The Basics on Planning an African Safari, aka: Should You Use a Travel Agent?

Let me start by saying: there’s nothing basic about planning a safari trip to Africa. I mean, come on! It’s beyond exciting! It’s the trip of a lifetime! We’re talking bucket list stuff! You gallop headlong into it with visions of the “Lion King” and “Out of Africa” dancing off in the distance. You start buying khaki and olive colored clothes, because, obviously, you’re going to want to fit in and look the part. You envision bush lunches with zebras relaxing nearby and sundowners at watering holes with rhinos and all the glamorous aspects of a safari vacation.

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It’s all sundowners and friendly rhinos in South Africa.

And you should have all those safari expectations because guess what? They’re all going to come true. But first, my little dreamer friend, you’ve got some serious planning to do.

When we first began to plan XFE’s 40th birthday trip to Africa, we knew we wanted to go back to South Africa, and Sabi Sands in particular. There were several reasons: we had a great time when we were last there in 2014, we loved Savanna Lodge, we liked the fact that it was a private reserve and therefore, less busy.

But we also knew we wanted to try somewhere else, which led to tons of research and double guessing ourselves. Should we go to Kenya? Maybe we combine Kenya and Tanzania. What about Namibia? I’ve read/heard good things about Zambia—should we go there?

After we finally narrowed in on wanting to see the Great Migration and spending a few days on the end of our trip on a beach somewhere, we were really torn between two places: Kenya and Tanzania. They both had a lot to offer but I think it ultimately came down to two considerations: price and crowds. Kenya was much more expensive based on our initial research and Kenya was, we’d heard, a lot, LOT more crowded.

(Above: giraffe in South Africa and giraffe in Tanzania. Or do I have that backwards?)

Now that we knew where we wanted to go, the real work began. There is no doubt that planning a safari trip to Africa is totally overwhelming. There are just so many options—hundreds of lodges and camps in every imaginable price range located on dozens of different national parks, which then have different reserves within them. Then there’s all the different visa and inoculation requirements, the limited or convoluted transportation/transfer options, the time of year and weather considerations.

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For example, perhaps you want to know if you will you be sharing your plane with some local fruit?

Honestly, planning a trip to Africa almost requires the use of a travel agent. They’re experts, they can work with your budget (if you have a set budget in mind) and they usually work closely with certain lodges. Plus, they can sometimes get you a discount.

After finding out that Savanna Lodge was already fully booked a year out, the folks at Savanna suggested we reach out to Shereen at Pride Lodges to find another Sabi Sands lodge. Shereen was great. She is hands down an expert on Sabi Sands and South Africa and was even helpful in guiding us a bit on the Tanzania part.

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Notice that live animals and plants (like the fruit we flew with above) are merely restricted while obscene materials and pornography are completely prohibited.

I will say: we don’t typically use a travel agent. We actually like doing research and reading reviews and finding places that we think will suit us. Travel agents, while they tend to work with certain lodges (and that’s great and all) often aren’t up to date on some of the deals the lodges might be offering, such as “stay three nights, get a fourth free” or “book with us and we’ll add in a couple of nights at our partner lodge.”

Plus, agents tend to not be so great at breaking things out and explaining the pricing. They just hand you this very large number, so you don’t really see where your money is going or have the ability to shop around a bit to see if there are other options. For example, when we reached out to a travel agent affiliated with a line of luxury lodges we ended up NOT staying at, she quoted us an exorbitant amount that didn’t include the lodge’s current web deal but did include a crazy price for the regional flights. When XFE asked her about the flight legs then went and priced them out on his own, it became clear that the quote was way off.

(Above: South African white rhinos on the left, Tanzanian black rhinos on the right)

This particular agent had also included an overnight (really, a six-hour stay) at a very nice and expensive coffee plantation (gourmet meal included) when really all we needed was a place to shower and flop until our early morning flight. I’m sure the place was lovely during the day (we would be arriving at around midnight) and the gourmet meal was delicious (the kitchen would not be open when we arrived), but it really wasn’t necessary when all we needed was the African equivalent of the Holiday Inn.

But, I can absolutely see how and why people end up using a travel agent in Africa. Doing all that legwork on something that involves quite a bit of money and logistics is exhausting and stressful. And Shereen at Pride Lodges is great.

I’ll also say: it’s Africa. It’s unpredictable. Things happen. Flights get delayed, or you didn’t leave yourself enough time to transfer between flights (no exaggeration: give yourself 3-4 hours at the airport.) For example, we had a flight on a regional carrier who had upgraded their computer system in June and no longer had any record of the flight we purchased in February. Luckily, we had a printed out copy of our February confirmation and record number. But what followed was at least an hour of standing around while the desk agent tried to sort it all out over the phone. And that was AFTER we’d already waited 45 minutes in the check-in line to begin with (note: there is no premier access or first class line at most of these regional carriers).

(Above: South African elephant mama and baby on left. Tanzanian elephant mama and baby on right)

That’s just one example of an instance where a travel agent might come in handy. Think of them as your insurance policy or personal advocate. If something goes wrong (and, it’s Africa, so it will) they can try to help fix it or figure out another option.

Later this week, I’ll start reviewing some of the lodges we stayed at and I’ll answer the question we get asked the most: which did we like better? Tanzania or South Africa?

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