Posted by Beth | April 26, 2016
One of the highlights of our trip so far was to go on a safari in Kruger National Park in South Africa. This was also one of the most difficult parts to plan for ahead of time, because we couldn’t find much information on the Internet for budget safaris. The general thought is that an African safari will cost you thousands of dollars per person, but we found that to be completely untrue. It may be a “once in a lifetime” experience, but it’s easier and cheaper to do than you may think!
Right now is an excellent time to travel to South Africa because of the current exchange rate. When we were there in mid-January the rate was over 17 South African Rand (ZAR) to $1 USD, an all-time high and over double the purchasing power of the USD from 2013 (As of today it was 14.5:1). It made everything seem incredibly cheap! For our three day, three night safari for two people we spent only $813. And that number actually would have been almost $100 lower if it weren’t for a fender bender in our rental car. There are lots (or HEAPS, as some parts of the world would say) of different ways you can go on safari, but we’ll break down the way we would recommend based on our experience.
- Book an award flight on Star Alliance partners using United miles.
- Stay at Protea hotels using Marriott points.
- Get a cheap rental car, and ideally get reimbursed with flexible points.
- Mix and match game drive options.
- Mix and match dining options with buying groceries.
The trick of course to make your trip cheaper is to use points to cover your flight, lodging and perhaps even your rental car and food. This is what we would suggest for two people traveling together, both with ability to sign up for two-three new cards each.
Book an (almost) free flight on points with United miles. The two main ways you can get United points are by signing up for the Chase United card or one of Chase’s Ultimate Rewards earning cards (Freedom, Sapphire or Ink). For a detailed, step-by-step breakdown with links on earning and redeeming United miles for free flights, please visit this post. Of course, you can book flights on other aircraft carriers, but we had great luck finding United availability with all of the Star Alliance partners that fly through Johannesburg.Using United miles you may be able to fly directly into the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (MQP) on the airline Airline, a Star Alliance Partner, though Nelspruit is still a good hour drive away from the park entrance, so you’ll still need transportation. We chose to fly in and out of Joburg and redeem points to stay at the Hyatt Regency (7,000 points a night) there on both ends of our Kruger trip.
Use Marriott points to book free hotel nights at the Protea Hotel Chain. We earned Marriott points from the Chase Marriott card, which often reaches a high of 80,000 points per sign-up bonus. And like United, you can also transfer points directly from Chase Ultimate Rewards.
We stayed at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate. It is the closest hotel to Kruger National Park, right on the Sabi River, and provided the ultimate “safari lodge experience.” The food, though not included in the award room rate, was affordable, the concierge was helpful in booking game drives, and the location/view was incredible. Our highlights were seeing elephants near our fence while lounging at the pool and seeing zebras outside our hotel room door while walking back one night. The lowlight was the monkeys everywhere, dropping down from the trees to steal our food, which added to the experience but got quite annoying. The current points rate is 7,500 Marriott points per night, a category one, which in our opinion is an absolute steal.
Also included in our grand total was a one-hour massage at the outdoor spa for me and several cocktails by the pool, both at our hotel.
3. Rental Car
We never intended to get our own rental car. Our thought was we’d book a package deal that picked us up and dropped us off in Johannesburg, but by booking a car hire and doing some of it on our own, we ended up saving a lot of money. There was a Thrifty onsite at the Hyatt Regency Johannesburg, where we flew into and spent our initial night, but at the last minute there were no cars available. We ended up find a car at another Thrifty down the street for about $35 USD per day. Our rental car ended up costing about $250 USD plus gas for five days, but would have been $100 USD cheaper if a certain semi hadn’t rear-ended us in a hit and run on the way to the airport. A rental car allows you the flexibility to stay where you want, eat where you want, and most importantly, self-drive through the park. The drive from Johannesburg to the gate of Kruger park is just about five hours, all paved four lane highway and very easy.
4. Game Drives:
Again, we had pictured our safari experience as all being booked through one lodge or one company, but in the end were glad we pieced it together bit-by-bit and experienced a little bit of everything. The Protea Hotel Kruger Gate concierge was able to help us book game drives directly through the SAN (South Africa National) Parks Dept but you can also do this at any of the gates. Our first morning we went on a game drive that ended up being a private drive, as we were slightly off-season in January. We were escorted around the park in a Land Rover that had a top but no windows. The price was $49/person (830 ZAR) for five hours of driving. The next day we booked another SAN Park game drive in the evening, the only vehicles allowed to be in the park past sunset. The vehicle was a larger open air bus structure that fit about 12 of us, and cost was $27/person (450 ZAR).
Possibly our best experience, though we saw the least amount of wildlife to be honest, was the game drive we booked through Sabi Sands Private Reserve through the Elephant Herd Company. This was more of the traditional safari experience we had been hoping for—open air/no top Land Rovers, a spotter riding on the front bumper chair and a stop for sundowners, essentially a sunset picnic, then a full buffet back at the lodge. This ride was the most exhilarating as the guides were real pros and we even ended up off roading through the bush looking for a lion. The cost coincided as it was $92/person, but no question worth the extra cash as the off the beaten path feel is worth it.
Finally, on our last day we drove through the park in our own rental car, paying only the park fee, $33 (280 ZAR). We ended up spotting quite a bit of wildlife on our own, including our only leopard, which walked right out in front of us on the road. We really enjoyed having all of these varied safari experiences, though we could still see the value in being with one company/the same spotters the whole time who knew just what you were looking for each drive based on what you’d already seen.
One of the benefits of doing our own hodge-podge tour was we were able to buy groceries and make several of our meals for ourselves. Our Protea room unfortunately didn’t have any type of a kitchen, but we were still able to make sandwiches and plenty of snacks and grab and go breakfasts, which saved us quite a bit in the end. The meals at the Protea Hotel were very reasonably priced. For any paid rate, both the breakfast and the dinner should be included, but for the award rate they were not. We tried both the dinner and the breakfast buffet once and were pleasantly surprised with the quantity and quality of food. There was not much for food choices around main Kruger National Park gate, it was about a 25 minute drive back to Hazyview for any non-hotel restaurant.
If there’s one thing on our trip that we would recommend people to do above anything else, it’s to go to South Africa! And of course you can’t visit South Africa without doing a safari. Kruger National Park and the surrounding game reserves are amazing and hopefully this shows that safaris can be quite affordable.