When we pack our bags and hit the trail, Rick and I enjoy traveling by ourselves, or sometimes with longtime travel buddies Eva and Suresh. A lot of preparation goes into a travel adventure long before we board the plane.
On trips to destinations that are culturally more familiar, like North America and most of Europe, we do our own trip planning––what to see, how to get there, and where to sleep. In non-Western countries, private tour companies provide us with professional advice and assistance in a part of world new to us, where getting from here to there and negotiating daily activities can challenge the fun of traveling.
Four reasons why we hire a locally-based travel agency:
- A trusted agency recommends itineraries that optimize experiences within our travel timeframe. They tell us what’s possible and what’s not. In addition to our desired destinations, staff often recommends sites off-the-beaten-path that enhance the trip.
For instance, we would never have considered sailing down the Mekong River for two days to atmospheric Luang Prabang, ancient capital of Laos, if our travel planner hadn’t suggested it. I also would have missed the sunrise hot air balloon ride over thousands of temples and stupas in Bagan, Myanmar (Burma).
- The agency makes all the logistical arrangements with accommodations, confirms visitation times, handles entrance fees for sites, and selects additional guides for city tours. This convenience saves a lot of planning time and frustration on our part to accomplish these tasks. They can also suggest unique accommodations that enhance the experience.
On two trips, we enjoyed overnight “homestays” in local people’s houses––a hut on a floating island in Northeast India and a farmhouse in Romania’s Maramures region. Add an overnight train from Hanoi to a former French hill town of SaPa in Vietnam––all surprising places suggested by local agents.
- We enjoy unique, intimate experiences that large groups don’t. Our guides took us to meet a Roma (gypsy) family in Romania; arranged a visit to a Buddhist monastery school classroom in India’s Himalayan foothills; and drove us to a Bedouin family campsite in Morocco’s desert to show us how they lived––experiences that aren’t promoted in guidebooks.
- On extended trips that include a car and driver/guide, we develop a sense of camaraderie among us. Local travel guides are adept at handling difficult challenges that arise. And they often provide insight to their culture when we exchange personal stories and perspectives on the way the world works.
Knock on wood, we’ve been fortunate with guides chosen for us. I’ll chalk that up to pre-trip preparations with the selected company. Here are the steps we’ve taken to identify our agent to help us plan.
Tips for selecting a locally-based travel agency:
After we select our next destination, we peruse online information about the potential destination, and, yes, buy guidebooks. We want a good idea of places to visit and the activities to do before we talk with an agent. Here are the approaches we’ve used:
- Investigate potential companies by doing research at the country or regional level. I researched travel companies located in Morocco a few years back. Locally based companies tend to be owned and operated by people from that region or country, giving them a unique perspective on arranging accommodations, things to do, food, and culture.
- Narrow down the possible choices. I found three that sounded right for us. After emailing these agencies with our interest and length of travel, I eliminated the one that asked me to fill out a generic form. I checked ratings and client comments for the remaining two on Trust Pilot, a well-respected customer review site, and selected a Berber-owned company.
- Seek personal engagement. We exchanged several emails with the company president to articulate our interests and the type of travelers we are (I’m a history buff), refine the itinerary and identify the level of accommodations. In the process, we developed a relationship that gave our agent a very good idea about his guests and our expectations of his company.
For a gay couple traveling in a Muslim country, this was an especially helpful step; his honesty and advice gave us confidence and helped him select a guide most appropriate for us.
- Use a small-group online tour agency that connects travelers to local companies. A few years ago, we discovered kimkim (kimkim.com) through a personal reference. An online travel agency, kimkim vets local companies around the world for their expertise and reliability and introduces their clients to them to plan the trip. We’ve used kimkim for two adventures so far connecting with local agencies, with outstanding experiences for both.
To identify other online agencies, check out travelstride.com, a marketplace that features an abbondanza of sites you can narrow down with filters. Look for “self-guided and independent tour companies” within the list.
The key to all this pre-trip investigation is to make the process enjoyable, to heighten your excitement about travel. The effort pays off with pure adventure real time.
Recommended Travel Companies We’ve Used*
Local Country-Based Companies
*I have no financial relationship with any of the above companies.