Herding cows in the Transkei

Four Tips on Car Hire in South Africa

When I moved from America to South Africa, cars were the most difficult adjustment. Everything about cars and driving is different here: Cars drive on the opposite side of the road, car parts have different names (windshield vs. windscreen, horn vs. hooter, trunk vs. boot, AC vs. aircon), all the cars are manual (which Americans call stick-shift), etc. And don’t even get me started about registering a car in South Africa.

The same goes for car hire, which Americans call car rental. I worked for a car rental company in America, way back in the day, and I thought I had all the rules figured out. But the car hire rules are different in South Africa, and I learned many valuable lessons last year when Ray and I took a big road trip from Joburg to the Wild Coast and back.

Herding cows in the TranskeiA herd of cows on the Wild Coast. This part of South Africa has notoriously bad roads, so Ray and I decided to spare our own vehicles and hire a car.

I’ve been meaning write a car hire advice post ever since I got back from that epic Wild Coast trip. Finally, it is time. Here are my tips:

Car Hire Tip #1: Hire the right car.

South Africa has great roads overall, and most of them can be driven easily in small, two-wheel-drive cars. Nonetheless, if you plan to drive in rural South Africa, and especially if you are not an experienced driver or not used to driving in rural South Africa, then then I recommend hiring a small SUV.

Ray and I hired a mid-sized sedan for our Wild Coast trip, as friends advised us a small car would work fine for where we were going. (We visited the Dwesa Nature Reserve in the southern part of the Wild Coast, which I highly recommend.) And perhaps a sedan would have been fine, had we not gotten hopelessly lost and wound up on some of the most treacherous roads in Africa.

As luck would have it, we were upgraded to a small SUV. We were eternally grateful for this stroke of luck in the following days. We never would have made it in a sedan.

I normally drive the tiniest car I can find, but sometimes bigger is better and sometimes more is more. Consider your route carefully and don’t be afraid to shell out a few extra rand for some ground clearance.

Geese on the Wild CoastThis stretch of road looks pretty good. Trust me though, the roads aren’t all this smooth in the Wild Coast. 

Car Hire Tip #2: Buy all the insurance.

I can’t believe I’m writing this because I never used to buy the insurance on rental cars in the U.S. But that’s because in the U.S., my regular auto insurance policy also covered rental cars. Not so in South Africa: In South Africa, auto insurance policies do not carry over to hire cars (at least mine doesn’t). And if you’re driving to a place like the Wild Coast, there is a good chance the car will sustain some damage and you’ll be stuck paying.

Before our Wild Coast trip, I did some research and concluded I would buy all the coverage. I even paid extra for windscreen and undercarriage coverage, which for reason is not included in the standard collision coverage. I’m glad I did. We got a flat tire (read the dramatic story here) and it would have been expensive to pay for that tire ourselves.

Some South African hire car companies actually include the cost of full insurance in their regular rate, meaning that you can’t hire a car without it. You might still be responsible for the excess (what we call a deductible in the U.S.) though. Ask lots of questions.

Car Hire Tip #3: Pay attention to kilometre limits.

In America most standard car rental agreements come with unlimited mileage, assuming the driver stays within the country. This is not the case in South Africa. I made a huge mistake with our Wild Coast rental, and failed to notice the tiny print stating that we only received 100 free kilometers (about 66 miles!) per day and after that we would be charged a per-kilometer rate. I actually cried when the final bill came and I’d been charged three times more than expected due to this kilometer limit. I managed to whine my way into a partial discount, but the truth is I had no one to blame but myself. I didn’t pay attention.

So, check the small print and don’t hire a car with limited kilometers when you’re planning to drive 300 kilometers a day.

Cows in the Wild Coast“I’m a long way from Joburg,” says this cow. “Check your kilometer limit before visiting me.”

Car Hire Tip #4: Go straight to the source.

One of the reasons I didn’t notice the small print about the kilometer limit was because I booked my car-hire on a third-party site that didn’t do a good job of communicating terms and conditions. After the trip, I did some research and discovered that the hire car companies’ own websites are usually more up-front about hidden costs. It’s also easier to book hire car insurance directly through the company website; I booked my insurance with the third-party site and then had to go through a big rigamarole to get reimbursed for the flat tire.

So keep it simple: Use third-party sites to compare prices, but go right to the company’s website to make your booking.

Then have a great time on your trip.

Dwesa sunsetFollow these car hire tips and your trip will be peaceful and wonderful, just like this picture. The end.

This post is sponsored by Around About Cars. Opinions expressed are mine. To rent a car with Around About Cars and explore South Africa’s Wild Coast (Around About Cars offers unlimited kilometers – yay!), click here: Car Rental South Africa.

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15 Comments

  • Reply Eva Melusine Thieme November 30, 2016 at 8:40 am

    Excellent post, will share with my readers. Oh, and also: I haven’t yet read your “dramatic flat tire” story, but can you top 3 flats (plus spare wheel) in one afternoon? Unfortunately that was our very own car, so all the insurance in the world didn’t make a difference. Also, it was in Namibia where the best insurance is to carry at least 2 spares with you at all times. And I totally agree on going bigger, i.e. SUV…

    • Reply 2summers November 30, 2016 at 10:21 am

      Haha, no I definitely can’t beat that. Although our flat tire was dramatic in that it occurred while we were driving on a very steep mountain pass, when it was nearly dark, and while we were trying to change the tire I nearly killed myself and Ray when I opened the car door while the car was up on the jack and then the car came crashing down and the door hit me in the face. It sounds sort of funny now, but at the time we thought we were going to die. All fine in the end, of course, as some locals came by soon afterward and changed the tire for us in less than 10 minutes 🙂

      • Reply Eva Melusine Thieme November 30, 2016 at 10:07 pm

        OH, I remember that story well, it was a while back! Yeah – that’s Africa. Lots what happens to you there is a bit scary but a great story to tell afterwards:)

  • Reply Rob November 30, 2016 at 9:09 am

    Regarding tip #3, it’s usually very expensive to get unlimited mileage rates from a .co.za website (although there are “specials” occasionally).

    As a foreigner, use the .co.uk or .de or .fr website plus your home country address and credit card (to make the reservation – you can always use your SA credit card to pay to avoid forex charges although these are peanuts compared to the savings on the mileage charges). This will allow you to get unlimited mileage for pretty much the same price as you’d pay for 200km/day on the .co.za website.

    You’ll need to book at least a day in advance though. These car hire companies are not very good at passing bookings from one country to another (they’re usually franchises). If you don’t give enough time you’ll arrive at the counter and they’ll be no booking, and the reference number will be in a different format and not searchable on the computer booking system used by the South African branch of the car hire company.

    • Reply 2summers November 30, 2016 at 10:18 am

      I’ve also noticed that the rates tend vary significantly depending on which country you’re coming from. Thanks for the tip!

  • Reply Mr Bunny Chow November 30, 2016 at 10:51 am

    I once didn’t get all the insurance in South Africa and we drove through a hail storm in the Drakensburg that turned the hire car into something resembling a golf ball (the hailstones were double the size of actual golf-balls) The excess was needless to say excessive.

    • Reply 2summers November 30, 2016 at 10:52 am

      Hahaha!

  • Reply Ishan Thakore November 30, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    Thanks for this post! I’ve find it hard to find coherent advice about car hiring here after scouring a ton of websites and travel forums. I’m an American based in JHB working on a Fulbright around the Vaal and Orange Rivers, so my work is taking me all over the country. I rented a car to go to Parys and got a flat tire — but didn’t purchase the tyre waiver — so I’ve been hit with the whole cost of the tire. I’ll definitely get all the insurances next time, and the super-waiver, which I *think* is the US-equivalent of liability insurance.

    I will say that if you have a good travel credit card, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, and purchase your hire on the card, the credit card will cover the full Collision Damage and Theft Waiver up to the *entire* cash value of the car. The benefit of this is that it is primary coverage, and they’ll send you a letter that you can show the car rental agency. Unfortunately, rental agencies aren’t so keen on this and if you decline their CDW, they will put a huge hold on your credit card and argue with you for a LONG time to dissuade you from this option.

  • Reply tomatom November 30, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    It’s worth checking out your travel insurance or credit cards to see if they cover the excess just in cae of damage. A lot of premium credit cards – the same ones that give travel insurance if you pay for a portion of a flight on them – will cover you saving paying for that (though I recently found out they only cover travel bought from the home country and for six months). Also always take pics of cars when you receive the and photograph the underside. I had a tiny scratch that Budget in Cape Town wanted to charge us for but luckily we had photo evidence that is wasn’t us. One of the best rental firms I found in 7 months of travelling this year was in the Uk where you only paid for damage on the car if it was larger than a golf ball – a sensible guide with dints and dings ocurring from loose stones on roads and passengers being careless when they open doors.

  • Reply autumnashbough December 2, 2016 at 8:10 am

    I love small cars, too, but for snow and back roads, yeah, the SUV is a must! I never would have thought about hiring a rental to save my own car, though.

    • Reply 2summers December 2, 2016 at 8:12 am

      Well, when I say I wanted to save my car, what I actually meant is that there was no way in hell my tiny Hyundai would ever make it. Same with Ray’s Toyota, which has about 6 inches of ground clearance 🙂

  • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun December 6, 2016 at 10:11 pm

    Good tips! Oddly, after driving in France, I found it really easy to drive here, people are so polite, except of course for the taxi drivers. I hate, hate, hate driving manual (and i am really lousy at it) so we have 2 automatics 🙂 so much less stress.

    • Reply 2summers December 7, 2016 at 8:57 am

      For some reason I felt like I just HAD to learn manual when I came here, just to prove something to myself. And it’s weird…I actually love it now!

      • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun December 7, 2016 at 9:20 am

        I took over 100 hours of driving school in France to learn to drive a manual (after already having driven for over 20 years in the US) and just barely passed the driving test so I am pretty sure I am hopeless, haha.

  • Reply Jessie December 30, 2016 at 9:47 pm

    I’ll be moving to Jo’burg from the States very soon and the thought of driving terrifies me!

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