The Best South Africa Road Trip Tips (10,00km Worth!)

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.

Scenic highway through Golden Gate Highlands National Park
Golden Gate Highlands National Park is one of South Africa's many scenic roads.

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.

Chris playing it safe in Johannesburg
Don't hide behind bars like a scaredy-cat. Especially outside the cities, South Africa isn't as dangerous as you're led to believe.

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.

Cover image of Kim posing on a hike from Mdumbi to Coffee Bay on the Wild Coast
Rise and shine with the sun to seize the day on your road trip, like Kim's doing here on the Wild Coast.

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.

Tortoise on the side of the road.
Our little, cheap rental car was way faster than the wildlife.

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.

More details to come in our rental car and driving tips below.

Kim hiking in Cathedral Peak on Day 3 of our South Africa road trip
We were grateful to have had the flexibility to stay and hike an extra day at the exhilarating Cathedral Peak area of the Drakensberg.

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.

Mosquito repellent device
Mosquitos hate it. You'll love it.

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.

View through driver's side window of mountains, desert, and clouds in rearview mirror
Kim's so caught up in Power of One audiobook that she's maybe not appreciating the South African scenery as much as she should.

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.

Karoo desert skull and mountain
This poor animal didn't listen to our planning tips.

Planning Your South Africa Road Trip

South Africa points of interest saved on Google Maps
Use Google Maps Saved Places to save all the points of interest you find while researching.

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.

Chris and Kim living the high life at a Cape Town winery
Kim and I at one of our favorite South African wine tastings. (That's Table Mountain in the background!)

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:

Beautiful Meiringspoort Pass
Beautiful Meiringspoort Pass on our Johannesburg to Cape Town road trip.

✧ …But don't over-rely on bloggers and travel guides

Ask people you meet along the way instead.

They know better than us bloggers.

That's how we found some of our more memorable destinations and attractions like Prince Albert, Sophie's Choice in Willowdale, and Meiringspoort Pass, among many others.

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.

Garden Route travel tips cover image of Kim in Tsitsikamma National Park
Don't miss our Garden Route travel tips if you decide to add it to your road trip itinerary.

✧ 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.

Funkaroo shop in Barrydale
Small towns like Barrydale are funkier than bigger cities.

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.

For example:

  • 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

Misty forest of Hogsback
One day you'll be in the crisp and misty forest of Hogsback (Day 9), and the next you'll be in the Karoo desert (Day 10), so pack for everything.

Pack for extreme weather

You never know about the weather in South Africa.

In towns like Hogsback it can snow any time of the year and in the Drakensberg it can go from a sunny day to a hurricane-avalanche in the blink of an eye.

That doesn't mean you need to pack a lot, though. My go-to minimalist packing list had everything I needed.

The two types of sockets you'll see in South Africa and will need adapters for.
The two types of socket you'll see in South Africa.

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

We would've loved to have a pair of binoculars to get a closer look at the parrots and loeries in Hogsback and at the animals we saw from afar while hiking in Golden Gate, Drakensberg, and Camdeboo.

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

Kim renting our car for our South Africa road trip
Cheap, small… perfect!

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

Every car we rented in South Africa had Bluetooth, but ask just in case. If not, remember to take along an auxiliary audio cable so you can enjoy your audiobooks.

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 car off the lot so they can give you a permit.

✧ 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.)

Driving Safe

Village near the Drakensberg
Keep your tank full because it might be a while until the next gas station.

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

Serving out sugared macadamia nuts in Johannesburg
Local macadamia nuts, like these flavored ones we got in Johannesburg, are an ideal road trip snack.

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.

Chris sitting on his bed drinking wine and working on the computer
Chris enjoying some wine we had in the car while planning our next day's adventure in our hotel room.

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

Remote Wild Coast road
Even on the most remote, rural roads, our phones had reception

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)

Old-school cash register
Don't worry. Most of South Africa's got modern banking and accepts credit cards.

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. (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, but you can pay with SnapScan.

Cape Town first impressions cover image
One of our Cape Town Must-Dos is to get high to get a view, like this one of Signal Hill from Lion's Head.

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8 thoughts on “The Best South Africa Road Trip Tips (10,00km Worth!)”

  1. Hi!
    thanks for all your hints, articles, it was our main guide for road trip in SA! All your suggestions were true and super useful. One thing that I would suggest to add is the information about TAX refund for purchased goods.
    We discovered it too late, on last day at the airport. All items purchased in the shops that provides you with tax invoice, can be presented at the airport with the invoice from the shop and you can get a 15% VAT refund. That's a great thing especially if you do some good shopping 🙂

    Thanks again for precious advice!

    • Howzit Monika! I'm so glad you found our South Africa travel tips to be useful. And even more glad you contributed one of your own. I wasn't aware of the VAT refund. I'll have to look up all the details on it and update our posts accordingly. Thanks!

  2. Thank you so much for these honest and optimist Tips! We’ve been living in Toronto for 18 years and have been back 5 times, but only to visit family. Next Saturday we are taking our children out and doing a 3 week road trip ending in Cape Town. The CAA gave us a 22 page document on the high crime and danger of driving in SA. Obviously one has to be careful, but your experiences balance the fear and paranoia on the other end of the spectrum. I am looking forward to our trip much more after reading this!

    • Thanks Jessie, for the comment. Maybe we should contact to CAA to see if we can add a positive page or two to their 22-page monster! Have a great trip and please let us know some of your favorite discoveries on your South Africa road trip so we can check them out and share them here.

    • Haha, and maybe if I ever have to buy a car again I'll decide based on reviews from your site to return the favor!
      Kim and I have yet to meet someone who visited South Africa and wasn't pleasantly surprised with it, so you feel pretty safe in knowing you made a good choice in going there (…once the COVID restrictions are listed, I assume).


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