When I approach travel it’s my tendency to approach it in an organized, well-planned manner. After all, we have all heard the horror stories about arriving at your destination and then finding out that all of the hotels are full due to a convention, or the trail is closed for repairs, or the tours are all booked — and then what? To alleviate this fear of being in a strange country with nowhere to stay and nothing to do, I plan my travel itinerary before I leave the comfort of my home. This may seem like a sensible thing to do, however this fear of the unknown is costing me money; or maybe I should consider it as paying for peace of mind.

Spending hours poring through millions of travel websites to find the right advice, the right tour, and the right hotel; you are essentially dealing with the middle man. The middle man is generally a travel agency which promotes the local business, hotel, or tour. These travel agencies generally know that there can be a big margin to be made selling to people who are accustomed to spending western prices. This is especially true for travel into less-developed countries where prices are vastly lower than what we are used to paying.

Price hike

They did a lovely job of marketing the tour and I bit.

For example, when I booked a tour to hike the Inca Trail in Peru, I booked it through a travel company online. There was a lovely description of the daily hike/activities and photos to ease my trepidations about traveling to Peru and doing a difficult trek. They did a lovely job of marketing the tour and I bit.

When I arrived in Peru I was expecting to meet up with a representative from the company. Instead, I met up with the representative of a local tour company that had essentially been hired to provide me the trek that was described on the website. The trek was excellent; everything I had hoped for. However, I realized that if I had simply arrived in Peru and then found this trekking agency, I would have saved over $150 on the exact same tour. Instead that $150 went to the middle man.

Go local

I decided to test out this theory in Vietnam. I did a bit of pricing research online for a one-day trip to Cai Be and Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta. I chose three companies that offered the exact same tour and checked prices. The three online providers offered this tour for around $66 per person including lunch and transportation. Not bad. However after living here in Ho Chi Minh City for five months and knowing that a nice dinner and beer only costs $6, this seemed a bit steep.

Instead I walked to my local tour company in the backpacker district and asked about their tours. Their literature even had this blurb, “We are a tour operator (International Tour Operator License No 0744/ TCDL-GPLHQT ), not a travel agency; this means that you are dealing direct with the people who provide the actual services and not through a “broker” who is selling someone else’s tour.” It looks like I was on the right track to savings!

They informed me I could join an open tour leaving tomorrow for $12 including lunch and transportation. An open tour basically means that you go with other people on a bus and travel as a group as opposed to a private tour. In the name of saving money and realizing that I would be doing the exact same things as the other more expensive website tours, I chose the open tour. I took my $54 in savings and was perfectly happy to save that money for something else!

Eliminate the middle man

Now, I’m not telling everyone to abandon travel agents and the web, some people are not ready to make that leap into the unknown backpacker world of spontaneity and unplanned travel. However, in these economic times when you are trying to pinch pennies and make your travel dollar last longer, one way to save money is to eliminate the middle man and do your research and booking once you arrive. Get to know the local companies and find out what they offer. It’s generally the exact same tour for a lower price.

The thought of hopping on a plane without a plan may be terrifying for you. However, it’s something to consider if you want to do recession-proof travel! Go local!

Your thoughts on "Eliminating the Middle Man"

  • Interesting read -- particularly using Saigon as an example. Sure the tour company who got you on board for the Inca trail makes a margin, but for that margin they (in part) save you the effort/time/cost of finding a local operator that will meet your expectations. How confident would you be of showing up and quickly finding a cheaper local agent that would deliver the same experience -- you might -- or might not -- find one. This unknown is something a reputable tour company works to mitigate. Just to note my bias before I go on, Saigon -- as with Hue and Hanoi -- is a veritable snake-pit of unscrupulous agents/operators and I have difficulty taking anything a Vietnamese travel agent says at face value. That said, if the $66 tour you mention was going to throw you onto an Open Tour then I think the comparison is valid, but if not, you're really comparing apples and oranges. Open Tours are cheap, and a good way to meet other travellers -- that's about where their advantages end. Yes it's true, in cutting out the middleman for tours you'll often get a lower price, but don't bank on a similar experience -- for tours, especially in Vietnam -- you often get what you pay for. While it depends on your timeframe and goals, I'd say a better approach is simply not to do a tour at all -- just do it yourself! Cheers Stuart

    on March 18, 2009 at 2:21 pm Reply
  • Hey Stuart, I appreciate your thoughts. I agree with you, there is value to what a middle man can offer; namely time saving and peace of mind. However if you want to travel and try to save money, then doing the research yourself locally when you arrive is another option. For me, it depends on what my priorities are - is your budget or your time more important - that's different for everyone. For people that simply have a week of vacation to take, then paying for the middle man can make sense. However if you are on a longer journey, then doing local research can make sense. As for Saigon, I find that Sinh cafe is reputable. It's not the best tour I've ever taken, however, it was a good value for my money. Sherry

    on March 18, 2009 at 11:59 pm Reply
  • Traveling alone opens up your world to new experiences and exposure to people from a different regions of the world. It provides opportunities that are hard to find when you are traveling with a companion or tied up with another person's travel plans. Alone you can soar and explore and rely on your own instincts and resources to the see the world at your own pace. If you choose this path you may savor every minute of your journey and just may learn to love the idea of traveling on your own.

    on September 17, 2010 at 7:17 pm Reply
  • hi Honestly accepted many times it more expensive to go through middle man (travel agent)... but there are many travel agents who spend millions of rupees every month to promote their business online.. such travel agents obviously will charge high from customers... to recover their marketing cost and to maintain profits... It is quite difficult to find reasonable travel agent who provides right information and reasonable packages which is called true value for each penny you spend.... because these travel agent do not charge excessive from their clients and hence do not spend on internet marketing... everybody knows that now a days internet marketing is very expensive.. I am a travel agent based in India but all my efforts is to create good image of travel and travels agents...

    on August 21, 2011 at 3:15 pm Reply

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