If you are a backpacker, independent traveler or more experienced safari-goer you might be considering your accommodation methods of your next trip to Kenya. This article offers advice about the different types of accommodation and whether it is better to stay in a nearby town when visiting the national parks. The Lodges in Springs answer does somewhat depend on your definition of “better” — in terms of quality usually it is not better, but in terms of cost it usually is. My recommendation is to stay beyond the park but towards the gate where you can usually find campsites and cheaper lodges than inside the park, but still enjoy the convenience of coming to the park.
For many backpackers and independent travellers, “better” might mean “cheaper” so let’s start with that as a definition to decide a good option to stay. Although the cost of the accommodation in the towns will be less than accommodation inside the parks, you also need to aspect in the cost of transport between the town accommodation and the park. Sometimes camping is superior to run down local guesthouses and can be the same price. Camping inside the parks is expensive, but essentially parks in Kenya there are campsites towards the park checkpoints that have good amenities (including cold beer) had to have US$6-10 per person per night.
Aside from cost, there are more experiential descriptions of “better” to decide where to stay. Guesthouses in towns can offer a deeper insight into local culture and if you get lucky with your fellow guests it’s really a very good experience. You have more freedom to explore when you are towards the action. You can go out to find a local restaurant and again have a more local experience with your meals. Public transport to towns in Kenya is readily available so getting to your accommodation in a town is easier.
To counter these gains, there are some things to consider. Local guesthouses are often co-located with a restaurant and bar so it can be quite deafening at night, especially if there is a big football game on. They also may not have the standard of facilities that we might expect at home. While the overall sanitation might look OK, the attention to detail is often lacking. Many local establishments have lift toilets or even just a hole in the ground. If there is a bathroom, there is often not a bathroom seat. On the shoreline you will be hard-pressed to find a difficulties shower and away from the coast the difficulties showers are electric (so you have to be sure you show the switch to get hot water). If mosquito nets are given, they often times have holes in the individual. Because most travellers do stay closer to the park, you also need to anticipate to be looked at as you will be a unique (especially women).
If your priority for visiting that area is to see the creatures in the park, then it is far more convenient to stay inside the park or just beyond the gate, rather than in a nearby town. Realistically, the nearest towns are just not that close — for Maasai Mara you would be staying in Narok which is two hours away on a corrugated road, and for Samburu you would be looking for somewhere to stay in Isiolo which is over an hour away.
If you do want to stay in a nearby guesthouse then i suggest doing as much research as you can. Sites like Trip Expert may not be so a good choice for small local places, so you are likely better asking people who have been before — perhaps expats or Kenyans in Nairobi who have to journey to that area for work. It will help to find out the types of people who frequent the accommodation (is it meant for business travellers or bus/truck drivers) and if there is anything to be especially aware of (i. e. some guesthouses act as the local brothel, which is only known to locals, not unwitting tourists).
Even if you prefer travelling independently, when visiting national parks in Kenya it is often safer to go with a tour owner who can cater to your finances and needs. Your safety and security is much higher with an owner and their familiarity with the accommodation options means you have more choices available to you. But if you still prefer to go it alone, then hopefully this article has provided you with an increase of awareness about the advantages and drawbacks of different accommodation options.