Custom Travel

Q&A With Custom Travel Expert Ciara Sampaio

Custom Travel

Although my wife and I love the communal energy and interactivity of organized group tours, many of our favorite trips we’ve ever taken were custom travel experiences.

From exploring the beautiful beaches and Mayan ruins of Belize and visiting the nature reserves of Jordan to an exceptional two-week safari in Tanzania, these custom trips offered the ultimate control over our itinerary. We had the opportunity to decide where and when we wanted to go and how much daily activity we wanted to engage in, but with the benefit of a knowledgeable guide who could tell us everything we wanted to know about the local people, the place, its history and the animals that inhabit its ecosystems.

Sure, package tours can be more affordable and easier, since the itinerary is already arranged for you, but custom vacations can work for almost any budget and offer the freedom and flexibility of traveling alone while ensuring you always have a local guide at your disposal.

Here, we chat with International Expeditions’ custom travel expert Ciara Sampaio about her travel background, the differences between organized tours and custom trips, and which custom tours are her personal favorites…

Custom Travel

Let's start off by talking about your background. Was there any particular experience you can look back on from your childhood that inspired your love of travel and nature? 

Most of our family vacations when I was a kid were camping trips. I grew up outside, climbing trees and building forts. I was fascinated by my dad’s stories of hitchhiking around the U.S., rock climbing in Estes Park and throwing rock concerts in Okinawa. My mom grew up half in Japan and half in the United States. So, from a young age, I knew that there was a big world out there, and I wanted nothing more than to explore it.

You've said that you "geek out on mountains." What is it about them that excites you? 

I love the feeling of remoteness. I love the vast, open spaces. I love the otherworldly landscapes of glaciers littered with crevasses, towering seracs, and windswept cornices. My first backpacking trip was trekking the Annapurna Mountains of Nepal. For days, I hiked up and down mountains, carrying everything on my back, stunned by how far my body could take me. I had never felt more alive in my life. To this day, nothing else excites me as much as being deep in the mountains.

Can you talk about your sustainable building experiences in Easter Island and Patagonia with Earthship Academy, and how they fueled your passion for travel? 

I’d wanted to work with Earthship Biotecture for years, so when I found out they were doing a project on Easter Island, I jumped at the chance. The experience was magical: 60 volunteers from around the world spent six weeks living on a local family’s land while being welcomed into the culture. We danced under the stars at the feet of the moai, learned traditional songs and worked alongside locals to build the island’s first sustainable arts and music school for the children. We explored secret caves, camped on hidden beaches, learned to surf and made lasting friendships.

The next project was an eco-hostel in Patagonia, so I jumped on that project as well. In Patagonia, we camped out in a tiny mountain town called El Bolson, and climbed and hiked on weekends. These were some of the most immersive traveling experiences I’ve ever had. Not only did I get to work on amazing projects in truly spectacular locales, but I felt welcomed into local communities and got to learn from so many different people and cultures.

I’ve found that the things I love most are based around these intense, shared experiences that shift something inside of me, serving as a vehicle for personal transformation. I come back from every adventure a little different than when I left.

Custom Travel

Let's talk about your role as a custom travel planner. What do you love about your job? 

I love taking the tiniest spark of an idea and turning it into a fully-fledged trip that reflects the traveler’s unique style. For me, it’s about taking a dream and turning it into a reality.

I really love the planning process. I love the detailed logistics of taking something like wanting to see the northern lights in Norway and turning it into a two-week adventure full of ice hotels, technical ski mountaineering and dog sledding. Or, turning the desire to see wildlife in Africa into a multi-country adventure experiencing the zebra migration, trekking with gorillas and swimming with whale sharks—all in one trip.

I love that I get to learn about new places every single day. I get to research things like how to put together an expedition to climb Kilimanjaro, puma tracking and glacier trekking in Patagonia, the different types of chimp and gorilla permits in Uganda, the stringent travel restrictions for Cuba, the different wildlife of the Galapagos, etc. Every day is different, every request is different and every guest brings something new and exciting to the table.

You have a background in health and wellness: Do you see a connection between helping people travel well and helping them be their healthiest self?

Absolutely! I believe that true health comes from nourishing your body AND your soul. Being healthy isn’t just about the food you eat or whether or not you exercise. It’s about finding a balance between all the important things in your life—relationships, career, joy, physical movement, creative pursuits.... Food nourishes your body, but travel is one of those things that nourishes your life and your soul. Travel has the power to change the way we see ourselves and the world. We grow into our best selves by having new experiences and regularly getting out of our comfort zones.

What would you say are the biggest differences between custom travel and organized tours? 

With custom travel, you have total freedom and flexibility. You choose your destinations, dates, length of travel, how the trip is paced… the possibilities are endless! Organized tours offer the convenience of having everything planned out for you. You don’t need to make any decisions and can take comfort in knowing that everything has been taken care of for you.

Custom Travel

What things do travelers arranging a custom trip need to consider before and during the planning process? 

Custom travel makes you an active participant in the planning process and is highly personalized to your interests. I usually start with a series of questions to gain an understanding about the goals for the trip. Are you looking for adventure? To immerse yourself in another culture? To learn the history of famous places? To see as much wildlife as possible?

The other important thing is to have a good idea of your budget, and don’t be afraid to be honest! My goal is to design a trip that meets all your needs, and understanding those needs allows me to be more efficient in putting together the trip you’re looking for.

The consultation and itinerary creation process can take some time, depending on the nature of the request and the destination, so it’s also best to start the process as early as possible.

Custom Travel

What are your favorite custom travel tours you'd recommend people should take in their lifetimes?  

Anyone who loves wild places will fall in love with Patagonia. We offer a great wildlife-focused trip called Pumas, Penguins, and Whales, with 3 full days in Torres del Paine National Park searching for Pumas with an expert tracker. You also visit a King Penguin colony and stay at a research facility on Carlos III Island to see the Humpback Whales. This trip is unique in that it can be done as a private/custom trip, or as a small group departure.

Uganda should absolutely be on everyone’s bucket list. The highlight for most is trekking with the gorillas, but this diverse country offers so much more, from mighty Murchison Falls, the Rwenzori Mountains, cruising the Nile, amazing scenery and incredible wildlife.

Contrary to popular belief, travel to Cuba is alive and well. We craft incredibly unique experiences that allow you to truly encounter the culture, history, and people. Stay in a “casa particular” (think private bed and breakfast homestay), enjoy a Jazz Pub crawl through Havana, or learn about vintage cigars from one of the few internationally certified sommeliers in Cuba. Now is definitely the time to plan a trip to Cuba, before more travel restrictions are announced – by starting the process now, you would most likely be grandfathered in under the current guidelines.

Custom Travel

What do you hope people take away from their custom travel experiences?  

I truly believe that travel can transform lives by shifting the way we see the world, others and ourselves. My hope is that people will allow these profound experiences and perspective shifts to be a catalyst for imbuing their lives with more meaning, connection and, of course, adventure.

Custom Travel

Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.