Photo: People out at night in Popayan

Strollers enjoy a night scene in Popayán, Colombia.

Photograph by Heiko Meyer, laif/Redux

By Margaret Loftus

1. How do your exploratory tours differ from a regular departure?

Much as a new restaurant invites friends and family to a soft opening, outfitters sometimes offer a dry run of an itinerary to repeat clients or those in the know to work out the inevitable kinks among a forgiving audience. The bonus is that you often get a chance to travel with the top guide or even the founder of the company. “They are great for people who have a spirit of adventure and know that there are sometimes surprises on inaugural trips,” explains Kathy Stewart of Butterfield & Robinson. To make up for these surprises, an outfitter may offer a small discount.

2. What is your cancellation policy should the U.S. State Department issue a travel warning?

Last year’s Arab Spring demonstrated just how quickly pockets of civil unrest can erupt into a potentially threatening situation. Find out at what point a burgeoning protest movement or other simmering tensions warrant a review of your travel plans and a possible refund. Great Safaris, for instance, lets clients traveling to Egypt make up their own minds: If they don’t feel comfortable in the country, they have up to three days to receive a full refund and a plane ticket home.

3. In what ways do you differ from other operators offering similar itineraries?

Several companies may offer what seem like clone itineraries (indeed they sometimes are, if one company subcontracts for another). Some differences are obvious, like a home stay versus five-star digs, but others may not be so readily discernible. Quiz outfitters on their experience and services built into the price of the trip: How long have they been guiding trips in the region? Do they use subcontractors, or are they one? From what country do they draw most of their clients? Is medical evacuation insurance included? If the price is not quoted in U.S. dollars, how do they manage the risk of currency fluctuations, from the time of purchase to departure?

4. How flexible are your itineraries?

Ceding control of your schedule to a guide is part of the deal when you sign up for a small-group departure. Some outfitters are willing to accommodate occasional special requests if you simply must see something not in the plan. Beyond that, consider a private trip, where you’ll have more say in your itinerary. But clarify upfront what may or may not be included, such as meals and tips, in the final cost. Outfitters have seen huge growth in this subset of travel. Jim Sano, president of Geographic Expeditions, where private tours now make up 60 percent of trips, says the shift is in response to the demands of baby boomers who have always preferred to do things on their own terms.

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