Written By: Jonathan Lee
Congratulations are in order if you are reading this, because you have likely made the decision to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and are now starting the process of looking for a tour operator for what will be nothing less than an inspiring, jaw dropping & incredible journey!
Given the fact that you’ll be spending thousands of dollars on the cost of your climb and close to a week trekking to the top of Kilimanjaro, don’t leave things to chance and make sure you select the right tour operator to safely get you to the highest point in Africa. With over 300 registered Kilimanjaro Tour Operators, it can be a harrowing task researching and selecting the best guide company, but hopefully my own experience in climbing Kilimanjaro and selecting the right tour operator will shed some light on the process.
In preparation for my climb up Kilimanjaro, I spent countless hours compiling a list of the tour operators available, researching what made them different from one another as well as Kilimanjaro National Park’s requirements to be an officially licensed tour operator. The whole experience was very enlightening and below I’ve shared my key findings and tips to help you save some time in your own research.
1. Trekking Style – Determine your trekking style (budget, mid-level, luxury) and if you want to trek privately (by yourself/with your own friends only) or join an existing group climbing the mountain.
A good way to think about the different classes of Kilimanjaro tours is to compare them to various classes of hotels. The three main climbing classes are ‘budget’ (comparable to Motel 6),‘mid-tier’ (Westin) and ‘luxury’ (Ritz Carlton) tour operators.
- Budget tour operators will take you up on a 5-6 day private climb for as low as $1000. While these no-frills tour operators will get you to the top of Kilimanjaro, they are making razor thin margins on the climb due to high park fees (~$800 a day/per trekker for a 6 day climb). As a result costs need to be cut and it’s usually done by paying the porters less, using equipment that is not in tip top shape and employing guides with less experience and English fluency.
- Mid-tier tour operators will typically charge between $1400-$2200 per climb depending on the route you choose. These tour operators run the majority of treks up Kilimanjaro. These companies run like a well-oiled machine, taking thousands of trekkers up each year. The guides employed by Mid-tier tour operators typically speak English well and have extensive experience guiding.
- Luxury tour operators charge upwards of $4000 all the way up to $7000 for a climb. Given the price, the sky is usually the limit with Luxury tour operators. Amenities provided by luxury tour operators are extensive and can include private toilets, hot lunches, wine, oxygen tanks etc. You’ll still be doing the same amount of work to climb up Kilimanjaro with a Luxury tour operator, however there will be some luxuries waiting for you at the campsite.
Take note! The above price examples represent the price of climbing Kilimanjaro by booking directly with local tour operators in the Kilimanjaro region. If you are booking through a climbing agency, partner or travel agent you will likely end up paying the ‘luxury’ tour operator rate for a tour that is ultimately subcontracted out to a ‘mid tier’ tour operator. Regardless of how you end up booking your journey up Kilimanjaro, be sure to ask what exactly is included on your climb to justify the cost.
After all the research I did, the most important tip I have for those looking to climb Kilimanjaro is that independent of which class of tour operator you select, just make sure to book your tour with a local tour operator in Tanzania. There are many U.S. & U.K based companies that will sell tours to Kilimanjaro at a much higher rate and it is almost always the case that those tours are ultimately subcontracted to a local tour operator in Kilimanjaro. By booking locally you can save from hundreds to thousands of dollars, which can be better spent in other areas of your trip or donated to local non-profits.
2. Verify Quality – Make sure that the tour operator that you chose has a history of providing excellent service. The best gauge of this is what past clients have said about their experience. Use online resources such as Tripadvisor, which have forums and reviews that can be a good source for this information. This part is a bit time consuming, as you will need to do some digging and reading in between the lines to filter out potentially ‘fake’ reviews that are either overly positive or negative.
If you have the time and have narrowed down your list of tour operators you are considering, you might just ask the tour operator for 10 past client references that you can personally reach out to. Select a few and actually call them to speak about their experience with the tour operator
3.Verify licenses – Tour operators are regulated by the Government and are required to maintain proper licenses to operate tours up Kilimanjaro. The following is a list of requirements to be a licensed tour operator for Mount Kilimanjaro:
- Certificate of Incorporation – Issued by Govt. of Tanzania
- Certificate of Registration for Value Added Tax (VAT) – Tanzania Revenue Authority
- Taxpayer Identification Number – Tanzania Revenue Authority
- TALA License Documentation for Mountain Climbing – Tanzania Tourist Licensing Board
- TALA License Documentation for Tour Operator – Tanzania Tourist Licensing Board
Ask your tour operators to send copies of these documents for your verification. (Make sure to check the validity & dates of the documents). I’ve had an experience where a tour operator sent me a copy of an expired license. Upon further inquiry, the tour operator sent an updated license that was issued the day before. It goes to show that it keeps the tour operators in check by asking to check this information
4. Ease of doing business – Your interaction with the tour operator during the booking process will be a good indication of how well they run their Kilimanjaro treks. I assessed this in a few areas.
- Responsiveness – One of the most important traits for working with any company is how responsive they are. They should be easily assessable via multiple communication channels (phone, email, chat etc.) and quick to respond to messages.
- Friendliness – How friendly are their representatives? Are they fun to speak with? It’s not something you normally think of, but some tour operators that have achieved a decent level of success and have become a bit entitled, losing their focus on being customer friendly and focused more on getting customers up and off the mountain quickly so they can take up the next batch.
- Payment Terms – How easy is it to pay for their services. For larger adventures, tour operators typically require a deposit along with advanced payment of the balance prior to arriving. Some tour operators don’t have the option of paying via a credit card and require a costly bank wire transfer. If they do accept credit card payments some charge a transaction fee of 3-8% to pay with a credit card. Some tour operators will allow you to pay your tour in full with cash upon arrival (not the optimal solution for travelers wanting to minimize the amount of cash they are carrying while traveling).
5. Responsible Tourism – Beyond just how a tour company treats its customers, it’s important to find an operator that also treats its employees, the community and the environment well. As travelers to Kilimanjaro, we vote with our dollars and it is important to support and reward companies that are doing the right things within their company and within their community. This one is not as clear-cut as the other points I’ve listed, but can be gauged by taking a look at the organizations the tour operator has elected to join. Find out if they are part of any organizations that support the fair treatment of porters, find out about local community programs they support and ask about what their company does to be eco-friendly.
Finding a Kilimanjaro tour operator that meets all of the above criteria will help ensure that you have a great time on your trip while also feeling good about the tour operator you are supporting and the impact they are making. While it takes a significant amount of time and effort to fully vet a Kilimanjaro Tour Operator, it will all pay off in the end when you are standing at the summit of the highest mountain in Africa. Looking back at my outline, it still is a daunting task. Luckily VentureFar is attempting to help travelers book directly with local tour operators, by identifying quality local your operators and performing rigorous verification for quality and legitimacy before listing them on the site, so if you don’t have the time to do it all yourself be sure to check out our platform.