If you've always dreamed of coming to Africa, or if you're just realizing that it might be time to start dreaming, this article is for you
Dear Reader, this is long, but so is the planning process, for it is complex, detailed and takes a great deal of time and effort. There are no real short cuts but this article might help.
Aaron and Tina, hats securely on their heads, their shirts bug-proofed and their luggage lodged into the Toyota, loaded up. It was time to go. Alladin, my favorite guide from eTrip Africa, gave me a hug goodbye. Alladin had just taken me out to the same places these two were headed, and I knew what they were in for. Days and days of magic, adventure and then off to Uganda.
Is this your dream? Is this something you want to do?
Saga Reader Lisa Clemiss penned me this request day before yesterday:
This trip is definitely inspiring and I would love to do the same in the near future. Would you be interested in writing an article about how “unseasoned” long distance travelers can get to Africa. Of course it means long flights etc…but are there recommendations of how to do that, what to pack, best time of year to go and such. Its so inspiring - I’d love to plan a trip like this but not sure what’s the best way to start.
Aaron and Tina, who hail just up Highway 126 from me Eugene in Sisters, Oregon, turned out to be the perfect pair to pose this question to. While I will add a few thoughts here and there, they were kind enough to offer their experience to get us started.
Aaron, a Canuk by birth, met his wife Tina, who is like me a military veteran, up in Alaska. Aaron has done his fair share of tenting, hammocking and the like, being a chef by trade. Tina has been a tour guide in Alaska, which makes both of them, who are seasoned travelers, excellent resources to help me answer Lisa's question.
We all start out as rank rookies
To be fair, none of us is born knowing anything about how to put together a big, complex trip. The three of us likely made every mistake in the book at some point, but we're all still alive and traveling. However, all of us started with a dream. Tina said that National Geographic inspired her as a child to eventually come to Africa, most especially Tanzania. Tina and her mother had already planned a trip over here (at this writing I am still in Arusha) but meeting Aaron put that trip on ice.
Aaron had always wanted to see the big apes, so for him, when he discovered that people could actually trek in to get close to some of these families, he was all in.
Both are great animal lovers and take every chance to see zoos, which only whet their appetites.
Their dream took form, shifted and changed as they saved here and there, and took occasional trips to Spain and the like. Africa was always and forever THE big trip.
Tina, whose background includes being a tour guide, loves trip research. The two of them read copious articles and spent lots of time determining what they wanted to see and where they wanted to go. She said that likely, not too many people would put in that kind of time, but this is precisely the kind of advance preparation which can make all the difference. You'll see why in a moment.
About that price tag
But let's first talk about money. Africa is expensive. Tanzania in particular. In 2014 a VAT was imposed on all tourist trips, which immediately slammed budget travelers hard. If you want access to the best parts, there is a hefty ($70) nightly fee as well as other charges for the prime areas like Ngorongoro Crater. While those charges help the government protect what we want to see, you have to take all of that into account. And, there's tipping, which is expected, and a good operator will give you the guidelines on what to drop in tip buckets and what to pay your guides.
Tips are not included in your overall safari price, and you need to budget for them.
Part of the planning for Tina and Aaron was that they consistently saved. Whether that's choosing to drink home made coffee instead of daily Starbucks, or skipping a pricey dinner for a stay-at-home meal, it makes no difference. All that adds up. Many of us have expensive habits that we don't challenge because they are, well, habits. For example I used to get acrylic nails, twice a month for decades.
Added up, $18,000. I don't get those nails done any more. I'd rather travel.
In 2018, Aaron and Tina started to get serious.
Originally, their idea was to take two separate trips: one to Uganda and one to Tanzania. However, given the cost of airfare and the complexities of trip planning, ultimately it made more sense to combine the two in one trip. That created all kinds of challenges as well as opportunities, some of which is instructive for the purpose of this piece.
What about all those juicy special deals? There may be something like that which looks tempting. However, be sure you do your due diligence. Invariably, you are looking at the "bare bones price," and that price likely doesn't tell you what it costs you to save money. Let's talk about what you forfeit for the cheap seats.
You may be crammed in like a sardine the entire time.
Does it it makes sense to join a group? For people with a very specific agenda, for whom the ability to take their time at a particular moment to truly savor it, being in a group can grate. You might want to study the hippos, and other folks get irritated and impatient. This is a value judgement in terms of what you really want out of your trip. If you want greater control and privacy, those will cost. However, as I have learned, that level of control can be worth it if all you want to do is watch the elephants.
Aaron and Tina, having had to wait through Covid to get this chance, didn't want anything to ruin it. They chose to go with their own guide and vehicle.
Your lodging in the bush might leave something to be desired.
Another is the nature of your bush lodging. Out in the Serengeti, for example, there are the ultra high-end luxury experiences ($1200 to ten times that or more), mid-range $350-500+ and low-end. Low end is still $150 a night, but that's only for camping on the ground in a popup tent. This decision is driven by whether or not you have to have a toilet in your room or if you can tolerate shared facilities. Knowing what you must have, and what's available, balanced with those costs, drives these decisions.
People often don't understand what's meant by "tented camps." Those tented camps are exercises in pure luxury and convenience, with this Lemala Camp as the perfect example:
If you've studied the lodgings or tents, and you know that you want yours to overlook a river or have some special offering, then know that this might cost more, but will ultimately be worth it. However if you pick a package deal off the Internet, be aware of the special deals (see above).
Operators who offer incredibly low prices know that they can make up the lost revenues by taking you to pricey souvenir shops, where the shop owners will pay your guide just for stopping there, or to a Tanzanite shop, or any one of many concessions which have established relationships with these guides. If you don't wish to be shoehorned into these facilities (which often have jacked-up prices for that very reason), then be aware that this might well be something to avoid, for that is time away from your purpose in being in Africa. On the other hand this might work perfectly well for you.
The heart-attack price tag on those accommodations
Greater expense also does not always translate to better lodgings or experiences or locations. First, you and I need to know that many tour operators own their own camps and because of that will push those properties onto the client, even if it's not the best property for your particular purposes.
Second, if you did an all inclusive trip to a resort in Mexico for $300 for a week, kindly recognize that Africa is a completely different market with far different costs and considerations.
Third, if you do your research on TripAdvisor as your sole or primary source for your lodging choices, you might insist that you want the #1 property. Here's the problem with that. First, it's estimated that up to 35% of all TripAdvisor reviews are fake, which is stunning.
Fourth, one of the best ways to work with a knowledgeable tour operator, you and I are better served by providing them with our budget. That way, the operator will work to find you the best deals to stay within those guidelines. It is both clumsy and far more difficult to dictate to a provider which camps you want, find out they cost too much, and then ask your operator to cut costs.
Getting there is also part of the journey
A group can likely get you a better airfare. While there are plenty of tricks which might work, Covid has thrown a lot of this by the wayside, and many of the goodies and special offerings that were enticing people in 2020-2021 have dissipated. Now, price hikes and the return of steep costs if you have to change your flight have resurfaced like garden moles. But there's more to this in terms of costs you need to plan for, which many don't take into account.
If you find a cheaper flight but which takes you nearly forty hours to arrive, you are likely to have some stopovers. A longer stopover can allow you to get some shuteye, but how you do that depends on you. You can get a hotel in many airports, but that kind of proximity can be very dear. Or, again, depending on the airport, many have sleep cabs which can be rented by the hour. I've used these and they can be a lifesaver, but you have to plan for the additional costs. My Frankfurt napcab added fifty bucks, and the expensive cafes on the concourse added another fifty for food and coffee.
Finally, you can scope out where to sleep cheaply at the airports here. While useful, taking a three-across in open seating can lead to having some things go walkies, as has happened to me. You have to choose whether or not it's worth it to you to secure a safe and quiet place to sleep. And, this won't work for families.
Aaron and Tina planned extra days both coming and going to allow for testing requirements. While many countries have dropped these, that doesn't guarantee anything. A new outbreak or variant could change the requirements while you are en route, and you can get caught off guard. Allowing that extra time is a bit more costly but can save you major headaches. That's strictly up to you and what your budget will allow.
One way to get around this is to work with an operator takes ownership of this process. Not all do; some push the responsibility onto us as the client. eTrip Africa, for example, keeps abreast of all the vaccination requirements as well as the testing locations which help you get from country to country, and to get you home.
Insure, insure, insure
Poop occurs. No matter how careful we are, no matter what we try to prevent, it just does. On my current trip I caught an horrific cold which cost me three days of safari time. By the time I was well, guides and vehicles were too booked out for me to recoup that adventure.
A good insurance company, and there are many, will reimburse you for your losses. Over many years of traveling I've lost luggage, been in terrible accidents, and had things stolen. The only time I had no luck getting things covered was when I wasn't covered. It's worth it.
While you may think that such things don't happen to you, I did, too, until I broke my back in Kazakhstan. Fell down stairs in Iceland. You get it. Things happen. They can make very funny stories, but please ensure that you're insured so that the joke isn't on you for the cost of lost luggage or a busted whatchamacallit.
Looking under the boot, the bonnet and behind the curtains for other hidden costs
Many quiet costs can add so much to at trip, which most if not all of us don't see coming if this is our first time.
Vaccinations, and I'm not talking just Covid, are critically important. Many countries can require yellow fever, which is one and done but can cost as much as $300. There may be others, which a travel doctor (yes, there are those) can advise. You may need malaria medicine and others, depending on your medical history and where you're headed. Some insurance pays for this, some doesn't.
If asked, you have to be able to show proof of vaccination not only for Covid in many places but all the others which protects you and that country's residents.
Travel to Tanzania also requires a visa, and the cost will vary depending on what country you're from. You can get your visa in the airports in Tanzania which is handy, but you may also be terribly tired. If you're the type who likes all the paperwork done in advance, you can take care of your visa online. For US citizens, that's another $100.
You may also need specialized gear and clothing, but that's for another article, following shortly.
Time away from work costs money, too
I don't recommend anyone fly all the way to Africa and barely spend four or five days. First of all, the first two are a wash due to jet lag. Then, you barely have adequate time to hurtle somewhere, try to photo-tag a few animals and you're rushing back to the airport.
Don't do that to yourself.
I recognize that certainly for Americans, getting time off is hard. However, spending a fortune to get to Paradise and then not giving yourself enough time to enjoy being there is much worse.
My life affords me a very different relationship with time, and I recognize that being away from jobs is expensive if you don't have paid vacation. Please consider doing your best to finagle ten to fourteen days or more to allow yourself time to get into the feeling of this place, and then really absorb what it is to be here before you have to pack up and go home.
Aaron and Tina carved out that time, but were still pressed to be able to fit in their priorities. This is where advance research becomes so important.
Cramming two countries into a single trip meant, as they explained, that they were going to have to let a few options go. The cost of the farther northern Tanzanian camps took them off the list, and the longer gorilla trek also had to go. However, since they had already prioritized what was truly near and dear, they ended up with a list that met Tina's deepest desire to see the Serengeti and beyond, and Aaron's hankering to see the gorillas, but on a shorter excursion.
By the time they finalized their bookings, flights and all the details, they still had their dream trip which touched on all the most important points to each of them. Now they are out in the Serengeti, living their dreams.
Who you gonna call?
With so many operators out there, how on earth do you make a decision about whom to use for your once-in-a-lifetime experience?
There are thousands upon thousands of operators, ranging from extreme high end to extreme budget. I would strongly recommend that you lop off both ends of that bell curve, and start looking, based on your budget, at what's offered in your expected range.
If you are heading to several countries, for sheer ease of planning, it might also be useful to interview operators with direct and deep expertise in those countries as opposed to managing multiple relationships.
I found my longtime operator, eTrip Africa, by researching on TripAdvisor. I was in a chat room and someone passed along the name. What has evolved is a high-trust, high-value, high-octane relationship spanning nine years and seven trips. Aaron and Tina found them via Safaribooking.com, which allows those of us who travel to post our experiences and rate those companies.
There are many ways to find yours, but mine came via a strong personal referral, which for my travel dollar is golden. Reviews are helpful but nothing works like getting a head's up from someone who travels the way you do.
The point is to find a fit: people who work with you, are happy to make changes as necessary, are highly responsive and responsible.
As for what to pack, stay tuned. That's coming as well.
For now I sincerely hope that you've gotten a few ideas about how to go about this. Please keep the requests coming, and I will do my best to respond.
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