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$800 to $1,000 per person per night: that’s currently the average price of an African safari. The continent might be underdeveloped, but its leading camps and safari lodges are among the most glamorous and expensive resorts in the world. In fact, many of these places make the Travel + Leisure World’s Best Hotels list. Factor in the cost of flights from the U.S. and the current weak state of the dollar, and the bill for an African trip starts adding up faster than a night on the tables in Las Vegas.
But it’s possible to do a safari—sometimes even at the top properties—without having to remortgage your home. Finding deals and bargains just requires research, innovation, expert advice, and—in some cases—the ability to step out of your comfort zone and hit the road on your own.
"One of the most efficient ways to cut costs is to travel off-season," says Marcia Gordon, director of travel at African safari specialist F. M. Allen. "Lodge rates drop by up to 40 percent in both East and southern Africa, and with such an unpredictable climate these days, it’s quite possible the weather will be better off-season than in the regular season."
Of course, you can’t always bank on the weather (and many camps in East Africa close during the April-May rains anyway). But visiting Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve in late May—during the green season and before the July-September Great Migration—pays dividends. At that time, a tent at the fabulous 1920’s Cottars Camp costs $490 per person per night instead of $710 in high season, and you still get the same sublime vintage comforts.
However, South Africa remains the best off-season destination. Its camps are open year-round, so take advantage of the quieter May-July winter months when the weather is cooler, animal sightings are better, and prices are lower. At Samara Private Game Reserve, a luxurious private lodge in the Eastern Cape, for example, a suite facing the plains costs a mere $165 per person per night in off-season—a savings of $210.
Another option: staying in small, owner-operated lodges. "Owner-run camps don’t have the high overheads of the big chains and can be more flexible," explains Chris McIntyre, co-owner of British-based travel company Expert Africa and author of four current travel guides to Africa. Every country has owner-run camps, but McIntyre recommends the lodges of Remote Africa Safaris in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, owned by former guide John Coppinger, who has operated in the region for 20 years. "John knows the valley better than anyone; you get a really authentic bush experience, and it’s like staying in a private home."
Choosing lesser-known game reserves such as the Luangwa is another way to save. "Don’t always go for the obvious," says McIntyre. "Everyone knows about Kruger, the Mara, and Botswana’s Okavango. But often the best deals are in the unheralded parks."
Samburu Game Reserve in northern Kenya is hardly unknown, but at Elephant Bedroom, a rustic-chic 12-tent camp set under lush palms, you pay only $200 a night for a tent suite. That’s a rate you might find only at a government lodge in the more famous Masai Mara.
And anyone with a sense of adventure and an eye for the road should do what any self-respecting southern African family does on safari: drive yourself. Self-drives save on air transfers and are easy in Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa, where roads are good, parks fees low, and facilities at government lodges and campsites excellent. Africa enthusiast Chris Showalter, 32, a trader at Goldman Sachs in New York, swears by self-drives. "I never do it any other way. I just rent a 4 x 4 with three friends, stock up on food supplies, and then drive in. You can pay less than $800 a week."