One of the best things about going on vacation to Africa is leaving the hubbub of your daily work and life behind. For most people (whether you choose to go on safari or spend a relaxed week by the beach), Africa travel is all about tuning out and refocusing on a simpler way of life. However, if you're leaving family or friends behind, it's nice to be able to let your loved ones know that you arrived safely, or to catch up occasionally on the news from home. In this article, we look at a few of the easiest ways to stay in touch. For tips on contacting hotels or tour operators in Africa before you travel, click here.
Cell Phones in Africa
The advent of affordable cell phones has revolutionized communications on the continent. Almost everyone has a cell phone, and many African companies are paving the way for new and ingenious uses of cell phone technology. Cell signal is readily available in most major cities and large towns, and even in the bush, it's likely that your Maasai guide will be able to use his phone to call home and find out whether dinner is almost ready. However, none of this means that your fancy iPhone will be of any use to you on safari. Network coverage remains unreliable in rural areas, and even if it exists, it will be incompatible with your international cell.
Getting Your Phone to Work
The best way to make sure you can be reached while vacationing in Africa is to contact your cell phone provider in advance. Most larger companies (including AT&T, Sprint and Verizon) have special international plans. If you travel often and your local company can't offer you a good rate, check out a global SIM card provider and phone rental company like Telestial or Cellular Abroad. Whichever route you go for, make sure to specify the countries that you are traveling to, and to find out the company's rates in advance. Ask whether or not you will be charged extra for incoming calls from overseas; and how much you'll be charged for texting instead of calling (usually, texting is cheaper).
Top Tip: Make sure to pack a phone charger and the appropriate power adaptor. Solar chargers are great for trips to remote areas with limited electricity.
Using Internet to Contact Home
Most urban hotels offer WiFi (although it's never guaranteed to work). Even the more remote lodges often provide internet access. Usually, connectivity is sufficient for sending emails, checking social media and even using FaceTime or Skype; although you may want to save uploading countless high resolution photos for when you get home. Ironically, the more expensive your hotel, the more you're likely to pay for internet. Internet cafés and WiFi-equipped backpacker hostels are usually the cheapest option. Because cell networks are more readily available in many areas than electricity, a 3G connection on your smartphone is often the most reliable choice of all.
Top Tip: If you don't have one already, make sure to set up a web-based e-mail account before you go, so that you can easily receive and send messages from any internet connection in Africa.
The Joy of Skype
Assuming you can find an internet or 3G connection, Skype is the international traveler's best friend. You can use it to call other Skype accounts all over the world completely free of charge (and you can use the video feature to show off your tan or your enviable safari surrounds). If your friends or relatives don't have a Skype account, or if you need to get in touch urgently, you can even use Skype credit to call their cell phone or landline. Skype credit goes an amazingly long way, with long-distance calls costing just a few cents per minute. Make sure to sign up for an account and download the Skype app onto your smartphone or laptop ahead of time.
Can't Get Anything to Work?
If you're not able to connect to the internet using your own device and really need to send an e-mail, go to an internet café or ask whether you can log on to the computer at the front desk of your hotel. No matter how remote your safari camp may be, all outfits have either a cell phone or a satellite phone for emergencies. Ask to use it to call home if necessary (but keep your conversation brief if you're using a satellite phone - they are notoriously expensive).
This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on December 4th 2017.