Uganda has enthralled me since I first started visiting in 2010 and, over numerous visits, I’ve only developed a deeper appreciation for it. In this post, I want to share that love for the country and help you travel Uganda on a budget!
The magnificent and diverse color, vegetation, and wildlife of Uganda so inspired Winston Churchill that he nicknamed this East African country “the pearl of Africa,” a name that has stuck ever since.
Since shedding its violent reputation after a volatile period during the 1980s, Uganda has changed a lot. In particular, it’s invested resources into developing its wealth of national parks, largely aimed toward the repopulation of wildlife and the conscious development of infrastructure to help make its vast wilderness accessible.
Although East Africa is known for its expensive high-end lodges and activities, Uganda is more affordable than some of its neighbors. It spoils adventure-seekers with its bounteous nature. In a relatively compact and easily navigable area, one can trek with mountain gorillas in dense jungle, visit coffee and tea plantations, relax by volcanic lakes, drive through savannah abundant in tree-climbing lions and other wildlife, hike snow-capped mountains, and raft down rapids in the Nile River!
How to Save Money on Transportation
Transportation in Uganda comes in a wide range of public and private options that cater to a variety of budgets. Public buses and motorbikes are the cheapest and most direct ways to get to major destinations, though looking for deals on private transportation will improve your flexibility and ease of travel.
Boda Bodas (motorbikes) – Public motorbikes, known as boda bodas, are dirt cheap in areas such as Jinja and Kampala but are more difficult to find in rural areas and around national parks. While they are the most cost-effective form of transportation — between 7,000-8,000 Ugandan shillings (UGX) ($2 USD), though prices are always negotiable — exercise caution when using boda bodas, as they have a reputation for being quite dangerous: helmets aren’t provided, and drivers are known for being reckless.
However, Safe Boda and Uber, which connect passengers with drivers through their respective apps, have recently come to Kampala and provide much more reliable drivers and standardized pricing, with minimum fares starting at 5,000 UGX ($1.35 USD).
Matatus (local buses) – Local minibuses, known as matatus, are an inexpensive — though not altogether easy — way to get around Kampala. Matatus also run between different regions in Uganda, often without a set schedule, and leave once the bus has filled up.
Prices depend on route, though they are generally around 1,000 UGX ($0.25 USD). To catch one, just wave down one of these rundown white vans from the side of the road — but be warned that they are usually cramped and filled beyond capacity.
Taxis – Taxis are the most expensive way to get around cities, though also the safest. Prices are always negotiable, though expect to pay between 10,000 and 40,000 UGX ($2.75–11 USD) for a ride, depending on distance and time of day.
Coach Buses – Coach buses, run by a number of companies, are used to travel long distances within Uganda as well as to other East African destinations, such as Mombasa and Kigali. Costs are dependent on the route but generally run around 50,000 UGX ($13.50 USD) for a ten-hour journey.
Renting a car is an ideal way to independently explore Uganda and go deeper into some of the parks where public transportation does not go. Cars can be hired with or without a driver, as well as with or without camping equipment.
Although not necessary, a driver can be handy not only in navigating potholed roads but also by providing a wealth of historical and cultural insights and in spotting wildlife on safari. A reliable company I have used is Lifetime Safaris, which offered a car with a driver starting at $80 USD/day.
How to Save Money on Accommodation
Uganda’s major attractions and national parks don’t only offer high-end accommodation but also camping and low-budget hostels and guesthouses for budget travelers.
Hostels – There are only a handful of hostels in Uganda, mostly in Kampala. Red Chilli offers dorms at its property in Kampala for $12 USD/night, and Om Bunyonyi on Lake Bunyonyi in southwestern Uganda provides dorms for $15 USD/night.
Guesthouses – Guesthouses can vary widely in cost. A decent-quality one with relatively reliable facilities in touristic areas, such as Om Bunyonyi, runs around $25 USD/night for a double private room, though expect prices to be much higher around national parks. If you don’t book in advance and are stopping through a small town for the night, you can easily find very simple guesthouses for far less, approximately $10 USD/night. Water and electricity will often be unreliable in this style of accommodation, however.
Camping – Camping is a great option in the regions surrounding the national parks, such as Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth, though prices will vary by location. At its site in Murchison Falls, Red Chilli offers camping for $8 USD/night. Other sites and lodges offer camping for $5–10 USD/night. Many places offer tents for rent, though bringing your own equipment will save you even more money.
Eco-lodges – Budget-consciousness is probably not what you have in mind when you think “eco-lodge,” given the trend toward fancy eco-friendly safari lodges in East Africa. However, lodges and safari camps are a prominent form of accommodation in the national parks, and not all of them have to break the bank! There are some reasonably priced ones that still can be a nice splurge on a budget holiday. They can cost around $100 USD per night and usually include three meals a day as well, reducing other daily costs.
How to Save Money on Food and Drinks
Eating at local restaurants and buying fresh produce and snacks from markets will save you a significant amount of money than eating at Western-style eateries, which are primarily concentrated in Kampala.
Restaurants – Kampala has an extensive international restaurant scene. They are expensive in comparison to local restaurants, though cheaper than eating out in Europe or North America and cheaper also than similar restaurants in other major East African cities. Costs range from 30,000 to 50,000 UGX ($8–15 USD) for an average meal.
Local cuisine, in contrast, is fairly simple — consisting largely of potatoes, rice, beans, cabbage, chapati (unleavened flatbread), and ugali (maize flour porridge) — and much more affordable. There are many Ethiopian restaurants as well, offering more mid-range meals.
Food-on-the-go – Uganda has a handful of street food items, the most famous being an egg and chapati wrap known as a “rolex,” which can also have different vegetables added and cost as little as 1,500–3,000 UGX ($0.40–0.80 USD). Stock up on fresh tropical fruit, which is abundant in markets and along the road; the price is always up for negotiation.
Inexpensive roadside food and snack stands selling corn, samosas, nuts, and grilled meat are also prevalent and convenient on long trips. Eating in these ways can save significant costs in Uganda.
Drinks – Foreign-import wine and spirits can be found in Kampala, though cocktails and wine are costly in the capital city’s posh bars, restaurants, and clubs. Your best bet is to stick with local beers such as Nile, which should cost 3,000–5,000 UGX ($0.80–1.35 USD), depending on the venue you buy it from. Or try out Uganda’s local gin, called Waragi, at around 1,000 UGX ($0.25 USD) a pour. This potent liquor becomes more tolerable when mixed with a good dose of tonic water and lime.
Adventure Activities Costs
Despite all the money-saving suggestions above, your budget will be highly dependent on how many wildlife and adventure activities you want to partake in. Most likely you’ll want to do a couple of the higher-cost attractions, such as whitewater rafting down the Nile, searching for tree-climbing lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park, or trekking with mountain gorillas in Bwindi National Forest.
However, it is easy to intersperse those activities with low-cost days of relaxing by crater lakes, taking self-guided walks in the mountainous areas of southwestern Uganda, or volunteering. On those days, you can spend $30 USD/day or even less!
Here are some typical adventure-activity costs:
- Queen Elizabeth National Park: $40 USD/day for admission
- Murchison Falls: $40 USD/day for admission
- Rafting: $140 USD/per person for 5-6 hours
- Chimpanzee tracking in Kibale: $100 USD/permit
- Gorilla trekking in Bwindi: $600 USD/permit (increasing to $700 USD in July 2020)
Other Tips for Saving Money in Uganda
Beside the above, here are some other general tips for cutting your costs on your visit:
- Explore beyond the high-priced attractions – Regions outside of the major attractions are still abundant in nature and are often more captivating, as there are few to no tourists. Think volcanic lakes, little-known mountains, rarely visited waterfalls, almost-deserted islands, and dense forests and coffee and tea plantations.
- Travel during the off-season – Don’t let the rainy season scare you off! Uganda is at its most lush during the rainy months (March to May and October to November), crowds are at a minimum, and permits and lodging are often discounted to encourage tourism.
- Travel off the beaten path – Check out Lake Bunyonyi, the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria, and Sipi Falls, for example. If you’re looking to do trekking in the region, the Rwenzoris are worth considering — while they aren’t “cheap,” they are a much more affordable option than Mt. Kilimanjaro and you can do shorter or longer treks depending on your time and budget.
- Consider volunteering – Avoid volunteer programs that charge money, but consider looking into opportunities such as those on Workaway, which will help save money on accommodation and offer a more in-depth cultural experience. Grassroots Volunteering is another great resource.
- Booking advice – Booking gorilla and trekking permits in advance is advisable to ensure a place since permits are limited, but skip booking package safaris, as tour company costs are much higher than if one travels independently.
- Stay for a longer time – This might initially sound counterintuitive, but a longer stay means you won’t necessarily only be concentrating on the major tourist attractions. You’ll also have a better idea of how to navigate local transportation and become better acquainted with some of the regional cultures and smaller, underrated rural areas.
- Bring a reusable water bottle – To ensure your water is clean and safe (and to avoid spending money on single-use plastic) bring a reusable water bottle and a filter. LifeStraw makes a bottle with a built-in filter that ensures your water is safe and clean — no matter where in the world you are.