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The first time you come face to face with African wildlife in their native habitat, it will literally take your breath away. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been on several African safaris in my life, and I’ll never forget that feeling. It’s even a great experience for families with young children. While being an award travel enthusiast makes it much more affordable to travel to Africa, using your rewards to stay at a safari lodge can be a challenge.
In this post, I’ll show you the best ways to leverage your points and miles to check an African safari off your bucket list.
The Main Problem
You can easily use your hotel rewards to stay at a ski area or sleep in an overwater bungalow, but to put it bluntly, there are generally no brand-name hotels in the middle of the jungle. Perhaps that’s a good thing, since a true safari experience is far more rustic, and the development of large, corporate chain properties would be a threat to the animal’s habitat.
What you are left with are two options. The first is the handful of hotels that participate in a major loyalty program that also happen to be located in (or near) wildlife sanctuaries in Africa. Of all the major hotel programs, here are the ones that I’ve found
Protea Hotel Mahikeng, South Africa: This property is located about three and a half hours west of the Johannesburg Airport and is adjacent to the Mafikeng Game Reserve which includes white rhino, buffalo, gemsbok and giraffe. This is a Category 1 hotel, with standard rooms requiring just 7,500 points per night. Once peak and off-peak pricing are implemented in March 2019, you’ll see award rates as low as 5,000 points points per night and up to 10,000 points per night during peak season.
African Pride Mount Grace Country House & Spa, Autograph Collection: This property is located in Magaliesburg South Africa, about one hour west of the Johannesburg Airport. It’s situated near the Krugersdorp Game Reserve, home to giraffe, zebra, antelope, roan, sable, hippo and gemsbok. As a Category 2 hotel, a standard award room will set you back 12,500 points per night (or 10,000 points on off-peak dates and 15,000 points on peak dates).
Protea Zebula Lodge: This property is two and a half hour’s drive north of the Johannesburg Airport in Limpopo, South Africa. It appears to be about as close as you can come to a true African safari while still being part of a major hotel loyalty program. It’s located near the Mabalingwe Nature Reserve, the Phala Phala Wildlife Refuge and the Bateleur Nature Reserve. From this property, you can depart on game drives, horseback rides and walks. It’s also a Category 2 hotel, so award nights will range from 10,000 – 15,000 points per night.
Protea Hotel Lusaka Safari Lodge: Here’s another Category 1 hotel that’s 5,000 – 10,000 points a night, but this one is located in Chisamba, Zambia. The property is on a private game reserve and offers its own game drives.
Protea Hotel Zambezi River Lodge: This Category 1 property is in Katima Mulilo, Namibia, on the banks of the Zambezi River, which is full of hippos and other wildlife. It’s also near Victoria Falls and the Chobe National Park.
Protea Hotel Kruger Gate, Skukuza South Africa. This hotel is located just 100 meters from the entrance to Kruger Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa. Here you can actually take your own self-driving safari. It’s also a Category 2 hotel, so you can stay here for 10,000 to 15,000 points per night.
Protea Hotel Polokwane Ranch Resort: Another Category 1 hotel is in Plokwane, South Africa, close to the Polokwane Bird & Reptile Park and its 280 species of birds and snakes. The property is also near several other wildlife preserves and sanctuaries.
Accor Le Club (Fairmont)
AccorHotels first announced plans to acquire the Fairmont brand in December 2015, and the two were integrated into the Le Club loyalty program in 2018. While there’s no longer a credit card option for US residents, there are two Fairmont locations that are ideal for safaris:
Fairmont Mara Safari Club: This luxury tent-camp safari lodge is located on the edge of the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
Farimont Mount Kenya Safari Club: This Fairmont property is situated in the Nanyuki region of Kenya and offers game drives and other safari activities along with luxury accommodations.
At either of these properties, you can redeem 2,000 points for a 40 Euro credit towards a stay (worth ~US$45.50 based on current exchange rates).
Alternate Safari Redemption Options
Just because you may not be able to use use your hotel points to book a stay in a safari lodge, it doesn’t mean you can’t use other points and miles to pay for most (or all) of the cost of going on a safari. Here are other ways other that you can use your reward points and miles for a safari of a lifetime.
Redeem points and miles as statement credits towards safari lodges
There are several credit cards that offer rewards that can be redeemed for statement credits towards any travel expense. This option can be ideal for independent safari lodges that don’t participate in loyalty programs. You can also use these statement credits to pay for bookings made through travel agencies, as is often done when booking a safari package.
Here are some examples of these cards:
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: This card offers 2x miles on all purchases, and you can redeem those miles at a rate of one cent each as statement credits toward hotels. And as of November, you can also transfer your Capital One miles to 14 different airline partners if you’re looking to defray another cost. There’s a $95 annual fee for this card that’s waived the first year, and it imposes no foreign transaction fees.
Barlcaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard: This card also offers 2x miles on all purchases, and miles can be redeemed for one cent each as statement credits toward hotels. In addition, you get a 5% rebate on all your miles redeemed. There’s an $89 annual fee for this card that’s waived the first year, and it too waives foreign transaction fees.
Discover it® Miles: This card offers 1.5 miles per dollar spent, and miles are worth one cent each as statement credits toward travel expenses or as cash-back. While the Discover card doesn’t impose foreign transaction fees, it’s not accepted in all African nations. According to its map of international acceptance, you can use your Discover card in Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa and Botswana. Nevertheless, you may still be able use your Discover card if you book your travel through an American travel agency or if the safari lodge has an overseas office that processes credit card payments. There’s no annual fee for this card.
Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card: This card earns 1.5 points per dollar spent, and points are worth one cent each as statement credits toward any travel purchase. Bank of America customers can get a 10% customer points bonus on every purchase when they have an active Bank of America checking or savings account. Bank of America Preferred Rewards clients can also increase that bonus to 25% – 75% by carrying certain balances with the bank. There’s no annual fee for this card, nor will you need to pay foreign transaction fees.
Booking safari lodges and other activities through credit card reward programs
For some, an even better way to use your reward points can be directly redeeming them through your credit card’s reward program.
Chase Ultimate Rewards: When you have a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Ink Business Preferred Credit Card, your points can be redeemed through the Ultimate Rewards travel center for 1.25 cents each. But if you also have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, your points are worth 1.5 cents each towards these reservations. Thankfully, there appears to be a wealth of safari lodges listed through the issuer’s new Expedia travel portal. For example, when searching South Africa’s famed Kruger Park, I found options ranging from the Jock Safari Lodge at 73,600 points per night for two down to the Royale Marlothi Safari Lodge for as low as 5,333 points per night. While these redemption values are lower than TPG’s most recent valuation of 2 cents each, it’s still a solid (and simple) option for using your Chase points. For more information, see my post on The Sapphire Reserve Math: When to Book Travel Through Chase and When to Transfer Points.
American Express Membership Rewards: While you can use your Membership Rewards points to book some great safari lodges, I don’t recommend it (unless you’re this guy). American Express only offers you 0.7 cents in value for each point redeemed, which is downright terrible compared to TPG’s valuation of 2 cents apiece.
However, if you have The Platinum Card® from American Express in your wallet, you may have luck utilizing the Fine Hotels & Resorts program to book a luxury property for your next safari. Booking through FHR will include perks during your stay like complimentary breakfast, free Wi-Fi, a space-available room upgrade and a unique amenity (like a spa or dining credit). Applicable properties include the Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti in Tanzania and Belmond Safaris in Botswanna.
Citi ThankYou points: You can redeem your points for one cent each towards hotel reservations that you book through the ThankYou Travel Center, but you probably shouldn’t given that TPG values them at 1.7 cents apiece. You’ll generally get much more value when transferred to airline partners like Avianca LifeMiles. Bear in mind too that Citi Premier Card holders can also receive 1.25 cents in value per point when booking airfare directly through the ThankYou Travel Center.
In addition, cardholders of the Citi Prestige Card should be able to utilize that card’s fourth night free benefit to book many safari lodges (as long as the Citi website and/or concierge has the ability to make reservations at the given property). Just bear in mind that this benefit will be capped at twice per year starting in September 2019, giving you several months to utilize it before it’s devalued.
Defray Other Costs
While it’s not always easy to redeem your points specifically for the lodging portion of your safari itinerary, there are ways to leverage points and miles to negate (or minimize) other costs of the trip. This is a great way to keep cash in your pocket that can then be put toward a fancier resort or on-property spa treatments without breaking the bank.
Using hotel points for gateway nights and visiting other parts of Africa
Since it’s unlikely that you’ll arrive in Africa and immediately proceed to your safari lodge, you can use your hotel points upon arriving and departing in cities such as Nairobi (NBO) or Johannesburg (JNB). Most major hotel loyalty programs offer several properties in major African capitals and near international airports, though you’ll want to crunch the numbers to make sure that you’re getting a solid value for your points.
Using points and miles for your airfare
Of course, one of the largest expenses for your safari will be your flights to and from Africa. We do occasionally see deals for flights to Africa, so you’ll definitely want to follow us on Twitter and Facebook to see these when they’re posted. However, using airline miles (especially for premium classes) can be a great option for these long-haul flights.
For more information, check out the following posts:
- The 6 Best Ways to Get to South Africa on Points And Miles
- Top 9 Ways to Fly Business Class to Africa Using Points and Miles.
- 3 Ways to Do Johannesburg on Points
Use the Right Credit Card
Finally, if you do wind up paying for some, most or all of an African safari out-of-pocket, be sure you’re swiping the right credit card for these purchases. Most safari lodges should code as travel on cards like the Sapphire Reserve, though there may be other factors that come into play. You may want to focus on a new card on which you’re trying to earn a welcome bonus, or you could prefer a card with solid travel protection in case something goes wrong. Of course, you’ll also want to make sure your card waives foreign transaction fees or else you could wind up paying a premium of 2-3% on your purchases abroad.
For more information, check out our guide to the Top Rewards Credit Cards for International Travel.
Taking an African safari can be an incredible experience, but booking the trip can be a challenging and expensive proposition. Thankfully there are many ways to leverage points and miles to cut back on these expenses, whether it’s for lodging, flights or a combination of both. Hopefully this post has inspired you to start planning a safari adventure for your next vacation.
Featured photo courtesy of Darren Murph / TPG
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