There is not much I enjoy more than planning a trip to South Africa and I have been lucky enough to plan four of them over the past few years. The mix of the gorgeous coastlines, stunning landscapes and of course, magnificent wildlife make for an incredible trip, however, they can also make planning a holiday to South Africa difficult as there is so much to see.
South Africa is the 25th largest country in the world with a 2500 km long coastline which stretches across two oceans – The Atlantic and the Indian – It is a big country. On each of my visits, I have opted to tackle certain areas at a time, I instantly knew from my first visit I would be back multiple times throughout my life, so I allowed this to be an option – really allowing me to ‘see’ each part, but if you are looking to see a vast amount in a short amount of time then thankfully it is a well connected country.
If you are short on time plan to make use of internal flights. Low-cost airlines are not as readily available in South Africa as they are in other parts of the world such as Asia and Europe but there are a few such as Kulala and Mango. South African Airways cover most of the major cities plus serve some of the smaller Kruger Airports such as Phalaborwa and Nelspruit but they are more expensive, the service, however, does justify their higher prices.
I always make use of the website Rome2Rio.com when travelling internally in other countries, Rome2Rio will provide you with all the ways to get from one destination to another using all forms of transport.
Tips for planning a trip to South Africa
Where should you visit during your South Africa trip?
As with most countries, there are cities which become very popular with tourists and generally if you are planning your first trip to South Africa they are a good place to start.
‘Joberg’ is the most common international point of entry into South Africa meaning you can get some pretty great flight deals by flying into here. It is a huge city known for being the economic centre of Africa, due to this it gets a bad rap of being a cruel city and while it is not the prettiest, it is something to be seen, even if only for a day or two.
When visiting Johannesburg you can also book a trip to visit the infamous Soweto township and Apartheid museum, to learn about the full history and heritage of the township and struggle of the people who live there.
Located on the Eastern Cape, Cape Town is the most visited city in South Africa and home to the most Expats. The culturally diverse metropolis has it all – mountains, history, city life and beautiful beaches. Cape Town is sat between Table Mountain and Table Bay making it a great place for nature lovers as well as city fans, it is also home to Boulder’s Beach and the famous penguins who live there (in fact all of Cape Town’s beaches are pretty incredible!). You also have the opportunity to take a boat to Robben Island, the holding place for the imprisoned Nelson Mandela
Cape Town is also close to many Vineyards with Stellenbosch being the most visited – excursions to the Vineyards can be easily booked or accessed by road if you are planning on renting a car.
Durban is located in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa and is the third largest city after Cape Town and Johannesburg. While it may not be as well known, slowly it is becoming a firm favourite with tourists planning a trip to South Africa. Like Cape Town, it is a city located along the seafront meaning it has beautiful beaches as well as cultural city life.
Another coastal city, Port Elizabeth is the start of the popular Garden Route, it is a large port city which has become known for its opportunities to see marine life and rare seabirds on boat tours. I really adore Port Elizabeth, the beaches along the Algoa Bay are magnificent and the whole area just feels like it has a lot of heart.
With regards to things to do, it is more a place to spend a few days relaxing rather than sightseeing, however, for the wildlife lovers, alongside the marine boat tours it is also thirty-minute drive from the Addo Elephant National Park.
If you are interested in driving the Garden Route, you can find a great itinerary here.
Kruger National Park
One of the top reasons people visit South Africa is to visit the Kruger National Park to go on safari – and it is completely worth it, it is nothing short of incredible. Covering an area of 19,485 square kilometres it is HUGE and therefore at least a couple of days should be dedicated purely to here. The area is so large there are 4 different airports which cover entrance into the park –Skukuza Airport, Phalaborwa Airport, Hoedspruit Airport and the Kruger/Mpumalanga International Airport or you can drive from Johannesburg which will take roughly six hours.
While these are the most popular tourist destinations in South Africa they are just, of course, a few of the places you can visit. A lot of people, including South Africa people, drive the Garden Route which starts Storms River Mouth in the Eastern Cape to Mossel Bay in the Western Cape and includes places such as Port Elizabeth and Knysna. On this route, you will find stunning hiking routes along the coast and through various national parks. Most commonly, people tend to plan a 2 week South Africa itinerary, this will allow you to really get a taste for the country – one which I have found will keep you coming back for more.
On my last visit to South Africa, I visited Bethlehem in the Free State Province around 3 hours outside of Johannesburg while it is not too popular with tourists planning a holiday to South Africa, it is home to the wonderful Lions Rock reserve and sanctuary which I fully recommend visiting.
When planning your holiday to South Africa please avoid visiting ‘Lion Parks’ or anywhere that allows you to hold and interact with Lion cubs (and other cat species). These establishments all have links with the Canned Hunting Trade.
Do you want to go on Safari during your South Africa holiday?
South Africa is home to some of the best safari destinations in Africa and is a big reason why people add this country to their bucket lists. However, safari is not for everyone and going on safari can also be expensive, so planning your holiday it is important to decide from the start whether you want to have the experience or not.
As I previously mentioned the Kruger National Park is the main safari destination in South Africa but it is not the only place. My favourite places are actually closer to Port Elizabeth where there are plenty of private game reserves such as Amakala Game Reserve and Shamwari, the Addo Elephant National Park is also in this vicinity.
Nearer to Cape Town there are two private game reserves, the Aquila Private Game Reserve and Inverdoorn Game Reserve and in Durban, there are quite a few Kwazulu-Natal Nature Reserves.
If going on Safari is key to your South Africa holiday then look at all the options, not just the Kruger, especially if you are limited on time. As I have already mentioned many times South Africa is huge, try not to waste valuable sightseeing time by travelling.
Related post: If you are planning on going on safari, you may find this post on the best cameras for safari & safari phone photography guide useful.
When is the best time to visit South Africa?
Deciding when to visit South Africa maybe down to the activities you want to partake in while there. If you are planning on heading to Cape Town and want to relax and visit the Vineyards then go during their summer (November – March) – the weather is dry, hot and perfect for a warm getaway.
If you are going with the intention of whale spotting then you will want to plan your visit between July and November, the South African Winter to Springtime. It is also worth noting that South African winters are actually cold before I visited during July, I assumed it would actually still be warm and just cold for local people, but no, their winters are cold.
If you are visiting for Safari, you can view the wildlife at all times of the year, however, it is good to note the Summer months will be busier and more expensive. A bonus of going on safari during the spring/summer months is more chance of seeing newly born animals, whereas a benefit of safari in the winter months is the bush is less dense and the weather is cooler and therefore more bearable.
What accommodation should you book on your South African holiday?
Whatever suits your travel style and your budget! Just like every other country in the world in South Africa, there is accommodation to suit everyone. There are hostels for budget backpackers and 5-star spas resorts for those who like a bit of luxury. Air B’n’B is also readily available across most parts of South Africa as well.
What should you pack for your South Africa trip?
Jungle formula mosquito spray: There are mosquitos in South Africa, therefore bug spray is essential. Do not ruin your trip, your photos and potentially your health but skimping on cheap bug spray. I always use Jungle formula wherever I go, it is expensive but it is one of the best. It is important to mention that in some parts of South Africa you will also need to buy malaria tablets before you go, I always check the NHS Fit For Travel website before I travel anywhere to see if I need anything additional.
Reef-Safe Sunscreen: In Cape Town, there are opportunities to go diving and snorkelling. We need to remember to be responsible tourists. Help preserve that reef by wearing reef-safe biodegradable sunscreen when you go swimming or snorkelling. Many sunscreens are not reef safe and contain chemicals which are harmful to the reefs and the creatures which live in them. Reef-safe suncream is formulated to be safe to the oceans.
Reusable stainless steel straw: Continuing with the responsible tourist theme, invest in a reusable straw, I invested in this one and it folds down compact and comes with pipe cleaners to ensure it stays clean. When you get back from your trip just pop it in Milton for an hour and it will be sterilised to use it at home as well. Related Post: Reusable stainless steel straw:
Plug Adapter: In South Africa, they use plug types D and N, in hotel rooms I have been in it has mainly been type D so I have a couple of those adapters, this type also works in various other places across Africa as well such as Botswana and Namibia. Buying plug adapters at the airport is expensive therefore I recommend purchasing from Amazon in advance.
Kruger National Park Book: If you are planning on visiting the Kruger National Park then you will want to purchase a guide book before visiting. The book linked is the one that I have and I love it, it is super informative regarding the area, the species in the park as well as having lots of titbits of fun facts and such.
Related post: What to pack for your South African Safari Holiday
Do you need vaccinations to visit South Africa?
My advice will always be to check the NHS Fit For Travel Website in a decent amount of time before travelling. I believe at present Diphtheria and Hepatitis A is strongly recommended.
Due to the nature of the work I sometimes undertake while in South Africa (Veterinary works with domestic and wild species) I also have a Rabies Vaccination. Therefore if you are looking to undertake voluntary work you may want to consider this, if you are a frequent traveller to other parts of the world, such as Asia, it may be a good idea to think about getting the Rabies vaccination. However, it is expensive and not something available on the NHS unless you work in certain industries.
Is South Africa family holiday destination?
Yes! 100% Yes! I have seen so many young families travelling in South Africa and while I do not have kids myself I think it is a great family holiday destination choice especially areas such as Cape Town and the Kruger National Park.
There are plenty of things to do in South Africa with children, aside from the obvious game drives, there are boat tours, water parks, walks, and just a real opportunity to indulge your children in nature and being out in the fresh air.
Please note if you are visiting South Africa with Children: All children under 18 must travel to South Africa with their unabridged birth certificate showing the names of their parents – even if travelling with them. The child will not be able to board the plane without this birth certificate being show at check-in.
South Africa, at times, can have a bad rap for being ‘unsafe’ but for me, I feel it is just like any other destination I have been to. Stick to the central areas, do not wander around on your own late at night, do not have expensive valuables on show, this is what I do in every country I travel to, it is just common sense. Talk to your hotel staff when you first arrive in destinations, familiarize yourself with the main tourist areas and ask if there are any areas not to head to.
South Africa stole my heart 4 years ago and it is a destination I do not see leaving my sights any time soon. If you would like any further additional information on planning a trip to South Africa then please do get in touch and I will help where I can.