How to select an out-of-this-world tour

You want to take a different kind of vacation. You want to be active and learn things that require expert guidance. You want to go on a dinosaur dig in the Southwest, a bicycle trip around the lakes of Kashmir, an art tour of Vienna.

You start doing your homework, clipping ads from magazines, newspapers, and newsletters, and ordering catalogues from special-interest tour companies. Maybe you've already called associations that address your interest (horticulture, hiking, hippos), browsed the library and bookstore, explored the Internet. You've asked around for referrals or consulted with a travel agent, preferably one with expertise in specialized travel.

Now you're swamped with attractive brochures, and the pile keeps getting higher. The categories expand and overlap: adventure, soft adventure, eco-travel; cultural, educational, customized; group tours for such specific clientele as alumni, women, and the disabled. How are you ever going to choose the trip that's right for you?

This segment of the travel business is not regulated, so you must invest time for evaluation. Many providers are excellent, with outstanding reputations and itineraries; others are new and still working out kinks, so they can be inconsistent. Here are some guidelines to help you assess a proposed trip.

The Track Record
Request referrals from previous clients. How long has the company been in operation?How many travelers does it handle each year?What's the percentage of repeat business?Are any portions of this trip subcontracted?

The Other Folks
Theme-oriented trips are usually limited to small groups, averaging 10 to 20 people, but you should find out for sure, and ask for the company's traveler profile.

Price Check
What's included in the package: meals, transportation, museum fees, equipment rental?Determine what additional costs you will incur.

Just in Case
Ask about refund policies. Is cancellation insurance offered or recommended?What emergency services does the company provide?

Can You Get There from Here?
Does the company have a travel agent in-house, or does it work with one?Does it offer pre- or post-trip add-ons?

Look Who's Talking
Inquire about the number of guests per guide. Ask for the guide's credentials (education, languages, emergency medical training). Does the company train its tour leaders?How many years has the guide worked for the company?

Some companies furnish exceptional extras: pre-departure information, subject-specific books, souvenirs. While not a substitute for a quality trip, such additions suggest a thoughtful provider.

Who, What, When, Where
Trip itineraries supply a wealth of insight and can often help you distinguish among similar tours.

If all this seems like a lot of work, well, the learning has already begun. Now comes the fun part.

Go to the source
These outfits and publications will help get you going on the perfect tour to suit your interests.


Adventure Travel Society 303/649-9016; This group promotes adventure travel and eco-tourism, naming reputable companies and detailing their trips.

American Society of Travel Agents 800/965-2782; A trade organization with 25,000 members, ASTA lists agents with "certified specialist" training in various areas.

Institute of Certified Travel Agents 800/542-4282; An educational organization that offers industry training courses and provides names of members.Guides

The Educated Traveler 703/471-1063; $48 annually. An excellent newsletter that focuses on worldwide learning and cultural vacations. Issued six times a year, it contains in-depth reviews and a trip calendar.

Peterson's Learning Adventures Around the World (Peterson's, $24.95). This timely compendium, issued annually, lists 2,000 learning adventures by region, company, and category.

Specialty Travel Index 888/624-4030; The paperback (Alpine Hansen Publishers, $6) and the Web site are similar. Each covers more than 620 operators, arranged by interest and location.