Getting a discount on backpacker tours is the ultimate travel hack. Whether you’re on a gap year, or just living more of a gap life (like me!) saving money is paramount.
I used to work as a travel agent. Here’s how to get a discount on backpacker tours.
I worked at a tour agency in Cairns, Australia for six months. I started working there because I needed to do my 88 days in tourism and hospitality above the Tropic of Capricorn to qualify for a second-year working holiday visa.
The 88 days translates to about three months, but the perks of the position were too good to give up, so I stayed on. We had three boats out on the Great Barrier Reef that I could enjoy for free.
One budget snorkeling tour, one upgraded scuba diving option, and an overnight “live aboard” boat that offered snorkeling, scuba diving, and even a glass bottom boat. I loved spending time on the boats. One of the divemasters started calling me “Scuba Spice” and it stuck.
In addition to selling these three tours, my colleagues and I also partnered with other tour companies around Cairns. We sold zip-lining tours to the Daintree Rainforest, day trips to enjoy the sun on Fitzroy Island, and even white water rafting adventures down the Tully River.
And you guessed it: I got to do all of these things for free.
In the industry, we called them “famils.” This was short for familiarization trips. If I was going to sell these trips to the tourists who stopped into the office or called us on the phone, I needed to know a lot about them.
And what better way to learn about the trip than to take it myself?
During my six months at the agency, I think I was on a famil every single day off. That turned out to be at least two, sometimes even three, a week. I was the only backpacker in the office. My colleagues were all locals, so they spent their days off in more normal ways like running errands or hitting the gym.
I earned the nickname “famil slut” (said with tons of affection, of course) for my interest in taking all these backpacker tours.
I learned a lot about the travel industry in these six months. And now I’m going to pass these secrets along to you so you can go on your dream vacation for cheaper.
Here’s the deal: there are two types of companies selling tours.
The first are brokers, like me.
We get a commission (usually 20%, but sometimes 10%) for booking passengers on an experience. At my particular agency, I was just paid an hourly fee and the business got the commission. I liked this, so I didn’t have to compete with my coworkers or meet crazy sales targets. But at some brokers or agencies, the commission goes directly into the seller’s pocket.
The second seller is the company that actually provides the experience.
You can typically get a discount by pitting these two sellers against each other.
I know this is really shady, but negotiations usually are.
Here’s the script:
Start by going directly to the tour provider and saying, “I’ll book direct so you don’t have to pay a commission to an agency.” If the commission is 20%, you might be able to get that much off the tour. Maybe a little bit less (18%?) so the company still makes a profit on you booking direct.
Depending on the length of your tour, this could add up to hundreds of dollars. When I took a three-week trip from Darwin in the Northern Territory to Perth in Western Australia, some of my tourmates paid significantly less than me (it was a $4,000 trip!) because they booked directly.
I found this out around day 17. I was so tired that I actually cried about it.
If the tour provider doesn’t want to play ball, then take your offer to a broker that sells the same tour. You can say, “I was going to book direct, but I’ll book with you if you cut your commission to work with me” or something like that. This way, the broker can still walk away with a little commission and you walk away with a cheaper tour.
Cutting commission happened a lot when I lived and worked in Cairns. I wasn’t allowed to offer any sort of discount on the tours my company sold. I often got screamed at on the phone about it (hot tip: don’t be a jerk), but the brokers that worked with us did.
This one woman spent 30 minutes browbeating me that she could go elsewhere to get it cheaper. I agreed with her that she could. It was a multi-day liveaboard, so she went with a broker and got a few hundred off the price because he cut his commission. 10% commission in your pocket on a big sale is better than 0%, he later told me.
Sometimes, you can even work with multiple brokers to get the best deal.
This is best done in person like if you are buying tickets on the esplanade somewhere and there are tons of travel agencies in a row. You don’t even really need to have another quote in hand. Just point at a shop across the street and tell them, “They told me they could do it for this price. What do you think?”
Either you walk away with a full-price tour or can finesse a discount on one of your backpacker tours.
It never hurts to ask.