How to travel on a budget in Africa

Baby Hyena Kruger National Park South Africa
Daily Travel Photo: Baby Hyena, Kruger Park, South Africa

After my recent articles on Backpacking Highlights from Kenya to South Africa on Globotreks, I have had a lot of requests to write about the costs of backpacking Africa.

Craig and I backpacked from Kenya to South Africa for 5 months in 2003/04. You can hear more about it in this podcast episode.

Africa can be expensive, but it is also incredibly cheap. The cost of day to day living, transport, and accommodation helps to make Africa a budget destination.

What gets expensive are the cost of safaris, wildlife viewing, and other adventure activities.

You must travel to Africa with a plan of exactly what parks you want to visit, what activities you want to do, and what your daily budget should be.

You can blow this really quickly so careful decisions must be made. You will have to give up luxury in some areas in order to be able to do more of the things Africa is famous for.

We spent approximately $7,000 over 5 months. This included the very expensive gorilla trekking in Uganda, white water rafting the Nile, and safaris in the Masai Mara, Kruger National Park, Addo Elephant Park, and Etosha National Park.

So if you work this out, we spent around $50 a day for 2 people, including everything. From my research on prices currently, it does not look like daily costs have gone up too much.

The following is just a general overview, I will be writing follow up posts with further information on each section below, including detailed information on each safari park.

Accommodation

Want to know how we reduced our backpacking Africa costs?

We camped almost the whole way. All you need is a lightweight tent, a sleeping mat, and a sleeping bag/sheet. Our nightly costs ranged from $1 to $5 a night.

You’ll find most backpackers and hostels have areas set aside for campers, so you still get full use of the backpacker facilities, but at budget prices.

We camped at our favourite backpackers, Mayoaka Village ,on a terraced garden at the edge of Lake Malawi for two weeks for only $1 a night. It is now $5 a night. You will now pay up to about $10 a night to camp in most African destinations.

Mayoka Village Nkhata Bay Malawi
Our terraced campsite in Malawi

Hostels in Africa have been my favourite backpackers to stay in. They are clean, staff are friendly, and there are usually a lot of activities going on- many free- that you can participate in with other backpackers.

The costs of a backpackers increase in the larger cities and more expensive countries of South Africa and Namibia. Prices range from $6- $20 for a dorm bed and $12- $60 for a private room.

Food

Food choices for budget travel in Africa rarely differ from budget food choices backpacking in any country. It will be cheaper if you eat with the locals or cook food yourself.

Most African hostels and backpackers will have kitchen facilities, and markets and supermarkets provide cheap food options.

We carried around two plastic bowls and spoons, a packet of cereal and powdered milk. This was our cheap breakfast every morning. Camping facilities usually have fire circles, so braais or barbecues are easy to do and cheap.

Anyone Hungry?…A Typical South African Braai

Venture out of your hostels and into the local towns, for some cheap food in the local restaurants. Africa is a poor continent so you will find their diet is very staple and bland.

Everyday in Malawi we would walk into town for some rice with a basic curry tomato sauce. It was less than a $1 and quite tasty.

African food
Cheap fish with rice and tomato cooked on the beach fire

Hostels usually have restaurants where you can purchase food. It will be a little more expensive, but can be a nice break. Look out for drink specials as well.

Be warned that if you order fries you could be waiting hours for it, particularly in Uganda where they don’t have the proper cooking facilities for it. If you can, camp under a mango tree, so they can drop on your tent all day for free food–and delicious too.

We also carried a water filter around with us to reduce the cost of bottled water. Africa is hot, you drink a lot, and this can really add up to dent your budget.

Transport

Travel in Africa is really cheap. But it comes at a different sort of price–it’s uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous.

Put it this way, you’ll get to know your heart and breath a lot better, and maybe have more conversations with those guiding forces from ethereal lands.

In each town, local min-vans will zip you to wherever you want to go from anywhere from 20cents to a couple of bucks. Mini-vans, otherwise known as matutus, or pick up trucks can also take you on longer distances between towns for a couple of bucks more. Buses will cost anywhere from $3-$32 depending on distances.

pick up travel in Africa
Hey it was cheap!

Train journeys although infrequent are more comfortable and safer. A second or first class sleeper is the best way to travel and fares are usually around $20-$30.

In South Africa, taking the on-off Baz bus, made especially for travellers is a comfortable and luxurious form of travel (after 4 months of pick ups it’s heaven). Tickets start from $175 and are quite flexible in their itineraries for taking you to the main backpacker areas.

Listen to one of our craziest pick up rides in Africa, in this podcast on Uganda Travel.

Safaris

You are going to need careful planning for your safaris. They can get really expensive and you have to be selective about which parks you go to. We wanted to go to everyone but it is just not possible.

Do your research. You can read more about our African safari tips. You really only need 2-3 days max in the parks. It can get very tiring looking for the animals.

Etosha National Park, Namibia - y Travel Blog
on safari in Etosha National Park, Namibia

You have to weigh up the costs of doing a safari with your own hire car, or on a guided tour. It is usually best to book the tour when you arrive in the nearest town to the park. We only went on a guided tour for the Masai Mara, all the rest we hired cars for.

3 day camping budget safari tours of the Masai go for about $400 pp all inclusive. This would be a better option in Kenya as car hire is not as easy as it is in South Africa and Namibia.

Costs for guided safaris in South Africa for the game parks are a lot more. Car hire is cheaper. You can hire cars for as little as $30 in South Africa, in other areas from about $75- $100 a day.

When you work out the costs of car hire (watch for extra mileage charges), fuel, accommodation and food, it usually works out to be cheaper, more practical and flexible to do it yourself.

To reduce the cost of the expensive car hire, we camped at the designated campsites and cooked our own meals around the campfire.

We do recommend allowing for extra costs such as guided night drive or walking safari. Limit this to just once, in one park. Allow for around $300- $400 for a 3-day do-it-yourself safari. The more people you can travel with the less that will work out individually. If you are on your own, then a tour might just be easier.

Consider hiring a car for a longer period of time and fitting in other activities as well. We hired a car for a week to drive along the beautiful Garden Route in South Africa, taking in Addo Elephant park at the same time.

Gorilla Trekking

Gorilla trek in Uganda

Didn’t Craig and I get off lightly for this one? Right time, right place. It cost us $250 each for the licence to trek for gorillas in Uganda and then it cost about another $20 each to get there (which is a lot for African travel).

My brother did the trek in August for $600 each and it is soon to go up to $750. This is only for an hour.

You can take comfort in the fact that a lot of this money goes to gorilla conservation. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Plan for it and make room for it in your budget. Camping is looking more attractive now, right?

Other Things

Budget travel to Africa
Chillin Africa style, Lake Malawi

To stretch your money out and make up for the expensive safari days, there will be plenty of down days where you are only spending money on accommodation and food.

You can get away with doing this for as little as $10, depending on your choices. These are some of your best days. Spend them exploring local villages, visiting markets, hiking mountains, lazing at beaches, and relaxing on the edge of lakes.

More Africa travel tips

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