What to Know Before Traveling to Africa

africa zebra

Thanks to technology and today’s relative ease of travel, the world is becoming smaller than ever. Far-reaching places are becoming more and more accessible, spurring on daydreams of travel, vacation, and exploration.

In turn, many of us are checking travel-related dreams off of our bucket lists. For a lot of explorers, that entails planning a trip to Africa. As we would for any trip, we plan extensively, crafting packing lists and itineraries, researching sightseeing opportunities, restaurants to enjoy, and places to play.

However, there are also some things that are specific to Africa that may help as you plan a trip, whether you’ll be perusing spice markets in Morocco or serving at an orphanage in Uganda. I’m sharing a few of those things with you, below.

Remember That Each African Country is Different
People often underestimate the physical size of Africa and, as a result, they often tend to underestimate how vast the cultural differences are from nation to nation.

In 2013, Kai Krause created a powerful graphic that tangibly depicts the true – and massive! – size of Africa. The image shows how, if rearranged in a certain manner, over a dozen countries (including the United States, China, India, and several European nations) could fit within Africa’s mass. Upon seeing this image, it’s easier to wrap one’s mind around the fact that because the 54 countries that comprise Africa cover so much distance, their cultures are similarly spread apart, too.

What is culturally acceptable in one African country may not be tolerated in another; some nations are French-speaking, while others declare English as their national language. Each country is represented by numerous religions and other cultural influences. Women’s roles are different in each nation, too. Spend some time conducting research online, with a travel agent, or with a family member or friend who has been to the destination you’re traveling to, allowing you to be prepared for the cultural climate you’ll encounter.

Prepare for Your Specific Trip
There are a myriad of reasons that one might travel to Africa. You might be planning to do service work in Rwanda or humanitarian projects in Tanzania; maybe you’re hiking Mount Kilimanjaro, going on a safari in Kenya, or a planning a wine-tasting in South Africa. Whatever your agenda, research specifically for your trip so that you’ll know what to expect upon arrival.

Time is of great concern, as travel plans are more likely to be interrupted or changed while in certain parts of Africa. Knowing what timeframes you’re restricted to based on your agenda is important, allowing you to create back-up plans as necessary. Utilizing the assistance of a travel agent may be helpful as you work out the logistics of getting from the airport to your final destination, whether that’s a five-star hotel or a hostel for humanitarian workers.

africa zebras

Find out the name and exchange rate for the type of currency used in the country you’re traveling to, and educate yourself on acceptable gratuities for drivers and hotel staffers alike. Your to-do list will look very different depending on the type of trip you’re taking, so make sure to spend some time crafting a list that caters to your specific travel needs.

Get All of Your Documents In Order
Aside from a passport, many African nations require that travelers obtain visas prior to arrival. Conversely, other African nations provide opportunities for travelers to get their visas when they are clearing customs, so it’s not necessary to do any paperwork in advance.

Some African countries require that travelers obtain certain vaccinations prior to entry; Ghana, for example, asserts that all visitors must provide documentation of their yellow fever vaccination prior to clearing customs. Print copies of your passport (leave one with someone at home in case of an emergency), flight itineraries, and any other travel-related documents in case you face any hiccups as you travel. Do not rely on your phone or tablet for accessing this information, as internet and electricity can be sparse in some parts of the continent.

… the 54 countries that comprise Africa cover so much distance, their cultures are similarly spread apart, too.

Thoughtfully Create a Packing List
Just as every African country has a different culture, every nation has a different climate, style, and resources. Basic products, toiletries, and medicines that may be readily available in some urban regions or further developed countries may not be accessible in other parts of the continent, so plan ahead by bringing everything you need on a daily basis (dry shampoo, face wash, sunscreen, toothpaste) as well as items you may need in an emergency (first aid supplies, stomach & digestion-related over-the-counter meds, laundry supplies).

You will likely need to take malaria medication, so consult with your physician prior to travel to determine which prescription is best for you.

If you’re heading out on a service trip or if you want to prepare for your long flight abroad, consider bringing some snacks (peanut butter, crackers, nuts, energy bars & dried fruit travel well) and beverage enhancers (iced coffee packets are a special treat). It’s probable that you will be working in a region where resources and food are sparse, so having back-up food is helpful.
You’ll need a converter for charging your devices since outlets are different in each region of Africa, so research which one will work best at your destination. Don’t forget to download some great books to your tablet and bring along your journal and camera so you can document everything along the way.

Additionally, ensure that you are culturally sensitive to the way people dress in the country that you’ll be visiting. In some places it’s totally acceptable to wear shorts and sleeveless tops; in other regions, women need to cover their arms, legs, and even feet. Do some research in advance to ensure that your clothing will not be offensive to the locals.

Have you traveled to Africa before? If so, what travel tips do you have to share?

Images via Colette de Barros for Darling Issue No. 12



Rachel is the Development Director for the Touch A Life Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to the rescue and rehabilitation of exploited and trafficked children in West Africa and Southeast Asia. She currently lives in Dallas, TX, with her husband, their baby girl Ruby, and their cuddly English mastiff.

11 COMMENTS
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  • Brittany August 3, 2015

    I spent a few years planning trips to Africa for people going to visit the programs of the non-profit I work for. I’ve also been 5 times! I agree about “Africa Time” and another common term is “TIA” or, “This is Africa,” often said with a shrug. Be willing to let things unfold as they will and don’t get too tied up in plans moving along accordingly. I’m an ultimate planner, but Africa didn’t have to work too hard to tame me – it’s THAT GOOD.

    My best two pieces advice would be first, to invest in the people. Let your conversations be meaningful and linger. You could make relationships that will last a lifetime (my sister is about to marry a Kenyan that we met in 2006 – who knew!) and second, journal every day. Every thing you feel, see, hear – write it down. I come back to these journals often and am so thankful to live in the moment again.

    • Rachel Brown August 4, 2015

      I love that, “Africa didn’t have to work too hard to tame me” – truer words have never been typed! 🙂 Love your thoughts & advice, Brittany. Thanks for sharing!

  • Hayley Nasrallah July 30, 2015

    Wow what a great post! Thoughtful and educational, I love so many points this made! I’m originally from Zimbabwe but I’ve lived in Stellenbosch, South Africa for a few months and I recently took my newly married husband to “The Mother Land” for a month-long nontraditional honeymoon too 🙂 We travelled in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana and he kept saying, “I can’t believe we’re in Africa!” That’s because each day was a totally new experience. So what I would say is, expect the unexpected and be willing to be flexible. We all have certain stereotypes or expectations about Africa, but they don’t last long, so expect the unexpected! Be as prepared as you can be: do all of the research that you can about the weather, culture, visas, vaccinations, travel limitations etc. before you board the plane – this is so important! But once you’re there, be willing to be flexible too as a lot of things run on “Africa Time” or don’t run at all! When things aren’t going as planned, sometimes you just have to laugh and try to enjoy the beautiful chaos of it all. And that’s my last point: ENJOY every moment! Being under African skies is absolutely breathtaking, it’s sometimes indescribable. So whatever the circumstances, just enjoy each moment, treasure it, let it truly sink in! Be smart, but dont be afraid to make friends along the way. Treasure the beautiful people you will meet, the places you will see, the history you will learn; sometimes it’s not always pretty, but at its core it’s always beautiful.

    • Rachel Brown July 30, 2015

      Thank you for your amazing feedback, Hayley! I am going to take so many of your tips to heart and apply them on my next trip to West Africa, a region I visit often for work. I LOVE your reference to “Africa Time” – it made me laugh out loud because it’s so real. Thanks again!

  • Carrie July 30, 2015

    Africa is an amazing experience but a lot of thought does need to go into the travel! My other recommendations to to be aware of weather. We went in the summer so it was winter in South Africa and it was warm during the day under the sun and cold in the mornings and early evenings so we needed to bring a wide variety of clothing. I wore short flat booties and jackets with scarfs during the early mornings and evenings. Also, bring copies of all of your vaccines. We didn’t have any issues, but it was recommended to us to have those copies as well as passport copies.

    • Rachel Brown July 30, 2015

      GREAT tips, Carrie! Thanks for sharing!

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