We came back from South Africa nearly one year ago, and since then I’ve received quite a few questions from would-be Africa travelers. I was planning on writing a “personal tips for South Africa” post when we returned, but somehow procrastinated and now here we are…smack dab in the middle of 2014. I hope this post can still help some of you planning a South Africa trip sometime – it was one of my favorite destinations ever and I can’t wait to return!
Here we go – some of my tips and lessons from traveling to South Africa. Feel free to leave questions and suggestions in the comments!
1. Travel time. Yes, as I emphasized in my “getting there” post, the travel time is long. I was very apprehensive about this but it was actually better than I thought. If you are in any kind of decent shape, it is doable. But if I were to travel again? Here’s a few pieces of specific advice, on “getting there”.
– If there’s a time to be spending your extra travel pennies or cashing in your frequent flier miles for business/first…it’s when you’re going to Africa. The trip is totally doable in economy but if you can ease the way with larger seats and a more comfortable sleeping experience, this is the time to do it.
– If you typically experience jetlag, I’d encourage you to consider stopping for a night in Europe to get acclimated to the time zone, and/or spend a night in Johannesburg to do the same. It’ll allow you to be much alert and energetic for your actual time in Africa.
2. Packing. I was originally very intimidated by the packing process. If you’re flying on a small plane to a safari lodge, there are strict guidelines – no hard luggage, nothing exceeding a certain weight, and it goes on. And that doesn’t even touch the question of what you’re supposed to wear on safari!
– Feel free to use any duffle bag that you have lying around when packing – if you’re organized, there honestly isn’t a need for more when you’re packing for safari. If you’re like me however, who thrives on having little pockets and a system for everything, you might want to pick up the same bag I did for safari – this weekender from eBags. It served me very well and I would use it again. Plus it’s quite affordable!
– Please get a hat! It’s a must when you’re going on safari. It will keep your head warm when it’s cold, and keep the sun out of your eyes and face. I don’t care if you don’t think you look good in hats (I certainly don’t) because it is essential. While we were on safari at Singita Sweni, there was a very stylish older lady who insisted on simply wrapping her hair in a chic silk Hermes scarf as her hat. She reminded me of Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey and probably had never heard of Old Navy. However I will tell you…by the end of our first day together, she was eyeing my grubby little hat from REI with pure envy in her eyes. Get a hat, you won’t regret it.
I recommend a light hat that wicks away moisture and that has a chin strap (it gets windy on open vehicles). This one from Stetson is awesome.
3. Accommodations. This is a biggie. I have very different advice for Capetown versus Kruger/safari, and have detailed them below.
– Capetown. Capetown for me is like many other large destination cities such as New York, London, and the like. There’s hotels available on a huge spectrum of price ranges. While I would always recommend getting a beautiful hotel in a great area, if you’re on a budget, a decent hotel in a safe area will do. Make sure the area is safe – like all big cities, Capetown has dodgy parts. If you can’t go all out, I would choose Capetown as the area to save some money. You’ll be spending most of your time outside of the hotel in all likelihood – there are just so many amazing things the city has to offer!
– Kruger Park area/safari. This is where I would advise you really spend your money. Your accommodations will not just dictate how fluffy your pillows are at night, but likely also all of your meals, and your wildlife experience and game drives. That’s the reason why safari accommodations are so expensive – they are usually all inclusive (with the exception of alcohol and special activities perhaps).
I receive many emails asking if I think that one has to go for Singita/Londolozi level accommodations to have a good time on safari – absolutely not. I loved our time at both Singita lodges and wouldn’t hesitate to return. But they are very expensive, and there are plenty of great options at lower price points. Two operators I’d recommend checking out is &beyond and Lion Sands.
4. Budget. An African vacation incorporating safari is one of the more expensive vacations that you can take. Some of my comments?
– Be ready to pre-pay. If you’re planning a trip to South Africa, it’s more than likely that your safari accommodations will make up the majority of your travel spend. These operators will typically require payment up front, or at least a 50% deposit. So make sure your budget incorporates this. The plus side – once you actually go on vacation, the bills won’t be so bad – you paid some of them months ago!
– Get trip insurance. I rarely if ever purchase trip insurance (that’s how I like to live…on the edge, baby) but for Africa, I did. This was for several reasons – a) the amount that we prepaid that was non-refundable, and b) for any medical emergencies. I recommend Insure My Trip – we used this site and it was great, and no extra charges.
– Don’t be stingy once you’re on holiday. If you’re coming from North America, chances are you’ve really jumped through some hoops to get to Africa. It may be a once in a lifetime experience. So in my opinion – go ahead and splurge! Do all the experiences you want, eat the amazing food, and buy some wonderful crafts. Prices in South Africa aren’t very expensive compared to the U.S. and you won’t regret spending your money there. Of course, knowing this, you should budget enough so that you don’t have to worry!
Those are my major tips for anyone considering a trip to South Africa. I know there are quite a few very experienced travelers who are readers, so please share your suggestions and questions! I dream about our next Africa trip and am always looking to learn new tips.
PS: All photos in this post were from my South Africa series last year.