Here are three lessons I learned along the way:
1. Seek a perfect match: There are many excellent outfitters as out there (our own National Geographic Expeditions is a great example.) The one you should go with, however, is not necessarily the one your roommate from college raved about on her Facebook page or even the one a travel expert recommends.
The tour you want is the one that best matches your wishes, needs, and price points. Among requirements such as destination and itinerary, I wanted a trip during which I could eat well without gaining weight (a problem I’ve had on other trips!). The walking tour I chose fit the bill. We went on daily treks on varied terrain that worked off the tagines, pastillas, couscous, and sweets I unabashedly enjoyed.
2. The guide matters: Travelers typically pore over the tour itinerary, counting up the number of UNESCO World Heritage sites, looking up hotels on TripAdvisor, and generally obsessing over minute details. But most fail to do due diligence on what I consider the most important factor of a trip: the guide.
An excellent guide can turn a trip into an experience of a lifetime. Conversely, a bad guide can sour a visit to the most astounding destinations. The guide on my Morocco trip, Fes native Saida Ezzahoui, added cultural context and a personal touch to the trip. She was also one of only a handful of female guides to lead trips outside the imperial cities. I found her insights as a woman in a North African and predominantly Muslim country to be invaluable. She also turned me on to a great fava bean soup recipe and a black soap made of crushed olives that does wonders to exfoliate and soften the skin.
3. Pick up the phone: You can’t get everything from the website and, hey, you’re spending a lot of money. Calling the company yields important information, such as what ground operator the company uses for its programs in a particular country. You want to make sure your operator has strong local ties that could come in handy in cases of emergency. I find the phone even better than e-mail as an indicator to determining the company’s philosophy, commitment to customer service, and knowledge of its products. Is the company right for you? By the end of a phone call, I often know whether it is a match.