Planning an African safari seems like an immense task. Planning a budget African safari seems even more overwhelming. If you have a generous budget, there are lots of travel agents with glossy magazines or websites with impossibly luxurious accommodations and safaris ready to help you. However, when you are trying to create a budget African safari, things get a little quiet. In this article, I am going to highlight six strategies that you should follow to create your budget African safari. Even if you find a travel agent or company to help you, you should be mindful of how to keep your travel costs down. It’s your hard earned money! You should make sure it is being spent to create the best experience at the most reasonable cost.
My African Safari Experiences
I have had the privilege of going on eight safaris in five African countries over the last 34 years. I have been on safaris in Kenya (1985 and 2019), Botswana (1996), Zambia (2014), Zimbabwe (2014), and South Africa (1996 and 2014). Over the years, I feel like I have experienced almost every kind of safari: budget to luxury; national parks to private reserves; camping to lodges; and self driving to planes.
For sure, my financial means have changed over the last 34 years. In 1985, I was a high school student on a very low budget school trip to Kenya and in 1996, I was a married young professional with university debt and a mortgage. Just the plane fare to Africa was an assault on my budget. Every experience and every penny had to be well thought out and “worth it”.
Since 1996, I have been very lucky and my travel budget has grown. In 2014 and just recently in 2019, we have had some utterly jaw dropping luxury safari experiences. If you are curious about what those look like, I have written about our 2014 safari experiences in Zambia in two blogs:
However, this doesn’t mean that I no longer search for good deals; or I ignore how to save money when planning an African safari; or I don’t challenge my travel agent or myself to find better or more value driven options. I absolutely still do. So how do I do it?
Three ways. By understanding:
1. How to save money when planning an African safari.
2. What parts of an African safari experience are worth spending more and which are not.
3. Why something might be more expensive or cheaper than expected, and what to do with that information.
Do You Need To Spend A Lot Of Money To Go On An African Safari?
The short answer is “No.” You definitely do not.
I can guarantee you the thrill, excitement and pure joy that you will have on safari will be amazing regardless of the amount of money you spend. Will some experiences be more “exclusive” than others? Yes, of course. Spending more money will give you access to better accommodation, service, and more remote locations with less people and rules. However, the exhilaration of witnessing African wildlife in their natural habitat is equal no matter how you get there, or where you stay.
My first budget African safari
I was 18 years old when I did my first safari in Kenya in 1985. I was on a school trip and we camped in the Masai Mara without a fence. This meant that there was absolutely nothing between us and the wildlife. We cooked our food by campfire, slept on the floor of tents, and dug a hole in the bush when we needed to use the toilet.
During the day, we packed onto a large truck and searched for animals. What a spectacle. I’ll never forget seeing a white rhino and her baby. They were critically endangered back then (maybe still are) and I felt incredibly lucky to see them. We watched lions devour an impala and cheetahs hunt – I mean full out fastest land animal in the world chasing a gazelle (and missing). It was mesmerizing. By night, we hovered over the campfire, sang songs, told stories, and laughed a lot. The sky was filled with stars, constellations and the milky way. Every morning, we woke up to paw prints EVERYWHERE in our camp. Lions, hyenas, and other less threatening creatures all left their marks mere inches from where we lay.
My first African safari was magical, terrifying, exhilarating, and life changing. It was as low budget as you could go and I wouldn’t have changed a moment of it then or even now.
My second budget African safari
My second budget African safari in Kruger National Park in South Africa in 2014 happened a few days before my most luxurious African safari in Zambia. The fact that you can experience both on the same trip is worth noting.
We rented a car and stayed at a private home outside Kruger National Park with the intent to explore the region – not to do a safari as we had safaris planned later in Zambia. However, one day, we decided we wanted to go into Kruger. We hired a safari guide and vehicle instead of doing it on our own so we could relax and enjoy the experience.
Our guide picked us up from our accommodation in an open air safari jeep and drove us to one of the park entrances. Then, we spent the whole day exploring as much of Kruger and its wildlife as we could. It was easy to organize, inexpensive and amazing way to spend a day.
Kruger is one of Africa’s largest game reserves. It is 19,500 km2 or close to 5 million acres. It also has one of the highest density of wild animals including the “Big 5” – lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalos. Currently, it costs $25 USD per adult or $18 per child per day to enter the park. In other words, this would be the TOTAL cost to do your own day safari if you have your own rental vehicle.
How To Create Your Own Budget African Safari
Over the last 34 years, I have learnt an awful lot about how to plan a budget African safari. Here are six key strategies to keep your costs down.
1. Go to countries without entry visas for a budget African safari
Some countries require you to purchase costly entry visas while others do not. Right from the outset, this could be quite expensive and impact your budget African safari.
For example, we just returned from Kenya and Tanzania. Kenya charged $50 USD per adult per visa. Tanzania was worst. It charged $50 USD per person for both adults and children. On the other hand, South Africa did not (and still does not) require an entry visa for many nationals (not all). For our family of five, which country you chose to do a safari could be the difference between paying $250 USD or nothing. That’s pretty significant.
These requirements constantly change. I would not book flights without first checking visa requirements and costs.
2. Go to places that do not require specialized vaccines or malaria pills for a budget African safari
Some African countries have diseases that are unique to their country and are quite serious. However, luckily for everyone, there are vaccines or medication to either prevent contraction or weaken the strength of the disease upon contraction.
For example, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa all require proof of a Yellow Fever vaccination only if you are travelling from a country that has a risk of Yellow Fever. This would exclude most countries outside Africa. Nevertheless, you should check to see that your flight plans do not intentionally or inadvertently place you in one of these countries. Do not make assumptions.
These vaccines can be costly and you should not assume that your extended medical plan will cover them. Mine did not. For my family, I have literally spent thousands of dollars (in Canada) for specialized vaccines, like Yellow Fever and Typhoid, for travel abroad.
Malaria is the leading cause of death in Africa. (Fun fact, being killed by a hippo is number 2). Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects mosquitos which then feeds on humans. It is not always fatal but often is and regardless, it sounds like a very unpleasant disease. Malaria is 90% preventable with antimalarial drugs. For the other 10% who unfortunately contract the disease, the antimalarial drugs undermine the strength of the disease.
I am definitely not a doctor so you should research Malaria on your own to determine any issues that might relate to you and your family.
However, for the purposes of creating a budget African safari, you should be aware that some countries recommend antimalarial drugs everywhere you go (Tanzania), while other only require them in certain places within the country (South Africa and Kenya). Once again, for the purposes of a budget African safari, you can avoid this expense (and risk) if you choose a safari in an unaffected area.
3. Watch for hidden government fees and taxes
In 2016, Tanzania imposed an 18% VAT on all tourist related activities. This has put Tanzania into one of the most expensive places to do a safari. It does not look like Kenya or South Africa have done anything similar or already had anything like that in place. However, when it is time to book your budget African safari, this should be something that you explore. Saving 18% by simply doing a safari in Kenya versus its neighbour, Tanzania is an easy way to save money for a budget African safari.
4. Go to national parks for a budget African safari
In my earlier blog, Africa Safari Planning: Where To Start?, I talk at length about the differences between national parks and private game reserves. I would recommend reviewing that for general information that is important for planning any African safari, regardless of budget. However, for the purposes of saving money for a budget African safari, here is what you should know.
Generally there are two types of game reserves. National parks/reserves run by governments or local councils, and private game reserves/conservancies normally owned by a lodge or a group of entitles.
Normally, national parks are very inexpensive to get into (as noted above, Kruger National Park in South Africa costs $25USD for adults and $18 for children per day). This allows everyone who wants to go on a safari to do so at a reasonable cost.
Every national park is different and if you are interested in one, you should research and see what they offer or do not allow, but generally they:
- have more land and animals than any private reserve;
- offer accommodation within the park for different budgets – from camping to luxury lodges;
- have other accommodation choices outside the park;
- allow day trips; and
- permit self driving without a guide.
Private game reserves/conservancies are owned privately. The owners set the rules for its usage and generally, only allow guests of the lodges within the private reserve to use it. Normally (but not always), private reserves are expensive because the cost of accommodation that you must book to use the reserve is expensive. However, the benefit of doing a safari on a private reserve is twofold.
You get a more “exclusive” experience.
Private reserves are usually only for the guests of the lodge or lodges who own the property. We just returned from Elewana Loisaba Tented Camp and Elewana Star Beds, luxury camps on 57,000 acres in the Loisaba Conservancy, a private reserve. Apart from a small camping ground located elsewhere on the conservancy, guests at these two camps had the exclusive use of the 57,000 acres. Between the two accommodations, there was only 16 rooms. We never saw another soul on any of our safaris.
On the other hand, national parks allow access to everyone. This means that it can get pretty busy so that on game drives, you will likely see other vehicles. In high season, you may even find yourself in a traffic jam as cars jostle for space along a road, waiting for their turn to see the animals that have caught everyone’s attention.
We did experience this on our one day safari in Kruger in 2014. Honestly, I really didn’t like this. However, Kruger National Park and other national parks are huge. If you can do a multi-day safari and get far away from the entrances to the national parks, you will have a more exclusive experience.
You are allowed to do some pretty amazing things not allowed in national parks
What you are allowed to do in a national park is limited. Normally, visitors must stay on the designated roads and are only allowed in the park during set daylight hours. Further, guests are only allowed game drives. They are not allowed to do other types of activities, such as walking, horseback riding, or night safaris.
On the other hand, in private reserves, the guides can drive off road in search of big cats, or do night drives in search of nocturnal animals. In addition, many private reserves offer walking safaris, horseback or camel riding or biking safaris. If you are on or near rivers, you might be able to do river safaris as well. These include gliding amongst the hippos, crocodiles and elephants in speed boats or canoes. I have done all of these safaris. Most recently, at Loisaba, we did a walking, horseback riding, and night safari. Back in 2014, at Chongwe River House, we spent half of our time in one type of boat or another. These were all absolutely jaw dropping and unique experiences that I loved.
5. Go in low season.
If you are interested in going to a private reserve, try to go in low season. We just returned from doing a safari in Loisaba in March which was low season. Not only did it cost a fraction of what it would cost during the summer months, the lodge was empty. It was the end of the dry season, not yet the start of the rainy season and the weather was beautiful.
Do not assume that one month or another is high or low season in the African country that you would like to visit. It can be driven by demand (so the weeks around Christmas, Easter and the summer are normally busy) or by the weather. Regardless, there are deals out there to explore.
The cost of visiting a national park normally remains the same regardless of the time of year. However, the number of people in the parks will vary. Again, if possible, try and go during low season to get the most of your experience and your budget African safari.
6. Limit expensive local travel to game reserves for a budget African safari.
A significant cost for any African safari is transportation from the international airport to the game park. One of the best ways to minimize your costs is to find a game reserve that is a reasonable drive from the airport or find inexpensive commercial flights.
Flights within African countries are typically expensive. They are small planes with limited to no competition. Accordingly, they can charge whatever people are prepared to spend. South Africa is the exception. You might be able to find inexpensive flights within the country with larger planes and more regular service.
On the other hand, self driving or hiring a local travel operator to drive you to a national game park will be less expensive but may be more challenging (the roads are unpaved) or unsafe. However, that is certainly not the case all the time.
In 2014, we rented a car with our four children from Johannesburg Airport. We drove for 10 days through breathtaking mountains in KwaZulu Natal; volunteered in Bulembu in Swaziland, and ultimately ended up staying at the beautiful Umsisi House to explore the Kruger Lowveld region of South Africa. The roads and highways were excellent and we felt very safe. As mentioned earlier, we even did an impromptu day safari into Kruger National Park. We chose to hire an open air safari jeep and a guide for our day, but that was certainly not required.
Self Driving, Hiring a local travel operator, or flying
This is where balancing a budget African safari with other considerations like comfort, safety and time come into consideration. Like many things in creating any successful trip, the key is research. Once you figure out safety, road maintenance and distances from international and local airports versus the cost of internal flights, you will be able to determine the best way to reach your favoured safari camp.
The Value of an Open Air Jeep Safari and a Guide
One final important note about self driving versus hiring a local tour operator for the actual safari. The cheapest way to do a budget African safari is to rent a car and go into a national park on your own. That is clear. However, I don’t think that is the best use of your time or money while on safari.
First, there is something extraordinary about being in an open air safari jeep with nothing between you and the wildlife. It might sound daunting, but trust me, you will want to be and feel as close to the wildlife as you can.
Second, you should hire a guide who can track and spot wild life. Most wild animals are shy or are naturally drawn to bushes to get relief from the sun. They can be very hard to spot. A guide is trained to find them, understand their movements and their relationship to other animals. You will want this expertise to complete your safari experience. These are two costs – an open air safari jeep and a guide – that you should include in your budget African safari.
My Recommendations For Any Budget African Safari
Now you know how to save money for a budget African safari and why some things may be more expensive than others. What should you do with that information when creating your budget African safari? What is worth spending more and where should you save? After my 8 safaris over 34 years, this is what I would recommend.
- Go in low season to a country or region with a high chance of reasonable weather.
- Choose a country or a region within a country with little to no visa, special vaccines, or prescription drug requirements (like antimalarial drugs).
- Make sure the country doesn’t impose extraordinary costs and taxes on safaris.
- Self drive to local game reserves provided safe and good roads are available or hire a local tour operator to do this.
- Hire a local tour guide with an open air safari jeep and do a multi day safari in a national park so that you can go deep into the national park, away from the crowds, with an expert.
- Find accommodation in the national park, if possible, that fits your budget. If not possible, find some outside the national park and do day trips. Consider camping – you might have some of the best wildlife experiences ever.
- If possible, splurge and spend a minimum of two nights (three full days if possible) at a private reserve that offers one or all of night, walking, horseback riding, biking, and river safaris. Try to do as many as you can in the period that you have.
I would highly recommend reading another article that I wrote about how to plan any African safari. This article focuses on 7 factors that you should research when creating an African safari with any budget. Believe it or not, there are other issues that you should consider when creating your “perfect” safari experience. Even if you have an enormous budget, and you can hire travel agents that only offer luxury safaris, you need to be aware of the issues discussed in this article to create the best safari experience possible.
My goal in writing this article was to show everyone that a budget African safari is completely possible. Not only can you do it with a similar budget as a trip to Europe, but you can have extraordinary experiences along the way. Of course, the larger the budget, the easier it will be to travel within countries, or find nice accommodation. But it is not necessary to have a large budget to have amazing wildlife experiences. A fantastic budget African safari is entirely possible with lots of research, planning and balancing when to spend or save.
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