How to choose the right tour operator

We have always travelled independently. In addition to our own airfare & accomodation, I have always put together our itinerary of where to go, the direction that we’re going and have booked our own local guides to particular attractions.

So I sought out to do the same for our upcoming trip to Sri Lanka. And it wasn’t long into my planning that I realised, with so much to see & do on this tear-shaped island, that the best way to see it was to join a guided tour the whole way.

This is going to be the first time we’ve chosen to do an organised tour so I approached this like I do a lot of other things – by process of elimination.  As Sri Lanka is not a popular destination, it didn’t take long to narrow down the search to 3 operators – 1 based in Australia and the other 2 based in the UK.

After having selected Selective Asia, one of the other agents had asked me for some feedback as to why I had chosen to go with a different agent. And you know what, I couldn’t pin point as to WHY… until now.

Here are some of the questions I had asked myself when it came to choosing our first tour operator …

What are my strengths in travel planning? And what do I need help with the most?

Are you good at finding unique hotels and accommodation, but need help in flights and all the other methods of transportation to get you to your next destination? Alternatively, you may just need a guided tour for only some part of your trip.

I’m comfortable in choosing flights and how to get to Colombo, the location of the international airport in Sri Lanka. I already knew several ways to get us there (via Singapore, Bangkok or Hong Kong).

We only had 2-3 weeks of time to play with and wanted a day or two at home before returning back to work. So what I needed help with was the execution of the itinerary.

Taking the time to understand what you think you need help with will narrow down the list of potential operators & agents.  Utilise your strengths and choose an agent / tour organiser that can compliment your weaknesses. Be clear in your mind what you want help with.

Private, Small group or Big group?

This is a matter of preference, availability and most of all how much you/your family can tolerate.

You need to think about how your family likes to travel. Is the group likely to travel at a similar pace?
Also the size of your family and the temperament of family members will also determine whether you can travel in large or small groups.

There are pros and cons to each, so weigh them up and start there. This may or may not change depending on the costs and how this fits into your budget. Private tours tend to be more expensive but you are getting a dedicated guide and a pace of travel to suit you. Large group tours are cost effective and the small groups are a happy medium of the two.

My personal preference is private or small groups and there were very little difference in costs between them for tour operators in Sri Lanka. Also I had specific dates/timeframes in mind and we wanted to fit in some time at a beach resort, so it depends on your needs or how you want to spend your time may also play a part.

 

Has your consultant got first hand experience?

For me it was important that the person I was dealing with had travelled to Sri Lanka before. Not necessarily with a family but that they have spent some time there (preferably longer than the time we plan to spend).

Knowing that they have been there before gives me confidence that my questions are being answered based on first hand experience and not just from a guide book or website that anyone can read.

Even if it’s a simple airfare & accomodation booking you need help with, having knowledge of the country/city that you plan to visit, your consultant will be able to provide some insight on which locations are the best to stay, given the things you want to do.

Can they respond and help you in case of travel emergencies?

This one is particularly important if you’re doing an organised tour with the company.

Admittedly, it’s not one you want to think about before you go on holidays. But even if you have travel insurance (which you should ALWAYS get, by the way), you want to be confident that in case of emergency there is a local representative who can be contacted directly that can help. Someone that can help you directly and someone that the tour operator can contact in case you are not available.

One of the three shortlisted operators, was immediately crossed off the list when I learned that they, being a UK based company, worked with another UK based company who has the local contacts in Sri Lanka that hires the guides/drivers. This would not be a problem, but the tour operator didn’t even know who the local contact was nor do they have the channel to be able to speak with them freely.

Now most of the time, nothing happens and your holiday goes off without a hitch.

But I believe that it’s in times like these that companies are truly tested. And one of the reasons I had chosen Selective Asia, is because regardless of whether the guides are hired through a “middle-man” company or not, that there is a local presence that they work with directly. One that they have a relationship with and one that can help them and our family through any unforeseen emergencies.

Does the company practice responsible travel?

No, I don’t mean agents that only book eco-lodge style accomodation with a drop toilet. That’s up to you, if you’re into that. And you can take this as far as you like to whatever resonates with you.

But, I’m referring specifically to animal/wildlife experiences. Admittedly I’m not that informed when it comes to animal cruelty – but I know I can’t bear to watch some of the ads on TV and I know enough to know that not all places treat the animals well.

 

This is especially so in regards to Elephants in Asia. So for me it was important that the company I choose has taken the time to know, understand and only recommend places that do treat wild animals as they deserve to be.

I was actually pleasantly surprised when I had enquired if I we could visit a particular Elephant Orphanage and our consultant advised that they have been known to mis-treat the elephants that were in their care. I was disappointed but ultimately glad that we were steered away from it.

Do they have a decent website/social media content?

This may seem silly at first, but in this digital age filled with savvy consumers, a website is more than just an online business card. It is their way of projecting who they are, what they stand for and what prospective customers can expect.

Websites with insufficient information indicates to me a few things:-

  • They haven’t spent much time or effort in marketing themselves and therefore is not really that interested in getting your business
  • Insufficient information about what to expect may be a sign that they just “wing it” everytime and if your consultant leaves or is unwell, then it’s unlikely that someone else will know how to help you
  • Lack of information on suggested itinerary, hotels etc. may mean that they have little experience in organising tours for that areas
  • No reviews? or Not enough reviews? = not enough satisfied customers

We have all seen good & bad websites. However, more and more I’ve been seeing some websites that are OK but is backed up by an awesome social media channel! In my view, if their social media content exceeds and makes up for what the website lacks, then this is still ok.

Sure it’s easy enough to have a slick website but receive poor service. However, in my experience it is easy to be able to see beyond the shiny Home/Profile page and get a feel of whether there is real substance behind them.

How well have they listened to your needs?

After providing each tour operator the same brief, the test of how well they listened to me was provided in the first proposed itinerary. This really narrowed down the search as it was only one that really listened and was able to give me exactly what I was looking for.

All agents contacted me via email and I received 2 suggested itineraries within 24 hours of my first email. But it was UK based Selective Asia that delivered the last itinerary. The proposed itinerary was only the first of many but it really did give me a feeling that they heard exactly what I had said. Allowing me to trim and add to it until it was right.

All of this really adds up to one simple thing … do you feel like you will be well taken cared of if you were to travel with them? If your answer is yes and they have helped you and looked after you by providing valueble product & service then you’ve chosen well.

For us and for our Sri Lanka trip, this was Selective Asia.

We are so looking forward to experiencing Sri Lanka in mid-2017 and we will definitely be back to confirm if all I’ve said above has proven true. So follow us on Instagram or YouTube, subscribe to this blog or just come back to visit and see how we got on.

Important:
It may seem like this is a sponsored post and that we’re receiving some sort of kick back… I guarantee you it is not.  We booked with Selective Asia back in October 2016, well before this website was even conceived. I’m simply writing about our experience and these are my personal opinions.

 

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