Visiting Kenya on a Budget

18 Aug

Africa. A continent I had been meaning to visit for as long as I can remember. But somehow all my plans were shelved during the planning stages itself after seeing the initial estimates of costs related to the trip. You are right, it just seemed very expensive. Stories from friends and online articles showed such large numbers that Africa seemed beyond my reach for a very long time. However when my wedding date was confirmed for the end of May, I felt that a new beginning deserved visiting a new continent and decided to seriously try and figure out ways to visit Kenya on a budget. And here’s how you can visit it too without emptying your bank account.

A Lion at the Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa

The Itinerary – We (two of us) spent around 8 days in Kenya and covered Nairobi, Maasai Mara National Park, Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivasha and Amboseli National Park. There are many more things to see and to do in Kenya such as Tsavo national park, Aberdare national park, area around Mt. Kenya, etc and you can customize your itinerary depending on your interests and the time available.

The Rhino, Lake Nakuru, Kenya

Planning for the trip – There are also many ways of booking your trip –

  1. Book your accommodation and transportation separately and pay for all overheads (entrance fee, food, water etc) on actual usage. This works well if you are just visiting 1 or 2 places.
  2. Negotiate with a reputed travel agency for an all-inclusive package. This option worked out cheaper for us and we reached out to multiple operators and chose one based on their overall rating, reviews and cost.
  3. Take quotes from travel agencies based in your own country and offering tours in Kenya as well as those that are based in Kenya.
  4. Check out www.safaribookings.com/tours for all kinds of safari options (only safari, safari including stay, private tours, group tours etc etc). For stay options you can checkwww.booking.com
  5. Look for travel agents and tours from Nairobi and not Maasai Mara. I had first started looking for tour operators in Maasai Mara and they were significantly more expensive.
Flamingoes at Amboseli National Park, Kenya

Timing – July and August is the migration and peak tourist season to visit Kenya resulting in everything costing significantly more than usual and also being crowded (not only from the animals!). We traveled to Kenya in early June and were able to enjoy a relatively peaceful trip with fewer travelers around, witnessed the beginning of the famous wildebeest migration and still enjoyed most of the off-season discounts offered by hotels and tour operators.

Wildebeest at Maasai Mara, Kenya

Transportation – This is one of the most important aspects of organizing a good safari trip. You book a vehicle and driver (the driver doubles up as a guide for the safaris) who then picks you up in Nairobi, drives you around for your entire trip and then drops you back at the Nairobi airport or in the city.  There are a couple of options for this –

  1. You can fly from Nairobi to Maasai Mara and to Amboseli; but these are small aircrafts and airports. So baggage space is limited and tickets are expensive. We chose to drive for our entire trip as there was a significant difference in costing.
  2. Any safari vehicle can hold upto 6 people and the more the number of people sharing the van the lower the cost per person. And this does help bring down the cost per person for the trip significantly.
  3. There are two main types of vehicles available for the safaris – 4WD safari minivan with a pop-up roof or a safari jeep (4×4 land cruiser) with a pop-up roof. Minivans are cheaper than land cruisers but the land cruisers are more spacious and comfortable on the bumpy roads. The cost difference between the two was quite significant so I spent a lot of time researching online before booking. My two bits of wisdom on this is as follows – if you are a group of 2-3 people then the minivan will be best. It is comfortable and a reasonable cost option. But if you are around 4-6 people then you should consider a land cruiser. However if you are on a tight budget then 6 people in a minivan will really help keep your costs low.
  4. Some tour operators offer options of a separate driver and guide thereby adding another person’s cost to the trip. We had a driver who acted as a guide too and we managed to see pretty much everything there was to see.
  5. For all the places we visited, the normal travel time between any two places was around 4-6 hours and at times on non-existent and really bumpy roads. If you have any medical issues with such travel, do consider taking a flight instead of driving.
  6. All the places we visited, except Maasai Mara, had an option for self-driving. We didn’t evaluate this but you can check for quotes and see if self-driving works better for you. But do remember that this will not include a guide.
Our safari minivan, Maasai Mara, Kenya

Stay / Accommodation – There are many options for stay i.e from basic tents to simple lodges to fancy resorts and the price varies accordingly. You can either ask the tour operators for options or check www.booking.com to find a place that works best for you. A few points to keep in mind though –

  1. In Maasai Mara you can either stay outside the national park or inside it. Naturally staying inside the national park is significantly more expensive as the benefits are – you are inside the park so you see animals pretty much all the time from your rooms and also do not have to travel for an additional 20-30 minutes each way at the start and end of your safari. We chose to stay outside the park in a beautiful small property that was in a pretty similar setting as the stay options inside the national park and had loads of animals all around it. Also we reached the park at just a drive of around 20 minutes and were ok with it. For the amount of money we saved I totally recommend staying outside the park.
  2. If you decide to stay inside the Maasai Mara national park there is an additional option of staying inside a private conservatory. The way I understand this, public areas of the national park are managed by the government and all vehicles have to drive in only designated areas and can’t go off-road. However some areas have been allocated to private conversationists to manage as private conservatories. These private conservatories are small areas and hence the density of animals is higher, sightings are better and you can drive off-road and be closer to the animals. Some conservatories are reported to be better for the large cat sightings. But again you have to pay more for it.
  3. Negotiate for stay options to include all meals since you are in the middle of a jungle and there are no alternative options around.
  4. Tap water is not drinking water so either negotiate with the tour operator to include all drinking water or buy enough from a supermarket in Nairobi to last you through the stay. Also hotels in Kenya only offer 2 small bottles of complimentary water and you have to buy the rest. So carry your own water for your stay too.
Our stay in Maasai Mara, Kenya

Park entrance fee Masai Mara – For non-resident adults staying inside the Maasai Mara national park, the entrance fee is USD 70/- per person for 24 hours and for non-resident adults staying outside the Maasai Mara national park, the entrance fee is USD 80/- per person for 24 hours.

If you are staying outside the national park and plan to be here for 2N/3D then you will just need 1 ticket for 2 days. On day 1, after driving from Nairobi you will reach Maasai Mara by lunch and the first safari starts only at around 4.30pm. Hence your 24 hours start from 4.30pm that day till the end of safari the next day (Day 2 safaris are normally all day safaris from 7.00am to 4.30pm). Hence you can cover 2 days in one ticket. If you are leaving early morning on day 3 or have seen everything you wanted to and don’t want to do another safari you don’t need to buy another ticket. That’s USD 80/- saved. However you will need to pay this fees again if you are going for a morning safari on day 3.

If you are staying inside the park for 2N/3D then you will have to pay this fees for 2 days as you are inside the park for 48 hours.

Cheetah in Maasai Mara, Kenya

Tipping – This is a big expense and people except to be tipped everywhere you travel within Kenya. We tipped our driver / guide for the trip and everywhere else we tipped in common pools or to specific people who went out of their way to accommodate us.

Sunrise over Lake Nakuru, Kenya

Shopping at rest stations – During your long drive from one national park to another, the driver / guide will stop at a rest station for using the toilets and a quick tea / coffee break. Every rest station has a souvenir shop run by a local cooperative that sells souvenirs made by locals in the villages around it. The way this works is that the moment you enter this shop a person will approach you and hand you a basket for shopping. There will be no price tag on anything but on enquiring about the price you will be told that it all depends on the number of pieces you buy. The more you buy the better the discount and the cheaper everything will turn out to be. But no matter how many pieces I picked up the overall price was just too high. So I didn’t pick up anything from any of these stores and found the same things in Nairobi’s local markets for around 1/4th the price.

Cormorants and their nests on trees, Lake Naivasha, Kenya

Tips for the trip

  1. There is a direct flight from Mumbai to Nairobi and we got a great deal with our credit card on it.
  2. We were 2 people and decided to go for a private safari at a very reasonable cost in a minivan. While a group tour will turn out to be cheaper, if you are 2 or more people consider a private safari in a minivan. This provides a lot more flexibility with your itinerary and you can spend as much time as you want anywhere, stop where you want, watch any animal as long as you want to or click as many pics as you like (and you will click many believe me).
  3. During my research online, a couple of blogs suggested that in off seasons you don’t need to book safaris in advance and can reach Nairobi and look around for something that works best for you. We didn’t try this as we had limited time and leaving these bookings for the last minute is just not my travel style.
  4. Feel free to negotiate, get more things added to a quoted price and shop around for options. Everyone does. Additionally if there are any trips not included in the package and no government pricing printed on tickets, then feel free to negotiate or ask for discounts. If you are a big group, feel free to ask for bigger discounts.

Have you been to Kenya on a budget trip yet? If yes and if I have missed anything then do share your feedback in the comments section below.

If not, then happy planning your own trip to this amazing place 🙂

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