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Getting Around South Africa: Transportation Tips

South Africa’s excellent infrastructure and popularity as a travel destination make it easy to navigate. The country’s most iconic spots — Kruger National Park and the city of Cape Town — are more than 1,100 miles apart, so if your visit includes these two destinations, you should expect to make at least one long-distance trip (a 2.5-hour flight or 20-hour drive). Flights, trains and buses are all viable options, with varying price points and travel times.

Flying to and Around South Africa

International travelers to South Africa will almost surely arrive into O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg — it’s the busiest airport on the entire continent. South African Airways (SAA) offers a few nonstop flights between New York City and Joburg, while Delta flies nonstop from Atlanta.

Cape Town and Durban also have international airports; however, flights there are less frequent and often more expensive.

Fifteen regional airports across the country make internal flights a great choice, though prices can be high. Most in-country routes are operated by SAA or its affiliates, or by budget carriers Mango and Kulula. You can often find deals, particularly from Joburg to Cape Town, if you book well in advance.


Renting a Car in South Africa

Thanks to well-maintained and clearly marked roads, driving in South Africa is relatively easy. Renting a car also gives you the greatest flexibility, including the ability to visit wildlife reserves and national parks without joining a tour.

The biggest challenge for American drivers and others accustomed to driving on the right is likely to be driving on the left side of the road. Aggressive local drivers may also cause some stress — stay alert and drive defensively. For example, if you see a car from the opposite direction overtaking another vehicle, you are expected to go into the shoulder lane to allow them to pass. The driver will flash a quick “thank you” with his or her high beams. On highways, be wary of pedestrians walking on the road, and in rural areas watch for animals.

Most major rental companies — including Hertz, Europcar and Budget — are found in South Africa. They’ll often let you pick up and drop off at different locations, even in different countries, for an extra cost. While smaller local companies like Tempest and Around About Cars may not provide such flexibility, they often offer cheaper rates. Most rental cars have manual transmission. If you can only drive automatic, you’ll likely pay more for the privilege. Regardless of your plans, booking in advance will almost always give you better rates and more options.

As long as you’re staying in the country for fewer than six months, your regular driver’s license should suffice, but check with your rental agency to confirm whether it requires an International Driver’s Permit. (If it does, you can obtain one through an international motoring organization like AAA in the U.S.) And before getting behind the wheel, carefully review what damage is covered under your insurance and if you’re permitted to drive on “unsuitable” roads, which each company may define differently. The majority of rental agencies require drivers to be at least 23 years old and holders of a license for at least two years. If you don’t fit these requirements, check with smaller companies, which may be more flexible.

In all but the most remote areas, gas stations are easy to find, are open 24/7 and accept credit cards. Station attendants will pump the gas for you, and a small tip is appreciated.

Car break-ins in urban areas are a frequent problem; keep valuables out of sight at all times. You’ll often see “car guards” in parking lots; again, a small gratuity when you leave is welcomed.

The country’s Automobile Association provides a handy trip planning tools section on its website, along with current fuel prices and maps.


South Africa by Train

Often the slowest transportation option, trains in South Africa are less expensive than flights and offer more comfort than buses. For those who have the time, they’re also a wonderful way to experience the country’s vast openness.

Shosholoza Meyl Railways provides service between the country’s major cities. In tourist class, sleeper accommodations are for two to four people with bathrooms and showers shared by each car.

Along certain routes Shosholoza Meyl also operates premier class trains, which have air-conditioned cars and amenities you’d have to pay extra for in tourist class (i.e., bedding and meals). As of this writing, online booking isn’t available on the Shosholoza Meyl website but is possible through the website of booking agency African Sun Travel.

Meanwhile, for those who want to travel in style — and can afford it — Rovos Rail is considered one of the most luxurious trains on the planet. The train’s primary route is across a large swath of the country from Pretoria to Cape Town. Guests travel aboard both modern and classic refurbished coaches. They’re treated to gourmet meals and butler service, and some accommodations even have bathtubs. It’s a fantastic experience for those with big budgets. The Blue Train is another well-reputed luxury option with the same standard route.


South Africa by Bus

All but the most rural parts of the country can be reached by bus using one of the three main companies: Intercape, Greyhound and Translux. Buses in South Africa are affordable and safe, and they usually have air conditioning and an onboard toilet. Intercape boasts a Sleepliner fleet with seats that recline 150 degrees — a great choice for long overnight trips. Note that Intercape “promotes the Christian faith” on its buses, which may involve a prayer at the start of the journey, as well as Christian music and religious movies.

Tickets can be bought directly through each company or from the national booking agency Computicket.

For shorter distances, Baz Bus, a hop-on, hop-off service for budget travelers, is generally your cheapest option. Its fleet of comfortable, 22-seater buses drives primarily along the coast.


South Africa by Taxi

In cities, taxis are often the best option for travelers, as public transport is not always extensive or tourist-friendly. There are two types of taxis: standard private cabs and so-called minibus taxis. The private taxi is typical of what you find in just about every city around the world — you hail or call a cab, have it to yourself and pay a fare based on a meter or predetermined rate. Taxi stands aren’t common, so it’s generally best to call for one, or ask your hotel or restaurant to do it for you.

The second option is the minibus taxi, which generally carries up to 16 passengers. They’re inexpensive and a regular form of transport for South Africans. Unfortunately, the safety of minibus taxis — both in terms of driving standards and crime — varies wildly from place to place. For that reason, we recommend asking hotel staff for their opinions, as many of them ride in minibus taxis themselves.


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–written by Marsea Nelson

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