What do you think of when you hear “adventure tour”? Rugged hikes and pitching a tent that you’ve carried for 10 miles? Or a walk in the woods and then some wine by a fire pit before retiring to an air-conditioned suite? There are options for everyone, but they require different levels of involvement and money.
Over the years, I have attended quite a few adventure travel conferences, for the world and for Mexico specifically, so I’ve learned a lot about how this industry works. I’m also one of the few people around who has gone on adventure travel trips in almost every manner possible, from shoestring backpacker to the way the millionaires travel. (Not because I am the latter, but because I’m a travel writer doing articles for those readers sometimes.)
Here are the options to consider for booking your own adventure, from least expensive to the most costly, with the pros and cons. Most people don’t do just one of these their whole lives and never vary it, so keep an open mind if you’re not in the exact same situation with time vs. money that you were 20 or 30 years ago.
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. (These come and go, so do your homework.) They have informative websites and English-speaking staffers.
The same applies in most countries across the world. 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.
Where this gets tricky though is multi-country trips, especially in Africa or less-developed regions like the Balkans in Europe, where transportation across borders is not always straightforward.
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, perhaps lower liability insurance coverage.
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 specialist agencies are fairly well-known, they’ve figured out the value of SEO, and they get shout-outs in the major travel magazines. So with a bit of legwork, it’s usually easy to figure out the top two or three players.
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. REI runs a range of adventure tours, for example.
The reason to book with one of these companies is 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 only does small ship cruises, one phone call can get everything sorted for you. If a company is in northern Argentina and does nothing but book Salta region tours, you can assume they know the country inside and out and will be using guides who are the best in the area.
Pros: Specialized knowledge about an area or activity, ability to answer all questions, quick filtering by needs.
Cons: Personalized trips can be expensive and it sometimes requires some digging to find the best providers.
Book Through a budget tour company
There are other tours with well-known international brands that cater to younger and less wealthy travelers than the high-end players. The best-known worldwide ones are GAP Adventures, Intrepid, and Contiki. 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 fresh truffles or not.
People who take these tours a lot like them for the camaraderie 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 too. They’re well-organized, save you countless hours of planning time, and won’t require half your life savings to go. Some trips are under $200 per day after airfare.
Pros: Reasonably priced, more attuned to local culture, more eco-friendly.
Cons: Rougher travel, no gourmet meals, less hand-holding in the planning than with higher-end tours.
Book adventure tours 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 Adventures, and Butterfield & Robinson. These companies will coddle you, make all your arrangements, spoon-feed you preparation info, and ensure you have the trip of a lifetime. If something goes wrong, they’ll fix it. If you’re a high-maintenance person, they are used to your type and will endure your diva demands with a smile–as long as you’re willing to pay asking price.
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. Just understand that 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, more retirees than 40-somethings or younger.
Of course there is one last option: buy everything you need for an adventure expedition and arrange it all yourself. The heartier the adventure though, the less sense this makes and may be downright dangerous. For the Appalachian Trail, no problem. Kayaking down a river hardly anyone else has navigated, with tents and sleeping mats strapped on? Maybe not so smart.
What’s been your experience with adventure tour bookings?