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"I see that you have another trip to South Africa coming up," my mom noted as she reviewed my travel schedule. And indeed we do. Some may find it wild (pun intended) that my wife and I plan to go back to South Africa yet again after having already visited four times. But, when it's just so easy and cheap to do a safari on points, why not continue to visit such a magnificent place?
In this article, I'm going to show you how to plan an affordable safari — including how to get cheap flights to South Africa, how to set your travel budget for South Africa and an example safari on points trip.
How to get cheap flights to South Africa
South Africa is practically on the other side of the world. So, U.S.-based travelers need to be prepared for an ultra-long-haul flight to fly directly to South Africa — or two long-haul flights if you're connecting through Europe or Africa.
Because the flights are so long, prices are typically set accordingly. However, you can still find cheap flights to South Africa. For example, at the time of writing, you can book a flight from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Cape Town for $593 round trip.
Most safari options are in the eastern part of South Africa, making Johannesburg the ideal airport to fly into. However, intra-South Africa flights are reasonable. So, it's worth considering flight options into any South African city to find the best deal.
If you have a credit card with access to the Chase Ultimate Rewards® travel portal, you can also book your flight there. It costs a bit more, but doing so unlocks the ability to earn up to 5 points per dollar or redeem Ultimate Rewards® points to offset the cost of the flight.
Chase Sapphire Reserve® cardholders can book these flights through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal for 41,558 points round trip. Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card cardholders would need to pay under 50,000 points round trip.
» Learn more: Chase Ultimate Rewards® — how to earn and use them
Flying to South Africa in business class
If you want to fly in a premium cabin, points and miles are the way to go. Several loyalty programs provide reasonable premium cabin redemptions, making it possible to book a good deal to South Africa no matter what type of points or miles you have.
American Airlines AAdvantage
My favorite way to fly to South Africa is using American Airlines miles. Trips to Africa cost 40,000 AAdvantage miles each way in economy or 75,000 miles each way in business class. That's a lot of miles, but it's enough to book the long journey to South Africa in one of the best business class products in the world: Qatar Qsuite.
Make sure to avoid options on British Airways, however, as the taxes and fees can be exceptionally high.
One of the cheapest ways to book United Polaris to South Africa is through Asiana Club. You can pay 60,000 miles each way — plus just $5.60 in taxes — for business class between the U.S. and Africa.
The catch? Asiana Club miles can be hard to accumulate. To top off my wife's Asiana Club account to book this award recently, we transferred Marriott Bonvoy points to her Asiana account at a 3:1 transfer ratio.
Since we knew this transfer typically takes a few days, we called Asiana and were successfully able to put the award on hold. Then, once the miles hit her account, we called back and ticketed the award.
» Learn more: The best ways to rack up Marriott Bonvoy points
Alaska Mileage Plan
For an incredible award redemption, use Alaska Mileage Plan miles. Fly from the U.S. to Hong Kong, stop over in Hong Kong as long as you want, then continue to South Africa on the same award ticket.
The cost in economy class isn't inspiring: 50,000 miles one way. However, you can upgrade to business class for a price of 62,500 miles one way or to Cathay Pacific's incredible first class product for 70,000 miles. That's a jaw-droppingly good deal for checking out two incredible destinations that are so far away from the U.S. and each other.
Other ways to book cheap award flights to South Africa
For other award options, use NerdWallet's partner booking tool to find cheap award flights to South Africa using the points and miles you have. For example, if you have AmEx points, we recommend using ANA Mileage Club to fly between the U.S. and anywhere in South Africa starting at 65,000 miles round trip in economy or 104,000 miles round trip in business class.
» Learn more: How much are your airline miles and hotel points worth?
How to set your South Africa travel budget
South Africa is a choose-your-own-adventure type of destination. If you really want to splurge on the finest things, you can book expensive hotels, guides or package tours. Or, you can plan your own trip to make it surprisingly affordable.
Each time we've visited, my wife and I have chosen the latter. We stay at reasonably priced branded hotels — such as the Hyatt House in Johannesburg and Hyatt Regency Cape Town — eat at local restaurants, and use Uber or rental cars to get around. By doing so, we can keep our budget reasonable without sacrificing the experience.
If you're wondering how much is a trip to Africa, here is how much my wife and I paid to spend 23 nights in South Africa in January 2022:
$1,346 plus 65,000 Marriott Bonvoy points for 23 nights of lodging.
$791 for four intra-South Africa flights — Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, Cape Town to Hoedspruit, and Skukuza to Johannesburg.
$738 in rental cars and gas.
$483 for food and drinks for 23 days.
$384 for a South African National Parks annual pass plus entrance tickets and activities.
$111 for local transportation.
$64 for a local SIM card with 30GB of data.
$26 for COVID testing to return to the U.S.
That's a total of just under $4,000 plus 65,000 Bonvoy points for 23 nights of lodging, food and drink; four flights for two passengers; rental cars and local transportation, and entrance fees to national parks and activities like Table Mountain.
No doubt that $4,000 is out of the price range for some travelers. But, this is much more affordable than booking a package tour that can cost $10,000 or more per person.
Putting it all together for a cheap safari on points
If this article has inspired you to look into booking a trip to South Africa, here are my recommendations on how to plan your trip.
Use miles to fly to South Africa
We reviewed the best options for flying to South Africa using miles in the section above. If I had to choose between the mileage options, I'd opt for using AAdvantage miles to fly Qatar Qsuite to Johannesburg, South Africa for 75,000 miles each way. However, you could also opt to fly into Cape Town to enjoy visiting a few wineries and Table Mountain — voted as one of the seven natural wonders of the world — before heading out on safari.
Book intra-South Africa flights using Chase Ultimate Rewards® points
The major international airports in South Africa are Cape Town and Johannesburg. Neither is a close drive to safari options. That means you'll need to book an intra-South Africa flight to get to one of the major national parks. There are two top options:
Fly into Skukuza Airport — an airport inside Kruger National Park.
Fly to Port Elizabeth to be within a short drive to Addo Elephant National Park.
Both national parks are excellent for seeing wildlife and are surprisingly affordable to fly to from Johannesburg. For example, a flight from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth often costs $54 one way on Airlink.
Flights from Johannesburg to Skukuza currently cost $102 each way almost any day through the end of the current flight schedule.
To use points for these flights, book through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal. Or, if you have a card that gives you access to the Capital One Travel portal, any booking gives you Price Drop Protection, meaning you’ll get a refund if you book a recommended trip and the flight price drops.
Use AutoSlash to get a cheap rental car
While you can book a safari guide, you don't need to do so to go on safari in South Africa. Just like most U.S. national parks, you can self-drive through South African national parks. That means you'll want a rental car. In past trips, we've used AutoSlash to book a rental car from Skukuza Airport for around $23 per day.
There are no good options to redeem points for free rental cars. However, if you travel enough to have free rental car days, you can use those to cut your out-of-pocket costs further.
Stay at Marriott's Protea Kruger Gate
Our favorite place to stay when going on safari in South Africa is Protea Kruger Gate. Protea is a brand in the Marriott Bonvoy portfolio, so you can book a stay using Bonvoy points. And this can generally be an excellent use of your Bonvoy points. Award nights start at 10,000 points. Even better, you can use Marriott's fifth-night free promotion to further drop the per-night price.
» Learn more: How to get free nights at hotels on long stays
Other tips for going on safari in South Africa
In South African national parks, the humans are in cages. Since wild animals roam freely, visitors are required to stay in their car inside Kruger and Addo Elephant National Parks. You can only get out in fenced-in camps and approved areas. Make sure to have snacks and beverages on hand in your car before leaving the camp for a self-drive safari.
Also, cell service can be spotty within the national parks. So, be sure to download park maps before leaving camp. And, it is a good idea to have cash on hand for the gas stations within national parks — in case the card machine is down. To eliminate ATM cash withdrawal fees, we recommend opening a Charles Schwab investor checking account and funding it before your trip.
My final tip is to bring a good pair of binoculars and a good camera. The wildlife sightings in Kruger National Park and Addo Elephant National Park are spectacular, but the animals aren't always next to the road. A pair of binoculars can help you see the animals in much more detail. To show off your incredible sightings to friends and family back home, make sure to bring a good camera with a zoom lens.
If you're wondering how much a trip to Africa costs
Many travelers likely assume that it is unaffordable to book a trip to South Africa. But, that's simply not the case. As my wife and I have found from our multiple trips to South Africa, you can have an incredible experience without breaking the bank.
The key is to use points and miles to slash the cost of your safari trip and to plan the trip yourself rather than relying on expensive tour groups.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card