Booking Trips Through a Tour Operator

by Kara on September 12, 2009

The first big trip Stephen and I took together was to go to Australia for our honeymoon. I booked the trip through United Airlines Vacations, which seemed just as good as anything else. After an excruciatingly long flight and a day of wandering around, we couldn’t wait to get a good night’s sleep on our first night in Sydney. No more than 10 minutes after our heads hit the pillows, a jackhammer started up outside the window. To be fair, neither United nor the hotel could control whether the city needed to do emergency work, but the fellow at the hotel certainly didn’t care and we didn’t have a contact we could call at United to ask about getting moved. We were definitely on our own, which normally isn’t a problem, but it never felt like anyone was looking out for us should a problem arise.

In contrast, when we went to Peru a few years later, we booked through a local company, Explorandes. When we were leaving the Amazon to fly to Cusco, we had a full day of delays. We finally got on a flight in the afternoon, but when the landing gear wouldn’t go up, they turned around and landed back at the same airport. When it became clear that we would not be going to Cusco that day, we wondered what the heck we were going to do. Suddenly, a representative of the Inkaterra lodge where we had been staying appeared and took the stranded travelers from our group to a hotel they had already booked for us. They made sure we were fed and arranged for us to get back to the airport first thing in the morning. It turned out that Explorandes and Inkaterra had been monitoring the situation all day and knew exactly who was able to make it to Cusco and who was stuck. We never had to call for help, they were already there. Even when things went wrong, Explorandes always made us feel like VIPs.

After our trip to Peru, I decided I would try to book trips through local (to our destination) companies whenever possible. We used another local company, Costa Rica Expeditions, when we went to Costa Rica, and had a similarly stellar experience. The guides the companies provided were excellent and during times when we were on our own, we still felt like we had someone we could call if we had any problems. Both those companies were recommended by friends. We also felt like the prices were very good. If you book through an American company, for example, they just end up booking portions of your trip with local tour operators and you pay a premium to book with the middleman company. Our upcoming trip to Bhutan was actually planned when we saw a listing for Village Tours and Treks in a Tours of a Lifetime article in the May/June 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler. This is the first time we have booked with a company we saw in a magazine, so we’ll see how it goes. So far the service has been great and very personalized. Bhutan is a little different in that the government mandates tour fees, and due to the federal oversight, tour companies there probably have a strong incentive to treat their customers very well.

For more urban trips (Hong Kong, Seoul) or U.S. trips, we usually handle all the arrangements ourselves. But for a rural destination about which we know very little, booking a trip through a local operator seems like the way to go.

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