Safari tour operators - what to look for

It seemed too good to be true when you handed over your hard-earned money for a bargain safari in Africa. Next thing you know you're stuck in the middle of nowhere with a blown head gasket and overheated jeep engine or your (barely) English speaking guide starts demanding money for park fees you've already paid. You spent last night in a leaking tent that was only just standing and are left wondering if you really got the "deal" you initially thought.

Some destinations are made for independent travel and last-minute decisions where you can simply book flights and decide on a whim where to explore. Others are much better experienced on a tour, whether it's due to the logistics of travel in the country or the enrichment that comes from having locals and experts in their field at the helm (provided they are actually experts).

Africa's wildlife reserves are one such destination, with safari tours the best way to experience the majesty of the continent's big game species and their spectacular natural environments. While for some travellers the word "tour" is something they steer well clear of, safari tourism caters to all styles and budgets while being a far cry from the big coaches and throngs of sightseers you might otherwise associate with tours. In addition, unless you're skilled at off-road driving and know how to track the movements of African wildlife species, travelling with a safari tour company is simply necessary.

But the truth is, not all safari tour operators are equal and there are some whose self-interests comes at the expense of the guests. Perhaps they don't have the experience to conduct safe and trouble-free safaris or maybe they aren't doing their bit to support sustainable conservation initiatives. So how do you separate the good from the bad and find a tour operator that will create an African safari experience you'll never forget? We've created this guide to help you do just that, highlighting some of the most important things you should look for in a tour operator.

Safari vehicle getting stuck in muddy track
The difference between a good and a poor safari operator can turn a once-in-a-lifetime trip into a nightmare.

1. Experience and Expertise

One of the biggest advantages of booking a safari with a tour operator is drawing on their years of experience and expertise, not only in the travel industry but on the ground in Africa. The best tour operators know how to maximise your time and create an overall enriching experience while addressing all of your concerns and some you might not have even thought about yet!

In the lead up to booking, they can offer insider advice on the best time to visit and the seasonal differences in animal sightings, as well as the overall experience you can expect at particular lodges and safari camps. The services they use have been "tried and tested" for quality control, with measures in place regarding your safety at all times. Their guides are also experts in their field, with an in-depth knowledge of animal behaviours, migration patterns and how to track wildlife.

Unfortunately, some tour operators lack any sort of safari experience or are just in it to make a quick dollar, with flashy websites that make false claims about their experience and credibility. Do their drivers have adequate experience on dusty wildlife reserve roads? How skilled are their guides when it comes to spotting the most elusive of animals? Does the tour company know how to manage an emergency and what backup plans are in place if something does go wrong?

Some of the warning signs might be insufficient responses to email queries or vague answers about specific questions. Do they have quotes from previous travellers on their website that validate their claims and have they gone to the trouble of introducing their safari team, including their level of experience and fields of expertise? Are they interested in knowing your preferred travel style and offering recommendations to tailor your itinerary or enrich your travel plans?

This can be the difference between a safari experience you'll never forget and a holiday you might end up wishing you never booked.

2. Value for Money

African safaris tend to be on the expensive side of the travel spectrum, but no matter what your budget is, the value you receive can differ greatly between tour operators. This might relate to the level of service you receive, the lodges you stay in or the condition of safari jeeps, which might not necessarily be reflective of the price you pay. It's important to look beyond the price tag and see exactly what you are getting in return.

While independent travel is often associated with saving money, when it comes to safari travel, most tour operators actually have access to preferential rates for lodges, camps and safari activities. In addition to saving you the hassle of trip planning, this can end up saving you money or introduce you to package deals that will allow you to do more for the budget you have available.

That being said, you do get what you pay for and "too good to be true" low-priced safari tours are probably skimping somewhere along the way. The dollars you saved aren't going to mean much if you're stuck in the middle of the savannah with a dead battery or end up in run-down lodges with worn out tents and sub-standard meals.

In the end, it's experiences like these that will probably endure in your memory, not the incredible wildlife sightings or experience of driving across the African plains. So it's important to carefully check what is included (and what's not) before being lured into booking a super cheap safari option.

Do their itineraries clearly indicate the transportation options (including pickup and drop-off points), as well as the vehicle capacity and activities included? Will you end up being forced to pay additional park entrance fees and meal/drink costs along the way, as well as dumped with a bill for using their binoculars? It's important to be meticulous and always ask questions ahead of time, with an honest and trustworthy tour operator more likely to be transparent about these things.

3. Trust

For many travellers, deciding on a tour operator comes down to trusting the words of those who've gone before and the endorsements of industry leaders through tourism licenses and awards. Online reviews can speak volumes about the experience of travelling with a particular operator, including feedback on what guests loved and whether they'd travel with them again. This is a great way to determine whether an operator will suit your preferred style of travel and adhere to the sustainable approach to safari tourism that you want to support.

But with the internet awash with artificial reviews and subjective claims, perhaps the strongest verification of a tour operator's standing is the awards received and their commitment to international standards of quality, sustainability and fair wages. LookIWasThere is one online travel marketplace that works with award-winning safari companies and only the best local operators, ensuring they maintain a high level of quality control while drawing on more than 10 years of experience in the industry.

4. Sustainability

While some tourism has a detrimental impact on its destination, your safari tour has the potential to leave the wildlife and local communities in a better situation than they were before. Many safari tour operators are working closely with local communities and conservation initiatives to help preserve biodiversity, while others are just in it for their own gain. Choosing a responsible tour operator is vital for the long-term sustainability of Africa's wildlife reserves and the employment it can bring to local communities.

Whether it's visiting conservation projects, educating the youth about the economic benefits of protecting wildlife or supporting anti-poaching campaigns, travelling on the ground with a sustainable tour operator gives you a front row seat to the multiple facets of safari tourism. You'll have the opportunity to meet the people whose lives are impacted by the economic benefits of your trip and discover the incredible work being done by conservationists that you wouldn't otherwise get to see.

African boy drinking water from the tap
Fortunately and unlike other forms of tourism, safaris have an important effect on the conservation of widlife and the welfare of local communities.

Not all operators are the same

At the end of the day, no two operators are the same, with each offering a unique style of tour, level of service or covering different wildlife reserves. We all travel differently and with varying expectations, so the best tour operator for you might not be the best for others. This is why it's really important to look beyond the price and carefully scrutinise exactly what's being offered and whether it suits your travel style and requirements.

Is the company offering a "luxury" safari experience or a backpacker-style adventure and how kid-friendly will it be for those travelling as a family? Will you be on a private or small-group tour or perhaps with a larger group where you'll have the opportunity to meet like-minded travellers?

Carefully studying and comparing exactly what's being offered, as well as communicating to the agent your preferred travel style, will help you make an informed decision about which tour operator is right for you.

Booking ahead

While booking a last-minute safari once at your destination can result in some level of discount, you'll also run the risk of accommodation booking out or being left with slim pickings when it comes to reputable tour operators. You probably won't have the time or internet access to research their reputability and will end up booking based on price, rather than the experience being offered. There's also a chance you'll be taken advantage of for not knowing the "going rate" or be pressured into selecting a dubious operator because there are few alternative options.

Booking ahead allows you to be in control of the decision making and offers a much better guarantee of quality. When you consider a safari in Africa is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it's worth investing a bit extra for the peace of mind that it will be a memorable holiday for all the right reasons.

There may be countless horror stories of safaris that went wrong, whether it was being stuck waiting for hours for a spare tyre that never turned up or a total lack of road safety from drivers. But that's not reflective of African tour companies as a whole. The saying "this is Africa' often gets thrown around, but the truth is, there are plenty of highly-professional safari operators on the continent offering an exceptional level of service. With a little bit of know how, finding a reputable tour operator that will create an unforgettable safari adventure is no pipe dream.