If breakfast, lunch and dinner are included each day, then the trip will be relatively slow-moving. If your accommodations change every night, you're moving fast.

Don't have a magnifying glass? Then call the company. Know the penalties involved and under what circumstances the company can cancel its trip. The most common reason why trips are canceled is that not enough people sign on. On the other hand, if you should need to cancel, ask what the fee is. And, consider purchasing travel insurance if you or someone in your family is not well.

For your deposit and the final balance due. Under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act, consumers have the right to refuse to pay for services not delivered. If the company goes out of business, you can dispute the charges through your card company.

Most companies advertise the number of days you'll be away from home. The number of nights, however, is a better way to evaluate a trip. Obviously nine days sounds like a longer trip than seven nights -- but on a nine-day trip, two nights are very likely spent on a plane or train.

Tour operators and packagers belonging to TOP, a division of American Society of Travel Agents (www. astanet.com) have been in business for at least three years and adhere to a code of ethics. They also work with various consumer protection agencies to resolve problems. The U.S. Tour Operators Association (www.ustoa.com ) has even more stringent requirements for membership and offers consumers more tangible protection through its $1 Million Travelers Assistance Program. This program requires each USTOA member to post a $1 million bond, used to reimburse consumers in case the tour operator becomes insolvent, goes out of business, or doesn't refund customer payments within four months of canceling a tour.

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