The Ultimate Resource for Overlanding – Part 5: Which overland company should I go with?

First read:

The Ultimate Resource for Overlanding: Introduction

The Ultimate resource for Overlanding: Part 1: What is overlanding?

The Ultimate Resource for Overlanding: Part 2: What is overlanding like?

The Ultimate Resource for Overlanding: Part 3: Should I go on an overland trip?

The Ultimate Resource for Overlanding: Part 4: Where should I go overlanding?

This question is the biggie and the one we are asked the most. It is also the hardest question to answer, for so many reasons. Basically it all depends…

Comparing overland companies and their individual trips can be a minefield. Where do you start?

Overland companies at a glance (the broad destinations they cover and their target market):

Absolute Africa – East & Southern Africa – 18-35
Acacia Africa – East & Southern Africa – 18-39
Africa in Focus – East & Southern Africa – 30-70- Special interest – photography
Africa Travel Co. – East & Southern Africa – All ages
African Trails – East & Southern Africa (new – Asia) – All ages
Best of Asia Overland – Asia (new – Australia) – All ages
Dragoman – Africa, Asia, North, Central & South America – All ages
Endeavour Overland – Asia – All ages
Footprint Adventures* – East & Southern Africa, Tibet/Nepal & South America – All ages
G Adventures* – Africa – 18-39
Infinite Adventures – Alaska, Canada & Western USA – All ages
Intrepid Travel* – Worldwide – All ages
Madventures – Worldwide – All ages – Epic long journeys
Nomad Tours – East & Southern Africa – All ages
Oasis Overland – Africa, Asia, South America – All ages
Odyssey Overland – Asia & South America – All ages
Overlanding West Africa – West Africa – All ages
Pink Caravan (Rosa Bussarna) – Worldwide – Swedish
Rotel Tours – Worldwide – German
South America Overland – South America – All ages
Tucan Travel – Central & South America, East & Southern Africa – All ages
Viva Expeditions – Patagonia & Peru – 35-70

* Indicates companies that DO NOT specialise in overland tours only Things to consider when comparing overland companies and the trips they offer (in order of importance for most people):

– Price/Value for money
– Itinerary/Time
– Truck/Equipment
– Group type & size
– Accommodation
– Crew
– Company reputation/Customer reviews

Whilst these factors are ordered in terms of importance this is not necessarily the order in which you would approach your decision. For example, price or value for money may be the most important factor to consider (for most people), however it is wise to first narrow down the options available to you before you start comparing prices.

It will save a major headache.

Your decision-making process should go something like this: 1.  Where do I want to go overlanding? Which continent? Which part of that continent? Which companies operate in that region?

Only you can answer this. However, Part 4: Where should I go overlanding? offers some guidance in this respect.

If overlanding in East or Southern Africa you will have many companies and trips to choose from, so many it is difficult to know where to start. Whereas if you are overlanding in West Africa there are only a few companies that operate in that area.

Do the companies operate worldwide or do they specialise in the area you want to travel in?

Companies operating worldwide are generally larger companies which have well-known brand names and are widely respected in the industry. However there are often smaller companies that specialise only in that region and they can offer a greater insight into that region. They generally have more intimate relationships with local suppliers (campsite/ accommodation/ restaurant owners, local guides, tour operators etc.) than the big boys and the crew are generally more passionate about the region, which is why they are working there.

Do the companies operate their own vehicles in that region or do they use local operators or another company?

There are quite a few of the big operators that offer trips worldwide, but don’t actually run them themselves. This is fine, just as long as you are aware and are not surprised when you turn up expecting one thing but finding something very different.

2.  How much time do I have to do the trip? Are my dates flexible? Which companies offer trips in that part of the world with dates that fit in with my timings? Are you taking a gap year, sabbatical etc. or a few weeks annual leave?

If you have 3-4 weeks of annual leave available and your dates are not flexible, you should start by searching for companies that are offering trips to where you want to go on the dates you have available. This will significantly narrow down the companies and trips before you need to do any in depth comparisons.

It is important to factor in the best time of year to visit the region (e.g. summer in Alaska), timings of local festivals or events you may want to visit (e.g. Rio Carnival in February/March in Brazil) and timings of natural phenomenon (e.g. the Great Migration crossing the Mara River in September in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania).

Remember to allow at least a day or two at either end of the trip so you have time to recover from jet lag and have a look around the city/town the trip starts and ends in. So many people forget to do this.

Another important consideration in terms of timing is deciding how much distance you want to cover in the time you have available. For example, you have 7 weeks available… Do you choose a 7 week trip from Lima, Peru to La Paz, Bolivia or a 7 week trip from Lima, Peru to Santiago, Chile?

You need to determine if there is sufficient time to spend at the places/attractions you want to spend time at. Are you trying to fit in as much as you can in a short amount of time you have available or would you rather have a more leisurely pace if you have the time? There is a time and a place for both – you just have to make sure you pick the right one.

How much driving will be involved?

You can easily work this out from the itinerary; work out the proportion of drive days to the total number of days of a trip. Take the number of days spent in one place (not travelling) from the total number of days of the trip and you have the number of approx. drive days. Are you satisfied with that amount of driving?

If you want to get technical about it you could either ask the company the total distance covered in kilometres on the trip or simply Google the drive distance from start to finish using the approx. route of the trip and calculate the average number of kilometres to be covered on a drive day (total distance covered divided by the number of drive days).

It depends on the road conditions but you certainly don’t want the average drive day to be more than 500km. Of course there will be days when you could do 500km or more but they should be balanced out with some shorter drive days.

3.     Which trips cover the highlights I want to see and do? Are there trips that specialise in my interests?

This is the fun bit. You need to draw up a ‘must-see or must-do’ highlights list for the area you are travelling through. Obviously you are not going to be able to see and do everything so this is your ‘absolutely can’t miss’ list. It would be pretty disappointing to go on an overland trip in northern India and not visit the Taj Mahal if it was on your ‘must-see’ list.

Again, it is important to ask yourself if the trips allow you sufficient time to visit the highlights on your list. For example, half a day may be enough time for some people to look around Angkor Wat in Cambodia, for others it may take 2 or 3 days.

What are your interests – wildlife, landscapes, culture, history, adrenalin activities, hiking, photography, partying, volunteering etc.?

There are some companies and trips that specialise (officially or not) in these activities. For example, some companies specifically cater to keen photographers and have specialised equipment on board for charging cameras and downloading photos. Some companies have cultivated relationships with volunteer organisations and concentrate the time spent on trips at places where you can volunteer (schools, remote communities, orphanages, hospitals etc.).

Some companies/trips focus on the 18-35 year old market and whilst it may be a vast generalisation, it can be safely assumed that there will be more partying involved on those trips. It is not to say it will be one big non-stop party, but there will be more partying than say a 35-65 year old trip.

Note: In saying that, it must be said ‘for the record’ that some of the biggest parties we have experienced on the road have involved ‘the oldies’ 🙂

4.     What level of comfort do I want from the trip? How much camping will be involved? What type of tour vehicle is used?

When we talk about comfort on an overland trip we are referring to the style and type of accommodation and the layout and equipment available on the tour vehicle.

What type of accommodation is included?

As previously discussed in Part 1: What is overlanding?, overlanding these days can mean anything from a fully accommodated trip (staying in hotels or safari camps) to a rough and ready trip that involves lots of camping (pitching your own tent) with no facilities. Most companies will specify on their website what type of accommodation is included and the ratio of camping vs hostel/hotel if applicable. If not, just ask them directly.

Does the company provide a tent? If so, what type and quality is the tent?

Most overland companies operating in Africa provide good quality dome tents made in South Africa (who are renowned for manufacturing sturdy and hard-wearing camping equipment). They are by far the best tents in an overlanding environment. It is worth checking with the company what type of tents they supply – it will be your home.

Some companies require you to provide your own tent (especially on long haul trips lasting 6-8 months). In our experience this is a good option as you get to choose your own tent and because you are generally more inclined to look after it, it will last the distance. The bonus is you won’t have to share with anyone – unless of course you want to.

Do they provide a sleep mat?

Most companies around the world require you to provide your own sleep mat and sleeping bag. However, some companies operating in East and Southern Africa provide sleep mats. If they do, they are usually much thicker than the average sleep mat you would pack when flying to the start point of your tour.

What type of trucks do they run? How old are the trucks?

Some companies are still running trucks built in the 1980’s whilst other companies are running much newer and modern trucks. The conundrum here is – the older a truck, the more likely it is to break down, but because they are older they are generally easier to fix. Whereas very late model trucks have a lot of electronics so while they may be less likely to breakdown (supposedly!) they can be more difficult to fix. A happy medium is recommended – not too old and not too young.

What is the layout of the truck? What is the seating arrangement on the truck? What are the windows like?

Most trucks now have hard sides with lockable windows as more and more countries require this by law. However trucks operating in some countries still have canvas sides that can be rolled up. There is nothing wrong with the old style of truck (it what they used be like in the old days) but bear in mind it can uncomfortable in cold weather or dusty conditions. These type of trucks also require higher security vigilance since they cannot be locked.

Most companies have detailed pictures of their vehicles, including the seating arrangement on their websites. Most have a combination of forward-facing seats, inward-facing seats and seats arranged around tables (great for socialising, playing cards or writing in your journal), although some only have inward-facing seats and some only forward-facing seats.

What type of storage is provided for your luggage?

Some companies have individual lockers for your backpack, whilst others have shared lockers and others have one large area for everyone’s backpacks.

What type of charging facilities are available?

The ability to charge the multitude of electronic devices you are likely to take with you is more and more important in this day and age. Some vehicles still only have 12V charging systems whereas others are moving with the times and have numerous 240V charging outlets available to you use whilst the truck is on the move. It is important they have a number of outlets so everyone gets a chance to charge their equipment.

What cooling/refrigeration facilities are available?

Do they have a fridge or do they use eskies/cooler boxes? Some companies even have a fridge with a freezer. A refrigeration facility is only really important if most of the accommodation is camping-based. Even then if the eskies are used properly i.e. one for food and one for drinks with the food esky being packed with ice and opened sparingly, they can be just as good.

What is the maximum number of passengers on the truck?

Overland vehicles seat anywhere between 16-34 passengers. Obviously, the more seats there are, the bigger the vehicle is going to be. Companies set a minimum number of passengers for a trip to run, although this is flexible and depends on the route. It is worth asking the companies how many people are booked on the trip and if it is guaranteed to run (i.e. has reached the minimum number).  A group of 18-24 people is ideal. It is also nice if there are a few spare seats in the truck so everyone can spread out a little if they like or if someone is not well (self-inflicted or not) they can lay down.

5.     Which trips offer the best value for money for me?

Let’s be honest, price or value for money is probably the most important factor to consider when deciding on which company and which trip to do. It is also the most difficult to compare across companies and indeed trips.

Not all trips are created equal. Not only do companies differ in their approach to pricing their trips but often the trips of one company are priced differently. One trip could be all singing and all dancing with an all-inclusive price and another trip with the same company could be no frills with a basic trip price, a kitty/local payment and a budget guide for the ‘extras’.

The trick here is to do your homework and make sure you know what you are and are not paying for so there are no nasty surprises.

What is the trip price? What exactly does it include? What is the kitty/local payment? What exactly does it include?

Most companies split the total amount to be paid into a ‘trip price’ and either a ‘kitty or local payment’. The trip price covers the use of the truck, all truck related costs (fuel, road taxes, insurance etc.), use of camping and cooking equipment, the services of the crew and the logistical back up of head office. The kitty/local payment covers accommodation, meals when camping, entrance to various national parks or destinations that the truck is physically driven into and some activities that the group participates in as a whole.

It used to be that if a kitty was paid and there was some left over at the end of the trip it was refunded to the passengers and if a local payment was paid there would be no refund at the end. However, it seems companies have muddied the waters and are using this terminology interchangeably now.

If a company does have a ‘refund at end of trip’ policy they will generally state it on their website, so you could assume that if they don’t say so on their website there won’t be any refunds at the end. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt to double check with the company before booking. Whilst a refund at the end sounds good this rarely happens in our experience. The kitty/local payment is a direct running cost of the trip and there is seldom room to play to with.

The other key thing to note here is that if it is a kitty (i.e. leftover monies refundable), it may also work the other way – if there is insufficient funds in the kitty you may be asked to top up the coffers. Whereas with a local payment, there may not be any refunds at the end but you won’t be asked to contribute more if circumstances require it. These are generalisations based on our experience – it is important for you to confirm with the company you book with exactly what their policy is.

Different companies also have different policies regarding the locking in of the kitty/local payment price. Some guarantee the kitty/local payment price won’t change from the time of booking, whereas others reserve the right to adjust the amount payable (to reflect changes in local prices and exchange rates) up to a specified time before departure (e.g. two weeks before) or even the day before departure.

It is understandable why companies may do this, especially when travelling through countries that have inflation problems but it does make it more difficult for you to compare companies and trips and indeed budget for your trip.

The biggest differentiator between overall trip prices is ‘what is included’.

Some companies include the cost of highlights in the price; the things that no-one in their right mind would miss if doing that trip. For example, you wouldn’t miss going to see the Pyramids in Cairo, Egypt but some companies include the entrance price and others don’t. So what may seem like a cheaper trip may not in fact be cheaper because you have to add the cost of entrance to the Pyramids. Most companies have a list of ‘optional activities’ with estimated prices so it is quite easy to calculate the extra amount you will be up for.

Other things to look at when comparing the overall price of trips: What type of accommodation is used?

As previously covered the proportion of camping vs hostel/hotels will be reflected in the price. It goes without saying that the higher the price, the higher the standard of accommodation. Don’t go on a budget trip and then be disappointed you are staying in dormitories rather than 3 star hotels.

How many meals are provided?

Do they provide breakfast and dinner only or do they include lunch as well? It can be generally expected that the more you pay for a trip, the better quality the food provided.

If a national park is included, what does that mean?

Is just the entrance fee included or are game drives also included? How many games drives? Will those game drives be in your truck or will they be in smaller 4×4 safari vehicles? Will there be a local guide included?

How many crew will run the trip?

Some budget companies/trips run with one crew, most run with two crew, however some companies/trips have a third crew member, usually a cook. If there is one crew member, the level of participation required by you will be much higher because that crew member will be busy driving, organising all your accommodation and activities and facilitating border crossings. This is not necessarily a bad thing; some people prefer to be more ‘hands on’ when overlanding because it can make for a more satisfying experience.

If two or more crew, will both crew be drivers? If there are long drive days, this may be an important consideration

Are the crew western, local or a combination of. If there is a cook, they will usually be local (great chance to eat and learn how to cook local dishes). Some people are of the opinion that a western driver is more ‘safe’. Some people prefer local crew because they may offer a greater insight into a country and its culture.

So you can see, it is not all about price. It is about value. You have to decide which highlights and activities are a must for you and factor these into the overall trip price to work out which trip represents the best value for you.

As with anything in life, you get what you pay for.

6.     What do others say about the companies and their trips?

Reviews; reading up on what other people thought about companies and various trips is always a good idea. But keep in mind different strokes for different folks. What may be a good experience for one person may not be good for another. People’s satisfaction usually comes down to their expectations and whether they have been met or exceeded. The key here is to have realistic expectations and that can only some from thoroughly researching your trip, knowing what to expect and having a positive attitude.

7.     Decide and book it!

Go for it and don’t forget to enjoy it even it happens to be something different from you thought it might be!

About the authors

Andy & Kirsty have over twenty years’ experience between them in the adventure overlanding industry. They have worked for many of the big names in the industry in over one hundred countries on five continents.

Now retired from overlanding, they have dedicated their time to sharing their knowledge and expertise with other travellers. They have written two books about overlanding and group travel – Go Hard or Go Home: The Little Book of Overlanding and It’s NOT a Holiday! The A-Z Guide to Group Travel.

“Overland and adventure travel has been a way of life for Andy and Kirsty for over 10 years. If there are lessons to be learned about joining a group tour they’ve learnt them, usually the hard way. In one handy A to Z guide they manage to cover almost every problem and pitfall (and a lot of the delights) that joining an adventurous group can throw at you.”
Tony Wheeler, Co-Founder of Lonely Planet

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