I’m attending a conference in October for the Adventure Travel Trade Association, reporting on the industry of adventure travel and looking for new story ideas. And yes, this is a real industry, one that a study estimated to be generating $89 billion per year just in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America. That’s serious money.
Here are the options for booking your own adventure, from least expensive to the most costly, with the pros and cons.
Book your adventure with a local tour company
This is what most long-term budget travelers do, just because they’re already there and are used to setting things up this way. Some tours are so common, and are so popular, that there is really no point in booking it with an agency in your home country anyway. One of the most obvious examples is the Inca Trail in Peru, where you can shave half your costs or more by booking with an agency located in Cusco such as Peru Treks or Q’ente. They have informative websites and English-speaking staffers. If you have the time to do the research and the booking legwork, you will save a significant amount by booking a Nepal rafting tour with a company in Kathmandu or a Costa Rica rafting run with a company in Fortuna. For some less crowded tours, you can just show up a day or two ahead and book it in person, with a local eye on the weather.
Pros: Far less expensive, no middleman, with often the same level of guides.
Cons: More potential problems if something goes wrong, less ability to book with a credit card, occasionally more potential language barriers.
Seek out a specialist agency
While some tour companies tend to “do it all,” many other excellent tour companies only operate in one specific region or have a specific adventure specialty. These can be based in the U.S. (such as Backroads for biking/hiking and OARS for whitewater rafting and kayaking) or based in the region where they operate, but do all most of their marketing in North America and Europe. Many times the best ones are listed in annual “destination specialist” round-ups in the major travel magazines. Local outdoor gear and luggage retailers often arrange tours as well, whether it’s international ones offered by a chain retailer or regional adventure tours set up by a local shop.
The reason to book with one of these companies that they really know their stuff. If an organization does nothing but book bicycle tours in Europe, you know your tour is probably going to go off without a hitch. If a company is in Nicaragua and does nothing but book Nicaragua tours, you can assume they know the country inside and out and will be using guides who know their stuff.
Pros: Specialized knowledge about an area or activity, ability to answer all questions.
Cons: Personalized trips can be expensive and it sometimes requires some digging to find these providers.
Book Through a budget tour company
There are other null with well-known brands that cater to younger and less wealthy travelers than the high-end players. The best-known worldwide ones are GAP Adventures, Intrepid, and Djoser. With these tours you travel closer to the ground, often using public transportation and staying in smaller, locally owned lodging.Your adventure guides on location may be the same ones the more expensive companies are using, however; the difference is in the level of pampering. The focus is usually more on sustainability and authenticity than whether your chef is using truffle oil or not.
People who take these tours a lot like them for the camraderie and having a built-in group of people to hang out with. Since you can often join up as a single without a huge supplement, they’re good for travelers who can’t manage to drag their friend/spouse/significant other along.
Pros: Reasonably priced, more attuned to local culture, more eco-friendly.
Cons: Rougher travel, no gourmet meals, more independent action required in preparation.
Book Through a branded high-end tour company
If money is no object and your planning time is limited, the best bet may be to book through a professional tour company with a long history and a good reputation. (Or if your rich uncle is springing for it, raise your hand and say, “I’m in!”) These are the companies you see featured in magazines and adventure websites, the ones with strong brand names, with tours that cover the world. Examples include Geographic Expeditions; Abercrombie & Kent; Cox & Kings; Austin-Lehman Adventures, Butterfied & Robinson; Mountain Sobek, and Blue Parallel. These companies will coddle you, make all your arrangements, spoon-feed you preparation info, and ensure you have the trip of a lifetime.
They can afford to hire the best available guides and you’ll stay at the best hotels in the area. Meals will be excellent and everyone will speak your language. Your fellow travelers will often be older on these tours: seniors frequently have more money accumulated and they put more of a value on comfort.
Pros: Everything is easy, accommodations will be great, and they will take care of you in style.
Cons: Most expensive option, sometimes dates are limited.
Postscript – The last method is to just go it alone. Arrive, hire a guide, rent or bring equipment, and rent a vehicle. For hardy explorers…
What’s been your experience with adventure tours?