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Monday, July 25, 2011

Choosing the Right Tour Operator For You!

The Art of Adventure Travel with Above the Clouds

Nepali girl and her brother

Adena from Tripwolf conducted this interview with Lisa from ATC on tips and tools on choosing the best tour operator for you!

Adena: What are some of the benefits to hiring a tour operator? What kind of traveler do you work with?

There are three reasons to hire a tour operator. First, before you venture out to a new place there are a lot of things to consider and lots of local factoids that you just can’t be expected to know. When you book your trip on your own, you can do your best to research, but there is nothing like talking to someone who has been there and can let you in on all the things you’ll need to pack, prepare for and what’s just not worth bringing.

The second benefit of a tour operator is having someone one your side when something goes wrong. If you’re in India on your own and you miss your train and your bag gets stolen, that’s your problem – but if that happens to one of our clients, I can get all of their credit cards canceled, passport reissue started, hotels adjusted, train tickets reissued and contact someone at home to let them know. Basically, when you’re on your own – all of your problems are your problems!

Third, and probably most important is access. Traveling on your own into a lot of places you really only get to scratch the surface – you see that children act differently or women wear their saris a certain way – but without some access [to inside information] you’ll never know why. You know what it feels like to see them but you’ll never know what they feel like to see you – which is half of the story!

Generally speaking, the kinds of travelers that sign up with us are the folks who want to be well prepared, socially conscious, get underneath the surface to really experience a place. That said a lot of folks feel this way and have more time than money, and can afford to do the research and prep work themselves – while on the other hand most of our clients have more money than time and have us do the work for them.

Adena: For those of us thinking of planning a trip with a tour operator, what essential questions should we ask before committing to anything?

There are some standard questions that you should make sure you ask any operator before signing up for a trip: How long have you been working in the area? Who will my guide be? Can you tell me a bit about him/her? How difficult is the trip? (At this point if the operator doesn’t ask you questions about your physical fitness and past experience on trips like this – that’s a red flag!)

In addition to the factual answers provided by the operator, of equal or possibly greater importance is the amount of detail and flavor provided by the operator. This will enable you to get a better sense of how good of a fit there is between you and the operator in terms of travel style and philosophy. Really the questions are a vehicle to get a feel for your comfort level with that operator and always speak to 3 or 4 operators to give you a basis of comparison.

Adena: Have changes in the travel industry – be it prices going up, technological changes or traveler’s expectations affected how you do business over the past 30 years?

Change is constant! For us it has come in two main factors, first it has changed how ATC does business. Thirty years ago when Steve started the company, every time he had a message to send to our office in Nepal he had to use the typewriter, fill up a sheet of paper, walk up to the airport and spend $18 a page (or portion there of) to Telex them! Back then it was all about magazines, post card requests, printed brochures and the phone call was king. As the fax machine arrived, then e-mail and cell phones the industry rapidly evolved into a bigger, faster animal than when Steve got in the game.

The second factor has been change in the clients and what they are looking for. Through the late 1980’s and mid 1990’s ATC was known for taking people to really remote unknown corners of the world on treks that could last upwards of 3 to 5 weeks. Now more often than not, folks can’t take this much time off and people are looking for trips 10 to 14 days. Furthermore, clients aren’t nearly as in the dark as they were about these remote locations – 30 years ago Nepal and Bhutan what greatly unknown by much of the population – definitely not any more!

Adena: Has political or environmental climate change affected your trips since you’ve been in operation? What has changed?

In the last 30 years there have been many political shifts both here in the US and where we work abroad; however, the impact on our trips is minor. Development on the other hand – has been a major factor in changes in our trips. Not that long ago we trekked in and out of many places simply because that was the only way to get there, but as roads encroach upon once remote areas the idea of trekking there becomes impractical or undesirable.

Adena: How does ATC help to preserve the culture and land of the natives? Do you ever feel like you may be opening doors for negative impact of tourism? Why or why not?

The negative impact of tourism around the world is well cataloged, spawning terms such as “the ugly American” and many other nationalities. Bottom line is this: our very presence in a remote part of the world, such as those visited by trekking groups, is going to have an impact whether it is intended or not. As adventure travelers, we have the choice to make that impact positive or negative.

If someone travels to a remote place on their own, without a guide to interpret the words, actions, and culture of the locals, it is likely that at least some of their actions may have a negative impact, even if unintended, due to ignorance. At Above the Clouds we go to great lengths to make sure that our travelers are briefed on the culture prior to departure, and our guides work hard to ensure that the cultural exchange is positive in both directions. The most powerful tool we can give our travelers and our hosts is knowledge of the respective “worlds” we inhabit. Many of our past travelers tell us that the lessons they learned from the locals, and the warmth they felt from them when welcomed into their homes, were the most important and long lasting memories they took home with them.


Thank you Adena & Tripwolf! If you have any further questions or are looking for some help in planning an independent adventure - check out Tripwolf for some other great tips!

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