Going on a South Africa vacation? Before our long vacation in South Africa, the nation was one I knew little about. Like any little girl addicted to The Disney Channel, I watched The Color of Friendship 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 tell you where Table Mountain or Kruger National Park was. However, this nation intrigued Cam and me. We fell in love so much that we entered South Africa with no plans and ended up staying for 90 days. After those three months in the country, we have returned multiple times for extended trips and learned many things about traveling South Africa. Here are our top South Africa vacation travel tips that we learned and will be helpful to know before your trip.
Useful South Africa Vacation Travel Tips
How To Get to South Africa
South Africa has three international airports that serve as a great jumping-off point. The OR Tambo International Airport (JNB) services Johannesburg and Pretoria, King Shaka International Airport (DUR) serves Durban, and Cape Town International Airport (CPT) serves the Western Cape.
Pay attention to where you’ll be traveling to and which airport makes the most sense for you fly into.
Not a BBQ, but a Braai
One of my top South Africa vacation tip is to familiarize yourself with some of the food. South Africa has lovely food throughout the country. We’ve tried most of the staples like traditional maize, minced ostrich, ostrich steaks, bobotie, and the intensely sweet koeksisters. It’s all fantastic, but 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” means someone is having a social gathering 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. If you go on safari in South Africa, you more than likely will find yourself enjoying a “braai night.” Even if you don’t go on safari, there are braais happening all the time, so make some South African friends and enjoy!
It’s important to mention that South Africa is a very meaty country. Everyone loves their meat, and it’s incredibly tasty! Don’t worry though, vegetarians can often be catered for almost anywhere – especially in the Western Cape.
If you’re traveling to South Africa, you will definitely need to familiarize yourself with “loadshedding.” Loadshedding is a way to distribute demand for electrical power across multiple power sources. It’s a term I had never heard of before traveling to South Africa, and that’s because South Africa is in the middle of a major energy crisis and has been for years.
Essentially the national power grid is failing, and it gets worse every year. Eskom is the South African government owned power utility and power generator. To deal with insufficient power generation capacity, “loadshedding” is implemented across the country. IE: national rolling blackouts. It typically happens every day, for a period of a few hours, depending on the area of the country you are in.
You can’t avoid it, but booking hotels with generators or Airbnbs with inverter systems help alleviate the problems for tourists. When booking accommodation, ask how the establishment handles loadshedding. When you are in the country, the best way to stay up to date with blackout times is by using the EskomSePush app.
South Africa is the Adventure Capital of the World
Before taking off on your South Africa vacation, you should plan some adventure activities. I’m not just talking about around the Cape. Every corner of South Africa seems to have some adventure aspect to it.
From hiking in the Drakensberg to freediving 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 South Africa having a bit of a security issue, unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. The first time we traveled to South Africa, 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 a reality. No, nothing terrible 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. These are not “rough” areas 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. And saw all the security systems as a way to feel extra safe.
After 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. It’s a deeply divided nation stemming from issues created decades ago.
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 most areas at night.
The last one took some time for us to adjust to because we walk everywhere, but in South Africa, we use an Uber or trusted car 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.
How to Stay Safe in South Africa
Of course this doesn’t mean that you need to live like a hermit while in South Africa, locked away, with the police on speed dial. It just means you might have to take a little more caution and be more mindful when traveling in South Africa than in other places. We’ve traveled around South Africa for almost 6 months total and have never run into an issue. Some things to keep in mind:
- Don’t ever leave valuables visible in your car.
- Always lock your car.
- Keep your handbag close to you, zipped, so no one can access it easily. Don’t hang your handbag off the back of your chair at restaurants and be mindful of where your phone is at on the table. Pickpocketing is common, and if you make it easier by doing these things you’ll regret it.
- Don’t walk around at night.
- It’s safe to walk around with a camera, just be mindful of it when in busy areas and city centers.
- Use trusted Ubers and taxis from your hotel.
- Don’t hike alone or at night.
- It’s best to stay out of townships, especially at night, unless you are on tour or know people very well there.
South Africa is a Tipping Nation
This is not Europe or Japan, and visitors can expect to tip 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..More on that later.
So how much should you tip in South Africa? The general rule of thumb is to tip at least 10% of the total bill at restaurants, taxis, etc. A gas station attendant typically receives 5 rand, and car guards receive anything between 1-10 rand. However, like all tips in general, the amount is up to your discretion.
South African Car Guards
In South Africa, it’s widespread to have car attendants outside grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses – (yay, job creation). If you rent a car in Cape Town or throughout the rest of South Africa, you won’t miss them.
Almost anywhere you park in South Africa that is not in a paid garage is usually monitored by a “car guard” to ensure that vehicles remain safely parked while you go and do your business.
Sometimes these car guards are officially hired by an establishment, or sometimes they throw on a yellow vest and just stand outside a business, hoping to collect enough rand for a meal. As a tourist, it’s hard to know!
These guys are there to watch your car and “deter” car thieves. Sometimes they help you park in a spot or back out of place. Many times we found the “help” was unnecessary.
These guys expect a tip; often, 2-10 ZAR is more than enough. Sometimes if you don’t tip them, they will try and block your car with their body until you give them something.
Now, all that being said, it’s up to you if you want to help them out a little with some money. As mentioned, we have spent more than three months living in Cape Town alone and have become accustomed to these car guards.
If we felt they truly assisted us and watched our car while we were away, we had no problem tipping them 10 rand. However, often we would return to our car, get in, pull out of the parking spot just to have someone run up behind us and act like they were watching the car the whole time.
Most of the time, their effectiveness was questionable at best (hence the quotation marks). However, we often feel bad and would give food or a few rand because of this. Unemployment is high in South Africa, and a few rand might mean little to us but a lot to others.
That said, it’s up to you and your discretion to tip car guards. It is in no way obligatory.
Gas Stations in South Africa
It’s not common to fill up your own car in South Africa. There will always be a gas station attendant to fill your car, just like in the good old days. They will often ask if you want your windows cleaned too. There’s no reason to ever get out of the car when filling up in South Africa.
It’s expected to tip those lovely gas station attendants that fill up your car and clean those windows. South Africans usually last anywhere from 5-10 ZAR, but around 10-20 ZAR tourists seem to tip more. Any amount is acceptable!
Get a GPS, a Sim Card, or Download Google Maps
We always pick up a local SIM card when we arrive in a new country. It’s always a good idea to have a working phone in emergencies. We picked up a SIM card with Vodacom in when we landed in Cape Town. That way, we always had data to run a GPS from our smartphone. Or you can always get an eSim with Airalo quick and easily.
Google Maps is a good GPS option throughout South Africa; you can download the map to your phone while on WiFi. Having a map downloaded to your phone means you don’t need the internet for turn-by-turn directions.
Safari on Your South Africa Vacation
We had a fantastic time going on multiple safaris while in South Africa. If you want to go on safari you can look well beyond Kruger National Park too! There are so many game reserves in South Africa where visitors can see the Big 5. Some of the best places to go on safari in South Africa are:
- Madikwe Game Reserve
- Sabi Sands Game Reserve
- Kapama Game Reserve
- Shamwari Game Reserve
- Addo Elephant National Park
If you’ve been dreaming of seeing a lion, elephant, or wild buffalo all your life, then SA may be your calling. We like to book our safaris on Timbuktu, which allows you to customize your whole trip to South Africa.
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 at 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 booking a connecting flight, rather than trying to fly direct to your final destination.
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 firsthand 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 to take 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, still you need to have them and notify your car rental agency if you plan to take the car over a border.
If you plan to drive around South Africa, drive carefully. South Africa has one of the highest rates of fatal car accidents in the world. So there are a few things to note before renting a car in South Africa.
Get Familiar With the Rand
South Africa operates on the South African Rand. 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 too. You can also use the Rand occasionally in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.
You don’t have to travel to South Africa with cash in hand to exchange there. You’ll easily be able to pull out rand at any ATM, which typically gives a better rate than at currency exchanges.
Mandela is Everywhere
My favorite thing to see in South Africa was all the Mandela statues, paintings, photos, or street art installations. Nelson 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 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 come from a country with prevalent Yellow Fever. 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 in South Africa unless you plan on sleeping in a swamp.
While on safari in Kruger, we met a family whose doctor convinced them to spend almost $1000 on malaria medicine. The doctor failed to know that it was the dry winter season, meaning it’s an incredibly low risk for malaria and mosquito bites in the region. In South Africa, malaria is mainly transmitted along the border areas.
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 when and 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).
If you arrive in South Africa without malaria meds and feel you need them, you can always book an appointment at a private clinic and get a prescription for a pretty afforable price.
Get a Power Converter
This is 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 recommend purchasing one before you land, especially if you land at night.
We did not have the right adapter and had to go track one down once we realized at 10 p.m. the night we arrived. Which wasn’t ideal. 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 most big supermarkets for cheap, however it may not match up to the correct plug on your end. Check out my ultimate Africa packing list here.
Drink the Water!
We’ve been drinking the water out of the taps for months in South Africa and haven’t had a single issue anywhere (even in the bush). If you are in remote locations on game drives and such, there will probably be a water filtration system 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 about your vacation in South Africa, we always travel with a Grayl GeoPress, which 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.
It’s all the Afrikaaner’s favorite word, and I need to get used to saying it. “Pleasure” is the unofficial way to say “you’re welcome” in South Africa. It sounds 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 Checkers. The next step down (think Walmart) is Pick N Pay, followed for by Shoprite (lowest prices, but also lowest quality).
Our favorite shop was Checkers and Woolworths, we found the produce and butcher at these two shops to be great and the prices still very reasonable.
If You’re From Africa, Why Are You White?
We found it was pretty easy to forget that we were still in Africa while on our South Africa vacation, especially Cape Town. 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 with the 24th largest economy in the world, and one of the most developed in all of Africa.
Then other things brought us back to Africa. Things like crappy internet, bad drivers, unemployment, poverty, and enhanced security reminded us of 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 (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: Varies depending on the time of year and destination. See the best time to visit South Africa here.
- 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 cell phone and internet providers.
- 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: Summer in the Southern Hemisphere is between October and February. These are great times to visit.
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 suggest camps and lodges and then present 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. Experts on staff can also provide suggestions and arrange the little details like a travel agent.
What to Pack for an African Safari
Get Travel Insurance
Protect yourself from theft, injury, illness, or the unexpected. Heymondo has great short-term travel insurance plans!
Plan Your Trip to Africa
- Travel Insurance: We don’t travel without travel insurance and neither should you. You never know what can happen while traveling so it’s best to be prepared. HeyMondo provides excellent short-term and long-term travel insurance plans.
- Travel Waterbottle: When we’re uncertain about the water supply we use our Grayl Purifier. It’s come in exceptionally handy around Africa.
- Camera Gear: Chances are you’ll want a camera for your trip to Africa. We love the Sony RX100V for a pocket-size camera and the Fujifilm XT-4 for a professional camera. Check out our favorite cameras for Africa.
- Safari Clothes: Lightweight, beige, and moisture-wicking clothing are great for traveling Africa. See our favorite safari clothing here.
- Safari Hat: A good hat is both stylish and functional.
- Safari Bag: A durable bag is ideal for traveling around Africa.
- Safari Pants: We recommend neutral-colored pants as they’re great at hiding dirt and can match most shirt colors.
- Safari Shirt: Shirts like these are lightweight and keep the bugs away!
- Boots: While you don’t need to wear sturdy shoes every day, at least one pair of safari boots will make your trip nicer!
- Travel Adapter: You’ll need a special travel adapter for traveling Africa. Get one before you get there so you don’t pay a premium on the ground.