East Africa is expensive. Ridiculously expensive. Let me put things in perspective.
One year National Park pass in the USA: USD80, Canada: CAD70.
Daily entrance fee for Masai Mara: USD 70/80!
Unless you are an East African resident, there is no way to see Masai Mara for less than USD 70/day/person.
Unfortunately, when I booked my ticket to Nairobi, I was under the delusion that East Africa is a cheap travel destination. Having already committed to the trip, I spent a considerable amount of time researching various options of visiting Masai Mara on a budget.
If you do a cursory google search, you’ll notice that the cost of most 3-day safari group tours are ~USD 500 (lodging outside the park) or USD 800+ for lodging inside the park. Warning: be very careful of promises made by Safari companies if you are booking tours.
The cheapest and most tempting approach I found was via this blog. It involves using public transport and roughing it out. Nonetheless, you can get the experience of a Masai Mara safari for USD 135-200 for every day you go on a safari.
The public transport approach is much better than the horrible budget tours. However, there are two problem with this approach: a) you have to be somewhat flexible since there is a chance that the buses, matatus and Probox may be delayed and you would miss your connection; b) you essentially spend only 10 hours in Masai Mara despite spending 3-4 vacation days. There was no way I would travel so far without maximizing my time in Masai Mara.
If your schedule is not flexible and you can spring a little more cash, use the method described in this post to maximize your time in Mara with a DIY(do it yourself) private tour. Starting from Nairobi, you need a bare minimum of 3 full days to see Masai Mara (48 hours in the park). For a party of two, the method outlined here will drain your wallet by ~USD550/person for a 3 day private tour. Each additional day you stay in Masai Mara will increase the budget by ~USD200/day. Obviously, the expenses are lower for a larger group or for lodging outside the park.
Since this method was essentially spoon-fed to me by travel-guru Debjeet Sen, I am calling it:
The four step Debjeet Sen way of experiencing Masai Mara like a boss”
Step 1: Request a vehicle only quote at KATO website USD 85-250/day (with fuel)
A simple 4WD suffices for most of Masai Mara. However, if you would like to photograph with unrestricted view, I suggest getting a safari van with open roof. However, it would cost an extra ~USD30/day. I got a car with driver (inclusive of fuel) for USD130/day. However, I got a lot of resistance from the the driver to follow the routes I wanted citing excess fuel consumption. I would recommend getting a car with driver; but exclusive of fuel so that you don’t run into this problem.
Step 2: Book a hotel inside the park. USD 120-2000/night
You can camp outside the park for ~USD 10/night. Dorm beds outside the park are available for ~USD 50/night. I was really tempted to go the cheapo way. However, Debjeet convinced me to stay inside the park and I am indebted to him for swaying my initial decision.
I stayed at Keekorok Lodge (USD 150/night including three buffet meals) since it was the cheapest lodging inside the park and located conveniently. Staying at my hotel was a safari in itself. There is a hippo pool inside the lodge complex where a variety of animals come by throughout the day. Apparently, there’s also a crocodile; but I didn’t see it. However, I saw a pride of lions right outside my lodge at sunrise.
Of course, you can spring for more expensive lodging. However, book the lodging yourself. My experience was that the safari agents quoted a much higher price for lodging compared to that quoted on hotel metasearch engines like hotelscombined.com or the hotel’s own website.
Step 3: Plan to stay in multiples of 24 hours. USD 70/24 hours
Masai Mara charges USD70/24 hours. So, why not maximize it if you can. I started from Nairobi at ~7AM and reached Masai Mara at 1230PM on Day 1. I did not leave Mara until 12 noon on Day 3, giving me almost 48 hours to spot countless animals.
Step 4: Bookmark Herdtracker website/app
Despite the fact that I was in Masai Mara for less than 48 hours, I was lucky to see the famous Mara river crossings, thanks to the Herdtracker app. Among other relevant information, they provide live feed of where the migrating herds are and if there is a chance of river crossing.
I had a blast in Masai Mara. Hope this post helps you plan the trip of your lifetime to Masai Mara. Let me know if you have any questions.
Do not use any photo included with this post without the permission of the author