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Image: Bill Wiatrak

I often ask people I meet, if they could go anywhere in the world, where would they choose? One of the most common answers is often a place that the majority of travelers are unlikely to visit—a game park in Africa. For many of us, just mentioning the name of the continent conjures up images of lions chasing gazelles on the Serengeti and giraffes nibbling on acacia trees in the perfect Lion King sunset. 

The reason more travelers have not gone on their dream trip to Africa is the perceived high price for such an adventure. With travel deals online starting at thousands per person, it appears to be a trip for just the well-heeled. However, travel to Africa can be accessible to anyone. Although flights to some countries in Africa can be some of the most expensive airfares in the world, my three favorite African hubs cost no more than flying to Europe if you do a little shopping around. Once you’re on the continent, you can put together your own safari for pennies on the dollar.

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Image: Bill Wiatrak

A flight to Ethiopia, Nairobi or Johannesburg can be booked for less than $800 round trip from many U.S. cities with a stopover in Istanbul, London, Amsterdam or perhaps Paris. You won’t find many safaris in Ethiopia, but Kenya has the Masai Mara National Reserve and is close to Tanzania’s famed Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti. Jo’Berg  (as the locals call it) in South Africa is driving distance to Kruger National Park. If you’re going to do a safari, none of these parks will disappoint you. They’re four of the best in the world.

Most game parks in Africa allow self-driving. You can rent a car, pay a small fee to visit the game park and do it entirely on your own. Some parks with non-paved roads require four-wheel drive, but an economy car may be all you need for most reserves. If you’re not hiring a guide and a driver, you’ll save a ton of money and have total autonomy. I’m not saying that a guide is a waste of money, because they can be invaluable at spotting more elusive creatures and answering questions about the things you see. But, if you’re on a budget, you can do it yourself and use the money you save for another adventure.

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Image: Bill Wiatrak

If you choose to hire a guide for your safari, you’ll often get a driver that may not speak much English and a specially trained guide who’s been trained on the local flora and fauna. The guide also tells the driver where to go, and can answer most of your questions about the area and wildlife. If you stay overnight at a hotel with your guide and driver, the place might have arrangements for them to stay cheap or free in exchange for them bringing you there. You’re not usually responsible for your guide’s food or lodging.

You can actually just show up in Nairobi or Johannesburg, ask around at a hotel or tour agency and book vehicle, car and driver, or get on an organized tour. You’ll save a fortune organizing your safari like this rather than booking on a computer in the states. You can often negotiate the quoted prices or add other travelers to your safari to get the price even lower. Pre-booked tours might make transfers a little easier and help avoid wasting time, but there’s a lot of extra people involved in the booking chain and there’s a good chance you’re getting some of the same guides and trucks. A little flexibility and patience can add up to much lower prices.

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Image: Bill Wiatrak

Some parks offer lodges inside the park and/or camping sites. This is one of the best ways to get up close and personal with animals that stray into the camps. If you haven’t brought any camping supplies, your best option is a nearby hotel or cabin located in the park. The price can vary considerably depending on the park and the amenities but works well if you arrive late or you’re just not that outdoorsy.

Some travelers opt to bring their own tent and sleeping bag. This offers less security, but can be a good choice if you keep your valuables on your person and want to save money on lodging. My favorite option is a 4×4 truck equipped with a tent on top. These vehicles are equipped with everything you need to cook, sleep, drive and eat and allow you more freedom and security than any other option. The tents are extremely rugged and waterproof, and set up in minutes without requiring stakes or trees. They literally are packed with everything you need to survive in the wild for days. Since these trucks are your transport and lodging, the higher rental price balances out and there’s nothing as convenient.

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Image: Bill Wiatrak

Deciding on which part of Africa to visit? The two most popular choices are Kenya/Tanzania and South Africa. Other destinations such as Uganda, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Namibia are also fantastic places to visit, but it’s easier to get in and out of Nairobi or Johannesburg as well as organizing your safaris. Kenya and the countries surrounding it speak mostly English and Swahili and are not only famous for their many game parks, but also the Masai Mara people that still live in the bush with their colorful tribal wear. You can take the train from Nairobi to Mombasa and actually go through the middle of Tsavo National Park. Kenya offers plenty of adventure and you’ll find the prices for normal hotels or guest lodges less expensive than Europe or the US.

South Africans speak Afrikaans (which originated from Dutch), English and tribal languages such as Zulu. The advantage to South Africa, versus Kenya, is that it’s much more developed. Capetown resembles San Francisco a little and you might wonder if you are in Africa at all. The roads are great. Grocery stores have amazing choices, and you’ll find it to be less of a shocking change than Kenya. Capetown is a short, inexpensive flight from Johannesburg and is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The nearby wine region has world class wineries. You won’t feel like you’re roughing at all. Kruger, on the eastern side of the country, is the main draw for safaris, but you can also visit nearby Botswana and Namibia if you’re a more seasoned traveler.

If you’ve been dreaming about an African safari, don’t settle for the Animal Kingdom in Florida. Don’t think you can’t afford to visit Africa because an Abercrombie and Kent luxury safari costs more than your house. You’d  definitely have fun on a luxury safari, but you can see the same exact animals in the Nissan you rented in Nairobi and can be entirely in control of your schedule. You can even do a couple of safari days and then check out Mount Kilimanjaro or the island of Zanzibar. In South Africa, you can go visit the penguins on the cape or go cage diving with great white sharks. There are plenty of adventures and excursions in this part of the world that are probably unlike anything you’ve done before.

If you don’t speak any foreign languages, Hakuna Matata (no worries). Remember that from The Lion King? It’s actually Swahili. So is the word “safari” which means “to go.” See how easy that is? You practically speak the language!

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