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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine July/August 2004
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Booking Adventure Travel

Doing It Yourself Makes a Difference

Budget Adventure Travel
While on his own budget adventure island-hopping, Tim Leffel stopped to take in the view from a beach in Palawan, Philippines.

Like to sail down the Nile, go trekking in the Himalayas or white-water rafting in the Andes Mountains? Or camel-riding through the desert, island-hopping in the tropics?

"Yes," you sigh, "but I can't afford it." Well, if you're looking at the prices in a glossy adventure travel brochure, you're probably right. But if you follow in the footsteps of long-term travelers and book locally, all of these adventures are easily within your grasp.

Following the Money

The difference is in where your money is going. If you book an adventure trip through an agency in the U.S. or Canada, you're paying a lot of people: the agency owners, the employees who will accompany you (and their expenses), and the local tour company at your destination who supply guides and equipment. The local portion of that may be quite small in a developing country, but that cost will be marked up substantially to cover the agency’s first-world expenses at home, including marketing. So for a typical tour of 10 to 20 days, many adventure travelers end up paying $3,000 to $4,000 per person, not including airfare. By the time a couple pays airfare, incidentals, and departure taxes, they could be looking at a $10,000 trip. If they're flying somewhere especially far or difficult to get to, such as New Zealand or South Africa, it can be even more.

Long-term travelers simply show up, book their trip, and go when the next group departs. This way they deal with their providers first-hand and all the money goes into their adventure, not into marketing expenses and commissions.

A Case Study in Nepal

I’ve done some form of organized adventure travel in over a dozen countries, ranging from the Philippines to India to Israel. However, the starkest contrast I saw in pricing was probably during my 3-week Annapurna Trail trek in the Himalayas of Nepal. The trip is exhilarating, breathtaking, and inspiring. It's also dirt cheap or ungodly expensive, depending on how you got there. Two people walking side by side are sometimes paying thousands of dollars difference for the same mountain views.

I hiked with two other guys. We carried our own packs, followed the trail without a hitch, and stayed in the lodges that are scattered all along the way. We usually got an early start and got one or two of the best lodge rooms in each village. We ate our fill at each meal, bought the odd candy bar or beer here and there, and always got dessert after dinner. After three weeks of trekking, we had spent less than $200 each, including the bus to and from Pokhara. If we had hired a guide and porter and tipped them really well, we still would have had a really hard time trying to spend much more than $350 each.

Along the way, we met many travelers who had booked with a tour company in Europe, Canada, or the U.S. and paid anywhere from $1,200 to $3,900 before airfare. That included a couple of hotel nights in Kathmandu and Pokhara, but otherwise they were seeing and doing the same things as we were, but with less flexibility to go at their own pace. Their loads were lighter because of porters, but some of them were sleeping in tents, not lodges, and it got pretty frosty at night as we got higher. A few of the French groups had a chef along, but they were still eating group meals prepared at one time, not the "whatever, whenever" choices we were picking off a menu. They all had a bilingual guide, but even the ones accompanying the high-priced groups couldn’t answer many questions about the local culture.

A few days after finishing my trek, I joined a whitewater rafting trip out of Kathmandu. I asked around to find out who was the best operator in town, with the best guides and the best equipment. After I got a definitive answer, I booked my trip with them, traveling down the steepest, fastest river open to the public. My price was $40 per day, including meals, transportation, and one night's lodging in a riverside guesthouse with a bar. By now you probably know the rest of the story. Beside me were many people who had booked overseas, with this side trip part of a $200 per day adventure package.

I've seen this same scene play out around the world, whether it was hiking up volcanoes in Indonesia, taking a weeklong tour through the hilltribe areas of Vietnam, or touring the Mayan ruins in Mexico.

Making a Good Connection

Many first-time travelers wonder how in the world they can manage to book an adventure tour on their own. After all, they may be thousands of miles from home, in a country where people speak a different language. However, finding a provider is usually the easy part: guides will often find you before you even start looking for them. And anyone who deals with tourists all day generally speaks at least passable English. Here’s how to make your trip a success:

Ask around, then ask around again. Get opinions from other travelers who have done what you want to do. If other travelers haven’t made the trip themselves, they may know someone who has and know how it turned out.

Check your guidebook for references. Guidebook writers often hear about which providers are questionable and which ones have a good reputation. If they’re wrong, they’ll get lots of letters telling them so.

Check the message boards. This can be done physically, at local guesthouses, and virtually, at Internet message boards for travelers. The most active one of the latter is Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree.

Interview potential guides. Ask lots of probing, open-ended questions about equipment, experience, lodging, food, and what is and is not included. Negotiate everything in advance since you’ll have very little leverage once you’ve departed.

Find out who is really leading the trip. For popular journeys, such as the Inca Trail in Peru, 20 agencies may be selling the exact same tour and pooling customers. Your agency may have booked five people, but you show up and find 30. You’re better off booking direct with a company that leads their own group.

If the crew did a good job, tip them graciously when your trip is finished, either personally or as a group. This supplements their often meager wages and ensures that the best guides are rewarded for making things run smoothly.

What’s in It for Me and for Them?

Many of the spending decisions you make when you travel have an economic impact that ripples out like a pebble dropped in a pond. When you stay at a locally-owned guesthouse, hire a local rickshaw driver, or eat at a family restaurant, you’re directly contributing to the local economy. The same holds true when you book an adventure tour at the source. Ironically, that guide or company you hire is often earning a bigger paycheck from you than they are from the North American adventure company, who is negotiating for a volume discount. At the same time, you are still getting an excellent deal since you’ve skipped the middleman.

In addition, local providers don’t need large economies of scale. Few tour companies in the U.S. or Canada will do an international trip for less than eight people unless the price tag is proportionately high. There’s not enough money in it for them except at the luxury end of the market. At the source, however, most companies can provide a more intimate experience, while still making it financially worthwhile for them. My wife and I did a 2-day volcano hike in the Philippines ($70 each including meals) with just a private guide and a porter. On our camel safari near Jaisalmer, India ($30 each for three days), three people were dedicated to taking care of five travelers and their camels. While in Vietnam, a group of five friends hired a driver with a 4-wheel-drive vehicle for a week to explore north Vietnam ($250 split between us). We decided upon reaching Sapa that we wanted to extend the trip an extra day. Since the only person we had to clear it with was our driver, the only effort required was a bit of extra cash for his inconvenience and expenses.

The Advantages of Booking from Home

So does this mean you're automatically a sucker if you book your adventure trip from home? No, because there are certainly good reasons for doing that too. If your schedule is very tight and you need to get back to work on a certain date, it makes lots of sense to let someone else work out all the details in advance. If you're somewhere like rural China or Uzbekistan, where the language barrier is a real issue, having good guides or translators can be essential. And if you're the type who likes to let others map out the decisions or to travel with a built-in group of companions, an organized tour makes sense.

If you book with a reputable and culturally sensitive agency, you can experience some local culture with the added comfort of dependability. The food will probably be decent, your guides will speak English well, and your hotel rooms will be reserved and clean. Much of this will be spelled out in writing and there’s less chance that you’ll have a miscommunication problem. If something goes wrong, you will have someone at home to complain to.

When airfare is included, a group tour can sometimes make your flight cheaper. Many agencies are able to negotiate significant discounts on airfare and they fold this into the package price. At times this can offset the gain you’d make by booking locally, especially for a very short trip. See the links below and check the ads in magazines like Outside (in the U.S.), Outpost (Canada), and Wanderlust (U.K.).

Booking Adventure Travel from Home

If you don’t want to take chances on going it alone upon arrival, the following offer a good middle ground between independent travel and mass-market tourism.

Traveland offers some great Latin America deals throughout the year, such as 1-week packages to Peru or Costa Rica, with airfare, for under $1,000.

Culture Xplorers offers upscale small group adventures in Latin America that aim to maximize interaction with a country’s people.

G Adventures, based in Canada, promises "the freedom of independent travel with the security of a group." They practice responsible tourism and pick locally-owned lodging with character. Prices are very reasonable for destinations all over the world.

Intrepid Traveler leads small groups to over 150 different itineraries in a variety of countries, with especially abundant choices in Asia. Tours run the gamut from seven days to four months.

Adventure Center is committed to ecologically sound trips that benefit the local community economically. Through various alliances, they operate on every continent.

Web editor note: If you are willing to go it on your own, and are very, very daring, this Adventure travel blog by Andy Graham describes some of the options.

TIM LEFFEL, a regular columnist for Transitions Abroad Magazine, is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. He is also editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet.

Click on the covers below for more on Tim Leffel's travel books.
Travel Writing 2.0
Tim Leffel's World Cheapest Destinations
Tim Leffel and Rob Sangster's Traveler's Tool Kit