We are all "booked and confirmed" for a Feb/Mar safari with Basecamp. Thanks to everyone here for your advice. Originally, we were planning for June but moved it up to mid-February at the rather last minute. I know some people plan a year in advance. I started the process in late November from scratch and changed months to visit, so the actual bookings were done not more than a month out.
Our itinerary looks like this (I've posted this several times -- sorry -- but I had a request to post our final itinerary so here it is):
Fly into JRO, spend first couple nights in Arusha to get over jet lag. Arumeru Lodge.
Then officially on safari:
Hiking in Arusha NP, overnight Arumeru Lodge.
Day 2: Tarangire NP, overnight Tarangire Safari Lodge.
Day 3: Tarangire NP, overnight Boundary Hill Lodge so we can take a night game drive.
Day 4-6: Serengeti NP, overnight Serengeti Wilderness Camp (tents).
Day 7: Drive to Ngorongoro NP; enroute Oldupai Gorge, overnight Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge (on the rim).
Day 8: Day hike, Embakai Crater, overnight Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge.
Day 9: Ngorongoro Crater game drive, drive to Lake Eyasi, overnight Tindiga Tented Camp.
Day 10: Visit Hadzapi Bushmen, afternoon drive to Arusha, overnight Arumeru Lodge.
Day 11: Fly to Zanzibar for five nights, Zanzibar Coffee House hotel and then fly home.
This is our first African safari so I wanted to get a mix rather than just being in a vehicle the whole time. And it's fairly a "budget" option, though we are splurging to be on the crater rim (I'm assuming - I have no idea what we are paying for the individual hotels).
I emailed several safari operators to get quotes. Basecamp is known for its good rates but still has good reviews on TA. Achmed seemed to sum up what I would like from just one email. He's obviously been at this for awhile.
I also really liked what I heard from Warrior Trails and suggest that they be a company to consider - good communication, good places to stay, good prices - I was just already pretty far in with Basecamp so decided to stay with them.
Several other operators looked great, but a bit expensive for us. And I didn't really like the ones that pushed talking over the phone right away. I realize why they would want to do that but it felt a bit too pushy for me so I didn't go that route. And I chose a local TZ company even though it's a bit daunting to send half the cost up front.
I also did a lot of research for Zambia and Rwanda (for gorillas) but eventually, we decided not to go to either place because the cost was just getting higher than we wanted to go - hopefully, we'll get to those places some other time.
So, fire away with any questions you have! PM if you want specific information.
We are going with Delta/KLM for the flight from SFO to JRO and will fly back from DAR. Got a decent rate, I thought, for an open jaw at around $1,400 pp but then, the flights look really cheap as of yesterday if someone wanted to go very last minute.