Are you looking to organise an African safari on a budget? Well, the good news is that this is certainly possible.
It’s actually something of a myth that African safaris are always very expensive. They certainly can be, but thankfully there are a number of tactics you can use to ensure your safari doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg.
The fundamental point of a safari, after all, is to experience the incredible wildlife Africa has on offer, and everything else is (mostly!) just icing on the cake. This means that if you’re willing to strip back your overall safari experience to focus specifically on the game viewing aspect, your safari can end up costing an awful lot less.
Passing up on the champagne and hot tub – or even the air conditioning – doesn’t mean you’ll miss out on hearing the sounds of the savannah as you sleep, or spotting African animals up close in their natural environment.
However, finding an African safari on a budget will mean being flexible and willing to compromise – whether it’s on the country or national park you go to, who you book with, the time you go, and the standard and location of your accommodation.
With this in mind, here are our top 11 tips to make your safari budget stretch further:
1. Consider your destination carefully
The first step to finding an affordable African safari is to pick a destination to suit your budget.
East Africa tends to feature luxury safari lodges and relatively large park fees, making countries like Kenya and Tanzania less of a budget safari option. Safaris in Botswana and Zambia are often very remote and sometimes inaccessible, increasing transport and transfer costs.
As a general rule, the most budget-friendly safari destinations are in Southern Africa. South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe have plenty of fabulous safari options that are accessible, varied, and charge fees in local currencies rather than US dollars. Roads and infrastructure in South Africa and Namibia, in particular, are very good, giving easy access to most parks.
2. Take a self-drive safari
Self-drive safaris are those where you rent a vehicle and drive independently, rather than having to pay for a driver and/or guide. Some of Africa’s best safaris – including Kruger Park (South Africa), Serengeti (Tanzania) and Etosha (Namibia) – allow you to take your own car and guide yourself.
Aside from being a cheaper option, taking a self-drive safari one allows you to create your perfect itinerary, and change it whenever you like. You make all the calls – what time to go on game drives, what routes through national parks, when and where to stop, and how long to wait at a waterhole, watching for game to appear.
Bear in mind that for some safari destinations you’ll need a 4WD car to have full access and get the best out of it, and there are some national parks – particularly in East Africa – where guides are mandatory. Also, guides are in business for a reason – a good one will know the terrain and help you with spotting wildlife, what it’s all about!
3. Compromise on accommodation
Whilst safari accommodation is often at the luxury end of the scale (with prices to match), there are a few options to help deliver your safari on a budget. Given that accommodation is such a large portion of the overall safari cost, compromising on accommodation can help to reduce safari costs dramatically.
Most national parks in Africa have one or more campsites, and Southern African national parks, in particular, are well set up with public camping options. These can range from a campsite with electricity and barbecue facilities, restaurants, and onsite waterhole to a simple space in the wilderness to pitch a tent. For most campsites, you’ll need your own tent, but there are some parks that hire basic tents per night.
Camping also gives you the option of taking your own food and self-catering. However, in some places, perversely, camping with your own tent is actually more expensive than the accommodation on offer, so make sure you do your research.
Stay outside the national park
There is often a handful of budget accommodation close to park gates, servicing day visitors and those looking for a budget safari experience. Staying outside the park and driving in early for a morning game drive (or even a full day) will more often than not mean a much wider choice of accommodation and prices.
As some national parks charge an entrance fee plus a concession if you stay overnight in the park, staying outside the gates means you won’t incur this additional concession.
One of the downsides of staying outside of the park is that you won’t be able to participate in night drives or pre-dawn games. Alongside this, the further from the park you stay, the longer the drive before you even start your game drive – something to factor in to your plans.
4. Take your safari in rainy or shoulder-season
If you’re planning on using a tour company or agency to arrange your safari, you’ll find that the time of year you go will affect the price of the package – in some cases quite dramatically. The same is true of booking directly with a safari lodge.
In safari destinations, low season typically coincides with rainy season, meaning the cost of safari tours and accommodation falls considerably. This makes rainy season a great time to consider swapping sunshine for an upgrade to more luxurious accommodation and still making a large saving.
Aside from potential issues of comfort and visibility on game drives in rainy season, the primary downside is that wildlife can be harder to spot. This is because the rain promotes heavy growth of grasses and undergrowth, and at the same the abundance of water and food allows wildlife to disperse. Rainy season also means some areas may become inaccessible due to poor roads and flooding.
There are plus sides to taking a safari in rainy season, however, apart from the considerable cost savings. The rains bring lush landscapes and scenery, and dramatically fewer crowds vying for the wildlife spotting opportunities. Rainy season also coincides with calving time for many of Africa’s herbivores, which can be a spectacular sight.
See our guide on when to go on safari where for an idea of wet and dry seasons by country.
5. Focus on just one national park or game reserve
Many safaris involve visit a number of different national parks and/or game reserves to experience a range of habitats and wildlife. Stripping this back to focus on just one park is a great way to cut down costs on vehicle rental, flights, or transfers.
This means making the call early in your safari planning process on what wildlife you really want to experience, then figuring out to the best place to go. If you want to see the Great Migration then consider visiting just the Serengeti or the Maasai Mara. If the big five are top of your safari bucket list, then pick just one park which is renowned for reliable big five sightings, like Chobe National Park in Botswana, Etosha National Park in Namibia or Kruger National Park in South Africa.
6. Heading to East Africa? Consider hiring a driver-guide
It may seem counter-intuitive, but in East Africa hiring a driver-guide for your safari can actually save you money – particularly if there are more than two of you.
With a private driver-guide, you get the exclusive use of a 4×4 or safari minivan vehicle for your group, with the driver also acting as a wildlife spotter.
How can this option save you money? Well, not only do you save on any transfer costs, but you’re able to stay at your lodge on a board-only basis. Not arranging your game drives via the lodge can end up saving you sizable amounts.
This is an option where you’ll have to do the maths of booking directly with lodge vs hiring a driver-guide.
7. Book with a local operator
Local safari operators typically offer better rates than international companies, so choosing a local operator can be a good option to keep costs down – particularly in East African destinations such as the Serengeti and the Masai Mara. (See our list of safari operators by country.)
Making advanced bookings with local operators can be difficult, but if you can make it to your desired safari destination – and have the time to wait a day or two before taking a safari – you’ll have a much better chance of finding a bargain.
There are often cancellations or people changing their dates, meaning safari companies have last-minute places to fill. You can take advantage of this by heading to the closest town to the national park and doing a tour or safari companies, explaining what you’re after, and giving them your contact details. You may also be able to find other people who are looking to do a safari and arrange to share vehicle hire and guide costs with them. Which leads nicely on to…
8. Join a group safari
A group safari can be anything from a day-long minibus tour to one of the large overland companies travelling Africa’s highlights for weeks on end. While not for everyone, group safaris are a great option for keeping accommodation and transport costs down. They also provide an opportunity to interact with other safari enthusiasts – which could be good or bad, depending on your point of view, and the individuals concerned!
The obvious downside of a group safari is that when travelling in a group there is a fixed itinerary, which can be restrictive.
9. Plan your food and drink
Restaurants in safari lodges are notoriously expensive if you’re not staying on an all-inclusive basis, and it’s fairly standard for there to be no shops for supplies inside national parks. As such, taking enough water to cover your time on safari is a good option (perhaps along with something alcoholic for a sundowner!), along with some snack-type food.
Depending on where you’re on safari it can be worth leaving the park for meals, providing this doesn’t cut into your game drive time. If you’re camping then you can do the whole thing self-catering, and stock up before you enter the park.
10. Don’t be afraid to negotiate!
Whilst park fees, guide fees, and vehicle fees are non-negotiable, hotels and tour companies are often open for negotiation. Having a group of people (three or more) means you may have some bargaining power… if you don’t ask you don’t get!
11. Keep your eyes open for deals
Something of an obvious one to finish our tips for arranging a budget African safari, but it’s well worth keeping your eyes peeled for offers at any time of year. You can do this by signing up to email newsletters from safari lodges and tour operators, or by following them on social media.
When demand is low, lodges in particular often run short promotions such as 3 nights for the price of 2, or extra game drives included. If you’re flexible enough to go to a safari lodge or destination you hadn’t previously considered, you might find that the deal on offer is special enough to go ahead and make that booking!
And that’s your lot for tips on making your safari more affordable. Do you have any tips on this topic? Please do let us know in the comments below – sharing is caring!