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Don't DIY: When and Where to Try a Tour Operator

There is a thriving industry of professionals dedicated to helping travelers escape as effortlessly as possible. Since the perfectly planned and executed vacation comes at a price, often more than $1,000 per traveler, it makes sense to know when and where to use a tour operator.
07/20/2015 01:41pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Vacation burnout is a real thing. But even before exhaustion infiltrates the trip itself, the stress from putting together an itinerary can be crippling. Fortunately, there is a thriving industry of professionals dedicated to helping travelers escape as effortlessly as possible. Since the perfectly planned and executed vacation comes at a price, often more than $1,000 per traveler, it makes sense to know when and where to use a tour operator. Much of this insight has to do with the destination. Foreign countries are innately intimidating, but even the most seasoned travelers may find themselves seeking a little handholding when it comes to domestic destinations. Here are a handful of places where it pays to travel with a tour operator.

1. Alaska

Describing Alaska as dramatic would be an understatement. At twice the size of Texas, the Last Frontier is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to experiencing the state's top sights in two weeks or less. Visiting Alaska with a tour operator like Intrepid Travel allows travelers to tour by land and sea and not be limited to predetermined cruise ports or train stops. The company's 13-Day Wild Alaska itinerary goes beyond the obligatory visits to Anchorage and Denali to include a tour of Juneau, a cruise from Sitka and a hiking excursion in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Of course, long drives are unavoidable, but with a guide navigating, travelers can take in the scenery and wildlife while someone else does all the work.

2. South Africa

South Africa is the second most visited country in Africa and is practically a bucket list given. Despite having the continent's most developed economy, South Africa's 11 official languages are a testament to the country's complexities that often deter potential travelers. Perks of visiting with a tour operator like Adventure Life can start on day one with an escort and assistance through immigration and customs. Then, travelers can explore Cape Town and see Nelson Mandela's former cell with a local who lived there during the apartheid years. Having a tour operator at the helm also makes it easier to transition from the city to the bush, where seasoned safari guides can lead to a wildlife watcher's home run: the famous "big five" in Kruger National Park.

3. Croatia

Despite its status as one of Europe's fastest growing travel destinations, Croatia is playing catch up. This EU member's currency is still the kuna, and 20 years after winning independence from Yugoslavia, it's trying to shed the stigma of civil unrest. It's the kind of place where logistics, especially ferry reservations, require help from the locals -- many of whom don't speak a lick of English. Visiting with a tour operator that hires native Croats as guides makes it possible to conveniently travel along the coast, venture into the interior and island hop -- all on the same vacation. Reviews of Country Walkers' Croatia Dalmatian Coast itinerary indicate that the highlight for many travelers is watching their guide, Ivana, perform with members of her "klapa," a traditional a cappella group. Thanks to her connections, Ivana also makes sure all transfers are arranged in advance and any behind-the-scenes kinks are worked out so guests can concentrate on the task at hand: dining on an authentic Croatian dish in the home of friendly locals.

4. Peru

The mere mention of Peru conjures up images of mysterious Machu Picchu. In 2014, the country's claim to fame attracted more than one million visitors, many of whom arrived via the world-famous Inca Trail. Tour operators can help travelers navigate the trail's permit system -- only 200 tourist permits are allocated each day -- and they often have the area's best porters on their payroll. Taking field testing to another level, Austin Adventures sends its American guides down in advance to train the Peruvian guides, porters and cooks it partners with so they know what American travelers expect when it comes to customer service and support. Since most Peru vacation packages offered by tour operators are all-inclusive, guests don't need to worry about always having pocket change handy for gratuities and entrance fees.

5. The Grand Canyon

A trip to the Grand Canyon is the epitome of the American family vacation. While it's certainly possible to see this natural wonder without help from a third party, tour operators offer an array of options for venturing off the beaten path without having to worry about securing backcountry permits, some of which are so limited the National Park Service uses a lottery system for distribution. REI Adventures' Grand Canyon Havasu Falls Family Adventure takes traveling clans beyond the rim to the turquoise waters found deep in the heart of the Havasupai Indian Reservation. Its experienced guides literally know the ropes; they show guests the best rope swings and help them find hidden waterfalls and caverns. Evenings are spent in a comfortable base camp outfitted with spacious tents, hammocks, an outdoor dining room and other luxuries not afforded to those who have to hike on their own.

Katie Jackson is a travel writer and media specialist based in Big Sky Country. She's lived and worked in Italy, Ireland, France and Nicaragua, but never long enough to completely nail the local language. You can follow her on Twitter, @LazyJKatie, connect with her on LinkedIn or find her biking Montana's back roads.