For many of us, cost is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of going to a tour operator. Why pay someone to do something you could just as easily do yourself? With the internet geared towards a mobile age, you don't even have to be sitting at your computer to plan and book a holiday. In investigating mobile and online bookings myself for this article, these are some of the considerations that came to the fore in deciding whether to go at it alone or place my fate in the hands of the professionals.
research into your selected destination, lodge, and available flights are but a few bumps of the thumb away from a wealth of reviews, suggestions, deals, and information. If you are looking to be thorough in your comparisons, you may find yourself flitting between a host of the "top" apps and a cacophony of often varied online opinion, especially if you have multiple stops planned for one trip.
Many people I know have firm favourite booking sites and they use them religiously. It's just a matter of finding your preference. For those less inclined to put in the effort, a tour operator is there to help and this too can be done entirely online with most companies through e-mail. Finding the right tour operator means you partner with someone who has taken the time to get to know you and will recommend lodges and destinations based on your personal preferences. They have usually been to the places you wish to visit and so are able to piece together the trip through their local partners much faster than you would be able to. In this sense, it is almost like Googling your symptoms versus going to the doctor. An online community may bring you to one diagnosis, while your doctor can very quickly hone down your condition and what should be done from the interaction and personal assessment.
EXPERIENCE: The vast online community of travel reviewers increases every day and this undeniably adds value to online booking sites. If you are anything like me, you will look at the five-star reviews of a place, but that two-star review wedges itself in your mind. "Will I be one of a handful of people who have the bad experience?" In many cases, I think these reviews are off the back of a clash of expectation and reality, but it is a subtle reminder that you never really know.
Many tour operators have regional specialists who become a singular voice in recommending the destinations in their packages. Their interaction with you is a process of getting to know what you want and your budget and tailoring an itinerary to make that a reality. From first-hand experience, they offer insider tips on the best times to travel to a certain area, the best modes of transport, best guides, things to avoid and look out for, what to take, and those not-to-be-missed elements. They can also enrich your trip by suggesting some not so obvious activities you might have overlooked by doing online research. By virtue of their position, they are able to negotiate with suppliers (airlines, lodges, car rental agencies), tourism boards, and government authorities to create and streamline their packages.
PEACE OF MIND: Arguably one of the greatest luxuries in using a tour operator is knowing that, behind the scenes, everything has been handled for your booking. Where you have made the booking yourself, what if things go wrong while you're travelling? What if there is a hiccup with your booking? You could, in some cases quite literally, find yourself out in the wilderness where, if something goes wrong early in the trip (like a delayed flight or an unreliable transfer), the entire chain of events is upset resulting in the expense of lost bookings and so on.
If you are, say, visiting Africa for the first time, on honeymoon, or celebrating your anniversary in the land of the exotic, a sense of humour failure when there is a glitch is probably inevitable. There is also the question of the potential for danger in more extreme and remote locations. On big occasions such as these, dialling a number for support and having the situation rectified could be priceless and, for those with their minds set on smooth sailing, a necessity. If you are the kind of traveller who likes structure and certainty, you will appreciate that any problems you encounter along the way are the responsibility of your tour operator to resolve on your behalf.
Over and above that, making an online booking may also involve a degree of research into how to best prepare for your trip. Will you need a visa? Are there certain vaccination requirements for entry into a certain country? Will you be staying in a malaria area? Will your rental car make it over the bridge to the lodge in the rainy season? What insurance should I take out? These minutiae are usually covered by your tour operator in detail before your departure in one neat little package. If you are booking online, the only downside to Googling is not having an alert that there's something you've overlooked until it's too late.
It's up to you the value you place on the time it would take to find hotels, evaluate them, compare, decide, and book. This will obviously vary depending on the complexity of the journey you have in mind. A tour operator has usually vetted their hotel choices, approved them, and compared them with other options and offer pre-booked excursions and a detailed itinerary before departure. They are also on hand to provide advice and reassurance and can give you an idea of which areas to visit and for how long. If you are more inclined to go through this process and determine this for yourself, there are a number of apps and sites available to help you do this.
FLEXIBILITY:Many tour operators tailor-make your packages to meet your requirements and create bespoke packages based on your requests. The flexibility I'm talking about here depends on the kind of traveller you are. On the face of it and in many cases, online booking has the potential to offer slightly more flexibility in the sense that, if you find yourself falling in love with your first stop, you're at liberty to adjust your itinerary as you go. That said, whether you have made an online booking before departure or come up with your itinerary through your tour operator, the financial and logistical effect would be the same. If you throw caution to the wind and book while you're on the road, you probably stand to benefit from last-minute booking rates but, be warned, many internet deals are non-refundable or have strict cancellation policies or, if you are travelling during a busy period, you run the risk of not finding accommodation along the way.
Whether you opt to use a tour operator or go the route of online booking on your computer or mobile depends entirely on your personality. There are certainly those among us who have perfected online booking with never-fail apps they revert to first when planning a holiday. In conjunction with itinerary apps and a bit of online research, planning and booking your trip and preparation for travel are easier than ever before.
I can't help but think, however, that there is the threat of trial and error in finding that ever-trusted app. Call me old-fashioned but I don't feel a rush of assurance in pressing "book now" although I can't dispute the convenience of it. On smaller trips, it is unquestionably the way I would book. Sometimes things going wrong (or the risk of things going wrong) are things going right. For those bigger trips, the ones designed in my mind to be relaxation unhindered by an instant of worry, I would err on the side caution. As a general rule, my advice would be that the more remote the destination or the more unknowns attached to your trip, the more you stand to benefit from the peace of mind that comes with knowing the logistics are in the hands of professionals you have hired to ensure seamlessness, security, and the overall success of your trip.
Perhaps I am a worrier or simply easily won over by the beautifully photographed packages on tour operators' websites but, for me, it boils down to interaction. Discussion with a person as invested in the success of my holiday as I am, who will iron out the details with me and who will be truly interested in how it went at the end, would likely be my preference. That's not to say I wouldn't head straight to online sites to see what the rest of the world thinks about my choice in destination. That's the beauty with the online world - the ability to do anything you like, but with the freedom to choose how far you want to take it.
SOME THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR:
1. Be alert to the fact that some websites use multiple currencies when advertising their deals. Look for this the whole way through the booking process.
2. Beware of hotels or tour operators with similar names.
3. Check and double check that bookings have been made for the correct cities. A slip of the finger or a moment of confusion could mean you are in East London, South Africa, but your rental car is waiting for you in East London, United Kingdom.
4.As mentioned above, many deals on the internet are non-refundable. This is worth checking before making the booking, especially if you anticipate your plans will be subject to change. Take a little extra time to make sure you have entered the right dates, number of guests and rooms to ensure your click of confirmation doesn't end up being a costly mistake.
5. When doing a price comparison between one deal and another, make sure you have all the facts and that you compare like to like. Most notably, take note of what suite you are in, what meals and activities are included in the price, and whether the car rental price includes insurance (for you and a second driver if necessary, as well as whether this includes excess), all kilometres, and the contract fee.