Getting there & away
Getting yourself into Africa can be as simple as booking a direct-flight ticket from a major European hub, or as adventurous as hitching a lift on a car ferry then jumping onto a cargo truck. However you choose to do it, it pays to put aside some research time in advance to make sure you don’t blow unnecessary bucks or time. Flights, tours and rail tickets can be booked online at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel_services.
The bulk of air traffic with Africa is to and from Europe, but there are a handful of direct flights between Africa and North America, the Middle East and Asia. A few flights link Australia with Africa, and there are flights between South Africa and Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Many North American travellers pass through a European ‘hub’ (airports located in London, Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt for example) en route to Africa. For Australasian travellers it’s often cheaper to pass through a Middle Eastern and/or Asian hub before arriving, but these flights too often pass through a European hub as well.
Wherever you’re coming from, the main thing to remember is that flying into one of Africa’s main hubs is going to be your cheapest option. Flights to the hubs can cost peanuts from Europe, and once you’re there the national carriers of the various countries can easily transport you to other destinations across Africa. These extra flights are known as ‘add-ons’ and are often best booked in conjunction with your main international ticket through a decent travel agent at home (tip: flights with add-ons or multiple stops are still almost always best booked with a real live reservations agent rather than through a website).
The main gateway into East Africa is Nairobi (Kenya), although Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) is also busy. Johannesburg (South Africa) is the southern African hub offering the most options (flights arrive from the Americas, Asia and Australasia as well as Europe) and biggest bargains – also look out for cheap deals into Cape Town (South Africa). In West Africa, Accra (Ghana) and Lagos (Nigeria) are the busiest gateways (and receive flights from North America), but Dakar (Senegal) is often a cheaper option. In North Africa, flying into Casablanca (Morocco) and Cairo (Egypt) is the cheapest option. If you’re travelling from Europe, Tunis (Tunisia) is often the cheapest African city in which to arrive. However, it’s surrounded by Algeria and Libya, which can make for tricky onward overland travel.
Wild climatic variations across Africa, and differing holiday seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres, means that it’s tricky to pin down the cheapest times to fly to Africa. Using mile-wide brush strokes it could be argued that flying from June to September or around Christmas (a ‘peak season’ that can last from November to March if you’re coming from Australasia) is going to hit your budget hardest. But you don’t need generalities if you’ve a well-defined trip in mind, so get the low-down on costs from a travel agent well in advance.
If you’re planning a big trip consider open-jaw tickets, which allow you to fly into one city, then out of another, and can save you cash, time and hassle. All manner of combinations are available, enabling some great overland journeys: think about a ticket into Cairo and out of Cape Town (fares from here can be amazingly cheap), or into Nairobi and out of Cape Town, or even into Dakar and out of Cape Town.
Another handy way of flitting around the continent are stopovers. Many flights to Africa stop at least once before arriving at the main destination, and on some tickets (sadly not always those at the cheapest end of the spectrum) you’ll have the chance to get off; on some happy occasions taking advantage of these stopovers can effectively save the cost of an internal flight. For example, a Kenya Airways flight from London to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) goes via Nairobi, allowing you to explore Kenya first. If you’re coming from North America or Australia, a stopover in Europe can be handy if you need to pick up an obscure visa in Paris or Amsterdam or just fancy finding your travel legs somewhere vaguely familiar.
Jumping on a charter flight can sometimes save you a bundle if you’re travelling from or via Europe, especially if you pick something up at the last minute. Short-date returns are common, but there is sometimes some flexibility. From the UK charter flights leave for The Gambia, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Kenya, destinations that are also serviced by French operators. Charter flights to Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo and Benin also leave from France between November and May. Point Afrique (04 75 97 20 40; www.point-afrique.com in French) offers cheap flights (from €400 return) to these and other Saharan countries from Paris and Marseille. Heaps of other charter flights leave from across Europe; for instance, Italy is a good place to look for cheap charters to Zanzibar (Tanzania) and Mombasa (Kenya).
It’s not rocket science, but take your time, shop around, double-check all restrictions and date- or route-change penalties on your ticket, look out for credit-card surcharges and book well in advance. A couple of hours on the internet should give you an idea of the most useful travel agents; talk to as many as possible. Remember that although websites are great for straightforward return tickets, they cannot tell you about little add-ons and shortcuts or custom-build itineraries from a cluster of domestic and regional flights.
If you’re under 26 or a student you’ll occasionally be able to turn up some juicy deals. There are many specialist student travel agents, but many ‘normal’ travel agents offer student fares, just as student travel agents can serve older travellers. STA Travel (www.statravelgroup.com) has hundreds of potentially useful offices and affiliates around the world, but service can vary and it’s vital that you shop around. Travel agents that recognise the International Student Identity Card (ISIC; www.isic.org) scheme are another possibility – the contact details of thousands of agents are available on its website.
On the cheapest round-the-world (RTW) tickets Nairobi and Johannesburg are the usual stops, but stopping in these major hubs will cut down your options once you leave the continent. If you want more stops within Africa look at the Global Explorer or oneworld Explorer RTW tickets offered by the oneworld alliance (www.oneworld.com), which includes Aer Lingus, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, LanChile and Qantas. Coming from Europe with British Airways can get you to a variety of interesting African destinations, but flights within Africa are limited to British Airway’s African franchises Regional Air (based in Nairobi) and Comair (based in Johannesburg), essentially limiting travel to East and southern Africa.
The trick with RTW tickets is to decide where you want to go first and then talk to a travel agent, who will know the best deals, cunning little routes and the pitfalls of the various packages. If you’re departing the UK, you could also try the handy interactive route planner at www.roundtheworldflights.com.
Flights to Africa from North America are not cheap, but direct flights to Accra (Ghana), Lagos (Nigeria), Banjul (The Gambia), Cairo (Egypt), Casablanca (Morocco) and Johannesburg (South Africa) are possible. The latter two destinations are serviced by Royal Air Maroc (www.royalairmaroc.com) from New York and Montreal, and South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) from New York respectively and are reliable options. As well as efficient trans-African networks, both these carriers have good connections inside the USA. Accra, Banjul and Lagos are serviced by rather flaky national carriers, but Egypt Air’s Cairo flight (from New York or Montreal) is worth considering. Although ‘through’ ticketing via Europe is a very popular option it might be cheaper to get a supersonic deal across the Atlantic and then a separate ticket to Africa.
LonelyPlanet.com (www.lonelyplanet.com) Includes links to a US RTW fare generator from Airtreks.
OneTravel.com (www.onetravel.com) Comprehensive North American fare generator.
Most flights head to Africa via the Middle East, often with Emirates (www.emirates.com) or Gulf Air (www.gulfairco.com); direct to Johannesburg with Qantas (www.qantas.com.au) or South African Airways (www.flysaa.com); and even via Mauritius with Air Mauritius (www.airmauritius.com) from Sydney and Perth. Other fares go via Europe. Many of these flights, including those going via the Middle East, often allow a nice Southeast Asian stopover.
Of course, you could head straight to Europe and then root around for a bargain to Africa (or sort it out over the internet first), but either way, you’ll go via a combination of airlines so it may be worth considering a RTW ticket.
In Southeast Asia flights go to Africa from Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Most of these only fly into Johannesburg. However, Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com) runs services from Bangkok and Hong Kong to Nairobi, and you can fly to Cairo with Egypt Air (www.egyptair.com.eg) from Bangkok or Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeairlines.com) from Singapore.
Ninemsn (travel.ninemsn.com.au) Good internet booking engine.
If you are coming from Europe, then Africa is your oyster. London, Paris and Amsterdam probably have the greatest selection of flights, but whatever country you start from there’s almost nowhere that a good travel agent can’t get you into.
Africa Travel Centre (0845-450 1520; www.africatravel.co.uk) Experienced UK operator offering flights and tours.
Air Fair (0900-7 717 717; www.airfair.nl) Well-respected Dutch travel agent.
Nouvelles Frontières (0 825 000 747; www.nouvelles-frontieres.fr) Good French option with adventure tours and charter flights.
Trailfinders (0845-058 5858; www.trailfinders.com) Reliable UK travel agent with competitive prices.
There is a stack of traffic between Mumbai (Bombay) in India and East Africa; flights to and from Nairobi can be pretty darn cheap. Many other Middle Eastern carriers (such as Gulf Air via Muscat and Emirates via Dubai) service North and East Africa.