How to Book a Budget Safari in Kenya

Kenya. The mere word just has a certain aura about it, doesn’t it? These mystical images of the African Savanna come into your mind, which simply teem with wild animals in all their majesty. Just mentioning the word “Safari” evokes visions of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But those experiences do not come cheap!

Pregnant Cheetah

A pregnant cheetah wanders among the safari vehicles

Looking at safaris online before flying off to Nairobi gave me sticker shock. It got so bad that, at one point, I thought US$2,000 for 6 nights of camping in a tent (where you provided your own sleeping bag) would be a good deal! And I was starting to panic. Even the budget Backpacker accommodations that offered safaris had tiered prices depending on the number of people, and the rates for one person were just outrageous!

Hippos

Hippos surface for a break in the Mara River

In a bid for sanity, I started checking travel forums, many of which suggested that if you want a cheap safari, you should wait and book it when you arrive. I had concerns about having enough cash on hand to pay for a safari when I arrived (most cheap places do not take credit cards), but once I got to my senses, I realized I could also save a ton of money by joining an existing group when I got to Nairobi.

In the process, I learned a few things about how this works:

Maasai People

Maasai Tribesmen

 

The Bottom of the Barrel Rates Are Roughly US$130 per person per day

In Kenya, the lowest you can reasonably expect to pay is $130 per person per day. This is what I paid and I actually had a pretty decent accommodation in safari-style tents just outside the national park (I visited Maasai Mara, Kenya’s most famous park). I shared with another member of my group, had a real bed and an en suite bathroom, though the camp only had generator power for 3 hours a night. It also included all meals (drinks excluded) and round trip transportation, as well as 4 safari drives.*

Night Sky

Looking up at the vast expanse of the night sky. I’ve never seen so many stars before!
(Can you tell I’m a city person?)

Why Are Safaris so Expensive?

The short answer is because they’re touristy. Also, entry fee for the national parks is astronomically high: US$80-90 per person per 24-hour period.

Landscape

Landscape in the Great Rift Valley

Where you Book Your Safari Matters!

I polled the other people in my group as to how much they paid for the same thing I had and I learned that we paid different prices! They had booked directly with the tour company, where I had booked through a hostel (Milimani Backpackers and Safari Center) and paid a couple of hundred dollars less!

Gazelles

Gazelle in a field

Ask to Join a Group

Joining a group that’s ready to go is the best way to save money. Generally with the 4th person the rates start to go down. I figured out what to ask for and when I called to book, I specially asked if I could join a group for the 3 day Maasai Mara trip (the most popular safari). Low and behold, they had a group leaving the very next day!

Lunch Brak

Taking a lunch break in the Mara

Don’t Book Too Many Days

Seeing animals is cool for the first time. Even the second and third time. But it does get old after a while. I’m glad I didn’t book more than my 3 days. It helped that my group was very lucky though… (more on that later)

Zebras!

Zebras graze near the road

*You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For…

Note that asterisk up there? My trip was advertised to have 4 game drives, but in fact I only had 2. The schedule included an evening drive on the day we arrived, a morning and evening drive the next day and an early morning drive on the third day. But here’s the thing….we arrived too late on the first day for a drive (the park closes at sundown). The driver told us he would make it up to us by giving us a full day the next day. We entered the park at 9am and left at 6pm. I wouldn’t exactly recommend a full day game drive as most of the animals lay low during the hot afternoon hours and we saw almost nothing between 2pm and 5pm. And driving around gets quite dull after a while. We did have another game drive the third morning at 6am, which turned out to be the best experience!

Giraffe

A Maasai Giraffe walks right past my van

Another interesting thing happened here. Since the tickets are for 24 hours, the tour company got away with only paying one entry fee for each of rather than two… It wasn’t that big of a deal but it kind of rubbed me the wrong way and made me wonder if they got us there late on purpose.

Ostrich

An ostrich looks back before running off into the distance

It’s All About Luck

You aren’t guaranteed to see anything. Sure, you’ll see plenty of gazelles, zebras, giraffes and buffalos as they’re all a dime a dozen. But for the other “Big 5” (Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Buffalo, Rhinoceros) you really need a bit luck. My group was very lucky and we spotted all of the “Big 5” in the same day! Leopards are by far the hardest animals to spot and one jumped out right in front us!

Leopard

A leopard ran out right in front of us!

The Drivers All Talk to Each Other

Our driver had a CB radio and all the drivers are in constant communication about animal movements. If your driver is good, they’ll hightail it over to the location of one of the “Big 5” and, provided your timing and position is good, you’ll see things just fine. Soon enough, there’s a swarm of cars surrounding an animal (they don’t seem to mind). So the company you go with isn’t likely to matter that much. That said, your drivers abilities to respond to calls and have keen eyes will make or break your experience.

Elephant Crossing

An elephant crosses the road

The Roads Suck….Really!

Road to Maasai Mara

My van pulls a truck that got stuck in the mud on the road to Maasai Mara

Maasai Mara is the single most popular park in Kenya and yet the only way to get there is on a terrible road. And by terrible, I really mean TERRIBLE. It was easy going at first, as we descended into the majestic Great Rift Valley. But soon, our nice paved road turned into a dirt road for the last 50km or so. And soon that dirt road turned into…well, I don’t even know what you would call it. It was a private Ma’asai Road and to say it was unpaved was an understatement. It was, at times, like riding a roller coaster…on an obstacle course. What didn’t help was that the Maasai build in roadblocks so you have to pay a toll, or have to pay them to get you out! That’s why our drive took most of the day.

Toll Gate on Maasai Road

A toll gate set up by the Maasai villagers on the road to Maasai Mara

It Was an EPIC Experience

All that said, the safari was hands down the coolest part of my trip to East Africa. It’s all well and good to see animals in zoos at your home, but there’s nothing quite like seeing them in their natural habitat. Over here, a lioness keeps an eye on a pair of wildebeest on the opposite hill. Over there, a pregnant cheetah doesn’t have a care in the world and rolls around in the sun just like a house cat does. It was all so fascinating!

Lion

A lioness glances up from her morning nap as her cubs play off in the distance.

So if there’s one thing you simply must do in East Africa its go on safari! It may be expensive, but trust me… it’s worth it!

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10 Responses to How to Book a Budget Safari in Kenya

  1. Ida April 15, 2016 at 1:22 am #

    Even though there may be some catches during that Masai Mara safari, it’s cost effective and stunning!
    You are smart to spend only three days there. I found the following three more days I spent in the other two parks were not thrilling at all, it’s some kind of a waste of time and money, even we saw elephants clusters and a monkey family.

    • Aaron April 17, 2016 at 12:46 am #

      Interesting to hear. I had been warned ahead of time that once you’ve seen everything, it starts to get a bit dull, like how after 2 days in Maasai Mara, seeing more gazelles wasn’t exciting anymore. I think three days was just the right amount of time too.

  2. Brian April 25, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

    Great tips, appreciate it! I’ve been thinking about going to Africa in the next 3-5 years and this would definitely be something on my list.

    I agree that too much of a good thing can be bad. I’m usually the type that can get in most of what he wants to see in a day or two.

    I love museums and things, but I don’t know how some people can do so many hours and even days at places like that; you just sort of go numb.

    • Aaron May 1, 2016 at 4:36 pm #

      Yeah I love museums too, but I can only do a few hours at a time. Glad you found this to be useful! I’m so glad I took advantage of the opportunity to go on safari. I’ve never been a huge animal person (I hate zoos) but seeing them in their natural habitat is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done!

  3. John July 3, 2016 at 4:39 am #

    Am so glad I’ve come across this post, as it is extremely helpful advice for us right now! We’re heading to Nairobi at the end of this month and currently looking into a Masai Mara safari. But I have also been in sticker shock at the prices! Now I think we’ll just wait and book once we get there if I can’t find anything for $130/day or less. Also, your wildlife shots are making me more and more excited for our upcoming adventure! Cheers!

    • Aaron July 3, 2016 at 11:42 am #

      Thanks John, I’m glad this was helpful! Good luck and enjoy your safari! For a very cheap one you’ll probably have to pay cash (paying with a card in Kenya usually incurs a 3% fee). Prices are also always quoted in USD, though you may get a better deal by paying in Kenyan Shillings (ask for the price in this, it tends to be lower).

  4. Pierre April 3, 2017 at 9:58 am #

    Hello Aaron,
    Thank you very much for the insights, very useful!
    You said your travelmates paid less by booking directly with the tour company, but you don’t mention the name of this company. Can we know it?

    • Aaron April 9, 2017 at 10:56 pm #

      No I paid less by booking through a hostel. My friends paid MORE by booking through a tour company. I wasn’t even staying there, but I booked through the company linked in the post.

  5. Ali July 26, 2017 at 1:02 pm #

    Hi Aaron,

    I read your article and I really understand the confusion and frustration about the price tag and all. I have to say, organizing an African trip is not as easy as organizing a trip to Europe. Because of their remote locations of camps and lodges, things might get very expensive. Some of the camps can be reached only with air transfers.

    As far as getting what you pay for is another story. If you are visiting Kenya on wrong time you might miss the great migration and instead of seeing a great game you might not see what you were dreaming to see.

    I think anyone who is planing to visit Africa should do their online search for a good African company (who has been in business for years) instead of trying to book things on their own. Africa is a very complicated destination. Booking with an experienced agent might save you lots of money.

    As a travel addict, that’s all I can recommend to people if they are looking to travel to Africa.

    Thank you again for all your travel experiences. They are fun to read.

    • Aaron August 2, 2017 at 9:30 am #

      Funny how you’re writing from a company that gives safari tours, so your opinion is clearly biased. I went ahead and removed your link as I don’t approge links back to commercial entities.

      Yes, if you care deeply about staying at a particular lodge then book ahead of time. But that’s not what this post is about. There’s a lot of people out there like me who are budget travelers. Folks who are not going during Migration season for a variety of reasons. We look at safari prices and get sticker shock. I’m simply telling folks that it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s up to the travelers themselves to decide what they want to know and they deserve to know that you can have an amazing experience without breaking the bank.

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