10 August 2020

Your Guide to Traveling Around South Africa with a Rental Car

Aleksandrs Buraks
Head of Growth at DiscoverCars.com

Why should you rent a car in South Africa?

A fascinating country with plenty to offer, South Africa is like no other place. The country is home to an endless coastline, stunning national parks, prehistoric sites and a wealth of different cultures, making it one of the richest travel destinations in the world. While it continues to face many challenges and its complex reputation is somewhat justified, finding out more about the country in advance and choosing your routes carefully can make it a safe and enjoyable destination to explore at your own pace.

When should you go to South Africa?

South Africa is a large and diverse country (about twice as large as France). The best time to visit the country depends on what you intend to do and see there.

The best time to visit Cape Town and the Western Cape is considered to be from November until early March. This is when the summer season lasts in the Southern Hemisphere and the weather is the warmest and least rainy. The same also applies to the famous Garden Route. The climate is warm year-round, but the area is quite rainy from June to September.

However, some travelers prefer to visit the Western Cape in winter as the attractions are less crowded and the prices for accommodation and rental cars are lower. Winter months are also great for whale-watching, although you can see them in spring as well (which lasts from September to November). The penguins can be seen year-round.

The best time to visit the famous South African national parks in the northern part of the country (like Kruger National Park in the northeast and Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park in the northwest) is from June to August. Not only are these months pleasantly warm rather than forbiddingly hot, but it is also the dry season which means that the chances of seeing wildlife are much higher. (Do keep in mind, though, that while less famous than these two, there are great national parks all over South Africa and the best time to visit depends on which part of the country they are located and what their main attractions are).

South Africa is a great surfing destination year-round, but the country usually gets the most impressive waves from April to August. There are many amazing surfing spots in South Africa for anyone from beginners to seasoned pros, such as Durban, Muizenberg near Cape Town, and the Sunshine Coast.

Now that you've decided when to travel to South Africa, check out our prices for the dates you have chosen!

Where should you pick up a car in South Africa?

Most visitors to South Africa choose to pick up a rental car at the airport. There are many domestic airports in South Africa, as well as three airports serving international flights — Johannesburg O.R. Tambo Airport, Cape Town Airport, and Durban King Shaka Airport. O.R. Tambo is the busiest airport in all of Africa and Cape Town Airport is the fourth-busiest. In addition to flights to other African countries, they also provide connections with Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, the Americas, and Australia.

In addition to airports, it is also possible to pick up or drop off a rental car at other locations like downtown car rental company offices and international hotels. There are car rental offices in many South African cities that do not have an airport.

Many car rental companies in South Africa permit one-way rentals, usually for an additional fee. Many travelers use this opportunity to travel between Johannesburg and Durban or between Cape Town and George without the need to return to their original point of entry.

Can I visit one of South Africa's neighboring countries with a rental car?

Very few car rental companies in South Africa permit international one-way rentals. It is usually not permitted to take a rental car across the border, either, even if you plan to later return to South Africa. Many travelers who wish to visit Namibia, Mozambique or Botswana after visiting South Africa drop off one rental car, travel by public transportation (overland or air) and pick up a new rental car after arriving at their destination. There are many car rental companies in each of these countries and you can search for rental cars for your travel dates on our website. Keep in mind, though, that each of South Africa's neighboring countries has its own visa policy, and depending on your citizenship and the country you intend to visit, you may or may not need a visa to enter.

The one exception among South Africa's neighboring countries is Lesotho, a small, mountainous kingdom and a popular adventure tourism destination that is completely surrounded by South Africa. Some car rental companies permit traveling between South Africa and Lesotho (Lesotho's capital, Maseru, is just a two-hour drive from Bloemfontein, and it's also possible to drive there from Johannesburg, East London, or Durban). Do keep in mind, though, that visitors from many countries, including some European, Latin American, and Asian nations, need a visa to enter.

What should I know about South African culture?

The most important thing to keep in mind is that South Africa is a very diverse country. Cultures vary from region to region. A common mistake of visitors is to lump all the local African peoples together and refer to them as a single, homogenous group. In fact, there are very wide differences among them, noticeable not only in their languages but also historic ways of life, mutual relations between them, present-day situation etc. While most locals get along well with each other, it's respectful to learn about the specific culture of the region you're visiting or the person you're speaking to. Similarly, the white people of South Africa do not make up a single culture - there are marked differences between the English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking communities. South Africa is also home to small, but noticeable Indian and Jewish communities.

Although Apartheid, the racial segregation policy in South Africa, ended almost 30 years ago, its legacy sadly lives on in many forms and South Africa remains a racially and ethnically charged society. Similarly, the country is home to many immigrants from neighboring countries like Zimbabwe who are subjected to xenophobic attitudes by some locals. Discussing any historical issues, intra-racial or ethnic conflicts, or current politics is best avoided by visitors.

Despite these precautions, the vast majority of South Africans of all creeds and backgrounds are very hospitable and kind. For many tourists, meeting local people turns out to be the highlight of their trip. Do not be afraid to make new friends, just keep in mind to be respectful of these very sensitive issues.

How safe is South Africa for travelers?

South Africa is something of a paradox - it has developed a reputation as a rather dangerous country, but its tourism industry is booming with millions of travelers visiting it every year. While it is true that there are some dangers in South Africa, the country can be perfectly safe to visit as long as you choose your destinations carefully and are aware of potential risks.

South Africa has high rates of violent crime, but it's important to remember that most of it occurs in certain areas such as dangerous urban neighborhoods that are not normally visited by tourists. This means that while being outside in areas frequented by tourists during daytime is normally fine, you should not explore South African cities on your own, either on foot or by car. Get in touch with your Ministry of Foreign Affairs as many countries keep a list of unsafe destinations in South Africa that you should avoid. Even more importantly, listen to and follow the advice of your hotel and trustworthy locals regarding areas that you should not visit. Many of the most dangerous parts are the so-called townships, formerly racially-segregated areas located on the edges of cities. While not all townships are dangerous, you should only visit one if you are going with a local friend or if you're absolutely certain that it is safe to do so.

Although less publicized, petty crime affects foreign travelers a lot more often in South Africa. Do not flash your valuables, watch out for pickpockets, and do not engage with friendly strangers if they are trying to give you a gift, sell you something or are asking for help (unless their need is obvious). If you feel threatened or have been a victim of a crime, contact the local authorities immediately. The nationwide emergency number in South Africa is 112. The national tourism information and safety number is +27 831232345.

While rare, highway robberies and other roadside crime is not completely unheard of. Many highways and provinces of the country are very safe to explore, but others can have some dangers, especially after dark. Plan your routes carefully and in advance, always consulting your Ministry of Foreign Affairs, your country's embassy in South Africa, and the latest news updates. Regardless of the region you're traveling in, it's best to keep car doors and windows locked at all times.

Many South African highways, secondary roads, and streets in towns and villages lack any lighting and can, therefore, be dangerous to drive on after dark because of pedestrians, cattle, and wildlife possibly being on the road, as well as other vehicles that you might not notice.

While one of South Africa's main attractions is its spectacular nature, many species of wildlife such as venomous snakes, lions, rhinos, sharks, and crocodiles can be dangerous to humans. Therefore, it's important to only hike, camp, and swim in specifically designated places that have been confirmed safe by someone who knows the area. Even when visiting a national park, find out in advance where it is and isn't safe to camp or even visit on foot.

What languages are spoken in South Africa?

South Africa has 11 official languages, more than almost any other country in the world. While all of them are widely spoken in different parts of the country and most South Africans speak at least two themselves, it is quite possible to get around without being a polyglot.

While English is the native tongue of only one-tenth of South Africans, in many parts of the country it is the dominant language of media, business, and also the street. This includes many of the largest cities and popular tourist destinations. While you should not expect absolutely everyone to speak English in South Africa, most people working in the tourism and services industries will have at least some knowledge of it and many will be fluent. The South African English accent is rather specific and the dialect also uses many local loanwords, especially those coming from Afrikaans, but you should not have major trouble communicating.

Afrikaans is the native tongue of about 13% of South Africans. It is the dominant language of the Northern Cape and Western Cape regions where many people speak it as a second and third language. Afrikaans is the most widespread native language in Cape Town; however, many people in Cape Town also speak English. Afrikaans descends from Dutch and speakers of modern Dutch, including Flemish Dutch, usually understand it very well (its mutual intelligibility with German, however, is much lower).

The most common native language in South Africa is Zulu. It is primarily, although not exclusively, spoken in the northeastern part of the country, including Durban where it is the number one native language of the locals. Other official languages of South Africa are Xhosa, Northern Sotho, Tswana, Sesotho, Tsonga, Swati, Venda, and Ndebele.

Aleksandrs Buraks

Head of Growth at DiscoverCars.com
Aleksandrs has over 10 years of experience in marketing with a focus on creating stellar content that provides topical insights using data. Having taken five road trips across Europe and one in the U.S., he is passionate about traveling by car. His favorite countries to visit are Denmark and Thailand. You can find him on Linkedin, Facebook, and Twitter.

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