The Ultimate Guide to Booking An African Safari

So many people have told us that booking an African safari is top on their travel bucket list since our February 2019 trip. Who doesn’t dream of long sunny days in a Jeep and up-close encounters with lions and elephants? But one thing we also have heard is how stressful booking an African safari is (and how it’s getting in the way of those BIG vacation dreams!)

If that sounds like you, then you’ve come to the right place. Today we’re sharing our “Ultimate Guide to Booking an African Safari” to help get those planning juices flowing towards the trip of a lifetime.

We want to share our experience booking two different types of safaris in South Africa and the list of questions we asked to make sure we got the exact safari experience we were looking for.

So. Let’s get started.

Male Lion - Kambaku Safari Lodge

Questions to Ask Before Booking an African Safari

Like any trip we plan, we started booking our safari by spending a few minutes brainstorming the answers to these questions. It helped guide our safari search and narrow down the choices to our perfect safari.

What animals do you want to see on safari?

Always dream of seeing giraffes wandering the open plains? Get up close with a meerkat? One of the first questions you should ask yourself as you start the planning process is what types of animals you’d like the chance to see. Not all of the famous African wildlife live in all areas. While there are no guarantees (it’s wildlife after all) you’ll see a certain animal on safari, you need to travel where those animals live.

Our best example is a black rhinoceros. Let’s say not only is it your dream to go on safari, but it’s also your dream to see a black rhino. Black rhinos are extremely rare and endangered. If your heart is set on seeing one, it only makes sense to book your safari where the best chances are of seeing a rhino. It would be devastating to show up for your trip of a lifetime in Kenya, only to find out you should have booked in South Africa (where 40% of the world’s black rhinos currently live).

Spend a few minutes jotting down the types of animals you want the best chance of seeing on safari.

Giraffe - Kruger National Park

How much time do you have?

Safari’s come in all shapes and sizes. There are options to book as short as a 2-hour night drive and options to book for 10 days or longer. While we recommend at minimum 3 days, we know that might not be in the cards for everyone. We found 4-5 days to be a sweet-spot, allowing for best chances of seeing more wildlife and giving us a few extra days for less-than-perfect weather.

It’s also good to note that for most Americans, booking an African safari means booking at least a 7 hour time change. When you’re setting out your travel days, make sure you consider your own tolerance for jet lag and how much time you’ll need on the ground to adjust before hopping in an open-air safari vehicle.

Grab a calendar. Mark out when you’d like to go on safari and how many days you think would be the best fit for you and your group.

Male Elephant - Kruger National Park

How do you want to see the animals?

It may sound like an odd question, but there are lots of different options for having a unique and personalized wildlife experience on safari. It’s important to spend some time imagining what your perfect safari looks like to help narrow down the options. Here are some questions to get the conversation started:

  • Answer the question: “When I think about an African safari, these three words come to mind: __________, ___________, and ____________.
  • Do you want to see animals as close as possible, or would you prefer to keep a bit of distance?
  • Would you rather see animals during the day or at night?
  • Is it your dream to drive alone through the bush, seeking solitude and the chance to spot wildlife on your own? Or would you prefer to be with a guide and a group of others to enjoy the sights with?
  • Would you like to drive in an open vehicle to see wildlife, or be able to view from a comfortable platform?

Ask everyone in your group to brainstorm how they imagine seeing animals on safari. Decide which 2-3 features are your biggest priority. Keep them handy as you research choices.

Where do you want to eat and sleep?

Another big thing that can separate safari experiences is meals and lodging options. Booking an African safari is a lot like buying a car (only you have to choose it from a different continent with just Trip Advisor and a 2″ photo on Google images). Either way you can choose the very basic model, or you can order up all the bells and whistles you can possibly imagine.

Have a firm list of what amenities are necessary for your group and what you could live without before you get a sales pitch from a safari booking agent. It is the best way to make sure you purchase exactly what you expect and are comfortable while you stay. Use these questions to brainstorm your list:

  • Do you need a private bathroom or is a private bedroom with a shared ‘dormitory’-style bathroom okay?
  • Does your group need access to wi-fi or cell phone service at all times or is community wi-fi suitable?
  • Will you need accommodations for kids? For mobility needs? For other health issues?
  • How much time do you want to travel to see animals each day? Would you rather stay in the park or reserve (most times with fewer amenities), or prefer to have nicer accommodations but drive a bit longer each day?
  • Would you like a full menu and/or a full bar at the end of the day? Do you have dietary restrictions that need to be accommodated?
  • Would you prefer the option to prep your own meals or grab food on the go rather than have a sit-down meal?
  • Do you want a more rustic experience like the option to sleep out in the bush in tree house or tent style accommodations? Do you want a more traditional hotel experience? A combination of both?

Divide a sheet of paper into 3 columns. Label 1 column “Non-negotiable”, label 1 column, “Nice to Have”, and label the last column “Not For Us.” In the non-negotiables, list the 2-3 amenities that you must have when booking. In the “nice to have” column, jot down a few things that would be worth paying $50-100 more, but maybe not essential for you to have. In the final column, write down some things that you’re not interested in paying for or amenities that won’t meet your needs. Have this ready for your safari booking agent.

Ultimate Guide to booking an African Safari

Types of African Safaris

Once you have some information about your needs and wants, it’s time to match those with safari options. By now, you should have an idea where in Africa you’d like to travel to and what type of experience you’re lookign for.

While there are lots of different ways to sort out safari options, we’re going to talk about 3 main ways to think about booking an African safari:

Self-Guided Safari

Lots of people are surprised to learn you don’t need to use a guide or a safari booking service to go on an African safari. If you’re looking for the lowest cost option, a few days of self-guided safari may be the best choice.

For the cost of an airplane ticket and a rental car, you and your group can pay the entrance fee to the national park or game reserve and drive yourself.

Pros: By cutting out a booking agency and the guiding fees, it’s the most affordable safari option. It also offers the most control over meals and sleeping since you can pick and choose your accomodations rather than purchasing a ‘package’. Best perk, you get to decide how long you stay at animal sightings and which animals you look for.

Cons: You’re on your own to spot wildlife. Guides connect with each other via radio and face-to-face communication about where to see certain animals. You could be driving past wildlife because you’re less familiar with the habitat and behavior. There’s also no support on the ground if you have an emergency.

Guided, Rustic Safari in a National Park

The next big category you’ll find when booking an African safari is a guided tour with more rustic accommodations. These are frequently found in protected, undeveloped wilderness areas like Kruger National Park. Similar to the national parks in the United States, regulations prevent many safari areas in Africa from the development of large, commercial operations like lodges and hotels.

During our South African safari, we stayed at the Skukuza Rest Camp inside Kruger National Park. We stayed in a clean, straw-thatched concrete bungalow with electricity, air conditioning, and a private bathroom. Skukuza also has options for canvas tents with shared bathrooms or luxury bungalows with television and wi-fi.

Our safari guide prepped all meals for us, a delicious homecooked South African experience. Stir fry and ostrich steaks were on the menu, served family style with lots of great conversation about the life of a safari guide.

While on our 3 days of safari, we had some great wildlife sightings and were fortunate to be in a private vehicle without the cost of a private safari. It gave us some flexibility to choose which animals we wanted to see, but also gave us our guide’s expertise to go on. While regulations will be different in each area, because we were on protected wilderness land, there are more regulations about how close you can approach the wildlife and when you can and can’t view the wildlife.

Pros: Most affordable way to have a guided safari experience. An experienced guide who knows the wildlife patterns and park regulations. A good option for families or budget-travelers.

Cons: Fewer amenities at the camp and more ‘rustic’ accommodations (Note: these were great for us – but we’re used to camping and backpacking!) Park regulations meant we were restricted to daytime wildlife viewing and to viewing whatever we could see from the road.

Guided, Luxury Safari at a Private Game Lodge

One final option for booking an African safari is a guided safari at a private game lodge. While there are a range of prices and options for private game lodges in Africa, these most often fall in the ‘luxury’ option as compared to guided safari in protected wilderness areas like national parks.

The best part about private game lodge experiences are the amenities. If you look forward to a world-class dining experience and pristine spa-like bedroom at the end of a day of wildlife watching, then this is by far the best option for your safari experience. Many private game lodges offer luxury hotel amenities like turn-down service, in-room massages, gyms, and customized trip experiences.

We stayed at Kambaku Safari Lodge on the Timbavati Game Reserve bordering Kruger National Park in South Africa. It was an incredible experience, with some outstanding staff. A family-focused safari lodge, we had two full days of wildlife viewing and relaxing by the pool.

Private game lodges also manage wildlife in different ways than the national parks do, meaning in many cases you can approach the animals closer in the safari vehicle, stay longer at wildlife viewing spots, and go on walking safaris or night game drives.

All of these ‘extras’ come at a cost though. Safaris at private game lodges can be more expensive. Tips and gratuities also add up when it’s not just the safari guide in charge of your care. In some cases, it’s nearly double or triple the cost of a self-guided or guided rustic safari.

Pros: More amenities and custom options to choose from. Ability to see the wildlife close up, night drives, or walking safaris. World-class drinks, dining, and sleeping accomodations.

Cons: More expensive than other choices, private game reserves may have less wildlife than the larger wilderness areas,

When you’ve decided on the type of safari you’re interested in booking, it’s time to start your online searching. We used a private safari booking agency (Wild Wings Safaris) that booked us at Skukuza and Kambaku Safari Lodge. By choosing some time in both a guided rustic and luxury lodge, we had a chance to experience both and still meet our budget. Trip Advisor continues to be one of the best ways to review safari booking agents online.

Other Safari Tips

Choose Your Season Carefully

While the time of year you visit on safari may depend on your personal vacation time, choosing the time you go on safari can make a difference in how you’ll see wildlife.

During the summer months in Africa (mid-October to mid-February) the grasses and vegetation in safari areas are much taller and overgrown. Ample rains also mean that animals can find water in lots of different areas and don’t need to congregate. This can mean fewer chances of seeing wildlife than in winter months or longer periods of driving to spot wildlife.

The winter months are much drier, meaning that most of the ground vegetation that camouflages animals disappears. Animals are easier to spot and they frequently can be found near constant water sources. While it means you’ll likely see more wildlife and they’ll be easier to spot, the backgrounds are less ‘lush’ in photographs and you’ll often spot things at a greater distance away.

Buy or Rent Good Camera Equipment

An African safari is not the time to use your cell phone camera or a cheap point and shoot camera. It IS the time to buy, rent or borrow some higher end camera equipment including a telephoto lens. Trust us (and the photos in this post) that you will want to do some research on basic wildlife photography and get good equipment before you go.

Remember, for most of us booking an African safari is a once in a lifetime experience. Don’t come home without the photos to prove it.

To see all of our photos from Africa, check out our Facebook and Instagram pages: @parkchasers

Ask Questions. Then Ask More.

We had a ton of questions before, during, and after booking our African safari. In every case people were happy to answer our questions. From malaria pills to what type of shoes to pack, we were able to get as much help as we needed to have a good experience.

Ask questions before you book. Then ask more after you book. It’s the only way to make sure you have the ‘bucket list’ trip you always imagined!

THE PARKCHASERS

THE PARKCHASERS

Greg & Amy
Chasing a visit to all 400+ units in the NPS
Current Count: 98/423

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