From guides, to travel agents.
Thinking about it, finding a good travel agent is the doorway to a good guide. If you trust the agent, you can be fairly sure that their guides will be kind and reliable. But finding a guide can be a bit like sticking a pin in a list of possibilities. So here is how I do it:
If I'm heading for the Far East I get a flight to Bangkok and a hotel near Koh San Road and then trawl the agents around there. But - a big but - I know there are a lot of scams that have their origins in the travel agents of Koh San Road. So I have a two-pronged approach.
Firstly, I don't go into an agent without some idea of where I want to go. If you wander in and see what's available there's a risk they will sell you anything. With a rough idea I'm less likely to fall for the beautiful pictures of a hotel that hasn't been built yet.
Then - I never buy anything on a first visit, unless I'm in a real hurry to move on (in which case the travel desk in a hotel is a better bet). Instead, I go back to my hotel and google them. Most agents have good and bad reviews, but a trawl through the bad ones generally highlights those who are truly dodgy.
Then - what about countries I've not visited before? In that case I'm entirely dependent on guidebooks and the internet. Most good guidebooks (Lonely Planet, Bradt) will suggest reliable agents, with their website and email addresses. I highlight those they recommended, and then google them - looking for reviews. (Of course I check out their websites, but anyone can have a glossy website and still be unreliable. So I don't take much notice of those.)
My experience is that this process narrows down my options to two or three agents. So I email all of them, and see what happens. If they reply - that's a start. And then it's a question of whether we can work together to sort out an itinerary.
It's a lengthy process, and one that's worth taking time over. Sometimes they are the only people who know where I am, and who might notice if something goes wrong. Having said that, there is always a heart-stopping moment of transferring money half way across the work to people you've never met.
Here are three agents I'd always recommend:
In Ecuador, Happy Gringo - dreadful name, I know, but a great agency who were very flexible.
In Malawi, Central African Wilderness Safaris will do whatever you need them to do. (And if you're really lucky you'll meet Everlasting!)
And, of course, Tika's company in Nepal: Fujiyama Treks will always make you welcome.