Ok, yes, I am exaggerating. I do like people, but I’d rather not travel with a group. Hanging out, not by myself, but with family, friends, or a couple new people is best. I call myself an introverted extrovert. Jay, on the other hand, is an extroverted introvert. He likes being alone but when in groups he is the life of the party. And Beija, once she gets the lay of the land, is an extroverted extrovert. They are my perfect travel companions. So how do you choose a tour group?
Despite my social preferences, sometimes the best (or only) option is a group, but choosing a tour group travel experience makes me feel exposed. I am entrusting them not only with a week (more or less) of my life, but my safety, my money, and asking them to fulfill my greatest desires for my vacation.
That said, the times when I have worked with a travel company it has gone surprisingly well. For example, having a guide is a requirement in the Galapagos and if you don’t own a boat, working through a tour operator is essentially your only option. I’ve also picked tours for specialized experiences like the horse trip in Iceland and the desert camping in Morocco. And the best organized travel we’ve ever done was a service-focused trip in Nepal.
It took a lot of research to find Ishestar in Iceland, but it was wonderful. And our fellow Danish, Italian, and Norwegian travelers shared their cultures with us too.
Here are some ways that I have made my least favorite scenario work out pretty well. At the end of the post I’ll list some of the operators we’ve used.
1. What do I care about?
There are often trade offs in travel—having your cake and eating it too is just as hard as it is at home. I make my list of general priorities and put it in order of importance. For me, this changes on each trip. On one I might be most focused on cultural opportunities and another might be the environment. For example, my list for our Galapagos trip looked something like this (your list will look completely different):
- Environmental sustainability
- As small a group as possible
- See wildlife up close
- Social responsibility
- Great food
- Personal connections with locals
- Provides opportunities to connect with other travelers
You can see from the list that you might not be able to have it all. If I moved “great food” to the top of my list, I’d probably have to move cost down (a chef and artisanal items aren’t cheap). If comfort was at the top of my list, then environmental sustainability would likely have to be sacrificed (daily sheet washing uses resources). All your priorities can’t live on equal footing.
Eating is one our our favorite things.
2. Who am I?
Know thyself. Most travel companies cater to a certain demographic—independent travelers, adventure travelers, seniors, singles, families, young people, etc. I haven’t seen operators that specialize in group travel for introverts—let me know if you find one. Decide who you are and/or the type of people you’d be ok hanging out with for a week. Anticipating a fast paced trip with your family and ending up with a large group of slow moving people could make you crazy.
This is our boat full of very nice people on a trip I booked with Ecoventura in the Galapagos, Ecuador.
3. Can I get a recommendation?
A recommendation is the easiest way to make sure that your travel company is what you want and is exactly how we stumbled upon one of our best travel experiences ever. My friend Vicki heard that I wanted to do some service work in Nepal and said, “I know someone you should talk to.” Her recommendation was spot-on. Crooked Trails is an amazing nonprofit travel facilitator. You might even recognize me on their website—Jay shared photos with them. I can’t tell you how much I love Chris and everything about the Crooked Trails mission. Even though I definitely prefer planning my own travel you’ll be seeing more of them in our future.
Crooked Trails is my travel company crush.
Recommendations are not just from friends. I get recommendations from strangers on Trip Advisor, from travel blogs, and from guidebooks all the time. I look up the same company on several different sites to see if there is general agreement.
4. Fill out your spreadsheet
My friends (and husband) laugh at me when my travel spreadsheets come up in conversation. But really, how else are you supposed to make decisions? I put the companies on the Y axis and my criteria (in steps 1 and 2) on the X axis and start mining the web for information. Here is a sample of a portion of my data capture for the Galapagos in 2013:
I didn’t include every criterion, but my main ones are here. Note: the Galapagos is the most expensive trip we’ve ever taken. I’ll expand on this in another post, but in comparison, Nepal was approximately $122/day. I blanked out the name of the operators I didn’t select because if you can’t say anything nice…
Given what you found out, decide which operators align best with your priorities and…
Now it is time to take the leap. I begin with email exchanges, phone calls, and asking questions. I looked back at my inbox as I was nailing down our trip in the Galapagos and there were about 15 emails (and I know a few phone calls) with Ecoventura. Based on what I know and an itinerary, I imagine myself on their trip. Am I happy? Am I looking for ways to escape? Make sure it is a good fit, but don’t wait too long to book once you find your connection. It will just stress you out knowing that a decision has to be made—well, that’s what happens to me. Do make sure to keep in touch and reconfirm as the date gets closer. You wouldn’t want to be unprepared.
Ali and Saheed and all the cooking, music-playing men were absolutely wonderful in Morocco.
The way to choose a tour group is to be choosy!