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.
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.
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!