20 questions to ask when booking your African safari

A luxury safari is big investment. With rates at some lodges going for $800 to $1200 per night (and even mid-range prices in the $400-$500 range per couple, per night), it’s an experience that needs to be perfect. Here are questions you need to ask when booking your dream safari lodge.

How much land will you cover and what animals will you most likely see?

Different concentrations of animals live in different countries, so depending on what you want to see the most, you may be interested in one location over the other. Similarly, every lodge is different, and if you stay on a private reserve, your experience can vary widely from property to property. Be sure to ask how big the lodge’s property is and what animals live there. Many lodge websites also have a ranger’s blog. Read the past few months’ entries and you can get a good feel for what animals you might see on your trip. For instance, the lodge I recently stayed in South Africa at only had two leopards. We were lucky enough to see one, but many of the other groups staying there did not.

What is the daily schedule and how many game drives will you go on each day? What time is check-in and check-out?

At most luxury lodges, game drives happen very early in the morning (around 6am) and in early evening (around 4:30pm) and last for three hours each. Breakfast will be served after the morning drive; dinner is after the evening one (so bring snacks if your eating schedule requires it). Some lodges include a mid-day drive as well. Find out the schedule and try to plan your arrival and departure times so that you can do game drives on the day you get there and the day you leave. This will also help you figure out how much down-time you’ll have to fill between drives.

What is included in the rate – meals, drinks, game drives? How much tip is normal?
Some lodges are truly all-inclusive, but they tend to be more expensive. At most, food and game drives are covered, but drinks – including bottled water, soft drinks, beer and wine served with meals and while on safari – are not. This can add a significant cost to your budget if you like to drink with dinner. You can bring your own wine to most places, but they will charge a “corkage fee” that can cost the same as a bottle from their cellar. Tipping your guide is common practice and should be figured into your budget as well.

What other optional activities are available at the lodge?

Between the post-morning-drive breakfast and the afternoon drive, you’ll generally only have one activity planned: lunch. Other than that (and probably a much-needed nap), you may have as much as 6 hours to fill. To occupy that time, many lodges offer additional activities like spa treatments or extra safaris. These come at an extra price, so budget accordingly or bring a few books to read. Check to see if your lodge has a pool where you can relax (most do), or a tv to watch (many don’t).

How many guests does the lodge/camp accommodate? How many other guests will go on safari with you? Are children allowed on the safari?
The number of guests at each lodge or camp can vary widely from less than a dozen to over a hundred. If having a more intimate experience is important to you, be sure to ask how many other guests will be on the property with you, and how many will share a safari vehicle with you. Whether you are traveling with children or not, check the lodge’s policy to see if any little ones might be running around your camp.

What vaccines will I need? What do I need to pack? Do I need travel insurance?
Most lodges will give you a packet of info that will let you know if you need malaria meds (some safari lodges are located in malaria-free zones) and any other vaccines you will need (aways check with your doctor as well). They’ll also give you guidelines on what to pack. The general rule is to bring lightweight, light-colored clothing. It gets cold in the evenings and early mornings, so a light sweater is recommended, as are a raincoat, hat, sunscreen, and bug spray. Check with your lodge on the necessity of hiking boots. On many safaris, you’ll spend nearly all your time seated in the vehicle so special footwear is not required. Be sure to inquire about travel insurance too – some tour companies insist you have it.

When is the best time to go?
Your safari experience will be different depending on the season. In summer in South Africa, for example, the land is much more lush and green from November to February. You may have a harder time finding animals (they won’t be congregating by the water holes), but you may see some newly-born baby animals. Winter’s dry season makes for better viewing, but is much more expensive, with more visitors.

How far is the lodge from the airport and is transportation provided?
Getting from the airport to your lodge can be another budget buster. While many lodges provide free transportation from the nearest airport to the camp, some do not. You’ll either need to rent a car, hire a private driver, or pay for a charter flight to the reserve’s private airstrip. If you are on a tighter budget or have limited time, it’s best to pick a place closer to the airport or that offers free transport.

What are the accommodations like?
Some safari lodges resemble luxury hotels, complete with all the modern amenities. Others are much smaller affairs, offering basic accommodations. Whichever route you choose to go, the main things to consider are: Does the room have a fridge or mini-bar for snacks (remember, most lodges serve three meals at set times)? Is there air-conditioning or a fan (many only have fans)? Are the bathrooms private or shared? If the doors don’t lock (at tented camps, most don’t), is there a safe for valuables? Is there access to the internet?

What meals will be served and can you accommodate dietary restrictions?
The only part of my safari experience that disappointed me was food. While I had visions of exotic game meals each night, instead, all but one night we were served an eclectic mix of more cosmopolitan entrees that ranged from lamb curry to beef lasagna. I wish I had specifically asked for sample menus so that I knew that I wouldn’t be trying too many exotic meats on safari (and could have tried them elsewhere in South Africa).

How is the resort eco-friendly and what does it do in terms of conservation?
Most of the high-end resorts I’ve looked at are proud of their conservation efforts (the one I stayed at had an onsite Endangered Species Center) and of their efforts to cut down on energy use and protect the environment. If the resort you are looking at doesn’t specifically mention their programs, be sure to ask. The point of a safari is to come see these beautiful animals in the wild. It would be a shame to play in a part destroy them or their habitat while you do it.