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Travel lingo: What’s the difference between a Tour Operator and a Ground Operator?

Like any specialized industry, the travel world can be full of confusing insider lingo that’s difficult for ordinary people to understand. It can get so bad that even we often have to Google some of the terms and acronyms that get thrown around, and we’ve been at it for 15+ years!

Two questions we get asked quite often – which are particularly relevant given Journeys Within’s recent decision to give away our ground operations businesses in Southeast Asia to focus exclusively on being a tour operator – are…

Journeys Within's Ground Operations team
The Ground Operations team of Journeys Within’s Cambodia office.

What’s the difference between a Tour Operator and a Ground Operator?

Tour Operator: An agent or agency that designs tour packages for travelers. Normally a package will include: airfare, ground transportation, accommodations and guide services (which the Tour Operator will book through local ground operators). Tour Operators book and pay for services on behalf of their clients, working with multiple agencies, and clients pay the Tour Operator for the full package.

Journeys Within has been a Tour Operator from the very beginning, and will continue to be as we transition away from our Ground Operations units.

Ground Operator: A local agency that provides services such as transportation and guide services. Generally, Ground Operators work with Tour Operators, but at times will work directly with clients.

In the beginning, Journeys Within also played the role of a Ground Operator for our clients, with local offices in the countries we serve. This was out of necessity at first, because we wanted such a high level of control at the local level to ensure our clients had incredible experiences while on tour. However, as our local staff has grown into leadership roles, we are now confident that they will be able to continue providing the incredible service levels our clients expect without the direct oversight from the U.S. office (of course, we’ll still be in close contact).

Andrea, her kids, and Narla on an inspection of new touring options in Cambodia.

Why would a traveler want to work with a Tour Operator vs. a Ground Operator?

A Tour Operator’s focus is creating the full tour that the guest is looking for. We understand the guest’s needs and can translate that into the trip that they’re looking for.

Tour Operators understand travel from the traveler’s perspective.

With a Tour Operator, you can pick up the phone and call someone in the U.S. to plan and discuss your trip details.

As a Tour Operator, we have traveled the region extensively, so you get the on-the-ground knowledge of a ground operator, but the service of a local travel agency.

When booking through an accredited Tour Operator, you know that you have the security of the U.S. travel regulations protecting your travel investment.

A Ground Operator is generally less expensive, but they are harder to reach as they are based locally, so you have to deal with time differences and often have limited English-speaking office staff.

Ground Operators tend to focus on working with Tour Operators who are their main clients vs. individual travelers.

Ground Operators focus on a local region. Therefore, if you’re looking to travel to multiple areas within one trip, you’ll need to book through multiple ground operators and coordinate the transfers between those regions on your own.

April Cole is the Vice President of Sales for Journeys Within Tour Company

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