From itineraries, transportation, accommodation, prices, and best time to go. This is the ultimate guide on how to plan a trip to Masai Mara in Kenya.
Think about a perfect safari experience and you will probably end up imagining a trip to Masai Mara in Kenya. This world-renowned national reserve is not only Kenya’s biggest pride, but is also one of the most beautiful places in the world. Expect to see vast grasslands where more than 1 million zebras and wildebeest roam freely, herds of elephants drinking water next to water buffalos and if you are patient enough, lions, cheetahs and leopards quietly searching for a hunt.
Visiting Kenya without exploring Masai Mara is missing something special, and with so many wild experiences to look for, options to move around the park and prices that go from just a couple of hundreds of dollars to even thousands per day. Even so, it is important to understand what makes Masai Mara so special and how to make the most of your time and money. This is how you plan a perfect trip to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
Understanding Masai Mara
Known as “the greater Masai Mara ecosystem”, this large ecosystem consists of two natural reservoirs (Mara Triangle and Masai Mara National Reserve), several smaller private conservancies and some Masai villages around the parks. They are located 255km south-west from Nairobi (about 5-6 hours’ drive) and right next to the border between Tanzania and Kenya. In fact, Masai Mara limits the Serengeti National Park and you can even say they belong to the same ecosystem, just in a different country.
Before you visit Masai Mara, take into consideration how many days you want to spend inside the national reserve, where would you like to stay and what kind of activities are you planning to do. These decisions will significantly have an effect on how expensive your trip to Masai Mara will be.
Still, no matter if you are going on a group tour, a private safari or as an independent self-driving traveler, it is nice to understand the options you have.
Masai Mara National Reserve
This is the largest section of the Masai Mara and home for the largest concentration of animals in the park. It is basically an obligatory stop if you want to explore the best of Masai Mara and no matter at what time of the year you go, it will never get boring.
Expect to see large concentrations of wildebeest, zebras, elephants and lions.
Located in the west side of the Masai Mara and isolated from the rest of the park by the Mara river, the Mara Triangle is considered by many safari experts as the most beautiful spot in the whole Masai Mara. “The Mara Triangle is what makes Africa the most beautiful continent on earth”, said my tour guide Chris, after I asked him what makes the Mara Triangle so special.
Here is the perfect spots to see less crowds of tourists, but also thousands of wildebeest taking a rest and waiting for the right moment to continue their migration.
Private conservancies are usually owned by private luxury lodges. These are unfortunately not places you can simply get in and out, as you would have to pre-book a visit to any of the conservancies or stay at the lodges.
A visit to a private conservancy can be on one side very rewarding – they usually know better where to find big cats – but also way more expensive. It is the perfect option for those who want to splurge themselves on a holiday.
Take into consideration, visiting a conservancy does not mean you will see more wildlife than in the national reserve.
Keep in mind
Just like in most national parks in Africa, entrance fees will be the highest cost when planning a trip. While the 24 hour day pass to the Masai Mara National Reserve cost 70 USD per day, visiting the Mara Triangle conservation area will cost additionally 40 USD and visit a private conservancy can start at around 100 USD per day.
NOTE: Travelers with limited time and higher budget can also get a private charter from Nairobi airport to Masai Mara. Flights can be schedule regularly during the day from Wilson Airport in central Nairobi and it can take you from Nairobi to Masai Mara in just 30-45 minutes for around 200 USD. Before booking a private flight, consult with your tour operator or lodge the fly-in safari tours they might offer.
Where is the best place to stay in Masai Mara
With entrance fees to Masai Mara being your highest expense, and transportation costs being quite fix from the beginning, accommodation will determine if you are getting a more luxurious or budget experience in your safari.
It is true that if you check on hotel booking platforms, you will probably see lodges inside Masai Mara starting at hundreds of dollars. But don’t worry. Most of these accommodation options include some kind of activity that you can also get on a private tour or organize yourself.
Masai Mara is one of the best national parks in Africa, when it comes to finding accommodation under your desired budget. Options are plenty and no matter if you go on a budget or stay in a villa with a private pool, the quality of the safari experience will be almost the same.
With only three options available, public campsites are only located on the Mara Triangle side of the park with prices starting at 30 USD a night. Furthermore, 5 private campsites are also located inside the Mara triangle. Prices for these camps tend to be more expensive, but facilities and services are way better. From private campsites you can also schedule walking safaris or drives around the national park
Camping options and prices are available at the official website of Mara Bookings
Lodging outside the national park
An excellent option for keeping that budget under control is staying outside the national park. Don’t worry, sleeping outside the park does not mean staying out of the action. The towns of Talek, Keekorok or Kawai are located right next to the gates of Masai Mara and here you can find accommodation for more than 1/3 of the price as inside the national reserve.
What are the disadvantages? There is nothing more exciting and simultaneously scary as hearing lions roar in the middle of the night – something that is only possible if you stay inside the gates of the national reserve.
Lodging inside the national park
With most world-renowned lodge companies and luxury companies having accommodation options inside Masai Mara, here you can also have plenty of choice and pricing. Unfortunately, due to its outstanding location, expect prices to be way higher – a price to pay for a more rewarding experience. Lodges inside the Masai Mara National Reserve start at 150-200 USD a night per person.
Staying inside Masai Mara is an experience like no other. Hear baboons grunt in the early morning or lions roar in the middle of the night. If camping is not your cup of tea and you want to make the most of your experience in Masai Mara, this can be the right option for you.
Lodging in a private conservancy
With private airstrips and facilities that exceed the imagination, lodging in a private conservancy is an experience of a lifetime. Four seasons, Fairmont and &Beyond are some of the companies that have turn safari experiences into playgrounds for adults.
Expect to be welcome with cocktails and smoothies, or simply getting woke up with a glass of ice coffee. At the same time, be prepared to spend at least a couple of thousand of dollars just for a few days.
NOTE: If you are planning to stay on a mid-range or a luxurious lodge, it is way better to plan your trip with a private local tour operator. Tour operators get better rates than private clients when booking accommodation and even though you have to book a full package including a driver and game drives, it will end up being way cheaper than planning it independently.
Other activities inside Masai Mara
Doing 3-4 full days of safaris is not an activity for everyone. After hours of driving around the natural areas, landscapes can become monotonous and the excitement of seeing an elephant or a lion is not there anymore. I’m not saying it happens all the time, but anyone who has done a safari before knows what I’m talking about.
Fortunately there are lots of additional activities to do in Masai Mara. One of the most popular and recommended ones is a tour to a Masai village.
These villages are located outside the natural reserve. Here, local Masai will tell you more about their culture, their traditions and how they used to live decades before globalization. You can also see some of the craft that the local families make, as well ask them questions about life as a Masai in the current age and their villages.
Some people complaint that most of these Masai do these activities for the money it provides and the experience is not “real”. However, everyone benefits from these cultural tours. We, by having more awareness about the disappearing Masai and them by earning the money they need to offer their families a better future.
Other options are walking safaris organized by the lodges (around 20-30 USD), as well balloon rides early in the morning (around 350 USD).
Best time to visit Masai Mara
What is the best time to visit the Masai Mara? Well, this question can be quite open, as most of us plan a trip based on the budget and the experience we want to get.
Masai Mara is known for having excellent wildlife experiences all year round. However, most wildlife lovers agree that the best time to visit Masai Mara is during the wildebeest migration (mid-June to October). During this time, millions of wildebeest move from Kenya to Tanzania crossing the Mara river. This gives a great opportunity for encountering some of the wildest safari experiences in the world. At the same time, expect prices to almost double for safari tours and lodging to be booked months in advanced.
Additionally, November to February is still considered high season. Prices are not as high as during the migration, but still you can see plenty of wildlife.
March til May are on the other hand a low season. Grass is high due to the heavy rain and visibility is limited. Predators do not have difficulty to hunt and they can easily hide. Still, prices are way lower during this season and the chances to see all big five in a single trip is still there.
Group tour, private tour or self-drive
A safari in Africa is already a big expense. Visiting Masai Mara is considered one of the most expensive experiences worldwide and considering which option is the one with most value is a very valid question when planning a visit to Masai Mara.
While group tours offer a very budget friendly option for travelers who want to focus on saving money, take into consideration that you will be traveling with lots of people (around 6-8 on a van). This will significantly affect how personal your experience in Masai Mara will be, as well the flexibility of the whole trip itself.
On the other hand independently driving to Masai Mara will give you all the flexibility you want, but zero knowledge of where you are going. Self-driving in Masai Mara means driving in very difficult conditions and budget wise, it won’t be cheaper than traveling with a tour.
Insurance costs, rental costs and park fees will be quite high if you travel to Masai Mara as a self-driver and unless you have a good understanding of wildlife and the Masai Mara itself, the chances of seeing big cats, will be quite small.
I personally found going on a private company the best option for visiting Masai Mara. Private operators adapt very easily to your budget conditions and offer the flexibility you simply can’t get on a group tour. It is definitely more expensive than going on a group, but I think it gave me way more value, than if I visited Masai Mara in a van full of people, or if I rented a vehicle and drove myself.
I booked my trip with Africa Kenya Safaris, a local company based in Nairobi. Before our trip, we discussed exactly what I wanted to explore and in what budget I was traveling. Since they also know all the lodges and camping sites, they could also analyze for me which ones would be the best according what I wanted and offered a good price. After comparing the prices of planning a trip independently or separately, this was the best value I could find.
NOTE: While foreign tour operators seem on their online presence to be most trustful than local companies in Kenya, getting in contact with a Kenyan company is the best way to get the best knowledge and value out of your tour.
Read more: How to prepare for your first safari trip
Cutting down the costs in a trip to Masai Mara
With so many variables and options, it is really difficult to fully calculate how expensive a safari to Masai Mara can be. Still, if you are planning to travel to Masai Mara on a budget, expect to spend around 600-700 USD for a four day tour in low season.
Furthermore, if you are staying in a mid-range lodge with all meals and private games drives included, plan anything between 800-1000 USD per person for a 2 person private safari.
How would I plan my next trip to Masai Mara?
After getting a good glimpse of Masai Mara and try different activities, lodges and traveling options, I would plan my next trip mid-October or beginning November. It is a time when conditions are excellent for wildlife viewing and additionally, there are still large chances of seeing thousands of wildebeest crossing.
At these months, you would not encounter as many visitors as in other times like Summer or Christmas and because the peak season is almost ending, prices are lower and offers can be easily found.
Read more: How to cross overland from Kenya to Tanzania