Psst! Grab the audio here if you don’t have time to read.
As I wrap up my week-long stay in Cape Town, South Africa, I can’t help but reflect on the mishaps of the days prior, all the things I wish I’d known beforehand. From getting to the airport and discovering that the Uber app would not work with my US mobile number, to learning that the US dollar isn’t all mighty (they treated it like the plague and no one wanted to accept it).
In the end, it all worked out (as things always do). But just so you’re a bit better prepared than I was, here’s my list (by no means exhaustive) of things I believe you should know before you go.
Getting to South Africa
Now before you start daydreaming about all the breathtaking photos you’re going to take and the hundreds of likes they will get on Instagram (no judgment), let’s discuss visas. The boring stuff that will literally make or break your trip.
If you’re a fellow Jamaican in possession of a valid Jamaican passport with at least six months remaining at time of travel (please pay attention here. It sounds simple enough, but let’s not take anything for granted) then you do not need a visa to visit South Africa (Yay for visa-free countries!!!). What’s more, upon entry you are permitted to stay in South Africa for a whopping 90 days.
There are many routes to take when flying into Cape Town. However, your best bet is to fly from the US (visa required, unless you’re a US passport holder) if you are traveling from Jamaica. At the point of writing this, there are no direct flights from Jamaica to Cape Town.
New York (JFK) is one of the easiest airports to get international flights to Cape Town (and many other Eastern destinations). You may find connecting flights to be cheaper but if that’s the case just double check the visa requirements for the stop-over country to make sure there are no challenges.
I traveled on Emirates from Fort Lauderdale via Dubai (FLL/DXB/CPT) and another friend from Jamaica also flew Emirates but through JFK (JFK/DXB/CPT). However, there are round-trip flights (1 or 2 stops) available for under US$800 from the US (specifically from New York) on Delta and KLM. You can search using websites like Skyscanner for ticket prices.
While there are eleven (11) official languages in South Africa, you will be pleased to learn that many locals speak and understand English so getting around and communicating will not be a problem.
Let’s talk money. If you’re going to be making a budget for your trip – and I really hope you are, in the name of good common sense – it’s important to know what the conversion rate is and how much stuff costs.
The local currency in South Africa is the South African Rand (ZAR). US$1 is equivalent to a little less than 12 Rands – ZAR 11.94 at the time of writing this. Their largest note is a ZAR 200 bill.
It was interesting to find many local shops and businesses DO NOT accept the US dollar. The reason I was given is that there is generally a high cost associated with converting US to Rand. I had to use my card for every transaction until I could get to the currency exchange on Monday. Local currency or VISA/Mastercard payments are widely accepted though.
Side note: When I went to the Currency Exchange to convert US$200 the rate I got for the US money was ZAR 11.66 and there was a flat commission fee of ZAR 80 as well as 15% VAT (South African Value Added Tax). So I ended up with ZAR 2,239.90.
Food is affordable. I spent ZAR 303.51 (US$27.05 | JM$3,125.45) on my first trip to the supermarket (Pick n Pay food chain) and was able to get all of the following:
Cheerios Cereal (Large box)
Whole Wheat Sliced Bread
Hard candy (pack of 4)
Oreos (mini 6 pack)
Thousand Island Salad Dressing
Kerrigold Flavored Butter – Garlic Herb
I’d say those prices were a pretty decent bargain.
There are lots of local taxis available, many of which are private cars for hire. But I should warn you that local taxi drivers do have a tendency to hike up their rates for tourists (which seems to be a rather common practice in most countries with a huge tourism sector).
Coming from the airport to my Airbnb I used the Uber rate to
demand negotiate a lower rate from a local taxi (my Uber app wasn’t working so I couldn’t use the service anyway, but he didn’t have to know that 🙂 ). The ride from the airport to Greenmarket Square where I was staying cost ZAR 180 (US$15). The ride was about 20 minutes.
Supermarket and stores were within walking distance for me so I walked most places. Where I needed Uber (to go to dinner, an attraction etc) it would cost on average ZAR 29 (US$2.43).
Airbnb is generally my first choice for local accommodation, mainly because it’s affordable yet private (more often than not). While hostels tend to be a great budget option, maybe it’s age but I prefer the privacy and convenience of my own room and private shower. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make your own choices here.
The travel adapter my girlfriends gifted me did not work in Cape Town. In fact, the power outlets were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. If you’re staying in a hotel there will be converters and most Airbnb hosts will include at least one. But just thought I’d mention it to save you the panic I experienced when I couldn’t find the converter my host had left and both my phone and laptop were almost dead.
Cape Town’s Water Crisis
It would completely irresponsible of me to not make mention of Cape Town’s current water crisis. The city has been experiencing a serious drought – its worst drought in more than a decade.
In most public spaces there are signs urging patrons to minimize usage and be mindful of the restrictions. One tourist spot had the taps turned off and hand sanitizer installed at each basin for hand cleansing.
In my apartment, there were signs above both the kitchen and bathroom pipes. The recommended usage per person is 50 liters per day.
Are you planning a trip to Cape Town soon? Dreaming of visiting? Anything else you think I should have added to this list?