Most people who are planning a trip to Africa are definitely wanting to include a safari of some sort.
Tanzania has some of the best wildlife national parks on the planet. Two of the most impressive and most well-known national parks include the Serengeti, famous for the great wildebeest migration, and the Ngorongoro Crater, a sanctuary for Africa’s famous big five among others.
Finding affordable safari options however can be a struggle. Many online safari operators for the most part are targeting the high end of the market. Luxury safaris can run in the thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.
With a bit more digging, however, the more affordable end of the market does have options for those looking for something without a hefty price tag. Unfortunately these options are also dogged by stories of poor service, inflated pricing, or vehicles in poor condition.
In this post we hope to share our experiences and answer the question on how to plan a Tanzania Safari on a budget.
Length of Time
There are a huge range of safari options available including customizable tours offered by most tour operators and agents.
These range from single day tours through to ten days or more. If you are planning a safari to the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater, 3-4 day tours are the most common. If you are planning to see more parks, try to plan for a longer tour. In our experience, 3-4 days allows plenty of time to see all the sights without blowing your budget and feeling completely drained after as well.
Tanzania is blessed with numerous world class national parks. Most tourists head towards the National parks in Northern Tanzania:
- Ngorongoro Crater
- Lake Manyara
- Arusha National Park
If this is your first time in Tanzania or Africa, in general, chances are that you are going to want to tick off a few of the best on offer.
In our experience Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area are the standout parks.
Think Lion king! Vast savannah landscape with elegant Acacia trees punctuated with magnificent free roaming wildlife including multiple and almost guaranteed cat sightings. These parks shouldn’t be missed!
So plan your safari to see at least these 2 parks.
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Safari Types Major Differences
In this section we will outline the various types of safaris based on budget. The main purpose of this is to outline the major differences by paying more.
For the purposes of this post we will categorize safari types into three broad categories.
Ranging in price from $3000 and above for a 4 day tour.
Priced between $1000 – $3000 for a 4 day tour and
Priced at less than $1000 for 4 days. Budget Safaris are often quoted in per day rates.
All prices typically include all park fees, meals and accommodation. There are however variations in rates within the high and mid range Safaris depending on the accommodation options chosen. All rates also typically include taxes. Tipping is expected and is on top of any quoted rate.
If your wondering why the significant price variations between high end and budget tours, below is a list of the major differences between tours to help you decide what your priorities are:
1. Type of accommodation, amenities and meals
at the lower end the most basic accommodation is in tents at public campsites. Mid range – either tents in private campsites in well tended surrounds or permanent camps or lodges. At the high end – luxury permanent camps in picture perfect locations.
2. Private vs group safari
obviously if your willing to share vehicles, driver, cooks and vehicle park entry fees this is going reduce costs. Budgets safaris are almost always in groups and typically about 6 people per group. Mid range options are often still in groups but private tours can be found in this price range. High end is almost always a private tour.
3. Experience of guides and quality of equipment and vehicles
In an attempt to offer low price safaris without cutting into profit margins often comes at the expense of poor vehicle maintenance and lower wages. The more highly skilled guides and cooks for the most part will be found in the higher end tours. The same applies to vehicle and equipment quality.
Budget Safaris and even mid range safaris all travel to the same areas of the park. This doesn’t mean that the wildlife viewing is of a lower quality. Because it isn’t. It’s fantastic! However during high season it might mean sharing a loin feeding with 60 other vehicles! High end safaris are more tailored and have mobile camps or lodges in less visited parts of the parks. For the most part you will have sightings to yourself.
The bottom line is that you truly do get what you pay for.
The safari you choose really depends on the type of experience your looking for and your priorities. For example if your safari is a once in a lifetime experience, you prefer all the comforts and luxuries of a hotel and you want to see the very best of Africa then a high end option is the way to go. If however your priorities lie in having the opportunity to visit these magnificent places and a few thousand dollars is the difference between going and not going and also don’t mind roughing it just a little. Then taking a budget safari is definitely the best option.
Where to find safaris
Each type of safari has its own market:
High End Safaris
The high end of the market caters for people looking for a luxury Safari experience. These are typically sold by commercial travel agents or through online travel agencies specializing in Safari tours. If your looking for a premium experience and not concerned with the cost then this is the way to go!
Mid Range Safaris
Mid range safaris are typically sold by agents locally based in Africa. These types of tours cater for those looking for some level of comfort, a quality experience but something still affordable. These agents are best found online through recommendation or good reviews. There are several good review sites including TripAdvisor.
TripAdvisor has a list of safari operators rated by review score. Unfortunately these review sites can be plagued with fake review,s so don’t take these ratings at face value. Nevertheless, it’s still a good starting point for your research.
Another excellent way to source quality operators in this price range is the guide books such as lonely planet or rough guide. We’ve trusted lonely planet for years and for the most part their recommendations are spot on. The only downside of an operator or restaurant or hotel being in lonely planet is price inflation . Its really a license to print money these days. So don’t expect the best rates from LP recommendations.
If you think this type of safari is for you, try Gosheni Safaris, Soul of Tanzania and Zara Tours all have excellent reviews. We have friends who have used these companies and were very satisfied with the experience.
For budget safaris you ideally want to have your feet on the ground or have a firm recommendation from someone you can trust. These operators and agents are almost always locally owned and operated. They have also no marketing budget and rely on walk in business from the street or through local hotels.
They may have a small presence online or active on social media in travel forums. If planning to organize a budget Safari a good way to do it is through your hotel. At least that way their business association provides some assurance to trustworthiness and quality of the operator.
We recommend contacting Wakawaka Hostel, or Wakawaka House, Arusha. The owner David is a very knowledgeable local tourism professional. He can book a Safari with one of his trusted operators with little fuss. The Hostel and house are an excellent accommodation option whilst staying in Arusha.
How to plan a budget safari
The remainder of this post will focus on how to organize a budget safari. How to book a safari, precautions and what to expect on a budget safari.
Booking your safari
If you are booking your safari in advance your operator or agent is likely wanting a deposit. I’ve had some operators ask for a 50 percent deposit. For a budget safari this is excessive and wouldn’t recommend paying this sort of money to someone you’ve never met nor has a large business presence. Most operators in my experience only ask for 5-10 percent. So shop around or negotiate better terms.
Paying your deposit is usually done via. Bank transfer. This can done through your bank. Usually I would recommend using Transferwise but unfortunately it’s not available in Tanzania. The next best option is western union with cash pick up from the local branch. Some operators also use Pesapal which is quick and easy (Similar to Paypal).
If your not wanting to book in advance. Then it is possible to organize budget safaris a few days even the day before. If you are planning on taking a group safari then this will depend on availability of seats. There are no guarantees but generally shouldn’t be an issue.
Organizing a private Safaris a couple of days in advance should be fine for your operator to organize food and permits.
If wanting to organize your safari on arrival I’d still recommend booking through your accommodation. If you are determined to get the best deal go direct to the operators offices. Don’t organize though street vendors or touts!
What to expect on a budget safari
If you are booking a budget safari in Tanzania most operators and travel agents offer almost identical itineraries, vehicles, accommodation and food options. For this reason its worth shopping around for the best price despite how an agent spins their sale.
Below is a list of typical food and accommodation options offered on Northern Circuit Safaris to the Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area, Tarangire and Manyara National Parks:
Food on Safari
Lets face it your not there for the food and if your anything like us your happy to sacrifice a few luxuries for a few days to enjoy these parks. Simply put, food options are basic. But we did find it to be satisfying and of acceptable quality.
Typically, each group has their own cook who travels with the group and prepares meals fresh every day. Servings are plentiful and there is enough to satisfy an average appetite. The following is a list of the types of foods to expect:
A cooked breakfast is offered each morning and is typically some variation of sausages, eggs, pancakes with jam and Toast. Tea and Coffee is also served.
Packed lunches are typical among most operators. These are simple but typically have enough variety to be satisfying. They include sandwiches, cakes, fruit and a juice or soft drink.
Campsite lunches are similar to dinner options. See below.
Dinner is typically some variation of rice or pasta dish. Either simple curries with rice or meat sauces with pasta. Fruit is served after dinner with Tea and Coffee.
Vegetarian options are available and for the most part travel agents and chefs do their best to provide for any dietary requirements. Please keep in mind however the facilities are simple and access to products is limited.
We requested for a single Vegetarian meal option. This worked out great since it provided more food and variety to the dinner table.
Accommodation on safari
Budget safaris in the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater conservation area, Tarangire and Manyara National Parks offer camping and most operators use the same sites. The following is a list of campsites typical for these Parks:
List of Campsites
Power is available at all of the following campsites. Only Panorama has a small shop, restaurant and bar.
Located outside the parks overlooking Lake Manyara off the main highway towards Serengeti. Panorama campsite is the most comfortable accommodation option on offer on these budget tours.
Facilities include modern-ish and clean bathrooms. A restaurant and bar area plus a souvenir shop which you will inevitably be asked to visit.
Camping is on a sparsely grassed area in front of the restaurant. The Campsite also offers small cabins and most safaris offer upgrades to these upon request.
There are a handful of public campsite options within Serengeti national park. Depending on what operator you choose will depend on what campsite you go to.
Campsites are all similar in quality and facilities and all are located in the Seronera Area in the heart of the National park.
Unfortunately it is obvious that the National Park management hasn’t invested in the infrastructure or the maintenance of the facilities at these sites. Most are in poor condition. Reading any of the reviews for these campsite make for pretty grim reading.
The Dinning area is open air in a concrete structure that is clean enough. The bathrooms are very basic. Fortunately we traveled in low season so the facilities had pretty light traffic. But I can imagine in high season these facilities would easily get over whelmed.
Easily the best campsite. Simba is located on the rim of the Ngorongoro crater. It has small views to the crater floor and friendly wildlife such as Elephants, Zebra and Baboons roam freely through the campsite.
Bathroom facilities are still basic but there is hot water available for showers. The dinning looks recently built and is fully enclosed. The campsite is at elevation so be prepared for cold nights.
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Warning about camping in African National Parks
When camping in the Serengeti and at Simba Campsite wildlife is free to roam through these areas.
Personally I found this to be a wonderful experience. Others may not! Serengeti guides will warn you to not leave your tent late at night and if you must to go to the bathroom, walk in pairs.
Almost all Safari operators use Toyota Land-cruiser Troop Carrier’s. These are typically fitted with 8 seats. 2 in the front for driver and cook, then 3 rows of 2 for customers.
Each Seat has a window. Seats in the back row can be a little cramped so if travelling in a group and you get stuck in one of these, organize with the group to rotate seats each day.
All Land-cruiser’s have a pop top roof for wildlife viewing.
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Toyota land-cruiser troop carriers and tough and reliable. Their also much cheaper to maintain and get parts than the traditional British Land-rovers. That said these vehicles get thrashed. They run continuously year around year after year.
One of the principle concerns people have for taking a budget Safari is the reliability of the vehicles. This is a valid concern considering that these vehicles are travelling in wild places with wild animals about where road side repairs could be unsafe.
These concerns are perhaps a little over emphasized. In an attempt to allay any concerns, very rarely do vehicles travel in isolation. Support from other vehicles is never far away, all Land-cruiser’s are fitted with winches and any breakdown that can’t be fixed, replacement vehicles are sent straight away. Worst case scenario is missing out on an afternoons Safari watching. Which isn’t great and could be reason enough to not choose to travel on a budget tour. Remembering of course that any vehicle can breakdown no matter the operator.
We observed several cases on vehicle’s requiring maintenance. In most cases vehicles were fixed and up and running in reasonable time. From our experience and opinion concerns about vehicle maintenance isn’t reason enough to opt out of a budget tour.
Experience and Training
Guides taking safari customers into the national parks out of Arusha and Moshi typically have some type of formal Safari training along with significant experience. Guides often start as cooks and with experience progress to guiding tours. Despite our tour being considered a budget tour, our guide had 18 years experience guiding around Africa. In our experience we observed all guides in Tanzania to be professional, safety conscious and skilled.
Vehicle maintenance knowledge is part of a Safari guides formal training. From our experience all guides had intimate knowledge of their vehicles.
Most guides are in and around the National Parks on a daily basis. They all generally have a good idea of where most animals are feeding or taking shade from the sun. Most sightings are called out via radio, equipped in most vehicles.
Generally wildlife is so abundant that simply following the park roadways is enough to guarantee sightings. Seeing a large group of Land Cruisers clustered together is a sure sign of a Cat sighting.
Tipping is expected on Safari. How much to tip is of course your decision but before planning your safari it is prudent to allow some amount on top of the upfront cost to give as a tip.
On a budget Safari allowing $20 USD per day per group for your guide and $10 per day per group for the cook is a good starting point. If you receive exception service choosing to give more is a good idea.
lets face it, the wildlife is what you have come to see. So you maybe wondering if by taking a budget safari am I compromising on getting up close to all your favorite animals. The simple answer is absolutely not! The wildlife viewing in these parks is abundant and magnificent.
The Serengeti National Park is full of Elephants, Zebras, Gazelles, Giraffes, Buffalo, Hyenas, Hippos, Crocodiles and a wide range of bird life. Lion sights are almost guaranteed and there is a good chance of sighting Leopards and Cheetahs. Depending on the time of the year Serengeti is of course famous for observing the great Wildebeest migration.
Ngorongoro Crater is a great place to spot lions feeding. Its also a great park to spot Rhinos. The Crater is also home to wandering herds of Wildebeest, Elephants, Buffalo, Hippos, flamingos, Hyenas and Zebra. There are occasional sightings of Giraffe.
Lake Manyara is known for its flamingos that inhabit the lake. The park is home to over 400 species of birds. Elephants, hippos, Giraffe, Impala, Zebra, Leopards, lions, Cheetahs and more inhabit the park.
Tarangire National Park is famous for the for its high density of Elephants and baobab trees.
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When to Go
The Northern Circuit National parks are great year round. If you’re wanting to see the Wildebeest migration visit between July and August. February is a good time to see the Wildebeest calving.
Travelling in a Group
If planning a budget Safari likely you will be travelling in a group. There are options to take budget private tours but in my opinion you are paying an unnecessary premium for this option.
Costs are significantly reduced travelling in a group. Ngorongoro Crater fees are charged on a per vehicle basis therefore group travel allows this cost to be shared. Guide, cook, vehicle hire costs and tips are also all effectively split when travelling in a group.
Travelling in a group also provides a great opportunity to meet fellow travelers, share stories and experiences.
On the down side, in a full vehicle space can be a little tight but not uncomfortable. Most Land cruisers are fitted with 6 customer seats. Avoid or better still organize to rotate through the back seats. For people with long legs these seats are small. The other seats are fine.
Safari operators and agents are notorious for over quoting for safari packages. Be sure that you really understand the market rate for the equivalent package before committing to anything. This can be easily done by researching online travel forums or Facebook groups. Also email as many agents and operators as possible and compare rates.
As a general rule the closer to the operating company you purchase your tour, the less you pay. Plenty of local Arusha and Moshi business is done through commission sales. Be aware that even if you book direct with an operating company you may be put with another company to make up numbers. This is just how it works in the budget Safari business.
A good place to start researching tours is through your accommodation. Of course hotels and hostels take their own cut so keep this in mind. Booking through your accommodation does however provide some assurance to the quality of the operator. If you are looking for cheaper options use prices quoted by your accommodation as a starting point.
At the time of writing the following is a list of prices quoted to us on a per day basis. As a general rule the longer the Safari the less you pay per day.
Quotes from our accommodation for 4 day 3 night Safari were $140 USD per day per person. A local agent quoted $130 USD per day per person for the same option.
For 3 Days 2 Nights a local agent quoted $140 USD per day per person.
Some agents we contacted via email were quoting twice these prices for exactly the same thing. Whilst they claimed their service was superior I’d be skeptical of this sort of claim considering from our observations, most Safari operators provide almost identical service.
In the Arusha / Moshi area safari operators run multi day Safaris that typically visit the Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara National Park.
Safari operators typical offer 1, 3, 4 and 5 day tours as part of a group. The 4 day safari option is most popular.
1 Day Safari – If you are short on time or money and just wanting to get a taste of the National parks in the area taking a 1 day safari might be a good option. The most popular option is a visit to the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. Its a big day but can be done comfortably. Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara National Park can also be visited in a single day but group options are less common. Serengeti National Park is to far for a single day visit.
3 Day Safari – The most common 3 Day option is 2 day in the Serengeti National Park, 1 day Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.
4 Day Safari – Same as the 3 Day Safari with the option to also visit either Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara National Park.
5 Day Safari – Visits all 4 parks.
You don’t have to have a big budget to go on Safari.
There are a huge range of safaris to suit all budgets and comfort levels.
Budget Safaris are a great way to see all the amazing parks Tanzania has to offer. Don’t be put off by stories to that suggest otherwise.
With a little research and following some the ideas discussed in this blog, it’s easy to go on safari without breaking the bank!