If South Africa isn’t on your travel radar yet, it sure should be! South Africa is a melting pot of culture, history, diversity, and stunning natural beauty. From bustling cities, colorful landscapes, amazing wildlife, and mind-blowing food – South Africa has it all!
However, if you are planning your first visit to South Africa, you’re probably worried about several things. Is it safe to travel in South Africa? How to get around? What to pack for a South African trip? These are just a few of the questions first time visitors are faced with when planning a trip to South Africa. To help you figure out the do’s and don’ts in South Africa, here’s a guide including my top travel tips for South Africa.
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Savvy South Africa Travel Tips for Your First Visit
Planning a trip to South Africa can be a daunting task, especially if you are a first time visitor. Below you’ll find my top South Africa travel tips. I’ve included a lot of travel advice, so that you can spend less time planning and more time enjoying this beautiful country.
Is it dangerous in South Africa?
Safety should be your top priority when visiting South Africa. As a South African myself, please know that this is the most important South Africa travel tip I can give you. Crime is rampant in South Africa and although this shouldn’t deter you from visiting, you should be fully and completely aware that car–jacking, armed robbery, and petty theft do occur here.
Therefore, please use common sense when traveling in South Africa. Always be 100% aware of your surroundings. And, never walk alone (especially at night). Make sure also to only carry the bare necessities with you.
Top safety travel tips for South Africa
- Never leave your personal belongings lying around or out of your sight.
- If you are flying within South Africa or arriving at OR Tambo in Johannesburg, be sure to remove any valuables from your luggage. I also highly recommend investing in a proper hardshell suitcase or a luggage lock (if the first is not an option). If you are still worried about keeping your belongings safe, it’s best to plastic wrap your luggage at the airport. Luggage wrapping costs R90 (USD$6) per item, but as prices often change please only use this as a guideline.
- If you are traveling with a camera, make sure it is not in plain sight. One way you can get around this is by investing in a decent antitheft bag or backpack. Although it might not be as comfortable, consider wearing it on your chest instead of your back.
- Female travelers should also rather opt for crossbody handbags and always wear them to the front of your body.
- Whatever you do, please do not hitchhike and avoid wandering around isolated areas. It’s best to hop in a taxi or Uber (only in big cities). Alternatively, ask your accommodation which areas are safe to explore on foot.
Travelers heading to Gauteng, may also want to see these Johannesburg safety tips.
Do I need Travel Insurance for South Africa?
Absolutely, yes! Crime is not uncommon in South Africa, so it’s best to be sure you and your belongings are covered.
South Africa is also a mecca for adventure junkies. Any extreme sport imaginable is on offer here – from bungee jumping and zip-lining to paragliding, river rafting, and even shark cage diving.
If you want to get your adrenaline fix or just want some peace of mind, it’s a good idea to get travel insurance when visiting South Africa. This way you can make sure that you and your belongings are covered for any unplanned circumstances.
Research & Plan Properly for your trip
Whenever I plan a trip I always spend hours researching places I want to see, things I want to do and even food I want to try. Investing in a good guide book, like this Lonely Planet South Africa and reading up as much as possible online can go a long way in making your trip stress-free and more enjoyable.
Furthermore, consider when and where you want to visit. It’s best to create a detailed travel itinerary for your first visit to South Africa beforehand. Make sure to do proper research, map out where to go, what to see and how to get there.
Yet another essential South Africa travel tip I can give you is to be realistic about how much time you have to spend in South Africa. South Africa is approximately 1,219,090 sq km big, so it’s pretty huge! Just to give you a better idea, South Africa is 5 times the size of the UK and 2 times bigger than Texas!
In addition, getting from one place to another can take up a lot of traveling time. For example, driving from Johannesburg to Cape Town takes nearly 16 hours! So, unless you are up to it, rather consider using a mix of transport modes such as flights and car rentals.
Do you need a visa to go to South Africa?
You may need a visa to enter South Africa. So, make sure to check out the South Africa visa requirements. It’s also important to know if you need any vaccinations. For a stress-free trip, it’s best see these requirements before booking any flights or accommodation.
What adapter do I need for South Africa?
You will probably need an adapter when visiting South Africa for the first time. (Here’s a great universal travel adapter). That said, if you are from the UK, Australia or South Korea, there’s no need to bring one along on your trip.
The standard voltage in South Africa is 230V with a frequency of 50Hz. The plugs are type C, D, M and N. Most sockets take a type M plug, but your hotel should have other sockets available too. If you are bringing along a hairdryer or hair straightener, be sure to invest in a good converter too
Know how to get around in South Africa
Unlike other countries, getting around in South Africa is not as easy as you may have hoped.
For starters, there is no subway or metro anywhere in South Africa. Secondly, there is only one high-speed train, the Gautrain (connecting Johannesburg and Pretoria). Thirdly, most of the standard train tracks have been vandalized. Sadly, this means traveling long distances by train ishighly unlikely unless you can afford to splurge on a Rovos Rail train ride!
Transport in South Africa
Bigger cities such as, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria do have extensive public bus transport that is reliable and affordable. However, using public transport might still limit where you can go and what you can do.
In Cape Town and Johannesburg it is possible to take a hop–on–hop–off bus, which stops near most of the tourist spots. But, ultimately the best way to get around in South Africa is by car. Luckily, car rental agencies are located near all airports and prices are very reasonable. If it’s your first time renting a car, here are some handy tips on finding cheap rental cars.
Do however remember to keep traveling time in mind. If you are planning on traveling long distances, consider using a combo of flights and car rentals to make your trip less stressful.
Long distance travel in South Africa
To save some money, you might want to consider booking local flights instead of driving long distances. Kalula and Mango are some of the best and cheapest airlines in South Africa.
I also highly recommend booking flights and car rentals together. Especially since these packages tend to be slightly cheaper than individual bookings. Once you’ve rented a car, you’ll have the freedom to explore South Africa at your own pace and also ensure your own safety.
There are also fairly cheap long-distance travel buses available in South Africa, such as Greyhound or InterCape. But from personal experience, I would not recommend using them. The traveling times are very long and breakdowns aren’t uncommon.
Taking taxis in South Africa
Taxis are becoming more and more popular in bigger cities like Joburg, Cape Town, and Pretoria. But you might also want to download the Uber app for more reasonable prices and realtime tracking. Do however use caution when getting into any taxi, and never get into a shared taxi full of strangers.
South Africa’s currency is the Rand (ZAR) with denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 Rand notes. Coins come in R1, R2, and R5 while 5, 10, 20 and 50 cents are available too. If you are traveling from America or Europe you’ll quickly find that traveling is very cheap due to the favorable exchange rates you can enjoy here (approx. 1 USD = 15.25 ZAR, 2021).
While most shops and restaurants accept credit cards, it’s still a good idea to have some cash on you (especially small change). ATMs are easily accessible in most shopping malls, petrol stations, and supermarkets if you want to withdraw money. You can also opt to withdraw money at the airport upon arrival. However, it’s best not to travel South Africa with large amounts of cash.
If you are however using a card as payment at a restaurant, be sure to ask for the card machine – never let your credit card out of your sight. Also, insist on swiping your card instead of using the “tap” function. The reason for this is that there have been some instances of card cloning using this method.
This probably also goes without saying, but be wary of strangers approaching you at ATMs and never share your pin with anyone.
Where is best to change money in South Africa?
Another important travel tip for South Africa is knowing where to exchange money. The easiest place to exchange money is right at the airport, so be sure to do this on arrival. Most hotels or banks can also exchange money. Do take note though that you might need to wait in long queues at the bank and you’ll need to take your passport along.
In more touristy spots such as Cape Town or near the Kruger, exchange bureaus are pretty easy to find too. (Don‘t forget to download Google Maps for accurate info and directions beforehand).
South Africans traveling on a South Africans passport who do not reside within South Africa, will need proof of residency to exchange money at the airport. If you are like me and do not have this, head to the exchange bureaus near the arrival hall, where you’ll need to show an alien resident card in order to change your money.
Pin these Travel Tips for South Africa for later.
Can I buy a local sim card in South Africa?
Unlike other destinations such as America, Europe or Asia wifi is not as widely available in South Africa. Moreover, with South Africa’s mobile data prices being some of the steepest in the world, using the internet easily gets very expensive here. Most hotels, airports and some restaurants do however have free wifi available.
That said, you’ll still need the internet if you want to travel South Africa with ease. The easiest way to stay connected is by buying a local sim card right at the airport after landing. There are many vendors to choose from inside the airport, with Vodacom, MTN and Cell C being the most popular service providers. Here you will be able to buy data bundles, as well as airtime to make calls – guaranteeing you stay connected. Data bundles go for roughly R150 for 1GB (less than 10 USD).
Again, if you are traveling on a South African passport but do not reside within South Africa you’ll still need proof of residency in South Africa in order to RICA the SIM card. The easiest way to get around this is to ask a family member or friend to get one for you instead.
Try to learn some of the local lingo
The next South Africa travel tip is about language barriers. South Africa actually has 11 official languages, but almost everyone can speak English. So there is no need to worry about communicating with the locals. With that said, South Africans love to mix their language, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone speaking in just one of the official languages!
Here are some of the most common words to learn before your visit to South Africa:
Do try the delicious local food
If you’re a foodie you’re in for a real treat! South Africa has a thriving food scene and there are so many amazing South African foods to try that it will be nearly impossible to list them all here.
You should, however, know that unlike other destinations such as Asia, eating out in South Africa is not cheap. Most middle-class South Africans eat out at least once or twice a week. The rest of the time, you will find us cooking up a storm to enjoy with family or friends, having a braai or grabbing a quick take-out.
Seeing that eating out can get pretty expensive, make sure you book accommodation with a kitchen or at least one meal included in the price. Many supermarkets, such as Woolworths, Pick ’n Pay and Checkers offer fresh ready to eat meals and great snacks to keep your tummy full during the day.
Here are some of the best local food to try on your visit to South Africa:
- Braai broodjies
- Boerewors rolls
- Buttermilk rusks
- Cape Malay Pickled Fish
- Curry and rice
- Fresh oysters
- Fish and chips
- Jam donuts
- Melktert (Milky tart)
- Pap and sheba
- Peri-peri chicken
- Sausage roll (or any pie as a matter of fact)
- Slap chips
- Smoked snoek
- Sosaties (meat skewers)
- A proper steak (rump or fillet)
- Vetkoek and mince
- Rooibos tea
Tipping etiquette in South Africa
Unlike Asia, tipping is common practice in South Africa, and I don’t mean just at restaurants! Here you’ll need to tip just about anyone in the service industry, whether it’s a waiter, bartender, car guard, tour guide, taxi driver and even the guy filling up your tank at the gas station! Therefore, it’s a good idea to always carry some small change on you.
Most restaurants do not include a service charge in the bill. This means you have to add a minimum of 10% to the bill. At upscale restaurants, the service charge is likely to be already worked into the bill and will be clearly visible on your bill. However, if you are unsure check with your waiter first.
All bills also include an additional 14% VAT, which is often mistaken as a tip by international guests.
If you are driving, you’ll notice car guards approaching you as soon as you park. Yes, you read right – car guards. These are people who watch over your car while you are out and about.
Although they can be a real pain, you’ll need to give them a few Rands (anything between R3 to R5) to watch over your car. I’ve heard countless horror stories from friends whose vehicles have been scratched after not giving a car guard any money. Even though there is no law in South Africa stating that you have to pay them for minding your car, it is standard practice here.
At times you might find that there is no car guard when you arrive, but upon departure, they’ll appear out of nowhere. This is quite common, so use your own judgment on whether or not you want to give them some small change. But keep in mind, for most of them this is the only means of income they have. So, you are actually helping someone afford a basic daily meal.
Other service workers
Tipping petrol attendees R2 and rounding off taxi fares are standard practice in South Africa too. If you join a tour group or activity, it’s considered rude not to tip the driver and the guide. Use your own judgment, but anything between R20-R50 is acceptable.
Don’t Drink & Drive
South Africans aren’t called the friendly nation for no reason! We love being out and about, and we love socializing! With booze being cheap and plentiful, it’s not uncommon to catch us having a cocktail at sunset, tasting wine in the wine lands, drinking a few beers at the local bar after work, or just chilling at a braai on weekends.
That said, South Africa has a very high road accident rate, so whatever you do please do not drink and drive. This is one of the most important travel tips for South Africa, so please keep it in mind!
The legal limit is a breath-alcohol content of 0.24mg per 1 000ml. This means if you drink 2 drinks within 1 hour you will likely be over the legal limit. As a rule of thumb, it’s best not to drive if you’ve had more than this to drink. Roadblocks testing for alcohol misuse are very common too, and fines are steep.
Is the tap water in South Africa safe to drink?
It’s perfectly safe to drink the tap water in South Africa. The government actively strives to provide clean, high-quality drinking water to the public. However, if you are traveling to rural areas or if the water looks milky, I highly recommend drinking bottled water instead. In bigger cities, feel free to drink straight from the tap! Also, don’t forget to bring along a reusable water bottle. If you have second thoughts, feel free to ask your accommodation whether the water is safe to drink.
Have you visited South Africa yet? Feel free to share your best South Africa travel tips, things to know before visiting South Africa, travel advice, and anything in between in the comments below!
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