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South Africa Budget Travel Guide
Did you know South Africa was awarded Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel: Top Ten Countries to Visit in 2018?
I beat them to the punch by spending April and May 2017 traveling through South Africa solo. Of course, the trip was fantastic. But even I found some wonderful surprises along the way that’ll help you plan the best South Africa trip ever.
1. South Africa Hit the “Things To See” Jackpot
Before I started planning my 2 month trip through South Africa, I knew about the beautiful beaches and the wildlife in the national parks. But there’s so much more to see!
I took a side trip to the Blyde River Canyon to see the Boure’s Luck Potholes.
The “potholes” were otherworldly, but the ride through the canyon was just as photogenic. On the way to Kruger National Park I spent some time taking pics of the Orange groves in Hoedspruit.
And I spent a few dizzy minutes twirling around in this sunflower field outside of Bethlehem, Free State.
South Africa’s huge and the landscape is full of variety. Take your time and soak it in.
2. Scenic Road Trips
Road trips are easy in South Africa. Highways are safe and well maintained. Bring your international driving permit, because random police checkpoints are common. I never had a problem, but I did get ticketed once for not having my paperwork with me. Because I’m a rebel.
And bring cash for highway tolls; foreign credit / debit cards aren’t accepted in South Africa’s toll booths.
I drove part of the famous Garden Route, but it was in the dark. Planning fail.
I did drive the gorgeous Maloti Route to Golden Gate Highlands National Park in Clarens, South Africa during the day, and it was AMAZING!
If you’re down for a road trip, I’d also recommend driving yourself from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park too. The ride is easy, and you’ll be equipped to experience the third tip.
3. Drive-Thru Safaris!
Before I got there, I thought I’d need to spend serious money on a safari to Kruger National Park. Good thing I didn’t book in advance, because that’s what kept me from blowing major bucks.
You can drive these parks in your own vehicle! I rented a car, paid to enter the parks, and it was done.
You can also get yourself to the park, then ride with the park ranger on a guided safari. I recommend this, because I couldn’t spot any lions or cheetahs from my little car. Both of these options are less expensive than the private safari option.
4. Good Prepared Food In Grocery Stores & Gas Stations
I’m from the United States, so grocery stores when I travel always disappoint me. They’re so tiny and lacking in choice. *sad trombone*
Except in South Africa.
Say “Hello” to my friend Woolworths! Even a budget traveler like me, who wants to eat inexpensively but doesn’t want to cook, can dine really well with South Africa’s grocery stores.
They have a full selection of pre-cooked meals just like my beloved American stores. I ate my body weight in chicken pies and malva pudding. No pics because I ate all the evidence. But trust me, they’re good.
And these grocery stores, especially Woolworths and Spar, have little shops in the gas stations. Convenience stores! A cheapskate’s best friend.
But stores close sooo early.
And there’s no consistent closing time that I grasped. Your local grocery store might close at 7 pm on Thursday but 5 pm on Friday. Google is your friend.
This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if you don’t know this up front, the liquor store will be closed by the time you get there, and you’ll end up drinking water with dinner. And that’s a crying shame because…
5. Wine is Inexpensive in South Africa
Let’s hear it for Stellenbosch!
Western Cape’s wine region is a fantastic travel destination full of beautiful wineries and tasting tours.
And most importantly, it means you can get a decent bottle of wine for 60 ZAR (approx. $5 USD.) And because you spent the day totally becoming a wine expert in Stellenbosch, you won’t be intimidated into buying the more expensive stuff if you don’t want to.
Most people book a half-day tour of the wine region from their hotel in Cape Town. Monique from An Unstoppable Journey booked an awesome tour of the wine region by motorcycle sidecar! Click here to check that out.
But if you have the time, Stellenbosch is worth a full day or two as a side trip. It’s an easy 45 minute drive. And there’s a train that goes between Cape Town and Stellenbosch, but service isn’t daily.
6. Internet is Expensive & Slow
Compared to other travel I’ve done, South Africa’s internet is yuck. If you’ve been to Western Australia, you’ll recognize this frustration.
Digital nomads beware…it’s not an impossible remote working country, but it’s not Chiang Mai (ideal) either. Restaurants and coffee shops will either not have free wifi or will ration out the data in tiny bytes.
It’s also the only place I’ve been so far where free wifi might not be included in you hostel or Airbnb price. Check the listings to confirm before you book. The accommodations I booked did include free wifi and weren’t any more expensive.
Like I always do, I bought a sim card and data for my cell phone. I paid 399 ZAR ($33) for 2 GB of data with Vodacom.
7. Airbnb-ing is Easy
I stayed in 4 different Airbnb rentals in Bloemfonetain, Durban and Johannesburg, and there were a lot of great properties to choose from.
Homes in the suburbs have small guest houses that families rent out. So if you play your cards right, you could very likely get a studio of 1 bedroom place with a pool for $20 – $40 a day.
My favorite Airbnb tip is to make sure you’re within walking distance to public transportation so you don’t blow all the money you saved on cab fare.
That’s a piece of cake in South Africa.
8. Public Transportation and Uber are Cheap
And Google maps is very accurate for bus and train schedules here. I used the city bus in Cape Town to get around — including from the airport to my hostel, to Camps Bay beach, and to the colorful Bo Kaap neighborhood with the adorable, pastel-colored houses.
The buses were clean and pretty much on time. Buy a card at the station outside the airport, and you’re good to go.
I used Uber a ton in Durban, Johannesburg and Pretoria. Also no problems.
Your Uber driver will be friendly, and will greet you with “How are you finding my country?” They will genuinely want to make sure you see the best South Africa has to offer.
9. South Africans Make Great Tour Guides
Did you ever ask a local where you should eat in their town, and they gave you directions to Chilli’s? That won’t happen here.
South Africans always asked me how I was enjoying my trip and made the best suggestions about the can’t-miss attraction in their town.
I was going to skip the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens for some reason I can’t even fathom right now, but the ladies working in my hostel told me I MUST go. They were right.
This repeated itself over and over again, including recommendations for which national parks and beaches I should hit. Jeffrey’s Bay beach accommodations were booked up during Easter, so I’ll have to go back to confirm they were right about that one.
10. Johannesburg Markets Are Amazing!
Be prepared to shop till you drop. I’m not exaggerating. I had to buy another suitcase to bring all my goodies home.
NeighborGoods Market is hipster-ish (read “more expensive”) and includes live bands on the rooftop.
Maboneng Market on Main has some amazing food vendors, and the street in front of the market is a beaded jewelry jackpot.
Rosebank is the mother of all markets.
It’s on the top level of the Rosebank Mall parking garage, and includes a trunk sale, local artists’ shops and food. Plus, it’s right next door to the craft market that’s open every day.
I loaded up on painted canvases, jewelry and handbags there.
I stuffed my suitcases at these markets and wished I could go back for more.
Ok, those are my tips. Now you’re ready for your own epic South Africa adventure.
p.s. Don’t forget to sign up for Airbnb today to get $40 off your first vacation.