It can be tricky choosing the right South America travel agency for your South American vacation. For starters, there are so many out there – a quick search for “travel agency” or “tour operator” and your destination country will get you several companies to consider.
Plus, there are so many different types of travel agencies – from big “OTAs” (online travel agencies) to smaller, independently-run companies.
This article will guide you through the process of how to choose the right South America travel agency to meet your needs and help you plan a great vacation to South America.
Step 1: Refine Your Trip Expectations
First, think about what expectations you have for your South America vacation experience. Here are some key questions to consider:
#1 Do you want to rough it, or do you want to enjoy the sights with a cocktail in hand?
If you’re okay living out of a backpack and staying in hostels with cold showers, you can get away without a travel agent. But if you want to make sure your South America vacation goes smoothly, and don’t want to stress about the details, a travel agent is the way to go.
#2 Do you want a family-friendly vacation, or do you want a romantic getaway for two?
Most travel agencies can customize itineraries to suit your trip style, and can even find the hotels and tours that offer family discounts or suggest places with lots of privacy for honeymooners.
#3 Do you want a whirlwind tour of the continent or just dawdle in one or two towns?
A travel agent can tell you that your plan to see Machu Picchu, Cuzco and Lima in one day is a hair-brained scheme only possible by private charter jet. They can set you straight with an itinerary that gives you plenty of time to see the most important sites within your time frame.
#4 Do you want a custom tour that you design, or do you want an all-inclusive travel package?
Many travel agencies can provide you with either a custom tour or a ready-to-go travel package. Browse the trip ideas or tour pages to get a feel for the tours they offer, and if you want to tweak things a bit, just ask if they can arrange that for you. Some agencies even have custom trip planners on their websites.
#5 Have you been to South America before?
If you haven’t, or if you can’t speak the native language, having a travel agent set you up with a tour guide and drivers will take the stress out of navigating a foreign country.
#6 Do you know exactly where you want to go and how to get there?
If you don’t, you may need the expertise of a travel agent to suggest great destinations or side trips that you haven’t thought of and to help you plan your itinerary in the most logical, time-efficient, and cost-effective way.
#7 Write down 2 or 3 keywords that describe your trip expectations, such as “wine tour of Argentina” “romantic getaway” and “two-week vacation.” Then search for those keywords online to find a travel agency that specializes in at least one of those keywords.
Step 2: Set a Realistic Budget
Travel can add up. You’ll need to consider the financial pros and cons of choosing a South America travel agency. Countless guide books tell it straight: you may save money by going it alone, but the expertise and resources of a travel agency are almost always worth the extra bucks. Here are some key questions to ask yourself to see if a travel agency is right for you:
#1 How much are you willing to spend on your vacation?
Consider flights, trains, buses, taxis, hotels, meals, tours, guides, tips, and gifts. Most travel agencies will be able to provide you with an all-inclusive quote, some with flights and some without. If you tell your travel agent your budget right from the start, it can save you a lot of time in case the agency simply can’t offer you a package within that budget.
#2 Do you want 3-star, 4-star, or 5-star hotels?
Besides flights, hotels are probably going to be the most expensive factor in your budget. Ask your travel agent what kind of hotels they work with, where the hotel is located in relation to the city, and whether they have received positive or negative feedback from past clients about those hotels. Most South America hotels have the same quality standards of North America hotels, but it never hurts to be sure. From most 3-star South America hotels, you can expect good plumbing, privacy, decent service, and a continental breakfast. But 4-star and 5-star hotels are the best way to be sure you get a good nights sleep.
#3 Is time or money more important?
If you have the time on your hands, it’s possible to read enough travel guide books and scour enough travel forums and research enough hotels and transport options to go it alone. But if you’d rather use that precious time on other tasks, hiring a travel agent will be worth it.
Step 3: Do Your Homework
A common myth about travel agencies is that travelers think they can just pick a travel agency when they get there. But many local tour agencies are “informal,” meaning they aren’t registered with the tourism organizations of their countries. They aren’t accountable to any larger organization, and its hard to tell if they are reliable. They may charge less than European- or US-based travel agencies, but they may charge extra fees, or might not even show up for your tour.
Plus, it’s best to book your travel well ahead of time to ensure availability and best prices. It’s possible that hotel prices might go down last-minute, but flights most likely won’t.
If you can, research at least 3 travel agencies ahead of time. Ask the travel agents lots of questions to get a feel for how experienced they are in their field. Do they know a lot about Argentina but have never been to Chile? Ask for another agent to help you with the Chile portion of your itinerary.
Does the travel agency specialize in South America travel? If they are “tour operators” as well as “travel agents” in your destination country, even better. That means they not can cut the costs of a middleman because they provide their own tours rather than reselling them.
Check their accreditations. What’s their rating with the Better Business Bureau? Are they members of the American Society of Travel Agents, the United States Tour Operator Association, the South America Travel Association, or any other travel associations? These organizations held keep its members accountable to industry standards.
Does the travel agency have testimonials from previous clients? These testimonials can be very helpful in seeing what kind of feedback the agency has received over the years.
Also, check out our advice on How to Choose Travel Insurance for South America.