Picking the best low-hanging fruit where few others look -- for cents on the dollar

Four Insider Tips to Avoid Paying Over the Top
for Your African Safari

Gallery cover: Tim Staermose on a Lake Manze exploration
Me during my two-day trip to Lake Manze in the Selous Game Reserve.

Selamat Hari Raya Idul Fitri, Eid Mubarak, Happy Africa Day, or Happy Memorial Day, as the case may be!

With today being a holiday throughout much of the world, what better day for me to write about some travel hacks I’ve learned over the years, to help you get the best possible value for your money on a high-end African safari.

Better yet, if like nearly everyone else you’ve been stuck at home, and unable to travel due to the coronavirus lockdowns, what better way to daydream a bit about the day we can travel again without fear and the inconvenience of quarantine and social distancing.

For many people, an African safari is a bucket-list item. I’ve been fortunate to do half a dozen such trips in my life. I’d do one every year if I could. There’s something magical about being out in the bush with nothing around but wild animals and the vast open expanses of nature.

Unfortunately, for several reasons, African safari holidays are among the most expensive trips you can take.

  1. Demand greatly exceeds supply. There are many retired baby boomers in wealthy countries, and huge numbers of upper middle class people in rising nations such as China and India, who want to tick off the African safari box on their bucket list. And due to the low-impact nature of safari tourism, there are only a limited number of spaces for them. So, the operators have pricing power.

  2. Safaris often involve complex itineraries and complicated logistics covering vast distances, involving private flying. Remember the true size of Africa from my other recent column. Getting around is going to cost money no matter how you do it. But especially in light aircraft which is often the only feasible way, due to a lack of road and rail infrastructure.

  3. Given the low-impact, boutique nature of the most desirable safari lodges, there are few economies of scale, and operators have spent large sums of money on their facilities, which they must recover to turn a profit and stay in business.

  4. Because there is no competition from other establishments nearby out in the bush, you are a captive to the safari operator’s own facilities. Rates are almost always fully inclusive, with accommodation and meals included, and the mark-ups are not insignificant. You can’t just pop down the road for a restaurant meal, after all.

  5. Safari itineraries are nearly always costed in US dollars, or Euros, not local currencies, giving rise to some degree of two-tier pricing.

To give you some idea, I have been on a trip where I spent more than US$2,000 a day for myself alone, when I went “no expenses spared.” And that’s not including flights to and from Africa.

That trip covered two different luxury camps in the Okavango Delta, and one on the Makgadikgadi Salt Pan in the Kalahari Desert, in Botswana. It also took in the exclusive Benguerra island resort in Mozambique. If you can afford it, I highly recommend all these destinations. They are the epitome of luxury.

But we can’t all afford to splurge quite like that. And I am a value guy, after all.

I also have been on a high-end luxury trip where I spent under US$1,000 per head, per person, per day, with my wife and eldest daughter (when she was 3). On that occasion I used one of the travel hacks I referred to in the headline.

It basically just involves going just before, or just after the high-season proper. The operators usually allow some leeway with the seasons, so as not to disappoint those who pay top dollar for high-season rates in order to get guaranteed good weather.

So, the operator will start the high season a little later, and end it a little sooner, than the weather truly dictates. And in these “shoulder seasons” you can pick up considerably better rates, while still being almost certain of getting good, high-season weather.

For example, I went to the northern safari circuit in Tanzania, and to Kenya, in late October and early November, right at the end of the high season. And it was fabulous. Still expensive, but very high end. And the staff were amazing with our daughter.

On our flight out from Dar es Salaam to the Serengeti my wife, daughter and I were the only three passengers on this Pilatus turbo prop to Grumeti air strip, and we flew directly where we needed to go. A dream start to our safari.

The Grumeti area, is a very low density area with a huge concession and only a handful of small lodges. We only ever saw the two other safari vehicles from our own lodge when we were out on our early morning and afternoon game drives.

We had a private vehicle, as they don’t allow young children in group vehicles. So, we paid a little extra for that, but it was well worth it.

Just under US$1,000 a day, per person might sound expensive. But with private plane travel, private game vehicles, your own full-time expert guide, and a butler to look after you back at camp, all meals, laundry, and drinks included, one could argue that it’s actually pretty good value for money.

Still, I am fully aware that’s not within most people’s budget. Fortunately, there are three other ways you can do a great safari much more cheaply than using my “shoulder season” hack.

  1. The first is simply to go to South Africa, where there is some degree of infrastructure, and do a self-driving safari where you hire a regular vehicle at the airport and drive yourself. This can be done in some, but not all parks in South Africa.

My two friends and I did this during the 2010 World Cup. We spent one night and one and a half days in the Hluhluwe–Umfolozi Game Reserve, which is the oldest proclaimed nature reserve in Africa. It is reachable via a three-and-a-half-hour drive, along very good roads, from Durban in Kwazulu Natal.

The following day, on the way back to Durban we stopped at St. Lucia Wetlands. The abundance of hippos and crocodiles there has to be seen to be believed.

Between the three of us we’d have spent no more than about U$500 for the two-day trip, including accommodation at a hilltop facility with basic huts and communal bathrooms and showers similar to that of a public pool or gym. Worked fine for us.

We saw rhinos, giraffes, buffaloes, warthogs, and many species of antelope among other things, but no big cats.

2. Another great way to save money on high-end safaris in Tanzania is to take advantage of Coastal Aviation’s “Last Minute” safaris.

This isn’t for everyone, I suppose, as there is no guarantee you’ll get a space. But, the drill is this: You go to Tanzania without having booked your safari in advance. In my case I was on an investment research trip in Dar es Salaam.

You can only book within seven days of the trip. So, make sure as soon as that window opens you put in some booking requests for one of their various scheduled itineraries. 

Sunset at Lake Manze
Sunset at Lake Manze

What they do is slot you in where they have had cancellations or have not sold their full inventory to others. The price includes all the regular things the company’s high-end safaris do – airfares direct to the camp of your choice on light aircraft, overnight accommodations, and all meals.

But, because they are selling you last-minute inventory, you can pick it up for as little as half price. My friend and I paid $600 each for a one-night, two day trip to Lake Manze in the Selous Game Reserve, including the return flight and all costs except alcoholic beverages. That’s excellent value.

We landed, had a game drive, ate a great lunch, and then went on a boat safari in the afternoon, before a sumptuous dinner under the stars back at camp. 

The next morning, we got up before dawn, went for a long game drive, had a picnic breakfast in the bush, before another long game drive prior to our flight back to Dar es Salaam, on to Nairobi, and back to Asia.

For the busy traveler this is perfect. You can tack it onto the end of a business trip if you have the flexibility.

You could also do what some of the others staying at the lodge with us had done, and go on a beach holiday to Zanzibar, and then put your hat in the ring for a last-minute Coastal Safari while chilling on the beach. Coastal has the most daily flights of any airline to and from Zanzibar.

For people from cold climates who want a beach holiday anyway, this strikes me as a good option. Our fellow travelers on this occasion were in that camp. It was February. And they had escaped from the cold weather home in Poland to the warm idyllic beaches of Zanzibar. The last minute safari they were able to secure completed their dream vacation.

3. The final, and perhaps most amazing safari travel hack is to visit Nairobi National Park, which sits on the edge of the bustling Kenyan Capital.

This is not a zoo. This is the real deal! Wild animals roam free in the park only 5 miles from the skyscrapers of the city centre. And there are direct, cost-competitive flights to Nairobi from all over the world, including from London, New York, Paris, Amsterdam, and Bangkok, to name but a few major cities.

Buffaloes in Nairobi National Park

You can do a half day or full day trip to Nairobi National Park from your downtown hotel for a modest charge. The cheapest option is to do a group tour (as little as $60 a person I seem to recall). But for a little more luxury, and frankly, in my view better value for money (you get much more, for a bit more cost), you can do a private trip.

I don’t think I paid more than a couple of hundred dollars to take my family in a private, old-school Land Rover safari vehicle (pictured, with my daughter looking at a crocodile). For that, we actually had TWO guides, and lunch included. Hard to beat for a genuine safari experience. If you can get to Nairobi, this is one that should be in nearly everybody’s budget.

So, if you’ve always wanted to go on an African safari but gasped at the prices, I hope this gives you some ideas.

I highly recommend going. For a seasoned safari traveler like me, nothing gives me greater joy than taking a family member or friend for the first time.

The look on their face when they have their very first encounter with a big African mammal in the wild is truly magical. Every time, without fail, I’ve seen peoples’ jaws drop.

A man front of Coastal Aviation plane
Lastly, a photo of my business partner
joining me on my trip to Lake Manze.

Until next time,

Happy value hunting!

Tim Staermose

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