A popular African quote states that "the only man I envy is the man who has not yet been to Africa - for he has so much to look forward to". If you have yet to visit the world's second largest continent, it's time to plan your first adventure. If you've been before, it's more than likely that you can't wait to go back. But where to start? In this article, we look at the 10 basic steps to making your dream African trip a reality.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on August 28th 2017.
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Step 1: Decide Where to Go
With more than 50 African countries to choose from, deciding where to go can be daunting. The first step is to decide on the kind of vacation you want, or the specific things that you'd like to see. Are you looking for the classic safari experience? Then perhaps Kenya or Tanzania is the right choice for you. Want to discover fabulous ancient cultures? Then Egypt or Ethiopia may be more up your street. For beach vacations, consider the jewel-like islands of the Indian Ocean. If you're traveling with small children who can't take prophylactics, you will probably need to choose a country like Morocco or South Africa, where malaria isn't a problem.
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Step 2: Decide When to Go
Once you've chosen your destination, the next step is to decide when to travel. Most destinations have an optimum season, especially if you're going on safari. Usually, the dry season is better for game-viewing, because the lack of rain attracts local wildlife to the waterholes. Winter is often the best time for visiting the desert - but winter in the Kalahari Desert occurs during June/ July while winter in the Sahara Desert occurs in November/ December. If work commitments or school breaks mean that you're restricted to traveling at certain times of the year, you may want to tackle this step before deciding on your destination.
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Step 3: Book Your Tours and Lodging
Next, you need to decide whether you're going to explore independently or with the help of a travel agent or tour guide. If you opt for the latter, they should be able to organize details like accommodation and tours for you. Get in touch with your preferred agent as much as a year in advance. Even if you decide to book everything yourself, you'll probably have to arrange treks and safaris through a specialized company (unless you're headed to a self-drive safari destination like Namibia). It's a good idea to book your first night's accommodation ahead of time, as well as accommodation in towns or game reserves with limited space.
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Step 4: Book Your Flights
Depending on where you're flying from, flights to Africa can be expensive, while a limited number of carriers often means that seats fill up quickly. For the best rates, book as far in advance as possible. If you have air miles, make sure to check whether the corresponding airline flies to your destination of choice; if not, use a flight comparison website like Skyscanner to guarantee the lowest fare. Try to organise international flights with domestic connections on a single booking, so that the airline will be responsible for arranging alternative transport for you if a delay means that you end up missing your second flight. Depending on your budget, flexible tickets are best.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
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Step 5: Buy Travel Insurance
By this point in the planning process, you will have invested a significant amount of money - in your flights, your tours and your accommodation. Travel insurance is essential, especially in Africa where airlines cancel flights without warning on a regular basis, and state hospitals are not places that you want to end up after an emergency. As well as medical costs, your insurance should cover trip cancellation (because you can't predict what might happen before your time of departure), loss of valuables and baggage loss or theft. If you're headed to a particularly remote spot, make sure that your insurance covers medical evacuation as well.
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Step 6: Check Your Visa Requirements
Several months before your departure date, make sure to check whether you need a visa. This will be determined on your nationality, not on your country of residence. Visa rules change all the time in Africa, so it's important to check with an official government source rather than relying on advice given by outdated travel websites. Some countries allow you to purchase a visa upon arrival, while others require that you apply in advance from your home country. Even if you don't need a visa, some countries have special requirements for your passport - including the amount of validity left at time of travel, and the amount of blank pages available inside.
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Step 7: Organise Travel Medication
At least two months before you depart for Africa, you need to visit a travel clinic and find out what vaccinations are recommended for your destination. The recommendations vary greatly from country to country, but as a rule, Hepatitis A, typhoid and rabies are usually good ones to have. Some countries require proof of yellow fever vaccination as a condition of entry, while malaria is prevalent throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa. Be sure to consult your doctor before deciding on which anti-malaria prophylactic to take, as all of them have different side effects. Pregnant women should be aware that Zika virus is also a problem in some areas.
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Step 8: Buy Your Travel Equipment
Now, the fun part of planning for your impending trip - buying all of your specialized equipment. Your shopping list depends on where you're going, with potential items ranging from portable mosquito nets to a good set of binoculars or a pair of durable hiking shoes. Be prepared for all kinds of weather, because even in the desert, nights can be incredibly cold. Think about preserving your memories, whether that means investing in a decent camera, or buying a scrapbook and a spare set of pens. One essential purchase is a first aid kit, complete with all of the items you may need to treat minor injuries as well as supplies of any personal medication you require.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
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Step 9: Decide What to Do About Money
A few weeks before you travel, decide what to do about money. In many countries, carrying large amounts of cash around isn't safe - however, ATMs are not necessarily available on every street corner. Avoid traveler's cheques - they're rarely accepted as viable currency in Africa. Generally, your best bet is to draw enough cash upon arrival to get you to the next big town, where you should be able to draw more money with your credit or debit card. For safety, divide your cash and keep it in several different locations. Make sure that your card has a Visa or MasterCard logo, and alert your bank so that they don't cancel your card on suspicion of fraud the first time you use it abroad.
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Reading up about your destination before you get there is a great way to increase your excitement levels and improve your local knowledge. A good guidebook (try Lonely Planet or Rough Guides) can give you valuable insight into a country's history and culture, while also advising you on lesser-known things to see and do whilst you're there. Phrasebooks are a good idea, too, because knowing even a few sentences of the local language will go a long way towards helping you make friends once you're there. Lastly, fictional books written by African writers or set in the country you're traveling to help to give you a sense of what to expect before you get there.