Help me navigate my travel booking quandary.
January 12, 2013 1:12 AM   Subscribe

I have a time-sensitive travel decision to make, and it affects the entire substance of my trip. Can you help me decide on a course of action?

I'm going to a remote island for a few weeks in March. The purpose of my trip is cultural (not primarily touristic) and I'll be doing research and gathering information on the local music.

There's only one flight a week to and from this island. I'm connecting internationally via a neighboring country. Because it's a tiny regional airline, tickets to the island aren't available on the Internet, and they strongly advise you to have them booked by a local guide. (Americans can't get visas for this place directly, so the guide has to issue a letter of invitation and arrange the visas from the island. No guide, no visa.)

One guide in particular (let's call him Alpha) has been recommended across-the-board by other folks in the field. He is part of the island's cultural preservation society and is extremely well-connected with the locals, having also served as a guide and translator for the researchers who preceded me. He was initially very responsive to my e-mails, but has become less and less so as time goes by. We've made an informal agreement around dates, but he hasn't answered any subsequent questions about starting the visa process, buying flights, or further details. It's been about two weeks since our last major correspondence, and I've only gotten a one-line e-mail back saying he'd be in touch soon.

There are two other guides, each of whom has their own strengths and weaknesses. They come from a full-service tourism background, so they can assuredly handle flights, visas, etc. But they're all a distant second to Alpha, according to the folks I've spoken with. They can most likely give me a nice tourist experience, but I haven't been able to verify just how many local people they know, or if they can deliver on my stated goals.

As noted above, the regional airline can't sell online, and there's no other way for me to get the ticket other than to go through a guide. I don't want to fly the first 3,000 miles of my trip, only to find out I can't continue on to my final destination. (Only one flight a week, remember.) I have spoken with the airline via e-mail, and they tell me there are currently only four seats left on that week's flight ... but they won't sell me a ticket directly. (I should also mention that I'm traveling with two others, so we will need three of those four seats.)

At this point, given the narrow margin, I fear my only option is to go with a tour guide who can guarantee passage. I hate to pass on Alpha, but the other tour operators have said they need confirmation from me right away or they'll be taking other clients.

I don't want to panic about buying tickets just to end up with a subpar guide, since that will affect the quality and quantity of social relationships I establish. But I could also wait however-many-more weeks to hear back from Alpha, and (in a worst-case scenario) end up without a flight or a guide.

So, how do I settle this? Book the sure thing now (with potentially great risk to the work), or try to wait it out (with even greater risk to the work, but the potential for greater rewards)?
posted by mykescipark to Travel & Transportation around Suqatra, Yemen (6 answers total)
Do you have Alpha's phone number, or does one of the people who recommended him have a phone number for him? I deal with a range of odd places and while at times neither phone or email is reliable, email is dependent on phonelines, electricity and computers all working, so phone calls work better.
posted by AnnaRat at 1:22 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Will Alpha also be acting as your fixer/local guide/translator etc for your research? If so, I'd wonder whether a) you discussed fees with him yet and whether b) has he received a more lucrative offer, that might be in the process of firming up as well and thus you're being kept "alive" but not "confirmed".

If the above could be true, then you may have to consider purchasing tickets and making arrangements with one of the other guides however for the social liaison aspect, ask Alpha for a recommendation for your research needs, if as you say, all your colleagues seem to know only him, on that island.

I'd second AnnaRat's suggestion to call him directly. As mentioned, emails can be down or even, expensive, as we don't know local internet rates, availability or data bundles.

You needn't leap to this conclusion in your call to him but get a feel for the situation and hint at your openness to introductions to others, if there's a timing challenge, type of delicate navigating. Or request someone who knows him better to help you with this first contact.
posted by infini at 3:55 AM on January 12, 2013

Is working with multiple guides an option? Or does it have to be only one?
posted by medusa at 5:40 AM on January 12, 2013

I'm in a different country right now where e-mail is still considered something of a toy - my emails go completely ignored but a quick phone call nets me much better customer service. Wouldn't surprise me if it were the same in your situation.
posted by zug at 6:23 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

What do the people who recommended him to you recommend?
posted by snickerdoodle at 6:59 AM on January 12, 2013

I was going to ask what medusa asked. Can you hire the sure-thing guide to book the plane ticket and then work with Alpha when you get there? I mean, I'm sure you'd have to pay both of their fees, but there'd be considerably less risk and that might be worth it to you.
posted by Weeping_angel at 8:34 AM on January 12, 2013

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