Safaris, cities and lots of elephants: How I returned to South Africa this year using points, miles and cash
Every trip is special. But, my recent trip to South Africa was particularly meaningful and a long-time coming.
I'd traveled extensively in early 2020, visiting seven countries in the first two months of that year. But, as borders started to close in mid-March, my husband and I found ourselves in South Africa.
While staying at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate in South Africa -- doing self-drive safaris during the day and working east coast hours in the afternoon and evening -- we watched as countries around the world began closing their borders. The South African government declared a national disaster due to the coronavirus pandemic and banned travelers from the U.S.
Not much changed immediately besides hand sanitizer appearing at every building entrance. Even so, my husband quickly snagged a Virgin Atlantic Flying Club award on the next Delta flight with award availability from Johannesburg to Atlanta for just 40,000 miles and $41 per person. He correctly anticipated that the declared state of national disaster would cause award availability to dry up and flight prices to increase.
We had to wait for our flight, though, so we extended our stay at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate by six more days. We departed from Kruger National Park's Skukuza on the last Airlink flight before the small airport shuttered indefinitely. Most airport staff came outside to wave goodbye as our plane took off. And the pilot of the small Embraer waived back using the plane's wings.
Our experience being in South Africa as the world locked down was surreal. But, it left me with a strong desire to return to South Africa, especially Kruger National Park and the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate. I wrote a story about my dream South Africa trip early in the pandemic. But, this January, we finally returned. Here's a look at our 23-night South Africa trip on points, miles and cash.
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Delta business class from Mexico City to Johannesburg
Cost: $303 per person one-way (a low-fare booked through LATAM Airlines and reticketed multiple times).
Earnings: 12,650 Delta MQMs, 475 Delta MQDs, 3,325 Delta miles and 909 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (for paying with the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card).
In April 2020, we booked an inexpensive LATAM business class fare for travel in Oct. 2020 from Mexico City to Cape Town via Sao Paulo and Johannesburg for 7,230 Mexican Pesos (about $303 at the time) per person. Travel wasn't feasible in Oct. 2020 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, so LATAM let us change our flights to May 2021.
In Feb. 2021, LATAM discontinued its Sao Paulo to Johannesburg route. LATAM rebooked us on Delta-operated flights from Mexico City to Cape Town via Atlanta and Johannesburg for travel in Jan. 2022. Delta dropped plans to serve Cape Town in June 2021. But, LATAM never recognized the change (despite notes from Delta on the ticket and many calls), which caused major issues when we reached the check-in desk for the Atlanta to Johannesburg segment.
The issues were so severe that we couldn't board our originally scheduled flight. But, Delta agents in Atlanta went above and beyond to work through the issues and we arrived in South Africa just one day late.
Related: Every Delta Air Lines premium seat ranked from best to worst
1 night at Holiday Inn Johannesburg Airport
Cost: $88 for a one-night stay.
Earnings: 153 Loyalty Point-eligible AAdvantage miles, one IHG elite-qualifying night and 898 IHG points (for paying with the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card).
TPG wanted me to book a stay directly with IHG but opt to earn AAdvantage miles (instead of IHG Rewards points) for a story about earning American Airlines miles on hotel stays. So, we spent the first night in South Africa at the Holiday Inn Johannesburg Airport.
The hotel offers an airport shuttle, although you'll need an international phone plan to summon the driver. Luckily, we have Google Fi for international cell and data.
After one night, we moved on to the Hyatt House Johannesburg Sandton.
Related: Don't book hotel stays direct if you want to earn maximum American Loyalty Points
6 nights at Hyatt House Johannesburg Sandton
Cost: $391 for six nights, split into a four-night stay at the start of my trip and a two-night stay at the end of my trip.
Earnings: 9,308 Hyatt points (7,505 points from the stays and 1,803 points for paying with the World of Hyatt Credit Card) and six Hyatt elite-qualifying nights.
I qualified for World of Hyatt Globalist status for the first time last year. And requalifying for Globalist status this year is a priority for me. So, when I saw I could book the new Hyatt House Johannesburg Sandton for just $65 per night, I didn't seriously consider any other Johannesburg hotels. After all, I'll snag inexpensive Hyatt nights when I can.
And my two stays at the Hyatt House Johannesburg Sandton were lucrative. After all, I earned 500 points per night for staying at a new Hyatt hotel on all six nights. And I earned 2,022 bonus points after every two nights on my stay at the end of my trip. However, the hotel's location isn't ideal if you don't have a car.
Related: 3 ways to visit Johannesburg on points and miles
British Airways from Johannesburg to Gqeberha
Cost: $71 per person one-way.
Earnings: 311 Loyalty Point-eligible AAdvantage miles (plus 282 EQMs and 29 EQDs since the flight was during the double-dipping period) and 213 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (for paying with the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card).
British Airways offers flights within South Africa through its franchise partner, Comair. As such, Oneworld elites like me can get elite benefits and earnings when flying these intra-South Africa flights. Of course, as you can see above, the earnings aren't great since the flights are relatively short. But, it's fun to fly on a British Airways livery within South Africa.
Related: How I plan to earn American Airlines Executive Platinum status with Loyalty Points
2 nights in Addo Elephant National Park
Cost: $260 for a two-night stay.
Earnings: 520 Capital One miles (for paying with the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card).
We used our weekends to explore South African national parks on this trip. After all, cell data usually isn't good enough to work remotely at national park rest camps (and Wi-Fi usually isn't offered or is extremely slow). So for our first weekend, we headed to Addo Elephant National Park near Gqeberha (formally named Port Elizabeth).
We rented an automatic rental car for three days from Budget for about $133 total. Then, we picked up some groceries and started our three-day, two-night self-drive safari in Addo Elephant National Park.
We stayed overnight in a rondavel within the park's main rest camp. The rondavel offered a shared kitchen, air conditioning, cute towel art, a private bathroom and wonderful views over a waterhole from its porch. The camp itself offered many services, including guided activities, a pool and a restaurant.
Of course, the reason to stay in Addo Elephant National Park is to self-safari. And, we spent most of the daylight hours out in the park searching for wildlife. Luckily, the wildlife viewing was excellent. Here's a quick look at some of what we saw.
Related: Everything you need to know about going on safari in Africa
Airlink from Gqeberha to Cape Town
Cost: $71 per person one-way.
Earnings: 213 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (for paying with the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card).
Many airlines operate between Gqeberha and Cape Town, offering complimentary checked baggage and an inflight snack. We selected Airlink because of its pricing on an evening flight that would allow us to safari for most of our last day in Addo Elephant National Park.
You'll soon be able to earn and redeem United miles on Airlink flights. But for now, I didn't earn anything besides credit card rewards on my flight.
Related: 4 reasons why you should visit Cape Town, South Africa
5 nights at Hyatt Regency Cape Town
Cost: $402 for a five-night stay.
Earnings: 8,013 Hyatt points (6,380 points from the stay and 1,633 points for paying with the World of Hyatt Credit Card) and five Hyatt elite-qualifying nights.
Cape Town has appealing Marriott, Hilton and IHG properties, among others. But, as with our Johannesburg stays, when I saw we could stay at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Cape Town for $80 per night, I didn't look further.
The Hyatt Regency Cape Town has a great location, with the Bo Kaap neighborhood next door and ample restaurants nearby. It's also just a short walk to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront and an Uber to the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway base station was less than $10.
The hotel itself was pleasant, too, with a comfortable club lounge and modern room. I loved the bathtub -- it was one of the most comfortable tubs I've tried. And I earned an extra 2,022 points for every two nights during this stay, thanks to Hyatt's Bonus Journeys promotion. However, we had persistent key card issues and found ourselves actively avoiding the overly-helpful concierge each time we walked through the lobby.
Related: Quick points: How Hyatt and American loyalists can earn more rewards by linking accounts
CemAir from Cape Town to Hoedspruit
Cost: $152 per person one-way.
Earnings: 456 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (for paying with the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card).
I'd never heard of CemAir until it showed up on a Google Flights search from Cape Town to the area around Kruger National Park. But, the price and timing were right, so we gave the airline a try. Our flight departed on time with just a few passengers, so my husband and I were each able to snag a window for the flight.
The flight landed at Hoedspruit, which has no jetbridges and serves as an air force base. We picked up a nine-night Avis automatic rental car at the airport for $482 and drove toward the Phalaborwa gate of Kruger National Park.
Related: Cleared for Takeoff: A honeymoon trip to South Africa and the Seychelles
2 nights in Kruger National Park
Cost: $178 for two nights, one in Mopani and one in Satara.
Earnings: 356 Capital One miles (for paying with the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card).
As I mentioned earlier, we maximized our weekends on this trip. So, we spent our second weekend in South Africa's Kruger National Park. We spent almost all of our daylight hours on self-drive safaris. And we overnighted at two different rest camps within the park, Mopani and Satara.
We spent the first night at Mopani, where we enjoyed dinner on the camp restaurant's deck overlooking a river with hippos. Our bungalow had a kitchen, bunk beds, private bathroom and air conditioning.
We checked out of Mopani early the next morning to enjoy the good game viewing that often happens when the camp gates first open. We spent the day spotting wildlife and made it to Satara Rest Camp just before the gate closing time. We noticed a bat in the roofing of our originally assigned bungalow, so the park gave us a different bungalow. Our bungalow had a shared kitchen, air conditioning and a private bathroom.
Related: 7 of the best credit cards for general travel purchases
7 nights at Protea Hotel Kruger Gate
Cost: 65,000 Marriott Bonvoy points.
Earnings: Seven Marriott elite-qualifying nights.
I enjoy staying at the Kruger National Park rest camps. But, Marriott's Protea Hotel Kruger Gate, just outside the national park's Paul Kruger Gate entrance, provides more amenities and is a great value with redeeming Marriott points.
Plus, the internet at this hotel is good enough to work remotely. As such, it's a great place to stay if you want to self-safari the first half of the day and then work U.S. hours the second half of the day.
I'll be writing more about the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate soon. But for now, here are some photos of the wildlife and driving that we saw in the park near the hotel.
Related: 7 ways to maximize Marriott Bonvoy award night redemptions
Airlink from Skukuza to Johannesburg
Cost: $101 per person one-way.
Earnings: 202 Capital One miles (for paying with the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card).
Airlink operates several flights each day between Skukuza airport in Kruger National Park and Johannesburg. These flights serve safari lodges as well as independent travelers who want to pick up rental cars from the airport and self-safari.
The Skukuza airport is unique in that only one airline operates from the airport (Airlink). There's security, a gift shop, car rentals and a coffee shop, but it all feels incredibly relaxed.
Related: Book this, not that: Alternatives to popular destinations that aren't bookable with points
Qatar Qsuite from Johannesburg to Los Angeles
Cost: 75,000 American Airlines miles and $60 per person one-way.
Earnings: 179 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (for paying with the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card).
Perhaps my favorite use of American Airlines AAdvantage miles is flying Qatar Qsuite between the U.S. to South Africa via Doha. I go through how to book and why I love this redemption in the article linked to in the previous sentence.
For the price of 75,000 American Airlines miles and $60, I got more than 23 hours in Qatar Qsuite and a 14-hour layover in Doha. Many people wouldn't want this long layover, but we booked the extended layover on purpose. After all, we spent most of our time in the Al Mourjan Business Lounge, which offers nap rooms, dining from a menu, comfortable workspace and much more.
Related: I'm worried about an American AAdvantage devaluation: Here's what I'm doing about it
South Africa is an award travelers paradise. There are plenty of great value hotel redemptions and ways to redeem points and miles for flights to South Africa. But, cash rates for many hotels and flights in South Africa may provide better value, especially if you book soon while travel is still recovering.
All in, my flights and hotels on this 23-night trip cost $2,077 plus 75,000 American miles and 65,000 Marriott points. I earned 1,970 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, 1,078 Capital One miles, 17,321 Hyatt points, 898 IHG points, 3,325 Delta miles and 464 AAdvantage miles on my flights and hotels. Plus, we racked up 11 Hyatt elite-qualifying nights, seven Marriott nights and one IHG night.
On your first trip to South Africa, I highly recommend visiting at least Cape Town and a national park such as Kruger or Addo Elephant. If you plan to rent a car, consider using AutoSlash to find an inexpensive rate (and track for less expensive rentals). And if you're going to visit national parks for more than a few days, consider buying an International All Parks Cluster Wild Card to save money.