How Nick booked activities – and why he’d hesitate to use Viator again

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Over the past week, Greg and I have had a blast on our Passing the GUC trip and done some awesome activities. I stacked the booking of those activities to get the best deals I could find. That doesn’t mean the activities were “cheap”, just that I endeavored to make them as reasonable as possible using points. The best deals I got were by stacking cash back on bookings at Viator (and later paying myself back with points), but I’d be hesitant to ever book with Viator again after I learned that tour operators can cancel and change the price at any time – even a couple of days before a scheduled activity. Here’s how I booked and saved and what I would do differently next time.

Yas 3000 Driving Experience at Yas Marina Circuit

Nick

Greg wrote about his perspective of our driving experience here. I didn’t expect this activity to be at the top of Greg’s to-do list but rather I saw an opportunity to stack for a pretty good deal on something that is a “bucket list” type of activity for many. And while I am not an F1 racing fan, the idea of driving an open-topped open-wheeled race car around a real F1 track just seemed like the kind of opportunity you won’t have too many times in life.

I stacked this one several ways for the best deal. The most obvious options were:

  1. Book via Chase Ultimate Rewards. This experience would have been $500 per person or approximately 33,333 points with the Chase Sapphire Reserve (at 1.5cpp). It was available for easy booking in the Ultimate Rewards portal.
  2. Book via Viator. The price here matched Chase — $500 per person. While both were the same on the surface, I noticed a third option:
  3. Book directly via the Yas Marina Circuit website. Yas Marina had been offering a discounted price of $400 (presumably due to some combination of the extreme heat in September and sharply pandemic-reduced tourism).

One potential problem with booking directly via the Yas Marina Circuit website is that they did not mention any ability to cancel for a refund. It sounded like if we booked directly with Yas Marina and needed to cancel, we would receive a voucher that is only valid for 1 year. Viator allowed free cancellation up to 24 hours in advance.

I created my own “fourth” option by using #2 & #3 with some stackage:

  • I clicked through from Capital One Shopping for 10% back at Viator ($50 back).
  • I used a credit card connected to the Dosh App (dosh gives 2% back but only up to a $10 maximum per day)
  • I immediately emailed Viator to invoke their best rate guarantee. Much to my surprise, they emailed back within a couple of hours to confirm that they had processed my refund ($100 per person).

Also to my surprise, the best rate guarantee did not prevent me from earning the 10% shopping portal return on the full original purchase amount (the $50 from Capital One already posted to my shopping account and I redeemed it for a gift card).

In the end, that’s a net cost of $340 (not including the points earned from the credit card used to pay). To cover this, I could:

  1. Redeem 22,667 points via Chase Pay Yourself Back with the Sapphire Reserve (buying stuff at the grocery store that’s worth $340 in cash in my pocket to offset this purchase).
  2. Redeem 34,000 “penny points” (points worth $0.01 each). In my case, I chose to redeem Point Debit Card points for $340 in cash. This will be roughly the same number of points as what Chase would have charged at 1.5cpp.

Personally, I’m happy to trade in 34K of my Point Debit Card points for this. In the end, I’ll have used roughly the same number of points that someone booking through Chase would have used and I’ll keep my (much more valuable) Chase points. On the flip side, a net 22.7K Chase points certainly isn’t bad either — I’d probably trade a free night at a Cat 5-6 Hyatt for an experience like that. To be clear, I’m sure that some people wouldn’t. That’s fine, too! The purpose of the exercise here was to try to get great value for points and stacking did the trick.

One more note that’s worth knowing: after you book an activity, Viator emails you a coupon good for 10% off another activity that is valid for something like 13 days. If you’re booking an expensive activity like this, it might be worth first booking a cheap tour of some sort to get that 10% coupon. I don’t know whether shopping portal cash back will still stack if you’ve used a unique coupon code, but it could be worth a shot.

In the end, Viator was far and away the best deal. In the time since booking, I’ve seen Viator at 15-18% back via my Capital One Venture card login (different from Capital One Shopping). Stacking that with the Best Rate Guarantee might be even better, but I haven’t had great luck with those Capital One login offers. I intended to separately test the Capital One credit card portal with my next booking anyway.

And I did just that by using a Capital One link within my Venture card login to book a tour via Viator. Based on that experience, I’ll probably never book anything through an independent tour operator on Viator again.

Booking the Hot Air Balloon Ride (a.k.a. why I’m not inclined to use Viator ever again)

Sunrise from our hot air balloon over the desert — one of many adventures this week.

I booked the hot air balloon ride weeks ago. Here’s how I did it:

  • There were many operators. I settled on one that was $530 for 2 passengers through Viator for what it said was a private tour (side note: I didn’t believe it was actually a private tour, but that’s what it said). Chase had roughly similar prices (most balloon tours were around $600-$700 with a couple of options under $600 for two passengers) but I didn’t see this same operator through Chase.
  • I started in my Capital One Venture card login which was showing 18% back ($95.40 back)
  • I used a card connected to Dosh for $10 back (2% back up to $10 max)
  • Net expected cost = $424.60 (just over 14K Chase points each if cashed out via Chase Pay Yourself Back which beat what Chase was charging directly by a handy margin). And at that price — 14K Chase points – it was a roughly comparable price to a domestic US flight. That seemed totally worth it for a far more unique experience.

However and here is a huge “however”, just 3 or 4 days before the scheduled hot air balloon ride, I got an email from Viator saying that my booking was cancelled by the operator. The email said that I could search for a time to rebook or I could request a refund. If I didn’t make a selection, a refund would automatically happen in 5-7 days.

My disappointment changed to annoyance when I saw that my tour operator did not cancel the tour, they just cancelled my booking and then increased their price. Suddenly the same hot air balloon departing at the same time with the same tour company was $620 — an increase of $90.

I contacted Viator figuring that they would make this right. I expected that they would either rebook me on the same tour and eat the $90 difference in price or offer to book me with another operator. I was totally wrong.

Viator’s response was that they have no control over pricing and that prices can change without notice. I could rebook for $90 more or take a refund. They offered no resolution at all.

I thought that was nuts. Imagine if you booked a Marriott hotel and 4 days before your stay they cancelled your booking just to resell it at a higher walk-up price and Marriott said, “I’m sorry. Our franchisee sets prices, not us. Prices are subject to change.” That just doesn’t happen in the travel industry: once you book a hotel or flight (or tour as far as I knew), it’s a done deal.

Except with Viator it’s not. Someone in Frequent Miler Insiders pointed out that this type of situation is covered in Viator’s policy. They explicitly say that a tour operator can cancel and re-price your booking any time they want. This comes directly from Viator’s Terms & Conditions:

“Other Modifications and Cancellations
16.1 Occasionally a Supplier may make a change to a Product after your purchase, including but not limited to the date, price, inclusions, coverage, age requirements, and/or any other Product features and/or requirements. As a result, Viator (acting on the Supplier’s behalf), reserves the right to cancel, change or substitute any Product that you have purchased, at any time, for any reason. If the change proposed by the Supplier is material (for example, a change in dates and/or a significant change to the itinerary), and you are dissatisfied with the alternative that is offered, you will be entitled to a full refund of the original purchase price.”

Again, that’s crazy. Imagine if you have a full vacation with a bunch of stuff booked — and then suddenly prices start rising and you get unlucky and some operators increase their prices. How ridiculous would it be to have to rebook your entire vacation at higher prices at the last minute?

A member of Frequent Miler Insiders who is more familiar with Viator from the vendor side explained that Viator recently instituted some mandatory fees on their end without notice that likely led to the increase in the rate from the operator. Essentially, it sounds like the price that Viator charges them might have gone up by the $90 that they increased the rate — so the tour operator may not have been seeing any of the money from the price increase (and may have increased so as not to lose money on the tour thanks to those unexpected Viator increases).

At the end of the day, I know that the pandemic has been hard on everyone in the travel industry, but as the customer I didn’t enjoy being put in the middle between Viator and the operator. It was suggested by some on Facebook that I contact the operator directly to rebook with them directly instead of booking through Viator because they may have been willing to extend the original price (since they wouldn’t be giving Viator a cut). However, it wouldn’t have been my original price since I had stacked with the portal cash on the Capital One side (and Dosh). Since my challenge here was to get good value for points, that didn’t immediately appeal to me, nor was I thrilled with either side — Viator or tour operator — to be put in the middle (and put out of my tour) so I didn’t rebook with the same operator.

did still book via Viator. Based on the recommendation of several readers in Frequent Miler Insiders, I first took the time to look up some of the tour operators with the thought to perhaps book directly with an operator. My initial hesitation with that was not knowing which operators were reputable when Googling “hot air balloons in Dubai”, but I was able to work that out by Googling names of well-reviewed operators I found on Viator and Trip Advisor. I found one operator that was offering 20% off until September 30th when booking direct and their online videos looked terrific, but when I called they said that they were not starting their hot air balloon season until September 17th. A number of other operators similarly were not yet running tours for the season.

As I was quickly striking out when trying to book direct, I went back to Viator. Capital One was now offering 15% back at Viator in my Venture card login (lucky since I was scrambling to rebook this on our day of departure from the US). In this case, I really did think Greg would enjoy this experience and I thought I had a perfect set-up in telling him that we had to leave the hotel at 4am. I really wanted to do it so I sacrificed some value and went with a tour operator that had great reviews and that seemed to be currently operating tours. The price was now $660 for two people — a bit more than the company I had originally chosen, but better reviewed.

After 15% back from Capital One ($99) and $10 back from Dosh, the net cost should be $551. That’s $275 each — we can either redeem 18,333 Chase Ultimate Rewards points each via Pay Yourself Back or about 27,500 of your favorite “penny points” per person. This tour included breakfast, riding a camel, and holding a falcon. Next time, I’d book a package that didn’t include breakfast as it wasn’t very special and we had free breakfast at our hotel (thanks to Hyatt Globalist status.

Confusingly, I received an email from Viator the day after booking balloon tour #2 saying that my hot air balloon tour was cancelled. It turns out that it was just the email confirming that they had indeed cancelled my original booking and processed the refund. Still, this activity was well worth it.

In the future, I probably wouldn’t hesitate to book something like the Formula 1 driving experience since I imagine they are less affected by the type of situation that happened with the balloon, but I’d be more hesitant about booking with a small tour operator via Viator (to be clear, I’d be more confident about booking direct since that avoids any issue with Viator changing their fees).

Food tour in Dubai

The food tour was very simple: I booked this via Chase Ultimate Rewards at value of 1.5c per point. Getting a private tour appealed to me over a group for COVID precautions (we had to eat one way or another but I didn’t want to do it with a big group and chance getting hit with an expensive quarantine in the Maldives).

The second thing I wanted to do was pick a food tour with stops that Greg would enjoy. I know Greg tends to prefer protein-packed snacks (over the brownies that I’d otherwise choose) but that he does love ice cream. I also know he loves coffee. Thus, I picked a food tour with 10 stops that included:

  • Camel meat burger. Got to be lots of protein I guess, right?
  • Saffron ice cream: This is a flavor I’m sure Greg has never had in ice cream.
  • Coffee museum: I figured maybe we would learn something new about coffee and share a sample of something. This might be needed to keep us awake for our late-night (2:30am) flight to the Maldives.

Unfortunately, the only of those three stops that we did on the tour was the camel burger. I didn’t ask about those missing stops because by the time it hit 10:15pm on our 3-hour tour that started at 6pm, I wasn’t going to push for any more stops. It was nice of the guide to give us some extra time (and meet us near the tour ending point so that we could park near where we’d end). Our guide was very enthusiastic and constantly welcomed us to ask questions. I don’t know if we just had a low energy level after a few days of constant activity, but neither of us had many questions and this experience just reaffirmed for me that I’m not really into guided tours. I don’t regret doing it, but I don’t know that I’d do it again.

Actually, on second thought, maybe I do regret it a little bit. It was about 17,000 points total (8.5K each). It wasn’t worth all that — but that’s more of a reflection on the tour itself and its planned stops rather than on the tour guide or the method of booking.

Sea plane in the Maldives

The final “activity” of sorts that I’ll address is the sea plane ride in the Maldives. Many people have asked about the cost to get from the Maldives airport to Le Meridien and if there are ways to reduce that cost.

Sea plane transfers in the Maldives are expensive. Most major resorts charge anywhere from $400-$700 for the transfer from the airport to hotel (whether by sea plane or in cases where it is possible by boat). Le Meridien Maldives charges $420 plus $6 in tax for a total of $426 per passenger. For a 25-35 minute flight, that’s not cheap. However, you can save some money with Marriott gift cards.

Le Meridien Maldives, like almost all Marriott properties around the world, accepts Marriott gift cards. We sometimes see Marriott offer gift cards on sale for 20% off of face value. When that offer happens, scooping up discounted gift cards could save you $85.20 on that sea plane transfer. It’ll still be expensive, but $340 per passenger sounds a lot better.

Alternatively, we’ve seen a lot of Amex Offers for Marriott. The percentage of the net discount can vary, but we often see an Amex Offer for something like $40 back on $200 or $50 back on $250 at Marriott properties. While offer terms exclude gift card purchases, any purchase made at the front desk of a hotel (including a gift card purchase) has historically triggered those offers. You should be able to come out with a similar discount to when Marriott puts points on sale.

In my case, I have an old Capital One Venture One card with a grandfathered “Special Hotel Offers” redemption that allows me to redeem 64,250 Capital One miles (ordinarily worth $642.50 toward travel) for a gift card for select hotel chains. One option is Marriott. A few weeks before the trip, my wife transferred miles from her Venture card and cash back from her Spark card to become miles in my VentureOne account and combined with the miles I already had that gave me enough for a $900 Marriott gift card. In short, I got 1.4c per Capital One “mile” by redeeming for a Marriott gift card and using it to pay my folio at Le Meridien — which included the cost of the sea plane. That means the sea plane transfer cost a net 30,000 Capital One miles which is a solid deal indeed.

Bottom line

Many readers asked how we booked various parts of our “Passing the GUC” trip to get good value. While the activities we did were far from free, points made them easily possible. The thing that stood out most to me was that I felt pretty satisfied when using points for experiences that I wouldn’t have otherwise purchased. I’ve passed on previous opportunities like the hot air balloon or F1 race track, but when I looked at it from the context of how they compared to the joy of redeeming for a premium-cabin flight, I felt pretty good. We were able to take a pretty incredible bucket-list-type trip using what felt to me like a reasonable investment in points and miles. Again, my purpose with these activities wasn’t to give one cohesive example of how someone else should use their points but rather to show that whatever your interests, you can pave a path to pretty awesome experiences using your points.

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John

Is viator on dosh a lot? Not seeing it at all.

Fonzi

Yesterday after readimg thebepisode about F3000 (not F1) was curiois how much that could cost. The price was 298$. You mention here 500$. Weird.

J B

With regard to seaplane travel, If I wanted to stay at 2 or 3 resorts while in the Maldives, is it possible to fly from one resort to another without flying back to Male?

J B

Nick, Thanks for the quick reply. Great trip reporting. Kudos.

Reno Joe

JB, I think Hilton had a deal that if you are traveling between Hilton properties, Hilton will cover the seaplane cost. You might check into it. Good luck.

Justmeha

You should be able to come out with a similar discount to when Marriott puts points on sale.

Seems like a typo

John Doe

Can you use cheaper third party transfers to the Maldives Le Meridien?

Ryan del Mundo

Nick and Greg: Looks like you guys found some comfy masks! Did you find any you would recommend? I used an awesome 3M brand KN95 for my BKK-ORD flights, but unfortunately they don’t seem to sell them outside Asia! I would like to get another good mask for flying! Thanks!

Greg The Frequent Miler

Here’s a link to the one’s I got. They are very comfortable in my opinion and they don’t fog up my glasses: https://amzn.to/3EjAZZ9

veeRob

Link doesn’t work over here.

Reno Joe

Nick, join the crowd. Your Marriott example actually happened to me.

I had a confirmed suite reservation at a Marriott network hotel — I still have the email confirmation. This was a paid stay. The day before, I called the hotel to confirm everything. The front desk — and then a manager — said that I had a regular room . . . at the same price as the suite on my reservation. I sent them the email confirmation. Too bad. I called the Ambassador team, who said that pricing issues must be resolved with the property directly. What about the room-type guaranty? Sorry.

I looked at the clock . . . it was 24 hours and 20 minutes prior to check-in. I canceled without penalty and booked another hotel. That ended my relationship with Marriott . . . other than simply redeeming points.

To everyone out there in TV Land, if this can happen to someone who spends six-figures on hotels per year, this can happen to you. Hotel loyalty programs are a mug’s game — and, we’re the mugs. Don’t fall for it.

CericRushmore

Your story really shows that most of these travel companies don’t really care about the individual customer (even if they spend a lot of money overall). Your hotel was probably just trying to make more money and corporate Marriott doesn’t really have the interest/energy to manage properties.

It’s not just travel. My P2 had her newspaper subscription increase 400% with no notice. I thought it was a mistake. No apology from the paper. She had been a customer for 20 years. We just ended up cancelling.

Joel

You are the definition of an “ugly American” especially in times of Covid. Viator is only a tour consolidator, not a tour operator. Bad mouthing a company just because you don’t like their policies is just unprofessional. It appears from your account Viator lived up to their contract.

We’ve taken many Viator excursions all over the world. Some were great and some disappointing, but overall we still think that they provide a great service, which makes the difficult task of booking tours very easy

Grant

Hi Joel, I agree with your assessment of Viator. Some tours are great and some are lousy, but that all depends on the tour operator and the weather conditions. You win some and lose some times but I enjoy earning cash back on Viator purchases. Sometimes you do need to fight with Viator to get a refund if the underlying tour operator will not provide a refund.

Reno Joe

Nick impresses me as a worldly, unprejudiced guy and use of the xenophobic label “ugly American” seems inappropriate. Given your concern, calling Nick “unprofessional” would seem the better characterization. But, I must disagree with you on that characterization as well. As a consumer advocate, Nick is identifying one-sided, heavy-handed policies and I appreciate the head’s up. To the reasonable, disinterested party, the following offends one’s sense of fair play: 1. Consumer’s purchase becomes non-refundable X days prior to service. 2. Vendor is allowed to make a price adjustment at any time. 3. Vendor adjusts price after purchase becomes non-refundable. What COVID has shown us is the ugly of the travel industry and Nick is advocating for us. (Please refer to my other comment to this article.) Thanks Nick.

Anthony

Did you consider the other car options at the track? I would happy with driving an Aston Martin for almost half the price. Infact I am going to do it in November, im flying to Dubai on Air France business class and going to Abu Dhabi then flying on Etihad business class to Seychelles.

Kate

Good to know! Won’t ever book with Viator.

Michael Tarlow

I have had issues with Viator also. I booked a tour in NYC a couple of hours before the tour was to start. The Viator listing said that I could get my tickets at the tour location so I had plenty of time. However when I got the confirmation from the tour company a few minutes later it said that I had to pick up the tickets at the tour office which was no where near where I was staying or where the tour took place. There was no way I could physically get the tickets in time for the tour.. I immediately contacted Viator and they told me I could not cancel because there was a 24 hr cancelation policy. I ended up getting my money back by filing a dispute with my credit card co. I have used Viator for over 20 yrs to find tours but not to book with them. I used to call Viator to find out who the tour operator was. Then I would search for their reviews on Trip Advisor before booking directly which was almost always cheaper. Now Viator identifies the operator in their listing. However, since Viator is now owned by Trip Advisor I don’t totally trust their reviews. I search their forums for references for tours and operators. For almost all guided tours I search the forums for people’s experiences with private guides. People are happy to share the guide’s contact info through DM. In the vast majority of the time I can find a private guide for the same or less money than a small group guide. I have found dozens of guides this way and have never had a bad experience.

Steven

Definitely second what was said about viator. The tour wasn’t what was advertised, so I walked. They refused a refund and Citi mastercard sided with them on the chargeback.

Jeff

With the Marriott gift cards. How did it work going from USD to Maldives currency? I was under the impression that gift cards would only work with the currency it was purchased in. Thanks

Jeff

Thank you so much!

Gwen

I have used a Marriot gift card in another country where the conversion rate was not great. At the end of the day is was $12 less than it should have been so that knocked off some of the deal of the 20% off gift card but not a huge deal. From now on I’ll probably try to use the gift cards in the United States if possible.

Gene

We used Viator recently for a tour, and they were less than transparent (ie, deceptively charged us for more extras than it appeared they would). We will not use them again.

Danny

Great write up. I 2nd not booking with Viator because of their policies. Learned this after getting burned on a booking.

Ken

Thank you Nick for the detailed write-up on your booking strategy! Now I need to look more deeply into dosh app. Loved reading about your entire GUC trip.