There’s a huge diversity of accommodation in Kenya, ranging from campsites and local lodging houses for a few hundred shillings a night to luxury lodges and boutique tented camps that can easily cost many hundreds of dollars a night.
If you’re planning a trip to Kenya using mid-range or expensive accommodation, a lot of money can be saved by not going in the high season. Most resort hotels and safari lodges and tented camps have separate high-, mid- and low-season (sometimes called “green-season“) rates. There’s sometimes a peak season too, just covering the Christmas and New Year break from December 21 to January 2. Low-season rates can be anything from 30 to 50 percent of the high-season rates.
Some of the smaller camps and lodges close for a couple of months some time between mid-March and mid-April (as soon as Easter has passed) and June, and sometimes also in November. The seasons vary widely across different operators and lodge-owners, depending on their markets (February can be high, for example). Closures are not just due to lack of demand or less-than-ideal weather conditions, but to allow for maintenance and refurbishment.
Hotels, lodges and tented camps
The term hotel covers a very broad spectrum in Kenya (the word hoteli means a cheap café-restaurant, not a place to sleep). At the top end are the big tourist and business-class establishments. In the game parks, they’re known as lodges. Some establishments are very good value, but others are shabby and overpriced, so check carefully before splurging. Try to reserve the more popular places in advance, especially for the busiest season (Dec & Jan).
At the mid-price level, some hotels are old settlers’ haunts that were once slightly grand and no longer quite fit in modern Kenya, while others are newer and cater for the Kenyan middle class. A few are fine – charmingly decrepit or fairly smart and semi-efficient – but a fair few are just boozy and uninteresting.
As a rule, expect to pay anything from Ksh3000–10,000 for a decent double or twin room in a town hotel, with bathroom en suite, known in Kenya as “self-contained”. Breakfast is usually included, but if you want to have breakfast elsewhere, the price will be deducted. Features such as TV – often with DSTV (satellite) service – floor or ceiling fans and air conditioning will all put the price up, and are sometimes optional, allowing you to make significant savings at cheaper hotels.
Older safari lodges may show their age with rather unimaginative design and boring little rooms, but those which date back to the 1960s were built when just having a hotel in the bush was considered an achievement. Today, the best of the big lodges have public areas offering spectacular panoramas and game-viewing decks, while the rooms are often comfortable chalets or bandas. The vogue in the most expensive, boutique lodges tends to be Tarzan-like, eschewing straight lines wherever possible and incorporating bare rock and reclaimed branches of dead wood. Some places have just half a dozen “rooms”, constructed entirely of local materials, ingeniously open-fronted yet secure, with stunning views, and invigorating open-air showers.
If you want to experience the fun of camping without the hassle, opt for a tented camp. These consist of large, custom-made tents erected over hard floors. The walls flap in the breeze and large areas of mosquito screening can be uncovered to allow maximum ventilation. All the usual lodge amenities, including electricity, comfy beds, clothes storage and floor coverings, are installed. Floor coverings can include carpets or rugs, and the furniture is what you’d expect to find in a comfortable hotel, though often with a nod to bush life, with canvas chairs on the deck and antique-style lock-up chests rather than room safes. At the back, the bathroom is usually more of a solid-walled structure, with a flush toilet – though the “safari shower” or “bucket shower’’ using hot water delivered on request by staff to a pulley system outside the bathroom, is a popular anachronism that works very well and saves water. At night, the tents zip up tight to keep the insects out. In the centre of the camp, the usual public areas will include a dining room and bar, or in smaller camps a luxurious “mess tent” with sofas and waiters proffering drinks, where you’ll eat together with your hosts and the other guests and share the day’s experiences in an atmosphere that always has a little Out of Africa in it.
Because tented camps are relatively easy to construct and re-configure, they’re at the vanguard of Kenya’s environmentally responsible tourism movement. The most innovative camps limit their use of electricity to what can be generated by solar panels, provide “safari showers” to order, using a reservoir and pulley system, rather than permanent hot water, and take care to limit their footprint in other ways, for example by composting their organic waste and trucking out non-biodegradable trash rather than burning it. Scavenging marabou storks at camps and lodges are a sure sign of poor waste management.
Some lodges and camps are surrounded by a discreet, or not so discreet, electric fence. This gives you the freedom to wander at will, but detracts from the sense of being in the wild. Places that don’t have such security may ask you to sign a disclaimer to limit their liability in the event that a large mammalian intruder should abruptly terminate your holiday. In practice, although elephants, buffaloes and other big animals do sometimes wander into camps, serious incidents are exceptionally rare and you have nothing to worry about. After dark, unfenced camps employ escorts – usually traditionally dressed, spear-carrying askaris – to see you safely to and from your tent.
Meals in the lodges and camps are prepared in fully equipped kitchens and served by waiters who are often knowledgeable about local wildlife and customs. Although the food can be repetitive, the best places have their own organic vegetable gardens and prepare gourmet dinners, fresh bread and excellent pastries in the middle of nowhere.
Most of the more expensive hotels, lodges and tented camps quote their rates in US dollars or sometimes euros – a hangover from the days when the Kenya shilling was not a convertible currency. You can always settle your bill in Kenya shillings, but the exchange rate is often poor.
It’s always worth trying to negotiate a discount. Many cheap hotels will bend over backwards to remind you that their rates can be discussed. And in the more expensive places which usually apply a two-tier tariff for residents and non-residents, it’s a perfectly acceptable negotiating tactic to claim to be a resident, though you may have to eat humble pie if they demand to see proof.
Kenya’s upmarket hotels are generally good at providing internet services, and there are plenty of cybercafés.
Boarding and lodgings
In any town you’ll find basic guesthouses called boarding and lodgings. These can vary from a mud shack with water from the well to a multistorey building of en-suite rooms, complete with a bar and restaurant, and usually built around a lock-in courtyard/parking area. Most B&L bathrooms include rather alarmingly wired “instant showers”, giving a meagre spray of hot water 24 hours a day.
If you want a double bed, ask for a room with “one big bed”. If you ask for a “double room” you will normally get a room with two beds. What matters is how many beds will be used, not the number of people sleeping in them. So a couple sharing a double bed will nearly always pay the same price as a single guest, though they’ll have to pay for an extra breakfast. At about the price point where residents’ and non-residents’ rates come into play, and rates are set in dollars rather than shillings, the international language of “doubles”, “twins” and “single room supplements” is usually spoken.
While you can find a room for under Ksh1500 – and sometimes much less – in any town, prices are not a good indication of quality. If the bathrooms don’t have instant showers, then check the water supply and find out when the boiler will be on. The very cheapest places (as little as Ksh500 or less) will not usually have self-contained rooms, so you should check the state of the shared showers and toilets. You won’t cause offence by saying no thanks.
The better B&Ls are clean and comfortable, but they tend to be airless and often double as informal brothels, especially if they have a bar. If the place seems noisy in the afternoon, it will become cacophonous during the night, so you may want to ask for a room away from the source of the din. Moreover, if it relies on its bar for income, security becomes an important deciding factor. Well-run B&Ls, even noisy, sleazy ones, always have uniformed security staff and gated access to the room floors. You can leave valuables with the manager in reception (usually a small cell protected by metal grills), though use your judgement. Leaving valuables like cameras in your room is usually safe enough if they’re packed away in your bags. It’s money and small items left lying around that tend to disappear.
Cottages and homestays
Increasingly, it’s possible to book self-catering apartments, villas or cottages. Langata Link Holiday Homes (t+254 (0)20 891314 or t +254 (0)721 556031, wholidayhomeskenya.com) are agents for a wide range of houses especially on the coast. Kenya Beach Rentals (wkenya-beachrentals.com) specializes in coastal properties. Uniglobe Let’s Go Travel (t+254 (0)20 2678646 or t+254 (0)722 331899; wuniglobeletsgotravel.com) is a highly recommended agent for accommodation across the spectrum, including homestays, cottages and villas.
Only two Kenyan youth hostels, at Nairobi and Naro Moru, are affiliated to Hostelling International (whihostels.com). Both are fairly basic, and Nairobi Youth Hostel isn’t much used by budget travellers. Non-members pay Ksh120 per night in addition to the normal rate (Ksh700 in dorms). The hostels can be booked through HI or the local association (wyhak.org). There are also YMCAs, YWCAs and church-run hostels in a number of towns.
If you’re on a budget and have a flexible itinerary, there are enough camping sites (campgrounds) in Kenya to make it worthwhile carrying a tent, and camping wild is sometimes a viable option, too. Bring the lightest tent you can afford and remember its main purpose is to keep insects out, so one made largely of mosquito netting could be ideal.
Campsites in the parks are usually very basic, though a handful of privately owned sites have more in the way of facilities. Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) manages all the campsites in national parks, for which the current rate ranges from $15–25/person per day. For that hefty price, you often get little more than a place to pitch your tent and park your vehicle. Showers and toilets are often rudimentary and the other normal camping site features, such as a shop or café, non-existent.
The so-called special campsites, found in a number of national parks, are in reality simply campsites which have to be reserved on an exclusive basis for private use. Some of them are in particularly attractive locations, but unlike standard campsites they have no facilities whatsoever: you need to be entirely self-sufficient to use them. To reserve a special campsite, which costs a flat fee of Ksh7500 for up to one week, plus the daily per-person rates ($30, or $40 in Amboseli and Lake Nakuru), contact t+254 (0)726 610508, w[email protected] or visit KWS headquarters at Nairobi National Park Main Gate in Nairobi. Camping fees in the major national parks (Aberdare, Amboseli, Nairobi, Lake Nakuru, Tsavo East and Tsavo West) are normally deducted from your pre-paid Safari Card.
Opportunities for wild camping depend on whether you can find a suitable, safe site. In the more heavily populated and farmed highland districts, you should always ask someone before pitching in an empty spot, and never leave your tent unattended. Camping near roads, in dry river beds or on trails used by animals going to water, is highly inadvisable (see Sexual harassment), as is camping on the beach.
Far out in the wilds, hard or thorny ground is likely to be the only obstacle. During the dry seasons, you’ll rarely have trouble finding dead wood for a fire, so a stove is optional. You can buy camping gas cartridges in a few places in Nairobi.