“You Get What You Pay For”
There is no way to stress this enough: you get what you pay for. No matter that you are buying — if you pay too little, there will be compromises in quality and service that you’ll have to live with.
This is especially frustrating when you are on vacation and you want to have a positive and unforgettable experience. So (1) avoid dealing with travel agencies who attract customers based only on low prices and (2) do not bargain too hard and force your business partners to cut corners in order to meet your price requirements.
We’d like to share a few examples with you hoping to save you some bad experiences in the future.
Hotels and Restaurants
Let’s start with some obvious examples. If a restaurant wants or needs to cut costs, they will use canned vegetable and flavor enhancers instead of herbs and fresh ingredients. They will reuse the frying oil and present the food in a less appealing way. The whole place will be less clean and the waiters will start cleaning the table while you are still eating your food.
If you bargain too hard at a hotel, they might give you a smaller room, a room without comfortable furniture, a room which directly overlooks the street, where the Wi-Fi is not working very well or where it takes forever for warm water reach the faucet.
All of these experiences are rather subtle, but they are definitely annoying and can reduce your enjoyment significantly.
Hiring a Local Guide
You want to take a day-tour through the jungle? What would be a good guide? Someone knowledgeable about the area and wildlife, someone who is polite, speaks good English and shows up on time.
But if you bargain too hard with the travel agency, they might just rearrange a few things: instead of sending their best guide, they arrange for Julio to pick you up. Unfortunately Julio shows up too late, smells like alcohol and speaks Spanish and no English. Instead of patiently explaining to you about the local medicinal plants, Julio is in a hurry to get back home, so he takes shortcuts on the trails, steps on branches which makes noises and scares off the wild animals, skips the visit to the water hole and brings you back to your hotel at 2:30 pm.
Are you still proud that you saved $15 on this day-tour?
Other ways for a travel agency to lower costs (and your enjoyment): send more tourists with a single guide, do not provide ponchos in case of rain, do not provide rubber boots, require that you to pay the entrance fee to the national park yourself…
Things can be even worse if you hire a mountain guide. We spoke to at least a dozen people who attempted to climb Cotopaxi (the favorite peak in Ecuador, 5897 m ) or Huayna Potosi (one of the most climbed peaks in Bolivia, 6088 m) whose guides went so fast that their clients were exhausted and gave up within an hour.
Your guide has been to the top of that mountain hundreds of times, so if he is underpaid and unhappy, he mostly cares about getting back home early and relaxing instead of helping another tourist up the hill. And you return early he gets to keep the morning snacks instead of handing them out to you when you reach the top.
Going on a Multi-Day Tour
In addition to hiring a cheaper or less experienced guide, a travel agency can also save money by cutting corners when it comes to food and lodging.
Imagine two tourist groups traveling on the same route, but paying different amounts per days. When lunch time comes one guide puts down his backpack on the ground, takes out a few paper plates, some toast, jam and butter for everyone and starts eating. Another guide goes to a picknick table and some benches, spreads out a colorful table cloth, makes a salad, arranges healthy food nicely on lightweight plastic plates, then cuts fresh fruit for desert.
In the evening the first group goes to a guest house where the windows don’t close properly and the hot water hasn’t worked for month while the second group heads up to a place with hot showers, a working fireplace and cleaner toilets.
If spending the night camping instead of in a guest house, a better company will have cleaner and warmer sleeping bags, thicker mats, newer tents and the tents will be built in a quieter place far away from the kitchen and toilets. They might even provide head lamps or replacement batteries for free.
Going on Safari
Whether you are on an African safari or a Jeep tour in South America, if there are cars involved, watch out when an agency only promotes itself based on low prices.
Good agencies will have newer cars with more comfortable seats, better tires, working seat belts, reading lights, an air conditioning and heating, etc. They might send a separate cook or even have an emergency radio on board. Finally, they might even follow alternative routes with less traffic and better chances of seeing animals.
When Katja and I visited Salar de Uyuni last December, we we looking for a very specific tour, so we spoke to a number of different agencies in town. Since we had to wait in line a few times, we listened in on several sales conversations, and we could not believe our ears — virtually all customers were bargaining to no end about 50 Bolivianos (7 USD) per person.
Don’t understand us wrong — we too are low-budget travelers, but saving 7 USD on a three-day tour where food, transport and lodging are included is really not that important. And now here is the hit — after those tourists saved 7 USD on the price of the tour they sat down at a tourist restaurant and ate lunch for 8 USD instead of walking two more blocks to the local market and having tasty local food for just 1 USD.
We are not saying that paying more guarantees you a better experience, but at least it doesn’t rule it out. If a price seems too good to be true, it probably is. Your vacation is precious, so don’t lessen your chances of having unforgettable experiences by going to the cheapest local tourist agencies or by bargaining too hard.
Asking lots of questions before booking and talking to fellow travelers just returning from a tour are just some of the strategies for getting a great tour which we learned on our last trips. We will reveal these soon in a separate post.