Five tips for travelling South Africa on a budget

Having travelled South Africa on a budget for a month with a backpack on my back, I can happily share a few things I learned about saving one’s pennies while on the road.

Get your hands on free travel apps

There are loads of nifty travel apps available that save you time, money and help you organise your travel plans at no cost. My new favourite app is Skyscanner.  It really does find you the best flight deal even if it is roughly R100 cheaper than other popular South African flight aggregator websites.

Use Coast to Coast for backpackers details

Save money on data and find accommodation and fun things to do the good old fashioned way – by browsing a book, not the web. The Coast to Coast and Alternative Route booklets are comprehensive where-to-stay and what-to-do guides for backpacking travellers. Grab one at your nearest hostel – they’re free.

Consider a meal replacement

Backpacking isn’t the healthiest way of travelling. Usually food is bought on a price and convenience basis, which doesn’t always do the trick in terms of great nutrition. You may want to consider travelling with a meal replacement powder that you simply mix with water. It’s a quick and easy breakfast that gives your body a dose of the vitamins and minerals it needs. A tin of Ensure (by Abbott) will last you about a week and you grab it off almost every supermarket shelf for about R120.

Buy a 3G dongle and data

If you’re travelling with your laptop or data-munching smartphone you may find that some hostels don’t offer free WiFi which means… paying for WiFi! When you’re on a lengthy backpacking, paying for hostel internet can be expensive when you wish to Skype with loved ones or share photos from your adventure on Facebook. It’s far more cost effective to travel with a 3G dongle or sim that’s loaded with data, so when you don’t have the luxury of free WiFi, you have a cheaper alternative to backpacker data rates.

Make friends
There are so many reasons to make friends while backpacking and it just so happens that cutting costs is one of them. When travellers club together to buy meal ingredients everybody wins. The same goes for activities. Canoe hire for one person is more expensive if you go alone. Find a friend with an itch to paddle a river and both of you will spend half the cash.

Top 10 backpacker hostels in South Africa

Even though I get to stay at nice hotels a lot these days you can’t beat a backpackers for making friends and for an authentic travel experience without a hefty price tag. South Africa is a fantastic destination for backpackers, with hosts of owner-run hostels each with their own unique personality.
Here are my 10 top backpacker hostels in South Africa (in order of geography - from Johannesburg to Cape Town) for the ultimate South African backpackers’ road trip.

Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers – Soweto, Johannesburg

Best backpacker hostels in South Africa

The king of township backpackers, Soweto Backpackers, is located in Orlando West in Soweto. Soweto’s main attractions, Vilakazi Street and the Hector Petersen Museum are easily accessible from the backpackers. Take one of their legendary bicycle tours, or even a walking tour or a tour on a tuk-tuk.  Lebo and his team guarantee a local experience.  The chilled out beach bar vibes (sans beach) and the lovely park opposite the hostel create a unique homely atmosphere and an experience you won’t forget.

Amphitheatre Backpackers – Drakensberg

Surrounded by the majesty of the Northern Drakensberg, Amphitheatre  Backpackers is blessed with gorgeous scenery.  Known for its quirky décor, the hostel even has as a pool, two private dams and a river on the property. There are a range of hiking trails available including the famous hike to Tugela Falls, the second highest waterfall in the world.  It’s not all about hiking though: Amphitheatre is well known for its funky bar and live music venue and even hosts its own festivals. As the backpackers is quite remote, do come prepared if you’re planning to self cater.

Happy Hippo – Durban

One of the few purpose-built hostels in South Africa, Happy Hippo is large and spacious with plenty of chill areas. It’s as close to European-style hostels that you will find in South Africa. The hostel is conveniently located, walking distance from Ushaka Marine World and 5 minutes from the beach and city centre. One of the features of this hostel is its fantastic roof top bar, perfect for sundowners or a braai.

Coffee Shack – Coffee Bay, Wild Coast

Best backpacker hostels in South Africa

I have a long love affair with Coffee Shack as it was the first backpacker hostel I stayed in.  A party hostel with a super location, just off the beach and river mouth, Coffee Shack is the place of legends. There are plenty of daytrips  on offer – from hikes to Hole in the Wall and cliff-jumping to surf lessons and village tours. With the friendliest staff and affordable food and activities, you may never leave.

Bulungula - Wild Coast

Just a few round huts situated on a river mouth, and a spectacular stretch of wild beach, this could be paradise. Dolphins and whales are not uncommon in these parts, and cows on the beach a regular feature. If you feel the need to be active go kayaking on the river or horse-riding on the beach. Bulungula is a role model for effective community tourism and eco-tourism, and is the place to get off the grid. Forget wifi or cellphone reception. Switch off. Mediate.  It’s magic.

Island Vibe – Jeffrey’s Bay

Island Vibe is a backpacking institution. A party hostel of note and located in SA’s surf capital J-Bay, expect lots of  fit, bronzed bodies and late nights dancing on the bar.  The hostel is well located, just off the beach, and with a bar infamous for its craziness.

Away with the Fairies – Hogsback

Perched on the edge of the cliff and inspired by the mystique of JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, Away with the Fairies is a place of magic. This chilled-out backpackers is perfect for exploring the surrounding Hogsback mountains, part of the gorgeous Amatola range. Don’t expect a party hostel, this is a place for rest and relaxation and taking in nature.  Do check out the treehouse and the bath tub on the cliff. You might even spot a fairy.

Tube ‘n Axe Backpackers – Storms River

A backpackers hostel for adventure lovers, Tube ‘n Axe Backpackers is located closed to all the attractions in Tsitsikamma.  Bungee jumping, blackwater tubing, canopy tours, biking, horseriding  and snorkelling are just some of the adventure activities on offer.  Walks in the stunning coastal forests of Tsitsikamma are a must, with spectacular viewpoints and even a suspension bridge!

Albergo for Backpackers – Plettenberg Bay

The views from the balcony - or even your bed, depending on your room -  where dolphins and whales are often spotted, are reason enough to visit Albergo. The beach, restaurants, shops and nightlife are all within walking distance to this friendly and comfortable hostel. Albergo for backpackers makes a great base from which to explore the Garden Route and its activities.

The Backpack - Cape Town

Best backpacker hostels in South Africa

This award-winning backpackers is a Cape Town institution known for its social atmosphere and excellent facilities. Well located close enough to the Long Street party strip to walk but far enough not to be noisy, The Backpack is conveniently located to experience Mother City nightlife. With designer rooms, a  full service travel desk,  and a restaurant that could stand on its own, the Backpack’s reputation is well deserved. Free unlimited WiFi is definitely a perk.

Meruschka Govender is a travel blogger and a writer for Overlanding Africa. Follow her travels on