Trips to Costa Rica are more popular than ever, but do you know how to protect yourself from paying more for your vacation than you should, having a low quality experience, getting trapped by company policies, and/or receiving poor advice? If not, we can help. The following is a list of 5 red flags to be aware of (as well as our recommendations as to how to identify and avoid each) when purchasing or building your own Costa Rica vacation package.
These individuals (or agencies) overcharge travellers where it is not necessary to do so. I use the word ‘necessary’ lightly here, as surely each agent has their own opinion in regards to what is necessary or not for the success of their business. In my opinion, the practice of highballers is not necessary as it not only causes travellers to pay more for their vacation than that which they should be paying, but it also deceives them in the process.
While some companies use standard prices (or even provide discounts – thanks Pura Vida! eh? Incorporated!) highballers use inflated prices in order to cover other operational costs. Such costs could include agent or employee wages, partner commissions, and/or bank fees. These charges are then grouped into categories, are given a title similar to ‘service’ or ‘booking’ fees, and are added on top of vacation package prices. This means that travellers end up paying more for what they could really get for less, if the highballers’ fees were eliminated.
Some highballers automatically apply these fees to their vacation packages, instantly increasing the overall cost and decreasing the traveller’s value per dollar spent. Other highballers wait until travellers need to make changes and/or cancellations to their package to charge the fees. In either case, travellers who opt to reserve their vacations through highballers are essentially paying for an individual or agency’s service – on top of costs directly related to their trip.
Company X’s total Costa Rica Vacation Package cost is $4,000 for 2 people.
When you total the cost of the Costa Rica hotels, tours/activities, and transportation services included, the total Costa Rica Vacation Package cost is $3,400 for 2 people ($1,900 for hotels, $1,100 for tours/activities, and $400 for transportation services).
- RED FLAG: When asked how Company X obtained the package total of $4,000, they regrettably reply “sorry, we do not provide package price breakdowns, only total package costs” (ask yourself, what are they trying to hide?)
- RED FLAG: When asked how Company X obtained the package total of $4,000, they lie and reply “the package cost is the lowest available – we have included the lowest prices for the hotels, tours/activities, and transportation services” (if you can find it less expensive elsewhere, Company X is lying through their teeth)
- RED FLAG: When asked how Company X obtained the package total of $4,000, they explain “our packages include tax, guide fees, and service fees” (newsflash – tax is included with most individual trip items, as are guides so you should not be paying extra for either – for service fees, these are plain and simply extra amounts tacked on to the real total package cost resulting in higher earnings for the company)
How to identify and avoid highballers…
Ask the individual and/or agency you are planning your trip through to send you a complete price breakdown of each vacation item included with your package. This list should include a complete and detailed outline of hotels (including the exact room type provided), transportation services (including a description of whether the services are shuttle services shared with other travellers or transfer services private to your group), and tours/activities (including whether expenses such as guide fees and entrance fees have been worked into the calculation). With this list in hand, you can quickly and easily verify the cost of each vacation item for yourself and can learn whether the total you were quoted is the same or more than what the actual vacation is costing you.
These individuals or agencies undercharge travellers for various vacation items. Sounds good, doesn’t it? After all, we could all afford to save a bit on our travels these days, couldn’t we? Unfortunately in this case, if something seems too good to be true, it may just be. Cheap prices can be a precursor to a cheap (low quality) vacation experience, so it is always good to question why prices have been quoted so low.
In Costa Rica, since the tourism market is widespread (and competitive!) there are countless operators offering the same tours/activities, transportation services, and hotel experiences. Sometimes these operators offer promotions or discounts (which are legitimate) and other times operators take advantage of the country’s popularity by fooling travellers into believing that they are paying for an experience much different than the one they receive. In these cases, operators advertise particular tours, services, or hotel amenities at extremely low rates, and compare these to the much higher rates provided by their competitors. What is actually happening however, is that the scamming operator is providing a tour, service, or hotel experience that pales in comparison to that which is provided by other companies. This allows dishonest operators to advertise incredibly low rates, and the travellers who buy into the gimmick are left paying for an experience that would have been much richer elsewhere.
Company X’s offering a steal of a deal – a volcano tour for less than half of the cost that all other tour operators are charging for it.
- RED FLAG: When asked how Company X can offer the tour for such a “deal”, they eagerly reply “our prices are always this low” (if the cost is less than half the price of other competitors, question how Company X is able to operate their business with such little income)
- RED FLAG: When asked how Company X’s tour compares to others, they competitively reply “our tour is the best available, it offers this, that, and more than our competitors” (hmmm… Company X must be a magical company if it is able to offer travellers a bigger, better experience for only half of the cost – question the specifics of the tour to compare it to others available, inquire about the experience and knowledge of the tour guides, and ask to view past tour-goers’ testimonials – any company that cannot produce these is not worth a second thought)
How to identify and avoid lowballers…
Make sure you carefully read the description of the tour, service, or hotel that is being advertised. Compare its description to that of a similar tour, service, or hotel that is more expensive and evaluate the options. If the descriptions are the same, it is likely that the operator offering the lower price is simply running a promotion and/or offers discounts to its clients. Alternatively, if the descriptions are different or there are details missing from one description when compared to the next, this could mean that there are great dissimilarities between each, which could make or break your vacation experience. While good things do often come in small packages, other things are worth paying more for.
3. HIDDEN FEES AND DOUBLE TAXATION
Although touched on above in point #1, hidden fees can sneak into your vacation cost faster than you’ll learn to say ‘pura vida’ once in Costa Rica. These fees include (but are not limited to) taxes, entrance fees, guide fees, tour transport fees, agency fees, and service/booking fees. They may all be applied to your vacation (watch out for those agencies who do so!) or only one or two fees may be applied.
For the most part, taxes are included in tour operator and transportation service providers’ prices for tours, activities, and transfer services. For hotels, about half include taxes in their rates while the other half does not. While being asked to pay taxes on top of a vacation item cost is not a crime, what is shameful is the practice of applying an overall tax to costa rica vacation packages. In these cases, travellers find themselves paying taxes twice – tax on the trip items that constitute the vacation package and tax on the package itself. Perhaps illegal and certainly immoral, individuals and agencies offering costa rica vacation packages often get away with promoting the packages for a great low price, which is essentially the structure of a bare-bones vacation. Add in the numerous hidden fees to bring the package up to standard, form a price total, charge tax on top and voilà – your steal-of-a-deal vacation is now a rip-off.
Company X’s is offering a special Costa Rica Vacation Package promotion – buy now and save the tax off your vacation!
- RED FLAG: When asked how Company X can reduce the package cost by so much, they are happy to explain “our special promotion this month allows travellers to avoid paying the tax on our Costa Rica packages” (in theory, this promotion would work if the items included with the package did not already include tax in their cost, however since the majority of trip items do include tax, travellers pay this on the items regardless – the promotion simply allows travellers to avoid paying an additional fee that Company X would normally add on top of the overall vacation package and call “tax”)
- RED FLAG: When asked if Company X has calculated their Costa Rica Vacation Package cost before tax, they lie and reply “the original package cost does not include tax” (Company X is lying – tax is inherent in many Costa Rica trip items)
How to identify and avoid hidden fees and double taxation.
As described in the solution for point #1, ask the individual and/or agency you are planning your trip through to send you a complete price breakdown of each vacation item included with your package. This will immediately help you identify where any hidden fees are or are not included. You will also be able to tell if you are being taxed twice. If you are unsure how, visit the specific websites of each tour operator, transportation service provider, and hotel whose products or services have been included with your vacation package. If their websites note that tax is included than the individual and/or agency you are planning your trip through should not be charging additional tax on these items. You will know if they are doing so, as this will appear in the complete price breakdown you will receive from them. You can also ask them to confirm whether or not taxes are included with the quote you have received. If they say no, take your question one step further and ask them to identify which items (if not all items) tax will be calculated on when producing the final cost. If they respond that tax will be added to the entire cost, take your business elsewhere to avoid double taxation.
4. QUESTIONABLE CANCELLATION AND/OR RESERVATION CHANGE POLICIES
This point is one that is more difficult to highlight as a scam, as each company is certainly entitled to the creation of their own cancellation policies. This being said, there are policies that are created to maintain the integrity of a company, protect a company against liability, and minimize loss to a company (as there should be), just as there are policies that take advantage of travellers. Arguably, the intent of minimizing loss is justifiable, however some companies are just plain greedy and try to take more from travellers than they should be entitled to.
Here’s the thing. Each tour operator, transportation service provider, and hotel in costa rica has its own policy in regards to cancellations. Some require much advance notice in order to avoid a cancellation penalty (ie. one month) and count down from there the amount of refund provided if a cancellation is made within that time (ie. a 50% refund is provided if the cancellation is received 2 weeks before the reservation date). Others have much more lenient policies – accepting (and providing full refunds for) cancellations up to 24 hours before the reservation date. Of course, to each their own, and I cannot argue whether one particular approach to a cancellation policy is better or worse than another. What is surprising however, is that companies offering vacation packages do not always follow the specific cancellation policies of each tour operator, transportation service provider, and hotel. Instead, individuals and/or agencies selling costa rica vacation packages create their own policies that override the rest.
What happens in this case is that travellers who reserve vacation packages with individuals or agencies that have their own cancellation policies are bound by the restrictions placed on them by the individual or agency – not the tour operator, transportation service provider, or hotel. Assume that a hotel requires 7 days notice for all cancellations and a transportation service provider requires 24 hours notice. Alternatively, the agency you reserved your vacation package through requires all cancellations be made no later than 14 days prior to your trip. Suddenly, a tragedy at home causes you to have to cancel your trip 10 days before departure. Although you would have been able to cancel your hotel and transfer service arrangements without penalty had you reserved these items elsewhere, given the specific policy demands of the agency you chose for your trip, you are not entitled to a refund.
When this occurs, I feel for travellers. Life happens, and it has no appreciation for the cancellation policies that travellers are tied to when they plan a vacation. I can also sympathize with the individual or agency the vacation package was reserved through, as they should not be out the costs associated with spur-of-the-moment changes in the lives of their clients. Here lies the fine line between good business sense and pure greed. In my opinion, the best individuals and/or agencies to reserve a costa rica vacation package through are those who simply enforce the cancellation policies of each of their tour operator, transportation service provider, and hotel partners. Companies who operate this way protect themselves by ensuring that their clients are committed to the same cancellation policies that they are, without going so far as to holding their clients to higher standards simply to make an extra buck.
Consider, once again, the example provided above where you had to cancel your trip 10 days prior to arrival. Had you reserved your trip through an individual or agency that does not have a cancellation policy of its own, you would have been entitled to two refunds – one from the hotel and one from the transportation service provider – as you met the requirements to cancel with each without penalty. In this case, your decision to reserve the vacation package through the individual or agency that did not have its own cancellation policy was not a hindrance to you, and in the end, you’re not left feeling short-changed.
Company X informs travellers that their cancellation policy requires any/all cancellations (for hotels, tours/activities, and/or transportation services) to be made at least one month prior to travel.
The tour operator you are interested in reserving with requires any/all cancellations to be made at least 48 hours prior to the tour date.
- RED FLAG: When asked why Company X requires one month notice of any/all cancellations, they reply “this is not our policy – this is the policy of the hotels, tour operators, and transportation service providers” (Company X is lying – visit the hotel, tour operator, and/or transportation service provider’s website directly to re-confirm this)
- RED FLAG: When asked why Company X requires one month notice of any/all cancellations, they reply “this is simply our company’s policy” (in this case, thank them kindly and take your business elsewhere – the last thing you need is a company locking you in to reservations well in advance for their own financial benefit if you need to change your plans down the road)
- RED FLAG: When asked why Company X requires one month notice of any/all cancellations, they reply “we require advance notice in order to have enough time to process the cancellation with the hotel, tour operator, and/or transportation service provider” (this is an excuse – reservation cancellations require hours – not days, weeks, or even months – to process)
How to identify and avoid questionable cancellation and/or reservation change policies.
This issue is easy to avoid. Simply ask the individual or agency you are planning your trip through to provide you with an explanation of their cancellation policies. If the company admits to having their own cancellation policy, compare this with the cancellation policies of each tour operator, transportation service provider, and hotel that is included with your package. Be sure to record any differences – you can then question the individual or agency you have reserved your package with about these differences and which policy would succeed the other in the event that you needed to cancel. If the company responds that they do not have a cancellation policy of its own, ask them to confirm whose cancellation policies they abide by so this is clear to you throughout your trip planning and travels.
5. QUESTIONABLE TRIP PLANNING
Although I’d like to think that all individuals and/or agencies offering Costa Rica actually know the country first-hand, unfortunately this is not always the case. There are ample agencies located in countries across the world selling Costa Rica, and although many have direct experience with the country (they may live in and/or be from Costa Rica), others may have never experienced the country for themselves. We always recommend that travellers get to know the people behind the company they reserve their trip through, in order to understand the breadth of knowledge that is being brought to the table. An individual should not only know the obvious ‘must-knows’ about Costa Rica (ie. various areas worth a visit, hotel options, popular things to do, etc. – everything that can be learned by reading a guide book), but more importantly, they should know how to best plan a Costa Rica vacation. There is a big difference between knowing Costa Rica and knowing how to travel throughout Costa Rica, including the best way to organize a trip itinerary, the most time efficient methods of travel, and the best means of obtaining everything at a cost preferred by and affordable for the traveller.
Individuals or agencies who are unable to answer your questions fully will not be of help to you. As a result of the digital age we live in, we can do everything for ourselves on-line, from booking our own flights to researching our own destinations and reserving our own trip items. Of course, first-hand local experience is valuable and should certainly be sought out when planning a trip to Costa Rica, however if the responses you receive from individuals and/or agencies (who claim to be in the business of helping you) fail to do just that – actually help you – you’d be better off spending the time corresponding with someone who knows what they’re talking about.
Furthermore, the individual or agency you turn to for trip planning assistance should be able to wow you. You should feel as if they have given you enough opportunities to plan a vacation that is perfect for you (not a vacation that is easy for them to build and/or a vacation that will return the greatest income). You should feel as if your trip would not have been the same had it not been for the assistance of the individual and/or agency you chose to work with, and that you learned something new (that you perhaps would not have known had you tacked the challenge of trip planning on your own). While these statements may sound simple, it is surprising how static some individuals’ and agencies’ approaches to trip planning are. Planning a vacation should be an enjoyable, fun, learning process – anything less is not worth your time and certainly not your business.
Company X “sells” Costa Rica but has never been to Costa Rica.
You feel as if you know the country better than Company X simply because you read Lonely Planet.
- RED FLAG: When asked why Company X recommends a particular tour over another, they reply “because our company works with a them” (hmmm… would you rather participate in a tour that receives the best reviews or a tour that merely works with Company X? – request that Company X back up their recommendations with first hand experience,)
- RED FLAG: When asked why Company X recommends a particular tour over another, they reply “because it is a great tour” (great is good, but a lot of tours in Costa Rica are “great” – what’s more valuable is knowing why a particular tour is rated so well – request that Company X back up their recommendations with first hand experience, or if this is not possible, at least request solid, impartial reviews from other travellers)
How to identify and avoid questionable trip planning.
Ensuring a good connection with an individual or agency when trip planning depends a lot on you – the time you put into correspondence, the questions you pose, and the follow-up to responses received all help create a space wherein ideas, experiences, comments, needs, preferences, and concerns can be shared. When you put yourself out there and contact an individual or agency for trip planning assistance, do not be afraid to do the same to those you seek assistance from. Put them out by test them with your questions and see what responses you get. In general, you can tell by the quality of the responses you receive how invested the other side is in you and your trip. Do your research (just because a company is a big one does not mean they are the best one) and trust your gut. As described in two previous posts – Humble Business. Period. and The Art Of Good Business. Practice What You Preach – being kind, humble, and honest are key components of any good business operation. Shoot to receive no less than this from the individual and/or agency you choose to reserve your Costa Rica vacation package through and you will get back from your trip planning more than what you put into it.
*Discounts for Costa Rica vacation packages are available through Pura Vida! eh? Incorporated at: http://www.puravidaeh.ca/
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Had a negative experience with an individual or agency in Costa Rica (no names please!). What red flags have you discovered?