How to choose the perfect African safari trip

JUAN MARTINEZ

September 13, 2023

How to choose the perfect African safari trip

Destination, budget, type of safari—here, I will tell you how I learned to plan the perfect safari trip in Africa.

Going on a safari is a dream for most of us. The idea of witnessing gigantic animals we only know from videos in documentaries in their natural habitat is undeniably a magical experience. I feel fortunate enough to have completed over 30 safari trips all over Africa. However, before I became a “safari expert,” choosing the perfect safari trip was not an easy task.

In the past years, I have selected the wrong season, overpaid for my safari trip, prioritized experiences that were not too relevant for me, and so on. In this article, I would like to revisit all these mistakes I made in the past so you can plan your perfect African safari based on what YOU want and what would make your experience the trip of a lifetime.

Here are my top tips on how to select the perfect safari trip:

giraffes in Africa
Giraffes are some of the easiest animals to spot during a safari trip.

Define your personal goals

Before you start booking your tickets to Kenya or Tanzania, ask yourself what you hope to get out of this experience. Is your dream to see all the Big Five? Or are you more interested in spotting giant gorillas in their natural habitat, or perhaps witnessing thousands of elephants in a single location? Magical events like the Wildebeest Great Migration in Kenya and Tanzania or the Kasanka Bat Migration might also be on your bucket list.

No matter what your reasons are, it’s important to have an idea of what you would like to see the most. This will help you decide which national park to visit and enhance your planning.

You have no idea what to see? Don’t worry, I’ve been there. For first timers with no specific goals when doing a safari, these are my top recommendations:

  • Amboseli National Park in Kenya
  • Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania
  • Kruger National Park in South Africa
Wildebeest migration crossing in Kenya
Photographing the Wildebeest migration crossing in Kenya is the highlight of many safari lovers.

Choose your destination

Once you know your reason for embarking on a safari trip and your expectations, it’s time to select your destination. We often refer to Africa as a single destination due to our limited understanding of the region, but Africa comprises 51 countries, each with a rich diversity of cultures and wildlife. Not every country offers a safari experience, and each safari trip within these countries is unique.

Southern Africa is well-known for its robust safari infrastructure and is a great place for your first safari. In contrast, East Africa is renowned for hosting a wide variety of animals in a compact area. Planning a safari in Namibia is a completely different experience from planning one in Angola, even though these countries are neighbors.

If I had to recommend a destination for a first-timer, I wouldn’t be entirely certain what to suggest. Amboseli National Park in Kenya is perfect for capturing the classic African safari photo, while South Luangwa in Zambia offers an isolated and raw experience. On the other hand, gorilla trekkings in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are at the top of many people’s bucket lists.

The options are plentiful, and by understanding what you’d like to see, you’ll be better equipped to make an informed choice about where to go.

Amboseli national park with an elephant
The photo of Kilimanjaro in the background and an elephant is a classic at Amboseli National Park.

Decide on the type of safari

Safaris come in various shapes and sizes, catering to different preferences and budgets. Whether it’s luxury lodges, basic camping, self-drive adventures, or guided group tours, your choice should align with your desired level of comfort and special preferences.

Additionally, while it might be challenging to have a luxury safari on a tight budget, the differences in cost between camping, self-driving with a tent, or staying at a standard lodge aren’t usually significant.

If you’re still wondering about the types of safari trips available, I’ve compiled a shortlist of some of the most popular options across the continent (please note that not every safari type is available in every national park)

Read more: What are my favorite national parks in Africa

Getting the proper vehicle is a good start for a safari
Getting the proper vehicle is a good start for a safari

Game Drives: These are classic safaris where you ride in a 4×4 vehicle with a professional guide to observe wildlife. Game drives can be conducted during the day or at night, with night drives offering the chance to spot nocturnal animals.

Top recommendation: Okavango Delta in Botswana.

Top recommendation for a night game drive: South Luangwa National Park in Zambia.

Walking Safaris: Walking safaris offer a more intimate and immersive experience with nature. Accompanied by armed guides, participants explore the wilderness on foot, focusing on tracks, signs, and smaller wildlife.

Top recommendation: Hlane National Park in eSwatini.

Photographic Safaris: Designed for photography enthusiasts, these safaris provide ample time and opportunities to capture wildlife and landscapes. They often include expert wildlife photographers as guides.

Top recommendation: Amboseli National Park in Kenya, or the Wildebeest Great Migration in Kenya.

Birdwatching Safaris: Birding safaris are tailored for bird enthusiasts who want to spot and photograph a diverse range of bird species. Guides are typically experienced birdwatchers with extensive knowledge.

Top recommendation: Kasanka National Park in Zambia (although I haven’t been there, it’s high on my bucket list).

Mobile Camping Safaris: Mobile safaris involve moving campsites to explore different areas. These safaris often use comfortable tented accommodations and are ideal for those who want to get off the beaten path.

Top recommendation: Etosha National Park in Namibia.

Luxury Safaris: Luxury safaris offer high-end accommodations, gourmet dining, and personalized service. They are ideal for travelers who want to enjoy the wilderness without sacrificing comfort.

Top recommendation: Chobe National Park in Botswana.

Canoe and Boat Safaris: On water-based safaris, participants use canoes, kayaks, or boats to navigate rivers and lakes. These safaris are excellent for observing aquatic wildlife and birdlife.

Top recommendation: Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia.

Balloon Safaris: Hot air balloon safaris provide a bird’s-eye view of the landscape and wildlife below. They are particularly popular for capturing stunning aerial photographs.

Top recommendation: I’ve never done one, but from what I’ve seen in photos, Masai Mara seems to be the place for this.

Gorilla and Primate Safaris: These specialized safaris focus on tracking and observing primates, such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and lemurs, in their natural habitats.

Top recommendation: Kahuzi-Biega or Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Self-Drive Safaris: In some regions, you can rent a 4×4 vehicle and explore wildlife areas independently. This type of safari requires careful planning and knowledge of the local terrain.

Top recommendation: Anywhere in Namibia. This is the friendliest African country for self-drive safaris.

Read more: Where is the best place to do a gorilla trekking in Africa

Self-driving camping vehicles are very popular in Namibia. This was also my preferred method to travel in the country in Africa
Self-driving camping vehicles are very popular in Namibia. This was also my preferred method to travel in the country

Set your budget

Yes, safaris can be costly, and even if you’re on a tight budget, you should plan for a daily expenditure of at least 100-150 USD. Regrettably, I must also emphasize that the more you’re willing to invest, the more unforgettable your experience is likely to be.

Luxury safaris in private conservancies offer an entirely distinct experience compared to a standard 4×4 safari. And no, it’s not just about fancy cocktails or better facilities; it’s primarily about the safari experience and the quality of animal sightings, which tend to be more private and rewarding.

This is precisely why determining the type of safari should align with your budget. If you initiate your safari planning solely based on budget constraints, you might overlook experiences that would be profoundly fulfilling for you.

Regarding the budget-to-time ratio, I prefer to maximize the value of my money by spending less time but making the most of it. There’s nothing worse than envisioning a sunset beside a watering hole teeming with elephants, rhinos, and hippos, only to find yourself watching the sunset outside the national park with a busload of 20 other people – believe me, I speak from experience.

Here are some aspects I prioritize when allocating my budget and others I personally find less critical:

It can be more expensive:

  • The type of safari vehicle
  • The quality and expertise of the guide
  • The overall experience within the national park

It can be more budget-friendly:

  • Accommodation
  • Food
  • General service quality

Keep in mind that these are merely examples based on my own personality and safari preferences. Your priorities might vary, but ultimately, you’ll need to strike your own balance when establishing your budget.

Read more: How to plan a safari trip on a budget

This are some of the addional perks with a luxury safari - breakfast at the open savanna
This are some of the addional perks with a luxury safari – breakfast at the open savanna

Timing matters

The timing of your safari is arguably one of the factors that will most significantly impact your experience. Are you traveling during the high season or the low season? Why is it considered high season, and is there something unique to witness during that time? What are the precipitation levels, accessibility, and weather conditions like? All of these factors can make the difference between spotting 20 lions in a single day or not a single one.

Conduct thorough research in advance to determine the best times to visit each of these national parks. Online platforms like SafariBookings provide comprehensive information about major African national parks, including details about the wildlife you can expect to see and the likelihood of sightings.

If budget is a significant consideration, “shoulder seasons” can be the ideal time to travel. These months fall just after the high season. During this period, you can still experience the full range of wildlife that’s available in the best time of the year while potentially saving some money. Personally, I choose to travel during shoulder seasons to reduce costs. I’ve managed to save up to 50% on a safari trip by making this choice.

Read more: How to prepare for your first safari trip

The perfect timing makes a difference between easily spotting wildlife or not in Africa
The perfect timing makes a difference between easily spotting wildlife or not

Research your tour operators and make bookings

Planning a safari trip entirely independently or at the very last minute can have unfortunate consequences. Vehicles may be fully booked, entry permits to the national parks might be unavailable, or you could find yourself in situations where numerous small operators are attempting to extract every single penny from you. I used to meticulously plan every aspect of my safari trips on my own. However, I realized that this approach consumed a lot of time and often resulted in minimal cost savings, if any.

Now, I prefer to identify operators with excellent reputations in the market. I convey my safari preferences to them, along with my maximum budget. Within a day or two, I begin receiving offers that provide all the services within my desired budget. While some offers may be terrible, others are great and much more affordable than if I had organized everything independently.

To find tour operators, a quick Google search is a good starting point. However, I highly recommend using SafariBookings. This is some kind of TripAdvisor or Get Your Guide for safari tours. The majority of companies in Africa have profiles on SafariBookings, where you can directly get in touch with them, gain a clear understanding of their price range, and even negotiate for better deals once you establish contact.

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