Nepal-Bhutan-Tibet adventure of a life time

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Trekking is simple. Eat, trek, eat, trek, sleep. And repeat. There’s nothing complicated about putting one foot in front of each other. So why is there such a wide variation in the price of trekking tours?

I’ve done both: a cheap trekking in Annapurna and a higher end trek to Gokyo and Everest Base Camp. Choosing a tour company for these adventures was based on how much money I had to spend at the time. For Annapurna I couldn’t afford anything else. For Everest I could.

The two experiences were very different, both in quality and cost. Which leads me to a question that every visitor to Nepal has, yet almost nobody feels comfortable answering: what makes a guided trek cheaper or more expensive?

The Easiest Way to Save Money on a Guided Nepal Trek

But first, let’s not waste unnecessary money and consider basic economics. The easiest way to save money is to book directly with a local Nepali operator, rather than first going through an international agent. A high-end private trek with a highly respected local tour operator, costs less than a low-end group trek booked through an international travel agent.

All tour companies are commercial entities, ultimately working towards making a profit. In Nepal they are almost exclusively owner-operated businesses. They are small fish in the giant ocean that is tourism. International travel agents, the kind you find at home or on the internet, are mostly large companies with significant market dominance.

A small Nepali tour operator may be making 20% on your tour. That is the nature of their business. An international travel agent will be making 30 – 50% or more on top of that. And all they have to do is take your money: it’s the local operator that will be delivering the tour. Removing that 30 – 50% commission is the best way to save money and really focus on the quality of the tour you’re receiving.

What Makes Trekking Cheap or Expensive in Nepal

Quality. This is what it all comes down to. You could trek to Everest Base Camp in a brand new pair of $500 walking boots. Or you could do it in second-hand sneakers. It’s the same trail and the same destination, but there’s an obvious difference in comfort level and enjoyment.

Let’s start with the obvious factors that go into pricing a tour.

  • What’s included. Are meals included? How many cups of tea per day? What about sleeping bag and down jacket rental? Airport transfers? Flight changes? Is the guide properly insured? The more that is included the less you have to worry.
  • The size of the group. Cheap tours are likely to place you in large groups, which are cheaper to operate. With more expensive tours you can guarantee how many will be in your group, or the trek may be private.
  • The quality of the guide. Just like every profession, the most experienced professionals are paid more than those who are just starting out. A cheaper tour means a cheaper guide, who has less experience and is perhaps only a porter – guide. A more expensive operator pays better rates, attracting the best guides.
  • The quality of the accommodation and food. When you’ve been trekking for ten days, every little improvement in quality makes a huge difference to your comfort levels: 5200 metres above sea level is not a time to be stressing about small details.
  • Your safety. Your safety is in the hands of the tour company and guide, especially at high altitudes. The more experienced and trained the safer you are. This provides peace of mind as well as averting catastrophe.
  • Scams and schemes. Every tour operator has to make a profit so if it sounds too cheap to be true it probably is. One common scam is for cheap tour operators to call out rescue helicopters, making $750 commission even though the trekker is in need of basic medical attention rather than rescue.
  • Is It Worth the Extra Money?

Whether it’s worth spending the extra money is a very personal question. If you don’t have any extra money then it’s not. But consider the cost of your flights, insurance, packing lists, permits, new trekking gear and more than a few beers: choosing a more expensive trek is only a small additional cost in the grand scheme of the vacation.

I’ve met many trekkers who will happily spend close to $1000 on the best possible new shoes, poles and clothes for a trek, but won’t consider $200 for a better tour and experience. I’ve also met many trekkers who successfully haggled down the cost of a tour: getting it cheaper simply means that the tour company must also reduce their costs, either by removing an inclusion or reducing the quality.

An Easy Way to Help Ensure Quality on a Guided Nepal Trek

The uncomfortable question is always: am I paying more for a better tour, or is the tour company simply making extra profit out of me? In a country with hundreds of tour operators (good and bad) that question may seem hard to answer. Ask the tour operator uncomfortable questions before booking, such as:

  • Do you always operate your own tours? Or do you put clients with other tour companies?
  • What are the details of your insurance? What are the details of the guide’s insurance?
  • How many years experience does the guide have?
  • What are the pros and cons of crossing the Cho La Pass from eastward and westward directions?
  • I want to do Everest Base Camp in less days – can you make it happen? (the answer should be no).

There isn’t always a way of proving the answers, nor may you even need the answer to these questions. You’re looking for clear and concise answers in good quality English (if you can’t understand the operator’s email it’s going to be difficult understanding the guide). You’re looking for a detailed understanding of the trek and a flexible approach to making a tour work best for you.

Your Experience is Dictated by Quality

Step, step, step...trekking is simple. For you that is. It’s a lot more work behind the scenes. Ultimately, the difference between a cheaper and higher-end trekking company is the quality of the operation. The Nepalese are honest people. When you spend more you will receive a better guide and a better quality tour.

And when it’s a bucket list experience you seek, an extra few dollars each day goes a long way.

About: Stephen Bailey

Stephan BaileyStephen Bailey is an award-winning travel writer and book author who swapped England for the world in 2011. His first book was published in 2008 and he spent many years editing travel supplements at Allied Newspapers. He now runs a travel marketing company, The Fat Dogs, which brings together some of the world’s most original travel writers and film makers, and he continues to search for stories that celebrate the world’s inimitability

Ask Stephen for his advice on Trekking in Everest Region 

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