Not every trip to Africa requires going through a tour operator, but for many vacations, you can save yourself considerable time and effort by booking with a company that specializes in travel to your chosen destination. This is not necessarily the case if you're planning a long weekend in Marrakesh, for example, when travel arrangements mean 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 of the insider tips or discounts a specialized tour operator can offer, but you'll still have a great time with just a guidebook to lead the way.
For many people, the biggest reason not to use a tour operator is the belief that you can save money by booking independently. However, while tour companies certainly add their commission to the overall cost of the trip, the discounts they can pass along to their clients through their relationships with properties and ground operators often makes up for it. Additionally, operators who specialize in budget travel use the same backpacker hotels and public transport options that you might choose – but have the local expertize to know which ones are safe.
In this article, we look at six reasons to use a tour operator for your next African adventure.
If You Want to Go on Safari
It's very difficult to plan a good safari without help from an expert, especially if it's your first time in Africa. There are an overwhelming number of possible routes to choose from, let alone destinations. Your accommodation options are just as diverse, ranging from simple campsites to luxury cottages complete with a plunge pool and personal butler. You can enjoy a safari in a jeep, canoe, hot air balloon or 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.
Then there's the weather – rainy seasons and dry seasons that affect the quality of the roads, wildlife patterns, and camp locations. Evidently, there's a lot that goes into planning a safari, and it is very time-consuming to figure it all out on your own.
If You Have Limited Time
Tour operators are also great for helping with logistics. Africa is huge and the infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired in many countries. This means that getting from A to B quickly and with the least amount of hassle can be difficult unless you are familiar with the transport options available. If you have several months to cover a region, you can afford to take the circuitous route. But if you have just two weeks to spend in Africa, it's worth using a tour operator to make sure that your transit days go smoothly.
For example, experts can help with booking airlines that are almost impossible to contact independently from overseas. They can also help get your money back and make alternative travel plans if flights are delayed or canceled, as they often are in Africa. Tour operators also know which public transport options are safe, and which car rental companies offer the best service and/or drivers.
If You Plan On Visiting Multiple Countries
Expert assistance is even more valuable if you're planning on visiting more than one country – and especially if you want to travel by land, either on a self-drive safari or on an overland tour. Tour operators use their inside knowledge to help you choose the safest and most efficient border posts. They will advise you regarding the paperwork you need to pass through customs and can even help with securing a visa in advance if necessary. This is particularly useful in Africa, where bureaucracy rules and visa requirements change on a regular basis, often without any notification.
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, or music – use a tour operator. If you'd like your kids to eat at 6:00pm, 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. Some tour operators have been in the industry for decades and have such excellent general knowledge that they can tailor itineraries to meet your exact needs, no matter how unique they are; while others specialize particularly in one area or another.
Either way, putting the planning in expert hands means that the vacation you've been saving up for is more likely to exceed your expectations.
If You Wish to Travel Responsibly
Africa is a continent with more than its fair share of social and economic problems, and as a visitor, you can do your bit to help by choosing to travel responsibly. At the very least, this means making sure that your trip doesn't have a negative impact on the people, wildlife or landscapes that you encounter along the way. Ideally, it should also mean that the money you pay for your trip and experiences goes towards helping the local community and/or supporting conservation efforts in some way.
Many lodges and tours market themselves as "eco-friendly" or "sustainable" but it can be difficult to determine which ones are actually committed to making a difference. An experienced tour operator will be able to help you choose on-the-ground companies that are locally owned, treat their staff well and are environmentally conscious.
If You Are Concerned About Safety and Security
Most of Africa's popular tourist destinations are relatively safe, but political instability and natural disasters can 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 in the States, but a specialized tour operator will know about it and can redirect your safari to keep you safe. If the rainy season is causing severe flooding in Southern Africa, your tour operator will be able to switch your itinerary around to replace road transfers with more internal flights.
Changes like these are difficult and expensive to make on your own. If you're worried about the security of making payments to local lodges or hotels online, a tour operator removes the risk of credit card fraud by acting as an intermediary.
This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on August 28 2019.