When in Kenya, Trust the Locals

For a relaxing Kenyan getaway on the cheap, trust the locals to be your guide.

NAIROBI, Kenya, Oct. 22, 2008— -- When people think of inexpensive vacations, Kenya doesn't usually come to mind.

The country sports world-class wildlife safaris and some of the world's best beaches, but most travelers think they have to shell out thousands of dollars to have the true Kenyan experience.

In these hard economic times, people may shy away from traveling to Kenya. But they shouldn't. Deals can be had here -- if you are willing to stop thinking like an ''mzungu," the Swahili word for foreigner (usually white), and veer off the beaten track.

Contrary to what movies and travel books illustrate, you don't have to stay in a luxury safari lodge to enjoy the wildlife.

As a cheap alternative, travelers can opt for do-it-yourself safaris.

The Kenya Wildlife Service, the government agency in charge of all of Kenya's national parks, offers a campinglike option called Sleep in the Wild With the Wild.

Within some of Kenya's best-known national parks, tourists can stay in the wildlife service's self-service guest houses, or "bandas," huts with beds inside of them, for $20 to $30 per night, including park entrance fees.

Tourists must provide their own food and way around the park but, conversely, a typical all-inclusive luxury lodge can cost anywhere from $200 to $600 per night.

Justine Petty, a 24-year-old Canadian student studying in the capital of Nairobi, says that in many ways camping out in a wildlife service banda park provides an even better experience than staying in a lodge. Tourists don't have to drive long distances to see the wildlife and aren't married to the lodge's schedule and rules.

"You can just walk outside and see the animals all day," she said.

To de-stress for less, head to the Kenyan coast, where, amid the well-known and expensive resorts, restaurants and big hotels, peace and tranquility can be found for less than tourists might imagine.

Petty's mother, Barbara Petty, has been coming to Kenya from Vancouver, Canada, for more than seven years. She and her husband recently relocated to Nairobi for his business, but she says that all the years of traveling as a tourist have made her savvy.

Barbara Petty says that she has found that people are overly concerned about Kenya's reputation for crime and con artists and that in the end fear drives them to pay "phenomenal prices" for good services that are available for much less.

Trust the Locals

The first step to getting a good deal, she says, is "to trust the locals."

On the coast, for example, big hotels and resorts offer tourist massages that can range anywhere from $50 to $200 an hour. But walk along the beach and tourists will find a different scenario: a one-room hut, with a padded bench and a woman trained and licensed to give massages, who charges about $8 for an hourlong massage.

"It's a great deal," Petty said. "At a large resort you might be able to afford having one or two massages in a week's vacation, but on the beach you can have one every day."

She admits that the setting is a bit more "rustic" than at a hotel spa. A bench isn't a proper massage table, and the massage oil they use is usually a mix of Vaseline and water. But, Petty says, a beach massage offers an experience hotels can't: the ultimate tranquil experience.

"Where else can you lie on the beach and watch the waves come in while getting a proper massage?" she said. "And for less than $10?"

With a little digging and ingenuity, traveling to Kenya's coast can also reveal deals on accommodations. While most people stay in more of the well-known and expensive hotels, especially on the north coast where the crowded city of Mombasa is located, traveling farther south can lead to a less-populated and less-expensive area.

A Secret Gem Along the Coast

The Pettys say Kenya's south coast, roughly two hours from Mombasa, is a secret gem most tourists haven't discovered yet.

"It's definitely the nicest beach," Barbara Petty said. "The sand is smooth and white. It looks like icing sugar."

It was from their vacation on Kenya's south coast in 2005 that some of the first pictures of Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and their son Maddox surfaced. They stayed at the luxury resort Alfajiri Villas, which costs about $700 per night.

But tourists on a non-celebrity budget can afford the secluded, beautiful south coast beaches as well. Several self-service cottages exist on the south coast, particularly on Tiwi Beach, which is less populated with hotels and tourists than other areas.

These privately owned beach cottages can sleep four to seven people for around $50 to $80 per night. For less than $10 extra each day you can hire a cook or maid. And forget about buying seafood at an expensive grocery store or restaurant. The best seafood for the lowest price can be bought straight from a fisherman on the beach.

Drive a Hard Bargain

Another benefit to the south coast? Fewer tourists mean the ability to negotiate better deals. Negotiation is the key to having a fabulous vacation for less, Petty says. She has even negotiated with some well-known resorts and hotels during the off-season for better rates.

Justine Petty says that rather than paying the $40 to $50 rates for snorkeling trips organized by the hotel, she and her friends usually find a knowledgeable local with a boat who will take them out. They typically pay less than $5 for an entire day of snorkeling. She does take some safety precautions, however, using the local option for light snorkeling only.

"The water's not deep, and we go during the day," she said.

Another typical excursion on the Kenyan coast is a walking tour of the coral reefs during low tide. Hotels will charge up to $35 for an organized tour, but Barbara Petty says there are local young men who will do the tour for as low as $8.

"They're extremely knowledgeable," she said, as most are from the coast and have grown up learning about the reefs. "Giving these tours is a way for them to earn a living and also interact with people from different countries."

Kenya, like much of the developing world, still primarily operates on a bartering system. Nearly everything, from products at a hotel gift shop to market merchandise, is up for negotiation. Shrewd negotiating is expected and even respected.

Here are some tips for negotiating as a tourist in Kenya:

Always negotiate upfront for any service: massages, taxi rides, tours, etc.

When looking for the best local deals, ask a waiter or someone working at the hotel what they recommend.

"They will usually tell you to go with what the hotel does, but if you tell them you're not interested in that because you know it's overpriced, they'll give you a real answer," Barbara Petty said.

Understand that simply being an "mzungu" means your price is higher. The Pettys say they typically divide the first quoted price by three and start the negotiating from that amount.

Do your homework. Try and have an idea of what a local would pay for your merchandise or service. Avoid areas known for crime or con artists.

"It's no different than any other country," Barbara Petty said. "If you act like a naive tourist, you're going to get taken."

Treat local vendors and hawkers like people, recognizing that they're approaching you because they are trying to make a living. Be firm if you're not interested, but not rude. The Pettys say they often get a good deal just by being nice to hawkers and not acting as if they are scared.

"I've had many Kenyans tell me they can tell I'm not a tourist just by the simple fact that I actually talk to them," Petty said. "I'm not just saying 'no,' avoiding eye contact and clutching my purse tight."