Each time I put out a new edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, I always try to find a way to get another African country in there and always come up short when I start digging into the research. So I only have Morocco and Egypt and always get some swipes from reviewers or blog readers for devoting so little space to Africa.
The problem is, that flack usually comes from people who have never tried to travel overland on a budget. Every time I interview someone who has spent weeks or months backpacking in Africa, they inevitably say some version of these two sentences. “Unless you sleep and eat like a local, you’re going to spend far more than you expected” and “for such poor countries, prices for travelers are really high.”
These two similar statements derive from a whole litany of reasons related to economics, infrastructure, and history. It doesn’t help that three of the last four years the $5 million Mo Ibrahim prize for good governance in Africa has gone to…nobody.
The one Africa traveler who hasn’t given me this usual negative litany is ultra-savvy budget traveler Andy Graham, better known as the Hobo Traveler. He’s been on the road non-stop for 14 years and has spent a fair chunk of that in Africa.
I caught up with him via Skype while he was hanging out in Lome, Togo, a faded bohemian French Colonial town on the Atlantic coast. He describes it as “like 1920s Paris, the cultural whorehouse of West Africa.”
We talked about the need to avoid the big tourist draws and agreed that you probably need a Western Europe sized budget if you’re going to the safari destinations of Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, or Namibia. Here’s my quote from him on the most popular destination though: “I have no desire to go to South Africa, partly because it’s got three times the cost of living of any other country on the continent and partly because it has the highest rate of crime and AIDS. Yet that’s where all the travelers go at some point.”
That still leaves 40-some countries out there though. Here are his opinionated tips for traveling the continent on a budget.
Know your mission and stick to the mission.
“The media has pummeled Africa with this perception that it is such a poor mess. So most of the white people here are missionaries, state-sponsored aid workers, or are working for non-governmental agencies. There aren’t a whole lot of real travelers. Most people seem to travel so they can have good memories they can explain to their friends. I tell people I’m going to Africa they say, Who are you trying to save?’
So the first question is, why are you coming? The average traveler hates Africa. He or she has a list of things to see and do. Most of Africa is not for that, it’s a place for a cultural trip, for learning about people, languages, customs. There are very few animals in Western Africa because they ate them all or poached them. The British saved them in Kenya and elsewhere for hunting preserves. Only a few spots have a lot of them. On most of the continent it’s about connecting with people—black people of course—-which is not why most people travel. ”
Don’t come for the same reasons you went to Peru or Egypt
“Don’t come to Africa to find things to brag about with your friends back home. If you’re looking to do that the whole time, your options are limited and you’ll spend a load of money no matter how frugally you try to do it.
Know what you’re here for and don’t come to be entertained—unless you’re a sex tourist. And don’t come to Africa just to hang out with other white people. Sitting around drinking with white people is quite expensive in Africa. A flashpacker coming to Africa is going to get killed money-wise. To sit around in a huddle drinking beer and going online to post photos on Facebook is going to cost you a fortune.
Negotiate Hard for Everything
“Africa has a reputation for trying to rip off foreigners, especially West Africa. I had a much harder time before I learned to speak French. In Ghana and parts of East Africa they speak English and don’t’ make everything such a hassle, so it’s easier.
Whether we admit it or not, we white travelers have these preconceived notion of black people. We expect people to act a certain way and look for ways to support that expectation. But they’re mostly Just normal people trying to make a living. On one hand it’s so safe here in Tome you practically have to leave money on the table overnight to get physically robbed. But they’ll try to rob you blind in every transaction all day long because they’re used to white people being idiots. All these NGO and project workers have practically unlimited budgets. Lots of them will stay in the best hotels, drink beer every night, and go out to the best restaurants. So business owners become accustomed to charging ever white person five times as much as a local because they truly think we’re all rich and stupid with our money.
You have to keep money in perspective and prove you’re not an idiot. A guy tried to charge me $8 today for wire ties at a store. I told him ‘You’re crazy. You’re probably living on $2 a day, right?’
‘No,” he tells me, ‘Just $1 a day.’
Much of Africa earning that $1 to $2 a day. Treat $20 like it’s nothing and people will keep charging you accordingly.
It’s hard for us to look at a black person and say, ‘You’re f%cking ripping me off!’ We’re so conditioned to think that’s racist. We think we’re supposed to treat them with extra respect because their life sucks. But their life doesn’t suck. You’re not “dissing” them to argue or criticize. You have to argue constantly. It’s normal. If you don’t they think you’re another rich idiot working for Oxfam just to fill out the resume.
There’s no political correctness here. In the market people will yell, ‘Hey white guy! Hey fatso! Sexy blondie!’ Learn to talk like they do to get things done.”
Spend the time to get a good hotel deal.
“Anyone charging you $30 a night for a basic hotel room in most of Africa is ripping you off. The tourism industry here is probably the worst on the planet: they try to gouge every white person, assuming they’re all idiots. Many of them are idiots. Outside of big cities and resort areas, paying more than $10 or $15 a night for a basic hotel is absolutely getting ripped off. In
Arrive before noon to have time to find a hotel. Walk in and tell them how much you want to pay. You say $5, they say $30, eventually to your real budget. But you have to have a real budget and stick to it. Be willing to walk out and keep looking.
When I walk into a hotel, they always take me to the best room in the hotel. They can’t believe I don’t want that room, they’re aghast. They slowly work their way down until I’m leaving and they finally show me the $5 room. You have to assume anyone who takes you anywhere is taking you to the most expensive option. Continually refuse and stay on budget, on mission. A basic room with a bulb and bath starts at $5, a table adds a dollar, hot water adds a dollar, and each other thing keeps adding up. But I can go to the best hotel in town and use the pool for a dollar, so why do I need the hotel with a pool? You can rent a room here for a whole month for $50 if you work on it.
You also have to get over the stigma of the ‘chamber de passage.’ Probably 90% of the hotels in Africa are love hotels. There are just not enough traveling salesmen or domestic tourists to support many cheap hotels. So hotel customers are mostly NGO workers at the high end and locals getting some privacy on the low end. Every hotel I go into I assume someone’s going to bring in a girl and go at it next door. But at least there’s always a maid around. They’re private, comfortable, and cheap.
Also understand that nothing is ever cleaned like an American would clean it. It’s cleaner than India maybe, but not to the standards of say, Thailand or Vietnam. I’ll get the $8 or $10 room and pay the maid a few bucks to truly clean the bathroom. She’s thrilled and I get a room that’s up to the cleanliness level of one you’d get in Southeast Asia. Otherwise that would be $40 here. But we’re so used to convenience. ‘Why should I have to clean the sink? Or fix the toilet myself?’ Because you’re in a $5 room, that’s why. If you want convenience, get a $50 room.
One important point: traveling with someone else is far cheaper. The room price is the room price-one person pays the same as two. ”
Your guidebook is probably useless.
You won’t find most love hotels listed in your guidebook because the majority of Africa guidebook writers are current or former aid workers. Most of the hotels they recommend have parking because the writers are driving everywhere in a car. The cheaper love hotels people walk to. The outside space is just a shady tree people can sit under and drink a beer. ‘No parking’ means it’s for Africans and will be cheap.
The LP and Rough Guides are both terrible. Many of the writers are completely clueless and have grilled me for hours to get the most basic information. They’re written for people driving a car and staying at hotels that can be reached by car.
Whatever you do don’t rely on TripAdvisor. That’s even worse.
Avoid the Clingons
“When you get off a plane or bus there will be a boy or young man following you around and speaking your language. Often you can spot them before you even get off because they’re the only people in Africa with dreadlocks. They’re aggressive touts pure and simple and I promise you none are ever there to do you a favor. If you’re a woman they’re probably looking for a sugar mama and if you’re a man they’re trying to soak you for whatever they can to be your ‘helper.’ ?
Planning is a waste of time in Africa.
“The more you plan, the more you’re going to screw up. Everything is going to go wrong. It’s much better to just wing it as you go. In any city under 150,000 people I take a taxi tour of the city and say ‘Show me the $10 hotels.’ He’ll take me to the most expensive places first of course no matter what I say. Finally he gets frustrated and takes me to the cheap ones. I’m going to have to invest an hour or two of work to save $10, but I’m going to stay there a week so that’s $70 for two hours of work.
Don’t travel more than 4 hours a day, do it in the morning so you arrive before noon. It’s tiresome and you can run into all sorts of problems. If things go wrong, you’ve got a cushion. An 8-hour trip can easily become 12. The torture of travel often comes from trying to do too much.
Start out in a cheap country like Ghana or Malawi to get your bearings and get over the culture shock. Then you’ll be ready to take on the tougher places.”
Don’t be a bum.
“Being a bum is accepting less than what you deserve in life. Stand your ground and be a king instead. Refuse to get in a vehicle that already has 25 people in it. Just wait for the next one. Someone will say, ‘There are no more cars today.’
‘Bullshit. You’re lying,’ I’ll reply.
Every single time a new empty car or bus shows up soon after.
If you’re not trying to race across vast distances in a hurry, you’ve got more leverage to wait, to negotiate. If you’re willing to walk out of the hotel because they won’t budge, you’ll get a room you like for the right price. Being in a hurry will cost you.
In Ethiopia you have to take a truck overland for more than a day to head out of this one spot. A guy wanted me to ride on the canvas roof of a cattle truck for 27 hours, with cattle horns below me. ‘I’d rather live in this city for the rest of my life than ride on top of that truck for 27 hours,’ I said. I waited around and got on a grain truck where we could sleep on top of the grain sacks. Backpackers go to Africa thinking they have to be a bum. I have back problems so I’ll pay someone a dollar to carry my bag. I require a nice room for $10. What I expect is what I get.”
Get out of the big cities.
“NGO and Peace Corp workers love big cities with their big offices, so there are lots of cafes and bars for white expatriates. That makes many people feel comfortable. But prices for everything are three times more than they’ll be once you get 50 miles out of town. So don’t come all this way just to hang out in Accra, Nairobi, or Dakar.
Budgets don’t get killed by one thing. They get killed by a lot of little things. And every little thing is more in the big cities.
If your mission is to hang around a city and socialize online with your friends back home, why leave home?”
Don’t eat every meal at restaurants.
“African food is generally kind of bland, meant to be filling and fattening. There are far more fat people here than you would expect. It’s hard to get vegetables when you eat out, so I always cook vegetables in the room from a market or store and buy fruit to eat. I used to use a hot plate. You can buy one for $5 a lot of times. But hotel owners don’t like you to use them. So now I use a cheap homemade alcohol cooker.
When looking for a restaurant, don’t eat where white people are. Then study the menu and figure out what you can eat on a budget. Or just tell them what you want and agree on a price. They’ll usually make it for you if they have the ingredients. ”
To see what Andy is up to right now, see the Hobo Traveler blog.
If I did include a country in the next edition, it would probably be Ghana or Malawi. This BootsnAll article on traveling in Malawi for $25 a day is encouraging, though it does say you need to sleep in dorm beds and eat what the locals eat. Fortunately eating what the local eat here does not mean bland gruel for three meals a day.