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It was almost midnight when we touched down at Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania, so there wasn’t much we could see out of the window of the plane. As our plane taxied up to the main airport building, the anticipation and anxiety of what this experience would be like started to build inside of me. I was visiting Africa for the first time, and I couldn’t have felt more alive.
If you are planning your first trip to Africa, I am so insanely jealous of you right now. I wish that I could go back to the stages when I was first planning my trip to Africa for the first time. There is so much mystery and wonder associated with the continent of Africa. I remember being both thrilled and terrified to be finally visiting. I fell in love with Africa almost immediately, and will always love Africa, but there is something magical about that first visit.
Like me, you are probably wondering what first time travelers to Africa need to know. It is for that reason that I am writing this article, to give you, the first time visitor, some tips for visiting Africa for the first time.
When I first stepped off the plane in Tanzania, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. That was exciting, but it was also a little bit nerve wracking. I want to help you understand what you can expect and give you some tips to make you a little less nervous about your first visit. Hopefully, that way you can concentrate on being a lot more excited! Below are my top twenty tips to making your first trip to Africa an enjoyable one.
While where you are heading to in Africa will dictate what immunizations you will need to get before traveling, there is a high likelihood that you will need to get some immunizations before you travel. My advice is that you get the immunizations that you need, even if that means you need to spend a little bit of money out of your own pocket. In case you are interested in learning more about why immunizations are so important, I recently wrote about the importance of taking anti-malarial medications.
If you have questions on what immunizations you will need and what to look out for when you go to get them, below are some general guidelines I can pass on to you from experience.
- Most specialized travel clinics will not accept insurance, so you will have to pay for your travel consultation and immunizations and then request reimbursement from your insurance company later.
- Some immunizations aren’t accepted by every insurance company, so check with your insurance provider before getting your immunizations.
- Check with your regular doctor first, as often they can do a travel consultation for you and write you the necessary prescriptions for your immunizations, even if they aren’t able to give them to you. This way you can ensure that at least your travel consultation will be covered by your insurance up-front.
- Check with Walgreens or other drug stores that give flu shots to see if they have any of the immunization shots that you require before going to a specialized clinic that doesn’t accept insurance to get them. Walgreens is able to give you many of the immunizations necessary for international travel, and they accept insurance up-front.
- The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website can be a great resource for answering any travel immunization questions that you have.
In case you are unsure of what travel vaccinations you might need, I have compiled a list below of some of what you might expect your physician to recommend (depending on where exactly you are traveling to).
- Antimalarial (Aralen, Qualaquin, Plaquenil, Mefloquine, or Doxycycline).
- Typhoid (either a shot, which is good for 2 years, or live virus pill, which is good for 4 years).
- Yellow Fever (be aware that some countries require a yellow fever vaccination if you are traveling from another country that is high risk, even if your stay in that other country was short).
- Hepetitis A & B (if you haven’t had them).
- Tetanus (if you aren’t current).
- Rabies (if you are going to be working in close contact with animals).
- Dukoral (gives you 3 month protection against travel diarrhea).
- Flu Shot
Give Yourself Plenty of Time and Be Flexible
If you are planning to take a quick trip to Africa, I would strongly suggest that you re-evaluate that idea. Not only does it take a long time to get there, but it takes a while to see things when you get there. Do not expect things to move at the same pace as they do at home as it will be a source of unending frustration for you. Besides, this is a trip of a lifetime. You should plan to spend at least a few weeks there if you want to truly enjoy the beauty and wonderfulness of this great continent.
Because things don’t move at the same pace as you are probably used to, you are going to want to be prepared to be patient when you are traveling in Africa. When things happen, there isn’t generally the same sense of urgency to get things resolved that you are probably used to. For instance, we got stuck in the mud while on safari in the Serengeti. After over four hours of waiting for help, we began to get a little frustrated, but our guide and the park rangers didn’t understand our sense of urgency. You should be prepared to roll with any delays or hang-ups that occur during your trip.
Be Patient When Things Don’t Work
You should also be prepared for things not to work, quite often, while you are in Africa. To expect otherwise will only cause you unwanted stress on your trip. When we were in Tanzania, it seemed like the electricity went out at least once a day, it wasn’t unusual to see faucets in bathrooms that didn’t work, and it wasn’t uncommon to see vehicles that had issues.
I would strongly suggest that you bring head lamps or flashlights with you when you travel, as well as hand sanitizer. This way you will be prepared if you have to go without electricity or get by with having to use a restroom without running water. Being prepared before you travel can save you a lot of stress or discomfort later.
If you are bringing your smart phone, it may also make sense to invest in a portable phone charger. These cool devices allow you to charge your phone without an active power source. These portable chargers have saved me on more than one occasion when I have been traveling, so I highly recommend them.
The RAVPower 16750mAh Portable Charger
Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
When I first stepped off the plane in Africa, I was in culture shock. Things are just so different in Africa than I am used to. If I would have let that get to me, and stayed in a shell, I wouldn’t have had nearly as memorable of an experience as I had. I wouldn’t have discovered how much I absolutely the culture, the landscapes, and the people.
When you visit, I would suggest having an open mind when you encounter different opportunities. They might come in the form of new foods to eat, new experiences to have, or ways to interact with and learn from the people who live there. Travel can be an amazing tool for personal growth, but only if you have an open mind and open heart.
Be Aware of How You Dress
This is more of a recommendation than a guideline. Before traveling to Africa, you should be cognizant of the fact that the culture and traditions where you are traveling are likely very different from those back home. For instance, in Africa women tend to dress much more conservatively than in the other parts of the world.
For this reason, you may want to keep that in mind when packing so that you are respectful to their culture. I am not saying that you need to dress as the locals do, but you should try and be sure that what you wear isn’t perceived as being disrespectful.
Not to mention, there are practical reasons for carefully planning what you pack. If you plan on going on safari, or even plan on being outside quite a bit, you are going to want to have ample protection against mosquito bites. Many regions of Africa are in prime Malaria hotbeds, and you are going to want to protect yourself. In case you are unsure on what to pack, I have included some general guidelines for you to review below.
- No shorts or skirts shorter than knee length.
- No bare shoulders (unless you are on the beach).
- You might want to consider leaving your two-piece swimsuit at home.
- No graphic T-shirts that may be perceived as disrespectful.
- Smart, casual dress is recommended when eating out, with collared shirts recommended for men.
- Avoid bringing name brand running shoes or clothing, which will make you easily stick out as a tourist.
- Long pants made of breathable material are ideal, especially if you are going on safari. They will also help protect you from mosquito bites.
- I would suggest bringing comfortable hiking shoes or boots, and preferably ones that cover your feet entirely. Again, you want to protect yourself from mosquito bites.
- Wide brim hats that protect you from the sun, along with good sunglasses and SPF sun screen, are also strongly recommended. You may be much closer to the Equator than you are used to and you want to have ample protection from the sun.
Bring the Right Forms of Payment
Unless you want to be stuck without moneyt in Africa, you are going to want to pay extra close attention to the forms of payment you bring with you. First off, forget about bringing travelers cheques with you, they are nearly impossible to use in much of Africa. Besides, getting them is a waste of money anyways.
I would also avoid carrying large amounts of cash with you. Most likely, you will find that exchange rates from your home currency to the local currency in most of Africa will be very high, so even exchanging a small amount of money will leave you with a large number of bills. Unless you want to have several gangster rolls in your pockets or purse, I would suggest only exchanging moderate amounts of money at a time.
If you do bring cash with you to Africa, make sure you bring larger bills and make sure those bills were printed no more than 10 years ago. Many places in Africa will not accept older bills and many places won’t accept $10, $5, and $1 bills. I would recommend going to the bank and requesting new $20 and $50 bills.
You won’t have too much trouble finding ATM machines, so they are likely your best bet for getting cash when you need it. To avoid having issues with a machine that doesn’t work, I would suggest looking for a local bank with an ATM machine to use. Your own bank will give you the best exchange rate, so withdrawing money via an ATM is your best bet for saving money as well.
You will find that credit cards are accepted, but mostly only at hotels, large restaurants, and large stores. Not to mention, the ones that do accept credit cards will primarily only accept VISA cards. Even though they aren’t accepted everywhere, a VISA card with no foreign transaction fees is a good way to prevent having to exchange as much cash.
If You Have a Chance, Go on Safari
If you have the opportunity to go on safari when you are in Africa, I cannot recommend that you take that opportunity strongly enough. Being on safari was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It is an experience that I will absolutely never forget. Seeing wild animals in their natural habitat, for me at least, will never get old.
However, before you go, you should be aware of some of the unknown aspects of being on safari so that you can plan accordingly. I have listed some of these aspects below so that you can prepare yourself for what to expect.
- There is a lot of driving involved. Obviously, this differs from location-to-location within Africa, but you don’t typically step off the plane and into a safari vehicle. The scenery is typically very beautiful, but there is a lot of time spent driving too-and-from parks, and time spent looking for wildlife. You aren’t at a zoo where there is always wildlife to look at. This is why it is so important to research the best times of year to visit for wildlife viewing before making your travel plans.
- Space is typically pretty limited in the safari vehicles, so don’t plan on bringing a whole lot of gear with you when you are out on safari. Your camera, binoculars, bug spray, sunglasses, sun screen, a hat, a light jacket or rain jacket (depending on the weather), and toilet paper are recommended.
- Being on safari is generally pretty safe, but there are some guidelines you will want to follow. Your safari guide will fill you in on more details prior to your departure. It is typically recommended that you wear neutral or natural toned colors, and avoid wearing any bright whites. When you are out on safari, animals typically aren’t aware that you are a separate entity from the vehicle, unless you stand up or make wild movements. So when on safari, try and remain seated and don’t make any extravagant movements that will get their attention.
- Your sleeping conditions will vary greatly depending on the country and park you are visiting and the accommodations you pay for. You may have the option to sleep in a nice lodge, or be shacked up in a tent within the park. All accommodations are safe, but you should understand where you are staying before you go.
Bring Your Own Toiletries
I cannot stress to you the importance of this tip strongly enough. If you have a certain expectation on the availability of toilet paper and the ability to wash your hands after using the bathroom, I would come to Africa prepared. Now, I am not saying that all bathrooms are without toilet paper, soap, and running water, but it is far from unheard of to find one that is.
This is especially true if you are are planning on going on safari. Depending on your accommodations, you may be left to provide these for yourself. When we were in Tanzania, we went camping in the Serengeti National Park, and stayed in a large tent. The only source of running water in the tent had to be fed via a gravity system by the camp operators from outside the tent.
To be on the safe side, I would suggest bringing your own shampoo and body wash as well. Most of the hotels you will find will provide them for you, but it is always good to be on the safe side. There is no substitute for being prepared when you travel.
Bring a Surge Protector
With the frequent power issues in Africa, power surges in the electrical system are quite common. If you have any electrical gear that you need to charge while on your trip, I would strongly suggest investing in a portable surge protector to take with you. Unless you want to be left with a dead phone or camera, they are an essential piece of travel gear when visiting Africa.
I use and am very happy with the Belkin SurgePlus USB Swivel Surge Protector and Charger. Not only does it protect my devices from destructive power surges up to 918 Jules, but it also allows me to charge more than one device at a time. Not to mention it comes with two USB plug-ins to make charging your portable devices a breeze.
Belkin SurgePlus USB Swivel Surge Protector and Charger
Learn to Drive a Stick
A 4×4 vehicle can be a great way to get around and see rural Africa. However, in order to drive one you are going to need to know how to drive a stick. Believe me, Africa is no place to learn how to drive one. Depending on the country and area that you visit, you may have everything from nice, paved roads to really rough, rocky dirt roads.
You will also want to research whether an international driver’s license is required where you are traveling before you go. If you are unsure, the Automobile has a list, by country, of where an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) is required.
Do Some Shopping
No matter where you travel to in Africa, you will find that there is an abundance of really cool hand-crafted products that you can buy. This can include, but is certainly not limited to, such things as amazing coffee, beautiful cloth and hand-made clothing, jewelry, and hand carved sculptures.
In Tanzania, we were able to purchase some amazing locally grown coffee directly from the coffee plantation, some hand-made picture frames for some pictures that I had taken, some beautiful Tanzanian cloth, and a variety of other gifts.
When you visit Africa, make sure you support the local vendors and shop at the local stores. Not only will you be doing the local community a lot of good, but you will be amazed at the quality and the craftsmanship of the work.
Be Prepared for Aggressive Vendors
Like is true in most parts of the world, if you visit the areas frequented by tourists, you are going to find people aggressively selling merchandise. They can be especially aggressive if they know you are a tourist and a first time visitor. When shopping, be wary of anyone who refers to you as “my friend” or tells you that they have a “special deal for you”.
Before you buy anything, be sure you do some shopping around. A lot of the really cool products that you can buy are available elsewhere. It is alright to haggle, but please be aware that haggling too much just makes the poor poorer. If you are able to find a good deal, and you like the product, then I wouldn’t recommend haggling for that extra few dollars off.
Be Careful With How Much You Pack
Another thing to be aware of when you travel to Africa is that the baggage policies for airlines in Africa are usually much different. If you are planning on doing any travel within the continent of Africa, make sure you understand what the baggage policies are. Their luggage policies might be much different than the policies of the airline you flew to get to Africa. If you don’t do your due diligence on baggage policies, you might end up paying a lot of money in excess baggage fees.
You are also going to want to make sure you keep anything of value in your carry-on luggage when you travel. The damaged luggage policies for the airlines in Africa may differ from the policies of the domestic airlines that you are used to. And even if your luggage gets damaged and is covered, it may be difficult collecting on any reimbursement once you are out of the country. Not to mention, there is always a chance of theft from your baggage, no matter where you travel in this world.
You Will Be a Curiosity
In some areas of Africa, people are quite accustomed to seeing foreign tourists, while in other areas they are not. No matter where you travel to in Africa, as a tourist you are more-likely-than-not to be a curiosity. Do not be alarmed if people stare at you in public, or if people want to get to know a little bit more about you. Having people stare at you in public can be a little uncomfortable at first, but it is something that you quickly get used to. If you go in knowing to expect that, it will be less threatening to you.
Don’t Be Afraid to Eat the Local Food
Like everywhere else in the world, food is a big part of the culture in Africa. When you are traveling about the continent, don’t be afraid to try some of the local cuisine. Some of the food is probably unlike anything you have ever tried, and you may enjoy it. In fact, some of the food (like the Zanzibar Pizza in Zanzibar) is famous all over the world because of how unique and tasty it is.
Expect to See a Lot of People
In North America, we are used to crowded congestion on our roads, but the congestion typically consists of cars. In many parts of Africa, that congestion will consist mostly of people. One of the things that surprised me the most about Tanzania was the amount of people I saw walking or standing alongside the roads.
Yes, there are roads in much of Africa, and many people do own cars. In fact, you will also see plenty of motorcycles on the roads in some parts of Africa. When we were in Tanzania, it was explained to us that one of the booming industries in the Arusha area was motorcycle taxi cabs.
However, not everyone owns a car and walking is still a popular means of transportation. So don’t be surprised to have to navigate around people, or cattle, when you are driving through certain parts of Africa.
Be Wary of Scams
Before you travel to Africa, you should be aware of the common scams that you might run into while on your trip. There are friendly people all over Africa, but the continent also has its fair share of people looking to make money off of unwitting foreigners. When you travel to Africa, I would recommend that you be alert for the common scams I listed below.
- Hotels Don’t Just Close – A common scam that people will run at airports is to offer you a ride to a hotel. When asked which hotel you are staying at, they might tell you that the hotel has closed, it is full, or the hotel is no good. Then they will tell you that they have a better hotel they can bring you to. These people are typically reimbursed by a certain hotel to bring customers there. Instead, take a taxi or public transportation to your hotel.
- Nothing Is Free – When we were in Zanzibar, a gentlemen asked us if we wanted someone to show them around. We knew there would be strings attached at the end, but we didn’t know the area so we obliged. At the end of our “tour”, the gentleman asked for an unreasonable amount of money. It was a very uncomfortable situation. Don’t ever assume anything you are offered is free, and never accept any gift or assistance without understanding the cost up-front.
- Don’t Exchange Money on the Street – You will likely run into quite a few people offering you a better exchange rate to exchange money on the street. This may sound tempting, but don’t do it. Not only is it illegal, but it is a horrible idea to show someone how much cash you are carrying.
Don’t Expect to Have Wireless Access
While you will find some very nice hotels throughout Africa that will undoubtedly have wireless Internet access, this is something you should never assume you will have (even if they hotel advertises that it has it). Like the power system, the Internet is very unreliable throughout much of the continent of Africa. Try and make sure you download any maps, guides, and other information that you will need for offline access before you leave on your trip.
Prepare for the Unexpected
One of the best tips I can give you for visiting Africa for the first time is to always expect the unexpected. I was continuous surprised and at awe at the beauty and wonder on my first visit. I think I did more things for the first time than I have done on any other trip I have taken in my life. From going on safari, to visiting a beautiful oasis hot spring, to seeing a live polo match, to all of the insane and amazing things I saw on an almost daily basis, it was an incredible trip. If you open yourself up to opportunities to explore, you are in for the trip of your lifetime!
The most important tip that I can give you for visiting Africa for the first time is undoubtedly the most important. The continent of Africa has some of the most amazing and beautiful places in the world, but it also has some of the poorest and most exploited places in the world. Make sure you give back when you visit.
That could mean donating school supplies to a local school, or donating the clothes that you brought at the end of your trip. Whatever you do to give back to the wonderful people who are your hosts will be greatly appreciated and will do a lot to make this world a better place.