The moral of this tale is that in places that are utterly foreign in every way where you don’t speak the language, it’s essential to have “known” local resources in place, particularly for logistics-intensive short trips (versus extended travel where you have the luxury of time to figure things out). The exception is if you are just heading to a single urban destination like Marrakech, where you can rely on a well-run hotel to manage transfers and hire guides.
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Given that Marrakech Desert Tours is one of the world’s hot destinations right now, I found a somewhat surprising lack of credible content around family travel. I found an even slimmer list of tour operators who cater to families in a meaningful and high-quality way. This is not to say that there’s not a long list of people offering tours through Morocco — there is. Once I looked under the hood, the list shrank rapidly.
I interviewed operators who marketed themselves as kid-friendly, but after one discussion it was clear they had no clue. I spoke to local operators who were qualified, but the planning communication was too challenging. We didn’t want a group trip, which eliminated other possibilities. And finally, gone are the days where an operator can rely on “black box” resources and pricing — i.e. they don’t tell you exactly what you are doing or how they arrived at price points that seem inflated; they just stay “trust us.” My answer to that is, quite simply, NO.
I discovered Kensington Tours 18 days before our departure. I was down the road with a few other operators, but the team at Kensington captured my attention as they scrambled to put together an itinerary to meet our needs. Last-minute planning requires extra effort, but they didn’t hesitate to tackle every request. Yes, I’m a blogger, and yes, they wanted to work with me; however, this was more than that. Other operators made excuses when I asked them to do the impossible and make the 20-hour trip to the desert kid-friendly — not Kensington Tours.
Our planner, Aurelie Gilles, worked tirelessly to structure the trip in a way that would be appealing for an 8-year-old. Moreover, she had experienced everything she recommended: hotels, excursions, drives — all of it. I can’t tell you how disconcerting it is to find that your trip planner tries to sell you on something they don’t really know about (the crime is not saying so at the front end).
Four days prior to our departure, we were still fiddling and confirming components of the trip. I work on media rates for hotel stays and at this point, it was simply too complicated to figure out pricing. Rather than throwing up their hands and quoting me list pricing for accommodations or asking me to do that legwork, Kensington Tours decided to host the bulk of my tour. This was an unexpected treat, to put it mildly, but it’s important to note that I decided to work with Kensington Tours before they told me they would be hosting so much of the trip. Here’s why:
These takeaways are specific to my trip, but at a high level, these are considerations for any tour operator beauty pageant. (See Dana’s tips for planning a trip with a tour operator for insight related to her Costa Rica family vacation).
US/Canada Office. It’s much easier to plan a trip with native English speakers. UK-based operators are an option, but as an American parent, there’s comfort in working with a team that plans trips for many American families, as they understand general bits about our needs and expectations. Americans don’t get six weeks of holiday per year — we’re picky!
Knowledge. An operator must have extensive firsthand knowledge about their destination. They’ll be outsourcing guides and drivers from local operators, but that is not an excuse for not having tried and tested anything and everything they recommend.
Flexibility. Many tour operators work with inflexible itineraries, meaning you must opt for a pre-selected list of hotels and services. This is one of Kensington Tours’ huge differentiators. Every item on your itinerary is flexible and interchangeable. This approach is ideal for those of us who are independent travelers at heart and are used to 100% customization.
Price. Kensington Tours is not the least expensive tour operator by any stretch, as they specialize in upscale and luxury tours. That said, since their clients have the ability to swap in different accommodations, there is the ability to bring down pricing accordingly. You pay a premium for what’s important — best-in-class drivers and guides — and balance this with value-oriented accommodations.
Credibility. I had never used Kensington Tours, nor did I have a direct reference (with more time I would have asked for this). Their media page is full of press from the world’s most coveted travel journals, including Travel and Leisure and National Geographic Traveler. They’ve won awards, not just secured article placement. Yes, their PR team has done a good job, but this kind of recognition means there is real quality behind the operation. Of course, I didn’t know that I’d love my trip so much until after the fact, so this didn’t play into my decision. But it can affect yours!