Below are tips from years of safari-going and assisting visitors and friends and family with their trips. (Mostly pre-Covid experience, though wildlife probably had a really f-ing amazing time without visitors and their vehicles!) If you’d rather have someone plan it all for you, reach out to a tour planner directly. Two local options:
- William G with Infinity for impeccable planning and amazingness (a bit to a lot of luxury but very very fair and enthusiastically negotiated prices)
- Val S with Heels & Valise for personal care from a small operation, for a wide range of budgets
1. Go local: make conscious choices, to be a socially responsible tourist. If you hire foreign guides, or eat or stay at places owned by foreigners, you are contributing much less back into local communities and economies. You can choose to be a different kind of tourist. Give highly skilled and enterprising Kenyan safari experts some good business. It’s quite possible to be a socially and ecologically conscious tourist.
For example, choose lodging intentionally. AirBnB is often foreigner-owned. Instead, you can stay at places that give back to the hosting communities, often quite dependent on tourism. For example in Maasai Mara several camps (Tipilikwani comes to mind) are Maasai-owned and even have plans for how they spend and decide on community investments with some of the profits. For trinkets/handicrafts, buy directly from artisans when you can. Go to places where the artisans themselves are selling their wares, such as small local markets (not on a set-up visit to their village where sales may be the only benefit they are getting from many visitors).
2. Go local for a better experience: If you’re abroad, make an effort to coordinate with someone local here, so you get good current information and best rates — rather than go through large tour companies that do active marketing to foreigners or are foreigner-run. You get a better experience, and proceeds go to Kenyans who get to show you their country!
3. Tour companies: Find a good match. There are thousands of tour companies, from budget to luxury, easygoing and fun to knowledgeable and serious, all-contingencies-taken-care-of to allowing a little more adventure and independence, from a totally structured full schedule to one with more choice and space for impromptu changes along the way. It’s good to go through people you know and trust, since it’s hard for you to be an expert on all the finer points (e.g. does your vehicle have a strong radio, so other drivers can give you a heads up about an amazing animal find).
4. Alternately, or for part of your trip, book through a particular accommodation host for a very special experience. They will have the very best local destination knowledge, they’ll take care of every detail, and it can be more cost-effective than the sum of the individual elements, like when put into a “package” for your whole time. One particularly amazing ($$$) example: https://saruni.com/2022-special-offers-overview/
5. When to come: One big decision is about what time of year to come. How important is the wildebeest migration (i.e. seeing a wildebeest or zebra get eaten by a crocodile, or trampled) to you? Or would you want to come when there are fewer tourists and greater availability of choices in accommodations at better rates? Also think about your preference for warmer or cooler temperatures, your chances of having a rainy day, and your tolerance for holiday travelers. Almost any time of year has something special going on: lion mating season, wildebeest birthing season, phosphorescent plankton sparkling in the water, special events like Grevy zebra tracking and the Lewa marathon through the bush (really beautiful).
6. How long to come for: If this is a once in a lifetime trip, give Kenya a full 2.5–3 weeks. That said, there’s really no need to go on game drives every day for three weeks. Personally I think I’d be exhausted by that. At a minimum, if you’re traveling internationally to get here, one week is good. In that case, opt for organised tours and local flights over ground travel, to maximise your experience.
6. Length of safaris: I don’t think it’s necessary to stay more than 3–5 days in a given park or conservancy to really enjoy it. Stay longer if you want to relax at the lodge in the middle, lounging at the hotel pool or spa, or on your room’s balcony. (Or to leave time to stay in for a day during rainier seasons.)
On every game drive, you’ll always see something new, though after some point it will be variations on what you’ve seen: animal babies, giraffes against a different landscape, hippo not submerged, lion at a different point of eating a different animal, leopard and cheetah sightings with cubs, without cubs. It is particularly advantageous if you have a good guide who is local and knows the animal families and their routines. And, if you opt to stay somewhere posh and your goal isn’t only to tick off the big five animals with a zoom lens (or a personal bucket list like animals getting eaten or mating) then instead take a day or half day off your game drives and chill.
7. Staying active: For those who exercise, or should, or have back or other bodily problems: Keep in mind 95% of safaris are a very sedentary experience, and very few accommodations have good space to run around, nor gyms. You could intentionally look for accommodations that have exercise options. If you don’t try, then the best you’re likely to get is probably yoga. There are exceptions you can look for, e.g. Sarova in Nakuru National Park has well tended gardens with a nice loop trail for running within its property’s confines. Or you can cycle (casual or rigorous routes) and walk through Hell’s Gate National Park, climb Mt Longonot, run the Lewa marathon before game drives, or join a special event like the 10to4 mountain bike challenge.
8. Specialty trips abound if you have that thing you love doing and want to do it here. There are specialty trips such as running-focused ones in famous places, beach skydiving, horseback safaris, photography, birdwatching, bird photography, various types of fishing, mountaineering, rock climbing, etc. Or you can set as your destination a place with particular rare animals, like Rothschild giraffes, Grevy’s zebras (furry round ears!), baby sea turtles, gerenuks, or dolphins.
Find your price/luxury ratio:
A. Extreme budget can be very comfortable, if you’re independent. It’s possible to very enjoyably drive (or have someone drive) your own 4×4, camp out on your own cushy bedding, bring your own food and drink, have the campsite chef cook delicious meals, take hot showers, hire a local guide (and driver if you want) for your game drives. All for about $40 per day (plus park entrance fees of $80) per person. For example, drive out to Maasai Mara yourself (easy) to a campsite… good chef, hot showers, your own comfy tent and bedding, cozy campfires, guides who grew up right there (you can opt to hire an open-sided vehicle nearby), waking up and stepping right out into wilderness, and total autonomy… feels like the right way sometimes. 🙂 And is SUPER cheap.
B. Budget packages aren’t so comfortable. You can go to Maasai Mara for $350 for three days. But it will be very structured in schedule, and you’ll join others, so times/plans will be set, and you might have to scramble for a better seat. You stay in basic tented camps, with mediocre food, latrines, rather short beds, etc. If you spend a little more money or are more self-sufficient in your adventure, you can get a lot more comfort and autonomy. I’d rule out the very cheapest tented campsites, personally.
C. Online prices can be set very very high. Don’t book accommodations directly online, because the posted rates are the highest possible. Most safaris are booked through agents, and it makes everyone look good to give a “good deal” on “normal rates”. If you travel with a Kenyan or resident, usually they can get you about half-price local/resident rates on shared lodging. Also, you can work out deals if you stay in the same place for many days. Anyone paying online sticker prices will be very disappointed in the quality (unless you don’t know better) (ignorance is bliss?) Of course, you can do a nice combination of luxury levels, and plan the order of those places to get the most out of it, particularly balancing experience between game drives and time at a luxurious place. For example, stay at simpler accommodations when arriving late in a new place, then transfer next day to a nicer place.
Extra special strategic tips:
1. Vehicles really matter. If you can splurge for a private one, that’s ideal. But if you’re joining a group, try to arrange for a tour that caps the number of people to a smaller group and is very communicative about how the sharing will work, so everyone will be accommodating and will have their turns at a good seat.
2. Features to look for in a good vehicle: Extra padded comfy seats, good shocks, and a good quality radio (guides announce good finds over the radio… very cool camaraderie)… and of course having a good driver! Ideal vehicles have totally open sides, but those you have to get locally at your destination… that is, you can’t take a safari vehicle with no sides on the main roads from Nairobi.
3. Get a guide who’s local to particular place. Professionals who do the whole safari package (to different places) are very knowledgeable and certified, BUT a local guide who knows his/her particular environment is invaluable… a local Maasai in the mara, a local Borana or Samburu up north. There is no comparison between a city slicker tour guide and a local grew-up-here guy.
4. Being socially and environmentally responsible can nourish your experience. And reduce awkward cultural experiences and guilt. Truly eco-friendly lodging has really amazing design features for sustainability and greenness, and in nicer places you don’t compromise on anything. Places that are eco-conscious source really cool products from local cooperatives, for example. Win-win-win.
5. Ask about how a place is run. Places offering their staff a decent living wage will have longer term staff who really love their jobs. In the mara, you can choose to stay at a place that actually is owned by, or even better benefits Maasai host communities. Ask in what ways. Or, rather than benefiting one wealthy Maasai, perhaps something more collectively for the local community. E.g. they have a collective decision-making system for distributing profits, or invest revenues into public services for broader community use.