South Africa is the ninth biggest country in Africa, so figuring how to get around in the country in an efficient way takes some serious thought and planning. Here are the top tips for traveling around South Africa, no matter whether going by air, rail or road.
Travel by plane if you're short on time
South Africa is almost five times the size of England (or twice the size of Texas), so it’s worth considering taking to the air if you have a lot of ground to cover in a limited time. South Africa’s main cities are well connected by convenient flights. The domestic airline with the most extensive network is Airlink, which flies through 17 South African airports, along with others in southern and central Africa. Fly Safair and Kulula are also reliable and recommended, but they reach only around half a dozen destinations each.
If you have time constraints, flying is the best – though least climate-friendly – option for getting around South Africa. However, airports are often a considerable distance from the city, and it’s worth remembering that you will incur costs (and travel time) getting into the city center.
Almost every city and town is connected by bus
Greyhound pulled out of South Africa in February 2021 after nearly four decades of service, so Intercape and Translux are now the major options for travelers moving between cities in South Africa. Both of these networks have efficient online booking systems, and between them, they connect almost every city and town in the country with safe, comfortable and affordable vehicles. All long-distance coaches are equipped with air-conditioning and toilets.
Tickets vary according to distance and route, but figure on paying roughly US$3 for each hour of traveling. In high season, specifically during school Christmas holidays, prices can rise by as much as 30%.
Renting a car will get you into wilderness areas and national parks
Public transport in South Africa is limited when it comes to remote, rural communities and almost nonexistent if you want to explore the wilderness and the all-important national parks and reserves. If you want to experience the thrill and charm of backcountry South Africa, you’ll need your own wheels.
The entire country is networked by excellent quality and beautifully scenic roads, along with enough endless stretches of gravel top to appeal to any adventurous road-tripper. There are several reliable and relatively inexpensive car rental companies, including Avis, Hertz and Tempest Car Hire. If you’re traveling in a group, car rental often turns out to be the most affordable option, with prices starting from around US$20/day. Prices are usually lower if you book in advance rather than wait until you arrive at the airport.
Bear in mind that many parks – specifically Kruger National Park and Addo Elephant National Park – have such excellent road infrastructure that a 4x4 is not necessary, and as long as you confine yourself to the tarmac routes, you can get around even in a small hatchback.
If you’re driving in Big Five country, do some research regarding etiquette and safety precautions, especially in dealing with elephants. One of the most environmentally sound 4x4 rental companies is Tread Lite, which offers affordable, compact and delightfully quirky Suzuki Jimny 4x4s with all the necessary camping kit. A price tag of around US$80 per day gets you the vehicle and all the camping equipment. Tread Lite is an absolute mine of information when you’re planning your route.
Tour buses offer affordable, flexible travel in South Africa
Aimed at backpackers, Baz Bus is a perfect option for solo travelers looking for a more sociable mode of transport. The “hop-on hop-off” travel pass means that you can take as long as you want to go from A to B. For example, a hop-on hop-off ticket between Cape Town and Johannesburg starts at around US$450 and passes through most of the coastal highlights up to Durban before turning inland. An eight-day Baz Bus travel pass, which lets you hop off and on as many times as you want as long as you keep moving in the same direction, costs US$210. Baz Bus even offers a three-day all-inclusive Kruger Safari from US$600 per person.
Highly recommended, Oasis Overland offers a 17-day trip from Cape Town to Jo’burg that takes in most of the main sights, including Addo, Royal Natal National Park and even a visit to the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, for about US$1700. If you want to make South Africa part of a once-in-a-lifetime African trip, look into the 93-day Grand Adventurer trip from Nairobi to Johannesburg.
Trains in South Africa run from basic to luxury
If you’re not in a hurry, the train is often the most pleasant way of getting around South Africa. The 29-hour trip from Cape Town to Johannesburg makes for a relaxing overnight journey watching the countryside slip past and chatting to fellow passengers. The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa runs the relatively basic – but still comfortable – tourist-class Shosholoza Meyl sleeper service between the main cities and towns, as well as an upgraded Premier Classe.
The Blue Train takes those comfort levels to luxuriously sumptuous extremes: you’re expected to dress formally for dinner, and the price tag attached is close to US$1500 for a trip from Pretoria to Cape Town. The four-day 1600km (994-mile) journey between Pretoria and Cape Town on the luxurious Rovos Rail service costs from US$1717 and – for an extra charge – you can carry on all the way to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
Another option: an inexpensive local minibus or taxi
Be aware that in South Africa the word “taxi” is most commonly applied to the privately owned minibuses that connect virtually every town and village in the country. Often overloaded and dangerously driven, it is a mode of transport that is avoided by most people with sufficient funds to use another option. The schedules are rarely set, and you will simply have to ask around to find out where to wait. These often overloaded minibuses rarely have much room for luggage.
Hired taxis (normal saloon cars or hatchbacks) run in the major cities only, but the ubiquitous ride-sharing app Uber is a convenient, secure and reliable service that you can count on in most parts of the country.
Accessible transportation in South Africa
For travelers with disabilities, South Africa might just be the easiest country on the continent to get around. Facilities include boardwalks and braille signage at the most developed national parks and reserves. Wheelchair users have easy access in getting around city centers, especially in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Avis and Budget are the nationwide rental companies that supply vehicles with hydraulic lifts and wheelchair restraints. Disabled Travel is a great resource for listings, compiled by an occupational therapist, detailing a vast range of accommodations and resources for travelers with disabilities.
Durban-based Access 2 Africa Safaris run everything from day trips to 12-day tours taking in Zululand, Kruger and eSwatini (Swaziland). Travel with Renè is a fantastic tour operator that runs a range of exciting tours, including whale-watching and winelands tours, in the Cape area. Renè, a Black quadriplegic woman as a result of a motor accident in 1995, has a vehicle that can take six passengers, including three wheelchairs at a time.
South African National Parks has produced an excellent 24-page PDF Comprehensive Guide to Universal Access in South African National Parks for Guests with Disabilities.
Find more accessible travel information by downloading Lonely Planet’s free Accessible Travel eBook.
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