August 3, 2020

Many travelers are fans of tours, both for their convenience and their conviviality. But the major problem with group tours during a pandemic is right there in the term—they’re done in groups, which is a no-no.

I spoke with executives at some of the world's most popular tour companies to suss out how they are planning to keep customers safe. Rather than duplicating its competitors, each company I surveyed is putting its own spin on how to solve the problems at hand.

There were some commonalities, of course. Most companies I spoke with reported that they are working from the recommended Covid-19 protocols set by both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Travel and Tourism Council.

There were some surprises, too. "I think if we were placing bets, we would have all jumped to the conclusion that North American, close-to-home destinations, would be most popular,” said James Skilling, Vice President of Worldwide Product for VBT Bicycling Vacations. "That has not been the case. We’re seeing incredibly strong bookings for 2021, partly driven by people who wanted to travel in 2020 and weren’t able to. France, Italy, the U.K., Ireland, Croatia—all our classic, bread-and-butter tours—are the most popular."

Most importantly, many company representatives said they felt that traveling with tours is already one of the best ways to vacation safely. "Touring removes, by nature, many of the touch points that people encounter with travel," said Steve Born, the Chief Marketing Officer of the Globus family of brands. "Minimizing wait times with groups of people at attractions, eliminating the touch points for ticket entry at attractions . . . If you need a local resource, if there’s a 'what if' on the trip—there’s someone there to help [when you take a tour]. Touring adds that extra layer of protection for travelers."

Here's what the major tour companies are planning for the months and year ahead, what their cancellation policies are, and what their protocols look like. 

Just click a company below to jump to its policies.

Butterfield & Robinson
Country Walkers and VBT Bicycle Vacations
Globus and Cosmos
Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold
Intrepid Travel
Road Scholar
Trafalgar Travel

Butterfield & Robinson

Biking, walking, and active tours; half its business is group tours, half is bespoke adventures for individuals.

How will Butterfield & Robinson ensure the safety of passengers on tours?

The short answer: by not running tours. "We probably won’t be running any group tours for the near future. We just can’t," Butterfield & Robinson Travel Expert Kathy Stewart told me. "Our group tours are all outside of the U.S., so [the majority of our customers] can’t go to them at the moment." 

Stewart said the decision was also a matter of preserving quality. "I spoke with my colleague in Spain and she said, ‘I really wouldn’t come to Spain right now because the experience wouldn’t be special. Because the restaurants aren’t open, all the things that make it special right now are not available.’ So we’ll make the decision [to run tours] when we feel we can offer the best experience."

Stewart says group tours may return in November or December 2020 to some destinations. Some bespoke tours are already running, as are some self-guided tours.

B & R will equip vans with hand sanitizer and loaner masks, serve meals outdoors when possible, regularly clean all equipment (like bicycles), and inform guests about local protocols like Covid-19 test requirements and mask usage. Since its tours were already small—never more than 16 passengers—it isn't planning to institute new caps on group size to help with social distancing. For full plans, click here.

Refund policy

If B&R must cancel the trip, its official policy states it will "endeavor to refund payments received by B&R." It notes that some payments that have been made to third parties, such as insurance, may not be refundable.

If the traveler decides to cancel, they receive 100% of their deposit back if it happens 96 or more days before travel. If they cancel between 61 and 95 days in advance of a trip, they get 75% back, and 50% back if they cancel 31 to 60 days in advance of the trip. No money is returned to those who cancel less than a month before travel, but that traveler will receive a credit toward a future vacation.

Do you have a message for travelers right now?

"Honestly it might be: Plan your trips now for next year and even subsequent years, because I think there might be pent-up demand," Stewart says. "It’s a great time to make a travel plan because our planners have time right now, when they’d normally be a lot busier. They have time to work with travelers, chat, and figure out the best plan for the future."

Country Walkers and VBT Bicycling Vacations

These sister companies primarily deal in bicycling and walking tours worldwide.

How will Country Walkers and VBT ensure the safety of passengers on tours?

The short answer: Hiking and biking tours are inherently safer than other forms of tours because participants are outdoors and can easily social distance.

But for other matters, these sister companies are taking a granular approach. Matt Thompson, Brand Manager for Country Walkers: "We’ve created checklists for all of our partners, hotels, etc to make sure they’re following what we consider safe procedures for cleaning, for how staff interact with guests, [and] things like that."

Group sizes will remain small (16 people or less), as they always have been.

Because they will require masks on all van rides, they will endeavor to make those trips as short as possible. "We’ve set up a policy of trying to use only half the capacity of the vans so people don’t have to sit next to each other... And we’ve created a procedure for loading and unloading vans so that people don’t have to climb over each other," Thompson continued.

The company has thought through every step of the vacation process, down to sending safety encrypted passport info to inns in advance, so that passengers don’t have to pass documents around when they check into their lodging. 

Refund policy

If either company cancels a trip, travelers receive a full refund (with the exception of money given to third parties, like insurance companies). If a client decides to cancel more than 90 days out, they also get a full refund. Cancellations made 61 to 90 days before the trip receive a 75% refund, and the other 25% will be converted into a credit for future travel. Those who cancel 60 days or fewer before travel get a 100% in-house credit for future travel.

Do you have a message for travelers right now?

VBT Vice President Skilling: "If they’re not traveling because they’re used to traveling in groups, and a group thing right now doesn’t feel right, both VBT and Country Walkers offer self-guided vacations. It's essentially a private vacation for a couple or a group of friends where we take care of the usual components [lodgings, equipment, route planning, orientation with local host, meal suggestions]. We even provide turn-by-turn voice navigation for the ride on smartphones... We’re one of the only operators making a self-guided experience for American audiences. We’re not plopping our label onto some one else’s product. We have our own team creating itineraries with an American traveler in mind.”

Globus and Cosmos

Mass-market, affordable guided tours

How will Globus and Cosmos ensure the safety of passengers on tours?

The short answer: By being vigilant about cleanliness, health issues, and situations that might be problematic for social distancing.

"The main thing that’s going to be different when we get operating again [is that] there’s a new level of diligence towards cleanliness," said Steve Born, Chief Marketing Officer for the Globus family of travel companies. "Our staff will work to ensure that the high-touch surfaces that we control are spotless, and that’s going to be part of the process at every stop. Passengers will also undergo health screening upon arrival where they answer questions about their health and we do a temperature check. And they’ll have filled out a health questionnaire before the trip."

Face masks could be a possibility on coaches "if the number of guests per departure doesn’t allow for adequate spacing on the coach. It could be possibility when guests are congregating in the lobby before an excursion, there’s limited space, and guests are together," said Born.

When I asked Born if the number on travelers on each tour would be capped to allow for social distancing, he told me, "Our approach right now is not to artificially put a cap on departures for Europe and North America next year. There will be departures where there’ll be a lower number of guests and socially distancing is feasible throughout, and there will be other departures where [social distancing] will be less feasible. We’re anticipating both."

I asked whether guests will be forewarned if they were booked on a full tour that would require them to wear masks throughout the day. I felt his response was ambiguous: "We have a host of pre-trip communication plans to help inform/advise the guest and help with their peace of mind," he said. "One will be a [list of] health-and-safety guidelines and questionnaire, and that would give them a clearer sense of what to expect when they're traveling with us."

Refund policy

The new "Peace of Mind" plan will allow travelers to make changes to itineraries, switch dates, and even transfer plans between companies within the Globus Family (including Avalon Waterways), without incurring fees or penalties. However, none of the Globus brands give cash refunds if a passenger or the company cancels; travelers are expected to accept either a new booking date or a travel credit for future vacations.

Do you have a message for travelers right now?

"We introduced, in early June, a new product line within North America called Undiscovered North America. It’s a way to get off the beaten path in your own backyard. So we’re having a lot of interest in that," said Born.

Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold

Escorted tours and cruises

How will Insight and Luxury Gold ensure the safety of passengers on tours?

The short answer: By appointing a dedicated staff member to deal only with Covid-19 related tasks on every tour.

"What we’re doing that’s innovative is that we’ll have two individuals [in charge of each tour]. We haven’t seen other companies doing this,” said Insight's President, Jon Grutzner. "One will be the Travel Director, and the other the 'Well-being Director.' The Well-being Director will be pre-vetting suppliers to make sure that these facilities have the ability to conform to the protocols [that we set]. Do they have hand sanitizers? Where will [our group] be in placed in restaurants? Do we have appropriate social distancing? [The Well-being Director will handle] those kinds of things and be available 24/7 if anything comes up."

Insight will also cap all of its new Domestic Escape vacations at 22 guests. Its other tours cap out at 40 travelers, though Grutzner says he expects them to average 30 in the coming months. "Insight and Luxury Gold have always been known for business-class motor coaches. They’re very modern with incredible ventilation systems that refresh the air in less than a minute. A few years ago, we also removed about 10 of the seats in each of the coaches. That’s twice the amount of legroom than is the industry standard, and a lower-density experience," said Grutzner.

The company is also retooling itineraries to avoid crowds. "We are looking at the cadence in a destination," said Grutzner. "Instead of going to St. Mark’s Square [in Venice] midday, we are looking to when it will be quieter." He notes that Insight and Luxury Gold have always included such perks as private viewing times at museums and the use of private entrances at many attractions, both of which should keep their groups away from the hoi polloi.

Refund policy

Both companies have a "relaxed deposit policy," meaning a place on a trip can be held for just $99 and travelers can get a refund on that amount if they have to cancel outside 30 days of travel. For those who paid the full amount and need to cancel, or if Insight has to cancel, customers can either rebook at no extra cost for a future trip, bank a travel credit, or ask for a cash refund (which will not include money paid to third parties such as airlines or insurance companies).

Do you have a message for travelers right now?

"People who want [to have] their own travel bubble can for any of our designated brochure dates," said Grutzner. "They can put together a group and travel with as few as 12 people, though there’ll be a surcharge for that. The surcharge will be in the neighborhood of 15% (less if it’s more than 12 people in the group)."

In addition, Insight has recently launched domestic U.S. tours.

Intrepid Travel

Small group tours from one of the largest travel companies on the planet

How will Intrepid Travel ensure the safety of passengers on tours?

The short answer: Intrepid will focus on hand hygiene, respiratory hygiene, and sanitation. It has received a stamp of certification from the World Travel and Tourism Council for its Covid-19 protocols.

"We now have a hand-washing policy that dictates when, for how long, and how each staff member must wash their hands," said Leigh Barnes, Chief Customer Officer. "We’re working with suppliers to improve their hand hygiene and we’re getting hand sanitizer on our trips and continuing the education process."

The company is also using larger and, in some cases, multiple vehicles to enable better social distancing. The company is also ensuring that motor coach air conditioning is never set to recirculate air, but to bring it from outdoors. In some cases, Intrepid is re-working itineraries to minimize the time spent in vehicles.

Refund policy

The company instituted a flexible payment plan that allows passengers to hold a place on a trip for up to five days without a deposit. When they do make a deposit, it will be due 21 days before travel for most tours, which is one of the shortest windows in the industry. Deposits may also be transferred to another trip, as can a full payment, without a change fee. If Intrepid has to cancel, customers receive their choice of a refund or credit. Customers who cancel or are denied departure because they show symptoms or feel unwell will be given a full credit. "They won’t be penalized," said Barnes. 

Do you have a message for travelers right now?

"If travel is to rebound, we have to go about it more sustainably and more responsibly," said Barnes. "We’re doing everything we can at Intrepid to make sure that we’re doing travel that way."

Road Scholar

Not-for-profit company that provides learning programs and educational tours for seniors

How will Road Scholar ensure the safety of its passengers on tours?

The short answer: By only restarting operations when it is safe to do so, and then by focusing on safety.

"On every program, our group leaders will be trained in the latest health and safety protocols and will complete a certification from the World Health Organization," says Stacie Fasola, a representative of the company. "They will take temperatures at the start of every program and throughout the experience, at the group leader’s discretion. We are working with hotels, restaurants, and transportation vendors to implement enhanced sanitizing."

Refund policy

Road Scholar is offering a flexible transfer policy and allowing customers to reschedule its 2020 programs. Anyone who enrolls before the end of October 2020 can cancel up to 90 days before their trop and receive a full refund. If Road Scholar cancels a program, enrollees choose whether to receive a full refund or a free transfer to an alternative program.  

Do you have a message for travelers right now?

"We are excited to offer the opportunity for our participants to continue to pursue experiences that expand their minds and engage them socially while at home until the world returns to some degree of normal," said Fasola. "We have been offering an exciting virtual lecture series led by our expert instructors since the spring, which have become extremely popular learning opportunities for our participants. Most exciting of all is that we are preparing to launch a series of online programs that will replicate the Road Scholar learning experience. These programs will include lectures, videos, performances, discussions, social hours, and will truly create an immersive world of learning and friendship—the hallmarks of every Road Scholar program... We are in our 46th year, and will be here for you long after this pandemic has passed."


Affordable escorted tour company

How will smarTours ensure the safety of passengers on tours?

Short answer: By emphasizing hygiene on its regular tours and offering new self-guided tours in the United States.

"We’ve flipped ahead and said, ‘Let’s not put you all on a bus right now’ while we’re still going through the uncertainties of this crazy time,” said CEO Christine Peterson. "We have just launched a domestic product [called] American Road Tours. On these trips, you can take your own car or rent a car, but we’ll book your accommodations, your meals, we’ll set up your sightseeing, your tours, etc. And we’ll have a guide meet you at the morning and at night to give you that local insight, that local flavor."

Peterson says smartours's staff provides daily personal guidance for self-drive vacationers. "They’ll be able to sit with you over breakfast in the morning, and say, 'now, don’t forget when you go to do this to…', or, 'what most people don’t realize is…', or ‘'urn left here to see…'. It’s not as intimate as having the guide with you on the coach or standing beside you. But we’re trying to give you the best of both worlds by having them present when you leave in the morning and when you return at night, to give you the insights."

Eventually, smarTours will bring back regular tours as well, and those will focus on safe practices. "As we work with our land operators, our guides, our bus providers, our hotels, etc., we’re going to make sure that they have high cleanliness standards," she told me. Masks and hand sanitizer will be provided on bus tours, but local laws will guide whether or not masks are mandatory.

The company is also planning to schedule tours during non-crowded hours.

In 2018, the company capped the number of passengers at 30 per tour, and Peterson says it will go down to between 15 and 20 for the coming months.

Refund policy

smarTours does not require a deposit to hold a place on tours up to 90 days before departure (a few tours, like those to Antarctica, require payment 120 days ahead of departure). If a tour is suspended or postponed, smartTour gives travelers credit toward a future tour. The same applies to any cancellations made by the traveler once payment is made.

Do you have a message for travelers right now?

"We believe the world is to be traveled, and our job is to make it as safe as we can for people," said Peterson. "We want to open the world, and Smartours is all about having an amazing experience at a value price point."

Trafalgar Travel

Affordable escorted tour company

How will Trafalgar ensure the safety of passengers on tours?

Short answer: By doing what its sister company Insight (listed above) is doing: hiring a dedicated "Wellbeing Director" for each of its tours and offering options for small groups.

"The most important thing that we've done is that we have hired a Wellbeing Director, who will be traveling with our guests on the trip," says Melissa DaSilva, Trafalgar's U.S. president. "By adding this third person to the trip [after the Tour Director and the driver], it gives guests the peace of mind that everything is being taken care of behind the scenes and it allows the guest to just enjoy their vacation and have a really fun time. Honestly, the number one question that we're getting is, 'Will it still be fun to travel?'"

The company is also starting a new "Near, Not Far" series of trips in December, to hit North American destinations. These will be capped at 26 people, which is half the number of seats on a standard motor coach, to allow for social distancing. Guests will be expected to wear masks while on the bus.

Trafalgar has paused all tours through the end of November and will decide later whether there will be passenger caps on international itineraries.

The company will also allow guests to book their tours for smaller groups than usual. "We're hearing a lot about travel bubbles," says DaSilva. "People could travel with their extended friends or family group and they could make the trip exclusive to just them. They can do it with as few as 12 people, for a surcharge. They'll still get the Travel Director, they'll still get the driver, and if it's more than 20 people they'll also get the Wellbeing Director.

Groups of 12–15 will incur a surcharge of 30%, groups of 16–19 pay a 20% surcharge, and for 20–25 it's a 10% surcharge. Anything above 26 has no surcharge. This will apply to most of its European and American departures in winter and spring.

Refund policy

For any new bookings, the policy allows for a full refund for cancellations made 60 or more days before travel. For those who cancel between 30 and 60 days before travel, refunds are not issued but there will be no penalty to change dates, switch itineraries, or shift to one of Trafalgar's sister brands for travel until the end of 2022. This credit policy also applies if Trafalgar has to cancel a trip.

Do you have a message for travelers right now?

"It's important for all of us to continue to engage with other cultures," DaSilva says. "But also importantly, to understand that one in 10 jobs in the world is linked to tourism, so it's really important for small businesses around the globe that we get back out there and we start exploring. [Travel] will mean we are healthy, well-rounded people—supporting a healthy, well-rounded economy, as well."