Abstract Aim We investigate the directionality of mainland-to-island dispersals, focusing on a case study of an African-Malagasy bat genus, Triaenops (Hipposideridae). Taxa include T. persicus from east Africa and three Triaenops species from Madagascar (T. auritus, T. furculus, and T. rufus). The evolution of this bat family considerably post-dated the tectonic division of Madagascar from Africa, excluding vicariance as a viable hypothesis. Therefore, we consider three biogeographical scenarios to explain these species' current ranges: (A) a single dispersal from Africa to Madagascar with subsequent speciation of the Malagasy species; (B) multiple, unidirectional dispersals from Africa to Madagascar resulting in multiple, independent Malagasy lineages; or (C) early dispersal of a proto-species from Africa to Madagascar, with later back-dispersal of a descendant Malagasy taxon to Africa. Location East Africa, Madagascar, and the Mozambique Channel. Methods We compare the utility of phylogenetic and coalescent methodologies to address the question of directionality in a mainland-to-island dispersal event for recently diverged taxa. We also emphasize the application of biologically explicit demographic systems, such as the non-equilibrium isolation-with-migration model. Here, these methods are applied to a four-species haploid genetic data set, with simulation analyses being applied to validate this approach. Results Coalescent simulations favour scenario B: multiple, unidirectional dispersals from Africa to Madagascar resulting in multiple, independent Malagasy bat lineages. From coalescent dating, we estimate that the genus Triaenops was still a single taxon approximately 2.25 Ma. The most recent Africa to Madagascar dispersal occurred much more recently (c. 660 ka), and led to the formation of the extant Malagasy species, T. rufus. Main conclusions Haploid genetic data from four species of Triaenops are statistically most consistent with multiple, unidirectional dispersals from mainland Africa to Madagascar during the late Pleistocene.