The Zen of Ziplining with Dan Austin, founder of Austin-Lehman Adventure now Austin Adventures

Dan Austin, founder of Austin Adventures, not only walks his talk.  He ziplines it, kayaks it, and  ash-boards it. He makes the world his office and playground, as he aims for each AA adventure travel vacation to be “incredibly fun and deeply memorable”, (part of the company’s mission statement.) Not an easy feat, with 80 programs “evolving” in the Americas, Africa and Europe, but his family- run company keeps getting top awards and high praise.

 He credits his family, AA team and the hand-picked local guides. It’s also clear, he is all-around hands-on (both paddles and plans,) and is comfortable with a variety of Boards ( executives and sports.) He even ash-boarded down a young volcano with fellow travelers and me on AA’s inaugural trip to Nicaragua-

Dan Austin stays plugged in (with camera, smart phone and smiles) so guests can stay unplugged if they want.

enjoying the field research with his wonderful enthusiasm and observant eye.     He  slipped in some texting to his family and AA team  between zipline stations in  jungle canopy, from a kayak, and between courses to help keep things “fun and memorable” on this trip and dozens of others.

How do you define “adventure travel “?

Austin: “That is a tough question Lisa, Adventure Travel can be anything from climbing Everest to a walk in your local dog park.  It really comes down to what it means to the individual (or company in our case).  To AA it simply means staying active and exploring a bit more off the beaten path in each and every region we visit.  Definitely not a “typical bus tour.”

Family adventure travel by an award-winning, family-run company

“As you experienced in our recent trip to Nicaragua, we tried to balance seeing the country and cultural activities, with a bit more calorie burning modes of transportation like kayaks or hiking along with some heart pounding activities like ash boarding off a volcano.  Key is knowing what adventure is to you and making sure your goals and ideas are in line with your fellow travelers or an outfitter if you so choose. Also key to trust you always have options and that everything is introduced in a way that is as good for a novice as a veteran.”

 Why did you found your company?

Austin: “Now that is a bit of an adventure on its own.  I had a bit of experience in the industry back in the late 70’s.  I was a passionate rafter and thought it would be great to get people to pay to join me. Then some 25 years later my wife talked me into joining an “adventure vacation” to the Tetons with what was then Backcountry Tours.  I reluctantly agreed. I mean I was one of those macho do it yourself guys that looked at group travel, led by a couple of young guides as it had to be painful.

LTM Adventure Travel

River Rafting continues to be part of the Austin story. Rafting the Yellowstone River on ALA’s Montana Adventure. Photo Credit: Austin-Lehman

“Boy was I wrong!  It took all of the first day for me to realize this was my first true vacation.  Everything from someone else fixing the flat on my bike, to deciding where we would eat or what trail we would hike.  That and they carried by bags to our room and were a wealth of non-stop energy and learning’s.  After that week, a group of us approached the owners and ended up buying the company.  That was back in 1995, I have had no regrets since!”

 What are some of your most popular trips over the years and what is your rate of customer return?

The lower falls of Yellowstone River, a popular Austin adventure destination. Photo courtesy of Austin-Lehman.

Austin: “Yellowstone continues to be our #1 selling trip as it has for decades!  It is simply sensory overload and offers something for everyone. From the rich history (our country’s first National Park), to its spectacular geography (a giant caldera and more geo thermal features then the rest of the world combined) and of course the wildlife!  But that is just one of many tried and true favorites.

“Year after year Alaska continues to shine, as do the Canadian Rockies.  In Europe, Holland, Germany and Italy are always at the top of the list. Heading south, Costa Rica is our #2 selling program overall, with Peru and the Galapagos not far behind.  In Africa, my favorite and that of many of our guests, has to be Namibia, with South Africa a close second.

“About 70% of our guests are either repeat travelers or direct referrals from repeats.  One of our favorite alumni couples Chuck and Judy will be taking their 52nd and 53rd trips this year. In fact they will be repeating a trip the first trip they ever did to the Loire Valley, led by our Europe Operations Manager Ron van Dijk who was their guide on that trip so many years ago.”

Do you have anything particularly exciting coming up that you want to share?

Austin:We are always “cooking” up new trips.  We just finished putting the final touches on a new Inca Trail Luxury Camping program (Glamping)  combining hiking the Inca Trail with over- the-top services and amenities like massages and down comforters. We also are just finishing up a new Montana Based Best of the West family program.  Best bet is to sign up for our E-News letter and or catalog, of course that and Facebook. We are always communicating what we are up to.

 How can your company tailor things to be more luxurious if the client wants? Can you give some examples of things your company has done along those lines?

Sweet Adventure Travel, photo from Austin-Lehman

Austin:” Now that is clearly the fun part of the business!  About 25% of our guests choose “custom or exclusive” adventures.  Fact is if you can dream it, we can create it.  I love sharing these stories.

“There was the guest that had a vision of his wife standing knee deep in the surf off the coast of Kauai on her 60th birthday, cocktail in hand, Hawaiian trip playing as the sun set, topped off with rose petals falling from the sky!  Or the grandparents that wanted to treat their six- year-old twin grandsons to five National Parks in six days by private jet!  Then there are a lot more conventional adventures where a multi-generational family just want to get together for an adventurous family reunion.

Would you say you have a “family company”? What difference does that make?

Family Adventure: Austin guests hike up Athabasca Glacier in Alberta, Canada. Photo Credit: Austin-Lehma

Austin: “You bet I would or could say that. We are family owned and operated.   But I actually think the readers –and our guests– said it better when they awarded us the #1 Family Tour Operator in the world recognition in 2012! And  #2 overall !  It just helps that we know families!

“My kids grew up in the business as my crash test dummies (just kidding.)  We have always put a focus on doing family adventures right, not just calling an adult program “family” to sell more spots.  They are truly built for families, by families.  Here is a link to a fun webinar we did just to learn more from kids as to what kids wanted out of a family vacation.

 How would you define “Sustainable” or “Green,”  “Eco-travel?”  How important is it to your company?  Can you give examples of how you implement/ integrate it?

Austin: “Another great question and like the question on defining adventure travel, its all about what it means to you. I like to look at it in its simplest form.  The triple

In the middle of the hike, guide extraordinaire Julio Flores surprises everyone with Nicaraguan pastries. Ken sets a good example.

bottom line:

  • People
  • Planet
  • Profits

“All working together.  Another helpful definition is that of Sustainability: “ The ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their needs.

“We look to work with hotels and restaurants that follow these beliefs.  Is the produce local or flown in?  Do they practice recycling? Conservation?  But also things like hiring locals (starting with our guides).  Are they giving back to the communities they reside?

“One of our more significant programs that we are exceptionally proud of is our own nonprofit Wheels of Change.

Also check out  for more.

What kind of awards have you gotten? What moments are you most proud of?

Austin: “We truly have been blessed in this arena. As I mentioned Travel and Leisure recognized us as the #1 Family Travel company in 2012 (beating out companies with names like “Disney”, that same year we were ranked #2 overall.  We have finished in the top 3 since we were first announced as #1 overall Tour and Safari operator in 2009.  But that is really just a start.

Austin-Lehman Awards

“National Geographic Adventurer listed us as one of the top companies in the World, several times as well as recognizing specific trips in the top trips category, year after year.  Outside Magazine gave our Cuba program the 2012 Hall of Fame award and so much more.  You can see more. You asked what award am I most proud of.. that has to be the Global Vision Award for our efforts with our bike program Wheels of Change.”

What else should potential travelers know about Austin Adventures for luxurious, adventure travel?

Austin: “I think it is not so much Austin Lehman –although we would love all your readers to join us– it is just travel itself.  As I recently penned for an email broadcast, travel is good for the soul!

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, photo thanks to Austin-Lehman

“I think Mark Twain said it best ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”  

“You can of course start with our website  or on Facebook.  I also just encourage all to just call or email.  1-800-575-1540 or even better yet.  email me direct at  Yes, you will get a personal response.

“We are all eager to talk about travel and adventure anytime!  And if we don’t go where you want, we probably know who does and does it well, and are just thrilled to help you on your way!”

by Sonne

Dan Austin in the largest lake in Central America, Lake Nicaragua

(c)Lisa TE Sonne,  Luxury Travel Mavens

Photos by Lisa TE Sonne, unless credited to Austin-Lehman or Austin Adventures

Stay tuned for more Q & A with Dan Austin about how to Design an Adventure trip and for more on ALA’s innovative travel philanthropy

What do you think “Adventure Travel” is? Do you have Austin-Lehman trip stories to share in the comments below? Here’s my Luxury Travel Maven story and photos of the Austin Adventures Trip to Nicaragua


What is sustainable travel?

Luxury travelers can afford to make choices for choice travel, so why not aim for destinations that are sensational and “sustainable,”  places that are both good and great?  But how can you tell what’s marketing for the green of your pocketbook and what’s for the green planet?  Who is ranking and rating? And how and why?  In some of my columns this year, we will look at some “Choice Travel.”

We start with six sensational, “sustainable” destinations chosen by The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), a group  founded by the World Tourism Organization, United Nations Environment Programme, UN Foundation, Rainforest Alliance, Sabre/Travelocity to ” be a global initiative dedicated to promoting sustainable tourism efforts around the world.”

  • The Fjords of Norway
  • Teton County,Wyoming
  • Mt. Huangshan, China
  •  St. Kitts & Nevis, Carribbean
  • Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain
  • Okavango Delta, Botswana

According to the  Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s (GSTC), the destinations above and below meet the new and evolving  GSTC Criteria for Destinations that “a destination must reach in order to move toward social, cultural, and environmental sustainability—maintaining the cultural and natural attractions that tourists come to see, while benefiting the local population. This pioneering group of destinations will be the first to test and provide feedback on the Destination Criteria, which complement the GSTC’s existing Criteria for Hotels and Tour Operators.”

How do hot spots for travel meet hot issues?

If you are interested in traveling to a place not on the list above,  Kelly Bricker, Phd, board president of GSTC, recommends that you “Look for third party certifications from recognized bodies when booking an accommodation and/or tour operation.” The GSTC website posts their growing list of approved third party groups that vet with the same standards as GSTC.

As provided by the GSTC. here are the words and images of six places aiming to be memorable for you and future generations:

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone

Where in Wyoming?

GSTC: “Wyoming’s Teton County–takes pride in a long history of sustainability, dating back to the creation of the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872; forty years later, local outcry at the elk starving near the town of Jackson led to the creation of the National Elk Refuge, and less than 20 years after that, Grand Teton National Park was added to the county’s roster of natural splendors; the Teton and Yellowstone area comprises the largest intact ecosystem in the continental U.S.

Says Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tim O’Donoghue, “As stewards of one of the most beautiful places on Earth, our community has made a strong commitment toward sustainability, with significant results. Our participation in the GSTC Early Adopter Program gives us the tools to achieve even more.”

Okavango Delta, Botswana

Sustainable in Africa

GSTC: Botswana’s Okavango Delta region is one of Africa’s premier wildlife destinations, famous for the enormous herds of elephants, buffalo and other animals that flock to this oasis within the Kalahari Desert each spring. Despite pressure from mining and farming interests, the area has been developed with a “low volume, high yield” model of ecotourism—fewer visitors, paying higher rates than those in other parts of Africa. This model has since been replicated elsewhere, leading to greater economic benefits with less environmental disturbance.

Lanzarote island in the Canary Islands, Spain

Spain’s Sustainable Destination

GSTC: Lanzarote is the easternmost of the Canary Islands, just off the African coast but belonging to Spain. Of nearly 500 animal species found only on the Canary Islands, 97 are endemic to just Lanzarote. This great biological wealth, along with year-round sun, quaint fishing villages and lovely beaches, make the island a popular tourist destination. But Lanzarote has been careful about its tourism development. The island has been declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and more than 40% of its area is protected.

Huanghsan, China

China and GSTC

GSTC: In China, Mt. Huangshan—known for its spindly granite peaks and the painterly pine trees that grow up through their cracks—sees more than 2.5 million visitors every year. The area’s administrators have already made efforts to reduce the impact of these sightseers by promoting alternative footpaths, encouraging winter visits, and closing the most frequented “hot spots” on a rotating basis.


One of the beautiful beaches of St Kitts

Norway’s Beauty

GSTC: Likewise, Norway’s Fjord region, along the country’s southwest coast, has been attracting travelers since the mid-19th century. In 2006, two of its fjords were named among the world’s best-cared-for UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the region has published a “white book” to help other destinations develop sustainably. But they’re eager to do even more explains Fjord Norway’s CEO, Kristian B. Jorgensen, “Being part of the GSTC’s Early Adopter program is a very concrete way of helping us find the balance between preserving our spectacular landscape and growing as an attractive, nature-based travel destination.”

Beach walk in St Kitts

Sustainable Carribbean

GSTC: The twin-island nation of St. Kitts & Nevis is relatively new to tourism, certainly when compared to some of its Caribbean neighbors. However, the destination has seen exponential growth in cruise visitors over the last few years and the government is eager to make sure that this development happens sustainably and with the preservation of the local culture and environment in mind.

In the coming months, a sustainable tourism consultant will visit each of these early-adopter destinations to see the criteria implemented, and to provide valuable feedback as the GSTC finalizes the Destination criteria. Once the GSTC publishes its revised criteria, these early-adopter destinations will have the opportunity to apply for formal recognition that they operate in accordance with these universal principles of sustainable tourism

GSTC is evolving criteria for vetting how travelers can best capture great experiences.

The GSTC is collecting comments from the public on the criteria; input and suggestions can be made online.

GSTC is also currently conducting a second review phase for additional destinations.Destinations interested in becoming an early adopter of new Criteria for Destinations are encouraged to contact the GSTC as soon as possible.

The GSTC works to expand understanding of and access to sustainable tourism practices; helps identify and generate markets for sustainable tourism; and educates about and advocates for a set of universal principles, as defined by the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria. The Criteria is a set of voluntary principles that provide a framework for the sustainability of tourism businesses across the globe, and is the cornerstone of our initiative.”


Grand Tetons in Wyoming..Sustainable?

All the  images in this piece and the words above about the destinations are the point of view and information of the GSTC as part of a new series to look at how travel can best enrich the traveler and the destination. As tourism grows as an important part of nations’ economies, and people’s lifestyles, the impact on cultures and ecosystems is even more critical. And the luxury traveler’s choices increase.

Please let me know if you have suggestions for my upcoming pieces on “Choice Travel” –people or groups like Irene Lane at Greenloons which offers “green” trips and lists goals for ecotourism.   Please share your own experiences and join the dialogue about how “luxury” and “sustainable” can be in the same sentence.

-GSTC materials included in this week’s column by Lisa TE Sonne for Luxury Travel Mavens


To keep your brain from being as cloudy as the views when you fly, read on…

Flying First Class or Business Class and having lounge privileges and priority boarding status are all obvious ways to make travel more luxurious. These days, however, more and more flights are running full, and seat upgrades are not available, even if you have the funds or frequent flyer miles. All the great airport lounges and the horizontal in-flight beds sometimes don’t seem like enough of a balance against shuffling through security and zooming through time zones in a pressurized cabin.

Below are some suggestions gathered from experience and seasoned travelers. Please add your own tips in the comments box below, so we can all fly more luxuriously, whatever the circumstances.

There are things you can do to improve your flight.

Before You Leave For the Airport

*Dress comfy, loose fitting clothing

*Apply extra moisturizer on your skin to compensate for the dry cabin air on-board

*Don’t wear metal jewelry/watches, if you want to make security easier

*Wear shoes that slip on and off easily, too

*Some people wear clothing on-board designed to carry your carry-on items for you, so you can be more hands-free while traveling. You can now get Scottevest creations in Harrods London as well as online.

* Packing with carry-on only can be a way to avoid baggage delays or losses, but it also means more stuff to carry from terminal to terminal or gate to gate if you have multiple flights. Once your carry-on is in the overhead compartment, it’s harder to access in-flight. Whether you check bags or not, put everything you want within reach on the plane into a separate pre-packed bag you can pull out and stow under your seat.

* You can even keep your pre-packed carry-on package (see tips below) ready for any trip.

On-board Package Suggestions

*Your own first class “travelers kit,” with a sleep mask, sock-slippers, ear plugs, tooth brush, and comb in a ziplock or a container you saved from your last upgraded flight (This can help when you want to catch some sleep in other circumstances, too.)

*Headset with noise canceling features

*Neck-supporting pillow (with aromatherapy scents), if it helps you

*Personal water bottle (Take it empty through security and fill it up before boarding the plane, so that even when service is slow, you stay hydrated.)

*Reading material to leave on-board when done (for privacy, remember to cut off any address labels on the magazines)

*Glasses case, if needed

*Laptop and charger (and an extra battery in case you wind up in economy on a long flight) The computer is great for work or playing with photographs, games, music, movies, etc.

*Camera (Shots out the window can be amazing.)

Manhattan from a window seat view.

* A little flashlight (good for reading without the overhead light and for emergencies)

*Your favorite food for a meal and snacks

* Needed medications (Pre-calculate when you may need to take them while flying.)

*Anti-germ brigade (anti-bacterial wipes, some kind of nutritional supplement to fight germs, etc.) Comes in handy if you want to wash your hands before the meal, but you don’t want to wait in the bathroom line.

* Your smart phone/cell phone, computer/electronic reader. Even if they are fully charged (and they should be), include your charging units, too. If you have multiple things to charge bring a compact unit with multiple outlets.

Note: Make sure your name and number/email address are on everything, in case they get lose or left somewhere.


Hydrate & Moisturize if you don’t want to dry out while flying.

Hydration is key to a healthy flight. Regardless of whether you are flying first class or economy, the pressurized cabin air is often equivalent to being at an altitude of 5,000- 8,000 feet, so the air you are in for hours is thinner and drier. Also, the dry outside air (that may be at 35,000 or 40,000 feet) may be mixed with the filtered cabin air and circulated in the cabin for fresher oxygen.

You can bring a nasal spray or try taking a paper napkin or tissue, getting it wet, and placing it over your nostrils for awhile to keep the nasal passages from drying out. Drinking lots of water not only helps you hydrate, it might motivate exercise – as in, trips to the bathroom.

Movement is important. While the plane seems to be defying gravity’s law, our bodies are not.  When you sit for long periods on the plane, you can swell up, and bad circulation can cause problems.  Check with you doctor to see if wearing compression socks is a good idea for you.

The terminal travel blur. Miami Airport. Lisa TE Sonne

Walking the aisles every couple of hours is recommended and can be entertaining for people watching.

Rotating your ankles and stretching your arms while in your seat helps. Some airlines have specially designed exercises that are often in the seat back pocket or on one of the channels of the entertainment on the monitor

In the galley of the plane (and while waiting for a bathroom,) you can do stretches and bends.  The flight attendant conversations can be some of the best entertainment of the whole flight.


Veteran Flyer Tips on Trips and Jet Lag:
Milbry Polk is an intrepid explorer who crossed the Egyptian desert on a camel, has rafted rivers, and hiked in the Arctic. She also founded Wings WorldQuest, celebrating and supporting women explorers. Between books, projects, children and writing for the Explorers Club magazine, she shares her personal list of tips for air travel:

Never drink (alcohol) on the airplane
Drink lots of water
Take a neck pillow
Sit far forward, in an emergency exit row – it’s worth the extra money on longer flights
Don¹t eat airplane food
Bring sushi rolls or other easy-to-pack food items
Don’t bother with the film unless you are bored- it is always cut and probably won’t play out uninterrupted.
Do sudoku (to help you fall asleep)
Stick with one airline if possible to rack up miles and join that airlines club.

Jet Lag

Joe Farago, a former actor and TV host who now travels all over the US to help with Emergency Disaster Training, developed his own ‘walk-nap-full evening’ formula for maintaining his body-clock:  “The first thing most people want to do after flying all night is check into their hotel and go to sleep.  When my room wasn’t ready, I dropped the bags and did some outdoor sightseeing until early afternoon.  About three, I went back to the hotel, took a two-hour nap and then went out for an extended dinner meeting.

“When I woke up the next morning, I felt great and had adapted perfectly with no jet lag for the rest of the trip. Not only had the time spent outside in the sunlight helped reset my internal clock but, by restricting my nap to just two hours and going out until almost midnight that night, I had forced myself into the local day/night rhythm.”

Steve Tight emailed from Hong Kong, where he’s the President, International Development, Caesars Entertainment. Previously, when he lived in California developing Disneyland in Hong Kong, he racked up almost two million miles on one carrier.

He shares from experience: “I still travel on business a lot, usually a country or two a week, but at least most of it’s within Asia, so I’m home most weekends.  I’m still a big Tylenol PM fan. I find it less aggressive than sleeping pills, and it really works in allowing me a full night’s sleep, even when on the other side of the world.

“Maybe I’m in a perpetual state of jet lag but the more I travel, the less I feel the affects of the time difference.

“There’s nothing like the almost nausea-like feeling after a transpacific flight, but if I can stay up until 9pm on the day of arrival in the States from Asia, I’m usually OK.  Also I suggest the usual things, like changing the watch and Blackberry to the arrival time zone before landing.  I’m now starting to watch out for what I eat and drink. It’s harder finding time for exercise with a busy travel schedule, so I’ve cut back on enjoying the alcohol on the flight – which probably also helps with jetlag.”


 Your Recommendations

Have you found a favorite airline for luxurious travel? A group called Skytrax takes surveys and rates the airlines, with five stars as the best possible rating. Hundreds of carriers are listed alphabetically for international and domestic flying.

Who has the best lounges? Which are the best and worst airports “for passenger wear and tear”? What do you take onboard for comfort? What is your best flying tip?

If you have additional tips for the best travel, airlines, and airports, please add your insights below, or write to me at  And please forward this to other travel mavens you know who may be able to add their expertise.

Let’s all help each other have better take-offs, landings and times in-between!

© Lisa TE Sonne, excerpted for

© All photographs by Lisa TE Sonne