Family Guide to Safety & Culture Traveling South Africa
(**Nothing was sponsored, nor was given to me for free or at any kind of discount for this article.)
As the Duke & Duchess of Sussex complete their Royal Tour of South Africa with final stops in Johannesburg, it’s fitting to discuss real-world travel considerations for non-royal families planning their own trip to this spectacular country.
The burning questions most parents (and my own friends) have about “Culture & Safety” in South Africa are valid. Still, some unexpected cultural elements may pleasantly surprise you. Our own family’s stays across South Africa have been positive and unforgettable and have changed us forever. I’m sharing some of our useful observations here.
Security is one of the most surprising and evident elements of a trip to South Africa. Full-scale security measures at lodges, homes, and hotels are hard for visitors to ignore or fully comprehend. The extent of physical and manned security present in most accommodations is jarring. Yes, crime does exist in South Africa. As a traveling family, we acknowledge crime and take measures to avoid it but we’re not paralyzed by the threat.
Here’s what your family can expect:
Barbed wire, fences, bars on windows, locked gates and high walls are prevalent and should not necessarily alarm you. These are standard issue in a country with such disparity of wealth. This is less typical at remote safari lodging sites.
Petty theft is common and expected among South Africans, across the country. Tourist lodging is especially well-guarded. Elements of your accommodation may feel like you’re sleeping inside Fort Knox. There will likely be night security patrolling outside. This is not a trip where your kids or teens should go exploring alone for some freedom. Use common sense and continue to follow precautions from legitimate South Africa resources -- specifically well-regarded published guidebooks and local tour companies. (I do not recommend internet searching “crime in South Africa.” You will unearth more unsubstantiated anecdotal stories than necessary.)
In the cities, at night, you should NOT walk with your family to your evening destinations. Taxis and Uber are the best choices. While out and about, during the day, pay attention to your surroundings. Look up, look people in the eye and say hello. Don’t dress too flashy and don’t act like an arrogant tourist. Be considerate and read up on the region of South Africa you’re visiting to understand the culture and history. Every hotel and small town and safari site are different. Feel free to ask questions, especially of your hosts. We felt safe on our self-guided safari in the National Park lodging — which was much less locked-down than lodging in the cities. We’ve also stayed in well-reviewed small, boutique guest lodges with relative peace of mind. It’s all dependent on your level of comfort.
When parking in both the city and small towns you may have an unofficial friendly parking attendant approach you as you exit your car. It’s okay. This is typical and you should only feel obligated to tip him/her upon returning to your car with 2 to 5 rand. Keep small change on you for such moments. For other tipping guidance this article in Cape Town Magazine is helpful.
I recommend you do your research and read reviews and ask questions as you’re booking lodging and tours in South Africa. It is possible to book your own safari and travel safely. However, if you are concerned (and can afford to) you might certainly book through a well-regarded travel agency.
Modern South Africa is a melting pot of historical proportions reflected in people, food, colors, language, music and clothing. There are 11 official languages in South Africa, but you’ll have no trouble finding English almost everywhere. The languages come from the many tribes of South Africa, as well as the Afrikaans and British settlers.
South Africa dishes out widely diverse experiences. The mountainous Eastern Cape, where my own sister lives, is a world apart from metropolitan Cape Town. Still, there are universal cultural threads you will find across the country.
South Africans do hosting right! The attention to details is unmatched. I liken it to staying at your favorite, fun aunt’s house; the one who has the softest sheets, always leaves a homemade cookie by the bed, and knows the smell of bacon is the best alarm clock. Hospitality is a highly regarded career course and certification program here. South Africans working in hospitality do everything they can to ensure you have a wonderful experience sharing their country.
Everywhere you visit, whether a small boutique hotel, Airbnb or luxury safari lodge, you will be overwhelmed by the reception of food, drink, conversation and just plain kindness of hosts and staff. Before Airbnb arrived in South Africa, this large country — with swaths of unpopulated regions — relied on the hospitality of friends-of-friends for overnight stays. My sister explained to me that hotels and guest lodges have always been few and far between along highways. Even today, it’s not uncommon for South African homes to regularly host overnight friends passing through. In my opinion, this has resulted in a beautiful and deep tradition of very thoughtful overnight hospitality. Tea, coffee, wine and conversation are always abundant, wherever you stay — even in the large hotels. I can easily recommend the entire Protea Hotel chain (a part of Marriott). We have stayed in their smaller boutique lodging in small towns as well as their major hotels in the cities. The amenities are beautiful and safe. There’s even a couple of gorgeous Protea lodges near Kruger National Park’s gates that will cost substantially less than a full-service safari lodge.
South African restaurants and even small cafes will amaze you with unexpected quality and global flavors influenced by Malaysia, The Netherlands, India, Europe, Southeast Asia. You’ll also find local game and seasonal fruits and vegetables lead the menu of the day. Red meat is abundant and therefore prevalent, but gorgeous, hearty and unexpected salads featuring beetroot, squash and pumpkin are very common. Curries are often offered and are a blend of many cultures.
Dining with a fork and knife is a bit more formal in South Africa — you’ll notice locals using the fork in the left hand and knife in the right. Kid-friendly options are typically on the menu — if not, feel free to politely ask for something simple for the kids. Drinking water is safe if offered at a restaurant. Wages are low in South Africa and tipping is standard in restaurants and cafes at about 10-15 percent of the bill.
Much has been written about the preparation for a trip to South Africa. As a mother and writer, I’ll simply jot down the high-level topics you should look further into.
Travel Documents for Families: South Africa requires all visitors show a return ticket when you arrive. For parents, specifically, the South African government is very strict on travel with children across borders: “all minors (children under 18 years) may be required to produce, in addition to their passport, a birth certificate or equivalent document which shows the details of both parents for all international travel to and from South Africa.” If you happen to be traveling as a solo parent there are additional requirements, all of which are outlined here. Make sure your passport is also valid for at least 30 days after your visit.
Immunizations: This is not nearly as intimidating as it sounds. Since this is a constantly evolving science, it’s best to rely on your own government’s recommendations, such as the U.S. CDC’s page for immunization guidelines for adults and children. While there are many travel clinics, at home, willing to offer your complete family’s complete vaccine needs, I also found some local pharmacies can provide some of the vaccines you may need. Alternatively, it’s always a good idea to visit your own clinic or bundle vaccinations with an annual exam. Plan out your vaccines months in advance.
Cell Phones: Cell phone SIM cards are easily purchased at the airport and can provide data service. As parents, we always end up just using one phone on a paid data plan and the other phones in our family simply rely on free or paid wifi when we are staying at accommodations.
Travel Insurance: If you’ve never been one to purchase travel insurance, a trip to South Africa is a good time to do so. Your U.S. medical insurance may not reimburse you for any or all medical treatment. And with kids, you never know when an ear infection or stitches will happen.
Internet: A large share of internet service in South Africa is accessed through mobile devices using the previously mentioned SIM card. Do you research before you go if you plan on using your phone for internet and maps.
Hospitals: South Africa has excellent medical facilities in major towns and cities. The U.S. Embassy is a great resource for many things, this list of vetted hospitals and clinics included.
Other Good Resources: Speaking of embassies, your national embassy is a an important site to connect before you visit any country (and it’s a benefit of citizenship, so you may as well access it.) I also like the Lonely Planet books and website as an excellent, on-the-ground insider, up-to-date resource.
For more further South Africa planning information, read these previous posts.
About Amanda Calnan Vowels: Traveling to South Africa with babies, toddlers and kids started as soon as we had kids. My sister is an American expat married to a South African farmer living in the remote Eastern Cape with her young family. My husband, kids and I have seen nearly every corner and tried all types of family safaris (both luxury and bargain). We’ve even spent one month driving coast-to-coast, top-to-bottom. Our kids are now 11 and 14 and the sum of our trips is appreciation for this diverse nation.
(**Nothing was sponsored, nor was given to me for free or at any kind of discount for this article.)