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SA’s ‘secret’ travel clubs claim to offer unbeatable deals. Here’s how they really stack up

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  • Members-only travel clubs claim to offer deep discounts at luxury lodges throughout Africa.
  • Several offer good discounts on spectacular trips. But many overstate the discounts they are offering – and in some case offer no real discount at all.
  • There are often also terms and conditions that make actually booking and travelling when you like more onerous. 
  • With a bit of research, though, these tools can deliver some good discounts on luxury stays.
  • Here’s how some of SA’s luxury travel clubs stack up.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

South Africa has several “secret” and “members-only” travel clubs that claim to offer travellers unbeatable deals on often otherwise unattainable luxury escapes throughout Africa.

Broadly speaking these clubs take two forms: they’re either third-party websites that secure “exclusive” deals across the tourism industry, or they’re run by safari camp operators as in-house projects, though often kept separate from their official websites and with few public mentions.

Third-party travel deals sites hype up their secrecy and exclusivity with variations on the “members only” deals model – and they use this style of wording throughout their marketing collateral – even though, at times, the deals are in fact open to the public.

Those clubs run directly by high-end tourism companies and safari camp operators, such as Natural Selection, Wilderness Safaris, and &Beyond, have tended towards slightly more muted publicity. For a fee, which often goes towards a non-profit arm of the business, or an upfront deposit, members get preferential treatment and access to special rates before the general public.

Unsurprisingly, several caveats apply – particularly when it comes to third-party aggregators like Secret Getaways, Conservation Club, and Reignite Travel.

Many of the deals are only open to SADC residents, and are on occasion open to the general public on the specific resort or lodge website. And as with many online stores and daily deals sites, many of these travel clubs proudly proclaim discounts upwards of 50%, but seldom deliver. Although most do offer something of a discount, or at least a few decent freebies, the reality is almost always that the percentage-off deals fail to live up to the hype. Instead, sites will use the highest possible rate they can find – like those during peak times – as their yardsticks, and proudly proclaim discounts from these rather than a more realistic rate.

Dates of travel are also often limited and may exclude certain peak periods like school and public holidays or weekends. Final confirmation of these available dates might also only take place one or two months before you’re due to travel. In some cases, users might have to buy vouchers before being offered specific dates – these vouchers can be used towards the booking, but don’t guarantee you’ll get to go exactly when you want to.

It’s also possible that by paying a reduced rate you’re less likely to receive the best room in the hotel – these are typically reserved for full-fare guests. And there may well be some costs, like those for transfers, activities, or certain food and drinks, excluded in a clause hidden deep in the fine print.

But if you have some flexibility with your travel dates, you’re willing to jump through a few administrative and logistical hoops, and accept that your final discount is unlikely to be quite as dramatic as promised, it’s possible to secure some pretty good deals.

Comparing members-only deals with those available to the general public is complex, and open to some interpretation particularly when it comes to dates, add-ons, and a few other variables.

Here’s how three popular local members-only travel clubs stack up.

Secret Getaway

Secret Getaway is widely regarded as the market leader in members-only travel deal sites. The company aggregates packages from across the travel spectrum and includes domestic, regional, and international deals. Membership is free, and the company promises savings of up to 65%, along with perks like upgrades and inclusions.

Unlike a live booking engine, some listings on sites like Secret Getaway are only valid for specific days of the week, and outside of peak periods like school holidays. Although some listings allow for live checking of availability, others require you to email the company and await a response. That said, it’s possible to submit a request to Secret Getaway for specific dates, and they promise to reply promptly.

Listings also require you to purchase a “voucher”. These vouchers are valid for one week, during which time you’ll have to find a date that works for you, and then convert the voucher into a booking. If you’re unable to lock down dates, you can exchange vouchers for credit, which is valid for three years, to use at a later stage.

If you find a cheaper deal for the same hotel elsewhere, Secret Getaway won’t refund you the difference – instead, they promise to ask the hotel to offer “more extras” during your stay.

How the deals stack up

Angama Mara (R89,990)

Offer: Five nights per couple in a tented suite, including meals, house drinks, game activities, selected transfers, park fees and foundation contributions.

Claimed discount: R153,510

Actual discount: The closest package when booking directly on the Angama Mara website costs approximately R160,000 per couple, and includes an in-tent massage. The actual saving, although significant, is, therefore, closer to R70,000.

Machangulo Beach Lodge (R10,960)

Offer: Three nights per couple in an ocean view room, including meals and selected activities.

Claimed discount: R21,830

Actual discount: Around R215. It’s possible to book a room for two, including dinner, bed and breakfast, directly through the hotel’s website at a cost of R11,175. Although you’ll need to pay for lunch, and possibly the selected activities, yourself, it’s unlikely these will make up the balance of the promised discount.

Conservation Club

This relatively new startup follows a similar model and approach to that of Secret Getaway, but places a focus more on ecotourism and conservation in the marketing collateral. According to the Conservation Club website, it wants to change the future of travel “[b]y creating a club of conscious travellers and connecting them with Africa’s best conservation experiences, unique locations, adventures and even expeditions.”

The site currently has deals throughout South Africa at several of the country’s high-end lodges and game reserves, as well as a few more budget-friendly options – and it only accepts bookings from people living in Africa.

According to the company’s terms and conditions, some rates are discounted because they carry certain “restrictions and conditions, for example non-cancelable and non-refundable.” If you happen to find trips with the same conditions at a lower rate, Conservation Club says it will match the difference between their rate and the lower rate.

Unlike some other travel club sites, Conservation Club does not make any claims of offering grandiose discounts – and many rates are the same as the accommodation partners’, before any direct promotional discounts. It does, however, appear to negotiate some additional perks for guests at some establishments.

How the deals stack up:

Tswalu Kalahari Tarkuni Homestead (R405,400) 

Offer: Two nights exclusive use of Tarkuni Homestead, all-inclusive.

Claimed discount: No discount claimed.

Actual price: It’s currently possible to book an all-inclusive two-night stay for 10 people in the same lodge directly via Tswalu Kalahari’s Nightsbridge portal for the same price of R405,400. This rate does not appear to include the additional extra of a night sleeping under the stars, which is charged for at an additional R9,000 a night. The reserve is however offering several direct promotional discounts, such as stay five nights and only pay for three, which may further reduce the cost of accommodation.

La Clé des Montagnes (R3,000) 

Offer: One night during off-season dates in a “Petite Room”, bed and breakfast and certain activities included.

Claimed discount: No discount claimed.

Actual price: It’s possible to book a Petite Room during the same period directly on the La Clé des Montagnes’s Nightsbridge portal for between R2,750 and R3,000 a night, depending on dates.

Reignite Travel

Reignite Travel is another multi-destination deal website. It says it is aiming to drive “local travel into a select group of privately owned lodges, camps, hotels and private villas”. The group has deals at accommodation throughout South Africa, as well as in Mozambique, Namibia, Kenya, Zambia, and Seychelles. At present, they are focusing on destinations that offer good SADC rates and intending to pass part of these discounts on to their users.

Reignite Travel also shies away from publicising specific discount amounts next to their rates, though they do promise savings of “up to 60%” for some listings. In general, the website opts for a “rates from” approach, and then requires users to submit enquiry forms to find out full details. This makes direct comparisons difficult, as it is unclear how many of these “rates from” are available.

How the deals stack up:

Marataba Conservation Camps – Founders Camp (From R3,300)

Offer: R3,300 per person per night, with a minimum of four guests staying two nights.

Claimed discount: Up to 60%.

Actual discount: It’s possible to book a mid-week stay directly with Marataba’s Founders Camp for R3,300 per night under the same conditions. Explorers Camp, listed alongside, also offers the same rates as those available direct.

La Clé des Montagnes (from R2,750 per room)

Offer: One night in Petite Room

Claimed discount: Up to 50%

Actual price: It’s possible to book a Petite Room during the same period directly on the La Clé des Montagnes’s Nightsbridge portal for between R2,750 and R3,000 a night.

Going direct with safari camp operator clubs

Some companies that own and run camps and lodges around Africa now also have their own travel clubs – and in many cases these offer rates that are equal to or better than those offered by the third-party businesses.

Natural Selection runs its Explorers Club which promises early alerts about special offers and last-minute deals, as well as up to 70% off its publicly available rates. Membership costs R1,000 which goes towards various conservation initiatives, but this has been waived until the end of June this year.

Wilderness Safaris has a Members’ Club that offers “extraordinary rates”, with discounts of up to 50%, to African residents. Membership costs R7,500, which serves a contribution to the company’s non-profit conservation organisation.

&Beyond offers exclusive rates for citizens and residents of the SADC group of countries through its Bateleur Club. Membership can be bought by way of putting down a minimum deposit of R45,000, that can be used to pay for all &Beyond related purchases.

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