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.
All coastal resorts, safari camps and lodges operate seasonal rates, approximately divided into high-, mid- and low-season (sometimes called “green season"). Some of the smaller safari camps and lodges close for a couple of months over the March–June period (shutting up shop as soon as Easter has passed), not just due to lack of demand or weather conditions, but to allow for maintenance and refurbishment. All cheap lodgings and standard hotels, however, are non-seasonal and their rates stay the same throughout the year.
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 peak season.
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, 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 (those that 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 most expensive, boutique lodges may have as few as 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.
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.
Almost all of Kenya’s upmarket and midrange hotels and beach resorts provide wi-fi: it’s either free or you pay for a voucher (with a password) at reception. Whether wi-fi is charged or not largely depends on the room rate – the more expensive places usually include it as part of the service. The larger safari lodges and tented camps will also offer wi-fi, though if you need to pay extra be cautious of the cost – it usually uses a remote server and may be expensive, even if just hooking up for an hour or two. Places in remote areas (mountain lodges, small tented camps, out-of-the-way parks and reserves) won’t be able to offer wi-fi, and of course neither will establishments at the very cheap end of the scale such as B&Ls.
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.
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, though use your judgement.
Increasingly, it’s possible to book self-catering apartments, villas or cottages, especially on the coast. Try Langata Link Holiday Homes,Kenya Beach Rentals and Kenya Holiday House. Uniglobe Let’s Go Travel is a highly recommended agent for accommodation across the spectrum Also, try Airbnb, mostly for Nairobi and the coast.
If you’re on a budget and have a flexible itinerary, there are organized campsites (campgrounds) in Kenya, but bear in mind that, away from the parks and reserves, they are few and far between and almost non-existent on the coast. There are exceptions, however, such as around the lakes in the Rift Valley, and many hotels in the Central Highlands and Western Kenya allow campers to set up tents on their lawns and will provide bathroom facilities. If you do decide to carry a tent, bring the lightest one you can afford and remember its main purpose is to keep insects out, so one made largely of mosquito netting could be ideal.
Kenya’s few privately owned campsites have toilets and showers with hot water and possibly a restaurant, bar and sometimes a swimming pool. Askaris are usually provided to guard tents and vehicles. Some also offer the option of renting a tent, and there may be other accommodation such as dorms and simple twin/double/triples, where bathroom facilities are usually shared with campers. These are often in basic bandas but they nearly always have adequate bedding and lighting.
Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) manages all the campsites in national parks. Each has one or two very basic “public campsites”, often located near the gates or the KWS park headquarters further into the park. These generally do not have to be pre-booked – you simply pay for camping on arrival at the gate along with your park entry fees. Current daily per-person rates are $20 ($30 in Amboseli and Lake Nakuru). For that hefty price, you often get little more than a place to pitch your tent and park your vehicle, and showers and toilets that are often rudimentary.
KWS's so-called "special campsites", are in reality simply sites which have to be reserved on an exclusive basis for private use, and are often used by tour operators on camping safaris. Some of them are in particularly attractive locations, but unlike public campsites they have no facilities whatsoever: you need to be entirely self-sufficient to use them. Special campsites attract a flat reservation fee of Ksh7500 (around $75) plus the daily per-person rates ($35, or $50 in Amboseli and Lake Nakuru). To reserve them, contact KWS in Nairobi (020 6000800), or visit the KWS headquarters at Nairobi National Park Main Gate. 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, 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.