While many independent travellers tend to shun organized tours, they are often hard to avoid. Many destinations (think the Galápagos Islands, a safari, Antarctica, or the Inca Trail) are hard to do without them.
Though they are usually identified with big buses, camera-clicking, and Bermuda-shorts-wearing tourists, most tour companies aren’t like that at all. I’ve actually taken many organized tours…and like them! They are especially great for first-time travellers who may be unsure about setting out on their own. In fact, it was a group tour to Cuba in 1988 that gave me the travel bug and set me on the road that led me here. Tours can give people both time to adjust to the travel lifestyle and the courage to break out of their comfort zone.
And anything that helps get people on the road is something that I support.
There are many bad tour companies out there, ones that don’t pay guides well, destroy the environment, don’t help the local economy, and just take you from one spot to the other for photo-ops.
But there are also some amazing tour companies out there, and today I’d like to help you find them. Here is what to look for when picking a tour company:
First, look on the Internet to read about a company’s reputation. It might not always be what they claim, and it’s important to find out the truth before you book. One disgruntled customer’s bad experience doesn’t mean the company should be avoided, but if there is pattern, try to stay away.
Second, look at cost. With tour companies, you don’t always get what you pay for. Many tour companies overcharge customers, while others are great at giving value for your money. Find out how your money is spent to find out if you are getting the best value. Is your money funding activities and guides? Or corporate overhead? Make sure you ask if there are fees to pay when you arrive, or at specific sites along the way. These on-the-ground costs can make your initially cheap tour suddenly very expensive.
Next, learn about the guides, since they make or break a tour. You’re with them your whole trip and it’s their information and help that gets you through your holiday. Make sure the company uses knowledgeable, local guides who speak the language, have prior travel experience, and know life-saving techniques. I’ve been on tours where the guide was a walking encyclopaedia and on others where the guide was a glorified time keeper. Ask about the guides before you book. If it’s just some traveller hired to chauffeur me around, I don’t take the tour.
Next, what’s the environmental impact? Ecotourism is foremost about helping the environment. That means avoiding big buses, large resorts and 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. I want to make sure I’m not helping to destroy the places I came so far to see.
Additionally, find out your 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. They also tend to be a lot more personal and fun.
Lastly, follow the money. What local companies does the operator use? Are they using local companies or businesses owned by large corporations? Are you being shuttled from hotel to hotel in a big bus? Are you staying at the Marriott or 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.
Some favourite tour companies:
- Context Travel – The BEST company for city tours. They use professionals and experts on the subject matter to lead the tours (so your art tour gets an art historian as its guide).
- Walks of NYC – A great walking tour company for New York. They also do Italy tours with their sister company, Walks of Italy.
- Busabout – A hop-on/hop-off bus company in Europe — great for meeting people!
- Kiwi Experience – A hop-on/hop-off bus company for New Zealand.
These companies provide great value for your money, wonderful guides, and, overall, an excellent experience.
If you choose to take a larger, multi-week tour (a visit to the Galápagos, a Kilimanjaro hike, a safari, or Greek island boat trip), my favourite company is Intrepid Travel. They have inexpensive small group tours (with no single supplement), use local guides, and conform to all the rules I lay out here. It’s the company I use whenever I book a tour, and it’s one I think you should book with too.
If you have any questions about any of these companies or taking a tour in general, ask away. I’m here to help you travel better and assuage your fears. It’s what I love to do.
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