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My Philosophy & Budget

Some priorities you should consider when planning your trip.

About Me - Philosophy & Budget

My first priority in planning a trip for young people, whether it's upstate New York or the other side of the planet, is their personal safety.  As a father myself, my first thought is, "Would I allow my teenage child to go on this trip?" The answer will always be yes, because I would never subject anyone else's child to a risk I would not be willing to accept for my own children.


Although I would not discourage knowledgeable parents from taking their children to exotic lands, there are many countries that I would exclude because of health risks, above all malaria, which is endemic in tropical countries where half the world's population lives.  Malaria is a major killer, particularly in Africa,  and there is a shockingly low awareness of its danger among Western travelers, thousands of whom contract it each year, and a few hundred of whom die.   Another concern of mine is the low standard of hygiene and sanitation in many countries, where it's a near certainty that a few kids will come down with a bad stomach bug.  While bouts of vomiting and diarrhea usually clear up on their own in a week or less, it can be frightening, and needless to say it totally ruins a short trip.  For that reason I avoid countries where, based on my observation and experience, travelers often become ill.  This is not an issue anywhere in Europe.


The other safety issue is political unrest and violent crime.  I can think of a few cities and countries where I would never take a group of youngsters, but to be realistic, if you're setting your sights on America or Europe, there's little to worry about as long as you stay away from high-crime urban areas.  In most of Asia, you won't even find that. 


Now that I've discussed where I will and won't go, I'll take up how I will and won't go.  Simply put, luxury, both in accommodations and transportation, is not my style.  Two stars for a hotel is enough for me, and depending on the trip, public bus or train, passenger van, cycling, walking, perhaps boat - or some combination thereof - is how I like to get around, not in the sealed capsule of a late model motorcoach.  Let me clarify what I mean by motorcoach travel.


What I have never done and will never do is spend the duration of a tour in one of these vehicles, unless there is no other choice, as in North Korea.  That, however, was a completely different experience from what most tourists are accustomed to: it was an older bus, only half full, we had to open the windows because there was no air conditioning, and when we arrived somewhere after driving for an hour or two on eerily deserted roads, there were at most three or four other tour buses parked there, not forty or fifty.  Now that's real, that's an adventure, and besides, it's the only option.  Also, there are times when it makes sense to book a day tour through your hotel when getting to a famous attraction on your own is just too much of a hassle.  I've done that occasionally.  But to spend the whole time traveling that way, to me isn't traveling at all.


As for lodging, unless the group is willing to upgrade, in America the average low-key family-run motel does the job, while in Europe and beyond I prefer simple but comfortable hotels that have character.


One thing I never skimp on is food, which does not mean spending a lot.  To me, sampling the cuisine of a new country is elementary, and there's no excuse for eating burgers and fries, or even abysmal meals served to kids on other student tours that I was amazed to read about - in France, no less!  That doesn't mean that meals need to be sumptuous affairs (though one or two of these at an elegant restaurant does add a memorable touch).   In France, for example, you can almost always find a charcuterie - a kind of gourmet delicatessen where local specialties are sold by weight - or a brasserie, a workingman's type cafe, and eat great for ten or twelve bucks.  Supermarkets throughout Europe are also good places to buy prepared regional meals at low cost, or local meats and cheeses for a picnic.  And there's always a small gem of a restaurant waiting to be discovered down a back lane, far from the crowded and expensive tourist traps.


The travel industry usually involves intermediaries; generally, companies contract their tour groups to local operators.  In this respect, it's ridiculous to think that twenty or fifty years of experience makes any difference in the quality of a tour.  What it boils down to is the efficiency and integrity of the people involved.  Do they know what they're doing, do they care?  Naturally, I want to use a company that's very good.  Most of my traveling has been solo, but I have sometimes gone with small groups and it's always been first class.  Just recently I booked with Young Pioneer Tours, based in China, for my North Korea trip, and with Adventure Center in California four times over the last thirty years, and I've been thoroughly satisfied with both.  I have a working relationship with these companies, and by special arrangement I can tailor a trip that fits students best.


On certain specialized tours I might use someone different, and sometimes I would not use one at all - for example, anywhere in the lower 48 states.  Here I can work out the logistics, drive a van, and lead a tour anywhere by myself.  This, incidentally, would be the least expensive type of tour for me to arrange.  Depending on group size, how many days, how much distance covered, and what kind of activities would be included, the total cost would probably fall between $1200 and $2000.  (You can read about some recent trips I've made with my son on the "Offbeat" page.)   I'm also capable of leading a tour on my own abroad, but unless a difference of four or five hundred dollars means the difference between going and not going, for the optimal experience it would be best to have a local guide to take care of things, as is customary.


I should be able to arrange an eight or nine day tour to most anywhere in Europe, employing Adventure Center or an equally top notch operator for a price in the $3000 to $3400 range, all inclusive.   However, airfares are subject to sudden change, so it's impossible to give an exact quote until a group is ready to commit; in any event,  I would allow parents to opt out and issue them a full refund in case they were unhappy with the cost.   (Bear in mind that airfares are lowest in the winter and highest in the summer.)  But I would keep my total cost close to the average, if not lower, even for a much smaller group.    Beware of a well-known company that claims to have the lowest prices, and has a habit of ambushing parents with hundreds of dollars in surcharges as departure date approaches, not to mention horrible meals and hotels; you can find plenty of lively discussion about them on the internet.


If finances are a critical issue, I could take your students to Europe for considerably less by "winging it."  This is the way I've traveled 90% of the time, and I never felt like I missed out on anything.  In this case only flights and accommodations would be booked in advance, and everyone would pay out of pocket for meals, museums, excursions and so forth - included in the total cost - that would be discussed and agreed upon beforehand.  And let me assure you, it's easy; in fact, never in my life when traveling alone  have I made a hotel reservation  before leaving home: I've always found a room just by walking around and asking (although with a young group I would never take that chance, of course).  Actually, it's a very good way to teach teenagers how to travel, by showing them that it's not that difficult to read a map, take the subway, do interesting things, eat cheaply and well - in other words, how to be independent, though of course I'd be with them every step of the way on such a big trip.


For students who cannot travel abroad unless prices are slashed to the bare bone, staying in a youth hostel is the way to go, and I would take them there.  Typically, there are two to four bunk beds in a room, and men's and women's bathrooms in the hall with multiple toilet and shower stalls.  They also have kitchen facilities so you can buy and cook your own food.  They're safe, clean and the rates are about half  those of the cheapest hotels.  They're hugely popular with young Europeans, and this 60-year-old youth recently stayed at one for three nights in Xian, China when nothing else was available.  I also used them occasionally in Europe when I was much younger.  The one drawback, of course, is the lack of privacy, but if money is very tight - and I know it is in many American communities - it sure beats never seeing Europe.


If you're a teacher who is considering a tour in the near future, whether or not you've done others in the past, I invite you to compare every feature of my way of traveling with all the rest, while keeping the following in mind:


SMALL GROUP GUARANTEE  For every reason I can think of, smaller is better when traveling.  For all tours, the maximum number of students, teachers and chaperones would be 24, but a more likely number would be 14 to 20.


INSURANCE  All tour participants are covered by a comprehensive insurance policy, included in the tour cost, which provides for medical emergency, evacuation, baggage loss, and trip cancellation.  In addition, all adults, teachers and school district officials are protected by general liability insurance.


FINANCIAL SECURITY   I work from my home debt free and with no overhead.  For extra peace of mind, upon request I will advance from my own funds the amount of the entire anticipated receipts into an escrow account.


SIMPLE AND STRAIGHTFORWARD   There are no fees, hidden or otherwise, nor do I add any spurious charges along the way.  All financial matters are covered in writing before any payments are made.  My written agreement is specific to each tour and is never more than three pages long.  There is no easy to miss "fine print."


UNSURPASSED KNOWLEDGE OF WORLDWIDE DESTINATIONS  Having visited 87 countries and 49 states, I am familiar with every part of the world, so that we'll be able to "talk travel" the first time we speak.


FLEXIBLE ITINERARIES  I do not work with fixed dates or itineraries.  Every tour is tailormade according to the wishes and budget of the group.  Any  destination in the world and any itinerary is possible, as long as I consider it safe.


PERSONALIZED ATTENTION AND EFFICIENCY  I am the sole representative of Orinoco Travel.  That will never change, because I have no ambition beyond conducting three or four exceptional tours a year.  I arrange and escort all tours, beginning at the point of departure in the U.S. if flying abroad.  There are countless behind-the-scenes details involved in assuring that a tour runs smoothly, and to make sure things are done right I do everything myself.  Students, parents and teacher may contact me at any time.  I promptly return all phone calls and reply to all e-mails.