Travel agent woes--help requested!


Aug 19th, 2004, 10:06 AM
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Travel agent woes--help requested!

Greetings all! I'm in the process of booking my anniversary trip to SA, Oct 26 - Nov 4, and I've hit a brick wall! Travel agents are giving me the run around: one telling me that MalaMala is "like the Disneyland of Safari." That it suits primarily "older people and children," and isn't really recommended. I had another agent give me a great price on airfare and hotel, but never called me back with all of the details. Today I found out, that she can't complete my travel plans, as she's going out of town, but her associate was happy to push me toward a higher priced option! Taga Safaris seemed, shall I say, less than up front with me. I believe I may have been lied to outright when it came to reservations at MalaMala...(first there were no available rooms, but more expensive arrangements could be made. Then when I put a hold on a room at MalaMala myself, the agent was able to offer me a discounted MalaMala price). It's been a nightmare. So now I'm looking to put the trip together myself. (Wise? Foolish?) This is where the expertise of those who have already travelled to SA comes in.

My Question for the Day: The prices on mtbeds are great. I'm tempted to wait until the required "7 or 14 days before travel" to book my lodging--including a Sabi Sands game reserve for 2 nights. However, I believe Oct/Nov is considered the "shoulder" or "high" season. Will options such as Simbambili or Lion Sands be available at that time? Am I taking too great a risk? Would it be better to secure a reservation with one of these (or Mala Mala) now? How can I get a good price without the backing of an agent? Any input would be greatly appreciated!
MissingMN is offline  
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Aug 19th, 2004, 10:51 AM
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Suggest you contact Fish Eagles Safaris in Houston, TX and pose questions about MalaMala. This lodge is certainly not geared to kids and senior citizens. Someone is doing MalaMala a disservice.
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Aug 19th, 2004, 10:53 AM
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Try Susan Wood @1 877 223 7452.
She knows Africa backwards and forwards and will give you a good price!
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Aug 19th, 2004, 11:03 AM
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Interesting that it shows 2 responses, the last being at 2:15pm but they're not here. Seems Fodor's is deleting something.

Sorry to hear of your problems. I think it best that since you listed Taga's name, you mention the others; at least none of us will recommend them. Are they all SA based or from your home country?

While MTbeds seems most attractive, if you're the kind of person who can wait till right before leaving, then wait, but can't guarantee what will be available. I personally like to know I have all my ducks in a row way before departing on holiday.

I'm gathering you've done some research and investigation and selected Mala Mala. Well, if it were me, I'd insist on it, regardless what the TA mentions re their feelings on the property or other comments - Mala Mala is a desireable camp. It's also possible this TA doesn't have an arrangement with MM, or they're obviously trying to push something more expensive.

There is also the possibility that MM isn't available for the days you want, and even the one who said it was and was offering a discount, might still not be able to get it until they have your deposit in hand.

I would suggest that you have a back-up or second choice camp just in case!

But I am surprised that you're getting grief from so many of these outfitters.
Again, let us know whom you've contacted so none of us re-recommend them to you. Then we'll see if we've got other suggestions.

I can tell you I've dealt (briefly) with a few agents/operators who would offer me something I didn't want - they never heard from me again.

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Aug 19th, 2004, 11:06 AM
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now those 2 posts are back. something strange happening here.
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Aug 19th, 2004, 11:18 AM
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Just as follow-up: spent four days at MalaMala (Kirkman's Kamp) - it was very nice, well run, saw lots of animals, wonderful guide and tracker (Mark, Elvis). It's not a luxurious place, very middle of the road as lodges go. But clean, nice, very comfortable, and great service and food. If you go, and if you drive in, arrange to call them by cell as you get close, and get a final go-ahead and confirm directions. This is a good place!!
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Aug 19th, 2004, 11:51 AM
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Good thought, Sandi. The other agencies I've tried are Ultimate Africa in Seattle (who did not recommend MalaMala) and South African Holidays (agent no-show) in Florida. I have a quote from African Travel (somewhere in the US), however it includes Ngala and not MalaMala (again not recommeded). So I'm still investigating.... Honestly, I'm beginning to wonder why agents don't like MalaMala. Even the Fodors book gives it only one of three stars. For this reason, I started looking at Lion Sands and Simbambili. Also, my husband and I are vegetarian, and the cuisine report on MalaMala hasn't been as stellar as some of the other lodges.

So far, it seems that booking through an agent is most desireable, as opposed to doing it on our own...what do you think?
MissingMN is offline  
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Aug 19th, 2004, 11:59 AM
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Hello once again. Would our views be useful to you, since we seem to be the only people in this conversation who have actually stayed at MalaMala? Read our comments. Why an agent doesn't recommend this place probably has lots of things to do with contractual arrangements. You might wish to access their website - it's updated every few days with game sightings. The food is first-rate, what can I say. we've stayed at numerous lodges in SA and Botswana, and MalaMala ranks, in our view, in the upper 50%. I'm no agent, so don't wish to prolong this. But MalaMala really deserves a careful look, and not just based on one agent or one book. Whatever you decide, you did ask for our help. We did try.
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Aug 19th, 2004, 12:00 PM
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If agents consistently don't like Mala Mala I'd suspect it either isn't very nice (and we have the opinions of people here whom I trust telling us otherwise) or the commission paid to agents by Mala Mala is less than the commission paid by other places.

Are you US based?

Bert of Fish Eagles strikes me as someone with integrity, with a genuine desire to help people and with a lot of knowledge about Southern Africa.

In the UK I'd trust Illona at Steppes Africa with any of my holiday dreams.
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Aug 19th, 2004, 12:11 PM
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Unless you have LOTS of time and attention to detail, I'd definitely use an agent. I doubt you will get a real discount (and not even sure MM will work direct with you anyway) because lets face it, the discounts only come when a place has extra rooms it cannot fill. (And MM is popular). If you aren't going to get a substantial discount, why even THINK about doing this work yourself?

The stuff about MM being for old folks and kids is malarkey. Of course you won't see many young travellers, as this place is expensive. And of course it is not adventure travel-- but neither are the places that these TAs will recommend at higher tariffs! The only thing "Disneyland" about it is that this concession has a plethora of wild animals and seeing the Big 5 is as good a guarantee as you can get from anyplace outside a zoo or Disney's safari place. But it is not Disneyland!

Another good TA/ AFrica specialists in the US: Next Adventure in Berkeley, CA.
A husband/wife team...only do custom travel to Africa, excellent service, with decades of experience in AFrica best of all, you will always reach one or the other---no unqualified or less responsible assistants in the office. Very honest, extremely helpful. website at the expected url...(so fodors won't delete!)
I've used them many times...and when I don't I am always sorry...
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Aug 19th, 2004, 12:26 PM
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Well, well - very disappointin to hear that these well known US companies don't know about customer service. Bye the way African Travel is in the Los Angeles area, and what they did to you by recommending Ngala instead of what you wanted, is exactly what happened to me with "another company" that never heard from me again.

OK, then lets go with the recommendation from above of Fish Eagles, in Houston. I have never used Fish Eagles, but they get excellent reviews on this board. The owners are South African and have been in business in the States about 10-years.

I would preface my conversation with the fact that you're having problems with other US based tour operators willing to book Mala Mala for you. That you pleaded for help on the Fodors Message Board, and Fish Eagles was strongly recommended - nothing wrong with some "kissing-up"

Tell him (Bert) that you've done alot of research and that Mala Mala is the camp you've selected for your safari. Let's hope he doesn't come back with some reason not to stay there, but if he does, I'd ask him why. And if for some reason he is also negative, maybe there is an issue, unbeknownst to us, regarding MM. Otherwise, I can't believe that Bert wouldn't be able to book whatever camp a client wanted.

But, if you're not that comfortable with MM regarding your specific dietary needs, maybe you should consider one of the other back-up camps you mentioned. Personally, my choice would be Simbambili, but that's my preference, no specific reason - just like the name!

Once Fish Eagles says they can handle your request, give the dates and hope they're available at MM or the other two camps.

I believe Fish Eagles will come thru for you. Let us know what happens.
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Aug 19th, 2004, 12:33 PM
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I didn't book through Fish Eagle but went to them towards the beginning of my planning. Bert immediately stated up front that he was unlikely to be able to beat a UK agent on price especially nor could he do flights for me from UK so he recommended I go to a UK agent to book BUT still gave me the benefit of his input and suggestions on my itinerary. I think that's above and beyond so hence my statement of his integrity.
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Aug 19th, 2004, 12:39 PM
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I'll be leaving for first time stay at MalaMala in 33 days (yes I'm excited) so I can't tell you anything about the camp. But according to their online reservation calendar
they are fully booked only two days during your dates, 10-28 and 11-4. When I decided to go to MalaMala I called them to verify that the dates I wanted were available and they held them for me to make a decision. I think the prices for MalaMala are the same whether you use agent or book it yourself.

Whatever you choose, I'm sure you'll have a great time.
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Aug 19th, 2004, 09:02 PM
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I also want to say that Bert is teriffic. He came in with a quote that, was competitive but then volunteered to contact both companies whose camps we're going to because he thought they might even get me a better deal because we're staying 3 days each at several of their camps.

Now about Tagus...I had a pretty rocky experience with Celeste too, swiched to Mark. Then earlier this week Mark wrote apologizing about not responding as soon as promised (took 3 days to respond, not 2) but his partner's sister in NY has been fighting cancer for 9 mo., was admitted to hospital... he'd been occupied with getting Celeste on a flight.
You never know.
pssst...Sometimes I'll be driving down the road and the person ahead seems really out of it....and they aren't old. Hey I've lost friends, relatives, jobs, divorced, and nothing has kept me from getting behind the wheel you never know

Taga has had good reviews on this site, that's why I contacted them. The only real losers I've delt with were on Conde Nasts "best" list. One was a real snob, from Michigan I think, and another woman from Colorado was an out and out liar, said Savuti in detail was an awful camp and that was just the beginning. eeek!
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Aug 19th, 2004, 10:35 PM
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I had a similar experience with African Travel last year. The only reason why I used them at all, is because last year they had outstanding prices on air from Los Angeles to South Africa. Honestly, there prices were nearly $500 per person less than any other place I found, and I even shopped a few consolidators.

When requesting Kafunta River Lodge and Kafunta Island Bush Camp, my agent at African Travel was insistent on switching me to either the Bushcamp Company group of lodges or to one of Robin Pope's camps. While these appear to be fine companies, they are not what I wanted, and are about 50% more expensive.

It got so annoying that I finally had to tell African Travel to either book Kafunta (there was a predefined very reasonable rack rate on Kafunta's website) or I would have another agent book it for me and only use African Travel for their airfare. My agent finally gave in, but would not shut up about warning me that he doesn't know or trust Kafunta and that I was taking a big risk.

As far as Taga Safaris goes, since they have been mentioned in a negative light in this thread, I must say that I have nothing but very positive relations with Mark from Taga. While he could have told me to take a hike a long time ago, after probably pricing out 10 different itineraries for me, Mark has been nothing but helpful.

Mark is doing excellent work on his Leopards of Simbambili project:

Plus, it is very worthwhile to mention that Taga Safaris has the "Lowest Prices Guaranteed", as stated on their website. There are not many consumers more knowledgable than I am, and I agree that Taga Safaris offers the very best prices around.
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Aug 19th, 2004, 11:51 PM
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Another unhappy African Travel ex-customer here. Pushed different camps (obviously higher commission), refused to break down the prices per camp (I understand why a TA cannot do that for one of their advertised packages but for a custom safari I put together? Please). Caught them in a big lie and that was it.
Where is safarinut? He would have only great things to say about Mala Mala.
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Aug 20th, 2004, 04:17 AM
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Roccco and MissingMN -

If we're naming names, the company that provided me pricing with a camp I didn't request was Premier Tours. Yes, I know I recommend them - but for their air department; so far the best fares I've been able to find, especially to SA, and this group of agents are quite responsible.

So you have to take a little bit from one and another bit from another to get what you want.

Personally, I feel it would be better to on occasion give a client the accommodation they want and take less commission, and keep the client for repeat business, then simply be interested in the % of commission. So what if it's not 15%, but only 5%; if you have a happy client you have them forever and they recommend the company to others - that's worth something. Rather than possible loosing an entire sale.

OK, now that we've (Clematis, Roccco, myself) aired all our dirty laundry - tour operators from hell - boy do I feel better.

MissingMN - we've all been where you are now; it's a learning experience even if it does leave a bad taste, but in the end I believe you'll get what you need from Bert at Fish Eagles. Don't forget to let us know your final decision and itinerary.

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Aug 20th, 2004, 04:37 AM
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Add another vote for a negative experience with African Travel out of L.A. Like Roccco I tried to book Kafunta in Zambia with them. (Kafunta actually had given me a name of a person there who at the time was out of the country). I gave the woman I was dealing with the exact itinerary I wanted and referred her to the Kafunta website which gave camps and prices. She said she had never heard of them and would check into and get back to me.

Several days went by and I had not heard from them and called her. Her reply was that they were not on their list of contracted lodges and I cut the conversation short at this point because no way in hell were they going to get my business at this point.
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Aug 20th, 2004, 05:13 AM
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It is probably too late for you to work directly with a SA agent ... I know two good ones with whom I arranged, sight unseen, picked out of the blue, a lengthy safari in 2001.

I second Bert duPlessis ... honest and reliable, and his prices are competitive. Bert is always available.

Karrel Travel in Coral Gables, FL is also excellent ... worked with them several years ago, once on air tix to J'Burg, another time to quote on an entire trip. Excellent responses via email.

To reiterate about MalaMala: it is NOT fancy, not luxurious ... this is not Singita style. Small huts, like motels, nice arrangement, colonial style, good services, excellent guides, day and night drives, walks, etc. If you book, ask that they arrange with the animals not to bother you as you drive thru the property to their lodge. They always get a kick out of that! I had no choice but to ask since Budget forked over a spanking new Merecedes in JNB for the half-day drive to MM.

I'm pleased to report the game cooperated, and management laughed, but were a tad uncertain who this strange character was who was approaching their environs. My tracker was Elvis, so perhaps they had the last laugh.
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Aug 20th, 2004, 05:16 AM
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I am also surprised about your negative experience with Taga. I booked two trips with Mark (the first to Kruger and Sabi Sands, and the second a 2-week trip through Okavango, Chobe, Vic Falls, South Luangwa and Malawi), and his recommendations were excellent and he never discouraged my selections.

I would not hesitate to again use him on a trip to southern Africa.

He has greeted me on both of my arrivals in Johannesburg and I've had meals with him on both trips. He really loves Africa and his enthusiasm is contagious. Plus he has just about the most informative website that I have seen.
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