Tours & Trips

How to Plan a Budget-Friendly Guided Tour

Elaina Giolando

A former management consultant turned nomad, Elaina writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel on topics including internships abroad and gap years.

Even adventurous independent travelers take guided tours when it makes sense. When the destination is difficult, hard-to-reach, or seriously unfamiliar, it can be a wise decision to go with an experienced operator for that particular trip.

If you choose the right tour company, you gain convenience, local knowledge, and potentially a whole group of new friends! Sharing an exciting once-in-a-lifetime experience like trekking in Nepal or visiting the Galapagos Islands is an amazing opportunity to bond with like-minded travelers.

The main concern with taking a guided tour is, of course, the price tag. When a trip costs thousands of dollars, you want to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck possible.

It’s possible that doing a trip independently could be cheaper in many cases, but as we've demonstrated, there are sometimes great reasons to choose a guided tour. If you decide that's is right for you, here are a few ways to avoid breaking the bank and maybe even find a great deal on a guided tour.

Price Out the Entire Trip Cost

It’s important to do your homework when selecting a tour operator (link), but it’s especially important to do your due diligence on the financial aspect.

Take a look at the trip you want to take and research how much the hotels, food, guides, transport, gear, and activities cost in that location. Realistically assess how much money you’d spend to do the trip independently so you have a basis for comparison when you look at the prices being quoted by the tour operators.

Request a Detailed Price Breakdown

When you get quotes from tour operators, ask for them in as much detail as possible. Try to figure out:

  • How much of the cost is going to accommodation, food, activities, guides, transportation, etc?
  • How do those prices compare to what you researched on your own?
  • Are they inflating the costs or providing a measurably improved experience (ie. 4 star hotels for the same price you found some hostel beds)?

Once you can see the numbers, it's easier to figure out what you're actually paying for in the total cost of the guided tour.

Get Clarity on "Extras" and What They Cost

Photo by: Michael M, GapForce Australia Adventure

A great example of "extras" that most people don't include in the cost of their travel? Shore excursions on a mega-cruise ship. You may get a great deal on the cabin aboard the ship, but pay $300-$500 per person each time you want to have a cool experience at port.

Similarly, one thing that can really break the bank with a guided tour is getting hit with extras once you’re already on the ground. You might arrive at a restaurant and the meal isn’t included. Your guide brings you to an amazing zip line that runs through the Costa Rican jungle, but it’s $50 -- and not included. You need to purchase bottled water at your own expense throughout the trip.

Things like that will add up and greatly inflate the ultimate cost of your experience. Make sure the quote details exactly what’s included and what’s extra.

The Curse of the "Single Supplement"

Anyone who has ever tried to travel solo on a guided group tour has likely encountered the "single supplement." It's the surcharge solo travelers are charged because they take up accommodations intended for two travelers. A single supplement feels like a punishment, and there are some excellent critiques of the fact that companies charge it at all.

If you’re traveling solo, first determine if you will be charged as a single supplement, and how much it will be. If you don't want to pay it, ask the tour operator if they can pair you up with another traveler to reduce the cost of your accommodation. This is becoming increasingly common, and many solo travelers get excited to meet a fellow solo traveler for the duration the tour.

Simply requesting to share could reduce your overall tour price -- if the operator is willing to be accommodating on that front.

Look at Local Currency & Costs

Photo by: Sophia M., TEAN Chiang Mai, Thailand

Sometimes it’s helpful to look at the trip through a currency perspective. Are you paying for a trip to India in dollars, when things in Indian rupee are actually far less expensive? (A provider may quote you $500 per week for a hotel room, but the actual local cost is a fraction of that.)

In cases like these, it may not make sense to pay a big price tag to go on a trip to a very affordable destination. However, trips to Europe or much more off-the-beaten-path locations may offer more bang for your buck because the operator can get group discounts and bulk rates on accommodation, activities, and transport.

Analyze What You're Gaining with a Guide

If you’re still on the fence about whether or not to do a guided tour because of the cost, or if the cost of doing the trip independently is only slightly less, it can be helpful to think in terms of what you’re gaining that isn’t listed in a quote anywhere, like convenience.

How much time would you spend planning this trip on your own? How much is your time worth? How much is the insider knowledge provided by local guides worth to you? How much is someone else seamlessly handling all of the trip logistics worth to you?

These more subtle aspects of the trip are important to consider before dismissing the idea of doing a guided tour altogether based on numbers alone. Hauling your own luggage onto a local bus and into a hotel every third day or spending time between classes or after work to find a reputable guide before going 15,000 feet up in the Himalayas may actually wind up costing you -- in terms of headaches, wasted time, or a lesser quality of experience in the end.