What You Need To Know Before Traveling To South Africa

by Halle Eavelyn, co-founder, Spirit Quest Tours

Visiting Africa conjures up images of jungles, safaris and elephants, deserts and adventure (at least,it does for me!) While Africa indeed contains all these elements, visiting South Africa is an easy choice for most Westerners because they speak the same language (English) and have 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.
Here’s everything you need to know before you travel to South Africa:
How long can I stay without a visa?

Many countries do not require a visa for South Africa so long as you’re visiting for less than 90 days. If you’re not sure if you need a visa, check here. Please note that your passport expiration date 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’ll 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.

What’s the local currency? Do they take credit cards?

You’ll use the South African Rand when you’re there, which is the local currency.  The Rand to the USD fluctuates regularly, sometimes extremely; depending on when you travel, you should 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 an ATM in Rand, and you will often be charged a foreign transaction fee of about 3% 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.  Also, banks close early in South Africa; usually 3:30PM and are only open until noon or 1PM on Saturdays (and are closed Sundays), so plan accordingly.
Are you going into the bush or on a safari? ATMs may be unavailable in rural areas; this is one time you might want to consider bringing extra cash and really planning ahead, but note that a money belt (especially an invisible one that you wear inside your clothes, is extremely important in that case. If you want your debit/credit cards to work in South Africa, or any foreign country, call your bank before you leave! Many times, we have had tour guests calling back to their home country because their transactions were declined. It’s a fraud concern for the banks, so they are all pretty careful.
Many places will take all the usual credit cards, but again, some may not – plan according to your trip – if you’re in a big city like Joburg (what the locals call Johannesburg) it’s not a problem; if you’re staying in a rural area, plan for extra cash and extra vigilance to go along with it!  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?

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 holiday itinerary, where you are picked up and dropped off from your arrival point (airport, port etc.) in each destination that you visit, and then 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 – 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 unless it is the luxury passenger trains that have an itinerary all of their own. Public trains and busses are not recommended in most areas, so always make sure you make use of a taxi service recommended by your tour operator or the hotel in which you are staying (don’t catch a random taxi, as you may be taken for a ride in more ways than one!)

What languages do they speak?.

South Africa has 11 official languages and the country is often termed the ‘rainbow nation’ because of its cultural diversity. 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, then isiXhosa (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 for me to follow?

Tipping is different in South Africa than in the States, for example—tip 10% 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% tip onto the bill before they give it to you to pay – don’t 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 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!

Note that one custom in South Africa is restrictive carry-on and luggage requirements, including specific dimensions for bags, so check with your airline before you travel. This is particularly relevant if you are on a fly-in safari into a game lodge on a light aircraft, which 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 – no suitcases or bags with frames/trolleys will be accepted, as these 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 tour operator if you are more than a couple sizes overweight.

Do they drink/do drugs/party?

While you can drink in South Africa almost anywhere, and there are clubs in the big cities like Joburg and Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth as well as 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” in which case you will be required to show proof of a yellow fever shot. Note that this includes Zambia, partial 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, and I’ve been in England almost every year of my life without contracting any of these diseases, so make your own decision with your doctor.
Is it safe? Should I buy travel insurance?

South Africa is relatively safe as far as homicide rates, with US cities like New Orleans and Detroit ranking far higher than any South African city, though Cape Town has a high rate of crime common to tourists, such as muggings. While that absolutely shouldn’t affect your choices to go (I just created a tour for a lovely church group going to do missionary work in Johannesburg followed by a terrific safari) 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 (like 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.

Of course consider travel insurance – 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.  Unless you are traveling deep into the jungles or desert, you don’t need the million dollar coverage; $100K-$250K will be plenty.

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 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 currency of 220/230 volts, 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.