Madagascar. It’s more than an incorrect (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 20 million but sees only about 325,000 tourists a year.1 I spent two weeks there with Intrepid Travel Travel and was surprised by how few tourists there were (I figured — with no data to back it up — that there would be a lot more), as well as by just how difficult the country was to travel around. The roads are really, really bad. It can take up to eight hours to go 250 km (155 miles) — and that’s on the good roads!
But soon it became clear why there were so few tourists: 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, moving around the country in a little bubble. Nary a backpacker did I see on my trip.
Madagascar is a raw, barely explored place. It’s on few people’s radar, and I doubt it will be for awhile, making now an ideal time to go. It’s cheap (once you get there), your tourist dollars can create a really positive impact, and there are few crowds and many cute lemurs and majestic landscapes, which you get virtually to yourself!
How to get there
The first thing you need to know is that getting to Madagascar is not easy: there’s only one daily flight from Johannesburg, Air France has one daily from Paris, and only Turkish, Kenyan, and Ethiopian Airlines have flights that connect to other destinations.
I jumped on a flight deal to Johannesburg ($630 USD for New York to Johannesburg and then onward to Vienna) but that was a stupid thing to do. Given the price of flights from JNB to Madagascar (I paid $800 USD round-trip), it ended costing me more than just booking a direct ticket to Madagascar.
I was pretty stupid not looking up flights enough beforehand and waiting until the last minute, but even “booking smart” doesn’t mean you’ll find a deal. Here’s a chart for December and January (these are a little cheaper since they are not last-minute and it’s low season):
You’re looking at spending at least $500 USD round-trip on a flight from Johannesburg. From Paris, Air France offers direct round-trip flights for around $800 USD. If you are going from the US, you pay around $1,200 USD for a round-trip ticket. Keep in mind those are low season (October-April) flights. During the high season (also the dry season), you’re looking at flights closer to $2,000 USD for the US and $1,200 USD from Europe. From Canada? Prices start around $1,200 CAD in the low season.
However, it’s not all bad news. There are a few travel hacking opportunities. With some planning, you can find a reward flight. You only need 30,000 miles each way from Europe, and Air France has a decent availability (but if you miss the 30,000-point option, you’ll be looking at 60-90,000 points each way). United has very sporadic reward flights on partners starting at 40,000 miles each way, but, sadly, no flights from Johannesburg to Madagascar are bookable on points. Here’s what I mean:
So it takes some work to get there, but if you can string together some flight deals (check out Scott’s Cheap Flights, The Flight Deal, and Holiday Pirates) as well as mile opportunities, you can lower the cost to an affordable(ish) level.
How to get around Madagascar
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 of the tourists are an older, very heavily European crowd. I guess that most younger travelers stay away because getting to the country and tours are so expensive and there’s just not much information on Madagascar.
But let’s change that and talk about how to visit the country:
A 14-day tour will cost $2,500–4,000 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 Travel on its Experience Madagascar tour as part of my site’s 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 Travel sometimes tries to do too much; for example, the trip to Ile Sainte Marie adds way to much time on the bus. While I liked everything we did, I wish there had been more time visiting each place and less time driving.
Going on your own
Madagascar is a difficult place to do solo. There’s little tourist infrastructure or hostels (which makes sense given how inexpensive hotels and guesthouses are here), information is limited, and public buses don’t go to many cities and national parks. You’ll need to know French, too, as English is barely spoken. In my opinion, this makes it really arduous to get around without any assistance.
But could you travel around on your own? Sure — though very few people do, it’s totally possible to visit solo. 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). I have too much anxiety to whip around on narrow roads.)
Renting a car and driver costs $50 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 of the companies I looked at required that a driver go with you.
You can also fly around the island, but there’s only one airline (Air Madagascar), and most routes cost around 200 euros per leg.
Going with the flow is key here if you want to travel solo. You either have to pick a small area to cover or have a month or more set aside to explore Madagascar thoroughly.
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 and are up for a real challenge, go solo but give yourself plenty of time to do so — and learn French! (I really can’t stress the need for knowing 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. Additionally, I don’t speak French and didn’t have 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?
When I was wandering around, I never once felt unsafe. I was more of a curiosity than anything ,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?
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 there are 3,000 ARY to the dollar, that meant I had paid just three cents. 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 $4 USD. 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).
Even on the road, there are a lot of restaurants (again, knowing French is going to be key here, especially outside the capital Antananarivo). Hotels are $20-50 USD per night (on the cheaper range outside the capital). You can easily find accommodation on booking.com. There’s plenty of accommodation listed on that website.
Here are some typical prices:
- Meals at restaurants that cater to tourists – 10,000-25,000 ARY ($3-8 USD)
- Meals at regular, local restaurants – 3,000-6,000 ($1-2 USD)
- Street snacks – 10-200 ARY (up to 5 cents US) (Be sure to try the nem (spring rolls). They are incredible!)
- Accommodation – 65,000-160,000 ARY per night ($20-50 USD)
- Car with a driver – 160,000 ARY a day ($50 USD)
- Grocery prices – 10,000 ARY ($3 USD) (This would get you a kilo of rice, some zebu, and a variety of vegetables.)
- SIM Card – 3,100 ARY ($1 USD) for a SIM and 25,000 ARY ($8 USD) per gig of data.
- Park entrance fees – 55,000 Ariary ($17 USD) and guides start at 20,000 AR ($6 USD)
- Local mini buses – 10,000 – 20,000 ARY ($3-6 USD)
Madagascar was 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 Indiana Jones or 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, but given the difficulty getting there, it really can be a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
And I hope you make it in your lifetime!
Note: I went to Madagascar with Intrepid Travel as part of our ongoing partnership. They paid for the tour and my expenses during the trip. I paid for my flights to and from Madagascar. They offer exclusive discounts to readers so click the link and save on your next trip.
Note #2: As someone pointed out, there are a couple of hostels in the country. I don’t know why they didn’t appear on my earlier search but I’ve amended the article from “no hostels” to “a few hostels.” My apologies for the previous incorrect information.