Travelling to Africa for the first time can freak people out. All we seem to know about the place is that it’s a land full of war, disease, poverty and starving children.
But that’s not really true.
Africa is a beautiful continent, full of fast developing nations and incredibly rich in culture and diversity. If it’s soon going to be your first time in Africa, it doesn’t matter whether you’re going on safari in Kenya, doing a road trip through Namibia or visiting the winding alleys of Morocco; it’s surely going to be like no other place you’ve been on earth.
With that in mind, here’s a few things you’ll need to know before you take that first trip into the motherland.
1. Get travel insurance!
After almost a decade of full time travel I can tell you my #1 travel tip is this: Never (ever ever ever ever ever) travel without travel insurance!
And that advice is x100 when travelling through Africa, especially if it’s your first time!
Travel insurance usually will cost you between $2 and $5 a day but will literally save you tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in the event of an accident, and possibly even save your life.
If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel. Put your plans on hold and save for a few more months until you can.
What happens when you buy travel insurance?
If your bus crashes and you break a leg, break some ribs, go into a coma, or are going to die, your travel insurance will get you the highest quality care or evacuate you to somewhere that can provide it. If you die, they’ll get the body home for your family. If you’re riding a bike and you smash into someone’s expensive car, they’ll pay for it. If your bag gets lost, you’ll get a few thousand dollars to buy clothes and shoes and toiletries. If you get malaria or dengue and need to spend a week in hospital, it won’t cost you $50,000 like it costs other uninsured (and stupid) travellers. It will cost you nothing.
Travel insurance is the first thing you should buy before you even book your air ticket or hotel. That way, your trip is covered if you need to cancel! (It’s not covered if you need to cancel and then decide to buy insurance after).
If you’re looking for a reliable travel insurance provider, I have been using World Nomads for 10 years and still use them today. They are excellent and provide coverage for all major destinations in Africa.
I also have a guide explaining everything you need to know about travel insurance, which I highly recommend you read. Click here to open the guide in a new tab.
Sunrise in Namibia
2. Take new US Dollar Bills
USD is widely accepted in Africa, and for many visas you are required to pay in USD. Therefore it’s a good idea to carry a good stack of fifties on you for whenever the need arises. Some countries like Liberia and Zimbabwe actually use the USD for daily business.
Make sure you take large bills no older than Series 2009 and even newer if possible. On my first trip to Africa I took several bills older than this, and also some $5 and $1 bills, only to find out most money changers and tour operators won’t accept them. The only chance you’ll have to get rid of these bills is souvenir sellers on the streets.
Also, to avoid carrying large amounts of cash try and use the ATM’s where possible – they’re widespread and accept credit cards and Plus cards. This will save you the anxiety of carrying large bundles of cash in your pockets.
ATM withdrawals are safe and easy if you have a card designed for travel. For all my travels, I use an N26 card.
3. Take an unlocked smartphone
The first time I went to Africa I just took a very old brick phone, but times have changed a lot since then!
Cellphone carriers are now surprisingly good. 4G is now available in most places and cheap – you might only pay $10 or so for unlimited data for a month.
Some people think Africa is so backward that people are still sending letters by pidgeon, but those people have been fooled. The “Nokia revolution” has totally transformed Africa, and in many ways they’re ahead of the western world in this regard. Even farmers living in small huts way out in the villages have cellphones and even do business over Whatsapp and receive payments in mobile money.
Make sure you take an unlocked Android or iPhone, and buy a sim when you arrive. Basically every country on the continent has a decent cell and data network and it’s affordable. Your phone must be unlocked to use it. Alternatively, you could always just buy a cheap Huawei cellphone when you arrive.
Village life, Tanzania
4. Malaria Awareness
Malaria is no joke – it’s a big problem in Africa and millions die from it every year. However, don’t let the fear of this ruin your trip. Malaria is easy to prevent and with the proper precautions you’ll be fine.
Malarone and Doxycycline are the two most common anti malarials. Malarone is the more expensive option (around $7 a pill), but has the least side effects.
Also, since a malaria treatment was developed in 2015, it’s a less serious issue than it used to be. However, that doesn’t mean you want to catch it!
Thankfully, malaria is not easy to catch, it’s a specific species of mosquito that carries it and it struggles to live at altitudes above 1,500m. That means in places like Addis Ababa and Nairobi you can relax a little, however seaside towns like Zanzibar and Mombasa require extra vigilance. The obvious prevention method here is to use insect repellent whenever outdoors at night, in the bush, or wherever mosquitoes might be found. If you don’t get bitten, you’re safe!
5. Take Sunscreen
This can be hard to find in some African countries, simply because the local population have no need for it.
When you do find it, it’ll be expensive and you’ll be lucky to find your favourite brand. Take your own from home.
Sahara desert, Morocco
6. Protect yourself from Traveler’s Diarrhea!
This is one of my best Africa travel tips. While food hygiene is actually quite good in Africa, and there is a very strong culture around washing hands and washing dishes and washing vegetables very thoroughly, traveler’s diarrhea still happens.
The thing that lets them down is the potability of their water supplies.
Most tap water in Africa is not safely drinkable for westerners. However, luckily there is a way for you to protect yourself against unsafe water and stomach problems in general. I’ve travelled to some of the most undeveloped countries in the world and haven’t had traveler’s diarrhea for years.
What’s the secret?
Probiotics are the gut flora in your digestive system that help build your immune system and break down any nasties in your stomach. Studies have shown that superloading with probiotics and taking them regularly during a trip greatly decreases the risk of traveller’s diarrhea, and is also excellent for your health in general. My favourite probiotic to take is this one, which has 50 billion cultures per tablet and works amazingly.
I have a full blog post on preventing traveller’s diarrhea which is mandatory reading for anyone visiting Africa for the first (and second and third) time. You can click here to go there now.
Street food, Mombasa
7. Always dress down!
Remember that poverty is still a big problem in Africa, and you’ll come across many people who struggle day to day, including an abundance of homeless people and street kids.
While they don’t present any danger in most cases, it helps to not flaunt your expensive things and draw attention to yourself. Assuming your face is not African, you’re already going to draw attention in rural places and often in cities too, so try and stay as low key as possible. This means not wearing shiny watches, rings, bracelets, earrings, necklaces. Use cheap sunglasses, shoes and backpacks. This advice also applies to a lot of Southeast Asia and Latin America too.
Another thing you should be mindful of is the culture. While short shorts and low cut blouses and tank tops might be normal to wear back home, they’re not in most of Africa. That means easy on the bling and no flashy clothes. For the ladies, try and stay covered up as best as possible.
Rural life, Ethiopia
8. Take a torch, powerbank, and headlamp
Powercuts are widespread and frequent in Africa, especially smaller African cities, and many areas don’t have electricity. While the torch on your phone is usually sufficient, I’d highly recommend taking a headlamp, especially if you’re going hiking, camping, on safari, or visiting rural areas. Trust me, you’ll thank me later!
Also, take a good powerbank. I use this one and it has saved my butt on many occassions!
9. Don’t take white clothing!
One thing you’ll notice about many African cities is not all the roads and footpaths are paved. The sidewalks are often dirt or gravel and this leads to a lot of dust and dirt in the air.
For this reason, I always avoid taking white clothes, especially socks! They get brown very quickly, and in some places you will end up hand-washing them as washing machines are rare outside the big cities. On my first trip to Africa I took a lot of white t-shirts and socks, and they were all brown and beige by the time I got home.
Also, take a pair of sunglasses for when you’re wandering around. Your eyes will thank you.
10. Don’t take photos of locals without permission
You’re going to come across some amazing photo opportunities of local people doing things you’ve never seen before. While your first inclination may be to pull out the camera and snap, try to refrain from doing so as local people will often take offense at you taking photos of them.
In fact, many people will approach you and ask you for money if they catch you.
You can use your zoom and take your snaps from afar or just be discreet, but there is a proper way for taking photos in Africa. You ask permission first, and they say yes, go ahead and take it, and if they say no, you say thank you and move on. Many people will in fact be fine with you taking their photo and will ask to see it afterwards. Don’t be alarmed if they ask for a tip, it is quite normal and will keep the peace for you to give them a coin or a small bill (a few cents to a dollar and no more).
It will keep the peace and they will appreciate your respect.
Street seller, Zanzibar
11. Take hand sanitizer!
If you’re planning a few trips off the beaten track you’re bound to be touching all sorts of dirty things and have local children jumping all over you. Keeping a bottle of this handy is a lifesaver.
Hard to find in some places, so take your own from home.
12. Carry A Packet Of Baby Wipes
Especially if going on safari, camping, hiking, or any outdoors activity. Trust me, they’ll come in handy!
13. Don’t connect to Wifi without protection!
Most places in Africa have wifi now but security isn’t up to the level that we’re used to.
I’d highly recommend (no, I insist) that you get a VPN before you start connecting to wifi networks in hotels/cafes/restaurants etc. This will encrypt all your connections and ensure your activity is secure, which is particularly important if you’ll be accessing bank details online, Paypal, credit cards, or any other sensitive information.
The amount of celebrities and just regular people that continue to get their passwords scraped and online accounts broken into is proof enough. You need to secure your connection and the best way to do that is with a VPN.
I use Private Internet Access and have been for many years, and recommend them highly.
If you’re new to this stuff I’ve got an article about internet security while travelling here!
Bayimba Festival, Kampala
14. Be smart with hustlers
While walking around the streets you’ll get some unwanted attention. Guys will try to sell you arts and crafts or lure you to souvenir stores in an effort to earn a commission. If you’re in bars and clubs late at night, you’ll get propositioned by working ladies.
That’s fine if you’re interested, but chances are you’re not. If any case these people are harmless and are just an annoyance more than anything else, so the trick is to just be cool and relaxed rather than hostile.
When they ask if it’s your first time visiting just say “No, I come every year, my brother lives here” or something like that. Once they realise you’re not a clueless tourist they’ll most likely chit chat with you for 10 more seconds before moving on to a more promising target.
I remember getting off the bus in Tanzania one year and before my feet have even touched the ground some dude had his hand on my shoulder screaming “Taxi my friend? My friend? Taxi!?”
I ignored him and he goes on, “Your first time in Africa, my friend?”
I shook my head. “My family lives here.”
“Oh! You have African wife?”
I started laughing and turned to him and noded seriously. “Ndiyo, kaka” (yes, my brother).
He smiled with that knowing look in his eyes, and then disappeared so fast that even I was surprised. I turned my head to nod him off and he’s already back at the bus door, hassling someone else. This is a really common occurrence and it’s a drag at first but don’t let it ruin your trip. It’s harmless and just requires a little travel savvy. Always be polite, never say it’s your first time in the country, and if in doubt, just don’t say anything! Just smile and be on your way.
15. If you find a good taxi driver, hold onto him!
Once you land in the country, get the phone number of a reliable taxi driver. If your hotel sends a driver to the airport and you get to your hotel alive, get his number. Otherwise ask the hotel staff for a reliable taxi. Keep his number in your cellphone or even better, memorise it. You can call him whenever you’re in a fix, especially if you’re stuck somewhere after dark, making sure you’ll never be stuck without a ride home in the night.
Also, in many of the major cities they now have Uber, so make sure you download it! It’s cheap and has been extremely useful for me, especially as you can avoid the whole haggling part of getting a taxi. But especially in Africa, a taxi driver you know personally is always the first choice.
Fish market, Zanzibar
16. Pack a first aid kit
A standard first aid kit can come in handy in a place where ambulances are scarce and hospital helicopters don’t exist.
That means bandages, antiseptics, prescription antibiotics, a pocketknife, sterile needles (some hospitals don’t have these), DEET, anti diarrheals and painkillers.
Most of these things you can find in major African cities, but it’s for peace of mind more than anything. Also they’re hard to find in some rural areas.
17. Use your common sense and stay safe!
Despite what people think Africa is not a wild, lawless place. Of course there’s crime, but common sense will be sufficient to keep you safe. Don’t go out alone at night – take a local male with you. When you arrive in the country, ask someone you can trust such as a tour guide or hotel staff about the danger spots in the city. If you always have an escort at night and don’t go wandering, you’ll be in no more danger than you would be in your home country.
I’ve been to every continent and Africa is by far my favourite! Go, explore, discover, enjoy.