Going on a South Africa vacation? Before our long vacation in South Africa, the nation was one I knew little about. I watched the Color of Friendship like any little girl addicted to The Disney Channel and was introduced to apartheid. I watched nature documentaries showcasing the beautiful visuals of the Cape and the effects of the two colliding ocean currents. And of course, I knew of the inspirational Nelson Mandela.
Asides from that, I could not even tell you where Table Mountain was. However, this nation intrigued Cam and I. We fell in love so much we entered South Africa with no plans and ended up staying for 90 days! Here are 20 South Africa travel tips that we learned and will be helpful to know before your own vacation there.
Useful South Africa Vacation Travel Tips
Not a BBQ, but a Braai
My first South Africa vacation travel tip is starting off simple – food. South Africa has wonderful food throughout the region. We’ve tried most of the staples like traditional maize, tasted the minced ostrich (not a fan), and the intensely sweet koeksisters. However, the one thing that is popular with just about any South African is a braai.
Braai is Afrikaans for “grilled meat” and that’s exactly what a braai is. A bunch of grilled meat. “Having a braai,” just means someone is having a social gathering that is very similar to a BBQ. We’ve become quite custom to the typical South African braai now, our most memorable being inside a traditional boma near Kruger National Park. It’s also important to mention that South Africa is a very meaty country, but vegetarians can be catered for almost anywhere – especially Cape Town.
South Africa is the Adventure Capital of the World
Before you take off on your South Africa vacation you should plan some adventure activities. I’m not just talking about the Cape. Every corner of South Africa seems to have some adventure aspect to it. From hiking in the Drakensberg, to free diving with sharks in the KZN, to throwing yourself off the world’s highest bridge bungee you won’t be strapped to get an adrenaline rush on your vacation in South Africa.
Hide Yo Kids, Hide Yo Wife
Just kidding! But I am not kidding about the fact that South Africa has a bit of a security issue, unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. We arrived in Johannesburg with little to no knowledge about traveling in Africa. We knew it would be more dangerous than many other parts of the world, but our first night in Joburg it became reality. No, nothing bad happened to us. However, stepping outside at night felt a little bit like being cast in the “The Purge” series.
Many homes have bars on the windows, high-security gates for the driveway, and electric fences. While, security guards patrol housing complexes, parking lots, banks, malls, and gas stations. This isn’t a “rough” area I am talking about, this is every single house – even the high dollar ones in the nice neighborhoods.
It was honestly a little unsettling to see as a foreigner, but we quickly adapted to that way of life in SA. After the apartheid years, the violence became so bad that many white homeowners became frightened. The result is the security now in place throughout South Africa. This is all while South Africa combats one of the highest crime rates in the world.
Is South Africa Safe?
Bringing me to my next point. Is South Africa safe to travel through? Yes, but with vigilance and common sense. Don’t flash any fancy items in the wrong places, don’t look like a complete tourist, and don’t walk around foreign areas at night. The last one took some time for us to adjust to because we walk everywhere, but in South Africa, we used an Uber or trusted car when we had to get around at night.
This became apparent one night when I wanted sushi in downtown Cape Town, it was three blocks away. Three Blocks. I asked one of the hotel staff members if she recommended we walk to the sushi spot.
“You will have to take an Uber,” she told us.
She’s just being paranoid I thought, I mean this place is right around the corner.
So I went and tested another staffer. “Excuse me, but would you recommend we walk to this XXX restaurant right now?”
“No I would certainly recommend you take a cab ma’am,” he said. So there we were taking a 20 Rand ($1.20) Uber ride to a restaurant three blocks away. Better safe than sorry.
South Africa is a Tipping Nation
Leading me to another travel tip that will make your South Africa vacation much easier. And that is tips in South Africa. This is a tipping country and visitors should expect to tip for anything from a lunch out, to gas station attendants, to car watchers. And yes, car watchers.
Almost anywhere we parked in SA was monitored by a “car guard” to ensure that your vehicle remains safely parked while you go and do your business. Expect to tip these guys anywhere between 2-10 Rand, and don’t try to stiff them. They will literally block your car with their body until you give them something. As for meals out, 10% is the starting wait for servers.
You Can Safari on Your South Africa Vacation
We had a fantastic time not only going on one but two safaris while in South Africa. There are so many game reserves in South Africa where visitors can see the Big 5. If you’ve been dreaming of seeing a lion, elephant, or wild buffalo all your life then SA may just be your calling.
South Africa is the Gateway to Southern Africa
Anyone who has looked at international flights going into Southern Africa may have noticed that the cheapest option may be to fly into Johannesburg or Cape Town first. There are many international flights departing and arriving every day into these two airports. Whether your destination is Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland, or Mozambique it may be worth checking the flight options into SA first and then book a connecting flight.
District 9 is Real
American audiences know District 9 as that awesome Peter Jackson film about Aliens, but the film actually brings back many real memories for South Africans. In case you haven’t seen it, the movie is about an alien species being stranded in Johannesburg. The aliens, or “prawns,” are forced to in the ghettos and slums of Jo-Burg and as you can imagine, life there isn’t the greatest.
During the apartheid era, this really did happen in multiple areas around the country (to real people – not aliens). The most notable instance was the forced removal of District 6 residents in Cape Town. These 60,000 people were forced to move to the Cape Flats after District 6 was declared a “whites only” area.
Many people lost their jobs, possessions, businesses, and homes and were placed in an area with little to no social offerings. It lay waste to a once vibrant working community. Quite literally as the government demolished all but a handful of buildings. One of our Airbnb stays in Cape Town was one of the few complexes spared. It became pretty surreal and sad to see first hand every day as we walked out of the complex and were surrounded by empty fields in the heart of Cape Town.
South Africa has THREE Capitals
If you’re visiting South Africa you should be aware there is no legally defined capital city. But instead, there are three South African capitals. They are Pretoria (executive capital), Bloemfontein (judicial), and Cape Town (legislative).
South Africa is a Land of Cultural Diversity
You won’t have many issues of a South African not being able to speak English when you’re on a South African vacation. However, it may surprise you to know that English is actually only the fifth most common language spoken in SA. South Africa is the land of cultural diversity and there are 11 official languages! The most widely spoken language is Zulu, then Xhosa, followed by Afrikaans.
Car Rentals in South Africa are Legit
For those wishing to road trip around South Africa like we did, I would recommend renting a car from a company in South Africa. Another good budget option is to rent a campervan as it serves as your accommodation too! Prices are much more affordable than in Namibia, Botswana, and Mozambique.
You will need to pay extra for taking the car across borders, but it’s certainly cheaper than multiple rental cars in different countries. We paid $100 total for the papers to take the car into Lesotho, Mozambique, and Swaziland. These $100 papers only ended up getting checked once when we crossed into Mozambique from Swaziland…ahh bureaucracy. If you do plan to drive yourself around South Africa, then drive carefully. South Africa has one of the highest rates of fatal car accidents in the world.
Get Familiar With the Rand
South Africa operates on the South African Rand, which is currently trading at 1 ZAR = 0.0674718USD. If Southern Africa had a reserve currency, it would be the Rand. The Rand trades in Swaziland and Lesotho at 1:1 and will also get you by easily in Mozambique and Namibia. You can also use the Rand occasionally in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.
Mandela is Everywhere
My favorite thing to see in South Africa was all the Mandela statues, paintings, photos, or street art installations. Mandela, or Madiba, was a revolutionary of the apartheid era and quite possibly one of the greatest men of all time. Don’t know much about him yet? Just wait until you get to SA for that to change, or just watch one of the many movies about his life.
Reconsider Vaccinations at Home for Your South Africa Vacation
You won’t need any vaccinations for traveling in South Africa unless you are coming from a country where Yellow Fever is prevalent. In that case, you will need to show proof that you have the vaccine. Also, unless you’re paranoid you shouldn’t need to take malaria medication here unless you plan on sleeping in a swamp.
We met a family while on safari in Kruger whose doctor convinced them to spend almost $1000 on malaria medicine. What the doctor failed to know was it was the dry winter season, meaning it’s incredibly low risk for malaria and mosquito bites in the region.
We’d suggest taking anything a doctor from another country says with a serious grain of salt and doing some of your own research before visiting. Always factor in where you are going in South Africa and the season you are traveling (rainy vs dry are two very different times).
However, I’m not a doctor so if you’re a bit of a cautious traveler I always say that you can’t put a price on peace of mind. (Side note – we traveled through Africa for a year and only took malaria tablets for a few weeks while in Malawi and Mozambique).
Get a Power Converter
One of my top travel tips is to get an adaptor before your South Africa vacation. Most plugs in South Africa are 15 amp 3-prong, with round plugs. I would recommend purchasing one before you land, especially if you land at night.
We ended up not having the right adapter and had to go track one down once we realized at 10 p.m. the night we arrived. Remember what I told you about “The Purge-y” feeling above? If you do find yourself without an adaptor don’t worry. You CAN find one at any big supermarket for cheap. Check out my ultimate Africa packing list here.
Drink the Water!
We’ve been drinking the water out of the taps for three months and haven’t had a single issue anywhere (even in the bush). If you are in remote locations on game drives and such then there will probably be a water filtration system in place to make the water drinkable. Other than that the water in South Africa is safe to drink so please consider drinking the free tap water instead of buying plastic bottles and contributing to plastic waste.
If you are truly worried on your vacation in South Africa we always travel with the Grayl and it filters out 99.99% of bacteria.
If you want something else to drink besides water, then the Stellenbosch region has some of the best and cheapest wine we have found in the world.
2018 Update: Due to the recent Cape Town water crisis please do your research before drinking tap water in Cape Town.
It’s all the Afrikaaners favorite word, and I really need to get used to saying it. “Pleasure” is the unofficial way to say “you’re welcome” in South Africa. It sounds so much nicer and fancier than “No problem,” or “Welcome” doesn’t it?
Shop Smart in South Africa
It may be handy to know the hierarchy of supermarkets while in South Africa. For the super fancy deluxe food (think Whole Foods,) then do your shopping at Woolworths.
If you’re the upper middle-class kind of grocery shopper then do your shopping at Pick and Pay. The next step down (think Walmart) is a Checkers and, and if you want to go mega shopping (think Super Walmart,) then you definitely have to check out a Shoprite.
Our favorite to shop at was Pick and Pay, we found the produce there to be great and the price was reasonable.
Have You Heard of Banting
Have you heard of Banting? I sure hadn’t. This health/diet craze is taking South Africa by storm and you’re likely to see it advertised everywhere while traveling in SA. Banting is a high fat, medium protein, low carb way of eating and encourages weight loss.
Many menus have a “Banting” menu so if you’re on a similar diet you will get by just fine eating out in South Africa.
If You’re From Africa, Why Are You White?
We found it was pretty easy to forget that we were still in Africa while in South Africa. There are countless sushi shops in many cities and towns, a hip coffee shop is always nearby, and about 10% of the population is white.
It’s a pretty westernized country and has the 24th largest economy in the world. Then there were other things that brought us back to Africa. Things like crappy internet, bad drivers, unemployment, poverty, and enhanced security reminded us that.
Quick Travel Tips for a South Africa Vacation
- Languages Spoken: The most widely spoken language is Zulu, then Xhosa, followed by Afrikaans. However, just about everyone speaks English.
- Capital: South Africa has no legally defined capital city. Instead, there are three South African capitals. They are Pretoria (executive capital), Bloemfontein (judicial), and Cape Town (legislative).
- Currency: South African Rand 4 (ZAR) – $.
- Visa: Some nationalities are issued a 90-day visa on arrival. Check with your embassy for the best information. The visas are consecutive, not concurrent, don’t be like us and get kicked out.
- Weather: Hot and humid especially during the summer months.
- What to Pack: Depends on the season and where you are at. Definitely bring hiking shoes, a bathing suit, and a jacket.
- Malaria: Not a major threat in South Africa. In the rainy season, areas around Kruger and the north are at mild risk of malaria.
- Stay Connected: Vodacom, Telcom, OneCell, and MTN are the cell phone and internet providers. Check here for more information.
- Adaptor: You’ll need this adaptor in Southern Africa.
- Tipping: This is a tipping country and visitors should expect to tip for anything from a lunch out, to gas station attendants, to security guards in parking lots. Tips to car guards can be anything between 2 and 10 ZAR while 10% is the norm for waitstaff.
- When is the Best Time to Visit Cape Town: See our full post for the weather in South Africa.
Book A Safari in South Africa
Traditionally if you wanted to book a safari you’d have to go to a travel agent and have them book your safari for you. They made suggestions for camps and lodges then presented you with a large bill. Most of the industry still operates in this fashion.
However, Timbuktu is a new platform that allows you to select the lodges you’d like and see the pricing per day that way you can select the best itinerary for yourself. They will then contact the lodges and help you through booking your safari. With experts on staff, they can also provide suggestions and arrange the little details much like a travel agent.