An African safari tour was a dream experience of mine since I saw the Lion King as a kid. But I always assumed the cost of such an experience would be astronomical. Most safari tours I looked into casually required thousands of dollars. As much as I wanted to have this experience, I really didn't want to go bankrupt because of it! And so the research began!

I'm all about balancing the cost of things when I travel. I'll lay out money for a really extraordinary experience—but it better hit all the marks in all the right places. That's why I spent lots of time researching tour options for my trip to South Africa. Through my research, I found the perfect tour. For a minimum price, I maximized the experience for my first African Safari tour in Kruger National Park. It offered the kind of accommodation I wanted, the right number of days, and, most importantly, the best chance at seeing tons of wildlife!

This post is all about the decisions I made: Why I chose Kruger, why I chose a guided tour instead of self-guided, how I searched for tour options, which tour fit all my needs, and what the actual benefits were. Perhaps the approach I took will help you find and plan your perfect African Safari Tour, too!

Why Kruger National Park?

There are many other countries across the continent of Africa with excellent safari options such as in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Uganda, and others.

I had many reasons for deciding on South Africa for my safari tour. But a major one is that Kruger National Park in South Africa seemed the most affordable.

Why A Guided Safari Tour Over Self-Driving?

There are two major opportunities for exploring the wildlife of Kruger: (1) Self-Drive; or (2) Guided tour.

Many people choose to rent a car, drive to Kruger, book their own accommodation, and follow maps and guides to find and identify the wildlife around the park on their own. At first, I was lured by the challenge and adventure of this option. As I examined this option further, it seemed to carry with it much greater effort for a lower chance of seeing wildlife.

One of the problems with self-driving is the park is ENORMOUS! Kruger borders Mozambique with over 2 million hectares of land stretching North and South over 20,000 square kilometers. The park has the largest concentration of animals of any African game reserve with more species of mammals than any other reserve.

With that much ground to cover, the animals are not always easy to find and spot from the road. You can't drive off-road in the park and, often, when you hear about animals near the road, it takes so long to drive to them that you may miss them by the time you arrive.

I originally looked into self-driving because I wanted to maximize my experience while minimizing my expenses. But as I looked and started calculating the cost of the car rental, gas, campsite fees, food and supplies needed to camp, and other details, I realized it was going to cost me either the same or even more than a guided tour. Not worth it in the end!

I imagine I could have done it at lower cost if I had a local with me who could provide my ride, supplies, and a knowledge of the park. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to make that a reality on this trip. I am certainly interested to hear how people do self-drive at low-cost—but it did not seem to be a good budget option for me at the time.

What Website Used For Researching Safari Tours?

When I started researching guided tours, I looked everywhere on the internet and asked everyone, including friends who have lived and/or traveled in South Africa. Eventually, I landed on africanbudgetsafaris.com* to get the lay of the land and see all the options out there.

I like this site because you can sort by many different specifications such as # of days, starting destination, accommodation style, activities, and more. I used it to determine the appropriate price to pay a local guide for my Namibian desert tour. Many locals agreed that I got an excellent price for the experience.

Anytime I found a great option using this site, I would then compare prices and details to other websites and tour companies. I always came back to African Budget Safaris. They consistently had the best variety of options and the best bang for my buck.

Which African Safari Tour Was Best For Me?

I knew I wanted to spend more than a couple of days on my tour. I had time to spare but I also had other parts of South Africa I wanted to see—like Cape Town! A tour that was long enough to see lots of things but short enough to still see other things was what I was after.

To me, the price also had to be justified against the number of days, the activities I wanted to experience, and the accommodation type. This led me to a 5-day Kruger Park and private reserves camping safari through Viva Safaris*. The tour cost R10295, or about $900 USD at the time.

Yes, $900 still might seem like a lot of money to some people. But I expected to shell out a big chunk of cash on this experience regardless. You don't wait 25 years to chince yourself. Laying down nearly $1,000 on this experience is why I minimize my airfare cost by earning miles and points. When airfare costs me next to nothing, I can concentrate my spending on having GREAT experiences after I land. And what I got out of the experience was well worth the money put in.

Included in my safari tour was the following (which I outlined in my previous Africa planning post):

  • Accommodation: 1 night in a standard lodge room, 1 night camping under the stars (this was a free customization added on later), 2 nights in a treehouse (they upgraded me to a treehouse free of charge even though I requested to camp)

  • Food: 11 buffet style meals (I ate like a warthog!)

  • Tours: 4 open vehicle safari tours in 2 private game reserves and a full day in Kruger park, 2 guided bush walks, and a rehabilitation center visit

  • Transportation: Transport between Johannesburg and Kruger, plus transport between the reserves, Kruger, the rehab center, and camp

  • Extra Activities: Visit to 2 viewpoints of Blyde River Canyon and a traditional, interactive dance performance from a local tribe (this was an unexpected annual performance for a visiting high school group at the lodge)

I strategically ensured inclusion of everything above even down to the Blyde River Canyon visit because I was hoping to catch some scenic views of Africa in addition to animal sightings.

The only part of the tour I was a little apprehensive about was the rehabilitation center visit. I did my research on it ahead of time and found that people spoke highly of their conservation and rehabilitation efforts there, particularly in comparison to other centers (more on this in a future post). Otherwise, all of the above sounded perfect to me.

What Are The Benefits Of Private Game Reserves?

Guided tours usually give you access to the private reserves that lie just beyond the border of the parks.

While not officially a part of Kruger, these private reserves are smaller, allowing for greater opportunity to see wildlife in a shorter period of time. Private reserve staff also know the animals very well. They know their patterns, favorite hang outs, and the staff usually communicate via intercom about sightings.

The private reserves also allow off-road driving (with the guide as your driver). This increases your chances of seeing animals up close. In Kruger, even if you see them from the road, they tend to be far off in the distance.

Because my major goal in going to Africa was to see big cats—and they are the most difficult to find—I wanted to increase my chance of seeing them as much as I could. My research gave me realistic expectations about wildlife sightings. But going into Kruger for one day with the private game reserves as a focus on the other days meant I would have almost guaranteed big cat sightings.

My Overall Experience

With some careful planning, I ended up having an absolutely amazing time on my tour with Viva Safaris. For minimal cost, I saw a ton of wildlife including all Big 5 mammals and all 3 major cat species (leopard, lion, and cheetah). Mission accomplished!

In my next posts, I plan to take you day-by-day through my African Safari experience. I will start with Day 1 which consisted of bonding with the driver over Ladysmith Black Mambazo music on the road between Johannesburg and Balule Reserve. I was also amazed to see one of the Big 5 (elephants!) on my very first game drive that evening.

I can't wait to share the whole story including all the photos and video I captured. Look for these posts in the coming weeks and into the new year!

And, in the meantime, happy holidays!

*Disclaimer: I am not paid to mention any of the companies or organizations in this post. Clicking any of the company links does not benefit me or this site one bit. I say what I say completely as an actual, unpaid consumer who only intends to help my fellow travelers decide on their own itinerary around the world. Deviatingthenorm.com remains a non-monetized website for honest travel stories and advice.