Hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists visit Kenya each year for, what they hope, a great safari experience in one of those magical sounding places like Masai Mara or Amboseli National Park. As soon as they come off the plane, they are approached by hundreds of street tout who want to sell them a safari tour on the spot. In Nairobi and Mombasa, there are many hundreds of safari tour operators. But they aren’t all good.

While there are honorable companies that try to give you a valuable Kenya safari tour, many companies deliver bad service while others are outright crooks. Complaints range from ignoring reasonable client demands and terrible food to disappearing overnight with your money and sexual harassment by staff members.

There’s often quite some money involved. For a budget camping safari (meaning you’ll be staying in a tent at an open camp site instead of a luxury tented camp or lodge) the minimum prices are around $70 to $80 per person per night – which means at least $560 for a couple going on a 5-day safari (which I recommend is the minimum length to get the real bush experience). This is a lot of money for most Kenyans.

Bad Budget Companies

Most complaints are about budget companies in Nairobi and Mombasa. The ever increasing park entry fees (set by the Kenyan government) and the high gas prices limit their ability to cut costs. They instead try to cut costs by not maintaining their vehicles (so you’ll lose days waiting for a tow truck) or by illegally entering the parks, which may get you into trouble.

Other budget companies don’t have their own equipment, but wait until they have enough bookings and then quickly try to hire some gear. But who says you’ll get your money back in case they don’t succeed? Moreover, some companies don’t even organize the safaris themselves, but only function as a kind of brokers who work on commission for the actual tour organizers. Often, it’s hard to tell them apart. While this kind of agreements are not bad in principle, it may leave you with uncertainty who’s responsible in case of non-compliance.

Unfortunately, even among the best tour operators, quality is not consistent. It’s possible for good operators to perform bad, just like it’s possible for bad companies to shine occasionally. But good companies will at least actually take you out on a Kenya safari tour, and will try to compensate you if anything goes wrong.

Fixing Arrangements On The Spot

Except for the up market tour organizers with a stable track record, it’s better not to book a Kenya safari tour in advance. Though most tour operators allow internet and phone bookings, it’s better to do this on the spot. Visit the offices, talk to the staff and see what kind of people they are, and compare deals. Besides, booking your safari apart from your hotel and/or flight gives you more options and flexibility.

Ask them to set out the details of your plan in advance. Be polite and friendly, but make it clear you won’t take crap from anybody. And don’t pay all your money in advance. Keep at least a part to pay after delivery of service.

So Can You Name Names?

Many travelers ask us to name names: who are the good and the bad companies? That’s why we compiled a special report on which Kenyan safari tour operators are good. After due consideration we did not include a ‘black list’ of bad companies, as this is not without problems. Instead, we focused on those companies that get consistently good reviews of travelers (who submit these at our website and on many other online travel forums). This report is available for free to subscribers of our e-zine.