LIONS FOR LESS
Many travelers dream of venturing across the African plain to see rare wildlife up close. For most people who manage to make the trip, going on safari is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and an expensive one at that, with prices easily approaching $1,000 per person per night. But there are ways to go on a safari without spending a lot of money. By using these tips and with a bit of focused research, a budget safari is well within reach.
BRING (OR MAKE) A BUDDY
Most safari packages are priced for couples, and charge an extra fee for solo accommodations. For example, a tour of Kenya and Tanzania through Friendly Planet Travel charges $399 extra for a solo room. Most tour operators will help you connect with other solo travelers to find a roommate for the trip, eliminating this expense.
PITCH A TENT
Safari packages offer many lodging options, ranging from luxury rooms with porches, pools, and flush toilets to tents in the wild with shared bathrooms. Going the camping route may be uncomfortable if you're not used to the outdoors, but it will get you closer to nature and save you lots of money. For example, a four-day camping trip in South Africa's Kruger Park starts at $530 per person, while four nights at the luxurious Royal Malewane hotel in the same park costs more than $4,000.
BOOK IN ADVANCE
Spontaneity is an attractive quality, and while you can always keep your eyes open for last minute deals, it's more economical to plan ahead for safari. Prices tend to be lower in advance, and some tour operators give discounts for early booking. For example, Thomas Safaris gives travelers a $750 discount for booking a summer tour in Tanzania before April 30.
ASK FOR DISCOUNTS
Bargaining is an essential part of any exchange in most countries. The first rule of discounts or giveaways is, if you don't ask for it, you won't get it. On the flip side, you'll get something extra a lot of the time you do ask for it. When making reservations, be sure to ask what kind of discount or add-ons the tour operator can offer. Keep this mentality throughout your journey as you book tours and other activities. Add-ons include hot air balloon tours, side trips to national parks, and wildlife sights not included in the basic safari package.
Most safari packages do not include airfare, which can be expensive. Safaris happen on a regular and rotating basis, which means you can usually find one to fit your schedule. By booking air travel first, you can secure the best deal on flights and reduce overall costs.
GO OFF SEASON
There are two basic seasons for safaris. During the peak dry season, roughly June through October depending on the particular area, lodges and parks are crowded with camera-wielding tourists and prices are at their highest. Not surprisingly, this is the best time to see wildlife. During the rainy season it can be harder to spot wildlife and not every area offers tours all year long. However, traveling in the off season means you'll get more of the natural surroundings to yourself and a significantly cheaper price. Booking your trip just before or after the prime season means you can save while not forfeiting the quality of the experience. Wilderness Safaris, for example, offers deals of up to 50% off during the off-season months.
THE PATH LESS TRAVELED
Steer clear of the most heavily promoted lodges. Once you are on location, the same wildlife and natural landscapes are available to everyone whether they are staying at a well-known camp or at the smaller, lesser-known lodge down the road. It pays to investigate the local alternatives for lodging and guided tours. For example, Monwana Game Lodge in Kruger National Park in South Africa offers different levels of accommodation for just over $100 a night, a significant discount from nearby alternatives. And many of the best deals on guided tours are found through local connections once you're there.
BE YOUR OWN DRIVER
Paying for drivers and guided tours can be one of the biggest expenses on safari. If you're confident enough to get behind the wheel in an unfamiliar setting, you can save a lot by driving yourself. With a valid license it's easy to rent an SUV and explore the great outdoors on your own, or share with other travelers to reduce the cost even further. Kruger National Park in South Africa publishes a guide devoted to self-directed tours. And travelers on Fodor's website have listed many resources for self-driving safaris throughout southern Africa.
DRIVE, DON'T FLY
Many safaris include traveling to several areas to get a full and varied experience. Traveling by air is fast and comfortable but considerably more expensive. To avoid the high cost of air transfers, consider driving. You may add on a few extra hours of rocky land transport, but your savings will add up and you'll get to see more of the countryside as you motor along.
GO TO DEVELOPING ECONOMIES
If you're a seasoned traveler, you're no stranger to different countries and standards of living. Going on safari in a country with a weak economy usually means your money will go farther. This may mean temporarily saying goodbye to Western comforts, but the money saved makes it worth the trouble. For example, Tanzania and Uganda have weaker economies than South Africa and Botswana, and the tours there tend to be less expensive.
Many national parks along the popular safari trails offer accommodations for a fraction of the price of fancier lodges right next door. Sure, you may have to share a bathroom and make do with the bare necessities, but at one-half or even one-third of the price, the savings are worth it. Before booking time at a fancy lodge, search for lodging in nearby national parks. For example, in Zambia's Kafue National Park, the cost of one night in a Western-style hotel room starts at $265, while the cost of one night of camping in the park is just $25.
RESEARCH AND OUTREACH
Be sure to do your homework about the areas you will be visiting and the activities and tour options available. If you have a connection at a tour company or with people on location, you can often get a special deal. Ask friends and their networks about their experiences and contacts from their vacations to find direct connections. Some popular tour companies and sources of information include African Budget Safaris, Thomson Safari, Mukambi Safari, and Classic Safari Camps of Africa.