Getting Around in Kenya
Kenya has about 250 airports (of vastly varying quality) and plenty of airlines connecting Nairobi with Mombasa, Kisumu, Nanyuki, Malindi, Lamu, and the national parks/reserves of Amboseli Masai Mara and Samburu. While many flights are heavily booked flying around Kenya during the high season, it is a relatively safe and relatively cheap way to cover a lot of ground. Always buy your tickets in advance. If you are going on a “safari” with an organized tour, the company will usually book your tickets to the national parks for you, and the price will be included in the total amount.
Kenyan Railways is a parastatal corporation, presently being privatized, which runs the trains, ferries and railway restaurants in Kenya. The train is a convienient, sometimes luxurious way to move, with comfortable beds and good meals, and is by far the safest - though slowest - way to travel on the ground. A passenger line runs inland from Mombasa to Nairobi and on to Kisumu. The Uganda passenger connection has been discontinued years ago. There are further passenger branch lines to Taveta, Nanyuki and Butere (Nyahururu was to be re-opened in 2005, but has been postponed). All trains are diesel powered, but special tourist steam excursions (Nairobi-Naivasha, and occasional other directions) take place every second Saturday of the month. Prior reservation is necessary, since the steam train will only be fired if there are enough bookings.
There are three classes: First Class, which is the most expensive. You get your own bed and get good service, with free drinking water. Second Class is mostly the same, without all the pampering and free water, but still with a bed and meals. Third Class is very cheap, but passengers have only seats, if they are lucky enough to get one. The train is a good way to get to and from Mombasa from Nairobi, although it is slow and long waits and delays are expected.
By Road (Public Transportation):
Public Transportation is very extensive in Kenya, perhaps more so than many other African Countries. Some form or public transportation leaves every hour to major cities, and even several times daily to rural areas. There are several types of public transportation. These include buses, the train, and matatus. Matatu is the general name for smaller forms of public transportation, i.e., mini-buses, vans (called "Nissans"), or box matatus, which are simply a 2-wheel drive pick-up with a shell on the back. People are then crammed inside and you're off to your destination.
Buses are comfortable, some what reliable, and fairly cheap. They are quite slow, however. Buses usually leave every morning from major cities such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and Eldoret. Night buses are also available to some cities. Good bus companies will not overload their buses will not allow passengers to stand. The best, safest and most reliable bus companies are
EasyBus (only Kakamega or Kisumu to Nairobi), Eldoret Express (the most, newest and quickest buses to western Kenya), Coast Bus (Mombasa to and from Nairobi, Nakuru, Kisumu and Kakamega, only nicght buses), Stallion Bus (Nairobi-Mombasa), Akamba (almost anywhere in east Africa, but it got so old and slow now), Kenya Bus Service (the public bus servis is very o.k., but oftly late) and Stagecoach (not everywhere). Buy your tickets in advance at the ticket office near the bus stage.
Matatus are by far the most common means of transportation in Kenya. Matatus leave from designated spots called stages. Passengers get seated, then the matatu leaves when it is full. Matatus can also be caught from the road. If one is passing, stick out your arm with your palm down. This is the sign you want to be picked up. If the vehicle is not full, the driver will pull over to let you in.
There are at least two people that run every matatu: a driver and a tout, who is usually a young man dressed in the current fad. A driver's job is self explanatory, but the work of a tout needs a bit of explanation. First, his job is to get customers to enter his particular matatu. Some times there are several matatus to the same destination, so touts will "fight" over you. Some may even grab you luggage and force you to follow him to his matatu. Touts can be very aggressive and rude. Don't let a tout take your bag, and make your own decision about what vehicle to take. Touts are actually good guys if you get to know them. Try joking around and speaking a bit of Kiswahili with them. Once you befriend a tout, they are a valuable ally.
In major stages, you pay for a ticket before you get on a matatu. It is common, however, to be asked for your money after the matatu is on its way. It's a good idea to ask the fair before entering the matatu. Ask other customers what they're paying. Some touts may try to cheat you!
Of all the types of matatus, "Nissans", or mini-vans are the most comfortable and the fastest. Of course they are a bit more expensive than mini-buses or box-matatus, but worth the price for comfort. Since February 2004 there are strict rules forpublic traffic: seat belts for every seat, not more that 14 seats in a minibus and not more than 80 km/h. And police check! Goats and chickens are crammed into a matatu, the driver will always stop for more people and the tout will shove them in. This makes for unsafe conditions and slow progress, so check out for one with long distance travellers!
Some other tips for traveling by public transportation:
1. Always try to have your luggage in view.
2. Keep your wallet in your front pocket, and remove all valuables. Pick pockets love to work in matatus, especially mini-buses.
3. Although it is tempting to sit it the front seat next to the driver because it is comfortable, try to resist. This is called the "death seat," since if there is an accident, it is the passengers in front that are usually killed.
If you really want the flavor of Kenya, to experience it as only locals do, take at least one trip on a matatu. It can be very stressful, uncomfortable, and a security risk if you don’t be careful, therefore I do not suggest it for the mild-at-heart. For the adventurous tourist, however, it can be quite an experience and a lot of fun.
If you're bringing your own vehicle to Kenya you should get a free three-month permit at the border on entry as long as you have a valid carnet de passage for it. Keep in mind there are certain routes in north-east Kenya where you must obtain police permission before setting out. Hiring a vehicle in Kenya (or at least the national parks) is a relatively expensive way to see the country but it does give you freedom of movement and is sometimes the only way of getting to the more remote reaches. Generally Kenyan roads are in good condition.
Renting a vehicle is quite easy, but fairly expensive. Estimate just USD 80 a day for a corolla, 50 for an starlet, and up to $150 per day for a 4-wheel drive vehicle. There are many agencies in the major cities where you can rent vehicles. Best deal is to rent from internet. Only Budget has an permanent office at Nairobi Airport, so maybe you check out their rates. Also see below in the related Links for Kedev Car Hire in Mombasa.
Hitching, or “getting a lift” as it Kenyans call it, is relatively easy in Kenya, depending on your company and your location. Hitching has many advantages: It is safer to travel in a private vehicle, it is fast once you get a lift, and it can be fun to talk to locals that pick you up. If you are willing to try, here’s some pointers.
Hitch hiking is safe, but always try to hitch in pairs! I have heard of many women hitching alone and together for over two years, and have not heard anything bad happen even once. I do, however, caution against a woman hitching alone. A pair of one man and one woman is your best bet to get picked up quickly. A pair of two women is just as good, if you’re comfortable. Two or more men together will have a difficult time getting a lift, due to Kenyans worried about security.
To hitch hike, find a nice place on a major highway. Start as early as possible, say around 7:00 or 8:00 am, depending on how far you are from a major city where vehicles are leaving, heading your direction. Stand a few yards before a turn-out, so the vehicle has room to pull over after seeing you. Make sure you are clear of any matatu stopping point, or every one will stop for you. When a private vehicle approaches, stick out your arm, just like getting a matatu, but face your palm up instead of down. This means that you want a free lift.
Most lifts are free, although sometimes a driver will ask for money. It’s up to you to decide how much you are willing to pay. More times than not, however, your driver will take you for free and buy you lunch. Good luck!
For the more maritimely minded sailing on a dhow along the East African coast is one of Kenya's most worthwhile and memorable travel experiences. Some of the most popular and most expensive dhow cruises leave from Nyali on the mainland opposite Mombasa Island.