How to Plan a Kenya Safari

by Alan Stock

So, you want to go on safari in Kenya? Having narrowed it down from a variety of Safari options in Africa, it's undoubtedly a good choice. This African country is home to some of the world’s best national parks for seeing a range of wildlife in their natural habitat. Big cats, giraffes, zebras, elephants, hippos, crocodiles, buffalo, wildebeest and flamingos are just some of the interesting animals you can find here. But where to start? In this article we’re going to cover all the basics for planning a Kenyan safari from getting there to which parks you should consider. 

When to go on a Kenya Safari? 

First of all, what time of year should you go for a Kenya safari? There's a more detailed post on that here , but in short, the following is a rough breakdown of the calendar:

Shot from the rear of wildebeest and zebras splashing in the Mara River in Kenya

Wildebeest crossing the Mara river during the Great Migration Photo by Ray Morris

Where to go for your Safari in Kenya?

In Kenya you are spoiled for choice with national parks each with their own scenery and range of wildlife. Most visitors visit at least a few of these, as some are small and close to each other. Longer tours may include three or more parks, and often these tours are also combined with Tanzanian safari spots such as the Serengeti. Check out our article here for more information on Tanzanian safari destinations. What about Kenya? Listed below are the most well known Kenyan national parks, but there are many more to choose from. 

The Masai Mara

The most popular of Kenya’s reserves, this huge park in the south west of Kenya offers great wildlife viewing opportunities all the year round. It’s a great place to see big cats (lions, leopards, cheetahs, etc). It’s also famous for the massive annual wildebeest migration in September/October which sees over a million of these animals crossing the Mara river to and from the Serengeti in Tanzania - an awesome spectacle. Terrain in Masai Mara is mostly savannah making it easy to see animals, and there’s a wide range of accommodation available due to its popularity. Most safari tours will take you to Masai Mara and with good reason - just be aware that it is always busy!

Amboseli 

This small reserve is right on the border with Tanzania and sits below the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. This means you get fantastic views of the mountain as you are watching the many plains animals which live in this park. It’s well known for its numerous elephant population and abundant birdlife.

Lake Nakuru

Another small but very popular park thanks to its beautiful soda lake and its scenic surroundings, which attracts huge numbers of birdlife, including pelicans. It used to be famous for its large flamingo population but these have now mostly moved to nearby lakes. It’s also a great place to spot wild rhino and hosts a number of other big plains animals.

Meru

Not as popular as the others on this list, Meru nevertheless has a lot going for it. For a start, you can see all of the “Big 5” game animals here and it’s one of the best places to find elephants and rhinos. There’s also a rhino sanctuary here and it’s a very attractive park with lots of water and palm trees and jungle.

Samburu

This arid but pretty reserve in the north of Kenya boasts 4 of the “Big 5” excluding rhinos. Elephants are really common here, wildlife viewing is good and birdlife plentiful.  It also boasts a number of mammals and birds you won’t find in most of the other parks thanks to its unique northern climate. These include the Beisa oryx , lesser kudu , reticulated giraffe , gerenuk and Grevy's zebra . Another drawpoint for Samburu is that you can do a camel safari here, available from most of the lodges! Be warned that it is very hot and dry in this region.  

Buffalo Springs

Right next Samburu, Buffalo Springs is famous for its leopard sightings and you can see most of the other big plain animals here including lots of elephants. It’s nice and quiet as most accommodation is held in Samburu across the river. It also has the other benefits of Samburu as it’s just next door!

Tsavo West and East

This park is so big they split it in two! Together they make up over 4% of Kenya’s size, making it one of the biggest national parks in the world. Here you can find the “Big 5”, enjoy unspoiled wilderness and attractive landmarks. On clear days you can also see Kilimanjaro from Tsavo. Although wildlife is not as plentiful as some of the other parks listed here, you can find some unique species in Tsavo. The Western park is home to the attractive Mzima Springs where you can see hippos and crocodiles, and it includes a famous underwater viewing chamber so you can see these beasts swimming around! 

African landscape seen from a plane with the engine and wing in view

KLM flight to Kenya Photo by Amy

How to Get to Kenya for your Safari?

Most visitors fly to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (airport code NBO) just outside Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. Many international carriers fly here on a regular basis, including British A irways , Kenya Airways and Qatar Airways . Websites like Skyscanner are great for finding cheap flights. Be prepared to book well in advance during peak season.

Many safari tours begin from Nairobi or immediately take you on a short drive to Wilson Airport. This domestic airport is the safari flight hub, offering flights around the country and light aircraft trips to national parks. Here you can get chartered and private flights to get right out into the bush.

Moi Mombasa International Airport (airport code MBA) is the other major Kenyan airport resides at the city of Mombasa, on the southeast coast. You’ll probably be going here rather than Nairobi if you are including a visit to Kenya’s lovely beaches at the start or end of your holiday. Many of the international carriers who serve Jomo Kenyatta also fly to Moi.

For more information about flight and visa options check out our Getting to and around Kenya article.

Visas and Yellow Fever

Most visitors need a visa to enter Kenya, including citizens of the USA and most of Europe.  Some countries are exempt though so check here . When getting a visa your passport must be valid for the next 6 months after the travel date. Most visitors will purchase a single-entry visa but transit and East African visas are also available.

If you are flying into Jomo Kenyatta airport, you can just buy a single entry visa on arrival (or the other visas) at customs. Otherwise, Kenya now has an electronic visa system , or you can get one from a Kenyan embassy or Kenyan High Commission. Visa agents can also handle applications quickly but for a high cost.

It’s also important to know that you might need a Yellow Fever Vaccination certificate if you come from, or have recently travelled to a country with a yellow fever risk. Do your research beforehand, check our full article on Vaccinations for Kenya and checking with websites like CDC can help.

Light in front of tent at sundown

Plan your Safari. A tent in the Mara Siria tented bush camp Photo by Ciaron

Organising a Kenya Safari

You can either arrange a safari through an international tour operator or online before you go. Prices and options are incredibly varied - if you go budget you might camp in a group and travel in a big safari bus. Luxury could be flights out to the savannah, expensive lodges or posh camping, hot air balloon rides over the animals and so on. Of course it’s always going to be a fairly expensive tour even on a budget. 

If you want to arrange things yourself when you arrive - in the Kenyan towns close to the national parks and of course in the cities you can find plenty of tour operators who can arrange safari trips for you. This is also a list of the best safari camps (in various price ranges), if you want to book the camps / lodges yourself

If you don’t want to do a tour package, you could hire a driver and/or guide independently or through a tour agency. KATO is a good source for reliable drivers/guides and tour operators.

Another option is to hire your own vehicle and go on safari yourself. You probably won’t see as many animals as you’ll lack an experienced guide with an eagle-eye, but it can save money and be fun too.

Bear in mind that driving isn’t the only way to experience a safari - you could do your own camping in the bush (permits required and only available in some parks). You can go on bush-walks led by guides, or a whole host of other activities including bicycle safaris. 

For much more information about transport and tour options check out our article on getting around in Kenya.

What to Bring on your Safari?

What does one need on safari? Here’s a quick list with some essentials, but a much more comprehensive list can be found here:

Plan That Kenya Safari!

We hope this article has given you some pointers on where to start with planning your Kenyan safari trip. There’s a huge host of options available, but start with when you can go, where you want to go, and what your budget is. Then you can start whittling down whether a tour is the best option for you or if you want to arrange it yourself. Tours can be expensive but many allow some flexibility if you want to customise - plus you avoid the hassles of organisation and logistics. We hope you enjoy your Kenyan safari, and for more information on Kenya safaris, check out our other articles: 

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