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10 Tips for Planning Long-Term Travel in Africa

Elephant - Amboseli

In order to properly know Africa, you need to give the continent time. It is a massive, diverse place and cannot be covered in a couple of weeks like large swaths of Europe. Over the past several months I have learned quite a bit from my experiences and mistakes as a traveler in Africa. Here are some tips to make sure you are as prepared as possible for an extended trip in this fascinating part of the world.

1. Get Your Shots and Pills Right Away
If buying a plane ticket is step 1, booking an appointment with a travel doctor is step 2. Good travel doctors in Western countries will be able to pull up on their computer a list of shots, vaccines and pills that you need prior to departure. The travel doctor will also ensure that you have plenty of anti-malarial pills and antibiotics, such as ciproflaxin, which are very important to combat stomach bugs. Some of these medical precautions need to be taken several days before you leave, so take care of the necessary visit as soon as possible.

2. Research Visa Requirements Early
Visa requirements for any country you plan to visit in Africa should be researched well before you travel. The documents needed change regularly (sometimes depending on with whom you speak at the consulate), as do the visa fees. Additionally, while you can obtain a visa without prior application at the airport in Ethiopia, Kenya or Djibouti, countries such as Cote d’Ivoire require that you have a visa upon arriving at any border. Even more difficult is the case of countries such as Ghana, which makes certain nationals apply for the visa in their home country. It may take a few phone calls with a nation’s local representation to determine what you need for a visa, but the early footwork will avoid headaches with immigration officials.

Kenya Sunset

3. Bring Plenty of US Dollars
Banks in Africa frequently run out of cash and, quite often, their ATM’s simply will not cooperate with your foreign bank or credit card. However, even if you find yourself without the local currency and unable to exchange money, the US dollar will fund any activities through a cash shortage. If you know the exchange rate, many tour companies or hotels are happy to accept payment in the equivalent in US dollars.

4. Be Aware of the Prices of Intra-continental Flights
Crossing African borders via an airplane can be very expensive. A two hour flight that would cost $200 in Europe or the US will be at least double the price in Africa. Overland travel is much cheaper and allows you to experience the changing landscape more intimately, with the disadvantages that it is time-consuming and often presents uncomfortable seating. The choice between the two modes of transport will always be a balancing act.

Cote d'Ivoire beach Assinie

5. Try to Use Reputable Airlines
Many national carriers in Africa have a long road to reliability and safety, but there are a few stars whose performance and service mean that they should be a preferred airline choice. Ethiopian Airlines is, in my opinion, the best carrier on the continent. Ethiopian is constantly improving its fleet and pilots across Africa travel to Addis to train at the airline’s flight school. It has an excellent network across Africa and is expanding direct flights to European and Asian hubs. In addition to Ethiopian, Egypt Air and South African Airways are good options in the northern and southern portions of Africa, respectively.

6. Prepare Yourself for Uncomfortable, but Rewarding, Nights
Once you’ve left the more Western hotels in larger cities, accommodation options fall off in terms of amenities. Nicer luxury options can be found, but the hygiene, quiet and warm showers to which many travelers are accustomed may be substandard or nonexistent in rural areas. Despite these aspects of the lodging, sleeping and subsisting in such radically distinct conditions breeds an appreciation for the daily lives of those in the developing world. Seeing and experiencing a way of life different than yours is one of the most persuasive arguments for traveling in Africa now, and a stay in a modest bush hotel is one of many ways to do so.

Mekina Girgir Harar

7. Learn Key Words and Phrases in the Local Language(s) of any Country You Visiting
In addition to making travel easier, here are the essential words which will also ingratiate the traveler to the locals in the destination:
Indispensable – yes, no, hello, goodbye, thank you, water, coffee, toilet, room, you’re welcome;
Very helpful – friend, home, beer, eggs, wine, hot, cold;
Elective – “Make it a double,” “I have a wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend,” change, local rate.

8. Bring a Strong, Compact Umbrella
I got caught in a couple of classic rainy season storms not long after arriving in Africa that sent me scrambling for cover, as I had left my umbrella elsewhere. If the skies bear even a grayish tint, I grab the smaller umbrella I bought prior to departure and have never regretted it. I have yet to see another quality umbrella for sale here – now I know where those rainy-day umbrella salesmen in New York get their goods – so pack something small and dependable.

9. Invest in Quality All-Terrain Shoes
Right before I left the US, I bought a pair of trail running shoes. Thank god I did so. Loafers do not fare well on uneven surfaces and the many unexpected rocks are best tackled with all-terrain sneakers. Those shoes have lasted me almost a year, with many hikes and walks easily handled as a result. My wife manages to get by with her “safari flats” on shorter excursions, but rougher ground demands appropriate footwear.

Nairobi - Zebra

10. Check Taxi Rates Before You Arrive
This is a more general rule that I follow whenever traveling someplace new, but it especially holds true for Africa. I have not seen a metered taxi in 10 months and have realized how much of a luxury it is. I have come across countless overcharging and dishonest taxi drivers who will refuse to provide a decent rate to a foreigner. The best way to combat them is to research message boards and guidebooks beforehand to find reputable drivers and to understand what the market price of the fare should be. Also, don’t be afraid to walk away when a fair price seems unattainable – that is the moment when many drivers will cave and you may hear a better rate offered once your back is turned.

Have you traveled to Africa? Are there any other long-term travel tips that you can share?

{ 44 comments… add one }
  • Doria June 22, 2014, 1:50 am

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I lived in Malawi 30 years ago and this will come handy when I return next year.

    • Dave June 24, 2014, 11:56 am

      Thanks, Doria! Really excited to hear about your return to Malawi, should be a fascinating time for you.

  • Corinne June 22, 2014, 3:00 pm

    Dave, What excellent tips! I am always wary of the visa situation in African countries, so difficult. And I love your tip on shoes and taxis. All great info!

    • Dave June 24, 2014, 11:57 am

      Shoes and taxis are two unavoidable aspects of travel – best to have those covered. Thanks for stopping by, Corinne.

  • Rachel@safari254 June 23, 2014, 9:50 am

    Excellent tips! I think you should also give us your opinion of the costs, especially to those who love backpacking; is Africa cheaper or more expensive say compared to Asia or Latin America.
    Outside Africa, I have only traveled to Europe and found getting around to be quite expensive.

    • Dave June 24, 2014, 12:01 pm

      Good point, Rachel. I haven’t done any Asian travel yet, but the overarching cost-related issue is transport. If you’re willing to travel like a local, you will save a lot of money for other things. For example, a taxi from my part of town in Addis to the business area is 80 birr, or 4 USD. A minibus (matatu) for the same trip is 3 birr, or 0.15 USD. So the taxi is over 20X more expensive!

  • Karen Warren June 23, 2014, 10:58 am

    Great tips. Africa is the one continent I have barely touched so it’s good to have some advice for when I finally make it!

    • Dave June 24, 2014, 12:02 pm

      Thanks, Karen – hope you make it soon! You’d love the cultural history that you can experience in Ethiopia.

  • noel June 23, 2014, 6:10 pm

    All excellent suggestions, i love the practical tips to preparing and also being there on your travels, thanks for sharing the tips.

    • Dave June 24, 2014, 12:03 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Noel – glad you appreciated them.

  • Bob R June 23, 2014, 10:09 pm

    Good list. I imagine you picked up much of those through experience, good and bad. :) I’ve heard a few horror stories about visa, or rather, travelers’ decisions to not plan ahead carefully.

    • Dave June 24, 2014, 12:05 pm

      Yes, the visas can be quite the headache. Thankfully I have not run into those problems (yet).

  • Lauren June 23, 2014, 10:53 pm

    Those are some fantastic tips! I think it is always great to be as prepared as possible. Thank you for sharing!

    • Dave June 24, 2014, 12:05 pm

      Thanks, Lauren – glad you enjoyed them.

  • Bianca @itsallbee June 24, 2014, 9:04 am

    Fantastic tips Dave. I just booked my tickets to go home but will be heading to Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia. I did my shots way before I booked my tickets but my boyfriend on the other hand is fighting tooth and nail just to get the first shot done and we only have a few months to go…some shots need a month a 2 in between injections…sheesh!

    • Dave June 24, 2014, 12:07 pm

      Thanks, Bianca. Can’t wait to hear about your travels. Namibia is really high on my list of African places to visit. I remember having a dead shoulder for a day after the shots, but I haven’t caught anything bad here, so definitely worth it!

  • Hannah June 24, 2014, 12:15 pm

    Great tips! I’m hoping to go to Africa in the next couple of years so this will definitely come in handy- appreciate the advice on the airlines especially!

    • Dave June 24, 2014, 12:21 pm

      Thanks, Hannah – feel free to contact me when you start planning with any other questions, always happy to help!

  • Alli June 24, 2014, 1:59 pm

    Great idea for a post, Dave! I absolutely LOVE that second photo of the tree in the sunset (sunrise?) with those soft colours and the tree becoming a silhouette! Awesome tips to keep in mind for when I visit Africa next! Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Dave June 25, 2014, 11:27 am

      Thanks, Alli! That sunset shot was taken on safari in Kenya. Glad you enjoyed the tips.

  • Sammi Wanderlustin' June 24, 2014, 3:06 pm

    Wow, I know absolutely zero about Africa! It absolutely fascinates me that a bank can run out of money! Insane!

    • Dave June 25, 2014, 11:30 am

      Yes, the money situation can be pretty crazy. Thanks for stopping by, Sammi.

  • Ashley @ A Southern Gypsy June 24, 2014, 3:11 pm

    Great post Dave! I’ve bookmarked this for when I get to come to Africa (which I know will be long term)!

    • Dave June 25, 2014, 11:32 am

      Thanks, Ashley! I’m looking forward to hearing about your eventual Africa travels.

  • antonette - we12travel June 24, 2014, 7:52 pm

    How great you got to explore Africa so much! I’ve never been there but it’s on my list, maybe even for next year. The advise of the umbrella sounds pretty useful, it’s not something I would have considered myself … as for the shoes, I always brought my heavy hiking boots (the ones weighing at least 2 kilos each) and sneakers but recently got myself some Merrel shoes and am really happy about them. Every traveler should have a pair of those :-)

    • Dave June 25, 2014, 5:52 pm

      Definitely agree on those Merrell shoes – I had some that lasted me a while and a lot of good hikes. Hope you’re able to make it here soon. You’d like the outdoor options in East Africa.

  • Margherita @The Crowded Planet June 24, 2014, 11:38 pm

    You have some really good tips there Dave. I really want to spend some time exploring Africa, and I’m sure this could come in really handy. I agree with getting an idea of prices wherever you go, I hate being overcharged. And I also agree with taking a little umbrella, even though I always seem to forget to actually do it. Lucky I always pack my Goretex jacket!

    • Dave June 25, 2014, 5:54 pm

      Good gear always makes a difference! Hope you get to explore sub-Saharan soon, it’s such a unique place.

  • Chris Boothman June 25, 2014, 2:22 am

    Awesome tips here Dave for anyone planning on an upcoming trip to Africa! It’s interesting because I have never ventured to this continent yet but there are so many intriguing aspects that attracts me there, though prior to reading this post I of course had various concerns just like many others I assume. The most frequent concern or question that you probably receive is likely related to point 1 and the concept of malaria.

    Where can you go? Where can’t you go etc without shots? I guess you have pretty much hit the nail on the head when you state you should get everything sorted out prior to heading to Africa!

    Always better to be safe than sorry right, especially if you want to really explore the hidden Africa which is probably where the best experiences lie.

  • Christina June 25, 2014, 7:29 am

    Great and helpful tips. The pictures are beautiful and I like you mentioning to know how to say: “I have a boyfriend!” in the local language. 😀 Guess it´s helpful everywhere.

  • Calli June 25, 2014, 6:47 pm

    Excellent tips Dave! Africa is one of those places we really want to explore but don’t read about much. It’s so wonderful to hear about your adventures and learn from what you are doing.

    • Dave June 26, 2014, 10:03 am

      Thanks, Calli – glad you enjoyed the post. There is so much to explore, you guys would have an incredible time. Hope you make it soon!

  • Sarah June 25, 2014, 6:51 pm

    A friend of mine recently traveled to Africa, did some volunteer work, then headed out to see the wildlife on a safari. She said it was one of the greatest, life-changing times in her life. I hope to visit one day, so thank you for sharing this informative list to help me prep for my own life-changing experience!

    • Dave June 26, 2014, 10:09 am

      Travel to Africa really changes your perspectives on a number of subjects. It’s certainly forced me to think differently and appreciate life more.

  • Samantha June 25, 2014, 8:46 pm

    You need an extra step in your vaccinations step – hand over a big amount of cash. Malaria tablets are mega expensive!! I’ve never been to Africa (I don’t count Egypt) but I’d love to go one day. :)

    • Dave June 26, 2014, 10:27 am

      That they are – so I guess step 1.5 is raid the piggy bank.

  • A Lady in London June 26, 2014, 10:46 am

    Great tips! I particularly agree with the one about bringing USD. Such a helpful thing to have!

    • Dave June 26, 2014, 11:05 am

      I’ve been in a panic whenever low on the trusty USD. I haven’t tried using Euros, but they may have some sway in northern Africa.

  • Kelsey June 27, 2014, 1:28 am

    Great article! I’m planning our Rwanda/Ethiopian trip right now and found all of this helpful. We usually buy our umbrellas in each country (we have a collection now) yet these helpful hints will prompt me to bring my own. I just ordered our ponchos today.

  • Rashad Pharaon June 28, 2014, 6:31 am

    What a great post–I think the complexity of traveling through Africa is what prevents many backpackers from going. I didn’t see any points on safety, I wonder what your recommendation is–I hear about occasional unrest, which would also have me worried traveling there?

  • Upasna Verma June 28, 2014, 11:31 am

    Wonderful tips Dave. I’m bookmarking this for whenever I manage to make it out to Africa :)

  • Mzuri @ Amani Afrika December 1, 2014, 11:37 pm

    Hi Dave! These tips are excellent! Thanks for sharing. The first tip on getting travel shots right away is great advice. Some travelers got their Yellow Fever vaccination just a week prior to traveling then ended up being sick from the effects of the vaccine when arriving in Tanzania – no good! Also, the vaccination certificate is valid 10 days after the administration of the vaccine – something to note! And your tip on researching visa requirements early is also very helpful. Rwanda requires travelers to register online for a pre-clearance letter before arrival now. And I love your elective phrases to learn – “Make it a double,” “I have a wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend,”… Haha!
    Mzuri @ Amani Afrika recently posted…2015 Kilimanjaro Full Moon Summit SeriesMy Profile

    • Dave December 1, 2014, 11:55 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Mzuri! I’m glad that you enjoyed the tips. Also, it’s good to know about Rwanda’s new requirement – appreciate you informing about it. Cheers!

  • Sanjana @ Green Global Travel April 20, 2015, 8:21 pm

    Thanks for sharing an informative list! The tips are great!

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