Getting around Kenya: Transportation Tips
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
There’s a wide range of travel options in Kenya. If you want to be looked after throughout your trip, you can travel on a shared or exclusive road safari where you sign up to an off-the-shelf or tailor-made itinerary; alternatively you can take an air safari, via scheduled domestic airlines (often in small planes with great visibility), or charter a light plane for your own use. If you want more independence, you can easily rent a vehicle for self-drive or with a driver. If you’re on a budget, you’ll find a wide range of public transport – though, to be clear, it is all privately operated – from air-conditioned buses run by large operators to smaller companies and “saccos” (cooperatives) with a single battered minibus. In towns of any size, crowds of Nissan minibuses, operating as shared taxis and referred to as matatus, hustle for business constantly. Kenya’s railway “network” appears to be in terminal decline, but the Nairobi–Mombasa line still runs a couple of services a week.
Domestic flights in Kenya are thoroughly enjoyable, especially to the national parks, with animals clearly visible below as you approach each airstrip.
The main operators are SafariLink, Kenya Airways and its no-frills subsidiary Jambojet, Airkenya, Mombasa Air Safari and 540 Aviation. The destinations served include the main towns and cities (Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret, Kitale and Nanyuki), coastal resorts (Diani Beach, Malindi, Lamu and Kiwayu) and airfields serving safari clients in the main parks and reserves of Amboseli, Maasai Mara, Meru, Tsavo West and Samburu-Shaba, and at Lewa Downs and Loisaba north of Mount Kenya.
Most services are daily and in some cases there are several flights a day, though frequencies on certain routes are reduced in low season. Same-day connections can be a problem,too, as flights are routinely cancelled if there are not enough passengers to make them worthwhile, and you will be “bumped” onto the next one. Be aware, too, that flights to the parks and reserves run on circuits, meaning that not all passengers are necessarily going to alight at the same airstrip: the plane might touch down at a few on the route, so flight times and the order of arrival may vary. Nevertheless, flying around Kenya (especially to the parks) saves on long bumpy road trips and each airline endeavours to get you to your destination on time.
Baggage allowance on the smaller planes (those going to safari destinations) is limited to 15kg per person (in soft bags only – rigid suitcases are often not accepted), though this isn’t strictly adhered to unless the flight is full. In any event you will be able to make arrangements to store excess baggage while you are on safari.
For some ballpark return fares (in high season), reckon on Nairobi–Maasai Mara costing $345, Nairobi–Lamu $375 and Nairobi–Diani Beach (Ukunda) $275. City to city fares with Fly 540, Kenya Airways and Jambojet are much cheaper and are not affected by season, so, for example, the cheapest fare with Fly 540 from Nairobi to Eldoret starts at $82 one-way, while a Jambojet flight from Nairobi to Mombasa costs from only $55 one-way.
Chartering a small plane for trips to safari parks and remote airstrips is worth considering if money is less important to you than time, and is an especially good option for groups or large families. Costs vary depending on the size of the aircraft needed to accommodate the number of passengers, the amount of fuel required and other incidentals such as airport landing fees. Remember also that the plane has to make a round trip, even if you don’t. SafariLink and Mombasa Air Safari (see above) will quote for charters; two other excellent charter companies are Tropic Air, based at Nanyuki airfield, and Yellow Wings, based at Wilson Airport in Nairobi.
All the parks and reserves are open to private vehicles, and there’s a lot to be said for the freedom of choice that renting a car gives you. Unless there are more than two of you, though, it won’t save you money over one of the cheaper camping safaris.
Before renting, shop around for the best deals and try to negotiate as you might with any purchase, bearing in mind how long you'll need and the season. July, August and Christmas are busy, so you might want to book ahead. Rates vary greatly: some are quoted in Kenyan shillings and some in dollars or euros; some include unlimited mileage while others don’t. The minimum age to rent a car is usually 23, sometimes 25.
You can often rent a vehicle with a driver or driver-guide supplied by the rental company, which can be more relaxing and a great introduction to the country. This adds around Ksh3000/day to your bill for the driver’s salary and daily expenses (plus tip). Obviously fuel is still extra. Be clear precisely what the arrangements are before you set off: it’s best to have things in writing.
Check the insurance details and always pay the daily collision damage waiver (CDW) premium, sometimes included in the price; even a small bump could be very costly otherwise. Theft protection waiver (TPW) should also be taken. Even with these, however, you’ll still be liable for an excess, usually $500–1000, for which you are liable if there is any claim. You’re also required to leave a hefty deposit, roughly equivalent to the anticipated bill, though normally credit card details will suffice. Assuming you return the vehicle, nothing will be be debited from your account.
If stopped at a police checkpoint, you may be asked to produce evidence that the rental car has a PSV (passenger service vehicle) licence. You should have a windscreen sticker for this as well as the letters “PSV” written somewhere on the body; if in doubt, check this out with the rental company before you leave. All PSV vehicles are, in theory, fitted with speed governors, physically limiting your top speed to the speed limit of 80km/h. In practice, few companies leave them operational.
Being stopped by the police is a common occurrence. Checkpoints are generally marked by low strips of spikes across the road, with just enough room to slalom through. Always stop, greet the officer and wait to be waved through. If they accuse you of breaking any law, then politely accept what you are told, including the possibility of a court appearance (highly unlikely). Being set up for a bribe still happens, but more often you’ll be asked “What did you bring for me?” or something similar. Unless you’re happy to participate in Kenya’s ongoing institutionalized petty corruption, you should always respond with bemused propriety, and pay nothing.
If you have a breakdown, before seeking assistance, it is customary to pile bundles of sticks or foliage 50m or so behind and in front of the car. These are the universally recognized “red warning triangles” of Africa, and their placing is always scrupulously observed, and you should put them out even if your vehicle is equipped with a real red triangle. Wedging a stone behind at least one wheel to stop the vehicle rolling away is also a good idea.
You might consider joining AA Kenya, which offers temporary membership for up to six months for Ksh2000, which includes the usual breakdown and rescue services, where available.
A normal saloon (sedan) car is sufficient if you are driving around Nairobi, up and down the main coastal road or sticking to the major tarred highways between cities. However a high-clearance four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicle is recommended for anywhere else. Even when you’re not planning any off-road driving, and expect to stick to tarmac, entrance roads and access tracks are often not surfaced and can become impassable quagmires after rain. Most car rental companies will not rent out non-4WD vehicles for use in the parks, and park rangers will often turn away such cars at the gates, especially in wet weather. Maasai Mara and the mountain parks (Mount Elgon, Mount Kenya and the Aberdare range) are the most safety-minded.
Four-wheel drive Suzuki jeeps are the most widely available vehicles, but ensure you get a long-wheelbase model with rear seats, room for four people (or five at a pinch) and luggage space at the back. These are more stable than the stumpy short-wheelbase versions. Other good options, also commonly rented out, are the Nissan X-Trail and Mitsubishi Pajero. All three models are dependable, capable of great feats in negotiating rough terrain, and can nearly always be fixed by a local repair workshop. Beware, however, of their notorious tendency to tip over on bends or on the dangerously sloping gravel hard shoulders that line so many roads.
You shouldn’t assume that the vehicle is roadworthy before you set off. Have a good look at the engine and tyres, and don’t set off without checking the spare wheel (preferably two spare wheels) and making sure that you have a few essential tools. Always carry a tow rope and spare water and ideally spare fuel in a jerrican (it’s not uncommon for petrol stations to run out). You might also take a spare fan belt and brake fluid. You are responsible for any repair and maintenance work that needs doing while you’re renting the vehicle, but good car rental companies will reimburse you for spare parts and labour, and expect you to call them if you have a breakdown, in which case they will often send out a mechanic to help.
When you get a flat tyre, as you will, get it mended straight away: it costs very little (Ksh100–200) and can be done almost anywhere. Local mechanics are usually very good and can apply ingenuity to the most disastrous situations. But spare parts, tools and proper equipment are rare off the main routes. Always settle on a price before work begins.
At the time of writing, the price of petrol (gasoline, always unleaded) ranges from roughly Ksh100–120/litre (£0.65–1/litre), depending on the retailer, the remoteness of the town and Kenya’s latest oil imports. The vast majority of petrol stations charge similar prices at the lower end of the range. There is occasionally a choice of regular or premium, but the latter is the norm. Diesel is ten to fifteen percent cheaper. When filling, which is always done by an attendant, check the pump is set to zero. In city petrol stations you can sometimes pay by credit card, but don’t count on it as their card reader may be out of action. However in Nairobi, and increasingly at big highway petrol stations, there are ATMs if you need to get cash.
You can drive in Kenya with either a valid driving licence from your home country, or an international one. A GPS SatNav device or smart phone is very useful as there are very few road are sporadic and few detailed, accurate road maps.
Be cautious of abrupt changes in road surface. On busy tarmac roads, “tramlines” often develop, parallel with the direction of travel. Caused by heavy trucks ploughing over hot blacktop, these can be deep and treacherous, making steering difficult. Slow down.
Beware of animals, people, rocks, branches, ditches and potholes – any combination of which may appear at any time. It is accepted practice to honk your horn stridently to warn pedestrians and cyclists. Other vehicles are probably the biggest menace, especially in busy areas close to towns where matatus are constantly pulling over to drop and pick up passengers. It’s common practice to flash oncoming vehicles, especially if they’re leaving you little room to pass. Try to avoid driving at night, and be extra careful when passing heavy vehicles – the diesel fumes can cut off your visibility without warning.
Officially Kenya drives on the left, though in reality vehicles keep to the best part of the road until they have to pass each other.
You should recognize the supplementary meanings of left and right signals particularly common among truck drivers. A right signal by the driver ahead of you means “Don’t try to pass me”, while the left signal which usually follows means “Feel free to pass me now”. Do not, however, automatically assume the driver can really see that it is safe for you to pass. In fact, never assume anything about other drivers.
Beware of speed bumps, found wherever a busy road has been built through a village, and on the roads in and out of nearly every town. Try to look out for small bollards or painted rocks at the roadside, but usually the first you’ll know of speed bumps is when your head hits the roof.
Driving in towns and cities, and especially in Nairobi, you may need to adopt a more robust approach than you would use at home, or risk waiting indefinitely at the first busy junction you come to. There is no concept of yielding or giving way in Kenya: most drivers occupy the road forcefully and only concede when physically blocked by another vehicle or someone in uniform with a weapon. Although it sounds highly confrontational, incidents of “road rage” seem few and far between.
Finding somewhere to park is rarely a problem, even in Nairobi or Mombasa. There are council traffic wardens in most large towns from Monday to Saturday, from whom you can buy a 24-hour ticket (the only option) for Ksh50–150. If you don’t, your car may be clamped or towed away. Be careful not to inadvertently park on yellow lines, which are often faded to near-invisibility.
Although there are few parts of Kenya where 4WD vehicles are mandatory, you would be well advised not to go far off tarmac in a two-wheel-drive vehicle. A short cloudburst can transform an otherwise good dirt road into a soft-mud vehicle trap, and even unsurfaced entrance roads and access tracks can become quagmires in the wet. Take local advice if attempting unsurfaced roads in the rainy season, when mud pits with a smooth and apparently firm surface can disguise deep traps. A covering of vegetation usually means a relatively solid surface.
If you have to go through a large muddy puddle, first kick off your shoes and wade the entire length to check it out (better to get muddy than bogged down). If it’s less than 30cm deep, and the base is relatively firm (ie your feet don’t sink far), you should be able to drive through. Engage 4WD, get into first gear, and drive slowly straight across, or, if there’s a sufficiently firm area to one side, drive across at speed with one wheel in the water and one out (beware of toppling over in a Suzuki). For smaller puddles, gathering up speed on the approach and then charging across in second gear usually works.
It’s harder to offer advice about approaching deep mud. Drive as fast as you dare, never over-steer when skidding, and pray.
On a mushy surface of “black cotton soil”, especially during or after rain, you’ll need all your wits about you, as even the sturdiest 4WDs have little or no grip on this, and some – Land Cruisers for example – are notoriously useless. It’s best to keep your speed down and stay in second gear as much as possible. Try to keep at least one wheel on vegetation-covered ground or in a well-defined rut.
If you do get stuck, stop immediately, as spinning the wheels will only make it worse. Try reversing, just once, by revving the engine as far as you can before engaging reverse gear. If it doesn’t work, you’ll just have to wait for another vehicle to pull you out.
Safety should be your first concern when travelling by public transport: matatus, and to a lesser extent buses, have a bad safety record. The most dangerous matatus are those billed as “express” (they mean it). Don’t hesitate to ask to get out of the vehicle if you feel unsafe, and to demand a partial refund, which will usually be forthcoming.
Whatever you’re travelling on, it’s worth considering your general direction through the trip and which side of the vehicle will be shadier. This is especially important on dirt roads when the combination of dust, a slow, bumpy ride and fierce sun through closed windows can be unbearable.
Inter-city bus and matatu fares are typically around Ksh3–5/km (or if the vehicle is “deluxe” in some way, up to Ksh7/km). Even the longest journey by matatu, the 345km, six-hour journey from Nairobi to Kisumu, should cost no more than Ksh1400 (or Ksh2400 by “deluxe” vehicle). Fares go up and down depending on the price of fuel, and rarely does anyone attempt to charge more than the approved rate. Baggage charges should not normally be levied unless you’re transporting a huge load. If you think you’re being overcharged, check with other passengers.
Buses cover almost the whole country. Some, on the main runs between Nairobi and Mombasa, and to a lesser extent the centre and west, are fast, comfortable and keep to schedules; you generally need to reserve seats in advance. The easiest procedure is to mention your destination to a few people at the bus park (known as “stage” or “stand” in Kenya) and then check out the torrent of offers, though the large companies have proper ticket offices at or near the bus stations where they list their routes and prices. Once you’ve acquired a seat, the wait can be almost a pleasure if you’re in no hurry, as you watch the throng outside and field a continuous stream of vendors proffering wares through the window.
Along most routes the matatus these days are Nissan or Toyota minibuses (in rural areas one or two old-style pick-up vans, fitted with wooden benches and a canvas roof, still ply their trade). Matatus can be fast and are sometimes dangerous: try to sit at the back, to avoid too graphic a view of blind overtaking. And, at the risk of being repetitious, always ask to get out if you’re unhappy with the driving.
Regulations introduced by the Kibaki government in 2003 state that all seats are supposed to be fitted with seat belts (they are often broken); loud music is banned (it is often still played, and is the one saving grace for some passengers); and electronic speed governors are supposed to prevent speeds above 80km/h (they are often broken or deliberately disabled). Passenger numbers are, in theory, strictly limited, but on many routes, especially off the main roads, the old maxim of “room for one more” still applies. Kitu kidogo, a “little something” for police officers at roadblocks, ensures blind eyes are turned towards many infringements. There’s more on bribery elsewhere, but it’s worth pointing out that passengers are never expected to contribute directly (though sudden fare increases on a particular route may sometimes amount to the same thing).
Matatus can be an enjoyable way of getting about, giving you close contact, literally, with local people, and some hilarious encounters. They are also often the most convenient and sometimes the only means of transport to smaller places off the main roads.
When it comes to making a choice of matatu, always choose one that is close to full or you’ll have to wait inside until they’re ready to go, sometimes for hours. Beware of being used as bait by the driver to encourage passengers to choose his vehicle, and equally of a driver filling his car with young touts pretending to be passengers (spot them by the newspapers and lack of luggage). Competition is intense and people will tell brazen lies to persuade you the vehicle is going “just now”. Try not to hand over any money before you’ve left town. This isn’t a question of being ripped off, but too often the first departure is just a soft launch, cruising around town rounding up more passengers – and buying petrol with the fare you’ve just paid – and then going back to square one.
If your destination isn’t on a main matatu route, or if you don’t want to wait for a vehicle to fill up (or, indeed, if you just want to travel in style), drivers will happily negotiate a price for the charter or rental of the whole car. The sum will normally be equivalent to the amount they would receive from all the passengers in a full vehicle over the same distance.
Transport in towns often comes down to private taxis. You’ll need to discuss the fare in advance: most drivers will want to be earning something like Ksh500/hour (even if stuck in traffic or waiting) plus at least Ksh200/km, and would baulk at driving anywhere for less than Ksh300–400. In some towns, there’s also the option of using a tuk-tuk (three-wheeled vehicles imported from Asia, on which fares are around half the price of an ordinary taxi). Alternatively, many areas have the motorcycle taxis that can carry one or two people without luggage (known as a piki-piki), or a bicycle with a padded passenger seat for one (known as a boda-boda). Most drivers/cyclists will be straight with you (if surprised to be taking a fare from a foreigner), but if you’re in doubt about the correct fare, which is generally around Ksh40/km, asking passers-by will invariably get you a quick sense of the proper price to pay.
Rift Valley Railways runs Kenya’s few passenger train services. The overnight Nairobi–Mombasa train ran twice a week in each direction at the time of writing, departing Nairobi Mon and Fri at 7pm, and scheduled to arrive in Mombasa around 10am; leaving Mombasa Tues and Sun at 7pm, it is scheduled to arrive in Nairobi around 10am. While this timetable indicates the journey takes around thirteen hours, in reality it usually takes at least up to seventeen hours, and on occasion, the train can pull in anything up to eight hours late. Do not plan any tight connections at either end. The delays are in fact not necessarily caused by the passenger train itself, but by freight trains holding it up on the line. Frustrating as the almost routine delays are, they at least mean you are likely to have a few hours of daylight to watch the passing scene: approaching Nairobi from Mombasa, the animals on the Athi Plains, or approaching Mombasa, the sultry crawl down to the ocean.
Construction of the original line began in Mombasa in 1895 and the railway reached Nairobi in 1899. The China Road & Bridge Corporation (CRBC) is currently building a new standard-gauge railway alongside the old narrow-gauge line, which is set for completion in early 2018. When rail services are functioning on the new line, passenger trains will travel at a top speed of 120km/h, reducing journey time to an estimated four hours. For that reason those who want to experience the Nairobi–Mombasa sleeper service will need to do it soon.
There used to be a (sporadic) overnight Nairobi–Kisumu service, though this has not been operational since 2012. In the future, however, the new Chinese-built railway is expected to extend from Nairobi to Malaba on the Ugandan border and eventually all the way to Kigali in Rwanda.
The present Nairobi–Mombasa train has three seat classes, but only first and second offer any kind of comfort. In first class, you get a private, two-berth compartment; second class has four-berth compartments, which are usually single-sex, though this may be disregarded if, for example, all four people are travelling as a party; third class has hard seats only and is packed with local passengers because it’s half the price of the cheapest bus (even though it takes considerably longer).
The trains are old, the carriages and compartments are far from luxurious, and the toilets are not all European-style, but they begin the journey freshly cleaned, and in a reasonably good state of repair. Meals and bedding, available in first and second class only, cost a little extra, and must be paid for when you buy your ticket, though it’s normally assumed you will take them: they are included in the fare. The linen is always clean, washing water usually flows from the compartment basins, meals are freshly prepared and service is good. On the Mombasa train, dinner is served in two sittings (7.15pm & 8.45pm). You should go for the first sitting for the best food and service, and the second if you’d rather take your time. Breakfast is served from 6am. Singles and couples will usually have to share their tables with other diners.
You can usually rely on getting drinks – bottled water, cold beers and sodas, and sometimes wine, all at fairly standard prices. It’s a good idea to take some snacks with you – you’ll be glad of them if the train rolls in several hours late, as it occasionally does.
The Rift Valley Railways website includes schedules and fares, but is not always entirely accurate. The Man in Seat Sixty-One is a much more reliable and up-to-date source of information.
Nairobi–Mombasa fares, including bedding, dinner and breakfast are as follows: first class Ksh4405, second class Ksh3385, third class (seat only) Ksh680. You need to purchase tickets at the stations, ideally the day before so you can check that the train is running. Tickets can also be booked in advance with most travel agents and tour operators in Nairobi and Mombasa: you pay extra as a booking fee, but it’s much easier and most can arrange delivery of train tickets to hotels. If you do it this way, expect to pay around $65 for first class and $54 for second class (you can’t pre-book third class). Try East Africa Shuttles & Safaris or Go Kenya Safari Tours & Safaris or ask the tour operator you may already have arrangements with.
There’s no passenger shipping along the Kenya coast apart from small vessels connecting the islands of the Lamu archipelago, and the Likoni car and foot passenger ferry across Kilindini Creek between Mombasa island and the south coast. It’s illegal for foreigners to ride on ocean-going dhows – and there are few working dhows left – but there are plenty of opportunities to go on short dhow trips from the resorts for fishing, snorkelling or sightseeing.
Hitchhiking is how the majority of rural people get around, in the sense that they wait by the roadside for whatever comes, and will pay for a ride in a passing lorry or a private vehicle, the cost being close to what it would be in a matatu. Private vehicles with spare seats are comparatively rare, but Kenyans are happy enough to give lifts, if often bemused by the idea of a tourist without a vehicle.
Highway hitching techniques need to be fairly exuberant: beckon the driver to stop with a palm-down action, then quickly establish how much the ride will cost. And be sure to choose a safe spot with room to pull over. Alternatively, use a busy petrol station and ask every driver – the most likely way to get a ride. In terms of safety, it’s highly unlikely you would run into any unsavoury characters, but do not get in if you think the vehicle is unroadworthy, or the driver unfit to drive.
Hitching rides at the gates of national parks and reserves is rarely successful, simply because the passing vehicles will probably be safari vehicles with paying clients on board and they are very unlikely to give someone a free ride. You will have better luck by asking the Kenya Wildlife Services staff at the gates (if it’s a KWS park) who may be able to offer you a lift to the park headquarters within the park, which in some cases is close to the KWS accommodation and campsites.
If you have enough time and determination, you’ll find Kenya’s climate and varied terrain make it an interesting – if challenging – country in which to cycle. However on main roads be cautious of trucks and matatus, and be very wary about cycling in the cities, especially Nairobi, which is congested with traffic most of the time. It’s also not permitted to cycle in the parks and the reserves (for obvious reasons), although some of the smaller game parks that do not have predators allow bikes, including Hell’s Gate at Naivasha, Kakamega Forest, Saiwa Swamp and some of the private conservancies such as those on the Laikipia plateau. You also need to consider the season – you won’t make much progress on dirt roads during the rains – and the altitude. Even if you are in good shape at sea level, don’t be surprised if you feel lethargic and your legs feel like lead weights for the first couple of days up in the hills.
As well as renting, you can take a bike with you to Kenya, or buy one locally. Most towns have bicycle shops selling basic mountain bikes and trusty Indian three-speed roadsters, starting from around Ksh7000. Whatever you take, and a mountain bike is certainly best, it will need low gears and strongly built wheels, and you should have some essential spare parts and a secure lock.
Buses and matatus with roof racks will always carry bicycles for about half the regular fare, even if flagged down at the roadside. Trucks will often give you a lift, too. The Nairobi–Mombasa train also take bikes at a low fixed fare.