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Follow the leader?

On a guided trip, drop a bundle or a bit the choice is yours.

Snowshoers on Hegman Lake.

© Beth Gauper

The price is right for Outward Bound's annual day hike to the Hegman Pictographs near Ely, Minn.: It's free, snowshoes included.

Want to save money on trips? Then, step away from the fancy catalog.

Glossy pages of snow-capped mountains and medieval castles are eye candy for travelers. But the prettier the brochure, the more eye-popping the prices.

Luxury excursions are like Jaguars and Jimmy Choo shoes. We covet them, we window-shop for them, but only a few of us can afford them.

Luckily, few of us need to.

Consider two walking trips in Newfoundland in July. A Butterfield Robinson trip charges $1,115 a night per person. A Sierra Club trip charges $162 a night per person.

So for each BR trip to Newfoundland, you could take seven Sierra Club trips. What's the difference?

Butterfield Robinson is ranked one of the world's best tour operators (by the magazines and travel agents who depend on its business).

Meals and accommodations are luxurious. Guests go on a scenic airplane ride, kayak at sunset and stay in a lighthouse, albeit one with a shared bathroom.

On the Sierra Club trip, they share bathrooms every night and help with meal preparation.

There's also a Country Walkers trip for $470 per night, and five local outfitters offer guided walking trips.

If you're going to see Newfoundland, not the inside of an inn, they're basically the same trip. They all use the public East Coast Trail, and they all sightsee in public parks and waters.

People who plan their own trips can tag along on free weekend hikes led by volunteers from the East Coast Trail Association.

Some people can drop money without bothering to weigh the options. I'm not one of them.

I like to window-shop in glossy travel catalogs, but I rarely go on guided trips. They're just too expensive, especially when multiplied by two, and prices almost always are based on double occupancy.

I can't help but think about what else I could do with that much money.

For example, one night for two on the land-only Butterfield Robinson walking trip to Newfoundland is $300 more than my husband and I spend for an entire spring week in Puerto Vallarta, airfare included.

Minnesota: Nice price

And yet, not everyone wants the hassle of organizing a trip. Even Greg Lais, the outdoorsman who co-founded nonprofit Wilderness Inquiry in Minneapolis, is tired of it.

"I'm not the kind of guy who likes to spend two or three days on the ritual of packing," he says. "It's a lot of work. On our trips, the guides do all the organizing and food purchasing; they make it really easy. All you need to do is pack your toothbrush and clothes. A lot of people do like it."

There aren't any tour companies in this region that charge $1,000 a night or anything remotely close.

But Timberline Adventures in Denver offers bicycling trips in Door County, the Black Hills and on Missouri's Katy Trail that cost $349-$359 per night and a hiking trip on the Superior Hiking Trail that costs $379 per night.

Since I know what trips go for around here, that seems high to me. Bicyclists can go on similar trips with nonprofits for $46-$75 per night, though accommodations are in tents and not all meals are provided.

And Wilderness Inquiry charges only $173 per night for a similar lodge-based trip on the Superior Hiking Trail.

Why are prices cheaper here? Because Minnesotans are familiar with their own back yard, and they wouldn't put up with higher rates. (For one comparison of trip prices, see Five ways to walk the Superior Hiking Trail.)

"In Minnesota, when I tell them their trip ends up being $100 per person, they almost faint because it's so expensive," says Barbara Young of Boundary Country Trekking, which offers lodge-to-lodge hiking trips on the Superior Hiking Trail.

"We live in this fantastic state, with all these fantastic resources, and most of them are free. So, when you ask them to pay for something, they say, 'What?' "

But people from the coasts, she says, think they're a terrific bargain.

"They say, 'Is that for real?' They can't believe the prices," she says. "People from New York or California are used to paying these unbelievable prices for trips."

Because the nonprofit Superior Hiking Trail Association maintains the trail, Young includes a $25 membership in her price. She's the only tour operator who does, says Gayle Coyer, director of the association.

If a guest questions the cost, Young says, "I tell them, 'That trail did not appear out of nowhere.' "

Affordable options

Like me, Lais often has wondered why other adventure-travel companies charge so much for their trips, especially since they use public trails, parks and waterways. When he started Wilderness Inquiry in 1978, his main purpose was to provide wilderness access to people with physical disabilities.

Now, he worries as much about access for people without financial ability.

"Eighty percent of companies are focused on that ultra-wealthy segment," he said. "I have nothing against the wealthy; I'm happy to raise money from them. But I think a lot about financial accessibility  how can we make it even more affordable for people than it already is."

Karen Nicholas, whose St. Paul company Adventure Vacations offers trips to the Boundary Waters in conjunction with Twin Cities community-education programs, says the national companies probably aren't gouging consumers.

But they have to pay a lot for overhead and marketing; a single full-color trip catalog, she says, can cost $5 to $8.

"We're just operating at a different level," she says. "At the end of the day, it costs them that much to operate."

No one really needs a guide on the well-marked Superior Hiking Trail, but Nicholas points out many people join groups because they enjoy traveling with like-minded people and listening to the guides' commentary.

And if people just want a guide, she'll hire herself out.

I figure if a couple were to buy the lodge-to-lodge trip from Boundary Country Trekking instead of Timberline and rent a car from Duluth instead of being transported in a van, they'd save $2,375 on a five-night hiking trip  enough to pay Nicholas $475 per day to be their personal guide.

"No problem!" she says. "You want to see some waterfalls? I've got some favorite waterfalls."

Of course, most people should have a guide if they want to go rock-climbing or tackle the waves of Lake Superior on a sea-kayaking tour, and even skilled paddlers appreciate a guide who can spot the portages and navigate the lakes on a Boundary Waters trip.

And some people just aren't very familiar with the outdoors and want to know they'll be safe.

"Some people just do not feel that savviness at all; their comfort level is not huge," Nicholas says. "Sometimes, a group guided thing is the right fit."

Trip Tips: Finding a low-cost group trip

Community education: Many high school-based programs offer weeeknd trips. Southwest High School in Minneapolis has a particularly strong travel program, offering weekend canoe and bicycling trips for less than $100. 612-668-3100.

Community colleges: Nicolet College in Rhinelander, Wis., offers many inexpensive paddling and hiking trips around the region. 800-585-9304.

Clubs: Many outdoors clubs offer low-priced trips that members coordinate for each other. Members needn't live in the cities in which the clubs are based.

For a list of outdoors clubs around the region, see Join the club.

Sierra Club: This advocacy group, which has Minnesota and Wisconsin chapters, offers well-priced trips all over the world, and its service trips cost even less. 415-977-5522.

Wilderness Inquiry: This nonprofit Minneapolis-based company offers local trips  the Apostles, the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park, Isle Royale, Itasca State Park, the St. Croix River as well as national and international trips. People of all ages and abilities are welcome. 612-676-9400.

Elderhostel: This nonprofit company offers people 55 and older more than 8,000 learning adventures in all 50 states and more than 90 countries. 800-454-5768.

Bike tours: Many organizations sponsor bike trips, and they're one of the cheapest vacations around. Trucks carry participants' luggage from stop to stop, and buses shuttle them back to the starting point. For more, see Sightseeing by bike.

Cheap national travel: Among the best-known companies is Green Tortoise, which offers bus-camping tours at rock-bottom prices. 800-867-8647.

Resources: A subscription to Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine, which includes the month's 40 Best Deals around the world, is $12 for 10 issues. Articles and the latest deals also are posted online.

Read Transitions Abroad online. It includes a 2004 Resourceful Traveler column in which Tim Leffel discusses ways to find low-cost adventure travel around the world.

Last updated on March 10, 2011