5 Reasons Why you should Travel with a Small Business

So you’ve decided to book a group tour.  Perhaps you are a teacher or a school administrator, or maybe you just have a big family!..  There are several big companies out there that go to hundreds of destinations.  They have very seductive advertising, and some even give bonuses (commissions) to teachers if you book with them.  As tempting  as travel with one of these big companies may seem, I want to give you my advice on why booking with a small travel agency or local company is a much better option.

  1.  Throughout the booking process, you will be dealing with human beings instead of company policies and automation. 
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“Please dial 1 if you would like to make a booking, please dial 2 if you would like to change your booking, please dial 3 if you have already wasted 30 minutes on this phone call and just want your money back.”  We have all been frustrated beyond belief with these types of phone calls.  Talking to an actual human being is a miracle.  And, once you finally get that person on the phone, they tell you, “sorry, that is against our company policies.”  When you work with a small tour agency, you will often be booking with one of the owners of the company or, someone who is sitting right next to the owner.  As a small business owner, my priority is understanding and working with each person’s particular needs.  It truly brings me joy to come up with a solution together with my client.   

  1. Local companies have personal relationships with the communities and providers of the country they are working in.

Oftentimes, I work with a community that actually feels like they are part of my family.  I know their homes, their extended family, their dreams, their successes, and their hardships.  We have been through good times and bad.  We call each other and check up on each other during, say, a pandemic.  These same communities also sometimes work with large companies.  I have seen on a first-hand basis how these companies roll up in large tour buses and unload huge groups.  The guides don’t know the community members by name. They eat lunch, and then head off to the next thing.  There is no connection, no authenticity.  It is something the large company can check off their list.  “Yep, we took you to an indigneous local community.  Done.”

 When you travel with a small company, you get to know the country like they do.  You learn about people’s lifestyles, their families, their hopes and dreams and their hardships.  It is real and you make profound connections with that community.

  1. You run the show, not the tour company!

A small company can offer something those large agencies can’t: flexibility.  The big guys sell you a package, and can sometimes do an upgrade or an “add on.”  But, if there is something you think would be interesting to do outside of the itinerary they offer, forget about it.  They often don’t know the destinations that they are selling to you.  They might have traveled there once or even a few times, but they don’t know what else that country has to offer.  When you travel with a local business, the owners have usually lived and worked in the country for years.  They know hidden gems that aren’t even in the guide books.  If you say, for example, “ hey, is there a waterfall that we could go to?”  Even if it is not on the itinerary, most likely, the small company will say, “oh yeah, I can take you to the local watering hole that tourists rarely visit.”   Adventures can pop up out of nowhere.  You can end up somewhere that few foreigners have  seen, because it is a local’s spot.  

  1.  Customization 

This is related to reason number 3 but deserves a point of its own.  Let’s say you are really interested in poetry.    Your dream vacation would be to go to a foreign country and go from one poetry slam to the next.  You also would love to visit antique bookstores that might have old poetry that is difficult to find online or in other larger bookstores.  You can’t exactly go to a large company and say, “I want a poetry tour of Ecuador.”  They might say, “well here’s our itineraries and we can stop by Guayasumin’s house and there is some poetry there. “  But, that is not exactly what you had in mind.  If you were to ask us, we would respond, “great, let’s talk to a friend who is an expert in poetry in Quito.  We will make this happen!”  The possibilities are endless with small companies, whereas larger ones must create limitations to be successful/ stay competitive.

  1. You will walk away with true friendships 

I have stayed in the homes of many past clients.  I have gone on rock climbing trips, yurt trips, and lunches with past clients.  We call each other on special occasions.  My participants know my husband and my dog.  Instead of being “clients”, they are now a part of my community.  Small companies are just that:  small, but with strong communities.  They are a sum of the wisdom and experiences of the people who have participated on trips.  They are a product of everybody’s knowledge and each participant has helped build that small tour company.  If you want to be a part of something larger than yourself, and actually have a lasting impact,  you should definitely travel with a small company.  

Part III Trapped Abroad

The first few days of hosting my family were spent close to home–as within walking distance. My brothers’ arrivals were staggered, and each time a new part of the group arrived there was a day of acclimation and recovering from the day of travel.  We spent most of our time shuffling kids and juggling nap times and walking around “La Carolina”.  La Carolina is Quito’s “Central Park”, is 2.5 miles in circumference and is across the street from my apartment.  My parents and one brother (+ his family) rented an AirBnb for the time we had planned in Quito which was directly across the park from my apartment.  

Airbnb

We ate street food, explored the nearby markets, and my 4-year-old nephew played on all the playgrounds, and there are a lot of playgrounds.  Little did we know that this was going to be the only time we had for any sightseeing.  Sure, COVID was all over the news, but it still didn’t seem to be an immediate threat.  There were no cases reported in Quito, and flights were still coming and going.  I was in close contact with all of my providers who I had made arrangements with for my family and everyone was reconfirmed that all our plans were still on.  

On the night of March 14th, the last of my family arrived in Quito (after a series of stressful events that are not relevant to include here).  Within an hour of my final brother’s arrival in Quito, the government announced that they were closing the border and not allowing any foreigners to enter the country by land, sea, or air.  Ecuadorian citizens abroad were given 24 hours to return home before the border was closed to them as well.  We were concerned by that news, but still, our plans remained in place.  

Sunday, March 15th, was the one day that we actually spent touring.  And even then, we only spent half a day wandering Quito’s Colonial City Center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We were limited by babies, our 4-year-old, and increasing anxiety amongst the adults.  My brother who had just arrived 12 hours earlier received word that his (and his wife and daughter’s) flight home had been canceled.  We returned to the AirBnb in the afternoon to sort out that situation and regroup.  

Sadly, my brother, a doctor, decided that he and his family would be departing for home on the next available flight.  They were concerned that they would get stuck in Ecuador and my brother needed to get home within 10 days for his job at the hospital.  They were able to book passage on a flight that left the following night (Monday night).  Despite our disappointment that part of our family would be departing early and missing the planned trip, we had a wonderful afternoon and evening in my apartment.  We were all together, in Ecuador–that in and of itself was miraculous.  My partner, A, gave a salsa class; the babies rode around on my Roomba, I ordered an absurd amount of Venezuelan food to feed the masses, and all was well….for a few hours….  

As of Sunday afternoon, we were still planning on traveling to the cloud forest town of Mindo the following day; however, our itinerary began to deteriorate that night as I received a series of announcements.  The first few cases of COVID had been detected in Quito, and, at that point, the government took swift and decisive action.  On the night of the 15th (Sunday) it was announced that as of 5am on the 17th, the entire country was going to be locked down.  Essentially, we had 24 hours to prepare for an indefinite and complete quarantine lockdown, and everyone, all 13 members of my family, were depending on me, the “baby” of the family.