Masai Mara safari - elephants

Masai Mara Safari: How to Plan a Budget-Friendly Trip

Derek Kenya 17 Comments

Masai Mara safari - elephants
Our Masai Mara safari…

…it was a safari like no other, way off in the middle of nowhere Kenya, in the low season with few other travelers around, and with plenty of wildlife to spot out in the hills, in the open savannas, in the ponds and rivers and hidden among the low, thick trees.

For three days and two nights our Masai Mara safari lasted and by the end of it, I can state that it was a definite success in every way possible. (Although, as I mentioned in my last post – How to Ruin an Epic Travel Experience – I didn’t quite appreciate it right away.)

I must admit that, at first, I had expected to pay a ridiculous amount of money for such an experience. This is what I had heard from others and also what my very quick initial research showed as well.

The good news is that we didn’t have to shell out a massive pile of money after all and visiting the Masai Mara National Reserve can be quite affordable.

Masai Mara Safari - wildebeest

Here’s how to keep your costs low when organizing your Masai Mara safari:

First, don’t panic!

When I arrived in Nairobi, I had a conversation with another American traveler who had just returned from his trip to the Masai Mara. He mentioned that he did his safari ‘budget style’, staying at a ‘budget tent camp’. I looked up the camp he stayed at – the cost was $750+ USD per night. Holy crap, that was way more than I wanted to spend. I panicked.

Luckily, after an hour of research on websites such as Booking.com, I discovered that there were a good number of options for far less money than that. Eventually, we ended up with a highly-rated, $130 USD per night lodge (see below) that was more than sufficient for our travel style.

Masai Mara safari itinerary

Here’s a breakdown of our safari itinerary:

Day 1

  • 6.5 hour drive from Nairobi to Masai Mara
  • check-in to the lodge; lunch and 3 hour rest; 2.5 hour game drive in the park; dinner; sleep

Day 2

  • breakfast; full day game drive in the park (7:00am – 4:30pm); an hour at a Maasai village; dinner; sleep

Day 3

  • breakfast; 6.5 hour drive back to Nairobi (arriving at 4pm)

This was a great itinerary for us, with more than enough safari time, plenty of down time to enjoy the surroundings at the lodge and to interact with local Maasai villagers and enough time to recover in between the long journeys to/from Nairobi.

You can do a longer trip as well and I definitely recommend a minimum of 3 days / 2 nights in order to make the most of the experience and give yourself a high enough probability of seeing the Big 5 (lion, leopard, black rhino, elephant and buffalo) on the game drives.

Masai Mara Safari - lion sleeping

Understand the costs

Our transportation and driver/guide were organized by the excursion staff at my guesthouse in Nairobi – the excellent Khweza Bed and Breakfast. I arranged the accommodation myself.

Here’s a breakdown of the costs:

  • $360 USD: 3 full days of transportation in a 4WD safari van with detachable roof, including a knowledgeable and experienced driver/guide
  • $300 USD: 2 nights in a private, modern cabin at the Jambo Mara Safari Lodge, all meals included
  • $160 USD: Masai Mara National Reserve entrance fee – $80 per person per 24 hours
  • $20 USD – Water, snacks and supplies at the supermarket in Narok, the last big town before reaching the game reserve

Total: $840 USD for 2 people ($420 per person)

As a side note, when booking your transportation, it’s best to go through a company that has their own vehicles and guides, not one that sells you a trip but then passes you on to a different operator. Always ask – whether it be an agency or the staff at your hotel or guesthouse – if they have their own vehicles. The chances of paying more money or having a less enjoyable experience are higher when you don’t actually travel with the company you are paying for your safari.

Masai Mara safari - giraffe

Masai Mara safari – how to save money

TRANSPORTATION – Everyone needs this and I thought it was great to have the same vehicle and driver throughout the trip. Our driver, Bonny, picked us up in Nairobi and was our driver until he dropped us off back in Nairobi on the third day. And he really knew his stuff. When out in the Masai Mara, his well-honed animal tracking skills were on display and he clearly knew the reserve extremely well.

Tip: Hard to avoid this cost. Expect to pay around $360 to $400 USD for 3 days. The price is per vehicle so the more people you have, the lower the cost per person, and most safari vans hold up to 6 people.

Masai Mara safari - safari guide and vehicle

ACCOMMODATION – The cheapest option I saw was a tent at a camp site for around $25 per person but it was hard to find a good review online about any of these really low budget options. Go one step up and you’ll find some simple lodges and camp sites just outside the entrance to the park that offer more permanent tents, rooms or basic cabins for around $60 – $80 USD per night. And then there were choices all the way up to $2000 per night if you want! Keep in mind that all the accommodation prices, except for the most budget of options, include all of your meals since you’ll pretty much be in the middle of nowhere. That’s all breakfasts, lunches and dinners during your stay, which obviously saves you a great deal of money.

Tip: It’s best to stay outside the park if you’re on a budget. There’s a village with many options less than 1 kilometer from the main Ololaimutiek Gate. You’ll see why this is a good decision under the “Entrance Fee” section below!

Masai Mara safari - Maasai village

ENTRANCE FEE – The entrance ticket to get into the Masai Mara National Reserve costs $80 USD per person for 24 hours. If you stay at accommodation inside the park for 2 nights, you’ll have to pay this fee twice to cover your entire 24+ hour stay (afternoon of Day 1 until the morning of Day 3). BUT…if you stay outside the park, you can get away with only paying once, even though they will try to get you to still pay twice.

We accidentally showed up at the entrance gate on our first day with only $160 USD, enough money for two tickets. So we were told that we would need to pay again once our first 24 hour ticket period was up. But here’s the thing…our first game drive started at 4:30pm on Day 1 and our second game drive lasted from 7:00am until 4:30pm on Day 2. All of that falls within 24 hours so we actually didn’t need to buy a second ticket and we saved ourselves $80 USD each.

Tip: The only reason you should pay the entrance fee twice is if you are staying at a lodge inside the park (in which case you’re in the park for more than 24 hours) or if you go on a game drive on your third day. Otherwise, only buy one 24 hour ticket when you arrive on that first day. Even if you plan to do a game drive on the third day, I would wait to buy that second ticket as you might see all the animals you want to see on Days 1 and 2 and you might not feel like going back out again on Day 3.

Masai Mara safari - cheetah

Private safari vs a fully organized trip

You can always take a fully organized tour through a reputable agency as well. You can check out the dozens of companies on Safari Bookings, most of which offer both fully organized group trips and private safaris.

Fully organized group trips put you together with other travelers and include the accommodation, transportation, meals and game drives. The cost seemed to be around $360 – $400 USD per person for a 3 day / 2 night Masai Mara safari, with relatively simple accommodation included.

But in my opinion, if you’re already two or more people, you might as well book a private safari like we did as this will give you a chance to spend as much time as you want everywhere you go. On the game drive it was incredible to stop whenever we wanted, watch the lions for as long as we wanted and to really dictate the day. You can also book your own accommodation and save money that way.

Masai Mara safari price ranges

When it comes to overall cost, using simpler accommodation than what we used, two people could have a mighty awesome private safari experience for around $300 USD per person, which is a real bargain.

If you want nicer accommodation, you’re looking at the $350 – $450 USD per person range.

For more than two people, the price will go down, since the set cost of transportation will be divided among each person.

Also, keep in mind that you definitely do not need to book your safari experience in advance. Waiting until you arrive in Nairobi, unless you have a very limited period of time, will allow you to speak to excursion staff at your hotel/guesthouse and other safari operators directly, to really understand what is and what isn’t included and more importantly, to negotiate.

Yes, you can negotiate. You can negotiate for just about everything in Kenya and Masai Mara safari trips are no exception. Shop around, ask for discounts, have a reasonable price in mind that you want to pay and before long, you should have your ideal safari experience all lined up.

And then off you shall go into the gorgeous Masai Mara National Reserve, tracking down wildlife on a once-in-a-lifetime safari!

Any further tips to share from your own experiences? Any questions?


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Since 1999 I've been traveling and living around the world nonstop. With this blog, my aim is to give you an honest account of this lifestyle - from the brilliant moments to the major challenges - in order to help you achieve your own travel goals.
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Comments 17

  1. Sharon Powers

    I was in Mfuwe, Zambia in October at Flat Dogs camp, South Luangwa National Park. It was incredible. The cost was so reasonable. It is a small camp, which I loved. The guides were so knowledgeable. I’d go back again and again. Amazing experience. We stayed in the tents which were wonderful and only 45$/night/pp.

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  3. Aaron Teoh

    Hi Derek,
    I’ve been wanting to visit a safari in Africa but have been putting it off as I thought it’ll involve many thousands of dollars. I’ve done various kinds of travelling but none involving a safari experience due to budget concerns, and it’s comforting to know that such an amazing trip can be done with a more manageable budget. Thanks for the detailed information! Also, I like the aspect of not having to nail down every single detail before setting off, leaves room for spontaneity and surprise 🙂

  4. Kuba

    You can cut the costs of transport if you rent car in Nairobi. We did that. The road was very easy. Only the traffic on a way back at night was terrible. We’ve seen big 5 without any guide skills

  5. Alex Steven

    Lovely! post…..the fun that you make on the trip is all that matters at the end of the day. Thanks for sharing mate.

  6. Mser

    Spending more usually means seeing fewer people because you are staying in a private reserve (rather than visiting a national park where anyone with a few dollars can get in). Nothing worse than being surrounded by a slew of vehicles. My advice is to stay in a private reserve.

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      Author
      1. Win Noren

        That is not exactly correct. Surrounding the national reserve are dozens of private conservancies. In fact from most of the web sites of the lodgings it is hard to know whether you would actually be inside the national reserve or not. But if a lodging mentions a night game drive option or bush walks, then it is likely in a private conservancy as those are not allowed in the national reserve.

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          Author
          Derek

          Thanks for the info. I honestly didn’t hear of any private game reserves or any night game drives so I guess I just didn’t come across it at all. And for those on a budget, which is generally my focus, I’ll guess that the private reserves are much more expensive than what I did above.

  7. Mser

    You drove 13 hours? Just to save cost of bush flights? Yikes.

    Sad to see you put so little forethought into what is/should be a bucket-list trip. 3 days doesn’t even scratch the surface, especially when your time with the animals is so short. 5 days at a minimum. And if you’re travelling a long distance, try to spend a few weeks at various camps in various countries.

    Maasai Mara – go when the migration is happening. That’s what it is famous for…

    1. Post
      Author
      Derek

      That might be the case except that I’m traveling around the world full time, so almost every week involves a bucket list experience. I’ve been traveling nonstop since 1999 and I can’t do the most complete experience for every single thing I do and place I visit. I’m quite happy with what I have been able to do in the 18 years of travel I have under my belt 🙂

  8. Glenn I

    I, too, saw huge prices when I casually googled about safaris. Being stuck in one of those big Landrovers lurching around rutted tracks followed by other Landrovers, also looked standard — and unattractive. Thanks for sharing your more-pleasant-sounding experience!

  9. Heidi Smith

    Good review. I really like your explanation of how to save some cash and still have a good experience. Saves me some research, LOL!!

  10. Craig O

    Earl,

    Thanks so much for this information. My gf and I are actually beginning the process of looking at where to travel this fall, and a safari was on our bucket list. This information is extremely helpful and came at a great time. Can you tell me if September, October would be good/bad months to go on this safari? I am not sure what the seasons are like over there. Thanks!

  11. Carole Jorgensen

    Great info, Derek,
    I traveled in Botswana after volunteering for Cheetah Conservation Botswana and found getting around that part of Africa a bit challenging: very crowded (but safe and friendly) mini buses (you might hold a child or a chicken on the way), crowded (but efficient and clean) greyhound type buses and Overlands. Car rental is expensive and dangerous (sand, pirates–at least 15 years ago–and there are elephants on unlit roads). Overland tours are usually led by South Africans who aren’t especially sensitive or knowledgable about the local flora and fauna and culture. I’d definitely hire a local guide for wildlife if I could. As a wildlife biologist, be sure to ask the tour guide how experienced they are…how many years, do they know the park, do they know the habits of the wildlife. I’d also recommend getting an open rig (jeep type thing)…better for pictures and seeing wildlife, since most WL parks don’t allow you to get out of the vehicle. Those park fees help pay for ranger and wildlife management and are worth the cost if you can afford it and want to support the park. Guide fees for companies–that’s something else.

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      Derek

      Hey Carole – Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, very helpful! We were definitely lucky to have an experienced guide on our safari but we definitely saw others that weren’t (a guy who was driving a 2WD van around, getting stuck in the mud every 15 minutes and needing another guide/driver to rescue him, while always asking other guides where to look for animals).

      And you are right, the park fees do help pay for the management although from what I learned in Kenya, it’s not quite clear where all the money goes!

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