Booking a safari in Kenya was one of the most involved travel plannings we’ve ever done. There are all sorts of levels of involvement, of course, but the more informed you are, the better your trip will be.
We recommend going with a local tour operator. It is possible to arrange a safari to several parks on your own, but it is a lot of work. Furthermore, it might not end up much cheaper, as tour operators can get rooms at a more affordable rate. Also, cheaper tours usually come at the expense of vehicle quality as a lot of the cost goes into transportation.
In this post, we will recommend the Natural World Kenya Safaris as a good, local option. They did not sponsor us in any way to write this post. We had the trip of a lifetime with them and feel that they offer a great service for a great price.
Costs of Self-Booking vs. a Local Travel Operator
Estimates for a self-planned budget tour, including shared game drives (minimum three to four persons in the jeep), come in between $178 to $250 per person, per day. The budget option with the Natural World Kenya Safaris, the local company we travelled with, comes in between $170 (Amboseli and Tsavo) to $207 (Masai Mara) per person, per day, for four people sharing.
I think this company is able to keep their costs down while maintaining a high standard because they own their 4×4 vehicles. Their experienced guides also double up as excellent drivers. Furthermore, they are likely able to negotiate better prices with the lodges as they are a large local operator often contracted by foreign tour agencies.
Flexible Costs vs. All Inclusive
When considering the self-organised safari experience, you need to make room for unexpected costs. Going with a reputable tour company, we did not experience any unexpected expenses. The price they charged was all-inclusive, right down to the water in the jeep (but excluding drinks and bottled water at the lodges). In both instances, tips are not factored in. Still, the courtesy amount is the same regardless of whether you self-organise or go with an agency.
Our first trip to Kenya was self-organised and our second trip was with the Natural World. We cannot recommend self-organising as a way to save money, because in our case, we felt the money saved, which was not significant, came at the expense of the game viewing and wildlife experience.
Choose Your Locations
Kenya is a vast country. There are countless famous parks and incredible locations everywhere you go. You need to be realistic when choosing your locations. Even if you are flying, travel and transit time will still be significant. You want to spend your time on safari game-watching, not in a car or airport.
Safari Locations in Kenya
We feel the first thing you should do before you book a safari in Kenya is to choose your locations. The most popular destinations for safaris and game viewing are the Masai Mara, Amboseli, Tsavo East and Tsavo West, Nairobi National Park, and Hell’s Gate National Park together with Lake Naivasha.
Of these locations, the Masai Mara is separate from the rest by distance. For example, to get to Amboseli from the Masai Mara by car, you will need to do an overnight stop in Nairobi. Whereas it’s possible to drive straight from a hotel in Amboseli to Tsavo East or Tsavo West.
In general, we suggest grouping the locations like this:
- Masai Mara, on its own – check out our post on the Masai Mara Safari
- Masai Mara, Lake Naivasha and Hell’s Gate
- Tsavo East, Tsavo West and Amboseli
You can visit the Nairobi National Park when you arrive in Kenya, as most international flights land at the city’s Jomo Kenyatta airport.
Travelling Times and Options Between Locations
Be extra careful of tours offering you all the parks in a short time when you look to book a safari in Kenya. Some of them have impossible itineraries on which most of the time will be spent travelling instead of game viewing. Distances in Kenya are large, and the road quality varies a lot. For example, getting from Amboseli to Tsavo West (which looks near on the map) can take you between 4 to 6 hours. That’s pretty much one day of your holiday spent travelling. If there is travelling involved, ask the tour operator how long it will take. The road situation is continually changing in Kenya, so advice on the internet might not be up to date.
Pick Your Budget
When you book a safari in Kenya, you can choose from three budgets. Economy, comfort or luxury. The range is usually from $250 to $1000 per person, per day for a safari in Kenya (sharing couple). Cost per person goes down significantly when sharing between four to six people. When considering the price, note that a chunk of it goes into park fees, which start from around $50 per person. Entry into the Masai Mara is $80, for example.
Staying in conservancies can add about $100 per person, per day. This is because conservancy fees can be high, and lodges can pay around $70 a day, per bed, is what I’ve read. This is on top of required monthly payments to the community, regardless of whether there are visitors or not.
From our research, the Mara conservancies have the most expensive lodges. However, it is worthwhile to mix and match options, combining budget hotels with ultra-exclusive lodges that give you access to private conservancy land.
Do I Need an Expensive Lodge for a Good Experience?
Absolutely not! Having a front-row seat at a conservancy doesn’t ensure you will see that cheetah hunt or leopard eating from her tree larder! All of that is down to pure luck, so don’t feel like you will miss out if you can’t afford some of the lodges.
Choosing a Tour Operator
Gone are the days of having to pay exorbitant prices to a foreign tour agency for your safari. These days, you can, and should, book your safari in Kenya directly with a local company. Many safari agents, especially those that bill themselves as “luxury providers” are tour resellers and add an unnecessary markup to the price. They make the booking in the UK, USA or Europe, and then pass on the work to a local company after adding a substantial markup.
Book Your Safari in Kenya with a Local Operator
Suppose you are hesitant to book a safari in Kenya with an unfamiliar company. In that case, you can check the website of the Kenya Association of Tour Operators to see if they are listed on it. There are indeed scammers out there so one can never be too cautious. However, if a company is not listed as a member, it does not mean that they are not trustworthy. We know a couple of small providers that are not listed but provide legitimate services.
How to Choose a Safari Tour Company
Before you go with a safari company:
- Make sure you have an idea of the locations you want to visit and a rough itinerary.
- Approach a few that fit your budget and needs and ask them for a quote.
- Make sure you know what you are getting – as mentioned before, some price quotes are lower because the company sacrifices the quality of the guide and vehicle.
Here, reading as many reviews as you can by clients who have gone on safari with the company will help you make an informed decision.
For our trip, we went with the Natural World Kenya Safaris, a local company owned and run by Kenyans. They did not sponsor our post, and this recommendation is genuinely from the very bottom of our hearts. The service they provided was excellent, from start to end.
When you book your safari, you need an experienced person to advise you on what’s possible. As mentioned before, the distances in Kenya are huge, and first-timers are likely to create impossible or very tiring itineraries. We had great help from the Natural World here, who helped us with organising how we wanted to spend our days. They also took into consideration that we would be revisiting Kenya. They advised us accordingly so we could have a more relaxed safari.
Guide and Driver
We were surprised by how knowledgeable and skilled our guide, Joseph Mbotte, was. He made me realise that being a safari guide and driver is not a walk in the park and requires specialised knowledge in many areas. There are so many things that can go wrong if you don’t have the right guide and driver. Our guide, and any excellent guide worth his salt, needs to have the following traits:
- Have a comprehensive knowledge of flora and fauna found in different parks, including their names and behaviours
- Knowledge of where the animals tend to congregate
- Ability to locate areas in the park based on roads that may be overgrown
- The skill for driving on challenging off-road terrain and insane Kenyan roads
- Have a genuine passion for wildlife
- Having an eye for photography and an interest in it
Most of their guides are professionally trained and are members of the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association.
Natural World Kenya Safaris provided us with a very comfortable 4×4 Land Cruiser. The Land Cruiser had been converted into an open-top and had ample height for tall people to stand up in. We felt this is a crucial detail as you’ll be standing up for most of the drive in the vehicle. The vehicle was super spacious and had ample area for all our camera gear.
The game viewing and photographing experience is markedly superior in a converted Land Cruiser as it gives you a lot of space to get the shot you need. Also, you can get to where you need to go a lot faster and safer in a 4×4 on rough roads. You really don’t want to miss out on a moment because you couldn’t get there in time.
We hope that these tips help you in planning your first/next safari trip. All the best and hope to see you somewhere in Kenya sometime soon.