How I Planned an Amazing Safari in Namibia
Welcome back! If you haven’t checked out the first blog of this series – check it out here! In Part 1 I discussed how I decided to travel to Namibia for my first self-drive safari and how I came up with a loose itinerary (meaning a general plan for the major stops I wanted to make on the trip and how long to spend at each).
Now here in Part 2 I’ll explain how I took this loose itinerary and created a detailed logistics plan – including our finding flights, a truck rental, and our lodging. I’ll also highlight my method of scheduling a few activities ahead of time, while leaving some room in the schedule for spontaneity. Let’s get started!
Step 1 – Finding Flights for our Self Drive Safari
Since Zandt and I would be traveling from the middle of the US to the southern region of the African continent, I knew we were in for a long flight (or two!). I started my planning by simply googling my home airport to Windhoek (the capital and first stop on my itinerary). I eyeballed the flights – noting the main carriers, time of day the flights usually departed and arrived, and the main routes the flights seem to take (for example did they normally stop in Europe?). I also made note of the prices – ouch!
While I was now determined to get to Namibia, my priority was doing so as affordably as possible. My second priority was timing – as I mentioned this was a very long journey. I wanted us to spend as little time as needed in the air and as much time in Namibia as possible. When you account for layovers and connections you can eat up a lot of time. Of least importance to me was the exact details of the flights – I didn’t care much what airline I used or if the flights left at an odd hour.
Pro-tip: When shopping and comparing flights understand your priorities. Price, whether the flight is direct or has connections, what airline you use – all these will affect your options and your decision. Don’t overpay or compromise for things that don’t matter to you.
I tried to address my top priority, price, first. Now, I am a huge fan of using credit card rewards for travel. There are probably hundreds of blog posts that talk about this and how to use this method – maybe I’ll even write one here! But to be succinct – a lot of major credit cards offer “rewards” points when you spend money with them. You can then trade these points in for things like airline miles, hotel stays, or cash! Even better, most of these cards will offer a “signup bonus” when you first qualify for the card. This means if you spend X amount of money with the card in Y amount of time you will earn a large amount of rewards points – usually 20,000 to 60,000 points depending on the card. These points don’t translate 1:1 with the US dollar but if you take advantage of the signup bonus and accumulate points through your daily life (like groceries, bills, etc) you can save up enough to exchange for round trip flights. How fast you accumulate depends on your spending habits.
Both Zandt and I had achieved the signup bonus with Chase credit cards and had been accumulating points for months. Thankfully and excitedly I calculated we had enough to cover both our round trip flights! To calculate this I used Chase’s own point exchange tool – a site where you can see the value of your points and search for flights across multiple carriers. I also went directly to many airline carriers’ websites and used their search tool to see flight offers in points instead of dollars.
The trade-off with using reward points usually comes in the form of fewer options and that was true for me when I was planning our trip. I noticed that we had no direct flight options in our timeframe. There seemed to be two main options – US to a connection in France, then down to Namibia or US to a connection in Qatar and down to Namibia. Here, I will admit to you readers I did not study these options in-depth. I looked at the total flight time and the layover times and decided to book the Qatar option. In hide sight, this may not have been the best choice – it made for a 14-hour first leg (so long!), but I stand by the decision for a few reasons.
My quick research on the Hamad International Airport in Doha showed an impressive airport – it looked like its own universe. Clean, efficient, and huge! And more importantly -the airport had a hotel, the Oryx Hotel, right outside the international gates! If your layover was long enough – our was 9 hours – you could literally walk off the plane and right into a nice hotel room. No customs, no leaving the airport. Just a nice fresh room and a hot shower waiting for you! I was sold.
Pro-tip: Remember to not only consider the flights themselves but the airports they take you to and through. Not all airports are created equal!
Step 2 – Finding Our Accommodations
Once I had our flights sorted and booked (ahhhh it was actually happening now!) I turned my attention to accommodations. I am generally a huge fan of Airbnb – this tends to be my go-to when visiting most places. However, this trip would be my first time traveling to Namibia and my first safari centric trip. I wasn’t very knowledgeable about the area or what to expect in terms of options.
I went back to my go-to source when I need help learning about a new adventure – the internet! If you have thought about it, someone else has more than likely done it. I found numerous youtube vlogs about self-driving through Namibia and blogs about Etosha National Park. I watched and read these by the dozens. I decided to work on accommodation by destination. For example, Etosha offers numerous safari lodges inside its gates for travelers. Swakopmund, a larger city, had options I was more familiar with like Airbnb.
One thing that was super important when I was looking at the accommodations was making sure I allowed enough time to get place to place and allow for the day’s activities. From my earlier research, I had a rough idea of distance and time on our route – things like Windhoek to Etosha and Etosha to Swakopmund. But places like Etosha are huge! Were we talking about the east side of Etosha or the west for our starting point to Swakopmund? Would it be wise to add in a stop along the way to break up the driving and make sure we weren’t driving at night? This is where it became important to zoom in on the finer details.
My personal method is to manually sketch out finer grain itineraries. This helps me “see” the overall journey and get a feel for the pace. Was I allowing enough rest time in between 5-8 hour drives? Was I allowing time to explore different parts of Etosha instead of staying in one area? Below is an exert of an early sketch I did for part of the trip after studying maps of Etosha and Namibia and asking google a whole lot of “hey google how long is the drive between the safari lodge at Halai and the safari lodge at Namutoni?” type thing.
Pro-tip: Get an overall feel for your trip – especially one with multiple destinations. Are you allowing time for activities? Are you making unrealistic plans that mean you will have to rush place to place and spend much of your time on the road? Consider unknowns like bad weather or blown tires.
Once I had a more detailed feel for our journey, I was ready to start booking accommodations. Again the internet was my friend – you can find pictures and reviews of all the Etosha safari lodges, Swakopmund Airbnbs, camping areas, you name it out there. I spent time comparing pictures and stories from other travelers and then booked what felt right for us. And yes we were able to book everything online! From the safari lodges inside Etosha to the campgrounds near Sossusvlei. You can find Etosha’s website here.
Step 3 – Finding A Truck and a Few Activities
Finally I had a plan, flights, and accommodation settled. Through the power of good old elbow grease and research, I had taken my Namibia adventure from a dream to an actual – on paper – plan. I knew our route and our pit stops. This left two things. Transportation (duh Lauren, you can’t execute this plan without a vehicle!) and activities.
When you are spending two weeks driving around one of the least densely populated countries on the planet and one that has numerous animals that could literally eat you, it is important to have reliable and safe transportation. I spent a lot of time searching for and comparing different companies in the area offering 4×4 rentals that would allow us to go where we wanted to go and camp if we needed or wanted to.
As always, I took the advice of many who have gone before me. I settled on Advanced Care Hire. They offered well-maintained safari vehicles with safety features I couldn’t turn down. The vehicles have a built-in tracker so that should you not end up where you are supposed to, they can find you ASAP. They have a staff member available at all times via WhatsApp and spend hours reviewing each and every part of the vehicle and its camping equipment with you before letting you drive off into the sunset. I can say in hindsight this was one of the best choices I made on this trip.
With the truck finalized along with all the other major details I had only activities left. We had our schedule and stops but we hadn’t defined what to do at each. This is the point at which I loosen the reins a little – I don’t like to plan every single little thing. I like to leave room for adventuring in the moment. For example, at this point, we had three days marked out for staying in Swakopmund. I didn’t want to fill every moment of those 3 days – I wanted us to be able to wander around and decide in the moment to go to a museum or the beach or whatever we wanted.
I did spend a little time researching “can’t miss”, “must see/do” activities, however. Let’s be honest, Namibia is far enough away from my home I may never get to go back (I certainly hope that’s not the case!). I didn’t want to miss any once in a life-time thing. Sites like TripAdvisor are great for this type of research as well as blogs and vlogs. I spent some time with Zandt deciding on which of these were the best fit for us. We decide to book just a few things ahead of time – kayaking with seals in Walvis Bay, sandboarding, and a grand, top it all off hot air balloon ride over the Sossusvlei region.
Pro-tip: Create a mix of must see/do activities for your trip but remember to leave room for life as well.
After all that planning – and many hours of research on the internet, I knew we were ready to go! I hope this part of the series has shown you how I drilled into this loose plan for a Namibian safari a little bit deeper and sorted out some logistics. Check out Part 3 to see how the adventure really went!