How do you plan the best African Safaris on a budget? It takes some preparation. That’s why we’ve created the ultimate checklist: How to Plan an African Safari on a Budget. It’s a guide that will help you experience the best affordable African safaris. You’ll see – it can be fun and easy.
Before your safari planning begins
You’ve decided your next holiday is a dream trip to Africa to go on safari. Starting off your research you’ve put in a few keywords in Google to get an idea of what is out there in terms of ‘African Safaris’ and up comes a huge amount of information. Feeling overwhelmed, procrastination mode sets in – where do you start and how do you narrow down the endless options?
Planning a trip of any kind is very exciting and definitely part of the fun. There are so many amazing places to see and things to do in Africa – picking a few is hard. You will most likely go back and forth changing your mind a few times, but that is normal.
If you’ve been on an African safari before, you probably have a pretty good idea of the basics. So in a sense, this guide is aimed at the first-time safari-goers that are planning their first African travel adventure. Let me try and make it a bit easier with a few pointers on how to plan an African safari on a budget.
1. Pick an African destination country or two
It almost goes without saying that you need to pick a destination – or at least have some idea.
If you are one of the lucky ones with two months to travel and a sizable budget you can certainly cover a lot of ground and get to all the spots you want to see. Most travellers only have 14 days or 3 weeks, max, which requires more careful planning.
Some people already have their hearts set on a particular area or country, but others struggle with this essential (first) step. It’s totally understandable considering the misconception that Africa is a country, when in fact it is a continent with 54 countries of which about 9 of them are known as wildlife safari destinations: South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda and Rwanda.
2. List your must-see places in Africa
Another way to approach the all-important destination question is to list your ultimate ‘must-sees’.
This could be a specific area or park in a country or perhaps more broadly based on the animals you really want to see. For example; many people want to see elephants and lions, or the fascinating wild dogs, or endangered mountain gorillas. The list goes on, but having an idea of what is important to you can determine more specific areas to include on your trip. To see mountain gorillas, for instance, you need to go to central Africa – Uganda or Rwanda being the best options.
Parks and reserves differ in terms of vegetation and topography making them more suitable for certain species. In some areas, you will find higher concentrations of elephants than in others. Including the parks that are prime destinations will greatly increase the chances of spotting the animals on your list. This is why it’s common for travellers to visit two or three parks/areas in one visit, as each wildlife area offers something unique.
For help choosing between Southern and East Africa, read our blog post: Southern Africa vs East Africa Safaris – how to choose?
Tip: Be open to other experiences that are not necessarily on the must-see list. There are many incredible places and things to see – little hidden gems en-route which can be a wonderful surprise.
Budget Tip: Try to resist the temptation to book a flight deal before you have a good idea of your safari plans. It is always better to first have your safari plans in place and then book flights accordingly. This gives you a lot more freedom to pick a safari that suits you and the all-important budget. Also, having set travel dates (due to flights ) limits your choices and you could be missing out on a fantastic travel deal.
3. Decide on a travel budget for your safari
This doesn’t need to be an exact budget, but having a ballpark figure is very useful when searching for safari trips.
While the safari is a dream trip, the budget needs to realistic and ultimately these two need to align – unfortunately. Wanting a luxury trip on a shoestring budget is just not realistic. Then again, luxury has different meanings to different people. To some, luxury is a plush hotel with porters, room service and expensive linen. To others, luxury is a remote hut in the bush. Really what one needs to establish is an expectation. What are you comfortable with and what are you prepared to compromise on, if needs be within your budget? It is certainly possible to have an incredible experience when staying in rustic accommodation and even rough camping. The excitement of seeing Africa’s wild animals in their natural environment is equal, regardless of how you get there, or where you stay.
However, the details are important. Ultimately you want the best safari experience filled with beautiful memories to look back on. And this all starts with good planning.
Things to consider when deciding on a safari and budget:
4. Choose when to go on safari in Africa
The destination and your budget go hand-in-hand with deciding when you plan to travel. It is always a good idea to check what is to be expected in terms of weather, temperatures and wildlife viewing possibilities for the specific places in the month you want to visit. Of course, nothing is guaranteed – as we all know nature can be very unpredictable. But, having an idea of when it’s summer/winter and dry/rainy season at your destination will help manage your expectations and keep you comfortable on your travels.
If you really don’t deal well with extreme heat, it is best to avoid a trip in midsummer in many regions. Or, maybe you are planning on a camping trip which is best in the drier months in some areas.
Perhaps, elephants are high on your must-see list but you arrive in Chobe (Botswana) to be told February is a not a good time for spotting elephants! As a safari-goer, the aim is to try and be in the same areas as the wildlife. But, they are free-roaming animals which means they move around according to the season, or in some cases migrate 100’s of kilometres to places where food and water are plentiful at that time.
Another example, seasonal change in the Okavango Delta. If you are dreaming of gliding through pristine channels of the Okavango Delta in a dug-out canoe (mokoro) it is important to visit when there is enough water in the delta. The water levels fluctuate widely across the seasons so your timing makes a big difference. For more about visiting the delta, see The Okavango Delta Explained.
Also, keep in mind that Southern and East Africa have different seasons. Don’t assume Botswana is in its rainy season just because Kenya is at the time of your travels.
Tip: Rainy season is not always a bad time to visit. Personally, I love the rainy season in all safari destinations across Southern and East Africa. There is just something very special when you see the thunder clouds gathering on the horizon and the pouring rain a while later – the smell is incredible. The photo opportunities are amazing! Cue – Toto, Bless the rains in Africa….. 😉
Budget Tip: Some, but not all, safari trips have low, mid and high season prices. This differs according to the best and arguable the less desirable times of year to visit. Travel in low and mid seasons is a great way to go on safari for less, but definitely check why it’s low season, and decide if you are willing to compromise on your expectations. Like everything in life, there are always pros and cons.
5. Pick the number of days you want to travel
This will probably be determined by the amount of vacation leave you have, but it is still something to think about.
Now, a lot of first-time travellers want to fit in as much as possible and tick as many things as possible off their bucket list. But in Africa, less is definitely more, and taking it slow will be a lot more rewarding than trying to rush from place to place.
It will also be worth your while to do some research on how long it actually takes to get between places. Travel distances are HUGE and often on rough, bumpy, dusty roads. Even if google maps say it’s 300km, the time it takes to get there might be 5 – 6 hours, even more in the rainy season. As the old saying goes – it’s not about the destination, but the journey getting there. The magic lies in the unexpected – meeting people along the way, learning about local cultures and taking in the incredible scenery.
6. When to book your safari
There’s not really a right or wrong time to make the actual safari booking, but it’s important to check availability first. Before requesting leave dates from your work or making flight bookings. This is particularly important when you have your eye on specific a date, location, lodge or group tour that is non-negotiable for you.
If your planned safari trip happens to fall in the high/busy season, booking a year in advance is a good idea. In general though, and if there is flexibility in your travel plans, booking a safari 4 – 6 months in advance is the norm.
Last-minute safari plans (lead time of a month or less) can be tricky, but totally doable. It greatly depends on low vs high season and again flexibility with dates, where you stay and what you want to see.
7. Checklists for planning the best African Safaris on a budget
Here, I’ve broken down my essential checklist into groups based on the planning phases. This gives you a timeline to work with when you are planning your safari.
During the early-to-mid planning stages (before you book) check:
- Flights – this can be one of the most confusing parts of planning an African safari. Funny place names and not knowing what airport is close to the place where your safari starts and ends – which in most cases is not the same city. It can be intimidating, so ask the questions and double-check if you have to.
- Take out Comprehensive Travel Insurance
- Make sure your travel documents are in order: apply for a passport or renew yours if it is set to expire within 6 months of the travel date. Also, check that your passport has enough blank pages. We recommend 1 page per country, except for South Africa which requires 2 blank pages facing each other.
- Check the visa requirements for each country you plan to visit.
Once your African safari is booked (before you go):
- Consult with your doctor or Travel Clinic on necessary vaccinations and malaria prophylaxis.
More about this in The Complete African Safari Medical Guide
- Apply for any visas, if needed. For some countries, you can get this visa on arrival – make sure this is possible for your nationality.
- Start planning what you need to pack and in what bag. Check if there are any restrictions for the safari you’re joining (maximum weight allowed, bag size and type). In general, the packing space in a safari vehicle and on internal/domestic flights is limited and strict luggage restrictions apply.
More about packing for your safari in Easy Guide to Packing for the Best African Safari
- Check what currency is accepted in the countries you will be travelling to.
- Also, check the guidelines for tipping and make allowances for this in your travel budget (see Tips for Tipping on African Safaris)
The last few things (a month to a week) before travel:
- Reconfirm your flight arrival and departure times with the establishment or company that arranged your airport transfers.
- Check the weather forecast for your destination, but prepare for the unexpected.
- Review all your pre-departure information and checklists received when you made your safari booking. This is essential for preparing for a safari.
- Leave a copy of your safari itinerary, flight tickets, travel insurance and passport/visas with a close family member or friend.
8. Reach out for help and travel advice
Chatting to a safari expert with knowledge can be hugely beneficial and will make the whole process a lot less daunting. Researching on your own is certainly a good starting point. When it comes to choosing and booking a safari, however, it helps to have someone answering questions along the way. Even if you’ve just read our ‘How to Plan an African Safari on a budget’ guide.
An African safari expert has in-depth knowledge of their portfolio and will be able to recommend options that suit your needs. This can save a lot of time and research on your side.
If you travelling with kids, a big group of family and friends or have specific dietary requirements some special attention to the details will be needed. You need to take into account if a safari camp/lodge has a minimum age limit, do they have family rooms, how far of a walk is it from reception to the room if you have elderly people in the group, do they cater for gluten-free or vegan diets etc…
Whatever your requirements are, it is very handy to have someone with experience guiding you in the right direction. Getting expert advice will ultimately make your safari planning and the actual holiday as stress-free as possible.
After all the research, planning, waiting and excitement, it is finally time to go on safari!!
Oh, and don’t forget we are here to help you plan and experience the best African safari on your budget, so get in touch!