South Africa has a number of stunning drives that wind from cobalt seas to the lofty heights of the great escarpment.
With the freedom to stop at every hairpin bend, secluded cake store and windswept beach that flashes past the window, exploring the country by rental car is really the best way to do it. And with competitive daily rates, it’s one of the most economical ways to see the country, especially if your party is more than one.
If the idea of talking car insurance and border crossing logistics makes you want to bang your head against the wall, we’re so with you. Annoyingly though, all the agencies we came across had completely different rules neatly tucked away in the fine print of their rental agreements. After hours of sifting through these technical details, we really wished we had known what to look for sooner.
If you plan on renting a car in South Africa, these are definitely things you should consider first. We hope it will be a useful resource and a helpful starting point to plan your very own South African roadtrip.
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Almost all rental agencies we researched had a limit on the daily mileage with an excess charge for each extra kilometre driven.
Often the initial quotes include just 100 or 200 km/day which is likely not enough to take you the length and breadth of the country. It also makes comparing company rates a little tricky.
We found third-party agencies in particular were not very forthcoming about the mileage limits for the different agencies advertised. Sometimes it was clearly stated, other times it was hidden in the fine print of the terms and conditions. While third-party agencies can be a useful guide for comparing prices, we would recommend checking directly with the company you intend to book with.
As we had a fixed route planned, taking us from Durban to the Drakensberg, along the Panorama Route and returning to Johannesburg, we were able to calculate that 200 km/day over 13 days would be sufficient for our trip and allowed enough for a few unexpected detours.
If you have a fairly concrete itinerary planned you can also calculate the intended travel distance on Google Maps and average it over the number of days to work out the daily mileage you will need.
If you don’t have a set plan and intend to go where the wind takes you, we would recommend choosing a rental with unlimited mileage upfront rather than pay the extra per kilometre fee when returning the car.
Just three days into our roadtrip we were standing in the hostel parking area with two flat tyres and a nine-hour drive ahead of us.
A couple of phone calls and an hour wait later and we were able to set off with all tyres repaired and not a Rand out of pocket on our part.
Needless to say, we were pretty glad to have taken out the extra tyre and glass insurance which cost just R38 (US$2.80) per day and saved us paying hundreds in the long run. Plus the agency organised everything and found a reliable shop nearby to do the work immediately at no cost to us.
Cracked windshields from stray stones on rural roads are another annoyance which happens a lot on South African roads.
For the peace of mind and added benefit of immediate assistance, we would recommend considering this extra level of cover.
As with most countries, if you are picking up and dropping off in separate locations you’ll be charged an extra fee.
However, as South Africa has some very budget-friendly low-cost airline carriers, once you factor in fuel, food, accommodation and the extra mileage, it is sometimes more economical to just drive the one way and fly back rather than doing a loop – unless, of course, that was part of your planned route.
As South Africa has such economical rates for car rental and well-serviced international hubs, it is popular for travellers to rent a car in South Africa and do a multi-country roadtrip covering Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe or Mozambique. However, this brings up quite a few issues.
1 | To take a rental car across any border you will require a Letter of Authority that you must request from your rental agency – essentially this states that the agency gives you permission to take the car across the border. This generally incurs a fee on top of a fee to actually take the car across the border and any fees incurred at the border by immigration officials.
2 | Not all agencies allow travel into all these countries. Some allow their rentals only into Namibia and Botswana. Others also allow Zimbabwe, but only to Victoria Falls by a particular border crossing. It’s all a little confusing, and they all have different specifications for where you can visit and what cars you can take, so read the fine print if you plan to take your vehicle across the border.
3 | Roadside assistance is often waived when you cross the border meaning if you break down outside South Africa you will sometimes need to take on the cost of getting the vehicle to a South African border crossing where they can offer assistance.
4 | Not all types of rentals are approved or suitable for cross-border travel. For example, in South Africa you decide to hire a small sedan that is perfectly adequate for exploring the country and its tarred roads. However, when you drive this car into Namibia, where the majority of roads are rough gravel, your car may no longer be covered by the rental insurance which only applies to driving on tarred roads.
For all these reasons we chose to hire an inexpensive small car to explore South Africa with and then flew to Windhoek where we collected a fully equipped 4×4 camper van. The cost of flights was very reasonable and we were able to drive Namibia in a car equipped (and insured) for the road conditions.
In short, if you plan to take a rental car into a neighbouring country, read the terms and conditions thoroughly.
When we set off on a roadtrip our 4-wheeled vessel becomes akin to a surrogate home. As soon as we settle in, the contents of our backpacks quickly become strewn absolutely everywhere.
The safety situation in South Africa though, means it is often unwise to leave anything, especially valuables, visible in the car. We would advise renting a vehicle where you can’t see into the boot so that you can leave your bags hidden there during the day if needs be. Also try to park your car in a secure facility or under the watch of a parking attendant whenever possible.
Travelling South Africa by car is really the best way to see the country and by considering these five things before booking you should have nothing short of an awesome time.