Tips and travel advice for South Africa

South Africa is one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries, boasting a remarkable variety of ecosystems, from savannas and deserts to forests and coastal areas. It is home to approximately 10% of the world's known bird, fish, and plant species. Visitors flock from around the globe for wildlife safaris, shark cage diving, wine tourism and more. Here’s our compilation of the best South African travel advice to make your trip go as smoothly as possible.

Travel advice and tips for visiting South Africa

If you’re in the middle of planning your next big trip to South Africa, you’re sure to have some questions. In this guide, we’ve compiled the best of our South Africa travel tips from our local travel experts. We’ll cover safety concerns, costs, weather, visas and the efforts that are being made to improve accessibility in the tourism sector.

Traditional Tsonga fish traps built in the Kosi Bay estuary, Tongaland, South Africa © Shutterstock

Traditional Tsonga fish traps, Tongaland, South Africa © Shutterstock

Is South Africa safe?

While South Africa boasts breathtaking scenery, it's important to stay aware of safety concerns. The country grapples with a high crime rate, including instances of violence, which can occur anywhere, even in popular tourist spots and transportation hubs. Most violent incidents happen in townships on the outskirts of major cities or in isolated areas, particularly after dark.

While in these areas, exercise caution, especially at traffic lights, junctions, petrol stations, and driveways, as vehicle hijackings and robberies are common, especially after sunset. You’ll want to be sure to download maps for offline use, as internet connectivity can be unreliable in certain regions. You’ll also want to keep important travel documents secured in the hotel safe while you're out exploring. 

In general, it’s best to stick to well-known tourist attractions, stay aware of your surroundings, and avoid travelling at night whenever possible.

Despite these considerations, South Africa remains a journey well worth taking.

For more information, see the UK Government’s foreign travel advice page, or the US Department of State’s travel advisory.

South Africa for women travellers

For solo female adventurers eyeing a trip to South Africa, it's vital to anticipate potential challenges. Street harassment unfortunately occurs frequently, so staying vigilant is crucial for your safety. With a high crime rate, especially for violent offences, maintaining awareness of your surroundings at all times is essential.

If hiking is on your itinerary, consider joining a guided hike for added security. If you opt for a solo trek, stick to marked paths and avoid early mornings or late evenings. When it comes to transportation, booking an Uber with a high rating is a prudent choice. While many seasoned solo travellers enjoy South Africa, some may feel more comfortable and secure in a group setting.

South Africa for LGBTQ+ travellers

South Africa has made significant progress in LGBTQ+ rights compared to many other African nations. Urban centres like Cape Town and Johannesburg boast thriving LGBTQ+ communities and establishments, with Cape Town even ranking among the world’s top gay destinations.

 However, attitudes toward LGBTQ+ individuals can vary across regions and communities. Rural areas may exhibit more conservative views, particularly regarding gender-nonconforming individuals. Many LGBTQ+ travellers will still love South Africa. 

Historic Kimberly diamond mine world heritage site © Shutterstock

Historic Kimberly diamond mine: UNESCO World Heritage Site © Shutterstock

How to get to South Africa

South Africa is home to several major airports, with the busiest ones being O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, Cape Town International Airport in Cape Town, and King Shaka International Airport in Durban. Fares to South Africa tend to be most expensive during peak travel seasons, such as during the South African summer (December to February) and major holidays like Christmas and Easter.

For more information, see our in-depth guide to getting to South Africa

How to get to South Africa from the UK & Ireland

From the UK and Ireland, the best way to reach South Africa is typically by flying directly into Johannesburg or Cape Town. Direct flights from London take around 11-12 hours, while flights from Dublin may have a layover, extending the travel time. If you can't find a direct flight, you can opt for connecting flights through major international hubs like Dubai, Doha, or Amsterdam. 

How to get to South Africa from the US & Canada

Crossing the pond from the US and Canada requires a bit more planning. Most travellers embark from major hubs like New York, Atlanta, or Toronto, with a layover in Europe or the Middle East before touching down in Johannesburg or Cape Town. Depending on your route and layover duration, expect flight times ranging from 15 to 20+ hours for US departures, with Canadian journeys adding a few extra hours to the journey. 

Great sardine run, South Africa © wildestanimal/Shutterstock

Great sardine run, South Africa © wildestanimal/Shutterstock

How to get around South Africa

Navigating South Africa is easier than you might think, despite the vast distances. Public transport is fairly well-organized. There are also plenty of car rental options, and the road system is top-notch, earning its reputation as the best in Africa. Additionally, you'll find the most comprehensive network of internal flights on the continent. 

However, it's worth noting that public transport in urban areas can be risky, particularly buses, so it's best to steer clear of those.

For the ultimate freedom and flexibility, renting a car or hiring a chartered car is your best bet. Trying to reach national parks or venture off the beaten track via public transport is next to impossible. And even if you do manage it, having a car on hand once you arrive will likely be essential for getting around effectively. It’s also freeing to explore at your own pace.

Is South Africa expensive?

The most expensive thing about visiting South Africa is getting there. How cheap the rest of your trip will be will depend partly on your travel style

For budget travellers, you might spend around £70 ($90 USD) per day, which would cover accommodation, food, transportation, activities, and miscellaneous expenses.

If you're opting for a mid-range experience, expect to allocate approximately £165 ($210 USD) per day. This would cover a combination of public transport and occasional taxi rides, dining at moderately priced restaurants, and engaging in activities like guided tours.

For those interested in a luxurious retreat, you can expect to spend over £320 ($400 USD) per day. This includes fine dining, upscale retreats, renting a car, and enjoying private tours.

A camelthorn tree with a sociable weaver community nest on the road from the N14-road to the Onseepkans border post on the border of Namibia © Shutterstock

Our South Africa travel advice: don't miss N14-road © Shutterstock

Best time to visit South Africa

Although South Africa is predominantly a dry, sunny country, timing is everything, and it's worth considering the seasons to make the most of your itinerary.

If you're interested in wildlife safaris, aim for the dry winter months from May to September. This is when the animals gather around watering holes, making them easier to spot. Plus, with less foliage around, your chances of catching sight of the Big Five are pretty good. Just remember, mornings and evenings can get a bit chilly, so bring along some layers to stay cosy during your game drives.

For beach holidays and outdoor activities like hiking, the summer months from November to February are ideal. With warmer temperatures and clear skies, it's the perfect time to soak up the sun along the stunning coastline or hit the trails. But keep in mind, this is also when the rains come, especially in the northeast and along the Garden Route.

For a more detailed look, see our guide to the best time to visit South Africa.

How many days do you need in South Africa?

If you've got a week to spare, seven days can pack in quite a punch. You'll have enough time to hit up Cape Town's iconic Table Mountain, soak in the bustling vibes of Johannesburg, and maybe even squeeze in a safari at Kruger National Park. It's a whirlwind, but enough to get a solid taste of what South Africa has to offer.

Extend your stay to ten days, and you're in for a more relaxed ride. You can dive deeper into the places you visit, maybe spend a day or two exploring the lush vineyards of the Cape Winelands or cruising along the famed Garden Route.

But if you're dreaming of the ultimate South African trip, 14 days is where it's at. With that much time on your hands, you can really sink your teeth into the experience. 

Ideally, this gives you at least five days to discover The Garden Route, with plenty of leftover time to visit the cities and beaches. 

Kirstenbosch National park in cape town, South Africa © Shutterstock

Kirstenbosch National park in Cape Town, South Africa © Shutterstock

Do you need a visa?

Nationals of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Argentina and Brazil don’t require a visa to enter South Africa. Most EU nationals don’t need a visa, with the exception of passport holders from Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia, who will need to obtain one at a South African diplomatic mission in their home country. 

As long as you carry a passport that is valid for at least six months and with at least two empty pages you will be granted a temporary visitor’s permit, which allows you to stay in South Africa for up to ninety days for most nationals, and thirty days for EU passport holders from Cyprus, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. All visitors should have a valid return ticket

Travelling to South Africa with kids

South Africa has numerous family-friendly attractions, such as the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, where you can find the Two Oceans Aquarium and the Cape Wheel. In Johannesburg, visit the Johannesburg Zoo or the Gold Reef City theme park for an exciting day out.

Given the country's vast size, be prepared for some long drives. Take it slow, and plan your route with plenty of pit stops along the way. Consider hopping on a train or a short flight between destinations to break up the journey. The Garden Route is a fantastic option, offering scenic drives with ample opportunities for picnics, especially between Mossel Bay and Storms River. However, the route from Johannesburg to Cape Town can be a bit tedious, so brace yourself for a longer haul.

While game viewing is a must-do activity in South Africa, it may not be the most exciting for young children. Hours of driving and the possibility of not spotting any animals can lead to some disappointment.

If they are old enough to enjoy the experience, make sure they have their own binoculars.

While tap water is generally safe to drink in major cities and tourist areas, it's advisable to stick to bottled water, especially for young children, to avoid any potential stomach upsets.

Learn more about travelling to South Africa with kids in our guide.

Blokrans Bridge  © Shutterstock

What to pack for your trip to South Africa

For safaris or exploring national parks like Kruger, be sure to pack neutral-coloured, long-sleeved shirts and pants to protect against insects and the sun. A wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and sturdy, comfortable walking shoes or boots are also essential, as are binoculars.

For those exploring the coast, you’ll want to bring swimwear and lightweight, breathable clothing: particularly cotton and linen. If you are travelling in South Africa’s winter, you might want to bring some light layers, such as a lightweight fleece, especially if you’re venturing to higher altitude destinations like the Drakensberg Mountains. 

Bringing a money belt or some kind of hidden pouch for your phone or other valuables is a smart choice. Finally, of course, don’t forget to bring a high-quality and waterproof sunscreen. 

South Africa for travellers with reduced mobility

South Africa has made strides in improving accessibility for tourists with reduced mobility, especially in major cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg. While many hotels and tourist attractions offer accessible accommodations, transportation options can be limited, and public transportation may not always be fully accessible.

By accident rather than design, you’ll find pretty good accessibility to many buildings, as South Africans tend to build low (single-storey bungalows are the norm).

There are plenty of organised tours and activity-based packages specifically for people with reduced mobility. These packages offer the possibility for wheelchair-bound visitors to take part in safaris, sports and a vast range of adventure activities.

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