Last July, Harrison and I went to Rwanda. If you don’t know where that is, I don’t blame ya!
It’s a tiny country in East Africa nestled between Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda.
When planning travel to Africa, you might be fraught with anxiety and immediately want to turn to a travel agent.
But I can assure you- a lot of international travel can easily be planned on your own!
If you’re like me, you want to be in control (I think it’s my weakness). I’m totally a type A planner.
I want to find the best deals, read all of the reviews, and carefully plan every detail of my trip.
Here are fourteen things to know when planning your trip to Africa.
** I’m basing this off of our Rwanda trip, but I’ve really tried to think this through as best I can to apply to almost all African countries**
I think the number one thing to research before traveling anywhere in Africa is the safety.
Know what the current conditions are like so that you are prepared for your trip.
When we visited Rwanda, we were pleased to learn that it is one of the safest countries in Africa. Of course, even so, you should be street smart.
Something helpful for any international travel is a money pouch to store your passport and money in (especially when in a heavily cash-based society).
A lot of countries in Africa require vaccinations. You show proof of vaccinations at border crossings, and without them, you could potentially be turned away.
You can easily look up what vaccinations are required on the embassy page for your country.
To then get the necessary vaccine, call your local Walgreens to check what they supply. Some vaccinations are really rare, so you might need to get them in advance.
When I was getting my Yellow Fever vaccination, almost everywhere in Dallas had run out because of an issue with the manufacturer!
So plan ahead and get those shots early on.
The most common vaccinations you’ll want to get are Hep A & B, tetanus (for your own safety), and Yellow Fever.
Malaria pills are also almost always necessary if you’re headed to East Africa.
You’re not getting anywhere without a visa if your country requires one! Check online for visa requirements.
Can you imagine flying for 20 hours to then be turned away?
That is a nightmare I never want to experience.
Some countries require advance visas, some require online visas, and some you can get once you reach the airport.
That was the case when we visited Rwanda- you just pay $30 when you arrive and fill out the necessary information.
4. Tour guides & safaris
If you’re headed to Africa, chances are you want to go on a safari.
You just can’t miss this once in a lifetime adventure.
Safari requirements vary from place to place, but it is honestly one thing you will want to work with a tour group on.
Shop around online before choosing whichever company you’d like to join. Definitely compare prices– some places have crazy marked up rates, while others are fair.
5. Getting around
Check ahead to figure out if you can rent a car, if it’s safe to drive around on your own, how available taxis are, etc.
A lot of times, taxis can be the easiest mode of transport, but some areas won’t have any at all!
In that case, you should be prepared with local transportation information.
How reliable are the buses? How much does it cost? Do they go where you want to go?
When we were getting around Rwanda, taxis were easy in Kigali. However, when traveling 2+ hours, we had the option to take a local bus or get a rental car.
6. Car rentals
If you’re going to rent a car, make sure you read about local driving beforehand.
We went to Rwanda with a car reservation booked, but after being there for a day and seeing the madness of Kigali driving, we requested a driver.
I do highly recommend getting a driver. Our car rental + driver was insanely cheap compared to US prices, and the car rental experience was so easy.
The benefits of a driver is that they speak the language and can translate, they know the traffic rules, and know the areas very well.
Know beforehand if you need any permits for trekking, safaris, etc.
In Rwanda, this is crucial for gorilla trekking. You get a permit online well in advance since the treks book up very quickly.
Plan your money- how much do you want to keep on you at any given time? How many dollars do you want to bring to exchange?
In order to figure this out, think about how much you will spend on food each day, how much on transportation, how much on activities.
Do places accept credit cards? You’ll want to factor that in (major hotels usually accept credit card).
In this part of your planning, you can figure out typical costs for things, and that way you avoid getting ripped off.
(I actually made a cost spreadsheet for our Rwanda trip, you can see it in my article here.)
9. Customs & culture
Everywhere you go, you should respect the native culture. That means learning about the traditions and behavior where you are going.
Remember that you are a guest in the country you are visiting.
Just as you wouldn’t want to go to a friend’s house and make them feel uncomfortable due to your behavior, you don’t want to offend the country welcoming you in.
Research the religion, history, traditions, and more.
One way I saw this put into action: in Rwanda, the country was shattered after the 1994 genocide.
Now that piece of their history is ingrained within every soul there- and it would be insensitive to ask someone which tribe they belonged to, for example.
Another example: in Rwanda, once a month there is mandatory community service. While tourists aren’t expected to participate, knowing this in advance would help you understand why everything was closed on that day.
Respecting culture includes being respectful through your attire. In a lot of African countries, you’ll want to cover your legs (the length depends on the country).
Some Muslim countries will be even more strict, and some countries will be more relaxed. Just do the research beforehand!
Besides the local customs, you’ll want to think about special attire and gear you need to bring for specific activities. (Don’t forget binoculars, hiking boots, a rain jacket if you’re in a jungle, etc.)
Look up hotels by location and reviews. Those are probably the two biggest factors to consider when booking your trip to Africa.
I use booking.com to make my reservations because I can sort by reviews, location, and price.
That way you know what to expect- you’ve seen photos and have read what people have said.
If it’s your first trip to Africa, you might not be aware of the unsafe water quality throughout the continent.
Research your country for water guidelines– in almost every case, you’ll need to brush your teeth with bottled water.
When booking flights to Africa, the best time to book is around four months in advance (source here).
I looked four months in advance for our flight to Rwanda and checked every day for two weeks. The price jumped up once, and we booked as soon as it went down again.
It’s always nice to be prepared with common phrases in the local language. Not only does it help you understand when someone is greeting you, but it also shows your effort to learn the local culture!
Best phrases to know: hi, bye, thank you, good morning, how are you, good, see you later, help, sorry, I don’t understand, and pardon me.
And the good thing about living in this day and age is that we have so much information available at our fingertips!
Planning travel is easier than ever!
So go ahead and research the above fourteen items before turning to a travel agent!
Have fun and be safe!
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