Relative to what’s on offer in other developing countries, accommodation in South Africa may seem expensive, but standards are generally high and you get exceptional bang for your buck. Even the most modest backpacker lodge will provide a minimum of fresh sheets and clean rooms. Other than in the very cheapest rooms, a private bath or shower is almost always provided, and you’ll often have the use of a garden or swimming pool. You’re in luck if you’re looking for something special as South Africa has some outstanding boutique hotels, luxury guesthouses, lodges and country retreats – invariably in beautiful settings – at fairly reasonable prices by developed world standards. The country’s national parks and reserves themselves feature a range of accommodation, from fairly basic restcamps to incredibly slick game lodges.
The continuing growth of backpacker accommodation means you’ll find a hostel in most areas, and many offer excellent facilities. For camping and self-catering, you’ll be spoilt for choice.
Advance booking is vital if you’re travelling in high season or if you plan to stay in a national park or in popular areas such as Cape Town or the Garden Route. South Africa’s peak season is during the midsummer Christmas school holiday period, which coincides with many foreign tourists piling in to catch their winter tan. The Easter school holiday is a less intense period, when South African families migrate to the coast and inland resorts. At both Christmas and Easter, prices for budget and mid-priced accommodation (but not backpacker lodges or camping) can double, and most places get booked up months ahead (see Opening hours and holidays).
Most of South Africa’s budget hotels are throwbacks to the 1950s and 1960s. Most have degenerated into watering holes, earning most of their keep from the bar.
Mid-range hotels usually charge from R800 a room. Along the coastal holiday strips such as the Garden Route, southern KwaZulu-Natal and all the major seaside towns in between, these hotels are ubiquitous and frequently offer rooms on the beachfront. Many of the mid-priced hotels – especially those on main routes in the interior – are fully booked during the week by travelling salesmen, but over the weekend, when they’re often empty, you can usually negotiate reasonable discounts.
A large number of mid-range and upmarket establishments belong to large hotel chains, of which Protea (www.proteahotels.com) is the largest in the country. Other groups include Southern Sun (www.southernsun.com), Holiday Inn (www.ichotels.com) and Three Cities (www.threecities.co.za), all of which offer reliable but sometimes soulless accommodation.
If you’re after somewhere special to stay and have a little money to burn you can get incredible value in South Africa at small, characterful establishments – something the country really excels at. You’ll find hip boutique hotels in the cities and dorps and luxurious country lodges in exceptional natural surroundings: eco-lodges in the middle of forests, places perched on the edges of cliffs and magical hideaways in the middle of nowhere. For a really memorable stay expect to pay from R1500 a room, but more usually from R2000. At these places you can expect to be pampered and there will often be a spa on site. There are also numerous first-rate safari camps and game lodges, which fulfil all those Out-of-Africa fantasies.
The most ubiquitous form of accommodation in South Africa is in B&Bs and guesthouses. The official difference between the two is that the owner lives on site at a B&B. The most basic B&Bs are just one or two rooms in a private home, with washing facilities shared with the owners. In reality, the distinction is a little hazy once you move up a notch to B&Bs and guesthouses that provide en-suite rooms (as is usually the case). Rates for en-suite rooms in both start at around R400, for which you can expect somewhere clean, comfortable and relaxed, but usually away from the beach or other action. Moving up a notch, you’ll be paying from R600 for a room with a bit extra, and anything from R1000 upwards should offer the works: a great location, comfort and good service.
For decades the homes of black South Africans were deliberately kept hidden from tourist trails, a situation that has changed dramatically with the proliferation of township tours. Since the late 1990s, township dwellers have begun offering accommodation, opening up new possibilities for experiencing South Africa. Township B&Bs are still few in number, but we’ve tried to cover as many as possible in the Guide; expect to pay from R500 per room per night for this type of accommodation.
Along many roads in the countryside you will see signs for “Bed en Ontbyt” (Afrikaans for “bed and breakfast”), signalling farmstay accommodation. These offer rooms in the main homestead or in a cottage in its garden. Some offer hiking, horse-riding, and other activities and excursions – there are some real gems dotted about, which we’ve listed in this Guide. Tourist offices almost always have lists of farms in the area that rent out rooms or cottages.
Caravanning was once the favourite way to have a cheap family holiday in South Africa, and this accounts for the very large number of caravan parks dotted across the length and breadth of the country. However, their popularity has declined and with it the standard of many of the country’s municipal caravan parks and campsites. Today, municipal campsites are generally pretty scruffy, though you may find the odd pleasant one in rural areas, or near small dorps. Staying in a municipal campsite adjoining a city or large town is often more grief than it’s worth; not only will facilities be run-down, but theft is a big risk. Municipal sites cost around R80 per tent.
All in all, you’re best off heading for the privately owned resorts, where for roughly the same price you get greater comfort. Although private resorts sometimes give off a holiday-camp vibe, they usually provide good washing and cooking facilities, self-catering chalets, shops selling basic goods, braai stands and swimming pools.
Virtually all national parks – and many provincial reserves – have campsites, and in some of the really remote places, such as parts of KwaZulu-Natal, camping may be your only option. Use of a campsite will cost R150–250 per site depending on the popularity of the park and the facilities. At national parks you can expect well-maintained washing facilities and there are often communal kitchen areas or, at the very least, a braai stand and running water, as well as a decent communal shower, toilet and washing facilities (known locally as “ablutions”).
Camping rough is not recommended anywhere in the country.
The cheapest beds in South Africa are in dormitories at backpacker lodges (or hostels), which go for around R120 per person. These are generally well-run operations with clean linen and helpful staff. In the cities and tourist resorts you’ll have a number of places to choose from and virtually any town of any significance has at least one.
Apart from dorm beds, most also have private rooms (R200–300) – sometimes even with private bathrooms – and an increasing number have family rooms that work out at around R125 per person. They usually have communal kitchens, an on-site restaurant, TV, internet access and often other facilities such as bike rental. When choosing a hostel, it’s worth checking out the ambience as some are party joints, while others have a quieter atmosphere.
The lodges are invariably good meeting points, with a constant stream of travellers passing through, and useful notice boards filled with advertisements for hostels and backpacker facilities throughout the country. Many lodges operate reasonably priced excursions into the surrounding areas, and will pick you up from train stations or bus stops (especially Baz Bus stops) if you phone in advance.
Away from the resorts and caravan parks, self-catering accommodation in cottages, apartments and small complexes provides the cheapest option apart from staying in a backpackers’ lodge. One of the best things about self-catering is the wide choice of location: there are self-catering places on farms, near beaches, in forests and in wilderness areas, as well as in practically every town and city.
There’s a wide range of this type of accommodation starting from under R500 a night. Apartments often sleep up to six, and because rates are mostly quoted for entire units, this can be very economical if you’re travelling as a family or in a group. You can save a lot of money by cooking for yourself, and you’ll get a sense of freedom and privacy which is missing from even the nicest guesthouse or B&B. Standards are high: cottages or apartments generally come fully equipped with crockery and cutlery, and even microwaves and TVs in the more modern places. Linen and towels are often provided; check before you book in.