Did your last tour suck? Let’s face it group tours while on vacation can be really hit or miss, and the last thing you want while enjoying precious time off is to go on a terrible group tour.
For most people a vacation is a big deal, you save money, take time off work, and have certain expectation of what you want your vacation to be like. When those expectations aren’t met it is really disappointing. But you know what? Going on a tour doesn’t have to suck, you just need to choose the right tour operator by asking the right questions.
In this article I’m going to share with you some pearls of wisdom I’ve picked up over the years being a customer, sales rep, tour guide, and most recently tour operator.
Expectation Vs Reality
You arrive in the Riviera Maya and you know you want to do a tour of Chichen Itza. You have seen the pictures on Instagram and you have read all about it being one of the new seven wonders of the world. You know you want to go on a tour and whether you realize it or not, you have certain expectations, and they may look a bit like this:
You expect to arrive there quickly and in comfort.
You expect to be able to take your pictures without a crowd of people in your shot.
You expect a knowledgeable tour guide who is able to answer all of your questions and be friendly and approachable.
You expect the group to be a nice size.
You expect to have a good lunch.
You expect to be able to swim in a beautiful Cenote after your visit to Chichen Itza.
After a long day you expect to be dropped off back at your hotel in good time.
If one or two of these expectations aren’t met it can be a little annoying, but if the tour company fails to deliver on most of this list It’s going to mean a pretty lousy day for you and your family!
Where do these expectations come from?
Some expectations come from just expecting people to look after their customers and want them to have a great experience. Other expectations might come from travel videos you have watched on YouTube, Pictures on Instagram, maybe you looked at the website, or even a friend back at home told you about their visit.
All of these things help to build a picture in our heads of what something will be like.
So when you are approached by a salesperson in the hotel and offered a bargain price you bite their hand off. You don't necessarily ask what you are getting for your money as you expect that all tours are pretty much the same, sadly they are not.
Money is always a key factor. We often only compare the numbers, but let's face it that's not going to give you a true reflection, you need to dig a little deeper. For example, if you want to go to Tulum and you see it for $40 USD or $200 USD, you are probably going to go with the $40 USD tour, right? But what people don't always take into consideration is the experience you are going to get. What is that extra $160 going to get you that the $40 USD tour isn’t?
Tour operators often fit into 2 categories.
Those playing the short game who just want your money and don’t really care about your experience. They just want bums on seats so to speak.
Then there are those playing the long game. They care about your experience with them, they want your 5* reviews, they want you to come back next time you are on vacation, and they want you to recommend them to their friends and family back at home. In the age of TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Facebook companies can’t get away with bad customer service.
But if you don’t look before you book your tour, how will you know?
Knowing the right questions to ask
Ok, first things first. If you are booking with a salesperson at your hotel or on the street then you need to remember a few things:
They are earning a commission for selling to you. Their objective is to sell something to you. So they are going to tell you what you want to hear, there objective is to tell you what they need to to meet your expectation.
I’m not saying don’t buy from them, just don’t buy blindly, ask questions so you know exactly what you are buying. Here are a few key points to think about and the questions you need to ask.
What is the pick up time?
What kind of bus will I be traveling in?
How many people are on the tour?
How many pickups will there be?
How long does it take to get there?
What time will we arrive?
What time does it open?
How many languages will the tour be in?
Is the guide professionally trained?
Is lunch included? Is it a buffet, do I get choices or is lunch fixed? Cold or hot lunch?
People don't always consider the pick up time, how many pickups, how many people, will you be on a big bus or a small bus? Quite often you will be one pick up on a long list and can end up spending an hour just driving around picking people up. No one wants that at 6am on vacation. Then you will have the same on the way back, this can put a couple of extra hours on your day.
Then there is the bus, you could end up with an old bus with no AC and a underpaid disgruntled driver weaving in and out of other cars. Not exactly anyone's idea of a fun family day out!
If you are going on a tour of Chichen Itza you want to find out if they will be taking the toll road or not, not taking it can add a couple of extra hours on your journey. You also want to know if you are going to be getting there before the park opens or an hour later. If you don't get there at 8am on the dot or ideally just before, you aren't going to get your photos with no other people in them. By 9am the site will be full!
What languages does the tour guide speak? Is he a professionally trained guide? It's all well and good having a multilingual tour, but the reality is you are going to have to spend all day waiting for everything to be explained in 5 different languages! Then there is the guide, this is a big one your tour guide can make or break your day.
There are so many factors to take into consideration. So just looking at the numbers doesn’t always give you a good indication of the tour. It is important before making a decision on which tour to book to first think about your expectations.
What's important to you in a tour experience? Chances are the $40 USD tour won’t meet very many of your expectations, so it probably isn't the right tour for you. You can avoid so many bad situations when dealing with your sales reps by just asking the above questions.
If they can’t answer these questions, tell them to call the operator and find out. They will need to call them to book you in anyway, so it really isn’t a big deal for them to make the call. If they won’t ask, don't book the tour with them. Simple.
Also, don’t forget to ask for the name of the tour operator, then you can also look them up online, and check the reviews.
Remember theses guys are the middle men, they are selling for someone else so they won’t always know the answers and will need to find out.
Why your tour guide sucks
Another huge factor in the experience of your tour is going to be your tour guide.
From the moment you step on the bus until you are dropped back off at your hotel, they are effectively in charge of your experience.
That person is responsible for your experience.
So how can you guarantee you will get a good tour guide? Well the short answer is, you can’t! But there are some things you can look out for to improve your odds of getting a good one!
Know that the budget tours often pay a low salary to all of their workers. Many guides are paid a very low salary and rely mostly on tips. Looking specifically at the River Maya area, the wages are often low and the cost of living is very high compared to other parts of Mexico. This makes the turn over of guides very high!There is a constant stream of young people arriving here in search of work and more experienced guides getting burned out and leaving.
There are not many tour operators who retain their guides for a long period of time. Guides lack motivation as they are poorly paid and overworked. Your tour guide could be responsible for a bus full of 50 people, all day every day. After a while that wears a person down, especially if they aren't being financially rewarded for the work they do. The driver and tour guide are both living off their tips in many instances.
Added to this they often only get notified about their tours late at night the night before. If booking for your tour closes at 10pm the guide won’t be notified until after 10pm. This can be a stressful way to work. You can never make firm plans in case a tour comes in.
Many companies don’t provide much training. They just shadow a more experienced guide a few times then they are on their own. They may not know much about the place you are visiting and have no clue how to actually guide. They aren’t confident leaders and struggle to comment large groups of people. The training just adequately prepare them to guide. I have seen guides completely broken unable to take control of a group. That’s not their fault, they just haven’t been trained.
There are many really good guides out there. One thing I can guarantee though is that the well trained professional guides, with years of experience and knowledge about the sites you will be visiting will not be working for your $40 USD tour company. Most of the good guides are locals (both Mexican and foreign) who have been living here for a long time and know the area well. They are valuable and expect to be rewarded financially for their expertise. They are going to be working for the company paying them a fair wage.
Listen to the advice of locals
I have had so many instances where a potential guest has contacted me about doing a tour and insisted on squeezing 15 people into a small boat to save a bit of money. In doing so everyone on that boat would spend the day feeling uncomfortable having no space. Trust me when I tell you this isn’t going to be enjoyable for you and your family!
It would be a much better experience for everyone to feel comfortable and relaxed on the boat by having more space. Remember it is your vacation, you want to enjoy it. Do you really want to spend a full day of your vacation feeling uncomfortable just to save a few $$?
Now I know there are plenty of tour operators who are just desperate to sell you something. They will tell you what you want to hear. So then when I tell people no, it makes them suspicious that I’m trying to up-sell them something. This really isn’t the case. I prefer to put your comfort and experience before the money.
Check out our reviews on TripAdvisor and you will see from the review that our guests experience is the most important factor to us. Period. So, when I know you are not going to have the best possible experience, I’m going to tell you that. I want to manage your expectations, and when you come on a tour with us my aim is to meet all of your expectations.
So before you book your tour, do some research, don’t book the cheapest tour just because it is the cheapest.
You have worked hard to be able to lo come on vacation. Don’t risk having a bad experience just because you wanted to save a few $.
The private tour industry is growing rapidly because people are becoming tired of these big companies going for the quick dollar and one care about customer service. Those of us in it for the long game care about their guests and do everything they can to impress you because we want you to use us again next time you come on vacation. We want your excellent review on Tripadvisor. We think about the long game.
So remember, next time you are about to book that budget tour, ask questions, check the reviews and that all of that into consideration before committing to anything.