Traveling to Africa brings up memories of jungles, safaris and elephants, deserts and adventure. You think about the wildebeest migration, lion hunting or the stealthy leopard planning an ambush. Planning to go to South Africa? There is no big difference.
Definitely, All the above and many more is indeed contained in Africa. But Africa is large and you need to know the various destinations before you go. Today we look at what you need to know before going to South Africa.
An African safari to South Africa is an easy choice for most Westerners. This is because they speak the same language including English. The country also has a variety of cosmopolitan and modern culture that balances the unsullied wilds.
In fact, South Africa has an immense range of opportunities for travelers, whether you’re looking for a rugged adventure, a food and wine tour or a spiritual experience.
Below you will get everything you need to know as you plan on going to South Africa:
Do I Need a Visa to Go to South Africa?
There are many countries that do not require a visa to go to South Africa. This remains true as long as you are visiting South Africa and staying for less than 90 days.
If you’re not sure if you need a visa to go to South Africa, click here. It is important to take note of your passport expiration date. For US Citizen, your passport expiry MUST be at least 30 days after the date of your intended return. if you are a US Citizen.
Always check the latest regulations before you travel just to be sure. Ensure your passport is up to date. You will also need at least one blank page in your passport for the entry stamp which they will add at customs, and they recommend that you have two blank pages, just in case you get a squirrelly customs official.
Money: Do I Need Credit/ Debit Card or Carrying Cash is ok?
The South African Rand (SAR) is what you need when in South Africa. This is especially for local purchases and places where international denominations will not be accepted.
The South African Rand to the USD fluctuates regularly, sometimes extremely. This depends on when you are going to South Africa. It is therefore important to check the rates both when you price and when you book.
Over the past 4 years, it’s been as high as 15 Rand and as low as 9 and it can change quite quickly. Once you’re there, you will get money out of the ATM in Rand.
You will often be charged a foreign transaction fee of about 3 percent by your bank, whether you get cash out or use a credit card. This can be expensive, so make sure you budget for it. Note that some credit cards have no foreign transaction fees.
It is also important to note that banks close early in South Africa. They will usually 3:30PM and are only open until noon or 1PM on Saturdays. (and are closed Sundays), so plan accordingly.
If you will be on a safari in South Africa, ATMs may be unavailable in rural areas. You may however use your cards in the safari lodges. This is one time you might want to consider bringing extra cash and really planning ahead.
You may need that a money belt especially an invisible one that you wear inside your clothes. It becomes extremely important in that case.
You may have to call your bank before you go to South Africa to confirm=m that it has no restrictions. Many times, we have had tour guests calling back to their home country because their transactions were declined. This is because it has been a fraud concern for the banks, so they are all pretty careful.
Also, note that they have problems in a lot of countries with ATM fraud; this may include cloning your card for later use. Some travel insurance providers offer an identity theft protection that continues for 6 months after you return from your trip, so you may want to consider this option.
As with many European countries, make sure you always see your credit card during the transaction; they will have a mobile swipe device; never let your card out of your sight, as that’s when fraud might occur. The legit places know and expect this, so the service they provide during credit card processing will be in front of you.
How do I Get Around South Africa?
Probably you’ll be traveling in-country with either a group tour in a comfy air-conditioned coach with guide/tour leader. You can also rent a car. South Africa has a good road network. For the most part the roads are tarred and well sign posted, one can also hire GPS units with your vehicle and your tour operator will supply driving directions to complement your GPS. Plan your trip in advance if you’re driving; you may need a 4×4 for places where the road becomes gravel or dirt.
You can also opt for a fully packaged South African safari holiday itinerary. On this package you are picked up and dropped off from your point of entry when entering South Africa. You can simply catch a taxi around the cities and make use of day tours in each area. Taxis are readily available within the cities.
In Johannesburg, the relatively new Gauteng Rail System; the Gautrain, is a good option. Just make sure your hotel has a train station near enough and you may be able to take the train from the airport.
Public transport in South Africa, particularly the bus system, is not ideal and neither is the public train system in South Africa. This is contrary in case you are on the luxury passenger trains that have an itinerary all of their own.
Public trains and buses are not recommended in most areas. Always make sure you make use of a taxi service recommended by your South African tour operator or the hotel in which you are staying. It I not advisable to catch a random taxi, as you may be taken for a ride in more ways than one!
What is the Popular Language Spoken in South Africa?
South Africa is also referred to as the ‘Rainbow Nation due to the diverse ethnicity. The country has 11 official languages. Although English is spoken throughout the country and is most used in a business environment, it is actually only the 5th most common home language spoken.
The most widely spoken home language is isiZulu. This is followed by siXhosa; Nelson Mandela’s ‘home’ language and then Afrikaans. Most South Africans are multilingual, which means they will be able to converse with you!
What Customs are Appropriate to Follow?
Tipping is different in South Africa than in the many other countries. You will tip 10 percent of the total service charge at a restaurant and tip $1 to a porter for a bag.
If you got good service somewhere, be sure to tip. Review your restaurant bills, as certain restaurants automatically add the 10 percent tip onto the bill before they give it to you to pay. It is important not to pay double unless the service was fantastic!
If you are self-driving, you will come across many ‘car guards’ in most public areas. Car guards ‘man’ a certain section of parking space and ‘guard’ these cars whilst you are in the mall or on the beach.
On your return while it is not compulsory to tip the car guards, but it is pretty much the norm to tip up to R10 (approx USD $1). You can tip as much as you would like, but between R5 and R10 is considered a ‘good’ tip. These car guards can be quite insistent and at times you may feel a little harassed; keep smiling though!
Note that one custom in South Africa is restrictive carry-on and luggage requirements, including specific dimensions for bags. It is therefore important to check with your airline before you travel.
This is particularly relevant if you are on a fly-in safari in South Africa into a game lodge on a light aircraft. They strictly control luggage, as weight directly impacts safety in-flight.
The standard for light aircraft travel is 20kgs (just over 40 lbs) including carry-on hand luggage per person. For light aircrafts, you also need to pack in soft bags, not suitcases or bags with frames/trolleys will be accepted. This is because they are difficult to fit into the cargo hold and take up unnecessary space.
On light aircrafts there is also a personal weight limit for flyers, so do check with your South African tour operator if you are more than a couple sizes overweight.
Do they drink/do drugs/party?
You can drink in South Africa almost anywhere as there are clubs in the big cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth. There is also a plethora of bars and restaurants throughout South Africa. The drinking age in South Africa is just 18.
Many of the more popular night clubs do charge an entrance fee. Although drugs are available in the bigger night clubs, this is not in plain sight. Marijuana is illegal in South Africa, but if you go looking…
Like most of the US, you can’t smoke in restaurants or any public areas in South Africa. Some restaurants offer a smoking room, which is usually glassed-in and sealed-off. Certain restaurants do not allow you to smoke if you are dining alfresco (outdoors) which is similar to most US laws. Always ask before lighting up.
What Vaccines Do I Need Prior to Visiting South Africa?
You don’t need any, unless you have been traveling through other countries in the “Yellow Fever Belt”. If that is the case, you will be required to show proof of a yellow fever shot. Note that this includes Zambia, home to the amazing Victoria Falls.
While the CDC recommends many immunizations for all travelers (such as measles, mumps, polio, etc.) they also suggest rabies, hepatitis A, tetanus, and typhoid, as there is a risk of exposure to all of these. However, they make the same recommendations for visitors to the UK.
Is it safe? Should I buy travel insurance?
South Africa is relatively safe as far as homicide rates. US cities like New Orleans and Detroit rank far higher than any South African city. However, Cape Town has a high rate of crime common to tourists, such as muggings.
While that absolutely shouldn’t affect your choices to go it does mean you should travel in groups and in larger cities like Cape Town or Joburg take extra precautions.
Some suggestions: don’t leave your hotel grounds alone at night, keep your tour guide and other party members informed as to your whereabouts, and be smart about your safety e.g. keeping your cell phone in your pocket and not wearing earbuds while you are walking around outside.
Make sure to keep your belongings hidden in public, don’t leave them in your car (on a tour bus is fine so long as the driver is staying on the bus) and make sure to use your hotel’s safe for your passport and any valuables. Consider leaving expensive jewelry at home.
Due to the unpredictability of mother nature, it is important to consider travel insurance. You have you seen the volcanos/tsunamis/earthquakes we’ve been having lately? A cancelled flight can ruin a vacation.
If you are headed out into the bush, where medical treatment may not be readily available or a local hospital may be below first-world standards, the medical part of your travel insurance policy will likely offer coverage called “medical evacuation.” This means you can get airlifted out of the area to a major airport, where a trained nurse from the insurance company can assess whether you will be sent home or operated on.
Note that the travel insurance you buy for a few dollars with your plane ticket will likely not cover you fully for your trip, especially if you’re not on a tour. So, you may have to read the fine print. You have a short cancellation period once you purchase the insurance.
What kind of power converter do I need?
South Africa uses a current of 220/230 volt, 15 amps for a 3-prong, round pin plug and 5 amps for a 2-prong round pin plug. If you are coming from almost anywhere, you will need a power converter.
Will my Cell Phone Work When I go to South Africa?
Like many foreign countries, it will be far cheaper for you to buy or bring a small cell phone with no bells and whistles and get a local number, than it will be for you to use your own cell phone, which will likely cost hundreds of dollars in extra roaming charges and fees before you are done. Ask at your hotel, ask your tour guide, etc. It won’t be the first time they’ve gotten the request.
How’s the food? Can I drink the water?
If you’re staying at a 4-star hotel in Cape Town, they will likely have a full water filtration system. On the other hand, if you’re out in the bush, you’ll likely bring tablets or a filtration system to make your available water potable.
Make sure you plan ahead depending on the needs of your trip. In remote locations at the game lodges, you will be able to purchase bottled water; most of the lodges will also offer filtered water, where you can fill up with a water bottle. A souvenir water bottle is often provided by lodge.
The lodges focus on being ecologically friendly and bottled water is one of the blights on the environment with all the plastic, so water filter ‘station’ in the public areas is often available for guests to fill up with ‘free’ water. Bottled water is charged for unless otherwise stated.
As to food, of course you can get fresh local food these days. The variety of food offered may be different from what you are used to; make sure you make arrangements ahead of time through your travel agent or tour operator if you have any dietary restrictions or allergies.
Enjoy the vastness of nature and the variety of culture in South Africa as you see the world through new eyes.