Deciding on a good trekking agency is a very important component of any trekking, climbing or hiking plan. The choice of agency can make or break a trek. So, it is important to do your research on the agency.
So, here are a few tips on some key aspects of selecting a good agency.
Understand and acknowledge your expectations
This is probably the most important aspect of the whole agency selection process. You must be clear on what you want from the agency. Whether it is a full blown support from the agency including porters, food, tents, transport and entertainment or a bare minimum support of just porters to haul up your goods.
I have heard stories where the customer becomes the root cause of all troubles where they expect something that was not part of the package in the first place or was missed out during the initial communications. These cause a lot of grievances and loss of happiness even if the agency has delivered on its promise of completing the trek.
So, the important thing is to understand what you want the agency to provide. It is best to write it down so that, it becomes the basis for your future selection and shortlisting. Some key questions that you would need to reflect on are as follows:
- Do i need an experienced guide or do i just need porters?
- Do i need a shared or a one-to-one guide?
- What is the level of support i need on the trek?
- Do i prefer an international group, a private one-to-one experience?
- What are the facilities that i am going to bring on my own?
- What do i expect the agency to provide in terms of facilities?
- What is the kind of food that i am capable of eating?
- Can i share a tent with another person or do i need a separate one for myself?
Sourcing for a suitable agency – Online
Agencies come in all shapes, sizes and reputations. Unlike other sectors, agencies in adventure tourism are not regulated and are prone to some serious misdirections and false advertising. So, it is essential to do your due diligence when selecting a suitable agency.
The most common source for shortlisting agencies is through travel websites that provide independant reviews of different agencies and their experience. Some of them are
Navigating through them and reading the reviews will take some time. But it is worth it to ensure that you’ve got the ideal agency for your needs. Most of the reviews provide the agency name as well as some form of contact information or a name of the guide.
Currently, my favorite is TripAdvisor. I also source through LonelyPlanet sometimes. Facebook is specially useful for actually seeing successful trekkers posting their pictures as well as profiles of the guides or agency owners who update their posts. Try to search for hashtags on the trek that you want or join groups or pages that are available for your trek. The below is an example of the facebook page for Kilimanjaro.
You can note that down and use that in the future when you start contacting them. From the sourcing of these websites, you can shortlist a few of the companies that repeatedly earn 4 or 5 stars from their customer reviews.
Sourcing for a suitable agency – Offline
Use the internet to try and reach out to people who have done the same trek in or around your area. There are definitely small interest groups that have done such as climb. Reach out to them and get to meet them in person over a cup of coffee. Talking face-to-face will definitely be useful in gauging the level of feedback that the person will provide. Ask them about the agency that they went with and their personal feedback. Some key questions would be:
- How did they pick the agency?
- Why did they pick that agency?
- How was the service?
- How was the communication?
- Did they have any unexpected problems?
- How did the agency manage to solve the problems?
- How were the porters and guides?
- Any specific guide or porter that they were especially satisfied or happy with?
- Will they go with them again in the future or recommend them to someone else like yourself?
- How is the quality of food, hygiene and preparedness?
- How is the tipping like?
- What is their level of fitness?
- What was their level of preparedness?
The answers to these questions should be subjective and you will need to measure your capabilities against the answers. If the person was exceptionally fit and well experienced in the trek, then their reliance on the guide or porter may be much lower than that of yours if you are a newbie.
Get in touch
The next thing you need to do is to contact the agencies. This can be through email or a telephonic conversation. It is preferable to have the first mode of contact through email and follow up with a telephonic conversation at a later stage. Preferably, if the agency is in your vicinity, try to do a visit to their office.
Explain in as clear terms, your desire, expectations and needs. This is very important for the agency to come up with the most accurate plan for your needs and also sets the stage for clear communication between the two. In the event of any misunderstandings, the email thread will be the only source of evidence as verbal communications and telephonic promises are not useful in anyway.
Even if you do a telephonic conversation or a physical visit, you must follow up with an email.
Factors for selection
Selecting an agency can be done as systematically as possible. It all boils down to clarity of understanding between the two parties.
Are they well known in the industry? Do they belong to any associations or organizations in the industry? Who is the owner? What are the credentials of the owner? Is there are accreditation or certificates?
Do they respond to your emails in a timely manner? Is the same person responding to you? If you get shuttled a lot between different parties, then it can be a red flag.
I find that most of the customers pick an agency which is responsive to their queries and have that personal touch. It cannot be explained. It is a feeling of comfort that you get from their interactions.
Do they communicate in a language that you are comfortable with? Can you understand what they say? This can only be judged through a telephonic conversation. Spend some time talking to them on the phone to understand their fluency. Ask them a lot of questions. Then follow up with an email on whatever you talked about. Talking to the agency manager is one thing. But try talking to the person whom you will be dealing with on a day-to-day basis – the guide and porters.
Are you going to travel one-to-one (private) or in a group? How many people are in the group? What is the climber to guide ratio? What is the demographics of the other climbers in the group? Nationality, Age, Sex, Race and Experience level. All these things play a part in your overall experience and how you perform on the trek.
Generally, those who are non-professionals tend to go in a group while those who are self-sufficient would prefer a rather private one-to-one trip with minimal guided support. It depends on your experience and comfort level.
What are the equipment that are to be used? What will be provided and what is to be brought?
Some agencies provide everything from tents to harness, crampons, ice-axe and oxygen cylinders. Others only provide certain items and expect you to bring them with you or rent them out at the start of the climb. Get a list of such items. If there is any misunderstanding, now is the time to clarify it with a straight “yes” or “no” answer.
How many days to climb? What is the route taken? Are there sufficient acclimatization days built in? Are there back-up days? What are the back-up plans?
Keep a look out for agencies that promise very short days for treks or climbs that require more time. By now, you should have a pretty good estimate on the number of days it may take to trek or climb a mountain. So, anything that falls far short of it is not well planned or the agency is cutting corners.
Medical & Emergency
What are the medical assistance provided? What are their procedure for evacuation? What are their tools for search and rescue? Will there be sat-phones, walkies-talkies, emergency transponders?
Guide & Porters
What is the credentials of the guide? How many times has he/she done the trek? Is he familiar with the route? Is he familiar with medical situations? Is there a back-up guide?
It is important to note that the guides and porters are usually freelancers who will take up the job any agency provides them at a decent price. So, a guide working in one agency one season may be working for another agency in another. So, if you are specifically interested in a guide, it is important to highlight to them in the beginning so that they can make the suitable arrangements. If not, get to talk to the guides/porters directly to get acquainted with them. You will be spending a lot of time with them in the wilderness or on the mountain and the comfort level you have with them is a deciding factor on the overall success of your trek.
Another approach is, you could talk to your preferred guide directly and perhaps he would recommend you the agency he is works with. Usually, he will recommend the agency that deals with him in a fair manner.
Costs & Charges
This is one of the most important aspects of the whole trek. Understand the costing and pricing in detail. Know the payment milestones. Clarify any misunderstandings or fine print. Get a detailed breakdown of items that are included in the package and exceptional items. What are the cancellation charges? What are the refunds like?
Again, it is important to balance pricing with the kind of trek. If you go for the cheapest price then it is guaranteed that the agency will assign you inexperienced guides and porters or the agency may cut corners in areas of risk or medical. You go for the cheapest option only if you are experienced enough to take care of yourself (self-sufficiency) or the trek is easy. Otherwise, negotiating for the cheapest price is definitely not a good idea and can endanger yourself.
Who are some of the customers who have done climbs with the agency? Get their contact number and try to reach out to them. Explain to them about your plan and try to get as honest an opinion from them as possible. Most will provide a truthful opinion considering that your life may be at stake in the trek.
Most professional agencies will provide a complete documentation on the trek in the form of a trip document. These should cover everything from the dates to emergency contact details and medical information. Some of the items in the document include:
- Trek details
- Detailed itinerary with maps
- Pricing and charges with inclusions and exclusions
- Cancellation policies
- General country introductions
- Visa matters
- General geographical introductions
- Language of the people and culture
- Emergency contact information (hospitals, police, etc…)
- Embassy details of your native country
- Addresses of locations of stay
- Name and contact numbers from the agency
- Medical indemnity forms
- Medical procedures
Once you have gone through the whole selection process, it is time to decide on the agency that you best find suitable for your trek. This is a very tricky part and there is no science to it. No matter how systematic your selection and filtering criteria is, there will mostly be a situation where more than one agency will be suitable for your needs. At this point in time, it is left to your gut instinct to select an agency and go with them.
No matter which agency you pick, it is important to have everything in writing through email. Word of mouth or over-the-phone promises will not be of any use in the unfortunate event that something happens.
Since the guides are independent of the agency, why not work directly with the guide? Why not bypass the agency altogether?
Well, this line of assumption is great if you are willing to make some compromises and accept some risks. With an agency, there is accountability. If in the event something goes wrong, there is some agency that you can talk to and, if possible, recover some of the damages. With a guide, you run the risk of not recovering anything and accountability is next to zero.
Another factor is that, insurance agents may need a proper agency with proper receipts, documentation and communication threads to be able to recover any loss. It is next to impossible to get any recovery if you go with an individual guide as the insurers may not consider the guide as a valid entity.
So, if you are well prepared to take the risks and live with the possible consequences, or are extremely confident of filling in the guide’s inadequacies, then it may be possible to directly approach the guide and work with him towards arranging a trek or climb.
Be prepared for uncertainty. It is part and parcel of a trekking or climbing adventure. There are unknown unknowns that you will need to face. And on such occasions, there will be a need to improvise. Some of them could be solved easily, but others may require you to come up with additional costs or charges. So, be prepared to face up to them. There may be valid reasons where out-of-pocket expenses may be incurred. There could be last minute changes to your preferred guide or some other planned item on your trek. So, it is important to keep an open mind.