The bulk of air traffic with Africa is to and from Europe, but there are a handful of direct flights between Africa and North and South America, the Middle East and Asia. Many North American travellers pass through a European 'hub' en route to Africa. For Australasian travellers it's often cheaper to pass through a Middle Eastern and/or Asian hub before arriving.
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; 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 the biggest bargains – also look out for cheap deals into Cape Town (South Africa). In West Africa, Dakar (Senegal), Accra (Ghana) and Lagos (Nigeria) are the busiest gateways. In North Africa, flying into Casablanca (Morocco) or 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, mean that it's tricky to pin down the cheapest times to fly to Africa – get the low-down on costs from a travel agent well in advance. Using mile-wide brushstrokes, 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.
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, Nairobi or Dakar and out of Cape Town. Even if you're not travelling so far, it can be helpful – flying into Dakar and out of Bamako, for example.
Stopovers are another handy way of flitting around the continent. Many flights to Africa stop at least once before arriving at the main destination, and on some tickets (but 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.
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. The main drawback is that short-date returns are common, but there is sometimes some flexibility.
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 short cuts 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.Travel agents that recognise the International Student Identity Card (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 oneworld alliance (www.oneworldalliance.com). Coming from Europe with British Airways and Air France can get you to a variety of interesting African destinations, but flights within Africa are limited.
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 from the UK, you could also try the handy interactive route planner at www.roundtheworldflights.com.
One-way tickets to Africa are rarely a good idea. For the most part, immigration regulations forbid (or at least discourage) entry to people with one-way tickets; you need to show that you have a ticket out of Africa, although this seems a little perverse considering you can get a ferry to Africa and travel overland through the continent before picking up a one-way flight back home (these tickets tend to cost about half of the usual return fare).
You could cycle all the way into Africa or you could save your legs for Africa's rough roads and stick your wheels in the hold of a plane. There are two ways of doing this: you could partially dismantle your bike and stuff it into a large box, or just simply wheel your bike to the check-in desk, where it should be treated as a piece of baggage (although you might need to take the pedals off, turn the handlebars sideways and wrap it in cardboard and/or foam). Don't lose too much sleep about the feather touch of baggage handlers – if your bike doesn't stand up to air travel, it won't last long in Africa.
Some airlines don't include sports equipment in the baggage allowance; others may charge around US$50 extra because your bike is not standard luggage size; others, however, will take it without hassles.