A wilderness of sun-baked plateaus, palm-fringed oases, and mesmerizing sand seas, the Sahara measures nearly 3.5 million square miles, and reaches into 10 countries. Of those, Niger and Libya arguably offer the most impressive scenery, while Morocco is attractive because of convenient flights, great cities like Marrakech, and the fact that U.S. citizens staying less than three months don't need visas.
To Morocco and Beyond
Royal Air Maroc flies from Washington, D.C., and New York City to Marrakech starting at around $860 (800/344-6726, royalairmaroc.com). There are also daily direct flights from most major European cities, including London via low-fare EasyJet. Adventure Center offers many tours of Morocco, including Sahara Camel Trek (15 days from $970 per person) and Saharan Sands Family Holiday (eight days from $817), both of which come with camel rides and camping in the dunes of the Sahara (800/228-8747, adventurecenter.com).
Adventure Center runs several tours of the Libyan Sahara starting at $1,640 for 12 days. But entry rules for Libya have changed several times in recent years. Some Americans have followed the complex visa process only to have their visas cancelled on arrival for no apparent reason. Visiting now might be too risky.
Visas for Niger can be arranged through a tour operator or the embassy in D.C. (202/483-4224, nigerembassyusa.org). Tours there, however, are pricy: Tucson-based Nomade Sahara Expedition has a 15-day, see-it-all Air-Tenere-Djado itinerary for $4,800 per person for two, or $3,600 if six are traveling together (520/572-9724, saharaexpedition.com). A charter flight from Paris is often the cheapest way to get to Niger; inquire with your tour operator about the details.
What to Pack for a Desert Excursion
Tour operators make it easy by listing exactly what participants should bring, including a sweater--the desert is cold at night. No special gear is required. Tents and cooking equipment are provided by guides, as are meals, which start with bread baked under embers in the hot sand. To protect yourself from the sun and wind, you could bring a hat and kerchief. Better yet, plan on buying a Tuareg turban, or cheche, when you arrive. It will really do the trick and makes for a fun souvenir; your guide can show you how to tie it.