Our trip is going to be 4 full weeks (Sept. 20-Oct. 17) which also just so happens to coincide with our slow time of year. I wanted to start in Cape Town as it's an easy city to get to, and from everything I've read, it's a great way to ease yourself into Africa. We'll be flying via Amsterdam or Dubai depending on pricing (I'm trying to finagle a business class flight for the longest leg on Emirates Airline.) I've been using http://www.kayak.com/ to compare rates over the last couple of months. They're a great resource, and you can then book your flights directly with the airlines. From Boston, the trip should take about 20 hours. Not too bad ... our last trip to Asia wound up taking 43 hours each way. I just keep reminding myself of that.
I started mapping out the route we're going to take about 4 months ago (6+ months before the trip.) Safaris book up early at the best camps even in a slow economy, and there are many people who book more than a year in advance. I decided the best route for us would be:
Cape Town, South Africa
Franschhoek, South Africa (wine country)
Kruger National Park, South Africa (safari)
Livingstone, Zambia (Victoria Falls)
Day trip to the Zimbabwe side of the Falls
Johannesburg, South Africa (transiting for one night)
Masai Mara, Kenya (to see the great migration)
This route allows us to fly directly back home from Zanzibar rather than having to head back to Cape Town first. It also limits the amount of days we'll spend traveling from place to place, and it allowed us to wind up at Victoria Falls for the full moon. You're supposed to be able to see a lunar rainbow at night.
Conde Naste Traveler. I started by sitting down one day and tearing out every single article I could find on South or Eastern Africa, as well as every "top 100" or "top 50" list for the last couple of years. I wrote down the hotels, resorts and tour companies that made multiple appearances. Never assume that just because a property is in one of those magazines that it's out of your budget. For instance, I found that the Westin Hotel in Cape Town is on multiple top 10 lists, but is $144 a night for a deluxe room. Le Grande Roche (right outside of Cape Town) is ranked the 2nd best hotel in the world! It's $245 a night. Not bad!
http://www.luxurylink.com/ gave me a lot of clues. If you hit their site (they also have travel packages and info for other regions of the world,) you'll see which hotels and companies are offering specials. My thought was, you don't offer up packages for auction on a website unless you're a little flexible on price! That's how I decided our best bet was a company called AndBeyond.
http://www.andbeyond.com/ surfaced all kinds of discount offers, but the key is the time of year. For instance, they are running a Stay for 3 nights / pay for 2 nights special in their South African lodges, but the special ends Oct. 1. I planned the trip so that we would be checking into their Ngala Lodge Sept 29 and out Oct 2 so that we would qualify. I can't imagine the game viewing is that much better Oct 1st than it is Sept 30th. We also signed on for a package in Masai Mara, Kenya at Kichwa Tembo where they were able to throw in free flights to and from the safari camp, and they were able to give us off season rates on 2 nights at their higher-end camp because they did not have availability at the camp we'd originally requested. These little discounts added up to saving us thousands of dollars in the end. Safaris are all priced per person, so costs rise very, very fast. However, we did say when we decided to do this that it's probably a once in a lifetime opportunity and a place to splurge. Doesn't everyone want to have the Out of Africa experience at some point in life.
Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree I was able to find the best way to rent cars, book airport transfers, and find low cost airlines that the sites like Expedia don't search for our shorter flights between countries. I was also able to find little gems like where to book a Malay cooking class in Cape Town, or where to book a "Jazz Safari" where you go to the townships at night, have dinner at a local musicians home and then go out on the town to dance till 2AM. Those are the experiences I can't wait to have! I'm in search of the local medicine man!