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Faith Travel 101 – How to plan group transportation

People have taken part in faith-based group travel since the beginning of religion itself. The trips, which often validate our beliefs, have evolved into a unique travel marketplace. Just as in any type of group travel, smart travel planning is essential.

There’s a lot involved in planning a church group trip, and one of the most essential details is arranging your group’s transportation. Whether you’re looking for a charter bus, international air tickets or an all-in-one tour operator, knowing where to turn to handle your transportation needs can go a long way toward making your trip a success.

1) International Concerns.
At Fellowship Travel International, a travel agency that specializes in group travel, the slogan is “Planning trips that change lives.” Market director Jen Hefner urges group travel planners to start early.

“You know you’re going on a mission trip to Guatemala every year with 20 people, so reserve 22 seats, just to be safe,” she said. “In time, you’ll recruit actual passengers to go on that trip. With us, you’re never locked into specific names to be assigned to seats until the utilization date, which is when the number of seats is officially required by the airlines.”

Hefner says church groups traveling to the Holy Land, for one example, encounter tight security, especially in Israel. Arrive at airports early, and allow enough time for connections and customs.

Passports are another issue; it takes time to get one. Don’t pay last-minute rush fees, which are quite high. Most countries require that your passport be valid for at least six months beyond the completion date of your trip.

“You don’t want anyone questioning your passport because it’s due to expire in the month you’re traveling,” said Hefner.”

Airlines often change or increase baggage fees. You may have gotten a great fare, but unexpected baggage fees could wipe out any savings. That’s tough for mission groups taking extra luggage, equipment or supplies. Read the fine print in the regulations so there’s no surprise. Travel agents don’t have every airline’s rules memorized; the group leader must know.

Ground transportation such as buses and taxis in foreign countries may be spotty. Don’t expect roundtrip hotel shuttles.

“Trying to get 20 people with two or three bags each onto public transportation and not lose them is a difficult task. I strongly recommend a van or bus rental,” Hefner said.

Travel insurance is another concern.

“I can’t underscore enough the importance of it,” said Hefner. “It protects individuals or the organization they represent.”

Airline schedules can be disrupted by anything from weather to terrorism threats.

“If someone travels internationally, they have a lot of money tied up. If there’s a last-minute health issue preventing them from going, insurance helps reimburse them,” she said.

Here’s another useful tip: Your domestic health insurance won’t apply in a foreign country.

2) Your Group’s Needs.
Blue Grass Tours in Lexington, Kentucky, is a motorcoach touring company that specializes in horse farm and bourbon trail tours, and group and student travel.

“It’s one of the most enjoyable, comfortable and safest ways to travel,” said Pam Upton, the company’s director of tours.

Group tour leaders planning a bus trip should know how many will be traveling and what the group’s budget will be before they call, said Upton.

“Some groups travel economically. We can put that trip together with the wide base of suppliers we use. We also take groups that want extravagance. They use custom coaches with fewer seats, but with tables and couches,” she said.

Tell tour operators about age ranges — children to seniors — and of any special physical needs, such as wheelchairs. Planners should note what their group wants to see along the way.

“Let us route the trip for you because we can do it in the most economical way,” Upton said.

Some churches or schools have scheduled performances to make. Blue Grass Tours works with them. Or some may want to visit a historic or interesting church. All can be arranged.

Riders will need weather forecasts both along the route and at the destination so they can pack appropriately. They must think in terms of layers of clothing. They can build up or peel down, depending on temperatures. Comfortable shoes are recommended, too; there will usually be a lot of walking.

Guests are often allowed to bring food and drink onto the motorcoach, but group leaders must warn their bunch to be reasonable, to put lids on drinks and to clean up after themselves. Blue Grass Tours has one firm rule: no gum.

Dan Dickson

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