You have decided to go to Africa. You have goals in mind for this once in a lifetime trip whether they be photographic or just touristic in nature. You set a date, a budget, and you slowly start talking to your friends about the trip and turning to the Internet to get more information and help, leading you to maybe even stumble upon this site. After deciding on a destination, you start researching various tour operators and it is perhaps at this point that you realize that your dream trip, as you imagined it, will not be possible given your budget.
You do what most people do at this junction and you compromise. Instead of a private safari, you reduce the costs by joining another group or an organized tour. Unfortunately, that means that you lose a lot of control over the day-to-day decision making while on safari. Perhaps you really want the private experience, so you cut down on the number of days instead. Unfortunately, that means that you will travel a long way for a very short period of time. Hopefully you won't get sick or jetlagged while on your trip. Maybe you are not willing to compromise on either, so you pick another country to visit that's a bit cheaper, or you pick a tour operator that's not very well known. If so, you had better hope that the country has as good if not better animal viewing and tourist infrastructure and that the tour operator lives up to their promises.
Like in life, safaris are full of compromises. Generally speaking, you really do get what you pay for and it is very important that you read the fine print (i.e. do you have a daily water allowance or do you have to pay for it?). That being said, the money you pay for your tour along with the airfare is only the beginning. There are many extra costs that you should be aware of, especially if you've done your research. These include vaccination costs, bug spray, sunscreen, memory cards, cameras, binoculars, clothing, sun glasses, hats, bags etc. One other item that is not on this list is a pretty big cost however: gratuities.
Most of the people that help with your bags, cook for you, tend to your needs while at a camp site/hotel get paid a nominal salary but in reality, they depend on gratuities. Your guide/driver, the person that has the biggest influence on your entire trip, relies heavily on gratuities. So when you start working on a budget for your trip of a lifetime, make sure you budget roughly $10 to $15 per day for your driver (per person) and somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 per day for wait staff. When staying at a camp site/hotel, you can typically give a tip upon checkout to the manager in order to ensure that everyone that helped make your stay a success, including those behind the scenes, get a bit of money.
In the grand scheme of things, the extra money you give away in gratuities will ensure the best qualified persons continue to work in the industry, and this way you directly help families that are probably worse off than you. So don't forget to bring along small bills and to recognize the hard work and effort from everyone around you, starting with your driver/guide.