Local tour operators vs. Western travel agencies
It is well known that booking a safari with a local tour operator is always cheaper than with a travel agency in your home country. We have noticed that every year more and more travellers opt for booking directly. Not only is it cheaper in the long-term, but also the travel advice from a direct service provider is often more competent and comprehensive.
There is a downside though - you will be asked to make a deposit payment to a company based in Tanzania. And if something goes wrong with your trip, getting it back may be a problem. If a booking is made through a travel agency in your home country, you know what to do, where to go and whom to hold accountable.
Now, you have a dilemma - you can save hundreds of your hard-earned bucks by booking with a local tour operator, but there seem to be no guarantees on their side. How do you know that you aren’t dealing with scammers?
As a matter of fact, both options are good: there are many trustworthy, locally-based tour operators with whom you can book safely. You need to know how to choose a reliable tour operator and know your money is secure.
In this post we share our first-hand experience on how to make sure that you are booking with a real company and not scammers. Why trust us? We have been living in Tanzania and working in the tourism industry since 2014. We know all the ruses used by fraudsters.
We want Tanzania to be a safe destination for every tourist. The more people are aware of the ruses played by unscrupulous scammers, the better for the growth of our industry.
Safari Travel Scam
Are you feeling uneasy about paying a several thousand dollar deposit to a tour operator in Africa? You are not alone.
More importantly, you are right to have this kind of hesitation - there are hundreds of stories on the internet where unfortunate travellers share awful experiences with travel scammers.
Why do deposits need to be paid at all?
A fair question. A trip to Africa can be really nerve-racking if you are asked to pay thousands of dollars many months in advance. “Will they pick me up at the airport?”, “Is it a scam?”, “Will they return my deposit if I am unable to travel?” and other questions may be spinning in your head when you are asked to place a deposit for a safari in Tanzania.
To be clear - deposit payments are a popular practice among tour operators in East Africa. All of the largest reputable companies require advance payments to confirm your trip. The reasons for doing this include:
- Reservations at the hotels and lodges. Some properties are popular holiday destinations and can be fully booked during the high season. The property managers require advance payments to safeguard against last-minute cancellations. The Christmas season often has special cancellation conditions, with some hotels charging 100% fines for 2-month cancellation notices.
- Limited availability for adventure trips. Imagine someone booked a Kilimanjaro trip and later decided to cancel 2 days before arrival.A tour operator has already assigned the guides, bought supplies, and most likely had to decline the requests of other to-be climbers.
- In spite of the booming industry, there are still few comfortable safari-styled land cruisers and truly professional guides. It is common to find rattling safari cars driven by amateur guides. Booking with a reputable company means you are sure to have a reliable and comfortable safari car, outfitted with WiFi and a fridge, too! Surely you want a knowledgeable guide who speaks your language fluently and can share interesting facts about the parks and animals.
At Altezza Travel we are using new Land Cruisers with everything you might need during a safari trip
When you book your safari and pay a deposit, the tour operator will reserve a car and a guide for you. If you cancel last-minute, the operator will endure a financial loss, and the deposit helps to cover this business risk. Deposits are the best approach to protect the tour companies against these mishaps. Most of the companies guarantee that deposits are refundable, provided that you inform a tour operator of the decision to cancel in a timely manner. For example, have a look at the Altezza terms and conditions to know what to expect.
How to Avoid a Travel Scam
After deposits and advance payments is when most scams take place. Once a fraudster accepts the payment, he can easily stop all communication. It is unlikely that a victim will be ever able to track him down in Tanzania.
A good thing is that it is not rocket science to determine if someone is pretending to be a tour operator. Follow these simple rules and you will never lose your money:
Do not get hooked by the incredibly low prices
It is true that Tanzania is one of the most expensive safari destinations in East Africa. Yet, the experiences are rewarding - the parks are not as crowded as in Kenya, and the animals are aplenty. Most of the hotels and lodges have exceptionally high standards of service. Because of this, Tanzania has been repeatedly named the best country for a wildlife safari by the SafariBookings, LonelyPlanet and other respected sources.
A safe and comfortable 7-day Kilimanjaro adventure for a group of 2-3 persons can not cost less than US$ 2000 per climber. A shorter 5-6 adventure may be slightly less expensive, and there may be discounts for large groups. No matter what, the price will be around USD 1850-1900. You may read more about the pricing in our article.
A good midrange lodge safari will cost you something between USD 250 and 400 per day. Cheaper prices are available for camping trips only.
However, some companies offer the climbs as cheaply as at US$ 1400, and safaris for less than US$ 200 per day! Dumping prices is the best way to allure cost-conscious customers, take their money and disappear.
The cost of park fees, hotel accommodations, a safari car and salary for a guide make these prices for safaris impossible. Kilimanjaro climbs have government-mandated regulations that cannot be discounted, so the very low prices are not legal. If you see incredibly low prices, beware! The company offering them may have no intention of actually providing you a safari, but rather just stealing your money.
Some of these companies are not directly stealing your money. They may even organize your trip - but with very questionable safety standards, requiring you to set up your own camping equipment or by under-cutting their hired staff. You’re sure to be in for some unpleasant surprises along the way with these incredibly discounted safaris.
You should know that in order to offer the prices seriously below the market average such operators need to cut costs. This is done by using, shoddy, used equipment, getting cheap and questionable food, hiring unqualified guides, and underpaying (or not paying at all) the porter crews. Not only do all these things compromise your safety and comfort, but it puts Tanzanian workers at risk.
Porters (the workers who carry heavy loads on mountain treks), especially, are at risk. Often struggling to obtain work, porters may agree to any job, even without pay in the hope of getting tips from Kilimanjaro trekkers. The Tanzanian government has established a Porters Association and has regulations to protect porters, including rules for their safety on the mountain and their guaranteed pay. Booking with a fraudulent company undermines these efforts to protect and respect porters.
Remember, by booking cheap Kilimanjaro trips you contribute to porter's mistreatment and abuse.
Do not send deposits by Western Union
A legitimate tour operator always has a legitimate bank account with one of the reputable country banks. In Tanzania these banks are commonly CRDB, Equity, NMB, DTB and Exim.
Attention! The account should be on the company name, not in the name of a private individual. Sometimes the “company directors” may be urging you to send the deposit to their private accounts. Stay away from them - all travel companies in Tanzania are required by law to have business accounts that comply with the law.
Read the Reviews on TripAdvisor
So far, TripAdvisor is the most reliable platform for collecting reviews about adventure trips. However, once the tour companies realized the potential of TripAdvisor, many started to write fake reviews to appear higher in the rankings and make an impression of a large, reputable operator. There are several simple secrets to uncover a fake review:
Firstly, fake reviews are usually short - often a couple of sentences, praising “great guides, porters and chefs”. For some queer reason, the word “great” is often overused. Also, because fake reviews need to be written and published in large numbers to produce the intended effect, they seldom specify any details.
Secondly, accounts used to publish fake reviews are usually registered several days prior to the publication and rarely have more than 2-3 reviews in total. Several fake companies may make “unions” and use the same accounts to leave reviews about their properties, and the accounts start looking more credible. But their reviews are still short and dull.
Thirdly, check the dates of reviews. Fake companies farm fake reviews for several months, and some may have hundreds of excellent reviews collected in less than a month. It is simply impossible for a real company to have that many reviews over such a short amount of time. The largest, reputable companies which have been operating for 5+ years usually have 200-500 reviews.
Some other tips to understand if the company’s TripAdvisor presence is genuine are:
- Check the company account registration date. The older the company, the more likely it is a real business.
- Paying attention to the dates of the first reviews. If all of them were collected throughout one year (or worse - a month), then it is likely the company is asham.
- Check if the tour operator has non-English reviews. Most of the fake ones are farmed in English only. An account which has reviews in Italian, Dutch, Russian, Spanish, French or Chinese is a good place to start.
- Check if the company has reviews from “trusted” travellers, i.e. those who have left 100+ reviews of different places in different countries. These reviews are always genuine, as it is technically impossible and hugely expensive to forge them.
Overall, TripAdvisor reviews are great for evaluating your tour operator, yet be careful - some reviews are misleading. Use it to check your tour operator, but don’t rely on it entirely.
Also, reviews are not just TripAdvisor. Simply googling the company name like “Altezza Travel reviews” is a good way to see what other travellers say on the platforms like Google Reviews, BookMundi and TourRadar.
Ask for a license from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism
Under the laws of Tanzania each tour operator should have a license. It is often a good idea to ask for a soft copy, or photograph of the official license. All license bearers are registered with the Ministry and clearly stated on the license, if any problems arise, the directors and the managers of these companies can be easily tracked down.
In addition to that, licensing fees are quite high - the annual fees for a safari license range from US$ 200 to US$5000, depending on the ownership type and the number of safari vehicles. In any case, paying for a license is a substantial investment which only the operators who value their reputation are ready to spend.
Even if an operator provides you with a copy of their license, make sure to check it against the payment details provided - the banking information and the name of the license holder should be the same. Some scammers may obtain a copy of a legitimate operator’s license and then use it to dupe clients.
Ask for a Tax Identification Number (TIN) and VAT Certificate
All legitimate businesses in Tanzania are registered with the Tanzania Revenue Authority and should have a corresponding registration certificate. Asking for a one and checking it against a license is always a good idea. There is always a chance that a license can be fabricated, but forging the both documents is a risk few are prepared to take.
Also, the companies with more than USD 50,000/- turnover should register for Value Added Tax and get a corresponding certificate from the TRA. Asking for one is always a sound idea, as few scammers ever expect someone requesting it. A good, law-abiding company will always provide it at once, while those with ill intentions will be unpleasantly surprised with your familiarity with the regulations. It is likely that they will leave you for good after the request. If not, then their excuses will certainly make you suspicious.
Be wary of Friends’ Recommendations
A closer look at TripAdvisor reviews about disastrous safari experiences will reveal that a fair number of companies or guides were recommended by friends, who had been to a safari and had a great experience. That does not necessarily mean that your safari will be a dream.
Firstly, some companies are out of business every year due to high competition. An unscrupulous director may use a well-intentioned recommendation to his advantage.
Secondly, some of the guides on safari urge the clients to recommend their friends to book with him directly, promising that the experiences would be the same, but the costs much lower. It is a dangerous approach to organizing your trip - few guides have their own vehicles, good hotels normally don’t accept bookings from the sole guides with no reputation and the guides don’t have a large team to back up the logistics, such as airport pickups, park fees processing, etc.
Most importantly, you can never be sure that a guide has the same good intentions as the company does. After all, the guide may be fired and may use the opportunity to take revenge against his former employer.
Overall, a friend’s recommendation is a good method to start your research, but make sure to run other checks on the travel company you are dealing with, especially when the trip of your friend took place several years ago. Much could have changed since then.
Pay Attention to the Internet Identity
A real tour operator never has an email account registered on “gmail.com”, “yahoo.com” or other public domains. The overwhelming majority are ready to spend around US$100 per year for a corporate email, which ending is identical to the company’s website. For example, all our emails end with @altezza.travel. An email like “[email protected]” or similar looks suspicious and should not be trusted.
The majority of high-ranked tour operators have modern websites with engaging content, and regular updates. Every year the market becomes more and more competitive, and good tour operators invest in a quality website.
Thus, if a tour operator’s website has only a few articles with several stock images on it, it is a hint that this may be a scammer’s site.
Facebook and Instagram profiles
Each travel company has a Facebook or Instagram account. Most have both. Some are using these platforms to market their adventures, others simply publish photos and videos from their trips. In either case, these profiles are a great tool to see if the company has regular operations.
For example, here is how Altezza Instagram page looks:
Maintaining a consistent social media presence is costly - tour operators need to take high-quality photos on their trips, write great posts and, most importantly, make regular publications. It requires discipline and much effort, something that indicates a business-oriented approach and good intentions. Scammers rarely do that, they want an easy way to make money instead of working hard. On the other hand, a company which makes regular publications (at least once a month), and whose account is at least 3-4 years old, maybe a trustworthy tour operator.
By the way, Instagram and Facebook are a great way to see what to expect from a trip. The photos should not only show edited “selling” photos but real-life Kilimanjaro expeditions and safari experiences. A real tour operator will not skip a chance to show their guides, equipment, and smiling clients. If there is nothing but breathtaking landscapes, you can easily check if the photo was taken off of Google. It is likely that it has been borrowed from some photo stock or another company website.
Fraudsters seldom have professional communication. Their emails are often inconclusive, have lots of grammar errors and are nudging a target to pay the deposit as soon as possible. Be attentive to the following:
- A sales manager of a legitimate business will never call you “my brother” or “my friend”. The sales staff of the safari operators are professionals who call clients “Mr”, “Ms”, Dear ____ , or other appropriate terms.
- The emails should be well-structured, conclusive and answer your questions to the point. Detailed itinerary, hotel names (not some “good four-star hotels”) are a must.
- Corporate identity - a good company always has a recognizable logo and the essential communication (invoices, itineraries) should be done on the company letterhead.
Small details - different signatures, use of different emails for communication or other elements that would show a lack of professionalism are also good clues.
The good news is that most adventure trip bookings go hassle-free. Competition is bringing its fruits - web presence is largely dominated by honest businesses. Yet, here and there we hear a gruesome story about tourists left stranded at the national park gates, a no-show of the tour operator at the airport, unpaid hotels, and other fraud.
We don’t want trips to East Africa to have this kind of reputation. This land is beautiful and has so much to show! Each trip to the home of Serengeti and Kilimanjaro should be special. We believe that all adventure vacations should inspire, motivate and unwind, not frustrate or discourage you from ever visiting this part of the world again.
This is one of the reasons why we are here and why we founded Altezza Travel. We are proud to organize safe and comfortable adventures. Our care extends beyond our clients - every happy tourist is an ambassador of Tanzania and its treasures. We want their number to grow and to spread the word about this unique nation.
For your own safety and assurance, we encourage all travelers to Tanzania to follow these recommendations to avoid travel scams.