November 29 marks the official start of the dry season in Liberia. Monrovia, like other major West African cities, see a spike in visits from citizens living abroad, and tourists during the dry season, which in Liberia, lasts 6 months in a year, with the other 6 being the rainy season. To accommodate the new guests and enjoy the warmer months, DJs, promoters, and event planners saturate the months of November – February with events, parties, beach getaways, shows, etc. It has been that way in the region for many years now and have even coined a term in Liberia for the new and returning visitors called the “Decembrees”. With such hike in visitors, one would assume that flying to the region would be relatively affordable; however, it proves to be quite the opposite, growing in prices over the years rather than declining. This reality has led us to question what the real cost of traveling to Africa are.
When traveling to West Africa, one first has to consider the cost of airfare. A typical economy flight from JFK International Airport to Accra, Lagos, and Dakar costs between US$1,000-1,300 — to Monrovia, it costs between US$1,000-2,000, depending on the preferred airline. Flights to the region are typically 13 hours long, which compared to costs of airfares from the US to European and Asian countries with similar flight times, puts Africa at a discouraging disadvantage for travelers on a tight budget who can get to Europe for as little as US$400. More international airlines frequent Accra, Lagos, and Dakar compared to Monrovia, which only receives Brussels Airline, Air Maroc, and KLM. Of those three, KLM has halted all flights to the country beginning March 2019, leaving the options to two.
Apart from the high cost of airfare, travelers to Africa also have to deal with things they would not, say, on a flight to Europe. For example, if traveling to Monrovia through Brussels Airline, travelers have to make a stop from their destination of origin at the Brussels International Airport, before departing on the flight to Monrovia. What is peculiar about this flight, is that the designated terminal for those flights sits at the T gates in the basement of the Brussels International Airport, away from all other gates, restaurants, vending machines, and civilization. It has remained this way since my first memorable flight with the airline back in 2009, until 2017 when I stopped taking them for this same reason after KLM announced flights to Monrovia.
Besides being confined to a basement after paying nearly US$2,000 for a flight, another thing Brussels, and other international airlines do when flying out of Africa is discomfort travelers with a “disinfectant” substance sprayed throughout the cabin. This spray is not used on any flights leaving Brussels or the US, but rather when leaving Monrovia, Freetown, Accra, etc. Despite vocal protests from travelers each time the spray is used, airlines continue to use them and explain to passengers that the spray is a “harmless disinfectant”. Likewise, some airlines like the US-based Delta Airlines, has been accused of sending old or faulty planes to Africa, with Nigerians reportedly rejecting the airline for this reason back in 2015, according to SaharaReporters.com. Ghana, on the other end, enjoys direct flights from Accra to JFK ranging from US$900-1,300 with Delta Airlines.
Inter-Regional Travel and Accommodations
After spending almost US$2,000 to arrive by air on the continent from America, Europe, Australia or Asia, one would hope that some inter-regional travel would be possible – at least to compensate for the money spent, right? Wrong. At least not unless you have another US$1,000 + to spend. Even though flight time is only about 2 hours or less, a two-way flight between Monrovia and Accra, Freetown, Abidjan, or Lagos can cost up to $800, and from Lagos to Dakar up to $1,000, depending on the airline, and how soon the ticket is bought. meanwhile, a flight to Amsterdam from Lagos can cost up to $500. Hotels in the region costs an average of $150 per night if you want to be both comfortable and centrally located, with guesthouses, or temporary rentals not much of a bargain. Accommodations is cheapest when staying with friends, or relatives in the area, as even camping sometimes isn’t the most economic choice.
One would think to get on four wheels and road-trip through the region to avoid airline costs, but you might want to think again. While it can be a more frugal alternative, especially when spilt among groups, road tripping in the West African region can be quite expensive, or uncomfortable, to say the least. The roads connecting the various countries are not fully paved or developed, so a 4×4 truck or public transportation is best to use, even in dry season. Unfortunately, public transportation can be really uncomfortable and hectic if you are not up for an adventure, and rental of these 4×4 trucks typically starts at US$100 per day. Along with that, if you are not an ECOWAS passport holder, you have to consider the very high visa fees for entry into each West African country, each of which has its own fees that can reach up to US$150 per visa.
While in the West African region, with accommodation paid for, the cost of living decreases drastically. Things are relatively affordable in the region, especially if you decide to live like locals do. That means eating where they eat, partying where they party, and shopping with them guiding you. A meal at local joints in Monrovia can cost up to LD300, which is a little over US$2, compared to US$20 + at a restaurant or hotel. Also, while shopping or spending locally, it is important to use the local currency, so as to discourage over-spending or being duped.
Along with that, foreigners are usually advised to get vaccinated before their trip to West Africa. While vaccines and other health precautions are important, it is also important to research the specific shots needed for each country. The costs of these shots, especially that of Yellow Fever, can be quite costly in the U.S, so it can be advised to hold off until reaching the African country, at which point all the vaccines can be done at a local clinic for about US$50. You are typically fine as per vaccinations during the dry season, however, it is important to protect your body especially if you are new to the continent and unfamiliar with the climate and foods.
Planning a trip to West Africa
If you can afford or plan for the hefty price tag, a trip to West Africa can be quite enjoyable, especially in the drier months; which coincidentally, are the winter months in the West. To avoid the higher ends of these price tags, it is important to begin planning for your trip early, and work with a travel agent if possible. If you can, research in advance the country you are visiting, and options to possibly add another to that trip, either by road or air. Connect with someone who lives there through social media if possible, for more insight on the location, and cheap accommodation options you wouldn’t find on the internet.
Besides the surplus parties, shows, and events, the West African region offers a range of unforgettable experiences. For starters, the beautiful beaches lined with coconut tree forests and late-night bonfires which can cover miles of ocean front. Along with that, there are luxury resorts which are great and cheap for day visits, especially on weekends, and the fun street festivals. Likewise, there are educational tours to enjoy. From the historical museums and sites highlighting each nation’s culture and their connection to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, to educational tours featuring national parks, endangered wildlife sanctuaries, and exotic wildlife sites. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, or just conscious about the planet, there are surplus exotic organic fruits and vegetables to choose from, and eco-friendly resorts, activities, and living areas.
Over the years, the West African region has taken some major steps to improving tourism to their respective nations, however, the time has now come to consider what the entire region can contribute in presenting itself as a package deal. As we have seen and learned, travel to Africa can be quite expensive, however, travel within Africa does not have to be. The entire region needs to come together to formulate a plan that can fast-track road development along the borders, and cheaper visa and air travel fees to boost travel within the region. These measures, we believe, can put the region on track to building better leverage in negotiating more favorable travel deals with international airlines that will put the continent on par for travelers comparing flights to Europe, Asia, and other locations.
While there are many underlying factors and causes, possible racism from major airlines being one of them, the truth remains that; traveling to, and within West Africa is very expensive, and there are steps the leaders can, and should take to change it and boost tourism to the region.