South Africa Travel Tips for First Timers
Even for the most well-traveled individuals, nothing prepares you for the jaw-dropping diversity found on the Southernmost tip of the African continent. The country epitomizes all the best parts of Africa into one quintessential travel experience unparalleled like nowhere on the planet!
Often referred to as the "Rainbow Nation," South Africa is a land of breathtaking landscapes, vibrant cultures, and a rich history that spans centuries. This diverse nation offers a unique blend of natural wonders, wildlife, and a tapestry of traditions that captivate travelers worldwide.
However, like most destinations, the country isn't free from blemishes. If otherwise, so many murky scenarios would make for a distasteful travel experience. But that isn't reason enough to write off one of the world's most incredible travel experiences. With this guide of South Africa travel tips for first-timers, you should be able to navigate the country's unenviable experiences and have one of the best experiences on the African continent.
Join a Guided Tour
Planning a trip in a diverse country like South Africa, with so much to see, can be stressful, especially when you have to do it quickly. Embarking on a guided tour will take the stress of planning every little detail and also take you to hidden gems you might now have discovered on your own.
These vary depending on tests. Some are purely game-viewing escapades; others take you through the metropolitan, like our 10-day New Year's adventure in Cape Town and Johannesburg. These South African tours can be tailored to your preferences. Whether you are up for an adventurous hike on Table Mountain or a leisurely journey on a luxury train through the country's hidden gems, our tour is one of the best ways to usher in the new year.
Another way is joining a wine tour. South Africa has a long history of making wine for over 400 years. You can discover this history through wine tours organized by local travel experts. These tours will introduce you to the savory side of South Africa, a country known for Nelson Mandela, its "big five" wildlife, and one of the only six Floral Kingdoms.
During your trip, you will explore nature, taste wines in beautiful vineyards, enjoy exciting safaris, and enjoy memorable gourmet experiences. Exclusive wine tours in South Africa offer unique experiences like whale watching in Hermanus while savoring delicious wines, playing golf on the country's best courses, or tasting the delightful Methode Cap Classique sparkling wines, South Africa's Champagne equivalent.
Get Money Smart Before You Arrive
One invaluable travel tip for South Africa is knowing where to change your money. The safest place to do so is at the airport when you arrive. You can also exchange money at many hotels or banks across the country, but keep in mind that banks might have long lines, and you will need your passport. You can easily find exchange offices in popular tourist areas like Cape Town or near Kruger.
In South Africa, they use the Rand (ZAR) as their currency. Rands come in notes of 10, 20, 50, 100, and 200 and coins of R1, R2, and R5, as well as 5, 10, 20, and 50 cents. You can find ATMs in shopping malls, gas stations, and supermarkets if you need to take out money. However, it's best not to carry much cash when traveling in South Africa.
You can also pay with cards at most places across South Africa. However, it's a good idea to carry a bit of both for ease and flexibility, especially in cities where they accept Visa and Mastercard.
Nowadays, more people use digital payment options like mobile apps and contactless cards. Services like Yoco, SnapScan, Zapper, and Samsung Pay let you make safe and easy payments with your smartphone. If you are paying with a card at a restaurant, always request the card machine and don't let your credit card leave your sight.
Also, swipe your card instead of using the "tap" feature because there have been card cloning cases with that method. Also, be cautious if strangers come near you at ATMs, and don't share your PIN with anyone. But when you go to remote areas or small towns, it's wise to have cash with you, even in small change.
Staying Safe in South Africa
Is South Africa a safe place to visit? Yes, it is safe, but you must use common sense and stay aware of your surroundings. Safety is a big concern for first-time visitors. While South Africa does have a high crime rate, most incidents happen in areas away from where tourists usually go, so the risk for tourists is quite low. Here are some tips to stay safe:
- Blend in and avoid looking like a tourist.
- Don't flash expensive items like jewelry, cameras, or phones.
- Never leave your things unattended; use your hotel's safety deposit box for valuables, including passports.
- Keep your valuable belongings out of sight to avoid attracting attention.
- Always lock your car doors.
- Pay attention to your location and surroundings, just like you would in any big city.
- Plan your route before heading out, especially at night.
- Don't put valuables in your suitcases; carry them in your hand luggage.
Yes, it may sound like a lot of safety tips, but these are general safety rules to always apply when visiting ANY place on the planet. Crime knows no borders - so always stay alert.
Speak it into Existence: Connect by Learning Local Slang
Experienced travelers know how vital it is to prepare for an overseas journey. And one of the best ways to do so is by getting familiar with your destination. A great tip is to pick up a few words in the local language. South Africa has about 11 official languages. Although English is the third most spoken, South Africans have added their unique touch by mixing Afrikaan and Zulu words. Here are some common South African slang words to know before your trip:
- Aikona: Translates "definitely not."
- Eina: Express sharp pain.
- Babbelas: For a hangover.
- Eish: An expression of shock or surprise.
- Haiybo: Zulu for "definitely not."
- Howzit: A common greeting instead of "Hi, how are you."
- Lekker: Afrikaans for awesome, great, or good.
Tipping in South Africa
In South Africa, it isn't customary but a polite gesture to tip service providers. You can get small denominations ready for when the time comes to show your appreciation. Especially in cities, folks who work in jobs like serving at restaurants appreciate getting a tip.
When you use services like Uber or Bolt, giving a tip through the app is expected. The amount you give depends on how impressed you are with the driver and the distance traveled, usually around 10-20% of the total fare.
In busy places like malls or parking lots, some attendants help you find parking spots. Some of them wear uniforms, while others are there informally and rely on tips for survival. You can give them around 5-10 Rands to show appreciation before leaving your parking slot.
No need to spend boatloads on bottled water
In South Africa, tap water in cities is safe for drinking and cooking. However, not all tap water is safe to drink in rural areas. So, be cautious when you visit a rural area. In these places, they use borehole systems to get water from underground and store it in containers. Then, it's purified before it comes out of your tap.
In big cities, you can drink tap water without worries. It's a good idea to bring a reusable water bottle with you to carry some for your outings. If you are unsure, ask your hotel concierge if the tap water is safe to drink.
Do Your Homework: Research and Plan Your Itinerary
Take time to look up the places you want to go, what you want to do, and the food you want to try in South Africa. Also, think about when and where you want to go. Planning your trip before setting off for your trip is a good idea.
Do your research, figure out where you want to visit, what you want to see, and how to get there. Keep in mind that traveling between places can take a long time. For instance, driving from Johannesburg to Cape Town takes almost 16 hours! If that's too much, consider using different types of transportation like flights and rental cars.
Having such details planned out before jetting off for your vacation should significantly enhance your experiences in this beautiful country.
Get Travel Protection
Do you need travel protection for South Africa? LIFE happens... Therefore, travel projection is always a great investment for any trip. South Africa offers a ton of exciting adventures. You can swim with sharks, do the highest bungee jump, go on amazing hikes, or glide off mountains.
If you are up for adventure in South Africa, ensure your travel insurance covers such extremities. One big reason people get travel insurance is to ensure they are covered for medical expenses while on vacation. Some regular health insurance plans only work in your home country. Having travel medical insurance can help you avoid big bills if you get sick or hurt while traveling.
But there are other good reasons, too. Most travelers fly a long way to South Africa - with 1-2 connections. Therefore, flight insurance can be invaluable in case of delays or flight cancellations. So, consider comprehensive travel insurance if you are worried about missed flights or delays.
It protects you and covers lost baggage, emergency evacuation, and dental care. So, when looking at your South Africa trip insurance options, think about what's most important to you.
Get Carded: Buy an eSIM or Local SIM Card
South Africa doesn't have widespread Wi-Fi coverage compared to North America, East Asia, or Europe. Plus, the internet there can be costly because mobile data prices are among the highest globally. Nevertheless, you can find free Wi-Fi in most hotels, airports, and restaurants.
However, if you want a smooth travel experience in South Africa, you'll still need the internet when you go outside. The easiest way to stay connected is to get a local SIM card at the airport when you arrive. Several vendors are inside the airport, with Vodacom, MTN, and Cell C being the most popular ones. You can buy data bundles and airtime to make calls, ensuring you stay connected. Data bundles cost around R150 for 1GB (less than 10 USD).
Another way to keep in touch with friends and family back home is to subscribe to an eSIM service. One of the most famous on the market is Airalo, which offers significantly lower rates when compared to international roaming packages.
Test Your Taste Buds: Try the Local Delicacies
If you're a foodie, South Africa has a lot to offer! The country has a diverse food scene with many delicious South African dishes. It's hard to list them all here because there are so many. South African food is colorful and influenced by various African, Dutch, French, and Malay cultures.
However, it's important to note that eating out in South Africa is not as cheap as in other places like Asia. In fact, middle-class South Africans often dine out once or twice a week, while the rest of the time, they enjoy cooking at home, having a barbecue (called a braai), or getting quick takeout.
One popular South African snack worth trying is biltong, which is dried and spiced meat. It's a bit like American beef jerky. Beef biltong is the most popular, but venison biltong is also enjoyed. There are even unusual varieties like chicken biltong. Biltong is served as a snack at most social gatherings and is often used in potjiekos recipes.
Another favorite is boerewors, known as "farmer's sausage." It's made from beef mince with at least 90% meat and seasoned with spices like coriander, cloves, and nutmeg. Boerewors has a unique and delicious flavor. Many locals like to make their own boerewors, and it's a must-have at any braai.
Visiting South Africa is an extraordinary and transformative experience that leaves travelers with lasting memories and a deep appreciation for its diverse landscapes, rich culture, and warm-hearted people. This remarkable country offers many adventures, from thrilling wildlife safaris in its renowned national parks to exploring vibrant cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg, each with unique charm.
Even though some have branded South Africa as a dangerous destination for first-timers, our detailed guide should help you have the best experience in the Rainbow Nation.
Ready to visit South Africa? Why not for New Year's? Book our December 27, 2023 - January 5, 2024 New Year's Adventure today. Deadline: 10/18/23.