Planning a Cost Effective Tanzania Safari

 In Spending

D espite causing a raging sinus infection and horrible extended jet lag (admittedly made worse due to an add-on business trip that was another six time zones away), our Tanzania safari has cemented itself as a highlight of our bucket list trips. Of course planning the Tanzania safari required a whole other level of budgeting hacks that made our Galapagos honeymoon planning seem like a walk in the park.

T here’s no getting around it: there are no deals to be had in Tanzania – you can only hope to plan a cost effective safari. That satisfaction of getting a killer deal will prove to be elusive.  There’s also only one Serengeti and one Mt. Kilimanjaro though, so if that’s what you want to experience, steel yourself for the unforgiving pricing in US dollars which eliminates any potential exchange rate arbitrage (unless you’re European). Here’s the lowdown on the tradeoffs we made and what we lived with.

Local Tanzania Safari Operators Are Critical

H owever, not all of them will be able to give you the best value. I must have corresponded with 15-20 firms, mostly locals, and wasn’t particularly impressed by any of the offers they quoted me. Even the predominantly camping packages which I thought would be cheaper (since there is no permanent construction) ended up being more expensive than our final package which was all lodge based. Honestly for a week’s worth of safari, you should not expect to spend any less than $2500-$3000 per person and that’s before you calculate the incidentals like flights, visas, tips, and the additional food/drink. We were quoted everything from $2500/pp to $10,000/pp for the in-country portion with a wide variation in accommodation levels. Non-local operators usually start quoting prices at upwards of $3000/pp for the most basic of accommodations.

W e ended up booking with a company called Easy Travel which is based in Arusha. As an independent company, we liked that we weren’t locked in to any one group of properties. The collectives do give you a discount if you stay a certain number of nights at their different properties, but we never found a “killer collective” that had excellent locations everywhere we wanted to visit. For example, very few properties have close access to the Ngorongoro crater entrance, and this was important to us as we didn’t want to wake up any earlier than 530 to make it to the gate by 6 AM to be one of the first folks down for the day. In this case, the discount would have been a loss to us since we would have wasted that night’s accommodation on a property that clearly didn’t fit our criteria which is in direct violation of this site’s money philosophy. If the purchase doesn’t meet your standards, just don’t do it!

L ast year’s experience in South Africa meant staying at one property and having two fixed game drives that took groups of guests. We hated waiting around for the folks who were never on time, so in Tanzania, we had a private guide and a vehicle just us. This was a fundamental difference that meant a lot to us as we had ample opportunities to take pictures and could stop or go whenever/wherever we wanted. In the grand hierarchy of things, I’d place more value on getting access to a trained guide, prioritizing privacy on a vehicle so you’re able to take all the pictures you want on your schedule, followed by the accommodations.

Time of Year Matters

W e chose February for our Tanzania safari because it is traditionally the calving season when babies are born and predators feast on them. There is also a migration to the Ndutu area in the Southern Serengeti which is a seasonal area and thus allows vehicles to go off-road (you have to stay on the roads  in the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater). While we missed the calving as the rains had not yet arrived, we managed to see herds of wildebeest and zebras gathering and preparing to migrate – the sight of this spectacle alone is worth the painfully long flight from the States.

H igh season is unsurprisingly July through October when the chances to witness the Great Migration are highest. Prices are also highest at this time, and the remainder of the year with the exception of the off-season is surprisingly not that much cheaper. You can keep costs down by going to Tanzania in the off-season which is April and May. Beware though that the rains will mean mud which is highly unpleasant to maneuver through and with the grass growing taller, spotting wildlife will be harder. Note that lodges start to close during this timeframe as well since they know that fewer tourists come due to the additional travails of a rainy vacation, so you will have fewer choices to choose from.

How Long Can You Really Sit in a 4X4?

T he length of your Tanzania safari and the number of internal transfers you choose to take also affect cost. We opted for one day in Arusha, five days of safari, and two days in the Mt. Kilimanjaro region. Those five days on safari cost essentially 98% of the total trip price, but that was also enough time to see all the animals and especially the Big 5 (the abundance of wildlife in Tanzania means that just one full day of game drives should net you pretty much all the Big 5).

W hile we could easily have spent one more day in the Serengeti, we felt that five days was enough, especially because a lot of your safari experience will consist of waiting, observing, and driving on unpaved roads. This will start to get boring if you’re a more active traveler, and I hate to say it, but 75 giraffes or zebra sightings later, you may be less impressed unless you’re witnessing a ginormous herd.

T  o maximize vacation time, you can take charter flights to access different areas. The driving really sucks because so much of the safari region is unpaved and the dust is relentless (remember my god-awful sinus infection?), so I found myself wishing we could spare ourselves some of the distances we covered. However, each of those charter flights is pricey as hell and uncomfortable. One way trips cost between $350-$500 for a less than an hour flight, and there are no bathrooms or air conditioning on those small prop planes. While you do save time, it still won’t be the most comfortable ride and the costs do add up. For a cost-effective Tanzania safari, plan to cover ground via a vehicle.

Be Prepared to Spend Hours Researching

T o get to a price you can live with, you will send hundreds of emails to multiple tour operators to determine the right mix of accommodations that get you to the magical total trip price you can live with. It will mean researching virtually every lodge you hear of, and cross-checking every recommended property. It’s actually much easier to go in and tell agents the properties you’re considering than to have no opinion beforehand as you could get stuck with properties that help the tour operator’s bottom line but aren’t great for you. If you hate doing research and you care about getting good value, a Tanzania safari is not your trip.The best resources I found were Frommer’s Guide to African Safaris and the TripAdvisor Tanzania forums.

Lodge Life v. Wildlife

I f you’ve selected a Tanzania safari to see wildlife, then one of the easiest ways to bring the cost of your trip down is to pick budget to mid-range accommodations. Note however that compared to more developed nations, the level of development in Tanzania is still a touch behind (it ranks as the 35th poorest country in the world), so a lot of what is considered luxury as per marketing brochures and internet recommendations, should really only be considered mid-range. We stayed at the Lake Ndutu Luxury Tented Lodges, Serena Serengeti Safari Lodge, and Ngorongoro Serena Lodge. Especially as compared to our stay on a private game reserve in South Africa last year, the room finishes, amenities, food, and service were distinctly not in the luxury category, though were still very comfortable and more than adequate. I know it’s unfair to compare the two safaris since we benefited from a favorable exchange rate in South Africa last year, but there you have it.

I f you won’t be spending much time in your rooms and will be on game drives or commuting between lodges for 8-10 hours a day, you can get away with properties that have nothing more than a dining facility for your meals. While swimming pools are refreshing, especially in the Serengeti when it’s scorching hot, you really won’t have time to use them if you’re out searching for animals, so there’s no need to pay the extra surcharge baked into room rates. We also noticed that even where communal areas exist, they may not be well maintained. One property we were at had a viewing deck with a telescope and movie director chairs, but we were disappointed to find out that the telescope wasn’t working (the glass probably hadn’t been cleaned and sand had gotten trapped inside the lens). At any rate, the prospect of potentially being bitten by mosquitos and catching malaria didn’t make stargazing particularly appealing.

M ost Tanzania safari lodges, even the higher-end mid-range places, won’t have air conditioning and exceedingly few will have TVs. All will have WiFi (I mean…having internet is basically a human right these days, no?). You’ll be lucky if there are ceiling fans – and this feature is one thing that I’d really watch out for in addition to having adequate hot water (we stayed away from camps and lodges where someone had to come and fill your drop buckets with hot water; we felt uncomfortable thinking about staff having to do this for us even though we knew it meant a job for them). You can forgive most everything else, but you can’t forgive not being able to sleep at night because it’s too warm.

T he food was middling at most places we stayed at, but it was clean and we were full. The true standout meals on our trip were actually at a budget lodge in Moshi near Mt. Kilimanjaro (there aren’t many accommodations in that region so pickings are slim) where we were treated to authentic Tanzanian cooking. Moral of the story: paying more for your lodges won’t mean that you’ll get better food which just reinforces the notion that if wildlife is more important to you, then stick to accommodations that are in a good location for wildlife viewing, have ceiling fans, offer hot water piped in from a central source, and have WiFi. You don’t need all the other fancy accoutrements and will likely be disappointed if you pay for them and don’t get to really use them. Anyway, this is not going to be a foodie trip – eliminate that notion right now because you’ll be heartbroken otherwise.

P ersonally, I think in hindsight that we struck the right balance with our choices. For the prices involved, I was left thinking “this is all we get?”, but this feeling was far outweighed by the wonder of our animal sightings. I also rightsized this perspective by considering that if we had paid less, we would probably have been disgruntled if not downright unhappy. So like with Goldilocks, we lucked into our just right accommodations but were also aided by intense scrutiny of lodge reviews.

Altogether Now

W hile I don’t feel the need to return, our Tanzania safari is an experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I would forever have wondered what it would be like to be in the middle of the Serengeti, and now know that the answer is “incredible”. Happily, I can now pursue other safari destinations like Namibia and Botswana, so there are future destinations to chase.

I ncluding flights, visas, generous tips (damn those guides work hard!), sundry gear (bug spray, quick dry underwear, etc.), and food/beverage incidentals, our cost came out to $3,500 per person for seven full days of activities plus the first day in Arusha. This was the most expensive trip to date and at $437.50 per person per day, not something that needs to be repeated any time soon as I firmly believe that you can have an all-inclusive, all-around spectacular trip for $325/ppd. As noted, the price was for accommodations that I would consider mid-range. There are plenty of properties that cost upwards of $1,000 a night, and so stringing together a week of this will easily put a dent in anyone’s wallet.

T here’s no place on earth like Tanzania, so if you’re interested, you should go and trust that there’s a way to plan a cost-effective safari. These bucket list trips will only get more expensive over time, and you can’t count on your paycheck to keep up with general inflation as employers are notoriously bad at rewarding their staff. May your wildlife viewings be out of this world.

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