10,000 Kilometers Worth of Tips
Kim and I did five separate South Africa road trips (and one Kruger safari) during our most recent six-month stay there—Joburg to Cape Town, Greyton and Hermanus, the Garden Route, Cederberg, and Cape Town to Namibia.
Over those over 10,000 kilometers of driving, we learned a lot of tips (and went to a lot of places) that we hadn’t read on other blogs or travel guides.
These are all of them.
Wherever you choose to go on your own South Africa road trip, they’ll help you have a better trip, no matter how long or far you go.
In This List of South Africa Road Trip Tips:
Our 6 Top Tips
Of all our many South Africa road trip tips to follow, these are the ones we most strongly recommend you pay attention to.
1. Don’t Be Scared
South Africa is a surprisingly safe place, especially once you get outside of the big cities.
The drivers are good, the roads are in great shape, and everyone you see will return a friendly smile with one of their own.
To have a safe trip, all you have to do is follow locals’ advice wherever you go—like areas to avoid and whether it’s safe to walk at night—don’t drive at night (because the highways aren’t lit), and don’t tempt poor and desperate people by leaving stuff in your car or flaunting valuables.
2. Sleep Like a 90-Year-Old
The best way to squeeze the absolute most out of your South Africa road trip is to go to bed and wake up super early like an old person.
Everything worth doing and seeing is best experienced during daylight and there’s nothing much to do but get in trouble at night anyway.
3. Rent a Small, Cheap Car
You don’t need any more horsepower or clearance. The only bad roads we experienced on any South Africa road trip were on the Wild Coast, but our little Suzuki Baleno handled them with ease.
You also don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to yourself with a big and/or fancy car either.
Plus, it’s cheaper and more fuel-efficient.
4. Don’t Over-Plan
Do some research beforehand to get a general idea of what you want to see along your road trip, but don’t set too much in stone.
Be flexible enough to follow the recommendations of people you meet along the way, which is how we had some of our favorite South African experiences, and to spend extra time at places you like the most.
The only places you might want to book in advance are the Garden Route and the Wild Coast, but only in the December and January peak season.
5. Sleep Mosquito-Free
Go to a Woolworths or Pick n’ Pay and pick up a plug-in mosquito repellent device as soon as you arrive.
The 50-or-so rands ($3.50 US) will probably be the best value-per-rand investment of your whole South Africa road trip.
The thing works!
There aren’t many mosquitos in South Africa and they’re no nuisance during the day, but at night even one mosquito is enough to ruin your sleep—and your whole next day. Unlike mosquitos back in Canada, where we’re from, the South African ones are fast, sneaky, and bite repeatedly.
6. Get an Audiobook (or Two)
The right audiobook has a double bonus.
Not only does it keep you entertained during the odd boring stretch of your road trip but it’ll also educate you about South Africa’s history and culture, which will help you appreciate what you see even more.
Here are two favorites:
- Born a Crime (9 hrs), a memoir by South Africa’s current favorite son, Trevor Noah. It’s a funny but revealing look into what it was like growing up in Soweto around the end of the apartheid era.
- The Power of One (21 hours) is funny, charming, touching, and full of interesting nuggets of info about South Africa’s culture and history. It was my favorite book as a kid and Kim and I enjoyed it just as much when listening to it on our Johannesburg to Cape Town “Hectic Route.”
Bonus: 2 Free Audiobooks
Get two free audiobooks by signing up for an Audible account using this special link.
Planning Your South Africa Road Trip
✧ Use Google Maps’ saved places functionality
When researching online, save every possible point of interest to a list on Google Maps.
This way, when you’re on the road planning your next destination you’ll be reminded of nearby points of interest you’d come across earlier.
For more detailed instructions on this, check out our post, How to Unleash the Full Potential of Google Maps Saved Places.
✧ Check out these blog posts…
Most blog posts on South Africa road trip planning repeat the same things, but we found these to be actually helpful:
- Be My Travel Muse – We agree with pretty much everything she says.
- Adventurous Kate – Even though it’s from way back in 2012, her tips, especially on things she didn’t like, are helpful.
- Departful – Their awesome photos will get you pumped for your trip.
- The Unconventional Route – Tips you won’t find anywhere else on the Garden Route, Cape Town, Kruger Park safaris, wine tastings, general travel tips and tricks, and more.
✧ …But don’t over-rely on bloggers and travel guides
Ask people you meet along the way instead.
They know better than us bloggers.
✧ Use Maps.Me for hiking
Maps.Me is free, the maps work offline, and they have all of South Africa’s main hiking trails.
Download the Maps.Me here, then download all the relevant South Africa maps (they’re only 20 MB or so) before you head out.
P.S. If you like hiking, don’t miss the Drakensberg.
✧ Don’t feel obliged to do the Garden Route
Just because everyone talks about the Garden Route (including us in our Unearthing the Garden Route series) doesn’t mean you have to do it too.
If you have tons of time for your South Africa road trip, by all means, include it in your itinerary. But if you’re traveling during the December to February busy season, on a tight budget, or tight on time, consider going somewhere less conventional but equally, if not more, rewarding.
Cederberg, the Karoo, Drakensberg, the Wild Coast, and the Overberg are some of our favorites.
✧ Stick to smaller towns
During our South Africa road trips, we’ve found that, as a general rule of thumb, smaller towns are better places to stay in than bigger ones.
- Nieu Bethesda > Graaff-Reinet
- Prince Albert > Oudtshoorn
- Barrydale > Robertson
✧ Add 25% to Google Maps estimates
However long Google Maps told us it’d take to get from one destination to the next, we’d typically have to add 25% on top of it to account for inaccurate directions, construction, and fuel, bathroom, and coffee stops.
What to Pack for a South Africa Road Trip
✧ Pack for extreme weather
You never know about the weather in South Africa.
That doesn’t mean you need to pack a lot, though. My go-to minimalist packing list had everything I needed.
✧ Bring the right adaptors
For whatever reason, we had a hard time finding out online what type of adaptors we needed for South Africa before we came here.
It turns out South Africa has two types of outlet.
The most common is type M (the one on the left in the photo above) and you’ll also find quite a few type C sockets (on the right).
This one on Amazon is a decent choice for having one plug and two USB ports in a compact size.
✧ If you have binoculars, bring them
✧ Don’t pack too many fancy clothes
South Africans have a relaxed, casual sense of style.
Generally, for a guy, a collared shirt and nice shorts (these are my favorites) will do fine even at nice restaurants and wine tastings. For a girl, a relaxed dress or two is all you need.
Renting a Car for Your South Africa Road Trip
In addition to our recommendation to go small and cheap from our Best 6 Tips, here are some things to consider when renting a car:
✧ Get unlimited kilometers
The last thing you’d want to do is stress about kilometers and have to cut your driving short just to avoid the stiff penalties for exceeding the daily limit.
On our road trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town, we covered 3,500 km in 14 days. That’s an average of 250 km a day, which exceeds the 200 km a day limit that most of the cheapest car rentals usually offer.
Stupidly, on our Garden Route road trip we didn’t take our own advice and got punished for it.
✧ Know what your credit card insurance covers
You might find some surprises if you read through your credit card policy to understand what exactly it does and doesn’t cover in car insurance.
Some credit cards limit the number of days of rental insurance they provide, some require you pay 100% of the rental fees and deposit with the card, and some ensure your possessions from theft in certain situations.
On a related note, fellow Canadians should consider getting one of these best credit cards for international travel for the best insurance, highest cash back, and no foreign exchange fees.
✧ Get a one-way rental
The extra 400 rands we paid for a one-way car rental was 100% worth it to be able to not have to backtrack and cover a longer distance.
✧ Check your car has Bluetooth
✧ Tell the rental agency if you plan to leave South Africa
If you want to incorporate Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, or any other country into your road trip, you have to let the rental car company know before you take your
✧ Don’t bother filling your tank before returning your rental
Car rental companies in South Africa only charge a R25 service fee for filling up the tank plus the true cost of the gas.
(Double-check this to be safe. You never know when the South African rental car companies will change this and start over-charging for refueling like in most other countries in the world.)
✧ When in doubt, fuel up
Whenever your tank drops below 1/3 (or 1/4 if you’re a risk-taker), fill ‘er up because stations can sometimes be far apart.
✧ Don’t drive at night
We tried driving at night once on our first South Africa road trip, then never did it again.
It’s just too sketchy to drive on the unlit highways that often have people, livestock, and wildlife walking on them.
✧ Trust Google Maps mostly, but not always
You can trust Google Maps everywhere but on the Wild Coast to Mdumbi and you’ll have reception everywhere, so you don’t need to buy a physical map.
Sometimes it’s better to take the longer scenic route, though, so ask the locals.
✧ Don’t be scared about driving on the other side of the road
The first hour or so is a bit scary, but we got used to it surprisingly quickly.
Even driving manual (as long as you already know how) on the other side turned out to be straightforward.
The only thing we still screw up is accidentally turning on the windshield wipers when we want to use our turn signal.
✧ Alternate who’s driving
Kim and I found it worked best for us to take turns driving each day.
The one who wasn’t driving was in charge of figuring out where to eat and stay.
✧ Don’t speed
Unless everyone else around you is speeding, keep within the regularly-marked speed limits because speed traps and radar are common in South Africa.
Generally, the limits are as fast as we felt comfortable driving anyway—120 km/h on big highways and 80-100 km/h on littler ones.
✧ Pass and be passed with class
If a car pulls off the shoulder to let you pass, flash your hazards to say thanks.
If a faster car is behind you and there is a wide shoulder, move off to the side to make way for them to pass.
✧ Don’t worry about South African drivers
Unlike in other African countries (like Kenya), the drivers in South Africa are courteous, safe, and follow the rules of the road.
They get a bit more aggressive in cities but no worse than in North America or Europe.
What to Eat and Drink
✧ Tap water is fine everywhere
We drank tons of it everywhere we went and had no stomach issues at all.
✧ Pick up some nuts and biltong as snacks
Macadamia nuts are local and cheap. So is biltong (spiced jerky-style meat). Stock up on both to keep you fueled.
✧ Keep a couple of bottles of wine in the car
Stock up on wine in the cities (or at the wine farms) so that you can enjoy them at restaurants, many of which are BYOB or have low corkage fees, and at your hotel rooms.
How to Stay Connected
✧ Get MTN rather than Vodacom
Kim had Vodacom and I had MTN. MTN was a bit cheaper and there were a couple of times we had reception with MTN and not Vodacom.
✧ Go with the same company as your travel companions
Calling between numbers of the same carriers is cheaper and sometimes they’ll give you some same-carrier minutes for free as a promo.
✧ Buy shorter data packages
For example, I’d buy consecutive 1.25 GB, 7-day packages for R55 each time because it’s cheaper than buying a 30-day, 3 GB package for R299.
✧ Download the MTN app
MTN gives you a bonus GB (though it only lasts 24 hours) for doing so, and with the app it’s easier to track and manage your balances.
How to Pay (and Pay Less)
✧ Keep a bunch of coins on hand
You’ll need coins to tip car guards (2-10 rands, depending on time parked) and gas station attendants (5-10 rands).
✧ Don’t forget to tip at restaurants
When the waiter brings you the bill and credit card machine, you have to calculate the tip, add it on top of the bill, and tell the waiter how much to charge.
The standard rate is 10%.
✧ Stash a few thousand rands cash
That should be plenty enough for a road trip of 2-3 weeks.
We only needed cash to pay national park entry fees and for our hotel in Nieu Bethesda.
✧ Get your 15% VAT refunded
Ask for tax invoices when you buy souvenirs while traveling in South Africa, show them along with the items to custom officials when you leave the country, and if they add up to R250 or more you’re entitled to a 15% VAT refund. Full details here. (Thanks to Monika for commenting with this tip!)
✧ Download SnapScan to pay with your phone
SnapScan is a free app you can use to pay with your credit card through your phone. Sometimes you can’t pay with a physical credit card,