For American travelers, one of the biggest expenses of any trip to Africa, whether a South African safari or a beach holiday in the Seychelles, is simply getting there. During high season, most flights cost $2,000 or more round-trip -- in coach -- and require stopping or changing planes. And while a few airlines, such as Delta and South African Airways, have been adding more convenient routes, fares have continued to rise.
"They've typically been going up a little more every year," said Jason Hedrick, branch manager at Azumano Travel, an American Express agency in Portland, Ore. "I have clients who have gone, three years ago, with me to East Africa on a $1,200 or $1,300 fare. Now the least-expensive price from the West Coast that I've seen this year is $1,700 or $1,800, and as much as $2,200 or $2,300 during high season."
The average fare in January from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa, was up 32 percent to $1,654 compared with the same month last year, according to Sabre Airline Solutions. From Washington to Johannesburg the average price was $1,879, up 9 percent from January 2006. Overall, the average cost for flights to Africa from the United States in January was up 18 percent.
That means that if you're planning an African vacation this year, you may have to be resourceful to find plane tickets that seem affordable. For starters, tally up your frequent flier miles and find out which airlines fly to the region you plan to visit. Then figure out which of them have partnerships with award programs where you have miles. Kenya Airways, for example, will join the SkyTeam alliance this year -- the airline network that includes Continental, Delta and Northwest.
"Just because American doesn't fly to Africa, doesn't mean you can't get there using their miles," said Linda Friedman, executive director of Custom Safaris in Bethesda, Md.
British Airways, a OneWorld alliance member that has code-share agreements with American Airlines, flies from New York to London, for example, and from London to 11 cities in Africa.
Friedman recently helped one of her clients design a trip using United miles for round-trip business-class tickets on Lufthansa from Chicago to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and then separately purchase tickets for flights within Africa. The client flew to Kigali, Rwanda, for a mountain gorilla tour and then, thanks in part to the savings on the business-class tickets, which would have cost more than $10,000, she said, spent three nights in Ethiopia seeing the historic cities of Gondar and Lalibela.
If you don't have a stockpile of frequent flier miles to burn, consider traveling to Africa in the Northern Hemisphere winter, when flights from the United States to Europe tend to be cheaper than in the busy June-to-August vacation period. "Since most aircraft going to Africa tend to fly via Europe, our winter months are usually a good bargain," said Nina Wennersten, co-owner of Hippo Creek Safaris in Woodcliff Lake, N.J.
While many travelers pay a premium to see millions of wildebeest migrate west and north toward the Masai Mara in July and August, tour operators such as Wennersten recommend trips from January to March to catch the herds in the southern Serengeti plains, where they congregate at the Ndutu and Salei plains to give birth.
When searching for a deal to Africa, Astrid Breuer, a leisure specialist at Michaels Travel Centre in Agoura Hills, Calif., prices two separate tickets, between the United States and Europe and Europe and Africa. This, she said, lets her find the least-expensive overall fare for both parts of the trip. Often the cheaper flight requires a less-direct route and a stopover, but that doesn't have to mean longer total travel time.
For example, a September trip from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Air France, leaving about 6 p.m. and arriving in the Seychelles about 7:15 a.m. after a 12-hour layover in Paris, was priced at $2,822 earlier this month. By flying the same dates, but on different airlines, Breuer was able to cut the cost of the trip to $1,502. The cheaper alternative was to take Air India from Newark, N.J., at about 9 p.m., change in Paris to Qatar Airways and, after a brief layover in Doha, Qatar, arrive in the Seychelles at 6:45 a.m., for a total trip 3 1 / 2 hours shorter than the one on Air France.
By dealing with multiple airlines on separate tickets, you run a greater risk of missing connecting flights if there are any delays -- and don't expect the second airline to take responsibility if you do. But sometimes the savings outweigh the risk. "It's one extra stop," Breuer said of the cheaper flight, "but if you don't have a lot of money, it's worth doing."