Nature and wildlife travel, especially if you are travelling internationally, is one of, if not the most expensive travel niche out there.
International flights, expensive private transportation into isolated areas, lodging in these areas, and the premiums tacked on because this tends to be a hobby/passion for the affluent, and you are easily talking mid to high four figures for a week-long excursion.
Your money can go a lot further, however, if you’re willing to do a bit more of the leg work yourself. Whether it’s taking local transportation instead of chartering a private car or truck or staying in a small local hotel or hostel instead of the luxury jungle camp, below are 7 areas where you can save money on nature and wildlife travel.
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Number 1: look for budget accommodation
A lot of the time, when you are talking about nature and wildlife travel, you’re factoring in expensive stays at lodges and “eco” resorts. While these might provide the best access to wild areas and perhaps include the most amenities and outright luxuries, if you are willing to sacrifice some creature comforts, you can enjoy amazing nature and wildlife experiences for much less.
Consider staying in places like:
- Guest houses
Guest houses are a particularly good way to visit national parks and biosphere reserves because local people often open up their homes or turn their properties into jump-off points for people looking to visit the surrounding nature.
Let’s say you were interested in diving or snorkelling in the Philippines, for example (a deceptively expensive place to dive by Southeast Asian standards). Instead of staying at the dive resorts in places like Puerto Galeras or Anilao, you could choose to stay in much more budget hotels that are not geared for diving and arrange your dives either through local dive shops (which tend to be much cheaper than the resorts) or even through the resorts themselves.
Another good option for budget-conscious nature and wildlife travellers is to pack a tent or hammock with you.
I’ve found many private reserves, etc., that I’ve visited around the world have offered discounted accommodation in the form of camping if and when their rooms are full or for people looking to spend less. You get access to the same gorgeous wild areas for significantly less money.
For more inspiration, you can check out my book The Nature Traveller’s Handbook: 150 Research Stations and Private Reserves to Visit Before You Die.
Number 2: use local transportation
In my experience, transportation in and out of many of the best places ends up being the second most expensive component of your nature and wildlife travel–even more than your airfare a lot of the time.
Private boats, four-by-fours, and sometimes even planes can quickly add thousands of dollars to an experience.
If you want to access incredible spots but don’t have the money for private transportation options, make sure of public transportation.
Whether it’s a boat that ferries local people and their cargo to and from the isolated chain of Indonesian islands, you’re trying to visit, or a collectivo that drops you off at a trail-head that will take you to the Guatemalan bio station you’re trying to get to, opting to travel into places with locals instead of private guides or using lodge/camp vehicles can save you tons.
Yes, of course, you’re sacrificing convenience and comfort in a lot of cases (and you should always make sure you are safe to travel on your own wherever it is you’re going), but if you’re willing to suck up the discomfort of local transportation in places like Asia, Africa and Latin America, you can save a lot of money–money that would be better spent on a new camera lens or spotting scope.
Number 3: choose off and shoulder seasons
Depending on what you’re looking to see, you might be more or less limited to certain times of year. If you want to see humpback whales along Colombia’s Pacific Coast, for example, then you need to be there during their migration (peak season being July-October).
If you want to see the majestic Thale Noi wetlands in Southern Thailand while the sea of pink lotus flowers is in bloom and the majority of the birdlife is present, then the dry season (December through April) is the best time to visit.
If, on the other hand, you are not so picky about specific animal groups or even a specific animal, traveling places during the off-season means not only do you tend to have much more exclusive access to a lot of wild areas around the world, but your stay doesn’t cost as much.
I recently got back from a month-long stay in Pulau Weh, Indonesia, off the northern tip of Sumatra. I was there to snorkel and free dive.
All in all, I spent around $1000 Canadian dollars for the month, which included food, accommodation, and a 150cc scooter that I rented. I was there from October to November, which is shoulder season.
Had I come during peak season, not only would I have been sharing the reefs with more people, but I would have been paying roughly double.
Number 4: be strategic with your checked and carry-on bags
Due to a variety of factors (airline industry avarice being a major one), air travel is only going to get more expensive over the next 10-15 years.
Check baggage fees are already extortionate (they’re baked into the cost of international flights, FYI, nothing’s free), so if you want to save on nature and wildlife travel, consider opting for carryon-only (and here’s the important part) while taking advantage of that personal item.
Most non-long-haul carriers will allow you between 7-10kg as a carry-on with an additional allowance for a “personal item.” If you’re a guy, that usually means something like a messenger bag and, for women, a purse.
If you’re travelling to observe and photograph wildlife, it would probably be your camera bag.
I’ve taken a few trips over the last couple of years where I’ve only brought a checked bag AND a recyclable grocery bag.
That second item is key. I put most (or all) of my clothes in the recyclable grocery bag.
I have a 10L backpack where I put my gear–cameras, flashlights, toiletries, laptop (if I’m taking it), chargers and batteries. And I have my generic recyclable grocery bag for most of my clothing. So far, no one has said anything to me, and I’ve even used the bag full of clothes as a pillow.
Split a checked bag with a friend or spouse
Another trick is to split a checked bag with a friend or spouse. If you’re travelling with a buddy or with your girlfriend/boyfriend, splitting the cost of a checked bag is another way to cut some money off your airfare.
Combine that with my recyclable grocery bag trick above and you’ve got quite a lot of extra space.
Number 5: do independent exploration
This is something I’m a big advocate of wherever I go. Yes, having a local guide for things can be great, and sometimes even necessary, in cases where you need their local knowledge to safely access areas and avoid hazards.
The trained eye of someone who has intimate knowledge of local birds or reptiles and amphibians and their habits, as examples, is a nice luxury to have.
But if you’ve spent enough time looking for and photographing wildlife around the world, you likely have a pretty good idea of how to look for things and, if you’ve done your homework, can find your target species on your own.
A lot of private reserves (not so much national parks) will let you do a lot of independent exploration, so long as you are fine accepting the risks that go along with it.
Number 6: hire local guides
Local guides are almost invariably magnitudes more affordable than international agencies.
The adventure travel companies based out of places like London that you are paying 5000GBP for 10-day trips to Costa Rica or Brazil or Sri Lanka or wherever else are very often paying a small portion of that to the local guides in these places that you could be contacting directly.
I’ve put together an article on the best local herping guides if you are interested in checking out some fantastic local reptile and amphibian experts in places around the world.
Of course, it’s on you to make the arrangements yourself (or ask them to help you arrange things like transportation and accommodation, on which there will almost certainly be some kind of markup).
But if you are willing to do some research into the places you’re going and the people doing the guiding in these locals, you can very often cut your costs considerably by going straight to the source.
Number 7: eat local food
Another way you’re drained of money when you travel to see nature and wildlife is the food. If the place you’re staying doesn’t include three meals a day, you can save a lot of money by simply eating local.
If you’re staying somewhere where food is a la carte, however, and you are close enough to town that you can easily walk (or taxi) to local restaurants, you are almost always going to be better off doing that.
That same plate of rice and chicken that costs $10 at the dive resort will probably cost you $3 at the place in town where the taxi drivers eat.
Obviously, you will need to consider your gastro system and the likelihood that eating what the locals eat will give you diarrhoea, but I’ve saved so much money over the years by avoiding the tourist prices (and tourist-quality food) at lodges and resorts and opting for more humble local surroundings (and often tastier fare).
There you have it
If your primary objective when you travel is to see nature and wildlife, then, unfortunately, you’re probably in the most expensive part of the entire travel industry.
There are a lot of justifiable costs associated with this kind of travel, but there is a lot of greed and cash-grabbing.
Retired upper-middle-class Baby Boomers might not blink at dropping 5-6K on a week-long hand-held excursion so they can check another bird off their list. For everyone else who wants to see what’s left of the planet’s dwindling wild areas (places that are still relatively untrammelled by mass tourism), in an era of extreme wealth inequality, stagnating wages and rising costs of living, you gotta save where and however you can.