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Why Marriott's Protea Hotel Kruger Gate is perfect for an independent South African safari

May 17 2022
15 min read
Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate pool
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Editor's Note

This hotel will no longer be part of Marriott Bonvoy effective Sep. 1, 2022.

Editor's note: This hotel will no longer be part of Marriott Bonvoy effective Sep. 1, 2022.

I've stayed at many excellent Marriott hotels. The new Le Meridian Maldives and memorable Fiji Marriott Resort Momi Bay are easily among my favorites. But, my absolute favorite Marriott hotel to visit — and currently my preferred Marriott Bonvoy redemption — is the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate in South Africa.

There's one reason to stay at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate: wildlife safaris in Kruger National Park. After all, the hotel is just a few minutes from the park's Paul Kruger gate.

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Although you can join game drives hosted by the national park or operators at the hotel, I've fallen in love with using this hotel as a base from which to do self-guided tours in a rental car. Here's what I enjoy about staying at this hotel and why I think it's perfect for an independent South African safari.

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Why it's perfect for a self-drive safari

There are many ways to visit South Africa's Kruger National Park. You can go on game drives offered by your lodge or a local provider — or you can also drive yourself.

If you self-drive, you must adhere to the posted gate times for Kruger National Park. You can drive through the park as you wish during the day. But you must be either in a rest camp or outside the park by the posted gate-closing times, and you must remain there until the park gates open the next morning.

After doing self-drive safaris in Kruger National Park for 22 days over the last few years, I can confidently say I didn't feel like I missed out on sightings by self-driving. I prefer self-drive safaris because I have complete control over where I go and how long I stay to watch a particular animal.

But, I do recommend doing at least one ranger-led drive. Doing so will allow you to see the park at dawn or dusk, which is typically when the animal sightings are best. Luckily, you can join a SanPark drive at the Paul Kruger gate near the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

The Protea Hotel Kruger Gate is well-situated just outside Paul Kruger Gate in the southwestern part of Kruger National Park. A river separates the park from the hotel, and you only have to drive a few minutes from the hotel parking lot to the Paul Kruger entrance gate.

You can see part of the hotel from the bridge leaving Kruger National Park. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

You can see the full map of Kruger National Park here. But, here's a look at just the southern part that's reachable on a day trip from the hotel. On the map, red roads are paved while yellow roads are gravel (but usually passable by two-wheel drive vehicles without high clearance).

(Screenshot from sanparks.org)

The one downside to staying just outside the park is that you'll need to go into the office each day at Kruger Gate to fill out paperwork. It only takes about 5-10 minutes each morning, but I'd appreciate it if the paperwork would allow entrance for a set number of days.

All international visitors to Kruger National Park must pay daily conservation fees of 440 South African rand (about $27) per adult and 220 rand (about $14) per child. However, the park waives conservation fees for Wild Card holders, so you may find it worthwhile to buy a Wild Card.

Through Oct. 31, 2022, you can buy a 365-day Wild Card for the following prices:

  • Individual (one visitor): 3,420 rand (about $212).
  • Couple (two visitors): 5,345 rand (about $331).
  • Family (up to seven visitors, max of two adults): 6,395 rand (about $396).

My husband and I bought a Wild Card back in 2020 and renewed our membership earlier this year. On our 10-day trip to Kruger National Park this January, we would have incurred 8,800 rand (about $545) of conservation fees without the Wild Card. So, we saved by paying 5,345 rand (about $331) for the couple version of the Wild Card. We also unlocked the ability to enter over 80 parks and reserves around Southern Africa through early 2023 for no additional charge.

Related: Safaris, cities and lots of elephants: How I returned to South Africa this year using points, miles and cash

Redeeming points provides excellent value

Marriott Bonvoy dropped its award charts and moved to dynamic pricing earlier this year. But award rates at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate will remain within the previous off-peak to peak Category 2 bands for stays through the end of 2022. As such, you can expect to pay between 10,000 and 15,000 points per night to stay just outside Kruger National Park this year.

And, if you redeem Marriott points for a stay of five nights or longer, you can benefit from Marriott's "Stay for 5, Pay for 4" benefit. For example, for a five-night stay from Sep. 26-Oct. 1, 2022, you could redeem 56,000 points or pay 13,857 rand (about $859). That's a redemption rate of 1.53 cents per point — almost double TPG's valuation of Marriott points at 0.8 cents each.

(Screenshot from marriott.com)

The least expensive paid rate is part of an extended stay package that provides daily breakfast and dinner, so it's not an even comparison. But, as I'll discuss below, on-site food is reasonably priced — and Marriott Bonvoy Platinum Elites, Titanium Elites and Ambassador Elites get breakfast included as an elite perk.

So, I'm happy to redeem Marriott points for stays at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate — although I know this value could decrease significantly for stays in 2023 and beyond once Marriott removes the award pricing bounds for these stays.

Related: 7 ways to maximize Marriott Bonvoy award night redemptions

On-site food and drink are reasonably priced

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

As I mentioned above, food and drink prices have been reasonable on my last two stays at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate. The prices are particularly impressive when you consider that guests have few other nearby options for dinner, even if they have a car.

My husband and I usually ate dinner at tables near the pool around dusk. Sometimes we'd even see elephants or buffalo in the river between the hotel and the park while waiting for our dinner.

The hotel has an infinity pool overlooking the park. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Here's a look at the food and drink menus:

We found the chicken and avo faceup sandwich a sweet spot of freshness and value. We'd get a large sandwich, fries and a small salad for just 125 rand (about $8), including taxes.

Chicken and avo sandwich in the front, burger in the back. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

However, there are wild monkeys on property that can be a nuisance. For example, on my most recent stay, a monkey jumped down from a rooftop, stole a muffin from my plate and was already back on the rooftop eating it before I even knew what happened. The property tries to keep the monkeys away — but if monkeys make you nervous, consider only eating inside.

Related: Sweet Spot Sunday: Fly Qatar business from the U.S. to South Africa for 75,000 miles and $16

An infinity pool with a view

The Protea Hotel Kruger Gate has two pools, but the only pool you'll want to consider using — unless you have kids that need shallow water or don't want people watching you from the pool cafe — is the infinity pool overlooking the river and Kruger National Park.

The infinity pool is mostly used by people for social media photos while drinking cocktails. But guests also get into the water — and I highly recommend doing so to cool off after a hot day driving in the park. There's something really special about relaxing in an infinity pool while looking out at wild elephants and buffalo, both of which I've seen from the pool.

Related: Delta gets approval for South Africa triangle route, will launch Cape Town service

Elites are well-recognized

You'll see a list of Marriott Bonvoy elite members checking in each day near the reception desk. Presumably, the list includes all elite members, so I was surprised that the list was relatively short each day.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Based on my experience and reports I've seen from other travelers, high-tier Marriott Bonvoy elites usually get upgraded to the newer, larger rooms that are further from reception. Based on peeking into the older rooms, this is a nice upgrade.

In 2020, the hotel upgraded us to a larger guest room in the new wing due to my husband's Titanium Elite status. We found the room attractive and appreciated that it had ample space for working and relaxing.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

And in 2022, the hotel upgraded us to a larger guest room with a large balcony in a new wing, again due to my husband's Titanium Elite status. He also got a nice note welcoming us back with a complimentary poster.

However, we did face an awkward situation on the second day of our 2022 stay. Hotel staff said Marriott hadn't paid the property for our award night stay, implied it was our fault and demanded payment from us. A call to Marriott customer service eventually solved the issue, but our interaction with hotel staff regarding the issue soured our experience.

Hopefully, the hotel has learned that award stay reimbursement issues are something to take up with Marriott, not the guest. That said, you should be ready to call Marriott customer service from South Africa if the hotel has issues with your award booking.

Related: 3 ways to visit Johannesburg on points and miles

The hotel is (mostly) set up well for remote work

A renovated room in the new section of the hotel. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

South Africa is well-located for remote workers who need to work during U.S. hours. And, unlike many properties outside major cities in South Africa, the Wi-Fi at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate is stable and fast enough for most types of remote work.

The Wi-Fi tested at 11 ms ping, 29.77 Mbps download and 29.84 Mbps upload during my stay. And although the Wi-Fi went out once during our seven-night stay earlier this year, it came back in less than 10 minutes.

However, the bench at the desk area is laughably uncomfortable. I understand that most guests won't use the bench, so it's handy to hide it out of the way under the desk. But, if you plan to work in your room, be prepared to do so from the couch (unless you luck into a suite with an outdoor table, as we did on our most recent stay). Another solution is to pull the chair from the living area over to the desk, but I found the chair a little too low to be comfortable.

If you have flexibility in your work schedule, you may prefer to go on safari in the morning and evening and work midday. After all, you'll usually see animals early in the morning and just before the park closes around dusk. But, if you need to work more strict U.S. hours, you'll still see plenty of animals even if you only safari in the morning to early afternoon.

To maximize weekends when working from the road, consider booking Monday through Saturday at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate to ensure good Wi-Fi during the U.S. workweek. Then, consider staying in Kruger National Park — at a safari lodge or within one of the many national park rest camps — on either side of your stay. I've found that staying in the national park on the weekends lets me see parts of the park that aren't reachable during a day trip from the Protea.

Related: How to ensure your safari is ethical

There are nonstop flights to Skukuza from Johannesburg and Cape Town

The first time we visited Kruger National Park, my husband drove us from Johannesburg. He quickly learned the unstated road rules of South Africa and was hustled for a bribe at a roadside traffic stop. Because of that, I only recommend driving from Johannesburg if you feel comfortable driving on the left-hand side of the road and maneuvering unfamiliar road rules.

Luckily, you can also fly right into Kruger National Park on Airlink. Airlink operates nonstop flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to an airstrip near Skukuza rest camp in Kruger National Park. If you book early enough, you can snag round-trip flights from Johannesburg for $216 per person and from Cape Town for $490.

Once at Skukuza airport, you can pick up a Budget or Avis rental car. I recently booked a 10-day automatic rental car for about $42 per day from Skukuza after using AutoSlash to compare rates for a trip later this year.

Our car at one of the few points in Kruger National Park where you're allowed to alight. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

By flying into Skukuza and staying at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate, you avoid much of the stress of driving on the left-hand side of the road. After all, traffic is limited and speed limits are low within the national park.

That means you may be comfortable on a self-drive safari even if the idea of driving on the left-hand side of the road in South Africa initially sounds terrifying.

Of course, if you want to save money or see more of the park, you could also consider flying to other cities around Kruger National Park, such as Hoedspruit or Mbombela. We flew into Hoedspruit on a recent trip and stayed at rest camps within Kruger National Park for two nights before checking in to the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate.

Hoedspruit airport. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Flying into Hoedspruit or Mbombela will require you to drive further before entering Kruger National Park. So, allow yourself enough time to reach your lodging, especially if you plan to pass through Kruger or stay within Kruger on your first night.

Related: United Airlines continues to boost Africa service, will now fly to Cape Town year-round

Bottom line

Marriott's Protea Hotel Kruger Gate is the perfect base for a self-drive safari if you don't want to stay within Kruger National Park. It's my go-to as a digital nomad because I can safari for part of the day yet still know I'll have solid Wi-Fi when I need to work.

Redeeming between 10,000 and 15,000 Marriott points per night for stays through the end of 2022 is a steal. That's why I've booked two more stays at the property for later this year. After all, I might as well maximize my Wild Card and the bounded Marriott award pricing while it lasts.

Featured photo by (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, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Cons

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  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
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  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
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Best Marriott card for Business Owners
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
3 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

6X6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
4X4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
2X2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Intro Offer
    Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.

    Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 points
    75,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $125
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

Pros

  • 6x points on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program
  • 4x points at restaurants worldwide, U.S. gas stations, wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and U.S. shipping
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases
  • Earn a free-night award each card renewal month (up to 35,000 points)
  • Receive 15 elite night credits to jump-start status
  • Transfer Marriott points to 40+ airlines

Cons

  • Airline points transfer ratios are poor
  • Must spend $60,000 in a year for second free-night award
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
  • Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
  • Terms apply.
  • See Rates & Fees