On January 1 2010 at 6:45 AM I hit the summit of Africa, Kilimanjaro. I was with a small group of clients of Zara Tours. Zara subcontracts with other tour operators, some with offices in the United States and Europe. They are a local company and are affiliated through ownership of other tour and safari companies and hotels, including the Springlands Hotel in Moshi, Tanzania, the base from which our tour was launched.
If you were reading my previous posts, you might have gotten a few positive and negative impressions. First off, I doubt that any of the negative impressions are directly the result of having used Zara.
1) allergy. I'm not so allergic to peanut products that I'm at risk of dying but it can be miserable for myself and everyone around me if I do react. Because of the tip situation (see below) the cook will most likely not speak English, might not even be selected until the trailhead, and there will be no reasonable way to convey allergy or special dietary requirements to them, or even to anyone involved. From what I saw of other groups, I have no reason to believe this would be any different on a group with a US-based operator like Mountain Madness or any of the others. I might be wrong and if they want to post and correct me, I'm fine with that.
2) water treatment. Most of the water sources come from the peak, down a path that doesn't have any real animal or human contact, other than the porter's hands. Most of the groups I saw hauled water in some form of recycled containers and it's not obvious that any of these containers are ever washed. I did not see any other group on the mountain boiling gallons and gallons of water, and I can imagine the fuel needed to do that would be very burdensome to haul. Since the porters would be filling your bottles in secret to hide that fact, and there's a lot of risk of contact with unsanitary surfaces, I highly recommend that you take along a steripen or whatever you feel safe with. Even if you are with a US-based group (remember, the Tanzania Park rules require them to use local porters and cooks and guides in addition to the US staff).
3) tips. Wow. You'll read articles about how you should dole out your tips to each member of the staff to ensure that the guide isn't running off with all the money. In our case, our own porters (those actually touching our individual gear) were hidden from us, our cook was hidden from us, and we were never even sure how many porters we had - though when we got our group picture, 15 porters appeared from the surrounding area to pose with us. I may sound cynical, but the annoyance of having them manhandling my stuff and mixing up my system of packing just to confirm that I'm a helpless dweeb and should give them more money soured me a bit. So too the "celebration dinner" scam. But be that as it may, there are several different tip systems you can look up based on how many days long your trip is. Then you all get together and hand it to the head guide, who may or may not distribute it to the porters.
4) cast-off gear. Yes, plan your trip to take all your cast-offs, no longer fits, no longer needed, busted zipper and torn. This is not a "die from a busted zipper" kind of trip. You can do it in ratty old ski clothes. Then give it all away at the end. You'll feel good about yourself. Close your eyes though to the Pawn-like shops selling cast-off gear. Assume the porters who need cash will sell their stuff to buy "porter diamox" (we were told cigarettes were porter diamox).
5) food. Most of us United States natives will not be totally thrilled at the local diet. Without the corn subsidies, and with the abundance of local sugar cane, you'll get real sugar in stuff, not high fructose corn syrup. Meat will be stringy and tough. Eggs will be thin and white. A local outfitter will most likely lean toward local food. A US outfitter may or may not. I have a DVD from one that shows a huge buffet laid out at one of the camps. It might just be advertising hype, or they might hire a dozen more porters to haul it all (and hence the almost 5x expense of the trip).
So the bottom line?
Some of the minor shortcomings of the trip you just have to live with and get past to make this work. It is what it is, and while you theoretically can arrange a completely self-supported trip, and have the requisite minimum porter/guide/cook count hang out and just follow you up to meet your legal obligations, I don't recommend this unless you absolutely could not possibly deal with the problems I mentioned above.
Otherwise, for most people who have traveled internationally before, and have eaten local food, especially in Asia, and have used local toilets, again, in Asia, I think a local operator would work out fine.
If you have to have American food, and have to communicate with someone in charge who is a native English speaker, and need a slightly higher level of coddling, then maybe you could investigate a US-based outfitter that does not subcontract with Zara or one of the other half-dozen Tanzania companies that will give a Tanzania local experience. Usually the lower the price the more likely it's going to be a "local" experience.
For myself, if it were just me, and I were to do it over, I'd be happy enough with Zara to do it again. YMMV.