Soft white sand. Turquoise waters. Fragrant spices wafting through narrow stone alleys. Zanzibar looms large in many travelers’ imaginations. But this island, famous for honeymooners and safari-goers, can seem out of reach if your only option is backpacking in Zanzibar on a budget.
Zanzibar may not be the cheapest destination in East Africa, but it’s totally possible to visit on a typical backpacking budget! You don’t even have to sacrifice many luxuries to make it happen.
Zanzibar is actually an archipelago, not an individual island. The largest island is called Unguja, and is what most people refer to when they say “Zanzibar.” The island’s northern neighbor, Pemba, is also developed for tourism, as are several of the smaller islands that house individual resorts. For the purpose of this post, when I say “Zanizbar” I’m talking about Unguja — the other islands are less realistic to visit on a backpacking budget.
Read on for all my money-saving tips to help you plan your trip to the Spice Island.
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Is Zanzibar expensive? A realistic budget for backpacking in Zanzibar
Experienced Africa travelers have a saying: Africa is cheap to live, but expensive to travel. If you’re hoping to visit Zanzibar on a budget like you’d get away with in Thailand or India, that’s…a little unrealistic.
That being said, Zanzibar is easy to travel “backpacker-style” by East Africa standards. The island has a number of hostels with dorm rooms. Street food is plentiful and delicious. If you plan right, most activities are remarkably affordable. And as long as you have time to spare or buddies to share, transport is cheap.
A minimum travel budget for Zanzibar would be $30 a day. This buys you a room in a dorm with breakfast included, two meals a day at local restaurants, one activity per day, and dalla dalla transport around the island.
Are your shared-room days over? (I see you, travelers in your 30’s and beyond!) If so, that’ll definitely bump up your daily travel costs a bit. Still, a solo flashpacker-style traveler could comfortably get away with a budget of under $100 per day. Per-person costs if you’re traveling with a partner or friend are lower. This gets you a private room at a low-mid-range guesthouse with breakfast included, two meals a day at a mix of local and touristy restaurants, all the activities you want, and the occasional taxi.
The one thing neither of these budgets includes: alcohol. Booze is very easy to find on Zanzibar at any restaurant, hotel or cafe that caters to tourists. But it is pricey. I met a woman at one of my hostels in the process of settling her $200 bar tab from just four days there! Keep the partying under wraps and you’ll save a ton.
Where to stay in Zanzibar on a budget
One of the first choices you’ll have to make when planning your Zanzibar trip is: Stone Town or the beaches?
If you have three days or less on the island, you’ll need to choose one or the other. You probably have a good sense of your preference already, but if you’re unsure — Stone Town has a more local vibe, much greater diversity of restaurants and guesthouses, and is a cultural destination. (Most of) the beaches feel much more touristic and have a high hassle factor, but they are stunning and they offer tons of water activities.
Where to stay in Stone Town
If you’re looking for value for money, Stone Town is where it’s at. You can find cheap-as-chips hostel dorms here — but also lots of guesthouses in traditional homes for not much more expensive.
Here are a few good options if you want to stay in Stone Town:
- Zlife Hostel: Popular backpackers in Zanzibar with dorm beds starting as low as $6 per night + tax. Book now!
- Lost & Found Hostel: The original Stone Town backpackers, with a prime location across from Freddie Mercury’s house. Dorms start from $15/night + tax. Book now!
- Kiponda B&B: Mid-range guesthouse starting from $30 a night, breakfast on their terrace included. Book now!
- Stone Town Cafe B&B: Super-charming guesthouse above one of the most popular cafes in town. Rooms from $60 make it a viable budget option for couples. Order off their menu for breakfast, up to $8. Email to book.
Where to stay at the beaches
Beach-town accommodation ranges from backpacker “resorts” to dingy, hot, smelly hostels. Generally the East Coast is better value for money than the north. Remote east-coast towns have amazingly cheap mid-range guesthouses, but transport can be an issue. (The taxi ride to reach them can cost you the same as two nights’ accommodation!)
Here are a few of the more affordable beach accommodation options:
- New Teddy’s on the Beach: My favorite hostel on Zanzibar, and one of my favorite hostels anywhere. The staff are brilliant, and the hostel has private beachfront, all the lounge space you could want, a great pool…it’s heaven. Plus, it’s in Zanzibar’s most charming village, far from tourist crowds. Dorm beds start at $25/night including taxes and a great breakfast. Book now!
- Drifters: The most popular hostel in Paje. The vibe is party-focused. But it’s got a pool, beachfront location, good food, and the $8 dorms are the cheapest you’ll find outside of Stone Town. Book now!
- Kendwa Rocks: You won’t find it on their website, but Kendwa Rocks has a secret dorm with 16 beds. Rumor has it they’re charging about $20 a night now. Kendwa is a more pleasant town than Nungwi, and much more upmarket, so this is as good as it gets on the northern coast. Full Moon Parties here are supposedly wild (and best avoided by anyone who likes to sleep). Email to book.
- Makofi Guest House: The nicest hostel in Nungwi, especially known for its pricey but excellent restaurant. It’s a short walk from the beach. The main reason to stay here is they can book all your activities for a fraction of the price you’ll find anywhere else on the island. Dorms starting at $8 share excellent hot showers and include breakfast (with Nutella!), when the staff will make you a free espresso beverage if you go early. Book now!
How to save money on food when backpacking in Zanzibar
Food can be a real budget-killer on Zanzibar. Part of that is because Zanzibar has the best food scene in East Africa. And hey, if you’re on a long trip and you’re sick to death of ugali, by all means indulge!
But many travelers fall into a routine of relying on their hostels for meals or eating at tourist-oriented restaurants. Costs add up quickly, and the food is rarely worth the price.
If you want to save, you’re better off eating at local restaurants — you know, the types where all the lights are off, you have to walk around for awhile looking for the chef, it takes 60+ minutes for your food to arrive, and you’re the only one there. But the food is often great and you’ll rarely pay more than 10,000 shillings/$4 for a meal. On Zanzibar, that meal is usually seafood chosen straight from the dhows as they pull in.
Here are a few of the best local places to eat:
- Yellow Card Cafe, Jambiani
- Fadhil Restaurant, Jambiani
- Chez Hassan, Jambiani
- Mama Africa, Nungwi
- Munira Restaurant, Nungwi
- Lukmaan, Stone Town
- The street food vendors at Forodhani Gardens, Stone Town
In Stone Town, you can also get cheap coffee (500 shillings!) at Jaws Corner. Snacks like roasted cashews or mango with chili are widely available from roaming vendors.
Cheap things to do in Zanzibar
Ok, so you’ve gotten your accommodation and food costs under control. But what are you supposed to do all day when you’re trying to save money on Zanzibar travel?
Zanzibar can be as cheap or as expensive activity-wise as you want it to be. If you book carefully, you can do everything people staying in resorts do for a fraction of the cost.
The most important factor in activity costs is how far away from your base the activity is. So as you’re planning your Zanzibar itinerary, try to group activities near accommodation bases. If you require road transfers to reach your activities, that’ll end up being the majority of the cost of your tour.
Here are the most popular activities and where to base yourself to save on transport:
- Spice Tour: Pick a spice farm near wherever you’re staying and pay less than $20. Most spice farms are near Stone Town, but there are others scattered across the island.
- Safari Blue: Stone Town
- Sunset dhow cruise: Nungwi or Kendwa
- Snorkeling or diving at Mnemba Atoll: Nungwi or Kendwa
- Dolphin spotting: Ugh, don’t do it, most of the dolphin tours are unethical
- Jozani Forest: Do it on your way from the east coast to Stone Town, or vice versa
- Kitesurfing: The east coast; the best prices are in Paje
If you start shopping around for tours online, you’ll notice most places only give the option to book a private tour. This makes everything look crazy expensive — like, snorkeling trips for as much as $100!
Here’s my secret for keeping activity costs low when backpacking in Zanzibar: Stay at Makofi Guesthouse and book all the northern coast-based activities through them. They booked me a sunset dhow cruise for $12. I could have done a snorkeling trip for $22 or a full day of diving for less than $50. They offered cheap spice tours and sandbar tours (although not Safari Blue itself) as well. I was very happy with my dhow cruise and everyone I spoke with who did boat trips was satisfied.
Another way to save money: skip the diving and snorkeling! Zanzibar’s reefs have been badly damaged. If you’re desperate to dive just for the sake of diving, go for it, but you wouldn’t be missing much if you give it a pass.
And of course, you can always spend a day (or two, or ten) lounging at the beach when you need to save some cash. Jambiani has the most relaxed beach to hang out on, while Mr. Kahawa in Paje is a great beachfront cafe to chill at all day for the price of a coffee. Similarly, wandering around Stone Town is one of the best free things to do in Zanzibar.
Beach Boys — not a good way to save money in Zanzibar
If you’re shopping around for cheap tours, you may be tempted to try your luck with the “beach boys.” These guys walk up and down the beach, with or without glossy booklets of magical-looking sandbar and spice tours. They offer good prices, which of course, are very negotiable.
It’s a scam.
Beach-boy-driven tours often involve “extras” you weren’t counting on, like surprise demands to take your “guide” to an ATM lest they leave you in the middle of the ocean. That’s an extreme (but sadly common) example — but other hard-sell and upsell tactics are standard on these trips.
Cheap Transportation on Zanzibar
Transport is one of the biggest budget-busters when backpacking Zanzibar. You need either a lot of time, a lot of luck or a lot of money to get between hubs on the island.
If you want to save money on transport, the best thing you can do is pick 1-2 places to base yourself. Stone Town is cheap and easy to get to/around, and it’s very easy to get between Stone Town and the northern beaches. Costs start to add up as you approach the east side of the island.
The cheapest form of transport on Zanzibar is the local minibuses, known as dalla dallas. They cost just a couple thousand shillings for a ride, and they can get you anywhere on the island.
But, dalla dallas are often overcrowded, don’t leave on a set schedule, and — most annoyingly — all routes go through Stone Town. You can find a map of routes here.
Dalla dallas are totally fine if you just want to go from Stone Town to Nungwi/Kendwa. The system is organized and reasonably quick (about 2x as long as private transport; maximum 3 hours). It’s easier to go from the beaches to Stone Town, since the hardest part of using dalla dallas on Zanzibar is finding the right one at the busy Darajani Market where they depart from in Stone Town.
Dalla dallas do run to the east coast, and if you’re only going to Paje or Jozani, they’re reasonably quick. The problem comes if you want to go further north or south. Very few vehicles run along the east coast in either direction from Paje — so you’ll probably have a long wait. If you’re going to Jambiani or The Rock Restaurant, it’s usually recommended that you get off the dalla dalla in Paje and take a motorbike taxi the rest of the way.
Even worse is if you’re going between the east coast and northern beaches. In this scenario, you’ll have to transit through Stone Town — which is not exactly on the way. Expect the theoretically-3-hour drive to take the better part of a day by dalla dalla.
A few other tips for using dalla dallas:
- You can get on and off anywhere on the routes. Just wave them down.
- Some dalla dallas are minibuses, some are smaller big buses, and others are pickup trucks.
- Be wary of mzungu (foreigner) pricing on dalla dallas. You really shouldn’t have to pay more than 5,000 shillings for a ride anywhere on the island, but extra charges for luggage are legitimate.
- Remote dalla dalla routes often stop service by mid-afternoon, making them difficult to use for day trips to/from/along the east coast. You’ll be fine getting to/from Nungwi-Kendwa until sunset.
If you can afford it, taxis are by far the best way to get around Zanzibar. They’re far quicker, they don’t stop every 30 seconds, and they usually have air conditioning!
On the flip side, taxis are much more expensive. They’re out of reach for most backpackers unless you have friends to share travel costs.
A few examples of taxi prices:
- Airport to Stone Town: $10
- Stone Town to Nungwi: $30
- Stone Town to Jambiani: $40
- Nungwi to Jambiani: $60
- Paje to The Rock Restaurant: $20
You’re always better off organizing taxis through your guesthouse rather than hiring someone on the street. And if you meet a reliable driver, get his Whatsapp number and call him every time you need a ride. For longer trips, it’s helpful to arrange it with your driver a day in advance.
The best thing about taxis is they allow you to see much more of the island. The way it works is, you hire the driver to take you from Point A to Point B. But you can stop anywhere and everywhere you like along that route, for very reasonable waiting-time costs. This makes day trips that are awkwardly positioned between hubs much more viable.
For example, if you take a taxi between Nungwi/Kendwa and Stone Town, you can stop at a spice farm along the way for just $5. Or traveling between the west and east sides of the island, stop at Jozani Forest and the butterfly center for the same price. If you do these as separate day trips, they cost ~$50, most of which just goes to transport. So if you get a group of four friends together, traveling between the east coast and the north beaches with a stop at Jozani Forest costs under $20 per person — less than you’d pay for a day trip to Jozani Forest from Paje.
You are expected to negotiate prices for taxis you organize on the street, but costs are pretty universal among drivers. So know how much it’s supposed to cost — don’t pay $50 for a ride from Nungwi to Stone Town — but don’t expect to get it down to $20 either. Like everything else in Tanzania, there’s more room to negotiate over extra services (like low prices on stops/waiting time) than there is to push the price dramatically lower.
For short trips within a town or area, consider using the local transport like bajaji (the local name for tuk tuks) and boda (the local name for motorbike taxi).
Bajaji are useful in Stone Town because they can handle some of the narrower streets (not all of them!). The price is about half what a taxi would cost; it’s rarely more than 10,000 shillings to get anywhere in town. Bajaji are the best transport option if you don’t want to walk between the port and your guesthouse.
Bodas are the option of last resort, but often the only option on the east coast. Use them to get between Jambiani/Paje, but please, please, make sure your driver is both sober and over the age of 16 and ask them to drive pole pole (slowly). Keep in mind riding a boda along the bumpy, sandy dirt roads in the east coast villages with luggage on your back is a bit rough, and always step on and off the bike on the opposite side of the exhaust pipe.
Bodas are usually the cheapest transport option — from Jambiani to Paje, don’t pay more than 10,000 shillings for a 20-minute ride.
Renting your own wheels
If you want the freedom and flexibility to explore Zanzibar at your own pace, you might consider renting a vehicle.
Car rental is growing in popularity, but is more of a hassle than it’s worth. There isn’t much parking at the beaches, driving on Zanzibar’s rough roads is a nightmare, and fuel is crazy expensive.
Lots of travelers rent motorbikes at the beaches. This is not particularly cost-effective, at $20/day plus petrol. And if you drive a motorbike without a motorcycle license from your home country, and you get in an accident — which is not exactly outside the realm of possibility on Zanzibar’s roads — your travel insurance usually won’t cover you.
However, there is one form of vehicle rental that is great for exploring the island — bicycles. Renting a bike allows you to get between beaches and villages easily, whether riding on the dirt back-roads or the tarmac (which has huge shoulders that function as bike lanes). The island is mostly flat, and there are lots of off-the-beaten-path spots you can stop at with a bike. Rental costs $10/day, including a lock, and you can rent for shorter periods for cheaper. I highly recommend renting a bike for half a day to explore the broader Paje/Jambiani area.
How to get to Zanzibar on a budget
If you’re trying to go backpacking in Zanzibar, you have two options to reach the island: flight or ferry. You may immediately think ferry is the way to go, but there are circumstances where the flight can work out cheaper!
First of all, if you’re not going on a longer trip in Tanzania, see if you can fly directly to and from Zanzibar. Flights are often comparably priced to those arriving in Dar, and you’ll save $70 on round-trip ferry tickets. This is also usually the best option if you’re arriving from Kenya or elsewhere in Africa.
But if you need to reach Zanzibar from mainland Tanzania, it gets a little more complicated. And you may need to factor in how much you value your sanity/comfort.
To/from Dar Es Salaam
If you’re arriving from or headed to Dar Es Salaam, ferry is usually — but not always — the way to go.
The Zanzibar-Dar ferry costs $35 (must be paid in USD or by credit card) and takes about 90 minutes. Don’t even consider traveling with any company other than Azam Marine, which has a good safety record. They operate four departures in each direction daily. Take one of the earlier two boats — the seas are calmer in the morning.
The Dar port is in the central business district. You can get to and from the port by bajaj (tuk tuk) for about 10,000 shillings from anywhere in the center city or Oyster Bay areas.
The Zanzibar port is opposite-ish to the old fort. You can walk there from anywhere in Stone Town in less than 15 minutes. Buy your ticket in advance at the air-conditioned booking office. Save that Google maps link and don’t let anyone on the street tell you you’re going to the wrong place.
However! If you are only transiting Dar on your way to or from Zanzibar, it is worth pricing out flights as well. Flight prices can sometimes be as low as $30 one-way. But even if they’re as high as $50, it can still work out in your favor.
See, the bus station in Dar is near the airport, way-way-way outside the city center. It’s about a $22 taxi ride from the port to the bus station, and it takes a brutal 90+ minutes in traffic. Plus, most buses are timed to make a same-day connection to/from the ferry impossible. So if you take the ferry, you’ll pay $35 + $22 for the taxi, and the journey takes upwards of 3 hours. Not to mention, if you’re leaving Dar you’ll probably have a 4:30 am wakeup call to catch your bus.
But if you fly, it’s $30-50 for the flight, plus 10 minutes in a bajaj to the bus station. The whole endeavor takes about an hour, and you can stay at an airport hotel and leave at 6 am the next day for your bus.
It usually works out at roughly the same price either way, but the flight option is much less stressful.
To/from Moshi or Arusha
If you’re coming from further afield, flying is usually the best way to get to Zanzibar — even if it’s not the cheapest.
Don’t believe me? I’ll explain. The road transport option starts with a 12-hour bus trip to Dar. Take the Dar Express for 30,000 shillings, but it’s still 12 hours on an East African bus trip. I.e. it leaves before dawn and actually takes 15+ hours. This is one of the most infamously awful road journeys on the continent.
Plus, after you arrive in Dar, you’ll need to 1) get to the city center via a pricey taxi; 2) stay overnight somewhere near the port; and 3) catch the ferry to Zanzibar the next day. The whole thing will end up costing you at least $100, between the extra night in a hotel, extra food, and all the transport.
Flying, on the other hand? 3 hours door-to-door. And flights usually run about $115 on Precision Air.
If you want to save money on the flight option, there’s no need to pay for a taxi to/from Kilimanjaro Airport! Simply grab a bajaj or cheaper local taxi to the main Arusha-Moshi road when you land. If you’re standing at the intersection with your back to the airport, any transport going to your right is headed to Moshi, while anything to the left is going to Arusha. Likewise, any vehicle departing from either bus station can drop you at the junction to the airport.
To/from Dodoma, Iringa, Lushoto, or anywhere else on the mainland
Heading to Zanzibar from one of Tanzania’s more off-the-beaten-path destinations? Your only option is to transit through Dar.
You’ll need to spend a night in Dar in either direction (unless coming from a very-close destination like Bagamoyo). The buses typically don’t arrive or depart in time for you to connect with a ferry same-day.
To/from Mafia Island or Pemba
The other islands off Tanzania’s coast are most commonly reached by bush planes. Backpackers aren’t likely to find themselves on Mafia or Pemba because of the high cost of admission from the flights — but if you do, a bush flight between your other island destination and Zanzibar is the best option. Most flights involve a stop in Dar, which may or may not include a change of planes, and also might get skipped if no one on your flight needs to go to Dar. (Bush planes are very informal!)
There is a ferry between Zanzibar and Pemba. It takes 4-5 hours. Azam Marine runs this route, but locals dispute their safety record more than on the Zanzibar-Dar route. Never get on a ferry if it looks overloaded or the seas look especially rough.
No direct ferry link exists between Zanzibar and Mafia Island. If you really wanted to save money — like if you value money more than your life — you could take the ferry to Dar, the bus to Nyamasati four hours south, and then the ferry to Mafia. But the Mafia Island ferry is known for being extremely dangerous. When I visited the public ferries weren’t even running because the ships were all damaged to the point of requiring months to repair.
My budget for one week in Zanzibar
I kept track of all of my expenses on my one-week trip to Zanzibar.
My travel style is a little more flashpacker-y at this point — I often stay in hostels, but I usually go for a private room. I’ll pay for whatever activities I want to do, but I aim for affordable versions of each experience. I eat a mix of street food and restaurant food, with the very occasional bigger splurge.
Here’s what I spent:
- Accommodation (3 nights Jambiani, 2 nights Nungwi, 2 nights Stone Town): $280
- Food and drinks: $101 — this included $40 for the Emerson Spice set menu
- Activities (cave trip, Jozani Forest tour, sunset dhow cruise, spice tour with cooking class, traditional massage and scrub): $140
- Transport (mostly taxis that I shared with friends when I could, bike rental for a day, ferry to Dar): $115
Total: $91 a day
This was a very comfortable budget where I never felt like I was missing out due to cost. All my accommodation was nice. I chose the easy transport options because I didn’t want to waste my limited time sitting on buses.
I could have easily gotten this down to $75/day by staying at a hostel instead of a B&B in Stone Town, skipping the splurge meal, and taking a dalla dalla between Nungwi and Stone Town. The spa day and cooking class were splurge-y activities as well. If I’d had a friend or partner traveling with me, per-person costs would’ve been closer to $40/day.
A few final tips on backpacking in Zanzibar
- You don’t need a guide to explore Stone Town. Simply let yourself get lost in the alleys — you’ll eventually pop out somewhere you recognize.
- Budget an extra $5 a day in Nungwi/Kendwa to pay for a drink at a beachfront restaurant when you get fed up with the hassle from beach boys. It makes a big difference!
- If you stay in cheaper Nungwi, it takes about 20 minutes to walk to the better beaches in Kendwa. At low tide you can walk along the beach.
- There are loads of hidden attractions on the island that don’t appear in guidebooks and blogs. My favorites were the caves around Paje and the mangrove forests around Jozani. These off-the-beaten-path spots tend to cost less to visit as well.
- Locals on Zanzibar generally do not appreciate having their photos taken. Always ask permission, and expect to get a lot of “no’s.” If you’re super invested in getting photos of humans, sign up for a village tour — the local guides can help facilitate people being more willing to be photographed.
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This is fabulous! I would love to visit Zanzibar to see the beaches and try the local food. A cookery class/spice tour sounds amazing.
Thanks Mohana! I hope you get a chance to go someday.
Wow, I never realized you could do Zanzibar so inexpensively. Thanks for the great tips. I always like eating in local restaurants to get the authentic flavours.