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First Time in Africa?

Tips on Traveling to Developing Countries

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A woman and her child were enjoying morning porridge in Nabila Village, Northern Ghana.

Breakfast in Ghana

Lauren Mong
If your first trip to Africa is also your first time visiting a developing country, you may be in for a cultural shock. But don't be scared off by what you hear in the news, there are many myths about Africa. Find out what to expect from your first trip to Africa from the advice given below.

Give yourself time to get used to being in a different environment. Don't compare things with "home" and just keep an open mind. If you are afraid or suspicious of local people's motives, you can needlessly ruin your vacation. Read the tips below, file them away and enjoy your visit to Africa.

Begging

The poverty in much of Africa is usually what strikes first-time visitors the most. You will see beggars and you may not know how to respond. You will realize you can't give to every beggar, but giving to none will most likely make you feel guilty. It's a good idea to keep small change with you and give to those who you feel need it the most. If you don't have small change, a kind smile and a sorry are perfectly acceptable. If you can't handle the guilt, make a donation at a hospital or to a development agency that will spend your money wisely.

Children begging on their own will often have to give up the money to a parent, guardian or gang leader. If you want to give something to begging children, give them food instead of money, that way they'll benefit directly.

Unwanted Attention

You'll have to get used to people staring at you when you visit many African countries, even in areas where there are lots of tourists. The stares are harmless and just curiosity for the most part. Given the lack of entertainment available, checking out a tourist is just fun. You'll get used to it after a while. Some people like to wear sunglasses and feel more comfortable that way. Some people enjoy this new rock star status and miss it when they're back home.

For women, being stared at by groups of men is naturally somewhat threatening. But this is what you can expect when you travel to some African countries, especially in Northern Africa (Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia). Try not to let it bother you. You have to just learn to ignore it and not get annoyed by it. Read my article about "Tips for Women Traveling in Africa" for more advice.

Scams and Conmen (Touts)

Being a visitor, and often much wealthier than most people you see around you, means you also naturally become the target of scams, and touts (people trying to sell you a good or service that you don't want, in a deceitful way). Remember that "touts" are poor people trying to earn their living, they would much rather be official guides but often aren't in a position to pay for that kind of education. A firm "no thanks" is the best way to deal with persistent touts.

Common Scams and how to deal with them:

  • Assume nothing is Free
    While hospitable and friendly folk are everywhere in Africa, be careful when you're in a touristy area and you're offered something for "free". It is rarely free. A "free" camel ride will quickly become an expensive one, when you wish to return to where you came from. A "free" guided tour around a tourist site will most likely lead to an uncle's jewelry shop or a demand for money at the end of the tour. A "free" cup of tea might include looking at a lot of carpets.

    If you hear the word "free", the price you pay is often not in your control.

  • Hotels don't suddenly disappear, fill up or move to a bad location
    This tip is especially useful for the independent travelers. When you arrive at an African airport, bus station, train station or ferry port you will be greeted by many people, inquiring rather loudly, where you want to go to. Many of these folks will earn a commission for taking you to a hotel of their choosing. This doesn't mean that the hotel will necessarily be bad, it just means you may end up in an area you don't want to be in; the price of your room will be higher to cover the commission; or the hotel could indeed be quite nasty.

    Hotel touts may ask you what hotel you have booked and then tell you emphatically that that hotel is full, has moved or is in a bad area.

    Make a reservation with a hotel before you arrive, especially if you're arriving in the evening and/or in a major tourist town. Your guide book will have phone numbers of all hotels they list, or you can research online before you go. Take a taxi and insist they take you to the hotel of your choosing. If your taxi driver pretends not to know the location of your hotel, take another taxi.

    It's better to pay a little more for your first night in a town, than to end up somewhere you don't want to be.

  • Exchanging money on the street
    When you arrive in an African country, you may meet people who will try to encourage you to exchange money, and will offer a better rate than that which the bank may give you. Don't be tempted to change your money this way. It's illegal and it's also not a great idea to show someone all your foreign currency. There are very few countries in Africa now where the black market rate for foreign currency is vastly different from the official exchange rate. (Zimbabwe is one of the exceptions to this rule).

    Exchanging your money on the street is not worth the hassle or the risk of getting robbed or cheated.

    Health and Safety

    Health and safety are obviously big concerns when people travel to Africa. Here's a list of topics that should help you stay well and enjoy your vacation.

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