Not every trip to Africa requires going through a tour operator, but for many vacations, it just makes more sense to go with a company that specializes in travel to Africa. This is not necessarily the case if you're planning a long weekend in Marrakech, then it's a simple matter of booking flights and finding the right Riad to stay at. The same could be said if you're visiting Cape Town for a week.
You might miss out on some insider tips or discounts a specialized tour operator can offer, but you'll still have a great time with just a guide book to lead the way.
Some people think they'll save money by booking a trip independently, but that's not true for many African itineraries. Yes, tour companies get a percentage of what you pay for the trip. But the discounts they can pass along to their clients through their relationships with properties and ground operators, often more than makes up for it. And I've booked some wonderful trips with budget operators that utilize local transport, that has saved me both time and money. The key is to find a tour operator that specializes in the region you wish to visit.
When Should You Use a Tour Operator to Book a Trip to Africa?
1. If you are planning to go on safari. It's almost impossible to plan a good safari itinerary without help from an expert, especially if it's your first time in Africa.
There are an overwhelming amount of safaris to choose from, let alone destinations. There are many different types of accommodation, ranging from simple campsites to luxury cottages complete with plunge pool and personal butler. You can enjoy a safari in a jeep, canoe, hot air balloon and boat. You can spot wildlife from the back of a horse, camel, or elephant.
You can walk among a herd of zebra, or spend an afternoon playing soccer with Maasai children. There are rainy seasons and dry seasons that affect the quality of roads, wildlife patterns and camp locations.
There's a lot to planning a safari, and it is very time-consuming to figure it out on your own. While I like to book through local operators to ensure my money stays within the local economy - if it's your first safari, book with an agency in your own country that is responsible. It's easier to communicate with someone in your time zone. It's also easier to pay for services in your own currency, without worrying about exchange rates and bank transfer fees.
2. If you are traveling to more than one country, or have less than a month to travel. Africa is huge and the infrastructure is not so great in many countries. This means that getting from A to B can be difficult unless you are familiar with the transport options available. Even if you discover you can get from Arusha to Kigali on Air Rwanda, chances are the schedule may change at the last minute and you could miss tracking those gorillas. If you have several months to cover a region, then obviously time is not so much of an issue and waiting a few extra days to catch a ferry or bus is not a problem.
But if you have just two weeks to spend in Africa, it's worth using a tour operator.
Airline schedules within Africa remain somewhat flexible, are not always easy to book independently, and charter services can also be sporadic. Booking all your transport within your safari/vacation with one tour company will help if plans change. Renting a car with a driver from a reputable company is paramount since you will be very dependent on them for their driving, navigating, guiding and language skills. Even if you are planning to see a number of different places within the same country, using a tour operator will help you plan your time. Covering 100 miles in Tanzania can take all day during certain seasons, and in certain regions and national parks. You need the expert knowledge or you'll end up spending the whole time traveling between places and not enjoying them.
3. If you have specific needs and wants. If you are vegetarian, pregnant, diabetic, traveling with small children, unable to walk up steps, terrified of catching malaria, or have any special desires to see specific animals, people, art, music - use a tour operator. If you'd like your kids to eat at 6 pm, need a fridge to store your medication, or would love to shop at a local market - a knowledgeable travel agent can make it happen for you. It's your vacation, let someone else do the worrying and planning for you. Using a tour operator also means that you have someone who is accountable to you if things do not go according to what you have planned and paid for. To get an idea of what's on offer for those with special interests, check out my "special interest Africa travel section".
4. If you wish to travel responsibly. It's not always easy to figure out if a property is locally owned, if their staff is treated well, or if they are truly environmentally conscious. Since "eco-friendly" is almost a marketing term at this point, the best way to ensure your trip is truly responsible is to use a tour operator that vets each property and ground operator that you are paying for. Here's a good list of responsible tour operators that I am familiar with.
5. If you are concerned about safety and security. Most countries in Africa are stable and safe, but politics and natural disasters happen. A good tour operator stays up to date with elections, weather hazards, and high crime areas. A small skirmish in northern Kenya may not make headline news, but a specialized tour operator will know about it and can redirect your safari to keep you safe. If the rainy season is looking very heavy in southern Africa - then perhaps switching your itinerary around to include more internal flights rather than road transfers, would be a good idea. This would be very difficult to accommodate on your own. Many local lodges and hotels cannot accept foreign credit cards, so making reservations can lead to arduous bank transfers, that also feel less than safe.