10 Travel Tips For The First Time Visitor to South Africa

South Africa has rapidly grown into a premier tourist destination over the past few years. World-class safari parks, luxury hotels, chic cities and a booming international business environment have drawn foreigners for both leisure and corporate travel. It’s a pretty easy country to navigate, but if you’re a first time visitor to South Africa, these 10 tips will make your trip that much more productive and enjoyable.


This article originally appeared on AFKInsider.com.

1. English Isn’t the Only Language

South Africa has 11 official languages. English only the fifth most-common one but it is the lingua franca of business, politics, the media, and tourism. 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 consider learning greetings in several languages.

2. Best Time to Travel

South Africa’s weather varies by region. The best time to go depends on what you’re planning to do and what part of the country you’re visiting. If you’re going on safari, the best time to visit wildlife parks in South Africa is during the May to September dry season, when animals congregate around waterholes and rivers and the temps are cooler. The high season for the mild coastal areas (i.e. Cape Town) is the summer months, from December to March. But if you don’t like piping hot temperatures, consider a visit in April or November, during the shoulder season.

3. Currency

South Africa’s currency is the rand. Since the dollar-to-rand exchange rate is very favorable right now, American’s will find South Africa a surprisingly 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.

4. Getting Around

Because of good infrastructure, travel is relatively easy and convenient in South Africa. Air travel is the fastest way to get around in a hurry, 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 (including long-haul, cheap trains as well as more expensive, luxurious trains).

5. Tipping

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 5 or 10 rand, hotel porters 20 rand, and taxi drivers and tour guides an appropriate amount.

6. What To Bring

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. If you’re visiting malarial areas in either season, you should bring a rain jacket, socks, long-sleeve shirts and long pants. While the country is pretty casual, one or two formal outfits are probably a good idea if you’re visiting upscale hotels and restaurants or having business meetings.

7. Crime

Unfortunately, crime rates are high in some parts of 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 don’t broadcast the fact that you’re a foreigner. 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. If you need to leave your car in a sketchy area, considering employing one of the many informal “car guards” who offer to watch cars in exchange for a small fee.

8. Food

South Africa is sometimes known as the Rainbow Nation because it’s so ethnically diverse. This diversity is represented in its cuisine, which is influenced by cultures all over the world. Meat is very popular, although vegetarians will find enough options to stay satisfied as well. Some of the most popular dishes include grilled game (ostrich, crocodile, antelope); boerewors (barbecued sausage); biltong (jerky-like dried beef); bredie and potjiekos (meat and vegetable stews); and mealies (corn, usually in the form of porridge or corn on the cob.)

9. Etiquette

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.

10. Practice Sustainable Tourism

Respecting local cultures and supporting 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.

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