HOW TO BOOK A TOUR IN MONGOLIA
Everything you need to know to book a tour in Mongolia;
How much to spend, how to find an operator, and what to ask before confirming
Doing a DIY trip in Mongolia is not for the faint-hearted; this is a beautiful but harsh country where even the locals need to rely on strangers for help, let alone foreigners without a clue on how to survive on the vast steppe.
So despite the fact that we usually aim to be as independent as possible, after a long conversation over Mongolian beers, we decided that actually, maybe, in this specific country we should get some help and book onto a tour.
(As it happens it turns out we were right; within a few days of our decision Mongolia broadcast a weather warning and the whole country was hit by successive snow storms, not the norm in May...but that's Mongolia).
The next question then arose;
How on earth do you pick a reliable tour agency in Mongolia?
We ended up booking tours with two different companies and also spoke to everyone we met about their experiences and how they had found their guides.
Some people were having the time of their lives, others... not so much.
It is possible to find and book onto an amazing tour without having to pay thousands, but we have heard and read (and experienced) a few too many horror stories about poorly run tours where the tourists are purely an inconvenience.
Below is our guidance on the best way to book a tour in Mongolia.
Should I book online or in person?
First of all, try to avoid booking a tour before you arrive in Ulaanbaatar, the prices quoted on the websites are significantly higher than the prices that you'll be given in the tourist office.
Your tour will be cheaper if the group is more than 4. If you are on your own or in a couple, ask if there are any tours already planned that you can join or find a few willing volunteers in your hostel you might like to join up with you.
In person it is possible to negotiate a little, some agencies will be willing to match the cost per day of other quotes, it doesn’t hurt to ask. But beware if you haggle too aggressively you might find your tour is also cut to bare-bones as well.
How to find a good tour agency in mongolia?
Your best bet is to find a recommendation from someone who has actually done a tour in Mongolia, in person is best but if you're short on time then try looking at some blogs. Before we arrived in Ulaanbaatar we made shortlist of companies that we'd read about, and the next day we went and visited a few. We immediately got a feel for the which were ‘legit’, and the ones being run out of the bedsit.
We also here learnt that the company with the flashiest website…does not always mean they're the most legitimate operator.
Once we were on the premises we asked about the tours they ran, looked at their promotional material and asked about prices.
How to pick the destination
The tour company will probably suggest a tour that they prefer to run, some specialise in the Gobi, others in the Khovsgol Nuur or Naiman Nuur. Try and understand if they know the area you want to go to well, and if there is already a group going that you could join.
Wherever you go in Mongolia, we will undoubtedly experiences something of what makes the country so incredibly special. Whether that’s horse-riding, staying with nomads, or driving through vast landscapes. We tried to go in with an open mind about what routes we would cover as traveling around Mongolia is often more about the journey than the destination (more on that here)
If you want to go to an area that they do not cover, you'll probably end up be farmed out to a 3rd party contractor guide or driver, which usually is not the experience you're after.
Recommendations before you confirm
Here are a few things you might consider doing before confirming yourself onto a tour:
Ask to have an English speaking guide or driver, this makes a lot of difference especially when the plan needs to change (which it will) due to unforeseen circumstances.
Confirm that the driver/guide does actually works for the company; on our first tour our bus had a logo on the side and our guide wore the company polo shirt. On our second tour, the driver and guide were hired the day before we left. The difference was significant.
Ask to meet the guide before you leave, this may not be possible but it's worth asking.
Ask what kind of vehicle you will be touring in. The best are the Russian Vans with all seats facing forwards. Make sure the van is kitted out with a spare tyre, tools, that the heating works & that there is a spade on board… The likelihood is they’ll all get used.
If you're going in a group, see if you can meet the others before-hand, you want to avoid being stuck sharing a ger with someone who might drive you up the wall for 2 weeks.
Sense check any logistics in the plan; we were sold an itinerary with 2 days driving at the end...the driver didn't like it one bit and constantly tried to tell us he wanted to do it in three days, and therefore cut our trip short. The problem: he only found out the itinerary for the trip after he was hired.
If you still have concerns about your tour, ask to pay half the cost up front and half when you return.
Mongolia Tour company Recommendations
Golden Gobi: We did our trip to the Gobi desert, Naiman Nuur and Kharkhorin with them and were very happy. We had an excellent guide & driver who had worked together for quite some time. We talk more about that tour here. However we met a group who also used Golden Gobi but for the Khovsgol Nuur (Northern Mongolia) and they weren't happy with their guide who never got out of bed before 10am…
The difference was that the guide for the north was a contractor.
Sunpath Mongolia Tours: We didn't use this company but we met a group with them in the Gobi and they were happy to recommend their guide and driver.
Top Tours: We met group on multiple occasions as they were following a similar itinerary to us. Their guide spoke perfect English & was super friendly. We actually drive in convoy with them for a few hours too. They seemed like they were in good hands.
Nomadic Offroad: a little bit left-field, we met this group at a tourist ger camp and they seemed to be having an absolutely incredible time, all on individual motorcycles. A different set of skills required, but if you’re into that sort of thing…
Ger-to-Ger: We didn’t actually meet anyone who had used this company but they supposedly set you up with different nomad camps and allow you to stay in gers outside of a tour group. Your experience will vary wildly based on the particular nomad family you end up with, but I guess that's why you're there!
How much should I pay for a tour in mongolia
As a benchmark here are some costs for tours in May 2019
Gobi desert: $60 USD/day per person, this was with a group discount
Khovsgol Nuur: $65 USD/day person, this was with an English speaking guide without a discount
Khovsgol Nuur: $40 USD/day per person without an English speaking guide and taking the public bus from Ulaanbaatar to Murun in order to meet the driver.
What should your tour include
Three meals a day + at least 1.5l of water per person
All travel & petrol
Any costs for entering restricted areas
Our experience with Tours in Mongolia
We had two quite different experiences when booking & joining tours in Mongolia (we called in market research… in hindsight).
Our first was a fantastic experience with a professional driver and guide through fairly reputable company to an area that they specialised in. Whilst plenty of things went wrong, good communication, a sense of camaraderie & plenty of professionalism went a long way to re-assure us that parting with our money was a good idea.
Read our account of that trip
Our second tour was a slightly more stressful experience with a driver who clearly didn't want to be there and who resented the amount of driving he needed to do (not sure why he did his job) and a guide on his first ever gig. The second of our tours was booked through our small guesthouse who ran tours on the side... We learnt afterwards this basically meant finding a van, someone who can drive, someone who speaks English and giving them a copy of the Mongolian Lonely Planet the day before the trip… Not wildly re-assuring!
Having said all that, the woman who sold us the second tour was lovely & clearly did her best, but simply ran a much smaller operation. Regardless of the friction with our driver & teething pains with our guide (who also really tried his best), it was still unforgettable in it's own way; rescued by the incredibly scenery, the nomads we stayed with, and a ready supply of beer we’d stocked up on before we left...
Which ever type of tour you end up with, it’s always worth bearing in mind that 80% of Mongolia’s roads are unpaved… it’s never going to be an easy ride!