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Updated August 2019
A quick search for “Budget African Safari” will yield you more results than you’ll have the time or sanity to read. I’ll do you a favor and sum them all up right here – they’re all still really expensive (even if they claim to be a budget tour operator). For our family of 6, the cheapest that we could find for a one day game drive was over $1000 and that didn’t include food or any accommodation.
How to take an African Safari on a budget
Well, what if you found out that you could do this all on your own, and literally save THOUSANDS!! Yes, we’ve done it twice in fact (once in Kenya and once in South Africa).
What most people don’t tell you is that the parks where many of these game drives are held are national parks, just like most countries have and are open to the public. Think of it like going to the United States and visiting Yellowstone, but instead of seeing bison and geysers, you’re seeing elephants and lions. Honestly, this can be one of the best trips that you will ever take and it’s absolutely possible to do it all on your own. After all, the locals are paying the gate fee, and driving their own car in, so why shouldn’t you do it too?
Should you take your kids on an African safari?
You see, when it comes to travel, there are a lot of things that are interesting to adults, that kids have absolutely no interest in (ahem, Sistine Chapel and the Louvre Museum…). But, a vacation where you have a chance to see a baby elephant just hours after it was born, hippos fighting in the water, or a crocodile hunting its prey? Now that’s the kind of vacation that kids get really excited about (and those are all things that we actually saw, right out our car window!).
As we ventured out on our African Safari, our kids got to see the big 5, hold baby crocodiles, had whales cruise by them, saw penguins playing right in front of them, and even saw an angry elephant chase a whole pride of about 25 lions away right in front of our car!! Amazing actually doesn’t do the trip justice!
What are the cheapest countries to take a safari?
Before we booked out trip we did TONS of research into which countries were the most affordable and also the safest to visit on a family safari. Some of the most popular countries to visit for safaris are Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.
Having visited Kenya about 10 years before and arranging our own safari for a very affordable price, we contemplated going back there to show our kids our favorite things (we spent a summer there doing work with AIDS orphans before we had kids, and absolutely loved it!) However, to take our family to Maasi Mara Wildlife Reserve, which was our favorite, would cost our family $340 just for one day just for park admission. As we researched more, we learned that South Africa has an annual National Parks Pass, the WILD CARD that would cost us 5,420R for an entire year (about $355 USD).
So for the price of one day of admission in to a park in Kenya, we could get access to a whole years worth of parks in South Africa. Flights to South Africa are also often the cheapest in the African continent, so it was an easy choice to go on a safari in South Africa.
While we were in South Africa, we visited Kruger National Park, Hluhluwe – Imfolozi Park, Blyde River Canyon Reserve, Royal Natal Park, and Cape Point Reserve all in our 16 day trip, so we got some serious value for our money.
How to plan a South African Safari on a BUDGET!
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Best guidebooks for South Africa
If you’re going to be doing any travel to South Africa, a guidebook will be essential (you’ll be glad you had it when your cellular data isn’t working!)
Our most referenced book when we were in South Africa was this animal guidebook. It was easy enough that our kids could identify animals, yet detailed enough that we felt like we learned a lot about everything we saw.
We also traveled with both of these guidebooks which helped us all along the way. We referred to them when planning our route, booking our accommodation, finding restaurants and stores along the way, and so much more.
I’m quite convinced that having a good guidebook is one of the best investments that you can make any time you travel, and have always ended up saving us huge amounts of money with the advice they provide.
How to cut costs on a safari
When planning and sort of trip, you’ll usually have three major expenses. Transportation, accommodation, and food. In South Africa, there are so many different options available that can help you save money on every aspect of your travels.
How to save money on transportation for a safari
When you’re planning and arranging your own safari, you’ll be getting around by driving yourself around and unless you live in Africa, you’ll be renting a car.
My biggest piece of advice is to rent a large car, and if possible a van. You see, on a safari, you’ll likely be sitting in the car for most of the day, and after seeing many groups uncomfortably smashed into what was seemingly the cheapest sedan available, we were grateful we had rented a giant vehicle.
While we may all have visions of strolling around the bush looking for wildlife, that’s not only incredibly dangerous, but in many areas it’s also illegal. If you see a leopard in a tree, or lions mating down the road, it will all be from the safety of your car.
For everyone’s sanity as well as comfort, get the biggest car that you possibly can. Our family rented a Hyundai H1 van and it was incredibly convenient because our kids could easily move from side to side and there were tons of windows, so no matter what side of the car the wildlife is on, everyone had a great view. If might cost a little bit more, but trust me, this is one area where the price is worth it.
How to save money on accommodation for a safari in South Africa
When traveling within the South African National Parks system, there are also TONS of options for accommodations. You can get a tent site for about $25 a night if you’re on a really tight budget, and bungalows can be rented starting at about $90.
The advantage of staying inside the parks is that you’ll cut down on your driving time significantly, and you’ll also get to be RIGHT THERE where the animals live. All the lodging areas that we saw were gated and guarded by armed guards to prevent any unwanted wildlife encounters (though that didn’t stop the big group of moneys from running around outside our kitchen for a few days, which the kids still talk about to this day). Also, if you are staying inside of the parks, you will also have the option of going on guided night safaris with rangers at some locations. We took our kids on one of these and it was so amazing!
Outside of the gates of most of the popular national parks, you’ll find many hotel as well as Airbnb options, though I highly recommend looking for accommodations within the parks as your first option. Check out the options available within the National Parks here.
How to save money on food for a South African Safari
The best way to save food anywhere you travel is to shop at the grocery store and cook your own food (many bungalows within the national parks have their own kitchens). However, shopping at a South African grocery store can be quite an exotic experience.
South Africans LOVE to grill (called a BRAAI, and most accommodations will have access to one) and they also have availability to some pretty exotic meat. Check out the meat department for things like zebra steaks, gemsbok cuts, or even impala jerky.
Most of the larger lodging areas within the parks also have their own small market where game meat can be easily bought for a great price.
Why doing a DIY safari is a better fit for families
Did we feel like we missed out on any experiences by arranging and guiding our own safaris? Absolutely not. In fact, I really believe that DIY safaris are an excellent match for families with kids and here’s why:
- Start and end when suits you. If your kids want to be up at sunrise or stay out till sunset, the only schedule you have to keep to is your own. Also if they need a mid-day break for a nap or to get out and play, it’s easy to make it happen.
- Go where you want to go and stay as long as you want. If you want to stare at a rhino for 30 minutes, no big deal. Seen too many giraffes? Just pass on by this one. When you go on safari alone, you have the flexibility to see what you want, for as long as you want without having to adhere to a guides schedule.
- You’ll be on the same roads as everyone else anyway. Yes, it’s true. The big name safaris are usually going to be on the same roads that you are, seeing the same animals as you. Take advantage of this and if you see a guided tour stopped for no apparent reason, pull over too – they are probably looking at something that you just can’t see.
Make sure that you do your homework about the best parks to go to. Many parks have high concentrations of a few animals with almost no chance of seeing others (keep reading below for more info on that). Pick the park that has what you want to see, and don’t feel bad about skipping the others!
Where to go on a safari to South Africa
South Africa is a very large country, and unless you are there for at least 3 weeks, you’ll want to either stick to one area or fly between them. We had 16 days for our trip, so we visited the Cape Town Area to the south as well as the northern part of the country that we accessed through Johannesburg.
Initially, we spent a few days down in Cape Town exploring down there and seeing penguins, whales, and ostriches. Cape Town is beautiful and has a very European feel to it. This area is also very popular for cage diving with Great White Sharks.
All of these animal experiences were truly amazing and were things that we couldn’t easily do in many other places.
However, it wasn’t until we got to Johannesburg that we felt like we had arrived in the REAL AFRICA. We finally started seeing more black people (not in a racist way, but Cape Town is very white), had crazier roads to deal with and had chances to get out more into the wild. In the northern part of South Africa there are more game reserves that will have your typical safari animals (including the big 5 – cheetah, leopard, lion, elephant, and buffalo).
We took a loop from Johannesburg down into the Drakensburg mountains for a few days, right on the border of Lesotho.
We then headed towards Durban and up to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park to see the rhinos. These are my favorite animals, and this reserve has one of the largest populations of both black and white rhinos.
Afterward, we headed over to St Lucia, right on the sea. Not only did we see whales breaching off shore every morning, but we got to see a huge population of both hippos and crocodiles. In fact, there are so many hippos in St Lucia, that they caution against walking outside at night as you run a big risk of being charged by hippos.
Taking a boat ride there is a must as it’s the absolute best way to view both the hippos and the crocodiles. A visit to the crocodile center is also a must do with kids!
We then spent with several days in Kruger National Park, which was the biggest highlight of the trip for all of us. The abundance of wildlife there is just breathtaking! We felt like we were right in the movie The Lion King the whole time. We saw a huge herd of zebra playing around a watering hole, saw giraffes necking, elephants bathing in the river, and the highlight that I mentioned above was when some angry elephants chased a pride of about 25 lions (moms and cubs) right at our car! Next time, we could easily spend an entire month in Kruger and never tire of it!
To finish off our trip, we headed to Blyde Canyon to see the waterfalls and birds there.
If you want more suggestions on great safaris with kids in South Africa, check out these other suggestions as well.
Things to know before you visit South Africa with kids:
South Africa is very strict about allowing minors into the country, due to several issues with human trafficking. Until recently, children were required to carry an unabridged birth certificate (or notarized copy) to gain entry into the country. Recently, this rule has changed, though it would probably still be wise to check regulations right before you go and see if there are any changes to the laws here. There are some situations (such as a child traveling with one parent), where a birth certificate may be requested, so just be prepared.
Also, malaria is a big concern in many parts of South Africa. Make sure to check if the regions that you are visiting have a malaria risk and plan on taking necessary medications to prevent your exposure.