Travel Planning Challenges: Madagascar

Remote, out-of-way, and hard to reach, Madagascar is quite a challenge for travel planning.

It’s Sheri’s desire to visit this unique home to lemurs and other exotic creatures, so I did a lot of research to find a way to make it happen. In the process, I came upon some interesting hurdles while trying to make flight arrangements for our trip to this large island in the Indian Ocean. Just like the characters in the animated film with the same name found out, it may be harder to get off the island than it is to get there.

Antananarivo (TNR) is the destination airport for international flights to Madagascar. Most flights connect through Paris (CDG), Nairobi (NBO), Johannesburg (JNB), or Seychelles (SEZ). Surprisingly, it’s easier to get a flight to one of the small islands surrounding Madagascar, such as Seychelles, Comoros, Mauritius, and Réunion. And sometimes, it’s even cheaper.

Madagascar MapOf the three major airline alliances, only SkyTeam’s (Delta) partners fly to Madagascar. The other two, Star Alliance (United) and OneWorld (American), have partner airlines that fly to the island, but there is no way to establish the routing using award miles. Even though South African Airlines has scheduled flights to TNR from JNB, and they are part of the Star Alliance, flights to Madagascar using United award miles are simply not available.

Sure, Delta will get you there using their partner, Air France, but it’s not something that is obvious when using their website. Of course, that could be because Delta’s website is probably the least helpful of the three major airline alliances for finding flights outside of the U.S., and even less helpful when it comes to using award travel. I couldn’t even find out how many award miles it would take to fly off the island to the African mainland. On the other hand, Delta’s customer service on the phone is the friendliest and most helpful of the three major airline groups.

Since there is only one major airline that allows award miles to be used to fly to Madagascar, it should come as no surprise that award travel seats are very limited and sell out fast. If Madagascar is where you want go, and you want to use your award miles to get there, then start your planning at least a year in advance. Set an alarm so that when the fare becomes available 331 days prior to travel, you can move it, move it!

Open-jawed tickets, award or paid, are especially difficult when using the big three airline groups. Round-trip tickets are often the only way to get there and back. For an economy round-trip ticket from Paris, expect to spend upwards of $1,500 per person; from JFK, it’s $1,900 or more*.

If you want to go to Madagascar,
be sure to:

  1. Do your research; comparison shop for fares using consolidator sites like Kayak or Google Flights.
  2. Only use the airline’s website to book award travel when you have your route completely planned.
  3. Book early, especially if you’re using award miles. Seats go quickly.
  4. Save money with flights that have multiple stopovers.
  5. Be flexible with your flight arrangements. Allow for delays and flight cancellations.
  6. Get the necessary visas and immunizations. Kenya requires a transit visa and no longer issues visas upon arrival.
  7. Consult a travel agent if you aren’t up for this planning challenge.

If you’re already in Africa, Kenya Airways has daily scheduled flights to and from Madagascar. However, you’ll find that it’s cheaper to fly to or from another African city via Nairobi (NBO) than to fly directly to/from NBO. For example, to fly one-way from NBO direct to TNR cost $916/person, but to fly from Johannesburg (JNB), via NBO to TNR costs only $337/person*. If you’re flying back from Madagascar and your final destination is Nairobi, you could just book the flight from TNR to JNB, and not board the connecting flight to JNB once you arrive in Nairobi. Of course, that routing trick according to the airlines is illegal and if you have checked bags, it would be impossible to pull off.

We were able to get to the island using award miles with a roundabout one-way flight on Delta, from Dubai (DXB) to Antananarivo (TNR) via Paris (CDG), but it was costly: 40,000 award miles + $64 per person*. However, I was unable to find a flight off the island using award miles originating from TNR.

To get off the island and back to mainland Africa, the cheapest flight I found was also very convoluted and takes 4 days. We depart TNR to NBO, overnight in Nairobi, the following day, onward to SEZ, three nights in Mahé, Seychelles and then to Dar es Salaam (DAR), Tanzania via a short layover in NBO again. The total cost of the flight for two to DAR and the overnight in Nairobi was cheaper than just flying directly to Nairobi or Johannesburg. It ended up being $276/person*. And, we get to visit the Seychelles for three nights; something I had removed from our schedule because I thought it would be too difficult and costly to do. If I add in the cost of staying in Mahé for three nights, our cost is $368/person which is still $453 cheaper than the $821 direct flight back to Nairobi.* After all the time spent making these arrangements, I only hope that Madagascar is worth the trip. Maybe we’ll even see King Julian.

*Flight costs and award miles needed are current as of the date this post was published. Your mileage may vary.

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