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How to choose an adventure travel tour operator

Adventure travel can be divided into three distinct categories: guided tours, self-guided tours, and independent trips. The latter two offer a large degree of independence, ranging from vacations that are entirely self-planned to trips that come with pre-booked accommodations, transportation, and route maps, but no supervision. But for those just discovering the adventure travel scene, guided tours are often the most sensible, and economical, option.

Why choose a guide?

If you’re planning a trip to an unfamiliar or unsafe area, are unsure of your fitness level, or don’t have the time or confidence to plan the entire route yourself, you should consider a guided tour.

Suppose you’re an inexperienced hiker who’s never been to Europe, let alone coordinated an inn-to-inn hiking trip following unknown and occasionally unmarked trails. You’ll need to spend countless hours of research and route planning, then book accommodations for each night along the way. But the usual technique of using the Web to book a hotel or B&B may not work, because many off-the-beaten path places don’t have websites or online booking. And then there’s luggage to deal with. How prepared are you to carry two week’s worth of clothes and supplies strapped to your back?

This is where a guided adventure tour can save you hundreds of dollars and endless hours of pre-trip planning. The experience is generally smoother all around because most trips include meals, lodging, luggage transfers, and knowledgeable guides.

How to choose

It’s important to be aware of the cost differential between larger tour operators and smaller companies. Troy Haines, the owner and operator of Switzerland-focused Alpinehikers, says, “There is a huge difference in price among tour companies. Alpinehikers is run out of a home office by one person, who also does the guiding, advertising, website work, and answers the phone. A larger company, by contrast, has much higher advertising and operating costs because there are more people involved in every step.” In other words, the price differential often reflects steeper overhead costs, not the quality of the trip itself.

If you know you want to take an active vacation, but you’re not sure where to go or even how to start, begin by searching major sites like iExplore, Gorp, and to get ideas. These sites allow you to sort trip ideas by destination, duration, cost, skill level, and group size. Once you have a sense of the type of trip you’d like to take, Google additional operators with similar packages who may not have paid to be listed on the major adventure travel sites.

After identifying a few potential operators, there are several important questions to ask:

  • What is the maximum group size? Smaller groups feel more intimate and less like a traditional tour, whereas larger groups offer more options to mingle with likeminded travelers.
  • How experienced are the guides? Do they have a particular expertise about the area, or is their main responsibility to lead the group from point A to point B?
  • What is included in the trip: Meals? Transportation? Luggage transfers?
  • What types of accommodations are included?
  • How strenuous are the activities, and what are the options for different skill levels?
  • What is the company’s cancellation policy if a trip doesn’t fill up?

Additionally, you’ll want to ask for references. “Recommendations are bound to be good, but there’s a definite difference between one that’s qualified good and one that’s effusively enthusiastic,” says Haines. “People don’t ask me for references nearly often enough.”

Finally, compare the bang-for-your-buck factor between the different operators. A provider that charges more than a competitor doesn’t guarantee a better experience. Find out where your money is being spent, and then choose the one that offers the best value.

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