Costs: The costs for an East African safari can be broken up into three major components:
Park fees. These include entry fees per head (between 60 to 80 US$ per head per day for non residents), Vehicle entry fee per day, Lodging concessions etc. These are all the fees that have to be paid to the government.
There is nothing one can do about the Park fees so it’s best to ignore it.
Accommodation and meals. Generally speaking, better locations have more expensive camps. Sometimes this may be irrespective of the luxury offered. There would be many camps, lodges and resorts that are located in “not so good” locations. These usually offer great deals, luxury and comfort.
Since most of the reserves are huge, it is better to be in a camp / lodge that is closer to the action, even though it may be more expensive. The safaris start at sunrise and finish at sunset. So if you not close to the heart of the action you will most probably spend the early hours of the mornings and late evenings “commuting” instead of taking pictures. I personally would prefer to rough it out in a public or private campsite, close to the action, with my own dome tent than stay in a fancy resort two hours drive away.
Safari vehicle and guides. There are essentially three types of cars that do the safaris in east Africa. Toyota Vans and Toyota Land cruisers / Nissan Patrols. The vans are the cheapest to rent (about 125 to 150 US$ per day) while the Land cruisers / Nissans are the most expensive (about US $ 300 per day or more). Beside these two kinds of vehicles, many camps / lodges run safaris in Land rover Defenders. These vehicles are almost always based in the reserves, as they are not very good for taking you from one reserve to another. If you have a trained and registered guide as your driver then it costs about US$ 25 per day more. Drivers, who “claim” to be registered guides, drive most of the vehicles in east Africa. A proper registered guide would have an ID card from the Kenyan Professional Safari Guide Association (KPSGA).
You can save a lot of money by hiring a van but these are not so good for photography or serious wildlife viewing. The vans generally tend to stay on the established dirt roads and tracks inside the reserves. There are many rougher tracks that the vans cannot go on. These established tracks and roads are the busiest parts of the reserves. The only decent vehicles for the more serious people are the Toyota Land Cruisers, Nissan Patrols or Land rover Defenders – I call them the “big three” and they are specially modified for the safaris. These usually seat 7 or 9 people (including the driver) so one-way to cut costs is to share the vehicle between 2 to 6 people. I would recommend not more than 4 (plus the driver) in a vehicle and ideally just 3 if all three were photographers (as all of them will get window on either side of the vehicle to shoot from plus the entire “pop up open” roof top). In no case would I recommend more than 6 people (plus the driver) in one vehicle.
Sunworld Safari Land Cruiser - These are some of the best vehicles for an African safari, specially when they are driven by a KPSGA approved guide.
Photographers: For someone who is going to east Africa for the first time, someone who just wants to see all the different big mammals (the “big five” variety), someone who is not into serious photography and does not mind large number of vehicles around – vans are not a bad option at all. For someone like this the location of the camp / resort / lodge does not matter either. In eastern Africa you are going to see a mind-boggling number of large mammals, come whatever may.
However the above plan will not work if you are either into some serious wildlife viewing or a photographer. In this case, you have to be based in a good location and have to have your own Land Cruiser / Land Rover / Nissan Patrol. In most parts of the world you have to pay more for “prime wildlife” and this is particularly true for east Africa, more so for photographers. “Cheap” is an option that a wildlife photographer just cannot afford. When you go “cheap” you still end up spending a lot of money without getting many great pictures to show for it. You might as well spend a few hundred dollars more per week and get it right. If budgets are really tight then spend a few days less and few dollars more while you are there. Especially since the difference between cheap and great is just about US$ 50 or so more per day.
Mileage restrictions: Most of the trips that are offered by tour operators and lodges run only the morning and evening safaris, to save on costs and make the itinerary cheaper. Most such people fix (what is locally known there as) "mileage restrictions" on the vehicle. This is normally 80 or 120 kilometers a day. To stay within the mileage the drivers usually stay close to the camp or lodge, which is never ideal. Make sure you have a vehicle with unrestricted mileage.
Standard Safari v/s Private safari: The standard east African safaris that are offered by most tour operators or lodges / camps include stay and all meals usually in places that are pretty far away from the action. Depending on the money you pay the stay can be cheap (under US $ 100 for stay and meals) to very expensive (over US $ 500 for stay and meals). Besides you will get two safaris, one in the morning and one in the evening, in either a van or a four wheel drive vehicle (again depending on the money you pay) with other people who are sharing the tour or staying in the same place. The vehicle will almost always have a mileage restriction. Most people who visit east Africa end up with doing something similar.
If you want to do it in style then go for what is known as a private safari – which means that you will have a four wheel drive all to yourself. Besides, this vehicle would be driven by a guide (and not a driver), will not have any mileage restrictions and you will almost always be staying in great locations. Private safaris are obviously more expensive but one way to make them affordable is to get together a personal group of 3 to 6 people.
Locational advantage and example: The main action in Masai Mara specially during the annual wildebeest migration is in the parts that are highlighted within the bold yellow line. If you not staying within or close to this highlighted part then you are too far off for serious photography. It often takes two hours or more to drive from some of the more distant camps / resorts to this action spot.