Do you dream of traveling to Africa? Does your soul stir at the thought of seeing an African sunrise over the savannah?
If so, you’re not alone. This beautiful continent draws millions of international tourists every year. With its vast deserts, sweeping plains, and soaring mountains, Africa is the vision of natural beauty.
When you’ve finally booked that plane ticket, what next? As a first-time traveler to Africa, you’re likely wondering what to expect.
Don’t worry–visiting Africa will be an incredible experience! To ensure your vacation goes as smoothly as possible, here are our top tips for first-timers traveling to Africa.
- Do Your Research (Before You Pack)
Africa contains 54 different countries, each with its own climate, landscape, and customs.
Since many things are likely different than your home country, start by finding out as much as you can about your destination. Even if you’re the type of traveler who likes to “wing it,” you’ll have a much smoother trip with some advance preparation.
For example, what time of year will you travel? Will it be hot, chilly, rainy, or dry? How long will you visit? Will you travel independently or with a tour?
If it’s high season, you’ll want to make reservations well in advance. The low season may offer fewer crowds and lower prices, but you might experience more rain. Consult a safari packing list to make sure you have what you need.
Speaking of what you’ll need, is your passport valid for at least six months past your return date? Do you know what type of visa you’ll need for each country you’ll visit (and if you need to obtain them in advance)?
What kind of budget will you need for your trip? If you’re used to traveling in areas like South America or Southeast Asia, you could be in for some sticker shock in Africa.
The average visitor to Tanzania, for example, will spend $71 per day. Visitors to South Africa can expect to spend nearly $100 a day. If you travel with a tour or book luxury accommodations, you’ll spend considerably more.
- Learn Some Local Lingo
At least 700 million Africans speak English as a first or second language. It’s even an official language in 24 African nations.
In general, you shouldn’t have too much trouble communicating with the locals or getting around.
Does that mean you should rely solely on English when traveling to Africa? Not necessarily.
Like any country you visit, it’s always helpful to learn at least a few phrases in the local language. Not only will the locals appreciate your efforts, but you’re sure to have richer travel experiences.
If you’re traveling to a Swahili-speaking area, learn just a few basic Swahili phrases before you go.
- Dress and Speak Respectfully
Africans, as a whole, are among the most religiously inclined people in the world. One survey found that 90% of Africans say their religion is a “very important” part of their lives.
Whether Christian or Muslim, most Africans you’ll meet will dress and speak conservatively. Be respectful by adopting a modest style of dress and speech yourself.
There are also practical benefits to dressing modestly. Keeping your legs and shoulders covered will protect you from the intense African sun and insects.
During your travels, you may hear the word “Mzungu” used a lot. This is a Swahili word that means “someone who wanders,” although it’s generally used to describe any foreign visitor.
Most locals will use this word in a friendly manner, so don’t take offense. Just smile–after all, you are a foreigner wandering through their beautiful continent!
- Be Border Savvy
We already touched on passports and visas earlier, but let’s dive a little deeper.
If you plan to cross borders in Africa (or even if you don’t), there’s no harm in being prepared and informed. Know what the specific visa requirements are for visitors from your country so there are no surprises at the border.
Are you eligible for visas on arrival, or do you need to arrange them in advance? Arranging your papers in advance can save time, money, and hassle when traveling between countries.
It’s a good idea to carry US dollars in a safe place on your person. If you need to exchange money at the border, know the current rates and be ready to bargain hard.
Most border crossings should pass without a hitch. But if it seems like you’re deliberately getting held up or asked to pay extra fees, politely insist on speaking with a different official.
- Keep Yourself Healthy
Before traveling to Africa, it’s a good idea to visit your local doctor or a travel clinic. They can inform you about any vaccinations you’ll need and what medications you should bring with you.
Make sure all your normal vaccinations are up to date, including any needed booster shots. Some African countries require proof of yellow fever vaccination before you can enter, so check before you travel.
In addition to any prescription medications you normally take, you may want to pack:
- Anti-malarial medication
- Over-the-counter painkillers
- Insect repellent
- Antihistamine tablets
- Hydrocortisone cream (for insect bites or sunburn)
- Tampons (these are difficult to find in Africa)
When it comes to food and drinks, a little common sense goes a long way. Stick with bottled water for drinking, and carry some purification tablets with you for times you’re unsure.
Most of the food in Africa is hearty, delicious, and safe to eat. When traveling in remote areas, avoid raw fruits and vegetables (unless you can peel it yourself). You may also choose to avoid meat if you’re in an area with no refrigeration available.
- Keep Your Valuables Safe
Common sense is key to having an uneventful and stress-free holiday in Africa.
Going on safari is not the time to wear your expensive jewelry and designer fashion. Not only could they get damaged or lost, but you could attract unwanted attention for yourself.
For the most part, Africa is safe to visit. Still, pickpockets do exist, just like other parts of the world. Always be aware of your surroundings, especially in crowded areas like markets and transportation hubs.
Wear a money belt and avoid displaying large amounts of cash. If you must go out at night, take a taxi or Uber to avoid walking the streets after dark.
Keep in mind that traveler’s checks are virtually useless in Africa. Many local businesses accept only cash and aren’t equipped to process credit cards. It’s a great idea to carry enough cash on you for the day and store the rest of it in a safe location in your luggage.
Outside of major cities, cell service and WiFi may be spotty (or non-existent). Pick up a local Sim card for your phone when you arrive, but don’t be surprised if service is poor in rural locales.
- Prepare to Be Flexible
You may have heard the acronym “TIA,” short for “This Is Africa.” Locals use it in a joking way when things don’t go as expected–which is often.
Sometimes there are power cuts. Sometimes the hotel you’re staying out runs out of water. Sometimes the bus you’re waiting for shows up hours late–or not at all.
To avoid undue anxiety and frustration, get in the Africa mindset. Learn to laugh when things don’t go exactly as planned or if something seems to make no sense.
If you’re not used to “rolling with it,” now is a great time to practice patience and understanding.
- Expect Friendly People & Curiosity
As amazing as the scenery and the wildlife are, the highlight of any visit to Africa is the people.
Everywhere you look, you’ll find beautiful, happy faces smiling back at you. Africans are an incredibly warm and welcoming bunch. They will greet you, ask you where you’re from, and generally be as interested in you as you are in them.
Children especially get a kick out of meeting foreigners. If you’re in a remote area, you could be the very first foreigner they’ve ever seen. Smile, laugh with them and then take a selfie together.
We can guarantee that people will be what you remember most from your visit to Africa.
Final Thoughts on Traveling to Africa
With the right preparation, traveling to Africa can be everything you’ve dreamed of (and more).
Make your trip a success by keeping the above tips in mind. Take practical steps to learn a few local phrases. Ensure you have everything you need to keep yourself healthy and your valuables secure.
Most of all, travel to Africa with an open mind, ready to meet some of the friendliest people on the planet.
Are you lucky enough to be traveling to Tanzania? Whether it’s for the Great Migration or a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, amazing adventures await you!
Click here for more helpful travel advice about Tanzania.