Visiting Zanzibar on a budget: everything you need to know

Zanzibar is one of those destinations that is famous for its iconic honeymoon resorts and beautiful beaches. It comes with a price tag you won’t find in the rest of Tanzania, but few people know that it’s actually really manageable to visit Zanzibar on a budget.

Table of Contents

Introduction to Zanzibar

Zanzibar is one of the most beautiful islands in the world. The name alone conjures up pristine white sandy beaches, gorgeous honeymoon resorts at the end of a fun and adventurous safari, and perhaps even Maldivian style luxury. It’s hardly a destination you’d associate with a budget traveller. While the reality in some parts of the island is not far from this, Zanzibar is, after all, an island belonging to neighbouring Tanzania, and a budget trip is absolutely a possibility.

Luckily for you, we used to live in Tanzania and have since been back multiple times to visit local friends. We know it intimately and have visited Zanzibar on many of these visits. Our familiarity gives us the privilege of being able to travel like locals, so I’m going to pass on everything we know! The number one question people ask us is: how expensive is Zanzibar?

Well, let’s find out.

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Murray is standing in front of 'The Rock' restaurant in Zanzibar, wearing a shirt and cowboy hat. The restaurant is a floating cottage in the middle of the sea.
The iconic restaurant The Rock in Zanzibar

How to get to Zanzibar

There are a few ways to get to Zanzibar. Of course, you can fly from Dar Es Salaam or Kilimanjaro, but that’s not very budget friendly (and it’s the least environmentally-friendly way!). Our favourite way is to take the ferry – it’s super easy, not too expensive and goes really frequently.

How to get to Zanzibar via ferry

The ferry goes from Dar Es Salaam; the current ferry schedule is below:

A ferry schedule for Zanzibar. The ferries run roughly every 2-3 hours daily in each direction between Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam
Current ferry schedule Dar Es Salaam – Zanzibar

As you can see, each trip lasts around 1 hour 45 minutes. At $35 each way for a ‘foreigner’ economy class ticket, it’s not exactly cheap, but it will save you money vs a flight.

The best company to use is Azam, and you can buy tickets on arrival to the ferry port. You can FINALLY now book tickets online with Azam, but only ever use the official website linked here. If you choose to book in person rather than online, try to book a day or so in advance, as the ferries do sell out.

There are 4 different cabin classes: Economy ($35 USD), Business ($40), VIP ($60) and Royal ($100). These are all ‘foreigner’ prices. For residents, these prices are around $5 cheaper per cabin and you can pay in Tanzanian Shillings. Prices for adults and children are the same.

By the way, PRO TIP, if you can pay in Tanzanian Shillings, the price often works out much cheaper.

A view out over the sea in Zanzibar. There are some old fishing boats (some wooden, some larger) on the beach and palm trees in the foreground.
Stone Town

What’s the difference between the ferry cabins?

We have travelled Economy and Business. They’re both fine honestly, and this is not a ferry where we’d turn our nose up at travelling in the basic cabin. There aren’t many facilities in Economy, but the ferry doesn’t last very long so you don’t need them. It even has free WiFi, which is a nice bonus, and a canteen where you can order breakfast, have coffee and tea etc.

If you are feeling a little flush, the Business cabin is nice. It has a communal TV, spacious seats, free WiFi again, and direct access to the canteen so you don’t need to wander around.

The VIP cabin looks very comfy (we peeked in!), but the only real difference we could tell between VIP and Business is that VIP had carpet, whereas business is a wooden floor. VIP and Royal class both have access to the VIP lounge, which has a few extra amenities.

The Royal seats are more like Business Class seats on a flight and have seat-back entertainment. There are only around 18-20 seats in this cabin on each ferry, so it’s advisable to book your tickets early.

Anyway, all this to say – for the duration, for budget travellers, Economy (or Business if you’re feeling fancy!) is fine.

If you need more information on taking the ferry to Zanzibar check our full guide here.

A beach in Zanzibar with a few loca people walking around. There are lots of palm trees and thatched huts on the beach
Beaches in Zanzibar are stunning!

Getting around Zanzibar on a Budget

This part is less easy, and does require a little bravery if you’re not used to Tanzanian public transport.

There are a few ways to get around on the island once you’re there (listed in price order):

By Foot

If you’re staying in Stone Town (more on this later) and taking the ferry, you can walk most places. Stone Town has plenty of interesting things to see and do, so you wouldn’t be bored in this area. It’s quite safe on foot at night too, but of course be careful with your belongings in the busy markets. As a budget traveller, we’d recommend this area, as it’s affordable but interesting. The rest of Zanzibar is quite far from Stone Town, and if you want to explore other areas of the island, you will need to use alternative transport.

Public Bus

Getting around Zanzibar by public bus is not difficult. Buses run along most main roads in the island between different resorts. The type of buses which go are larger than buses in the rest of Tanzania but still have the same name: dala dala.

Basically all you need to do is stand on the road in the direction you want to go, wave your hand to indicate you want the bus to stop, and get on. If you don’t know how much to pay and you don’t speak Swahili, watch what other people are charged. That being said, usually the drivers will not try to charge you more – they are more used to seeing tourists on buses than in the rest of Tanzania, so you’ll usually get a fair price.

Sometimes the buses will not go all the way across the island, but the driver or conductor will usually tell you where it’s going to stop and point you in the direction of the next bus you need. Note: most buses from Stone Town go from Kariakoo, so you may need to take a taxi or tuktuk to this crossroads first. The price of the public buses is minimal, usually a few 100 Shillings (less than $1).

Tuktuks/Bajajis

The Swahili word for tuktuk is ‘bajaji‘, but most drivers know that tourists don’t use this word. They tend to use the more common ‘tuktuk’ instead. These are familiar to most people as they exist in much of the rest of the world. The basic idea is a seat and carriage attached to a motorbike.

Note: in some parts of the island, you may also find piki pikis (motorbike taxis), but they are dwindling now, as bajajis are more common.

The purpose of these vehicles is to be a less expensive alternative to taxis, so they should be reasonable in cost. The trick is definitely to negotiate here, and a little Swahili will go a long way. In Zanzibar, most people will have a good grasp of English, but you will get a much cheaper price if you can speak a little Swahili. At least learning the numbers will enable you to haggle effectively.

Cars/taxis/private transfers

This is the way most resorts will tell you to get around Zanzibar. Often resorts will tell you private cars are safer. Obviously, safety is an extremely subjective thing and you do need to be sensible, but as budget travellers ourselves, we have never considered Zanzibar to be unsafe. Actually, we find it to be very relatively safe and easy to navigate.

That aside, if you are more comfortable with your own transport, this could be an option. Zanzibar has lots of car hire depots dotted around Stone Town, which would probably be cheaper than taking taxis everywhere. Private taxis are also readily available, but most have a flat fee of $50 per trip. This does depend where you’re going, but you can expect to pay this from Stone Town out to any of the shambas (rural resorts). Between the resorts themselves, it can be cheaper, but usually the hotels will want to organise this for you.

As budget travellers, we would advise only using the taxis/private cars if you absolutely have to. From a responsible travel standpoint as well, we have some issues with them. Such inflated prices are not good for the local economy and have already caused a real disparity of wealth between mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar, which will surely only get worse in future.

Emma and Murray are sitting looking out over Stone Town city. Emma is pointing at something in the background but Murray is looking the other way and wearing sunglasses
Zanzibar Coffee House

Where to Stay in Zanzibar on a Budget

As is probably clear from the above, we always stay in Stone Town. It’s our favourite area of the island, because it has plenty of culture, history and interesting things to see and do. We have a full guide coming soon, but we love how walkable it is, and how there are things to do in the evenings (such as the night markets). That aside, the island now has a few more affordable resorts cropping up.

Here are a few of our favourite budget resorts in Zanzibar and a map of where they are. You can either use the map below to book or check our recommendations underneath!

Budget Hotels in Nungwi

Nungwi is the Northern tip of Zanzibar and perhaps has some of the most beautiful beaches on the island. It’s the second largest town on the main island and is steeped in tradition. As a once central hub for building dhows (traditional wooden boats), Nungwi is full of history and intrigue. Accommodation really ranges in budget, so it’s great for all travellers, but it’s not exactly secluded or off the beaten track.

Canary Nungwi Hotel and Free SPA – price from £64 per night. This is what we’d consider a mid-range hotel, but the great thing is that it has a beautiful spa! This is for the budget traveller who doesn’t want to miss out on the Zanzibar experience.

Makofi Guest House – price from £18 per night. This is the sweetest little guest house and such great value!! The decor is very traditionally Zanzibari in design, the staff are so friendly and the food is great. This is where we’d book if staying in Nungwi.

Babalao Bungalows – from £40 per night. This is a lovely hotel and the private bungalows are a nice touch. It’s a nice mid-range stay, not too far from the main town.

A rooftop cage with views out over Zanzibar city. The rooftop is set up in a traditional Omani style with Arabic design cushions and floor level tables.
Views out over Zanzibar

Budget Hotels in Stone Town

We’ve mentioned Stown Town a lot, but as a recap: it’s the central port town of Zanzibar main island and considered its capital city. Stone Town is our favourite place to stay because you just can’t be bored here. Whether you’re there for the town’s intriguing history or vibrant culture (the night markets, Zanzibar jumpers, the spice markets), you’re bound to find something to interest you. Again, if you’re looking for hidden beaches however, you won’t find them here.

Zanzibar Coffee House – prices from £50 per night. We have stopped here many times for a coffee and it’s such a lovely little place. The style is so quaint and the views out over Stone Town are lovely. We’d definitely stay here next time we’re in Stone Town!

Shoki Shoki Hostel – prices from £30 per night. We’ve stayed here a few times and it’s also where our Tanzanian friends usually stay when they join us in Zanzibar. It’s not a fancy hotel at all. The rooms are what you might expect from a typical Tanzanian guesthouse, but it’s really fine if you just need somewhere clean, basic and comfortable to stay.

Mystic Manor Stonetown B&B – price from £28 per night. This is such a cute little guesthouse and always rates so well. The location is its best feature, as it’s right in the centre of town.

Budget Hotels in Pingwe

Pingwe is a very sweet and sleepy little town on the East Coast of Zanzibar (think beautiful sunrises!). It’s somewhere you can hope to find those beautiful powdery secluded beaches, but not have to miss out on amenities.

Bibi Mrembo Guesthouse – price from £21 per night. This is a real traditional guesthouse right on the beach in Pingwe and it’s so sweet. The rooms are basic, so you shouldn’t expect luxury, but it is real proof that typical Zanzibar white sand barefoot holidaying CAN be done on a budget.

Botanica Eco Lodge – from £33.50 a night. While this guesthouse is not beachfront or in the centre of Pingwe, it truly deserves a spot on our list. Their breakfasts are fully vegetarian (with vegan options) and the resort is stunning, themed like a botanical garden. This is what the lodge has to say about their approach to eco-tourism:

Following Permaculture technics, we compost all the organic waste of the lodge in order to create soil, we use natural product to keep harmful insects away, we enrich the soil farming and adding earth worms in our garden. We encourage and facilitate the minimal use of plastic for our clients... and we also collect batteries from the neighbors in order to make sure they are properly disposed. We are fully independent of the external grid. The well we dug 20 meters in the beneath stone offer enough water to water the garden and serve the bungalows showers, and our solar system provide uninterrupted 24/7 electric power and light for our rooms and guests.

TRIPADVISOR – bOTANICA eCO Lodge

Bitcoin Beach Hotel Zanzibar – prices from £50 a night. This is another more mid-range hotel but it’s right on the beach and great for those wanting the feel of barefoot luxury without the price tag!

Other places to stay in Zanzibar

Paje – this is a sweet little backpacker’s town with lots going on, but a very relaxed feel. There are a few new hotels springing up, and it’s on the East side near Pingwe.

Kendwa – near Nungwi but not as busy. Arguably the best sunsets on the island.

A Tanzanian street vendor is tending to his stall. There are mixed kebabs on the stall, salads, breads and sauces.
The night markets in Zanzibar

Eating Out in Zanzibar on a Budget

Food in Zanzibar is some of the best in Tanzania, and we have heard this directly from local friends (from Arusha). From our own experience, we can attest, the food in Zanzibar is generally excellent, especially local food. The tourist restaurants do come with a price tag, but here are some great local options you can try to save you some money without missing out.

Lukmaan Restaurant – Stone Town

This is, in our opinion, the best restaurant in Zanzibar! It’s a buffet style, but ordered a la carte. The food is all very traditional Tanzanian favourites, many of which you can find in our vegan eats in Tanzania guide here. We’d highly recommend trying the chapatis, which are delicious, and one of their fresh fruit juices.

Forodhani Gardens – Stone Town

The night markets in Zanzibar are a great place to find cheap and delicious eats. Every night around 5pm (or just before), Forodhani Gardens come alive with traders and street food stalls. Truly this food is some of the most delicious on the island and you can try the iconic Zanzibar pizzas (spoiler alert, it isn’t a pizza). The food is great value comparative to restaurants, but be a little wary of buying things like maindi (corn). You can get this much cheaper at other stalls outside of the gardens in Zanzibar (and much cheaper generally on the mainland) – corn doesn’t grow in Zanzibar so the vendors charge a hefty mark-up here in particular.

These are our favourite two, but we found this great map here, which you can also use to find more options.

An Arabic style door. It is painted blue and the building it is in is dilapidated.
The beautiful doors of Zanzibar

Things to do in Zanzibar on a budget

Zanzibar is chock-a-block with things to do, and luckily for us, a lot of these things are not expensive. Here are some of the best free and cheap things to do in Zanzibar.

Free things to do in Zanzibar

Zanzibar Old Fort and Forodhani Gardens – the Old Fort and Forodhani are fun to walk around. They’re an iconic part of Stone Town. Though the Old Fort doesn’t have much information, Forodhani actually has several billboards dotted around with some information about Zanzibar and it’s really interesting.

See the Zanzibar doors – they are over 500 carved doors in Zanzibar and they’re beautiful. These are scattered throughout Stone Town and make for some of the most perfect pictures. Of course they are free, but do remember some of the doors are entranceways to people’s houses, so stay respectful and move out of the way if asked.

Visit a beach – few beaches in Zanzibar have entrance fees and they’re all beautiful. It’s a beach lover’s paradise

Darajani Bazaar – the old spice markets in Zanzibar are an interesting part of town to stroll through.

A selfie of Emma and Murray standing in front of a picture of Freddie Mercury, who is smiling.

Cheap things to do in Zanzibar

The Old Slave Market and Anglican Cathedral – if you do one thing in Stone Town, do this. Honestly, it’s an absolute must. While obviously very harrowing, the Old Slave Market tours are a much needed and informative insight into Zanzibar’s dark past. The tour costs around $5 (a steal in our eyes), and the guides do not expect a tip. That aside, you will probably want to give a tip at the end (and it is encouraged to help the local economy). Be sure to cover your knees and shoulders to enter the Cathedral at the end.

The Freddie Mercury Museum – for another interesting slice of Zanzibar’s past, visitors can try the Freddie Mercury Museum, which costs $10 to enter ($5 for children under 12). The museum is interesting, especially for Queen fans, and gives a great insight into Freddie’s life and time in Zanzibar.

Walking tours – I say cheap because they are not usually free, even if advertised as such. In other words, you will be expected to tip, and should do so if you enjoyed your tour. Many guides wander around Forodhani Gardens offering walking tour services, and they’re informative. The price will usually be around $20 at first, but be sure to haggle and pay in Tanzanian shillings for a better rate.

There are actually lots of other museums and free monuments you can see just wandering around Stone Town. Additionally, many of the cafes have great views from the top floor, so you will always have a viewpoint!

Find other things to do in Zanzibar:

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Tipping in Zanzibar

Tipping is not mandatory in Tanzanian culture, nor is it the expectation. If you have agreed a price for a service then this is the price you will pay. That being said, it is a courtesy to tip for things like tours and meals if you received an excellent service. Tipping may only be a small amount to you, but it really helps local people. Since tipping is not expected, there isn’t really a set amount, but around 10% is fair for meals and services.

Custom-Built Itinerary

If you’re heading to Zanzibar and aren’t sure where to start, you can order our custom-built itinerary here. We have a range of prices, and can help however you need – from helping you plan a basic outline, to booking the trip in full for you. We have 7+ years each in the travel industry and know Zanzibar like the back of our hand, so you’re safe with us!

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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