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How to travel on a shoestring budget

Most of us like to travel, but the cost of living can make a holiday seem completely out of reach. We explore savvy ways to travel on a budget.

6 December 2023 · Fiona Zerbst

How to travel on a shoestring budget

South Africans love to travel, the weak rand and slow economy notwithstanding. However, we’re also searching for value.

We explore how you can stretch your rands when travelling, both locally and abroad.

Tip: Planning a trip? Our budget calculator can help you control your spending and save for your holiday.

Travel is possible – but budgeting is important

Inflation has put a damper on many South Africans’ travel plans, but its effect on tourism is starting to decrease, according to Antoinette Turner, general manager of Flight Centre South Africa.

Global inflation is expected to decrease from 8.8% in 2022 to 6.6% in 2024, according to the FCM Consulting Global Quarterly Trend Q2 2023 report. This is especially good news for those travelling on the rand.

Travellers will still need to economise to contain costs, however. Budget travelling is all about finding the best possible deals, and being willing to forego a degree of comfort for authentic experiences.

Consult a travel agent

You can plan your holiday on the internet, but travel agents can help you identify hidden costs and explore various packages. They can also advise you on the best, most cost-effective routes.

“Not all information is available online, and travel agents can also help you save money with flexible fares, with deposits or future payments linked to the current exchange rate,” says Turner.

Plan ahead, and go during the off-peak season   

The demand for flights can outstrip availability during school and public holidays, causing a surge in airfare prices, Turner notes.

She recommends travelling during the shoulder season, just before or after peak holiday periods, to enjoy lower costs and smaller crowds.

Terence Murphy, managing director and founder of African Budget Safaris, says off-season rates are significantly cheaper for South African visitors to other African destinations.

“Low season at our Botswana lodges will run from 15 November 2024 to 31 March 2025,” notes Murphy. “As a rule of thumb, this date range applies to most Southern and East African countries.”

Book well in advance 

The average lead time for booking domestic flights in South Africa is 43 days.

“It’s typically 48 days when booking accommodation, and 53 days when reserving a package deal,” Turner says. “Unfortunately, these lead times don’t always allow travellers to secure the best options and avoid overpaying.”

She recommends booking at least three to six months in advance to optimise value for money.

It’s not only about when to book, but also about when and how to pay, she adds.

“Some suppliers allow customers to secure bookings with a deposit, particularly for larger packages – although this doesn’t usually apply to flights,” she says.

“The flexibility benefits travellers on a budget who can’t afford a large once-off payment. It’s a significant reason that advance booking for cruises is such a popular option.”

Consider currency fluctuations when timing your payments. “If you’re charged in a foreign currency, payments will be charged at the current exchange rate,” Turner cautions.

Save money on visa-free travel 

The weak rand makes it challenging to travel overseas, and visa costs for popular destinations such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and European countries are typically high.

However, many alternative, visa-free destinations come with less stress, especially for family holidays. 

Top visa-free holiday destinations for South Africans 

South African passport holders can travel visa-free to 106 countries and territories, including, for example, Ireland, Réunion, Mauritius, Russia, Brazil, and many African countries, such as Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi.

While Mauritius and Thailand are popular destinations for budget-savvy South African travellers, the rand also competes favourably with the currencies of lesser-known destinations, such as Argentina and Indonesia, says Turner.

“In Argentina, you can expect to pay around R30 for a cappuccino, R16 for bottled water, and R123 for a basic lunch, while you’ll pay around R39 for a cappuccino, R20 for bottled water, and R180 for a basic lunch in Indonesia.”

Regional travel is another budget option for South Africans, particularly given that the country is part of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), with lodges and parks offering special rates for member countries.

Murphy advises, “Travellers should always ask if SADC rates apply, as these are often significantly cheaper.”

South Africans keen on group tours should also enquire about discounts for South African passport holders.

“The cheapest destination for South African travellers is Namibia, where the Namibian dollar is pegged to the South African rand. Other African countries tend to price themselves in US dollars,” Murphy cautions.

Consider local options: Holidays in South Africa 

South Africans love to prioritise time away with family and friends, especially during school holidays.

It’s easier to contain costs by travelling in South Africa rather than further afield, but some regions and cities are more expensive than others, so plan accordingly.

Best places to visit in South Africa 

Cities popular with tourists are great, but small, unique “dorpies” (towns) in South Africa increasingly offer great value for money, Turner advises.

Notable destinations include:

Western Cape

  • Paternoster, one of the oldest fishing villages on South Africa’s West Coast
  • Swellendam, home to more than 50 provincial heritage sites

Eastern Cape

  • Nieu-Bethesda, famous for the late artist Helen Martins’ Owl House
  • Graaff Reinet, which is partly surrounded by the Camdeboo National Park
  • Addo Elephant National Park, the only national park in the world that's home to the “Big Seven”

Northern Cape

  • Springbok, part of the province’s Wild Flower Route, which boasts more than 3,500 floral species in spring

Free State

  • Clarens, for its climate, trout fishing, and white-water rafting

KwaZulu-Natal

  • Nottingham Road, a quaint village, and a foodie’s paradise, with superb trout fishing

North West

  • Groot Marico, a glamping go-to with a museum honouring the writer Herman Charles Bosman

Gauteng

  • Cullinan, with charming eateries, and underground tours of the Cullinan Diamond Mine

Mpumalanga

  • Dullstroom, great for fly fishing, dining out, and specialist shops 

Limpopo

  • Haenertsburg, which hosts an annual Spring Festival, and is a biodiversity hotspot

Budget getaways: Find deals online

Digital platforms such as travelstart.co.za and pentravel.co.za function as online agencies. Sites such as dealzone.co.za aggregate offerings from travel agencies, airlines, hotels, and more. Look out for discounted holiday packages, hotel stays, and activities.

Before you book, check the sites’ reviews and ratings, and make sure travel agents and tour operators are members of a professional body, such as the Southern African Tourism Services Association (SATSA).

Subscribe to newsletters from travel agencies, airlines, and travel aggregators, which often send special offers and promotions to subscribers. Also, check their websites and social media pages for promotions or discounts.

Find last-minute deals on websites such as bushbreaks.co.za.

To find the most competitive prices, clear your browser cookies – some websites adjust pricing based on your browsing history. Alternatively, search in incognito mode.

Self-catering travel: Save money by not eating out

Self-catering travel helps you to save money without forgoing a rich experience.

Dining out is fun when exploring a new destination, but it can be pricey. Savour authentic street food, find fresh, affordable ingredients at local markets to whip up inexpensive meals, and picnic in parks or beside rivers.

Wild Card in South Africa 

South African National Parks (SANParks) offers a Wild Card that gives you a year’s unlimited entry to more than 80 national parks, reserves, and resorts around Southern Africa.

For access to all SANParks, Msinsi, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, and CapeNature parks, and three big-game parks in Eswatini, the cost for South African ID holders is R835 a year for one person, R1,375 for a couple, and R1,680 for a family of up to seven members.

To access all 21 SANParks, the fee for South African ID holders is R805 for one person, R1,300 for a couple, and R1,560 for a family.

“Staying in SANParks accommodation is generally cheaper than private lodges, which makes it an affordable option for travellers on a tight budget,” says Murphy.

Visit sanparks.org for more information.

Five top tips for travel on a shoestring budget  

Here are five tips for more cost-effective travel:

1. Try an all-inclusive holiday

Turner explains, “This means paying a single upfront price, including accommodation, meals, beverages, activities, and sometimes flights and transfers, and allows for easy budgeting as you know the total cost from the start.

“You avoid currency fluctuations and unexpected expenses, and the package will cover most, if not all, of your costs.”

2. Maximise your transport budget

Many cities offer discount deals for tourists.

A convenient option used by travellers and locals alike is London’s Oyster card – a contactless payment card that allows seamless travel across the public transport network, including buses, trams, the London Underground, and some rail services.

3. Prioritise affordable accommodation

Hotels are great for spoils, but self-catering accommodation or “glamping” (glamorous camping) helps contain costs.

Murphy notes, “South Africa has a network of wonderful backpacker hostels that offer private rooms – not just shared dorm rooms – which is worth considering if you’re on a tight budget.”

4. Take advantage of freebies

Include as many free or low-cost activities as possible, such as walking tours, visits to historical or religious sites, a picnic in a park or garden, or attending local festivals or cultural events.

Most information centres in big cities offer free maps with information about self-guided walking tours and key attractions.

5. Use your credit card – wisely

It’s easier to budget when using cash, but using a credit card with travel benefits and low foreign transaction fees can be useful.

Some allow you to earn points or rewards for travel-related expenses such as flights, hotels, and dining. Check if your card offers travel insurance, airport lounge access, or concierge services.

Familiarise yourself with the benefits before departing, and stick to your holiday budget.

How can I travel if I’m broke?   

Sometimes even budget accommodation is expensive if you don’t have the cash – but this doesn’t mean you have to give up on travel.

Home swap sites such as HomeExchange.com allow you to pay an annual membership fee to enjoy a year’s worth of exchanges to global destinations.

You’ll save on holiday rental, but you must be prepared to accommodate someone in your home in return.

You could also consider a volunteering holiday. Oyster Worldwide and Worldpackers offer volunteering opportunities worldwide, while Workaway is for travellers who want to give back to the communities they visit.

Other options include teaching English abroad, allowing you to immerse yourself in another culture while earning; or working abroad as a nanny or au pair.

Tip: Is debt preventing you from saving up for a holiday of a lifetime? Look into debt consolidation.

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