The Cost of Taking a National Geographic Expedition
“I’m Mario Perillo — Mr. Italy — for Perillo Tours and Alitalia…”
Growing up, those TV commercials were burned into my brain. That, along with tales of my grandmother boarding the bus to Atlantic City with 40 other senior citizens, shaped my juvenile opinion that tours were for old people. It wasn’t until I grew up some that the question of value even occurred to me. After all, Rick Steves was just some guy on PBS, and it isn’t that hard to find cheap hotels and flights online — or so I thought.
While I wouldn’t call myself an expert, I am a planner and enjoy researching every possible avenue before making a decision. Something about doing things myself makes me feel smart and economical — even when I come home from a trip completely exhausted because of all the extra work I did.
Last year, when the chance to take a big trip presented itself, I decided to do something “different.” In the midst of figuring out what that meant, I stumbled upon National Geographic Expeditions. Like Mr. Italy, something about it spoke to my childhood self and, true to brand, the tours looked exciting — and, dare I say, a good value.
Digging deeper, I found the option to spend 9 days in South Africa and Zimbabwe for $3,000 plus airfare (and the constant presence of fellow travelers). Given what the trip promised – 8 nights’ accommodation, 17 meals, arrival transfer, touring vehicle, internal flights, safari drives and more — the price seemed too good to be true. Or was it?
I had done a few big trips before (Italy, Hawaii, etc.) but this would likely be my most expensive vacation to date. Still a little unsure, I decided to take a chance. If nothing else, it would save me hours of time on planning and research and would be a good point of reference for future trips. I already had some money set aside for travel and decided to put the deposit and airfare on my airline credit card to get the miles. The balance would be due six weeks before my departure, giving me about six months to save up and cover the rest.
After booking, I found out that Nat Geo was just a name and another company handled the logistics. Speaking with their reps, I was told that the max group size was 16, most tours averaged around 12, and the tours would run regardless of how many people booked. At that time, there were two others on board, so maybe I was deep-ending on the whole group thing.
Back to value. Airfare was a surprise, with the travel company providing a complete itinerary for about $900. Sure, there were a few layovers, but that was more than $1,000 lower than what I found in my own searches. Then there was mandatory travel insurance. There wasn’t much I could do except grumble and select the cheapest option, adding an extra $500 to the total cost. I didn’t love this add-on, but decided to focus on the airfare savings and let it go.
Starting in Johannesburg, I took out cash for food and tips, receiving close to $700 in South African Rand for the equivalent of $50 USD. Our transfer arrived and transported us to a pleasant family-run guest house that cost roughly $30-40 USD per night, if the fee hadn’t already been included in our National Geographic package. It was clean and simple with home cooked meals and a cash bar — something you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere in the United States. Eleven other travelers and our guide (“Chief Experience Officer”) shuffled in.
After spending our first full day exploring the Panorama Route, we pulled into Muluwa Lodge with free-roaming animals, spectacular views, a swimming pool, chef-prepared outdoor dining and the nicest safari tents one could imagine, starting around $215 a night. Here was that value I was after. Following a day in Kruger National Park, witnessing the Big 5 in their natural habitat, we moved on to our next destination: an even more upscale lodge on the Karongwe game reserve that, when you’re not part of a Nat Geo tour, runs close to $700 a night per tent (a wee bit outside my usual budget). Amenities at every turn, plus two safari drives a day, capped off with snacks and cocktails in the bush. Every meal offered more than enough to make it through until the next one and despite doling out a few tips and buying bottled water, my wallet was nearly full. I had little to worry about and relied squarely on our guide, driver and hosts.
The balance of the trip saw a return to our original guesthouse for one night. Then a few members of our group moved on and, down to eight travelers, we flew to Victoria Falls and met a local guide at an older albeit renovated $200-and-up a night hotel. In the midst of a financial crisis, Zimbabwe offered a wholly different experience from South Africa. With no recognized currency, the locals clamored for USD or Rand and everything seemed to have an upcharge. But what it lacked in stable economics, Zimbabwe made up for with intimate home-cooked meals and astounding natural wonder. Following our tour of the falls, the remaining group took a sunset river cruise down the Zambezi before sharing a few hours in the hotel bar watching VH1 Classics over cocktails and saying our goodbyes.
In the end, the trip cost about $5,000 door-to-door, accounting for some added incidentals, tips along the way, a few small souvenirs, and transportation to and from my home airport. And, while far from chump change, there is the distinct possibility that Africa might be a once-in-a-lifetime destination. As for the people I met along the way, we had a few laughs and exchanged email addresses with no real intention of ever keeping in touch. Ultimately (and I’m sure they’d say the same of me) their presence didn’t make or break the trip — the thing about traveling is that the experience is what you make of it and in this instance was worth every last cent. Can’t say I’m ready to board the bus to Atlantic City yet, but as it turns out, maybe my grandmother was on to something all along.
Katie Achille is a writer and marketing consultant living at the Jersey Shore. She can usually be found hanging around the pottery studio or surrounded by dogs. Read more at katieachille.com.
This story is part of The Billfold’s Experience Series.
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