How to do Kenya Safari on a budget

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How to do Kenya Safari on a budget

I never knew a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy – Ernest Hemingway

This quote was so true for our trip to Kenya. Smile was plastered on our faces throughout our trip. Our 9 year old son who shys away from photographs was all excited about posing with the wildlife.

Kenya was on our wishlist for a very long time; but the costs were prohibitive for a budget trip and we kept postponing it. However, we decided to do it for our 10th anniversary and booked our tickets around 4 months in advance. We did a lot of research and were finally able to do a 1 week Safari trip without burning a hole into our pockets. This guide is for those who would want to plan a Kenya Safari and are looking for options to do it in a budget – not on shoestring budget like backpackers, but on a much much lesser budget than it usually sounds like initially! These are the questions I have tried to answer in this post:

Best time to visit Kenya:

There is never a “bad time” to visit Kenya because it is a great destination all year round. It depends on what you prefer to see there. The only months to avoid if you are going for wildlife safaris is April and May. These are 2 months when it rains heavily and some camps are forced to close.

  • January, February and March are hot months in Kenya. The animals are closer to the watering holes and spotting the viewing is awesome during those months.
  • April and May are rainy seasons. It rains mostly during the nights, but you don’t want to be stuck in rains during your safari time!
  • June is very green in Kenya because the vegetation is lush after all the rains. Its also a great month if you want to see cubs and young ones of the animals. Many people prefer this month because its incredible experience seeing young animals.
  • July and August are the peak season in Kenya. This is the month when wildebeests and zebras migrate from Masai Mara in Kenya to Serengeti in Tanzania. The phenomenon is called “wildebeest migration” and involves animals crossing the crocodile infested Mara river. While the exact dates need to be tracked online; most of the migration happens during these months. The weather is comparatively cooler during these months.
  • September and October are very pleasant with little or no rains. The wildebeest migration can be seen in small numbers if one is lucky. The game viewing in general is good because the bushes are less dense at this time of the year and animals are easier to spot.
  • November and December see rains once in a while. These months are excellent to see migratory birds. Some animals also have their young ones during these months and the viewing is excellent.

In general, many visitors prefer July-August because wildebeest migration is unique to Kenya and Tanzania and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience! But the density of animals is so high that the viewing is good anytime of the year.

How many days are good for a Kenya wildlife safari?

There are 46 national parks and reserves in Kenya, not to mention the various private conservancies all over the country. It is not possible to see even a good number of parks in one trip. Most visited are the Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru, Amboseli and Samburu. However, I would suggest you read about them to know what is unique about each one and then decide which ones you want to visit. The standard itineraries offer 2 or 3 days in Masai Mara and couple of more days in one or two other parks depending on the number of days you have.

We did 2N/3D days in Masai Mara, 1N/2D day in Amboseli and 2 nights in Naivasha visiting Hells Gate National park and Crescent island walking safari. This was good for getting a taste of the parks, but the parks are too big to be covered in this short duration. I would suggest a minimum of 1 week if you want to get good wildlife experience.

Major costs involved in Kenya Safari:

  1. Park Entrance tickets
  2. Safari van for game drives and transport
  3. Accommodation
  4. Food

I have not included flight tickets here because that cost varies a lot depending on where you are flying from, connectivity to Nairobi, how early you book the flights and deals available at the time. We had fare alert set for Nairobi for a long time monitoring the fares before we actually booked the tickets.

  1. Park entrance tickets:

This is a fixed cost throughout the year. Park fee for some of the most visited national parks in Kenya (as on Dec 2019):

Masai Mara:

Adults: 80 USD
Child: 45 USD
Payment method: Cash, Visa/Mastercard or MPesa

Amboseli National Park:

Adults: 60 USD
Child: 35 USD
Payment method: Visa/Mastercard or MPesa
Cash not accepted.

Lake Nakuru National Park:

Adults: 60 USD
Child: 35 USD
Payment method: Visa/Mastercard or MPesa
Cash not accepted.

Nairobi National Park:

Adults: 43 USD
Child: 22 USD
Payment method: Visa/Mastercard or MPesa
Cash not accepted.

Tsavo East and West National Park:

Adults: 52 USD
Child: 35 USD
Payment method: Visa/Mastercard or MPesa
Cash not accepted.

Hells Gate National Park:

Adults: 26 USD
Child: 17 USD
Payment method: Visa/Mastercard or MPesa
Cash not accepted.

IMPORTANT NOTE:

  • The tickets for all the parks are valid for 24 hours. So if you enter the park at 3 pm on day 1; you need to exit before 3 pm on Day 2 to avoid paying fee for another day.
  • If you are paying by card and want to pay in USD, let the ticketing agent know in advance. You may end up paying conversion fee if they charge you in KSH.
  • Children’s ticket is valid for kids in the age group of 3-18 yrs.
  • Kids less than 3 yrs are admitted free. Though I am not sure if visitors travel with kids that young to these parks.
  • Many national parks in Kenya DO NOT ACCEPT CASH. Please check with your Safari drivers in advance.

2. Safari van for game drives and transport:

There are 2 types of safari vehicles allowed in Kenya national parks:

Safari Vans – These could either be regular ones or 4WD (4 wheel drives). Check and insist on 4WD because they are better suited for the terrain and don’t get stuck in mudpools during rain. Each van is supposed to carry 6 to 7 people. All the safari vans have open top and many have radios to communicate with other vans for wildlife spotting.

Safari Van in Kenya
Safari Van in Kenya

Land Cruisers – The land cruiser jeeps are also open top jeeps and are 7 seaters. The only difference between jeep and van is that jeeps are little more comfortable. There is no difference in the viewing experience.

Land Cruiser for Kenya Safari
Land Cruiser for Kenya Safari

Rules for the safari vehicles:

  • No one is allowed to get out of the safari vehicle at any point of time unless there is an emergency like flat tire. Even then, only the driver gets out. In full day safaris, the drivers allow guests to get out of the vehicle for lunch or use bushes for toilets if required; depending on which part of the park you are in.
  • Vehicles are not supposed to go out of the safari trail.
  • Safari vehicles are instructed not to block other vehicles from viewing and/or stay in a strategic place for too long of that blocks other vehicles.

There is heavy penalty if the rules are broken; so most of the drivers stick to these rules.

Points to check before booking a safari vehicle:

  • Make sure vehicle is 4WD
  • Check with the tour operator if the vehicle has radio. This is important because sightings are relayed and everyone knows where to head.
  • Check if the vehicle has mobile charging points. Many lodges / hotels have limited electricity and it may not be possible to charge all gadgets when you are in the lodge. Having your phone charged in the car helps.
  • Private vehicles or vehicles without registered guides are not allowed in Masai Mara / Amboseli/ Nakuru and other big parks. Self drive is allowed in smaller parks though. If you plan to self-drive; check the park rules first.

Coming soon: Post on Explorer Kenya with whom we booked the safari van.

3. Accommodation:

There is a range of accommodation available in and around parks depending on budget and convenience one expects. Most economical are the camping options; followed by budget lodges, mid-range hotels and luxury hotels. Prices are slightly higher in peak season. A representative price of accommodation in various category would be:

Camping: 8-10 USD per person per night depending on the park and camping site. Some camping sites only have ground so one can use their own tents; which some have their own tents. These sites have common toilets. The prices do not include food.

Budget Lodges: Lodges have shared or private accommodations. Price can be anywhere between 20 USD to 60 USD per person per night depending on the facilities available.

The prices of mid-range and luxury hotels go as high as 1000 USD a night so I will not mention any price range.  There are lodges inside the parks as well; but they are priced atrociously high. Ololaimutiek village near Ololaimutiek gate has many options for budget travellers.

Tip when selecting accommodation near national parks – The entrance fee for the parks in Kenya are valid for 24 hrs. If you are entering the park at 3pm; you can do the safari till 6:30 pm that day. You are again allowed in the park at 6:30 am and required to exit before 3pm. If you decide to stay in an accommodation inside the park; you will need to pay entrance fee beyond that 3pm on 2nd day (and/or before 3pm on the 1st day) when you are in the hotel. It is advisable to stay outside the park if you are on budget to avoid this extra fee.

Coming soon: Review of Enchoro Wildlife Camp, Masai Mara; Camp Carnelleys, Naivasha and Amboseli Eco Camp.

4. Food:

Most of the lodges offer all inclusive package. This includes breakfast, packed lunch(if you are in safari during lunch) and dinner. Even if you are not in all-inclusive package; you can ask your lodge to pack food for you. Most of the budget lodges charge USD 10-12 per meal for a set meal.

What is available in Masai Mara lodges:

Breakfast at Masai Mara Lodges – Bread (plain/toasted), jam, butter, one fruit (banana/orange) and tea/coffee.

Lunch – Very few guests stay in the lodge for lunch. They either pack their lunch and go for safari or check out early morning. We were the only guests for lunch on the day we checked out of Enchoro Wildlife Camp and requested them to make Sukuma Wiki; one of their local dishes and they obliged.

Packed lunch for Masai Mara Safari – Packed lunch has the following items: 1 Banana, 1 orange, 1 sandwich, 1 piece chicken/apple, 1 fruit juice &1 pack of chips.

packed lunch for Masai Mara

Dinner – Most of the budget lodges in Masai Mara have set buffets with few options. They do not have a-la-carte meals. Meals include chapathi (Indian paratha), Rice/plain pasta, one veg curry, one non veg curry and salad. Only variation from day to day is the change in non-veg/veg curry. Some of the mid-range lodges have better food options and they also have Kenyan specialities.

Food for vegetarians/Vegans in Kenya: It is assumed that Kenyan food is meat based and therefore vegetarians have tough time. However, we spoke to some other travellers and also realized ourselves that this is not true. The options for vegetarians are limited, but its not difficult to get veg food. Vegetables that Kenyans use are beans, carrot, peas, potato and onions. So you can expect variations of curry using these. Sukuma Wiki that I mentioned earlier is made of spinach (very similar to palak ka saag in India). It can be had with rice made of maize.

How can I save costs when travelling to Kenya?

While there are some fixed costs like park entrance tickets that cannot be avoided; one can still save costs while doing a good Kenyan Safari. We did a detailed cost analysis of various options that you can find later in the blog.

Some tips for budget safari are:

  • Do not go with tour packages – Unless you are travelling alone, DO NOT go with tour packages. You can have a better experience at the same cost if you book safari vehicle separately. It is a no-brainer that having your own safari vehicle gives you the flexibility to plan your itinerary and a more relaxed private experience.
  • Book accommodation directly through lodges – If you are booking a private vehicle; you have the flexibility of choosing your own accommodation too; which is not available with tour packages. Tour agencies give you option of a few lodges and you need to pick. There are also instances where guests are promised one lodge and moved to another when they reach there. It is always advisable to book accommodation directly through the lodge than some agency. Check with the person corresponding with you on email if they are from the lodge or from an agency.
  • Stay outside the national parks – If you are staying in a lodge inside the park; your time spent in the lodge is also considered inside the park. This adds up to the park entrance fee and you end up spending more.
  • Try Camping – Kenya is very camping friendly. If you have camped earlier and enjoyed it; try camping sites. Most of the major parks in Kenya have some camping sites close by which are economical too!
  • Go in a group – Safari vehicles are booked on a per day basis and not per person basis. Each safari vehicle can comfortably accommodate 6 people, maximum up to 7. If you are 2 families; the costs get split; which makes it much more economical.
  • Bring your own water – Water bottles are priced very high in Kenyan lodges. 1/2 litre bottles are USD 1. Buy a 10 / 20 litre bottle from a supermarket in Nairobi before you start your safari. Since we were reaching Nairobi in the night and starting Safari next day morning; we requested our driver to pick it up for us. It costed us 500 KSH (~ USD 5) for 2 10 litre bottles.
  • Get some ready to eat meals – Food is also priced quite high in Kenya. Unless you are in an all-inclusive package; you can try few meals with ready to eat food. We carried some ready to eat that only required us to get hot water from the restaurant. That easily saves 40-50 USD per meal for a family of 3.

Comparison between tour package and self-organized tour (for 2 adults and 1 child)

We got tour agencies to send us their itinerary for budget safari and compared them with our plan. The lodges recommended by them were similar to the ones we were booking and in some cases were same. You can see that even without sharing any cost; the cost of self-managed safari is almost the same compared to the group tours.

Private Tour – 4D/3N Package Tour – 4D/3N Private Tour – 5D/4N Package Tour – 5D/4N
Covering Naivasha/ Nakuru and Masai Mara Covering Naivasha/ Nakuru and Masai Mara Covering Naivasha/ Nakuru, Amboseli and Masai Mara Covering Naivasha/ Nakuru, Amboseli and Masai Mara
Private Safari Van 520 0 650 0
Masai Safari Tickets 410 0 410 0
Masai Village 30 30 30 30
Masai Accommodation (2 nights) 240 0 240 0
Amboseli Accomodation (1 night) 0 0 40 0
Amboseli National Park tickets 0 0 155 0
Amboseli meals (Lunch & Dinner) 0 0 90 0
Lake Naivasha accommodation (1 night) 60 0 60 0
Hells Gate entrance ticket 70 70 70 70
Lake Naivasha boating 35 35 35 35
Hells Gate bicycle 15 15 15 15
Crescent Island tour 75 75 75 75
Lake Naivasha meals (Lunch) 30 0 60 0
Tip to the driver 80 80 100 100
Package Cost 1275 1575
TOTAL (USD) 1565 1580 2030 1900

Conclusion

Self-organized tour is definitely better compared to the group tours. It is private tour, you get to decide your own itinerary and accommodation and have the flexibility to choose how much time you want to spend in the park. You are also at your own pace inside the park and that’s a huge advantage!

As you can see from the post, it is possible to do the safari on an affordable budget.

Have you been to Kenya and have some more suggestions? Do let me know in the comments. If you know someone who is travelling to Kenya and can use this post, do forward it to them. Thank you 🙂

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