South Africa on a budget | 30 Seriously Helpful Tips
South Africa is a great travel destination. There is so much to see, do and explore—it’s like the world in one country. But how do you visit South Africa on a budget?
Here are several helpful tips to not only get you to South Africa cheaply but also some advice on staying on budget while you are there.
For your convenience, there are several practical categories for you to choose from:
How to save money on flights
Travel during the off season
Most people want to travel to South Africa during the warm seasons, which are September to November (Spring), and of course December to February (Summer). However, this is when the flights and accommodation will be the most expensive.
If you are traveling to South Africa on a budget, consider the off-season. You may need to pack a few extra layers, but apart from saving money, you also avoid the crowds and the long lines. It is also worth mentioning that South Africa’s cold seasons are not too cold.
- Cape Town winters are wet with lows of around 45 degrees Fahrenheit / 7 degrees Celsius.
- Johannesburg’s winters are dry with lows of 39 degrees Fahrenheit / 4 degrees Celsius.
- Durban’s winters are dry with lows of around 52 degrees Fahrenheit / 11 degrees Celsius.
If you are traveling to South Africa for Safari, you’re in luck! The best time for Safari is May to September, which is South Africa’s off-season!
Be flexible with your travel dates
The cost of an airplane ticket can vary dramatically from day to day. That being the case, choose the “flexible dates” tool on whichever service you are using. Sometimes you may notice a cheaper option is available a few days before or after your target dates.
Book your flights early
Every now and again, you can find cheap last-minute flights. This is true. However, if you have a job and a family, you probably can’t travel when the deals arrive. So your best bet is to book early.
The best time for booking flights to South Africa is May, but really, you should keep an eye out because deals can arise any time of the year.
Set flight alerts
Travel research can be fun and exciting, but it can also get tedious very quickly, especially if you are typing in the same information over and over again.
Save yourself the hassle by setting a fare alert for flights to South Africa so that you’ll be notified when the prices change.
Be flexible with your location
By far, most travelers to South Africa will want to go to Cape Town. However, you might not be able to get a cheap flight to Cape Town. You might need to fly to Johannesburg, then take a budget airline flight to Cape Town. (This is called the Greek Island Trick.)
But while Cape Town is the premium destination, do not write-off Johannesburg. There are lots of fun things to do, like going to the Lion Park, visiting Montecasino, checking out the Apartheid museum, etc.
Budget saving tips for food
Avoid Touristy Restaurants & Menus
For example, if you are in Cape Town, don’t eat at the fancy V&A Waterfront restaurants. This is one of the places tourists frequent and therefore these fancy restaurants charge tourist prices. But not all the restaurants at these upscale malls are expensive. For the best value, go to the chain restaurants.
Before you cringe, South African chain restaurants are not bad at all! The food culture in South Africa is different and therefore you can often expect better food from the chains.
But if you’d prefer to avoid the chain restaurants, go where the locals eat. South Africa has tons of malls with food courts, but there are also lots of mom & pop restaurants and cafe’s around the cities and towns. You can do your research to find out which restaurants are best, but if you cannot be bothered, check out which restaurants are busiest and meal times. That’s a good sign that people love their food.
Drink the house wine
South Africa makes great wines! Have those instead of marked-up, imported wines.
By buying the house wine, you can get your wine by the glass, instead of the entire bottle, thereby saving money.
If you are visiting South Africa on a budget, also avoid the marked-up cocktails. They’re delicious but they are way more expensive than a simple glass of local wine.
Eat the free breakfast
If you are staying in a hotel that offers free breakfast, eat it!
Depending on where you stay, some hotels (like the Holiday Inn) have great breakfasts. If you’ve stayed in chain hotels in the USA, you’re probably thinking about waffles, cereals, dry bacon, and bad eggs. That’s not the case in South Africa. Many hotels that serve breakfast have an actual restaurant, so they’ll have a buffet but also eggs made to order.
Eat like the locals
Local foods and drinks are almost always cheaper. This is where you should be focusing if you are traveling to South Africa on a budget.
Eat a big lunch
Sometimes the lunch menu is cheaper than the dinner menu, so make your lunch the big meal of the day.
Buy food to go
Buying a muffin and a coffee to go (take-away in South Africa), is much cheaper than sitting down for breakfast.
Cook your own meals
South Africa is not an expensive country for eating at restaurants. Depending on where you go, you can have a decent meal for under $10. However, if your budget will not allow that, you may want to cook for yourself. (Just be sure not to shop for groceries at Woolworths – South Africa’s version of Whole Foods. Woolworths is a South African treasure! The food is delicious and the quality is great, but it’s expensive. For the best deals on groceries, go to Shoprite, Checkers or similar grocery stores.)
If you are eager to try local foods, perhaps cook breakfast and dinner, but have your lunch at a restaurant.
Ask for tap water
For the most part, South Africa’s tap water is safe to drink. The sparkling water served at restaurants is delicious but if you are traveling on a budget, skip them and opt for the tap water.
Saving on travel and accomodation
Unfortunately, accommodation can get expensive in South Africa. As with everything else, it depends on where and when you go. If you are aiming to stay in the cities, your budget will be wiped clean very quickly. Instead, opt for:
- Hostels – sometimes you can even find hostels for families.
- If you prefer hotels, look for “cheap hotels.” Sometimes you may be able to find nice hotels for cheap. Obviously this depends on when you are traveling – the screenshot above was taken in May, South Africa’s off season.
- Go camping. If you are into camping, this can be a lot of fun.
South Africa does have a public transport system but it can be a little rough, especially for foreigners. Instead, opt for:
- Uber – all drivers are vetted and they are relatively cheap too.
- Walk – if you’re lucky enough to get a hostel in a city, you can explore the city on foot. For anything further, get an Uber.
- Economy car rental – if you can drive a manual (stick), even better because these are cheaper to rent. If you choose this option, save money by filling up the car before you return it.
How to save money on activities
See the city with the Hop on Hop off bus
There are a lot of things to see in the city and for the most part, you will not be able to walk everywhere. However, you can see a lot by buying a hop-on hop-off bus ticket. They are available in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
For all you get to see, these buses are cheap. You’ll be able to see the most popular attractions, plus many lesser-known sights.
Shop the flea markets for souvenirs
No matter where you go, you may want to get a souvenir or two to remind you of where you have been. Stay away from the malls. Instead, go to the local flea markets. There are plenty in South Africa, like the Neigborgoods Markets in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Do keep in mind that many of these markets are only open on weekends.
If you are shopping at flea markets:
- Be open to negotiating. If the locals hear your foreign accent, they may be tempted to double or triple the price.
- Some flea market vendors may try to push you to buy immediately. Don’t give in. Rather, tell the vendor that you are browsing and you will come back if his/her price is the best.
- Don’t buy the first thing you like. There may literally be 10 more vendors who sell something similar. Walk around first and see where you can get the best deal.
For the most part, hiking is free. There is no national parks fee you have to pay for entering. Take advantage of that to see South Africa’s natural beauty.
The Drakensberg in Kawzulu Natal is a hikers dream, but most travelers don’t make it that far. Instead, they go to Table Mountain.
Table Mountain hike is one of those things every able visitor really must do, and it’s free! Once you get to the summit, you’ll be able to see the city that lies underneath.
Explore on foot
You won’t be able to walk everywhere, but wherever possible, walk. Depending on where you are, walking might be the better option, anyway. For example, to truly appreciate the colorful Bo Kaap, you’ve got to walk the streets.
Look for Free Days
Do a bit of research to find out if there are Free Days to visit local museums and other tourist attractions. For example, every year in September the South African National Parks (SANPARKS) offers free entry to national parks across the country—you could go see the penguins at Boulders Beach?
Saving money when traveling across the country
Travel across the country by bus
Long-haul busses in the USA are iffy. Actually, they can be a bit of a nightmare as the bus drivers will wait for the busses to be completely full before they leave, meaning your trip can turn out to be hours longer than it needed to be.
But the long-haul busses in South Africa are not like that. They’re actually quite pleasant. They have a schedule to keep so the bus moves when it is supposed to.
The long-haul busses in South Africa are relatively safe but it’s always best to be street-smart.
Take a cheap domestic flight
South Africa has a few discount airlines to choose from like Mango Airlines, FlySafair, Kulula.com, etc. They will take you from point A to point B for a very reasonable price. However, keep in mind that you are flying cheap and therefore, you may need to deal with a few unpleasant consequences, like an occasional delay.
How to handle your money 'to save money'
Earn miles with credit cards
Some credit card companies will offer signup bonuses. For example, if you spend $3000 in three months, you earn 50 000 points. If they charge a large annual fee, the signup points may not seem worth it but in the long run, those points may earn you thousands of miles.
Earning credit card points for purchases you were already going to make is an easy way to subsidize your travels. However, keep in mind that this strategy is not as effective if you don’t pay off your credit card every month. That’s because the interest you pay may wipe out any savings you earn.
Use/ Apply for credit cards with benefits
In addition to airline miles, some credit cards offer extra benefits like a free checked bag, free access to an airport lounge, etc.
Get a credit/ debit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees
You probably already know that not all credit cards are created equally. Keep this in mind as you plan your travels to South Africa (or any other foreign destination.)
Many credit card companies will charge you a foreign transaction fee. Even if you are frugal, you are going to be stacking up the transactions. If you have a credit or debit card that doesn’t charge those foreign transaction fees, you won’t have to worry about those extra fees.
Do your research or ask your bank. We use Capital One credit cards because they do not charge those pesky transaction fees.
Create a budget
By creating a budget, you can figure out early on how much the trip will cost. By budgeting for everything, you’ll be able to spot opportunities where you can cut costs. Finally, by having a budget, you know how much money to save for, (instead of paying off the debts and the credit card fees when you get back.)
Get a tax refund where applicable
Admittedly, this is a bit of a hassle but if you are traveling to South Africa on a budget, you may not mind standing in line to get your tax refunds. This is usually done at the airport before you leave South Africa.
The idea around tax refunds is that non-residents won’t benefit from the taxes they were paying for, so the government will reimburse them.
Limit your cash withdrawels
If your bank charges a flat rate for every withdrawal, limit the number of withdrawals you’re making.
If you think you will need R10 000 for your entire trip, you may want to do it in one or two transactions, instead of several small withdrawals.
Be sure to put the extra cash away safely in a hotel safe or a money belt.
Travelers checks are another viable option.
How to stay in touch on a budget
Get a local sim card for your phone
Having a local sim card means you have a local phone (and therefore pay local rates), which can be very advantageous if you need to be able to stay in touch with other travelers or locals.
If you have an unlocked phone, pick up a local SIM card from Vodacom or MTN—you can usually find them in the malls.
Use wifi and keep your phone in airplane mode
If you would rather not get a local sim card, be sure to keep your phone in airplane mode with the WiFi on. Do this for the entire trip.
By doing this, you will still be able to log in to free WiFi networks but you won’t be roaming—which is very expensive.
You can also rent or buy a travel wifi hotspot.
Download Google Maps for offline use
Google maps are great, especially if you are navigating through a foreign country. However, it can eat up a lot of data. Therefore, download your chosen Google Map before you leave a free WiFi connection.
By doing this, you will have the Google map, but not the little blue dot that tells you where you’re going.