Travel to South Africa: The Ultimate Guide

Samuel Clennett

South Africa is known as a world class safari destination - but there’s actually so much more to do there if you have the time and budget. You can travel the wine route, head to the beach, soak up some culture, or get involved in life in the bustling cities.

There’s plenty to do in South Africa. But you need money to really make the most of your trip. Save on currency conversion and bank charges, with a Wise borderless account and linked Mastercard, and have more to spend on yourself. More on that later.

Do your research

Over 80,000 Australians visit South Africa annually - and the majority of visits are trouble free. However, it’s important to note that the Australian government advises a high level of caution when visiting South Africa¹.

Crime levels in South Africa are significantly higher than in Australia, and can range from petty thefts and muggings, to kidnappings, carjackings and murder. Naturally there are certain areas which are more dangerous than others.

Research your proposed destination and itinerary thoroughly before you decide on where to go. There’s plenty of inspiration on the South African tourist board website².

You’ll also want to look at specifics for your trip, such as how to get from the airport to your accommodation safely, and which tour and travel operators are the most trusted for the activities you choose.

How to get the most for your money

The best things in life may be free, but plane tickets, hotels and food are not. Save money on currency costs and bank fees, so you can do more with your time in South Africa.

Know your exchange rate

When you’re changing money from dollars to rand to spend in South Africa, you’ll want to check if the exchange rate being used is fair. The way to do this is to compare the rate you get with the mid-market rate. This is a smart benchmark because it’s the rate the bank or exchange service will have received when they bought the currency in the first place.

It’s simple to keep up with the mid-market rate, using a Google search or an online currency converter. However, you might find that your chosen provider has added a markup to this rate to come up with the retail exchange rate they offer you. This is an extra fee, but it’s not always easy to spot it.

Avoid paying this extra margin by using the Wise borderless account and card. More on that later.

Look for hidden costs

Check your bank account and card conditions to see if you’ll be charged a foreign transaction fee to spend or make cash withdrawals overseas. Providers vary, but you could find you have to pay a flat fee per transaction, a percentage charge - or both - and these costs can quickly mount up.

Avoid Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC)

You might not have heard of DCC, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t experienced it.

DCC is where you’re asked if you want to pay in your home currency - dollars - instead of the local one - in this case, rand - when you use your card abroad.

Using your home currency is easy but you pay a high price for that convenience. Ask to use the local currency to get the best exchange rate and lowest fees.

Get a specialist account for your travels

A Wise borderless account could be exactly what you need to make your trip easier - and cut your costs dramatically.

Use your account to hold, send and spend rand like a local using the Wise borderless Mastercard. In fact, you can keep any of dozens of different currencies in the account, and use them all over the world, with no foreign transaction fees.

Just top up your borderless balance with dollars, and switch to the currency you want using the mid-market exchange rate. There are no hidden fees, just a transparent upfront charge to cover the conversion. See if you can save when you travel to South Africa, with Wise.

Things to be aware of

In most cases, doing some advance research and being sensible when you travel will be all you need to have fun and stay safe in South Africa. Find a reputable travel agent, and be wary with your belongings no matter where you are. Don’t carry anything valuable with you, and avoid disreputable areas especially after dark.

You’ll also need to take health advice before you travel. Depending on your plans, you may need immunisations or anti-malarials, and you’ll definitely want effective travel and medical insurance. Health facilities in more rural areas may not be adequate, so having insurance which covers medical evacuation is a good idea.

You’ll find detailed advice on the South Africa page on the Smart Traveller website. Smart Traveller is an Australian government supported resource, well worth a look for more on safety, health, internal travel guidelines and more.

If you are unlucky enough to find yourself in trouble when overseas, the Australian consular service may be able to offer support³.

Get to know the Visa situation

You won’t need a visa for tourist visits of up to 90 days⁴. If you’re planning on staying longer, you’ll need to check the details of the best type of visa for your trip, online.

Accommodation in South Africa

There’s a good range of options and prices when it comes to accommodation in South Africa. Camping and self catering are common choices, so you’ll find a lot of places to choose from if you’re travelling independently. At the other end of the spectrum, you can also get high end luxury, which comes with a corresponding price tag.

Booking ahead is advisable, especially in peak season or if you’re headed to a popular destination. Here’s what the Rough Guide suggests you budget per night for planning purposes⁵:

  • Dormitory beds ZAR120
  • Private room in a hostel ZAR200 - ZAR300
  • Camping in a private resort ZAR150 - ZAR250
  • Guest houses and bed and breakfast accommodation ZAR400 - ZAR1,000+
  • Mid range hotels ZAR800+
  • Boutique lodges and hotels ZAR1,500+

Getting around in South Africa

Urban transport in South Africa is a weak spot. There are buses and minibuses - but Australian government guidelines suggest you take local advice before choosing to use these, and avoid mini bus services entirely. This is due to the risk of crime and poor vehicle safety. It’s far more common to get private transport, such as hiring a car, or a car and driver.

Hiring a car is also the best option if you want to get out into the National Parks and are travelling independently. If you choose to drive yourself, either in the cities or outside, be aware of potential crime. Carjacking is an issue, so never stop to talk to or pick up pedestrians, and don’t get out of the car even if there’s debris in the road. This is a method used by criminals to get drivers to stop, leaving them and their vehicles vulnerable. Smash and grab robberies also happen, especially in stationary traffic. Take time to look at the advice online about driving in South Africa before you decide to hire a car.

Other long distance travel options include internal flights, buses and trains. Trains are slowest, but an overnight train can be a good way to make the journey part of the experience. Flights are fast and convenient, and the bus network is comprehensive, and a good balance of relatively cheap tickets, and relatively fast journey times⁶.

Sights to see

South Africa offers some spectacular destinations. Take some time to research the best route for your trip, covering cities, coasts, countryside and culture. Here are a few ideas.

  • The sheer number and variety of National Parks in South Africa is staggering. Check out the options, and decide which you’ll visit during your trip⁷
  • Take in the sights of Cape Town, and don’t forget to drop in to the Iziko South African Museum, first opened in 1825⁸
  • Join the hop-on-hop-off wine tram, visiting the wide region, tasting the products on offer, and getting home easily and safely⁹
  • If you’re more about the adrenalin rush, zipline, bungee and skywalk above the Bloukrans River - sure to get your heart pumping¹⁰

Tips for a great trip

Getting excited about the possibilities in South Africa? Here are a few final tips to make sure your trip goes smoothly.

  • Get a SIM card in the airport on arrival - MTN or Vodacom are recommended for travellers¹¹
  • There are a number of potential health risks in South Africa, depending on where you’re headed, including malaria, cholera and other serious illnesses. Do your research and get the best travel and medical insurance you can afford
  • Be aware that local laws against drug use are harsh compared to Australia - don’t risk it
  • There can be rolling blackouts which can leave some areas without electricity for hours on end. In this case, traffic will be disrupted. Take local advice if this happens
  • Use the government’s Smart Traveller website for up to date travel information for South Africa, as well as a wide range of travel support and resources¹²

A trip to South Africa is sure to be memorable. Make the most of it by saving money on bank fees and currency costs, with a Wise borderless account and linked Mastercard. Happy holidays!


  1. Smartravel - Destination South Africa
  2. Everything you need to know about South Africa
  3. Getting Help
  4. Visa Exemptions
  5. Accomodation in South Africa
  6. Getting Around
  7. National Parks
  8. Museums
  9. Wine Tours
  10. Bungee Jumping
  11. Getting a Local Sim
  12. Smartraveller

All sources accurate as of 16 Jan 2020

This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from Wise Payments Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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