Today, anyone can hang out a website shingle announcing themselves as adventure travel experts. But how do you know that they know how to walk softly on the environment, what to do if the weather turns rough, where to go for the best local arts and crafts, plus a hundred other scenarios that can make or break a vacation?
An adventure vacation is an investment of time and money. It’s worth the effort to ask a few hard questions upfront. Years of operation, the quality of their website and printed materials, price, itinerary, guide training, insurance, after-hours accessibility and safety record are all good qualifiers but they only scratch the surface. You have to dig deeper to reveal the true nature of a company and its offerings.
Dan Austin, 30-year industry veteran and co-founder and director of Austin-Lehman Adventures, recently helped compile an insider’s guide to choosing the right operator. Input was gathered from guests, staff, industry professionals and his own experiences.
“To assist consumers in their search for which company to trust and travel with, we reveal seven secrets to selecting the best active tour operator,” says Austin:
1) Surf and Ask Around: Surf the Internet, read the blogs, look at the “Best Lists” in national travel magazines or better yet, use your own online and real life networks. Ask others who are into adventure travel which companies they swear by. Folks love to recommend their favorites and dump on the duds.
2) Quality by Association: Check on an operator’s accreditation and its membership in respected organizations like Trusted Adventures, the Adventure Travel Trade Association, Sustainable Travel International, Rainforest Alliance and The Eco Tourism Society. These are top-notch vetters that demand a high level of accountability and service.
3) Authenticity: Look for a company offering flexible, innovative and compelling adventure travel itineraries that also builds in time for unprogrammed spontaneity. Do they demonstrate a passion for creating the conditions in which genuine experiences can take place? Do they avoid big international hotel chains and restaurants and include smaller, local establishments with character that enrich the traveler’s experience?
4) Use of Subcontractors: Many tour operators will sub-contract out all or a portion of their trip to a receptive operator. The key is the care a company has taken in choosing a subcontractor and what controls they have to assure a quality experience. Ask to what extent the company hires its own guides and operates its own trips vs. brokering out to second-party contractors.
5) Responsible Travel: Seek out travel companies that leave no sign of their passing and work to protect fragile environments and ancient cultures. Ask how a company’s practices benefit local communities and what they do to help protect the cultural and natural heritage of the places they visit. How do they minimize or offset their travel footprint?
6) Access to the Top: As a consumer and customer you have your rights! The better travel companies won’t hide behind a string of sales agents, supervisors and department heads if you have a real issue or problem to discuss. Ask if you could talk directly to the owner, president or CEO if for any reason you were frustrated or displeased by the answers and service you were getting from a guide or employee.
7) Fun Learning: Forward-thinking travel companies embrace education as fundamental to its day-to-day itineraries. Just stopping briefly for a picture or souvenir is not enough. Ask if local guides, historians, biologists and other experts join the group along the way.