Backpack & Budget : Touring With Singular Groups

Trek America, a 23-year-old adventure camping company that caters to travelers 18 to 38, has added three new tours to its winter program.

If you want to travel with your own age group, don't want to pay a single supplement, are looking for a tour with "active options" and don't mind sharing a hotel room, lending a hand preparing a meal or erecting a tent, Trek America is one of a number of companies around the world offering suitable, economical programs.

Trek America's newest travel options:

* Eight-day sun, sand and sea tours from Los Angeles to La Paz, Mexico, for $375.

* Eight-day Florida adventures, including hiking, canoeing and visits to Key West, the Everglades and Disney World for $445 (from Orlando).

* Ten-day tours of Arizona, Utah and Nevada, including a two-night stay on a ranch, plus mountain biking and a boat trip on the Colorado River, for $795 (from Las Vegas).

Trek America offers a total of 14 winter tours in the United States and Mexico, ranging from eight to 42 days. Participants travel in 13-passenger minivans and stay at campsites and in cabins and hotels. Most nights are spent camping. In Mexico, camping facilities can be quite primitive. In the United States, national park campgrounds often have coin-operated launderies, shops and swimming pools. Passengers stay two to four persons per tent, and chip in $30 each, per week, to the communal food kitty.

To find out about other companies with programs designed specifically for youthful, active, budget-conscious travelers, contact travel agents that specialize in student or adventure travel, or the tourist information office of the country you intend to visit.

Contiki, a tour operator with an office in Garden Grove (714-740-0808), is one company that has programs in North America, Europe and the South Pacific. Connections (800-227-8747) is another company that operates programs in Australia and New Zealand. London-based Top Deck (131 Earls Court Road, London SW5 9RH, England) runs tours in Asia, Europe and the Middle East (and accommodates and transports some groups on double-decker buses).

Some programs focus on camping, while others use inexpensive hotels. Either way, the advantage is that solo travelers will be matched with roommates so they don't have to pay single-supplement charges.

When researching tours of this type, here are some questions to ask and points to consider:

* Don't just jump at the tour with the most attractive price; sit down and figure out your real cost. For example, in some of the Trek America programs, several nights are spent in hotels that cost $25 to $40 per night, and that expense is not included in the tour cost.

* What is the average ratio of men to women, and the average age? Different tour routes attract different age groups.

* Are any options included in the tour price, or are they simply available at additional cost?

* Does the tour company market its trips internationally, so tours include passengers from a variety of English-speaking countries?

* Find out whether there are departures that coincide with special events. For example, some Trek America winter programs pass through New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

* Ask the company you are considering to give you some names of former clients to talk to about their experiences.

* Be careful about joining the first group on a new route, especially if you are going into a remote area. This happened to me once in Southeast Asia. Because the guide had not been there before, he didn't know how cold it would get at night, and he hadn't arranged for enough warm bedding. We stayed five nights in tribal villages--and nearly froze.

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