When I was doing my pre-trip research and crafting my South Africa itinerary, I quickly came to the conclusion that exploring South Africa in a rental car is the best way to do it.
Why? Well for once, there’s a lack of reasonable public transportation between towns. But more importantly, South Africa is built for road trips; it has a long stretch of coastline, windy mountain roads, and self-drive safari opportunities… places that just beg to be explored independently. Rental car cost in South Africa is also very economical, even one-way drop off fee won’t break the bank.
I had valid concerns: I’m not the most confident driver, I wasn’t sure how I’d do on hours-long stretches (I packed a LOT of miles in my 2 weeks itinerary), and I’ll be driving in South Africa on the opposite side of the road.
And of course there’s always the question of safety. There are all of these horror stories about crimes in South Africa. A particular concern if you’re traveling to South Africa as a solo female. Eeek!! However, renting a car means the freedom to stop at any secluded beach that catches my eye, adjust my travel plans on a whim, and to be honest… I simply love road trips! All of these advantages overcame my concerns go on a solo female road trip in South Africa. Note: if you’re curious, here’s my take on traveling alone as a female.
Ready to get on the road? The following are some of my tips and thoughts on renting a car in South Africa and planning your own South African roadtrip.
Related: 2 Week South Africa Itinerary
Renting A Car in South Africa
6 days Cape Town – Durban: $215 (Europcar, drop off fee included)
6 days Durban – Durban: $140 (Thrifty)
I decided to splurge on an automatic transmission. It costs a little more, but it’s one less thing for me to worry about. Of course if you’re traveling in a group, it would be an even more cost-effective option. But even for a solo traveler, I found the cost of rental car in South Africa to be quite reasonable.
One Way Drop Off
South Africa has some low-cost airline carriers so renting a car one-way and fly back makes sense. Europcar charged me 1200 ZAR ($86) for one way fee. I flew from Port Elizabeth to Durban and then Durban to Cape Town with Safari Air.
Driver’s License and Insurance
U.S. driver’s licenses are accepted, so you do not need an international driver’s license to rent a car in South Africa. If you’re using your credit card’s insurance coverage, request a copy of their policy beforehand (Europcar asked for it). I used primary CDW that comes with my Chase Sapphire Reserve (don’t forget that you need to decline any excess/coverage offered by rental companies).
Pro tip: Take a video when doing an pre-exiting damage inspection and narrate it. Don’t forget to check the windshield for chips, and hubcaps for dents/scratches.
Tips for Driving in South Africa
If you plan to rent a car in South Africa and drive it to neighboring countries, make sure to let your rental agency know. You will need a Letter of Authority from the rental agency to show at the border. Different agencies have different requirements as well as different lists of allowed countries.
Four-way stop streets are on a first come-first served basis here (unlikes in the States). On single lane highways, I often saw slow vehicles driving on hard shoulder to let faster cars overtake. They would turn on their turn signal to let you know when it’s safe to pass as a courtesy (always double check!)
Keep Some Cash for Highway Tolls and Parking Attendants
Keep some cash with you to pay for highway tolls. In some shopping malls, viewpoints, or restaurants there might be a parking attendant of some-sort who is supposed to keep an eye on the cars. 2-5 ZAR tip is expected.
Watch Out For Pot Holes
Roads in South Africa can be very deceiving. You’ll be driving on a road, as smooth as a baby bottom, watching the scenery go by, and reflecting on how privileged your life is. Then ka-baaam!! Your teeth clack against each other as your head hits the roof of the car. Where the ***k did that pothole come from? The stretch of road from Pietermaritzburg to Lesotho was particularly deceiving like this.
Speed Traps in South Africa
Speed traps exist (and I got a fine to show for it)! Watch out for speed limit. The general speed limits in Africa area 60km/h in urban areas, 100km/h outside of urban areas, and 120km/h on freeways. It can be tricky because sometimes there are no signs and when yours is the only car on the road, it’s easy to go faster than you should be.
Staying Safe on the Roads
Be especially vigilant at traffic stops and busy intersections. South Africa has an unfortunate reputation for carjacking as well as smash and grabs type of crimes. Lone, female drivers are the ones often targeted. The following are safety tips for driving in South Africa.
Don’t Stop for Anyone and Anything
There are many ways someone can attempt to carjack you. They could fake roadside emergency, they could accidentally “bump” you from behind, and as you get out to help/assess the damage, an accomplice will jump in to steal the car. If you see an obstacle on the road (a big rock, branch, etc), be vigilant and try to go around it as quickly as possible.
Hide Valuables (Even When Driving)
Smash and grabbers work in pair, often during traffic stops. One person would walk down the line of cars, scouting for valuables and then signal to his buddy if he sees a potential target. Therefore prevention is best. I always put my purse under the seat so it will be less visible. If using your phone for navigation, be prepared to take your phone off its cradle if you see people hanging out at traffic stops.
Needless to say that when parking your vehicle, don’t leave anything visible. Instead put everything in the trunk. <-- Always a good idea anywhere.
Have A Mobile Phone and Local SIM Card
I wouldn’t even consider doing a solo road trip in South Africa without a local SIM card. Having local data plan was useful for navigation, emergency calls, looking up how to fix car issues on Youtube at a pinch, and of course to download hours-worth of podcasts.
Lock Your Car on Photo Stops
When I was driving along the Garden Route, I often found myself pulling over to take pictures of the scenery. To save time and hassle, I would leave the car door open/unlocked while I stepped away from the car to take pictures. One time on a spot that seemed perfectly safe, a local couple pulled up behind me and warned that it wasn’t such a good idea since there were townships nearby.
Be Vigilant at Gas Station
My Airbnb hosts warned me about thieves operating at gas stations, taking phones and valuables out of open windows.
Don’t Drive At Night
I have night blindness so this is a necessity for me. But generally speaking, driving at night in an unfamiliar area is not recommended. There’s an increase risk of running into animals, running over potholes, and missing a turn and getting into sketchy neighborhoods by accident. I’d avoid it unless absolutely necessary.
Avoid Driving in Cities
I drive in and out of cities but once I arrive at my destination/accommodation, I use Uber to get around. Busy traffic and finding street parking tend to stress me out.
Don’t Let This Scare You
I found that driving in South Africa was easier than expected. As a matter of fact, I thought it was 1000x easier than driving in Asia. There were no scooters weaving in and out traffic, buffalo-drawn carts, random fruit sellers on bicycles, and what not clogging the road.
Traffic in-between cities were light and the roads were generally in good condition (see notes on potholes above). 99% of the times people do follow traffic rules.
If you love roadtrips as much as I do, I think you’ll find that going on a road trip in South Africa would be one of the best travel experiences you’ll have.