How NOT to book an East African Safari…

reserve-august

So you have decided you want to experience an East African safari – images of savanna grasslands teeming with wildlife; open safari cruisers and stylish people outfitted in safari gear, flash through your mind, while you anticipate with great eagerness, being a part of this scene.

But, with all the information out there, it is a little daunting and one wonders where to begin?

Actually there are 4 main ways of going about booking an East African safari and here, we will ponder on the pros and cons of each.

Going it alone

The first and most obvious way that comes to mind in today’s internet dominated world is booking everything online – from the flights to the accommodation and vehicle.  It seems quite simple – check online for places that appeal to you, string together a few of national parks and reserves and come up with an itinerary that works in theory. Add to this, the international flights and a car hired from an online car hire company and you’re on your way….right? Wrong….its not that easy. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons

PROS – Accommodation has never been cheaper or easier to book than in today’s digitalized world. There are literally thousands of hotel sites where you can book your accommodation cheaply and even get to see pictures of the hotel, rooms and surrounding areas. Most of them even have an option to cancel without any penalty upto a few days before travel.

CONS – Although you can see pictures of the property, and facilities on the hotel accommodation websites, it is difficult to get an exact sense of the property until you arrive there. Oftentimes, the property does not match your requirement and it would be too late to change once you have checked in. A very important fact about the property that is difficult to judge from online booking sites, is the location of the property – is it in a safe location, is it near to where you want to be, how accessible or remote is it, what is the security in the area like, what is the proximity to the prime game viewing spots. You don’t want to end up with a scenario where the beautiful property you are staying at is so far away from the wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara Reserve that it takes you 2 hours just to drive there, and you have to leave the Reserve by 4 pm so as to make it out of the Reserve before the park gates close, so you only get one or two hours of game drives.

PROS – Flights also are easy to book online – Choose the airline, the day & time of departure, and  add on all sorts of extras like extra baggage, seat selection & meal selections.

CONS – If you buy your airticket online, normally this works well, but in the case of any changes to be made, like postponing your return, or missing your flight etc, it can be challenging to work with the airline ground staff.

PROS –  As most car rental companies are online now, you can hire the car you want and have it waiting for you at the airport when you arrive.

CONS – Hiring a vehicle in any other part of the world usually works well for getting around on holiday, but in the East African region, it can be a little tricky driving around on your own. Roads are not the best, GPS does not work well and one has to be an experienced bush driver to navigate the roads in the national parks and reserves. The traffic police in East Africa are some of the most corrupt in the world, there aren’t proper road signs and the local buses (matatus) do not observe any traffic laws and are allowed to get away with literally anything…basically traffic rules will apply to no one else but you.

Online search for an operator

The second way to book a safari, is by searching online for a tour operator to handle your accommodation and transport arrangements. This could be done either on Google etc, or companies that advertise on social media.

PROS –  Working with a ground operator is the best when it comes to booking an East African safari. Most operators have preferential rates with lodges and are also more knowledgeable about the lodges and camps here. Given your requirements, they should be able to come up with a good match for you.  Also the operator takes care of the transportation end, sending a driver with you on safari, who will also act as your guide and troubleshoot any problems that may arise.Sangeetha leopard

CONS –  The risk here is that you may be dealing with a thoroughly unprofessional company and you will only find out when you get here, by which time you have already paid them a chunk of your money and it is too late to cancel. Some companies employ driver/guides who are not trained and are very unprofessional. As your driver is the most important factor in safari (he can literally make or break it), you need one that is knowledgeable about the flora, fauna and geography of the Parks and Reserves, is a safe & experienced driver and has your best interests at heart.

Using an all inclusive operator

The third way would be to book a safari with an inclusive operator, based in the West. Such operators offer a certain number departures per year, with fixed dates and a minimum number of participants. The trip would also include the airfare to East Africa.

PROS –  This method of booking a safari takes all the guesswork out of the equation – you know exactly where you will be travelling to, and who your companions throughout the safari will be. As the international airfare is also included, you really don’t have to bother checking with flights etc, it really is a one stop shop.

CONS –  As the itinerary and dates are fixed, there is no room for flexibility here. You will have to plan your trip according to the dates of the group tour, and can only visit the places that the group tour visits. Travelling in a group can be challenging, especially if there are personality clashes and/or issues with game viewing preferences etc. Some operators work with only a few lodges and camps so you may not have a good choice of accommodation.

Using a recommended local agent

The fourth and most recommended way is to book through a tour operator that has been referred to you by a friend, colleague or family member.

PROS – Since the agent has been recommended to you after a trip has been done, you can rest assured that the agent is above board and all the promised services will be delivered. As you are in touch with the agent who is based in East Africa, you can work closely with them to craft the best bespoke experience for you, based on the agent’s recommendations and your requirements. You will thus get to enjoy properties that may be off the beaten track, or small exclusive properties and will get a more customized experience.

CONS –  Costs may be a little higher as you are creating a bespoke safari for yourself, but in the end, this will pay off and you will have the best experience.

What are your thoughts on the above? Have you had any issues booking with the any of these methods? Please share your comment and thoughts with us.

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