Dreaming of South Africa: How I’m planning to return using points, miles and cash

Apr 21, 2020

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As a digital nomad without a home base, I’m itching to get back on the road when the time is right.

Related reading: Here’s what to consider if you’re thinking about booking future travel now

Although I have a lot of upcoming trips planned, I keep coming back to one destination: South Africa.

My husband and I were in South Africa this March when the country declared a State of National Disaster because of the coronavirus pandemic. Four days later the U.S. Department of State issued a worldwide Level 4 “do not travel” warning and advised U.S. citizens to return immediately to our home country unless we were “prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.” We heeded the advice and canceled the rest of what would have been a three-week trip to four destinations across three African countries.

My South African dream trip isn’t about recreating what we missed in March, however. Half of the Marriott properties we’d booked for that trip have now jumped in category level. And, we decided we’d rather focus on multiple destinations when we return in order to maximize a parks and reserves annual pass we purchased in March. So, here’s what I’m planning for my next trip to South Africa.

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Flights

My husband JT came across an inexpensive LATAM one-way business class fare from Mexico City to Cape Town via São Paulo and Johannesburg a few weeks ago. We booked this one-way in October for MX$14,660 total, which is about $618 total for both of us.

We’d been discussing a trip to Mexico City and wanted to return to South Africa before next March to take advantage of the Wild Card parks and reserves annual pass we purchased during our trip this March. So this one-way business class fare seemed too good to pass up.

If Mexico, Brazil and South Africa are accepting visitors from the U.S. this fall and it’s advisable to travel, we’ll be flying. If not, we’ll rely on whatever travel waivers are offered by LATAM to reschedule our flights. Worst case, we’ll just have to walk away from the $309-per-person business-class fare — a risk we’re willing to take.

Related reading: The six best ways to get to South Africa on points and miles

Since the LATAM fare departs from Mexico City, we’ll need positioning flights. We expect to be in Birmingham, Alabama, for a wedding in early October so I snagged American Airlines award flights from Birmingham to Mexico City. As American Airlines Executive Platinum elites, we can cancel award flights and redeposit the miles without a charge, so there’s no risk in booking these Web Special awards for 10,000 miles and $31.77 in taxes and fees each.

I was even able to build in an extended layover in Dallas so I can work most of the day while enjoying the Flagship Lounge. After all, Mexico City is a qualifying international destination for lounge access for an Executive Platinum elite (although I could also get access with Oneworld Sapphire status through Malaysia Airlines).

Once in South Africa, we’ll either pay cash or redeem Ultimate Rewards points at a rate of 1.5 cents each for flights through the Ultimate Rewards portal for domestic flights. There are many domestic carriers in South Africa and most fares are relatively inexpensive even at the last minute. It usually doesn’t make sense to redeem airline points for award tickets when flying within South Africa. It’s also usually possible to snag inexpensive one-way car rentals through Autoslash when needed.

Related reading: Top nine ways to fly business class to Africa using points and miles

As for our return from South Africa, we used American Airlines AAdvantage miles to book Qatar business class from Johannesburg to Atlanta via Doha. And, we’re scheduled to fly QSuites from Doha to Atlanta.

At 75,000 AAdvantage miles and $15.70 per person for a business-class redemption from Africa to the U.S., this is a great use of American Airlines miles. And, as Executive Platinum elites, we can always cancel and refund the miles if our plans change.

Related reading: The best rewards credit cards

Hotels and destinations

We plan to spend four nights in Mexico City and 19 nights in South Africa and Eswatini (which is completely landlocked by South Africa). We’re prioritizing destinations from which we can visit reserves and parks that are accessible with our Wild Card. And, since I’ll be working U.S. East Coast hours most weekdays for TPG, we’ll need to travel slower and prioritize properties with adequate internet and workspace.

Related reading: A guide to planning your African vacation

Here’s our hotel plan.

Four nights in Mexico City

I’d had my eye on a 10,000-point-per-night IHG property in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa district ever since I researched my “stretch your points” piece on IHG. A few other loyalty programs have attractive low-category Mexico City properties such as Hyatt’s Category 1 Hyatt House Mexico City/Santa Fe and Marriott’s Category 2 Courtyard Mexico City Revolucion — but this IHG property wins when it comes to location. Plus, as an IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card cardholder I can get four award nights for just 30,000 points total at this 10,000-point per night property.

There are lots of fun activities in Mexico City including visiting nearby Teotihuacan, checking out the Zocolo and seeing mariachi bands in Plaza Garibaldi. I hope to take a day off to do some sightseeing in addition to what I can explore in the evenings.

Related reading: 10 things every tourist must eat (and drink) in Mexico City

Five nights in Cape Town

Since we fly into Cape Town and have enjoyed visiting the city on previous trips, we plan to spend five nights there. We’re opting for five because we may use points to stay at one of the city’s many low-category Marriott properties, where we’d get a fifth night free on award stays.

There are two Category 1 Marriott properties and three Category 2 properties in the Cape Town area.
There are two Category 1 Marriott properties and three Marriott Category 2 properties in the Cape Town area. These are current prices for a five-night stay in October 2020.

The three Marriott Category 2 properties in the Cape Town area are all appealing for different reasons. The Protea Hotel Cape Town Cape Castle is appealing for its Green Point location near the V&A Waterfront; the Protea Hotel Stellenbosch would be convenient for a wine-country visit, and the Protea Hotel Cape Town Mowbray is very well-rated and located in the Observatory neighborhood.

Sample prices for Marriott Category 2 properties in the Cape Town area for a five-night stay in October 2020.

There are also some appealing higher-category Marriott properties. And the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cape Town – Upper Eastside is currently bookable for 15,000 points per night or $63 per night during our dates. Alternatively, the Holiday Inn Express Cape Town City Centre is currently bookable for 20,000 points per night.

On this trip, I’m hoping to explore less-visited parts of Table Mountain National Park. I may also spend a morning in the Stellenbosch wine country and perhaps take a drive down to see some of the Cape Peninsula sites. (Robben Island, site of the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years, is a must-visit if it’s your first time in Cape Town.)

Related reading: Why you should visit Cape Town, South Africa

Five nights in Kimberly

Kimberly looks like an interesting town with a strong history of diamond mining. There’s a Category 1 Marriott, the Protea Hotel Kimberley, located next to what some claim is claim is the world’s deepest hole excavated by hand. But my main reason to visit Kimberly is South Africa’s newest national park, Mokala National Park, little more than an hour’s drive from Kimberly.

Sample rates for a five-night stay in October 2020.

Mokala National Park has a couple of treetop cottages that can be booked through the national park for between 1,750 and 1,950 South African rand (between $93 and $104) per night with a two-night minimum. The treetop cottages don’t have power, are relatively primitive and can be difficult to book — but they look amazing and some overlook waterholes frequented by animals. If I’m able to snag one of these cottages for two nights, I’ll have to take some time off to disconnect and enjoy the experience.

Three nights in Mbabane, Eswatini

It’s difficult to look at a map of South Africa and not notice two landlocked countries within it: Eswatini and Lesotho. As I looked at all the parks for which I could use the Wild Card parks and reserves annual pass we’d purchased for use in Kruger National Park, I noticed there were three parks in Eswatini where the pass would provide entry. So, having the annual parks and reserves pass is a good motivation to check out Eswatini for a few nights.

Related reading: Swaziland now has a new name

We may stop in Eswatini on the drive from Kruger to Johannesburg, or we may fly via Johannesburg. The Hilton Garden Inn Mbabane will likely be our best lodging option and it’s currently charging 18,000 points or $78 per night for our dates. However, the overnight packages at Mkhaya Game Reserve look epic and relatively affordable, so we may spend a night in one of the park’s stone cottages.

Sample pricing for a three-night stay at the Hilton Garden Inn Mbabane in early November 2020.

With four days and three nights in Eswatini, we’ll likely drive out to each of three parks covered by our annual pass. Eswatini is a relatively small country, and all three parks are reachable as day trips from Mbabane. I already priced out a rental SUV on AutoSlash, and it will only cost us about $80 to rent a car for four days from Eswatini’s international airport.

Five nights just outside Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park is my happy place right now. I’ve been to the park twice and love doing self-drive safaris there. And there’s a Category 2 Marriott property, the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate, just outside the Kruger Gate entrance to the park.

We were at this property when South Africa declared a State of National Disaster because of the coronavirus pandemic in March and our five-night stay became a 12-night stay as we canceled onward travel plans and waited for our flight back to the U.S. Even with 13 days of self-safari driving in the park, we never tired of seeing wildlife every day.

Marriott Protea Kruger Gate
We saw a herd of elephants from the pool area one evening at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

I could happily spend all of our 19 nights in South Africa at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate and driving through Kruger National Park. But I’ll likely limit myself to just five — with the fifth award night free — before moving on to see other parks and reserves.

As a Marriott Category 2 property, a five-night stay at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate costs between 40,000 points and 60,000 points, depending on whether the nights are peak, standard or off-peak. At TPG’s valuation of Marriott points at 0.8 cents each, even at 60,000 points for five nights, you’ll come out well ahead of cash prices.

Related reading: Best ways to redeem points and miles for safaris

One night near Johannesburg airport

We visited Johannesburg extensively during our first trip to South Africa, so we’ll skip the city on this trip and spend the last night near Johannesburg airport at the Category 2 Protea Hotel O.R. Tambo Airport before our 7:55 a.m. flight.

If you haven’t visited Johannesburg, I highly recommend a few days in the city. There are a lot of places worth visiting, including the Apartheid Museum, Constitution Hill Human Rights Precinct and Soweto.

There are many Marriott properties in Johannesburg and nearby Pretoria, but I’d likely choose the centrally located, all-suites Marriott Category 1 Protea Hotel Johannesburg Parktonian All-Suite in downtown Johannesburg — which is inexpensive at $41 per night including taxes and fees on some dates.

For a Friday night in November 2020.

Alternatively, the well-rated Marriott Category 1 Protea Hotel Pretoria Loftus Park looks like a great option if you want to stay in Pretoria.

Related reading: Three ways to do Johannesburg on points

Other ideas

I’m not at all committed to the itinerary outlined above, so I may substitute some of the following ideas — or simply include them on a subsequent trip to South Africa.

Visit Port Elizabeth and Addo Elephant National Park

Addo Elephant National Park, the third-largest national park in South Africa, is near Port Elizabeth. We could stay at the Category 2 Protea Hotel Port Elizabeth Marine, which is a 35-minute drive from the Mathyolweni Gate of Addo Elephant National Park and drive out to see the park on a couple days.

Sample rates for a five-night stay in October 2020.

Addo Elephant National Park allows you to do self-drive safaris and you can even book a hop-on guide who will ride in your vehicle and provide information. Plus, exploring the city of Port Elizabeth, enjoying the beaches and checking out the Addo Elephant National Park marine area would provide plenty to do.

Visit the Protea Zebula Lodge north of Johannesburg

I’ve had the Protea Zebula Lodge on my to-stay list ever since I researched my piece on Marriott properties where you can stretch your points. This property is a two hour and 23-minute drive from Johannesburg (JNB) and looks to be a great place to just get away. It has a golf course and spa, and is located on 1,100 hectares of pristine bush-veld. And, your points will book you into a bush cottage.

Sample rates for a five-night October 2020 stay.

I’m looking forward to staying at this property on a future trip — but since we have a Wild Card this time, I’m focusing on destinations for visiting parks and reserves included on that pass.

Drive the full length of Kruger National Park

On a self-drive safari through Kruger National Park. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

On our first trip to South Africa in 2015, we spent three days and two nights driving through Kruger National Park from Phalaborwa to Malelane. On our most recent trip, we spent 13 partial days in Kruger, basing ourselves just outside Kruger Gate at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate. Although the more recent trip allowed for working in the late afternoons and evenings, I enjoyed covering more territory and seeing different climates on our first trip.

The rest camps in Kruger National Park provide a great self-safari experience and have everything from cottages to campsites. But, because of limited cell phone coverage and poor to nonexistent Wi-Fi, these camps aren’t conducive to working for extended periods each night. I’m hoping we can drive the full length of Kruger someday when we can both take a week or two off.

Related reading: Second cities: Destinations to add onto a trip to Cape Town

Bottom line

My husband and I have already booked trips for late summer 2020 into 2021(many were lined up before coronavirus became a global concern). Hopefully, South Africa will be one of them. It’s difficult to pass up the excellent award availability and cash fares we’re currently seeing for travel in the fall and beyond.

But we’re well aware that many of our trips may need to be postponed, altered or canceled, depending on when, how and where it becomes safe to travel again. So, for now, we wait and dream about the trips we’ll take.

I’m far from the only one at TPG who is dreaming about destinations and future trips. Other TPG staffers have recently written about the destinations they are dreaming about:

Featured photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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