That budget escorted tour you’re thinking about booking? It may not be budget-friendly after all! Be an informed traveler. For over 15 years, I have lead tours for budget and luxury tour operators. Here is what you need to know to make an informed decision:

1) Where are the hotels located?

Are they situated in the heart of the city, in walking distance of the area’s places of interest or is the hotel situated outside the city center requiring a means of transportation at, say, a $15 taxi ride?

Tour Monkey hotels are boutique 5-star (4-star when necessary) accommodations in the heart of the city.

2) How many meals are included?

Budget tours might include a Welcome and Farewell Dinner, if that! But, what about lunch and dinner? The general rule of thumb is to budget $50 per person per day for meals, coffee breaks, and snacks not included in the price of the tour.

Tour Monkey’s tours includes most meals!

3) Are gratuities paid for?

All tour operators include tips for wait staff at included meals and porterage (if offered). However, to keep the price of the tour down, most budget tour operators pass on tipping drivers ($2-$5 per person per day, depending on the country), local guides ($5 per person per day) and the tour manager ($7-$10 per person per day) to the traveler. This can really add up.

Tour Monkey tours include all tips! FYI … tour manager and Tour Monkey founder, Liz Moran, does not receive nor will solicit a gratuity!

4) Are all activities included?

Another tactic to create the illusion of a ‘what a deal!’ tour price is NOT to include all activities! Most budget tours offer “optional excursions.” These can cost anywhere from $30 to $300 per person per excursion. Are you getting how that budget tour ain’t so budget-friendly?

There is only one optional excursion offered on Tour Monkey’s tour of Amazing Vietnam. In Saigon, you can either have a full free day to explore the city in greater depth or choose a day trip to the Mekong Delta.

5) Does an American tour manager accompany the group?

This is becoming the exception rather than the rule. On international trips, more and more tour operators are employing destination-based tour managers. This is a disservice to the traveler. No one knows an American’s quirks like one of their own. And if English is the Tour Manager’s second language, communicating a need can be frustrating.

Tour Monkey’s tours are always led by an American tour manager, with enrichment by local guides.

6) What is the maximum number of travelers on the tour?

If you’re looking to join a small-group tour, tour operators define ‘small’ differently. A group of 14-16 is considered ‘small’ by just about all tour operators. Some will even cancel a tour if less than 16 travelers sign up.

Tour Monkey will run a tour with a minimum of 6 and a maximum of 11 travelers … because who wants to be in a group of 16, 24, 30+?! Woe be the person traveling with a big group of 30 or so. Large groups are sluggish. It takes f o r e v e r to get on and off the bus and to move from place to place. Guides are always waiting on the last person to catch up. Waiting for the last person making a purchase at the gift shop. Waiting for the last person to finish his or her meal. Small groups get around quicker, and therefore, are able to see and do more things. Small groups can stay at boutique hotels that simply do not have the number of rooms needed for larger groups. Small groups can experience gastronomical euphoria at local joints that cannot and will not accommodate larger groups. You get the drift.

Tour Monkey trips are also all-female. Be empowered among a supportive network of like-minded gals. You may make a lifelong friend, or two or three … And, by the way, if traveling solo is your thing, it still counts if you travel within a small group!

7) Is airfare to/from the destination included?

Some budget tours include roundtrip airfare. Some allow you to make your own flight arrangements. And some offer only package deals. With package deals, the tour operator negotiates discounted airfare with the airline. In turn, the airline assigns these seats last. Generally, the seats are at the back of the plane. It is always a surprise (and shock) to travelers when they learn at check-in that they may not be sitting with their travel partner! And, travelers who tried in advance to get a seat assignment are often stone-walled by the airline. Frustrating, especially if you’re traveling international.

Tour Monkey asks you to make your own travel arrangements to/from the destination. Some travelers like to come in early to adjust to the time zone. Some have preferred airlines or would like to use award points. You may also want the freedom to stay at the end destination longer or continue on to another place.

These are some of the many things you need to consider when choosing an escorted tour! Make an informed decision, but whatever tour you choose, remember this: Cover the Earth Before the Earth Covers You!