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.
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.
Visit Owner-Run Camps
The Strategy: Visit owner-run camps
The Place: Zambia
The Deal: Long before Zambia became a mainstream destination, John and Carol Coppinger of Remote Africa Safaris were operating safaris from their home in the remote Luangwa Valley in the country's northeast. Famous for their walking safaris, the couple runs a typical seven-night Luangwa safari, including three nights at Tafika (the 12-person riverbank lodge where John and Carol live), followed by two nights each at Crocodile Tree and Chikoko, which are rustic three-room bush camps accessed by foot. At just over $4,200 for seven days (including food, drink, and a microlight flight over the river), this is notably cheaper than a corporate safari camp.
The Strategy: Self-drive
The Place: Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa
The Deal: Self-drive safaris are easier than you think and save on costly air transfers. In South Africa, major parks are in easy driving distance of the big cities, so it's possible to pick up a rental car in Johannesburg and simply drive to Kruger National Park, three hours away. In Namibia and Botswana, parks are more remote and the terrain rougher, so it's preferable to book a tailor-made self-drive in a state-of-the-art 4 x 4 vehicle through a company like U.K.-based Safari Drive. A 15-night Botswana itinerary, including eight nights camping and five nights in lodges and tented campsites, costs $3,839 per person for four people. Equipment is provided; fuel, food, and park entrance fees are extra.
Take A Guided Driving Safari
The Strategy: Take a guided driving safari
The Place: Tanzania
The Deal: Self-drives are perfect for some travelers, but in an unknown land they can be intimidating. On ProAfrica's (a division of Protravel) 12-day Tanzania safari, you're driven in 4 x 4 vehicles by an experienced driver-guide who knows the animals as well as he knows the roads. To add cultural meaning to the trip, you'll stop at village markets, meet students in schools, and chat with locals: components that make an experience. After all, Africa is too far to go to simply get from one point to the other. You'll visit three of Tanzania's finest reserves: Tarangire, Ngorongoro Crater, and the Serengeti. These parks aren't exactly adjacent, but by driving between them, you'll get a deep understanding of the varied terrain and widllife. And with accommodation in stylish, mid-range, owner-run lodges, you'll feel like you're spending way more than $9,000 per person, total: all meals, game drives, transportation, and activities are included in that cost.
Take Advantage of the Dollar
The Strategy: Visit places that use the South African Rand
The Place: Namibia
The Deal: Namibia, a beautiful country of ancient deserts, rugged coastline, and rolling savanna, uses the Namibian Dollar: that means your greenbacks go further than they would at lodges in Botswana, Zambia, or East Africa, which charge a U.S. dollar rate. For a true bargain, Okonjima's Plains Camp in Namibia's Central Highlands is a laid-back lodge famous for its cheetah, lion, and leopard populations. The newest of the 24 rooms—ten luxe View Rooms with large verandahs, desks, and reading chairs—were completed last summer are a mere $183 per person per night.
Visit Sibling Camps
The Strategy: Visit smaller sibling camps of the big companies
The Place: Botswana
The Deal: Many leading safari companies are developing smaller sister camps close to some of their more pricey flagship properties. If you can't afford $1,242 a night for the sublime luxury of Wilderness Safaris' Vumbura Plains camp, where the 14 white-curtained suites have private plunge pools and indoor-outdoor showers, then nearby Pelo Camp ($433 per person, per night sharing) is a beautiful but more rustic property which opened in 2013. It features five guest tents under a canopy of date palms, jackalberry, and mahogany trees on a heart-shaped island overlooking the Okavango delta. Like the more luxurious Vumbura Plains camp, Pelo offers indoor and outdoor showers and a shared plunge pool. The biggest difference? The major savings you'll enjoy at the smaller, newer spot.
Visit New Camps
The Strategy: Visit newer camps
The Place: Tanzania
The Deal: Unlike well-established properties that can charge a premium, new camps still need to attract guests and establish their reputations. The relatively new Selous Impala Camp (which opened in 2014 in the center of Tanzania's vast South Central Serengeti) has ten 1930's-style tents overlooking the plains and Lake Magadi—for only $650 per person per during green season. That's a lot less than the per-person rates (starting at $840) at the more famous andBeyond Nogorongoro Crater Lodge, in an adjacent national park.
Choose Less Obvious Reserves
The Strategy: Choose the less obvious reserves
The Place: South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya
The Deal: Think laterally by looking at lesser-known reserves such as Camp Jabulani in South Africa's Kapama Game Reserve, Hwange in Zimbabwe, Lower Zambezi in Zambia, and Lake Nakuru in Kenya. While well-known to locals, they're less visited by international tourists, and their lodges and camps usually offer better deals. In northern Kenya's Samburu National Reserve, Elephant Bedroom (on the banks of Ewaso Ng'iro River) has all the comforts and amenities of a luxury Mara camp: electricity, herbal bath products, skilled rangers, and gourmet meals eaten al fresco under African skies. And it's all a mere $260 per person per day during low season.
Stay in National Park Lodges
The Strategy: Stay in national park lodges
The Place: South Africa
The Deal: When most Africans go on safari, they stay in campsites and bungalows run by the state-funded national parks that maintain the reserves. Of course, you're not going to get the luxury of a private lodge, but a self-catering, two-bedroom, air-conditioned bungalow in, say, Kruger National Park, can cost as little as $70 a night. South Africa National Parks has a detailed network of bungalows, chalets, huts, and campsites. You can also hire national park rangers to take you on organized game drives.
Get In With Right People
The Strategy: Get in with the right people
The Place: Kenya
The Deal: Africa specialists who send a high number of clients to the continent are often offered exceptional deals by lodge owners, and Kenya can be a uniquely good deal when booked through the right company. The 8-day Kenyan safari from Micato Safaris, for example—a company that will have 50 years of experience in East Africa next year—takes advantage of prefential rates and longstanding relationships with camps and lodges. More than monetary value, a trip with an operator such as Micato can give you the best value for your time. If a flight is delayed, for example, your professional Safari Director (many of whom have worked with the company for decades) will be the first to know. That way, you can take a game drive, instead of wasting time at the airstrip.