Most people are surprised to learn that West Africa can actually be a very expensive region for travelers. If you’re not careful, accommodation and dining can take a huge chunk of your budget.
I have been traveling this region for several years and I have learned how to do it incredibly cheaply. Take the tips below to heart and your trip to West Africa will be an inexpensive one.
The Plane Ticket
Due to low flight volume and a limited number of carriers and routes, flights to West Africa can be exceptionally expensive, depending on where you are flying from. This is starting to change as there is signs of higher flight demand both from within West Africa and outside of it. Here are a few tips:
1. Try to book at least two months in advance. The limited number of flights means that they fill up faster. Try to avoid major holiday times and if possible, book a ticket for during the week as opposed to the weekend.
2. Break up your flight into several pieces. If you are in Europe or the Middle East, you may find that there are number of direct options. If you are elsewhere, consider buying one flight to Europe and then a separate flight to West Africa. Just make sure to get travel insurance in case one of your flights is delayed and you miss the second one.
3. Consider flying into a gateway city and then taking bus transport or a regional flight. Cities like Accra, Dakar, and Lagos have far more flight options than other cities. Flying into one of these cities and then taking additional transportation may actually be cheaper than flying directly to your destination.
After the plane ticket, accommodation can easily become the most expensive item in your West Africa travel budget. The good news is that they can be avoided. Search for budget alternatives to hotels, such as hostels, guesthouses, and short-term apartment rentals.
You can also find free accommodation in the form of couchsurfing (couchsurfing.org), volunteering, and WWOOF (staying and working on an organic farm).
If you do stay in a hotel, see if you can negotiate on the rates. I’ve been to many hotels in West Africa that were not anywhere close to full occupancy. If a hotel is not fully occupied there is usually some flexibility on the price.
Eating out in West Africa can be very expensive or incredibly cheap. Often times, established restaurants are far more expensive than other options. When I’m traveling in West Africa, I generally splurge on restaurants every now and then, typically to enjoy a bit of Western food, which I might be missing, but more often than not, I prepare my own meals and eat from street vendors.
When I say prepare my own meals, I’m talking about simple breakfasts and snacks – meals that don’t require a kitchen. For example, I will cut up some mango and banana and top it with some yogurt.
Street vendors often have delicious and inexpensive food, but it’s important to take caution with hygiene. To do this, always look for popular street vendors – those that have a queue likely have great food and chances are it’s also not making people sick. Also, observe the person who is making your meal and take note of how they are handling the food.
It’s not hard to see which vendors are hygienic and which are not. Typically, I spend $1-2 for full meals from street vendors.
Nightlife is actually very inexpensive in West Africa, as long as you avoid big clubs that have expensive drinks and cover charges. I stick to low-key music venues and bars and often find myself paying less than $2 for a big beer and no cover charge. Often times, you can enjoy live music as well for prices as little as $5-6.
This is definitely one of the cheaper areas of travel in West Africa, especially when you compare it to nightlife prices in the West, which tend to be exorbitant.
For long trips, I try to take reputable bus companies. This means paying $20 or so for trips of several hundred kilometers. There are more budget options, like minibuses, but I prefer official bus companies for their safety.
Within cities, taxis are cheap, even cheaper if you take a shared taxi which runs on a set route. I do take minibuses within cities and the fares are often a matter of cents.
Even if you are frequently on the move, transportation shouldn’t take up too much of your budget.
This is the one thing that West Africa is notorious for, and I will agree, there is not a lot of good news here. Visas for many West African countries are expensive and sometimes difficult to get. It’s best to apply at an embassy in your home country if possible. You can save some money by applying directly through the embassy and not using one of the so-called visa services.
Whether it’s for toiletries or souvenirs, most items are incredibly cheap in West Africa. Large markets offer competitive rates and you can bargain for just about everything. The one thing that is often more expensive here is electronics. Best to buy them at home as the import costs and low demand in West Africa lead to higher costs.
You should of course purchase travel insurance before coming to West Africa, but it’s good to know that healthcare costs are very low. Unless you are going to an expensive private clinic, you can expect to pay $10 or less for a doctor’s visit and a prescription.
Drugs from pharmacies are also exceptionally cheap, with most of them being available in generic form.
Have you traveled in West Africa? Have any budget travel tips or advice? Please share them in the comments below.