If you want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa’s highest point, one of the first decisions you have to make is which tour operator to use. Base your decision on the climbing route, advance service, guides, and price.
You are required to use a tour operator to climb Kilimanjaro and all tour operators are required to stay on one of the established routes. There are six established routes up the mountain (Marangu, Umbwe, Machame, Lemosho, Shira, and Rongai), only three eventual paths to the summit (Western Breach, Stella Point via Barafu, and Gilman’s Point via the Marangu route), and only two ways down (Mweka and the Marangu, which has both up and down foot traffic).
Perhaps selecting the route will be another post but, for now, just realize the route you take makes a BIG difference in your experience and, frankly, your success rate. The most popular route up, Marangu, is that way because it is the shortest and, therefore, cheapest option. However, because you ascend the same elevation in only five days, your chance of getting altitude sickness and not summiting is greatest on this route. We at Zephyr Adventures believe you are sort of nuts to go all the way to Africa only to save a few bucks and jeopardize your chance of summiting, so we use the less-traveled, more-scenic Lemosho Route that also gives you a greater chance of success.
A major decision you have to make is whether you go with a local Tanzanian company or whether you book with an operator in your home country. The main advantage of the former, of course, is a lower price. The main advantages of the latter are ensuring your money won’t disappear between the time you pay and the time you arrive in Tanzania; having recourse to a company in your home country in case of problems; feeling a sense of security that someone has actually checked out the quality of the local guides, equipment, and transport; and having a guide/coordinator on your trip from your own country.
Make sure your potential tour operator provides you with excellent service and communication before you book. Check to see if the company’s website has complete information. Email the office and see if you get a response that answers your questions. Call and talk to a real person if you prefer the phone.
Having excellent guides is an extremely important part of the Kilimanjaro experience. And most Kilimanjaro guides are at least good to very good, thanks in part to Tanzania’s efforts to license and train them. (We have heard horror stories about guides, including a recent story about a drunk guide who died on the mountain, although we have not been able to confirm this.)
If you book a Kilimanjaro climb with a local Tanzanian company, you are clearly rolling the dice a bit on guide quality, since you simply won’t know much about the company’s history, the training of their guides, etc. If you book with an international operator, you can generally be assured that company has done the research to make sure they are using excellent local guides.
If you do book with an international operator, a key question to ask is whether they send one of their own staff on the trip. Many international operators simply rely on the local guides to run the entire trip, which in our experience is not ideal. The truth is, an American tour guide will understand the needs and desires of American travelers better than will a Tanzanian guide. Over and over again our on-the-spot American guides change the plans of our local operators to make the experience better for our travelers. While we couldn’t run our trips without our Tanzanian staff, they would not run the trip as well without one of our Zephyr Adventures guides on the trip.
Finally, we get to that factor most people seem to use to make their decision. And indeed, price is very important. We strongly suggest you try to book a Kilimanjaro climb that is in the mid-range of prices.
First, make sure you are comparing apples-to-apples. A local operator might offer a price that doesn’t include airport pickup, pre- and post-climb hotel, or all meals.
Second, make sure you don’t pay too little for a Kilimanjaro climb or the operator is going to cut costs by paying their on-mountain staff (guides, porters, and cooks) too little. There are rules for minimum staff pay in place but, unfortunately, these rules are often ignored by low-cost operators. You will be entirely dependent on your staff on the mountain and you do NOT want staff that feels underpaid!
Finally, if you are considering a “luxury” Kilimanjaro climb, make sure you know what you are getting. All Kilimanjaro climbs include the basics: food, guides, porters, transport, climbing fees, etc. Most do not include airfare. Your higher price might be paying for things you don’t need, like a “two travelers per vehicle” ride to the mountain, which is not needed, or actual sleeping cots on the mountain, which would make some people feel terrible watching them being carried by a local porter for nine days!
We have seen a local Tanzanian company charge $5800, you can pay even more with an international tour operator, and on one famous tour operator’s website, we searched for 10 minutes and couldn’t even find a price! About.com suggests paying between $2500 and $4000 for a Kilimanjaro climb and our Zephyr Adventures’ Kilimanjaro trek is priced at $3100.
Kilimanjaro is a big mountain and choosing the right operator is a big decision. We hope this helps!