In this installment of Tips From the Banker, we’re looking into how much you can expect to spend when traveling in South Africa. This is a country that has the potential to be affordable to travel through, but make no mistake, this is not a shoestring budget destination.
I spent nine weeks solo traveling through the country, and though it’s not nearly as cheap as destinations in Southeast Asia, which is really no surprise since it’s almost impossible to beat the pricing there, I still found it to be entirely reasonable. This is mostly because the exchange rate does those traveling on the US dollar or euro a big favor. At the time of this writing, one South African rand is equal to 7 cents US.
My total expenditure for my nine weeks traveling through South Africa was $3,577, or $57/day.
This is almost a match for what I spend living in Berlin, and much cheaper than when I was living in California.
Could I have done it for even less? Yes, I absolutely could have. I generally did not live on a backpacker budget in South Africa, because after two years of dorms, I just can’t do it anymore. Since now I’m more of a flash packer, working on the road, I’m able to spend a bit more.
That said, regardless of your budget, whether it be high or low, I’ll outline how to live within it in this post:
A guesthouse/hostel/tourist accommodation in South Africa is called a “backpackers.”
Whether you’re a backpacker who likes dorms or more of a flash packer who likes to have your own space but still wants a social vibe, you can find what fits your needs at a backpackers accommodation in South Africa. Everyone from gap yearers to families, and from foreigners to South Africans alike tend to stay at this type of accommodation. They’re typically in beautiful settings, and each has a unique personality.
Generally backpackers have dorms that run from around $8-20 for a dorm bed and upwards of $50 for a private bungalow with a beach view.
This was what I was looking at each morning from my ensuite room at Buccaneers in Cintsa, for example:
To find the best accommodation options, I’d suggest talking to fellow travelers at your first stop to see what they liked best, or you can check my road trip post for my personal favorites if you’d rather book ahead of time.
There are also free Coast to Coast books at each hostel and tourism office in South Africa which lists accommodation and activity options. What I didn’t like about it is how every single place in there was made to sound amazing. There were no real opinions! It does make for a good beach bonfire starter, though.
I also used Airbnb quite a bit in big cities, such as Johannesburg and Cape Town, where it was actually cheaper to rent a room with an ensuite bathroom than to stay in a shared dorm at a high end hostel.
Unlike much of Asia and Europe, there isn’t much public transportation in South Africa. There’s a metro train in Johannesburg that serves a few places and a muni bus in Cape Town but otherwise, there’s nothing. I realized when going through my transactions that a lot of my budget was spent on Uber taxis – which is a smartphone app connecting drivers and passengers that is a safer and cheaper alternative to taxis.
There are a few private companies such as Baz Bus, Greyhound, and Intercape that all provide transportation around the country, as well as an affordable train that serves many destinations in South Africa.
Baz Bus is specifically geared towards backpackers and offers a 21-day hop-on hop-off pass for around $350, stopping at various backpackers accommodation. However once at the destination it’s difficult to get around, and the bus doesn’t run daily. If taking the other options, you’ll have to get from the depot to your hotel which will require a taxi.
I’ve tested the busses, but feel that the best way to get around is most definitely by renting a car with several friends. Even when split amongst just two people, a car rental is more convenient and not much more expensive than any of the above options. I was very happy to have gone with this method for a few weeks myself.
I go into every single option, the various costs of each, and how to find a road trip buddy in a lot more detail in my transport post on NomadicMatt.com, so check it out if you’re weighing your options.
In order to save money, if you can be flexible and social, catching a ride with fellow backpackers and offering up a bit of money for gas is a great way to get around as well. Callum (my road trip buddy) and I provided some rides, and I was a passenger myself using this method.
Here’s where the big budget eater or saver can be, as food can be a big expense in South Africa.
It would be a mistake to avoid restaurants altogether because the meat in South Africa is top-notch.There are opportunities to try game animals such as kudu, springbok, zebra, ostrich, and even alligator. I sampled all, and all are fabulous. A fine dining experience in South Africa is still cheaper than in most Western countries, so do yourself a favor and splurge at least once!
To save money, cook your own food. Grocery stores are plentiful and have reasonable prices. Backpackers accommodation have communal kitchens where guests can cook and store their own food. By at least cooking your own breakfast and the occasional dinner, you can save a lot of money.
Backpackers typically also offer breakfast for around $5 and nightly dinners for around $8.
Though there are some places you should stay out of for safety, especially at night, don’t fear eating in the townships. Ask locals which ones are alright to visit, but I would suggest Langa in Cape Town and Soweto in Johannesburg. The BBQ (or braai) food there is seriously good. Typically consisting of whatever meat you choose (go for the lamb or steak!), sausages, and pap (a fluffy maize dish used to scoop up the other food items on the plate with your hands), a filling meal can run as cheap as $3.
Cheap vs. Expensive Destinations in South Africa:
Most of the places I visited were more or less the same in terms of pricing, except for one – Cape Town. Expect to spend a lot more on accommodation and food when in Cape Town. It’s a beautiful city with lots to do from nightlife to outdoors enjoyment, but you will pay a pretty penny for it.
Again, apart from Cape Town, everywhere else I stayed was pretty much the same as far as accommodation and food costs. Perhaps the cheapest was Karma Backpackers in a very small town outside of Golden Gate Highlands National Park in the Free State. It was a house that the owner had repurposed and was a lovely little place to stay for a night.
Connectivity can be a bit pricey in South Africa. I spent quite a bit of money on reloading my SIM card over and over to stay connected and work on the road, laying out around $30 per 3 gigabytes of 3G for my phone. Most backpackers accommodation will also charge for use of their WiFi, assuming it’s working at all.
I should also point out that I spent about half of my visit in South Africa in accommodation that I didn’t pay for. I was lucky to meet a lot of amazing people who became friends, and was invited to stay in spare rooms on several occasions, only once with someone whom I knew prior to my travels there. South Africans are incredibly friendly and generous, so keep in mind that you may have similar luck as well!
All in all, it doesn’t cost a lot to travel in South Africa, especially if you cook your own food, stay in dorms, and hitch rides, but it isn’t necessarily an easy place to travel for those on a shoestring backpacker budget. If you can spend a bit more and are looking for a great value for your money, however, South Africa is the perfect place.
I’ll be back for sure.
Have you been to South Africa? What did you spend? Did my budget surprise you?