Kenya Travel Tips
Kenya is a great vacation destination. It has a rich history of migration over the centuries from the north and south that have led to Kenya becoming one of the most diverse African countries culturally and linguistically. Separating Kenya's interior or upcountry from Indian ocean, the arid Maungu plains form a barrier which accounts in large part for the separate history and culture of the coast of Kenya including the ruins of several ancient towns cut from coast.
The Kenya coastal/beach vacation and major Kenya game parks are the most obvious vacation targets. The beyond white sandy beaches of Kenya, shaded by coconuts palms or Casuarina trees, run along an almost continuous coral reef protecting a shallow, safe lagoon from the Indian ocean. Kenya is also famous as the original safari country. Within Kenya there are over 40 national parks and wildlife reserves which have been set aside for the conservation of wildlife and natural habitat.
Business Hours & Time Zones
Business Hours - Business hours in Kenya are generally between 9:00am to 5:00pm. There is a one hour lunch break between 1:00pm to 2:00pm.
Banking Hours - Banks are open from 9:00am to 3:00pm Monday to Friday. Most banks also are open on Saturday from 9:00am to 11:00am. All banks with branches at the Jomo Kenyatta International airport (Nairobi) and Moi International Airport (Mombasa) run 24 hour forex services.
Time Zone - Kenya has a single time zone which is 3 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. GMT + 3:00 (Standard Time). Kenya Time does not operate Daylight-Saving Time.
January 1-New Year's Day
Good Friday - date variable
Easter - date variable
Easter Monday - date variable
May 1-Labour Day
June 1-Madaraka Day
October 20-Mashujaa Day, formerly Kenyatta Day
December 12-Jamhuri Day
December 25-Christmas Day
December 26-Boxing Day
Tipping in Kenya
Most Kenyans in the travel industry are paid very low wages and rely heavily on tips. Tipping is down to individuals as you tip according to the service you get. Tip what you feel is appropriate and what has been deserved, and please tip in Kenyan Shillings as most staff find it difficult to change foreign currency, and they lose some of their hard earned tip in commission to the money changer. Also please note they cannot change foreign coins at all.
The following is intended just to be a rough guide:
- Baggage porters 100Ksh to 200Ksh
- Airport Transfer Driver. 5000Ksh from Moi to South Coast Diani.
- Bar staff 30Ksh to 50Ksh per round of drinks or if running a tab round up to nearest convenient figure up to 10% of total
- Food Waiter 100Ksh to 200Ksh
- Safari Guide 500Ksh per person per day
- Room Staff 1000Ksh per week
- Pool attendant 100Ksh per day
With Room Staff and Pool Attendants it is often sensible to give them half of what you intend to give them at the beginning of the Holiday and the balance at the end dependant on the service you receive.
Don't forget the backroom staff, gardeners, handymen, kitchen staff, etc. many places have a tip box where tips are shared between all staff.
When you change money or use an ATM you will likely be given 1,000Ksh notes and some 500Ksh unless you get out and about and use local shops, bars and restaurants you will find getting these changed difficult. In this case ask the bank or forex where you exchange to include smaller denomination notes or buy something cheap like a bottle of water from a shop / bar / cafe large enough to be able to change a 1,000Ksh note (many small stalls will not carry enough float to do so).
Currency and Barter in Kenya
Currency - The value of the Kenyan Shilling fluctuates so it's best to check in with a currency converter just before you go. Traveler's checks are probably the best and safest way to take money with you. Don't change too much money at one time and use the banks not the money changers. Major credit cards are only accepted at the more expensive shops and hotels.
Barter - Bartering for souvenirs is an enjoyable and accepted practice. T-shirts, jeans, a cheap (working) watch can all be exchanged for a nice carving or two, so take some spares along with you. On that note, a decent inexpensive watch makes for a nice gift if someone has gone out of their way to help you. I usually bring along a few when I travel to these parts.
Drinking Water in Kenya
When you're traveling in Kenya, you must take extra care when it comes to drinking water. Drink purified water (boiled or untampered bottled water) and only eat well cooked foods to avoid illness.
Be cautious of fresh beverages that may have tap water added to them. Also check the ice - ask if it was made with tap water - it is unlikely that your ice will have been made with tap water; but it's worth asking in more rustic establishments and rural areas. Salads can also be dangerous if they have been rinsed with tap water - once again, the rule is... if in doubt, ask first! You should also only eat fresh fruits or vegetables if cooked or peeled.
Most hotels provide bottled water in all rooms which you can use to drink and wash your teeth. Ice may also be made with boiled and purified water. Ask first or look for a note in your room to advise you if this is the case. If you carry a water bottle / canteen, your hotel will usually fill this for you from a large bottle of purified water before you set out on your daytrip.
All street vendors selling refreshments will sell you purified bottled water. Make sure that the cap is sealed All commercially produced beverages, including bottled and tinned water, fizzy drinks, wine, beer, spirits, et al will be perfectly safe for you to drink.
To make tap water safe, boil it for at least a few minutes; perhaps longer in locations situated at higher altitudes as the water boils at lower temperatures there. Water purification tablets and drops are available, but these generally have an adverse effect on the water's taste.
Alcohol & Drugs in Kenya
The permitted drinking age in Kenya is 18 years. Drinking culture in Kenya is more relaxed and not as strict as in the United States and other areas of the western world. There is no law restricting a driver's blood alcohol level. However, it is illegal to drink out of a bottle on the streets.
Kenyan beer is decent. There is one major brewer whose flagship brand is Tusker Lager. Also try the Tusker Malt Lager. Another good lager beer is White Cap Lager. Imported beers are available in supermarkets and better hotels, but the prices are usually high. But imported Tanzanian beer like Kilimanjaro and Safari tend to be cheaper than even Tusker. In local bars, do not expect to pay more than around 250 Ksh for a bottle; anything more is a tourist rip-off.
Imported and local wines and spirits are widely available, and it is advisable to avoid local brews such as "changaa" and "busaa," which are illegal, unhygenically brewed and whose consumption has led to deaths on many occasions. It may be helpful to remember that "changaa" literally means "kill me quick" before deciding whether or not to drink a proffered glass of the beverage.
Wine, beer, extra bottled water, sodas and alcoholic beverages are available at all safari camps and lodges and are usually not included in the trip price. Beer and sodas are inexpensive but premium spirits can be pricey
Drugs and narcotics are illegal in Kenya - this is strictly enforced.
Electricity in Kenya
Kenya's past, has left it with several different international standards of delivering power. Electricity is delivered at 230 Volts, but varies on the connections, so be sure to bring a Universal Adapter. Also, if outlets are not available in your permanent tented camp at safair lodges, the main building or bar area will have outlets so you can recharge your camera. You can also bring a cigarette lighter adapter to charge your camera while traveling in a vehicle.
Kenya use the same electrical plug socket as the UK. The electric plug is "G 240V 50Hz". Traveling to Kenya you will need to use electric travel adapter G also know as the standard British 3-pin rectangular blade plug or the "13-amp plug".
Most hotels and lodges outside Nairobi and Mombasa generate their own electricity.
Photography & Video in Kenya
Kenya is among the best locations for wildlife photographs and video in the world. There are many national parks with plenty of mammals and birds that do not exist in the wild outside of Africa.
Many people who were never really interested in photography take the opportunity of a safari to buy decent photo gear and practice their skills. Or maybe it's the other way round, those who have always been curious about photography sooner or later will go on safari. In either case, there is much to learn and much to photograph in Kenya.
Be sure to pack all of your supplies including extra batteries. Film supplies and developing services are dismal in Kenya. There is a relative abundance of photo studios, but few have the capacity to properly deal with film.
Photography in Kenya
From the US, there are photography safaris which dedicate entire two-week trips to the various national parks.
If the main objective for your trip is to photograph wildlife, it is very important to be traveling with a group of people with the same objective. To shoot excellent sunrise shots, it is necessary to get up early every morning and be ready to leave at 5:45am. To take full advantage of the best light, one might have a packed breakfast in the field rather than returning to the lodge at 9am for breakfast. And one needs to wait patiently late in the afternoon, when the animals become more active, rather than quitting early to have a drink at the bar.
It is also important to have drivers who have worked with photographers. They know how to position their vehicles to have the best light, and they fully understand it when you ask them to move their vehicle forward or backward by a foot or two to avoid some disturbing foreground or background.
Video in Kenya
Keep your clips short, steady and lively. There is no single best bet when choosing a camcorder for safari. Most cams now have discarded removable media such as tapes and DVDs, using instead memory cards and internal flash units. This is okay in terms of quality and even more when most of them record in high definition, but it will force you to edit your videos, which is not desirable for everyone. Mini DV cameras are still available at some places and provide a long-lasting medium to store your safari memories while eliminating the need to edit.
Anyway you choose, make sure that your cam has a good optical zoom. Digital zoom just won't do for shooting animals at a distance. Also check that the cam has a screw at the bottom for attaching a tripod. Ideally, a camera with night vision will allow you to film nocturnal wildlife if you go out on a game drive after dark (which is not permitted within national parks and reserves).
Bear in mind an important rule for video recording: things look different when you are shooting than when you watch your clips back home. First, in terms of camera motion. Any camera movements that seem natural when you are filming will become terribly annoying when watching your movie. Even if your camera has a steady-shot function, you might use a small tabletop tripod or a monopod when shooting from the vehicle's roof hatch.
Best Time to Visit Kenya
Best time to enjoy a Beach Holiday in Kenya
Whether you want to explore the historical Swahili town of Lamu, or enjoy the picture perfect beaches of Malinidi and Watamu, the best time to go is December to March. The coastal temperatures remain steadily hot for most of the year, but on the beach the humidity is kept at bay by the ocean breeze. The wettest months are April to May and there's also a short rainy season from October to November.
Best time to enjoy a Safari Holiday in Kenya
The best time to go on safari in Kenya and experience a huge density and diversity of wildlife, is when the annual migration of millions of wildebeest, zebra and gnu's descend on the Mara plains with predators close behind. The best time to see this wildlife spectacle is from July to October. With the scarcity of water during the dry seasons, the animals tend to gather in more concentrated numbers around permanent water holes, rivers and lakes, so they are easier to find. The vegetation is also less lush which simply means that viewing animals from a distance is easier.
Traveling with Children
A trip to Kenya with kids is adventure travel, cultural holiday, and just plain fun all rolled into one.
From the beat of hoofs in the Maasai Mara to a shimming carpet of pink at Lake Nakura, Kenya is a top choice for a family wildlife safari. And the great migration, wildebeast and zebras, and the cacophony of thousands of flamingos aren't the only show. Tsavo, Kenya's largest national park, is touted by many as the best safari destination in Kenya. Spectacular scenary, African 'Big Five' and varied bird life are the main draw at this game reserve. The much smaller Amboseli, renown for its great herds of elephants and views of Mt. Kilimanjaro, offers a great introduction for families with a limited amount of time.
Take your family to Kenya with confidence! Kenya loves children, and you'll find that your children will be made to feel very welcome in Kenya's hotels, restaurants and attractions.
Coral reefs and white sand beaches may be the main attraction for families traveling to the Kenyan coast but they aren't the only. Lamu and Mombasa, once major trading centers in Arab East Africa, offer insight to coast's rich cultural heritage. A trip to the 12th century ruins at Gede, near Watamu, and remote Paté Island provide an opportunity to explore the region's history in a different way. Diani, Watumu and Malindi may be tourist centers but for the discerning tourist the Swahili culture can be experienced here too.
Crime, an unfortunate fact of life, in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, makes it an unfortunate place to transit and an impossible place to explore with children.
Getting To & From Kenya
Many international airlines fly in to Kenya including KLM, Swissair, Ethiopian, BA, SAA, Emirates, Brussels etc. There are two international airports; Kenyatta International Airport (Nairobi) and Moi International Airport (Mombasa).
The average airfare to Kenya from the US is around USD1000 - USD1200. About half that for flights from Europe. Book at least a few months in advance because flights fill up quickly.
Tanzania - The main border crossing in to Tanzania from Kenya is at Namanga. It is open for 24 hours and is the best way to get to Mount Kilimanjaro (other than flying of course). There are buses that run frequently between Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, the trip takes about 24 hours. Nairobi to Arusha is a comfortable 5 hour bus ride with several companies vying for your custom.
Uganda - The main border crossing from Kenya into Uganda is at Malaba. There are buses available from Nairobi to Kampala as well as a weekly train service which connects with the train to Mombasa.
Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia - Border crossings between Kenya and Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia are often too risky to attempt. Check the latest government travel warnings before you go and chat to people who have gone before you to get the most reliable information.
Getting Around Kenya
By Air - There are several small airline companies that offer domestic flights as well as the national airline, Kenya Airways. Destinations include: Amboseli, Kisumu, Lamu, Malindi, Masai Mara, Mombasa, Nanyuki, Nyeri, and Samburu. The smaller domestic airlines (Eagle Aviation, Air Kenya, African Express Airways) operate out of Nairobi's Wilson Airport. Some routes get booked up quickly, especially to the coast, so book at least a few weeks in advance.
By Train - The most popular train route is from Nairobi to Mombasa. They offer silver service and fantastic views of the Tsavo while eating breakfast.
By Bus - Buses are numerous and often very full. Most of the buses are privately owned and there are some good express buses between the major cities and towns. Nairobi is the main hub.
By Taxi, Matatu, Tuk-Tuk and Boda Boda - Taxi's are numerous in the main cities and towns. Agree on the price before you get in since the meters are unlikely to work (if they have a meter to begin with). Matatus are mini-buses that operate on set routes and passengers embark and disembark at whatever point they choose. Often colorful to look at but overcrowded and a little dangerous due to the drivers' love for speed. Tuk-Tuks are also popular in Nairobi and are cheaper than taxi's. Tuk-Tuks are small three-wheeler vehicles, very popular in South and Southeast Asia. And finally, you can also hit the streets of many towns and villages on a Boda-boda, a bicycle taxi.
By Car - Renting a car in Kenya gives you a little more independence and flexibility than joining a tour group. There are several car rental agencies in the major cities including Avis, Hertz, and many safari companies also rent 4WD vehicles. Driving is on the left side of the road and you'll most likely need an international driving license as well as a major credit card to rent a car. Driving at night is not advised.
By Boat - Ferries regularly ply Lake Victoria, Africa's biggest lake. You can head to some picturesque bays south of Kisumu, Kenya's biggest town on the lake. Travel between Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania which also border the lake, is no longer possible. Ferries are comfortable and cheap.
Dhows - Dhows are beautiful traditional sailing boats that the Arabs introduced to Kenya's Indian ocean coast more than 500 years ago. You can rent a dhow for an evening or several days from various companies in Lamu, Malindi and Mombasa.
Foreign Embassies in Kenya
What can your consulate in Kenya do for you?
Foreign consulates in Kenya can usually help with administrative tasks like replacing a lost or stolen passport, provide you with a list of lawyers if you get into legal trouble, (and let your family back home know you're in a spot of bother), liaise with Kenya's foreign office to make sure that you are being properly treated if you've been arrested, and in exceptional circumstances, provide you with a loan to pay for repatriation home if you become completely stuck (you will need to pay the loan back).
Foreign consulates and embassies cannot get you out of trouble. When you are in Kenya you are bound by its laws and customs, and subject to its legal penalties if you fall shy of the law, intentionally or otherwise.
Kenyan Embassies in Other Countries
What can the Kenyan Embassy in your country do for you?
The Kenyan embassy and consulates in foreign contries can answer inquiries and questions regarding visa regulations, passport requirements, and travel requirements for travel to Kenya.
US passport holders need a visa to enter Kenya, but they can get it at the airport or border crossing when they arrive in Kenya. If you want to plan ahead then you can apply for a visa in the US. Details and forms can be found on the Kenyan Embassy web site. Nationals from Commonwealth countries (including Canada and the UK) do not need a visa. Tourist visas are valid for 30 days. For up to date information see the Kenyan Embassy web site.
A single-entry visa costs USD50 and a multiple entry visa USD100. If you are planning on visiting just Kenya, then a single-entry is all you need. If your plans include crossing over to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or visit the Serengeti, then you'll need a multiple-entry visa if you wish to re-enter Kenya again.
Health and Immunizations
No immunizations are required by law to enter Kenya if you are travelling directly from Europe or the US. If you are travelling from a country where Yellow Fever is present you will need to prove you have had the innoculation.
Several vaccinations are highly recommended, they include:
- Yellow Fever
- Hepatitis A
It is also recommended that you are up to date with your polio and tetanus vaccinations. Contact a travel clinic at least 3 months before you plan to travel. Here's a list of Health Information for Travelers to Kenya from the US Center for Disease Control (CDC).
There's a risk of catching malaria pretty much everywhere you travel in Kenya. The highlands used to be a low-risk area, but even there you have to be careful and take precautions. Kenya is home to the chloroquine-resistant strain of malaria as well as several others. Make sure your doctor or travel clinic knows you are traveling to Kenya (don't just say Africa) so s/he can prescribe the right anti-malarial medication. Tips on how to avoid malaria will also help.
In general people are extremely friendly in Kenya and you will be humbled by their hospitality. But, there is real poverty in Kenya and you will soon realise that you are far richer and more fortunate than most local people you meet. You will probably attract your fair share of souvenir hawkers and beggars, but try and take the time to meet ordinary people going about their day to day business too. The experience will be worth it. Don't be afraid to step out of that tour bus, just take some precautions.
Basic Safety Rules for Travelers to Kenya
- Make a copy of your passport and keep it in your luggage.
- Don't walk on your own at night in the major cities or on empty beaches.
- Don't wear jewelery.
- Don't carry too much cash with you.
- Wear a money belt that fits under your clothes.
- Don't carry a lot of camera equipment especially in the major cities.
- Beware of thieves posing as police officers.
Roads - Roads in Kenya aren't very good. Potholes, road blocks, goats and people tend to get in the way of vehicles. When looking into a safari in Kenya, your choices of flying versus driving is a key factor in deciding on what places to visit. Here are some driving distances in Kenya, to help you plan your trip.
Avoid driving a car or riding a bus at night because potholes are difficult to see and so are other vehicles especially when they are missing their headlights, a fairly common occurrence. If you are renting a car, keep the doors and windows locked while driving in the major cities. Car-jackings occur fairly regularly but may not end in violence as long as you comply with demands made.
Terrorism - In 1998 an attack on the US Embassy in Nairobi left 243 people dead and over a 1000 injured. In November 2002 a car bomb exploded, killing 15 people outside of a hotel near Mombasa. Both attacks are thought to have been caused by Al-Qaeda. While these are scary statistics you can still go and enjoy your safari or the beach in Mombasa. After all, tourists haven't stopped going to New York City and security has improved in Kenya since 2002. For more information on terrorism check the US State Dept Travel Advisories for Kenya.