While travelling you can make organising services and purchases a lot easier by asking your hotel or restaurant about appropriate rates in the area before doing something. Hotels may suggest higher prices if they've established arrangements with taxi drivers or tour operators but restaurants are usually reliable. It's a lot more relaxing using local services when you are confident of what the regular rate is. You can avoid blindly agreeing or disagreeing and letting emotions creep into things.
You do not need a 4x4 every day. It's one of the largest expenses on your trip and you will find some car owners and tour organisers encouraging you to have their 4x4 with you for the duration of your journey. The downside to this is that you will need to organise more transport throughout your time, you may have longer walks to reach park circuits, and you will need to be comfortable with staying an extra day in a town if nothing transpires on time. Obviously, these issues may be a deal-breaker to some, particularly if your trip can stretch to a larger budget. For others, the large savings can outweigh the convenience providing you're travelling between locations where the car can complete a return trip on the same day and not incur an extra day of rent.
4x4s do not increase in price per passenger. They are a fixed rate per day, regardless of load, and anyone charging you extra per passenger is likely not being transparent on pricing.
If trying to hire a car online you will likely be quoted a rate far higher than standard. Similarly, hotels with excursion options will likely charge more than standard. Local rates are most likely to be obtained from referrals or recommendations and you'll need to do some asking around if you're not willing to pay a tourist rate. The extra convenience may be worth the higher cost for some.
If you'll be renting 4x4s, make a habit of looking at the advertised price of gas/petrol at stations when you enter a town. You will find yourself able to get far more reasonable prices for car rental when you can confidently tell the owner of the various prices involved.
When you rent a 4x4 you should factor in the cost of it getting back to its origin. Due to this, question where the car originates from and how it will get back. For example, if you are travelling from Antsirabe to Ranomafana and the car resides in Antsirabe, you know that it's possible for the driver to make a round trip in one day and save yourself being billed a second. This goes for fuel too. You will be paying for the fuel to get you to your destination and to get the car back to its origin. If the car driver finds somebody to drive back, they count that as their good fortune rather than something they can refund you on if it hasn't been pre-arranged.
Some car owners priortise a good looking exterior over a well-functioning engine (or can't obtain a suitable engine part easily). If the car you rent looks in great condition, don't ignore the fact that it may have awful suspension or a leaky radiator and both will have an impact on travel time.
If travelling independently on a budget, get into the habit of taking down contact details of drivers you meet. They can be invaluable later and it's worth keeping a general look out for drivers in spots where tourists are likely to congregate (such as communal areas in hotels). Most drivers you meet will not be the owner of the car so it may be insisted that you deal with their employer. We usually found it much easier and friendlier dealing with the driver rather than the owner but obviously needed to confirm any arrangements with the owner before agreement.
If you're wondering whether you should rent a car without a driver, don't—for the simple reason that those who have good reasons and knowledge to do so won't be pondering this in the first place. If you're not incredibly familiar with Madagascar it's not worth the safety risks on various roads and finding out you were overconfident about your driving abilities while stuck in a location that's isolated. You're likely not as good at driving through mud swamps, road chasms, or up two planks onto a floating platform in a 4x4 as you think you are. Also, you will possibly have a large communication handicap about recent road reports (bridges do go down). Most car rental companies won't rent to you without a driver included—it's seen as standard. Besides all of this, the drivers are great company for the journey and a wealth of knowledge for all of your sudden curiosities.
When sourcing a car rental over the phone or online, the owner may want to confirm the negotiation in person despite an agreement already being reached. On more than one occasion I've needed to squeeze in a sit-down meeting with a car owner at my hotel in the evening. It only really felt like an inconvenience as we were tight for time and felt the agreement on the phone covered anything needed prior to meeting at the cars departure or return. In reality, it's no bad thing that both parties meet prior to a significant amount of money being exchanged. Despite only being able to tell so much from the exterior of a car, an inspection of the car will likely be insisted and this can certainly rule out some broader surprises.
Be cautious about advice about suitability of road surfaces to smaller car types. From my experience, some roads described as suitable for all-car types are keeping an older legacy of the road alive or coming from the perspective that it can
be done and you could possibly risk it. As I'm writing for tourists, I would imagine that most would be more cautious than a resident as there's more at stake if they don't make it to a destination. For this reason, I'm flagging any roads I've travelled that I've heard are suitable for smaller cars but believe there's a chance that cars of this type have a possibility of not completing the route. Call me a pessimist but do weigh up the advice carefully and know what you're willing to sacrifice if it goes wrong.
Guides will meet tourists with little interest in stopping at every single creature or plant they spot, treating routes as a fast-paced hike. They'll also meet those who can't get enough time in the world to give to each bit of flora and fauna. They're not mind readers so don't be surprised if the pace proceeds a little faster or slower than you expect. Give feedback if you're finding the speed not to your liking and it can be adjusted. Do keep in mind that the guide will be expecting to get back within a certain timeframe as they may have other tourists to see to that day—but don't feel the need to rush.
You do not need a guide accompanying you up to the parks. All national parks and most reserves have guides waiting at the admission office (as you do
need a guide accompanying you inside any park under the remit of the national parks programme, with the exception of Montagne d'Ambre) should you not have prearranged one.
As with many airports, you may be approached by porters in Tana/Ivato airport, right from the baggage collection carousels or the car park outside departures. A gesture of assistance will most likely expect compensation but do not be deceived by remarks suggesting extortionate amounts. You may also be told you cannot tip in the Ariary currency but this is just a preference. Consider that $5 is a massive tip anywhere in the country, especially for walking a bag several meters, and you may understand the incentive to ask for dollars or euros.
If you don't need help, several polite refusals typically works. Most porters are friendly and will appreciate a ‘no thanks’ for what it is. A porter walking alongside your baggage while resting a hand on it can sometimes lead to them claiming they assisted you.
The most casual of (requested or unrequested) assistance by somebody working a service role can be indicative of payment wanted for the task completed. This can throw tourists who, understandably, might not see it coming if the person's already in a salaried position and just doing their job. Leaving opinions of this aside, I've been propositioned for payment for placing tags on a suitcase that I'd believed was done out of requirement. The country is incredibly helpful by nature but, if it's a stranger doing the help unrequested, it can be safer to politely decline.
I suggest not going overboard with tipping. This is a difficult one and often debated. In my experience you are setting a precedence that creates the wrong idea of foreigners, creates an unhealthy expectation for those who are to follow. If somebody does exceptional work please do tip higher and let them know their service meant a lot to you but if somebody doesn't do a good job don't hand out a large note because it's all you had at the time.
While I may go into some detail in this guide on getting good prices, always keep in mind what something is worth to you. I stress not to just carelessly pay or tip over the odds as it makes it difficult for visitors in your wake, but I also think you shouldn't worry if you found out that you paid too much if you found that price to be good value before knowing otherwise.
ATMs will have a withdrawal limit of [MGA200000 - 350000] but most will allow multiple withdrawals. Do not rely on an ATM to be functioning or have the same withdrawal limit as the last one you visited. My European VISA
card has been accepted in every ATM I've tried of the three principal banks: Bank of Africa, BFV-SG, and BNI Madagascar. I've had the least amount of issues with BNI but your mileage may vary. ATMs do run out of cash occasionally, particularly on payday, when large queues make them best avoided anyway.
Bribing is an unfortunate reality. Please don't hand over money unless it's absolutely clear that this is expected and you've no other options. It only helps to sustain its practice. Bribing more typically appears as time wasting by officials where they hope you will speed things up for them. If you're willing to wait 20 – 30 minutes, things often proceed without any exchange of money. We found that the corrupt officials were the minority and most we met were friendly and professional.
You may encounter up to three variations of the price being communicated to you. In cities and large towns the price is usually described in French. French numbers are less cumbersome than Malagasy equivalents and the convenience has led to this becoming commonplace, whether or not the seller speaks French well. Outside larger populated areas expect the price to be described in Malagasy. Finally, some (mostly in markets) never moved away from counting in the old currency of Malagasy Francs, which is exactly five times the denomination of Ariary. If something in a market sounds like it may be five times more than it should be, ask if it's in Ariary
or Malagasy Francs
. Should they say Ariary, you may find it useful to know that ‘very expensive’ translates as ‘Laf be’ (laff-bay)
Do you need air conditioning? Factor this in to accommodation planning. If you're a light sleeper it may be worth your while spending that little bit extra to ensure you get rest between each day. If you sleep well and aren't in the peak of Summer (around January) you might get by fine without. In our experience, fans have usually cooled the room enough to sleep with if you can tolerate the noise.
If you are stuck or on a very tight budget it's good to know that a hotely
is traditionally a combination of a small food stop and, sometimes, a guest room of sorts for any paying customer. You will see lots of these on your journey in villages and towns. They can be large enough to be a basic restaurant or small enough that you'll be a guest in someone's house.
It is customary and standard in nearly every hotel and hotely in Madagascar for drivers to receive free bed and board if they have paying passengers. Please check ahead if possible to avoid any confusion on arrival.
Remember that you can book more taxi-brousse seats than people in them. If you have bags that you don't want going on the roof this may be an option. You will also gain a little bit more foot space in the process. The roof luggage is typically well sealed from the elements if rain is expected but you may have reasons to have a bag down with you that cannot fit on your lap easily. If you do this, keep in mind and respect that others travelling in the taxi-brousse may find an unnecessary booking of extra seats extravagant so restrain any grander ideas. And, yes, that was a bewildered goose you saw strapped onto the roof of the last taxi-brousse that drove by you.
We were travelling light enough on one trip to have a permanent collection of washed and wet clothes with us. Getting the seats behind the driver on a taxi-brousse meant we would usually have some form of steel bar to hang a few of these off and dry quickly from the rushing winds and sun. The steel bar's position meant we could be pretty discreet.
As with many other countries in Africa, public transport will not begin its journey until it's full. If it's a quiet route keep this in mind. If you have not bought your seat on a previous day you will likely still need to turn up early to ensure you get a place, despite the long wait that will follow.
Travel advice for taxi-brousse journeys in this guide deals mostly with city to city routes where the taxi is usually a van fitted out with rows of tightly packed seats, one allocated to each paying passenger. On the other hand, taxi-brousses used for more remote routes tend to be come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from cars to large buses and the likelihood of having an actual seat is far from guaranteed.
“I don't know” is not a phrase you will hear a lot. I have sometimes been approaching a destination and had the driver lean out the window on the way and ask where it is, despite claiming that they knew the way when arranging the journey. It is more culturally inherent than many other parts of the world to attempt to please at all times and secure the job so ensure the driver does know exactly where they're going before starting. I know of a situation where a 4x4 driver tried to back out of going the full journey to a destination he had agreed to as, it turns out, he never knew the exact location and it started getting too dark to continue after going in several circles. The passengers were to be stop in the next town and lose a day of their itinerary. Luckily their protests and optimism were listened to and all worked out.
You may be encouraged to plan your entire itinerary for the duration of your stay near a park when you first go into a ticket office. This does help the office organise guide rotas but, if unsure, I've found that they were always willing to let you choose what you're doing as you go along. Keep in mind that you cannot guarantee the availability of a specific guide if you take the more relaxed approach.
Know your limitations when picking park trails to hike. For example, if you realise you're not fond of climbing sharp limestone hills with steep drops while you're halfway through it there's no easy way to get back without more climbing. Don't always rely on park staff advice for how suitable a trail is for you. They lean towards the optimistic side and I've witnessed more than one unsuitable recommendation that left people panicking at the top of sharp limestone hills. Another muttered their last rites as they attempted to ascend their way out of a chasmic sinkhole following that morning's battle with a volatile stomach and no food. That said, don't be afraid to push yourself! You won't get many opportunities like these.
If you are limited to one pair of footwear bring hiking boots. Otherwise, bring hiking sandals also. If you want to do forest hikes consider full-length pants/trousers, whatever the heat and humidity. Depending on the terrain, you might be glad when you're pushing through acres of thorny undergrowth or have had your first encounter with leeches and are desperately trying to find a way to construct an impenetrable fortress around exposed skin. Should you only have shorts and can put up with a few war wounds and low-flying, high-pitched nuisances you'll be ok, particularly if there's a lot of wading to get through.
During one trip we travelled with only a 25l sized backpack each. It wasn't too taxing to wash our last worn clothes at each stop and dry them en route to the next—detergent sachets are widely available. Besides clothes and toiletries we made sure we had at least one full roll of toilet paper at all times (you won't regret this!), head torches, paper for taking notes and numbers, phones, suncream and insect repellent. It was pretty straightforward to travel light. Most of the time we were on a taxi-brousse or 4x4 we were also hauling a case of water bottles to the next place. We never had to worry about running out of water and using up time to hunt some more. We just picked up a new case before we loaded everything for the next town.
Don't skimp on the quality on a good head torch. They need to have decent range and hold up in very wet conditions. As well as being necessary for various trails in the dark they're indispensable in all sorts of situations at night where lighting isn't as abundant as you might be used to. The Petzl brand is widely trusted. 200 lumens and above should be fine for wildlife walks but is not always an indication of actual performance so be wary of anything much cheaper than its competitors (or the majority under [EUR30]). Most headtorches will be fine for general night time navigation from beds, though phones are filling that niche.
Most shops close on Sundays and most restaurants on Mondays. You will find better luck eating on Mondays in foreign-owned restaurants, many of which close on Sundays instead.
Get a local SIM card from Telma, Orange or Airtel to phone ahead to hotels or, most importantly, to always have a means to contact and be contacted. Please make sure your phone's unlocked if you're bringing an existing one with you. You will also likely need to call drivers whose details you took previously. There is basic 4G/3G internet available in most large towns on all three networks so you can also have a means to research anything essential en route. You can purchase call credit in nearly every big town and small village if they have reception though the amounts available will be small if you're further from a big town (as well as having a small surcharge if the village is quite far out). Larger amounts are more reliably found in the official outlets in the big towns. More advice on using your phone in Madagascar can be found on the Phone & Internet
French is widely understood in larger towns and cities and by most people working in the tourism industry. I've found that the further you travel into the bush the less likely it is to be understood. I also found that some Malagasy people expected foreigners to naturally speak French and were a little thrown if they didn't. English is hit and miss but you'll find guides in every reserve who speak it and it's not too difficult to find 4x4 drivers who also do.
A lot of major towns in Madagascar have two names. There's the modern name received after independence that is used for formal information such as transport, signage, etc. The older name is often the one that is used in conversation in the town itself. For example, living in the south east I found that I never once heard anyone speak of the town of Tolagnaro
, only of Fort Dauphin
. But Tolagnaro
was exclusively used in airports, maps, and most information points.
Don't be afraid of tough love and insistence with people helping you if you don't need the assistance (politely). It's quite easy to get yourself into a situation that you'll struggle to get out of without causing offence. You're on a holiday and this can often be overlooked by those offering you services. We sometimes found that, as we didn't have a guide, it was assumed we didn't have an itinerary and events and excursions were planned for us until we stressed we had a plan in mind that we wanted to keep. Local guides understandably may try and become guides for those travelling without one so it's easier to refuse at the beginning rather than complicate things with misunderstood politeness.