This is not about peer-to-peer travel stuff, but I think it’s useful info that I couldn’t find online for myself. Hopefully this will be helpful to others.
I will start by saying safaris are amazing. For me it’s like being in another world, with all these strange beasts walking around. I can’t recommend it enough. But booking a safari in Kenya is a confusing experience, especially if you are budget conscious and also want to plan in advance from outside of the country.
I took a trip to Kenya, and as has become my habit in recent years, I did very little advance planning. I knew I wanted to do a safari: I love seeing animals in the wild and this is a truly unique experience in this part of Africa. But I figured it would be cheaper to book this in-country, and perhaps my locals would know a good guide to use. Once in Nairobi I sent out some quick requests for price quotes to about 7 or 8 safari companies I found online, and through a complicated series of connections, I ended up booking a 4 day safari through a guide I met in Nairobi for the best price I had been quoted (from another company). After doing the safari I realized how they work and why much of my research and planning was unnecessary. This is a compilation of the important stuff you should know before booking a Kenya safari.
Note: I was traveling in October, which isn’t peak season, but still seems to be considered high season. Pricing will definitely vary based on time of year.
Group vs. private safari
You have two general categories of safari: private and shared. A private safari has the advantage of getting you one dedicated guide and vehicle to use as you like. It has the disadvantage of being more expensive if you are traveling alone or in a small group.
If you are traveling with fewer than 6 people and you want to save money on a safari you should join a group. This means you are paying for your own seat(s) in a van. It also means you get to travel around with other people from various parts of the world who are just as excited as you are about viewing wildlife in Kenya. It’s a great way to meet people, and makes your non-game viewing time also entertaining.
If you have lots of money and/or want to prioritize spending your money on a private safari, I can’t offer you specifics for booking, but much of what I write below should still apply.
The vast majority of safaris are run with 8 seat vans. Most of the time I saw 6 people in these, which means everyone has a window seat, but there is no way to get a guarantee that they won’t put 8 people in there (two middle seats). It’s actually not the end of the world to have a middle seat because all these vans have a pop up roof so you can stand up and look out from the top. This is an amazing feature! But 8 people is very crowded for using the pop up roof viewing. In fact I found even 6 people to be tight when we were all standing trying to get a good angle on a photo of a lion, especially if several people have huge camera lenses they want to position. Nonetheless 6 people in a van was totally fine. Don’t bother trying to get a guarantee from the tour companies that they will limit the group to 6 if you’re not booking a private tour, they just can’t do that (more on why later).
There are also some tours that you book direct with companies that run only their own vehicles, and these have some other options. Intrepid tours is one of these: they have much larger vehicles, which are also higher up and more open, and looked like they had significantly better tires. I have no idea if these are superior for animal viewing, I could see pros and cons with that approach (for instance it would be hard to look out of the side opposite your seat).
Note, the typical tour van is old. It may break in some way at least once on your safari. Don’t worry, they are well prepared to fix things. For instance, part of our engine fell off when we bottomed out on a particularly bad bump on the way to the park (the roads are awful once you go off road, a few hours before you get to Massai Mara). We stopped in the next “town” and someone pulled out some tools and a soldering iron and fixed it right up. But don’t expect a comfy ride over the terribly bumpy roads in and around the park. The seats aren’t bad, but the poor tires and shocks don’t take the ruts well. Also, try not to sit in the back, or rotate that evenly among your car mates.
There are only two types of lodging for most people: you can stay in either tent cabins or in fancy lodges. Note that at Lake Nakuru and a few other parks you have cheap hotels that replace the tent cabin option. The tent cabins have beds with mosquito nets and private bathrooms with a toilet, sink and shower (with hot water). They are not fancy at all, but they are totally fine. If you are traveling alone you will get your own tent cabin and if you are traveling with someone you will share; they are all the same size so this is actually a nice perk of traveling alone. The tent camps have a common room for dining and serve plentiful but not amazing food. They also generally sell drinks, including alcohol, for extra. These tent camps use generators to provide electricity for a few hours in the morning and night, and you can charge devices during those hours. Wifi exists but pretty much doesn’t work.
Most of the tent camps are in the same place just outside the park (none of them are inside the park) at Massai Mara. There are minor variations in quality, and some people say the Rhino camp is the best. But I don’t think it really matters which one you are in. And I heard from others that even if you request a specific camp it’s not a guarantee you will stay at that one if you are sharing a van. They want to put all the people in the car together in the same camp.
The lodges are much nicer and I didn’t stay in one but can say that people I met reported a significantly more upscale experience. These are fancy places, with better food, full time power, decent wifi, etc. And you pay a lot more for the lodges. In Massai Mara, for instance, one person told me they were quoted a price of $80/night more for the Sopa lodge than for the tent cabins. It seemed like these prices were even higher in other national parks.
A quick note on security
The tents and vans seem to be very secure. I think this is an important point for the tour companies: they don’t want a bad reputation from theft. And so in spite of the tents being easily unzipped, and the vans often being left unlocked at rest stops, the guides were always very confident that it was safe to leave your stuff inside. And I never saw or heard of any issues. I met people who brought along laptops and left them in the tents and/or vans without issue.
Where to go and for how long
This is the only other thing you need to determine: which of the many awesome national parks in Kenya do you want to visit? and for how many days? I only went to Massai Mara and Lake Nakuru so I can’t really help with this decision. But keep in mind that driving time between parks is quite long and you probably don’t want to plan a trip that involves transitioning between parks every day or two as you will just spend most of your time on the road in transit. Instead focus on one or two parks. I did a 4 day trip, 3 days in Massai Mara and 1 in Lake Nakuru. Which really meant only one full day in Massai Mara, plus a 2 hour evening drive and a 2 hour morning drive on the transit days to/from there. And then a 4 hour morning drive in Lake Nakuru. If you want to maximize safari time and minimize driving time, just do one park. I don’t regret visiting Lake Nakuru because it was beautiful and very different from Massai Mara, and I also enjoyed seeing a lot of the country from the bus, but I don’t know that I’d recommend this itinerary to others who just want to see lots of interesting wildlife.
Regardless, keep in mind that arrival day might involve a few hours in the evening seeing animals but is mostly just spent in transit. And departure day similarly may involve a few morning hours of safari but is mostly transit.
Selecting a tour operator
Once you’ve picked your length of time, park(s) to visit, and type of lodging, it’s time to select your operator. Assuming you are joining a group tour, it turns out it doesn’t really matter who you select. Most of them are booking you into a pool of drivers and vans, and although the vans are owned by individual tour companies they share across groups in an elaborate and remarkably well run system that maximizes the available space and routing on any given day.
Reach out to multiple tour operators to ask for pricing on exactly the itinerary you want, and then negotiate based on the lowest price you are offered. If one says they don’t have a tour starting on the day you want or with the itinerary you want, that might mean you’ve found a tour operator who keeps everyone with the same guide/van for the whole trip, and if you want that, feel free to use their fixed options. But if you want to create your own itinerary and depart on a specific date, just know that you are likely to be handed off between vans/drivers over the course of your trip.
For instance, on my tour I started in a van with 7 people leaving Nairobi. All of us had booked with different tour companies. The next morning we sent one person off to a different group because she only had one night and so joined a group going back that afternoon. On the third day me and one other person were sent off into a new van leaving the park. At lunch the other guy was sent to a different van to return to Nairobi while my van continued to Lake Nakuru. The final day at lunch I was actually handed back to my original driver for the return to Nairobi. It’s a remarkably smoothly run operation of keeping everyone going where they want with the seats available in all the vans running on any given day. The drivers always seemed to know exactly who was going where, when and with whom.
The other reason it doesn’t matter which company you book through is that many of them are run by the same people under different names. And the pricing is totally variable based on what they think they can get from you. I met many people who compared prices, and even for the exact same itinerary with same driver on the same days they paid very different rates.
How to figure out what’s a good price
First you should look up the national park entrance fee. At the time of my trip it was $80 per day for a foreigner. That’s for a 24 hour period, so if you’re going for 3 days it will cost 2x$80 because you don’t end up in the park for more than 48 hours. After subtracting out the park fee, I ended up paying $37.50/day for my lodging, food, transport and guide/driver for 4 days. Although I didn’t actually negotiate very aggressively, I guess I got lucky with the company that offered me the lowest price because this was the best price I heard from anyone I met.
In the end, after talking to some guides about pricing, I determined that you could probably get this down close to $30/day with some good negotiating, especially if you are booking for multiple people (the more days the better the discount). But I think targeting under $40/day is a good rate. Add the park fees to that and you will have the price you want to get. Remember, this is tent cabins, not luxury lodge accommodations, if you want the lodges I can’t give you a ballpark on pricing but you can use my base number and ask around to figure out the appropriate mark up for nice lodging.
Group tour negotiating
If you are traveling with 6 or more people, I think you can negotiate a good group rate for a private safari. For instance, I estimate that a group of 8 people could pay $3000 for a 4 day safari (3 nights) including lodging, food, dedicated guide and van, and park fees. You would be staying in the tent cabins/cheap hotels. If you include children in that group the price should be lower because park fees are discounted for kids. Shop around and don’t be afraid to negotiate aggressively, the pricing you are offered initially is not set in stone!