I started planning my trip to Africa when I was 6 years old...Okay, not exactly! I was 6 years old when I saw Disney's The Lion King. Since then, I've lusted after the country, eagerly awaiting the day I could go.
A great, low-cost trip does not always need advance planning. I planned this trip starting in late January of this year with the majority of the details worked out in March and April.
I don't make a ton of money working in higher education and I live in a high cost-of-living area. So I had to plan this out carefully according to a strict budget. I also had limited time off—about 18 days—to create an itinerary that would hit the highlights. In the end, I managed to cover flights, activities, accommodation, food, and more while keeping the cost under $3000.
Click here to see my day-to-day itinerary with costs included. Below I describe the costs in detail, including one costly mistakes.
Why South Africa and Namibia?
Like most tourists, my main reason for traveling to the continent of Africa was to go on safari. Wildlife in Africa is almost everywhere. I could have picked several other countries to visit for their excellent safaris including Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Uganda, and others. But I chose South Africa.
South Africa was an easy decision for me because of affordability and familiarity. Kruger National Park is one of the most affordable for safari tours in all of Africa. Plus, I have a few friends who are South African and I felt the most connected to the country because of my preexisting knowledge about it.
I also knew I didn’t just want to go on safari there, I wanted to visit Cape Town to climb Table Mountain and meet up with an old friend in Pretoria.
As for Namibia, the unique sand dune desert attracted me.
I knew the Namibian Desert is one of only 3 gold-star dark sky reserves in the world. I visited one of these 3 dark sky reserves in New Zealand and I wanted to tick another off my list.
I had also seen many outrageously gorgeous photos of the Sossusvlei region of Namibia through travel friends. Since Namibia borders South Africa, it was a no-brainer for me to add it to my African itinerary.
At the end of the day, I couldn’t see everything on limited time so I had to choose. But I’m definitely not finished with the continent of Africa. For the future, I have my sights on Morocco, Madagascar, Kenya, Mozambique, Egypt, Mauritius, and Seychelles.
Airfare: Keeping Cost of Flights Low
As a citizen of the USA with good credit, I have the wonderful privilege of earning frequent flier miles to spend on travel. With some diligence, creativity, and careful monitoring, it’s a very real option even for low-income folks.
While this is not an option that everyone has access to, most middle class Americans can manage to earn hundreds of thousands of miles and points without spending more money than normal.
How I Chose My Path
Back in 2014-2015, I attempted to build South Africa into my flight path around the world but it was not so easy. The timing, frequent flier miles, and trajectory didn't work out. I had to back-burner one of my long-time dream destinations.
After over 2 years squatting in North America, I had saved enough money (and vacation days) to finally make a trip to Africa a reality.
Since the safari was the priority for me, I built my flight plan and other travel activities around that goal. I chose the perfect 5-day safari (details on that below) and then looked at what else I could do around it. Eventually. I decided on Namibia as my first stop.
This meant that my safari in South Africa was going to be in the middle of my trip. So I planned to fly to Johannesburg for the safari tour after Namibia and then go on to Cape Town from there.
I paid for my flights there and back with miles. I purposely searched for flights at the best value which meant one-way economy class flights for 40,000 miles each.
I diversify my miles earning, which means I earn miles/points with two separate airline industries: One World and Star Alliance. I have AAdvantage Miles (One World) which I can use with American Airlines and partners. I also have Chase Ultimate Rewards Points which gives me access to United Airlines (Star Alliance) and others.
By transferring my Chase UR points to United Airlines, I was able to book my economy flight to Namibia on South African Airways. I used my AAdvantage points for my flights home on British Airways.
I only paid the fees for these flights which amounted to about $300 (USD) total.
Oops – I Had To Change A Flight!
Originally, I booked my flight to Namibia on Ethiopian Airlines. This flight included two stopovers: Dublin, Ireland and Addis Ababa Bole, Ethiopia.
My mistake was not researching the vaccination restrictions on entering Namibia via Ethiopia. If you go through any countries with a yellow fever risk (e.g., Ethiopia), you have to get the yellow fever vaccination.
Currently, there is a yellow fever vaccine depletion in North America. I found out it was going to cost me over $300 to get it between the office visit and replacement vaccine. Meanwhile, the cost was much lower simply to change my flights and avoid Ethiopia altogether.
Luckily, as a United MileagePlus Explorer Card holder, I only had to pay a $125 change fee.
Shorter Flights Paid In Full
I also flew from Windhoek, Namibia to Johannesburg, South Africa (1730 NAD/~$140) on British Airways and from Johannesburg to Cape Town, South Africa (R860/~$70) on Mango Airways. For these shorter flights, it was more cost effective to pay for the flights in full without using miles.
In short, I'm all about using miles when it makes sense to do so. There's no sense in using miles that are worth much more when used on a long distance flight.
Altogether, I paid $625 (including the change fee) for 4 flight paths: New York to Windhoek to Johannesburg to Cape Town to New York. Not too bad!
Activities: Budgeting for Safari Tours + More
By saving on airfare, I can focus my spending on the experiences I want to have when I get to my destination.
I was dead set on seeing wildlife—particularly big cats—while in Africa. But I also wanted to see desert scenery, dive with kelp forest, experience the culture, and learn the history and politics of the region. So all of these activities were the foci of my expenses.
The Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia
I did not finalize this part of my trip until the last minute. Which is funny because it happens to be the first activity I did!
I wanted to ensure that I would see my favorite of the big cats—the cheetah—while in Africa. Following my strict ethical standards for animal tourism, I heavily researched rehabilitation and conservation organizations. This research led me to choose the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF).
The only problem was getting there.
CCF is about 200 miles north of the airport and capital city of Windhoek. Plus, it was in the opposite direction of my desert tour which left 2 days after my arrival in Namibia. I didn't want to self-drive because I wasn't sure how the roads would be. Roads in Namibia can be very rough and dangerous.
So organizing this activity was an adventure on its own!
Between car rental and fuel costs, I figured I could save money by sharing a ride to CCF. I was right. I managed to make it happen at minimal cost—750 NAD (~$58) in round trip transportation!
As for my expenses while at the Cheetah Conservation Fund, I went on two major tours that were 480 NAD (~$38) each. Spending this money was an easy decision since the proceeds go back to supporting the cheetahs.
Desert Safari In Namibia
At first, I was looking into safari tours via africanbudgetsafaris.com*. That’s the site I used to book my Big 5 Safari tour in South Africa. On there, I saw a 3-day camping tour of the Sossusvlei region. This was exactly where I wanted to go.
That’s when a friend of mine recommended to me an independent tour guide—Tracey Bock. I sent Tracey the link to the 3-day tour and explained that I wanted to do exactly that. She agreed to do it for the same price (R5720/~$470).
To me, this was a great deal because I would get a personal guide instead of going in a group of up to 14 other travelers! When I told locals in Windhoek the price of my tour, they all said I did very well and got a great deal.
Big 5 Safari In South Africa
Using the same website, I found a wildlife safari tour in South Africa. They connected me to Viva Safaris* for a 5-day Kruger Park and private reserves camping safari.
Safari tours in Africa can end up costing a crazy amount of money. High price tags usually come with longer tours and luxury accommodation options. I felt very fortunate to find the tour with Viva Safaris for R10295 (~$900).
By the way, that’s the single-person rate. If traveling in a pair, the per-person rate goes down about -$70. (Note: The total cost is down to about $750 now because the exchange rate has gotten much better from when I paid for the tour 3 months ago. Yes, this kill me inside.)
After all my research, $900 is a great price considering everything included:
Accommodation: 1 night in a standard lodge room, 1 night camping under the stars, 2 nights in a treehouse (they put me in the 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 of 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 dance performance from a local tribe (this was an unexpected annual performance for a visiting high school group at the lodge)
The diversity of activities, the meals, the lodging, the staff—all of it was well worth the price. The only part I would have changed was the visit to the rehabilitation center. But I’ll tell you more about that in a future post! ;)
Diving In Cape Town
I visited South Africa right at the start of the season for the famous Sardine Run. If I had another $2,500 (minimum) to spare, I would have booked it. The Sardine Run is dolphins, whales, sharks, birds, fish, and other predators snacking on millions of sardines! It’s one of the most epic seasonal dive experiences in the world.
Alas, I opted for less expensive, local diving in False Bay with Pisces Divers*. I went with this company because they offered reasonably priced dives. Plus, their location was walking distance from my accommodation.
I went on two boat dives, one wreck and another dive with seals, for R1700 (~$125). I added a kelp forest shore dive for only R300 (~$25).
For a little culture, politics, hiking, and history, I also participated in these activities:
Ladysmith Black Mambazo concert in Pretoria (R300/~$21)
Freedom Park in Pretoria (R120/~$9)
Cable Car Ride down from table mountain (R160/$11)
Robbens Island in Cape Town (R400/~$27)
Overall, it was a very well-balanced trip in which I saw and did mostly everything I wanted to do!
Activities are always where I prefer to spend the most money. And with safari tours in the mix, it was unavoidable that these items would make up my biggest expenses. But money well spent! My total cost for activities was $1,722.
Accommodation: Relying On Couchsurfing And Friends
The price of the safari tours included accommodation, so that took care of 6 nights out of my 17-night trip. But what did I do for the remaining 11 nights? When I stayed in cities, I mainly couchsurfed or stayed with friends.
I was lucky to have an old graduate school friend host me outside of Johannesburg. I got to visit her for 2 nights and I only paid for our Freedom Park tickets and a meal as a thank you.
I stayed my first night at a guesthouse ($38) in Namibia and another night at a hostel ($28) in Johannesburg before going on tour. And I also splurged on a guesthouse for 2 nights ($44 per night) when I was in Simon's Town to dive. When I have a set plan like going on a tour or diving, I try not to stay with friends or couchsurf, as there is an etiquette one must follow.
One of the main points of couchsurfing is to not treat your accommodation like a hotel. You treat your host like you would family or friends.
What was cool about all of my couchsurf hosts is that I actually knew them ahead of time. Not only did I know them through the couchsurf community, I also knew them through Roo, a travel friend of mine. I met Roo in Germany and I traveled with her in Australia! She connected me to all my couchsurf hosts—people she had met before, stayed with, and could vouch for. As a result, I had a great time with everyone I stayed with. Thanks, Roo!
Overall, relying on friends and couchsurfing greatly reduces the overall cost of any trip. Even low-cost hostel stays add up and they tend to be less comfortable than staying in someone's home.
Between the all-inclusive safari stays, couchsurfing, and staying with friends, my total cost for accommodation was only $154.
Keeping Costs Low
I realized that I could do everything I wanted to do in Namibia and South Africa on a budget under $3000. But I still needed a few thousand dollars to do it. That means this trip really is not accessible to everyone. It wasn't even possible for me to execute back in 2014-2015 when I was traveling with little to no income.
Going on safari is expensive and you shouldn't be stingy about it. It's worth every penny you'll put in!
But with a little saving and creativity, this trip does not need to be more than $3000. It's possible to keep the prices low while having a truly extraordinary experience.
*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.