Planning and taking a trip to Africa is a “bucket list” item for a lot of people (myself included!)…but it’s not like flying to Florida or driving to Detroit! I was finally able to fulfill a life dream when my wife and I visited Kenya and Tanzania for last year nine days. I’ve written some about our trip (more posts coming!)…but I’ve also gotten a lot of questions about the process of planning a trip. Many people have said they don’t know where to start – so I decided to provide some advice based on our planning process.
Planning Your Destination
Africa is a continent, not a country – and it’s mind-bogglingly huge. It’s total land mass is nearly 12M sq. mi. A 2013 article from the Daily Mail (U.K.) explains that Africa is larger than the US, China, India, and most of Europe – combined. Africa is made up of 54 sovereign countries and 10 dependent territories. Each one has its own language, culture, customs and wildlife. Therefore, starting with a sense of your desired destination(s) for your trip is very important.
We picked Tanzania because numerous resources, including CNN Travel, recommended it as the top tourist destination in Africa. Your planning should start with the things you want to see and experience. Are you looking for remote, unspoiled vistas or city life? Are you more interested in birds or animals? What kind of climate is most suitable for you? Having answers to all these questions will help you pick the optimal spot.
There are also many other travel bloggers who have written extensively about their experiences traveling in Africa. For some further inspiration, read the Lisa Krüger-Frank’s posts on her excellent blog, Anywhere’s Perfect. She’s written about her 2012 trip to Namibia (what she calls “Africa for cowards”) as well as her fantastic guide to Morocco.
Travel Agent or Tour Operator?
Do yourself a favor, and don’t try to plan a trip to Africa completely by yourself. You need to work with a reputable travel agent or tour operator. A travel agent will help you put together a customized itinerary that fits your needs and budget. Tour operators, on the other hand, have a specific itinerary (or set of itineraries) that they offer.
If you find a travel operator with an itinerary you like, great – but there’s typically not much you can do in terms of swapping out destinations or modifying the length of the trip. You will also find that there are a wide variety of price points for tour operators: some cater to the budget-minded, while others are more up-scale in their destinations and lodging. Whatever operator you pick, make sure you do your homework on them. You need to sort through online reviews, ask them questions, and do whatever you need to in order to be comfortable with their services.
Working with a travel agent can take longer, and may cost you more money in the long run. That said, an agent can find local guides, lodging and in-continent transportation that exactly matches your desires. In planning our trip we started with a vague idea of what we wanted to see. Our extremely experienced and helpful agent spent a lot of time researching and presenting us with various options based on our tastes and budget. Again, if you do select an agent – make sure you do your homework.
Immunizations and Medications
Many countries in Africa require visitors to have up-to-date immunizations…and with good reason. For some safaris you may be in a very remote area that is prone to insect-borne diseases like yellow fever or malaria. The chances of contracting one of these diseases is generally very low for tourists – but it’s best to be prepared. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) and the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) list recommended and required vaccines for each country in Africa. We were required to get yellow fever vaccinations, and several other recommended ones. Check for a travel physician that’s in your area, and set up an appointment 60-90 days before your departure date.
Depending on where you go, you may also have to consider prescription and non-prescription medications. Malaria is somewhat common in some African countries, so anti-malarial drugs are recommended. It’s also a good idea to travel with antibiotics in case you contract an infection. Finally, consider taking over-the-counter medications like pain relievers, anti-diarrheal, and sunscreen.
Passport and Visas
As with nearly every other international trip, you will need a passport to visit African countries. Many countries require that you have a passport that expires at least 6 months after the end of your trip, so make sure to check its expiration date against your travel dates. You should also consider making a photocopy of the photo and signature pages, and keeping it in a safe place. That will make replacement much easier in the event its lost or stolen.
You also need to verify if the country you’re visiting requires a visa. If it does, check to see if you can get a visa online before your trip. We did this in Tanzania – the cost for their e-application was the same as doing it in person, and we were able to skip a very long line to buy visas when we landed.
If you live in the United States, there are very few direct flights to destinations in Africa. Europeans have it a bit easier. However, even for those living in the southernmost part of Europe, the average flight to an African country is 6 hours or more.
KLM seems to have the great recommendations for flights from the US to Africa. This is because of the frequency of their service, the relatively low cost, and the quality of their service. I’ve flown from my hometown of Chicago to Nairobi on KLM, with transit through their hub at Amsterdam. Pro tip – if you choose this flight and have a significant layover, consider taking the train to visit Amsterdam for a few hours!
You’ll really want to pack light for an African trip. For various reasons, we were limited to 17kg (about 34 lbs) of baggage on our trip. This forced us to be very thoughtful on what we did and didn’t take. We also planned to carry our bags on every flight, which limited the type of luggage we could take. We ended up deciding on soft-sided bags that we could either carry or wear backpack style. Each of us also had one “personal item” – my wife carried her iPad and other accoutrements in a backpack, and I carried mine in a messenger-style bag.
I wrote a blog post that goes into much more detail about packing light, and hopefully it provides some helpful tips.
Remember…It’s A Long Trip!
My final tip would be to remember that your trip to Africa will be a long journey, so plan accordingly. We flew for a total of 16 hours over two flights with a 4-hour layover in the middle. Coming from most parts of the world will entail similar time in getting there. Bring along lots of stuff to entertain you in-flight. Keep in mind that you can put books, movies and games on a tablet or mobile phone. If you need help sleeping while in flight, consider taking melatonin or other similar OTC medications. Take some snacks in case the airplane food isn’t to your liking. And finally, make sure you stay hydrated!
I know this article gives you a lot of food for thought – but if you follow this advice and plan well in advance, you’ll have the trip of a lifetime.