A Guide to Planning Your Family’s African Vacation
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Over the last few decades, Africa has become a favorite bucket-list destination for people around the globe. From a richness in culture, food and wildlife, the continent has a lot to offer and delivers delightful experiences. However, before you haul your family onto the plane to cross the ocean, you need to do your research. Planning ahead is key to understand what your family is in for, and to strategize and maximize the time you spend there.
African Destinations for Families
It sounds silly, but many first-time visitors don’t realize just how big Africa is. Fifty-four countries comprise the world’s second-largest continent, so deciding which of them to visit shouldn't be a rushed decision. This diverse place has a plethora of cultures and people, and each country offers a unique experience. You could visit cities, wine country, deserts or a wild savanna. Figure out the type of experiences you want your family to have, and then research the countries that can provide those kinds of experiences.
African countries that you may want to consider visiting include:
- Botswana: visit for Okavango Delta safaris; fly into Sir Seretse Khama International Airport (GBE) near Gaborone
- Cameroon: visit for Chutes de la Lobé waterfalls; fly into Yaounde (NSI)
- Egypt: visit for the Great Pyramids and a Nile River cruise; fly into Cairo International Airport (CAI)
- Kenya: visit for the Great Migration across the Maasai Mara; fly into Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) in Nairobi
- Namibia: visit for the desert landscape of the Skeleton Coast and the city of Windhoek; fly into Hosea Kutako International Airport (WDH) serving Windhoek
- Madagascar: visit this island for lemurs and other unique animals; fly into Ivato International Airport (TNR)
- Mozambique: visit for its beaches; fly into Maputo International Airport (MPM)
- Morocco: visit for the desert; fly into Fes Sais International Airport (FEZ) near Fes, Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport (CMN) or Rabat-Sale Airport (RBA) in Sale
- Rwanda: visit to see gorillas; fly into Kigali International Airport (KGL)
- South Africa: visit for safaris, wine country and cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg; fly into Cape Town International Airport (CPT) or O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB) in Johannesburg
- Tanzania: visit for the wildebeest migration; fly into Julius Nyerere International Airport (DAR) in Dar es Salaam
- Uganda: visit to see gorillas; fly into Entebbe International Airport (EBB)
- Zambia: visit for safaris, Livingstone Falls and Devil's Pool; fly into Kenneth Kaunda International Airport (LUN)
- Zimbabwe: visit for safaris and Livingstone Falls; fly into Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport (HRE)
Make sure to learn about these countries, do some outside research and visit their official government websites so you can make an informed decision. Many of these sites usually have great tourist-outreach programs that will provide accurate and helpful information.
When people think about Africa, they naturally imagine a safari, and that makes sense since so many fascinating creatures live on the continent. A safari — where you travel in a rugged 4x4 vehicle with a driver and tracker in a nature preserve or national park — is all about seeing animals, specifically the Big Five: leopard, lion, elephant, rhino and Cape buffalo. If you're a birder, you'll be astounded by the variety of species you'll see throughout Africa. I believe that an African safari should be on every traveling family’s bucket list and this expat, who's taken her children on safari dozens of times, agrees.
For safaris, countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana should be on your radar because they have vast lands and a wide variety of wildlife. South Africa is well-known for its safari parks, diverse culture and great tribal dances; the famous Zulu dance will be a fun experience for your family. Ethiopia and Egypt also offer amazing experiences to see pyramids and learn about ancient cultures. Thinking about the desert? Morocco or Namibia would be good choices. If you want to see gorillas, Uganda and Rwanda are your best bets. If you want to spot rhinos, head to Botswana, Namibia or Zambia.
Keep in mind that you have to time your trip perfectly to coincide with the Great Wildebeest Migration that happens between June and October. Giant herds of grazers trek through Kenya and Tanzania each year. During this migration, more than 2 million gazelles, zebras and wildebeest move through the Serengeti and Maasai Mara in search of greener pastures.
African safaris range in price from tents to luxury camps (some high-end experiences can cost as much as $20,000 per person) and everything in between. Self-catering and Airbnb-style camps, cottages and homes can be surprisingly affordable. It is possible to find less expensive safaris in countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Similar vacations in Botswana and Zambia are much pricier. Just be aware that some camps don’t allow children under the age of 12. However, you will find plenty of family-friendly options if you search.
Who Flies to Africa?
Taking your family to Africa will be an investment in time, money, miles and points. But, there are some terrific values to be had for anyone that has a large store of loyalty currency. We flew to Ghana for 40,000 United MileagePlus miles and $16 per person. Since Africa is literally on the other side of the world from the US, you might want to travel in business class. No matter what class of service you choose, there are many ways to get there, including nonstop and connecting flights from the United States or transit via European cities. You'll need to do some digging to find the best option for your family. It just got easier for Delta loyalists to fly to Africa thanks to a codeshare partnership with Kenya Airways, and if you're heading to Cape Town or Kruger National Park, check out TPG's six best ways to get to South Africa on points and miles.
To start your research, check routes on Delta, United, Lufthansa, British Airways, South African Airways, Turkish Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. Since you'll want as many options as possible when it comes to finding award flights to Africa, focus your earning on cards that offer flexible points like Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards or Capital One miles.
Although an American passport allows you to travel to many African countries, you should always research visa requirements before you even think of leaving home. It would be unfortunate if, after investing in and planning a vacation, you realize too late that a visa is needed. Note that visa requirements are based on your nationality and not your country of residence.
Another small but vital piece of intel: Visa rules in Africa are ever-changing. Confirm visa requirements with an official government source, such as the local embassy or consulate, and don't rely on information in outdated guidebooks or websites that could be outdated.
Some African countries, like South Africa and Morocco, don't require a visa for American citizens (though double check that before traveling). Egypt gives Americans the option of purchasing a visa upon arrival. However, the majority of African countries require that you apply for a visa prior to your trip.
And when booking any travel to South Africa (as well as certain other destinations), remember that you must have two blank side-by-side visa pages available in your passport. You could be denied entry into the country if you do not meet this requirement. Always check the requirements for your destination here before you get turned away at the airport.
When to Travel to Africa
Every country has an optimum travel season, depending on what you want to see and do there. Winter travel to the Sahara Desert in Morocco is best from October to December because the temperatures are not as hot at roughly 21 degrees Celsius or 70 degrees Fahrenheit. In the summer, temperatures can get as hot as 30 degrees Celsius or 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Please note that the temperatures mentioned are for cities like Fez and Marrakech, the desert area called Merzouga can get as hot as 37 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit).
Keep religious holidays in mind as well. Traveling during Ramadan in Muslim countries may be hard if you aren’t Muslim or aren't fasting because as you’ll have a harder time finding a restaurant that's open. With kids, this may make traveling and feeding everyone a little more difficult than it needs to be.
Health and Safety
Whenever you travel with your kids, health and safety are no doubt on your mind. While some Africa countries are still developing nations that don't have the same standards of hygiene and medical facilities as we do, there are precautions you can take.
Despite the beauty of the African continent, some of its infrastructure is underdeveloped. Getting sick or having an emergency in a place you have not been to before, especially if you don’t speak the language, can present a lot of challenges. Make sure to research the type of medical facilities available in the countries you plan to travel to and what sort of diseases might be prevalent so you can get any necessary vaccinations.
Just like visa requirements, vaccine requirements vary by country. You may need to be vaccinated for typhoid, Hepatitis A and yellow fever. In fact, some countries, like Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana, require proof of the yellow fever vaccination before you're allowed entry. Immunization for whooping cough, tetanus, polio, mumps and measles are generally recommended as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has resources for travelers in this regard.
Malaria, transmitted by mosquitoes, is also an issue in some places in Africa. It's important for your family to take precautions by taking an anti-malaria as a prophylactic before traveling to affected countries. Visit a travel doctor well before your trip and he or she will explain any vaccinations or boosters you may need as well as prescribe medications like Malarone (to prevent malaria) and a Zithromax Z-Pak (an antibiotic to treat any infections you may get on the road). The travel doctor will also explain if it will be safe to drink the water where you're going and what foods to avoid. Find a travel doctor on the CDC's list of travel clinics or contact the International Society of Travel Medicine.
Security and Safety Concerns
Security and safety are huge factors when planning a vacation to any country with your family. You probably want to avoid countries that are known for civil unrest; you can read travel advisories for any country at the US Department of State — Bureau of Consular Affairs. Individual countries may also put practices into place to safeguard tourists. For example, in Egypt all cars are checked when arriving at a hotel and most lodgings also have a metal detector at the entrance.
Heed the cultural values of the people. Uttering particular words, behaving in a particular way or dressing in a particular fashion can be offensive to the locals because it goes against their cultural norms and values.
Just exercise caution like you would when at home by not doing things such as wandering out alone late at night, and you’ll likely be fine. Keep your passports and travel documents safe. If you have your travel arrangements organized by a tours and travel agent, research them out first and ensure that they are reputable before you hire their services.
On the Ground: Cash or Credit Cards?
Credit and debit cards are often acceptable forms of payment in Africa, however cash is the preferred method for local shops and street vendors.
Before you travel to Africa, make sure to let your bank know so that you won’t have any issues when you use your cards. When traveling to Africa, make sure to take a credit card that has zero foreign-transaction fees -- like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, Chase Sapphire Reserve, Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, Citi Premier® Card and The Platinum Card® from American Express (See Rates & Fees) -- so that you can avoid any unnecessary costs.
Taking a vacation is always a thrilling and fulfilling experience. Africa has a lot to offer your family in terms of cultural richness, food diversity, great weather and great wildlife. If you want to get the best experience possible, you will need to properly plan for the trip. This will guarantee that you will have the time of your live as well as get a chance to meet amazing people in the process.
Have you taken your family to Africa? Where did you go and what do you wish you knew before touching down on the continent?
Image by author except where indicated.
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