Making Sure Your Tour Company Doesn’t Screw You When You Book a Safari: Real (Recent) Story

Last month my husband and I went on a two week holiday to Uganda. As the trip of a lifetime we decided to splurge and be fancy. We stayed at luxury lodges such as Baker’s Lodge that sits on the Nile with resident hippos, gourmet meals prepared by culinary artists and individual private bungalows.

Since gorilla trekking was on my bucket list we decided to do two treks instead of one. And having done a lot of research about it and coming across accounts of how difficult these treks can be, we decided to give ourselves a free rest day in-between treks.

Gorilla-Bwindi-Uganda-trekking
Gorilla in the Oruzogo Family, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

On our first trek, we trekked the Oruzogo Gorilla Family in the Ruhija area. And we got insanely lucky as we found the gorillas about 45 minutes into hiking. We were back at our lodge by 1:30pm.

As such we decided that we didn’t need a rest day the following day and decided to book a trip to the Ishasha area of Queen Elizabeth National Park, as I discovered – while we were there – that it was only about two hours away.

Though we booked our entire trip through a company that specializes in luxury African safaris, we thought that we could just book this last minute trip independently. But when we got quotes from our driver as well as the staff at the lodge that were about 75% different in cost, we decided it would be best to call our tour company.

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I called their London office. They contacted their ground agent in the area who called me and said we were all set. Their ground agent came by our lodge, processed our payment and we were really excited as we had originally forgone a visit to this iconic park because it wasn’t fitting into our itinerary….or so we though (more on that later). And I did my due diligence. I asked the ground agent very specific questions about the tour:

  • how long will the tour be?
  • who will drive us?
  • what kind of vehicle will we have?
  • will we have a guide?
  • are there any additional fees not included in the estimate you gave us?
  • should we ask the lodge to pack lunch for us?

The next day the driver arrived on time and we were off! Yay! We arrived at the park and that’s when things started to go wrong.

{Safari Guide Brought His 4 Year Old on Our Safari Without Anyone’s Prior Knowledge}

We drove to the ranger station to pick up the guide and were surprised when the guide’s 4 or 5 year old daughter jumped in the car. The guide introduced himself and said, “today we are going to have a little guide join us”. We thought it we strange but didn’t feel like we were in a position to object.

She was super cute but disruptive. She’s a small child and shouted at the animals from the vehicle.

{Safari Cut Short}

The Ishasha area of Queen Elizabeth Park is perhaps most famous for its tree climbing lions. There are only a handful of places in the world where you can see this phenomenon. And we got extremely lucky to see four of them! We observed them climb onto the tree, rest and eventually climb off and fade into the brush.

We were told that our tour was supposed to go from 9am-2pm. We saw the lions around 10:30am. And after observing them for about 20 minutes, our guide said, “ok let’s call it a day”. We were shocked. We’d paid for a 5 hour tour and it had only been 1.5 hours.

safari-Uganda-elephant-Murchison-Falls

We told him that we were told that the tour was supposed to go until 2pm but he and the driver both said we were wrong and refused to continue. Reluctantly because I insisted they drove us to the river to see hippos but the driver and guide got out of the vehicle and stood away, totally disengaged, chatting amongst themselves, leaving the vehicle on, making us feel very uncomfortable and like they were saying to hurry up.

This is a good time to mention that throughout the 1.5hours that we did get to go around on safari, the guide and driver were in such a hurry that we had to repeatedly ask them to stop the car so we could watch and take photos of the animals.

While we were absolutely thrilled about seeing the lions but very upset about how short it was and the hurry up/rushed behavior of the guide and the driver.

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Four tree climbing lions in the Ishasha sector, Queen Elizabeth National Park

In that moment we had no recourse. So we were driven back to our lodge. The staff at the lodge was surprised that we came back so early as they expected us much later which is why they also packed our lunch for us, which ended up being totally unnecessary because we were back so early we could have enjoyed a nice sit down meal.

{Sharing Concerns With Tour Operator}

We paid a lot of money for that tour and so we weren’t going to leave it alone. We called the ground agent who came over to our lodge to meet with us in person. I appreciated that he came to talk to us in person vs. just over the phone. He was appalled that the guide brought his daughter along as that is a clear violation of the laws of the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the rules for guides throughout the country.

It’s a safety and liability issue.

But all he kept talking about was how he’s worried that perhaps that guide has done that in the past. And then he said he’d address it with that guide’s boss to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future. I get it he has to protect his business. But that didn’t help us. He didn’t say how he was going to rectify the situation for us. He didn’t even offer us an apology.

After we shared all of our concerns with him he asked us to give him some time to make some calls and talk to the various parties that were involved. After about an hour we sat down to talk again and he put ALL of the blame on the guide, our driver and even us! Yes, he blamed me because the guide asked me what I wanted to see and I (obviously) said lions! We were in the Ishasha sector of Queen FREAKIN’ Elizabeth National Park! people come from all over the world in hopes of seeing lions!

And the ground agent said that because I said that to the guide, he must’ve thought that’s all we cared about. Of course the ground agent had no response when I shared the guide’s response when I told him the tour was supposed to go until 2pm.

Honestly talking to the ground agent made things even worse.

{Evading Accountability; No Responsibility}

The thing he failed to understand was that from our perspective he’s the responsible party. He’s the tour operator. The whole point in paying them was to manage all of these logistics and trusting that they work with vetted partners to ensure a successful outcome for clients, like us.

We were getting nowhere with him. He just kept talking about how important client experience is to him and how he’s going to make sure this never happens again. Finally we had to ask what he was going to do to compensate us. We asked for a full refund.

He tried to get us to agree to doing another safari drive at Queen Elizabeth Park on our departure day before heading to the airstrip but honestly we were afraid to. What if that guide was there or found out we were coming back and sought retribution?

We declined and said we just wanted a refund. He gave us $100 which was only about 20% of what we paid. I told him that that was unacceptable. Because this took place on a Saturday he said that we’d have to wait until Monday to talk to the head office. We understood that and thought he;d say something when he dropped us off on Monday afternoon at the airstrip. But he didn’t. And my husband and I decided not to say anything either as we thought it more important to get to the airstrip and home safely. And we agreed to pursue it when we got home.

{Tour Company Evading Responsibility}

When we got back to the US, I contacted the head office of the tour company and sent them an honest and detailed account of what occurred. And their response?

“Unfortunately you didn’t book this through us, you booked it directly with our ground agent so you’ll need to contact him. But we’re happy to follow up with him for you to see what info we can gather.”

WTF?!? 

I figured I was better off getting their assistance to reconnect with the ground agent – it was better than nothing. Three weeks and 3 ignored follow up emails later, I still hadn’t heard anything.

So then I emailed the Founder of the tour company. And the next day I got the refund. Along with the refund I received an email that was evasive and still took NO RESPONSIBILITY.

They wrote, “had the guide known that bringing his daughter along would have upset you he never would have brought her”.

The email ignored the primary issue which was the fact that we paid for a 5 hour trip and were completely jipped. Additionally it made it sound like we were unreasonable in disliking that the guide brought his daughter along where in fact the Uganda Wildlife Authority would never allow that and the guide was in clear violation of his duties. They also stated that they’d never received complaints previously, again making it seem like we were the unreasonable ones. There was not to mention nor acknowledgement of the guide’s unprofessional behavior, no apology for what we experienced.

{Lessons Learned}

The most important lesson I learned was that in all my due diligence asking the ground agent about the logistics for the day trip I wish I had asked for a contact phone number in case there were any issues. I could have called him while we were at the park and addressed the situation on the spot.

The second lesson I learned was to clarify who the responsible booking party is. And whom to refer to in case of any issues afterwards.

The 3rd lesson I learned was to ask for the tour details, in writing, so that there had been a written record of what was included.


{My Uganda Itinerary}

Entebbe – 1 night (quick stay after late night flight arrival)
Murchison Falls – 3 nights
Fort Portal – 2 nights (Kasese airstrip)
Bwindi – 4 nights (I did two gorilla treks + day trip to Ishasha; Kihihi airstrip)

I flew to each destination instead of driving which would have taken 6-9 hours per location. Uganda has one domestic airline called Aerolink. The planes fit around 20 people. There’s a strict 15kg per person luggage limit. And they do not allow hard shell bags. Most people travel with backpacks and duffels.


Enjoy your trip to Uganda! Keep adding those stamps to your PassportPages!

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