How to Travel Around Madagascar

scenic view of Route Nationale 7 (RN7) in Madagascar, with Cardinal's hat, a huge granite mountain, in the background
Last updated: 12/15/23 | December 15th, 2023

Madagascar. It’s more than an inaccurate (but fun) DreamWorks movie.

Located off the eastern coast of Africa, this island, nearly the size of France and the third-largest in the world, has a population over 26 million but sees less than 300,000 tourists a year.

I spent two weeks here with Intrepid Travel and was surprised by how few tourists there were as well as by just how difficult the country was to travel around. (The roads are so bad it can take up to eight hours to go 250 kilometers (155 miles)!)

There’s many reasons why more people don’t visit: getting to the country is expensive, there’s very little information about it online, few organized activities, and only a couple hostels, tourism information centers, helpful signs, or anything that would be considered a “tourist infrastructure” (and sadly, very little infrastructure at all).

Madagascar’s tourism caters to older Europeans who visit expensive beach resorts or take organized tours and move around the country in a little bubble. Nary a backpacker did I see on my trip.

Moreover, it’s a country ravaged by poverty, corruption, and natural disaster. Travelers unwilling to get off the beaten path (which is most people) usually don’t end up here.

Yet Madagascar is a raw and beautiful destination that blew me away in so many ways. It’s cheap once you get there, and your tourist dollars can create a really positive impact. There are few crowds, and instead the country is filled with many cute lemurs and majestic landscapes, which you get virtually to yourself!
 

How to Get to Madagascar

A wide avenue with large baobab trees In Madagascar
The first thing you need to know is that getting to Madagascar is not easy. Direct flights are only available from a handful of major destinations (including Paris, Istanbul, and Johannesburg) as well as less-visited countries like Seychelles, Mauritius, Kenya, and Ethiopia.

Additionally, most of these destinations only offer a limited amount of flights per week.

When I went, I jumped on a flight deal to Johannesburg, thinking it’d be cheaper to hop over to Madagascar from there. That ended up being a stupid thing to do because, given the high price of flights from Johannesburg to Madagascar (I paid $800 USD round-trip), it ended costing me more than just booking a direct ticket from New York to Madagascar.

For a round-trip flight to Madagascar, you can generally expect to pay:

  • U.S. (East Coast): $1,450-$1,750 USD
  • Canada (East Coast): $1,100 USD-$1,400 USD
  • Western Europe: $900 USD-$1,350 USD
  • Johannesburg, South Africa: $500-700 USD

However, it’s not all bad news. If you’ve got points and miles to spend, with some planning, you can find a reward flight. Both Air France and United have decent award availability.

It takes some work to get there, but if you can string together some flight deals as well as mile opportunities, you can lower the cost to an affordable(ish) level. Here are some websites you can use to find cheap flight deals:

 

How to Get Around Madagascar

Matt standing next to a yellow bus on side of the road
Organized tours are the most common way to visit the country. One guide told me that about 80% of visitors come on organized tours and the other 20% hire a private driver to get around. (Most tourists are older and heavily European.)

I think that many younger travelers stay away because getting to the country or booking a tour is so expensive. Plus, there’s just not much free information available on Madagascar.

But let’s change that and talk about how to visit the country.

Organized Tours
A 14-day tour costs around $2,200–3,600 USD. You’ll stay in mid-range hotels (private bathrooms, hot water, breakfast, and maybe even a pool) and have your own bus with a driver and local guide. You’ll also get private guides at each park who will explain what you’re seeing, help spot animals, and give some added context on the destination.

Most of the tours follow the same route, hitting all the big parks and destinations in the center of the country, with added paid add-ons to other parts of the country.

I went with Intrepid Travel on their Experience Madagascar tour as part of my former partnership with them. Our guide Patrick was a phenomenal resource, answering all my questions, providing advice, and giving tips on what to see and do in this country that lacks a lot of resources to research.

If it were up to me, I would have focused the trip’s itinerary more. I think Intrepid sometimes tries to do too much. While I liked everything we did, I wish there had been more time visiting each place and less time driving (though if Madagascar had proper infrastructure that wouldn’t have been an issue).

Nomadic Matt in Madagascar

Independent Travel
Madagascar is a difficult place to visit solo. There’s little tourist infrastructure or hostels (which makes sense given how inexpensive hotels and guesthouses are here) and public buses don’t go to many cities and national parks. You’ll need to know French, too, as English is barely spoken (even though English is an official language).

In my opinion, this makes it rather arduous to get around without any assistance.

But could you travel around on your own? Sure! But I think you’d need to be an experienced traveler, really OK being pushed out of your comfort zone, and in absolutely no rush, because getting around on a budget will take time.

Since the roads are really bad, getting from point A to B is a challenge. In a public taxi brouse (small van packed to the gills with people), you’ll move slowly. Buses go when they are full. There’s no set timetable. Sometimes they show up; more often than not, they don’t.

However, seeing the condition of the buses and how many people they cram in there, plus the number of accidents on the road, I’m not sure I’d even get in one. I wouldn’t want to spend 24 hours packed like a chicken in a van with no air conditioning (and sometimes not even windows).

Renting a car and driver costs $75 USD a day (or slightly more if you want 4WD) and is the most popular option for people looking to go on their own (and not wanting to wait for the buses). While you could drive on your own, most rental companies require that a driver accompany you.

You can also fly around the island, but there’s only one airline (Air Madagascar), and most tickets cost at least $250-300 USD, so if you’re on a budget, flying just isn’t feasible. Plus, they cancel flights often without notice.

So, What Should You Do?
If you’re really looking for some rugged, old-school independent travel, Madagascar is the place to do it. If you have lots of time, are up for a real challenge, and know French then go solo! (I really can’t stress the need to know French. Outside the big towns and a few tourist areas, English is barely spoken.)

You’ll cover slightly more ground and have a lot more freedom if you rent a car and driver. There’s plenty of cheap guesthouses and restaurants around so you won’t need to look far and wide for a place to stay or a meal.

If you aren’t looking for that kind of rugged experience and would like something more organized, a tour is the best — and really only — option. I wanted a tour to help me get the lay of the land and answer all my questions about the country. I don’t speak French nor had a lot of time. A tour was a great orientation to a country that was an enigma to me. It was a wonderful way to meet people in a destination with few independent travelers.

(One thing to remember is that the clientele of the tours here is older and the tours cater to that in their itineraries, activities, and accommodation. The tours here aren’t designed for active backpackers.)

If I went back, I’d go by myself and explore with a car but I’m glad I went with a tour on my first visit.
 

Is Madagascar Safe?

Sprawling views over Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar
When I was wandering around, I never once felt unsafe. I was more of a curiosity than anything else since they see so few tourists, especially those not ensconced in a bus. There are a lot of beggars, especially kids, and you have to just keep saying no and walking away. The taxi drivers here take no for an answer and no one really bugs you.

That said, crime is rife throughout the country and not one local I knew recommended going out after dark. They don’t even do it. In fact, many hotels in the capital of Antananarivo hire escorts to take people from the hotel to bars or restaurants.

During the day and, especially in smaller villages, walking around is perfectly fine. At night, I would use a lot more caution, especially in the capital.
 

What are Prices Like in Madagascar?

A zebu cow at a market next to a wooden cart in Madagascar
Though getting to the country is expensive, once you are there everything is incredibly cheap. Your money goes a long, long way in Madagascar. I went to a local market and spent 100 ARY on a spring roll. After realizing that I had only spent a few cents (and as I was still hungry), I bought 15 more.

Even when you are eating at the hotel restaurants the tours go to, most meals aren’t more than the equivalent of a few US dollars. In regular, local restaurants, they are half that price.

Madagascar food is mostly chicken, zebu (a type of cattle), pork, stews, and rice. LOTS OF RICE. (Get the zebu in a stew. It’s better that way.) There’s also a lot of surprisingly good pizza in this country. You’ll definitely need to know French if you go into the non-international places (or travel outside of the cities).

Here are some typical prices:

  • Meals at restaurants that cater to tourists – 20,000-30,000 MGA
  • Meals at regular restaurants – 6,500-7,500 MGA
  • Street snacks – 10-200 MGA (Be sure to try nem (spring rolls). They are incredible!)
  • Accommodation – 65,000-200,000 MGA per night (you can easily find accommodation on Booking.com)
  • Car with a driver – 350,000 MGA a day
  • Grocery prices – 11,000-20,000 MGA (This would get you a kilo of rice, some zebu, and a variety of vegetables. Cooking your own food won’t really save you any money since restaurants here are so cheap.)
  • SIM Card – 3,000 MGA, or 30,000 MGA for a 30-day, 4.5 GB data package (get Orange as it has the best network overall)
  • Park entrance fees – 65,000-90,000 MGA plus 50,000-75,000 MGA for a guide
  • Local mini buses – 10,000-20,000 MGA

***

Madagascar is a beautiful, raw, and enchanting country. There’s no place like it on earth. Far off the tourist trail, this a destination where your inner Anthony Bourdain can be set free to explore. I’m so glad I went, and though the old traveler adage is “I can’t wait to go back,” I suspect that my visit to Madagascar will be the only one in my lifetime. I hope I’m wrong though.

Book Your Trip to Madagascar: Logistical Tips and Tricks

Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner to find a cheap flight. They search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.

Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:

Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.

Want More Information on Madagascar?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on Madagascar for even more planning tips!

 
Note: I went to Madagascar with Intrepid Travel as part of our partnership. They paid for the tour and my expenses during the trip. I paid for my flights to and from Madagascar.