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Think Global, Travel Local: Using the Internet to Book Direct with Local Tour Operators

By Kristin Johannsen

Alex, our travel agent, had failed us. For the first time ever, he had drawn a blank. "I have scuba diving in Egypt," he said. "And I have Nile cruises with a tour of Cairo. But I can't find a way to combine all that in only 12 days," he apologized.

It seemed like a simple request. We had always dreamed of seeing Egypt, of sailing the Nile and walking the Valley of the Kings. 

And, having just earned our scuba certification, we wanted to dive the coral reefs of the Red Sea. We hoped to see the country's ancient treasures, and its underwater treasures as well. But we had just 12 days for vacation, and it was turning out to be an impossible dream.

A few days later, I ran across a tiny notice in a scuba diving magazine.  A company in Cairo advertised dive packages, cultural tours, and air tickets -- followed by an odd-looking fax number.  Intrigued, I sent off a message in very simple English.

And that was the start of a memorable trip, at an astonishing price. We sailed the Nile for five days, guided by an Egyptologist; explored the brilliant coral reefs of the Red Sea while staying at a newly-opened resort (and feasting nightly on Egyptian delicacies); and then spent a day touring Cairo with our own car, driver, and guide. Our customized trip arranged by a local operator cost less than half the daily rate of an ordinary off-the-shelf tour.

Direct booking of travel, especially through the Internet, is booming. Direct booking of travel, especially through the Internet, is booming. The on-line travel market accounts for more than $919 million per month in 2004 according to a report by Goldman Sachs, Harris Interative and Nielsen/NetRatings, up 11 percent from the previous year. 

Since our Egyptian adventure, I've booked numerous overseas trips direct-- even easier since the spread of the Internet. Dealing directly with local companies, I've arranged everything from a hotel room in Fiji to a sailboat cruise in Thailand. Our most recent trip: a month-long rail journey through Vietnam, accompanied every step of the way by our own interpreter-guide. The all-inclusive price? Less than $50 a day.

Besides saving you money, direct booking with local tour companies has some intangible advantages. For one thing, you benefit from inside knowledge that only the locals have. Think of the pleasure you take in showing out-of-town friends around your city. Local tour companies feel the same hometown pride for Bali and Bangkok.

More importantly, by cutting out layers of middlemen, you can put more money into the pockets of hard-working people in developing countries. Online booking has proven a boon for small local travel businesses. "The Internet has allowed even the smallest mom-and-pop company the opportunity to look as good, and offer the same online facilities, as the largest international
company," says Steven Venter, Africa For Visitors guide at about.com.

The process of arranging a trip is quite straightforward.  Here are the steps:

  • Brainstorm a detailed wish list, including places, activities, and special requests. Do you want your own guide? Hotels on the beach? Travel only by train? See the GoNOMAD MINI GUIDE TO FINDING AND CHOOSING A TOUR for further questions to help you define your trip.
  • Search the Internet for companies located in your destination country. This
    is much easier with a specialized travel directory, such as GoNOMAD’s, that lists companies by country.
  • Don't overlook the humble printed page as a source of information--particularly special-interest publications. For example, scuba magazines often have listings of overseas dive clubs.
  • Look through the offerings of various companies. E-mail them with your wish-list. Most local tour operators are delighted to show off their expertise by putting together customized itineraries for foreign clients.
  • If your e-mail goes unanswered, try sending a fax. Not all companies with websites have their own e-mail accounts, but fax machines are everywhere these days. Problems connecting? Try removing any "0's" included in the fax number, which indicate area codes in many countries. For example, if 45-06-12345 doesn't work, 45-6-12345 probably will.
  • Apply your common sense. "Hone your brain's `scam detector' to detect obvious rip-offs," says Durant Imboden, author of Buying Travel Services on the Internet. "If a website is heavy on gush and light on details, let skepticism be your guide."
  • Check the company's reputation. "Ask for references, when possible," suggests Imboden. You can also try online travelers' message boards. You may find rave reviews (or warnings!) from recent customers. Posting a query may bring you the information you need.

Is it really safe to entrust your travels to unknown local companies? In seven years of booking this way, I haven't encountered a single problem. 
Here are some points to ensure a smooth trip:

  • Start early. Everything takes longer in the developing world, so allow plenty of time for the company to make arrangements.  Begin your search 3-4 months before departure, if possible.
  • Put it in writing. To avoid language problems, use fax and e-mail in preference to the phone.  Many foreign users of English are much stronger in reading and writing than they are in speaking.
  • Pay by credit card-- it's amazing how many places accept them now.  If that's not possible, send the smallest deposit that you can, with an international check or wire transfer from a big bank.  (But remember, the tour company needs this money to secure reservations for hotels, domestic flights, etc.)
  • Before departure, be sure to get the address and phone number of a contact person from the company in your arrival city.

There are situations when booking direct may not be the best way to go. If time is really tight--for instance, you're leaving two weeks from today--this approach may become a nerve-wracking exercise. One traveler was fretting recently on an Internet message board that she had e-mailed five airlines about fares to the Middle East, and was still waiting for replies.

Direct booking is also iffy in places that restrict tourism, such as many countries of the former Soviet Union.  And it's better to leave planning to the pros if you want to do a multi-country trip. Local tour companies naturally specialize in their own nation, and may have little expertise in
their neighbors.

But with the Internet reaching more remote locations every year, direct booking of even the most exotic trip with a local operator is increasingly possible--and practical. By giving travelers a direct link to developing countries, the Internet will truly fulfill its potential to bring the world together.

 

 

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