Tips for traveling South Africa on a Budget
South Africa is a hot destination, and it’s not difficult to see why. With a combination of first-class wildlife, endless beaches, jagged mountains, and delicious wine, it has something to lure almost every kind of traveler. It is, however, not the cheapest place to travel. It’s a huge country, with must-see destinations all over, and public transport is not great. Cities such as Cape Town can be particularly expensive to spend time in and trips into national parks full of cats and elephants can easily rack up a hefty tab.
But fear not. With a bit of planning, investment in some equipment, and a heads-up on local customs, it’s possible to get the best out of South Africa without spending a fortune. Here are some tips for traveling South Africa on a budget.
Sleeping on a budget
Much of South Africa is tailor made for campers, with sites commonplace all over the country. Some are very basic, whilst others have communal living rooms, kitchens, and swimming pools. The prices are always much lower than hotels or hostels, and even occasional camping can save a lot of cash. This is particularly true in national parks, where rooms often book up months in advance and carry a hefty price tag. If you’re not the keenest camper, try mixing it up. A few nights’ camping followed by a couple of nights in a hostel and the savings quickly add up.
In order to get started, there are two main options. The first is to hire a 4×4 pick-up truck with a rooftop tent, although these brilliant pieces of kit can understandably be quite expensive. The second is to buy a tent, sleeping bag and basic camping provisions; this will enable you to travel via public transport or rent a smaller, cheaper vehicle. Many malls or towns have outdoor shops, such as Outdoor Warehouse, stocking good equipment. There are also several branches of Macro, offering low prices on decent gear. I bought basic but reasonable equipment for less than US$200 which paid for itself very quickly.
Transportation on a budget
Public transport is not South Africa’s strong point. Distances can be huge, routes limited, and the options are not always cheap. For those planning to move around, hiring a vehicle allows greater freedom and independence, and can be done on a budget. South African rental offers an enormous range of options, from 4x4s to compact cars to retro chic. Different companies offer different advantages and all have drawbacks.
For those sticking to the Cape Peninsula, Rent a Cheapie has a fleet of retro VW Citi cars, a must-have for Cape Town’s hipsters. It doesn’t, however, have branches elsewhere, so cars can’t be dropped off around the country. First Car have budget prices but fairly basic cars. They offer a free additional driver, unlimited distance on longer bookings, and the one-way drop-off fee is a set 1,000 Rand (US$75) wherever the return location. However, authorization letters to cross the borders into Swaziland and Lesotho can be expensive. More well-known companies, such as Hertz, have higher daily fees but allow customers to drive all over Southern Africa. If you are planning to drive into neighboring countries, such as Namibia and Botswana, it is usually cheaper to hire in South Africa.
It is worth doing the necessary homework to tailor a rental to your circumstances and itinerary in order to get the cheapest overall deal.
If you are not planning to self-drive, there are a number of bus companies running services through South Africa and beyond into Namibia and Botswana. Some, such as Baz Bus, are aimed solely at tourists and pick up from and drop off at some hostels. But, the prices are high and a long cross-country trip with stop-offs can end up expensive. Other long-distance companies, such as Inter Cape, travel to many of the same destinations but are a service aimed at locals and tourists alike and, as a result, are more affordable.
Eating on a budget
Cooking on a braai, or barbecue, is a national pastime. South Africans love nothing better than lighting the coals, sitting back, and enjoying a lazy evening of grilled meat. With restaurants outside the major cities often limited, head to a supermarket and pick up some charcoal, steak and boerewors sausage and prepare to cook up a storm. Most hostels and campsites, particularly in small towns or rural areas, have braai pits and this is a cost-effective way of eating well. Rest camps in the national parks are very limited on facilities and equipment other than the braai itself, so you’ll need some of your own cooking gear, but many privately owned lodges and sites elsewhere have kitchens stocked with utensils for guests to use.
Drinking on a budget
Some of the world’s finest wines are made in South Africa, and many restaurants have extensive wine lists comprising delicious local produce. They also often allow diners to bring in their own alcohol; some charge corkage fees, but others do not. Supermarkets and liquor stores usually have wide selections at much lower prices. For those looking for something out of the ordinary, excellent options are available at the plethora of wineries and cellar doors, frequently at bargain prices.
Viewing wildlife on a budget
South Africa National (SAN) Parks is responsible for administering the country’s national parks, from the legendary Kruger to Boulders Beach, home to a colony of African penguins. These attractions all cost money; some have small conservation fees, but others charge much higher amounts. Wildlife parks such as Kruger, Addo, and Kgalagadi charge a daily conservation fee of 304 Rand (US$20 – 25), which allows an overnight stay.
For those planning to travel the country and visit even a few national parks, particularly for multiple days at a time, a Wild Card is a great option. Costing 3,455 Rand (US$270), a Wild Card allows unlimited access to SAN Parks sites for two people; this allows visitors to enter wildlife areas without concrete plans for leaving, with the flexibility to spend time animal spotting without worrying about the cost. Wild Cards can be purchased at the gate of SAN Parks; the card itself is not provided but the receipt is sufficient proof of purchase. For those with less time to spend, maximize the conservation fee by arriving for opening time, spending the night, then leaving as the gates are closing the following days, effectively gaining two days’ viewing for a single fee payment.
South Africa can be a pricey place to travel, and indeed much is aimed at wealthy tourists. But for those willing to explore their options and, at times, forego a few luxuries, budget travel can be a true adventure. What could be better than driving a tiny rental car through stunning landscapes searching for wildlife before grilling your own dinner as the sun sets? The smell of steak in the fresh air, red wine under a blanket of stars, and settling in for the night in your tent as the hyenas call outside.
Words by Ben Starkey. Photos by Layla Gilmour. Follow her on Instagram @Layla_Gilmour