Travel guide to the 2010 World Cup
Start booking your trip to South Africa for next summer's World Cup now
Crime is prevalent, but not as bad as you've read if you follow some simple tips
More tips on flights, accomodations, game tickets, things to do, intercity travel
The United States is in. So are Brazil, England, Spain and 15 other nations. Yet with eight months to go before the 2010 World Cup, more tickets have been purchased by people from the U.S. (11.7 percent at last count) than from any other country except the host nation, South Africa (47.9 percent).
Why? It's a combination of factors: More Americans are used to making purchases over the Internet than citizens of other countries; the World Cup has become a legitimate big-time sporting event in America; the U.S. has fans of many national teams, not just the Stars & Stripes (my British neighbor here in Baltimore already has his tickets for England games); and the U.S. is, after all, the great bastion of capitalism -- and home to myriad ticket brokers hoping to make a killing on the world's most popular sporting event.
But let's assume there are actual U.S. soccer fans buying the majority of these World Cup tickets. They want to know: What's it going to be like in South Africa? Is it as dangerous there as some people have said? And what should I know before I leave for the tournament next year?
Let me try to help. I lived in Johannesburg for seven months recently while my wife worked there at a hospital in Soweto. I don't have all the answers, of course, but I can give you an idea of what it's like on the ground there.
First off, I think the 2010 World Cup will be a tremendous success for South Africa, despite the concerns over readiness that seem to plague any global sports extravaganza that doesn't take place in China or the U.S. I also think that if you're smart and exercise common sense, your trip to the World Cup should be memorable and free of incidents. My seven-month stay there certainly was, and I already miss the wonderful people (South Africans and ex-pats alike) whom I met.
Still, you'll need to be careful. The South African murder rate, while declining, is about eight times higher than in the U.S. One reason for the high crime rate is unemployment, which recently rose to 23.5 percent. What's more, about 20 percent of South African adults have HIV/AIDS, according to UNAIDS. South Africa has more HIV-infected people (approximately 5.7 million) than any other nation in the world.
In many parts of the country -- especially in Johannesburg, the World Cup nerve center -- there is a kind of fortress mentality that dominates daily life. Our apartment complex in Jo'burg's northern suburbs was like so many others: It was surrounded by a 10-foot-high security wall, which was topped by an eight-wire electric fence. A 24-hour security guard screened every person who entered the facility. In addition to a heavy front door with two locks, we had a second front-door gate made of steel bars, also known as "burglar bars."
In six months, we walked on the sidewalks outside our apartment exactly once (to go to a cricket game at the nearby stadium). It's too dangerous, we were told. The sad truth was that you almost never saw white people walking on residential sidewalks, even during the day, and those who did stood out.
There are certainly places in Jo'burg where you can feel comfortable. The shopping malls have plenty of security and some good restaurants. (Melrose Arch, an outdoor shopping/residential area, had the nicest gym I've ever belonged to.) The city parks are fine during the day; I played in a regular pick-up basketball game on Sundays at Zoo Lake. Several restaurant-and-bar districts are a blast. (Our favorite is Melville, which also has several good bed-and-breakfasts.) And the soccer stadiums themselves felt perfectly safe during the Confederations Cup in June.
(Cape Town, by the way, is a bit safer than Jo'burg -- and one of the world's best cities for restaurants, outdoor activities and nightlife. It reminds me a lot of San Francisco. We took several long-weekend trips to Cape Town and South Africa's glorious wine country, which is only an hour away by car.)
From a transportation perspective, World Cup 2010 won't be like Germany 2006, where you could ride high-speed trains between all the cities. The most common modes of transport in South Africa 2010 will be airplanes (Cape Town, for example, is nowhere near any other venue cities) and automobiles. So make sure you get your rental-car reservations in early, especially if you want an automatic transmission, and by all means ask for a GPS to come with it. One of our visiting American friends didn't take that advice, got lost, stopped his car on the side of a road at night in a rough part of Jo'burg, and was mugged at gunpoint. (Thankfully, he ended up being OK.)
Other car tips: Put anything remotely valuable (laptops, purses, etc.) in the trunk, since smash-and-grab robberies can (and do) happen at intersections. Cars travel on the left side of the road, and left turns on red lights are forbidden. Gas stations don't accept credit cards; only cash. (Credit cards are in common use everywhere else.) And while driving between cities after midnight is possible, it's a dicey proposition sometimes. I'd recommend finding accommodations in the same city where you saw your game that day.
The South African roads are pretty good, though the highways aren't always four-lane. (We got stuck behind some semis on the sometimes-two-lane highway between Jo'burg and Bloemfontein.) One definite positive: From Johannesburg, you are within driving distance of World Cup stadiums in Jo'burg (Soccer City and Ellis Park), Pretoria (one hour), Rustenburg (two hours), Bloemfontein (four hours), Nelspruit (five hours) and Polokwane (five hours). If you're based in Jo'burg, games in Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town will require flights (unless you really like driving).
If you're planning a trip to the World Cup, there are three officially licensed World Cup tour operators in the U.S.: Great Atlantic Travel, Cartan Tours and Destination Southern Africa. Prices, as you might expect, will not be cheap through tour operators. If you do it on your own, here are some helpful things to know: