A Serengeti safari in East Africa tops the bucket list of many a traveler. So it may sound strange that when my travel companions suggested it, my first thought was: is a safari actually worth the money?
As a fiercely independent and budget-minded traveler, the association of safaris with luxury and the idea of a guided experience both put me off. Do we really need to book an expensive guided safari, complete with glamping tent and swimming pool, or could we just rent a car and pitch our tent?
Well, I’m happy to say that my companions eventually convinced me to book a carefully chosen budget camping safari. I like animals but wouldn’t call myself a wildlife-focused traveler, yet the majestic animals of the Serengeti, seen up close in their wild habitat, took my breath away. While the cost per day might still seem high to a budget traveler, what you get for the price is impossible to get any other way.
In the rest of this post I’ll explain why I felt my budget camping safari in the Serengeti was worth the money, and how fellow budget-minded travelers can get the best value when booking your own African safari in the Serengeti or elsewhere.
Was My Safari Worth The Money?
Definitely, unequivocally, yes. And that means a lot coming from me. Before we started, I worried we’d get bored sitting in a car all day. I worried it would feel like a waste of money. I worried I wouldn’t like having a guide dictate my days. I even worried the animals would be underwhelming!
So when a safari skeptic like me comes away with a glowing review, you know it means something. The animals were bigger and more majestic than I could have imagined. (My favorite? Definitely giraffes.) We saw more of them than I expected, and at closer range. And even when no animals were around, the wide open vistas and big sky of the Serengeti were a joy to take in.
How to Choose an Affordable Safari
So, how do you go about creating an experience like this on a reasonable budget? By making sure you spend money only on the things that count. Below is a breakdown of what to look for in a budget safari, and how to make sure you maximize the value of your money.
Worth spending money for: Yes
You can definitely find cheaper game drives in smaller parks in east and southern Africa, such as Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park and Kenya’s Hell’s Gate National Park. You might be tempted to choose one of these over the classic bigger parks if your budget is small, but know that they are two completely different experiences.
While you may get lucky and spot a handful of impressive animals in these smaller parks, you may also come away empty handed. If seeing the famous “Big Five” animals up close is a priority for you, then spring for the famous safari locations, which are famous for a reason: Serengeti (Tanzania), Masai Mara (Kenya), and Kruger (South Africa).
I’ve read that Kruger National Park in South Africa is more budget friendly than those in eastern Africa while still offering top-notch game viewing opportunities. If you’re booking a trip specifically for safari then definitely look into it. But if your goal is to travel in East Africa, which I highly recommend for many other reasons, then the Serengeti is the premier location.
Skilled Guide and Driver
Worth spending money for: Yes
Spotting the Big Five up close requires plenty of time and/or luck. If either is in short supply, a skilled guide and driver can help maximize your chances of excellent sightings.
The importance of an experienced safari guide became immediately clear once we started. Our driver knew that lions hang out on certain rocks at certain times of day. He had excellent intuition about when to go where. He communicated with other drivers in the park to keep track of potential sighting locations. This, in my opinion, is the biggest distinguishing factor of a guided safari over a self-drive trip, and the biggest reason I now believe a guide is worth the expense.
Worth spending money for: up to 3 or 4 days
Even a skilled guide can only do so much to ensure good sightings if you don’t allow enough time for your safari. The animals aren’t on a schedule, so a certain amount of waiting and driving around is necessary. But of course, the longer the safari, the higher the cost.
How much time should you spend on a budget safari? We chose three days and felt it was perfect. Any longer and we might have hit a point of diminishing returns, feeling restless about spending so many days doing the same thing. Any shorter and, especially considering the drive into and out of the park took at least half a day each way (though was beautiful in its own right) the experience would have felt incomplete.
Even if you’re looking for the most affordable budget safari, I’d suggest going with at least three days. Less than that and you may be left feeling like you spent a lot of money but still didn’t get what you were looking for from the experience.
Worth spending money for: Yes
While a dedicated safari vehicle should be the norm for any reputable company, if you’re shopping budget safaris it’s good to check just in case. You definitely want a vehicle that’s specifically designed for game drives, which in East Africa is typically a 4×4 with a pop-up roof.
You might also see open-sided vehicles, especially on tours that don’t involve a long drive from outside the park. Ideally these have stadium seating so the back seats are higher, and no more than two people per row so that everyone has a “window seat.”
Trying to get the most out of a safari in a normal vehicle is, in my opinion, a waste of the money you’re spending on the rest of the experience.
Small Group Size
Worth spending money for: Up to a point
Generally speaking, larger groups will have a lower cost per person. The savings of a larger group are certainly tempting, but know that cramming too many people in one car will negatively impact your experience.
Our group of 4 was perfect, fitting comfortably in the safari car with plenty of room for everyone to move around and have a good view. Six people might have worked, but any more would have led to a lower quality experience.
We saw a few larger vehicles with more than 10 people crammed into rows of seats, with no way to move around for an unobstructed view. In my opinion the extra space was well worth it.
If you have the option, consider teaming up with other travelers or joining a group tour with an ideal group size of around 4-6 people. Less and you’ll pay more per person; more and you’ll probably feel crowded.
Worth spending money for: Not if you’re on a budget
If you’re looking for an affordable African safari, my guess is that luxury accommodations are not a top priority for you. It’s certainly possible to spend many thousands of dollars on fancy lodges with excellent cuisine, but if that’s what you’re looking for, this isn’t the article for you.
Assuming you’re looking to maximize the value of the safari part of your safari – seeing the Big Five and other wildlife up close and personal – then you’re looking for the cheapest accommodation you can find while still booking a good guide in a premier safari destination. This means: tent camping.
In the Serengeti a tent camping safari involves sleeping in no-frills tents provided by the safari company in designated camps, and eating basic meals in a mess tent. Don’t expect azure swimming pools and elegant picnics with glasses of wine. In our case, a truck made the rounds selling cold Serengeti beer, which was definitely a nice perk.
Tips For the Best Budget Safari Experience
Putting this all together, if you want an affordable African safari on a budget, follow these tips:
- Be willing to spend money for a famous location like the Serengeti.
- Be willing to spend money for a reputable company with skilled guides and drivers.
- Choose a 3-4 day safari for the best balance of cost and game sighting opportunities.
- Ensure the vehicle is specifically designed for small group game drives.
- Team up with a few other travelers – but not too many – to lower the cost.
- Look for the most basic accommodation you can find, usually tent camping.
My Budget Serengeti Safari
There are many companies out there that can probably fit these guidelines, but if you’re looking for a quick recommendation, we booked our budget Serengeti camping safari through Shrike Safaris. While the accommodations and food were indeed basic, our guide was great and we felt the overall value for money was excellent.
In 2017 the cost was $645 total for a 3 day trip for 4 people, one way from Mwanza to Arusha. That comes out to only $54 per person per day! Not bad at all. Note that it’s more common to start and finish at Arusha, but we wanted to go to Mwanza anyway, and we liked the idea of not having to backtrack.
Many Serengeti safaris include a visit to the famous Ngorongoro Crater, which can even be visited as a day trip from Arusha if you’re in a hurry. We opted to skip this half-day visit in order to save money, settling instead for some pictures from the rim on our last day. I’ve heard it’s fantastic, but we were already happy with our experience over the past three days and I think it was a good tradeoff in our case.
In the end, I felt my Serengeti camping safari was well worth the money, especially since we shopped around and found a great value. We felt our money really went to what mattered, which was seeing as many animals as possible. The swimming pools and expensive wines will have to wait, but that’s ok.
More East Africa Resources
If you’re considering a trip to East Africa, you might also like these:
- How hard is climbing Kilimanjaro?
- Must-know cultural tips for visiting Uganda
- Bike Safari at Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya
- Hiking the Congo Nile Trail in Rwanda
- Essentials for Your East Africa Packing List
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