Are you the kind of independent traveler that’s slightly allergic to organized tours and would rather plan every single second of your trip by yourself for maximum freedom and adventure? Being a super independent traveler myself, I feel you. I’ve been traveling on my own since 2001 and in all those years I can count the number of times I’ve booked an organized tour on 1 hand. But Tanzania doesn’t make it easy to organize the ‘big’ adventures by yourself. Most of all it’s often just as pricy or even more expensive than going on a tour. So should you travel Tanzania independently or join an organized tour? Let me break down the pros and cons of each option for some popular activities for you.
Tanzania: independent travel or organized tour?
It’s definitely possible to travel Tanzania independently and for certain parts and activities, I would absolutely recommend it if you prefer traveling this way. But if you’re doing it to save money, you might get disappointed. I’d also strongly recommend you to take your time as independent travel is slow and I don’t think you’ll enjoy it 100% if you rush it.
If you’re not somebody who enjoys a bit of chaos and a lot of negotiating, if you hate arriving late or if you feel like spending time on the journey is a waste of time, I’d certainly advise you to book a tour. Independent travel in Tanzania is definitely less easy than in certain other parts of the world and like I said, often not (a lot) cheaper than a tour. So if you’re simply the kind of traveler who likes taking tours, then take the tour ’cause you won’t go home much richer by organizing everything yourself, just more frustrated.
If on the other hand you absolutely need your daily dose of adventure, then for sure you can figure it out and organize it all by yourself.
But if you’re that traveler that does like some of that frustration you’ll always have when traveling around in a country like Tanzania but also not too much of it, or if your biggest motivation for traveling independently is saving money, then keep reading to know if and when it’s actually worth it and to find the right balance between independent travel and organized tours for you.
Getting around the country
If you’re moving between larger towns and cities, this is definitely possible independently. In most cases this is also (much) cheaper than asking a tour operator to organize it for you. There’s busses if you want to travel as locally as possible, flights if you just want to get to your destination fast and some other options you could consider. Check out my guide on how to get around Tanzania by yourself and start planning!
Walking around in cities
If you just want to explore towns and cities, soak up their vibe, spontaneously walk into a little bar or restaurant that appeals to you or take a moment to look around in places that catch your eye, you absolutely don’t need a guide or an organized tour. Walking around in city centers is safe if you use common sense and watch your belongings. Even if you get a little bit lost (you’d have to almost do it on purpose as Google Maps is pretty accurate in city centers), there’s always someone who’ll be able to show you the way or a local transport that will be able to bring you to where you need to be. Just make sure you don’t start walking around in areas where you don’t see lots of people as it might not always be safe.
Day trips and short excursions
For excursions to places that are located further from the town and city centers, it really depends on how much adventure you’re looking for and on how tight your budget is. A lot of day trips are actually cheaper if you organize them yourself. However as these are not the most expensive activities, you won’t end up saving hundreds of dollars if you do just 1 or 2.
It’s important to know that in the large majority of cases, there are no signs to indicate where you should go. There’s not a lot of road signs or sings to indicate hiking paths etc. So often you’ll still need to get a local guide once you arrive to show you the way. There often really is no other way to find the actual attractions otherwise. For example if you want to go to Materuni waterfall (full post coming soon), you can take a daladala from Moshi to the village ‘office’ in Materuni but you’ll need to pay a local guide to show you the way and of course you’ll need to pay them.
In my guide to the Chemka hot springs near Moshi I’ve calculated prices for 3 options: organizing it by yourself with public transport, organizing it by yourself with a taxi and booking an organized tour. In options 2 and 3 it’ll take you around 1,5 hours to get to the hot springs from Moshi, in option 1 it might be over twice as long. It depends mostly on how long you need to wait for the bus to be full and leave the station and how good your bajaji negotiating skills are. Here’s the prices for each option, for a group of 2 people, all including transport, entrance fee, food and drinks:
- By public transport: +- 25 USD per person
- By taxi: +- 40 USD per person
- With an organized tour: +- 65 USD per person. Contrary to the other 2 options, this includes a guide or a person who has experience with the location.
I’d say these differences give a pretty good idea for several other activities in the country as well, although it might be less for others. I’ll write more guides for this kind of excursions and will share costs for the different options for all of them.
Something to keep in mind is how long it’ll take you to get somewhere independently and how long it’ll take you to get things organized once you’re there. For excursions like the one to the hot springs there’s more than enough time left to enjoy if you start your trip not too late, but for certain others (like this one to Lake Jipe) the remaining time to do the actual excursion might not be enough anymore. It gets dark around 6.30 – 7 PM in Tanzania and it’s not really safe to be traveling around by local transport after dark so you’d have to be back to where you’re staying by that time.
For safaris, I would never recommend doing a self-drive safari in Tanzania unless maybe if you’re absolutely only doing it for the adventure but in all honesty, no, not even then. Tanzania can’t be compared to other African countries where you can easily do a self-drive safari like South-Africa or Namibia. Over here, the parks are simply not equipped to offer any help to people who organize their own safari and trained safari guides (*) really, really are worth their money.
(*) Trained safari guides that work for registered tour businesses, not independent guides. More about this below.
Safari guides get extensive training to learn specific skills to keep you safe, such as analyzing animal behavior, driving on rough roads in (very) bad condition and fixing car problems safely. I was once in a safari car that got charged at by an elephant and I can assure you it’s thanks to our experienced guide that we got out of there safely. You also don’t wanna be changing a broken tire right next to a couple of hungry lions and just like I mentioned above for shorter excursions, there’s hardly any signs in the parks to help you find your way.
Guides know where certain animals go at each time of the year and also know in which kind of vegetation they’re most likely to be found. They stay in touch with other safari guides through a walkie-talkie system to make sure clients don’t miss the most impressive sightings and they follow news about the parks and the wildlife on a daily basis. I can’t remember how many of the more rare animals I’ve seen on safari thanks to this kind of information and I honestly think it would be a huge shame to miss it.
You also shouldn’t underestimate driving times and how incredibly tiresome it is to drive on rough roads for hours. On top of that, you’ll often get the best wildlife viewings standing up in the car and looking out through the roof, and when you’re sitting behind the steering wheel, it isn’t that easy to get up all the time so you might miss half of the show.
When it comes to the cost, self-drive safaris are almost always as expensive and often even more expensive than safaris that you book through a tour operator, at least if you compare for the same group size and consider fully registered and licensed tour operators that work legally. I’ll write a separate post about how to pick the ideal tour company, both for safaris and mountain climbs in which I’ll explain more about this. Why? Because tour operators get (much!) better prices for things like safari jeeps and lodges and their profit comes from this discount, not from adding money to the public prices of the lodges. A lot of lodges don’t even rent rooms to private customers so you will only have access to a part of them. Of course you can go camping at one of the public campsites but in that case you’ll probably still have to rent all your camping gear, for which you’ll most likely also get prices that are much higher than the ones tour operators pay for this, so you’ll probably lose your benefit there. I see this happen all. the. time… so yes, it really is a thing. Also be aware that NOTHING is available inside the parks, and by that I mean literally nothing, not even drinking water. In the public kitchens of the campsites, there’s access to water and you can get a spot to put your gas bottle and everything that you need, but nothing is available. There’s a space to eat but it has no chairs or tables so you should bring all this yourself.
Practically, it’s possible to pay for your own safari park fees without going through a tour operator. For the parks that are part of TANAPA (Tanzania National Parks), you can pay by credit card (and only by credit card) at the gate. However there’s wildlife destinations that also have an entrance fee but for which you need to pay before you leave, eg. in Arusha. For example for Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Ngorongoro crater you need to pay at their office in Arusha or Karatu and these are only open Monday to Friday. Places like Lake Natron fall under the WMA (Wildlife Management Authority) and part of the entrance fees need to be paid in Arusha, also from Monday to Friday.
You might think I ‘have’ to say all this because I own a tour business in Tanzania but it’s actually the other way around. I would never have started a safari business here if I wasn’t 100% convinced of the added value of organized tours here, because like I said earlier, I’ve always been and still am a huge fan of independent travel.
Mount Kilimanjaro & Mount Meru
For Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru it’s simple: according to park rules it’s not allowed to climb them independently and you’re obligated to go with a tour business and be accompanied by guides and porters. Unlike for the safari parks, you can’t pay the park fees for Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru independently. Only registered tour businesses with a special license for mountain climbs are allowed to organize climbs and get access to the online reservation and payment system. More about this in my upcoming post about how to find your ideal tour company.
If there’s one thing that’s not just doable but easy-peasy to organize by yourself in Tanzania, it’s definitely your stay in Zanzibar. Flights between Zanzibar and the mainland can be booked on any booking website and accommodation is easy to find on specialized websites. Unlike for the lodges in the safari parks, tour operators often don’t get super good rates for hotels on Zanzibar and they’ll usually only offer a selection of hotels at interesting prices. That’s not to say you can’t find good deals so if you’re not up for arranging it by yourself, you should definitely ask, but otherwise it’s al super easy to deal with yourself.
For excursions in Zanzibar you might need an organized tour but it’s super easy to organize those through your hotel. In Stone Town, you can easily walk around by yourself and if you want to eg. visit a spice farm, you can simply ask a taxi driver to drop you off. But for eg. boat tours of course you’ll need somebody to organize them for you, so just ask your hotel and it’ll be super easy.
What about the middle way? - Independent guides
Like I mentioned above, there’s places that you might visit on day trips where you’ll need to hire a local guide to show you the way and these often work together with the village ‘offices’ so it’s totally OK to use these. You can usually negotiate their salary but keep in mind that a normal salary for a guide is between 20 and 25 USD per day plus the same amount in tips. These amounts are for your entire group, unless you have a big group and you need more than 1 guide.
You’ll also find a lot of ‘independent guides’ outside of these places, on the street or on the internet, but please be aware that the people we call ‘independent guides’ here in Tanzania do not have the licenses to legally organize any trips for you. That being said, there’s 2 types: the ones that at least are honest towards you and actually plan to give you the services that you paid for, and the ones that are just trying to rip you off and won’t even show up to pick you up. Of course the rip-off issue also happens with people pretending to have or work for a tour business so you should always check, but I’ll tell you all about this in my upcoming post about how to find your ideal tour business and also explain how exactly you can check.
Let’s assume you’re dealing with the ‘honest’ kind that will provide your services as planned. There’s still a big risk of getting in trouble if you use these people for safaris or mountain climbs as it’s simply not allowed. If I tell you that registered tour businesses pay quite a bit for their registration, 18% VAT, 30% taxes on profit, between 500 and 2000 USD per year for a safari license and a flat rate of 2000 USD per year for a mountain license, I think you’ll quickly understand why. You could get kicked out of the parks or you might have to pay a big fine if you get caught with a guide that’s working illegally, for example.
So what kind of traveler are you? Would you book organized tours or organize everything yourself? Or maybe just use a tour operator for your safari or mountain climb and do the rest independently? I’m curious to hear all about it in the comments!
Want to be sure you’re in good hands? I have a fully registered and licensed tour business in Tanzania and I’d be super happy to organize any trip for you.
Have a look at our website and get in touch with all your questions.