6 Reasons why booking activities and tours in advance is a bad idea
In the last year or so there has been a flood of travel start-up companies trying to get in the business of selling activities and tours to people before they leave home. They'll be competing with sites like Expedia that desperately try to upsell hotel and airfare customers into these extras, as well as Viator.com, which is the biggest stand-alone payer in the field.
These sites might be great for trip-planning and maybe a bit of daydreaming, but actually booking with them is unwise for most travelers in most situations. Though there are a few exceptions where space is genuinely limited and things sell out, like seeing the Last Supper in Milan or taking the train to Machu Picchu, in most cases you can get a better deal and have more flexibility at the last minute.
Museums, amusement parks, and city passes should be booked in advance
Just to be clear, I'm talking about tours and activities below, not specific attractions. For most big museums and amusement parks you can save money by booking online in advance, directly on the official website. This is a great idea as long as your dates are confirmed.
The other major exception are the City Passes where you pay a flat fee online in advance to get admission to most of a city's major museums and attractions along with skipping the ticket line. For many people these are a wonderful bargain, though not for everyone, and I've written specific reviews of the New York Pass, London Pass, and Paris Pass.
6 Reasons you probably shouldn't book activities and tours in advance
1 – Activities and tours almost never actually sell out
Unless you happen to be there on the single busiest day of the year, there are going to be empty seats or excess capacity on pretty much everything. Whether it's a city bus tour or a walking tour or a Jet-Ski rental or a dinner cruise or a tour of some ruins, there will be space for you if you book the day before or even an hour before.
The people who operate these tours are very flexible and if they had to turn customers away with any regularity, they would come up with an instant back-up plan. With one phone call they can get another bus or van and a guide, or they will sell you a seat on a competing tour, splitting the profit with the other operator. In other words, if you show up with money, you will find someone to take it in exchange for whatever you want to do.
2 – You'll almost always be overpaying in advance
Something that isn't obvious to even many experienced travelers is that there is rarely a set price for activities and tours. Even large and professional operators who have a list price on the box office, almost always have a variety of coupons and discounts that bring it down as much as 50%. Booking online from a third party you'll be lucky to get the list price, and it'll probably be 10 to 20% more.
One day this might change, but for now the online booking deals add an extra level of complication, and one or two extra companies adding their commission to the price. If they charge you the list price online, there's a very good chance you'll find 20%-Off coupons in the lobby of your hotel.
Another example is Halong Bay cruises in Vietnam. There are many websites offering what look like tempting deals to those who book online, then you get to Hanoi and find prices about half as much at countless travel agencies. Some nervous travelers worry about not getting a space, but there are dozens of extra boats ready to go if things get busy.
3 – Even seemingly big discounts and daily deals are rip offs
Just yesterday I read a hotel review from someone who bought a “daily deal” on Groupon for a boat tour in Phuket. At 50% off, it sounded great, until he asked other people on the boat what they paid and discovered that he actually paid more than anyone else. I've seen and heard this same story elsewhere, and hopefully more people are realizing the time-based discounts are often good deals only for the company selling them. ‘
The main problem with so-called discounts on these things is that it's almost impossible to know the real price before you get there. A company or website offering a discount has a big incentive to inflate the original price to make their deal look good. Unless you know the going rate locally, be skeptical.
4 – You have no bargaining power in advance
Considering that things almost never sell out, and that prices are usually more flexible than you first suspect, you can often work a better deal in person. A few weeks ago I was walking by a city-tour bus in Istanbul, and I was approached by a sales agent. I asked how much it cost and he said 50 Turkish Lira for 24 hours, and after I said it was too much the price dropped to 35 Lira as I walked away. This sort of thing happens all the time.
You can also usually get a discount for parties more than 2 people, even for tours that seem to have a fixed price. This sort of thing can go too far, where some people insist on trying to grind the price down on everything, but it's worth knowing that it's an option when something seems expensive. Obviously if you've locked in your price from home, you have locked in a high price.
5 – You can often get perks by booking through your hotel
In most of the less-formal travel markets like South America and Asia, and even in some of the more traditional ones like Europe and North America, hotels and hostels often sell rooms or beds cheap with the hope that you'll book other things through them once you arrive. Fortunately, as long as you are staying in a budget place, they will offer among the lowest prices of anyone, so it works out well for everyone.
Not only do you make your hotel staff happy by booking through them, but they will also arrange for you to be picked up out front, or other services. I've had hotels make me free breakfast sandwiches and coffee to take on a tour that left before normal breakfast hours. Bottom line is, if you are paying someone commissions to book tours and activities a day or two before, you might as well become a VIP at your hotel by doing it through them.
6 – You might not be in the mood to do it that day
This one is pretty obvious, but only once you've been on enough trips that you've fallen into this trap. When you are bored at home it can be thrilling to plan out each vacation day with what exciting activity you'll do, but it's often different once you arrive. Even the most energetic among us enjoys a day or two to just relax and soak in the surroundings.
Needless to say, if you've prepaid for various activities from home, you are locked in and refunds are virtually impossible. You might have jet lag, or stomach problems, or have found something even better to do instead, but still you are locked in.
Booking your flight in advance is wise, and booking your hotel or hostel in advance is also usually your best option once you know your dates. But leave as much of the rest up in the air and you are usually much better off.