How To Plan An African Safari: A Step-By-Step Guide

Everything you need to know about how to plan an African safari—including tips, dos/don'ts, and helpful resources.

By Journy Team

16 September 2020

How To Plan An African Safari: A Step-By-Step Guide

After Asia Pacific, Africa is the second-fastest-growing tourism region in the world, with a staggering 67 million tourists visiting the continent in 2018 (a rise of 7% from 2017). The peak season for safari trips spans from June to October, which means COVID dealt a significant blow to the industry. However, over the past few weeks, several African countries have opened up their borders to US travelers, including Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Tanzania, and Zambia.

Due to pent-up demand, all signs point to a massive spike in African safari travel come 2021, primarily due to the fact that it's naturally suited to social distancing (there's nowhere more remote than a game drive in the African bush). To properly plan your bucket list safari trip, you need to allocate upwards of one year, which makes now the perfect time to get started. Here's how:

Plan My African Safari

One Year Out…

Start your planning process by deciding when and where to go.  

Best time to go

The first step in your African safari planning is deciding when to go, which will ultimately come down to a decision between the dry season and the rainy season.

The dry season, which generally runs from June to September, corresponds to the winter. It’s when the air is driest, the rainfall low, and the vegetation sparse. Because there are limited water animals surrounding riverbeds and watering holes during this time of year, you’ll have a better chance of spotting game in their natural habitat—the reduced foliage also helps with visibility. This is a primary reason why these peak months are the most expensive time to travel, in addition to the hottest.

On the other hand, the rainy, wet season runs from December to March (the continent’s summer). During this off-season time, temperatures are cooler and the landscape is verdant and lush. The downside? It’s harder to spot game since the animals have sufficient water and don’t need to migrate to riverbeds or watering holes. It should be noted that certain lodges also shut down for the season as the rain degrades the roads. However, if you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option, this might be the best bet for you, since the value of the dollar is generally higher during the rainy, or “green” season.

Here’s a more specific breakdown of Africa’s dry and rainy seasons by region:

Dry season:

  • East Africa (Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda): July - September
  • Horn of Africa (Ethiopia): November - January
  • North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia): June - September
  • Southern Africa (Mozambique, Madagascar, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe/Victorial Falls): April - October
  • West Africa (Ghana, Nigeria): November - April

Rainy season:

  • East Africa (Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda): April - June / October - December
  • Horn of Africa (Ethiopia): February - April / June - October
  • North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia): November - March
  • Southern Africa (Mozambique, Madagascar, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe/Victoria Falls): November - March
  • West Africa (Ghana, Nigeria): April - July / September - October

Once you have a specific season in mind, you’ll want to consider the migratory patterns of animals when deciding when exactly to go. Although migration occurs all year round in a clockwise circle between Tanzania and Kenya, across the Serengeti (nine months/year), and through the Kenyan Mara (three months/year), there are more well-known migratory stages of the iconic Great Migration through the Masai Mara and the Serengeti that some safari-goers choose to plan their trips around.

Annual migratory patterns vary (it is the wild, after all), so it’s wise to reference predictions for the season in which you plan to travel, which your Journy trip designer can take care of for you.

Great wildebeest migration crossing the Mara at Serengeti National Park 

Where to go

If you combine the landmass of the United States, China, and Europe, it’d still be smaller than Africa, which is three times the size of the United States and covers just around six percent of the world’s surface area. With a continent this vast, deciding where to go is a daunting task—even after you narrow down your choices to East and Southern Africa, which is where most safari experiences are located.

Considering a preferred migratory pattern, as discussed above, is a start. But there are certainly other factors to keep in mind:

  • What wildlife do you want to see?
Black rhinos at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Isiolo, Kenya

Specific animals are endemic to certain regions, and since wildlife is a primary reason why travelers opt for an African safari in the first place, this should be top of mind.

If you’re interested in seeing elephants, go to Chobe National Park (Botswana)
If you’re interested in seeing lions, go to the Serengeti (Tanzania)
If you’re interested in seeing rhinos or giraffes, go to Kruger National Park (South Africa)
If you’re interested in seeing gorillas, go to Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda*)

Kruger National Park in particular is known for its high concentration of "The Big Five" (leopards, lions, buffalos, African elephants, and rhinos), which makes it one of the best game viewing areas.

*Rwanda has doubled the price of a gorilla trekking permit to $1500 per person per trek, compared to the $600 price that Uganda charges. However, it is easier to spot this endangered species in Rwanda.

READ MORE: Top Things To Do & See In Rwanda

  • Do you prefer visiting a National Park or a private game reserve?
Kruger National Park, South Africa

The National Parks in Africa are incredibly large. Take South Africa’s Kruger National Park, for example. This government-protected landmass, which is larger than Switzerland (and double the size of Puerto Rico), has six distinct ecosystems in and of itself. The benefit of visiting a National Park is that you can witness large animal herds as they migrate. However, due to the size, it’s necessary to ensure you’re visiting the specific regions of the park that have the most wildlife.

Game reserves, on the other hand, are owner-controlled, fenced-in plots of land that are smaller than National Parks—although still large enough to allow animals to roam (Karongwe Reserve, for example, which is in Limpopo, South Africa spans 21,000 acres). Because reserves operate as a single entity, your safari guide will be in constant communication with other guides about wildlife whereabouts to ensure you spot as many as possible.

  • Do you want to visit larger cities in addition to more remote areas?
Cape Town, South Africa

If so, you may want to consider South Africa, which offers the possibility of spending time in larger metropolises such as Cape Town and Johannesburg in addition to the more remote destinations of Botswana and Namibia.

  • Do you want to fit in some beach time during your stay in Africa?
Mahé, Seychelles 

A combination of active safari experiences with relaxing beach time is a major draw for many travelers—especially honeymooners. If this is the case, we recommend Kenya, since you can easily access the beaches of Lamu (east of Nairobi) or hop on a short, nonstop flight to the Seychelles or Mauritius. Tanzania is another option, since the pristine (and under-the-radar) beaches, coral reefs, and marine life of Mafia Island are close by.

  • Are you traveling with kids?

Each camp has its own age restrictions, so it’s important to do your research beforehand and keep in mind that African safaris are best for kids aged eight and over, since you will likely be spending hours on bumpy roads in the morning and afternoon. If a camp does have an age restriction, the cut-off is likely 12-years-old.

Keep in mind that there are many different types of safaris that you can go on. Want to spend one day seeing game and three days relaxing at the beach, or the entire time seeing game? What about a combination of luxury resorts and more rustic tents? Or a self-drive? Journy can help you mix and match to your heart’s content to accommodate anything you’re looking for.

Nine - Ten Months Out…

Decide between a group or private experience, find a tour operator, and start booking in order to secure the best properties at the best rates.  

Deciding between a group or private safari experience

A big consideration when planning your trip to Africa is deciding whether a group or private experience is best for you (anything above two travelers is considered a group, with the sweet spot at five - six travelers max). There’s no right or wrong way to go about it, but it’s important to consider the benefits and trade-offs of each to make the right choice for you.

  • Group safari experience

    Benefit: The camaraderie of being with a group and the opportunity to meet new people. Plus, group experiences are great if you have specific niche interests (such as bird watching) and want to connect with like-minded travelers on a themed experience. Group experiences also tend to be more economical (although keep in mind that you won’t save a considerable amount since properties price by person, by day).

    Trade-off: In a group setting, you can’t customize your trip and are not in control of the experience. There’s a set schedule that everyone has to stick to. And of course, there’s always the chance that you don’t jibe well with others in the group, which can be a headache when you’re spending hours at a time in a car together. Compromises are par for the course on a group experience, as some may want to spend more time seeing lions, while others may be more interested in the hippos.
  • Private safari experience

    Benefit: You have full flexibility to customize your experience—where to go, when to go, what activities to participate in, and more (with guidance from your tour operator, of course). Want to hang around the hippos a few minutes longer to take more photos? No problem.

    Trade-off: The flexibility and privacy will cost you. Private guides and vehicles at each property are usually an extra $500 per day.
Private safari experience 

Finding an on-the-ground tour operator

When it comes to Africa travel, the information available online is limited. That, combined with the continent's less sophisticated tourism infrastructure, makes it virtually impossible to plan a trip to this vast continent by yourself. Also, many properties won’t accept bookings from individuals—the best safari lodges have loyal partnerships with safari operators and agents, which can also mean some of the better deals.

Outsourcing planning to a travel expert is also the best way to ensure you’re visiting the best camps with the highest chances of spotting game (in the Serengeti alone, there are over 100 camps, which makes it difficult to narrow down).

Journy can help you find the best options within any budget constraints and preferences you might have. Also, many of the options you see online are just examples of what you can do. In order to see what’s available and possible, you need to talk directly with operators, which often means quite a bit of back-and-forth. Journy will handle it all.  

READ MORE: The 13 Best Safari Lodges In South Africa

Three - Four Months Out…

Purchase travel insurance, make sure your vaccines are up-to-date, look into visa requirements, and ensure your passport is valid for at least six months after your arrival in Africa. This is also a great time to start researching flights (with the prime booking window between two and four months).  

Purchasing travel insurance

It is essential to secure travel insurance for medical coverage and financial protection during your time in Africa—so much so that many safari tour operators mandate that you purchase a plan as a prerequisite to reserving a package. When selecting a plan (which Journy helps you out with and includes in the total price of the package), there are a few things to look for:

  • Emergency evacuation coverage
  • Ambulance coverage (land and air)
  • Repatriation coverage
  • Multi-country coverage, if applicable
  • Activity coverage, if applicable, for scuba diving, bungee-jumping, balloon safari, high altitude trekking, etc.
  • Trip cancellation coverage
  • High coverage limit for medical expenses

The best plans aren’t cheap, but we can assure you they’re worth it.

Making sure your vaccines are up-to-date

The most common vaccines required for travel to Africa are Hepatitis A, B, typhoid, and yellow fever. Keep in mind that many vaccinations take time (up to several weeks) to provide complete protection, so be sure to handle this well before you leave.

Depending on where you will be traveling, anti-malaria pills may also be necessary (in addition to mosquito-repellent spray and mosquito nets).

Refer to the CDC for a full list of recommended vaccines.

Securing your visa

Depending on where you’ll be traveling, you may have to secure a visa.*

Countries that DON'T require a visa for American citizens:

  • Botswana
  • Namibia
  • South Africa

Countries that DO require a visa for American citizens:

  • Kenya
    Single-entry visas are available online and upon arrival (however, there are plans to discontinue upon-arrival visas in the near future).
  • Malawi
    Apply upon arrival and pay $50 USD in cash produced after 2013.
  • Rwanda
    Apply online prior to arrival or a point of entry for $30 USD paid in cash (for a 30-day tourist visa).
  • Tanzania
    Apply online at www.immigration.go.tz and, if granted, present a copy to the Immigration Officer upon arrival. Alternatively, obtain a visa upon arrival with $100 USD paid in cash.
  • Uganda
    Apply online at least 2 weeks prior to arrival at the Government of Uganda’s Electronic Visa/Permit Application System website.
  • Zambia
    Apply online prior to arrival or at any port of entry.
  • Zimbabwe
    Apply upon arrival and pay $30 USD (30-day/single-entry visa), $45 (45-day/double-entry visa), or $160 (12-month/multiple-entry visa).

*Because policies around African visas are subject to change, it’s important to check the latest status on travel.state.gov.

Booking your flight

We advise travelers to start looking for flights around four months out and book no later than two months out in order to secure the lowest fares. Direct flights are possible to find, but rare (and expensive), so for a more economical option, consider a layover in Europe or the Middle East—and, if you’re traveling from the West Coast, a potential second layover. In our experience, the cheapest flights to West Africa cross through Paris, while those to South Africa stop in London and, for Namibia, Frankfurt.

There's a lot to consider when planning your safari trip to Africa. Leave it to Journy to take care of everything—and then some. We've got you covered.