How to Plan a Safari: The Ultimate Planning Guide

Two zebra standing guard in front of an Acacia tree in Africa

If you’re a first-time safari goer, you’ll be forgiven for wondering how to plan a safari. With an almost unlimited combination of potential destinations and tour operators, choosing the right safari for you can be a daunting task. 

But, never fear, because here at Really Wildlife, we’ve put together the ultimate safari planning guide to help. Follow our simple step-by-step process below to plan the safari of your dreams…

  1. Decide your budget
  2. Pick your safari destination
  3. Decide when to go
  4. Choose how long you want to go for
  5. Book your accommodation
  6. Plan your transportation

Decide your budget

Perhaps the most important part of planning a safari is working out how much you have to spend. This will then guide your choice of destination, the duration of your trip and the time of year you can afford to travel. 

As with any type of holiday, it is typically the case that the more you have to spend, the more comprehensive your choice of destinations and lodges to visit will be. Remember that many safaris will be on an ‘all-inclusive’ basis, which means that all of your food, drink, activities, accommodation and transfers will be included in the price you pay before you leave for your trip. 

So while the ‘per night’ cost of a safari may seem expensive, you won’t need to spend much while you’re there. Work out the total you have to spend and try to stick to it during the rest of the planning phase to stop you from spending too much.

As the budget is an entirely personal choice, we can’t tell you how much to spend, but we can guide you on how much you would expect to pay in certain destinations. Check out our dedicated guide to the cost of a safari for more information. 

Pick your safari destination

Once you know how much you have to spend, the fun can really start! It’s time to choose where you would like to go. 

Each country in Africa has something unique to offer, from the different animal species you can expect to find, to the landscapes and culture present in the country too. Here are just a few reasons to visit our favourites:

  • South Africa is a wonderful country to visit for first-time safari goers. There is a large choice of safari lodges and camps available to suit all budgets. There’s also a good variety of attractions and activities aside from safaris to keep everyone entertained. Kruger National Park and the private reserves bordering it offers opportunities to view all the Big 5 so it is well worth considering.
  • Kenya is one of the original safari destinations, and the Masai Mara is well known for its population of big cats. Kenyan accommodation ranges from traditional tented camps to exquisite lodges. Guides are often employed from the local Maasai villages, so you know you’re in safe hands. The opportunity to see the cast of the Lion King here is rife.
  • Botswana is widely considered one of the best places to go on safari in the world. The hospitality in Botswanan lodges is second to none, and viewing animals in the spectacular Okavango Delta is something everyone should do at least once in their lives. 

Remember, you’ll not only be choosing the country of your safari, but also the reserves and national parks that you want to travel to within it. 

Again, no two reserves will be the same even within the same country. For example, in Kenya, Amboseli National Park and its surrounding conservancies are wonderful areas to see huge populations of elephants and a view of Mount Kilimanjaro, but Kenya’s Masai Mara offers a completely different landscape and great chances to see the big cats. 

Make sure you read the individual country guides on Really Wildlife for more information on a wider set of countries and the national parks within them. 

Confused by the difference between National Parks and conservancies/private nature reserves? Read our guide on the pros and cons of each next! 

Decide when to go

Now you know where you’re headed, deciding on the time of year for your holiday is another essential step in your safari planning. 

Every destination will have the following three seasons throughout the year, each offering pros and cons:

  • Peak season – typically between June-October.
    The most popular time to visit a safari destination is known as the peak season. This is likely to be when the lodges and transfers are at their most expensive, the weather is at its most comfortable and the wildlife is in its prime. The Great Migration in Kenya and Tanzania is in the peak season, for example. Demand is likely to be particularly high during the school holidays, so you will need to book far in advance in order to guarantee your visit. 
  • Off-peak season – typically December-April.
    Travelling off-peak can make a normally very expensive holiday reasonably priced. Though this season can come with its disadvantages. The weather may be poor, due to heavy rains in many countries during the African summer. As a result, some reserves and lodges close in order to allow the environment to regenerate and the lodge staff to rest. During the rains, drinking water for the wildlife is plentiful, which can mean the animals are harder to find. This is also true due to the plants and bushes, which grow lush and green during this season, giving the animals more places to shelter. 
  • Shoulder season – typically May and November.
    The months immediately before and after the peak season are known as the ‘shoulder’. This is often the best time to go on safari as it is cheaper and quieter than the most popular times but still offers a good opportunity to see wildlife in good weather conditions. 

The best time of year for your safari may be completely different to someone else’s, so choose what is most important to you: budget, weather or busyness and base your decision on that.

Choose how long you want to go for

The duration of your safari will likely be driven by your budget and annual leave quota, but it’s another important consideration during the planning phase. 

At Really Wildlife, we recommend a minimum of three nights in each lodge you want to stay in and a minimum of two different lodges per safari holiday. This will allow you to have at least two full days to fully enjoy the comfort and facilities at each lodge, as well as the environment and animals around it. Each additional lodge you stay at during your trip gives you the opportunity to experience a new area so it is well worth extending. 

Whether you opt for a safari holiday that’s six nights or sixteen nights, that’s another step of the planning process complete. 

Book your accommodation

Keeping your budget in mind, it’s now time to choose your accommodation. With so much choice, it may seem daunting, but it’s actually one of the most exciting parts of the whole safari planning process! 

When choosing your lodge, consider these factors to help you decide: 

  • Accommodation style – Work out whether you want to stay in a more rustic tented camp or a luxurious permanent lodge. Are you happy sharing a bathroom, a drop toilet or a bucket shower? Would you prefer staying in a room with en-suite, plumbed-in showers and flush toilets? 
  • Facilities – Other than your bedroom, what other facilities would you like to enjoy at the camp? A comfortable lounge with a reading area? A bar or dining room? A gift shop? Consider these additional facilities when choosing your accommodation. 
  • Reviews – Customer reviews of accommodation are the closest things you can get to a personal recommendation. It always pays to look at Tripadvisor and Booking.com as well as tour operators like Go2Africa, Cosmos and Flight Centre as they’ll have real-life testimonials from previous guests that will help you make up your mind. 
  • Game drives – Find out how game drives are conducted at the accommodation. Are they included? Do they use minibuses or specially modified jeeps? How many people are in each vehicle? If the answers suit your style and requirements, you’re in for a treat!
  • Other activities – Some safari accommodation offers activities beyond standard morning and afternoon game drives. For example, do they also take you out for nature walks, bush breakfasts, night drives and sundowners? Or for something extra special, check whether your lodge can book you onto scenic flights, boat trips, hot air balloon rides and more. 
  • Location – Decide whether you want to stay in a camp within a national park, a game reserve, or outside the gates. The closer you are to the animals, the more expensive the accommodation may be. 

Booking through a travel agent or tour operator like Go2Africa, Cosmos and Flight Centre offers better protection and can make things easier and safer, especially if you’re moving between lodges throughout your trip. But if you want to keep costs down, try a site like Booking.com to take advantage of their free cancellation and member discounts at individual camps.

Plan your transportation

Once you’ve decided where you’re staying, you’ll need to work out how you’ll get there, whether by air, road transfers or self-drive. 

As we mentioned above, book through a tour operator and they’ll be able to organise most of this for you. The beauty of this option is that if any part of your trip is disrupted, your money will be protected and there will be someone at the end of a phone line to reschedule your flights and transfers. 

But if you searched for this planning guide in order to do everything yourself, start with Skyscanner to find the best international and regional flights for your trip. Small airlines such as Airlink in South Africa, Mack Air in Botswana and Safarilink in Kenya offer the fastest, the most convenient and, often, the most scenic way to transfer from international airports to an airstrip closer to your accommodation. From there, most lodges or camps will send a driver to pick you up and transfer you to your lodge. 

Another option in most countries is a self-drive. As long as you have a driving license that’s recognised in your destination country, hiring a car and driving yourself from the airport can be a cheap and very private way to travel. That said, the distances in Africa can be very long, so any money you save by not flying may be spent on a hotel if you need a rest during the journey. 

If a road transfer appeals but you would rather not drive it yourself, find a shuttle like Ashtons in South Africa or East Africa Shuttles in Kenya to take the strain for you. They connect up international airports with safari gateway towns, from where your lodge can drive you the final few miles to your accommodation. Land transfers like these offer great value and allow you to admire the incredible scenery from your window. What’s not to love?

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Once you have followed all the steps in this safari planning guide, all that’s left to do is relax and look forward to your incredible trip. The countdown is on! 

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