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Gap Adventures and Intrepid Tours although are great pioneers of eco-tourism and sustainable traveling, they do use local tour companies

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?

Article comments

Simon says:

Hi Young, great Article. I’m first time Costa Rica bound, not sure whether to choose a local tour operator or GAP. I fired a couple emails to some local tour operators registered with the Costa Rica tourism board but haven’t heard back from them yet. I would very much like to save some money, on the other hand get scammed or ripped off is never fun. Any suggestions or thoughts on that?

Jan says:

Although I agree that often you can find a trip cheaper by booking it directly with a local company, the comparison of saving 70% off of a GAP trip for the Inca Trail got me checking things out seeing as I just did that trip in September. Costs on the Inca Trail are for the most part fixed – the porters have a minimum wage, the permits and fees are set ahead of time. This website has a good breakdown of the minimum costs for the Inca Trail: http://www.andeantravelweb.com/peru/treks/incatrail4.html If you pay much less than $500 for the 4 day trip someone is being ripped off (either the porters or the quality of the trip for you). You also can’t just “waltz in” to a local tour operator to book the trek. Permits must be bought ahead of time as there is a limit on the number of people allowed on the trail. In the peak season it is recommended to buy the permits at least 3 months in advance.

The cheapest Inca Trail Hike with GAP is $950. That trek includes 3 extra nights in Cusco plus a Sacred Valley Tour. A cheap hotel room (per person, 2 sharing) in Cusco is about $20. ($60 total), the Sacred Valley Tour starts at $40 for a group tour plus the entrance fees (another $20). GAP also provides porters for carrying your personal stuff (extra clothes, sleeping bag, etc.) If you share a porter with another person it’s worth about $25. So, the Inca Trail Hike would cost about $830. Booking it on your own would be about $500. Although the cost is significantly less, its not a savings of 75%! You also have to make sure that you are booked through a licensed tour operator as you can’t do the trail without one. Local company or international, to be a responsible tourist, try to find a company that treats its employees well. I’ve never been with Contiki or Intrepid so can’t comment on them. However, the employees on my GAP tours all feel they are treated fairly. When travelling around Peru on our own, often when we told people we had done a 2 week trip with GAP, the comments we got were that they had a good reputation for treating their employees well and helping out the local economy (staying a local, not international, hotels, and using locals when possible).

I’ve done 4 trips with GAP and on some of them have had a few extra days on our own. With a group you get the luxury of someone else to look after all the details and a bunch of people to travel with. You also have someone who knows the culture and the language to help you out. Once familiar with the country, spending a few days on one’s own is a lot easier.

young says:

@Jan- Thanks Jan for sharing your experience. I think every country and every place is different. I have done the GAP tour with Peru and was very pleased with it as well, and I have met people who hired their own tour company in Peru and also were very pleased with the service. I think it really depends on the amount of time you have, your budget, and of course, your comfort level. Sometimes it’s nice to have everything set up for you when you’re there.

Ulsterman says:

This has been going on as long for decades. In 1994 as part of a round-the-world trip i did the three week Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. On the trek / hike you sleep in very basic huts found in each village you pass through and eat dal bhat (sp?) at every meal. I spent $50 / week or $150 in total.

On the trek i met other Canadians who had booked with adventure companies and had paid thousands for the same experience. They had a guide (there was only one path!) and a sherpa to carry all their useless MEC gear (we walked the circuit in shorts/ t-shirts, and sport sandals).

This was almost 20 years ago and travelling has simply become more and more sanitized and easy with the advent of the internet. Is their any adventure left when every possible question one has can be answered by consulting your phone?

young says:

@Ulsterman- I did the Annapurna Sanctuary! But I didn’t do it with Gap. I found a travel agent in Nepal… it was awesome and way cheaper.

Tracey H says:

I haven’t personally travelled with GAP, but my daughter (in her mid-20s) did a south-east Asia tour with them and she loved it. And we’re glad she was booked with a tour all the way through 4 countries there, often off the beaten path where language would be an issue (not to mention the safety of a lone, young female). She’s backpacked around Europe for a few months with a couple of friends so she’s comfortable travelling, but she loves GAP for lone travel to exotic (meaning non-English, not-sure-of-safety-issues places).

My sister and her husband have had 2 GAP trips–Peru/Machu Picchu and Turkey and loved their trips because everything’s arranged, if there’s a problem it’s solved for them (e.g. roads were going to be washed out & their leader got them on a bus early to get out of the area), the guides speak the local language and can tip them off to safety issues and who to talk to if they’re alone and there’s a problem. They’d both go back on each trip without GAP now that they’re comfortable with the places and understand the customs and risks. They also travel a lot without tours (all over Europe, Mexico, US and Canada).

We travel to French Polynesia (Tahiti and her islands) and the language barrier can, at times, be a problem. Resorts always have English-speaking people to ask questions, but we stay in pensions and people’s backyards and sometimes my French isn’t good enough to follow the details of, for instance, airline strikes (and finding an English-speaking person who knows what’s going on isn’t always easy). My Tahitian definitely isn’t good enough to understand the details (the news is given in both languages)! But French Polynesia’s a safe, friendly place that we’ve researched well so we’re comfortable travelling around the islands without guides.

We’ve only done one cruise (we really aren’t cruise-type of people) and we did arrange our own on-the-spot tours when we arrived at each port. You do save a lot, but make sure you get back to the ship on time!

young says:

@Tracey H- Thanks so much for your input, Tracey!

Dianne says:

I love to travel but its just so expensive – especially accommodation. I can’t stay in a hostel again. Not after what happened in Madrid.

young says:

@Dianne- What happened in Madrid? 🙂 Bed bugs?

berberman says:

That is a brilliant article. I have worked in Morocco with international travel companies and they always charge more for less services with plenty hidden costs. Now, I work for a local company and we charge 50 percent less with better services: transport, accommodation and local guides. We organize bike tours and adventure trips in local or comfort style. Email us for any info about Morocco. brahim.abounaceur@argansports.co

jo says:

I agree that local operators will get a bigger piece of the pie when you go to them directly, but think about the amount of business the guys that work with Gap are getting! Plus, I would say people travelling with Gap are much more likely to tip more than those travelling solo, and there are more people to tip them. I am sure if you ask some of the ones that work with Gap, they are more than happy to be doing so. Thoughts?

young says:

@jo- thanks for visiting =) That’s true. I don’t know firsthand if tour companies that work with Gap are getting paid better actually. They might be, but they might not be. Gap would have to cover for their marketing, the employees in North America etc. and I would think it would cost more than 50% of the price you pay for the tour. I’m sure Gap pays their local tour companies fairly, and I do agree that people probably would tip more were they to go with Gap. Have you had a good experience with Gap and their local tour companies?

I am also always somewhat hesitant to book trips through large travel agencies. Just out of interest – how much was your Inca Trail? I did it last year and paid $ 450 for a truly amazing experience with http://www.peru-explorer.com/

young says:

@Essential Travel Magazine- That sounds like an awesome deal! (50% off what I paid, really!) I remember paying about $800, and then i think i had to pay an extra $200 when I got there (Gap has since eliminated the extra USD you pay when you get to your destination and include it in the cost you pay upfront).

the Cynical Investor says:

Good article, but it depends on the country/tour.

I was on a cycling tour in Cuba with GAP and no way I could have done it by myself.

young says:

@The Cynical Investor- good point- I think I should add a little side note for certain countries that will definitely require a tour be booked (e.g. Tibet and Bhutan which require guides in order to enter the country).

And GAP has pretty good prices to start with. But wow, 70% less.

I would still go with GAP if this was my initial trip, because they have a reputable name.

But the story reminds me of our recent trip to Maui, where I booked a hike for 4 that costs us $400 total. It was a rainforest/waterfall hike on a private property. They would pick us up at the hotel, feed us a continental breakfast and lunch… a guided tour of maui and the hike.

Well, we got to the plantation and found it was only $6.75 per person to enter. And the hike is on the Map. Plus its only a small ways from Ioa Valley.


But, I have to say that I did enjoy the breakfast and lunch. They were vegetarian friendly and our guide knew a whole lot about the island and its history. So it was a touch I wouldn’t have gotten by going alone.

So as first timers, it was worth it. But now I know, when we go back… we’re only paying $6.75 per person. 😉
.-= Christine | Money Funk

young says:

@Money Funk Awe man, can you say OUCH??? $400 to $6.75 =( Good point about the first timer thing… it really depends on if you would like some local expertise, or if the activity can be done without a local guide. Thanks for sharing and Maui sounds sooo great!