Many travellers bring their own vehicles into Kenya as part of overland trips and, expense notwithstanding, it’s a great way to see the country at your own pace. Otherwise, there are numerous car-hire companies that can rent you anything from a small hatchback to a 4WD, although hire rates are very high.
If you’re a seasoned driver in African conditions, hiring a sturdy vehicle can also open up relatively inaccessible corners of the country. However, do be aware that Kenyan drivers are some of the most dangerous in the world, and be prepared to have to pull off the main Nairobi–Mombasa highway in order to avoid collisions with oncoming overtaking trucks in your lane. This is definitely not a place for inexperienced or nervous drivers.
If you don’t fancy driving yourself, hiring a vehicle with a driver rarely costs a lot more, but then of course you have to pay for the driver’s food and accommodation and that quickly adds up.
A useful organisation is the Automobile Association of Kenya.
Although things have improved, police will still stop you and will most likely ask you for a small ‘donation’ or, as Kenyans say, the police will let you know that they are ‘hungry’. To prevent being taken advantage of, always ask for an official receipt – this goes a long way in stopping corruption. Also, always ask for their police number and check it against their ID card as there are plenty of con artists running about. If you’re ever asked to go to court, consider saying yes as you just might call their bluff and save yourself a bit of cash.
Bringing Your Own Vehicle
Paperwork Drivers of cars and riders of motorbikes will need the vehicle’s registration papers, liability insurance and driving licence; although not necessary, an International Driving Permit (IDP) is also a good idea. You may also need a Carnet de passage en douane, which is effectively a passport for the vehicle and acts as a temporary waiver of import duty. The carnet may also need to specify any expensive spare parts that you’re planning to carry with you, such as a gearbox. This is necessary when travelling in many countries in Africa, and is designed to prevent car-import rackets. Contact your local automobile association for details about all documentation well in advance of your departure.
Shipping If you’re planning to ship your vehicle to Kenya, be aware that port charges in the country are very high. For example, a Land Rover shipped from the Middle East to Mombasa is likely to cost more than US$1000 just to get off the ship and out of the port – this is almost as much as the cost of the shipping itself! Putting a vehicle onto a ship in the Mombasa port can cost another US$750 on top of this. There are numerous shipping agents in Nairobi and Mombasa willing to arrange everything for you, but check all the costs in advance.
An International Driving Permit (IDP) is not necessary in Kenya as most foreign licences are accepted, but it can be useful. If you have a British photo-card licence, be sure to bring the counterfoil, as the date you passed your driving test (something car-hire companies may want to know) isn’t printed on the card itself.
Fuel & Spare Parts
Fuel prices Generally lower outside the capital, but can creep up to frighteningly high prices in remote areas and inside national parks, where petrol stations are scarce and you may end up buying dodgy supplies out of barrels from roadside vendors.
Availability Petrol, spare parts and repair shops are readily available at all border towns, though if you’re coming from Ethiopia you should plan your supplies carefully, as stops are few and far between on the rough northern roads.
Parts Even if it’s an older-model vehicle, local spare-parts suppliers in Kenya are very unlikely to have every little part you might need, so carry as many such parts as you can. Belt breakages are probably the most common disaster you can expect, so bring several spares.
Fire equipment Note that you can be fined by the police for not having a fire triangle and an extinguisher, although the latter is more often asked for in neighbouring Tanzania.
Hiring a vehicle to tour Kenya (or at least the national parks) is an expensive way of seeing the country, but it does give you freedom of movement and is sometimes the only way of getting to more remote parts of the country. However, unless you’re sharing with a sufficient number of people, it’s likely to cost more than you’d pay for an organised camping safari with all meals.
Four-wheel drive Unless you’re just planning on travelling on the main routes between towns, you’ll need a 4WD vehicle. Few of the car-hire companies will let you drive 2WD vehicles on dirt roads, including those in the national parks, and if you ignore this proscription and have an accident you’ll be personally liable for any damage to the vehicle.
Driver requirements A minimum age of between 23 and 25 years usually applies for hirers. Some companies require you to have been driving for at least two years. An International Driving Permit is not required, but you will need to show your passport.
Vehicle condition It’s generally true to say that the more you pay for a vehicle, the better its condition will be. The larger companies are usually in a better financial position to keep their fleet in good order. Always be sure to check the brakes, the tyres (including the spare), the windscreen wipers and the lights before you set off.
Breakdowns The other factor to consider is what the company will do for you (if anything) if you have a serious breakdown. The major hire companies may deliver a replacement vehicle and make arrangements for recovery of the other vehicle at their expense, but with most companies you’ll have to get the vehicle fixed and back on the road yourself, and then try to claim a refund.
Crossing borders If you plan to take the car across international borders, check whether the company allows this – many don’t, and those that do charge for the privilege.
Starting rates for hire almost always sound very reasonable, but once you factor in mileage and the various types of insurance, you’ll be lucky to pay less than US$50 per day for a saloon car, US$80 per day for a small 4WD or US$150 per day for a proper 4WD.
Kilometre limit Hiring a vehicle with unlimited kilometres is the best way to go.
Insurance costs Rates are usually quoted without insurance, with the option of paying a daily rate (usually around KSh1500 to KSh3000) for insurance against collision damage and theft. It would be financial suicide to hire a car in Kenya without both kinds of insurance. Otherwise you’ll be responsible for the full value of the vehicle if it’s damaged or stolen.
Excess Even if you have collision and theft insurance, you’ll still be liable for an excess of anywhere between KSh5000 to KSh150,000 (depending on the company) if something happens to the vehicle; always check this before signing. You can usually reduce the excess to zero by paying another KSh1500 to KSh2500 per day for an excess loss waiver. Note that tyres, damaged windscreens and loss of the tool kit are always the hirer’s responsibility.
Tax As a last sting in the tail (unless you’ve been quoted an all-inclusive rate), you’ll be charged 16% value added tax (VAT) on top of the total cost of hiring the vehicle.
Petrol And a final warning: always return the vehicle with a full tank of petrol; if you don’t, the company will charge you twice the going rate to fill up.
While hiring a ‘chauffeur’ may sound like a luxury, it can actually be a very good idea in Kenya for both financial and safety reasons.
Costs Most companies will provide a driver for anywhere between US$5 and US$40 per day – the big advantage of this is that the car is covered by the company’s insurance, so you don’t have to pay any of the various waivers and won’t be liable for any excess in the case of an accident (though tyres, windows etc remain your responsibility).
Advantages In addition, having someone in the car who speaks Swahili, knows the roads and is used to Kenyan driving conditions can be absolutely priceless, especially in remote areas. Most drivers will also look after the car at night so you don’t have to worry about it, and they’ll often go massively out of their way to help you fulfil your travel plans.
Disadvantages On the other hand, it will leave one less seat free in the car, reducing the number of people you can have sharing the cost in the first place.
We recommend the following local and international hire companies. Be aware that some places offering car hire in Kenya online are scammers. Never wire money to anyone, and double-check the reputation of a company before entering into a contract.
Adventure Upgrade Safaris An excellent local company with a good range of vehicles and drivers.
Avis Has outlets in Nairobi, at Jomo Kenyatta Airport, Mombasa and Mombasa airport.
Budget Offers car hire at both the airport and downtown Nairobi. Also has an office at Mombasa airport.
Central Rent-a-Car Long-standing car-hire agency with 4WDs, SUVs and normal cars at competitive rates.
Market Car Hire Local car-hire firm with a solid reputation that has been operating for 40 years.
Roadtrip Kenya New arrivals in Nairobi, this long-standing Dutch-run agency has been working in Uganda and Tanzania for years and offers excellent value, local knowledge and support.
Driving in Kenya without insurance would be an idiotic thing to do. If coming in your own vehicle, it’s best to arrange cover before you leave. Liability insurance is not always available in advance for Kenya; you may be required to purchase some at certain borders if you enter overland, otherwise you will effectively be travelling uninsured.
Most car-hire agencies in Kenya offer some kind of insurance.
In small towns and villages parking is usually free, but there’s a pay-parking system in Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru, Nyeri, Nanyuki and other main towns. Attendants issue one-day parking permits for around KSh100, valid anywhere in town. If you don’t get a permit, you’re liable to be wheel-clamped, and getting your vehicle back will cost you a few thousand shillings. With that said, it’s always worth staying in a hotel with secure parking if possible.
Road conditions vary widely in Kenya, from flat, smooth highways to dirt tracks and steep, rocky pathways. Many roads are severely eroded at the edges, reducing the carriageway to a single lane, which is usually occupied by whichever vehicle is bigger in any given situation.
Trouble spots The roads in the north and east of the country are particularly poor, although the situation is improving. The main Mombasa–Nairobi–Malaba road (A104) is badly worn in places due to the constant flow of traffic, but has improved in recent years. The never-ending stream of trucks along this main route through the country will slow travel times considerably.
National parks Roads in national parks are all made of murram (dirt) and many have eroded into bone-shaking corrugations through overuse by safari vehicles. Keep your speed down, slowly increasing until you find a suitable speed (when the rattling stops), and be careful when driving after rain. Although some dirt roads can be negotiated in a 2WD vehicle, you’re much safer in a 4WD.
The slightest breakdown can leave you stranded for hours in the bush, so always carry drinking water, emergency food and, if possible, spare fuel.
Vehicles The biggest hazard on Kenyan roads is simply the other vehicles on them, and driving defensively is essential. Ironically, the most dangerous roads in Kenya are probably the well-maintained ones, which allow drivers to go fast enough to do really serious damage in a crash.
Potholes On poor roads, potholes are a dual problem: driving into them can damage your vehicle or cause you to lose control, and sudden avoidance manoeuvres from other vehicles are a constant threat.
People & livestock On all roads, be very careful of pedestrians and cyclists. Animals are another major hazard in rural areas, be it monkeys, herds of goats and cattle, or lone chickens with a death wish.
Acacia thorns These are a common problem if you’re driving in remote areas, as they’ll pierce even the toughest tyres.
Bandits Certain routes have a reputation for banditry, particularly the Garsen–Garissa–Thika road, which is still essentially off limits to travellers. The road from Isiolo to Marsabit and Moyale has improved considerably security-wise in the last few years, while some coast roads between Lamu and Malindi remain subject to occasional insecurity. Seek local advice before driving any of these routes.
- You’ll need your wits about you if you’re going to tackle driving in Kenya. Driving practices here are some of the worst in the world and all are carried out at breakneck speed. Indicators, lights, horns and hand signals can mean anything from ‘I’m about to overtake’ to ‘Hello mzungu (white person)!’ or ‘Let’s play chicken with that elephant’, and should never be taken at face value.
- Driving is on the left-hand side of the road, but Kenyans habitually drive on the wrong side of the road whenever they see a pothole, an animal or simply a break in the traffic – flashing your lights at the vehicle hurtling towards you should be enough to persuade the driver to get back into their own lane.
- Never drive at night unless you absolutely have to, as few cars have adequate headlights and the roads are full of pedestrians and cyclists. Drunk driving is also very common.
- Note that foreign-registered vehicles with a seating capacity of more than six people are not allowed into Kenyan national parks and reserves; jeeps should be fine, but VW Kombis and other campervans may have problems.