South Africa has rapidly grown into a premiere tourist destination over the past few years. Exotic tours, luxury hotels, and booming international businesses have drawn foreigners for vacation and business travel. Ready to plan your trip? Here are 10 travel tips to make your trip to South Africa safe and enjoyable.
South Africa has 11 official languages, but English is widely spoken and understood. English is the language most used in business, politics and media, but it’s only the fifth most-common language. Other languages spoken in South Africa include isiNebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu and Afrikaans. With so many languages, people often inject words from one while they’re speaking another. To show respect for locals, you should learn greetings in several languages.
South Africa’s weather varies by region, so the best time to go depends on what part you’re visiting. If you’re planning on a safari, the best time to visit wildlife parks in South Africa is during the dry season from May to September when animals congregate around waterholes and rivers. The coast and Cape Town’s high season is during the summer months, from December to March. But if you don’t like piping hot temperatures, consider a visit in April.
South Africa’s currency is the rand. Since the exchange rate for dollars to rands is very favorable, you’ll probably find South Africa an affordable travel destination. There is no shortage of banks or ATMs in South Africa, so you’ll easily be able to access funds while abroad.
Because of good infrastructure, travel is relatively easy and convenient in South Africa. Air travel is the fastest way to get around, but driving is also a good option since the road system is extensive and gas stations are plentiful. Just note that they drive on the left side of the road! South Africa also has several high-end bus lines for travelers to go between cities, along with trains (long-haul, cheap trains and more expensive, luxurious trains).
Tipping is standard practice in South Africa, and 10-to-15 percent is an appropriate tip at restaurants and bars. You should also tip gas station attendants (five or 10 rand), hotel porters (20 rand), taxi drivers and tour guides. Informal “car guards” might offer to watch your car while it’s parked somewhere in exchange for a small fee.
If you’re traveling to South Africa in the summer, you should pack lightweight clothing, beach wear, a hat, sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen. In the winter, pack warm clothing and layers as it can be cold in the mornings and at night, and many places in South Africa don’t have central heat. In either season, you should bring a rain jacket, socks, long-sleeve shirts and long pants when you’re visiting malaria areas. While the country is pretty casual, one or two more formal outfits are probably a good idea if you’re visiting upscale hotels.
Unfortunately, crime rates are high in South Africa and you’ll need to stay aware to stay safe. The best way to do this is to avoid looking like a tourist – keep your map and camera hidden and speak softly so others can’t hear your foreign accent. Keep car doors locked, stay off your cell phone while driving, and never leave expensive items where they’ll be visible. If you exercise the same caution as you do at home – not walking around late at night alone or flaunting valuables – most likely you will be fine.
South Africa is sometimes known as the Rainbow Nation because it’s so ethnically diverse. This diversity is represented in its cuisine, which pulls influences from cultures all over the world. Meat is very popular, although vegetarians will find enough options to stay satisfied as well. Some of the top dishes include grilled game (ostrich, crocodile, antelope); boerewors (barbecued sausage); biltong (jerky-like beef); bredie and potjiekos (meat and vegetable stews); and mealies (corn, usually in the form of porridge or corn on the cob.)
You’ll find that South African etiquette is similar to etiquette in the U.S. – since the country is such a melting pot of cultures, how you should act really depends on who you are with. A handshake is a standard greeting, although people who know each other well might kiss on the cheek. If you’re invited to someone’s home, you should bring a gift for the hostess such as wine, chocolate or flowers. The concept of time in South Africa is very different from the U.S., and showing up late or casual rescheduling is the cultural norm (so don’t be offended). However, in business punctuality is very important and meetings should be scheduled weeks in advance.
Respecting local cultures and sustainable tourism practices are important things to think about when you travel to South Africa. Here are some tips for responsible tourism: Don’t give to beggars, but instead give to local charities and organizations. Shop for locally made goods and eat at small, locally-owned restaurants. Don’t purchase items that may endanger animals, don’t litter and don’t drive off of the road. Conserve water and electricity, and don’t leave food on your plate when you’re done eating.