Review: Planet Africa Safaris (PAS)- Tour Operator

 Safari 2013

 I know the first question that everyone is wondering is if I would recommend Planet Africa Safaris(PAS). The quick answer to that is yes but there is a caveat read on…..

 

If you’ve had a chance to read some of my reports on this blog then you know that I prefer to manage and arrange my travel without the assistance of a tour operator, even when traveling solo. Safari’s are a little different from other types of travel in that you tend to venture into very remote areas of a country that tend to have very small travel outfits and complicated domestic travel connections. The websites are not always easy to navigate or non-existent and its not always easy to reach someone on the phone etc. So for some parts of a safari vacation you tend to lean on a tour operator. Also, a safari vacation tends to be very expensive and involve multiple dependencies and you really need to have a way to communicate or cancel accommodations quickly which in turn may affect transportation etc  so sometimes its not efficient  to depend on a website or emails to get everything done.

 

In my case I already knew which camps I wanted and they were all Asilia Africa properties. There was also one lodge I preferred for the Crater, the and beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge which is absolutely gorgeous. So I really only needed help with accommodations in Arusha and transportation. In other words, given that I already had a lot established, accommodations and itinerary for PAS, I am not sure how things would have evolved if I began with a blank slate. I imagine that the process would have been a lot more involved hence more communication etc. and time with PAS so you should take that into consideration of my opinion of this outfit.

I appreciate reading honest and detailed reviews from bloggers. For instance I am currently in the midst of planning a solo trip to Belgium and The Netherlands and sometimes my selection pivots based on information I read, especially if its consistent. It may not necessarily be anything negative it may just be based on preferences that I have for a property location,  condition of the accommodations or quality of the food. But then there are those times where you read something about the staff that I personally may take into consideration. I’ve said all this to point out that my reports are honest. I try to point out scenarios where I indicate a personal preference versus an out right issue.

 

First, my advise is to do a little research on the camps and parks yourself. I mean for goodness sakes, everything is literally at your fingertips. I say this because my opinion is that folks tend to recommend properties or itineraries that they may prefer. I mean its only natural right. Yes they listen to your requirements but I think they tend to push properties that they may have relationships with or styles/taste that they personally favor. For example, there are very plush camps or more rustic. Some operations think that one camp may give you a more ‘authentic’ experience but maybe you really prefer being pampered poolside. The opinion of an operator is valuable but I’d prefer to come with a few samples of my own and then get their opinion versus the other way around. Yes I agree, these guys are the experts but given the opportunity they will tend to recommend properties based on criterion that may not necessarily agree with your requirements. Personally my DNA does not allow me to place this much trust in the hands of a tour operator but different strokes for different folks! So if you are the type that prefers to contact a tour operator, provide your requirements and sit back for results you’d better make sure to find a good one!!!

 

So how do define ‘a good one’? For me, communication is número uno. I don’t have trust in an operator that does not respond to my inquiries quickly. Call me crazy but that’s just me. PAS gets an A plus plus plus in this area.

 

I contacted Asilia Africa to book my accommodations but was in turn referred to PAS. The good part about this was PAS was recommended which immediately increased my comfort level. Remember, you will eventually exchange large sums of money, electronically so its important to work with an operator  you trust.

 

PAS did an excellent job on returning calls and emails and usually provided the level of detail necessary to move things along quickly. I never felt as if I was being rushed or that any questions were bothersome. My contact was also very helpful, professional and knowledgeable about the areas and properties and interjected good ideas and recommendations. I think PAS is located in South Africa and I am on the US east coast so it was not difficult to communicate as I am an early riser.

 

Once we finalized everything from our conversations the final itinerary is sent with all the details of the trip. PAS made it clear to me that I needed to review everything very carefully before signing off and making the deposit. Its daunting because an itinerary can be up to 8 pages. Its a lot to review and once you make your deposit you are locked into everything.

 

I left for the trip in September and the deposit was made near the end of February. The camps we chose were somewhat small and  booking up fast so its not unusual to begin to book a year in advance for a safari. While a  deposit was required initially, the balance was not due until about six weeks before departure. I recommend creating a new email folder for the trip to organize all communications in one place. Even your sent messages. I also use Evernote to organize information. This application like email is/can be synched across devices.

 

Okay here’s the caveat. About June I received an email from PAS. The email stated that “I was reviewing and closing off your file today, and realized I made a typo in your safari itinerary which I wanted to correct.”  I immediately lost my appetite when I saw this message. The email went on to say that while the itinerary stated that we had accommodations at Oliver’s Camp we actually had accommodations at their your sister camp Little Oliver’s. The email further stated that therefore we would now be staying at Little Oliver’s “I just needed to amend this small detail so wanted to let you know”. 

 

Ahhh, small detail?….TYPO, Just let me know..???? Excuse me, WTH just happened…..? Not only was I unhappy about this, I also felt that it was communicated inappropriately. Of course all of our phone conversations, emails AND itinerary clearly stated OLIVER’S CAMP. I knew about Little Oliver’s and it wasn’t even open when we began our communications. It was amazing to me that PAS would make it seem like such an insignificant detail (typo) and take it upon themselves to move my accommodations without my approval.

 

Of course I requested a phone conversation to express my….concern and pretty much received two different reasons for the change before what I considered the truth. There was no typo, someone goofed up otherwise I would have never received a final itinerary for Oliver’s Camp from four months prior(a camp that never came up in any of our communications). PAS response was, well we could just cancel Tarangire Park and I am thinking…so you know I already have my air tickets sooooo what am I suppose to do for those three days during my trip of a lifetime? Remember I mentioned that its hard to find accommodations even eight months prior to departure. Well, I decided to go with Little Oliver’s and everything worked out well. It was a lovely camp, actually my favorite one, and suppose to be almost identical to Oliver’s but that’s not the point. I booked one camp and didn’t appreciate being moved to any place else. especially not the way it happened.

 

The first part of the safari we had a PAS dedicated guide and 4×4. I did inquire about which guide we would have for our trip but was told that it was not possible to determine this in advance. While our guide was very kind  and knowledgeable he was a little too laid back for us. I am not sure if he was a little ill or not but I found myself  wanting to spike his coffee with Red Bull. He was not as proactive about venturing outside the lines of the itinerary. Remember, you are paying for the guide and vehicle and they are at your disposal. Just because the itinerary does not mention stopping at a Maasai village or shops along the road you can do it. We made the mistake of not getting our guides number when we reached the lodge at the Crater. After we checked in and had lunch we were not as tired as we thought and said why not go for a drive around the area or find some shopping but we didn’t have his number or rather he didn’t give it to us. Yes, we could have tried to reach our contact in South Africa but we thought that it would have been appropriate to exchange numbers and he could have been proactive and checked in on us. With everything going on around us the last thing we were thinking about was getting his number but maybe now you will be sure to do this. Exchange numbers with your guide right away when you meet up. Yes, he is at your “beckon call”, you paid for it.

Suggestions:

 

  1. Personal Recommendation: Find a property that you are interested in then contact them to ask if they can recommend a few tour operators.
  2. Interview: Don’t be shy about asking  questions like, I need an outfit that responds appropriately to my inquires (insert example here), are you able to do this? Ask away!
  3. Communication: I think its a bad sign when you call or send the initial email and they take 2 days to reply. I don’t think that’s a good sign. My opinion is that service tends to remain constant or decline over time not improve.
  4. Social Media: I recommend finding an operator that uses social media, Facebook or Twitter in addition to phone and email. Although I do not use Facebook I do use twitter and there have been many occasions where responses via these modes prove very effective.
  5. Google: Google and research the heck out of a tour operator. Of course you will want to review everything you can find on trip advisor.
  6. Exchange contact information with your guide at your initial meeting
  7. Ask for a financial break down of everything not just the bottom line figure. Camp costs, guide etc.
  8. Think of various what if scenarios and get responses before you make the initial deposit. For example, What if we are told drinks or laundry is not included when the itinerary states they are, how do we resolve on the spot?

 

 If you can find a ‘perfect’ tour operator by all means use them. If not I am confident that Plant Africa Safari’s will do a great job. I am sure they did everything to avoid  the camp situation but hiccups are bound to happen. Its how these hiccups are handled that’s important. This information will at least help you avoid any issues that I had with them which in the scope of things did not negatively impact our trip.

 

Check out my report on the camps here:

 

Asilia Africa

Little Oliver’s

Naboisho Camp

Sayari Camp

Arusha Coffee Lodge

Plantation Lodge

 

 

Check out my Safari Reports here:

 

Tarangire

 

Serengeti

 

Ngorongoro Crater

 

Maasai Mara