Highlights of South Africa
overall, very good
I went on the Highlights of South Africa tour, including both pre- and post-trip extensions, in August/Sept. 2015. Overall, although not perfect--what is in life--the trip was very good, perhaps a 9.2 on a scale of 10. Accomodations and food were excellent. As a single traveler I was in a distinct minority in a group of about 30 (about 10 couples and five singles who were travelling with friends), but all were made to feel welcome and single accommodations seem to have been the same as for couples, so singles actually more more room per person. The hotels were excellent, although in the cities they tended to be far from downtowns, which meant it was difficult to explore on your own during free time without taking a cab. All hotels had wi-fi, tho sometimes only in particular spots; most, tho not all, had TVs with international news channels (usually CNN); most, but not all had at least one outlet which American plugs worked in (elsewhere plug converters are needed and are hard to find outside the Johannesburg airport shops, which close early in the evening). The hotel food was almost always buffets, abundant in choice and high in quality, with lots of fresh fruit and veggies, as well as great desserts. Except at breakfast, when juice was included, meals often did not include any drinks except tap water/coffee, which was a pain because the waiters had to bill each person separately at the end of the meal for trivial amounts for drinks. This is a dumb policy--much smarter to include one drink (juice/milk/beer/wine and make folks responsible only for cocktails and more than one drink. For non-included meals, the tour guide provided suggestions and because the S. African currency (the rand) was so low against the $, prices for meals and arts/crafts were generally laughably cheap (a good steak dinner including juice to drink was $10!).
The tour was an intelligent combination of outright tourist stops, shopping, safari rides (in open-air jeeps seating about 10 people each) and educational/cultural stops. Often the first tour of the day leaves extremely early in the morning!! Shopping opportunities for souvenirs were plentiful but not (in my view) pressured, and the arts/crafts are amazing and cheap.The safaris were very plentiful and we saw lots elephants, zebras, buffalo, rhinos, antelopes, warthogs, birds, gnus, tho nary a lion or leopard. The visits to Johannesburg and Capetown including very important visits to the horrible black townships surrounding those cities (the Capetown township visit is a must and shouldn't list optional). Both Johannesburg and Capetown deserved one more day than we had. In Johannesburg we were rushed thru the extremely important Apartheid Museum and never saw the new "downtown" or visited Pretoria with its Voortrekker monument and administrative capital buildings; in Capetown the downtown and wharf areas needed at least one more day, as both were fascinating, and no visit to Robben island was included (truly bizarre as its probably the single leading tourist attraction in S. Africa--I went on my own but had to skip the day's included tour as a result). To provide more time in Capetown/Johannesburg I would add one day to the tour and either eliminate the two day stop in Port Elizabeth or reduce it by one day.
The pre-trip at Entabeni Game Reserve and the "hotel" there (individual thatch-roof cabins) were both good, but probably one day could be cut, as it included three entire days of safari rides and the main trip included several more. The post-trip to Victoria Falls was a bit more questionable as is, since without the rather expensive optional trips (one to Chobe reserve in Botswana and another to an elephant park, there isn't that much for do for 3 1/2 days after you've seen the quite impressive falls. It would make more sense to include these optional trips and raise the price a bit, especially since the pre-trip could be cut by a day and decreased in price.
Our tour guide, John Finch, was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic, especially about S. Africa and its history/politics/flora/fauna. He's also quite well informed about the U.S. (probably more than most Americans!), so could often draw comparisons (i.e. racial discrimination) between the U.S. and S.A. Tips are now included in the price for everyone except the tour guide, who apparently depends entirely upon them with a suggested tip of about $5/per person per day. While this provides a strong incentive for the tour guide to perform well, since anyone can skip the tip if they wish, it strikes me as fairer to include at least half the suggested tip in the price and then suggest an additional tip of $2-3/p.p.per day.
One real rip-off is that if you make your own international plane reservations, Grand Circle charges $50 extra for in-trip flight transfers (which cost them nothing extra as the bus to the airport is going anyway) and $25 for airport transfers at the beginning and end of the trip if needed. The beginning transfer is ridiculous, because the Johannesburg Hotel is so close to the airport that you literally walk; altho they do meet you with a representative it would make much more sense for Grand Circle to join have you get a cab (at most $5). These rip-offs apparently make up for the fact that if you make your own plane reservations there is no rake-off for Grand Circle. Finally, the procedure when changing hotels is that you are asked to leave luggage in the hall outside your room and then identify it about 1/2 hour later when it's loaded on the bus, but this provides plenty of opportunity for porters (or others?) to go thru your luggage. I lost a treasured souvenir during one such transfer, so I advise keeping your carry-on luggage with you at all times, even if it's heavy.
Finally, finally, in general Grand Circle is overly cautious in some of their recommendations. I never used sunscreen and never got burned. Their recommendation to bring a hat is good, but it should have a chin strap, as otherwise you are likely to lose it to blustery winds on the safaris and elsewhere. I never used mosquito repellent and only got bitten (quite a bit tho) at the hotel in Knysna. Our tour guide, who has lived in S. Africa (Capetown) for many years, pooh-poohed the threat of malaria, tho most folks on the tour were taking medication.
✔ Yes, I recommend this trip.