By Bob Hoelscher
As you build trips for your group of travelers, one of the most essential decisions that you’ll make is to pick a transportation provider. Your options include planes, trains and motorcoaches, each of which have distinct advantages and drawbacks for groups.
Here’s our guide to doing business with transportation providers, and finding the option that will present the best price and the best experience.
We’ve already talked about the reasons for using top-quality motorcoaches, but that surely does not preclude soliciting charter quotations from competitive lines. Rates of alternative carriers can vary substantially, even for comparable equipment, so it’s generally a good idea for the tour planner to get several quotes for a given trip.
When seeking such price information, make sure to provide a relatively detailed itinerary including all of the sites, attractions and other tour features (such as an evening meal or theatre performance) that will require usage of the coach. It should go without saying that additional services requested after a charter rate has been quoted are likely to result in added fees.
Two other subjects that need to be considered are potential fuel surcharges, plus the need to make sure that coach drivers receives adequate gratuities, should there be any desire to use them on an ongoing basis. Some group leaders use just one coach company, preferring such advantages as that operator’s familiarity with the group’s specific routines and requirements, the ability to request individual trusted drivers, and (sometimes) preferential rates. The other side of this “coin” is that relying on but one coach operator may lead to rates being steadily increased due to the group potentially “being taken for granted,” and the inability to get quality equipment during peak times from other carriers when the “preferred” operator may be sold out.
Airlines are generally not in the customer service business, but are primarily interested in filling seats with warm bodies at the highest fares they can get away charging. Group leaders must play “let’s make a deal” with competing carriers in order to get the most favorable rates and terms. They must also expect to pay an upfront deposit (usually $40 to $50 a seat) to guarantee a given fare for a group “block” of seats, within 30 days of a reservation being made.
Group unfriendly “utilization” clauses and other requirements imposed by some air carriers can easily result in deposits and/or “blocks” of seats being forfeited. The entire process of obtaining group air space is neither easy nor problem-free for even the most experienced professional tour operators, so group leaders unwilling or unable to play this ever-changing “game” themselves would be wise to enlist the services of a professional travel agent, and negotiate the best “deal” possible for the agent’s services.
Although Amtrak and other long-haul passenger railroads tend to be more user-friendly than the airlines, several of the same caveats apply. At least Amtrak has sales representatives with whom a group leader can work, unlike the faceless agents who can only be reached by phone or e-mail at airline “group desks.”
On the other hand, there are a number of professional travel agents who specialize in rail travel, and are recipients of Amtrak “Golden Spike” Awards. Such agents have extensive experience in dealing with this mode of travel that can be invaluable to the group leader.
Two other subjects should be kept in mind when contemplating a rail journey. First, group members must not be in a hurry, but be willing to sit back, relax, and enjoy the passing countryside. Second, Amtrak fares can be much more affordable if a group is willing to avoid major holidays and the busy summer season (Memorial Day to Labor Day).