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:

The Water

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.

Tipping

Customary tipping in restaurants is 10 percent.  Of course you can pay more, but it is good to know what the expectation is.

Restaurant Tipping

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.

To avoid embarrassment: 

Polygamy

Don’t be critical of President Zuma’s polygamy unless you know the personal histories of the people with whom you’re talking.  While today most South Africans are monogamous, there is a decent chance that the person you are speaking to is the product of a polygamous marriage.

Conversation and Courtesy

When asking Africans a question (“Where is the entrance to the mall?” for example), the custom is to greet the person first. It’s wise to say: “Hello. How are you?” No one will get mad at you, but you are more likely to get a positive response if you greet a person first.

Race Relations

Expect the best from everyone. Don’t approach race relations with US-based preconceived notions. Many blacks follow Nelson Mandela’s leadership in terms of forgiveness. Many have fond feelings for white South Africans. Many white South Africans were part of the liberation struggle, and are very liberal in their political views.