Dealing with a travel agency for Africa

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Feb 19th, 2004, 09:11 PM
  #1
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Dealing with a travel agency for Africa

Rocco and Selwyn are two of the biggest and most generous contributors on this board and I have learned much from both of them. I fully appreciate Selwyn's inside view and years of experience as well as Rocco's all-out consumer advocate approach. Both of you are quite valuable to this board.

In terms of dealing with an agency for an African trip, it was unlike any other trip planning I'd ever done. One thing I want to stress - don't believe any agency who refuses to give you specific quotes for the individual camps for a custom trip that you created, your private itinerary. When I was planning my first trip, the agency I dealt with told me they never did that. It turned out to be a lie. I found the same agent gave another customer camp quotes. I am not referring to a publicized, packaged trip because those cannot be broken down as it's all part of a packaged arrangement. But for what most of us want to do on this board, these private itineraries to bush camps we choose, go with an agent who will tell you what each camp costs per person, per night. I discovered I had been lied to (in another way as well) before I was sent this total price quote. I left him a very nice message that we had changed our plans and were not going ahead at this time. BTW, this was not a comparison quote for us, (our actual trip ended up in the 5 figures) we just knew we didn't want to do business this way. Anyway up to then we had had two phone calls with this agent and a couple of emails. But in what we would discover was a vindictive move, he would not release the provisional bookings. We found that out when we were introduced to another agent elsewhere who did quote individual camps. The camps refused to double book so we tried many times in various ways to get the other "holds" released. Time was tight and now we wanted different dates as we had a very different itinerary. After many unanswered requests - phone, email, - over a period of weeks, the camps accepted a copy of our fax to the president of the agency as proof that we had asked them many times to release the booking and - even faxing the president, it never happened.
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Feb 20th, 2004, 06:31 AM
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That is one thing that bothers me most...many, if not most, agents will make a provisional booking, whether it is asked for or not! African tour agents are not alone in this practice because I find it to be true right here at home, as well, especially with agents that sell cruises.

Who ASKED them to make a provisional booking?! They know that they are not only holding up the room but also putting added pressure on the customer to book the deal through them with this practice of provisional bookings. Then, often, they write back in an anxious state that they cannot hold the provisional booking for much longer, as if I should be concerned about that when I didn't ask for it in the first place.

If someone were going to a very high demand place like Singita or Mombo, this may really complicate matters, because like in Clematis' case, it may very well be the very LAST room available.

I am really surprised about how some of us deal with tour operators. There was just a thread yesterday about dealing with Go2Afrika. Everybody on that thread knew that Go2Afrika subcontracted to Predator Tours, I believe, yet were more than happy to still deal with Go2Afrika instead of dealing directly with Predator Tours. All those people are doing is adding $1,000 USD or more to the price of their package. WHY???!!! Deal with Predator directly! It will be the same service, if not better, since you are THEIR customer, and you will save the markup that is going to Go2Afrika's pocket. This is the perfect example of why you should deal with a local tour operator (in the area you are visiting) rather than an American or European tour operator.

Anyway, I feel like my reputation has been smeared unfairly due to the recent threads, as if I am taking advantage of these poor little tour operators. I am the PREDATOR and they are the PREY, is how the story went. Well, as in Clematis' case, you can see that some are all too happy to be the predator, taking advantage of someone with an approaching deadline by holding up the only room.

For the record, with the agents that I eventually choose, I have an OUTSTANDING relationship with them. They certainly do not seem like they have been preyed upon by me, and seem rather pleased about being able to help me meet my travel goals.

Just yesterday, Award Planner felt confident enough to have me talk to a journalist at a national publication for an upcoming article he is writing about the service they offer. I seem to be the one and only customer that they felt confident enough speak about my experience with them and, needless to say, I gave them a glowing review, just as ALWAYS give Luxury Link and their participating hotels/tours.

My suggestion continues to be that a person should pre-select their own itinerary and send it out to five agents and let them quote it WITHOUT altering it, unless there is clearly a scheduling problem. But, I will now add to my suggestion that a prospective visitor also contact a game lodge directly by email if they have an email address listed and seem to sell direct, as many of them do.

You may very well find out, like I did last year with Kafunta, that no additional discount over their rack rate is available for direct booking vs. booking with an agent. In Kafunta's case, they seemed to need all the name recognition they could get and wanted to get their name out to any and every tour operator. They were only 1/4 full in early June. Fine, I respected that and although African Travel tried their best to steer me to Robin Pope Safaris or The Bushcamp Company, I held firm and told the agent that if he wasn't willing to book me at Kafunta, that I would go with another agent that would book me there or go directly to Kafunta for my booking.

Then, there are other places, that welcome direct bookings so much that they will discount their rack rate to get a direct booking. Is this advertised in neon flashing letters on their websites? NO. But, if you dig just a little bit, you may often find that dealing with the game lodge directly may lead to a significant savings. And I say that with any lodge that offers airport transfers, handles your visas and does all the game drives themselves, as is the case with Zambian lodges, that the customer is not missing out on ANYTHING by booking directly. Both of the Zambian companies that I booked with directly have been a tremendous help and I never wanted for an agent to be in between us, marking up every little thing and delaying every correspondence by a day. I, for one, will have a hard time going back to dealing with a tour operator again after dealing direct, but may need to do so for some places.

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Feb 20th, 2004, 07:24 AM
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LizFrazier
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Good Morning-
Just to correct something here. I doubt very seriously that you can book direct with any of 2Afrika's operators and get a cheaper price. 2Afrika operates on a very small margin and they discount the package that the operators offer to the public. I doubt they would sacrifice all the business they get from 2Afrika for the one or two people here who would try to do this. Just my opinion after talking to 2Afrika about Botswana a few years ago. I don't think you will find the same trip through any other operator cheaper, and if you do and send 2Afrika that written quote, they will beat even that. Check out their website. Liz
 
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Feb 20th, 2004, 08:43 AM
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Liz, I concur with what you mentioned about 2Afrika as I did compare the trip we had thru them in 2002 with what the local company was offerring. I still did better with 2Afrika. I think Rocco was referring to another company Go2Afrika. May be a case of mixing "apples and organges" but I am glad you clarified the situation at least in regards to one agency. Dick
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Feb 20th, 2004, 10:17 AM
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Liz,

I, for one, wouldn't allow one tour operator to have access to the quotes from the other agents. Either they offer the best pricing on their own, without such help, or they don't get the business.

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Feb 20th, 2004, 11:52 AM
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Rocco-
That's fine. I just don't think you ought to out of hand say that you can do something you can't do. Most people are happy with 2Afrika, so I say let it go. You know when I came back from my Kenya trip last year I just remained silent on the bad parts because others enjoy Kenya. Let it go, let them enjoy it. When you try to tell them your way is better, it just makes people unhappy. You do it your way. Its out there for all to see. If they choose to use a tour operator, let them. To each his own. Okay?
 
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Feb 20th, 2004, 12:39 PM
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If the most economical way for an exact equal product is the better way, than my way IS the better way.

For those that feel peace of mind by dealing with an American or European operator, even at sometimes a substantial markup, then THEIR way is the better way.

I agree...to each their own.
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Feb 20th, 2004, 01:45 PM
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There may be a middle ground that I have used for my trips to Africa. I have been on five safaris, and each time I have booked with an African-based operator, but I have never had the time nor inclination to contact the lodges directly. With email and fax machines, I have found dealing with Africa-based operators very simple -- I send an email and I always have an answer by the next day. At the time of my first safari, I had initially sought quotes from some US operators, but when the prices were beyond what I had anticipated spending, I contacted a Nairobi based operator, and they got me the EXACT same trip for 50% of the US quote. I stayed at the same lodges as A&K and had the same type of vehicles, but we had a private truck for ourselves as opposed to being with a group. And for this we paid less, not more. But then again, we didn't get the A&K hat, but I'm sure I could find one on ebay for less than the $5,000 we saved. Anyway, to each his own, but now with the Internet, I always use an operator based in the country I'm visiting.
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Feb 20th, 2004, 02:26 PM
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Thit Cho,

I completely agree with you. I do not make it a point of dealing with lodges directly, but since in my instance it was possible and the lodges are offering all the same services and amenities, less possibly a tote bag, that is how it turned out this time around.

I don't know, for example, if Wilderness Safaris sells direct to the customer, but that is what Star Of Africa did in this case. They are not a single lodge but instead a network of possibly five lodges. If I can deal direct with Wilderness Safaris on a future trip to Botswana and can save considerably, I will do so in a heartbeat.

If I MUST deal with a tour operator, I will be sure that it is one in Southern Africa and not in the U.S.A. operating out of a ritzy address like Santa Barbara, Montecito, or Old Greenwich. Let them make their sales to the less informed market out there that is unwittingly paying substantially more.
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Feb 20th, 2004, 10:10 PM
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Rocco, Wilderness Safaris will not sell directly to the guest. You have to go through an agent. I agree with both you and Michael, I had wonderful results by using a South African travel agent (that I will not mention for personal reasons). Agents in the US are good for people who need to walk into an office but I prefer the agents who are living there and have their finger on the pulse. Things are very fluid in Africa and you have a better chance of a local agent knowing the latest info. If anything were to go wrong during your trip, you're in the same time zone. And lastly, I like that all of the money goes back into Africa.
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Feb 21st, 2004, 04:27 AM
  #11
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Working with an in-country tour operator doesn't always guarantee a lower price. When planning a trip to Botswana and Namibia, I actually received higher quotes from an in-country SA operator than from two others here in the States.

Also most (not every) reputable tour operators, many of whose names have shown up on these boards, are actually South Africans or Zimbabweans, etc. and have offices both in-country and in the States (or in the UK).

As far as being current on what is happening in-country and being on top of current situations, again, reputable operators receive notices daily on the status of lodges (open/close, new mangement, refurbishing, weather, etc.). These home-country operators also travel to Africa regularly during the year to check for themselves/cients what is actually going on in-country, many for two or more months a year.

And it is rare that clients actually walk into a tour operator's office in ones home country. Like most of us, clients work thru the website, telephone and emails. You ask for references and check with the Better Business Bureaus. If one lives in California and using an operator in Texas, it's not likely to fly there to meet face-to-face.

So it comes down to what each individual finds most comfortable. For those of us who have traveled more than once to a destination - and after having initially utilized a home-country operator, now feel more comfortable using an in-country operator, hey, go for it.

Personally, except for one time when a pick-up for transfer wasn't at the airport, I've had no problems whether using a local or in-country operator. And in the above situation, a simple phone call (after office hours), the local contact, had a vehicle at the airport within 20-minutes and we were on our way.

There isn't just one-way to book travel. And in some instances, in-country doesn't always mean lower prices. Do what works best for you.
 
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Feb 21st, 2004, 06:18 AM
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I'd agree that there are many ways that work, and one way doesn't work in all situations.

Personally I will try and get my draft itinerary fairly decided before contacting any agents. For a large trip such as the upcoming one in May, I'll ask for quotes from 2-4 agencies and I will make it clear upfront that I am asking more than one operator for quotes. I also make it clear that my decision will be made not only on price but also on grounds of service provided etc.

Because I make this clear at the start, I have never had an agency get angry or upset for my informing them that I am not booking with them ultimately.

However, I don't ask all the agencies to quote and requote and requote everytime I change my itinerary. I think, given the time they invest, that this is a little unfair, as well as unecessary. My first quote request usually helps me narrow down to 2 or at most 3 agencies. I then only send one more request for a quote once itinerary is pretty final.

I then decide which agency to go with. Once that's decided, even if I make minor changes to the booking, I don't feel the need to get new quotes from everyone.

I also let the agency know upfront that I will be booking airfare with them only if they provide a competitive rate.

If I am intending to book some portions of my trip directly with the accommodation establishments I let the agency know that I will be making my own arrangements for xyz dates and that's that.

I personally want a balance between price, service and the amount of my own time invested in the whole process. At the end of the day, sometimes one can invest so much time saving a buck that if all those hours had been spent earning a living, the income would outstrip the savings!




In the case of the trip coming up in May, I contacted 3 agencies, two in the UK and one in the US. The US agent generously let me know himself that he didn't feel he could be competitive since he would not get the rates on airfares nor be able to match quotes by UK agencies. He still gave me advice which ultimately helped me decide on my final itinerary and I sent him a gift to thank him for that help, which he certainly didn't need to provide, having already advised me of his higher prices.

The two UK agents included one I had used for the last trip to Bots and Nam and another one my dad had been using more recently.

Unfortunately, I found that the staff member allocated to me by the previously used agency was more than a little inept. Having sent the initial itinerary for a quote I found her coming back to me 3 times having quoted for the wrong thing, such as 2003 instead of 2004, a flight transfer instead of the specified land one etc etc. I couldn't get calls returned quickly and I ended up wasting precious time. I spoke to the boss, who I had dealt with previously, and he did intervene to send the quote.

The other agency were superb, offering more than I has asked for in terms of service, advice and so forth.

When their quote came in it was higher than the other agencies BUT I decided to give them my business.

Price is not everything to me and I felt more comfortable having a dream trip of this magnitude in their hands.

I informed the first UK agency who responded by asking what the other quote was and offering to beat it.

I replied that the other quote was higher and that I was going with the other agency for other reasons and left it at that.

I didn't get into a spat with them, but at a later date, when conversing with the boss, did try and explain the reasons for my decisions. I think he understood and simply said that perhaps I was better served by the other agency. There seemed to be no hard feelings.




I have never encountered Clem's problem of a bitter agency refusing to release a provisional booking, that sucks. But given that I'm sending the same itinerary to different agencies at the same time, when they approach WS for the quote I think WS can see that they are dealing with one end customer who will book with just one of those agencies.

If I could book directly with WS I would consider doing so, though there are additional legal protections when booking a holiday with a UK bonded agency instead of a local African operator. If something should go wrong, I doubt I could take that African operator to court under UK laws.
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Feb 21st, 2004, 07:00 AM
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While only having arranged one trip to Africa (but quite a few to Europe), except for my very first trip to Paris -- which was a spur of the moment package deal -- I've planned all our national and international trips independently. This trip is a combo of independant planning and a SA agency. However, if I find a TA can offer me what I am looking for at a price within my budget, and I am comfortable dealing with them, I'll let them handle it for me. The time I would have spent trying to save a couple hundred bucks (my budgets don't have the elasticity of a +/- $1K) doing so is worth far more than I would have saved. I have too many work and family obligations, and the time I get to spend with my family and friends can't be given a cost-per-hour. For many people, saving time is equally as "cost effective" in the long run as saving actual dollars. What is most important, in my opinion, is that the traveler is comfortable with the knowledge that all the important things have been taken care of before they leave.
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Feb 21st, 2004, 10:03 PM
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Kav, you brought up a great point. It is crucial that one is confident via a personal recommendation in their African-based travel agent because of that issue.

I've known several people who bought their first trip to Africa by going to their local travel agency office, hearing a lecture and slide show by a company like A&K, looking at the fancy brochures and getting to participate in a Q&A. Many people also buy their safari from their trusted agent who books all their travel. There are a lot of Americans, particularly older ones which comprise a big portion of the luxury African-travel customer base, who are not comfortable spending tens of thousands of dollars to some stranger over the phone let alone the internet. Many do not yet have access to the internet with its websites and email. But that is where the Fodorite has more choices.

It stands to reason that a capable agent based right there in Africa is closer to the action than an equally-capable one halfway around the world. It's easier for the African-based agent to go on safari several times a year. We're planning a trip in Europe and paying a fee to an agent based there because she was known for her expertise in one particular country where she is based. I prefer being able to reach my agent while traveling without the problem of it being a 12 hour time difference. And all else being equal, I still like knowing that all of the money goes back into Africa. I'm not saying this is for everyone, or that one shouldn't entertain quotes from several operators both in Africa and out. I'm just expressing my opinons. I don't have anything at stake either way. Good points, "Uhoh_busted."
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Feb 22nd, 2004, 12:25 AM
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So to back Rocco up on this one, I used Predators for my safari last year and was able to get better rates by going through them instead of 2afrika. I started by making modifications to the itinerary that 2afrika had and after requesting a few changes (too many for the owner of 2afrika I guess) Ken of 2afrika stopped responding to my emails. I decided to then talk directly with Predators Safari Club and was very happy I did.

From what I found when researching an itinerary you can almost always do better by booking directly with the people in Africa. The margins for these Safari companies are very tight and they must make money somewhere. While in Africa last year I spoke to a few different drivers and heard some very interesting stories about defaulted payments and mismanagement by some of the tour operators. Operators that people often use and post questions about on this forum. My point is that if these tour companies that are charging variable prices can't run themselves correctly and can't get their payments on time to the ground operators in Africa, why should I book with them. It's pretty obvious they really don't have a good business model and must overcharge. As Rocco quickly found out, African safaris have become a commodity and when this happens people are going to search for the lowest price. Go directly to the source and you'll be very happy.

One thing that I did find interesting is that I was able to get better rates at Governors Camp in Keny through Predators than by booking directly with them myself. I found out that the operators in Africa have negotiated rates with the lodges and many times can get way better prices.
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Feb 22nd, 2004, 05:54 AM
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The fact of the matter is, is that many tour operators, especially ones based in the USA, DO NOT operate on razor thin margins, but instead on margins from anywhere from about 25% - 50% over what they are likely getting them from the local tour operator.

Personally, if there were trouble on the tour what would happen? You would struggle to reach the American tour operator, who would then need to reach the local tour operator, before they could even get back to you.

Hey, I bid on projects that I am very competitive on, and I bid on projects that I have almost no chance of getting, and when I don't get those projects, I don't get upset about it. I know that I will have stiff competition, but it doesn't stop me from trying, for all it takes is one missed quotation from a competitor and the project is mine.

I would think that most Fodorites would be a well enough experienced group to feel comfortable dealing directly with the local tour operators. It is not as if they do not speak English! Even for my trip to Chile 14 months ago, I ended up buying my 15 night package from a Chilean tour operator, www.gochile.cl, and while they have an English section to their website, the agent I dealt with spoke and wrote little English, but at about 15% less than the next tour operator, an American from the USA (if ever in Chile, don't refer to yourself as an American, but rather as a North American, unless you want to start a fight and then have them respond that CHILEANS are also AMERICANS, blah, blah, blah).

It is unfortunate that some well known American tour operators have taken advantage of some of the local ground operators in Africa, as Roderick has pointed out. With that on the table, I think that it would be irresponsible NOT to book with a local ground operator, since it is these people that we know will actually incur the expenses of our travel.

Hey, I have spoken to plenty of African tour operators based in the USA, and believe me, there are times when even I come away, especially after telephone conversations, with feelings of responsibility to book with these agents, despite their higher prices. However, ultimately, I cannot justify their higher prices, and if anybody finds that the USA operators tour operators prices ARE NOT higher, then I say it is only because you have not been dealing with the right local tour operators to begin with. Trust me, the USA operator is making a nice mark-up somewhere, and a much lower price and equally good service are out there, along with the satisfaction in knowing that your money will be spent in Africa, rather than wondering if your ground operator will ever get paid.
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Feb 23rd, 2004, 01:18 PM
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Roccco, bear in mind that Wilderness Safaris will not deal with you directly, but you will be required to book through an operator. This may have been mentioned in one of the other posts, but I don't have time now to read through them all, but I thought I'd share this fact.
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Feb 28th, 2004, 08:18 PM
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First, could you clarify whether it's Go2Afrika or 2Afrika that uses Predators? I've used 2Afrika but had no experience with Go2Afrika. And could you give me the website address for Predators? I'm trying to do a camping safari in Botswana and want to be sure I get the best price and a reputable operator. Thanks.
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Feb 29th, 2004, 12:57 AM
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retiredatlast,

I am not capable of personally recommending any particular Botswanan local tour operator, but I got this list from Google.com. Spend some time visiting each one and don't hesitate to email them to tell them what you are looking for and requesting prices. Good luck.

http://directory.google.com/Top/Regi...ators/Safaris/
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Feb 29th, 2004, 01:06 AM
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retired at last,

Here is one example of just how reasonable a local tour operator may be:

http://www.ibis.bw/~bathusi/special_offer.htm

I am not familiar with the camp, Gunn's Camp, but it is, I believe on the same island, Chief's Island, that the most expensive and best reputed lodge in possibly the whole of Africa is located--Mombo. Yet, this package only costs $415 USD per person for a 4 night stay and even includes your air from Maun.

The only downside is that it seems to be a total water experience, but for that price, that should leave sufficient budget to enjoy a great place that specializes in game drives (perhaps Kwando Lagoon?, for about $600 USD per night).
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