Travel to and within Africa is seldom easy. Patience and flexibility are essential in any African itinerary. So, too, is up-to-date information about the political situation in individual countries and any other factors that may affect personal security. As was evident not so long ago, even popular tourist destinations such as Kenya are not immune to occasional problems.

Specifically, the experts in African travel advise, those bound for Africa can spare themselves needless worry and disappointment if they keep in mind that:

In Africa, the best-laid plans can easily go awry. Travelers should build flexibility into their schedules, along with a bit -- and sometimes a lot -- of patience. It is useless to get angry if your takeoff is delayed for hours or the day's flight is canceled entirely -- a not uncommon occurrence.

Africa should never be thought of as a unified whole: It definitely isn't. Africa is more than 50 individual countries, each pursuing its own path. Some are politically stable and others are not. If one erupts in internal conflict, don't conclude that the entire continent is in turmoil. "You've got to take Africa country by country," says John Shields, co-director of Safariworld of Arlington, a tour organizer specializing in escorted wildlife safaris in eastern Africa.

Who Goes, and Why?

By State Department estimates, fewer than 100,000 Americans a year travel to Africa, compared to more than 6 million annually who head for Europe. On the whole, however, they tend to be experienced travelers -- fully aware of the inconveniences of exploring the Third World but intrigued by the beauty of the landscape, the diversity of cultures and the opportunity to see exotic wildlife in abundance.

Among the most popular destinations are Kenya and Tanzania for their game parks; Zimbabwe for Victoria Falls; and Togo, Ghana, Senegal and Gambia in West Africa for their scenic and cultural attractions. Ghana especially is noted for its colorful festivals.

Africa draws people "who have done London and Paris," says Shields, "and are looking for something more exotic than driving around Scotland." Many sign up for a camera safari. But more seasoned travelers often opt for independence, planning sightseeing itineraries of their own.

A number of black Americans journey to Africa for "a taste of the culture" or as a pilgrimage in search of their roots, says Boniface Kwesi Cobbina, who heads Africa-U.S. Travel of Washington, a travel agency specializing in African travel. A primary destination is Senegal, an appealing country that also has the advantage of being convenient. It is just a 6 1/2-hour overnight flight from New York City, and the cost for a weeklong trip, including air fare from New York, is about $1,000 per person.

"Your trip to Africa will be an adventure off the beaten path," says the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs in a booklet, "Tips for Travelers to Sub-Saharan Africa." The statement is made to encourage travel, but the booklet also warns that conditions and customs "can contrast sharply with what you are used to."

The Downside

One primary problem is that air travel can be hectic within Africa. Overbooking, airport chaos, inoperative facilities and bad scheduling are prevalent in many countries, according to a special report in the February issue of Business Traveler magazine. On some African airlines, passengers have to scramble aggressively for seats even though they hold confirmed reservations. (Travelers on escorted tours tend to encounter fewer hassles than those on independent itineraries.)

Among other factors that may prove frustrating to Americans: unusual visa requirements, strict currency regulations, restrictions on the use of cameras, security checks on city streets and country roads, dress codes, multiple destinations placed off-limits, after-dark curfews and inadequate medical facilities and other potential health problems. (Malaria, for example, is found in almost all the countries of sub-Saharan Africa.)

Personal safety is of concern to almost any traveler going abroad these days, but especially so in Africa, where tribal strife, border skirmishes and violent coups are not uncommon. However, such incidents are rarely directed at tourists. Street crime, though, is a problem in many African cities, as it is in much of the world, and foreign tourists are a primary target because they represent wealth. Leave expensive jewelry and keepsakes at home and hang onto purses and cameras.

As of mid-October, State Department travel advisories were in effect for 22 African countries. Several advisories cite high crime in urban areas. The latest, however, advises Americans to defer travel to Rwanda, where an armed force, reportedly made up of Rwanda exiles in Uganda, has engaged in hostilities with the government. Rwanda is a popular wildlife destination because of the free-roaming mountain gorillas in Parc des Volcans. Safariworld is among the American tour firms temporarily canceling treks to see the gorillas in their natural habitat.

A recent advisory for Kenya notes that security in the country's popular game parks, which deteriorated in 1989, has improved considerably since then. Poaching, once a major problem, appears to be on the decline because of new security measures and the fact that the price of ivory has plummeted. Nevertheless, Americans are cautioned to visit the parks only with a reputable safari firm, and the safari should consist of a minimum of two vehicles -- in case one breaks down. "Single vehicle safaris and solo camping are not recommended," the advisory cautions.

Getting There

Most travel to sub-Saharan Africa from the United States is through Europe. No U.S. airline flies nonstop to Africa, although Pan Am has a flight from New York City to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya in East Africa, with a change of planes in Frankfurt.

At least two African airlines with good reputations offer nonstop departures to West Africa from New York City. They are Air Afrique, which flies to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and Zambia Airways, which flies to Banjul in Gambia and Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. According to Business Traveler magazine, tour operators and other Africa travel suppliers rate them among the best for punctuality and service.

The problem isn't so much getting to Africa as getting around the continent by air. Air links between African nations are sometimes limited. Because of this, you may want to plan a trip within a region of Africa, such as East Africa or West Africa, rather than trying to hop from region to region.

Points to Consider

When traveling to Africa, consider the following:

Security: The prospect of physical danger varies by country within Africa. Some nations, such as Liberia, are engaged in a civil war. In other countries, the prospect of violence is limited to specific areas where overland travel may be restricted and curfews imposed. In several cities, street crime is a problem. Elsewhere, Americans who run afoul of the law could encounter police harassment and brutal prison conditions.

It is important to note, however, that there are no travel advisories in effect for more than half the nations of Africa.

As of mid-October, the State Department was urging Americans to defer nonessential travel to seven African nations. With the exception of Rwanda, they are generally not considered primary tourist destinations. The current hot spots are:

Angola, with which the United States has no diplomatic relations.

Ethiopia, which is in continuing political upheaval.

Liberia, where the government is threatened by rebel forces.

Libya, where U.S. passports are invalid without express State Department validation. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Libya.

Mauritania, a Moslem nation where conditions are unsettled because of the Persian Gulf crisis.

Rwanda, which is facing a hostile force of exiles.

Somalia, which is subject to bombings and other terrorist incidents.

In addition, the State Department is advising Americans to use caution in several countries considered popular destinations. These countries are:

Ghana, which, says the State Department, has many laws and practices that differ from what Americans are accustomed to. Americans under arrest may be denied access to American officials, and jail conditions can be harsh and unhealthy. Currency should be exchanged only at official agencies, and cameras should be used with discretion. Americans are urged to register with the U.S. Embassy on arrival.

Kenya, where tourists are subject to "grab-and-run" crimes on city streets. Security in the country's game parks has increased, but you should go only with a reputable safari organization that provides at least two vehicles (in case one breaks down). Do not camp in game parks alone.

Senegal, which is experiencing border troubles in the northeastern region of the country. The country has no diplomatic relations with neighboring Mauritania, and you cannot travel between them.

South Africa, where the racially charged political situation remains volatile. Avoid demonstrations where violence can erupt. Street crime and thefts from hotel rooms are also problems. The country's game parks and beaches generally are considered safe.

Tanzania, where street crime is prevalent, especially after dark. Also, officials have delayed in reporting arrests of American citizens to American officials. Restrictions on photography are strict, and you should avoid taking pictures of military installations, hospitals, schools, bridges, government buildings, airports, harbors and railway stations.

Zimbabwe, where security is uncertain in some areas. However, the tourist areas around Victoria Falls have been considered safe.

In addition to the countries named above, travel advisories currently are in effect for the African nations of Chad, Gabon, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Sudan, Uganda, Zaire and Zambia.

When planning a trip to Africa, obtain a copy of any advisory concerning a country you plan to visit. Advisories for some countries urge Americans to register with the U.S. Embassy immediately on arrival, and the address and phone number of the embassy is provided.

Many travel agents have computer access to the advisories and can provide copies. Also, you can hear the advisories read over the phone and request copies by contacting the State Department's Citizens Emergency Center, 202-647-5225.

Visas: Most African countries require U.S. citizens to obtain visas. Visas for all of the countries you plan to visit should be obtained before you leave home.

"In most African countries," says the State Department's "Tips for Travelers" pamphlet, "you will not be admitted into the country and will have to depart on the next plane if you arrive without a visa."

Obtaining visas for other African nations while in Africa also may be "difficult or impossible," the pamphlet adds.

Information about African visa requirements and the address and phone number of African embassies in the United States is available in a pamphlet, "Foreign Visa Requirements." For a copy, send 50 cents to the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colo. 81009.

Health: All travelers to sub-Saharan Africa should consider taking precautions against malaria, which the State Department says is found in at least part of every country except Cape Verde and Lesotho. However, there is some good news on the anti-malaria front this year.

A new anti-malaria drug, called mefloquine, has become available to doctors in recent months. It has been shown to be effective against malaria parasites that have developed a resistance to earlier anti-malarial drugs. The trade name is Lariam. Dosage is determined by the length of stay in a malaria area and must be prescribed by a doctor. Pregnant women, infants, persons taking certain heart medicines and individuals with a history of epilepsy or psychiatric disorder may be subject to adverse side affects.

Air travel: The biggest problems in air travel involve flights to places other than major tourist destinations. "Flights are often overbooked, delayed or canceled," says the State Department, "and when competing for space on a plane you may be dealing with a surging crowd rather than a line."

In "Tips for Travelers," these precautions are recommended:

Find out the reputation of the airline you plan to use and the airport from which it is flying to avoid "any unpleasant surprises."

Reconfirm your flight immediately on arrival, and do it in person rather than on the phone. Make sure the confirmation is in writing.

Get to the airport earlier than required "to put yourself at the front of the line -- or the crowd, as the case may be."

Travel with extra money, enough for a week's worth of food and lodging, "in case you are stranded."

Traveling with a packaged tour may spare you some hassles, the pamphlet advises, but not all of them.

A copy of "Tips for Travelers to Sub-Saharan Africa" can be obtained by sending $1 to the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402.

Tours: Many tour organizers offer wildlife safaris, primarily to Kenya and Tanzania. You can sign up for safaris where accommodations are in tents only, in lodges only or a combination of both. Some expeditions travel by van, and occasionally you can find a walking safari. Overseas Adventure Travel of Cambridge, Mass., uses large Bedford trucks to haul passengers, food and camping gear on one- and two-week expeditions into the East African countryside.

Some adventure specialists, among them Sobek of Angel's Camp, Calif., offer white-water rafting on several African rivers, and you can ascend Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania on an escorted climb. Bicycle tours of a few African countries are sometimes organized.

Less easy to find are cultural tours of Africa, where the focus is on the history, art and everyday life of African peoples. The tours generally are sponsored by universities and other cultural organizations.

Check with the national tourism office of a country that interests you about adventure or cultural tours. Most African countries seeking to attract tourists have a tourism office in New York City. For other countries, try the embassy in Washington or the country's mission at the United Nations in New York.