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10 Tricks to an Affordable Safari

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Courtesy of Samara Private Game Reserve

Safaris and safari lodges have gone way upscale, with prices to match. Here are 10 strategies to cut the cost and still get the lion’s share of game-viewing.

Travel Off-Season

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The Strategy: Travel off-season

The Place: South Africa

The Deal: The May-September low season is a great time for South African deals. True, it's raining on the coasts, but the interior is dry, so the bush is less thick and you can see more animals. Some of the best deals are at lodges in the arid Karoo region in the Eastern Cape, three hours inland from the coast. Samara Private Game Reserve, a desert-chic, ten-suite lodge, has all the refinement of the swankiest Kruger properties, but costs a bargain $175 per person per night off-season (May through August)—which includes game drives and meals served with local wine. The reserve has rhino, cheetah, antelope, and mountain zebra; if you want to see elephants, visit Addo National Elephant Park, three hours away.

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10 Tricks to an Affordable Safari

Travel Off-Season

The Strategy: Travel off-season

The Place: South Africa

The Deal: The May-September low season is a great time for South African deals. True, it's raining on the coasts, but the interior is dry, so the bush is less thick and you can see more animals. Some of the best deals are at lodges in the arid Karoo region in the Eastern Cape, three hours inland from the coast. Samara Private Game Reserve, a desert-chic, ten-suite lodge, has all the refinement of the swankiest Kruger properties, but costs a bargain $175 per person per night off-season (May through August)—which includes game drives and meals served with local wine. The reserve has rhino, cheetah, antelope, and mountain zebra; if you want to see elephants, visit Addo National Elephant Park, three hours away.

Courtesy of Samara Private Game Reserve

10 Tricks to an Affordable Safari

The African continent may still be largely underdeveloped, but its leading camps and safari lodges are among the most glamorous and expensive resorts in the world. In fact, some of these places make the Travel + Leisure World’s Best Hotels list. Factor in the cost of flights from the U.S., and the bill for an African trip starts adding up faster than a night on the tables in Las Vegas.

But it’s possible to do a safari—sometimes even at the top properties—without having to remortgage your home. Finding deals and bargains just requires research, innovation, expert advice, and—in some cases—the ability to step out of your comfort zone and hit the road on your own.

"One of the most efficient ways to cut costs is to travel off-season," says Marcia Gordon, director of travel at African safari specialist F. M. Allen. "Lodge rates drop by up to 40 percent in both East and southern Africa, and with such an unpredictable climate these days, it’s quite possible the weather will be better off-season than in the regular season."

Of course, you can’t always bank on the weather (and many camps in East Africa close during the April-May rains anyway). But visiting Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve in late May—during the green season and before the July-September Great Migration—pays dividends. At that time, a tent at the fabulous 1920’s Cottars Camp costs $570 per person per night instead of $987 in high season, and you still get the same sublime vintage comforts.

Another option: staying in small, owner-operated lodges. "Owner-run camps don’t have the high overheads of the big chains and can be more flexible," explains Chris McIntyre, co-owner of British-based travel company Expert Africa and author of four current travel guides to Africa. 

Choosing lesser-known game reserves such as the Luangwa is another way to save. "Don’t always go for the obvious," says McIntyre. "Everyone knows about Kruger, the Mara, and Botswana’s Okavango. But often the best deals are in the unheralded parks."

And anyone with a sense of adventure and an eye for the road should do what any self-respecting southern African family does on safari: drive yourself. Self-drives save on air transfers and are easy in Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa, where roads are good, parks fees low, and facilities at government lodges and campsites excellent. 

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