The most common question I received on my most recent return from West Africa was "What group did you use to plan your trip?" My answer depends on which trip they are asking about. I went to Senegal and The Gambia in the fall of 2022 and Ghana in the fall of 2023. Both trips were life-changing and very very different. My hope is that my experiences will provide a little guidance as you weave your way through the tour operator maze.
What Do You Want?
Luxury experiences? Cultural Immersion? Outdoor Adventures? Or a little bit of everything? Once you lock in whom you are traveling with, talk about your desires for your trip. On my first trip, I had no idea what to expect other than it was billed as a luxury wellness getaway. My second trip was a mix of everything.
Travel Enthusiast or a Travel Agent?
Go professional. A Travel Agent has connections that you might not have even thought about. Their job is to advocate for you. A travel enthusiast most likely wants to enjoy the trip with you. They might not have the skill set to prioritize your experience over their personal desires for their vacation. Check out their website. Yes, anyone can build a good-looking website, but are they images of happy clients or nothing but purchased stock photos and google images?
Reputation and Reviews
Like most service-based companies, testimonials and reviews are the bread and butter of this industry. It should not be difficult to find people willing to sing the praises of an experienced travel organizer. Look for testimonials or better yet, reach out to the organizer personally and ask for references of people who worked with them in the past.
Itinerary and Logistics
To enjoy any trip, you must plan for flexibility. When considering an itinerary, how much is packed into the schedule? Are the excursions optional? What is the contingency plan if you attend a scheduled activity and you need to leave early?
During my first trip, so much of our schedule was off because of having to wait for other group members, and not accounting for bad traffic. Some of the more exciting items on the itinerary we never experienced because of poor time management. On my second trip, when I was ready to return to our hotel after a dinner, my other two girlfriends wanted to go dancing. Our driver made a special trip to drop me off and return for them later. The hotel also arranged for a driver to take me on an excursion that was not part of the group itinerary on a day when nothing was planned. I felt empowered to request this because our travel agent, tour guide and driver worked together to create an environment where our voices and needs were valued and respected.
Hidden Fees and Tipping
I think it's safe to say that most people end up spending more than the package price while on big trips. Ask about hidden fees. Confirm what meals and activities are included and ask about refund options if a significant amount of changes occur in the itinerary.
Don't hesitate to contact the company you are considering with any questions or concerns. A responsive and informative host is often a good indicator of a well-run tour operation. Remember, you are trusting not just money with travel organizers. Money can be replaced. You cannot. You are trusting someone else with your well-being. That is something that should be honored and valued by all involved in the planning.
Showing Some Love:
Senegal Guide - Mame Laye Mbengue
Mame Laye was an incredible tour guide. He did his best to coordinate a dozen plus people and was incredibly patient. He was always punctual and very knowledgable about his home country of Senegal. If I go back there, I'm definitely connecting with him.
Travel Agent for Ghana - Dr. Kay
Her mission is inspiring seamless and stress free travel. Mission Accomplished! My girlfriend that I met on my first trip connected with this travel agent for our trip to Ghana and from now on, she will be my top choice. Dr. Kay was professional and approachable from the start. She gave timely email reminders for when payments were due and also periodically checked in. While we were on our trip, she checked in with my girlfriend to reiterate to us that if we needed anything from her, she'd be available. Dr. Kay, thankfully, connected us with the tour company Continent Tours in Africa.
Continent Tours describes itself as "Africa's Premiere Travel Experts." I am truly a believer!
Continent Tours selected Joshua to be our travel guide. I don't know how many languages this man spoke, but everywhere we went, he communicated seamlessly with the local residents. He kept us on schedule, especially in the outdoor market which was definitely a task! While I certainly took a lot of pictures, he was also our photographer and captured so much so that we could truly be in every moment. He was exceptional. He even took us on a tour of the Continent Tours Headquarters in Accra, Ghana. The entire team was grateful and eager to hear about our experience. I cannot rave about them enough.
Joshua's Instagram: @efo_kosi_ (Lens Of Africa)