While researching a previous blog I went online to see what others were saying about ways to get value for your money when booking a safari. What I found are a lot of mentions of cutting out the middleman and booking your trip online yourself. I couldn't disagree more.
I am not telling you to use any travel agent. I'm saying there is a value in using an agent or tour operator, who specializes in planning trips to the place you are thinking of traveling, be it Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America or even more regularly traveled places like Europe.
What Can a Travel Specialist Do for Me?
Tour operators or agents who specialize in a given region are your greatest asset in getting the best possible experience. They have insights into the best deals and properties and the best ones see themselves as advocates both for you and for tourism in the countries they specialize in. A regional expert is able to take what you tell them about the experience you want on your trip, your reality based budget and uses their wealth of knowledge to make it all work in a seamless itinerary at best possible price.
Here are just a few of the advantages of using a regional travel specialist (while the examples I use here are from Africa because that is the area that Extraordinary Journeys specializes in, the principles apply to all regional travel specialist):
First Hand Knowledge
An expert's greatest value is that they have firsthand experience and opinions about hundreds of properties in the regions they specialize in and can give you insights that you cannot get online.
For example in East and Southern Africa there are camps that are great in the low season because they have great game viewing year round or because they are in areas where they actually get better in less popular seasons. Knowledge of the places where you can take advantage of low season rates without compromising game-viewing or activities is one of the huge advantages of using a regional expert. For example: We recently moved a client's stay in Cape Town from the beginning of their trip to the end so they could take advantage of the very end of the shoulder season in the beginning of June in Botswana and saved them $3000.
Because of their first hand knowledge or properties in a specific region, travel specialists also know the value for money properties; the hidden gems which are comparatively cheap but have great guides or a stunning location. On the flip-side they know the properties that look amazing online or get incredible TripAdvisor reviews that just don't live up to the hype. TripAdvisor is a great tool but can benefit bigger properties because bad reviews have less of an impact on their overall rating than one bad review for a smaller property. Firsthand experience can help you sort that out.
In addition, for every country and region there are hundreds of specials out there (Stay 3 pay 2, 50% off for brides, free nights and transfers if you stay at a combination of several properties). These deals change frequently and have specific conditions and exclusions. Travel specialists are up-to-date on all the best deals in their regions and can quickly pull together an itinerary that makes the best use of them.
Long Term Relationships
Travel specialists have relationships with tour operators and properties in the regions they specialize in. This means they can make sure you get the best possible experience and treatment at every property. For example just because a "bush breakfast" is an included activity at a safari camp doesn't mean they are going to do it for 100% for their guests. But they will if your specialist (who they have a long term relationship with) reminds them that it is something you are really looking forward to. These long term relationships can also mean that sometimes when a deal crops up for properties that you have already booked, the relationship between the specialist and the property will get you that deal retroactively. They might able to get it and they might not, but you won't get it on your own.
How Much is Your Time Worth?
If you think planning a trip yourself makes it free think about how much you would charge someone else for your services. Then figure that planning your own trip by doing online research will take you about 40 hours. You have better ways to use that time and a regional specialist could get you better results.
It's also worth noting that booking through a regional travel specialist will cost you the same as booking online. They make their commission from hotels (camps, lodges etc) not from you. Booking online won't save you a ton and you'll miss out on regionally specific knowledge that could make your trip better.
Finally, what happens if your flight gets cancelled, you miss your flight or the property loses your reservation? All these things can cost you money, time and cause you stress. The travel specialist always has a back up plan and it is their job to handle that situation which means less worry for you.
What it comes down to is; if you want a really a tight budget and have lots of time to do the research then you should book your trip on your own. But, if you are traveling to a country or a part of the world you know little about and want a seamless trip at a great value, then use an expert. You will save money on the trip itself and hours and hours of your time.
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