Serengeti means ‘the places where the land moves on forever’ or ‘endless plains’ in Maasai language and they couldn’t possible have picked a better name. It’s what safari dreams are made of and it’s not for no reason that it served as inspiration for the Lion King and that it’s one of the most popular safari destinations in the world. So how can you visit it? What can you expect? How much does it cost? Where can you sleep? You’ll get the answer to all these questions and more in this practical guide to Serengeti National Park.
Your practical guide to Serengeti National Park - introduction
Serengeti National Park is located in northern Tanzania, next to the Kenyan border (where it continues into the Maasai Mara) and Ngorongoro Conservation Area. It covers and area of over 14.000 km², which is half the size of my home country Belgium. OK that’s a small country, but still! This entire area is protected but unfenced, so that the wildlife is completely free to go where it wants. This is also true for accommodation inside the Serengeti; there’s not fences around them.
It’s on UNESCO’s world heritage list and mostly famous for its yearly wildebeest migration, during which millions of wildebeest gradually move all through the park and into Kenya on their quest for water. But wildebeest are far from the only animals you can see in the park and definitely not the only reason why you should visit!
If you’re looking for the big five, you’ve come to the right place because in the Serengeti, you can see them all: lions, black rhinos, elephants, buffalos and leopards. You’ll also see zebra’s everywhere, that you’ll often see grazing together with the wildebeest. There’s cheetahs, wild dogs, spotted hyenas, jackals, giraffes, hippos, dik-diks, eland, gazelles, crocodiles and the park has the largest population of ostriches in Africa. There’s also more than 500 bird species in Serengeti National Park.
The park is home to 4 endangered species: elephants, black rhinos, wild dogs and cheetahs.
Serengeti safari areas
We usually consider 5 main areas of the Serengeti: the central Serengeti, the southeast, the western corridor, Serengeti Mara and the northern Serengeti. The wildebeest migrate through these areas year-round. If you’re looking for super exclusive private safaris, Grumeti Game Reserve might also be a great pick for you but I won’t go into this area in this article as I don’t know enough about it.
The heart of the Serengeti with lots of accommodation options. You’ll see large herds of wildebeest here from March to May and you’ll have a great chance of seeing lions, leopards and cheetahs all year long. This area is where the famous ‘kopjes’ are located. These rocky natural structures are great for seeing lions and cheetahs. There’s also rhinos in this area but it’s definitely not easy to see them so don’t get your hopes up too much. And if you want to see a pool full of hippos, this is the place to be as well!
The central Serengeti is often called Seronera although it’s actually a bit larger than that and also includes the area south of it. Seronera is by far the busiest area of the Serengeti, as it’s easy to reach and except for the southeastern area, the only area that’s doable on a short safari. So you probably won’t be alone here, especially in high season and this is definitely something to think about if intimacy is a main requirement.
The area between the west of Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the central Serengeti. Most wildlife is present here but this area is especially worth a visit from December to April when the wildebeest are here on their quest for water. The highlight definitely happens in January and February during the calving of the wildebeest. The huge amounts of wildebeest and their new calves also attract lots of predators, so it truly is worth a visit. Expect to see lots of other safari vehicles, especially from December to February before the heavy rain season.
This is the stretch of land that follows the Grumeti river between the central Serengeti and Lake Victoria. The great migration passes through here from May to July and this is actually where the first river crossings take place. The ones at the Mara river into Kenya are definitely more famous but they only follow later in the migration season. Vegetation in this part of the park is more dense than elsewhere and you’ll see giraffes, elephants, zebras, cheetahs and also lions throughout the year.
There’s not a lot of accommodation options here and most of them are (super) expensive. During migration season there’s some mobile camps but these are also not cheap. For this reason, this area is far less visited than the others so it might be a good pick for you if you want privacy.
This is the small stretch of land between the Mara river and the Kenyan border and it’s the best place to see the Mara river crossings from around July to September. You’ll also find large numbers of lions and cheetahs as well as elephants, zebra, topi and buffalo throughout the year. Only a few permanent camps are located here but during migration season there’s mobile camps to stay at. These are all pretty expensive and budget options are not really available here.
Less flat than the rest of the Serengeti and with much denser vegetation, this part isn’t often visited. It’s the best place to see the migration on its way back from Kenya into Tanzania, usually in October or maybe September. The vegetation makes the animals more difficult to spot but the largest elephant population of the Serengeti can be found here and there’s good chances you’ll see lions, cheetahs and leopards.
The best time to visit the Serengeti
Depending on what exactly you’re looking for, YOUR best time for visiting the Serengeti might not be MY best time for visiting the Serengeti. Are you looking to see the great migration? Or maybe you’re trying to escape the masses or trying to find the cheapest prices? Or are school holidays the only times you can travel?
Have a look at my post about the best time to visit Tanzania for lots of general information about the weather, high- and low-season and an overview of Tanzania per month. In short, these are the main things to consider when deciding when to visit the Serengeti:
- January and February are great if you want to see the calving of the wildebeest in the southeastern part of the park. It’s very warm during this months with a chance of rain in January but usually nothing that will ruin your trip. The landscape is usually pretty green after the short rain season.
- March to May is the heavy rain season and it’s not recommended to go on a safari in these months. You might get lucky and get spectacular animal sightings without the crowds but there’s a pretty big risk of very heavy rains that can damage roads, make them slippery or force the wildlife to go and hide.
- June-September is a great time for visiting the Serengeti and this is when the famous river crossings happen in Serengeti Mara. This is however high season (especially July and August), so you won’t be alone and prices might be higher than during the rest of the year. It’s the cooler dry season, with bright skies and nice warm temperatures during the day but it often cools down at night, especially in and around the northern parks. In June the landscape is very green from the heavy rain season but it gets dry again pretty quickly. This might look a bit less pretty but it definitely has its charm and it allows for more wildlife sightings as they’re not hidden behind the long grass and gather around watering holes.
- October-November is the warm (read: hot) dry season and everything is now very dry. The wildebeest are almost all back from Kenya and move towards the south-east from the northern Serengeti. It’s calmer than from June to September.
- December (and part of January) is the short rain season but unlike the heavy rain season, this is most often not a reason to stay at home. The Christmas holidays are peak season and especially in the more luxurious lodges prices are often even higher than June-September. From a wildlife perspective this is definitely not a bad time but if you’re on a budget or like a bit more intimacy, you might want to pick another moment.
The great migration in the Serengeti
I’ll be writing a separate article about this, so stay tuned!
Getting to the Serengeti
I can’t count the number of times people have asked me to organize a 1-day safari in the Serengeti, or to go see the great migration in just 48 hours and I can understand the confusion because when you look at a map, it doesn’t seem THAT far. But it’s important to consider the fact that once you reach the gate of the parks, there’s only rough roads so driving times are much longer than you probably expected. And even on the tarmac roads outside of the parks, the maximum speed is 80 km/h and there’s A LOT of areas where it’s limited to 50 km/h, so it simply doesn’t go fast.
Most people that visit Serengeti National Park start their trip in Arusha or Moshi. Coming from that side, you have to cross Ngorongoro Conservation Area (without going into the crater), the entrance of which is located about 3 hours driving from Arusha and 5 hours from Moshi. From here, it’s roughly 2 hours before you reach the entrance of the Serengeti.
From here on, it depends where exactly you’re going. The central and southeastern parts of the park are just one more hour from the gate, both in different directions. But if you’re heading to the north, where the river crossings take place, you can easily count another 4 to 5 hours to get there from the entrance.
The drive from Arusha, Moshi or eg. Kilimanjaro or Arusha airport is included in the price if you book a safari with a tour business, so you don’t have to organize this yourself. Unless you find a tour business that’s located nearer to the parks, in Karatu or Mto wa Mbu, there’s also no point in traveling to these places by yourself in order to try and save money. If your tour business is from Arusha, you’ll pay the price for a safari starting in Arusha and thus might end up paying more if you travel to Karatu or Mto wa Mbu by yourself.
You can also fly into the Serengeti, using one of the airstrips: Seronera, Kogatende, Lobo and Ndutu. Planes fly in from different starting points such as Arusha, Kilimanjaro, Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar. Some of the most expensive lodges also have their own airstrip or share one with a few other lodges.
Be aware these planes are small bush planes so it’s not possible to take a lot of luggage. Prices are also quite high, you can count at least a few hundred USD one-way.
Safaris in the Serengeti
Keeping in mind the long driving distances, there is no such thing as a 1-day safari to the Serengeti that starts and ends in Arusha. The shortest package including the Serengeti that certain tour operators offer is a 3-day safari combining the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater but personally I still think that that’s a lot of time in the car compared to the time you’ll spend on actual game drives. I’ve done the drive from Moshi (which is 2 hours further than Arusha, where most safaris begin) to the central part of the Serengeti and back for work and of course it’s doable but it’s not ideal for making you feel like you’re on a vacation.
So the minimum I’d recommend is a 4-day safari including 2 days in the Serengeti (in reality usually 24 hours unless you pay more), 1 day to visit Ngorongoro crater and 1 day in Tarangire or Lake Manyara National Park. Ideally I’d say 3 days in the Serengeti instead of 2 so that would be a 5-day safari. This package will allow you to visit the central part of the Serengeti or the southern ndutu area but not the north, for which you need more time.
There’s of course lots of other packages. You can eg. visit both Tarangire and Manyara instead of one or the other or you can add other destinations such as Arusha National Park or Lake Natron. Lake Natron, eg., is located to the north-east of the Serengeti and the drive between the two of them is just spectacular.
If you want to visit the north of the Serengeti, you need to count the extra drive of about 4 hours from the center. During this drive you might also be able to see wildlife so it could take a few more hours if you stop regularly. If you want to see the river crossing, you need to keep in mind that these don’t always happen all the time, so the more days you spend, the better your chances of seeing it. Most ‘great migration’ packages include at least 4 days inside the Serengeti (actually inside) plus often 2 other parks to cut the driving distances so that would be a minimum of 7 days on safari.
How much does it cost?
I’ll break it to you straight away: Serengeti is by far one of the most expensive safari parks in Tanzania. The entrance fee currently is as high as 82.60 USD per adult for non-residents, incl. taxes (you’ll find all park fees valid from 1st July 2021 until 30th June 2022 here. Careful, you need to add 18% VAT as written on page 10). Paying this amount gives you access for 24 hours only and your exact entry and exit times are checked at the park gates.
Keep in mind the long driving times when you calculate the total cost, as the 4-day safari with Tarangire, Serengeti and Ngorongoro that I mentioned above gives you nowhere near enough time to actually spend 48 hours in the Serengeti. If you head to the park early on day 2 and leave as late as possible on day 3, you might be able to reach something like 28-30 hours inside the park but most tour operators don’t work like this and only pay the 24-hour entrance fee once as it makes quite a big difference in the price of your safari.
Another thing to consider is the fact that you almost certainly have to drive through Ngorongoro Conservation Area (if you come from Arusha or Moshi) and the fee for this ‘transit’ is 72 USD per person at this moment, also per 24 hours. This is just for the transit, the entrance fee to the crater is to be paid separately.
So getting back to our example of a 4-day safari, on day 2 you’ll pay 72 USD for transit in Ngorongoro Conservation Area as well as 82 USD to enter the Serengeti. On the way back on day 3, you’ll have to pay another 72 USD for the transit through Ngorongoro but as you’re staying in the conservation area and visiting the crater the next day, you won’t have to pay the 72 USD again on day 4 as they’re valid for 24 hours. However if you were to do a safari with just the Serengeti, you need to count 2 transit fees of 72 USD for Ngorongoro Conservation Area, without ever visiting the crater.
Count around 250-300 USD per day for a safari jeep including gas, the guide’s salary, entrance fees for the car and guide and the cost of sleeping and eating for your guide. You can consider this amount whether you rent your own car (more about this below) or use a tour business, as people that rent cars will always ask for more money when renting their cars to independent travelers.
Accommodation & food
The cost of accommodation can be a huge factor to consider in the total price of your safari and prices can go from let’s say 50-ish USD per person per night to over 1000.
Camping is the cheapest option. You’ll have to pay 35.40 USD per person per night for access to one of the public campsites. There’s a few and their quality isn’t very stable so it’s best to ask which one currently is your best option. Tour operators keep an eye on this and usually pick the best one. The 35.40 USD only give you access to the campsite, the toilets and showers, the kitchen area and the dining room but you’ll have to bring all necessary camping and cooking gear yourself. This means not only tents, matrasses, sleeping bags and pillows but also a table and chairs, pots and pans, cutlery, plates, glasses, cooking gas etc. You’ll have to count an extra budget for renting all these items, so camping will cost you around 75 USD per person per night plus food so let’s say a bit under 100 USD per person per night food included.
After camping, different tour operators use different names to describe the more expensive / luxurious options. Some speak of silver, gold and platinum, others will divide the options into standards lodges, mid-range lodges and luxury lodges. There’s no official categories and every tour operator can pick in which category they consider certain lodges so I recommend you compare the actual accommodations and don’t just look at the name of the category when you’re comparing different offers. Personally I use the standard lodge, mid-range lodge and luxury lodge but I add a 4th category which is glamping. This option offers a level of comfort in between camping and standard lodges. It offers little luxury but certainly a lot more comfort than basic camping. It’s not available everywhere, eg. in the north of the Serengeti you’ll have only camping or lodges but in the central Serengeti there’s a few good options available.
For all options, as long as you sleep inside the Serengeti, there’s 2 fees to be paid. You don’t only pay the fee for the accommodation itself but also a ‘concession fee’ of 70.80 USD per person per night to the park. For accommodation fees (so excl. concession fees), count around 150-200 USD per person per night in glamping, 250-300 USD per person per night in standard lodges, 400-500 USD per person per night in mid-range lodges and 600-700 USD per person per night or (much) more in luxury lodges. These prices are for full-board accommodation in double rooms/tents.
To follow the migration, there’s mobile camps that move according to where the animals are. These are usually not cheap but there’s usually also camping options nearby if you want to go on a budget.
Children under 5 years old don’t have to pay entrance fees and children between 5 and 16 (so under 16) pay a lower fee for park fees, camping fees and concession fees. Accommodations also offer special kids rates but there is no real rules and every accommodation can pick their own maximum ages and reductions. In some you’ll get 50% off for all kids under 16 but others put their limit at 14, 12 or even 10. Sometimes the children’s price depends on how many adults are in the room with the child so you have to check carefully and share the correct information with your lodge or tour operator so that they can give you correct estimations.
As in all other parks with big game it is strictly forbidden to get out of your car unless you’re accompanied by a ranger or a guide. As I wrote earlier, there’s no fences around camp sites and lodges. For that reason in lodges, it’s often forbidden to walk around by yourself and systems are in place to contact the reception so they can send somebody to escort you. Please comply with these regulations, for your own safety and that of everybody else, including the animals. On camp sites, there’s rangers that keep an eye out but be careful if you need to go to the toilet at night and stay in your tent the rest of the time.
As long as you’re in a vehicle or in a tent, you don’t have to be afraid of animals attacking. Under normal circumstances, they don’t as they don’t see the difference between a tent and a rock, eg. But keep your hands and head and simply your entire body inside the car at all times. And listen to your guide. Always.
Great extra's to add to your Serengeti safari
There’s not that many extra’s to add as things like walking safaris or night safaris are only allowed in certain private parts of the park. However, if you’re staying in a lodge you could do a bush breakfast or dinner, which is usually really nice and romantic.
Another thing that I couldn’t recommend more is a hot air balloon flight over the park. There’s flights over Seronera all year long and seasonal flights over the other areas. It’s an adventure with a price tag, as flights are around 600 USD per person in a shared hot air balloon. This includes a flight of about an hour, followed by a luxurious bush breakfast.
Disclaimer: I got my hot air balloon flight for free because of my tour business so it’s a bit hard for me to say if it was ‘worth it’, but I can honestly say it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.
Want to visit the Serengeti too? I have my own tour business in Tanzania and would LOVE to organize it for you!
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Have you been to the Serengeti or is it on your bucket list? When and to which part would you go? And in which type of accommodation would you like to sleep? I want to hear all about it in the comment section!