(UPDATED 2020) Although noticeably more expensive than the mainland of Tanzania, it is still possible to visit Zanzibar on a budget. In this guide, I’ll cover how to get to the island, where to stay and what to do. As well as a complete budget breakdown.
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Getting to Zanzibar on a budget
Firstly, you will need to catch an international flight that gets you into the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam.
From there, the quickest and easiest way to get to and from Zanzibar is via a small plane. This costs $60-80 in advance, although it is possible, if you have time, to haggle a better deal at the airport – flexibility on dates and times is essential.
Alternatively, if you really want to get to Zanzibar on a budget, you can catch the ferry, costing $35. To get to the port, you can catch a local bus outside Dar airport, although check the timings of the ferries as the last one leaves early afternoon. The ferry ride is 2 hours and fairly comfortable although their safety standards aren’t always the best.
When you arrive in Zanzibar
Zanzibar airport is about a 30-minute drive from the capital, Stone Town. Catching a taxi is one option, costing $10-15 (depending on how good you are at haggling). This price will be reduced if you can pair up with other tourists.
The cheapest option is to catch a local bus, called Dala-dala. They are very easy to use although expect cramped hot conditions. The dala-dala stop is just outside the airport – ask airport staff for directions (not the taxi drivers as they will tell you the buses aren’t running!).
A journey to Stone Town on a dala-dala costs 300TSH (roughly $0.15). The end stop is Darajani market, or they will drop you anywhere along the way as there are no set stops.
Getting around the Zanzibar on a budget
Getting comfortable using data-dala’s is inevitable for anyone visiting Zanzibar on a budget. They are a cheap and easy way to get around the island. From Stone Town, you can travel to the north beaches, Nungwi and Kendwa (which are beautiful and well worth a visit), in about 1.5 hours. The cost is 2,000 TSH (roughly $1). This is the most expensive journey you will pay.
To get to the east side of the island from Stone Town, the dala-dala costs 1,500TSH (roughly $0.75). All small journeys within Stone Town are 300TSH (roughly $0.15).
The dala-dala’s are either minibuses or converted trucks (the backs are open and you sit all facing each other). Grab a window seat if you can, at the front, for the most comfortable journey.
Everything you will want to see in Stone Town is within walking distance. It is very easy to get lost in the narrow winding streets of the city, so get hold of a map or have Google Maps on your phone handy.
Cheap accommodation in Stone Town
To really experience Zanzibar, you need to spend some time in the capital, Stone Town, and then some time on the beach. You can see all the main sites of Stone Town in a day easily, although I would recommend adding a second day so that you can also visit Prison Island and Nakupenda sandbank as a combined half day trip and also a Spice Tour.
The best place to stay in Stone Town, if visiting Zanzibar on a budget, is in ‘The Blue House’ on Airbnb. If you’ve not used Airbnb follow this link to get £34 or $34 off your first booking.
The Blue House costs roughly $18 per night for a 2 person double room. You will be living with a friendly local, right in the heart of the residential area of the town.
The house is clean, spacious and nicely decorated. It is also just a 2-minute walk from Darajani market and a 10-minute walk to the centre of Stone Town. It is worth bringing ear plugs as the locals and nearby mosque have a noisy early start. If you get the dala-dala there from the airport, ask them to drop you off at Kisiwandui School which is right opposite the street where the house sits (the owner will meet you there if you let him know in advance).
Cheap accommodation in Zanzibar on the beach
For the ‘beach’ side of my stay on Zanzibar, I choose to stay at Kaure Sands Beach Lodge, $50 per night for 2 sharing a double including breakfast (low season).
This has to be one of the best beachside lodges for travellers visiting Zanzibar on a budget. The beach there is much less touristy, meaning you can relax without all the noise of sellers and bars playing music. It has a comfortable relaxing area and all the rooms are beachfront meaning you step straight out of your room onto the soft white sand.
5 minutes walk away are some local restaurants (behind the lodge) for those looking to save money. The hotel restaurant is a little pricey although the portions are very large. All the major excursions can be organised from the lodge (snorkelling, diving, dolphins, etc). The flat seas and breeze also make it a popular spot for kite surfing.
Alternative budget beach accommodation
The north beaches, Nungwi and (especially) Kendwa are the most beautiful but also the most popular. There is lots of nightlife, bars and restaurants available. Things are therefore a bit pricier and the sellers and beach boys can get very annoying. I visited Kendwa beach as a day trip from Stone Town and was happy that I had decided not to stay here but on the quieter East side instead.
If you want to be close to the nightlife and cocktails there are some cheap and comfortable options which include a splash of luxury including:
Varadero Zanzibar Hotel
Daeli Apartment (highly recommended!!)
Dream of Kendwa Beach
Kendwa Rocks Hotel
For even cheaper options, you will need to look on Airbnb where there are dorm rooms as low as $10 a night.
Cheap food options on Zanzibar
The absolute cheapest place to eat in Stone Town is in the Darajani market, although the food section doesn’t appear until the evening. Pick a table that takes your fancy and the ‘chef’ will make a plate for you based on the food that they have cooked at home and transported that day.
If you are visiting Zanzibar on a budget, you will need to get used to eating rice. Thankfully the rice there is amazing, cooked to perfection and with coconut milk. The chapatis (500 TSH, roughly $0.25) are tasty and filling. I always had a vegetarian option of rice, beans and vegetables which cost 1,500 TSH (roughly $0.75). Portions are big and the people are welcoming.
Don’t forget to budget for water as you will need to buy this as you go. Head to a local shop where a 6 pack of 1.5 litre bottles costs4,500 TSH (roughly $2.25). They will likely try to charge you a more expensive tourist price. If you are ever unsure, just speak with a friendly local and ask them what it costs before going in to buy.
For breakfast and lunch, go to the fruit market to get a huge fresh pineapple (4,000 TSH, roughly $2) or a mango (1,000 TSH, toughly $0.50). Dotted around the local area are small bakeries that sell pancakes, breads, donuts and other small pastries made from beans or fish. These are all very cheap and cost between 200 – 500 TSH each ($0.10 – $0.25).
Foods not to miss
The night market in Forodhani gardens is definitely worth a visit, although it is slightly more expensive. You can pick up all sorts of seafood there. Make sure you try a famous Zanzibar pizza (3,000 TSH, roughly $1.50) and a sugar cane drink (2,000 TSH, roughly $1).
When you need a break from local food, head to House of Spices, the best restaurant in the Capital. While taking in the rooftop view, you can enjoy incredible fusion dishes that combine local spice flavours with an Italian twist. I can really recommend the smoked cheese pizza (18,500 TSH, roughly $9.25), made in their resident fire oven, and the mango and chocolate dessert (8,500 TSH, roughly $4.25).
Top things to do in Zanzibar:
- Get lost in the old city: spend half a day wandering the winding streets, checking out the shops and crafts
- Do a day trip to visit Nakupenda Sandbank (for snorkelling and a BBQ lunch) and prison island to see the giant tortoise
- Try a Zanzibar pizza in the night market, open every evening on the waterfront in Stone Town
- Try different flavours on Zanzibars world-famous spice tour
- Eat like a local in Darajani Market in Stone Town: while most tourists flock to the night market, Darajani will give you a taste of real Zanzibar life
- Spend a couple of hours visiting the Slave Market Museum in Stone Town
- Snorkel or dive at Mnemba Atoll (note the coral has been pretty damaged by boats and tourists so don’t have too high expectations for your water activities in Zanzibar!)
- Head to the East side of the island to try kite surfing lessons
- Spend a day on Kendwa beach in the North of the island for the most picturesque, white sand, blue water views imaginable
Please do NOT do a dolphin tour, deemed inhuman by many conservation charities because of the locals aggressive tactics when it comes to tourist dolphin swim tours!
Getting the cheapest tours on Zanzibar
There are big tour companies operating on the island that offer slick tours at a high price. For every activity though, you can go with a local and haggle a cheaper deal which will save you a lot of money if you are visiting Zanzibar on a budget.
It is worth noting that you will often compromise on the quality of snorkels or guiding though. You might want to weigh up the experience if you are doing a bigger activity such as scuba diving. For the below activities, here’s how to get a bargain….
Prison Island and Nakupenda Beach
This is a great activity and can easily be done on the cheap for anyone visiting Zanzibar on a budget. Head to the beach area outside Tembo Hotel where you will find all the ‘captains’ searching for tourists to take out for the day. They will be there from 8am. The best thing to do is to try and find other tourists to pair up with. The more of you there are, the cheaper the deal you can haggle. In a group of 7, we managed to haggle paying 15,000 TSH (roughly $7.5) per person. This included 2 hours on Prison Island, 1 hour on Nakupenda sandbank and snorkel gear. This is a very good price and took a lot of bargaining.
You will also need to pay an additional $4 entry to see Prison Island and the giant tortoise. If it is windy and the sea is choppy, you will not get good snorkelling opportunities at the sandbank.
Snorkelling and diving
The best place to do snorkelling is Mnemba Atoll. Unless the sea is calm, the rest of the places on the island you will likely not see much. The beach boys will tell you different but do not listen to them – I saw lots of unhappy people returning from bad snorkelling trips (including ourselves on one occasion). I joined up with some other tourists and haggled a half day tour to Mneba (including transport, fruit, water and gear) for $18 each, leaving from the East side of Zanzibar.
Diving is pricey, $110 for a double dive and the most I was able to get off was $10. Mnemba is also the best diving spot. If you want these activities cheaper, you can head to Matemwe, which is the closest point. From there you should be able to negotiate the cheapest deal.
If you are planning to do multiple activities, find a ‘captain’ that you like and negotiate a package. To haggle prices lower, you can always cut things out. For example, included food or by shortening the trip from 3 to 2 hours. Equally, ask for snorkel gear and transfers to be included. With all the activities though, the best thing you can do is to make friends. Share the cost between you massively cuts prices.
The best travel insurance for travel in Tanzania
I’ve been to Tanzania many times and – just like a lot of places in Africa – it doesn’t always go smoothly. The airline lost my bag on one visit. On another, there were massive delays and I missed my connection flight. Then the airline lost my bag again. And I accidentally dropped my camera in the sea.
Get your trip insured. The day you book your flights!
Top tips for Zanzibar
- If you catch a flight over from Dar es Salam, ask the pilot if you can sit in the front. The airline sells the co-pilot seat as a ticket meaning that you can get a great front-row seat of the island as you fly in
- Most things on the Island will be paid for in cash (especially if travelling to Zanzibar on a budget as you will be paying the locals). Although dollars are accepted, paying in the local currency is cheaper.
- Flight delays into Dar es Salam are extremely common. I met around 10 other travellers, myself included, who missed their connecting flight to the island due to delays. If this happens, you might be able to wrangle moving your flight with just a fee to pay, although I ended up losing the full cost. Stay a night in Dar to be sure this doesn’t happen. Equally, losing bags is common (as I found out the hard way as well! It took a week to be returned with my luggage). Keep medication, chargers and a change of clothes in your hand luggage – just in case!
- There are a lot of sea Urchins off the shores on Zanzibar. I saw a lot of tourists stepping on their painful spikes. It was a daily occurrence. Bring some sandals or sea shoes with you.
- NEVER pay for any tour on the island up front. I had one seller who was really pushing for upfront payment although I stood my ground. It turned out the ‘snorkelling’ tour was to an area that was so choppy, with such poor visibility and so many jellyfish that I only managed 5 minutes before needing rescuing. We asked them to drop us off straight away and refused to pay. Don’t give dishonest sellers money. This is a common occurrence. If they are being honest about what they are selling, they won’t ask for upfront payments.
- You don’t have to tip, even if they start hinting, it’s your choice. I didn’t tip the activity guides. The ones I went with seemed to earn a good living (I also had a lot of bad experiences with them trying to rip us off). I left my tip money with the street sellers and the people in the local markets and restaurants.
- Don’t do the dolphin tours. The guides use aggressive tactics that are damaging and intimidating to the dolphins. You just have to read the reviews online to realise that even people who spot them leave with a bad experience realising what is happening is not right.
- Don’t give the kids candy! I saw a lot of tourists do this. Not surprisingly, I had to deal with loads of kids shouting at me. ‘Give me candy’ or ‘give me money’. Sometimes even dangerously running across the road. Candy rots their teeth (they don’t have dentists!) and creates dependency, hand out attitude with tourists. Teach them a song or game instead or perhaps a few useful phrases in English. If you really want to help the kids, find a good local charity that you can donate to.
- If you were considering visiting Zanzibar on a budget but aren’t set on the location, consider Mafia Island. Mafia can also be visited cheaply. I had a much better experience. I found the people nicer, I wasn’t ripped off once and the snorkelling and diving better. The best part as well is that the Island is empty of tourists so is much quieter. And you can swim with Whale Sharks!
- The island has suffered heavily from overfishing. Please consider doing your bit for the environment by not tucking into seafood platters or excessive amounts of seafood.
Have you considered Mafia Island as an alternative?
Everyone going to Tanzania has heard of Zanzibar but not many have heard of Mafia Island. This neighbouring island is quieter and offers Humpback whale tours in the summer and an opportunity to swim with whale sharks over winter. (You can read about my experience swimming with whale sharks on Mafia Island here)
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