Experiencing an African safari feels as though you’ve stepped into the glossy pages of National Geographic. Coming upon a pride of lions stalking their next meal, glimpsing an elusive leopard dart across the plains or sitting awestruck as the Great Migration unfolds are experiences that stay with you forever. Deciding where to create this lifelong memory is a question that safari first-timers will ponder. There are several factors to consider, especially when it comes to deciding between two of the most popular safari options: Kenya vs South Africa. Here’s how Extraordinary Journeys safari specialists tease them apart.
Kenya vs. South Africa: getting there
Both Kenya and South Africa are well connected to the United States via direct flights, but more options exist for South Africa.
Kenya Airways flies direct to and from John F Kennedy International (JFK), New York, to Jomo Kenyatta International in Kenya. (There are several connecting options, too.) This almost 15-hour flight arrives at night, requiring you to overnight in Nairobi. U.S. citizens need an E-visa to enter Kenya ($50) which must be obtained online, in advance of arrival. Children under 16 do not require visas.
South African Airways offers a 17-hour direct flight from JFK and Washington, D.C. (IAD) to Johannesburg (JNB) which arrives in the morning, meaning you can fly onward to your lodge the day you arrive. Delta Air Lines flies from Atlanta to Johannesburg (JNB) on a 15-hour flight, arriving in the early evening. United operates a direct flight from Newark (EWR) to JNB that also arrives in the late afternoon. There are many more options with a one-stop layover.
Travelers can also arrive by way of Cape Town (CPT)—though service is less frequent and less consistent than JNB. Between United and Delta, there are direct overnight flights (approximately 15 hours in duration) from Newark, Atlanta and Washington that arrive in Cape Town in the late afternoon. Each flight is not operated daily, but between the three, there’s coverage each day of the week.
No visa is required for South Africa, just two blank passport pages are required for entry.
Kenya vs. South Africa: wildlife you’ll see
You can find the Big Five—elephant, leopard, lion, Cape buffalo, and rhinoceros—in both South Africa and Kenya. Uniquely, Kenya is also home to “The Northern Five”—reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, the beisa oryx, the gerenuk, and the Somali ostrich. You can also spot warthogs, bat-eared foxes, gray jackals, spotted hyena impala, and hartebeest in Kenya.
In terms of wildlife, a major determinant in the Kenya vs. South Africa safari consideration is whether travelers are keen to witness the Great Migration. During this mesmerizing wildlife phenomenon, millions of wildebeest, zebras and other ungulates parade from the Serengeti in bordering Tanzania to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve.
In South Africa, if you head north, you’ll get the unique wildlife of the southern Kalahari. Here, you’ll hopefully spot rare black-maned lions, roan and sable antelope, brown hyena, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, a good population of desert black rhino, cheetah, gemsbok, and adorable meerkats.
According to Extraordinary Journeys safari specialists, birding is better in South Africa, as is its aquatic wildlife. Hermanus is a popular spot during whale season and so is the coastline that skirts Grootbos where potential close encounters with whales, sharks, dolphins, seals, and penguins are possible.
in South Africa, you have a greater chance of seeing a higher density of wildlife in a short time due to fenced-in park parameters, as opposed to Kenya’s wilder safari experience. Sabi Sand in South Africa is a prime place for focused sightings for travellers with less time to spend on safari.
Kenya vs. South Africa: accommodations
Accommodations on safaris in Kenya tend to be authentic tented camps and lodges. Air-conditoning is uncommon and you won’t find suites with private plunge pools. However, nightly campfires beneath a star-swept sky, endless stargazing and hot water bottles tucked into your sheets are quintessential of Kenyan accommodations. In Kenya, consider staying on a private conservancy instead of the national reserve or park for thinner crowds, plus options that aren’t allowed in the national reserve like night game drives, bush walks, and off-road game viewing. (These are the best safari camps and lodges in Kenya.)
With many more lodges than camps—from independently owned to portfolio collections—South Africa offers a wider range of accommodation and price points. There is no shortage of architecturally forward, modern luxury lodges replete with private plunge pools, butler service and designer decor. The best luxury safari lodges and camps in South Africa are located in private game reserves.
Kenya vs. South Africa: safety
Both Kenya and South Africa are safe, popular places to enjoy a safari, especially when your safari is organized by a reputable travel operator who will arrange your transportation to and from the airport. In either country, you’ll likely overnight in a large city, so you may want to enjoy some self-guided or guided urban leisure time before heading to the bush. No place can be immunized against petty crime or crimes of opportunity, so exercise an awareness of your surroundings and take precautions to protect your belongings, especially valuables.
Kenya vs. South Africa: cost
Extraordinary Journeys safari specialists recommend budgeting $1,000 per person, per night as a starting point for undertaking a luxury safari in either country.
Overall, a South Africa trip may come in lower than Kenya simply because there are more camps to select from and your itinerary might include non-safari days like wine touring in the Cape or city visits. (In Kenya, most trips involve consecutive safari days, which tends to be among the most expensive activities in Africa.) American travelers also benefit from a weaker South African rand, stretching their travel dollars.
Kenya vs. South Africa: family-friendliness
Safaris are incredible learning opportunities for kids—it’s like a biology and social studies class come to life.
South Africa and Kenya are both top choices for family safaris. Long game drives for days on end can be trying for little ones, but both countries have great options for getting out of the 4×4 and mixing up the itinerary out of the vehicle. In Kenya, the cultural connection is stronger, and kids can interact with and learn from Samburu hosts or Masai warriors.
In South Africa, families can enjoy a mix of game-drives plus other non-safari activities such as sight-seeing around Cape Town, bumbling up the coast, and mingling with the too-cute penguins of Boulder Beach.
Kenya and South Africa have great options for safari lodges (versus camps) so kids can enjoy amenities such as pools and sometimes dedicated playrooms. It’s worth noting that the Mara doesn’t have many camps suitable for a baby. It’s not impossible but South Africa is an intuitive choice for families traveling with infants.
If you’re concerned about malaria, choose South Africa. It is the only African country that has several malaria-free safari destinations.
Kenya vs. South Africa: other considerations
What else you might want to do or see will influence whether Kenya or South Africa is the best safari destination for you.
South Africa tends to appeal beyond the safari with travelers often spending time touring Cape Town, the Winelands, the Whale Coast or (to a lesser extent) Johannesburg. Conversely, folks usually pass quickly through Nairobi and there aren’t a lot of “second cities” in Kenya that offer the same sightseeing potential as South Africa.
What’s more, do you want to travel onward? A trip to Kenya easily combines with Tanzania (more safari!), gorilla trekking in Rwanda or Uganda, or digging your toes into the boho beaches of the Kenyan Coast, Zanzibar or ultra-chic Seychelles. South Africa is popularly paired with a beach getaway to Mozambique, a visit to iconic Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe/Zambia) or onward safari travel to Botswana and Namibia.
Finally, Kenyan safaris are generally accessed via bush flights. However, if small, light aircraft make you uncomfortable, South Africa uses commercial planes and ground transfers–which has the added bonus of greater luggage capacity.
Kenya, the original safari destination, offers a wilder, more authentic Out of Africa open plains safari experience with a deeper cultural connection, underwritten by the Great Migration. South Africa is an ideal choice for travelers who don’t need to spend an extended number of consecutive days on safari and prefer five-star luxury in forested reserves. It’s also the best option for a malaria-free African safari.