Safety Tips for African Travel

Risks, Dangers, and Precautions

Tourist Looking at Painted Chimney in Johannesburg
Keren Su / Getty Images

There is no more danger traveling in most African countries than there is in other parts of the world. The myths about Africa being dangerous and violent are ill-founded for the vast majority of its countries. The West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014 is a case in point: It generated lots of fear and misinformation about traveling to the continent. Actually, petty theft is likely the most common danger you'll come across. As a tourist with cameras and cash, you simply have to be careful. Violent muggings are quite rare for most African countries.

Stay abreast of current official travel advisories and African news to avoid areas of war, famine, or obvious political instability. Here is a brief overview of what to watch out for and how to avoid becoming a victim of crime when traveling in Africa.

Basic Safety Tips

Regardless of budget, when you are traveling in Africa keep in mind that you are much richer than the majority of local people around you. While most people are honest, the sight of a tourist with cash to spare and cameras dangling is too tempting for some. To avoid being fodder for con-artists, petty thieves, and opportunists keep these safety tips in mind when visiting Africa:

  • Wear a flat money belt that fits underneath your clothes. Use this to keep your credit cards, passport, and travelers checks safe.
  • Make a copy of your passport, ticket, credit card, and traveler check numbers. Put these in your main luggage, so, if you do get robbed of the originals, you still have all the information for insurance and replacement purposes.
  • Use a fanny pack or your pockets for your day-to-day cash as a clever decoy. If you get robbed, then all you lose is a day's worth of spending money.
  • Don't wear jewelry, flashy watches, or cameras around your neck, you're just inviting trouble. Obviously, you'll want to take photos when you travel; just try to be discreet by putting your cameras away or leaving them in a safe place at your hotel when you're not using them.
  • Safes in hotels are not always safe (ironically), so use a lockable pouch or bag to store your valuables if your hotel has these facilities.
  • Don't walk alone at night, especially in major towns and cities, and stick to well-lit areas, even if you are walking with a group. Taxis are available in every African town, and its worth the extra money to be safe.
  • Don't look too obviously lost even if you are. You can always walk purposefully into a shop, bank, or hotel to ask for directions or consult a map.
  • Watch your belongings and pockets very carefully at busy bus stations, train stations, markets, and bazaars.
  • If you are carjacked or held up with a weapon, never resist. Relinquish your money, belongings, whatever is demanded immediately. Most people are hurt because they don't cooperate.

If You Are a Victim of Crime

If you get robbed, mugged, or conned while traveling in Africa, get a police report. Most insurance companies, travel agencies, and embassies will require a police report before they replace your valuables and/or your passports and tickets. A visit to an African police station will be an experience in itself. Be polite and friendly and agree to a fee if one is asked for. Contact your credit card company directly if your credit cards are stolen. Contact your embassy if your passport is stolen.

Note: If you see a thief run off with your belongings think twice before you yell "THIEF" and give chase. Thieves are despised in many African cultures, and they will be run down and dealt with on the spot by locals. You don't want to witness a mob beating a young boy to a pulp for the sake of your watch. For this reason, you also have to be extremely careful about accusing anyone of theft, especially if you are not 100 percent sure that person is the culprit.

Cons and Scams

Every country will have its fair share of con artists and scammers. The best way to find out about them is to talk to other travelers who have been in​ that country for a while. You can also check out bulletin boards on websites like Virtual Tourist where there's a special section devoted to 'warnings and dangers' for every destination.

Common Scams:

  • People posing as refugees, students, orphans and others will no doubt try and relieve you of your money. It is difficult for anyone with a heart to ignore, but, if you really want to help, donate to a local charity and give food rather than money if appropriate.
  • Police posing as drug dealers. Obviously buying drugs in Africa is illegal, so you're asking for trouble by risking it. Nevertheless, be aware that many police pose as dealers. They'll take your money for the drugs you purchase and then slap you with a hefty fine for possessing drugs a little later.

    Terrorism

    Terrorist acts have taken place in some of Africa's most popular tourist destinations, namely Tanzania, Kenya, and Egypt. For more information and currents levels of danger, read the travel warnings issued by governments to warn citizens about safety in certain troubled countries.