Machu Picchu. The Pyramids of Egypt. Kilimanjaro. The Himalayas. More than just the domain of daredevils and globetrotting archeologists, these and other popular adventures are done every year by real travelers on real budgets. Cutting through the jungle of tour operators to get the best deals, though? That can be as hard as hiking the Inca Trail itself.
Just consider how many choices there are. Sure, that 200-page color brochure from Backroads may look good on your coffee table, but are you getting the best value for your money—or are you paying extra to fund next year’s catalog? And that ultra-cheap trip to Machu Picchu may look good to your bank account, but what are you really getting when you arrive in the jungle?
There are literally thousands of adventure travel outfitters the world over vying for your money. That can make it hard to pick the good ones from the bad, but it also means the competition produces some good bargains. This month, we’re highlighting the 10 adventures we think deliver the most value for your money. Some have eye-popping prices. Some cost a little more, but deliver a lot for your money. Each is a truly great bargain.
BEGIN >> Valley of the Kings, Egypt
Valley of the Kings, Egypt
The Egyptian Pyramids and the enigmatic Sphinx are two of the most enduring images of the ancient world. These wonders from another age have survived for thousands of years, and they’ve been visited by curious travelers for more than a century.
The modern tourism industry in Egypt supports travelers on a variety of budgets, and while everyone has a different definition of “reasonable,” Adventure Center’s 10-day, $550 “Nile Felucca Sailtrek” operated by the British outfitter Explore certainly gets our attention. This classic trip includes a visit to the Pyramids and Sphinx, three days on a traditional “felucca” boat sailing the Nile, visits to the temples of Karnak and Edfu, and a donkey trek to the Valley of the Kings.
What do you really get for $550, though? We were skeptical, too. “I was leery of joining a tour group for a vacation in Egypt,” says Patricia Frye, who ultimately chose the Adventure Center deal because of the price. “But the ‘tour’ was organized perfectly. When other groups were riding a big, boring bus to the Valley of the Kings, our group was riding donkeys up the steep mountain trails, and then we hiked down into the Valley of the Kings. We felt like ancient tomb robbers. It was a great experience.”
Adventure Center’s president, Trevor Saxty, explains, “We keep overheads low by avoiding lavish coffee table-style catalogs, and by working with outfitters who are seeking travelers worldwide, not just arranging trips for US-based participants. And 99 percent of our trips have no tier pricing or single supplements, therefore providing great value for solo travelers.”
“They’re serious about the word ‘adventure’ in their title,” adds Frye. “But the location of each hotel was perfect, and the price included all those annoying tips and entrance fees. I also liked the focus on ecology and respect for the local culture and traditions.”
The “Nile Felucca Sailtrek” includes five nights in hotels, three on the felucca boat, and one overnight train. Not all meals are included, and there’s a small local payment due when you arrive in Cairo. For more information or to book, visit Adventure Center’s website and enter “NF” in the “Trip Finder” box.
NEXT >> Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu, Peru
For more than a decade, the “Lost City of the Incas” has been the poster child for adventure travel. In fact, you could argue overexposure has tarnished its mystique. Tell that to the thousands of visitors who make the trek every year. Machu Picchu is still the definitive adventure for active travelers, and its rise in popularity as a destination has done wonders to make the experience affordable, if not as exclusive as it once was.
The World Outdoors’ seven-day “Machu Picchu Multi-Sport” package is an inn-based hiking, biking, and whitewater rafting adventure, and it gets our vote as the best bargain to Machu Picchu. Its $1,695 price tag puts it squarely in the middle of the pack price-wise, but consider what you get: all meals, bilingual hiking guides, city and cultural tours, all activities and necessary equipment, and the company’s “best value guarantee” that promises to refund the difference if you find a similar itinerary at a lower price after you book. Better yet, this is a way to explore a diverse cross-section of Peru that includes the Sacred Valley of the Incas, the Inca Trail, and the Amazon Rain Forest. The World Outdoors also offers a $1,695 hiking-only package that includes three nights of camping along the Inca Trail.
Because of its popularity, there’s no shortage of ways to see Machu Picchu. With that in mind, honorable mention goes to GAP Adventures’ nine-day “Inca Discovery Plus” trip, which costs $875 (plus a $200 local payment due upon arrival) and includes the famous multi-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu and a trip to the ruins of Ollantaytambo.
We should also mention LAN Vacations’ six-day “Machu Picchu Backpacker’s Special,” which starts at $959 per person. It’s one of the few packages to include airfare as well as local guides and accommodations; it features a combination train-and-bus trip to Machu Picchu, and would be the right pick if you want to see the ruins without really breaking a sweat.
NEXT >> Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
It’s the dream of almost every adventurer. Mount Kilimanjaro, the king of Africa, can be climbed in about six or seven days, and it can set you back anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 per person. So, imagine our surprise when we discovered Good Earth Tours & Safaris, which boasts a seven-day summit trek on the Marangu route for just $720 per person.
Too good to be true? Jason Bocarro, a 34-year-old traveler who lives in New Hampshire, wondered the same thing. “It’s definitely a lot cheaper when compared to others who are doing similar trips, and that did concern me at first,” he admits. “I wondered what corners they were cutting. But it ended up being great.” Bocarro climbed Kilimanjaro with his wife in July, and was impressed with the Good Earth Tours experience. “The guides have been with Good Earth for a number of years. They really cater to your needs and are very flexible. I would absolutely recommend them.”
Deb Gibson, a self-described “little old housewife” who wasn’t certain if she could make the climb, adds, “Their concern for my well-being was outstanding, and their price was far less than the big-name companies whose money comes back to the U.S. rather than staying in Tanzania. That’s a very important aspect for me.”
Good Earth’s prices and departure dates are guaranteed, each of its guides has at least five years experience, and the company contributes financial support to local community projects. Marangu is the easiest and most popular route to the summit. Other Kilimanjaro treks from Good Earth also range from seven to nine days and are available from $800 to $990 per person. Tips for the guides—an important part of the local economy—are not included in the trip prices. Good Earth provides customers with tipping guidelines prior to departure.
Visit Good Earth Tour’s website for more information.
NEXT >> Treasures of the North, Thailand
Treasures of the North, Thailand
Hilltop temples, elephant rides, Thai cooking classes, horse-drawn carriages, cycling, and 12th-century ruins await travelers to the north of Thailand. Intrepid Travel makes it affordable with small group trips that start at just $475 per person for seven days, plus an extra $180 or so for local payments and extra meals. Even then, the $655 price tag is a bargain by any estimation.
“Our whole trip structure is geared around value for money without losing the intimacy of small group travel,” notes Jacquie Burnside, Intrepid Travel’s Vice President, Sales and Marketing. “We involve the locals and keep the money at the local level, using small family-run guesthouses.”
Intrepid is headquartered in Australia and has offices in New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S. It gives each of its trips an activity rating that ranges from level one (easy) to level five (which includes treks of eight hours or more and are geared toward travelers in excellent physical condition). The “Treasures of the North” trip is rated level two, or moderate. Travelers need to be able to carry their own bags on and off trains and buses, and the itinerary includes some walks and a cycling excursion, but the focus here is on cultural exploration.
In fact, it isn’t just the price that caught our eye, although it’s among the lowest we’ve seen. What really grabbed our attention is the trip’s variety. None of the other itineraries we found offered Intrepid’s combination of price, activities, and small group size.
“It was amazing,” says Diana Carrick, a traveler from the U.K. who posted online comments about her “Treasures of the North” trip in February. “It was definitely back to basics but very much value for money. We made some new friends and our hosts at the home stay were inspirational.”
Most of Intrepid’s travelers come from Australia, New Zealand, and European countries. Only about eight percent are American. “It’s a good mix. We sell globally, and that leads to groups of like-minded individuals from around the world,” says Burnside.
If you’re the spontaneous type, Intrepid offers an “impulse” discount of 20 percent off regular trip prices for select departures with a short lead time. It’s perfect if you want to get out into the world and don’t have your heart set on a specific destination.
Visit Intrepid Travel’s website for more information.
NEXT >> Gates of Lodore, Green River, Western USA
Gates of Lodore, Green River, Western USA
The Green River runs through Dinosaur National Monument between Eastern Utah and Southern Colorado, and it must have been made for families or travelers looking for whitewater excitement without the extreme element. Couple that with exploratory hikes along the river shores, quiet beach camps, and some of the best scenery in the world—the renowned Gates of Lodore tower on either side through part of the journey—and you get one of the best moderate river excursions in the world, right here in our own back yard.
Whitewater outfitter O.A.R.S. has been operating trips since 1969, and by special arrangement with the National Park Service, it can run its Gates of Lodore trips at about 60 percent the cost of its average four- to five-day trips. “We can offer the same experience, scenery, service, and guide expertise as all of our other trips, but at a price that can’t be beat and happens to be considerably cheaper than our competition,” says Steve Markle, the company’s marketing director.
We checked Markle’s math, and he’s right. The price for O.A.R.S.’ Green River trip in 2006 is $635 per person, which includes transportation from the meeting point to the river, all expedition equipment, all meals, and the trip guides. This is $160 less than a similar trip offered by Holiday Expeditions, and about $85 cheaper than Sheri Griffith Expeditions’ outing when you factor in the cost of transportation to the river.
For more information about the Green River trip, visit the Colorado section of O.A.R.S.’ website.
NEXT >> Everest Base Camp Trek, Nepal
Everest Base Camp Trek, Nepal
“Marketing has caught up with adventure travel,” laments Brad Atwal, regional manager for trekking and adventure specialists World Expeditions. “More and more trips are being sold around price and hotel type rather than quality itineraries and sustainable travel practices.”
A quality itinerary is important when you’re planning to spend three weeks or more in the Himalayas on what may be the most popular adventure in the world: the Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal. World Expeditions operates a 20-day, $2,290 Himalayas trip that includes 15 days of trekking. Its closest competitor, Mountain Travel Sobek, runs a 22-day trip from $2,690.
What do you get for your money? The 22-day Mountain Travel Sobek trip counts two travel days flying to/from Katmandu as part of its itinerary, and it doesn’t include internal airfare to and from the mountains—an extra $220. The MTS trip also offers only 14 days of trekking. By comparison, you get more for your money from World Expeditions, and you pay about $620 less per person. Both companies have good reputations and offer excellent value, but here we give a slight edge to the World Expeditions trip.
“A number of major companies offered similar trips for $200 to $300 less,” says Joe Garrity, a 53-year-old traveler who trekked Nepal with World Expeditions. “Those other companies did it in about two to three days shorter time, though. My experience told me that a slower pace would yield a higher chance of a good experience. This allowed us to see and do things beyond what was on the itinerary.”
“We’re the only company in Nepal with a policy of providing mess tents, cooking equipment, food, and kerosene for all our porters,” adds Atwal. “This is a unique value component and also our way of staying committed to sustainable travel and giving back on every trip rather than just special fundraising trips.”
Garrity agrees. “I appreciated the way our lead guide treated our porter crew. You become part of an extended family, if only for a few weeks. But the memories of their warmth and kindness will last my lifetime.”
If you’re on a tighter budget, consider our Everest trip runner-up: Nepal Trailblazer Trekking & Travel’s “Classic Everest Trek.” This 24-day trip doesn’t come with the bells and whistles of the World Expeditions excursion, but at $850 to $1,370 per person (depending on group size), it runs anywhere from $900 to $1,400 cheaper. And that’s a bargain any way you look at it.
NEXT >> The Grand Tour, France and Switzerland
The Grand Tour, France and Switzerland
The mountain culture that first developed adventure travel in Europe—in spirit, if not in name—has been with us since at least the 1700s. That’s when tourists first began coming to the Swiss, French, and Italian Alps on what was then known as “The Grand Tour.” Today, many adventure outfitters are recreating that classic route for modern travelers who want a taste of luxury along with their outdoor adventures.
Oregon-based Alpinehikers’ 11-day luxury “Grand Tour” trip visits three classic alpine villages in the Mont Blanc, Jungfrau, and Matterhorn ranges. Each day features strenuous mountain hikes, while each night ends at a four- or five-star hotel and features multi-course local specialties for dinner. Cheese fondue, anyone?
“The guides were great, the hikes were beautiful, the hotels and food were four-star, and we just happened to have a phenomenal group of fellow travelers on our trip,” says Peggy Wiley of Palo Alto, California, who went on the Alpinehikers “Grand Tour” trip with her husband and teenage children. “And since our group had two guides, we could split up into a fast group and a not-so-fast group.”
Alpinehikers’ “Grand Tour” comes in two varieties: a self-guided version with a 2005 price of $2,890 that includes accommodations, trail maps, meals, and luggage transfers; and a guided trip for $3,995 that features the services of two experienced mountain guides and the company of other travelers. By contrast, active travel outfitter Backroads charges $3,498 for a comparable five-night luxury trip that’s half as long as the Alpinehikers version.
Why the price difference? You’re paying for a name with Backroads or Abercrombie. “Alpinehikers doesn’t have nearly the overhead that these other companies have,” notes Wiley. “Consequently, the daily cost of the trips is lower, and the groups are also about half the size of the larger companies that frequently have 20 to 30 people on a trip.”
Alpinehikers’ Bernese Oberland trips also deserve a mention. These feature moderate three-star inns in some of the most picturesque portions of the Swiss Alps. The company’s 2005 prices ranged from $1,190 for a six-day self-guided trip to $2,695 for a 10-day guided version. “This is our signature trip,” says Troy Haines, Alpinehikers’ owner and guide.
For more information on these trips, visit the Alpinehikers website.
NEXT >> Forbidden City and The Great Wall, China
Forbidden City and The Great Wall, China
China may be a land of mystery to the West, but there’s no mystery when it comes to getting real bang for your buck on your trip there. The cultural and active travel specialists at iExplore pack a lot into their 10-day “China Silver” package. The trip begins in Beijing and ends in Shanghai; in between, you experience Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Xi’an’s terracotta warriors, and a three-day cruise along the Yangtze River that includes shore excursions to see the Ghost City of Fengdu and the cliff coffins at Shennong Stream.
Cathryn Rheiner of Dallas, Texas, traveled to China on an iExplore trip with her husband and two teenage children. “I do a lot of research before I book a trip,” she says. “I compared the number of cities, type of hotels, number of tours and meals, and I found that iExplore had the right itinerary at the right price,” she says. “And the trip was exactly as advertised. They even threw in a few extras.”
At $2,599 for March or November departures ($2,699 the rest of the year), the iExplore package doesn’t strive to be the cheapest available. Instead, it offers a balance between moderate price and four-star quality for travelers looking for a reasonable price with above-average perks. “What really sets our trips apart is that you get trusted, tailor-made itineraries designed for the independent traveler,” says iExplore’s Michelle Browning. “On many trips, we can customize itineraries based on special customer needs.”
On the other end of the spectrum, budget travelers looking for an extended trip in China should consider Intrepid Travel’s “Wild China” package. This 15-day adventure follows the reverse route—Shanghai to Beijing—but includes many of the same highlights, such as the terracotta warriors and the Great Wall. It costs $1,145 and is the right choice if you’re more interested in discovery than luxury.
NEXT >> Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho, USA
Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho, USA
There’s no shortage of companies that will take you down the legendary Middle Fork of the Salmon River, famous for its 100 miles of rapids and rugged scenery through Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. You have to look harder to find a company that will really take you beyond the river, though, with side trips for hiking, fishing, and visiting waterfalls, hot springs, and native pictographs—not to mention nationally recognized gourmet campfire cuisine.
Rocky Mountain River Tours fits that description, and this owner-operated outfitter has another thing going for it, too. “We haven’t raised our rates since 2000,” notes Rocky Mountain’s Dave Mills. “Our most exciting and cheapest trips in 2006 last four days and cost $995. It’s high water for adults in shape only, no kids.”
That’s good news for whitewater adventurers looking for real adrenaline-pumping adventure and a good bargain. Rocky Mountain River Tours’ longer six-day trips range from $1790 to $1995, depending on seasonality, and are slightly more than O.A.R.S.’ similar trips. But with Rocky Mountain you can also opt for an in-between length trip of five days for $1,495.
“We couldn’t have asked for anything better,” says Donna Geisler, a 47-year-old marketing professional who rafted the Middle Fork earlier this year. “The trip was an excellent value, especially considering that for one price you get an entire vacation. The incredible food is prepared and served in a gorgeous setting along the banks of the Middle Fork. Every night the scenery changes, but the meals are always fabulous.”
For more information on the Salmon River rafting adventures, visit the Rocky Mountain River Tours website.
NEXT >> North Island, New Zealand
North Island, New Zealand
“Epic” doesn’t begin to describe the varied terrain and awesome backdrops that inspired Peter Jackson to build his vision of Middle-earth right into the New Zealand landscape itself. Jackson also knew that his Lord of the Rings trilogy would be cheaper to film by going local, and if you’re heading to New Zealand for your next adventure you should borrow a page from his book as well: Look to the locals for the best prices—and avoid the biggest tour operators while you’re at it.
The average price we found for American and Europe-based outfitters, and for the bigger Kiwi-based companies offering guided hiking trips, was somewhere around $2,000 per person. That’s too steep, and we knew we could do better. Enter Hiking New Zealand and its 10-day trek through the volcanic and rainforest areas of the North Island. The “Volcanoes & Rainforest” trip runs for about $788 per person, with a maximum group size of 11 people, and it’s a real hiking adventure that will immerse you in some of the world’s best wilderness.
Hiking New Zealand keeps its costs down by cutting the frills and focusing on the experiences. “Clients are fully involved with the running of the trip, from helping cook meals to putting up tents and collecting firewood,” says Mark Brabyn, the company’s founder and director. “The main thing is that you enjoy hiking and are keen to pitch in.”
Hiking New Zealand’s clients tend to be between 25 and 40 years old, and there’s a healthy mix of Australian, European, and North American travelers in their groups. The company has won New Zealand Tourism’s Awards for Service to the Environment, Best Adventure Operator, and Best Eco-Tourism Operator. It has donated more than $40,000 toward conservation causes.
Visit Hiking New Zealand’s website for more information on the “Volcanoes & Rainforest” trip.