from Houston sent me the following question:

Your blog has inspired me to plan a trip (our first!) with my dad this summer. I want to hire a travel agency or tour operator to do all the planning but since I’ve not done a lot of traveling myself, I’m not sure who to contact. How can I make sure the operate is legit?

Great question James! Vetting a travel agent or tour operator before giving them your money is time well spent. Unfortunately, I found this out the hard way….

vetting a travel agent

Hikers following the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

In 2005 I was booked on a hiking tour of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru, but the week before I was due to get on the plane out of New York, I realized that the outfit I’d hired to pick me up at the Lima airport and take me to Cusco (the city at the start of the trail) had scammed me. How did I know? The company’s phone number suddenly stopped working, and no one would return my e-mails. In other words, the company basically disappeared.

I was determined to hike that trail, though. So I decided to fly to Peru as planned. Nervous about what I would find (or not find) when I landed in Lima, I lined up an alternate vendor to take me to Cusco if indeed my suspicions about the original vendor were correct. Alas, I didn’t get a chance to try either my original plan or my backup plan: two days before my departure, my father passed away unexpectedly, and I canceled my entire trip.

Needless to say, this little fiasco turned out to be a valuable learning experience for me. Here’s my hard-earned advice: vetting travel agents or tour operators is critical before forking over any money.

So how do you do that?

The Better Business Bureau of Greater Houston and South Texas is a great place to start your research on U.S.-based companies and give your business only to well-rated companies. Look for reviews online by doing a search for the name of the company with the word “review” and by checking independent review sites (such as TripAdvisor’s Travel Forum) and discussion boards (such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum). (Note that a lack of reviews can be just as much cause for concern as bad reviews!)

Also check directly with the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA), the National Tour Association (NTA), or the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) to see if any of them has vetted your tour company. (Don’t take the tour operator’s word for it. Check directly with the organizations listed above to confirm that the provider has a current membership.) Get the company’s physical business address and a non-800 telephone number, and beware of businesses that don’t make their contact information easily available.And if you’re hiring a tour operator to take you on a potentially risky excursion (such as parasailing or scuba diving), it’s even more important to make sure it’s a legitimate operation (with all the required qualifications) before you sign up for anything.

In lieu of getting references from the tour operator, I usually ask my connections on various social media platforms (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.) for recommendations. I did call the references provided by the operator in Peru and received glowing comments from all of them, but when the tour company disappeared, the references did, too. In the wake of that disaster, I now prefer the experience of friends (or friends of friends) over the comments of whomever the operator offers up.

Even when you’re comfortable with a particular tour company, it’s still a good idea to play it safe and double-check all of the hotel rooms, flights, and other arrangements yourself once the company has sent you confirmation of your bookings. (I learned this lesson, too, the hard way after a travel agent kept all the money I had paid it and never booked my cruise!) And before booking anything, check your credit card company’s fraud protection plan to see if you’re eligible for any refunds in the event of a problem. Certain types of travel insurance may also offer reimbursement if you do not receive what you paid for (check out insuremytrip for potential options).

One final warning: if a tour is really cheap, there’s probably a reason for that low price. Run James—don’t walk—away from that operator and find someone else!

Keep me posted on where you trip James  I’m excited for both of you.