Here’s what it’s like to to book an adventure abroad through Viator, Trip Advisor’s tour and excursion booking platform
I’m a lifestyle journalist with a focus on travel and trot the globe frequently with my husband and five-year-old twins. So I think of myself as pretty savvy when it comes to calling upon Internet resources (not to mention intuition earned through experience) to make bookings, even in places I’ve never before been.
This summer, I went on a two-week vacation with my family in Europe, hitting Greece and Croatia, plus bordering countries along the Dalmatian Coast. We spent a fair amount of time off the beaten path and there were a lot of moving parts. But I felt confident, and competent, that I could independently plan our trip, without the help of a travel agency. I know my way around search engines for flights, hotels, and deals.
But there was a blind spot. How would I book tours and excursions such as chartering a speedboat for our family to Croatia’s famous islands?
I was relieved when I stumbled upon the activity-booking search engine Viator, which is owned by Trip Advisor. After reviewing various offerings and reading reviews, I booked two separate boat charters through the company. Both boats were clean, comfortable, beautiful, more or less as advertised, and operated by companies I would not have known how to access without Viator.
I’d recommend the platform, especially to anyone staying at an Airbnb without a concierge like I did, or looking for cheaper options than what a hotel or travel agency might suggest. But I’d offer a caveat from my own experience: savvy travelers must make sure to cover their bases to avoid potential pitfalls such as the one we experienced.
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What is Viator?
Viator is Trip Advisor’s platform for booking all kinds of activities during travel. Consider you might find 4×4 and camel tours in Dubai, a skip-the-line tour of the Colosseum in Rome, or a tour of the Grand Canyon by helicopter from Las Vegas.
Really, you’ll find just about anything. The search engine includes options for a truly whopping 200,000 bookable activities in places all around the world making it unlikely that you won’t find what you need. All operators listed are pre-vetted for credibility and safety backed by Trip Advisor.
Importantly, the site also aggregates millions of reviews, like what you’ll find on Viator’s sister site, Trip Advisor, so you have a pretty good sense of what you’re getting.
How is Viator priced?
Naturally, price points on Viator range dramatically based on the location and the excursions’ complexity. A basic walking tour might cost under $20 while a day-long excursion or charter could cost hundreds more. The more expensive of the two trips I booked came in under $1,000, and the rates on the site can soar depending on what you’re booking.
The site is optimized for mobile booking, offers around-the-clock customer service in multiple languages, a lowest-price guarantee, and a 24-hour cancellation policy, which makes the financial risk in booking feel low.
In fact, I made use of that cancellation policy a few times to cancel and rebook similar activities when I changed my mind on the specifics, and also to flatly cancel a sightseeing tour I’d booked for our first day in Greece when I realized we’d all be too jet-lagged to bother.
I made both Viator bookings using my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card — both in U.S. dollars — and faced no trouble making these changes.
What did I book through Viator?
I’d never been to Croatia, but knew I wanted to see its beautiful islands. We were staying in an Airbnb apartment (a rare choice for me) instead of a full-service hotel with concierge, so I was on my own for finding out how to do this.
Poking around on the Internet for tours, I discovered Viator, which was previously unknown to me. I appreciated that like its parent company Trip Advisor, Viator heavily incorporates a review system, and the Trip Advisor backing gave me confidence. I booked two tours, each about three weeks ahead of our arrival.
For our stay in Dubrovnik, I booked a half-day private speedboat tour to the Elafiti islands, which earned an impressive five stars overall, with over 100 reviews on Viator. The trip for four people for four hours came in just under $400 after I used a 10 percent discount code.
Then, for the portion of our trip in the northern area of the country, Split, I booked an all-day private sightseeing tour with five proposed stops, including the famous Blue Cave and Hvar island. This trip also had an overall five-star rating on Viator, but with far fewer reviews, just 27 as of the time of this writing. The eight-hour trip for four people on the private speedboat charter cost $873 after the discount code.
These prices might seem steep, but consider that it’s priced for four people, as well as the alternative. When I briefly felt overwhelmed with planning, I reached out to a Croatia-based travel agency. The land-only quote for a week in the county for our party of four was 12,000 euros. Booking on my own — including these two-day trips through Viator — cut our expenses to less than half.
My booking experience with Viator
After so much planning, our trip was at last underway. We spent a morning at a Dubrovnik beach club before our scheduled boat tour for the afternoon. That same day, the highly responsive tour company reached out through WhatsApp and email to coordinate transportation for us to the marina, where we’d be meeting our skipper and the boat.
They called a rideshare at their expense to meet us at the beach club and we arrived at the marina to find an impeccably clean boat and friendly skipper.
As promised, the boat was just for our family with amenities like shade cover and a USB port to charge up phones and stay ready for photo taking.
We set out for the afternoon on the Adriatic and were able to customize our itinerary, checking out bays, beaches, and caves at our own pace. The skipper snapped family photos and offered snorkel masks and drinks.
At the end of the afternoon, our skipper called us an Uber to take us back to the hotel. Overall it was a successful, fun day. And at under $400 for four people, felt like a great value for all we were able to do.
Unfortunately, it didn’t foreshadow the more challenging experience we had on our next excursion, which was the full-day boat charter from Split.
For that trip, I had more difficulty communicating in advance with the operator, who was less responsive. I didn’t get all my questions answered before booking, and miscalculated by making some critical assumptions that turned out to be false.
We arrived at the marina to find a boat that exceeded our expectations. It was a rather luxurious looking speedboat with room for 12 and was larger and fancier than our previous boat in Dubrovnik.
It was also more powerful, at 250 horsepower. While some people might appreciate that, the speed of the vessel scared our young children right away.
Our skipper was a devoted and experienced older brother, so he was well equipped with strategies to help calm our kids and took pains to make them comfortable. He even let my son “drive” the boat and honk the horn, which was a huge hit.
But my daughter was still uncomfortable as the boat sped through the open ocean. Off the bat, I wondered if this was something any ambitious American traveler would attempt with such young children had they known how rough it would be.
The skipper warned us that the Blue Cave would be backed up and crowded, and the timing might correspond to a bumpy afternoon sail. So we opted against it and chose a custom plan to mitigate the intensity. I appreciated that we were able to change the day’s itinerary to better suit our needs.
Our skipper took us to a gorgeous, remote beach on the island of Vis, which was a true highlight with crystal clear water and a sense of true isolation. We swam from the boat to the beach, snorkeled, and took lots of pictures.
Afterward, we sailed to glamorous Hvar island, where we passed an hour or so with lunch in Hvar Town.
But it was after that, on the way back to the harbor in Split, when our challenges started in earnest.
It was squarely afternoon by then, and the winds had picked up; the open ocean was very choppy. That is to say, our boat caught full air and slammed back down — over and over again. There was nothing the skipper could do as this was the nature of the boat and typical conditions.
Although my kids (mercifully) don’t suffer motion sickness, they were terrified. Anyone with young children and those who do suffer from motion sickness should inquire about conditions before booking any similar boat ride as I wished I had.
My son could be placated by heading back to his post as the boat’s “driver,” but my daughter was miserable for the full 75 minutes it took to get back to the marina and the waves soaked our family. Making matters more concerning, there was only one kid-sized life jacket on board.
I was regretful that I’d gotten us in this position. I hadn’t adequately confirmed that this was the right trip for our family.
And although I generally feel like a diligent and capable planner, I’d continued with the booking despite not waiting for the answers I needed: Would there be child-sized snorkel masks? Would there be two child-sized life jackets? Was the water likely to be rough? Will we get wet or seasick?
Overall, I wouldn’t trade either of the stunning boat excursions I booked through Viator. They made for essential sightseeing experiences for any visitor to Croatia.
The operators on both experiences were professional, and the services were provided as advertised. I also found the prices to be reasonable, much more so than if I’d booked through a travel agency.
I’ll book through Viator again, but next time, I’ll make sure I’m asking more questions and getting the specific answers I need first.
If a particular operator is vague or reluctant to respond to the specifics of an important matter, like child-sized life vests, or typical water conditions, I will move on to another operator.
As a now-seasoned Viator user, I’d say: book with confidence. Just make sure you ask a lot of questions specific to your needs and make sure you get them all answered explicitly before you show up on the day of your booking.
With the sheer number of bookings available on Viator, you should have plenty of options to keep moving onto another suitable tour operator until you find one that gives you all the answers — and confidence — you need.