«Book travel that makes you feel good» may sound somewhat trite. After all, don’t most people book a trip just to have fun?

Last night, I found myself struggling to make a basic reservation for a bed and breakfast on the coast of Eastern Maryland. I just could not bring myself to click the reserve button even though I really wanted to spend a weekend away with my husband. I looked him in the eye and said, «This is why we aren’t traveling right now. I hate to spend the money.»

That sparked an epiphany. I love to travel. But I hate to spend money on anything that does not make me feel good. When we stay on the coast, we spend very little time indoors. We will wander sandy beaches and hike the wetlands, looking for photography opportunities, even in poor weather. We will pack our lunches and be gone from morning until night. The perks offered at many bed and breakfasts just don’t appeal to us the way they used to. We are not luxury travelers. We need a comfortable bed and a place to play cribbage if the weather turns rotten.

I told myself it was okay to book a hotel. Once that tiny fact sunk in, making a reservation became much easier. That small change in our search criteria found us a small hotel that markets itself as one-step above motel, reminding me of most of the travel my parents could afford when I was growing up. The rooms look clean and comfortable. The grounds are just wild enough not to feel like we are in the middle town. And the location is close to everything we want to explore. The place makes me feel good in a way that the overly fussy but luxuriously appointed B&B never could.

It’s a fact that more travel shoppers like myself look for value in their travel purchase. It’s not that we mind spending the money. It’s that we don’t want to spend money on perks we don’t need or want.

That brings me to what we are trying to do for people like ourselves looking to book travel in Ecuador (and elsewhere in South America). Currently, it is difficult to see the value in many of the online offers. Too many Ecuadorian guides and travel agencies think that Americans are looking for luxury travel on the cheap. They pepper their marketing copy with green-washing eco-friendly language and lists of perks that don’t inspire me to visit. If you are like us, I bet you want to spend your travel dollars in a way that creates great memories while providing value to both yourself and the communities you visit.

When we book a tour in Ecuador, here is what we look for:

  • Places that we can explore without a guide. Our first choice is usually to have at least part of our trip guide free.
  • Small groups or, better yet, a guide that we can hire for our small group with no additional tourists. There are moments in any trip where having a local guide adds value to our experience. This is especially true in little-known regions or when specialty knowledge, like for birdwatching or orchid identification, is key to enjoying the experience.
  • Opportunities to experience local culture, be it festivals, great local food, or trips to visit local artisans.
  • Opportunities to interact with Spanish speakers. Guides who don’t speak English have less experience with the «stereotypical» American and are often surprised to find that we are willing to work with local guides who don’t speak our mother tongue. We love the opportunity to improve our second language. If we hire an English-speaking guide, we often ask to speak Spanish anyway.

Those four items provide value to our trip But when it comes to making sure that our purchases provide value to the local community, it can be a little harder.

Buy Local

Just as we try to do in the United States, we look to buy local when booking travel in Ecuador. It’s why we started our guide registry… we want YOU to book local as well.

The more local you buy, the more direct impact your purchase makes. We still have to stay in lodges or hotels or eat in restaurants that hire other people but we try to stay far away from international chains to keep money in the local economy. Of course, many Ecuadorians also run accounts in the United States and funds never make it in country. That’s a conversation for a different day.

Pay Fair Wages

Currently, there is no system to assess whether a lodge, hotel, agency, etc. pays their workers a fair wage.

This is complicated by the fact that minimum wage in Ecuador is very low, approximately $380 per month. That works out to about to about $2.30 per hour. Employees are rarely paid by experience, by skill level, or by education. And many business owners rely on clients to tip well to make up for low salaries yet don’t explain the process of tipping to their customers.

We think most middle-class Americans like ourselves would like the tip to be included in the final price. It is very hard to judge what is a «correct» tip in a culture and economy that is very different than our own. We encourage independent guides to price their services with «tip included,» especially if they have already built up credibility and trust with clientele who have provided great reviews on our website. We also encourage tourism businesses to publish their tipping policy. For example, do they have a communal tip jar where tips are divided between staff? Are local guides tipped differently than guides coming from Quito? If they don’t have a policy, ask them to publish one.

Furthermore, the current system pits guides, especially birding guides, against each other. They believe the only way to capture a client is to be cheaper than everyone else. One reason we have started a guide registry is to help local guides learn how to market the value they provide and to help them realize that they shouldn’t have to engage in a price war to win customers. In fact, I would argue that Americans looking for the cheapest guide at the expense of fair wages are not the customers to have.

Request Environmental Sustainability

Our travel purchases should not add to the burden of a local community. Government regulation protects pristine environments like many of the Galapagos Islands. Few of those protections exist on the mainland. While the Ecuadorian government attempts to balance the needs of tourists with the need to protect the islands, no system is perfect.

It is our responsibility to ask questions of tour agencies and other tourism businesses about their own practices. We want to push even the smallest establishments to move beyond hanging bathroom towels to dry for an extra day. Ask how your money helps the local community protect their environment. Is there a recycling program? Are they saving money to fund solar panels? Where does their waste water go? Then reward those doing the right thing by writing online reviews that highlight steps towards environmental sustainability.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t always follow my own suggestions. Asking all these questions is hard. But part of being Not Your Average American means striving to do better day by day. It means making mistakes while trying to move forward. Look for our own website to start addressing these issues in a consistent manner.

In short, I want you to book travel that makes you feel good. If you are even a little bit like myself, making sure your travel purchases provide some kind of benefit to society, not just to yourself, can make all the difference in the world.