Top Tips for Booking a Cheap Flight to Africa

Wing of a small plane in flight above the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Flying Above the Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Buena Vista Images/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images

Once you arrive in Africa, it's easy to experience the continent on a shoestring. Unfortunately, if you're traveling from the United States, getting there will always be expensive - but there are ways to minimize the cost. From avoiding peak travel times to booking several months in advance, it's possible for savvy travelers to save hundreds of dollars on airfares; giving you more room in the budget for additional adventures once you get there. Although the tips listed below are geared towards those flying to Africa from the U.S., they can also be used to book cheap flights from just about anywhere. 

Choose Your Dates Carefully

If you can be flexible with your dates, choosing to travel in the off-season is a great way to save money. Avoid planning a trip at Christmas time, during the school holidays or in peak summer. If you're traveling to a southern hemisphere country like South Africa, remember that you have to think about two "summer" seasons: July/August, when visitors from America and Europe enjoy their summer vacation, and the South African summer in December/January. If you're traveling to a Muslim country like Egypt or Tunisia, airfares can also rise dramatically around Ramadan

Choosing your dates isn't just about choosing the best month to travel. It's also about choosing the best day of the week. According to a report published by travel tech company Expedia in 2015, long-haul flights that leave on a Thursday and return on a Monday cost an average of 20% less than flights that leave on a Friday and return on a Saturday. Generally, Friday is the most expensive day to travel. Make sure to play around with your dates before booking - you'll be surprised by the difference a day or two can make to the overall price. 

Book in Advance

Once you've chosen your dates, book your flights as soon as possible. Because routes from the United States to Africa are relatively limited, cheap seats fill up quickly. This means that if you leave it to the last minute to book, you're likely to pay premium prices. Flights usually become available 11 months prior to departure, giving you plenty of time to get a jump on the competition. There is one caveat, however - if tickets aren't selling well after a few months, airlines may reduce prices to fill seats. You have to decide whether you're willing to take the gamble of waiting to see if this happens. 

Use a Flight Comparison Website

Another top tip for saving money is to book your flights yourself rather than paying a commission fee to a travel agent. Usually, the best way to do this is to use a flight comparison website like Skyscanner, which will review all of the airlines flying your chosen route and come up with the best price (including any specials that may be running at the time). Most websites allow you to set a price alert so that you can wait and see whether flights get cheaper; and some allow you to search with flexible dates so that you can view the most economical time to travel at a single click. 

If you're under 26, there is an exception to this rule. Check prices with student travel agency STA Travel before booking online, because they often offer exclusive deals for young travelers that comparison websites don't have access to.

Fly Indirect via Europe or the Middle East

Direct flights from the United States to Africa are convenient, but they're out of the question if keeping costs to a minimum is a priority. Instead, you'll need to prepare yourself for at least one layover (and maybe more if you're flying from the west coast, or if your final destination is particularly remote). Often, the cheapest flights connect through a country's one-time colonial counterpart. For example, the cheapest flights to South Africa usually connect through London; flights to Namibia connect through Frankfurt; while several West African countries are best served by flights that stop in Paris.

All of the cheapest Africa-serving airlines (Turkish Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways, for example) offer indirect flights. Traditionally, flights from the U.S. to Africa stopped in Europe, but increasingly, Emirates are offering affordable fares with Dubai as your layover destination. When using a flight comparison website, you should be able to filter flight results according to the number of stops you're willing to consider. 

Think About the Bigger Picture

Booking the best value flight isn't always as simple as selecting the cheapest option on the comparison website's results page. Often, airlines will tempt travelers with impressively affordable base rates, only for you to discover halfway through the booking process that you have to pay extra to check a bag, to pay using your credit card or to enjoy an in-flight meal. Make sure to find out what's included and then adjust your selection accordingly. Similarly, when booking online, keep an eye out for sneaky additions to your final bill such as optional fees for text alerts, seat selection or baggage insurance. 

It's also important to consider the cost of your layover. For example, a flight with a two-hour layover in Johannesburg may be $100 more expensive than a flight with a 10-hour layover in London - but you're likely to spend a lot more than $100 on meals and accommodation in London if you select the second option. Depending on your nationality, you may need a transit visa for certain layover destinations, which also adds unnecessary costs. If this is the case, be sure to choose a route that stops in a country that you don't have to pay to transit through. 

Book Everything at Once

Lastly, it can seem like a good idea to book each leg of your journey separately, especially if you want to avoid paying for everything at once. However, if your journey is not booked on a single ticket, you're likely to run into problems if you end up missing your connecting flight due to delays. Instead of the airline re-booking you onto the next flight for free, you could end up having to pay for a brand new ticket.