Kenyan transportation is one of the first things that you research carefully before leaving home. Many of the best things to do in the country are located in remote wilderness areas with poor roads. There are limited Kenya bus routes and other public transport options, and the Kenya railways system has only one route (between Mombasa and Nairobi) that does not operate daily. There is passenger service between Nairobi and Kisumu on Lake Victoria, but this route is rarely used by tourists and you need to be particularly alert for thieves.
While Kenya car rentals can be a viable option, you must prepare yourself for an “expedition” of the type you might need if you planned on driving yourself through the vast Outback of Australia. If you spend some time researching driving conditions in the country, and believe you are the type of person who can take responsibility for your own safety, then the country can be a spectacular self-drive destination. If you plan to visit any of the national parks or wildlife reserves or spend a significant amount of time outside the two largest cities of Mombasa and Nairobi, you must have a four-wheel vehicle – even if you are an excellent off road driver. Additionally, you need to feel comfortable driving in the right lane in a developing country.
If you have never driven a four-wheel drive vehicle on the right-hand side, it is strongly suggested that you take a course before setting out on your own. There are several car-hire firms in Nairobi that will lease you a vehicle and offer a course once you arrive to pick it up. There are some good main roads in Kenya, but even many of the main routes have long patches of extremely rough surface – they may show “paved” on a map, but “paved” is a relative term. Any road that does not appear as paved on a map is apt to be a rutted dirt track in the middle of nowhere where you might have a breakdown or get stuck. In almost all cases, assistance can take hours or even a couple days to reach you. In many cases, a restaurant, groceries, water, and a place to sleep could also be hours or a couple days away. If you plan to be only in Nairobi or Mombasa, then Kenya car rentals are really not necessary. In fact, a self-drive vehicle can be more of a headache than a convenience. City traffic is extremely heavy and extremely chaotic. Taxis are relatively inexpensive and readily available.
You can obtain Kenya car rentals at the Nairobi or Mombasa airports when you first arrive in the country. Some of the Nairobi hotels in these cities also will have access, including a few of the major international franchises like Hertz and Avis. Purchase the required amount of insurance and obtain an International Driving Certificate. Technically, you can drive there with your own valid license, but an International Driving Certificate will help to avoid any difficulties. There are random police checkpoints on all roads, which are primarily looking for vehicles without proper inspection and insurance stickers, vehicles that do not meet safety codes, and overloaded vehicles. It is important to obtain excellent, up-to-date maps and plan your itinerary to reach each destination before nightfall.
In addition to limited roads and the poor condition of many of them, the larger Kenyan transportation picture includes traffic and road safety. Until quite recently, the country (as is true of most countries in Africa) was notorious for its spectacular road accidents with multiple casualties due to reckless speeding, overloaded vehicles, and vehicles that were not safe. This has changed significantly in the last couple years with strict traffic laws, including frequent vehicle inspection, limits to passenger numbers, and speed governors on all commercial vehicles.
These new regulations have made the roads safer and a Kenya bus trip is no longer a hair-raising life-and-death adventure in a vehicle that is decrepit and overloaded to the point of suffocation. Still, large public buses and the smaller “matatus” (public minibus shuttles) have far more seats than one would find in a similar vehicle in Europe or the United States. At least it is only one passenger per seat, and fares are quite reasonable. These buses are excellent for young backpackers and those on strict budgets who don’t mind a little discomfort. The exception to the overcrowded Kenya bus routes are those between a couple of cities that are heavily traveled by tourists. One is the Nairobi-Mombasa route and the other is the Nairobi to Arusha, Tanzania route (especially the latter). A very large percentage of visitors to Kenya will enter Tanzania during their trip, and unless you fly from Nairobi Airport to Kilimanjaro Airport, the main route is from Nairobi to Arusha. This is a “luxury” shuttle in a more modern vehicle with a reasonable number of seats and a very reasonable fare. It departs from a central station in Nairobi as well as a couple of the major hotels. There is a similar “luxury” shuttle route between Mombasa and Moshi, which is the Tanzania base town for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
By far, the two forms of Kenyan transportation used most often by tourist are taxis (mainly in cities and towns) and vehicles driven by professionally trained drivers, who almost always are also professionally trained wildlife guides. Most of these vehicles in Kenya are Nissan-type minibuses (fewer Land Rovers and Jeeps) that have been customized for wildlife safaris in the country’s wonderful national parks and wildlife reserves. You can certainly rent suitable four-wheel drive vehicles to drive yourself on safari, but the advantages of having a professional intimately familiar with all the wildlife and the tracks in the parks are many. Virtually all Kenya vacation packages will include a vehicle with driver.