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Travel tips and advice for Uganda

Here are some very useful travel tips and advice for Uganda East Africa on culture and customs, what to pack for trips, food, flight booking, malaria safety, airports, language and much more!

What exactly is Ugandan culture?

One definition is that culture is “the way we do things around here”. You might find that African culture is an entirely different way of thinking and living, so there is a lot to consider while you are on a trip to Uganda, and East Africa as a whole. Do not have in mind that your culture is superior or applicable. When in Africa, you must adjust, attempt to be at home in the culture and not think you will change it in the few days or weeks you are there. It is very important to respect local traditions and remember that you are a visitor in a foreign country.

Food: You might need time to adjust to new and different types of food, but don’t be hesitant to try it – the nationals eat it and enjoy it! Watch your facial expressions when presented with some food that you might consider “unusual.” Fresh tropical fruits and vegetables are plentiful throughout the country. A wide range of dishes, both traditional and international, are served in the hotels and restaurants. We will make sure that you have a variety of good food while on your visit with Msafiri Tours.

Animals: In Africa, people treat animals differently. Sometimes it is lack of knowledge or the ability to care for them as you do in the west. Don’t play with dogs –  they are mostly scavenging house guards and not playful pets. If you feel bad about how skinny or sickly the animals look, do not express it.

The culture varies in many ways, including but not limited to: sleep, hygiene, heat, noise, street traffic, husband and wife roles, length of worship service, materialism, prejudice, customer service and social parties. Leave all stereotypes at home. They have no place in Africa. When you arrive in the host country, there is a good chance you will be viewed and treated in a different way because you are European.

As a guest, remember your responsibilities: Think of yourself as a person who is there to study and learn. How does a student in school get a good mark? What behaviors contribute to their success?

Do not make disparaging remarks about food, lodging or customs. Remember that facial expressions as well as other body language speak louder than our words at times. A truly considerate person will be sensitive to the feelings of others at all times. That means you should also be very sensitive to the feelings of those in your group.

There will be times when you are uncomfortable, hot and tired. Remember that everyone else is experiencing the same. If you are used to being pampered or are a notorious complainer, try having an attitude of praise and helpfulness toward others instead. You are experiencing these conditions for a short period of time, but your national friends are there for a lifetime!

You may be called “big” (fat). Do not get offended; this is considered a compliment in a country where most people do not get enough to eat. On the contrary, it’s very offensive to say to someone, “Oh, you are really thin.”

Try never to express anger toward the local people, even if they express it towards you. A good thing to do if someone gets mad at you or asks you for money is to laugh! If you start laughing, more likely they will start laughing too.

Some of the people you meet will enjoy seeing pictures of your family and hometown. Be sure to take a few snapshots and postcards to show them. (Be sensitive of your audience’s feelings; your relative affluence may offend some people).

Be aware of your surroundings: Remember that you’re a visitor from one of the world’s wealthiest countries traveling in one of the poorest places on earth.

Travel as lightly and as modestly as possible, without flashy expensive jewelery, gadgets and lots of luggage and bags. Carry only small bags that can be stowed on your lap.

Airports: You will arrive by air, landing at Entebbe International Airport,  Nairobi if you are visiting Kenya, and at Kigali Airport in Rwanda. We shall pick you up from the airport on arrival and drop you back at the end of your visit. We operate comfortable fully insured buses and 4×4 vans which you will use throughout your time with Msafiri Tours.

Accommodation: A number clean and comfortable hotels are available to suit every budget.

Elsewhere across the country and in the National Parks, hotels and inns are generally available, but quality of service and quantity of rooms vary greatly. We take the utmost care in booking decent hostels/hotels and lodges for our guests. If you require pre- or post- visit accommodation, please contact us to discuss your requirements.

Airlines: Various services go to Uganda, Kenya  and Rwanda regularly. They include: Air Tanzania, British Airways, Egypt Air, Ethiopian Airlines, Gulf Air, Inter Air, Kenya Airways, Brussels Airlines, South African Airways, KLM and more. There are daily connections from Nairobi. There are also several reputable domestic charter companies to choose from.

Flights: Check in early! Get the seats you want by checking in at the earliest time given by the airline. Remember that you can sometimes check in online or at train stations which serve major airports. If you’re meeting a friend at check-in, go ahead and check yourself in, then reserve a seat for your travel partner to make sure you can sit next to each other.

Hand Luggage: Keep any medication and important papers in your carry-on bag. On long flights with multiple layovers (especially if flying via London, L.A. or other major airports), packing a fresh change of clothes is a good idea as bags may get delayed or lost on long haul, multiple stop flights. You don’t want to end up without essentials even if it is just for a few days.

Packing for the flight: Utilise as many different pockets and bags as possible when packing bank cards, cash, travelers’ cheques and credit cards to ensure you always have access to funds. As well as tying luggage tags to the exterior of your bags, insert identifying information inside.

Drinking Water: We recommend that you do not drink tap water. Most hotels and restaurants provide previously boiled drinking water. Mineral water is also widely available.

Banking: Several international banks operate in Kampala including Barclays bank, Standard Chartered bank and Stanbic bank. Many local banks and foreign exchange bureaus also operate across the country. Generally the banking hours are 8.30a.m to 4.00p.m – Monday to Friday, though some institutions are open longer hours and on Saturdays.

There are no longer restrictions on foreign exchange transactions and currency is easy to change. You can change dollars or pounds into local shillings very easily. We advise English visitors to take sterling, as you will get better value on exchanges. Travelers’ cheques are also acceptable but can sometimes take a lot of time to get exchanged.

Clothing: Light summer clothing supplemented by a sweater or jacket should be sufficient. Usually dressing is informal. Cotton slacks and flat-heeled comfortable walking shoes are recommended on safari. Don’t forget to bring a hat for sun protection and a swimsuit. Umbrellas and windbreakers are recommended in the wet seasons. Refer to your booking pack for further information on what to wear.

Credit Cards: AMEX, Visa and MasterCard are only accepted at a few choice establishments and in banks in the cities. You can now use your visa card to draw money from your account in Europe or America. However, we advise that you take cash to be on the safe side.

Currency: The Shilling is the currency used in Uganda and Kenya but some people will take dollars and pounds in cash. The exchange rates vary from time to time but are readily available from banks and Forex bureaus.

Foods: Fresh tropical fruits and vegetables are plentiful throughout the country. A wide range of dishes, both traditional and international, are served in the hotels and restaurants. We make sure you experience a variety of good food while on your visit with Msafiri Tours.

Street Vendors: When buying from a street vendor or marketplace, exercise greater scrutiny. If a vendor’s booth is crowded, recommended by locals, has a means of refrigeration, and is open, meaning you can see how clean it is, then it is probably safe to eat there. In some cases, street vendors have achieved the vaulted status of preparing the best-grilled meats, samosas, roasted corn, or nuts in town.

Safaris: On safari, your meals will be included in your package. Advise us about what you will and will not eat, if you’re a vegetarian or have food allergies. The main complaint on most safaris is that the food is so good travelers end up gaining weight. Don’t just stick to the Western-style food served in reputable hotels. Know your region’s specialty so you can sample it while there. Uganda and Kenya offer German, Indian, and Chinese foods as well as great meals made from fresh local ingredients.

Health Requirements: Certificates are required for vaccination against yellow fever. Check current medical advice on typhoid, cholera and hepatitis. It is advisable to start anti-malaria medications 10 days prior to arrival and continue with the same until 14 days after leaving East Africa. Our guests are also encouraged to make their own insurance arrangements for the time they will be in Africa. You should consult your local doctor for advice on medication.

Be smart about malaria: This is your biggest health risk in Africa, especially south of the Sahara. Rely only on advice from travel health specialists.

Visit the dentist before you go: Who needs a lion-size toothache halfway along the safari path?

Protect yourself from insects: Malaria, dengue fever, and yellow fever are transmitted by bug bites. Cover up with clothes, use insect repellent, and sleep under a mosquito net.

Think before you take a dip: Schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia) is a parasitic-carried disease that you can catch by swimming, bathing, or paddling in fresh water lakes in East Africa.

Respect the heat: Take time to acclimatize, drink plenty of bottled water, and take it easy in the heat of the day.

Bring sturdy footwear: Sore feet can ruin a trip, and blisters, chafing and other injuries are common causes of major foot infections.

Be prepared: A well-stocked, sterile medical kit, including painkillers, blister ointment, and adhesive tape is vital. If you’re on an adventure trip, such as river rafting on the River Nile, consider getting basic first aid training first.

Language: The official language is English though Swahili and Luganda are commonly spoken throughout in Uganda. Teach yourself some basic Luganda and Swahili words which can be found on our website.

Tipping: Our general recommendation is to tip moderately – in accordance with the level and quality of service provided. The traditional gratuity to safari guides or camp staff is not included in the price of your tour but is completely discretionary. Beware of unscrupulous people who try to exhort extra payment from unwary passengers just for shuffling their bags around.

Photography: We advise that you always ask before you take anyone’s picture. For some, it is against their religion to be photographed.

Research your destination’s cultural history, environment, and geography before you go: you can never know enough. The better you understand a subject, the better you’ll be able to capture it in a meaningful way on film.

Interact with the locals. By gaining their trust, you will be much more likely to capture the photograph you desire. You can also pick up valuable insights on cultural practices.

Bring a camcorder. You can bring your own own video cameras to make a lasting record of your trip or safari experience in Africa. These days you can get very advanced but practical video cameras. Video cameras make a great and exciting way to record your memories of Africa and all your travels.

Choose hotels wisely. If you travel on your own and not with  Msafiri Tours, stay as close as you can to the historical centre, major monuments, or markets. The more you can walk, the greater the chance of getting good pictures.

Security: Precautions should be taken as in any major city. Unless safety deposit boxes are available in your hotel or lodge, always carry travel documents, travelers’ cheques, cash and other valuables with you at all times. We recommend that you do not walk late at night but instead take a taxi if you have to.

Be aware of your surroundings: Remember that you’re a visitor from one of the world’s wealthiest countries traveling in one of the poorest places on earth, Travel as lightly and as modestly as possible, without flashy expensive jewelry, gadgets and lots of luggage and bags.

Don’t dangle camera bags or purses on the back of a restaurant chair: You’ll invite snatching. Carry only small bags that can be stored on your lap during dinner or tucked away in your front pockets.

Use a waistband pouch/bumbag. In pouches, you can safely stash money, credit cards, a passport, and airline tickets close to your body, where it’s less likely to be snatched. If you lose everything else, you can still eat, get home, and fly without difficulty.

Watch your belongings. Most thieves can snatch in seconds. Store equipment on your lap or in a bag with the strap wrapped around your wrist or ankle. Count your bags as they are loaded onto airport vans.

Avoid political gatherings or protests. Be smart – even if you’re curious, stay away. Both can turn violent quickly.

Don’t walk around at night with your hands full. Heavy bags slow you down and make you unable to react quickly. Check with our staff or a trusted local on the safest way to travel at night.

Avoid drugs, alcohol, and unprotected sex: Drugs and alcohol hinder your judgment. What’s more, unprotected sex – always a serious risk – is a game of Russian roulette in a continent where the AIDS epidemic is at its worst.

Don’t hitchhike. Contrary to advice in some backpacker guidebooks, hitchhiking in any African country is a dangerous risk. Only rely on transport recommended or provided by your tour operator or hotel

We hope that our Uganda travel tips and advice are helpful.