The Kilimanjaro trekking companies – which one should you choose?
Before I begin, it should be noted that in this article we are really talking about Tanzanian companies; if you decide to book with their overseas agent (ie one based in your home country in North America, Europe, Asia or Australia/New Zealand), then you’ll pay probably double the price charged by the ground operator at least, as you will be paying that agent’s commission too. Furthermore, because the amount of commission each agency charges varies wildly, I think it’s fair to say that if you are booking with an overseas agent the price of the trek is not always an accurate indicator of the quality of the service provided. I know of several overseas agents who charge an absolute fortune for their treks but actually use a pretty unexceptional (and in some cases, poor) Tanzanian company to actually run the trek for them.
For a more in-depth discussion on this, please visit our booking with an overseas agent versus booking directly with a Tanzanian company page.
There is one more thing I should say out before I begin. And I realise it’s a controversial thing to say too – but I’ll say it anyway: in my opinion, your chances of reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro are influenced far more by the route you take, the number of days you choose to spend on the mountain, whether you take Diamox, drink and eat plenty and sheer good fortune (ie, are you good at acclimatising, or not!) than they are by the company you choose. So don’t think that by paying more you are automatically improving your chances of getting to the summit.
I can hear the murmurs of discontent already. If that was true, then why do the ‘better companies’ go to such great lengths to advertise their success rates for getting people to the summit, with many boasting of rates near the 100% mark for certain routes? Well, for one thing, there is nothing to stop these companies from baldly lying because nobody can verify any of these claims. Secondly, the reason they do so is not because they think they have really discovered the secret recipe for getting people to the summit; it’s because they know that this is the one thing most people care about more than anything else: getting to the summit. So by publishing their success rates for getting people to the summit, they are telling people what they want to hear.
Which does of course lead to another question: if their success rates are true, then surely this does show that they have the secret recipe for getting people to the top? Well, let me just say this: I have not encountered one company in my 17 years of working on the mountain that has truly found a magical formula for getting people to the summit, beyond obeying the usual maxims of taking a longer route, spending seven days or more on the mountain, eating well, sleeping well and possibly taking Diamox or some other wonder-drug. I have encountered only one company that has employed a tactic in addition to the above that has significantly improved people’s chances of getting to the summit – one Western agency has for the past few years offered their trekkers the chance, for a fee, to take supplemental oxygen via a cannula inserted (I believe) into their nose while ascending. And yes, this will improve your chances still further of getting to the top. But most trekkers will consider the downsides of such an approach – the extra cost, the discomfort of having this cannula fitted, the fact you’ll look a bit of a pratt, and the nagging doubt in the back of your mind that you’re somehow cheating, particularly when no-one else on the mountain is doing this – and decide against it.
I know, you’ve got another question. If we assume the success rates published by many companies are true, then why is it that the more expensive companies tend to have higher success rates? Well I think there are two strands to my response here. Firstly, it is true that the more expensive companies are likely to be more experienced, and thus better organised, and have more money behind them. And as a result of this, they are less likely to make a mistake (for example, by not supplying your trek with enough food, or by using old and broken equipment) that would jeopardise your trek. And if they do mess up, then they have the financial wherewithal and organisational skills to sort it out (eg by sending a team of porters up to resupply your trek with more food or replacement equipment). As a result, they have a higher success rate, because they mess up less.
The other reason why more expensive companies have higher success rates is slightly more subtle. If you’re on a budget and want a cheap trek, then the chances are you’re going to want to take a shorter trek too (ie one of just five or six days). As a result, the cheaper companies tend to run more shorter treks – and thus have a lower success rate. Simple.
In conclusion, in my experience if you take a longer route and spend seven days or more on the mountain, choose a route such as Rongai, Lemosho or Machame that have high success rates, eat well and get plenty of rest on the mountain, then your chances of getting to the top will be much the same whether you go with a budget company or an expensive one.
So why, then, if you can’t pay more to improve your chances of getting to the top, should you bother paying more at all? Well, I believe that the main reason you pay more for your trek is to have a better time, to enjoy your experience more, and to be in safer hands if something goes wrong. And yes, by paying more to trek with a better company you minimise the risk of them messing up somehow, and causing something to go wrong that could jeopardise your trek.
So let’s look at what your budget will get you on Kilimanjaro. Again, my opinions here may be controversial, but in my experience it’s the truth.
For those with a budget of less than US$1000 for their Kilimanjaro climb
If you have less than US$1000 for your Kilimanjaro climb, then stay at home – because you won’t find a climb this cheap. You can always come for a day’s walk on the mountain, and you can possibly afford to climb Kili’s diminutive neighbour, Meru, too – and possibly do both! But forget about climbing Kili to the top for this price – it’s very difficult to find a trek for less than US$1000, highly dangerous if you do find one, and the company that offers it will have minimal safety standards, little to no customer service, and will doubtless pay their staff appallingly too.
The cheapest Kilimanjaro climbs (US$1000-1500)
The cheapest way to organise a climb is to just turn up at the airport, get a taxi to Moshi or Arusha, and begin negotiating with the companies there. That said, you need to have confidence in your bargaining skills, and – at the risk of sounding like a salesman! – it’s a good idea to have a copy of our book so you know how to haggle, what to look out for, and what should be in the contract that you sign.
Note that even at this bargain-basement price threshold you should still get your park fees paid for, all meals on the mountain, a porter to carry your bag, a guide to lead you, and transfers to and from Kili at the start/end of the trek (though this last one, particularly the lift back to town at the end of the trek, often does not materialise and you may have to hitch back on a lorry full of porters).
If you book in Moshi then it is still possible, just, to get a trek for US$1000-1200. But this trek will be for just five days, which we really don’t recommend, and with a company that we won’t be able to recommend either. In short, it won’t be possible to guarantee the reliability or honesty of any company charging so little. One thing I will be able to guarantee, however, is that their treatment of porters will be terrible and the wages they pay to their staff measly – no matter what the company claims. If you decide to climb with one of these companies then you could always ease your conscience by dishing out higher tips. But then, of course, that negates any savings you have made by opting for the cheaper company in the first place.
Between US$1200-1500 there’s a slight improvement. But only a slight one. And you can still forget about finding a company that treats its mountain crew – the porters, guides and cooks – fairly and pays them well. (The cheapest company we found, when researching for the latest edition of the guidebook, that is a partner of KPAP, which is the only guarantee that the company you are climbing with treats its staff well and pays them a fair wage, charges around US$1750 for their budget six-day trek. So presumably you can get a five-day trek for about US$1500 with them. But as we mention throughout this website and indeed in the book as well, we really don’t recommend a five-day trek as it’s simply too dangerous, because it doesn’t allow you enough time to acclimatise safely. See our section on altitude sickness for more information on this.
So if you have have only US$1500 or less for your trek, then our advice is to delay your trip, save up some more money and try another year. Or you can come, but leave your conscience at home; because you won’t find a company that treats its porters/crew well for this price. The only exception to this rule is if you find the cheapest KPAP company, and opt for a five-day trek – having first acclimatised on another mountain.
Budget Kilimanjaro climbs (US$1500-2000)
Between US$1500 and US$2000 you will get a lot more choice and find several companies that are partners with KPAP (ie their is a guarantee that they will treat their staff well) and the quality of the treks start to improve exponentially too. Companies may start to provide private toilets and mess tents, the quality of food certainly improves and the quality of the guides do too. They should also all carry oxygen with them (the one and only bit of emergency equipment that we think is absolutely essential).
So if you’re on a tight budget, this is the price bracket to aim for. You will still probably have to take a six-day trek rather than the preferred 7 or 8 days (remember, the longer the trek, the greater your chance of acclimatising safely and thus reaching the summit), and the food, equipment and service may not be of the highest quality. But it should be good enough, your trek should run reasonably smoothly and successfully, any dietary requirement you may have should be catered for, and whether successful or not, you should return from your climb happy with the experience.
Mid-range treks (US$2000-3000)
Between US$2000 and US$3000, you are right in the mid-range of companies and there are several very good value choices here. Most of the larger Tanzanian companies inhabit this territory, and several have their own hotels now, and maybe even a lodge in one of the national parks; which means that there’s every chance that you’ll be in their care from the moment you pass through customs at the airport to the moment you fly out at the end of your trip.
There’s a lot of competition in this price bracket so some companies try to distinguish themselves by, for example, offering unusual routes, or packages that include a safari or sightseeing tour beforehand. Some companies will be KPAP partners, proving that they treat their porters well and pay a fair wage. Others will have guides who are WFR (Wilderness First Responder) qualified, meaning their first-aid skills should be up to scratch. Many of the companies that are owned in part by Westerners pitch their prices in this bracket (presumably, the treks that cost less than US$2000 simply don’t offer big enough returns for them!). Some people will be comforted by the fact that there is a person ‘like them’ in the company; while other trekkers will go the other way, and insist on a company that is wholly Tanzanian-owned, safe in the knowledge that every penny/cent/euro/shilling of the money they spend on their trek will stay within the country, rather than some of it being siphoned off to the American/European director’s offshore bank.
One thing that definitely improves in this price bracket from those offering treks below US$2000, is that the safety procedures tend to be superior. Often trekkers will be monitored with a pulse oximeter, which measures the oxygen saturation in your blood (a useful, if not definitive, way of telling how well someone is coping with altitude); and they should all have well-rehearsed evacuation procedures too, which they should be able to tell you about comprehensively before you’ve even booked your trek.
Despite all their efforts at standing out from the crowd, usually there can be little to distinguish between the companies in this bracket and you may find yourself choosing the one that answers your emails more promptly, or more comprehensively, or that simply has a trek organised on the dates you want, and on the route you want too.
It’s fair to say that in this price bracket you should be happy with pretty much everything in your trek package. If your transfer from the airport is late, then you should complain; if the food on the mountain is inadequate, or the equipment broken or not fit-for-purpose, or the guides rude, then again, you should complain. Of course, the same should apply for the budget treks of less than US$2000 too – though in this category a certain acceptance that, as long as the company is trying its hardest, not everything will necessarily be perfect, is usually advised for your own mental well-being.
Luxury operators (US$3000 and above)
By the time you get to this price, things start to get very interesting. Most of the companies in this price bracket will be able to get away with charging this much because they are Kili specialists. Some will have worked on the mountain for decades for example; others will rightly boast of having established new routes on the mountain, or of having highly trained and experienced guides, with several hundred treks under their belt and a WFR (Wilderness First Responder) qualification. Most companies will be KPAP partners, proving that they treat their porters well (and if they’re not then you need to ask some sharp questions to to get them to explain why they’re not!) One or two companies may also offer such luxuries as inflatable furniture in the mess tents, proper beds set up at each campsite, wifi hotspots on the mountain and smartphone chargers. These may sound gimmicky, and indeed they are, but nevertheless the companies in this price bracket should also be very good at the important stuff too: cooking exceptionally nutritious and tasty food on the mountain, for example; having first-rate safety procedures and equipment; having highly trained guides with excellent English; and boasting a team back at base that is efficient at responding to any questions you may have with highly informative and comprehensive answers.
All this stuff costs, of course – which is why you pay such a premium for their services.
Once you’ve chosen your budget – the next step
Perhaps the first thing you should look at is our Kilimanjaro Countdown, which will lead you through the booking process step-by-step. If you know your budget but don’t know what company to choose within that budget, or aren’t sure which route to take, then drop us a line and we’ll be happy to help with any enquiry you may have. Or you can buy the book, which has a rundown of all the main operators and agencies working on Kili as well as pretty much everything else that you’ll need to know to make your trip a happy and successful one.