Tips for Country Hopping on the ContinentJuly 13, 2020 | By Nafeesah Allen
After being grounded for most of the year, the prospect of extended adventure travel is becoming more and more appealing. With countries planning to slowly re-open later this year, country-hopping in Africa is an ideal way to shake the cobwebs off your passport. Despite what you may have heard getting around on the continent is not as hard as you might think. With a little extra planning around modes of transportation, securing a local expert, and navigating different currencies, you’ll be on your way to a successful multi-country tour of the continent
Transportation around the continent can be complicated, so we’ve outlined a couple of major components to help you set up a masterplan:
Use a home base: Organize your trip around an airline hub. Plan to enter and exit the continent through a hub like Accra (Ghana), Lagos (Nigeria), Johannesburg (South Africa), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), or Nairobi (Kenya). All of these cities have flights to North America and Europe, as well as to major cities around the world. Make one of these cities your home base. Find a hotel, hostel, or friend that you can visit there between country hops. You can leave heavier luggage behind when taking short excursions to other countries.
You can decide on your home base based on where you have people or based on which airline you’ll need to get to your desired destinations within the continent. Ethiopian Airways flies to 62 cities in Africa, from Abuja to Zanzibar, Kenya Airways trails close behind with 46 cities. All of the hub cities have regular connections to other cities on the continent, but the schedules may vary and the websites are often the last to reflect cancellations or delays. Be flexible, because last-minute changes are common.
Airline ticket counters in your hub city are the best places to check schedules, prices, and back-up flight options. It is often best to book inter-African flights on the continent rather than from abroad. And, often, the prices may be cheaper when paid in person in local currency. Also, don’t forget about low-cost carriers that connect cities in the same country. South Africa boasts Kulula and Mango Airlines, which are very similar to JetBlue or Southwest. In their model, there are fees for checked-baggage and the seats might be tight, but the savings can be significant compared to mainstream carriers.
Ground Transportation: There are train systems that could be exciting for the leisure traveler with time to burn. Luxury trains like Rovos, Blue Train, and Shongololo will take you between sites like Victoria Falls and Pretoria, in southern Africa. Kenya has options to get between Nairobi and Mombasa. You can even take the Oriental Express through the Moroccan desert. Bloggers such as Seat61 cover tips and tricks for train travel. And, according to them, in many countries trains are preferable to buses. If you want to take a bus, though, use an established company such as InterCape for countries in the South of the Continent, which has provisions for breakdowns or detours. Busbud offers bus options for Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
For getting around in a specific city, keep in mind that most major cities have Uber or a local taxi app service. Make sure you have local cellular data service to take advantage of short city excursions.
Trust Local Expertise
Don’t let the language barrier or being a first-time traveler prevent you from making some valuable connections. All across the continent, local people appreciate visitors who are polite and curious. Kindness and humility are often repaid with hospitality – all you have to do is ask. Find a reliable local tour guide who can show you around and provide local insights.
Whether it is a taxi driver or the host at your Airbnb, a waiter at the coffee shop or the street vendor on a tour route, talk to people, and ask for their recommendations. You may even be pleasantly surprised to find that some of them might be frequent visitors to other cities on your itinerary.
You can’t get around anywhere without money and countries on the Continent are no different. With many different currencies, you’ll need to be prepared for quick changes.
What to use: Cash is often easier for quick transactions, and there’ll be plenty of local merchants who don’t take credit cards. Having cash will prevent you from missing out on a quick meal or bringing home that souvenir that will remind you of all the great times you had on your trip. Many places on the continent will accept US dollars or Euros, but it can come with surcharges. That said, you need to pay extra to pay in a foreign currency, but the extra cost may be worth it for the convenience. Countries like Sao Tome & Principe and Madagascar widely accept Euros. The South African Rand is also generally accepted in some nearby countries, like eSwatini and Namibia.
Though cash is king, Visa credit cards are widely accepted in many major cities. American Express, Discover, Mastercards, and cash apps, however, are significantly harder to use.
Where to get cash:
Your best bet is to start with an ATM at your home base to get local currency. You won’t have to worry about bringing and carrying around lots of cash from your home country. Make sure you take out enough cash if you’re going to remote areas where ATMs may not be present (or be prepared to dust off your barter skills). Although you may get a better rate when exchanging USD or Euros, you can exchange your home base currency for the local currency in the next country.
If your bank charges too much for foreign ATM use, bring some dollars to exchange into as needed. Some countries have restrictions on the amount of foreign currency you can bring in and the amount of local currency that you can take out. Check with Embassy webpages and plan ahead. You can exchange dollars to local currency at airports or through your hotel concierge. If you’ve secured a reliable local expert in advance they can also help you find a different place to exchange your money at a better rate.
At the end of your sojourn through the continent, if you have extra money that you don’t expect to use or keep for commemoration, leave it as a parting gift with your local expert and other hospitality staff. Much of your country-hopping success was due to their invaluable help, so don’t forget to show thanks before you say farewell.