South Africa Travel Tips: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go

South Africa is one of my favourite countries to travel to and is the kind of place that you can return to time and time again. It’s huge, so you can do something new on every visit, or find your favourite spot (mine is Knysna) and keep coming back. Whichever way you do it, if you are planning your first trip to South Africa there are few things that knowing in advance can make your adventure a bit easier; enter my round up of the most useful South Africa travel tips!

Coney Glen Beach in Knysna South Africa
View over Coney Glen Beach from the famous Knysna Heads
Disclosure Statement

My South Africa Travel Adventures

I have been to South Africa twice; our first trip in 2016 was a two and a half week whirlwind where we explored Johannesburg and Cape Town, spent a few day on safari in Kruger, drank wine in Stellenbosch and experienced the iconic Garden Route road trip. I love pretty much everywhere I visit, but rarely return in favour of exploring new places. South Africa, however, was somewhere I always intended to come back to.

On our second trip in 2020, we did a very different style of holiday where we hired a villa in Knysna (also known as the unofficial capital of the Garden Route) and spent three weeks exploring everywhere between George and Plettenberg Bay.

Related Post: Your Complete Guide to Knysna on the Garden Route

I love the lifestyle here (and the weather!), there is so much to do outdoors and the scenery everywhere is just amazing. They also do a damn good beach and possibly even better wine, so I really couldn’t ask for any more out of a destination. It’s a much simpler and more laid back way of life, perfect for relaxing.

I learnt a lot from our first trip and possibly even more from our second, as we spent more time with the locals and less time doing the traditional tourist attractions. Hopefully these are all the South Africa travel tips you need if you are planning on visiting and will serve as a useful reminder for me, as this won’t be our last visit in coming years.

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South Africa Passport & Visa Requirements

Your passport needs to have a minimum of six months until expiry on date of entry to South Africa.

Most countries don’t need a visa to enter South Africa, check the official website to see if you are one of the visa exempt nationalities (both UK and USA passport holders can enter for 90 days visa free), eligible for an e-visa or need to apply for a visa at the consulate.

Related Post: A Guide to the Garden Route Town of Wilderness

Vaccinations for South Africa

Travel vaccination advice will vary dependant on a range of factors, so make sure you consult your GP at least eight weeks before you travel. Often, multiple courses of a vaccination a certain number of weeks apart are required and sometimes you can feel a bit ropey afterwards as well, so I would recommend making this the first thing you do after you’ve booked your flights.

You aren’t required to have any specific vaccinations on entry to South Africa, except Yellow Fever (you will need to certificate to prove it) if you have recently passed through a country where this is a risk. You can read more on the exact requirements for this here.

Best Beaches in Knysna South Africa
Sunset in Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route

Malaria Risk in South Africa

Most of South Africa had low or no risk of malaria, but the far north eastern corner (including Kruger) carries a higher risk. Consult your GP before you leave for advice on whether you need to take any malaria preventative medications.

I got bitten to high heaven everywhere I went (which pretty much happens to me no matter where I am in the world to be fair), so make sure you bring some mosquito repellant with you.

South Africa Travel Costs

Right, I am going to go out on a limb here and say this is the most affordable destination for the mid range and luxury traveller I have been to, or in fact heard of. If you have a destination that can beat it, I am all ears!

The value for money is unbelievable, eating out at a mid to high range restaurant would generally come in at between £80 to £100 for the six of us, which would consist of two courses and copious amounts of wine.

The only exception to this is the high end luxury hotels (and the restaurants attached to them), which are priced as you would expect them to be. Villa rentals thoug, are so much cheaper than I expected for the quality.

Related Post: A South Africa Packing List: Your Ultimate Guide

Cash

You can change money relatively easily in South Africa, but honestly, I would avoid it unless you absolutely have to. This is in part because of the practicalities and safety aspects of carrying large amounts of cash in any currency, but also because it is just a pain and I don’t see how it is necessary for the most of us.

To avoid having to do this, transfer some cash into ZAR (South African Rand) before you go (and not at the airport, it will cost you a lot more) and then use a prepaid card or credit card that offers a preferential rate of exchange and no foreign transaction fees.

Bollard Bay Beach in Knysna South Africa
View of the Knysna Heads from the Lagoon on Leisure Island

Credit & Prepaid Cards

Credit cards are widely accepted across South Africa and there were only a couple of places we went that didn’t accept them. Having cash in small denominations is helpful though for tipping people like car attendants (more on this later).

I have a Halifax Clarity credit card that I always use for travel abroad, but have a look at this article for the best UK credit cards for use abroad. The prepaid cards are great too, as you can link them to your bank account and move money into them quickly and easily online and then withdraw in local currency at an ATM, which aren’t hard to find in South Africa.

South Africa Time Zone

This is one of the (many) great things about South Africa, despite the brutal flight length, the time difference is so minimal and it really helps settle in quicker. It is CET +1, GMT +2 and EST +7 based on winter times (no daylight saving here).

When in South Africa, time is……. fluid. If you’re a schedule based person, prepare to practice your go-with-the-flow skills, or lack thereof! We also noticed that dinner is a lot earlier here; restaurants are packed out by 6:30pm and it is rare for there to be anybody left by 9:30pm (not as true in the bigger cities). Take advantage and have brunch and an early dinner before enjoying a cocktail watching the sunset.

Noetzie Beach in Knysna South Africa
The wild Noetzie Beach just outside of Knysna on the Garden Route

Language

There are eleven official languages in South Africa, English being one of them. I didn’t meet anyone who didn’t speak English during either of my trips there.

I understand how some people believe it is the polite thing to do to learn some of the local phrases, and in a perfect world I would. The reality is preparing to go on holiday is hectic and I have generally always relied on getting by with a smile and being nice. In South Africa, I really don’t think it is necessary or will make your trip easier to learn some of the local lingo, so unless you’re particularly keen, I wouldn’t worry about it.

Safety

One of the most common questions I have been asked about travelling to South Africa is whether I felt safe. The simple answer is yes, but we took precautions to ensure this was the case, which to be honest, is wise in any place you haven’t visited before.

This country does have a high crime rate, but the bulk of incidents generally occur off the main tourist trail. Needless to say, it is of great importance that you don’t go wandering around in a misguided attempt to “explore the real South Africa”. It is unfortunately unlikely to end well.

A few tips to stay safe are below, a lot of which are applicable and sensible wherever you are in the world, but just of particular importance in South Africa.

Brenton on Sea Beach in Knysna South Africa
Coastline along the Garden Route

Safety Tips for Travellers

  1. Check with your accommodation where is ok to go and where you should avoid. It is hugely in their interest to keep you safe and I have found they will often enquire as to what your plans are in order to check you aren’t inadvertently doing anything or going anywhere that isn’t a great idea from a safety point of view. Another important point is whether you should walk (if this is even an option) or drive; always check this, it may be safe where you are going but the route could be a different matter. Where is safe to walk in the day also may not be recommended at night.
  2. Leave your expensive stuff at home. Ladies, consider leaving your engagement rings if you have them and just bringing your wedding band instead. The only thing I struggled with here was my tech, I had my laptop, camera and phone, which together make up a healthy sum!
  3. Do not leave your valuables unattended. Use your hotel safe, keep your valuables in a zipped bag when out and about (don’t leave your phone in your back pocket) and for the love of god, do not leave any valuables in your car. On this note, don’t pack any valuables in your suitcase either and you should absolutely have a lock on your case. South Africa used to have a terrible reputation for luggage being broken into, although I believe this has been getting better in recent years.

Related Post: Beautiful Beaches in Knysna: Sand, Sea & Sunsets

Load Shedding

Imagine this, having travelled for pretty much dead on 48 hours, including cancelled flights and the longest layover at Johannesburg airport, you are on the final stretch, driving towards your accommodation. But you spend an extra hour delayed in traffic as the power is out so the traffic lights are down. It’s rush hour on a Friday evening, so the roads are chaos. You finally get to your villa and all you want is a coffee. Yep, there isn’t any, because the power is out.

It’s the kind of thing that can cause major melt downs. My point? This is a regular occurrence in South Africa. They cannot generate enough power to supply the country (a very long and slightly horrifying story) and so to compensate, regularly engage in a practice called load shedding, where they shut off the power to a certain region for a given period of time.

They rotate the schedule through different areas and implement different stages ranges from one to eight, dependant on how much power needs to be shed. Stage 1 means load shedding will be scheduled six times over a four day period for two hours at a time, or three times over an eight day period for four hours at a time.

Stage 8, which luckily has not yet had to be implemented, basically means that power is only available for 50% of the day. They got as high as Stage 6 in December 2019 and when we were there a couple of months later, most of our trip was during Stage 2 load shedding.

Knysna Waterfront on the Garden Route in South Africa
Knysna Waterfront

What Does Loading Shedding Mean for My Trip?

After I got over the initial shock that a developed country is operating like this (and had a cup of coffee), it really wasn’t that bad. I kept a close eye on the Eskom load shedding schedule (the power company) and we planned around it.

Most high end and some mid range hotels will have generators in place, but they can be unreliable as well, so you need to prepare yourself that it is likely at some point during your trip you will experience a power outage. As we stayed in a villa on our most recent trip and didn’t have a generator, we were without power during load shedding periods. It was fine during the day, we would generally just lie by the pool and read or go to the beach. You can also plan to go to a nearby district for the day that is on a different load shedding schedule.

Have a read of my South Africa Packing List for some travel essentials that will make the power outages much easier.

When load shedding happened in the evenings, we would gather on the deck a few minutes before the power was due to go out with candles and wine and watch the power shut off across the valley below us and then wait for it to light up again a few hours later. They were actually some of our favourite evenings with no distractions and there’s something very peaceful about the total darkness around you.

But one thing was very clear, it affects South Africans on a daily basis. There are ongoing concerns as to what it means for the economy, and businesses operating in the tourism sector worry about what it means for visitors coming to South Africa. While mildly inconvenient, it’s really not that bad as a visitor, just check the schedule and plan to be doing a non-power related activity when the power is down.

Brenton on Sea Beach in Knysna South Africa
Brenton Beach, the Garden Route has some of the best beaches I have ever seen

Water Shortages

Power is not the only major resource South Africa is lacking, they are also short on water. While not nearly as bad as it was (there was a very real concern that Cape Town was going to run completely dry back in 2018), it is an ongoing concern. We didn’t see any direct impact from this, but you will see lots of signs asking you to conserve water where possible, which is perfectly doable.

Planning a Trip to South Africa

Invest in a good guide book and it will help you choose the areas to visit, when to visit, history of the country, as well as recommended places to stay, restaurants and things to see. I am a Lonely Planet fan and rarely travel anywhere without their guidebook on the area; they nail the difficult task of presenting a huge amount of information in a way I find really easy to understand and absorb. It is also great to have a copy for that load shedding time when the electronics are all out!

Noetzie Beach in Knysna South Africa
Noetzie Beach

Tipping Etiquette

The standard amount to tip in South Africa is anywhere between 10% and 15%, but it is entirely at your discretion. Cash is generally preferred, but it is fine to tip with a credit card in places like restaurants.

Petrol attendees and car guards (more on these later) you should tip between R2 and R5. If you go on tours or safari, it is common practice to tip the guide. Use your judgement, but generally between R20 and R50 seemed to be the going rate for a group tour of a couple of hours.

Getting Around South Africa

In all honesty, I didn’t explore this option much. South Africa’s rail services are all but completely crippled because the tracks keep being vandalised and there is no subway or similar in any of the big cities. I personally only tend to take public transport in the big developed cities when travelling (convenience is generally my first priority). In the spirit of trying to keep safe in South Africa, I also wasn’t keen on taking public transport when I didn’t know what areas it involved travelling through.

What further cemented this decision for me was how ridiculously cheap both internal flights, car hire (both with or without a driver) and fuel was. It’s not often convenience and price marry up, but I was first to hop on board!

To give you an idea on car hire pricing, three weeks car hire in peak season at the end of January and beginning of February from Avis at George Airport cost £587 for a Ford Eco Sport, including two named drivers. It was classed as a medium SUV, but for anyone that has been in one, I think you would agree this description is a stretch! Smaller cars were starting from under £300 for the same time period.

Top Tip: Adding GPS to my booking cost an additional £52. See my note below on getting a local SIM and using this for navigation, I found it both easier and cheaper.

Best Restaurants in Knysna: Sunset at Knysna Waterfront
Sunset over the Knysna Lagoon

Driving in South Africa

I have found driving in South Africa an absolute breeze. Firstly, as a Brit, it is one of very few countries that also drive on the left hand side. Secondly, all the main roads we drove on were wide and very well maintained. The most difficult thing I found was focussing on driving when the views were as amazing as they are!

There are a few things to be aware of though. Keep an eye on your speed, the speed limits change frequently (they are also in kmph) and there were lots of speed traps, especially along the Garden Route.

It is courtesy in South Africa to cross the line onto the hard shoulder while continuing to drive at the speed you were if someone comes up close behind you wanting to overtake. Obviously use your judgement and only do this where it is safe to do so and maybe watch a few other drivers do it first. Both the hard shoulder and the main driving lanes are very wide in a lot of places, so it is easy enough to do.

We also found that cars were regularly stopped with a road block to check licences and documentation. We never got selected to stop and were always waved through, but a few locals told us it is routine for the police to pull you over and check your driving licence, so keep it with you when driving. It’s standard procedure and do not be tempted to slip them any money, you’ll likely be hauled back to the police station.

Navigation

GOOGLE MAPS IS LYING TO YOU. And Apple Maps for that matter. And your GPS if you have one. Add on at least 20% extra time to get somewhere, for some inexplicable reason our route time always seemed to be underestimated. We only ever encountered traffic jams in bigger towns when load shedding (meaning the traffic lights were out of action) conincided with rush hour, so traffic wasn’t a cause.

Sometimes it was down to us taking smaller roads, which unlike the main roads, were often unmaintained or not tarmacked, so we had to go a lot slower. The maps seem to assume all roads you can go at the posted speed limit, but having said that, even for journeys where this was true, the estimated drive time was still out (although not by as much).

We also found that just typing in the name of a place rather than a specific address would get us in the wrong location using Apple Maps. For this reason I would try and use Google Maps, or at least double check the actual location is the same on both apps.

View of Knysna Heads from East Head Café
Looking out through the Knysna Heads at the lovely East Head Café

Drinking and Driving

The alcohol limit for drinking and driving in South Africa is a very low 0.05% blood alcohol concentration, compared to the UK’s & most of the USA’s slightly higher level of 0.08%. Bearing in mind I will only have one small wine in the UK and drive, if I was designated driver for the night then I decided it was safer to stick to soft drinks.

Related Post: The Best Restaurants in Knysna on the Garden Route

Taxis

And for the nights you do want that glass (bottle) of vino, you can get a taxi. Either use the taxi company your hotel recommends, or in the big cities you can use Uber. In South Africa all Uber drivers have to have both licence and background checks before being accepted for work on the platform.

Parking

Parking is generally plentiful and free (less so in the big city centres), we didn’t struggle anywhere. There are often car parking attendants who help you park (not that most need it) and then “guard” your car. Weird concept, but not one I was going to pass up in South Africa. One way or the other, my car wasn’t broken into and all the attendants were very friendly. There is no official charge for this, but you should tip them.

Is the Water Safe to Drink in South Africa?

The tap water is totally safe to drink everywhere in South Africa, so bring your water bottle and top up anywhere! That being said, bottled water is also very easy to come by as well.

Tapas & Oysters Restaurant on Thesen Island in Knysna
Oysters & cocktails on Thesen Island

Electricity & Power Supply

And another reason I love South Africa, they have the same voltage as us Brits! At 230 V and 50 Hz, I don’t need a power converter, but if you (and your electrical devices) are from the USA, you will.

South Africa have Type C, D, M & N plug sockets so you will need a travel adaptor. Try and get one that fit all of these outlet types.

Related Post: Your Ultimate Guide to Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route

Mobile Phone Coverage & WiFi

I was warned before I went to South Africa that mobile phone and WiFi coverage was not as extensive as in the UK/USA, but I can’t say I noticed much difference. The only exception was when on safari in Kruger where it was more patchy, which is to be expected.

On my first trip to South Africa, I got hit with a scarily high bill, despite the UK phone providers having got much better at providing reasonable data roaming charges in recent years. As we were going for even longer this time and were hiring a car rather than a driver and a car, I knew I would need it for navigation purposes and so purchased a local SIM on arrival, the first time I have ever done this while travelling.

It worked a treat, I bought one at Vodacom while waiting for my internal connection in Johannesburg airport and they gave me several package options; I got 5GB of data, 50 texts, 50 minutes of calls to international numbers (very helpful) and R50 worth of local calls. I’m not sure how many minutes the latter equated to, but did fine for making restaurant reservations and calling taxis almost daily for three weeks!

If you have an unlocked phone, I highly recommend this as it was R549 for the package plus R100 for the SIM, which is around £30. Plus then you can use your phone for navigation purposes and not rack up a whopper of a phone bill.

Coney Glen Beach in Knysna South Africa
Coney Glen Beach at the foot of the Knysna Heads

Baboons

There’s sometimes a bit of a misconception that there is wildlife roaming everywhere in South Africa, but with the exception of baboons in some places, this is just not the case.

We found baboons were quite common along the Garden Route and seem to be particularly attracted to golf courses! If you are staying somewhere and the area has baboons (you’ll know as there will be signs telling you not to feed them), just be aware when leaving your doors and windows open. They are not afraid to come inside and can do some damage quite quickly, so just be careful.

We were given the advice to keep our windows and doors closed, but there was no air conditioning in our villa, so this just wasn’t an option. We were staying in very much a luxury villa and I was quite surprised, but apparently this is common in even the higher end places in South Africa, so if this is important to you, check! Don’t worry, if you’re staying in higher end hotels, they generally do have air conditioning units in the room.

If the baboons do take something from you, just let them have it and don’t attempt to get it back as they could become aggressive. Wait until they are bored and leave it, then go and retrieve it. It is food that generally attracts them, so don’t leave any out.

Final Thoughts: South Africa Travel Tips

South Africa is just wonderful for so many reasons and if you are thinking of going I would encourage you to, I genuinely believe there is something for everyone here. If there are any other travel tips for South Africa I have missed, let me know!

Travel Resources

Check flight routes and prices with Skyscanner. From the UK, British Airways fly from London Heathrow to Cape Town and Durban (three times a week to each) and Johannesburg (twice every day).

View and book accommodation in South Africa with Booking.comAgoda or Hotels.com.

Buy a Lonely Planet Guide for South Africa for the best planning and information resources.

– You can check out my full list of tried, tested and recommended Travel Resources here.

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