As a general rule, bargaining is expected in markets and street stalls, especially those that sell handicrafts aimed at tourists. It is sometimes possible to negotiate a discount for taxis (especially if chartered for a set period) and accommodation (depending on the season), but this varies from one place to the next. Most other prices are usually fixed.
Dangers & Annoyances
While Kenya can be quite a safe destination, there are still plenty of pitfalls for the unwary or inexperienced traveller, from everyday irritations to more serious threats.
- Always take a taxi from door to door after dark in cities, especially Nairobi.
- Avoid deserted beach areas at night.
- Keep all of your valuables locked safely away, especially when out and about in Nairobi, or when spending a day at the beach.
- Never travel major intercity roads at night due to the heightened risk of road accidents.
- Keep a close eye on travel advisories issued by foreign governments.
Government Travel Advice
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information for travellers:
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
- Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs & International Trade (www.voyage.gc.ca)
- France Diplomatie (www.diplomatie.gouv.fr)
- Italian Ministero degli Affari Esteri (www.viaggiaresicuri.mae.aci.it)
- New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
- UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
- US Department of State (www.travel.state.gov)
Is It Safe?
As of late 2017, most Western governments were advising against all but essential travel within 60km of the Kenya–Somali border as well as the entire coast from Malindi to the Somali border (except Lamu and Manda islands). The rest of the country was largely considered to be safe for travellers, but check the most recent reports to be sure.
Such advisories can be important when it comes to travel insurance – check with your insurance company about your specific itinerary before finalising tickets, hotels etc.
It is also worth checking the prevailing situation in Laikipia, after violence affected a handful of ranches and lodges in 2017.
Although hotels give you room keys, it is recommended that you carry a padlock for your backpack or suitcase as an extra deterrent. Furthermore, don’t invite trouble by leaving valuables, cash or important documents lying around your room or in an unlocked bag.
Upmarket hotels will have safes (either in the room or at reception) where you can keep your money and passport (and sometimes even your laptop), so it’s advised that you take advantage of them. It’s usually best not to carry any valuables on the street, but when your budget accommodation is a bit rough around the edges you'll find yourself faced with a difficult choice and may want to consider hiding your valuables on your person and carrying them with you at all times. Of course, use discretion, as muggings do happen in large towns and cities. Sadly, theft is perhaps the number-one complaint of travellers in Kenya, so it can’t hurt to take a few extra precautions.
Northeast The ongoing conflict in Somalia has had an effect on the stability and safety of northern and northeastern Kenya – the latter is considered extremely dangerous and has been for years thanks to bandits and poachers. AK-47s have been flowing into the country for many years, and the newspapers are filled with stories of hold-ups, shoot-outs, cattle rustling and general lawlessness. Visitors to Lamu should fly if possible.
Northwest In the northwest, the main problem is armed tribal wars and cattle rustling across the South Sudanese border. There are Kenyan shiftas (bandits) too, of course, but cross-border problems seem to account for most of the trouble in the north of the country.
Risk Despite all the headlines, tourists are rarely targeted, as most of the violence and robberies take place far from the main tourist routes. Security has also improved considerably in previously high-risk areas, such as the Isiolo–Marsabit and Marsabit–Moyale routes. However, you should check the situation locally before taking these roads, and should avoid Garissa County altogether.
South Sudan & Ethiopia borders The areas along the South Sudanese and Ethiopian borders are sometimes considered risky – check the situation carefully if you're planning to travel overland between either country and Kenya.
Even the staunchest Kenyan patriot will readily admit that one of the country’s biggest problems is crime. It ranges from petty snatch theft and mugging to violent armed robbery, carjacking and, of course, white-collar crime and corruption. As a visitor you needn’t feel paranoid, but you should always keep your wits about you, particularly at night.
Although crime is a fact of life in Kenya, it needn’t spoil your trip. Above all, don’t make the mistake of distrusting everyone you meet – the honest souls you encounter will far outnumber any crooks who cross your path.
Precautions Perhaps the best advice for when you’re walking around cities and towns is not to carry anything valuable with you – that includes jewellery, watches, cameras, bumbags, daypacks and money. Most hotels provide a safe or secure place for valuables, although you should also be cautious of the security at some budget places.
Mugging While pickpocketing and bag snatching are the most common crimes, armed muggings do occur in Nairobi and on the coast. Always take taxis after dark.
Snatch & run Snatching crimes happen more in crowds. If you suddenly feel there are too many people around you, or think you are being followed, dive straight into a shop and ask for help.
Luggage This is an obvious signal to criminals that you’ve just arrived. When arriving anywhere by bus, it’s sensible to take a ‘ship-to-shore’ approach, getting a taxi directly from the bus station to your hotel. You’ll have plenty of time to explore once you’ve safely stowed your belongings. Also, don’t read a guidebook or look at maps on the street – it attracts unwanted attention.
Reporting crime In the event of a crime, you should report it to the police, but this can be a real procedure. You’ll need to get a police report if you intend to make an insurance claim. In the event of a snatch theft, think twice before yelling ‘Thief!’ It’s not unknown for people to administer summary justice on the spot, often with fatal results for the criminal. In Nairobi, the tourist helpline is a free service for tourists in trouble. It is a good nationwide network and works closely with the police and local authorities.
With street crime a way of life in Nairobi, you should be doubly careful with your money. Don’t overlook the obvious and leave money lying around your hotel room in plain view. However well you get on with the staff, there will be some who are unlikely to resist a free month’s wages if they’ve got a family to feed.
Hotel safes The safest policy is to leave most of it in the hotel (or room) safe and just carry enough cash for that day. If you don’t actually need your credit card or cash with you, they’ll almost always be safer locked away in your hotel safe.
Money belts If you do need to carry larger sums around, a money belt worn under your clothes is the safest option to guard against snatch thefts. However, be aware that muggers will usually be expecting this.
Other tricks More ingenious tricks include tucking money into a length of elasticised bandage on your arm or leg, or creating a hidden pocket inside your trousers with a small stash for emergencies.
Expensive stories At some point in Kenya you’ll almost certainly come across people who play on the emotions and gullibility of foreigners. Nairobi is a particular hotspot, with ‘friendly’ approaches a daily, if not hourly, occurrence. People with tales about being refugees or having sick relatives can sound very convincing, but they all end up asking for cash. It’s OK to talk to these people if they’re not actively hassling you, but you should probably ignore any requests for money.
Over-friendly strangers Be sceptical of strangers who claim to recognise you in the street, especially if they’re vague about exactly where they know you from – it’s unlikely that any ordinary person is going to be this excited by seeing you twice. Anyone who makes a big show of inviting you into the hospitality of their home also probably has ulterior motives. The usual trick is to bestow some kind of gift upon the delighted traveller, who is then emotionally blackmailed into reciprocating.
Car scams Tourists with cars also face potential rip-offs. Don’t trust people who gesticulate wildly to indicate that your front wheels are wobbling; if you stop, you’ll probably be relieved of your valuables. Another trick is to splash oil on your wheels, then tell you the wheel bearings, differential or something else has failed, and direct you to a nearby garage where their friends will ‘fix’ the problem – for a substantial fee, of course.
Nairobi in particular has huge problems with street children, many of whom are AIDS orphans, who trail foreigners around asking for food or change. It’s up to you whether you give, but it's debatable how much your donations will help as the older boys operate like a minimafia, extorting money from the younger kids. If you want to help out, money might be better donated to a charity, such as the Consortium for Street Children (www.streetchildren.org), which works to improve conditions for these children.
Terrorism is, unfortunately, something you have to consider when visiting Kenya, although the vast majority of the country is safe to visit. Remember that reports of an attack in, for example, Mombasa is likely to have very little impact upon the safety of visiting the Masai Mara or even Tsavo East National Park.
The country has come under major terrorist attack on at least three occasions: in August 1998 the US embassy in Nairobi was bombed; in November 2002 the Paradise Hotel, north of Mombasa, was car-bombed at the same time as a rocket attack on an Israeli jet; and in September 2013 terrorists attacked the upscale Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi. Since then, security has been tightened considerably.
Kenya has an extremely high rate of road accidents and perhaps the most widespread threat to your safety comes from travelling on the region’s roads. Road conditions vary, but driving standards are often poor and high speeds are common. Tips for minimising the risk of becoming a road statistic:
- Avoid night travel.
- A full-sized bus is usually safer than a minibus.
- If travelling in a shared taxi or minibus, avoid taking the seat next to the driver.
Residence permits Very favourable admission fees and accommodation rates around the country.
Seniors No concessions.
Student cards Concession rates at museums and some other attractions; the international ISIC card should be widely recognised.
Embassies & Consulates
Uganda High Commission (Consular Section) The consular section is in the city centre. There's also the High Commission office further out.
Emergency & Important Numbers
Regional area codes must be dialled in full, followed by the number, if calling from within Kenya; the code ‘0’ is dropped if calling from overseas.
|International access code||000|
|Kenya's country code||254|
|Police, ambulance & fire||999|
|Tourist helpline (24 hours)||020-604767|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Entering Kenya is generally pleasingly straightforward, particularly at the international airports, which are no different from most Western terminals.
Visas, needed by most foreign nationals, are straightforward. An e-visa scheme (www.evisa.go.ke) has now been rolled out and is the simplest way to apply, pay and receive a visa almost instantly. It is expected to replace the visa-on-arrival scheme soon. Contact your nearest Kenyan diplomatic office to get the most up-to-date information.
There are strict laws about taking wildlife products out of Kenya. The export of products made from elephant, rhino and sea turtle are prohibited. The collection of coral is also not allowed. Ostrich eggs will be confiscated unless you can prove you bought them from a certified ostrich farm. Always check to see what permits are required, especially for the export of any plants, insects and shells.
Allowable quantities you can bring into Kenya are:
Pipe tobacco 250g
There are no restrictions on which nationalities can enter Kenya, but you will need a passport with a validity of more than six months.
Visas, needed by most foreign nationals, are straightforward. An e-visa scheme (www.evisa.go.ke) is the simplest way to apply, pay and receive a visa almost instantly.
Visa on arrival Tourist visas can still be obtained on arrival at all three international airports and at the country’s land borders with Uganda and Tanzania. This applies to Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders, Americans and Canadians, although citizens from a few smaller Commonwealth countries are exempt. Visas cost US$50/€40/£30 and are valid for three months from the date of entry. Tourist visas can be extended for a further three-month period. Check before travelling whether the visa-on-arrival scheme has been replaced by the e-visa, which must be applied for in advance.
E-visa The Kenyan government's online visa portal (www.evisa.go.ke) issues single-entry tourist visas (US$51) valid for up to 90 days from the date of entry, as well as transit visas (US$21). Simply register, apply and pay online, and once it's approved (within two business days) you'll be sent a PDF visa document to print out, which you then present on entry to Kenya.
Single-entry visas Under the East African partnership system, visiting Tanzania or Uganda and returning to Kenya does not invalidate a single-entry Kenyan visa, so there’s no need to get a multiple-entry visa unless you plan to go further afield. Always check the latest entry requirements with embassies before travel.
Prearranged visas It’s also possible to get visas from Kenyan diplomatic missions overseas, but the only reasons to do so are if you come from a country not eligible for an on-arrival visa, you want to get a multiple-entry visa, or you need longer than three months in the country. If this is the case for you, apply well in advance, especially if you’re doing it by mail.
East Africa Tourist Visa
The East Africa Tourist Visa scheme issues tourists with a 90-day, multiple-entry visa that covers travel to Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda for a single fee of US$100. These visas are available upon arrival at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, and at most land crossings.
Applications can also be made prior to travelling to the region, either at an embassy or consulate for one of the three countries in your home country or online. Although requirements vary from embassy to embassy, most applications require a single passport photo and a letter to the embassy outlining your travel plans. With the visa duly in your passport, your first port of call must be the country through which you applied for the visa, whereafter there are no restrictions on travelling in and out of the three countries. No visa extensions are possible.
Apart from convenience, the East African Tourist Visa could save you money, with individual visas for most (but not all) nationalities costing US$50 for Kenya, US$50 for Uganda and US$30 for Rwanda.
For more information and links to online application forms, see www.visiteastafrica.org.
Visas can be renewed at immigration offices during normal office hours, and extensions are usually issued on a same-day basis. Staff at the immigration offices are generally friendly and helpful, but the process takes a while.
Requirements You’ll need two passport photos for a three-month extension, and prices tend to vary widely depending on the office and the whims of the immigration officials. You also need to fill out a form registering as an alien if you’re going to be staying more than 90 days.
Immigration offices Offices only open Monday to Friday; note that the smaller offices may sometimes refer travellers back to Nairobi or Mombasa for visa extensions.
Lamu Immigration Office Travellers are sometimes referred to Mombasa.
Nairobi Immigration Office Visa extensions can be obtained at this office, around the side of Nairobi's once-feared main administrative building.
Visas for Onward Travel
Since Nairobi is a common gateway city to East Africa and the city centre is easy to get around, many travellers spend some time here picking up visas for other countries that they intend to visit. But be warned: although officially issuing visas again, the Ethiopian embassy in Nairobi was not issuing tourist visas for a number of years and the situation could change again. Call the embassy to check.
Most embassies will want you to pay visa fees in US dollars, and most open for visa applications from 9am to noon, with visa pick-ups around 3pm or 4pm. Again, contact the embassy in question to check the times as these change regularly in Nairobi.
- Greetings Greetings are important. Never launch into a conversation, even when just asking for directions, without first greeting the person with whom you're speaking. Learning a few words in Swahili helps.
- Eating If eating in someone's home, leave a small amount on your plate to show your hosts that you’ve been satisfied. Never, ever handle food with the left hand! If others are eating with their hand, do the same, even if cutlery is provided.
- Interactions with children Don’t hand out sweets or pens to children on the streets, since it encourages begging.
- Be patient If you’re in a frustrating situation, be patient, friendly and considerate. Never lose your temper as a confrontational attitude won’t go down well.
- Taking photos Always ask before taking photos of people. Never photograph someone if they don’t want you to. If you agree to send someone a photo, make sure you do so.
Gay & Lesbian Travellers
Negativity towards homosexuality is widespread in Kenya and recent events ensure that it’s a brave gay or lesbian Kenyan who comes out of the closet. Frequent denunciations by those in power have created a toxic atmosphere of homophobia, which sometimes spills over into violence and, more often, into government harassment. In July 2014, for example, 40 people were arrested for 'suspected homosexuality' in a Nairobi nightclub.
Underlying all of this is a penal code that states that homosexual (and attempted homosexual) behaviour is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Attitudes may be slowly shifting, however – in 2015 Kenya's High Court ruled in favour of the National Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya being able to register as an NGO, something that had previously been rejected multiple times due to homosexuality's illegality in Kenya. This has at least given gay people in Kenya a voice and is the first step on the long path towards legalisation. No law currently prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The main challenge to the acceptance of gay and lesbian lifestyles in Kenya is religion. Nearly all churches and mosques maintain a vociferously anti-gay position, and this is amplified by the presence of homophobic American churches that actively campaign in Kenya against gay rights. In early 2014 star author Binyavanga Wainaina revealed publicly that he was gay to protest against a resurgence in anti-gay laws and public debate across Africa. A few others have followed suit, but visibility for gay people remains extremely low.
While there are very few prosecutions under the law, it is certainly better to be discreet as a gay foreigner in Kenya. Some local con artists do a good line in blackmail, picking up foreigners then threatening to expose them to the police.
David Tours (www.davidtravel.com) Can arrange anything from balloon safaris to luxurious coastal hideaways, all with a gay focus.
Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK; www.galck.org) Local advocacy group that keeps a low profile but that it exists at all in the public domain represents a scrap of progress.
Global Gayz (www.globalgayz.com/africa/kenya) Links to Kenyan gay issues.
Two words: get some! A travel-insurance policy to cover theft, loss and medical problems is a very sensible precaution. Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
- Some policies specifically exclude ‘dangerous activities’, which can even include motorcycling, scuba diving and trekking. If such activities are on your agenda, you’ll need a fully comprehensive policy, which may be more expensive. Using a locally acquired motorcycle licence may not be valid under your policy.
- You may prefer a policy that pays doctors or hospitals directly rather than you having to pay on the spot and claim later. If you have to claim later, make sure you keep all documentation.
- Some policies ask you to call back (reverse charges) to a centre in your home country where an immediate assessment of your problem is made. Be aware that reverse-charge calls are only possible to certain countries from Kenya.
- Check that the policy covers ambulances or an emergency flight home.
If you’re travelling through Africa for some time or heading to more remote corners of the country, consider signing up with a local service. Check with your insurance company that you can contact the local service direct in the event of a serious emergency without having to confirm it with your company at home first.
AAR Health Services Comprehensive medical network that covers Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and offers a road and local service as well as emergency air evacuation to any suitable medical facility in East Africa. In addition to Nairobi, there's also a Mombasa office.
Flying Doctors Service Part of the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), with a 24-hour air-ambulance service out of Nairobi’s Wilson Airport.
Wi-fi You'll find wi-fi in all but the very cheapest or most remote hotels, though speeds vary enormously. Many wildlife lodges have wi-fi access, but it tends to be highly unreliable. Budget and midrange lodges rarely have internet access at all.
Mobile networks Safaricom, Telkom and Airtel are your best bets for internet access on your phone. Data is cheap and speeds are generally decent, especially compared to other countries in East Africa.
All drugs except miraa (a leafy shoot chewed as a stimulant) are illegal in Kenya. Marijuana (commonly called bhang) is widely available but illegal; possession carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. Dealers are common on the beaches north and south of Mombasa and frequently set up travellers for sting operations for real or phoney cops to extort money.
African prisons are unbelievably harsh places – don’t take the risk. Note that miraa is illegal in Tanzania, so if you do develop a taste for the stuff in Kenya, you should leave it behind when heading south.
- Newspapers & magazines The Daily Nation (www.nation.co.ke), the Standard (www.standardmedia.co.ke), the Star (www.the-star.co.ke), the East African (www.theeastafrican.co.ke) and the New African (newafricanmagazine.com).
- TV KBC and NTV, formerly KTN, are the main national TV stations. CNN, Sky and BBC networks are also widely available on satellite or cable (DSTV).
- Radio KBC Radio broadcasts across the country on various FM frequencies. BBC World Service is easily accessible.
All banks change US dollars, euros and UK pounds into Kenyan shillings. ATMs can be found in medium-sized towns, so bring cash and a debit or credit card.
Virtually all banks in Kenya now have ATMs, most of which accept international credit and debit cards. Barclays Bank has easily the most reliable machines for international withdrawals, with ATMs in most larger Kenyan towns. Standard Chartered and Kenya Commercial Bank are also good options. Whichever bank you use, the international data link still goes down occasionally, so don’t rely on being able to withdraw money whenever you need it, and always keep a reasonable amount of cash on hand.
With deregulation, the black market has almost vanished, and the handful of money changers who still wander the streets offering ‘good rates’ are usually involved in scams. The exception is at land border crossings, where money changers are often the only option (or will try and convince you that they are). Most offer reasonable rates, although you should be careful not to get short-changed or scammed during any transaction.
The unit of currency is the Kenyan shilling (KSh), which is made up of 100 cents. Notes in circulation are KSh1000, 500, 200, 100, 50 and 20, and there are also coins of KSh40, 20, 10, five and one. Locally the shilling is commonly known as a ‘bob’, after the old English term for a one-shilling coin. The shilling has been relatively stable over the last few years, maintaining fairly constant rates against the US dollar, euro and UK pound.
While most major currencies can be exchanged in Nairobi and Mombasa, once away from these two centres you’ll run into problems with currencies other than US dollars, UK pounds and euros.
Credit cards are becoming increasingly popular. Visa and MasterCard are now widely accepted in midrange and top-end hotels, top-end restaurants and some shops.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
The best places to change money are foreign exchange or ‘forex’ bureaus, which can be found everywhere and usually don’t charge commission. The rates for the main bureaus in Nairobi are published in the Daily Nation newspaper.
M-Pesa Kenyans swear by M-Pesa, a quick and easy way of transferring money via mobile networks.
Western Union Western Union Postbank, a branch of the Kenyan Post Office, is the regional agent for Western Union, the global money-transfer company. Using its service is an easy way (if the phones are working) of receiving money in Kenya. Senders should contact Western Union to find the location of their nearest agency. Handily, the sender pays all the charges and there’s a Postbank in most towns, often in the post office or close by.
- Hotel porters Tips expected in upmarket hotels (from KSh200).
- Restaurants Service charge of 10% often added to the bill plus 16% VAT and 2% catering levy.
- Taxi drivers As fares are negotiated in advance, no need to tip unless they provide you with exceptional service.
- Tour guides, safari drivers & cooks Gratuity is expected at the end of your tour/trip. Count on around US$10 to US$15 per day per group.
Travellers cheques are next to useless in Kenya – very few banks or foreign exchange bureaus accept them and those that do, do so reluctantly and charge high commissions.
US Dollar Tricks
- When getting US currency to take to Kenya, make sure you get US$100 bills manufactured in 2006 or later. Most banks and just about all businesses simply won't accept those that were printed earlier.
- If changing money at a foreign exchange bureau or other moneychanger, watch out for differing small-bill (US$10) and large-bill (US$100) rates; the larger bills usually get the better exchange rates.
Opening hours can vary throughout the year, particularly in tourist areas, less so in larger cities. We’ve provided high-season opening hours; hours will generally decrease in the shoulder and low seasons.
Banks 9am–3pm or 4pm Monday to Friday, 9am–noon Saturday
Post offices 8.30am–5pm Monday to Friday, 9am–noon Saturday
Restaurants 11.30am–2pm or 3pm and 5pm or 6pm–9pm; some remain open between lunch and dinner
Shops 9am–5pm Monday to Friday, 9am–noon Saturday; some stay open later and open on Sundays
Supermarkets 8.30am–8.30pm Monday to Saturday, 10am–8pm Saturday
- Photographing people remains a sensitive issue in Kenya – it is advisable to ask permission first. Some ethnic groups, including the Maasai, may request money for you to take their photo.
- You should never get your camera out at border crossings or near government or army buildings – even bridges can sometimes be classed as sensitive areas.
Light As the natural light in Kenya can be extremely strong, morning and evening are the best times to take photos.
Filters A plain UV filter can also be a good idea to take the harshness out of daylight pictures.
Lenses and tripods SLR cameras and zoom lenses are best for serious wildlife photography. When using long lenses you’ll find that a tripod can be close to essential.
Vibrations If in a safari minibus or other vehicle, ask your driver to switch off the engine to avoid vibrations affecting your photo.
Service The Kenyan postal system is run by Posta (www.posta.co.ke). Letters sent from Kenya rarely go astray but can take up to two weeks to reach Australia or the USA.
Parcels If sent by surface mail, parcels take three to six months to reach Europe, while airmail parcels take around a week.
Courier Most things arrive eventually, although there is still a problem with theft within the system. Curios, clothes and textiles will be OK, but if your parcel contains anything of obvious value, send it by courier. Posta has its own courier service, EMS, which is considerably cheaper than the big international courier companies. The best place to send parcels from is the main post office in Nairobi.
New Year’s Day 1 January
Good Friday and Easter Monday March/April
Labour Day 1 May
Madaraka Day 1 June
Moi Day 10 October
Kenyatta Day 20 October
Independence Day 12 December
Christmas Day 25 December
Boxing Day 26 December
Islamic festivals and holidays are particularly significant on the coast. Many eateries there close until after sundown during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Islamic holidays vary in date according to the lunar calendar.
Islamic Holiday Dates
|Ramadan begins||16 May||6 May||24 Apr|
|Eid al-Fitr (end of Ramadan)||15 Jun||4 Jun||24 May|
|Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice)||21 Aug||11 Aug||31 Jul|
|New Year begins||11 Sep (1440)||31 Aug (1441)||20 Aug (1442)|
|Maulid (Prophet Mohammed’s birthday)||20 Nov||9 Nov||29 Oct|
- Kenyan schools run on a three-term system much like the British education establishments on which they were originally modelled, although summer vacations tend to be shorter.
- Holidays usually fall in April (one month), August (one month) and December (five weeks).
- As few Kenyan families can afford to stay in tourist hotels, these holidays mostly have little impact on visitors, but more people will travel during these periods and popular public areas like the coastal beaches will be that bit more crowded.
- Smoking Banned in restaurants, bars and enclosed public areas, with expensive fines for breaches.
Taxes & Refunds
Quoted prices and tariffs usually include all local taxes, but always ask if you're unsure.
There is no system of sales-tax refunds for tourists who purchase items in Kenya.
Landlines continue to be used by most businesses in Kenya, but otherwise the mobile phone is king. Prices are low, data is fast and coverage is excellent in most towns and cities.
Buy a SIM card from one of the Kenyan mobile-phone companies: Safaricom (www.safaricom.co.ke), Airtel (www.africa.airtel.com/kenya) or Telkom (www.telkom.co.ke). SIM cards cost about KSh100 and you can then buy top-up scratch cards and use them either for data or calling credit.
While coverage is excellent in Kenya, you often won't be able to use your phone or data in more remote areas, including many national parks.
- Kenya’s regions have area codes that must be dialled, followed by the local number.
- The international dialling code for Kenya is 254.
- When dialling Kenya from abroad, drop the first zero in the area code.
Kenya is three hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) year-round.
It’s news to most travellers that there is such a thing as ‘Swahili time’. It’s not just the fact that everyone along the coast seems to have time in bucketloads. Swahili time is six hours out of kilter with the rest of the world. Noon and midnight are six o’clock (saa sita) Swahili time, and 7am and 7pm are one o’clock (saa moja). Just add or subtract six hours from whatever time you are told; Swahili doesn’t distinguish between am and pm. You don’t come across this often unless you speak Swahili, but you still need to be prepared for it.
- Toilets vary from pits (quite literally) to full-flush, luxury conveniences that can spring up in the most unlikely places.
- Nearly all hotels sport flushable sit-down toilets, but seats in cheaper places may be a rare commodity – either they’re a prized souvenir for trophy hunters or there’s a vast stockpile of lost lids somewhere…
- Public toilets in towns are almost equally rare, but there are a few slightly less-than-emetic pay conveniences in Nairobi if you’ve only got a penny to spend.
- In upmarket bush camps you may be confronted with real toilets or a long drop covered with some sort of seating arrangement.
- Things are less pleasant when camping in the wildlife parks. Squatting on crumbling concrete is common.
- When trekking it’s good practice to take soiled toilet paper out of the park with you (consider carrying sealable bags for this purpose).
Considering the extent to which the country relies on tourism, it’s incredible to think that there is still no tourist office in Nairobi. There are a tiny handful of information offices elsewhere in the country, ranging from helpful private concerns to underfunded government offices; most can at least provide basic maps of the town and brochures on local businesses and attractions, but precious little else.
Tourist Offices Abroad
The Ministry of Tourism (www.tourism.go.ke) maintains a number of overseas offices, including in the UK and some European countries, but they're pretty useless and most only provide information by telephone, post or email.
Travel with Children
Kenya is a wonderful destination for families. Everyone will need vaccinations and Africa can seem like a daunting place for kids, but if you’re prepared to spend a little extra and take comfort over adventure for the core of the trip, you might just have the holiday of a lifetime.
Best Regions for Kids
- Masai Mara & Western Kenya
A safari in the Masai Mara, particularly during the extraordinary spectacle of the massed wildebeest migration (July to October), is surely one of the most memorable experiences your child will ever have in nature. If you take your kids to one wildlife reserve, make it the Masai Mara.
- Southern Rift Valley
Shorter distances, better roads, scenic variety, child-friendly parks and great big lakes make the Rift Valley the best overall part of inland Kenya for little people.
- Lamu & Diani Beach
You could go anywhere along Kenya’s coast and find your family’s own little slice of paradise. But there’s something about the languid pace of life in and around Lamu that seems perfectly suited to a family holiday. On the south coast Diani Beach has loads to offer younger travellers.
Kenya for Kids
Families travelling with kids have long been an established part of Kenyan travel and most Kenyans will go out of their way to make your children feel welcome.
Beach holidays are a sure-fire way to keep the kids happy, and factoring in some beach time to go with the safari can be a good idea. Kenya’s beaches alone should be sufficient, but some of the watersports on offer, such as snorkelling, may be suitable for children, depending on their age. And packing a picnic lunch and sailing out to sea on a dhow (a traditional old sailing boat) is a fine way to spend some fun family time.
The safari could have been custom-built for children. Driving up almost to within touching distance of elephants, watching lion cubs gambolling across the plains or holding their breath as a cheetah accelerates across the savannah – these are experiences that will stay with your kids for a lifetime.
National Parks & Reserves
- Masai Mara National Reserve Africa’s charismatic megafauna in abundance.
- Lake Nakuru National Park Lions, leopards and playful monkeys with easy access.
- Nairobi National Park A kid-sized park with no time for interest levels to flag.
- Shimba Hills National Reserve A quick half-day safari from the coast with good roads all the way.
- Hell's Gate National Park Walk and cycle with megafauna.
- Ballooning Ride high over the Masai Mara in a balloon.
- Dolphin watching Swim with the dolphins at Kisite Marine National Park.
- Snorkelling Snorkel at Manda Toto Island to discover a whole new underwater world.
- Sailing Take a dhow trip from Lamu for a picnic lunch on the beach.
- Elephant feeding Feed the elephant orphans at Nairobi’s David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
Local attitudes towards children vary in Kenya just as they do in the West, but kids will generally be welcomed anywhere that’s not an exclusively male preserve, especially by women with families of their own.
Safari lodges can handle most practicalities with aplomb, whether it’s an extra bed or cot, or buffet meals that will have something even the fussiest of eaters will try. Some lodges have children’s playgrounds and almost all have swimming pools. In non-lodge accommodation, your chances of finding what you need (such as cots) increase the more you’re willing to pay.
Budget hotels are probably best avoided for hygiene reasons. Most midrange accommodation should be acceptable, though it’s usually only top-end places that cater specifically for families. Camping can be exciting for the little ones, but you’ll need to be extra careful that your kids aren’t able to wander off unsupervised into the bush.
Most hotels will not charge for children under two years of age. Children between two and 12 years who share their parents’ room are usually charged 50% of the adult rate; you’ll also get a cot thrown in for this price. Large family rooms are sometimes available, and some places also have adjoining rooms with connecting doors.
Be warned that some exclusive lodges, especially those aimed at a honeymoon or similar market, impose a minimum age limit for children. Others are more welcoming and lay on child-friendly activities.
Kenyans are family friendly and dining out with children is no problem. Hotel restaurants occasionally have high chairs, and while special children’s meals aren’t common, it’s easy enough to find items that are suitable for young diners. Supermarkets stock boxes of fresh juice, and fresh fruit (tangerines, bananas and more) is widely available.
Consult your doctor well in advance of travel as some vaccinations or medications (including some for preventing malaria) are not suitable for children under 12 years.
Safari vehicles are usually child friendly, but travelling between towns in Kenya on public transport is not always easy with children. Car sickness is one problem, and young children tend to be seen as wriggling luggage, so you’ll often have them on your lap. Functional seatbelts are rare even in taxis and accidents are common – a child seat brought from home is a good idea if you’re hiring a car or going on safari. You might also want to consider flying some parts of the journey in order to avoid long road trips.
What to Pack
While supplies of the following are available in most large supermarkets, they can be expensive and may not be the brands you're used to back home. Bring as much as possible from home:
- canned baby foods
- child-friendly insect repellent (not available in Kenya)
- child seat if you’re hiring a car or going on safari
- disposable nappies
- powdered milk
Travellers with Disabilities
Travelling in Kenya is not easy for people with a physical disability, but it’s not impossible. Very few tourist companies and facilities are geared for travellers with disabilities, and those that are tend to be restricted to the expensive hotels and lodges. However, Kenyans are generally very accommodating and willing to offer whatever assistance they can. Visually or hearing-impaired travellers, though, will find it very hard to get by without an able-bodied companion.
In Nairobi, only the ex-London taxi cabs are spacious enough to accommodate a wheelchair, but some safari companies are accustomed to taking people with a disability out on safari.
Beach resorts Many of the top-end beach resorts on the coast have facilities for the disabled, whether it’s a few token ramps or fully equipped rooms with handrails and bath tubs.
On safari Other places may have varying degrees of disabled access, but in Amboseli National Park, Ol Tukai Lodge has two accessible cottages, while in Lake Nakuru National Park, Lake Nakuru Lodge has a handful of accessible rooms.
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya Kenyan group that may be able to help visitors with a disability.
Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality A good resource that gives advice on how to travel with a wheelchair, kidney disease, sight impairment or deafness. The website has a section called ‘African Safaris’ (type ‘Kenya’ into the search box).
Tourism for All (www.tourismforall.org.uk) Advice for disabled and less-mobile senior travellers.
There are a large number of volunteers in Kenya, and volunteering can be a great way to reduce the ecological footprint of your trip. As a general rule, volunteering works best for both the traveller and the organisation in question if you treat it as a genuine commitment rather than simply a fun extension of your trip. It's also preferable if you have a particular skill to bring to the experience, especially one that cannot be satisfied by local people.
Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a perfect volunteer placement. Generally speaking, you’ll get as much out of a program as you’re willing to put into it; the vast majority of volunteers in Kenya walk away all the better for the experience.
Note that for any volunteering work involving children, you will require a criminal background check from your home country and/or previous countries of residence.
The following international organisations are good places to start gathering information on volunteering, although they won’t necessarily always have projects on the go in Kenya.
Australian Volunteers International (www.australianvolunteers.com)
Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service (www.ccivs.org)
International Volunteer Programs Association (www.volunteerinternational.org)
Peace Corps (www.peacecorps.gov)
Step Together Volunteering (www.step-together.org.uk)
UN Volunteers (www.unv.org)
Voluntary Service Overseas (www.vso.org.uk)
Volunteer Abroad (www.goabroad.com/volunteer-abroad)
Volunteer Service Abroad (www.vsa.org.nz)
Worldwide Experience (www.worldwideexperience.com)
Weights & Measures
- Weights & measures The metric system is used.
In their day-to-day lives, Kenyans are generally respectful towards women, although solo women in bars will attract a lot of interest from would-be suitors.
Trouble spots In most areas of Kenya, and certainly on safari, women are unlikely to experience any difficulties. The only place you are likely to have problems is at the beach resorts on the coast, where women may be approached by male prostitutes as well as local aspiring Romeos. It’s always best to cover your legs and shoulders when away from the beach so as not to offend local sensibilities.
Safety Women should avoid walking around at night. The ugly fact is that while men are likely just to be robbed without violence, rape is a real risk for women. Lone night walks along the beach or through quiet city streets are a bad idea and criminals usually work in gangs, so take a taxi, even if you’re in a group.
Discrimination Regrettably, black women in the company of white men are often assumed to be prostitutes, and can face all kinds of discrimination from hotels and security guards as well as approaches from Kenyan hustlers offering to help rip off the white ‘customer’. Again, the worst of this can be avoided by taking taxis between hotels and restaurants etc.
Availability It’s difficult, although by no means impossible, for foreigners to find jobs in Kenya. The most likely areas in which employment might be found are in the safari business, teaching, advertising and journalism. Except for teaching, it’s unlikely you’ll see jobs advertised, and the only way you’ll find out about them is to spend a lot of time with resident expats. As in most countries, the rule is that if a local can be found to do the job, there’s no need to hire a foreigner.
Disaster work The most fruitful area in which to look for work, assuming that you have the relevant skills, is the ‘disaster industry’. Nairobi is awash with UN and other aid agencies servicing the famines in Somalia and South Sudan and the refugee camps along the Kenyan border with those countries. Keep in mind that the work is tough and often dangerous, and pay is usually very low.
Paperwork Work permits and resident visas are not easy to arrange. A prospective employer may be able to sort out the necessary paperwork for you, but otherwise you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time and money at the Nairobi immigration office.