People book their luxury trips from home and pay sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, even for a photo safari. It seems to be a specialized and out of reach experience, especially for budget travelers. Well let me tell you, I am about as "budget" as you can get, and I have enjoyed many a giraffe, elephant, and zebra in the wild in Africa! It's amazing, jaw-dropping, and not all that expensive.
If the first section title makes you want to bail out, please read on! I assure you I get to "real" safaris too. ;)
Public Bus Through the Park!My and my travel mate took a local chicken bus from Morogoro to Mikumi for $3. We didn't realize that it went right through the middle of the Mikumi park. I am not kidding you, from the bus we saw baboons, warthogs, impala, zebras, giraffes, and elephants right on the side of the road!
We were giddy and squealing and taking photos. The locals were getting a good laugh at us, but they did start pointing out animals to us because we were so excited about it. A little something different for their regular commute and certainly something different for us!
We ended our bus ride at Tiger Motel where we each got our own room for $10 each with aircon, and then had a nice cold beer at their restaurant.
So check the map when planning your route. If you have the option, grab a bus that drives through a wildlife park. Sure most of my photos are blurry but I don't really care. I was there to see and experience and I think the blurry photos are funny anyway.
Day Tour in Smaller ParksLess popular parks cost less. The park fees for Mikumi, Ruaha, Rubondo and Udzungwa National Parks in Tanzania are $35 for adults compared to $100+ for other parks in the same country. Mikumi park has day tours that you can arrange at a hotel in the village for around $80 per car. It's not a very populated area but you can try to find someone to share with.
You can see a ton of animals in Mikumi (rather close up - you can get the good photos you were hoping for that you didn't get on the bus) against a terrain filled with baobab and acacia trees.
Multi-Day Safari in the Big ParksThere certainly exist plenty of private tours where you stay in fancy resorts and spend a TON of money. But there are also group tours where you camp in tents and see the exact same animals as the people shelling out the big dough.
The short version of it is this. Go to Arusha town, find a reputable backpackers hotel, and talk to them about getting on a group tour. If they don't book tours themselves, they should be able to direct you to a place with the kind of tour you're looking for.
In 2001 (I know, eons ago), my ex and I paid $35/pp/day for a 2-day private safari!! But now I hear the prices are more like $150/pp/day for a budget safari. That does include lodging, food, entrance fees (which can be hefty), and your guided vehicle.
We visited Tarangire and NgoroNgoro and it was OMG amazing. I can't imagine what else we may have experienced with a more expensive tour. We sure didn't feel like we missed out on a single thing. There was even a cultural presentation (locals dancing for the tourists) at our lodging which was a bit hokey but still something different.