Friday, November 20, 2015

The Caucasus. Itinerary and Cost Comparison.

Azerbaijan Landscape.  Photo by Matthew Hadley. Licensed under CC BY 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It's hard to believe that at the same time that I am planning a trip to Myanmar and Thailand, I'm also planning a trip to the Caucusus! 

It's been crazy juggling the load of keeping destinations, travel dates, local guides, and flights all in order but I've gotten good at it having done it for so many other trips now.  Last year, I was handling Turkey and Greece and the five Central Asia countries all at the same time and before we even left for Central Asia, I already had Madagascar in the works!   Hi, my name is Julee and I am a travel addict :-)

For this trip, Pat and I decided we would hire local guides, in each country, to take us around. We based that on our experience through Central Asis where our conducted tour was basically a chain of local guides and drivers - we were passed from one set of guide and driver to another as we moved between cities and countries. We figured we could do the same on this trip especially as we are at the age that the challenge of solo travel, in a part of the world such as the Caucusus, is no longer something we are willing to endure.

So, I started with canned tour itineraries, of trips to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, culled from websites of various tour agencies.  We had such a good experience with Advantour in Central Asia that they were the first agency I reached out to. Their Caucusus tour is a 12 day tour which seemed much too short for me so instead I looked at their individual tours for Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia to get an idea of what a 3 week trip through the Caucusus would look like.  With that in mind, I then checked out several other websites.  Typically, the agencies will all offer tours that will take you to the highlights of each country.  After looking at a few, I figured we could put together our own itinerary based on the canned ones, including the individual country tours offered by Advantour.

Armed with our proposed itinerary, I started the process of reaching out to local guides.  My two favorite resources for doing this are ToursByLocals and Viator.  It's basically a shopping process - I email the guide with the proposed itinerary and travel dates and ask them to reply back to me with the cost and what services it includes which pretty much always includes transportation - in our case a car and driver.  Also, I typically will ask for pricing the tour EXCLUDING accommodation because depending on the hotel, prices can range drastically and unless you know the quality of each hotel, this is a variable that makes it very difficult to compare prices.  However, I will ask them to provide me with an ideal of the per day cost of accommodation based on staying in guesthouses (which is what Pat and I prefer) for places outside the capitals. In Baku, Tblisi and Yerevan, our plan is to rent Airbnb apartments which are plentiful and very reasonably priced.  I will also ask them to provide an estimated cost of a simple meal at a local restaurant.  The estimated costs for accommodation and food then get rolled into the final proposed cost.

I then do a preliminary evaluation of the responses based mainly on price per person as they are all working off the same itinerary. If a guide proposes an alternative itinerary, then it's a process of researching the itinerary and seeing if it's an acceptable alternative.  If it is, it's then compared, price wise, to the original.

In the end, we have the following itinerary for our trip though the Armenia portion might get some tweaking as I want to spend a couple of nights outside Yerevan.


During the evaluation process, I will also will bargain one guide against an another to reduce estimated costs as low as I can.  

It's a tremendous amount of work to do and it can be challenging keeping all the guides straight but the reward is that you do save a lot of money which is very important for two retired women!

I compared our trip to set ones offered by various companies and here's how we stack up. 

Company Tour Duration (Days) Land
Cost
Cost 
Per Day
Wild Frontiers 15 $3,866 $258
Kutrubes Travel 14 $3,705 $265
Advantour 12 $2,490 $208
Mir Corp 15 $7,295 $486
Bestway 15 $6,280 $419
Flotours 14 $6,996 $500
Original World 21 $5,385 $256




Our Trip 26 $3,118 $120

I'm expecting that our per day costs will likely go up to about $140 per day to account for train travel between the cities and unanticipated expenses.  Even with that, we are well below the cost of any travel agency!

We've still got a lot of planning to do but I'm hoping things will continue to go as smoothly as they have so far!