What's the best and cheapest way to get between Johannesburg and Cape Town?
August 8, 2012 4:02 PM   Subscribe

What are safe, inexpensive travel options between Johannesburg and Cape Town?

I will be traveling to Johannesburg, South Africa for work in mid-September. Fortunately, the trip worked out so that I can take a few days off and go to Cape Town from Thursday evening - Monday evening. This is my first time in the country, so I am a bit lost as to figuring out what are safe travel options at a low cost, and what are low cost options that are definitely not safe.

Since my time is limited, I'd ideally like to fly, but if there are good options on the train, that also works. I'll be carrying a bit of luggage (6 days worth of work clothes!), but am very able-bodied (read: I can carry my own things). I might have friends of friends to drive me to/from train stations, airports, bus stops, etc. in both places, but I'd rather not bank on anyone besides hotel rides.

Any advice is welcome!
posted by msk1985 to Travel & Transportation around Cape Jaffa, Australia (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
People seem to quite like taking the train, and it's known to be safe and reasonably priced (cheaper, I believe, than many buses). For airfare, one of the best places to check is Travelstart, although you can also search for flights directly with South Africa's budget airline, Mango.
posted by mykescipark at 4:34 PM on August 8, 2012

The train ought to be quite scenic (in a rugged sort of way), but takes about 26-28 hours. Since you have limited time in Cape Town it may or may not be a good fit. Per the website, the tourist train runs Tues and Thurs from Joburg, departing at 10:30am and arriving in Cape Town at about 12:40pm the following day, for 560 ZAR, about USD$70. The economy train (which has sleeper cars), departs M,W,F,Sa from Joburg at 12:30pm, arriving in Cape Town at approx 3:30pm the next afternoon, for 340 ZAR, about $42.

From the website mykescipark linked, flying is about 2 hours and USD$200.

According to my friends when I lived in South Africa (2004-2005), the train would also frequently be delayed for 6 hours or more in the desert, allegedly as people stole the electrical wires and they'd have to wait til a diesel locomotive to be brought to rescue the stranded train. So if you do consider the train, I wouldn't take it for a time-sensitive leg of your journey.

Really, Cape Town needs all the time you can give it. Table Mountain is amazing, and the gondola seems silly and is a bit expensive but is really breathtaking. There's a gentler hike up Table Mountain from the Kirstenbosch botanical gardens. I also recommend hiring a car and going down the 12 apostles road (dramatic cliffs by the ocean!) to Cape Point, which juts out into the ocean. Watch out for the wild baboons! Then around to Simon's Town to see the Jackass penguins (now renamed the African Pengin). There used to be (hopefully stil is!) this restaurant in .... Muizenberg? perched right out over the ocean with amazing views, a great place to stop for a cocktail. Sundowners on the western side of the Cape is also a must. Tons of culture and food and lounges/clubbing in Cape Town itself, as well.

Enjoy! I'm jealous! ; )
posted by foodmapper at 5:09 PM on August 8, 2012

Maybe there is a greyhound bus? This is a VERY dangerous area, I would not risk the train and be careful about being hijacked in rental cars. Unlike other countries criminals in SA have no qualms with killing you THEN taking your stuff, there is no death penalty and more than 20% of criminals escape jail or their documents are lost so nothing happens to them. Just because a person you know or one of their friends did something in SA and it was okay doesn't mean that you will be safe, people who live in SA are really careful, armed, have bars on all their windows etc etc. Please be careful! If you know someone there then maybe they could help arrange something safe for you.
posted by meepmeow at 9:42 PM on August 8, 2012

Well, to offer more perspectives, some thoughts from other travelers and citizens of ZA about train safety over on the Web's best adventure/travel forum, Thorn Tree. [1] [2] [3]

Also, a word from Seat 61.
posted by mykescipark at 10:05 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've read nice things about the train(s) between Johannesburg and Cape Town. I've not taken it myself, but from what I could tell it seemed perfectly safe and reasonable to my American expectations. If I was on your limited schedule though I wouldn't spend over 24 hrs on a train ride, unless you're a rail buff and this is your one chance to ride this route.

When I was planning a trip there (2010, World Cup), my plan was to fly between the two cities, and there were plenty of reliable airlines on the route (BA, SA, KLM, etc), so I could rule out some smaller airlines that maybe made me a bit nervous. I didn't end up going to Cape Town, so can't comment further.

One last thing: I drove probably around 1,000 miles around the country in a rental car while I was there, from deserted 2 lane highways near Lesotho to nutso streets in Soweto, even at night, and never really felt unsafe. I was cautious, but never saw anything remotely close to the kind of lawless thunderdome that's sometimes described in books, etc. This was during the World Cup, so that may have had an affect, but I thought I'd offer this experience as a balance to some other perspectives you often hear/read.
posted by dyobmit at 6:51 AM on August 9, 2012

I would recommend looking for flights on Kalula.com
posted by Mrs.Spiffy at 8:22 AM on August 9, 2012

I lived in Pretoria a few years back. The long-distance trains between CT and Joburg / Pretoria are perfectly safe, you need only the same precautions you'd use on a train between DC and NYC. Its the metro trains in the cities you need to take more care on (or in some cases, outright avoid).

That said, when I'd get down to CT for a weekend, I didn't want to spend half of my time on a train, I wanted to spend it in the ocean and on Table Mountain and in the bars on Long Street. So, I flew.

The budget airlines are Mango, Kulula, and 1Time. For an hour and a half flight, there is no reason to pay the extra cash to go with South African, considering the on-plane experience. The only reason you pay extra is for the reliability. You have a much higher chance of one of the budget airlines overbooking and bumping you off a flight, leaving you stranded with 150 other angry passengers. This is the risk you take. I did it 3 times and had the bad experience once, YMMV.

Rent a car when you get to the CT airport - you can get them pretty decently priced, then drive yourself all over CT - Table Mountain, Cape Point and the park around it, Simon's Town and the other little towns along False Bay. We drove ourselves up to wine country (Franschoeck, Stellenbosch) and also out to cage dive with the great whites (Gaansbai) and the roads are perfectly safe around there. Biggest thing you'll need to watch out for is a baboon darting across the road.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:43 AM on August 13, 2012

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