Making the decision to go on an African safari is one of the best choices you'll ever make. After all, to paraphrase the famous travel quote by Richard Mullin, the only person worth being envious of is the person who has yet to experience Africa, because they have so much to look forward to. There are many different ways to go on safari. You can join an overland backpacking tour, rent a car for a self-drive adventure or eschew the comforts of a traditional hotel for the thrill of a night under the stars in a bush camp.
For many, the most rewarding way to experience the continent's wild places is on a luxury African safari complete with expert guides and drivers, 5-star accommodation, gourmet food and unique activities. Unfortunately, luxury itineraries are often astronomically expensive, especially in iconic safari destinations like Tanzania and Kenya. In this guide, we give our top tips for keeping the cost as low as possible so that you can have the experience of a lifetime without breaking the bank.
Why Are Luxury Safaris So Expensive?
The high cost associated with a luxury safari is partly explained by the fact that they usually take place in remote settings where supplies are hard to come by. The logistics of running a camp or lodge in the middle of the African bush become complicated when the closest shop is 500 miles away. Park fees can be high, too, with reserves like Gombe National Park in Tanzania charging a daily conservation fee of $100 per person–and that's before you've even thought about paying for accommodation, meals and game drives.
Some of the fees associated with high-end safaris go towards making the experience sustainable. They tend to have a light carbon footprint and put a lot of effort into supporting local initiatives, from community schools to conservation projects. Of course, you're also paying above the odds for luxurious accommodation, flawless service and fine-dining cuisine; just as you would at any 5-star city hotel. It's important to remember that prices usually include everything from transfers to activities, which makes them a bit more palatable.
Travel During the Low Season
Conventional safari wisdom says that the dry season is the best time to go on safari. A shortage of water encourages wildlife to congregate around waterholes, making them easier to spot; while shorter grass and sparser foliage also help with visibility. However, the dry season is also peak season, and most itineraries and/or lodges charge premium prices at this time. You can save big bucks by traveling during the rainy season instead. In addition to being less expensive, the low season brings lush, green scenery, plenty of baby animals and migrant birds from the northern hemisphere.
Book a Small Group Tour
Most luxury safaris are private. However, there are great savings to be had if you join a small group tour with luxury travel companies like &Beyond or Abercrombie & Kent. Sharing your safari experience with a few like-minded travelers helps to reduce transport, fuel and accommodation costs. It also gives you the opportunity to make life-long friends along the way. Small group tours usually have set departure dates, so you'll need to be a little more flexible with your timings. They are especially worthwhile for solo travelers, as optional roommate matching saves you from paying a single supplement.
Choose a Single Destination
Many first-time visitors to Africa make the mistake of trying to fit too much into a single trip. As well as being exhausting, itineraries with stops in several different countries involve multiple flights and are therefore much more expensive. Instead, choose to spend your time in one truly amazing reserve (like the Kruger in South Africa, which is so large that you could explore it for years and still see something new every day). Or, pick a region with several reserves located within easy driving distance of one another. The northern Tanzania/southern Kenya circuit is one example; the Four Corners area in Southern Africa is another.
Forego Additional Luxuries
Often, the easiest way to keep the costs down is simply to spend less. When booking accommodation, choose the cheapest room. At a 5-star lodge like Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti, the most affordable room still spoils with a romantic canopy bed, a deep-soaking tub and a private terrace with savannah views. You just won't have the private chef and personal infinity pool afforded by the Presidential Villa. Similarly, forego additional activities that carry an extra charge, travel by land rather than by private plane (yes, that's often an option) and resist the temptation to indulge in premium wines and liquors that aren't included in your rate.
Book With a Trusted Tour Operator
Probably the best money-saving tip we can offer is to book with an experienced, trusted tour operator. A good safari consultant will listen to what you want and will use their on-the-ground contacts to get you the best prices without pressuring you into doing more than you can afford. They also have the experience needed to know where you can save costs and where it's worth forking out a little extra. For example, they may be able to recommend a 4-star lodge that feels as indulgent as a 5-star while saving you a few hundred dollars. Similarly, they will be able to advise you if a particularly long or dangerous road journey makes flying a better idea.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on September 6 2019.