One of my favourite countries in Africa (and believe me there’s some tough competition!) I love Kenya, mostly for its diversity.
Yes this country really does have it all, from incredible landscapes, amazing safari opportunities, fantastic hiking and world-class beaches, if you’re looking to get a slice of Africa in one small hit, I think Kenya’s the place!
But this is Africa of course, and as developed (for this part of the world) as Kenya is, it’s still good to be a little prepared before you head here, especially if this is your first time visiting the continent.
And so, with that in mind, I’ve drawn up my list of the 22 things you need to know about travel in Kenya.
Having spent 5 weeks in the country, I definitely got a good feel for the place and how it runs, so check out my best advice here…
- 14 Spellbinding Things to Do in Kenya
- 9 Cheapest Countries to Travel in Africa
- The Perfect Kenya Itinerary for Those on a Tight Budget
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#1 Friendly People
It’s definitely worth knowing that Kenya has some incredibly friendly people.
Open, hospitable and delighted to welcome you into their country, the people of this beautiful nation are one of its highlights for me.
As such, don’t shy away from meeting, greeting, talking and getting to know Kenyans on your travels in their country.
In my experience, they are willing to help you enormously and are delighted if you share a passion for their beautiful nation too.
Perhaps one of the reasons Kenyans are so pleased to welcome you to their country is because of how hard their economy has been hit by a lack of tourists in recent years.
Yes, due to some unfortunate terrorist activity, international tourists have shied away from visiting Kenya over the last decade and many in the tourism industry here are now struggling to make a living as a result.
But, please do not let this put you off visiting Kenya.
In my experience, this country is incredibly safe for foreign visitors and if you’re sticking to the main tourist route in particular, you should have no problems.
#3 Ethnic Tensions
That said there are some ethnic tensions in Kenya, which continue to hamper the election process here, as well as the stability of the country.
Even though you’re highly unlikely to encounter any such tension during a visit to the country – I was here during a contested election and still felt safe – it is worth bearing this issue in mind.
#4 Airport / Road Security
As a result of such tensions and terrorist activity, it’s important to rest assured that security runs high in Kenya, especially at major airports, like Nairobi and in many of the city’s malls.
At the airport especially, all cars and persons are checked on entering the area, bags have to be screened and you need to walk through a body scanner.
As such, do allow plenty of time for this process on top of the usual check-in procedures.
In terms of security, it also wasn’t advised, at the time of my visit anyway, to travel by road in the central north of the country, towards the Ethiopian border or north on the coast up to Lamu from Malindi.
To get to these destinations I was recommended to fly, so do check the latest security information before you make travel plans.
5 ESSENTIAL PACKING ITEMS FOR KENYA
#1 Headtorch – Required for those all too often power cuts, Black Diamond are always my go-to brand.
#2 Insect Repellent – Malaria is a big risk in Kenya, so cover up at night and pack at least 30% DEET spray.
#3 Good Camera – An absolute must if you’re looking to capture the incredible landscape of Kenya. I love my mirrorless Sony A6000, which is light, compact and robust – ideal for Africa travel.
#4 Sarong – Whether it’s covering yourself from the dust on safari, using as a pillow on long bus journeys or making into a beach dress, this is a great multi-purpose travel item for Kenya. 1 World Sarongs have a great collection if you’re looking for some inspiration.
#5 Kenya Lonely Planet – Incredibly useful for the maps and accommodation recommendations, the Kenya Lonely Planet is a must-have.
There’s a number of different tourist visas you can access when travelling to Kenya.
Like many people adventuring throughout the region, I opted for the East Africa visa, which grants multi-country country access (Rwanda, Uganda & Kenya) and works out much cheaper than buying individual visas for these 3 nations. East Africa Visas must be applied for online, in advance of travel.
If you are just visiting Kenya, then I suggest applying for an eVisa online ahead of your travels. This is an easy process and will save you a lot of time when you arrive at the airport.
Otherwise, you can get regular entry visas at all border posts, as well as transit visas which you’ll need if you have a layover.
*This visa advice is given in my experience as a British citizen, but do check your government’s website for info relating to your particular citizenship and passport.*
#6 Budget Airlines
It’s good to know that a number of budget airlines operate in Kenya and are safe, cheap and efficient.
A common journey is to fly from Nairobi to Mombasa (on the coast) and Fly540 operate this route from as little as $40 USD.
Kenya Airways, the national carrier, also fly across the country and internationally to many destinations and tend to be very well-priced.
I’ve flown with Kenya Airways from Nairobi to London and found their service to be excellent, although I know many others do not!
#7 Train to Mombasa
A cheaper option than flying to Mombasa from Nairobi is to get the train.
Once one of the most romantic train journeys in Africa, the old overnight version has now been replaced by a high-speed model operated by a Chinese company.
The train runs every day in both directions departing at roughly 9am in the morning.
It’s very popular however and tickets need to be booked in advance.
Payment is usually made via M-Pesa (see #9) but if you don’t have access to this service, you’ll need to head to the station yourself to book and pay for your ticket, which can be a bit of a runaround!
Shorter distance transport is provided in Kenya mostly via minivans, known locally as matatus.
A fun and adventurous ride, normally accompanied by some loud African music and some reckless driving, they are an experience!
Otherwise tuk-tuks and boda bodas (motorbike taxis) can get you around within smaller towns.
Both of these are cheaper options than taxis.
Larger buses ply longer routes such as Nairobi to Mombasa as well.
THE BEST TRAVEL INSURANCE FOR KENYA
I would never think of travelling to Kenya without proper coverage and always recommend travel insurance from World Nomads who I’ve used during my time in this country and throughout Africa.
I love their great coverage of safari activities – crucial for travel in a country like Kenya – as well as their excellent customer service and ability to claim online, which is very handy if you’re travelling in remote places for a long time.
A mobile payment service prolific in Kenya, M-Pesa is an amazing invention.
Quite simply, it allows the millions of Kenyans without bank accounts to pay for services online by utilising a voucher system that enables them to load money onto their mobile phone to pay for bills and other online services.
If you’re in Kenya for a while, you may want to sign up to the service, via a local SIM card to allow you to pay for things like the Nairobi – Mombasa train.
#10 SIM Cards
Getting a SIM card in Kenya is simple and easy.
Safaricom is the operator I chose and found them to be excellent with some great coverage and data packages.
All you need to do to access their services is take your passport along to any shop and get signed up with them and then load on some credit.
Do make sure everything is operating correctly before you leave the shop.
I scored an amazing deal when I was in Kenya and got 30GB for 3,500 KSh in a special monthly package (#bloggerdreams), but you can also pick up less – 3GB for 100Ksh, for example.
Find out more about the costs of travelling in Kenya in this article.
#11 Local Food
Kenya isn’t known for its food and most of the locals eat a simple maize meal, made into a mash called Ugali.
This is normally served with beans, a steamed green leaf, (known as Sukuma Wiki) and sometimes chicken.
Eaten with hands rather than cutlery, this cheap feed is great to try.
In addition, you can get a plethora of amazing tropical fruits in Kenya (the pineapple is to die for) as well as amazing avocadoes in season.
On the Swahili Coast, there is a distinct Asian influence to the food with lentil samosas and chapattis, steaming and delicious, being my favourites!
There’s a couple of different locally made beers that will be the cheapest alcoholic drinks of choice in Kenya.
Most are good, if not a little sweet for my taste.
Top of the list comes Tusker Malt, the least sweet beer I found and quite good.
Kenya uses the Kenyan Shilling as its currency (KSh).
At the time of writing, there were around 100 KSh to 1 USD.
Money can easily be exchanged at all banks, but you are only able to withdraw KSh out of ATMs.
Also, don’t be confused if you hear people using the word bob!
This is street-talk for a shilling, which I expect is a remnant of former British colonial times.
There’s actually a few chains of supermarkets in Kenya, but Tuskeys tends to proliferate.
Shop here for staples and dry goods, but not fruit and veg – stick to the market for these.
Also do be aware, Kenya has now banned plastic bags, so bringing your own reusable bags to supermarkets is key.
There is a growing backpacker trail in Kenya and hostels catering for budget travellers are growing in number and popularity.
My top picks are…
#16 Carry Your Passport
You are required by law to carry your passport with you at all times in Kenya and if you are stopped by the Police, as I was in Nairobi, you’ll be expected to present it.
Thankfully they let me go, even though I didn’t have my own me, but from then I always carried it!
You have been warned!
When you mention Nairobi to any Kenyan, the first thing they’ll warn you about is the traffic.
It’s true, the traffic in Nairobi is horrendous!
If you want to get anywhere in this city, you’ll be advised to leave a huge amount of time and this includes getting to the airport in time for your flight!
READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Nairobi
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#18 Swahili / English
There are 2 official languages in Kenya, English and Swahili and many local people speak a mixture of both.
In addition, lots of tribal dialects and local languages exist in rural parts of the country.
Trying to get to grips with a bit of Swahili can be a lot of fun, so consider taking a Lonely Planet Swahili Phrasebook with you to Kenya.
Locals will certainly appreciate your efforts.
Malaria is common in Kenya and if you’re travelling here you are advised to take suitable precautions including covering up at night, using a 30% DEET product and taking some anti-malaria medication in your luggage.
You can learn more about exactly what to pack for your trip to Kenya in this article.
You may also want to consider getting your yellow fever certificate before travelling to Kenya.
I highly suggest taking out travel insurance before you visit Kenya and got mine through an excellent company called World Nomads I can highly recommend.
ATM’s are common across Kenya, with Barclays Bank being one of the most trustworthy.
In most machines both Mastercard and Visa cards are accepted, but do always check before attempting to withdraw money.
The maximum you can withdraw from an ATM at any one time is normally 40,000 KSh, although it varies bank to bank and can be as low as 20,000 KSh.
#21 Bring USD Cash
As well as your bank card, it’s also a good idea to bring some USD cash with you to Kenya.
This is the currency most commonly exchanged into KSh and can often be used to pay for services like safaris and hotels directly.
Bringing cash will save you foreign withdrawal fees at ATMs and will also help in an emergency if you get stuck.
#22 Safari, Safari, Safari!
There’s loads of different safari parks to choose from in Kenya and initially trying to decide between them can be very confusing.
The top parks I recommend visiting are…
- Masai Mara – My favourite safari destination of all time!
- Tsavo East – A little-visited park perfect for escaping the crowds
- Amboseli – For elephant spotting and a Mount Kilimanjaro backdrop
- Hell’s Gate – Cycling safaris add a twist in this geothermal landscape. These safari trips that include Hell’s Gate are a great option.
- Lake Nakuru – Top spot for rhinos
- Lake Naivasha – Sunset cruises are idyllic in this watery wonderland
- Mount Kenya – Check out Kiboko Adventures if you’re planning on a Mount Kenya trek. With the promo code: BWSP you can get a 5% discount off any of their tours, so drop them an email today at [email protected].
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So there you have it, the 22 things you need to know about travel in Kenya.
Have you visited this amazing African country?
Do you have any advice to add to the list?