Before you leave home:
Weather at night
South Africa is cold at night in June and July. To make sure you’re warm, take flannel pajamas and socks for sleeping. Most hotels, even the expensive international ones, do not have central heat (just a window unit), single pane glass, and poor insulation.
When you arrive at the airport in South Africa:
Using cell phones
Rent a cell phone at the airport when you arrive. Cell phones are important for your safety and almost all South Africans communicate by cell phone. Your hotel concierge, tour driver, and others will expect you to have a local cell phone. They are very inexpensive to rent (many for $1/day plus local phone charges), and the major carriers rent them as soon as you exit customs at Johannesburg International Airport. Even if you have international roaming on your cell phone from home, a) calling locally will be very expensive; and b) no one in South Africa will want to dial your international number.
Best Place to Exchange Your Money
Get your rands from a local ATM. Exchanging money at your hotel, bank, or other foreign currency exchange window is likely to carry larger fees and a worse exchange rate than if you simply withdraw cash from an ATM. ATMs are plentiful, connected to all of the major US and European networks, and generally offer the best exchange rates. There are at least two major ATMs as soon as you leave customs in the Johannesburg International Airport.
At hotels and restaurants in South Africa:
You CAN drink the water. In general, the water quality is very good. From time to time, tourists have been known to suffer from a tummy ache or two. You may want to order bottled water to drink, but you needn’t be hyper vigilant. You can certainly use ice made from tap water, and eat fresh fruits and vegetables that have been washed with tap water.
When Seeking Information
Service standards in South Africa are not better or worse than what you may be accustomed to in the US or Europe. However, they are different. You shouldn’t necessarily trust the answers to your questions. Service people will give you a very confident answer (“Breakfast ends at 11 a.m.!”) when in fact it ends at 10 a.m. Ask important questions twice – of different people — to be sure you are getting accurate information. On the other hand, service is much more personal, and you should feel comfortable making special requests (“I have too many parcels to carry right now. Can you please deliver my purchase to my hotel?”). You are likely to get a positive response to requests that are outside the normal protocols.
Customary tipping in restaurants is 10 percent. Of course you can pay more, but it is good to know what the expectation is.
When you get your bill at a restaurant, you must indicate in writing what your tip will be PRIOR to your credit card being run — at the same time you give the waiter your credit card. Once the card is run, unlike in the US and Europe, you will NOT have an opportunity to add a tip.
Allow yourself at least four or five nights here. There is so much to do in Cape Town and it is a great city to start off your holiday in South Africa. The Waterfront is very commercialised, but it is a good place to stay. You will feel extremely safe walking around and there are lots of shops, bars and restaurants to choose from. We stayed in the Waterfront Village apartments and found them great, they offer the comforts of an apartment, with the service of a hotel. Top attractions include Table Mountain, Robben Island and the Two Oceans Aquarium. Visit the colourful houses of Bo-kaap and allow yourself a full day to drive the Cape Peninsula. Read my guide to Cape Town, where to stay, where to eat and safety, here.