"Climb or potentially die," my guide told me. The wild boars just let out a charging call. They thought we were going to attack their babies. Terrified, I looked at the tree that my junior guide insisted I scramble up. As a 51-year-old, New Yorker, I had no clue how to climb a tree. Central Park doesn't prepare someone for this type of adventure.
But, it is amazing what one can accomplish when faced with possible imminent death. The boars, luckily, turned the other direction--we left with no injuries. My situation could have been worst.
As I sat about 7 branches high in the tree, I wondered, how I ended up in this situation? There will always be potential problems, especially when traveling to far flung destinations. But, I missed red flags indicating that my tour company was not reliable and precarious with my safety. The following are the questions I should have asked.
How long has the company been in business?
A company must have a proven track record for a year unless there is a prior relationship before Virtuoso will work with them, according to Misty Belles, Director of Global PR. The company I used, while not new to the industry, was new to five star service. The reviews for their other vessel were adequate.
It was not a wise idea for me as a single woman to venture into the Amazon with a new company.
What is the company's reputation?
Scott Montgomery, COO of GeoEx recommends checking the ownership or management's experience in the travel industry. An American or Canadian company's record can be checked with the Better Business Bureau (BBB). According to Katherine Hutt, the National Spokesperson for the BBB, the vast majority of complaints filed are rectified. A company's reputation should be important to them so they should move heaven and earth to correct a bad situation. The company did not qualify for BBB status since it is based in Ecuador despite having a U.S. phone number.
How are their guides?
Scott recommends checking if the staff are employees or freelancers. All companies have personnel challenges but independent guides may not be as reliable. This company used freelancers.
What do the reviews say?
Travelers should not rely solely on their travel agent but should conduct their own due diligence. There should be more than a few people discussing the company on the Internet according to Robert Richardson of Off Grid Survival. Otherwise, you don't know what type of situation you are walking into.
There were no TripAdvisor reviews, Twitter feed and an Internet search provided no insight. These were all red flags. I did decide to book through a travel agent.
Have your friends traveled with the company?
My friends had not traveled to the Ecuadorian Amazon. The tour company should be able to provide references but these will likely be their best clients. Listen carefully when they describe their trip. Were there problems and how did the company resolve them?
Does the company seem organized?
Speaking to someone at the company can provide some insight. The company initially included airport transfers. They rescinded the offer when I booked through a travel agent despite it being inexpensive. The penny pinching indicated that the company's finances were tight and they could cut corners on the trip.
Is a large group dominating the trip?
This can negatively impact your trip and skew the experience. A Spanish corporation wanted the ship for themselves but did not want to pay the exclusivity fee. The ship booked them anyway and never advised me that I was one of two people who were not part of their group and the sole person who spoke only English.
Mid-trip, the group decided they no longer wanted English translation. My choice was to listen to the tour in Spanish, listen to English while Spanish was simultaneously spoken, or have the porter/assistant as my English guide. I chose the junior guide after not being able to hear the English over the Spanish. I became the fifth wheel on my own vacation despite my agent confirming that the tour was in English.
Misty suggests inquiring if the travel agent has a destination management team on the ground to assist or intervene. My travel company did not offer that service in my location. Even if they did, the Amazon had no cell signal and the ship only had Internet signal when it was docked. I did not have a satellite phone.
Do you have a clear itinerary?
The booking agent advised me that the ship's longer voyage allowed passengers to travel down the Amazon. But yet, a formal itinerary was never provided despite repeated requests.
A traveler needs to be flexible since itineraries can change based on travel conditions or unforeseeable circumstances. The cruise director advised me that the Amazon dried up so we were unable to sail down the river. It seemed odd that the river conditions changed since my trip was booked two days prior to sailing. It felt as if the program was adapted to the new passengers. Failing to provide a schedule was a major red flag.
Credit card companies such as Amex do not automatically reverse the charges. Amex uses their purchasing power to obtain a charge reversal on your behalf but only if the company consents to it.
Travel associations such as USTOA are membership organizations and can only send a letter to the company. Amex and USTOA contacted the company who would not agree to a refund. The company felt they fulfilled their commitment to me.
There were many red flags that I missed. Now, I know the questions to ask so I hopefully, won't end up in a tree on my next trip.