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Is booking direct cheaper? Often not…

Booking direct

Would you trust a Tour Operator for the best holiday of your life?

This article was long overdue a third update! A lot has changed since we last did a comparison.

When we first did it, it was a real eye-opener for me because I had almost bought into the notion that we may not always be competitive. I was wrong.

We took two typical Cedarberg itineraries (4 star & 5 star). First we checked out what you would pay if you booked it direct. Either via or the hotel’s own website. Then what you would pay if you booked it through a Safari Specialist such as us.

A lot has changed… and a lot has stayed the same.

What HAS changed is that when we last did this analysis, South African tourism was booming. We were “flavour of the month” and hotels were bursting at the seams. (At least in the summer months of November through to March.)

Now tourism growth is not quite as strong. So we were interested to see what impact that had.

However fundamentally what HASN’T changed is that the results are just the same. Often it is CHEAPER to book through a Safari Specialist than Direct, or even via an OTA like

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We know that people enjoy the process of researching a holiday. So do we when we book our own holidays! However we firmly believe in collaboration. Combining your thoughts from initial research  with our ideas and years of experience. It should be a partnership.

However we are sometimes stunned when people tell us (quite happily) that they have used sample itineraries or hotels from our website, and then booked it themselves online. What bemuses me is that they automatically assume that they have got a much better deal by doing this.

Clearly, Safari Specialists – such as ourselves – have completely failed to communicate how we make our money. And – more pertinently – what a great deal our clients are often getting…

So lets get down to ‘’brass tacks” and look at:
  • A direct comparison with booking direct
  • How we make our money
  • Extra benefits from booking with a Specialist Tour Operator
Booking direct versus booking with a tour operator

Our Test Cases – A Direct Comparison

In the interests of a simplified fight, lets assume that you have a friend who has just stayed at various hotels in South Africa. And so you don’t need to do hours of online research.

Or we could assume that you don’t value your hours of leisure time… at all…

We use the same two test cases that we used before. Both are self-drive itineraries. Mainly because private guides and transfers are not so easily bookable online.  But the car rental doesn’t really impact the results – as you’ll see later. So this comparison is meaningful for anyone booking a safari using any mode of transport.

We had two ‘test” studies.

Test Case 1 was an upmarket holiday using smart 5 star accommodation and a top safari at the end. It was booked for a few months away.

Test Case 2 was more stacked against us. As we were looking at a mid-range itinerary, booked last minute within a month of travel.

The Results: Booking Direct versus Booking with a Specialist

We give the reasons for the results below. But I will cut to the chase now.

Test Case 1 – A romantic 5 star holiday starting on 1st March (5 months away)

We went online to note the best prices that we could get from both the hotel’s own website and also via (as an example of an Online Travel Agent or OTA)

  • 1st March – 3 nights Cape Town – Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa BB
  • 4th March – 2 nights Winelands – Babylonstoren BB
  • 6th March – Fly to Durban and drive to Phinda Forest Lodge, for 3 nights on safari Fully Inclusive
  • 9th March – 4 nights Thonga Beach Lodge, Full Board & selected activities

Plus 13 days Group C automatic car from Europcar or Bidvest.
(The prices below exclude all flights…)


Booked via Cedarberg UK:
The price was R73,400 per person (the equivalent to £3,965 or $4,860 per person, at the current exchange rate). That’s a lot of money. But that’s another story.

Hotel’s own websites:
Price was R75,725 per person,  3.1% more than Cedarberg’s price

Price was R74,100 per person,  1% more than Cedarberg

The hotels and safari lodges stuck to their Rack Rates. The OTA ( had discounted one of the 4 hotels. But it was still more than us. As we found before, there was not much evidence of the discounting or “deals”  that people assume that they must be getting when they use an OTA.

Not in Africa at least!

Test Case 2 – A mid-range 4 star holiday starting in Early November booked last minute, less than a month away

Then we decided to skew the results even more against us. So we looked at booking a 4 star holiday booked last minute (within a month of travel). It assumes a common routing including Cape Town, the Garden Route and the Eastern Cape for a safari.

This is a popular route. One which many people think would be cheaper if they book it online. As it is readily available to book.  Being last minute, we may also assume that hotels will start to discount if they don’t have good occupancies.

  • 3rd Nov – 3 nights Cape Town – Four Rosmead Hotel BB
  • 6th Nov – 2 nights Winelands – La Fontaine Guesthouse BB
  • 8th Nov – 2 night Knysna, Garden Route – Villa Afrikana BB
  • 10th Nov – 2 nights nr Plettenberg, Garden Route – Hog Hollow BB
  • 12th Nov – 3 nights Eastern Cape Safari – Kariega River Lodge, Fully Inclusive

Plus 13 days Group C automatic car from Europcar or Bidvest.


Booked via Cedarberg UK:
The price was R39 625 per person (equivalent of £2 140 or $2 625 per person, at current exchange rates).

Hotel’s own websites:
Price was R42, 410 per person,  7.0% more than Cedarberg’s price

Price was R40, 450 per person,  2.1% more than Cedarberg

Again none of the hotels or game lodges discounted off their Rack rate*. There was more variation with with some use of the Genius discount. And had a non-refundable offer at one hotel as well. But this was more than offset by our lower prices on the safari component.

Note 1 * – Even if the hotels do offer last-minute specials, as they sometimes do,  they are careful to send them to the trade so that we can offer the same deal to our clients.

Note on Car Rental  – The car rental prices were very similar. Even though we are not comparing like with like. Our prices are fully inclusive of all excesses and have unlimited mileage. The online prices have a 200km limit per day and you pay extra to waive various excesses. We added those extra waivers in and the prices were similar. But you still get unlimited mileage and various other Value Adds with us.

(Remember this was not allowing for ANY cost for the research time.)

For this third update, we were still happy with these results.  But why are we cheaper?

Luxury Safari Adventures

How we make our money

As a Southern African specialist, we sell a lot of beds in hotels and game lodges. This means that we negotiate a very good ‘tour operator rate’ with the hotels.  (This is the equivalent to a wholesale rate given to a shop.)

The Rack Rate or Best Available Rate is the rate that a hotel will sell a room to the public.

So in many cases, once we have added on our margin, the price for a hotel may be LESS than the rack rate. Sometimes it’s very similar. Sometimes it’s just above. However time and time again we find that – for a whole itinerary – our prices compare extremely well.

Which means that effectively you are getting all our expertise and 25 years of experience at NO EXTRA CHARGE.

Booking Direct versus Booking with a Tour Operator:
– Best Available Rates

But hotels don’t have fixed rates any more“, some of you savvy travellers will cry.

Yes, you are right, but again, in most cases, we have negotiated a fixed percentage off whatever the ‘Best Available Rate’ is.

Plus most good Tour Operators have invested in technology which allows us to compare our rates with the Best Available Rates (minus our percentage) and book on the cheapest rate using our specialist booking systems.

Of course there are always one or two suppliers who don’t play by the ‘rules’. And who discount at the last minute. Or who post a special on a website and don’t tell the trade immediately. But they are few and far between in the African context.

Here the hotels and game lodges work closely with the trade. As the majority of their bookings come from us.

African Safari Experts at your fingertips

Hidden Costs of Booking Direct

Plus this is not a fair trial.

As an online booker, you would have first had to look at all the review sites and decided which hotels to approach. This would have taken many hours.

Yes, at first, this process is enjoyable. Sussing out what things cost in a new destination. Which hotels you can afford.

But – if you are anything like me – later on, it starts to become a real chore. Working out exactly which hotel to book. Jiggling hotels around because of availability issues. And then anxiety starts to kick in. Have you made the right choice? Where is the best place to compromise? Is that game reserve any good?

(Don’t get me started on Trip Advisor when it comes to Safari Lodges…)

Frankly, this is HOURS of work. Plus you miss out on all the other benefits of using a Tour Operator. And without gaining any price savings!

Booking Direct vs Booking with a Safari Specialist:
– The Conclusion

As you’ll hopefully agree, this case study is actually heavily weighted against us. It magically assumes you knows where you want to book. Or that there is no monetary valuet to the leisure time  taken up to find hotels, evaluate and compare them, decide what to book and then do the booking.

And yet the bottom-line figures are very telling. We were STILL cheaper than booking directly or via an OTA (Online Travel Agent) for both of our Test cases.

Even in the last minute scenario!

But OUR CLIENTS are not generally seeking budget hotels. And most people don’t want to leave their plans to the last minute. If they do, the hotels and lodges that they have set their hearts on will be long gone…

African Adventures awaits

So what is the moral of the tale?

1) Compare Apples with Apples

“But their online price is much cheaper than yours?”

Is it really? Check what meals and activities are included? Recently a Canadian family said that the online price was much lower for a game lodge. Surprised, I looked on to see that they were selling this game lodge on a B&B basis. (This is very unusual.) Our price included all meals and one game drive. When you added in lunch, dinner and the cost of the game drive, we were actually a fair bit cheaper (as game drives are an expensive part of the safari experience).

This also applies to car rental. As we said earlier, our price includes all insurances, unlimited kilometres, contract fee and a second driver. Plus no excess.

2) Why use a Tour Operator – What do you GAIN?

Let’s see what boxes we tick:
  • Peace of Mind – your hotel choices have been vetted, approved, and compared in person with many other options
  • Collaboration – you have been able to discuss and ask our opinion of your findings
  • Advice and reassurance – you’ve been guided as to which areas to visit and for how long
  • Information – you have a detailed itinerary with ideas of what to do in each area
  • Security – you’ve been able to pre-book some excursions, a couple of popular restaurants and get tickets for Table Mountain

And…. often lower prices!

3) What are the RISKS involved in booking direct – if something goes wrong?

If you book direct, and something out of your control goes wrong, then you are on your own.
  • Perhaps there’s a climatic reason why you cannot fly? You are on your own.
  • If you hate your hotel, you are on your own.
  • Or there could be a natural disaster such as a flood, (which is surprisingly common in Africa), and you have to move game lodges. You are on your own.

The internet has given people ready access to bucket loads of information. Almost too much! But it still takes hours and hours to find that information and to accurately assess which information is credible.

The benefits of Collaboration

Working with a specialist travel professional gives you the best of both worlds. You can discuss your initial – enjoyable research – with them. Hand it over to them to do the more boring and time-consuming part. Then you can review their suggestions independently.

Together you can plan the perfect trip. At much less cost in terms of research hours and anxiety. AND at more or less the same price as if you had booked it directly. It could even be cheaper!!

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Milandi Joubert

Africa Travel Specialist

Hi I’m Milandi, I’m here to help you plan your ideal holiday experience

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