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A Guide to Plan Your First Trip to South Africa

South Africa is a vast country, encompassing several different worlds in itself. Here's a brief guide to plan a first-time trip to one of the most diverse African countries.
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Quick Fact
Lesotho is a small landlocked country, situated within South Africa. It is surrounded by South African territory on all four sides, and can be accessed via land from South Africa.
Located on the southern tip of the continent of Africa is the mighty country of South Africa, officially, the Republic of South Africa. The 25th largest country in the world by land area, and the 24th most populated, boasts of a pluralistic make up and a multi-ethnic social setup. But, the diversity that the country features doesn't cease at that. From the desert landscape of the Kalahari to Namakwa's beautiful springtime blooms, and from hippos resting in the meandering Limpopo River to penguins swaying clumsily on the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa seems just unparalleled in diversities.

Tourists from across the globe are attracted to South Africa, owing to its natural beauty, its hugely varied terrain, and of course, the wildlife. However, the country's highlights also include state-of-the-art tourist infrastructure, an excellent nightlife, and a very warm attitude of the locals.

Planning Tips for First-time Travelers to South Africa

South Africa

No matter whether it is short or long, a South African vacation almost always turns out to be fulfilling, with very few people, if at all, returning unsatisfied. And why not? There are so many things to see and do in the country that there are indeed very rare instances, wherein there may be nothing to entertain you. With so much to offer, the country is definitely worth a visit; however, if you are visiting for the first time, the entire planning process can seem confusing. To help you sort out the complexities and confusions in the planning process, Buzzle has made this rough guide, specially for first-time visitors.

Best Time to Go

South Africa has four main seasons viz., summer (December to March), autumn (April to May), winter (June to August), and spring (September to November).

However, owing to the vastness of South Africa, it should be noted that there is nothing like the peak tourist season, and the best time to visit will largely depend on your itinerary.

It is generally not possible to explore the entire country in a single trip, and it is not advisable either. There may be certain itineraries which may take you across the country; however, unless you are on a long vacation, you will have to literally rush through South Africa, which means you will not be able to enjoy any location to the core.

South Africa's Western Cape province, that is situated on the country's southwestern coast, is bustling with international tourists during summer. Owing to this, the accommodation rates in this part of the country tower substantially in summer, sometimes even 70% more than you would have paid during some other time of the year.

It should be noted, however, that the South African summer is really hot, and so, if you want to escape the baking heat and enjoy some pleasant coastal climate, visit during early April, the transit period between summer and autumn.

Sometime between mid-December and mid-January is the 10-day long school vacation period in South Africa. At this time, the Western Cape is crowded with large number of domestic tourists as well. So, in order to escape reckless crowds, ensure that your travel dates don't clash with this period. Inquire regarding the exact dates of the school vacations with your travel agent.

If you want to indulge in some land-based whale-watching, winter and spring are the most suitable seasons. During these two seasons, the Southern Right whales migrate to the Cape's south coast.

Similarly, if you want to enjoy the Cape's scenic beauty, the time between May to August is ideal. Known as the "green season", this is a time when it rains and the Cape's mountains and valleys are lush green.

There is absolutely no way that your South Africa trip is complete without going on an African Safari. One of the major spots for indulging in this activity is the famous Kruger National Park, and the best months for sighting big game range is from May to August, when the foliage is not too dense.

It is very important that you plan your itinerary first, in order to know the best time to visit South Africa. For this you will have to get in touch with your tour operator. However, if you are traveling on your own, it is vital that you do an in-depth research through all the possible sources. If weather is not much of a constraint for you, travel during the off-season, and save a substantial amount of money.

How to Get There

There are 10 international airports in South Africa, where numerous direct flights arrive from the major cities of the world―London, New York, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Paris, Madrid, Athens, Munich, Zurich, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Mumbai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dubai, Kuala Lampur, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sao Paulo, and Sydney, amongst others.

If you are entering South Africa from one of the African countries like Zimbabwe or Botswana, you can travel by land. There are number of land border posts between South Africa and its immediate neighbors.

Cape Town is a major port of call for numerous large cruise lines. Moreover, there are also several other important ports in the country such as Durban and Port Elizabeth.

Is a Visa Required?

Nationals of several countries of the world do not need a visa to travel to South Africa, if they plan to stay in the country for not more than 90 days. These include the citizens of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Spain, Singapore, Sweden, and the citizens of the British Overseas Territories, amongst others.

Similarly, travelers from some countries also do not require a visa if they do not intend to stay for more than 30 days. This includes the citizens of Costa Rica, Cyprus, Peru, South Korea, Slovakia, Poland, Thailand, Turkey, Jordan, Hungary, Hong Kong, etc.

Getting a visa extension is subject to the discretion of the South African immigration officers, and the maximum extension period is six months.

The process for procuring a South African visa is long and tedious, and many times, it may take months together. So, make sure that you follow the procedure properly and accurately, and apply for a visa well in advance.

Modes of Transport

The domestic air travel infrastructure in South Africa is good, and all the major cities are well-connected. Domestic flights are beneficial for long-distance travel within the country, but they can be expensive.

Another option is to hire a car to commute long as well as short distances. These can be hired at pretty affordable rates, and are also fairly safe.

There are also regular bus services from major cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, etc. Moreover, the bus network also connects to some of the main centers in the neighboring countries. Bus is a rather inexpensive mode of transport, but of late, many buses have been removed from service by the South African police, owing to their bad condition, and lack of legal road-worthiness.

South Africa's national rail operator is the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA). Trains are a budget option, and connect most major centers of the country, but are not always safe.

Another economical way to explore the country, especially if you are on your own, is hiring a bicycle. While it might be little unsafe in cities, owing to the reckless traffic, it is the best way to explore the countryside.

Those wanting to explore the less trodden paths of the country, hire a 4x4 or other high clearance vehicles. You can approach your hotel's help desk for doing so.

Money and Costs

The currency of South Africa is Rand, and currently, 1 USD corresponds to about R11. This means that South Africa may not be very cheap by American standards, but is still pretty affordable.

With regard to accommodation, South Africa boasts of some of the most upscale options; however, there are several options for budget travelers as well. The facilities in cheap hostels and guest houses may not be up to the mark, but they can still be considered by those looking for places to only spend the night.

Food in South Africa is also fairly affordable. While street food is cheap, the hygiene factor should not be ignored. On the other hand, a good, sit-down meal in an average eatery can cost anywhere between R50 to R100 per person, depending on the menu.

Bargaining is not possible in most South African shops, as the prices for goods are fixed. Interestingly, the country has several open markets, which accept barter as a mode of exchange even today.

Tipping is widespread in the country, and at most places, such as hotels and gas stations, one has to pay about 10% of the total bill as tip.

Other Important Tips

Take all the required immunizations about four to six weeks prior to the date of your departure. For details about the vaccinations required, visit CDC's official website.

Carry all your medication and prescriptions along. Furthermore, get appropriate travel insurance that covers all types of contingencies, and carry the documents along.

South Africa is infamous the world over for its high crime rate. So, be vigilant, stick to the general safety precautions, keep someone regularly informed about your whereabouts, do not trust strangers, do not hitchhike (especially at night), and never keep your valuables and other belongings unattended. Furthermore, do not drive, travel, or stroll alone at night, especially in unknown places.

If you are in a wildlife reserve and are driving yourself, ensure that you adhere to the speed limits and stay in the car, come what may. Moreover, always follow your guide's instructions.

Lastly, respect the local traditions and etiquette, and do not say or do anything that might offend the locals.

We are sure that South Africa will treat you well and you will return, craving for more!
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Published: January 30, 2014
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