A throwaway comment back at Christmas 2016 saw me click on the ‘purchase’ button a few weeks later after I found a great deal on direct flights to Cape Town.
I hadn’t quite realised how my question of: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be somewhere sunny for Christmas…’ would suddenly turn into a frantic flurry of research and planning pretty much straight after all the festivities had ended. Christmas is the optimal time to visit South Africa – it’s their summer – but it’s also peak season, and I was astounded to discover a lot of accommodation was already fully booked. So even though the flights were sorted, it soon transpired that I had to organise everything else, and quickly…
But where do you even begin? With a young family in tow, I had so many factors to consider not least time and budget constraints, as well as deciding what route to take.
Having spoken to many people who have visited South Africa, I have yet to hear any bad reports – most have unequivocally told me that South Africa is one of their favourite places in the world. High praise – and I am so looking forward to discovering if I will leave feeling the same way…
So if you’re considering going to South Africa here are some tips to help with your planning.
Why South Africa?
South Africa is a huge and diverse country with dramatic landscapes, favourable weather, plenty of outdoor adventure, some of the best wine regions in the world and one of the continent’s best safari destinations, offering the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino) in more accessible parks and reserves.
We also decided on South Africa’s Garden Route because it’s malaria-free – a real draw because we can’t give the baby any malarial medication. There is also only a two-hour time difference – again another big plus as we won’t have to deal with any jet-lag issues.
Which city you’re flying into will play a big factor on what route you’ll decide on – and how long you’ve got to do it. The three major international airports are in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. Geography is key – and doing your research to find out travelling distances and times to and from different cities and attractions is essential. For instance, Cape Town to Kruger National Park is over 18 hours by road but only a two-hour flight.
Knowing what you want, and your limitations, too, will help narrow down your options. We are happy to drive, but with a young baby, we don’t want to spend all our time in the car, either, or to take any internal flights. So as much as I want to go to Kruger National Park and to see the spectacular Victoria Falls, I immediately struck them off the list…
Instead, we’ve opted to do most of the Garden Route up to Kynsna and back to Cape Town because from all our bases along the way we can drive within an hour or so to plenty of attractions and destinations in the surrounding areas. Plus we will also have enough time to relax and not feel as we are on some strict itinerary.
Do your research – I find Pinterest to be a great starting point if you want a quick overview of the country and its highlights.
When To Go?
Generally, South Africa is a year-long destination with varying climates. If you want wall-to-wall sunshine, the Cape has hot, dry weather from November to February, but as mentioned before, this a busy time of year, so plan well in advance if you want to have more choice in terms of accommodation.
The northern regions can be rainy from November to February, but this can be the best time to travel for birding, while the cooler winter months from May to September bring superb conditions for viewing big game. If you want the best chance of seeing whales, then July to November is your best bet.
In South Africa’s coldest months from May to July, you’re looking at lows of around 10°c.
South Africa has a large selection of accommodation options to suit all budgets, as well as guest houses, B&Bs and holiday rentals from apartments to houses.
I was overwhelmed with the choice, but after deciding on what route we are taking, it was much easier to choose where we are staying. We don’t want to move around too much – so the main selling points are comfort, proximity to amenities and attractions, and rooms that are large.
As with all my trips, I compare and read up on several establishments and make a shortlist. I even searched on Airbnb, which has tons of properties in South Africa, but in the end decided that I just didn’t fancy cleaning up after ourselves especially over the Christmas period.
Because I reserved our rooms nearly a year in advance, my go to is booking.com, as I really like being able to book a rooms but have the option of cancelling right up to the last minute without incurring a charge. While you don’t need to pay in advance for some accommodation, do check the small print because more often than not in peak season, or popular hotspots, a deposit will be taken from your card in advance of arrival to secure your booking. Christmas is the Cape’s busiest period, and I had to pay a fee on all our accommodation. You will be refunded, if you cancel within the stated time period, however.
Also be sure to check that hotels and guest houses are family-friendly. Many are not – and I was surprised how many boutique options around Cape Town only catered for adults and a little disappointed after I had put them on my wish list.
A road trip wouldn’t amount to much if you don’t have a good set of wheels. Like accommodation, I found that it was essential to book our car well in advance, because the prices started to creep up the longer I procrastinated.
• As I’ve warned in my Car Hire Tips For A Stress-Free Holiday don’t necessarily take the cheapest quote given to you on car rental comparison sites – and always factor in the hidden extras. We take our own car seats, and also download free sat nav applications such as Navmii, whereby you don’t need data in order to plan a route.
• Purchase Car Hire Rental excess insurance here – it works out so much cheaper than the standard daily rates the car hire company will charge.
• Think about your circumstances, too. Will you need a large enough vehicle to fit plenty of luggage in, will you want air conditioning, will you be driving a lot? If so perhaps an automatic transmission may be a better option. Also break down the cost of how much the car will cost you over the whole period you have it. I was quite taken aback by the price of our car, but after I figured out the daily rate, it was actually quite reasonable.
• Read reviews of the car hire company, do they rate well and offer good customer service? You can get the measure of a company pretty quickly but doing some online research.
• For drivers from the UK, South African cars are also right-hand drive.
Day Trips and Excursions
As with any destination, research and some simple planning ahead of time means that you’ll be able to figure out all the attractions before your arrival – and it will allow you to book ahead (you will need to during peak season) as well. Tickets to popular hotspots such as the infamous Robben Island also get booked up quickly, so it’s worth knowing places that you definitely want to see to avoid disappointment. We’ve had to reserve wine tasting and lunch in Stellenbosch, our game safari drive in Plettenberg as well as our Elephant Walk in Knysna.
It’s also important to discover if children are welcome on specific trips. My husband and I have always wanted to shark cage dive, but children under 10 are not allowed on board the boats – and the same goes for many whale tours.
Travel Essentials to South Africa
• All children under 18 years travelling to South Africa are required to show an unabridged birth certificate in addition to their passport.
• If one or neither parent is travelling with a child, immigration regulations ask for paperwork over and above the unabridged birth certificate, namely an affidavit giving permission for the child to travel, a court order in some cases and a death certificate if a parent is deceased.
• Australian, UK, US and most Western European citizens can get a 90-day entry permit on arrival.