Uganda is renowned for delivering stand-out safari experiences and some of the most sensational—and extravagant—forest adventures on Earth.
Less well-known is the affordable side of exploring the Pearl of Africa, also praised for its friendly and welcoming people, dramatic landscapes, epic wildlife encounters, decades of political stability, and safety.
Independent travelers can still travel in Uganda on a budget and get more of the extraordinary legacy of the still primitive, still wild, still free that Uganda encloses on a wide scale.
Popular neighbors, Kenya and Tanzania undoubtedly overshadow the magnificence of Uganda. Uganda may not be able to match the sheer number of wild packs, size, and leisure travelers they have, but the destination surely packs an impressive lot in its tinyness. Uganda’s small size, its treasures in nature and wildlife, and the little to no tourist crowds make it a great choice for private safari journeys.
Combined within this single small destination is the best of everything an African safari holiday has to offer. Uganda is home to the continent’s tallest mountain range, the snow-capped Rwenzori mountains.
The world’s longest river, the Nile, oozes gracefully out of the second-largest freshwater lake on the planet (Lake Victoria). The humble mountain gorillas roam the misty jungles up the mountain, and the tropical rainforests harbor one of the largest primates populations on earth. Kampala, the cultural hub and capital of Uganda is safer than most destinations in the region.
On top of all this glorification, Uganda’s ever-growing number of safari activities has earned it the Adrenaline Capital title.
Yes, yes! But how can an interested traveler visit Uganda on a small budget? In this post, I attempt to help budget travelers get a close enough estimate of how much they can spend on a Ugandan trip.
Because Uganda is at the threshold of its discovery as a tourism destination, now is the best time to travel to Uganda. Generally, the tourism industry is recovering from a travel lockdown because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Uganda is getting popular enough to push hotels and safari lodges to the region’s excellent standards and offers relatively lower room prices than other destinations in the region. From shoestring to luxury, every traveler in their style will find where to stay in Uganda. But before you excitedly dive into planning your safari itinerary, here are a few ways on how you can travel in Uganda on a budget.
Uganda presents a wide variety of transport means that include the indistinct but affordable public means and the trusted private but pricey means of transportation. Apart from commuter rail in some parts of Kampala and ferry service, public transport in Uganda essentially boils down to buses and other motorized road transport forms. And it’s basically the cheapest means to travel in Uganda on a budget. Let’s take a look at how you can save on road transport.
One of the most popular and cheapest ways of travel around Uganda is the motorcycle-taxi or boda-boda—so-called because it originated as a bicycle with large panniers, used for smuggling goods across borders by rural footpaths. Now fitted with pillions and powered with 50 to 200 cc engines, they are a convenient form of suburban transport and great for short side trips where public transport barely exists.
Fares are negotiable and affordable — just about less than US$2, which is about Ush1,000 to 10,000 per trip. And, two travelers can share the same bike with the rider and get away with it. You’ll be amazed when you see a family riding the same bike; it’s such a picture.
If you’re reliant on public road transport in Uganda, you’ll inevitably use a boda-boda at some stage. But before hopping aboard, you should be aware of a pretty poor urban safety record. Boda-boda riders are invariably lacking in formal training and road safety awareness, which is frequently suggested, much between the ears.
Subsequently, the unruly nature of Boda Boda transport in Uganda has recently attracted the tech eye. Ride-hailing services or ride-sharing apps are the new way of traveling around cities, and if you’re an ardent Uber user, you’ll continue to enjoy the services also in Kampala on Boda Bodas. This is a far great alternative to just hailing a bike on the street late in the evenings. Famous Boda Boda mobile applications you’ll find tolerable in Uganda include Taxify, SafeBoda, and UberBoda. The price is not different from street hailed bikes.
Next to Boda Bodas, minibus taxis are the cheapest of transport around Uganda. In addition to buses in Uganda, most major road transport routes are covered by a regular stream of white minibusses, which have no set departure times but leave when they are full — every ten to 30 minutes on busier routes. They are significantly the fastest way to travel in Uganda on a budget.
Fares are generally slightly higher than for buses when traveling long distances but significantly lower if traveling within the same region, city, or town. For a dollar or less, a minibus taxi will take you 38km (23 mi), like Entebbe to Kampala. And it’s customary on most routes to pay shortly before arriving rather than on departure, so there is little risk of being overcharged provided that you look and see what other passengers are paying.
Minibusses are referred to as taxis in Uganda (though here we’ve called them minibus-taxis to preclude confusion with special hire taxis) and as matatus in Kenya, generally understood but not used by Ugandans. A law enforcing a maximum of three passengers per row is stringently enforced in most parts of Uganda, meaning that minibus travel is far more comfortable than in the majority of African countries where four bums per row are customary.
All minibus taxis by law now have to have a distinctive blue-and-white band around the middle with a taxi light sign on the top, and special hire cars have to have a black-and-white band.
Special hire taxis are what a modern city dweller would be familiar with. (taxi or cab) Special hire is a term that means hiring a vehicle privately to take you somewhere. Urban taxis are also known locally as special hires and are usually painted yellow, or with a white and yellow band (Entebbe airport taxis) around the middle or with a taxi cab light on the top.
Taxicab fares are relatively more expensive than all the road transport means but far more secure to travel with if you organize a special hire vehicle, and bargain hard.
Alternatively, download one of those taxi-hailing apps that allow you to pay per distance traveled. They are much cheaper than special hires and are available in Kampala, Entebbe, and major towns. Uber and Taxify outshine the rest, download from Apple or Google stores.
If you’re in a far-flung Ugandan town junction, shared taxis will be your cheapest means of transport. They are generally light saloon cars that carry four to six passengers. They drive into their own on routes that attract insufficient human traffic for minibusses. For instance, when traveling between Katunguru and Mweya in Queen Elizabeth National Park or between Kisoro and Buhoma in Bwindi Impenetrable NP.
They tend to be crowded and slow compared to minibusses and on routes where no other public transport exists. Fares are quite affordable ($1 – $5 on shorter routes), considering it may be the only option you can get from where you are. Often highly inflated, though. The drivers habitually overcharge tourists, so establish the price in advance, so bargain hard.
Coach and bus services cover all major routes and, all things being relative, they are probably the safest form of public road transport in Uganda. On all highway routes, large modern coaches typically maintain a speed of 100km/h or faster, allowing them to travel between the capital and any of the main urban cities in western Uganda in less than five hours for less than US$10.
Gaa Gaa Buses (West Nile) and Elgon Flyer, Mash, YY Coaches, and Easy Coaches (Mbale and the east to Kenya) are the picks of the bunch. The best of the rest are Horizon & Swift Safaris (southwest Uganda), Kalita (Fort Portal), and Post Bus (Gulu).
Link operates seemingly well-maintained buses capable of terrifying speeds. The Post Office’s Post Bus service is considered the best Bus Service in the country because it’s twice a day set departures, arriving at set times, and runs a perfectly well-maintained fleet.
The better services mostly have reasonably fixed departure times, with one or another coach leaving in either direction between Kampala and the likes of Mbale, Mbarara, Kabale, Kasese, Fort Portal, and Masindi every hour or so from around 07.00 to mid-afternoon.
Other means are not necessarily budget options, like private car hire. If you’re going to hire a car in hopes of saving on transport, then you are reading the wrong blog. Gasoline alone is quite expensive in Uganda, and the car hire companies charge exorbitant prices per day. You’re looking at paying US$40 -$150 per day depending on the type of car, plus you have to refill the gas tank yourself and pay for national park car entry fees on top of yours.
Traveling on a budget in Uganda has never been simpler. Uganda has grown enormously in recent years, and wherever you travel, and whatever your budget, you’ll seldom have a problem finding suitable travel accommodation. Most towns have a good variety of moderately priced and budget hotels, and even the smallest villages will usually have somewhere you can stay for a couple of dollars. Travelers in Uganda have not always enjoyed such a wide choice.
Before going into further detail about the different accommodation categories, it’s worth noting a few potentially misleading quirks in local hotel-speak. In Swahili, the word ‘hoteli’ refers to a restaurant, while what we call a hotel is generally called a lodging, guesthouse, or gesti. So if you ask a Ugandan to show you to a hotel, you might well be taken to an eatery.
Another local quirk is that most east African hotels in all price ranges refer to a room that has en-suite shower and toilet facilities as self-contained, a term that I may use later in this post. Several hotels offer accommodation in bandas, a term used widely in Africa to designate rooms or cottages detached from any other building.
Be aware, too, that Ugandan usage of the terms single, double, and twin is somewhat inconsistent compared to Western conventions. Rather than automatically asking for a double room, couples might also check the bed’s size in a single room. Several hotels now provide oversize beds in which two people may sleep at a single tariff. Where such places offer bed and breakfast, usually only one guest will be provided with breakfast. Some double rooms offer similar scope for triple occupancy, being furnished with a double and single bed.
Accommodation in Uganda is categorized in upmarket, moderate, budget, shoestring, and camping considered the lowest. The upmarket or luxury category embraces all hotels, lodges, and resorts that cater primarily to the international leisure or business traveler and would probably be accorded a three-star to four-star ranking internationally. Most hotels in this category offer smart, modern accommodation with en-suite facilities, mosquito netting, air conditioning or fans (depending on the local climate), and in cities digital satellite television (DSTV) in all rooms. A luxury room price bracket exceeds US$300, in a couple of instances topping US$1,000.
But if you’re to travel in Uganda on budget, this flimsy info is enough to help you avoid the luxury accommodation category.
With a slimmer wallet, your next option is the moderate category. Essentially, it embraces those accommodation facilities which, for one or other reason, could not truly be classified as a luxury but are also too expensive or of a sufficiently high standard that they cannot be considered budget lodgings. They are decent lodges or hotels in recognized tourist areas that charge considerably lower rates than their upmarket competitors but are clearly a notch or two above the budget category. Hotels in this range normally offer comfortable accommodation in self-contained rooms with hot water, a cooling fan, and possibly DSTV, and they will have a decent restaurant and employ a high ratio of English-speaking staff.
Most moderate hotels charge around US$100-$300 for a double room inclusive of breakfast, but some are slightly more expensive or cheaper.
If you’re still interested in saving on lodging and travel in Uganda on a budget, we still need to get you where to stay. The hotels in this category are generally aimed largely at the local market, and they definitely don’t approach international standards. Still, they will usually be reasonably clean and comfortable and a definite cut above the basic guesthouses that proliferate in most towns.
Hotels and safari lodges in this bracket will more often than not have a decent restaurant attached, English-speaking staff, comfortable rooms with en-suite facilities, running cold, or possibly hot water, a cooling fan (but no air conditioning), and good mosquito netting.
Budget room rates are typically around US$30-100 for a double, including breakfast, which may or may not be very substantial. This is the category to look at if you are on a limited budget.
This category is dominated by the small local guesthouses that proliferate in most towns, catering almost exclusively to locals. A few cater exclusively to backpackers like Red Chillin in Kampala and Backpackers in Entebbe.
Exclusive local ones typically consist of around ten cell-like rooms forming three walls around a central courtyard, with a reception area or restaurant at the front. Guesthouse standards vary widely both within towns and between them, far more so than do their prices.
Note that while backpacker hostels exist, their range of accommodation offered now extends far beyond cheap dorm beds, which are often more accurately classified in the budget category. This category may be a much larger selection of basic guesthouses clustered together in the vicinity of the bus station or market, and often there is little to choose between them.
If you’re looking around, my experience is that guest houses run by women or with a strong female presence are generally cleaner and more hospitable than those run by men. That — standards of maintenance being low — the newest guesthouse will be the cleanest and the brightest.
Shoestring accommodation typically costs around US$10-50 for a double, with some establishments costing a little more. In most cases, shared bathrooms and toilets are provided rather than en-suite (or self-contained) facilities, and breakfast will not be included in the room rate or will be very insubstantial if it is.
Accommodation charges for units operated by the UWA vary widely from US$5 to US$ 15 per person depending on the standard of accommodation and whether they are sharing.
This category is the one to look at for travelers who want the cheapest possible accommodation on a trip to Uganda irrespective of quality. However, it does often include perfectly pleasant hotels that happen to be cheap.
There has been a great increase in the number of organized campsites in recent years, and there are now very few established tourist centers where you can’t pitch a tent in a guarded site with good facilities.
Camping typically costs around US$5 per person per night and US$10 in the national parks. UWA’s tents go for US$20-$30.
If you are not too fussy and don’t mind a lack of variety, you can eat cheaply almost anywhere in Uganda. In most towns, numerous local restaurants (often called hoteli) serve unimaginative but filling meals for under US$2.
Typically, local food is based around meat or chicken stew eaten with one of four staples: rice, chapati, matooke, and ugali (posho)—starchy cornbread eaten throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Matoke is a cooked green banana dish, served boiled or mushy heap, and the staple diet in many parts of Uganda.
Another Ugandan special is groundnut sauce. Mandazi, the local equivalent of doughnuts, are tasty when they are freshly cooked but rather less appetising when they are a day old. Mandazi is served at hotelis and sold at markets.
You can often eat very cheaply at stalls around markets and bus stations. Cheap it may be, but for most travelers, the appeal of this sort of fare soon palls. A common offering on the street is the Rolex meal. This is nothing more (or less) than a freshly cooked chapati enhanced by a fresh omelet, chopped onions, tomatoes, green peppers, and finely sliced cabbage. The latter items are rolled up inside the former, hence the name, and popped into a polythene bag.
You’ll find Rolex street vendors armed with metal hot plates, a charcoal stove, and a chopping board in all popular nightspots of ‘local’ flavor. It’s exactly the sort of street food your mother warned you against eating in Africa, so Rolexes are obviously a firm favorite with backpackers, gap-year students, volunteers (and this writer). Expect to pay around 60 cents to a dollar.
You’ll usually find a couple of better restaurants (sometimes attached to upmarket or moderate hotels) serving Western or Indian food for around US$5-10. There is considerably more variety in Kampala and Entebbe, where for US$10 per head, you can eat very well indeed. Good lodges in parks generally serve high-quality food.
Vegetarians are often poorly catered for in Uganda safari lodges (the exception being up-market or Indian restaurants). People on guided tours should ensure that the safari operator is informed in advance about this or any other dietary preference.
Note that Swahili names for various foods are widely used in Uganda, so it may come in handy catching up on those Swahili or Luganda words.
The alternative to eating at restaurants is to put together your own meals with ingredients purchased at markets and supermarkets. The variety of foodstuffs you can buy varies from season to season and from town to town, but in most major centers, you can rely on finding a supermarket that stocks frozen meat, a few tinned goods, biscuits, pasta, rice, and chocolate bars.
Fruit and vegetables are best bought at markets, where they are very cheap. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, tomatoes, bananas, sugarcane, avocados, paw-paws, mangoes, coconuts, oranges, and pineapples are available in most towns.
If you have specialized requirements, you’re best off doing your shopping in Kampala, where a wider selection of goods is available in big international supermarkets like Shoprite and Game. Big chains like Quality supermarkets provide great international choices too.
Brand-name soft drinks such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Fanta are widely available in Uganda and cheap by international standards. If the fizzy stuff doesn’t appeal, you can buy local quality packed juices like Splash or imported South African fruit juices at supermarkets in Kampala and other large towns.
Tap water is reasonably safe to drink in larger towns, but bottled mineral water is widely available if you prefer not to take the risk.
Locally, the most widely drunk hot beverage is chai, a flavored sweet tea where all ingredients are boiled together in a pot. In some parts of the country, chai is often flavored with spices such as ginger and or cinnamon leaves. Another common hot beverage is African tea, that’s whole milk boiled with tea and flavored with ginger. For 60 cents or less, you get a decent cup of tea with cream.
Coffee is one of Uganda’s major cash crops. Still, you’ll be lucky if you ever find a Ugandan at a budget lodging who knows how to brew a decent cup — it will almost invariably taste insipid and watery except at upmarket hotels and quality restaurants. Buy a pack of coffee for US$3, and make yourself a cup whenever you need a coffee fix.
The main alcoholic drink is a Lager beer brewed by two main players Nile Breweries and the pioneer Uganda Breweries. All local beers come in 500ml bottles, which cost US$1 in local bars and up to US$3 in some upmarket hotels. Nile Special is probably the most popular beer among travelers, though some prefer the milder Bell. If you’re serious about getting drunk, try Eagle Extra, which has an alcohol level of 6.5%.
Two of Africa’s most pleasant lagers, Kenya Tusker and Congo Primus, sometimes used to be sold in towns near the respective borders but are now readily available across the country. If you’ve never been to Africa before, you might want to try the local millet beer (Marwa). It’s not bad, though for most people, once is enough.
A selection of superior plonk-quality South African wines is available in most tourist-class hotels and bars, as well as in many supermarkets, generally at around US$10-20 per bottle — outrageous to South Africans who know that the same wine would cost 20% of that in a supermarket at home, but not unreasonable in international terms. Based on my experience, all wines — white or red — of more than two or three years’ vintage are best avoided in preference for younger bottles, presumably because they are poorly stored.
Bond 7 Whisky and a local gin called Uganda Waragi can be bought very cheaply in various bottle sizes or 60ml sachets —very convenient for hiking in remote areas or taking with you to upmarket hotels for an inexpensive nightcap in your room.
These are known by the rather endearing term ‘tot pack,’ though the African fondness for tacking an additional vowel to the end of a noun has actually resulted in ‘totter pack’; you may appreciate this inadvertent irony if you overindulge.
Planning your travel in Uganda on a budget is going so well until you choose adventures and things to do on your Uganda tour. Your budget will depend on what you select from the list of safari activities Uganda offers. Most considered is one of the two primate adventures in the rainforest jungles: Gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or chimpanzee trekking in Kibale, Queen Elizabeth, and Murchison Falls national parks.
Seeing the mountain’s gentle giant gorillas is unmissable, but the price tag on a permit is hefty. For US$700 per person for a gorilla permit, you’ll be escorted into the jungle with two armed rangers, a tracker guide, and seven other trekkers to where a gorilla family was last seen. With your facemask on, gloves, and 10 meters distance, you’ll only be allowed 60 minutes in their presence unless you chose the more lengthy habituation experience that allows you 4 hours for a hefty US$1,500.
The typical costs of a gorilla trekking tour for foreigners.
Even if you can’t afford gorilla trekking, Bwindi is a rewarding park to visit just for a chance to explore the lush virgin rainforest. Several 3 to 4-hour hikes run by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) penetrate the Impenetrable Forest around Buhoma. The walks begin at 09:00 and 12:15 and cost US$30 per person (not including your park entry fee of $40).
Chimpanzee trekking in Kanyanchu, Kibale forest, is the best alternative to gorilla trekking, cheaper and easier to access than Bwindi. A Kibale chimp permit costs US$200 though you can trek the greater apes in other parts of Uganda at a lower price.
In the eastern part of Queen Elizabeth NP, Kyambura (Chambura) Gorge is a beautiful green scar running through the savanna, a little Eden brimming with chimpanzees and other primates. A chimp permit here costs US$50, but in Semuliki NP, the permit costs US$30.
What else can match seeing gorillas in Uganda
The primates may not be your choice of adventure. However, there are many options that you can spread out through your safari trip to Uganda.
In the east is the adrenaline capital, Jinja, the famed source of the Nile river. There’s a menu of adventure sports offered along the Nile corridor north of the town. Activities such as whitewater rafting, kayaking, bungee jumping, and quad biking attract a young and young heart traveler’s steady flow. You might spend US$120 to $220 for a guided whitewater rafting excursion.
If hyping adrenaline is not a choice for you, take other low-cost activities in the savannah parks or a self-guided walk in the mountainous areas, relax by the crater lake in western Uganda, take a birding expedition or travel with a purpose and sign up volunteers. On such days you could spend US$35 or less. Let’s glimpse through what you may incur on entrance fees:
We’ve basically explored the common areas for cutting the cost of travel in Uganda, but there’s more;
Get off the beaten path and explore places most tourist vehicles won’t go and discover raw, untouched wild places. Sipi falls near Mount Elgon is a site to check out. Rarely visited waterfalls, almost-deserted islands, and dense forests and coffee and tea plantations adorn Uganda’s nature and are a perfect choice for travel in Uganda on a budget.
The volcanic lakes dotted around western Uganda’s mountainous region (especially in Fort Portal & Kasese) offer stunning views. Lake Bunyonyi en route to Bwindi will surely keep you immersed in nature’s own ambiance. Tourists have referred to the Bunyonyi region as the Switzerland of Africa, and it’s a top birding place in Uganda.
Kilembe town in Kasese, perched at the edge of Rwenzori Mountains National Park, the village is a popular set-off point for dedicated hikers who spend up to a week in the National Park enjoying the marvels of its wildlife. Ptolemy and other antiquity historians referred to this mountain range as The Mountains of the Moon and the glacial source of the Nile. However, those of you who do not wish to venture into the Heart of Darkness, or do not have a few hundreds of dollars to spare, can spend a few days in the village and invest their money into community tourism. You can pay less than $20 for a community guide.
The off-peak (or low season) is the best time to travel to Uganda on a budget. It’s low season in Uganda during the Wet season. Hotels, Camps, and lodges are charging lower rates because there’s less travel traffic. If you don’t mind a downpour once a day and are looking to travel on a budget, this is the best time for a Uganda trip. The off-peak covers months between March to May and September to November.
This is the period when the country is at its most beautiful, the savannah plains, and the whole country is covered in green, and photography is at its best, especially when the sun shines over the afternoons.
Although wildlife in the savannah reserves is harder to spot in the Wet season due to high vegetation and animals spread all over the plain, you’ll still see plenty of newborns and witness concomitant gut-wrenching thrills when hungry predators battle with vigilant mothers or snatch the helpless young.