How To Go on a Luxury African Safari Under $3000

While there's something I love about every place I've gone to, visiting South Africa and going on a safari was one of my all-time favorite memories ever. But when I talk to everyone about it, there's this misconception that it's an extremely expensive, especially for a private reserve camp.  My trip for flights and stay at a luxury safari resort that was all inclusive of meals was under $3000 for 5 days/4 nights. If I can do it, you can too.

Round Trip flight from LA to London: $450 (error fare that British Airways honored but I've gotten a number of LA to Europe flights for under $500 so it's completely doable)
Flight from London to Johannesburg (cheaper to fly into than Cape Town): $0 (only miles)
Flight from Cape Town to London : $750
Transfer and flights within South Africa: Approx $400
All inclusive luxury safari costs for 5 days/4 nights: 32,000 Rand or $2600 for 2 people (so $1300 per person)

Total:  $2900 per person

How to book a safari on a budget:

1) Contact a safari agent to help you book (but get the right ones)
I NEVER use agents to book anything, but in this case, it was really helpful to have someone guide me since it's pretty hard coordinating transportation to get to the middle of nowhere. I used Jacqui Sive from Lodge Trackers (tell her hi from me if you use her!) and she was AMAZING to communicate with, plus I actually saved money versus booking on my own, as she was able to find cheaper transportation costs.

2) Don't feel obligated to splurge for the most expensive safari camp
I stayed at Arathusa camp in Sabi Sands, which was "luxury" but "affordable" luxury. I wasn't sure what that meant, but I also didn't want to significantly up my budget, since mostly wanted to see the animals and they were available at all of the camps. I was absolutely shocked when I arrived at how luxurious the experience was - and I've stayed at a number of 5 star places around the world. I stayed in a huge "room" with an outdoor and indoor shower with a perfect view of the watering hole. Meals were fantastic and there were only 15-20 guests staying at my camp at any given time, so we each got a ton of attention from the staff, as it was almost a 1:1 staff to guest ratio.

I also saw all of the Big 5 animals up close and the rangers and animal trackers are insanely talented.

3) Play around with your departure and arrival cities to get the cheapest air flights
You can get to South Africa a number of ways, but the more direct and fewer connections, the more expensive your trip becomes. For me, it was cheapest to fly from LA to London, London to Johannesburg and then a flight from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit, and then a drive from Hoedspruit to the safari. It took me a total of 36 hours to get from LA to the safari, but 1) it's hard to get to the middle of nowhere however you look at it and 2) those extra hours were worth saving hundreds in flights

4) There's an even cheaper way to see the animals
If you don't want to stay in a luxury private reserve camp, you can actually see the animals for a fraction of the cost by camping and driving through Kruger National Park yourself. Admission to the park is a mere $24 (or 300 rand).

But you have to stay on the per-designated roads and you don't get the benefit of a tracker, so there's no guarantee you'll see animals and when you do, there will likely be a huge crowd around as well. The thing that swayed me toward a private reserve is that you'll go on game drives in an open Jeep with both a ranger and a tracker, you'll drive off-road and you'll get up close and personal with animals without large crowds around. So for me, it was worth the extra expense, but YMMV depending on how you like to travel.

More questions about going on safari or staying on a private reserve? Let me know in the comments below.