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AmyT

A Question of Etiquette... with Travel Agents/Tour Operators

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Posted (edited)

I recently inquired about  travel to Kenya and Tanzania from 4 travel agents/tour operators.  I provided the same amount of information to each. One was going on a well-earned holiday and in the meantime, our timeline accelerated to be a last-minute trip (we leave in less than 4 weeks.)

 

The agents/operators rose to the occasion admirably and I would have been happy with many of the different alternatives.  When I had all of my data (including some fine tuning,) I chose the trip that was cost effective and suited our plans best.  Surprise!  The other two travel agents are unhappy with me because I didn't come back to them to try to price match.  Also, they did put in a considerable amount of effort to pull the information together in a quick manner.

 

Obviously,  I don't use travel agents very often, or I wouldn't be so surprised.  One agent's price for the same properties, with two fewer days, was $1000 more. Why would I choose that one?

 

Could this be a cultural difference?  Haggling? Help !  (for future knowledge)  

 

Also, I am accustomed to provisional holds, so when the TAs asked whether they should put one on, I said yes, not realizing that it's a faux pas if you're not committing to book with them.  The last trip came in was the winner.  At the time, I thought that I might book with Operator B  but said that I had another quote that I was waiting for.  Operator C's trip planning prevailed.

 

Edited by AmyT
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Posted (edited)

We are Germans. I never would use a German Agent for our private trips again. It is a waste of time for me to ask a so called specialized Agent. @Amy what I learned in the last few years is that any German Agent is 20 to 30 percent more expensive than a local company. Ok, you have to do a lot of research to find a trustworthy company abroad. The kind of planning with a Tour Operator and using his knowledge, the time of reaction to questions you have in your day by day planning and of course the question of references are very important. Than you'll get a feeling in your stomach. Is it very good than I book with them. We traveled in this way to Uganda, two times to Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia and we where always very happy with our choice. 

 

 

Edited by Botswanadreams
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@AmyT This is an interesting question. I've only used one travel agent for all of my Southern Africa trips and I used his recommendation for the time I did the Uganda/Rwanda trip as he did not specialize in that area. I know I found my agent by contacting several agents with a trip in mind (my very first) and then was unhappy with most responses but loved his and been with him ever since. I don't know if he's more expensive or not, but the planning has always been meticulous. I think I'd be having the same thoughts as you- you put out a wish list and see what TA's can come up with. I wouldn't have thought that a provisional hold was a faux pas- I thought all plans were basically a provisional hold until you put down a deposit. And if you let them know up front that you were contacting other agents- it's not like they didn't know. Again, I'll be curious to see what others say.

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Thanks, @Botswanadreamsand  @lmonmm. It's a moot point now, as I've already booked travel. However, I'd like to do a better job of it next time, whatever "it" is.  More feedback is appreciated!

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@AmyT I've had similar problems.  My agent sent out quote requests to 5 operators. One came back very quickly, but there were some changes to be made. The second operator came back with a quote that was way over budget and quickly rejected.  I almost booked the third, but them discovered their Camps were in a reserve with no off roading.  The 4th was very similar to the 1st in terms of price but involved more switching between camps.  The 5th never responded at all.

 

i wanted some more tweets to the first quote and my agent got upset about how much time she was spending.  I felt a bit between a rock and a hard place as she is a friend also.  But I just don't feel the quite is going to be right the first go round.  Also the prices are in US dollars which don't go as far compared to the Canadian Dollar.  The problem is I'm afraid of shared drives now that I've experienced solo drives and you have to pay for solo drives.  My budget is significantly less than the last two trips. 

 

At at the moment I've thrown in the towel.  It's too much pressure.  I'm afraid of using a foreign operator without the Canadian agent for a significant dollar booking because I'm worried about not having protection if the operator goes bust.  If I use a Canadian agent and he company goes bust, I get my money back as it is protected by government regulation.  

 

I also had one do a provisionsl booking which neither i nor I my agent asked for.

 

Bottom line is if I'm spending lots of money, I want to get what I want or close to it and it may mean some back and forth.  I know no one wants to spend a lot of time on something not to get a booking, but I think it is somewhat the nature of the business.

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@AmyT I have faced this situation twice this year, and later today will be sending an email to an 'únsuccessful' bidder for a South African safari.

 

What I usually do is obtain 2-3 quotes, not too many as this reduces the emails and the arguments at the end of the process. Sometimes I only get one quote, usually when I am travelling with an operator I know, or who is recommended by someone I trust or where there is limited/no choice for the itinerary that I want.

 

When I seek more than one quote, I am usually so far out (maybe 18 months in advance) that the rates for the next year won't be available, so I just give the number of nights for an indicative booking. When the travelling dates become relevant I give the real dates to the preferred operator, just in case they hold accommodation and if requested I give different dates (but for the same number of nights) to other operators so that I obtain a comparative quote. This means that the outsiders can't hold accommodation that they later refuse to relinquish and as most accommodaton is held in the operators name rather than the client's name the accommodation place is usually none the wiser. Even if you don't ask an operator to hold accommodation, they often do anyway - not something you can do a lot about.  If the unsuccessful operator is reputable, they will relinquish any held accommodation as soon as they receive the no thanks email. 

 

This whole business of wanting a second bite at the cherry and only providing a second and more reasonable quote late in the day is annoying and unfair to companies who put up a best price quote on the first response. Its too easy for companies who quote an unrealistic "first price" to make larger reductions in a second round which operators providing an honest response in the first round can't match - even though the end prices are probably going to be very close. It is all too easy to get involved in long-winded email conversations when an unsuccessful bidder attempts to get back into  the race with promises of lower prices, extra inclusions and any number of 'better' deals. If they are very persistent it may be necessary to block their emails or send their emails straight to trash - I've never done this, but both are options that I have available.

 

I do think it is important and fair to advise unsuccessful companies promptly so they are not unnecessarily holding bookings for vehicles, guides and accommodation. I always provide a truthful reason for why we are placing the booking with another company which is usually price-based but it can be based on itinerary choices or extra services offered by the successful company, often consolidating bookings or booking flights, transfers etc. 

 

Earlier in the year, I was looking for an operator for a Southern Tanzania safari and had been talking to a company who answered all my questions (and there were a lot), however there weren't many online reviews and in the end we ended up booking with a company who appeared to be better established and offered a 'wilder' safari experience as they operate seasonal camps in 3 Southern Tanzania parks. As we wanted the seasonal camp accommodation it seemed fair to switch to the operating company, particulalrly as the pricing was very similar.

 

I advised Company A that we had accepted another quote that met our expectations, and they came back expressing disappointment and offering to assist in any future plans and offering. They asked for more details on whether it was a pricing or itinerary difference that influenced our final decision, to which I did not reply as I had already advised that it was itinerary differences rather than pricing that influenced the group's choice of  operator. Providing quotes for services is part of the business of being a safari company and if some quotes are declined that is part of the safari business, surely?

 

Later today I will be advising another company that they have been unsuccessful, and that the group has accepted another quote due to an exorbitant price difference. Company A have quoted 57,255 ZAR per single for a 20 day South African safari whilst Company B have quoted 82750 ZAR for the same itinerary - if my maths are correct, this is a 47% difference, why would I recommend to my group of friends that we book with them?? Both companies are well established and both have a notable web presence. There are also some itinerary gaps from Company B, e.g. I asked for Cape Town accommodaton and have been given Simons Town. I will advise Company B that there is a difference of more than 20K ZAR and that we have accepted the lower quote. I won't mention the itinerary difference as this provides them with an opportunity to re-open negotiations nor will I negotiate on the price. Company A provided a fair quote at the outset, and won't be able to match the value of any reductions offered by Company B - its not a fair race to re-open the conversation with both companies. I don't feel that I have to further justify this choice to Company B, nor do I have time to spend fielding emails. Its now time to get on filling out the booking forms and paying deposits to the successful operator.

 

@TulipsI am sorry to hear that you have thrown in the towel for now on your next safari. There are many reputable in-country operators who will give you an honest price (OK, you might have to sort the wheat from the chaff). There are also plenty of people on ST who can help you choose and operator, won't you re-think the need for a Canadian agent? When I booked my first safari in 2004 I used an Australian agent, however one year down the track in 2005 I had realised the benefit of dealing with in-country operators and have done so ever since.  I see that @Botswanadreams has come to the same conclusion. I understand your caution, however it is possible to book direct and save $$$ (and go to Africa more often :))

 

 

 

 

 

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I think, generally, making a provisional booking through someone implies a fairly firm commitment - or at least a strong intention, which could be why people were disappointed you didn't at least come back to them to give them a chance to price match. Agents may be able to use another quote to drive down the prices they are being charged - you are not the onlty one negotiating prices so you can say "this is great but X is just a bit too expensive for me - can you see if they can come down a bit?".Obviously that doesn't apply if prices are far, far apart. 

At different times I've both haggled and genuinely tried this from a "take it or leave it" position due to budget. I've personally never agreed to a provisional booking until I have pretty much decided on the agent/ operator. I've even stopped communicating with people who pushed (what I felt was) too hard to get me to do that. However, most of the agents I have used have tended to be unwilling to make bookings until they feel I am firm - a number have even inisited on getting the itinerary sorted before making any provisonal bookings. In a couple of cases I (or my agent) have booked with two or more operators - usually one is the owner of the property though - in order to make a particular booking early, without any commitment to book the rest of my trip through them.

 

If anyone made a provisional booking without asking me, I feel no responsibility at all.

 

But that is all from my perspective.There are certainly different "cultures". I wouldn't take it too seriously.Everyone is going to have a different point of view on this.

 

@Tulips  You could maybe try planning your trip with an African-based operator and then just let your friend add a bit to the cost and/or negotiate a bit off the operator's cost to get the coverage you are looking for. She can put her feet up and just enjoy the commision. If that suggestion makes her throw her hands up in horror, you can do better - although understand you might need to pay a little more (probably not). Also, some operators will not accept that. They don't want to "waste their time". My be best to look into separate trip insurance. That is my only option anyway.  It is certainly going to be a lot more hassle if you have to make a claim, but maybe that is highly unlikely enough you can live with it?

 

 

 

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The price difference could well be because the agent quoting the higher rates does not get as good a margin as the others.  Not all properties give the same rates to all agents.  Why should they.  If an agent has believed in them, stuck by them and given lots of bookings why should they not get a better rate than some guy or gal that pops out the woodwork (relative to the property in question of course).  Or it could be they simply want to make more money from you and hang onto as much of that margin as possible and in fact they do get as good a margin as the others.  :ph34r: .  

 

To be really honest if I was an agent and had put a lot of hard work into pulling together a quote (and lets say my margins were not as good as others) I would have liked the opportunity to price match or at least explain why I cannot go lower.  

 

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Pardon my ignorance but is it necessary to deal with an agent at all? Can't individuals make their bookings direct with the accommodation and make their own travel arrangements? 

I am in the process of just thinking about another trip to Africa. My only real experience was the self drive trip to Namibia earlier this year and although there was a tiny hiccup in the route plan which actually amounted to nothing really, the whole trip planning was very easy. I see organised tours advertised for a similar route plan but for half the time we went which are hugely more expensive than our DIY efforts.

As yet I haven't experienced other southern African counties but I'm led to believe it's viable there too so what are the pitfalls that prevent people doing so?

Is it the time involved, the feeling of security or is there another reason?

 

As an aside I am about to set off on an advertised land tour/ cruise that takes in several Asian countries. The trip is eye wateringly ( for me) expensive and when I look at the original tour that was advertised and see our final itinerary there are one or two fairly large differences in time you will get at certain destinations. I even had to point out to them the flight tickets home they had booked for us where from Singapore which would have been problematic as we are actually in Delhi. Mistakes such as the wrong dates for tours which where when we are at sea and arrangements to be at the tour coach when the ship has yet to dock and it's transfer by tender are all things that shouldn't happen in a professional company. Certainly none of what I have mentioned would have happened if I had done the planning myself.

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@AmyT you owe a travel agent nothing who is overcharging you. I have built up I thought was a good working relationship with a travel agency specializing in Africa, only to break it off when I found that they were overcharging me. I have also stopped working with others due to poor service on the part of an employee.  One needs to respect the customer.

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I've already shared this with Amy offline, but thought I'd add it here.  While I have floated my itinerary requests to a few different planners for the same trip, I usually feel from the first response whether I want to continue working with them.  Either they are non-responsive, or price themselves way out of contention or don't understand my desires and came up with something that isn't worth trying to rework with them. From there I think there's a fine line between how much work is too much work before you agree to use them.  Personally, I wouldn't engage in any back and forth tweaking, adding a day here or there, changing a camp here or there, unless I was serious about using them. There aren't many changes that will greatly effect the bottom line; it's not like I'm swapping a pop tent for Giraffe Manor to the tune of thousands/hundreds in savings.  I've never been asked if I want to put a provisional hold on anything, but I wouldn't knowingly let the planner do that unless I was going to go with them.  This all makes sense in light of a safari planner I considered using before, who wouldn't go beyond preliminary itinerary discussions without a US$300 deposit.  Clearly, they've been burned by pouring a lot of work into an itinerary that only ends up abandoned.  I've also been in the position of a safari planner holding a gun to my head to "hurry up and book" because they can't/don't/won't hold the tent for me or that "we won't be able to get you this year's prices for next year" if I don't book asap.  I walked away from that particular planner...twice.

 

I too think there's a difference in the "Amount of Work" argument when you're working with a machine like ATR which can just regenerate itineraries and line item cost analysis at the click of a button vs. an independent planner who has to reach out to each camp individually and have that discussion about your stay there.

 

Floated above is the idea that we can just do this all on our own.  Theoretically yes, but for first and even second time safari-goers, there is still a lot of the unknown at play.  I wouldn't have known the first thing about getting from NBO to Wilson, how long that takes to get there and how to get there, which flights to book to the Mara, what hotels are closest to overnight at, etc.  There is definitely a value-add by safari planners who can handle all the logistics for you.  I'd likely still engage one for any new safari location I go to for that reason.  I'm great at picking my camps, it's the rest of it I'd rather just hand over to make sure it's done right.

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12 hours ago, Dave Williams said:

Pardon my ignorance but is it necessary to deal with an agent at all? Can't individuals make their bookings direct with the accommodation and make their own travel arrangements? 

I am in the process of just thinking about another trip to Africa. My only real experience was the self drive trip to Namibia earlier this year and although there was a tiny hiccup in the route plan which actually amounted to nothing really, the whole trip planning was very easy. I see organised tours advertised for a similar route plan but for half the time we went which are hugely more expensive than our DIY efforts.

As yet I haven't experienced other southern African counties but I'm led to believe it's viable there too so what are the pitfalls that prevent people doing so?

Is it the time involved, the feeling of security or is there another reason?

 

 

 

there are lot of lodges in countries like Botswana and Zambia that will not let you self-book them (Kwando, for example, comes to mind); meaning that if you want to stay with them you will have to book through an agent

 

in countries like Kenya and Tanzania you can in theory self-book most lodges but you'd most certainly get a worse rate, simply because agents who regularly bring business get a better rate than you who only books them once

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Posted (edited)

Thanks for chiming in, @amybatt. I didn't want to put words in your mouth. :)

 

In less than a week, I talked with new-to-me operators who took longer to get back to me because, yes, they were researching independently.  Operator A churned out 6 or 8 options at a time.  Operators B and C were both highly recommended by friends on Safari Talk.  I wasn't even sure which country I wanted, so that data gathering took up a lot of time last week.  

 

17 hours ago, Treepol said:

This whole business of wanting a second bite at the cherry and only providing a second and more reasonable quote late in the day is annoying and unfair to companies who put up a best price quote on the first response. Its too easy for companies who quote an unrealistic "first price" to make larger reductions in a second round which operators providing an honest response in the first round can't match - even though the end prices are probably going to be very close.

 

Have to say, I agree with @Treepol. Operator A's prices (because there were probably 25 itineraries thrown at me) were high estimates.  Once I did a side by side comparison with Operator A and Operator C (same properties), I saw that A was much higher. At that point Operator A lost credibility with me.  An aside, I found deals that Operator A didn't propose, until I brought it up. So Operator A's assertion that they did 'so much work' wasn't that deep. You can probably guess who was Operator A.

 

Operator B and C both delivered great itineraries to me at a reasonable cost. I'd have been happy with either, but C ticked slightly more boxes than B, and my husband had an opinion too!!  :)  Option C had less moving around, fewer long drives to get from camp to camp.  That was win-win-win for us.

 

Like @Dave Williams, I am accustomed to booking my own travel. If I go on safari again after this upcoming trip, I'll probably still use a tour operator, just be a better customer.

Edited by AmyT

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@AmyT I couldn't even remotely guess who Operator A was- now the curiosity is killing me :huh:

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I was wondering whether to reply to this or not, but I hope a perspective from "the other side" might be helpful. First off-you're the customer, so I think anyone that is making you feel bad/guilty for not going back to them probably isn't doing it right. We're all in the game of making safari be fun and exciting and that includes the planning stages!

Purely for information, the work that goes into planning an itinerary varies hugely. Previously I worked for a big company that can churn out 30 page "custom" itineraries in under 30 minutes. It looks extremely impressive. A person working in a smaller company might take up to 4 or 5 hours planning an itinerary- talking carefully to the client, checking space, asking the camps for deals, writing notes so it's clear to the client why each choice has been made. Really on a personal level, I think it may surprise the average traveller to see the amount of care that goes in to planning these things. If you love your job, as many in the safari industry do, it's really fun and exciting plotting an itinerary with someone, trying to work them out and matching them with something that you think is perfect, so it can be gutting if you really like your clients and put a lot of thought into making something as perfect as you can and you don't get the chance to explain to someone why it's better than another option given by someone else. As a general rule it's pretty impossible to list every single camp/option I rule out and why, but there is often a good reason. This all said, however much we enjoy our clients, it's business and  as a customer you should be absolutely comfortable to choose in whatever way works for you, or we're all failing in our jobs.

Purely from a customer perspective though, I would absolutely recommend asking an operator - if you like them- to either explain or price match if you get a significantly cheaper seeming quote. There  is very little to lose from a traveller perspective, and unless you are very familiar with the intricacies of safari costings it could give a much greater level of understanding of what you're getting and help you to make whatever is the best choice for you. For example, I can quite easily price two itineraries that look very similar that are several thousand dollars different- the devil is in the details.

For example- it might be that I allowed extra park fees and a lunch for a late departure so my guests didn't have to lurk in Nairobi for hours on end. If I'm not sure about the political situation in a country I might book more expensive flexible flights so it's easy for a client to change locations if they want to. Sometimes I might book a more expensive light aircraft company because I know it's much less likely to result in delays. Or a better vehicle because it's more comfortable. The text just reads "transfer". I often bury a line in the small print that says "Medevac included" which could mean tens of thousands of dollars or a quick hop to Johannesburg for medical attention. Or, as I price in £ for mainly UK travellers, I do occasionally come across cheaper- seeming companies who say : "this is your price in £ which may vary depending on exchange rates." When the unexpected Brexit comes along, this could mean your safari is 30% more expensive. Cumulatively, these things can amount to hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars, and it's rare that I'm asked to match an "identical pricing" and don't find some significant differences. I don't go into these in huge detail intially to my travellers, as I think mainly people are excited about reading the fun stuff and having me take care of the boring bits, but it is relevant to them, and I know to flag this up if they ask me to match another quote so they can make an informed choice.  Personally would always love the chance tell my clients these things, and I would hope it would help travellers make the most informed choice for them. Equally I'm never shy about telling someone if I think they have a crazily good deal- there's no point in me spending loads of time otherwise. (Caveat: provided the safari company is good- if I'm suspicious of them I tend to make evasive muttering noises- we are a friendly industry so I am very rarely rude about anyone.)

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@AmyT, I believe you have settled on your trip and have moved from the planning stage to the anticipation stage. Yea! How nice you allow your husband an opinion.

 

@Tulips, pick up that towel right now and don't give up.  This site is a good source for in-country safari agents so that you can feel comfortable using them.  Or I am sure there are other Canadian agents you could use.  It can be uncomfortable when you do business with friends and things don't go swimmingly.

 

@Dave Williams, for self drives, it makes sense to do it yourself. I admire the detailed planning and preparation done by so many who get behind the wheel and go.  But some camps only work through agents, not direct (Wilderness for example).  Also charter flights can be tricky to arrange yourself.  In one instance I recall, the company I wanted to go with never responded to my requests, so I enlisted an agent who got me the same published price with that company.  A couple of times (not Africa) I loved the guides, locations, programs and the properties but was wary of the management of the company and wanted an advocate "middleman." Turned out I needed the advocate. Finally, several times I have done better cost-wise using an agent rather than going direct. It just happened again in the last week.  Let me name the most recent agent who has gotten me better rates twice in 3 years than I could do myself dealing directly with the company in Africa--   @Doug Macdonald Safaris

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Great topic! First time planner here and based advice on TA decided to go with a local (Arusha) operator. I have requested quotes from 3 TO's, all with great reviews on TA. 

They all responded very quickly. 1 gave me 3 prices based on various levels of accommodation. One gave me a price too high and when I went back with my budget they changed some things around to suit that. One has not given me prices but has given me a wide range of accommodations to choose from. So still lots of research to do re various camp options. 

I haven't told any of them that I have requested other quotes but I thought that was kind of SOP for folks booking safaris so didn't see a need to inform them. My bad?

They are all somewhat eager for me to secure a booking but since there are many other logistical issues to plan for I won't be ready to book until a couple of months prior.  

Thanks again for posting this topic!

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Why should you feel bad asking for more than one quote? That's pretty much the basis of our (western) ecomony: strive to get the best for the least amount of money. 

 

Depending on where and when you want to go (I have not read the entire thread) it might indeed be advisable to book as early as possible, some places like Ndutu for example tend to fill up rather quickly in their high season

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