I can’t remember the last time I used a travel agent. Like most of you probably do, I plan and book everything online – via booking engines, direct websites and email. But Africa is a different beast — for me anyway. I started out thinking I’d book our accommodations and safaris directly. I emailed my number one choice for South Africa – Londolozi Game Reserve with the proposed dates and asked for a rate. Little did I know it is either very difficult or impossible to book safari lodges directly. Londolozi replied saying they don’t accept direct bookings but they had forwarded my email to Bianca Johnstone at Icon Expeditions in Cape Town.
My first reaction was one of annoyance. But when I arrived at my office Monday morning, I received a phone call from Bianca. A phone call! No one phones anyone anymore, let alone from South Africa. She introduced herself, told me about Icon and asked some very good questions. She followed up with an email containing more information and further questions (including our budget) and offered to send a sample itinerary so I could see the type of service they offered, their knowledge and the level of detail in their proposals to decide if I wished to work with her to make our arrangements.
What followed was a 25 page PDF (yes really!) with photographs of each property, detailed descriptions and a wealth of valuable information. I was smitten! Though truthfully, Bianca had me at the phone call.
From there we worked closely together via email and telephone to tailor an itinerary that worked perfectly for us and within our budget. Bianca’s suggestions were incredible and she was quickly able to gauge our interests, tastes and preferences. She recommended adding a visit to Victoria Falls, which I was going to pass on because I had heard it’s a very commercialized area and that once you’ve seen the Falls there is nothing much else to do and tourists end up in one of three large, rather European style hotels. But Bianca recommended what appears to be a spectacular river lodge on the mighty Zambezi River for a different type of safari experience, with a day trip to Vic Falls.
But being the cautious person I am, I of course checked out Icon Expeditions through online reviews and references and found they received consistently excellent comments. Still not satisfied, I contact two other operators – one who also had good reviews and one who was recommended by my brother. I asked them for recommendations and then compared the proposals to Bianca’s. Then I asked one of them to quote the exact same itinerary and they came in $2,200 higher. I was convinced I had made the right decision.
In my research, I discovered there are literary hundreds of “Africa Travel Experts”. They post on chat boards, on Trip Advisor and the Fodor’s Forums, have blogs and great websites that are search engine optimized or are paying for high ranking search results. The choices are mind boggling and confusing since many of them make the same claims. I made my decision based on several factors besides the obvious ones and those I described above including:
- Located in Cape Town
- An accredited SATSA member ( Southern Africa Tourism Services Association)
- A financial guarantee in place to cover monetary deposits made in advance of services to be rendered (this is NOT travel insurance)
- Accept credit card payments without a surcharge
- Provide secure online payment
Bianca timed, coordinated and booked the following for us:
- Flights from Johannesburg to Cape Town
- Airport transfers
- Cape Town hotel at Sea Five
- Dinner reservation at Test Kitchen (30 days prior)
- Winelands accommodation at La Petite Ferme
- Flights from Cape Town to Kruger
- Londolozi Game Reserve
- Transfer from Londolozi to Kruger Airport
- Flights from Kruger to Livinsgstone, Zambia
- Transfer from Livingstone to Royal Chundu
- Royal Chundu
- Transfer from Royal Chundu to Livingstone Airport
- Flights from Livingstone to Vumbura Plains, Botswana
- Vumbura Plains
- Transfer from Vumbura Plains to Maun Airport
- Flight from Maun to Johannesburg