10 Steps to Planning your Next African Vacation
By Scott Dicken
Planning a trip to Africa without professional assistance, particularly if it’s your first time, is an intimidating prospect. Fifty-four countries, thousands of hotels and lodges, hundreds of safari destinations, and prices that can reach eyewatering heights. It can be a lot to take in.
To alleviate some of that stress, in this month’s Take Photos Leave Footprints article I’ll highlight an easy ten step process that’ll have you spotting the “Big 5”, or relaxing on an Indian Ocean beach, in no time.
Step 1: Pick a Destination
With fifty-four countries to choose from, picking a vacation destination in Africa is a daunting task. Be it a classic safari or a beach destination, I’ve created a cheat sheet that highlights some of the most popular African vacation countries and the activities possible in each. The table also provides three of the more popular sights in each of those countries to whet your appetite.
Step 2: Choose a Time of Year and Length of Trip
Choosing a time of year and length of trip is a crucial decision. Two full weeks (14-16 days) is the minimum amount of time id’ advise considering. Any less will feel rushed, particularly because of the long journeys involved.
- Weather: As with all vacations, weather is always going to be key. Weather conditions vary across the continent, so you’ll want to check the weather for your chosen destination. One thing worth considering, if you’re partaking in safari activities, is that wildlife is more easily visible during the dry season when the foliage provides wildlife with less cover.
- Special Events or Seasons: The most obvious of these for East African safari goers is timing your trip to coincide with the location of the great wildebeest migration. However, you might also want to think about specific activities, such as Devil’s pool in Zambia, which only opens when the water near Victoria Falls is low enough.
- Country-Specific Factors: Make sure you check for things like public holidays, religious events, and elections. Elections in particular can lead to civil unrest and can cause disruption for vacationers, particularly in Africa’s biggest cities.
- Budget: Like everywhere, African countries have high seasons, low seasons, and shoulder seasons. If you are on a strict budget, you might wish to opt for the low season when your budget will stretch further (you may even be able to splurge on a little luxury at much lower prices). However, low season is low for a reason. The weather may be more unpredictable, or wildlife may be more difficult to spot. I typically aim for the shoulder season. While there’s a slightly higher risk of sub-optimal weather you can usually snag an absolute bargain just before peak season starts.
Step 3: Book Your Flights
Flights are often one of the biggest expenses of a trip to Africa, particularly if you are incorporating regional and domestic flights or anticipating fly-in safaris to remote destinations or bush airstrips. I always book flights before booking accommodation based on an assumption that the destination has multiple lodging options. However, if you are planning on joining a scheduled tour, visiting for a specific event, or have your sights set on a specific lodge or hotel, then you might want to consider booking that first.
Here are my top tips for snagging a great deal:
- It goes without saying that you’ll want to try and secure the cheapest flights possible. I recommend using Skyscanner or Google Flights to explore the best deals. You might also want to consider signing up to scottscheapflights.com on the off chance that deep discounts are available from your departure airport.
- Time your booking carefully. Over the 11-month period that flights are typically available demand, and ticket prices, fluctuate. The best time to book is often a case of personal circumstance. If you’re risk adverse, then book as far out as possible. If you’re after the best deals they are typically available anywhere between 4-months and 3-weeks prior to departure.
- Book all flights under one booking. Try to make sure that you book as many of your connections as possible (international, regional, and domestic) under the same booking. That way, your airline will be responsible for you if delays result in missed connections.
- Consider buying flexible tickets. If you think that there’s a chance that you might need to change your dates or cancel your trip altogether (all the more important in this new, COVID, era) then you might want to consider spending more money on flexible tickets.
Step 4: Book Your Accommodation, Transfers, and Activities
To Tour or Not to Tour: A vast array of companies have entered the market offering everything from privately guided short tours to multi-month overland tours. If you’re an extrovert on a budget then start by looking at overland tour companies such as G Adventures, Intrepid, Exodus, Explore, Acacia, and Absolute Africa. Otherwise, start researching reputable travel agents that can do everything from organizing an entire trip, to focusing on land transfers and self-drive options.
Accommodation Booking: If you opt to book your own accommodation, or wish to hand pick accommodation for your booking agent, then the next step is to search for lodges and hotels. One thing to consider here are the inclusions. For example, safari lodges can often seem incredibly expensive at face value. However, once you factor in that many are inclusive of lodging, 3-4 meals a day, alcohol, and activities (typically game drives or walking safaris) then the cost can start to seem more justifiable.
Activities: As I mentioned before, many activities (including game drives) are included when you book African lodge accommodation. Although many additional activities can be booked upon arrival you should do most of the legwork before you leave so that you don’t waste valuable vacation time. Things that are typically high demand should be booked as far in advance as possible. For example, Gorilla trekking permits in Rwanda/Uganda, Devil’s Pool trips in Zambia/Zimbabwe, and Hot Air Balloon trips in safari destinations are all good examples of things that tend to sell out well in advance of run dates.
Step 5: Purchase Travel Insurance
On most occasions your African vacation will likely be smooth sailing. However, Africa is not a place where you can afford to get caught out. Outside of medical care, regional and internal flights are often cancelled at very short notice and there’s always the chance of lost luggage. In those worst-case scenarios, you’ll want to ensure that you have the financial means to safely and securely get yourself back home in one piece having recouped as much of your financial outlay as possible.
Only twice have I had to truly call upon travel insurance in a time of need. Those two instances alone have saved me a whopping $25,000. Those two events have taught me one simple thing: travel insurance is worth every cent! When I’m traveling throughout Africa, I always use World Nomads and can attest to their unbelievable customer service in an emergency (such as being helicoptered out from Everest Base Camp).
Step 6: Obtain Visas
My first port of call when researching visa requirements is visahq.com. I’ll then cross compare the details found with the country’s local Embassy or Consulate website for accuracy and commence the application process, if necessary. Many Southern and Eastern African countries offer some form of visa-on-arrival. However, securing a visa prior to travel avoids potential problems, and lengthy delays, when you arrive at the border.
In addition to your visa, you should always make sure (regardless of where you’re traveling to) that you have at least 6 months left on your passport on the date of departure in addition to two blank pages somewhere in that passport. If not, then you’ll need a new one before you depart!
Step 7: Visit a Travel Doctor
The further out from your flight date you consult a health professional the better, especially if you aren’t a frequent traveler. Vaccination requirements typically fall into three categories:
- Routine vaccinations such as tetanus.
- Recommended vaccinations will be tailored to your trip and could include, for example, rabies.
- Required vaccinations are those that you’ll need to prove you’ve had in order to enter certain countries. They might include yellow fever, for example. This may include a requirement to provide a certificate upon entry to a country (particularly if you transit through a Yellow Fever prevalent country prior to reaching your destination).
In addition, and depending on your destination, you may be advised to have a course of anti-malarial tablets. I also quite regularly carry a course of multi-use antibiotic in case of emergencies, especially when access to healthcare might be more difficult or time-consuming for something otherwise quite routine (such as traveler’s diarrhea or a bacterial infection). Make sure you consult your doctor first if you want to go down this route.
Step 8: Plan your Wardrobe
A trip to Africa doesn’t necessarily mean filling your suitcase full of khaki shorts and shirts, so make sure you pay close attention to the weather and plan accordingly. What you’ll need will depend on which part of Africa, and what time of year, you’re visiting. At the extreme, nighttime temperatures at Uhuru Peak on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania can reach -29 degrees Celsius. Back at ground level, if you’re on a morning safari during the winter months you should be prepared to be wearing a warm hat and gloves.
Step 9: Plan your Spending Money
My general advice is to carry a combination of US dollars and cards when you travel. As a universal currency, US Dollars will almost always be capable of getting you out of a bind and is easily exchangeable upon arrival.
Some other points worth noting:
- It’s been a very long time since I arrived in an African country with local currency. I’ll typically exchange US Dollars for local currency once I arrive in the first major city. Try to avoid currency exchange bureaus at airports or hotels if possible. Captive markets mean poor rates.
- If you do take US Dollars, do not take notes dated earlier than 2006 (earlier notes are largely unacceptable across Africa). As far as possible, because they are less degraded, try to take notes dated within the past 5 years.
- Traveler’s checks are a nightmare to exchange and virtually impossible to use outside of major cities.
- If you plan to withdraw local currency from an ATM upon arrival, make sure you arrive with at least a couple of days’ worth of US dollars in cash as a contingency.
- If you plan to use credit and debit cards remember to pre-arrange travel alerts with your card provider/bank before departure.
- Credit cards often incur costly surcharges and fees. Only use them for high value purchases (hotels and tours) or for occasions when ATMs are not available to withdraw cash.
- Before you depart, ask your bank which African banks accept your card and what fees are applicable. This can help you plan where to withdraw local currency.
- Don’t forget that ATMs have withdrawal limits. So, don’t arrive expecting to take out enough cash to cover your whole trip in one go!
- Try to have at least one Visa card. It is more widely accepted than Mastercard. I won’t even talk about American Express.
Step 10: Get Ready to be Flexible
Now you’re done with all that planning it’s important to remember that anything can happen once you arrive. That airport transfer might be an hour late. That specific room you booked is no longer available. Your guide, he’ll turn up two hours late on the first day. Power outages might have you drinking warm white wine. Nairobi’s notorious traffic might mean it takes you hour to escape the city limits. You get the idea!
A common adage used when traveling in Africa, and one that you’ll be bound to hear at some point on your trip, is “T.I.A” or “This is Africa”. Casting aside some of the dangerous prejudices the phrase might conjure, it’s an endearing characterisation of Africa’s ability to mess with your best laid plans; but in doing so it always manages to earn a place in your heart. Roll with the punches my friend, you’re in for a thrilling ride!