How do you best choose a travel company for your expensive (and possibly once-in-a-lifetime) Himalayan adventure tour? What constitutes REAL value, and a high quality experience? There are many variables to consider. Having been a paying client on over a dozen Himalayan tours with nearly every major American tour company – and now running my own specialized Himalayan tour company – I’ve closely observed the industry from both perspectives – the client’s and the travel agent’s.
This “TOP 4″ list represents my own observations and opinions, gleaned from over 20 years of Himalayan touring experience.
1. THE ITINERARY: Who designed the itinerary? Do they know the area intimately, from years of first-hand experience? Have they created a program that includes the obvious “main attractions”, but also brings you deeper into the culture, to explore the more intimate and lesser-known aspects of the place – the things the average tourist will never see or experience? Is this a standard template, “cookie-cutter” itinerary, or is it an inspired, creative and diverse program?
How many full days will you spend IN COUNTRY? One of the most common gimmicks in the travel industry is to advertise a “14 day tour” of Bhutan or Nepal, etc. – but that includes the travel days spent getting to – and from – the actual destination. Look closely, and often you will see that 4 or more of those days are spent in transit (2 in each direction), and that in fact the “14 day Bhutan tour” offers only 9 days in-country. Those other four days are entirely at your own expense (long flights, transit hotels and meals, etc.) and it’s simply misleading to add them to the total “Tour Dates” count.
2. GROUP SIZE: “Large Group Adventure Travel” is an oxymoron. Groups of 16,20, 25 or more are cattle drives, not genuine cultural experiences. How can you interact in a meaningful way with the local people if you are always part of a moving swarm, being disgorged by a convoy of busses at one “point of interest” after another? Groups this large do not represent fair value to each individual client, and they are intrusive and overwhelming to the local peoples in their small villages, neighborhood temples and monasteries, etc.
For your money, you deserve a reasonable client-to leader ratio, with 8:1 – 12:1 being ideal. This is best for you, but also most considerate of the local people. Small-group tours are more mobile, flexible, and intimate – and vastly improve the quality of the experience for everyone involved – clients, leader, staff and the folks you’ve travelled half-way around the world to interact with!
3: GROUND STAFF: The fact is, the company marketing your tour is rarely the same company actually providing the ground services. All major American and European adventure travel companies sub-contract the ground operations (logistics) to a local company in the country the tour is taking place.
Whether the ground staff is Bhutanese, Nepalese, Ladakhi, or Tibetan, they must be very carefully chosen by the American company to guarantee a level of service and attention to detail that the client expects and deserves. Ideally, there is a close partnership and continual dialog between the American tour designer (and in my case, tour leader, as well) and the ground staff. Of course, the quality of meals, accommodations and vehicles are essential. SENIOR GRADE GROUND STAFF will have years of experience working with foreign visitors, be fully conversant in English and be well-versed in the history, religion and politics of their country. Ideally, they are well-traveled themselves, and can relate to YOUR world as well as their own. The very best ground staff are so familiar with the needs and expectations of the clients that they don’t merely REACT to a certain need, but ANTICIPATE it in advance.
4: COST AND VALUE: Low cost and value are not necessarily the same – or the same for each client type. In the age of the Internet, one can easily comparison shop by price for a tour nearly anywhere in the world. However the lowest dollar amount spent (per day, in-country) will rarely yield the best true VALUE, because of all the variables I’ve mentioned above. These variables are intangible before the tour – but critically important to the quality of the experience during the tour. The best source of reliable and relevant information is to talk with past clients who’ve taken a similar tour, and with the same company you’re considering. That company should be more than willing to put you in direct contact with their past clients.
For a travel company, small group tours are inherently more expensive to operate, as their baseline “fixed costs” for staff and vehicles don’t change much whether there are 6 or 12 people on the tour. It is also far more expensive to fly an American tour leader over to Asia than to use an entirely native ground staff. I insist on both – small group sizes of 12 or less, and I personally lead every group tour, working in close partnership with our local ground staff. Even with these added operational expenses, we are still competitively priced in relationship to the other top-tier U.S. – based Himalayan tour companies. How can we do this? All will be explained in the next blog post!