How to Choose the Right Tour Operator for Your Next Epic Trip

Some of the most memorable trips are difficult to organize on your own. But before you put your next vacation in the hands of a company, make sure you know how to find the right one for you.

How to Choose the Right Tour Operator for Your Next Epic Trip

Skip the planning and logistics on your next bike trip and book with a company like Backroads instead.

Photo by Brenda Ernst/Backroads

Do you dream of cycling through Tuscany or witnessing a traditional shikhat dance in Morocco, yet don’t have the time to plan the trip yourself? No need to worry; there’s an entire segment of the travel industry that can manage the logistics for you. All you’ll need to do is show up with a sense of curiosity and an appreciation of new experiences.

Organized trips are increasingly popular partly because it’s difficult to create itineraries for an adventure trip, to a remote destination, or with certain cultural experiences on your own. And Shannon Stowell, CEO of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), reports that the demand for adventure travel—defined as a trip that includes a two of the following three aspects: connection with nature, interaction with culture, and physical activity—is increasing by 20 percent each year: “People are more interested in experiences through their travel these days. Adventure travel engages with the deepest part of ourselves.”

Choosing to work with a travel company or tour operator removes the stress and guesswork, allowing you to relax and enjoy the experience.

Getting started

Parse the options

It’s probably best to begin with a few definitions, as navigating the options for organized group travel can be overwhelming. In general:

  • A tour operator curates the various components of a trip—activities, accommodations, meals—into one bookable package, usually with set departure dates, to sell to travelers.
  • Tour outfitters typically create and organize custom trips, guided or not, for private groups.
  • Travel companies have a broader scope and do a little bit of everything.

To further complicate matters, safaris, which you almost always have to book through a company, form a subcategory of these kinds of trips. Book with a safari outfitter, and your custom wildlife-viewing itinerary may include multiple lodges, sometimes in different countries. You can also book your entire trip with a single safari lodge—also called a game lodge—which provides activities and game drives close to the property.

In the past, each option had distinct offerings, but the lines have blurred as the industry grows, allowing most organizations to expand their services. For example, MT Sobek, a tour operator that’s well known for its backcountry wilderness group trips, now offers custom trips in the Americas, in addition to its scheduled departures.

Companies like Discover Outdoors offer day trips, so you can test out a new adventure activity before booking a big trip.

Companies like Discover Outdoors offer day trips, so you can test out a new adventure activity before booking a big trip.

Courtesy of Discover Outdoors

Identify your priorities Once you’ve got the definitions down, Richard Weiss, a principal at Strategic Travel Consulting and former COO of Backroads and CEO of MT Sobek, recommends travelers clarify their priorities before they begin.

What destination do you want to visit? Are you traveling with a group of family or friends and want a trip designed especially for you? Are you open to a group tour with people you don’t know, or would you rather do a self-guided tour? Do you want an active trip? What level of luxury do you want? These questions will help narrow down the companies and itineraries that may interest you.

If you’re considering an adventure trip, Stowell suggests that you be honest with yourself about your fitness level and be sure you like the activity before booking. He says, “It’s always wise to try an activity, like hiking or biking, before you sign up for that big trip. Don’t worry if you aren’t an expert. A good adventure trip with good guides can increase your stamina, skill, and enjoyment.” REI, Discover Outdoors, and local adventure companies often offer day trips or introductory classes, which are good opportunities to test a new activity.

Do the research

Start by asking friends for their recommendations; they can tell you about companies with which they’ve traveled and share pictures and details about their experience. Other trusted sources such as favorite travel magazines and websites can point you in the right direction too. Google is a handy search tool, but remember, advertising dollars affect which companies show up first. Online searches can also help you find travel associations, like the ATTA, with member companies that are likely vetted and reliable.

Narrow your short list

Read the website right

When perusing a potential company’s website, look for information about the languages spoken on trips, as well as the destinations the company specializes in and how long it has operated in each: A longer tenure often shows that the company has the expertise to create unique experiences for its guests. Monica Price, co-owner of ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours, suggests travelers read the day-to-day itineraries for trips, as these “should paint a picture of what it will be like on the trip so you can think through if that is what you hope to get out of a vacation.”

Perhaps most importantly, the site will indicate the organization’s overall travel philosophy. Price notes, “In addition to the services offered, make sure the company matches with how you want to travel.” A website’s “About” section will introduce you to the key people in the organization, including, hopefully, the guides—tour guides can make or break a trip!

A good tour guide can make all the difference on a trip; it’s always a good sign if staff members are mentioned by name in a company’s reviews.

A good tour guide can make all the difference on a trip; it’s always a good sign if staff members are mentioned by name in a company’s reviews.

Courtesy of Angama Mara

Nicky Fitzgerald, founder and CEO of Angama Mara and former executive of &Beyond, also recommends reviewing the “About” page, particularly when booking a safari outfitter or lodge. She says, “Everyone has photos of a plunge pool, a lion, and a pretty vista. Instead, what’s the feeling you get from the site? Do they feature their guides? Do they contribute to community programs?” She also recommends travelers look at TripAdvisor and similar sites but ignore the star ratings: “Look at how many times the staff’s names are mentioned or thanked. Look at how the lodge responds to comments. Is it personalized or a ‘cut and paste’ answer?”

Check safety training and procedures

The most important thing about any trip is safety because there is always some inherent risk in travel. A company’s safety and training guidelines are likely posted on its website, but Weiss says it’s worth checking to be sure guides are trained in basic first aid. He also cautions, “The more adventurous the trip, the less important basic first aid is. Instead, you’ll want to ask about what facilities the company has for evacuations in emergencies.”

Before you decide

Reach out and ask questions

You’ll be relying on whichever company you choose to create the vacation you want, so it’s important you feel confident in its team members and comfortable with how they communicate with you. Talk with them, ask them all your questions.

Weiss says one of the benefits of working with an operator, outfitter, or company is that it has access to hard-to-find experiences, so he suggests asking, “What highlights are on the trip that we wouldn’t see if we went on our own?” Also, ask if the guide leading the trip has special training or expertise in the area.

In Africa and around the world, sustainable travel is becoming more and more important; do a little research to make sure the company you travel with shares your values.

In Africa and around the world, sustainable travel is becoming more and more important; do a little research to make sure the company you travel with shares your values.

Photo by Rumit Mehta

Ask questions that will help you ensure that a company’s values align with your own. For example, if sustainability is important to you, Steve Barker, board chair of the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund and cofounder of the luggage company Eagle Creek, recommends researching the environmental status of your destination and how engaged the community is with the growth of its tourism. Then you can inquire about how a potential operator fits in to this landscape. Rumit Mehta, founder of Immersion Journeys, recommends asking outfitters who they work with and why, particularly for safaris. He says, “It is increasingly important for Africa specialists to work with properties that have a deep conservation credo to make sure the ecosystem, which supports both the animals and the local communities, remains.”

If you’re on a scheduled departure, Weiss recommends asking about the group composition, including the age range of the participants, as well as how many people on the trip already know each other. It’s a particularly useful query for those traveling alone: “Typically, group trips are filled by people with similar interests, so solo travelers will likely make new friends,” Weiss says.

Solo travelers will also want to ask about single supplement charges. Traveling alone can mean a higher room cost, and Price says, “Some companies pass that total room cost on to the guest. Others don’t. Many will waive the fee if you are willing to share a room with someone of the same gender.”

And both Weiss and Price advise travelers to ask about fitness level requirements and mobility needs of a trip and discuss dietary restrictions.

Request references

Finally, don’t hesitate to ask to speak with people who have been on the trip before. Price says, “Of course, companies will give you their biggest fans, but those customers can truthfully provide information and answer questions from a traveler’s perspective.”

While it may seem like this research is a lot of work, it will result in a better vacation. And once you hit book, your job is done, and you get to enjoy your trip while someone else handles all the logistical headaches.

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