How to plan and book a budget African safari
African Safari holidays are big business but while they were once the domain of the very wealthy, the good news is that they are now much more affordable, especially with our helpful tips on how to plan and book a budget African safari.
If you’ve ever sat daydreaming of an African safari, picturing the huge African sun rising over the plains as you watch majestic beasts grazing but thought a luxury safari with a price tag to match was your only option, think again.
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Over the last 10 years, we’ve been on a number of safaris. We even backpacked through Africa for 3 months and organised most of the safaris ourselves, with the exception of our unforgettable Okavango Delta safari booked through Audley Travel. We did safaris to suit every budget all over Africa so we have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to planning and booking budget safaris.
Our tips will make sure you have a fantastic safari experience on a budget without sacrificing any of the wildlife viewing quality. You may not be staying in the most luxurious camps, but you will still have the most memorable time.
So, how do you plan a budget safari?
1. Choose the right destination
Choose your destination carefully. If you’re looking for the best safari in Africa and money is no option, the choice is endless. There are lots of incredible places to go on safari in Africa but without a doubt, the best African countries to visit for cheap safari holidays are South Africa and Namibia. One of the main reasons for this is because you can do your own self-drive safaris.
Whilst you can self-drive in East African countries, the infrastructure is not great and you’ll need a 4×4 and good GPS. Self-guided Kenya safari holidays or Tanzania safari holidays will tend to be a little more ‘wild’ so if this is your first safari, we would recommend sticking to South Africa or Namibia. South Africa and Namibia have some of the best national parks in Africa but they are much more easily accessible in terms of entrance fees and infrastructure.
If you’re going on safari with your family, we highly recommend South Africa. Not only does South Africa have by far the best choice of family-friendly safaris, it also has many family-friendly activities. We like to combine a South African holiday with a safari, but instead of booking a safari and beach package holiday, we’ll use our tips and tricks for booking cheap flights. We’ll then book our accommodation separately and arrange our own self-drive safari.
2. Self-drive safari
The key to organising a cheap safari starts with hiring your own car. If you do a self-drive safari, you’re not paying someone else to be your tour guide. Whilst there are benefits to having a guide, like their ability to spot the smallest, most inconspicuous animal, part of the fun of a safari is spotting your own wildlife. Self-drive safaris are also a great way to safari with kids because you can tailor the length of the safari to suit your needs (and their moods)!
The superior condition of the roads in South Africa and Namibia means that you can hire a normal 2WD car which is much cheaper than hiring a 4×4. Here’s a great read on what to expect from a self-drive safari in Namibia. We recommend Rentalcars for the best choice and the best prices. We hired inexpensive VW Polos for safaris in Etosha and the Kruger and they were just fine.
3. Visit National Parks rather than private game reserves
The best places in South Africa and Namibia for a self-drive safari are the national parks. The biggest and most well known are the Kruger National Park in South Africa and Etosha National Park in Namibia. When the entrance fees for national parks are so low and yet the wildlife viewing is as spectacular as a private game reserve, it’s a no brainer that you would choose visiting a National Park over a Private Game Reserve if you’re on a budget.
If you take the Kruger National Park, for example, the entrance fee for an adult is R400 (GBP 20) and R200 (GBP 10) for children under 12. Entrance fees for Etosha National Park are NAD 80 (GBP 4). Children under 16 are free. It also costs NAD 10 (GBP 0.50) per day for a car.
If you do choose to self-drive in a National Park, make sure to respect speed limits and other guidelines set by the park. They are for your safety as well as the safety of the animals.
4. Take your safari in the shoulder season
If you’ve decided on either South Africa or Namibia for your budget safari, check when the shoulder season (or off-season) is for your chosen destination. Going on safari during these times does not necessarily mean less wildlife viewing, but it can make a significant difference to the price of your safari. Many lodges offer reduced rates and you’ll find there will be less people.
Here’s our quick guide to the best time to visit the Kruger National Park and Etosha National Park.
Kruger National Park
Best time: May to September (although it is an all-year-round wildlife viewing destination)
High season: December to January and July to August (essentially school holidays)
Low season: April to June and September to November
Etosha National Park
Best time: July to September
High season: July to November
Low season: December to June
5. Stay in National Park campsites
A really great way to keep the cost of your safari down is to stay on a campsite in the national park. Granted, they won’t be as luxurious as many of the lodges around the Kruger or Etosha, but they’re a good budget alternative and have some great facilities. If you’re visiting during the hottest months, you might want to look for a campsite with a pool so you can cool off between game drives. Remember that the best times for game drives are early morning and early evening. so there will probably be some time during the day when you’re back at the camp relaxing.
There are 14 main rest camps in the Kruger National Park. They’re fenced-off areas and have varied facilities. The accommodation also varies at each campsite but you’ll generally find camping pitches starting at R300 to family cottages at R2400. You’ll also have the option of booking guided walks or safaris through the park which are much cheaper than private safaris.
These are the Kruger campsites in order from the furthest north to the furthest south.
Punda Maria – restaurant, pool and petrol station available
Shingwedzi – Restaurant and petrol station but no pool
Mopani – no camping. restaurant facilities available and a petrol station
Letaba – facilities include pool, restaurant and petrol station. There’s also a separate day visitors area with pool
Olifants – no camping. Restaurant and petrol station but no pool
Satara – restaurant, pool and petrol station available
Tamboti – safari tent accommodation only
Maroela – camping only. No pool or restaurant
Orpen – no camping. Restaurant, pool and petrol station available
Skukuza – biggest camp with facilities including pool, restaurant and petrol station. There’s also a separate day visitors area with pool.
Lower Sabie – facilities include pool, restaurant and petrol station. There’s also a separate day visitors area with pool
Pretoriuskop – Restaurant and petrol station but no pool
Crocodile Bridge – facilities include cafeteria/coffee shop and petrol station
Berg-en-dal – facilities include pool, restaurant and petrol station
There are six campsites in Etosha National Park but not all of them offer camping facilities. They’re all slightly more expensive than the Kruger campsites, which is why South Africa just beats Namibia for the most budget-friendly safari destination.
Dolomite – deluxe chalets with plunge pools, restaurant and pool
Onkoshi – luxury chalets, restaurant and pool
Okaukuejo – restaurant, pool, petrol station and famous floodlight waterhole
Halali – camping facilities, restaurant, pool, petrol station and waterhole
Namutoni – camping facilities, restaurant, pool, petrol station
Olifantsrus – camping only
6. Stay outside of the parks
If you can’t find anything you like in any of the above campsites, you can choose to stay outside the parks and do day trips. The choice of accommodation opens up massively. Both the Kruger and Etosha have some amazing accommodation options in the areas surrounding the park.
For Kruger National Park accommodation, we recommend AfriCamps at Hoedspruit for a fantastic glamping experience. If this doesn’t take your fancy, take a look at Booking.com who have the largest choice of accommodation and something to suit everyone.
For Etosha National Park accommodation, we personally recommend the Onguma Tamboti Camp near Etosha. The camping facilities are excellent and you can use the facilities of the adjoining Bush Camp. The pool area and restaurant overlook the private reserve where you can spot wildlife while enjoying a swim or a meal. If this doesn’t take your fancy, then you can check on Booking.com for more options.
7. Take your own food
Many of the campsites in the national parks have cooking facilities. Some places even hire out hampers with crockery and cutlery if you don’t have all the equipment with you. If you aren’t self-catering, you should still take things with you like snacks and water so you don’t have to rely on the campsite shops where things are inevitably more expensive.
8. Book your safari direct
If you want to take a guided safari, it’s best that you book this direct with the national park. If you have time, you could also wait and approach safari tour companies in the area and see if they have availability to take you. They may have received cancellations and want to fill places. This can save you some serious money.
9. Choose a game reserve without the Big 5 animals
If you want the safari experience but aren’t too fussed whether you see the big 5 safari animals, you can stay on a private game reserve that doesn’t have the big 5 for a fraction of the price. Buffelsdrift Game Lodge in Oudtshoorn is a great example of somewhere that offers the safari package, complete with game drives and safari tents at a reasonable price.
If you’re visiting Cape Town on holiday and don’t have the time to go as far north as the Kruger, there are other options for a budget safari. Addo Elephant National Park near Port Elizabeth is another excellent National Park in South Africa with the Big 5.
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