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1) Book with a reputable agency that does not farm you out to another operator.
2) All operators will ask you for a deposit which is generally NON-REFUNDABLE. It is non-refundable simply because the INC does not give back the agencies any money when a passenger cancels or changes a date. The agency then has to re-apply for a new permit if passengers change dates. Agencies have different payment methods. Very few accept credit cards - Western Union Money Transfer Company is used or Peru/Foreign Banking accounts. In general if you have checked the agency is reputable with a licence it should be safe to send your funds.
3) There is no such thing as a WAITLIST / CANCELLATION LIST. If any agency tells you that they can do this, they are simply not telling the truth and are operating illegally! Its as simple as if a passenger cancels their space is not given to anybody else - period!
4) Apart from the deposit, you will be required to give your current passport details of all the persons travelling with you on the trail. You will need to give your FULL NAME and SURNAME / PASSPORT NUMBER / DATE OF BIRTH / NATIONALITY. If this information is not supplied no agency can take out permits for you/others. The important part of this information is that you give the same passport details that you will be travelling with to Peru. There are various check points on the trail and they will check the agency documentation against your passport; if its does not match you will not be allowed entrance! If you are renewing your passport, you need to keep 2 x photocopies of your old passport that you are going to hand in for renewal and you can apply with this information as long as you bring the photocopies with you or if you are able to keep your old passport, then travel with your old & new passport.
5) How do you know if there is availability? Well, its very easy, just go to the official website WWW.MACHUPICCHU.GOB.PE On the drop-down menu select the month you want to travel in and you will see how many spaces are still available. The trail is regulated to 500 persons per day. Support staff like guides and porters are also included into this allowance, so really only half of the 500 is for tourists. The high season generally runs from MAY TO SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER. Each year it varies, but you are advised that if you are travelling in the high season that you need to start booking your permits at least 5 months in advance. BOOK EARLY.
6) Personal porters: The agency that you book with will ask you if you want the help of a personal porter to carry your extra luggage. This is a good idea if you are not used to hiking. It helps you enjoy the trail more! Rates vary from agency to agency. You can then walk with just your daypack carrying whatever you need for the day like sunblock, rain jacket, camera, snacks, etc. Keep it light!
7) Students? If you are a student with a valid ISIC (international students card) then you are entitled to a discount. Again this may vary from agency to agency, but should be around $30 discount! In order to claim this discount you need to provide the agency with a scanned in copy of your card and travel with the card on the trail. If you do not have your card with you on the trail you will be obliged to pay the full fare.