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Five ways to find an adventure travel bargain

The deals are as eye-popping as the destinations. Twenty percent off a gourmet cooking adventure in Tuscany. Free airfare when you book an Arctic voyage in Greenland. A hundred dollars off an Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu.

I come across deals like this every day in my capacity as’s adventure travel columnist. Are they too good to be true? Not if you know where—and when—to look for them.

Last-minute deals

Many of the most popular adventure travel companies in the U.S. and abroad offer significant discounts for late-availability trips. Two of the best at this are G.A.P Adventures and Intrepid Travel, both of which routinely offer 20-percent discounts on last-minute trips.

Toronto-based G.A.P Adventures reduces the prices on some trips that depart a week to two months in the future. All are discounted because there are open spaces on trips that are already guaranteed to run. “We change the last-minute departures every couple of weeks,” says Kira Zack, G.A.P’s Communications and Marketing Director. Recently discounted trips have included excursions in Greece, Kenya, Peru, and Bolivia.

Intrepid’s last-minute deal program, Impulse, works in a similar way. These deals are automatically generated by the company’s reservation system, and appear on Intrepid’s website around two weeks prior to each trip’s booking deadline. “On average, Impulse deals are offered three to four weeks prior to travel,” says Jen Bird, Communications Manager for the Australia-based outfitter. “Trips also only appear on Impulse if there is sufficient availability on that trip to make it worthwhile offering as an Impulse deal.” Recent 20-percent-off deals included trips to China, Tibet, New Zealand, Romania, and Italy.

While both G.A.P and Intrepid cater to budget-minded travelers, even the more upscale adventure operators occasionally offer discounts at the last minute. Mountain Travel Sobek, for example, is not a “discounter,” but it does put some trips on sale when there are a limited number of participants signed up as the trip date approaches. “We believe it’s better to operate trips in spite of low numbers than cancel them altogether,” says Nadia Le Bon, Director of Special Programs for Mountain Travel Sobek. “Usually the offer is limited to two or four new bookings and amounts to a $200 to $500 discount on the retail price of the trip.”

NEXT >> Early-booking discounts

Early-booking discounts

If waiting until the last-minute is too risky for your taste, look for early-booking discounts to save you money.

ExpeditionTrips, a specialized wholesaler of small-ship expedition travel—such as Galapagos adventure voyages—offers advance-booking discounts. “Several of the shipping companies we work with offer early-booking discounts, which we extend to our clients,” says Kristy Royce, the company’s director of marketing. “We are also able to offer special savings with certain lines that are not available directly or though most other travel agents. With some trips it is better to book early and get an early-booking discount and the cabin you want at the best time of year.”

Some companies also offer seasonal advance-booking discounts to help fill trips during slower travel periods. Adventure seller iExplore recently announced a 10-percent discount on any trip booked before August 31 that travels between December 15 and January 8.

You can even save money with companies that don’t have formal advance-booking discounts by checking in at the right time of the year. Intrepid, for example, does not offer an “official” early-booking discount, but Bird suggests “keeping an eye on Intrepid around brochure-launch season, which is October through December, as there is sometimes promotional activity associated with kicking off the new year.”

NEXT >> Where to look

Where to look

My favorite adventure travel tool is Adventure Center‘s “Trip Finder” application. Adventure Center is the U.S. sales representative for 10 of the biggest British and Australian outfitters, including Explore—a company with which I recently traveled on an Icelandic volcano trek. “We provide U.S.-based travelers with a one-stop source for a huge range of affordable small-group adventure travel experiences,” says Adventure Center’s president, Trevor Saxty. Adventure Center’s “Trip Finder” tool allows users to search its entire database of about 2,000 trips using various filtering criteria, including destination, price, and dates.

Most of the companies I’ve mentioned here also send weekly or monthly email newsletters with their current deals, both last-minute and otherwise. If you’re more than a casual adventure travel browser, it makes sense to identify the companies you like best and then subscribe to their deal newsletters. Some of my favorite newsletters are those from Adventure Center, ExpeditionTrips, G.A.P Adventures, GORP Travel, iExplore, Intrepid Travel, Mountain Travel Sobek, Responsible Travel, and Sherpa Expeditions.

NEXT >> Loyalty programs

Loyalty programs

Being loyal to one company often results in a past-guest discount. This is usually an automatic price reduction for taking multiple trips with the same company.

Vermont-based Country Walkers rewards repeat customers with a five-percent discount that kicks in once a traveler has taken two tours with the company. It can be combined with another five-percent discount for past guests who reserve a tour prior to December 15 of the year before they travel, for a total discount of 10 percent. “We actually encourage travelers to book in advance,” says Carolyn Fox, the company’s marketing and public relations director. Mountain Travel Sobek offers a similar 10-percent discount to its “best” customers if they book by the end of November for the next year’s trips.

Adventure Center’s loyalty program, AdventureSET, adds another wrinkle. It offers a five-percent discount on every trip for customers who’ve booked through the company four times, with additional “milestone” discounts of 10 percent for your tenth trip and 15 percent for your fifteenth trip. It also delivers a special members-only email, and extra discounts if you refer friends to an Adventure Center trip. You can sign up for AdventureSET before your fourth trip for a one-year membership fee of $45.

The iExplorer’s Club from iExplore is a free program that awards points for purchasing a trip, travel insurance, or airfare through iExplore. The points can then be turned into benefits and discounts.

Smaller companies offer discounts as well. I’ve taken multiple trips to the Swiss Alps with Alpinehikers, which gives a $200 discount to past guests.

NEXT >> Group and family discounts

Group and family discounts

Groups can often get special discounts on adventure travel tours. Classic Journeys, for example, offers a 25-percent discount on groups of six or more people booking together; one person can receive the discount, or it can be allocated evenly among the group. Similarly, Mountain Travel Sobek offers a group discount for seven or more people traveling together. ExpeditionTrips gives a five-percent discount for groups of eight or more.

Families with young children and teenagers can also catch a break with many adventure companies. Several outfitters offer itineraries (and prices) that cater to families, but even trips that aren’t designed exclusively for families can yield savings. For example, travelers ages eight to 18 get a 15-percent discount on many of The World Outdoors’ trips when accompanied by a full-paying adult.

NEXT >> What makes a deal?

What makes a deal?

Always ask yourself why a trip is discounted. Are you getting a great rate on that Antarctica trip because someone cancelled at the last-minute, or is it because it’s the off-season and the weather’s bad? Is that $500 Inca Trail trek so cheap because it’s with a local tour operator, or is the outfitter cutting corners and not including basic things like meals, camping equipment, or transfers?

The best deal is the one that gets you the trip you want at a price you’re comfortable paying. It’s not always the cheapest—frequently it’s the one with the best departure dates, or the best itinerary, or the best guides.

Still, there are times when price is the deciding factor. In those cases, one thing is more important than all the rest: “Be flexible,” says ExpeditionTrips’ Kristy Royce, “and be willing to travel at the last minute.” Good advice. After all, spontaneity is the very heart of adventure.

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