Fawlty Tours: 7 Games Tour Companies Play

We began this piece by writing a narrative tracing the hiccups in our Salkantay to Machu Picchu trek, but soon realized that our lessons learned go beyond Peru’s tourist-laden Inca corridor.

So what happened? Our guide got drunk two nights in a row, tried to pinch us for more money with unplanned and overpriced transport, didn’t buy our Machu Picchu tickets in advance, missed our meeting on the day of Machu Picchu by two hours, and mismanaged our return train and bus tickets to Cusco.

Not bad, eh? (But we still had a great time. Our group even enjoyed a few laughs because of it.)

Together at Machu Picchu - Peru
Our fabulous trekking group to Machu Picchu.

At each turn, the ironic assurances of our Cusco-based tour company echoed: “Pay a little more with us and you’ll have a better experience.”

So next time you book that tour or trek – especially in and around high-traffic choice destinations – here are a few things to keep in mind and some behaviors to look out for:

1. You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For

Sniff that price tag with a healthy dose of skepticism. More than once, we’ve been on a tour whose participants paid vastly different prices for the exact same service. And by vast, we’re not talking a couple of dollars, but double and triple the price.

It’s every buyer’s right to try and get the lowest price and every seller’s right to try and maximize his take. But while it’s fairly clear in the airline business that the cost of a flight depends heavily on when you book, that same level transparency does not appear to hold in the tour business.

Our experience Our experience: For the same exact services, participants on our Salkantay trek paid $180, $250, $300, $400 and over $500. Some people booked two days before in Cusco, others in Lima and Germany months in advance.

Advice brick Advice: If many tour companies appear to be offering similar tours and services, visit a few (in person or online) and shop around to determine exactly what you’re paying for. If you are paying extra, be certain you are doing so for higher quality or convenience. Otherwise you are just leaving money on the table.

When and where you book will weigh heavily on the price you pay…and the number of middlemen sharing your cash. Prices from internet brokers who are not on location will likely be much higher.

Finally, research whether or not your tour or trek is flexible enough to accommodate just-in-time arrival. With the Inca Trail, this really isn’t an option. For alternative Machu Picchu treks like the Salkantay Trek or Sacred Valley tours, it usually is.

2. Funneling

This phenomenon occurs when hundreds of companies sell the same tour and dump their clients into a funnel that empties into the embrace of a handful of freelance companies managing the actual services. You book with Company X, who coordinates with Company Y, and you end up in the hands of Company Z. Of course, Company X (who is really just a middleman) never lets you in on this secret. The result: a confounding mess of expectations and accountability.

Our experience Our experience: Our trekking group consisted of nine people who booked through six different companies. The trek itself was run by yet another company — if not an amalgam of companies (in fact, it was difficult to tell). The company we booked with marketed themselves as a “direct agency,” meaning that they ran the whole show. Our conversations with other tourists suggest this dishonest broken-record selling point is in play across many tour operators in Cusco.

Advice brick Advice: A good tour company either runs their own show or offers transparent options outlining who is actually running the tour. Try to determine how many links are in the chain of agents that will deliver your services.

3. Chiseling

This is the tour variation on: “my friend has a jewelry [carpet/ceramics] shop with great prices.” When your guide begins to cut corners and offer options that were covered in the paid tour in the first place, you know that you are being chiseled. Mastery of this art involves creating opportunities for friends to make money and insisting there are no other providers in town other than the ones the guide recommends.

Our experience Our experience: Besides directing us to a taxi that was five times the going rate, our guide tried to convince the group to forgo hiking and pay for a bus the next day (driven by the same friend). When that trick didn’t stick, he insisted that we pay to transport our baggage to the next stop, even though every agency had included this service in the tour. Together as a group, we called the guide on his game. Suddenly, transport was available for our baggage and no more mention was made of his friend’s van.

Advice brick Advice: If something doesn’t seem right, ask questions immediately instead of waiting until it’s too late. If you don’t like the unexpected detours (shops or otherwise), let your guide know this.

4. “No problem”

This is the chorus of guides and organizers around the world intending to soothe fears and concerns. If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it 10,000 times.

In the world of tours and treks, “no problem” begins when agencies leave details vague enough and open to interpretation so that when it comes down to accountability there is nothing definitive to hang a complaint on.

Our experience Our experience: In order to clarify what we were paying for, we asked endless questions when shopping around for our Salkantay trek. Tour companies often made us feel like we were paranoid.

“No problem. We organize everything,” was the common refrain. Yeah, right.

Advice brick Advice: When you hear “no problem” while booking, expect problems. When you hear “no problem” on the trek, start praying. “No problem” is your cue to ask questions and get more specifics. Bottom line: if the company can’t provide answers, then it’s time to move on.

5. Lobbying

When your guide begins hinting about money — particularly by sharing stories of outsized tips given by other tourists — you know you are being lobbied.

Our experience Our experience: Fortunately, our Salkantay guide did his lobbying for the cook and horse handler (both of whom were competent and deserving of tips).

When we hiked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, however, our companions’ porter began lobbying on day two of a fifteen-day trek and never let up. Our porter never said a word about money, and in the end, wound up with twice the tip.

Advice brick Advice: If you find yourself being lobbied, consider diffusing it with humor. Playing dumb or acting aloof can also work. If the guide persists, let him know that the more time he spends talking about money and the less time he spends working as a good guide, the more rapidly his tip will evaporate.

6. The Blame Game

Ah, the musical chairs of responsibility. When things go wrong, the guide blames the tour company; the tour company blames the guide.

Our experience Our experience: When our Machu Picchu and return tickets to Cusco weren’t ready upon our arrival in Aguas Calientes, our guide blamed the tour company. Upon our return to Cusco, our tour company’s response regarding the missing tickets and drinking: “The guide is responsible once the tour starts.”

So what exactly are we paying the tour company for?

Advice brick Advice: Before handing over your money, consider asking the tour company: “If something goes wrong on the tour or with the guide, who is responsible? What will the company do if things don’t go as planned on the tour? What is my recourse?” Listen to the answers and proceed accordingly.

7. The Culture Card

Cultural differences are one thing, but when you take our money and make promises about very basic things (tickets, times to meet, what services are included, etc.), the excuse – “We do things differently here” – begins to lose its validity.

Our experience Our experience: As things fell apart on our Salkantay trek, a woman from Germany began asking questions about the way the trek was organized. The guide’s response: “This isn’t Germany. We do things differently in Peru.”

Sorry, but failing to purchase entrance tickets to Machu Picchu doesn’t fall under the “cultural sensitivity” rubric.

Advice brick Advice: Respect and cultural sensitivity come first. Maybe everything won’t go exactly as you expect, and culture can certainly play a role in that. But when you see the big stuff going awry, then it’s time to voice your objections.

——–
A big thanks to our trekking group for helping to make the experience what it was. If forced to choose between a competent tour company/guide and a good-natured trekking group, we’d choose the latter.

And, a special thanks goes to Seamus, the young man with the Irish flag who provided the inspiration for the title of this piece and always kept us laughing.

Caveats:

  • We queried over 20 people in Cusco, and countless others along our journey. It was incredible how similar everyone’s experiences were, no matter the company or tour.
  • Specifically for Cusco, we did hear of well-organized Inca Trail and small-group tours (where, it turns out, lobbying is the biggest problem you face).
  • By no means does every tour operator or guide exhibit these characteristics. Having said that, it’s useful to recognize the warning signs should you encounter them so you can respond accordingly.

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Comments

  1. says

    This makes me really wary about starting to plan the trek if all of the tour operators play these games! Ack! Thanks for posting these tips though , guess the best I can do is know their game and shop around :-)

  2. says

    Great post and advice. Always good to ask as much information as possible. We always book our tours upon arrival with local companies. It is so much cheaper than booking overseas and you are right, cutting out the middle men save a lot of money and hassle. We booked our climb up Kilimanjaro the day before the climb in Moshi at a local shop and had the best trek of our lives. Plus we climbed for a fraction of what any operator in Canada could offer it for.

    I had one problem in Vietnam with cultural differences once. We were sold on going to the sand dunes in Mui Ne with this company because they promised us that we would go sand boarding. When we got there, they changed their minds and didn’t have any boards. I complained and they almost left me out there in the dunes. An NGO worker was on the tour with me, and he explained that I made our guide lose face. I had to put on a grand apology in front of everyone before he would allow me back in the jeep. And yet, the only reason we went on the tour was for the sand boarding. We could have hired a taxi and walked around on our own.
    C’est la vie:)

  3. says

    All of these “games” sound very familiar – very funny that ALL of those games occured in one trip!
    We did our best to avoid trouble by booking with local tour companies, which we tried to research beforehand. The price is always better and you know that all of your dollars are going into the local economy. We also try to get recommendations from other travelers who have nothing to gain or lose by being honest.

  4. says

    All too familiar! We fortunately had a tremendously frustrating experience on a $10 tour only a few days after arriving in Peru, which woke us up early to the types of scams and games out there.

    Since then we’ve been tremendously picky, to the point of splurging on private tours. Obviously that can get pricy when it’s anything more than a daytrip, but we’ve had nothing but amazing, talented and helpful guides (I’ve written about them on our blog–some small thanks for how awesome they were).

    I think the biggest thing we’ve come across is getting farmed out to other tour companies. Here it’s crucial to find out who the actual company will be and what they offer. Particularly it’s crucial to find out what they believe is included in the price you paid, since it could differ from what the company you sign up with told you. When we went on the Santa Cruz trek in Huaraz, Peru, half of us had been told we would be provided toilet paper, and half were told we would be provided water. None of us had signed up with the company who took us on the trek, and neither of those things were provided. (The company who took us was Galaxia, and they were fantastic).

    This is some fantastic advice, thanks for sharing!

  5. says

    All those complaints sound very familiar from my Peruvian trekking experience, and of most people I met and spoke to – the most extreme example of a price differential for a trek I was on was where I paid $270 (booked locally) and my trekking companion paid over $1000 (booked from ireland)!

    On the Inca Trail itself, I only met people from three companies that had no complaints at all – Gap Adventures, SAS & Llama Path. They all seemed to run their own tours, their porters were professional and organised, and everything went smoothly. Yes, they do all charge a little more than the alternatives, but I have never heard a bad word about any of the three from anyone. (Although personally I wouldn’t have wanted to be with Gap Adventures – they had by far the biggest group walking the trail while I was there, and walking with that many people can be a bit of a nightmare).

  6. Phil says

    Dave & Deb:

    As much as I try to work within the cultural constraints of whatever country I’m in, the whole concept of “face” in Asian countries really irritates me in situations like that. Some one basically blatantly attempts to rip me off, and suddenly I’m at fault because I’ve caused him to lose face? Nothing grates on me more than having to do the requisite polite dance to address the problem without the loss of face when I am clearly a victim of a scam, but the confrontational route rarely works out. (And even when it does, you’re just confirming all their ugly stereotypes about Westerners, which doesn’t feel real good either…)

  7. says

    I really appreciate your positive and constructive spin on the situation, which has turned into an incredibly informative and balanced article. It would have been really easy to just complain about the experience (I would probably have been tempted to turn it into a comedy-of-errors story myself), but it wouldn’t have been nearly as useful or interesting. Thank you!

  8. says

    @Hal: Glad you lucked out with the tour to Machu Picchu and that you were on the lower end of the price game. We talked with a Canadian couple who did a Sacred Valley tour that cost $10 for a crowded, standard tour while a British couple paid $250/person in the UK thinking it was a private, VIP tour. Ouch!

    @Shannon: Not all tour companies play these games, but in areas with high concentrations of tourists and famous sights many of them do and feel they can get away with it because there will always be a flow of new tourists. The best thing is to be aware and ask lots of questions to be sure you know who is actually managing the tour in the end.

    @Amy: Good question. In reality, this tour company wasn’t any “worse” than any other in the budget range. That said, I would only book with them on the ground – we paid $180 (including sleeping bag rental) while we heard that travelers who booked the exact same tour with them via the internet paid $320-$350. Here’s the company: MUW

    @Matt: Gap Adventures does get good reviews from other travelers we’ve met. However, it’s not really an option for us most of the time because you have to book in advance (and our itinerary changes constantly with different projects), it doesn’t have tours in many of the places we go, the cost is significantly higher than booking on the ground with a local company. Also, we like our tourism dollars to go to local businesses.

    @Dave and Deb: If you have a little flexibility with time, booking on location is usually much more inexpensive and you have a choice of companies. I’m glad you mentioned your experience at Mt. Kilimanjaro – that was one place where I was wondering if we had to book in advance (as all the websites make it sound).

    @Jennifer: Yes, that was the incredible thing about this tour – they all happened at the same time! First hand advice about tour companies and specific guides is best – talking with other travelers and checking traveler bulletin boards is a great idea.

    @Jessie: It was really amazing how many people we met in Peru and who had just traveled from Peru who had similar (or worse) tour experiences. A lot of the confusion and problems stem from mismanaged expectations – tour companies say “yes” to everything, without being able to back it up (e.g., promising train tickets at specific times before they actually purchase them). If they just were honest and told people what was guaranteed and what was a “maybe,” then travelers could adjust their expectations accordingly…and know who is taking them on the tour.

    @Geoff: The price differential between what different people on the same tour paid is really amazing. You bring up a good point when shopping around for tours (especially ones where you’re spending extra money for quality) – ask about the maximum tour group size. In my opinion, more than 10 or 12 people is too much.

    @Phil: Keeping your cool in Asia when you’ve been ripped off or the tour has gone completely awry is difficult and super frustrating (you feel you’ve been wronged by you can’t express it directly). We’ve found that taking the guide off to the side where the rest of the group can’t see him helps. But, sometimes you just got to be honest – if the tour company deals mainly with western tourists then they need to know how to deal with them to be successful.

    @Nora: The piece did start out as a humorous piece, but then we thought back on all the tours we had been on – good and bad – and patterns started to emerge. Glad you enjoyed the piece!

  9. says

    Great article! I did the same tour at the end of August and can agree with your experience – slightly different set of problems, but your summary is fantastic!

  10. says

    I must have been fortunate with the Inca Trail as apart from lobbying, the trip was outstanding. Everyhting well planned and everyhting delivered as committed. Telling the guide that his tip would go everytime he asked the group about it stopped the lobbying at around the third attempt. The guide, cook and porters were well looked after as the expereince was A-1. Mind you, several of the things you’ve described have happened on other trips I’ve done.

  11. says

    @Mark H: We offer this list in the hopes that readers don’t have to experience all these features at once, but be prepared when they happen to see one or two of them. Glad you had a great trip…and were able to cut the lobbying short.

  12. Dave E says

    Your friend Lori Gibson Banducci recommended this site to me tonight; we have been friends since high school. This is really helpfuyl stuff. Two friends and I are planning a January Inca Trail trek. Any comments or advice about that month in particular (weather, crowds, etc)…slow season tips for Cuzco hotels…travel from Lima to Cuzco…your favorite restaurant in Cuzco, or nearby!

  13. says

    @Dave: Thanks for stopping by! From what we were told, it should be quite green in January around Cusco and for your trek. The upside is that it should be really beautiful (when we were there it was dry and brown)…the downside of this is that it means there is a lot of rain so pack your plastic parka.

    Food is Cuzco is not high value compared with Lima. For fusion and better quality food, we liked Two Nations (good alpaca carpaccio) or Los Perros (good pisco sours & pumpkin soup) – both are run by Australian expats. Victor Victoria was good for breakfast and Jack’s (run by an American) had great coffee. However, if you’re interested in exploring Peruvian cuisine, it’s better in Lima. We’ll be writing a series on Peruvian food soon, so stay tuned.

    Good luck planning your trip and enjoy!

  14. says

    HI guys,
    Read this article and listened to the radio interview the day before doing the Salkantay trek so was a little worried to say the least. However, the US$170 I paid in Cusco was well spent, everything went without hitch, very professional etc.
    Just one sour note. On the last day, our group gave the “lead” guide a tip to divide equally between himself and the other guide. However, later we met the “second” guide who claimed that he would not see a cent of it – he said there was little solidarity between the guides and in fact this was the first time they had worked together. By the way both of these men were very professional, helpful, and patient ie good people – but the lesson is that you have to hand any tip directly to those involved, including the horsemen, cooks etc.

  15. says

    @Donncha: Glad to hear you had such a good experience with your inexpensive Salkantay Trek tour. Sorry to hear that the “lead” guide wasn’t a team player. We handed our tips directly to the horsemen and cooks since we really didn’t trust our guide at that point :)

    Would you mind sharing which company you booked with and which company ran the tour (if different)? Might be useful for other readers planning a similar trip.

  16. says

    Hi Audrey,
    The company was Tierras Vivas Tel-Fax 0051-84-235211. Cel. 0051-84-984948212. E’mail info@tierrasvivas.com sales@tierrasvivas.com
    However, we booked from a guy called Edwin who helps run a group of three hostals called Samanapata 1, 2 and 3. It was November and so off season and I got $10 off as I was staying at his hostal.
    BTW, can-t really recommend the hostal but the tour was faultless. Finally, note that in November you can expect it to rain more days than it doesn’t.

  17. Michael says

    Great article!
    One thing, how much did he pay ton their staff?

    DO NOT contributed to the exploitation of the staff who have helped you achieve your goal.

    We have done with Infocuso and they made a great job.

  18. says

    @Michael: If I understand your question, you are meaning to ask whether we are taking advantage of tour companies that are in turn taking advantage of their employees. While we travel within a budget, and this places certain constraints, we will always choose to travel with companies whose values we share. And this includes properly and respectfully treating people — customers and employees alike.

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