Choosing the Right Tour Company for You
Anyone can claim to be "the best," and it's easy for a travel company to wax poetic in its marketing. But delivering on that promise is another thing. You don't want to find out the hard way--mid-vacation--that the travel company you've chosen doesn't meet your expectations. So here are a few straightforward questions you can ask to be sure you know exactly what kind of travel experience you're committing to. And if a company finds these questions too difficult... well, there's your answer.
How local are you?
Ask how regularly a company runs trips in the region that interests you. Running a trip or two every couple of years in an area isn't enough to develop and maintain regional expertise and the special friendships that open doors and unearth hidden gems for guests. Sending out leaders before each departure to research a trip all over again is not a commitment to quality. It's required to get acquainted with the locale all over again by leaders who are unfamiliar to begin with. If a company isn't running at least several departures a year of the trip you're considering, chances are they're not really living it--and your trip will suffer.
Who really runs this trip?
Ask if your trip is subcontracted. Do they design and run their trips with their own dedicated staff or pay someone else to lead your trip for you? Don't settle for ambiguous responses--they either do or they don't. The quality of your experience relies on clear and honest communication between guests, leaders and headquarters. Companies who subcontract virtually never mention this point--for a reason.
Are the guides employees or independent contractors?
Ask if leaders are direct employees, with the kind of support and benefits that translate into delivering the most rewarding guest experiences. Or are they independent contractors, with less skin in the game (and less training, too)? An outfitter's accountability for its leaders, and reliable standards of excellence, is foundational to the quality of your experience.
How do you choose your guides?
Your trip leaders will make or break your experience. It's easy to have leaders look good on paper--much harder to recruit and train talented, well-rounded, empathetic people who consistently achieve excellence. Ask friends who've traveled with a company about their leaders. And compare the quality and depth of guest quotes promoted in marketing materials. You'll be surprised at how much you can learn by doing so.
Can I set my own pace and style? Does the company offer flexible daily routes?
Are you encouraged to bike or walk at your own pace? Can you do your thing while your partner does his or hers? An outfitter with too few leaders and vans--whether supporting 10 guests or 20--has no option but to make you do things their way. For example, sticking to a single route that's shorter or longer than you'd like, or requiring that you travel as a group--tied to the leader, and moving faster or slower than your preferred pace. Again, your vacation should be your vacation. Having the right level of support--leaders, vans, equipment, GPS, directions with ample route options--spells the difference between a fun journey designed for your interests and energy, and one built to be easier and cheaper to operate.
Small group travel--what's the right number of guests on a trip?
Compared to more traditional travel, active/adventure travel companies have a small number of guests. But only you know the perfect balance between group fun when you want it and solo time when you need it. In travel, as in bike shorts, there's no such thing as one size fits all. A great active travel company builds that flexibility into the design and support systems of their trips. Ask about group size--minimum, maximum and average--and the reasoning behind it. Does the number of guests allow for both camaraderie and freedom? How many trip leaders are guaranteed, and how much van support can you count on? Is there a robust number of scheduled departures--enough to allow for a range of group sizes-- so you can decide how much company is right for you?
How well do you know families?
The best family trip is one that offers fun and memorable experiences for everyone, both when you're spending time together and when you're enjoying activities on your own. Does the outfitter run enough dedicated family departures (preferably at least several dozen a year) that they clearly understand what matters to families? If a company only runs family trips as private departures, it's a strong clue that they lack the expertise to deliver trips designed for a range of ages and interests. And what about the unique dynamics within different age groups? You want to find a trip aimed at the right age range for your family. Are there activities specifically designed for the kids, facilitated by trip leaders who focus solely on creating fun experiences for the younger crowd? Is there enough staff support to let parents get a break when they want one? Is there something on offer for families with older kids?
How do you ensure a good mix of travelers?
When a bunch of people who've known each other forever show up on your trip, the social dynamics can get unbalanced and awkward. Beware of outfits that offer discounts to groups on regularly scheduled departures. It's a lose-lose proposition: you feel like you've ended up on someone else's trip, and the gang of friends would've been happier on a private trip tailored just for them. In these situations, a company places short-term profits ahead of earning guest loyalty and trust by building optimal group dynamics.
What can you tell us about the hotels?
Does the outfitter you're considering accurately differentiate between good, great and truly amazing hotels? Or are you forced to do an exhaustive and unreliable web search to see if you can get closer to the truth? If the details around accommodations are opaque, it's no accident; the company is being intentionally misleading. You don't have to settle for platitudes and hope for the best. Ask. You deserve transparency.
Could the hotels on our trip change?
Ask if you can count on staying at the hotels described in the company's promotional materials. Or could they shift you to another property without letting you know? They might not run enough trips to confidently pre-book rooms, leading to unfortunate complications when the hotel they promote ends up all booked out for your dates. The bottom line is you should get what you've paid for. Ask for concrete assurance.
Do you own your bikes or are they rentals?
If you're interested in a biking trip, ask if the company owns and maintains its bike fleet worldwide. Or do they rent bikes locally? While we support buying local, it's almost universally a mistake when it comes to bike rentals. You need to know that your bike will perform as you wish, be comfortable, safe and tuned to your preferences-- and that the people responsible for keeping it that way are experienced bike techs who know what they're doing and are invested in the success of your trip. Is there anything about this trip I should know before booking? The best hotels in an amazing region may be a little simpler than some guests prefer. There are countries where service is gracious and charming but may lack a certain... urgency. And on a trip where we've arranged a charter flight to that incredible spot in the mountains, there's always a chance we may be delayed by bad weather--or have to travel by road instead. A company should be totally upfront about this kind of thing. If they fail to be clear about aspects that may not appeal to all guests--including you--you can rightly start to wonder if they just want to book you on a trip, even if it's not necessarily the right trip for you. Traveler beware.
What happens if something goes wrong?
The world is full of surprises--that's why we love exploring it. But we also know that weather happens. Roads close. Pipes burst. And the best-laid travel plans sometimes have to change. Ask a prospective outfitter what systems and resources are in place--robust staffing, 24-hour support, safety protocols, specialized training--in case things go wrong? And what if the "wrong" is caused not by a crisis, but simply by the company's failure to deliver as promised? Can they give you an example of an itinerary or activities that had to be adjusted mid-trip? Do they act upon posttrip surveys, or is that just a marketing tool? And are they constantly reevaluating to minimize unwelcome surprises --or better yet, to ensure they don't happen at all?
How can I be sure you'll deliver a great experience?
It takes a complex behind-the-scenes effort to ensure a trip runs smoothly. Ask about the depth of expertise in the company: how many head office staff have experience as guides; the tenure of the management team; and what systems are in place to support everything that needs to happen before, during and after your trip--all tailored to the unique needs of each guest. You don't need to be an industry expert to spot an outfit that's stretched too thin... or that's farming out aspects of your vacation to other firms. You want an active travel specialist, an innovative trip designer, a logistics expert and a responsive, quality-obsessed service provider--all rolled into one.
Does this matter as much to you as it does to me?
The final question is a big one: what kind of company is this, exactly? A bit of web searching will reveal pretty quickly whether the owners are directly involved, committed and passionate about constantly improving the experience of guests and employees alike. This requires business acumen and street smarts--or road and trail smarts--acquired in every corner of the globe. You don't want to travel with a firm that's constantly cutting corners to compete, or that's distracted by other business priorities. And what if the real owners are somewhere in the background, having orchestrated a corporate takeover or a private-equity deal? Is there a column on their spreadsheet for the quality and richness of the guest experience? Are they focused on the same values and priorities and unforgettable moments that you believe add up to a truly rewarding trip?