Finding the right tour company can be tricky, but your vacation — and your safety — may depend upon it.

A reader recently asked me if a particular tour company is legitimate. I hadn’t heard of it (no surprise since it is small and based in Texas), so I began to consider how she and I — or anyone — could answer that key question. Here’s a plan.

Shop around. Talk to at least a few companies before making your choice. How its representatives respond on the phone (are they friendly, or do they put you on a 15-minute hold?) could be an indication of how they operate in the field. You should like the people who are the face of the company.

What should you ask once they are on the phone? Lots.

Inquire about the costs, and trust that high prices don’t necessarily get you better experiences. On a Tanzania safari with a low-budget, local company, my sister and I had a pop-top van and driver to ourselves — and frequently encountered big-name safari vehicles stuffed with humans. What does the cost cover: meals, entrances to all sites and parks? Be sure you understand the full cost before booking any trip.

Which hotels does the company use? Ask for names so you can check them out online.

Review daily schedules. Nothing will give you a better idea of a trip’s pace, and whether it suits you, than that.

Who are the guides? Often, locals are the best experts and can lend perspective and insights. At Chichen Itza, my guide was a descendant of the Mayans who had occupied the place all those years ago. He gave a soulful tour.

What is the company’s safety record? If there will be in-country bus companies or drivers, ask for their safety records, too.

When you’ve nailed down options, read online reviews, but ignore the shiny ones on company websites. With more than 500 million reviews posted, TripAdvisor is a good place to start.

 

Send questions or tips to Travel Editor Kerri Westenberg at travel@startribune.com, and follow her on Twitter: @kerriwestenberg.