While independent travelers tend to shun organized tour companies, they are often hard to avoid. The truth is that we all take an organized tour at some point. Whether it’s just for a day or a week or our whole holiday, organized trips are usually in our travel plans at some point. I’ve taken them in the past, and will probably take plenty more in the future. They are often hard to avoid, and many destinations (like Halong Bay, the Galapagos Islands, the Serengeti, Machu Picchu) are inaccessible without them.
Usually synonymous with big buses and camera-clicking holiday makers, organized tours can actually be quite good. They can be especially great for first-time travelers unsure about setting out on their own. Tours can give people the time to adjust to the travel lifestyle. And anything that gets people up and on the road is something that I support.
If you decide to take a tour, here are some things to look for in a good tour company:
Reputation - Look on travel message boards to see what a company’s reputation is. It might not always be what they claim, and it’s important to find out the truth before you book. The biggest, most expensive companies might not always have the best reputations. Sometimes the little ones are just as good. After you find a few companies you like, find out what people thought of them.
Cost - With tour companies, it’s not always true that you get what you pay for. Many tour companies overcharge, while some are just really good at maximizing value for your every penny. Ask where the money goes and how it is spent to find out if you are really getting the best value for your money. Moreover, make sure you ask if there are fees to pay when you get there, or at specific sites. Many companies require you to pay additional money when the tour starts. That cheap tour won’t be so cheap if you have to pay for everything while there.
Market - Research the company’s target market. Again, travel boards can help here. Is the tour geared toward older couples? Young people? Families? You don’t want to end up on a loud Contiki tour when all you wanted was a quiet holiday. There’s a tour company for everyone, just make sure you don’t end up on one that isn’t yours. Ask on Twitter, message boards, and Facebook about the companies you are thinking of to get an idea as to who goes on their tours.
Guides - Make sure the company uses knowledgeable, local guides. The guide should be a local or at least a long-term resident, know the local language, have travel experience, and know life-saving techniques. I’ve been on tours where the guide was a walking encyclopedia, and on some where the guide was a glorified time keeper. Guides can make or break your trip. They are going to explain everything to you and keep the flow of the tour going. I always ask about the guides when I book a tour.
Safety - Make sure the company follows all the proper safety requirements and is accredited by the local government, the government where they are based, and any other appropriate trade organizations.
Schedule - You’re paying for them to fill your day. How do they do that? Are they doing that? Do they have a lot of activities organized, or do they leave you to your own devices? Make sure you get a schedule of all the activities and pick a tour that is balanced. Running around all day will leave you wishing you had a holiday from your holiday, but you don’t want to be sitting around all day, either.
There’s a growing trend among travelers called ecotourism. It’s about more responsible travel, not only towards the environment, but also toward the locals in an area. This means using local guides, hotels, and services, and making sure to reduce waste and your footprint on the local habitat. Moreover, these companies tend to offer better and more interactive tours that also give you a good degree of autonomy.
I think it’s important to pick a company that provides great value and gives back to the place you are visiting. After all, did you go there to ruin it for others? Doubtful. Here are some things to look for in a tour company that balances the needs of the environment and the population, not just cares about profits:
Environmental impact - Ecotourism is foremost about helping the environment. Ecotours seek to minimize the impact on the environment. That means avoiding big buses, ritzy hotels, and flying. It means staying at places that conserve energy. It means taking part in environmental programs or, at least, providing information on the local habitat. It means only leaving behind footprints – not waste. Check with various eco-tour alliances and groups for a list of companies that have been certified “eco-friendly.” With so much money pouring into the industry now, you have a lot of companies fraudulently saying they practice ecotourism. Make sure you find a legitimate one.
Group Size - Larger groups tend to have a much higher environmental impact and require larger buses, bigger ships, and more resources. Tour companies that have smaller groups tend to be much more mindful of the environment and the impact they are leaving. Plus, it’s a lot easier to meet people in a group of 12 than it is in a group of 60.
Follow the money - Who does the tour operator use? Are they using local companies or companies owned by large corporations? Are you being shuttled from hotel to hotel in a big bus? Are you staying at the Marriott and using their services, or staying at a variety of smaller, locally-owned hotels and using other local services? Ask the tour company where its money goes and what providers it uses. A good company keeps the money local.
Tour companies are not inherently bad. Sure, many companies offer that big-bus, Bermuda-short-wearing, never-leave-the-hotel experience. Maybe that is your thing. But if it isn’t and you want a tour company that offers more and actually takes you around the country you came to see, you’ll find plenty of companies out there.