Welcome to the last part of “Travel on the Cheap week!”  People reading this who aren’t the least bit interested in travel, I apologize!  I had to get my travel junkie-ness out of my system.

So, back to the post…What did the title just read?

Skip Contiki, Gap Adventures, and Intrepid? But aren’t those considered budget tours?

If you’re trying to have a tour that is seamless, worry free, and want someone to talk to here (assuming you’re in North America) then the above tour companies are for you.  However, if you would still like the convenience and hassle free traveling of a tour, AND you want to save a few bucks, think about cutting the middle man.

You heard me, cut the middle man out.

Gap Adventures and Intrepid Tours although are great pioneers of eco-tourism and sustainable traveling, they do use local tour companies from the travel destination to show you around.  They charge about double the price of what you would find if you went directly with a local tour company.

When I went to Peru with Gap Adventures, we were shown around by a tour guide who was from Cusco and knew the sights well.  It was a great trip.  During the trip, a small part of me couldn’t help but wonder how much cheaper it would be if I had shown up in Cusco, waltzed into the tour shops in the square and booked a tour through a local tour company.

Not only would the local tour company get a much bigger cut than if they were dealing with a North American tour company, you would be able to shop around and choose a tour company that you feel comfortable with.

Well, curiosity killed the cat… I asked how much it was for the same Inca Trail trek and found out it was about 70% cheaper than what I had paid for.

What cost 70% more?  Hmm, lets see:

  • Employees from Gap Adventures and Intrepid or Geckos (from your international tour guide to the customer service reps…)
  • Internet and social media maintenance
  • Advertising (and those awesome “Win a trip to Spain/Morocco/Istanbul contests!)
  • Rent in various cities that their travel stores are located in
  • Those beautiful beautiful brochures that they make every year, which entices you into wanderlust
  • Canadian and US or Australian or New Zealand taxes

Another plus to using a local tour company is that sometimes you can customize your itinerary with them.  You tell them what you want to see, and they quote you a price. You could also have a semi-private tour too, so you wouldn’t have to deal with annoying personalities on your tour.

To book with a reliable local tour company, I would recommend:

  1. Going on TripAdvisor and seeing what tour companies other travelers recommend (though be careful, sometimes Trip Advisor has phony ‘travelers’ who are really from the designated country who recommend their own tour company- usually you can tell if their written English isn’t particularly up to snuff).  You can also go to the Thorntree Lonely Planet travel forum for good information.
  2. Reading your Lonely Planet or Rough Guide to see which tour companies they recommend
  3. Contacting all the tour companies recommended (email is great that way!) and checking their website and asking for three references
  4. For me, if their website looks shady and not well maintained, then it’s a pass for me.  If they aren’t able to come up with glowing references, that’s another pass for me.
  5. Another thing to consider is often the smaller local companies don’t accept credit cards, so be prepared to wire transfer your money over.

That being said, sometimes finding reliable tours (either online or in person) can be difficult to find in certain countries, so in that case, I would recommend using the budget tour companies (Gap, Intrepid, Geckos etc.).  A vacation is supposed to be relaxing, right?  Getting scammed big time isn’t relaxing!

Also, possibly the cheapest (and arguably the most fun) way to travel (or just about do anything) is just to do it yourself…if you have the time and sense of adventure =)
When you go on vacation, the expenses mount quickly and there is no income going in.  Sometimes people are crazy enough to go to something like a casino to try to pay off part of their vacation (Vegas, anyone?).  This is obviously a risky strategy, and if you do this, it is best to play free roulette for practice before you go risking it all.  However, this may not always work.

Happy Budget Traveling, folks!

Readers, have you used a local tour before? Did you prefer the local tour or a tour organized by a bigger international company?