Where do you think about when you think of your “trip of a lifetime”? For my mother, it was an African safari. For 15 days, she enjoyed private game reserves, national parks, Durban’s coastline, and the great city of Cape Town.
Her trip turned out even better than expected, but packing was a challenge due to luggage restrictions. Having laundry done halfway through the trip is the biggest secret to fitting 15 days of luggage into carry-on luggage, but check out this list for all sorts of South Africa packing secrets!
Before Your Trip: Things to Do and Prepare
Health: Plan a visit to your local health clinic to get travel prescriptions and vaccinations, which might be necessary depending on which reserves you’re visiting and the time of year. A few days prior to packing, treat your clothing with Permethrin Insect Spray (especially socks, where mosquitos like to bite). Let dry thoroughly and pack in a plastic bag to preserve the protection. The spray typically lasts through six washings or six weeks, whichever comes first.
Side note: I did this before my trip to Guatemala’s jungles, with great success! Well worth twenty minutes and $15!
Finances: Before leaving, notify your bank and credit card companies about your international travel. The Charles Schwab ATM card doesn’t charge ATM or currency exchange fees, plus works in ATMs worldwide. For credit cards, pack a Visa or MasterCard (more likely to be accepted than other types) without foreign exchange fees, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred which also includes basic travel insurance. If you need additional travel insurance (which many tour operators require), check out this travel insurance guide to determining what coverage you need.
Security: Attack luggage tags to all bags, including backpacks or day bags just in case you get separated from anything along the way. Look into ways to protect your cash or other valuables, like money belts, anti-theft underwear (Becky’s pick!), or these hidden pockets to sew into clothing.
It’s well-known to wear bulky clothing onboard to save room in your suitcase, but with a flight as long as the one to South Africa, you also want to be comfortable. Choose a pair of long pants, a warm layer on top (like fleece-lined waterproof jacket which can double up on the safari), and compression socks for the flight. Throw on a pair of sneakers or other walking shoes that you’ll use throughout the trip.
Strategically Pack a “Personal Item”
Airlines consider a personal item the bag that you put underneath the seat in front of you. You’ll want to have everything you need for in-flight comfort along with a change of clothes in case you have to gate-check your carry-on last minute and it gets separated from you.
Hint: My post on packing tips for your long haul flight is a great start to finding what you need. I’m still in awe that my parents survived a 15-hour flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg!
The Basics: Always pack a copy of your flight confirmation(s), travel plans, important phone numbers, travel insurance information, and your passport close at hand!
In-Flight Comfort: As a recap, you’ll want a travel pillow, ear plugs, eye mask, hand sanitizer, tissues, Wisps (toothbrushes without a need for water), stain remover wipes for clothing spills, and basic first aid items (especially sleeping pills, ibuprofen or other pain relievers, and any prescriptions or medical supplies you need during the flight itself). If you have long layovers, you may want airline lounge passes too!
You may want to pack your entire first aid kit in your personal item for easy access and for use throughout the trip itself. My comprehensive first aid kit packing list is the perfect size for travelers.
Entertainment: Regardless of where you’re starting from, you’re in for a long flight to South Africa. Headphones, a laptop/tablet/phone preloaded with movies or games (and charger), small notepad and pen, and books or a Kindle. If there’s a chance you’ll need to root around through your bag, you might want a small flashlight too (which is great in case of possible electricity outages in Africa, as well).
Electronics: It’s a smart idea to have something to charge your electronics with: whether that’s a plug adaptor for international airports or an external battery.
Snacks: My mom packed more snacks than most people, since when you travel as a diabetic, she can’t count on airline meals. A spread of sunflower seeds, nuts, string cheese, salami, baby carrots, apples, and protein bars is a deluxe meal that’s easily brought through TSA checkpoints. Most travelers can bring just a fraction of this. Don’t forget the paper towels!
Keep it Safe: As an added precaution, keep anything you don’t want damaged, like a camera or binoculars, in your personal item.
Change of Clothes: Even travelers who pack carry-on only are often forced to gate check a bag or leave things at the hotel front desk if a room isn’t ready when you check in. Have a change of clothes handy, just in case. Don’t forget anything you’ll absolutely want on the first day, like a hairbrush. If you’re short on room, keep it simple: a t-clean t-shirt and underwear will do and pack down small!
If you’re traveling with a companion, cross-packing shared items will ensure it all fits into a reasonably sized backpack.
The Main Suitcase: A Carry-On
Using a suitcase with just two wheels instead of spinner wheels usually provides more space for packing in the interior and you’ll need every square inch you can get! Look for bags with optional expansion zippers, in case you do souvenir shopping.
Clothing: Light colored (tan, beige, etc.) clothing is best for safaris. White will show dust, bright colors make you conspicuous to animals, and dark clothes attract mosquitoes and other insects. You’ll want long sleeves and long pants in the evenings to help prevent bites. The trick is to pack just enough clothing to get you halfway through the trip and do laundry (or send it out) as necessary:
- 2 pairs long pants, like khakis or jeans
- 2 pairs cargo shorts or similar
- 6 t-shirts (thankfully, most lodges are casual wear at dinner!)
- 1 long sleeve shirt
- 8 pairs underwear
- 11 pairs socks, in case your feet get gross during the day
- 1 nice outfit for dinners in cities like Durban, Johannesburg, or Cape Town
- Spare shoes (remember you’re wearing your sneakers on the plane!)
- Swimsuit & cover-up, if desired (and a plastic bag for wet suits)
Laundry: My parents had their laundry done at the game lodge partway through their trip, but rinsed out a few things independently to keep clothes fresh. Packing powdered laundry soap for rinsing things in the sink and folding travel hangers to dry is easier than packing a full 15 days worth of clothing.
Sun Protection: When you’re in the hot sun for game drives, you’ll definitely want a lightweight sun hat, sunglasses, and plenty of sunscreen.
The Weird Stuff: You’re not in Kansas anymore. Bring a few plastic bags with toilet paper for bush bathroom breaks and thank you cards for tips on the safari.
Snacks: Lodges will provide all your meals, but if you need snacks on your game drives or you want a quick breakfast in the room instead of waking up extra early before game drives, you might want to bring a little extra or go shopping in South Africa when you arrive. Think about paper plates, napkins, and disposable silverware too.
Toiletries: Along with all the basics, you probably want plenty of insect repellant (check with your lodge; both of ours provided DEET insecticide). Don’t forget hair conditioner; it’s usually not provided.
The Biggest Packing Tip of All
For most people, a South African safari is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Don’t stress about packing and instead focus on the incredible adventure you’re about to have!
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Where is your trip of a lifetime?
My mom’s trip of a lifetime was to South Africa, but I think mine would be blissfully tramping through New Zealand’s mountains, glacial valleys, and fjords. Where is your trip in a lifetime? Could you pack for it in only a carry-on?
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All photos courtesy of Becky’s parents and used with permission. Some products mentioned in this article are affiliate links; thanks for your support of The Girl and Globe if you choose to purchase these items.
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