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Travel and destinations

Beware of a Travel Guide Scam

By November 1, 2021No Comments
Photographers working in the field at NANPA's Michigan UP Regional Event © Tom Haxby
Photographers working in the field at NANPA’s Michigan UP Regional Event © Tom Haxby

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

We’ve previously written about avoiding some common scams aimed at photographers. Recently, another kind of swindle was brought to our attention, this time involving local guides in foreign countries (though it could also happen in the US). In short, the local guide takes your reservation, accepts your down payment or demands payment in full, in advance. When it’s approaching time for your trip, the so-called guide stops responding to messages. You not only lost the money but now also have to book a new guide or figure something else out. That’s a recipe for agita or, at the least, severe heartburn.

More details

Let’s be clear. There are countless hard-working, ethical, wonderful guides all over the world. Anyone who travels has probably used one at least once and knows how valuable their services can be. NANPA’s Regional Field Events are one of our most popular offerings, and for good reason. Top NANPA pros who are intimately familiar with the area lead each one.

But there are a few bad apples in most any profession. In this particular case, we were told that a US-based photography tour company had contracted with a local guide to both provide local guiding services and make hotel, meal, and transportation arrangements. Money was wired to the guide to pay for those arrangements and the guide’s fee. A few days before the photo tour was to begin, the guide “cancelled” the tour for some vague reasons, refused to refund any money, and stopped responding to messages. The photography tour company scrambled to rebook with another local guide, book new hotels, and not disappoint their clients. However, the company had now paid for everything twice! It’s hard to make a living with that kind of cash flow.

And this was a well-established, experienced photo tour company that did their homework. It’s not like they picked a random guide’s name from a hat. It only subsequently came to light that others had the same problems with this particular guide. Affidavits have been filed with the local authorities, who are considering bringing charges.

The broader implications

This kind of situation can happen to individual travelers, too. Book and pay for a guide, or a vacation rental and, when you get to your location, there’s no guide or place to stay.

In an era when almost anyone can create a website offering a product or service, it’s easier than ever to find great tours, guides, places to stay, and even deals. But it’s also all too easy to be scammed. So, how do you protect yourself?

If you’re a photographer looking for a photo tour, do your homework. Most tour leaders are on the up and up and will bend over backwards to make sure you have a great experience. If there are problems, like a guide that doesn’t show up or a hotel that closes, they’ll take care of it. In many cases, you might not even be aware of what they juggle behind the scenes. In the example that inspired this article, the US tour company paid all the in-country costs twice, to make sure their clients were happy and had a great experience.

We asked Kathy Adams Clark (recipient of NANPA’s 2019 Mission Award and 2017 Fellows Award and past NANPA president, who is also an international tour leader for Strabo Tours), Dan Clements (who previously wrote about group photo outings and international travel in a pandemic), and Jeff Parker (who leads tours in the US and overseas), and for their top tips to avoid being fleeced.

Photo of the colorful scarlet macaw about to land on a tree. © Jeff Parker
Scarlet macaw © Jeff Parker

Word of mouth

Whether you’re booking a tour as part of a group or you’re traveling solo and hiring your own guides, word of mouth is your first check. Clements says “I have contacts all over the globe, and I try and talk with someone who has done a trip similar to what I am looking to do, and see who they recommend for guides or outfitters. I then check references: former clients, TripAdvisor, and American Express concierge, for example. I have had pretty good luck with TripAdvisor, but you need to know how to read reviews for a reality check.”

For Clark, “If you’ve met at a camera club or conference, or heard of them by reputation, that’s a good start.” Parker agrees. “If there is any question, I would ask for the contact info of some folks who have previously been with the guide. It’s a pretty small world and word should get around if there is a bad operator.”

Have any of your friends or photo buddies used this outfit, been to that location, or know anyone who has? If you’re thinking of a particular company or guide, run that name by your friends and ask around the photo community. There are many Facebook pages and photography forums where photographers happily share their experiences and recommendations.

Clements is a member of Northwest Nature and Wildlife Photography, a Meetup group with more than 2,300 members. “In the North American and international travel articles that appear in our quarterly magazine, NNWP Photographer, we name guides and outfitters whom members have used and can recommend. There is a guide in the Pantanal, for example, that I think five or six members have used. One of the best guides I have ever had the pleasure to meet. This has been a good resource for our members.”

Check with local agencies

Some countries, most major cities, and some other jurisdictions have an association of licensed tour guides who have passed tests and met certain qualifications. That’s another good place to start. A local travel agency or tourism office will also have some recommended guides.

In contrast to licensed tourist guides or naturalists, Clark cautions that, whether in the US or abroad, we “need to understand that it takes no prior experience or licensing to be a photo tour operator or guide. Anyone can hang out their shingle.” That’s why doing your research is so important. “Go with the people who have established reputations, are insured, hold the proper permits.” National parks and many other locations require tour operators to have special permits. Every year there are stories of operators trying to cut corners, getting caught and fined and thrown out of the park for not having a permit.

“I deal directly with the lodges that I use,” says Parker. “As for guides in other countries, I have either used someone that I met at a NANPA Summit, someone who has been recommended by someone I know, or I already know they are reputable operators.”

When Clements travels to foreign countries, “many of the lodges have outstanding naturalists and photographers either on staff, or available for hire. This was what we did on our trip earlier this year to the Osa Peninsula (in Costa Rica) when we stayed at El Remanso. The naturalists were superb, and I used them the first couple of days. I am pretty comfortable wandering through jungles alone, but they recommended having a guide at night. Great advice! There was a super location for green tree frogs, but two meters away was a deadly fer-de-lance that was pretty well hidden. I would never have spotted it had I been out by myself in the dark.”

Do some research

For a photography guide, check photography businesses in the area. Do their images show the places or subjects you want to see? Have they been in business for a long time? Have a website? Use Google Earth to see if the business’ address actually exists. Carefully check any online reviews for complaints (or compliments) from previous customers by Googling the name of the guide or business. A professional guide should be able to give you references you can contact.

Strabo, which coordinates Clark’s tours, uses guides, naturalists, and in-country tour companies with whom they have a long-standing relationships, that have been around a long time, and that are bonded and insured. Clark says they “get emails several times a week from guides in other countries, offering to lead tours. I don’t know anything about them.” A lot of people want to be guides. Fortunately, Strabo has the resources and expertise to do all the vetting.

Photographers Waiting for the Right Conditions at Mt. Rainier at the August Outing © Dan Clements
Waiting for the Right Conditions at Mt. Rainier at the August Outing © Dan Clements

Avoid irreversible payment methods

Avoid wiring money to a guide’s bank account. Use your credit card. That way, you can report a fraud claim and have a chance of getting your money back. Sketchy characters often want irreversible payments like wire transfers.

Clark points out that the tour operators will be “holding thousands of dollars for months” between the time you put down your deposit and actually go on the trip. “Legitimate, well-run companies, like Strabo or Joseph Van Os,” she continued, “put that money in a separate escrow account.” They don’t “book” the money until the actual workshop, so they can issue a refund if something happens.

Read the contract

Read and understand all the fine print, especially cancellation and refund policies, before you book. And know what your trip insurance covers and what it won’t. Clark is seeing more and more workshops with no refund policies. “Just the other day I heard that someone needed to cancel their workshop participation but got no refund—no money at all. You really need to closely read and understand the terms months before the event.” She also strongly recommends travel insurance.

Be web savvy

Does the guide or service provider have a web presence—a website, Facebook page or Instagram account? The guide whose shady dealings inspired this article has a business webpage that looks slick and professional but also appears not to have been updated in several years. His Facebook business page also hasn’t been used in a few years. The posts were all made by the business. There’s virtually no interactions with or comments from others, like actual customers. And the reviews for the past couple of years are bad. There are also scathing negative reviews on Trustpilot. These factors give one pause.

The value of local guides

Clark says that a lot goes on behind the scenes. Good local guides and in-country tour companies handle problems on the ground, changes in plans, detours, and such. She was leading a workshop in Spain in 2017, when a banned independence referendum took place in Catalonia, with large demonstrations and a heavy police presence in the province. “We weren’t sure if we could go to Barcelona,” Clark said. “But the local company and guide were on the phone, checking with contacts in the city, finding what areas to avoid and where we could safely go. It was only because of them that we felt safe going to Barcelona.”

“I cannot recall ever being ripped off by a guide,” Clements said. “The closest was a misunderstanding over pricing with a guide in Paraguay two years ago. I speak Spanish fairly well, but the price I was pretty certain he quoted for three days turned out to be for one day, so we ended up paying a bit more than anticipated. We did not have any qualms about paying the extra charge, as we probably would have tipped him more after he led us down a road where we encountered a puma the previous night.”

Most guides and tour companies are working hard to make sure clients have a great experience. However, there are also people out in the world putting a lot of energy into separating you from your hard-earned money. It pays to put some of your own energy into preventing that from happening.

Frank Gallagher headshotFrank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photography services to nonprofit organizations. He also manages NANPA’s blog.