So very very many questions, and I'll chip in my $0.02. But first let me say that I'm just a student, I don't work at a dropzone so I can't answer your first question, but I can tell you how my small local DZ works.
Students pay for their first jump first with a deposit of between $100 and the full cost of the jump, this is payable with your registration when you give to the DZ a week or two before you jump. If someone only pays $100 or so, you pay the rest after your jump.
As for what happens if someone wusses out, if the plane is still on the ground, I think the student gets everything back (think). If the plane is in the air, sorry, no refunds.
The courses run pretty much every weekend in the summer, no limit for the minimum number of people who they will do it for as the owner are the instructors. It seems to work well, as the DZ has been running since the 80's
We only offer tandem as a first jump and no reservations are required.
Basically a student drives up, and is greated by manifest. They sit down watch the Bill Booth video then a short video about the DZ, about getting video and that stuff, they fill out their waiver. Then they are introduced to thir tandem master. After hte intro they are taught the exit, the arch, all the stuff needed for a tandem. Then they get geared up, have their video work done if they got it and they wait for the plane to land. Once the plane lands them and 20+ fun jumpers (I love that Casa) head out and jump. If they back down they loose their money.
After doing the required learning tandems we do a FJC ground class. This is free to the student , but it has to be scheduled. Then its just a modified AFF course at that point.
I paid as I went, but I could have saved about $100 on the ISP 20 level course (AFF+solos & coached jumps). In that case, they credit your account for the cost of all 20 levels (about $100 more than you paid) and deduct the actual jumps as you go, but it's not refundable. Repeated levels are additional.
Students are encouraged to phone ahead for reservations. They are also encouraged to make a CAN$50 deposit. When they arrive on the DZ, they fill out a waiver and pay the full amount, then are handed to instructors. Refusals are rare, even rarer than refunds. If a student refuses after ground school, tough! They just paid for ground school and an expensive airplane ride.
I suggest calling the DZ you are interested in taking you classes/jumps at and ask them all these questions. Each DZ has different policies.
I was an office manager for years and the way it worked there was: A deposit of $50 was asked for at the time of the reservation for the jump. (we told the students that refunds were non refundable) Payment in full was asked for after students checked in and filled out their waiver.
How much do they get back if they change their mind/get ill before the first day of the course? Before the first jump? Has this been a problem for you?
Because we told the students that the deposit was non refundable, we didn't have a lot of no shows. (even though we really never kept refunds) If a student got ill before their ground school class we would reschedule them for another class. If after the student finished the ground school and decided that jumping wasn't for them, all they had to pay for was for the first jump class, after all, that's the only service they have received.
*Do they pay for the whole course at once?
Some DZs have a discount plan that if you pay for all your levels up front you get some kind of discount. Make sure you get some kind of receipts for the student jumps that you will be doing in the future. Paper work can sometimes get lost in an office.