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

Ticket Prices are Rising at the Angkor Complex

Andrea, Callie and Couper at Angkor Wat
Andrea, Callie and Couper admiring Angkor Wat – Courtesy of Anna Bella Betts Photography

By Courtney Ridgel, Junior Tour Consultant

The entrance fees to the Angkor Temple Complex will be rising come February of next year. Here are the new rates that visitors can expect in 2017:

1 day pass – $37.00 per person
3 day pass – $62.00 per person
7 day pass – $72.00 per person

Although some are concerned that the fees may hamper tourism, this is really a reflection of the Cambodian government taking steps to ensure that Angkor Wat is protected and preserved. Keen-eyed observers may have already noted the new and improved ticketing and registration booth, and new trash cans around the Angkor Complex to encourage visitors not to litter. The ‘Angkor Code of Conduct’, which has long been in place, is now being enforced by the Apsara Authority to make sure that these sacred sites remain peaceful places of worship, rather than being simply overrun by scantily-clad selfie-takers. $2 of each entry fee will be donated to the Kantha Bopha Foundation, to help provide medical treatment for underprivileged Cambodian children. More information about this transition can be found in the Khmer Times and at Conde Nast.

Andrea, Callie and Couper enjoying a quiet early morning at Angkor Wat
Andrea, Callie and Couper enjoying a quiet early morning at Angkor Wat – Courtesy of Anna Bella Betts Photography

Connecting Across Continents

Gerald and Lesley Robinson in Luang Prabang, Laos

By Courtney Ridgel

Journeys Within strives to provide personal connections with every tour experience and we love it when our guests return home feeling they have truly made a connection on their trip.

Such was the case for guests Gerald and Lesley Robinson when they traveled to Laos last November as part of their Southeast Asia adventure. Near Luang Prabang they visited the village of Ban Xing (the “Lion Village”) and met with the local elders. As part of their visit they participated in a traditional baci blessing ceremony in the home of Mr. Bouaphan.

After their visit we received the following message from Gerry and Lesley:

How have you been? Lesley and I still talk about our trip; it truly was a trip of a lifetime, thanks to all of you. All our guides were wonderful. They were personable and knowledgeable. We felt like we were with old friends the whole time.

We would like to have the name of our guide in Laos since we have forgotten it and how to contact him. Lesley promised to send some items to him for his children. Also, she has some items for the family we met at a village ceremony, which was a definite highlight. We really bonded with the village elder and his family.

Thank you very much.

Gerry/Lesley Robinson

Gerry Robinson and Bouaphan
Gerry Robinson and Mr. Bouaphan in his home

Happily the timing worked and Andrea was able to carry their gifts in her luggage during her last trip to Laos.

BOuapahn 2 (2)
Mr. Bouaphan receiving gifts and photos from Gerald and Lesley.
Bouaphan (2)
Mr. Bouaphan wearing a necklace sent by Gerald and Lesley

Phaeng and Sone from the Journeys Within Laos Office delivered the gifts in person to Mr. Bouaphan. He was very moved and wanted to write back to Lesley and Gerald to thank them. Here is a copy of his very sweet letter:

Hello Gerald and Lesley!

Long time ago that you were gone from Laos, even that we are still thinking of both of you. First of all I need to say thank you very much for your gifts that send to me and my family, I had received that on 24.March.15 that delivered by Mr. Phaeng and Sone from Journeys Within. I’m very glad to get those gifts from you, even though you are so far but you still charitable me and my family. So I don’t know how to reward anything for your kindness besides say Thank you so much and we will remember you and your family in our hearts forever and if you have time to come back Laos again please come to visit us, we really honored to welcome you and your family to our village. Finally I need to wish you and your family have a good health and successful with your work and life.

Best Wish,
Bouaphan.

Thank you Gerry and Lesley for your thoughtfulness and we were so glad to help facilitate this bonding across the continents and cultures.

Traveling by Sound – Traditional Vietnamese Music

By Courtney Ridgel

Booking Coordinator, Courtney Ridgel traveled to Vietnam last May and reflects back on her interactive experience at The Truc Mai Music House:

Courtney tries her hand at playing the Ðàn Klôngpút, a rare instrument from the mountains of Vietnam
Courtney tries her hand at playing the Ðàn Klôngpút, a rare instrument from the mountains of Vietnam

Taking the time to listen and watch traditional music being performed is one of the best ways to really gain insight into a local culture.  For the Vietnamese, many stories and melodies are passed on and nurtured as part of their cultural identity.

Truc Mai House Music 1
Our hosts played a duet on bamboo xylophones, also known as ‘T’rung’ 
Truc Mai House Music 4
The stone lithophone, or Ðàn Ðá, is an ancient instrument that is believed to date back more than 3,000 years

One of the most unique and personal experiences for us in Vietnam was a visit the Truc Mai Music House in Saigon.   This family specializes in traditional Vietnamese music and performs all over the world.  They have a large collection of traditional instruments such as the monochord zither, bamboo xylophone, and stone lithophone in their home.  We were warmly welcomed inside and served hot tea, which we sipped while our hosts performed a private show for us in their living room.  This family studies and performs melodies from all across Vietnam and they really enjoyed explaining the origins and significance of each instrument.  As both of us come from a musical background, we were blown away when our hosts offered to let us try out the instruments ourselves after the performance!

Truc Mai House Music 5
Evan tries out the monochord zither or Đàn bầu

Thien Vien Truc Lam Bach Ma Pagoda

By Courtney Ridgel

Booking Coordinator Courtney Ridgel visited Central Vietnam last May and relflects back on visiting the Thien Vien Truc Lam Bach Ma Pagoda:  

One of the gilded rooftops of the Pagoda
The Pagoda is tucked into the White Horse Mountains 

During college I studied Zen Buddhism through some of my coursework so I was thrilled to have the chance to visit the Thien Vien Truc Lam Bach Ma Pagoda.  Zen Buddhism first came to Vietnam centuries ago, and was replaced by other forms of Buddhism in the 15th and 16th century.  This branch of Buddhism is now making a come-back and the Truc Lam Bach Ma Pagoda was built in 2006.

Pagoda 1
To reach the pagoda, you must first journey across the lake

Located in Central Vietnam, this hidden gem lies nestled into the White Horse (“Bach Ma”) Mountains, so named for the clouds resembling herds of horses.   Like something out of a legend, the temple sits on an island rising from the center of a man-made lake tucked into a valley.

Pagoda 4
Climbing a great number of stairs is believed to help clear the mind

One of the locals took us to the island in his small motorized boat where a group of nuns sat laughing and sharing stories.  The journey across the water and trek up the long steps to the entrance is meant to clear your mind and wash away guilt.  I found myself breathless, both from the views and from the deceptively long stairs.

Pagoda 7
Different halls house bells, drums, statues and other religious items
Pagoda 11
Behind the main pagoda, dedicated to the Buddha, is a second pagoda, dedicated to the founded of Chan or Zen Buddhism, the monk Bodhidharma


Passing through the impressive gate at the top of the island, we passed into the peaceful garden-like setting with various halls and traditional pagodas, complete with temple bells and carved dragons.   Inside, the halls are adorned with murals depicting the life of Buddha and the history of Zen Buddhism.

Pagoda 8
Dragons guard these sacred steps
Pagoda 9
Looking out at the main gate

Taking it all in, I just kept thinking, “I am so grateful to be here.”   This pagoda will definitely remain a magical place in my memory.