How to visit West Africa on points after 'Year of Return'
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If you were on social media in the past few weeks, you might've seen Facebook friends, Instagram followers -- even your own cousins -- in Ghana over the holiday season.
Why the dash to West Africa?
Last year marked 400 years since enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia, beginning the ugly history of slavery in the United States.
To mark the milestone, Ghana's Tourism Authority (GTA) and the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, and Culture invited visitors to reconnect with their roots. Tens of thousands flocked to the country in 2019 to visit the Door of No Return, the final departure point for enslaved Africans bound for the Americas, and to trace their roots.
The "Year of Return" allowed African-Americans to go "home" and reconnect with their diasporic origins in West Africa. Celebrities like Diggy Simmons, Tina Lawson and Cardi B made pilgrimages to Ghana in 2019. A yearlong initiative, the program wrapped up with the Afrochella concert in Accra and numerous service activities.
Although the Year of Return has concluded, Ghana and other West African countries want the momentum to continue.
"[T]he events planned throughout  will serve as a launchpad for a consistent boost in tourism for Ghana in the near and distant years," the Year of Return's official website reads.
Shortly before Christmas, I attended a meetup in Brooklyn, N.Y., for travelers planning to go to Ghana. For many, it would be their first time visiting the African continent.
As a curious TPG staffer, I asked nearly everyone I spoke to how they were getting to Ghana, where they were staying and whether they booked with points. One man said he booked his ticket to Accra at the last minute and paid over $3,000 for a round-trip economy ticket on Delta!
The meetup got me thinking about how we often talk about redeeming points for business-class flights to Europe or luxury hotels in Japan and not enough about how to redeem them to visit the developing world. Although there aren't nearly as many options to redeem points and miles in parts of Africa, it is possible with some patience and a bit of creativity in your itinerary.
If you're interested in making a trip to West Africa to reconnect with your heritage -- or interested in finding out what the Year of Return was all about -- here's how you can get there in 2020 on points.
Getting to West Africa
Deals to West Africa aren't that common unless you're flying out of a major hub like New York or Washington. Several Star Alliance partners fly in and out of the region, so start there first.
Economy awards on Star Alliance partners from cities like Houston (IAH), Washington (IAD) and Newark (EWR) to cities like Lomé (LFW), Accra (ACC) and Monrovia (ROB) start at just 40,000 United miles one-way. You can fly direct on some routes on Ethiopian Airlines or connect in Europe on airlines like Lufthansa or Brussels. Business saver awards start at 80,000 miles. If you're coming from a smaller city, watch out for multi-connection and long-layover itineraries. One route I checked out while reporting this story showed an itinerary with three stops for a total journey of over 40 hours.
United is also a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner. If you don't have enough points for a redemption, you can move points at a 1:1 ratio from cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, Chase Sapphire Reserve and Ink Business Preferred Credit Card.
Delta serves three cities in West Africa — Accra (ACC) in Ghana, Dakar (DSS) in Senegal and Lagos (LOS) in Nigeria.
Delta flights from New York-JFK to Accra will set you back 100,000 SkyMiles plus taxes and fees in main cabin and a whopping 300,000 SkyMiles in Delta One. But there's another option: Delta-operated flights to Africa from the U.S. booked through Virgin Atlantic's Flying Club only cost 80,000 miles round-trip in economy and 120,000 miles round-trip in business.
It's easy to collect Flying Club miles even without flying Virgin Atlantic or its partners. Flying Club is a transfer partner of most of the significant point currencies:
- American Express Membership Rewards (1:1, instant transfer)
- Chase Ultimate Rewards (1:1, instant transfer)
- Citi ThankYou Points (1:1, instant transfer)
- Marriott Bonvoy (3:1 with a 5,000-mile bonus for transferring 60,000 points, <48 hour transfer time)
Royal Air Maroc will join the Oneworld alliance on March 31, 2020, making it the alliance’s first on the African continent. The codeshare will expand to additional routes in 2020, including Royal Air Maroc service to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire (ABJ) and Lagos.
Where to stay
There aren't a ton of points hotels in West Africa, but the few that exist are pretty solid deals. You won't find any Hyatt properties, but there are a couple of Hilton and Marriott hotels.
If you're in Nigeria, you have the option of two Hilton properties: the Transcorp Hilton in Abuja and the Legend Hotel Lagos Airport, a Curio Collection by Hilton property. The latter is undoubtedly the nicer of the two.
You'll get complimentary Wi-Fi and an espresso machine, among other amenities, at the Legend. If you're staying in the most luxurious room, the Presidential Suite, it features a 50-inch TV, private terrace with bar and whirlpool, and views of the nearby Murtala Muhammed Airport (LOS).
Although Hilton no longer publishes an award chart — allowing it to make changes to redemption rates with no notice — it does have the Points Explorer tool that allows you to check out the range of award prices you can expect to pay. A quick search of the Legend Hotel found rooms would run you between 48,000 and 72,000 points a night.
If you hold Hilton Honors elite status, you’ll enjoy the fifth night free on all award stays of five nights or longer.
If you're a Marriott loyalist, you'll find several Marriott properties in the region, and not just in Ghana and Nigeria.
The Sheraton Grand Conakry in Guinea, a Category 4 hotel, charges 25,000 points a night for standard dates. The Sheraton Bamako in Mali is a PointSavers hotel, a newish discount program that lets members book select hotel properties for less than the standard award rate.
The Accra Marriott hotel, a Category 2 Marriott Bonvoy hotel, isn't the fanciest, but it has a pool and you'll be able to pick from a king bed or a double. You also have several Marriott-branded hotels to choose from in Nigeria, including Sheraton, Protea and Four Points by Sheraton properties.
For an extended trip to the region, remember that you can get the fifth night free on all award stays. This applies to all Marriott properties, unlike Hilton.
What to do
For many Western travelers, Africa conjures up images of poverty or wildlife safaris, but West Africa is so different from those preconceptions.
When you get there, I suggest first immersing yourself in history.
I previously mentioned the Door of No Return in Accra, and I couldn't recommend it more. I also visited the Cape Coast Castle in Accra in 2014 on a college trip to Ghana and was left speechless. Envisioning the place where my ancestors took their last steps in their homeland is an experience I'll never forget. After that, visit the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park, erected in honor of the former prime minister and Ghana's first president.
Makola Market is another must-visit, where you can get custom-made African print garments, souvenirs for family and more.
In Dakar, I suggest checking out the African Renaissance Monument -- a powerful, if controversial -- statue built to honor African achievement. Togo, a small country bordering Ghana, Benin and Burkina Faso, also has much to offer, from climbing Mt. Agou to exploring the Mono River.
Things to know
Note that a visa is required to enter many West African countries, including Ghana, Nigeria and Liberia. You'll need to get one ahead of time, unless you're arriving in Togo or Mauritania, which issue visas upon arrival, or Côte d’Ivoire, which will issue a visa upon arrival if requested in advance. Senegal no longer requires visas for U.S. citizens for stays of fewer than 90 days.
If you know you want to visit West Africa this year, get your visas soon. Ghana ran out of visa stickers late last year as thousands applied ahead of Year of Return festivities.
If you're a dual U.S.-Nigerian citizen, you are now required to have a valid Nigerian passport to leave the U.S. The State Department says that dual citizens can be denied boarding without Nigerian passports.
Also keep in mind that a yellow fever vaccination card is required to enter many West African countries. On a recent PeaceJam trip to Liberia, I was horrified to discover that my yellow fever card had gone missing somewhere between London and touchdown in Monrovia (ROB). I was anxious that I'd be denied entry into the country -- which is nobody's fault but my own -- but an airport worker let me enter the country after briefly scolding me. There's no telling what mood airport workers will be in when you arrive, so make sure you keep your yellow fever card in a secure place.
If you haven't considered using points or miles to visit West Africa, this should be the year you do so. Because of the low redemptions, it's easy to stay for days or even weeks and not shell out tons of points. With daily flights from the U.S., especially from the East Coast, visiting West Africa is as easy as it's ever been.
The continent is much more than safari tours, though those are lovely too. West Africa is filled with culture, food and history waiting for you to explore.
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