Even though I consider myself an independent traveler, I have taken my fair share of tours. This is what tour companies do not tell you.
There is one question that can be found all over the blogging community and travel forums, should I travel independently or take a guided tour?
The answer is not an easy one. It depends on a wide range of factors. The truth is that all travelers (and I really mean all travelers) are involved in some sort of tour at some point. You may be traveling on your own but you rely on outfitters for some of your daily activities. Sometimes there is not really an option; you have to take a tour (like when you want to see gorillas in the wild).
For this reason, I have decided to reveal some of the facts tour companies do not disclose (or disclose in the fine print). This is what I have discovered during my 15+ years of traveling the world. Pay attention because those tour companies have been in business for a long time and they know how to make money.
1. The season you selected for your trip is not the best one to appreciate the sights
Some tour companies sell excursions all year round. However, this does not mean you are going to appreciate the sites in full splendor every season. Sometimes, you are not going to see anything at all.
Example: I visited Costa Rica during the month of December. I booked an excursion to see the craters of the Poas and Irazu volcanoes and a “lava tour” to see the Arenal volcano erupting at night. What was the outcome?
I didn’t see anything. The clouds were too low during the day and during the night I went on excursions. So, no craters or lava for me. The thing is that various locals told me it was not the best time to observe the volcanoes (July and August are the best months). The possibility of seeing something in December is low.
Does the tour company know this? Of course, but they sell you the excursion anyway because they are in the business of selling excursions. There is no business if they have to sell excursions under the best weather conditions. This can be applicable to trips such as African safaris, deserts during summer, Europe in August, etc.
And talking about the weather, you should also consider that. Tour companies usually do not suspend an excursion because of what we consider bad weather (rain, extreme heat). If you visit a country during the rainy season, the possibilities of encountering showers during the day, well, are high (usually the afternoons if it is a tropical place). So think about that if you don’t want to ride that horse or ride the zip line while is a mini hurricane is falling over you (guess what, it happened to me in Costa Rica).
This does not mean you should not plan trips during the low season. Just keep in mind what sights may be affected by the weather and put your money on something you are going to appreciate or enjoy.
2. They do not include top attractions
Make sure you have a clear understanding of what is included in the price you are paying. I know a lot of people who have been shocked when they find out that what they paid does not include one of the top attractions in the area they are visiting. Take into consideration that it can be confusing to keep track of what attractions are included when you book a multi-day tour.
One time, I visited Florence as part of a tour and discovered that the Galleria della Academia (where Michelangelo’s’ David is housed) was not included in the price. This was distressing because most of the group members were traveling on a student budget.
However, the worst part was to wait more than an hour under the hot sun to get to the gallery. In this case, I am talking about a situation involving less than 10 Euros but imagine if you find out you need to pay big bucks to see something you thought was covered.
This brings me to my next point: if you are arranging something like a walking tour or a tour including private transportation, always ask if the entrance to the actual sights you are visiting is included in the price. Sometimes people think they got a deal and then are confronted with the harsh reality; they only paid the tour guide or transportation fee. The entrance to the actual sight has to be paid separately (and it can be substantial).
3. They are in town the day the top attraction closes
What is the day nobody wants to spend in a city? Usually, it is Monday. Why? Because museums, government-run attractions, and other sights are closed (in most places). You may not care a lot about these types of attractions but being in a place like Florence on Monday can be a nightmare. The nightmare gets worst when Monday is your only full day in Florence. It means that all the museums, where all the masterpieces are stored, are closed (Yes, this also happened to me. I have been in Florence two times and things have not worked right).
I have two pieces of advice to deal with this. If it is your only day at a place and you were not able to see one of the top attractions because it was closed, talk to your tour guide and try to arrange an alternative.
While in Florence, the group was able to convince the tour guide and the bus drive to arrange a quick and early visit to David on Tuesday morning (the day we were leaving Florence).
My other piece of advice: if you are dying to see an attraction, try to see it as soon as you arrive at the place. Forget about leaving it for later. Later means that you may not have the time to visit or that when you have the time to visit, it is going to be closed. This actually happens a lot.
Another thing is that you may be taken to an attraction on a low activity day. For example, the Otavalo market in Ecuador, which is considered one of the best markets in South America, is open every day. Nevertheless, the market is at its peak on Thursdays and Saturdays.
I have seen companies that take you to the market on other days. It is a shame to travel from so far to see something at 1/10 of its glory. If you are serious about your trip, do some research so you can make the most of it and catch things like the ones I have exposed.
4. They take you to a top attraction at the worst time
Tour companies have their schedules and they are probably going to take you to a site when is most crowded and noisy. If you are serious about photography, they will probably take you to the place when the light is worst. Keep this in mind if you are thinking about visiting a place that has a special meaning or holds a big space in your heart. You may want to visit on your own (early or late during the day) to avoid crowds, noise, and bad light.
5. They spent the night at a famous town but do not provide time to explore.
This happened to me last year. I went to Thailand with a tour company and they included a night at Ayutthaya. And when they said a night, they meant a night (not even half-day). I thought that we were going to have time to explore the ruins of the old city (which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Nonetheless, we arrived at dusk at the ruins one day (we went to one temple) and then parted early the next day. This was a little disappointing.
Since that day, I learned that I have to actually make sure a tour is visiting a sight I want to see. Just being in the area or staying the night in the city does not mean you are actually going to have time to explore.
6. Your guide is not fluent in your language
This is a sad one. But let me say that I have had almost no trouble with guides who speak English. Guides are usually well trained in that language.
Now, you may have a problem if you speak a language different than English. I have been on Spanish speaking tours. The guides assigned to the tours could barely speak Spanish. They knew enough to give instructions or to have some sort of conversation but their historical, architectural, and cultural explanations were horrible.
After two weeks, we were begging them to speak English (because we understood that language and the guides were from England and Australia). So if you are booking a tour and you want to have a serious cultural experience, ask how fluent in your language your tour guide really is.
In addition, I would stay away from multi-language tours. For example, one time I booked a tour in Spanish. The company I booked with put together Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, and Italian speakers together. Then, the guide would repeat everything in the 5 languages (or did her best since it was obvious she couldn’t handle all those languages). Believe me, the experience was poor.
7. Your guide is using you to gain money
Some tour companies pay their guides extremely low salaries (this is a fact). But, guess what? Some guides try to get some extra money from travelers. I am not talking about hard-won tips. I am referring to guides offering “recommendations” on restaurants, night attractions, and shops.
If you buy something at the places they recommend, they get a commission (they don’t tell you this and I bet you the company knows they are doing it). The sad thing is that most of their offerings are overpriced and of poor quality. You end up being scammed. This happened to me a couple of times while traveling through Europe.
Let me say that not all tour guides do this. Most of them are really passionate and look after their people. After years of travel, I kind of have an idea of what tour companies pay the miserable salaries. I think I would never travel with them (this is a personal preference).
If your tour guide gives you a recommendation, take some time to consider it (it doesn’t have to be a long period of time). Have some knowledge of the food and attraction prices, don’t buy on impulse, and ask questions. If you have a hunch that something is wrong, don’t take the recommendation.
8. The company takes you shopping.
This is related to the previous point. Sometimes, your guide will take you to company-sponsored shopping trips disguised as cultural demonstrations. I am referring to demonstrations in silk factories, leather workshops, or glass blowing studios. In reality, the company is taking you to one of its partners and is expecting to make some money from you.
Some people enjoy this type of experience, others don’t. I don’t mind if it is a short stop but I have seen companies that dedicate a significant part of the day to those practices. In those cases, I rather be sightseeing.
Make sure you know exactly how the daily activities are divided. If you notice that quite a bit of the day is dedicated to shopping and you are not interested, skip the visits and plan your own thing. You are not obligated to participate in those activities.
9. Their exclusive offering is not that exclusive
Companies try to gain customers by offering special bonuses or experiences that rivals don’t offer. Some companies are loyal to their promise of exclusivity but others are just trying to wow customers with accessible and dirt cheap (in terms of local currency) activities.
When I was researching my trip to Thailand, I saw a company offering an exclusive bike ride around the Sukhothai ruins. I ended up visiting the country with another company. When I went to Sukhothai, I discovered that there were businesses renting bikes for 2 dollars an hour. Common, how a company can offer such an inexpensive activity as an exclusive?
Other companies offer activities (sometimes at an additional cost) that sound and look special but they are accessible to anyone. Like companies offering dinner and show options. They charge you a lot but this is something you can easily arrange by yourself. If you are comparing different options, make sure the exclusive add-ons are really exclusive.
Tours can save us money, help us to get to remote places, teach us history/culture, or expose us to new activities in magnificent places. As I said before, sooner or later we will have to decide what tour to take.
Hopefully, the advice provided in this post will help you to navigate thru the trappings that companies want to impose on travelers.
What is your experience with tour companies?