How to choose the best travel option if you are overwhelmed with choices

I face this often especially if I need to join a tour. I am overwhelmed with choices and not sure where to begin. And it is even more challenging if I am planning to go to places where not many have been. Just now, I am so confused as I plan my trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos. There are too many itineraries and too many ships! I learned a lot based on my experience planning my trip to South Africa (I am going in August 2013), and my trip to South America ( I went in February 2012). I did not encounter this challenge as much in Europe and the US as it’s so much easier to travel independently, and the choices are more with which sights to see, than which tour to join.

I thought I’d share with you some tips that hopefully will help you plan your trip of a lifetime 🙂

1. Prioritize what is important to you

Even before doing the digging, know your priorities and come up with a realistic list. If you are like me, traveling on a budget, you have to be very clear which parts you’re willing to sacrifice and which you are willing to pay a premium for. This will also help you formulate your questions to the travel agency. When I first talk to an agency, I do not start with questions. I want them to get to know me, and I usually describe my traveling style, what I prioritize, and what I can do without.

2. Consult online travel agencies first rather than direct service providers

When I was planning my trip to South Africa, one choice was to contact the safari lodges in Kruger directly (like &beyond) or going through a travel agent. I suggest your first step is to inquire with a few travel agents, as they can give you an overview of the landscape and options. Contacting a safari lodge as a first step is narrowing your choices too much.

3. Shortlist based on the website.

If the website looks too rudimentary I do not think the company is any good – as most people contact online and a good online platform is a good first investment. Look at the type of information they provide, and see how unbiased / thorough they are.

4. Call them.

A website is just pure content – it does not give you a real indication of professionalism. Even email doesn’t as everything is scripted. Almost all online travel agencies now have a US toll-free number – or ask them for it, if not, ask if they have Skype. You can call US toll-free numbers for free using Skype. Prepare your questions – and see how they answer. Focus on your first priority criteria. In my case, I specifically asked for animal sightings, if the private reserves are fenced, and if the rangers are top notch. I do not really care if they serve top-notch food (as long as the food is decent!) and if they’ll give me a butler! If they are not articulate and do not give intelligent answers, ding them.

Calling them also gives you an indication whether they are a reputable agent or if they are a fly-by-night operation. When I was choosing the agency to buy my Rio carnival tickets from, I called them. It’s only when I am comfortable that they really know what they do that I chose them. It’s USD 600 for two tickets, so I don’t want to be a victim of a scam!

5. Ask friends (or shamelessly plug in Facebook).

After doing my intial due diligence for my South African trip, I recalled that a friend has visited just last year! She recommended her travel agent which is even better than any of the ones I contacted. But I suggest contacting a couple more just to reference the recommended lodges and prices.

I now need advise for Galapagos, so if anyone has been, I appreciate it if you can ping me 🙂

6. Ding them if they do not respond within 48 hours, even with the time difference.

You want a travel provider that is responsive. That means they take your business seriously. They will also respond quickly if there is any problem during your trip.

I chose my Chile travel agency based on the professionalism and the timely response of the agency staff. He responds within 24 hours (even with time difference!), speaks perfect English, and is articulate and knowledgeable. They are a travel aggregator and do not operate the tours themselves, and I needed that since I am traveling across Chile. When a travel operator failed to show up for my transfers twice, they acted immediately and ensured the operator gave me VIP treatment from then on, bargained to give me USD 150 even if I didn’t lose any chance to join a tour, and also a free nice lunch. All within 1 day. You need that especially when you are traveling to remote, unfamiliar places!

7. Compare the aggregator with the operators / hotels directly

I do my double checks in pricing. That way I know I am not being overcharged. With Chile, I looked at independent travel operators and summed up how much it would cost. For South Africa, I contacted the hotel to see how much it is if I book directly, and if there are any promotions. Normally, the travel agencies I dealt with are fair and professional, but you’ll never know!

Hope this helps and wish me luck in planning my Galapagos trip!

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