If you’re looking for the ideal destination for an authentic African safari, they don’t get better than these three. The Masai Mara National Reserve, Serengeti National Park and Kruger National Park each offer a range of experiences and adventures to suit every kind of traveller – from honeymooners and solo adventurers to families and friends; from budget-friendly to the-sky’s-the-limit.
But how do you choose between these three incredible destinations? Masai Mara or Serengeti? Serengeti or Kruger? Which one is the best for a safari? Because we’ve been travelling to these incredible wildernesses since 1998, we’ve broken down this complicated subject to help you choose the destination that’s right for your travel wishes.
|Safari Country||Kenya||Tanzania||South Africa|
|Wet / Green Seasons||Nov–Dec
Big cat sightings
Hot-air balloon safaris
Excellent year-round game viewing
|Unrivalled Big 5 game viewing
World-class amenities and service
Location & Landscape
Let’s start with the broadest of distinctions: the Kruger lies in South Africa, whereas you travel to Tanzania for the Serengeti and Kenya for the Masai Mara. Tanzania and Kenya border each other – in fact, the Mara and Serengeti share an unfenced border for animals but not humans – and are considered part of East Africa.
South Africa is in the broader area known as Southern Africa, which also includes other safari heavyweights like Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. The Kruger National Park shares its borders with private game reserves like Sabi Sands, Thornybush and Timbavati. Once again, this freedom to move between these areas is for the wildlife, not people.
They are all served by international flights and the logistics – road and air transfers between camps – work well. In South Africa, you’ll fly into Johannesburg, Africa’s wealthiest city, and then either be driven or flown to one of Kruger’s numerous airstrips on a short-haul flight. South Africa is also great for self-drivers and you can easily get a rental car if you’re feeling adventurous!
For Tanzania, you’ll fly into Kilimanjaro International Airport and overnight in the lively town of Arusha. In Kenya, head to the capital of Nairobi before flying on a light aircraft to the Mara.
Vast rolling plains complete with solitary thorn trees and distant purple hills characterise the Masai Mara landscape. This is the stuff of Out of Africa and the sunsets are some of the most evocative you’ll see. There are few trees because, over centuries, elephants have knocked many of them down.
Like the Masai Mara – just much, much bigger. The Serengeti is a land of beautiful open savannah as well as some tangled woodland and scrubby hill country. ‘Seregenti’ means ‘the land that moves forever’ or the ‘land that goes on forever’; some people feel the same about the sky here. This is truly ‘big sky’ country.
Don’t expect vast sweeping savannahs like you see in Out of Africa; the vegetation here is thicker than in East Africa and much of the landscape is open woodland or denser acacia scrub. It is beautiful and is studded with giant trees (perfect for leopards to hang out in) and rocky hills known as koppies that are often the territory of klipspringers: small, monogamous antelope that mate for life.
Game Viewing, The Big 5 & Wildebeest Migration
The wildlife of each destination is world-renowned. The Kruger offers classic heavyweight game viewing, in particular the Big 5 (lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo), often all seen on the same day. The Masai Mara and Serengeti, however, share the stage for Africa’s greatest natural spectacle: the annual Wildebeest Migration.
Sightings of lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo are most reliable in the Kruger, which also has the widest variety of antelope species. It does not, however, have any natural event akin to the Wildebeest Migration.
All three are home to hundreds of recorded species of birds. The Kruger’s diverse landscape offers shelter to a myriad of kingfisher species (pied, malachite, giant, etc.), lilac-breasted rollers, carmine bee-eaters, raptors like eagles, vultures and owls, and waterfowl along its dams and rivers. No matter where you choose, remember that birdwatching is always more spectacular in Green Season (from about November to April) when all the migrant species are resident and there is plenty of food about.
|General Game Viewing||Excellent year-round||Excellent year-round||Excellent during dry season (May–Oct)|
|Big 5 Sightings||Reliable in private conservancies||Unreliable – rhinos are hard to find||Almost guaranteed daily sightings|
|Wildebeest Migration||Best from Jul–Nov||Best from Oct–Jul||N/A|
Lions, elephant and buffalo are relatively easy to find in the Masai Mara, but leopard and especially rhino are a little more difficult. The lack of trees and thicket means you have to work harder (rhinos feel the cold and like to move to dense brush at night to stay warm) for a great sighting.
Home to abundant and diverse wildlife throughout the year, the Mara is especially good for big herds and their predators. Besides large prides of lion, it’s one of the best places in Africa to see cheetah and has great bird watching. Its open plains are perfect for lions’ hunting style. There are also plenty of spotted hyenas and grey crested cranes as well as Thomson’s gazelle.
Like the Masai Mara, you’ll see plenty of lions, buffalo and elephant – leopards too, if you stay in the Serengeti’s hill country and around the Serenora River – but rhinos are increasingly hard to find. Lion prides especially love the Serengeti’s open terrain.
Great for general game viewing at any time of year, the Serengeti has a similar reputation to the Masai Mara for big cats. A bird count of around 500 different species means it also ranks among the world’s top birding destinations.
Kruger’s private reserves such as Sabi Sands, Timbavati and Thornybush offer Africa’s best Big 5 sightings, especially for the most elusive member of the group: the leopard. The area’s hillocks, rocky outcrops and plentiful trees are prime leopard territory. This is also the easiest place to see rhinos (it is the only option to see white rhino and is the world’s greatest haven for black) and it reputedly has the densest elephant population of the three.
Expect excellent general game viewing all year round, with chances to see rare and endangered animals such as African wild dogs, cheetah and sable – and it’s one of Africa’s top birdwatching destinations.
Safari Activities in the Masai Mara, Serengeti & Kruger
|Morning & Afternoon Game Drives||✔||✔||✔|
|Night Game Drives||In private conservancies||In private reserves & concessions||In private reserves|
|Guided Nature Walks||In private conservancies||In private reserves & concessions||In private reserves|
|Hot-air Balloon Safaris||✔||In private reserves & concessions||In private reserves|
Morning and afternoon drives in game-drive vehicles are the main activity in these destinations. A professional guide sits behind the wheel and will identify and explain what you see. Other activities are available too, depending on where you go: the rule of thumb is that you’ll have more activities in private reserves than in the public-access parks (for example, neither night drives nor nature walks are permitted in national parks). Family-oriented accommodations have plenty of fun activities and educational programmes for children.
If you’re checking into a private safari villa or an exclusive lodge, you might have access to activities like archery, tennis, interactive cooking classes with a private chef, wildlife lectures from experts, photography workshops, guided nature walks, mountain biking or junior rangers’ programmes for the kids.
Masai Mara vs Serengeti vs Kruger: Best Time to Go
Timing is also going to influence your decision and the cost – there are distinct seasons in each destination: the drier the season, the more expensive the safari and the easier it is to find wildlife. And if you want to view the Wildebeest Migration (especially its more dramatic moments like the mid-year river crossings) then you’ll be paying a little more and will need to book your safari up to a year in advance.
Don’t worry if high / peak season doesn’t work for you. The more affordable low season safaris have a special magic too, offering green, bird-filled landscapes and plenty of animals – often with new-borns – to see. Low season is also good for avoiding the crowds and for taking spectacular photographs as the lush greenery, bright light and lack of dust give you crisp, exciting images.
Choosing when to go to these destinations is important: the ‘best’ time to go is generally regarded as during their dry seasons, simply because the animals are easier to find. The climate is at its most pleasant (the extreme heat of summer has passed), the malaria risk is very minimal, and game viewing usually easier as animals are concentrated at water sources and vegetation is at its thinnest. Although you won’t generally see many babies, predators have a field day attacking animals weakened by a lack of food and water
Generally, high / peak safari season is the southern hemisphere’s winter, i.e. during the northern hemisphere’s summer. The winter in Africa can be cold. Game drives set out before sunrise and return after sunset, so pack a warm jacket, a scarf and perhaps even gloves and a beanie.
|Dry Season Game Viewing||Jan–Mar
|Wildebeest Migration Season||Jul–Nov||Oct–Jul||N/A|
|Safari High / Peak Season||Jun–Oct||Jun–Oct||May–Sep|
|Safari Low / Green Season||Nov–Dec||Nov–Dec||Nov–Apr|
Amazing wildlife and a temperate climate make the Mara a year-round destination. There are two rainy seasons to take note of: the ‘short’ rains of November and December (usually very dramatic but short-lived afternoon showers with incredible clouds), and heavier or ‘long’ rains in April and May (many camps close over this period as the black cotton soil is impassable to vehicles). The Wildebeest Migration is in the Masai Mara from around July to November.
The Migration passes through the Serengeti between October and July, crossing the crocodile-infested rivers back to the Masai Mara between July and September. The Serengeti has two rainy seasons like Kenya – October/November and April/May – but its abundant wildlife and temperate climate means it can be visited at any time of year. The animals do not leave when it rains, but the crowds do, so you may have fantastic sightings all to yourself.
The dry season is from May to October with June, July and August as the driest and coolest months. Spotting animals is both easy and rewarding at this time, but such is the scale of the wildlife in the private reserves that they offer excellent year-round game viewing. Birdwatching is best between November and April, when all the migratory species are around.
What Does a Safari Cost in the Masai Mara, Serengeti or Kruger?
No matter which one you choose, an African safari is always going to be a significant investment, so it’s crucial to match the right destination, accommodation style and experience to your expectations. The below costs are guidelines only and an average per person per night, sharing a room in high and low season – excluding international flights, visas and optional activities:
|4-Star Comfort||4-Star Luxury||5-Star Luxury|
|4-Star Comfort||4-Star Luxury||5-Star Luxury|
|4-Star Comfort||4-Star Luxury||5-Star Luxury|
The rule of thumb is that the more you are able to pay, the more exclusive and private your safari becomes – and, generally, the better the quality of your wildlife viewing. This is because exclusivity means fewer vehicles to track the animals. National parks allow visitors to drive their own cars, so sightings like leopards and lions attract a lot of spectators. In more private areas, the number of game-drive vehicles are closely monitored around animal sightings; usually only two are allowed at a time. Although you can have spectacular sightings no matter where you go – this unpredictability is part of what makes a safari so exciting.
The Kruger is a large public-access national park that you can safely self-drive around. But for almost guaranteed close-up encounters with the Big 5 and barely another visitor around, you should consider the private reserves adjoining the Kruger. The same applies in East Africa: private conservancies or concessions in the Masai Mara and Serengeti offer exclusive safaris away from what can be very crowded public areas, especially when the migrating wildebeest are passing through. Although the Serengeti is a huge area, many visitors want to be around the Mara River to the north, which is where the wildebeest are heading at mid-year.
Ultra-luxurious safari lodges can be among the most expensive accommodations in Africa, but a safari doesn’t have to break the bank. There are affordable ways of enjoying these destinations without sacrificing experience and comfort. Plenty of mid-range safaris are available that consist of fly-drive combinations or small group overland expeditions. No matter your budget, it’s always best to let a safari expert help you plan so that they can let you know where to save and where to splurge. Some travellers would rather stay in a cheaper tented camp for a longer period, while others want to have extras like Wi-Fi, private plunge pools or air conditioning.
Accommodation in the Masai Mara, Serengeti & Kruger
Safari accommodation ranges from walk-in tents with beds and en suite bathrooms to palatial villas with tennis courts and butler services. You’ll head out on morning and afternoon game drives with sharp-eyed guides, but since lodges often overlook a waterhole or river, you can also enjoy great ‘armchair safaris’. Food and most drinks are usually part of the tariff and with several high-quality meals a day on offer, you won’t need to pack extra snacks. At Go2Africa, we prefer to ensure that our itineraries are all-inclusive upfront, so there are no ‘surprises’ when you get to your camp.
Accommodation in these destinations ranges from large almost ‘resort-style’ establishments to thatched lodges and tented camps complete with flickering lanterns and old-fashioned bucket showers.
Ranging from tented camps to large resort-style lodges, accommodation in the central and eastern Masai Mara is busy during Migration season. We recommend more exclusive camps in the reserve’s northern private conservancies. You’ll be close enough to all the Migration hot spots, but able to retreat to tranquillity. If you want to see the Wildebeest Migration, book your accommodation about a year in advance.
Our Favourite Places to Stay:
Camps are often situated on the path of the Migration, so you’ll need to match a camp with the right time of year if you want to see the wildebeest – or opt for a mobile camp that moves with the herds. Book accommodation well (up to a year) in advance for the Migration’s big event: the crossing of the Grumeti and Mara Rivers.
Our Favourite Places to Stay:
The Kruger offers a vast range of experiences and prices: choose from intimate honeymoon hideaways, family-friendly lodges and exclusive-use villas with private chefs and guides. But strip away the luxurious add-ons like the gym, spa and private pool, and you may find some very well-priced accommodation. The Kruger’s good for small, informal camps and great for kids.
Our Favourite Places to Stay:
Traveller Types: Best Suited For…
There is an African safari for every type of traveller, but certain destinations are better than others for specific requirements.
|Honeymooners / Celebrating a Special Occasion||✔||✔||✔|
|Families With Young Children||✘||✘||✔|
|Families With Children of All Ages||✔||✔||✔|
Popular with honeymooners and with some very exclusive and luxurious camps on offer, the Masai Mara’s iconic landscapes and easy game viewing – especially big cats – make it a great destination for an introductory safari. Family-friendly camps are better suited for older children rather than very young ones. A good choice to sample a taste of local culture.
Home to some of the most dramatic chapters of the Wildebeest Migration as well as predators in abundance, the Serengeti is a photographer’s paradise. Its more intimate camps are ideal for romantic travel, while families will find child-friendly accommodation in the Serengeti – although we recommend it for older children.
Its premium lodges provide accommodation for the most discerning of travellers, but the Kruger is also a great destination for honeymooners as well as families with children of any age. Wildlife photographers will not be disappointed with the quality of sightings in the private reserves and if you simply have to see the Big 5, then here’s where you go.
The Masai Mara, Serengeti & Kruger Combines Well With…
The Masai Mara, Serengeti or Kruger don’t have to be visited in isolation. Smooth-running logistics combine each with a host of other iconic destinations. Add on another game reserve or two for a different take on Africa’s wildlife and landscapes or perhaps a beach holiday, complete with white-sand beaches, flourishing coral reefs and butler service right down to the ocean’s edge.
‘Bush-and-beach’ combinations are easy from the Masai Mara – Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast, dotted with beaches like Diani, Galu and Lamu, is home to family resorts and boutique hotels. You can fly there via Mombasa straight from the Masai Mara. It’s also worth adding on another safari destination – Samburu or Amboseli are especially recommended as they are very different to the Mara – as are the Laikipia Plateau and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy for more exclusive game-viewing experiences. Lewa is one of the best places in Kenya to see rhino.
The Serengeti is at the heart of Tanzania’s ‘northern circuit’, which also includes the Ngorongoro Crater, Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara. The Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar is the Serengeti’s natural combination for a bush and beach holiday, but why not choose a more unusual combination? Go chimpanzee tracking in the Mahale Mountains or explore the untamed Selous Reserve by 4x4, on foot and by boat. Selous gets only 1% of Tanzania’s visitors, meaning you’ll often be the only vehicle at sightings.
The most popular combination is with Cape Town. You can fly there via Johannesburg and add southern right whales, endangered African penguins, Table Mountain and the Cape Winelands to your itinerary. It’s also simple to combine the Kruger with Victoria Falls – and you can even fly direct to Mozambique and enjoy a spectacular beach holiday in the untouched Bazaruto or Quirimbas archipelagos.
Ready to Plan Your Masai Mara, Serengeti or Kruger Safari?
Chat with someone who’s been there. Get in touch with one of our Africa Safari Experts to help tailor-make a trip that’s right for you: