No matter whether you are holidaying in South East Asia, Africa, Australia or anywhere else in the world, many destinations are now saturated with tourism product. Whether it be choosing a hotel, resort, evening entertainment or, as will be discussed in this article, a guided tour, travellers are now spoiled by an incredible amount of choice. Picking the right guided tour can be particularly tricky, and the differences between products aren’t always obvious.
However, when it comes to choosing a guided tour, making the right decision is particularly important; And the longer the tour, the more crucial becomes your decision. After all, you are putting yourself in the hands of a tour company that will be guiding you and will be responsible for your well being, your experiences and, most importantly, your safety on tour.
Choosing a guided tour made easier!
While you will never know what exactly a tour will be like until you take part in it, there is a number of factors that you can check before booking. This will significantly increase the chance that you will receive a quality product that fulfils your expectations.
1. Tour Operator or Travel Agency?
Many travel agents, online and offline, sell guided tours, leading the customer to believe that they were their own products. In fact, they are simply acting as an agent and selling a tour operator’s products. This is not necessarily a bad thing, provided that the agent is giving you accurate information about your chosen trip. However, this is not always the case. Many tour operators have issues with customers coming on tour ill-prepared, because they have not been given crucial information about the trip by the travel agent. Even worse, travellers experience disappointments because a trip was inaccurately described to them, or because add- on products where falsely described as inclusions, leaving the guest with unexpected extra expenses on tour. Because an agent becomes an extra layer in the communication process, misunderstandings or incomplete information become more likely. To avoid any issues, only book with an agent that you completely trust and verify their information. Even better, book directly with the tour operator if you can. It could save you a lot of trouble, and they might be able to offer you better rates or specials. Ultimately, you can get the most accurate information from the provider directly and get responses to any questions faster.
2. Check the Tour Operator’s Accreditations
A good way to verify the trustworthiness of a tour operator is by checking their accreditations. Most countries have national tourism accreditation schemes and while it can be a bit harder to verify their validity in destinations like South East Asia, it is possible. Believe me, I have done so myself, and have had great tour experiences in both Thailand and Vietnam. It took a little longer to figure out which company to go with, and, admittedly, I had to pay more than you would for dodgy operators. But after all, I felt safe, had great experiences and learned a lot about the destinations, while being treated to the most delicious freshly prepared food. After all, you get what you pay for…
In Australia, the national ATAP accreditation scheme (the round green symbol with a yellow tick) assures you that an operator has gone through a thorough accreditation process. Throughout the process, the operator is required to outline their business plan, their customer service policy, their safety and security measures and what they do to insure that their business is ecologically and socially sustainable, amongst others. They need to provide proof of any required insurance policies and employment schemes, as well as guaranteeing that their marketing strategies are accurately presenting their products.
Further accreditations are available In Australia, for example the eco tourism certificate. They give businesses the opportunity to show that they are taking steps beyond minimum guidelines. However, each accreditation process costs time and money, therefore not every small operator may have the capacity to participate. That does not mean that a tour operator doesn’t have their own company policies in place. If you are curious about particular aspects, just ask them!
3. Compare Tour Itineraries carefully
One of the most important aspects when booking a tour is the tour itinerary and the activities included in your trip. Before booking a tour, you should always carefully read the itinerary to ensure you are getting bang for your buck. Checking itineraries can also help you to compare different providers that might, at first sight, seem very similar. When booking with an agent, make sure they provide you with the relevant itinerary as well.
There are a number of things you should pay special attention to when reading and comparing itineraries. Firstly, what is included in the tour price? Will you get three meals a day and some snacks and potable water during your tour, or will you need to purchase some of your own food and drinks? Particularly in popular tourism destinations, having to purchase your own provisions can quickly add up to considerable extra expenses. If you are on a special diet, check if the operator can cater for you. Also find out what activities are included, and what is labelled as “optional”. Optional often means at your own expense. If activities are not included, and you do not wish to undertake them, check what alternative activity is offered for you, so that you do not end up just waiting around for other group members that take part in the activity.
Most importantly, look out for so called “free days” or free time. Many operators will include free days in their itinerary where they will simply drop you off some place or let you explore a location at your own initiative from your accommodation. While this can be a welcome break on a longer trip, where you can relax and maybe do some laundry etc., free days should be reflected in the tour price. You might not get any meals on free days, or breakfast only, and you will not receive any guiding services. Therefore if a tour is advertised as a 10 day tour, but two days are free days, it is really an eight day tour and the tour price should be set accordingly compared to other eight day tours in the area. Similar to free days, some companies also include the arrival and departure days before and after the tour in the tour length- again, this could be seen as misleading if not reflected in the pricing.
4. Check the Tour Guides
As covered in our recent blog The Importance of the Tour Guide for a quality experience, your tour guide is perhaps the most important aspect of your tour. They will insure your safety, provide you with interpretation of the destination and attractions, and will entertain you during long days of activities. Before you book a tour, try to find out what guide you will be travelling with, what experience and qualifications they have, and whether the tour operator undertakes guide training programs. Good tour operators only employ high quality guides that are trained in first aid and vehicle maintenance, as well as being good drivers and communicators. By training their own guides, operators guarantee a consistent quality experience for their customers. You can easily verify they quality of a company’s guides by checking their TripAdvisor ratings. Customers almost always comment on guides! If there are a number of negative comments and guiding quality is inconsistent, you might choose to stay clear of that operator. After all, the guide is responsible for your safety and is a major factor for the experience you are going to get.
5. Check Group Sizes
Last but not least, you should check the size of the group you will be travelling with. Don’t rely on terms such as “small group”, as there is no legal framework of how this term can be used by companies. Small group can often mean 15, 20 or even 30 group members, and I think most people would agree that this is not really a small group. If you are unsure of the group size (it can be hidden in the small print), check the vehicle you will be travelling in, or try to contact the provider directly. The group size is an important factor for your tour experience, and the smaller the ratio of guides to customers, the more personalised and flexible your experience is likely to be. You can imagine that, if a sole guide who is also driving the tour vehicle is required to look after 20 or 30 people, the personnel attention you are going to get will be minimal. While some people might be happy to travel in a large group, and possibly make many new friends, keep in mind that the group size also has an influence on a tour’s logistical aspects. Bigger groups in bigger vehicles are not always able to access all the attractions a destinations has to offer. More over, the bigger a group is, the more heterogeneous it will be, meaning that the guide will need to consider a variety of different needs and expectations when conducting the tour. This can often mean waiting for other group members to complete activities, increased waiting time when arriving and departing from an attraction, more time needed to prepare and serve meals, more stops to stock up supplies, less flexibility in adjusting activities to your wishes, and less opportunities to ask your questions about the destination. In a smaller group, logistics are less complex, which means that there will be less waiting time and more time to enjoy the destination. There will be more flexibility to adjust to the groups needs and expectations, and a more personalised interaction between group members and the tour guides and hosts.
All of these factors are important when choosing a guided tour. This might seem a lot to take in, but really, it is not rocket science. If possible, make direct contact with the tour operator to ensure you are getting accurate information about the tour you will be travelling on, and that you feel comfortable with the company. The most important thing is that you feel that you are getting honest information and that the tour operator is willing to reply to all of your concerns. If you feel like a company is beating around the bush or avoiding your questions, it probably means that something about their product is not right. If you keep in mind all of the factors above, choosing a guided tour should become much easier and you will be much more likely to receive the quality experience you are hoping and paying for.