South Africa is one of the easiest African countries for British travellers to visit. An overnight flight away (with a one- or two-hour time difference) and English-speaking, the country has well-maintained roads, frequent internal flights, high-quality accommodation and excellent food.
In fact, there’s almost too much choice, which is why booking through a well-connected and experienced tour operator can be a wiser option than taking pot luck on the internet. It also helps to have a local contact to sort out problems, says Lungi Morrison, UK head of South African Tourism.
“South Africa offers so many choices, so most visitors arrive at one airport and leave from another, with complex arrangements in between. When you’re dealing with those sorts of logistics, it’s useful to have a specialist on hand who understands the nuances and can sort out hitches for you.”
We assume that booking through an operator is more expensive than doing it yourself online, but this is not necessarily the case, explains Frances Geoghegan, managing director of Africa Travel, a South African travel specialist. On flights, for instance, her company has preferential status with British Airways, “so we get seats far cheaper than you can buy online, when sold as part of a package”. Africa Travel also has good car rental and hotel room rates because it books so many each year — so seven nights at Kensington Place in Cape Town in May with BA flights cost £1,375pp through Africa Travel and £1,550 if booked directly. Payment is Atol-protected and most operators take a 20% deposit with the remainder paid eight weeks before departure, whereas online bookings must usually be paid in full at the time.
People still like the personal touch. An operator can establish a client’s budget and tastes, recommending accordingly: for example, for a stay in Cape Town choosing between the One & Only hotel and Four Rosmead, a boutique guesthouse; or for honeymooners on safari, a canvas bushcamp at Thornybush or a chic retreat such as Royal Malewane.
“What a good operator does is get to know their guests,” Geoghegan says. “There’s no point in us sending children to Kruger National Park if their parents don’t want them to take malaria tablets. We’d recommend the Madikwe, which is easily accessible via Johannesburg, or the Eastern Cape.
“What also gives operators such as us an edge is that we have an office in Cape Town,” she adds. “When a client wanted to see art in Cape Town, we got a gallery opened at night for him. That’s something you couldn’t arrange on the internet.”