Is it OK to book a safari once you arrive in Kenya or is it better to book in advance? This question repeatedly comes up on various travel forums. Many travelers (including myself) like the freedom of landing in a country and seeing how it flows without being locked into a set itinerary where you are told when and where to eat, sleep and go. So let's explore how you can go on safari with some sense of freedom while remaining safe, comfortable and within budget.
Let's start with "Yes", it's OK to book a safari once you arrive in Kenya. If you wander the streets of Nairobi's CBD, you will be approached by touts selling cheap safaris. It is very easy to go along with one of them. The vehicles are usually parked near City Market, so if you are ready to go, you could go immediately. They accept cash so you just need to go to the ATM, withdraw, hand it over and you're away. Simple.
For those who are happy with doing things quickly, simply and are flexible in their expectations, this is perfect. For others, this might sound a bit dodgy. I had a friend who went for this method and it wasn't until her and her comrades had withdrawn the money from the ATM that they realized they were about to walk through downtown Nairobi and at least one person knew they were carrying masses of cash. It suddenly seemed a foolhardy approach.
So we move to "No" it's perhaps not a good idea to book a safari when you arrive in Kenya. Safaris aren't cheap... or you definitely get what you pay for! If you find a deal on the street that seems too good to be true, then it probably is. You might find yourself eating zikuma (kale) and ugali (maize meal) for a week and every day dealing with the results of a poorly maintained vehicle. Remember, fuel is the same price as at home and the roads are in bad condition (like, worse than you could even imagine), so running a vehicle here is an expensive proposition.
You want to trust your tour operator. You are about to hand over a large amount of money to make this once-in-a-lifetime safari the one you've always dreamed of. Why would you risk that by picking any Joe off the street? Take time to do your research. Read reviews of tour operators (Trip Advisor, Safari Bookings and Your African Safari all help), and start an email conversation to get a feel for how they respond to your wishes. While it's not necessary, you may also want to check with industry bodies such at KATO (Kenyan Association of Tour Operators) whose members tend to be more reliable and competent than non-members. You also want to know who you are dealing with - an agent or an operator. Of course if you are dealing with your travel agent at home then they will connect you with a reputable tour operator. But some Kenyan agents can look very much like operators on their websites. This means they will not be responsible for vehicle maintenance and be "selling you" to a tour operator. In this case you still don't know who will be responsible for your comfort and safety while on safari and whether you trust them. And agents in Kenya are not held by the same rules and guarantees as agents at home, so if they disappear with your money there's not much recourse.
Kenya is not all bad!
But it's not just about avoiding shady people (I don't want to sound like Kenya is full of conmen!), it's also about availability. Most people want to come for the Wildebeest Migration in July and August. These months are also summer holidays in the US and Europe so accommodation in Maasai Mara is around 97% booked throughout the period. Christmas is also a peak period, with a lot of Kenyans travelling at this time as well as international tourists. Accommodation and vehicles can be difficult to source in these peak times if you leave it to the last minute.
If you are not fussy about food, the vehicle, or which game park you go to and are on a budget, then you can take a chance with booking your safari when you get to Kenya. But I recommend you spend some time researching reputable tour operators with good reviews so you know you are safe. Unfortunately, Kenya is perhaps not the best country to trust strangers on the street who have "the best safari deal for you!"
Overland Travel Adventures has excellent reviews on Trip Advisor and we love working with our guests to personally design their dream safari. We are a family-run business with husband and wife team, Tracey and Francis, taking care of you from planning through execution. Email [email protected] to start planning your holiday today.