You can often get away with booking a few days in advance, or not at all, but if you're travelling at Christmas or Easter, plan several months ahead. Always book national-park accommodation in advance.

  • Lodges Can be uber-luxe or fairly rustic, but tend to boast some of the best locations.
  • Guesthouses Often owner-run, with comfortable rooms, hearty breakfasts and priceless local information.
  • Self-catering cottages Usually spacious and excellent value for money.
  • Backpacker hostels Often have a bar, swimming pool and campsites; ideal for budget or solo travellers.
  • Hotels Everything from stylish boutique hotels to vast and luxurious chains.

Backpackers

South Africa is backpacker friendly, with a profusion of hostels in popular areas such as Cape Town and the Garden Route. Visit Travel Now Now (www.travelnownow.co.za) for more ideas.

Accommodation In addition to dorm beds (from about R160 per night), hostels often offer private rooms (en-suite singles/doubles from about R250/500). Many will also allow you to pitch a tent on the grounds for a fee of R100 or so.

Facilities Hostels are often of a high standard, with wi-fi, self-catering facilities, a bar and a travellers' bulletin board. Some offer meals. Staff can provide information on the area and local transport, and organise pick-ups if the hostel is not on the Baz Bus route.

Hostelling International South Africa has hostels nationwide affiliated with HI (www.hihostels.com), so it's worth taking an HI card.

B&Bs & Guesthouses

B&Bs and guesthouses are two of South Africa's accommodation treats. They're found throughout the country, from cities to villages, while in rural areas you can stay on farms. Some of the cheapest places are unexciting, but in general, standards are high and rooms are good value.

Facilities Unlike B&Bs in some other countries, most South African establishments offer much more than someone's spare room. Unlike motels, the bedrooms are individual and often luxurious. Antique furniture, a private bathroom and verandah, big gardens and a pool are common. In scenic areas such as the Cape Winelands, wonderful settings are part of the deal. Breakfasts are usually large and delectable.

Rates Prices start around R400/600 per single/double, including breakfast and private bathroom. With the odd exception, starting prices tend to be higher in Cape Town, Johannesburg and the Garden Route.

Camping

Camping grounds and caravan parks have long been the accommodation of choice for many South African families. Grounds in popular areas are often booked out during school holidays. Wild camping isn't recommended in South Africa, but you can often pitch your tent at backpackers for R100 or so.

Municipal Most towns have an inexpensive municipal campsite and caravan park, ranging from pleasant to unappealing. Those near larger towns are often unsafe.

Private Altogether better are privately run campsites and those in national parks. These are invariably well equipped and appealing, with ablution blocks, power points, cooking areas and water supply. Tourist areas often have fancy camping resorts, complete with swimming pool, restaurant and minimarket.

Prices Rates at private campsites are either per person (from about R130) or per site (from about R200). Except where noted, we have quoted camping prices per person.

Rules Some caravan parks ban nonporous groundsheets (which are sewn in to most small tents) to protect the grass. If you're only staying a night or two, you can usually convince the manager that your tent won't do any harm. Some parks may not allow tents at all, though if you explain that you're a foreigner without a caravan, it may be possible to get a site.

Hotels

These cover the full spectrum, from spartan set-ups to exclusive boutique properties.

Budget Most budget hotels are run-down and inadequate. There are a few reasonable old-style country hotels, where you can get a single/double from about R350/500, have a meal and catch up on gossip in the pub.

Midrange These options are more dependable than their budget counterparts, offering good value and atmospheric surroundings.

Top end Rates are high in local terms, and generally in line with international prices, but the appealing properties include boutique, historic and design hotels.

Hotel Chains

Chain hotels are common and can be found in cities and tourist areas.

City Lodge Decent value, with Road Lodges (slightly superior standards to the rival SUN1 chain; about R650 for a room accommodating one to three), Town Lodges (around R1000/1200 per single/double), City Lodges (about R1300/1600 per single/double) and Courtyard Hotels (around R1700/3000 per studio/double). Lower rates are offered for online bookings.

InterContinental Hotels Group Offers a range of accommodation across its Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express and InterContinental hotels in the major cities.

Protea A network of three- to five-star hotels across South Africa. Protea's Prokard Explorer loyalty club offers discounts of up to 10% and VIP privileges. Owned by Marriott International.

Tsogo Sun Operates various chains and properties throughout South Africa, including Southern Sun Hotels, the midrange Garden Court brand and SUN1. Previously known as Formule1, SUN1 offers South Africa's cheapest chain hotels, with functional but cramped rooms accommodating one to three from about R500.

Sun International Runs top-end, resort-style hotels in the former homelands, plus Swaziland, usually with casinos attached. Standards are generally high and package deals are available.

Lodges

In and around the national parks, you can relax comfortably in bush settings. Staying at a wildlife lodge is an unmissable experience. You also have to stay at one to gain access to parks such as Madikwe Game Reserve (North West Province).

Facilities Accommodation is usually in a luxurious lodge, comfortable rondavel (round hut with a conical roof) or safari tent. Expect many of the amenities you would find in a top-end hotel, including en suites with running hot and cold water, comfortable bedding, delicious cuisine and, at the top end, even a pool. However, many lodges don't have landlines, wi-fi, TVs or, in especially rustic cases, electricity. Most luxury lodges charge all-inclusive rates, which include wildlife drives and meals.

Reservations It's important to phone ahead if you plan to stay at a lodge or self-catering option in the wilderness. Not only can they be tricky to find without directions, and the staff may need to pick you up if your vehicle doesn't have good clearance, but if you turn up unannounced you might find there's no one home.

Townships

In Soweto, Khayelitsha and several other areas, you can sleep in township B&Bs, backpackers and homestays, which are excellent ways to get an insight into township life. Many owners offer township tours, and unparalleled African hospitality.

Self-Catering Accommodation

This can be excellent value, from around R500 per two-person cottage – also called chalets, cabins, huts and rondavels (round huts with conical roofs). Options range from farm cottages and campsite accommodation to community-run camps and holiday resorts.

Facilities Apart from the occasional run-down place, most self-catering accommodation comes with bedding, towels and a fully equipped kitchen, though confirm what is included in advance. In some farm cottages you'll have to do without lights and electricity.

Locations Small-town tourist information centres and their websites are good places to find out about self-catering accommodation. Self-catering chalets, often available in campsites and caravan parks, are common in tourist areas such as the coast and around parks and reserves. Many are set in scenic but remote locations, more suited to travellers with a car, although cottages are also found in towns and villages.

Parks and reserves South African National Parks (SANParks) offers well-maintained, fully equipped options, ranging from bungalows and cottages to safari tents and rondavels. You pay a premium for the privilege of staying in the park or reserve, but the units are usually appealing, with larger options for families. Some parks and reserves also have simpler huts, with shared bathrooms.

Reservations Booking ahead is essential. You normally have to pay 50% (occasionally 100%) in advance by bank deposit or transfer. In a small community, there's a chance you'll get a ride to the cottage if you don't have a car.

Accommodation Lingo

If a hotel touts rooms costing, say, R300, this often means R300 per person in a twin or double room. Furthermore, the price is based on two people sharing, and a single supplement is normally charged – a solo traveller might pay R450 in this example, or even have to pay the same as two people.

Half-board includes breakfast and another meal (usually dinner); full board includes all meals. All-inclusive accommodation prices are also found: in game lodges they generally cover all meals, wildlife drives and sometimes also park entry fees; in coastal resorts they include all meals, access to resort facilities and some activities.

More Information

Seasons Rates rise steeply during the summer school break (mid-December to early January) and the Easter break (late March to mid-April). Room prices sometimes double and minimum stays are imposed; advance bookings are essential. The other school holidays (usually late June to mid-July and late September to early October) are classified as either high or shoulder season. You can get excellent deals during the winter low season, which is also the best time for wildlife watching.

Discounts Discounted midweek and multinight rates are common, so always ask. Occasionally, in towns geared towards business travellers rather than tourists, such as mining centres, rates can be more expensive during the week.