In the after math of a huge mistake fare (which I posted about yesterday) that led to tons of tickets to Africa for ~$200, including my second mistake fare to Africa booked in the last month, I figured some people may be going on a safari or two soon.
Plus our self-drive safari in Pilanesburg National Park in South Africa last year was one of the coolest experiences ever, and we’ve been looking into doing more ourselves. Well, we’ll be doing one in Kenya in January.
While I’m not a wildlife expert, I have looked at a lot of hotels, and book a few hundred a year myself. 😀 However, there are some different things to consider when booking for a safari, especially in Kenya, or anywhere with high park fees.
Masai Mara, Kenya
Maasai Mara is the Kenyan side of these large plains, and the Serengeti is the Tanzanian side. Unfortunately you can’t go back and forth between the two at this time.
I’ll just cut to the chase and state the almost deal-killer with Kenya safaris: the $75 per person per day charge for the parks. Which… is insane. The Serengeti is $25 per person, and our park entrance in South Africa was around $16 and only per car. However, I realized that the way to bring down the cost is to stay in the park, thus only pay the fee upon entrance even if you stay multiple days.
Here’s a screenshot from the Leekorok Lodge in the park.
Notice it says, “Rate excludes mandatory conservation fee payable directly to the game reserve upon entry“.
Basically what I’ve read is this: While the gate workers are contracted people, same ones that do NBO airport parking (?), they seem to be fickle and harsh. Meaning their rules change, but ultimately they must be on some commission because there are stories of them charging people to enter again, even though they just left to go to their room for a minute.
But, the prices are absurd in the first place. $150 for the two of us is actually less than a room in the lodge for two (and the lodge includes food). Don’t leave the park and you only have to pay once. Therefore, it’s really important to get a hotel or campsite inside the park.
DO AT YOUR OWN RISK. Technically, you’re suppose to pay upfront per day. If they checked upon exiting, you would have to pay.
The one I really recommend is the Leekorok Lodge in the center of the park. I posted earlier that the hotel is 40,000 Choice points or $400, but that’s a lie. The website certainly says that $400 is the rack rate for a room, but in reality it’s bookable for $100 a night. And often, I find the room is cheaper on Kayak than it is on the hotel’s website, but not by much.
But it is true that it’s 40,000 Choice points, which is fine if you have choice points. Surely not worth 13,000 Chase points (via a trick I’ll talk about in a minute), given that Chase points could have a cash value greater than the Choice points. But if you have 40,000 points, it’s actually a good option, especially if prices ever climb for peak season.
This hotel is “all inclusive”, or rather “full board” and comes with three meals a day, but I don’t think it includes drinks.
The other option is the Fairmont Mara Safari Club. The Fairmont Credit Card (which I don’t have affiliate links for) gives two free nights, just like the Hyatt card. Which is pretty awesome because the hotel is pretty darn expensive and is on the travel and leisure top 500 list. It’s a luxury camping hotel, which the wife thinks would be super cool.
My problem with it is that it’s right outside the park (I think) and therefore is a major bummer for paying the fee to go into the park all the time. However, I figure you could do it the day before and/or the day after your safari. A little out of the way, but could be a nice experience.
Mt. Kenya, Kenya
This isn’t really a “safari” option itself, but outside Mt. Kenya National Park is the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club (another T&L top 500). It looks like a stunning retreat kind of hotel, but it’s just too in the middle of nowhere for me to fly around the world to see. It could be a good midway point, or jumping off point… I don’t know. But it’s probably not an avenue we’ll go with this time around.
If you’re flying into Kenya, you’re almost surely flying into Nairobi. I plan on getting out as soon as I get in, but there are only 3 points hotels there, each for 30,000 points.
- InterContinental Nairobi for 30,000 IHG points
- Crowne Plaza Nairobi for 30,000 IHG points
- Hilton Nairobi for 30,000 HHonors points
None of them are steals, so it’s just a matter of what points you have, I suppose.
The African Choice Hotels
Choice has a partnership to use points with “Preferred Hotels” which have some very luxurious hotels all over the world, including some locations no other points hotels go.
The goal is to get from Chase to Choice at a 1:3 ratio. The short version of the way of doing this is:
- Have an Amtrak Card
- Make a $100 Amtrak purchase (although there are ways around this)
- Transfer 25,000 points from Chase to Amtrak
- Transfer 25,000 Amtrak points to 75,000 Choice points.
You can do 25,000 points with the credit card per calendar year. However, you can do more with Amtrak Status (no short cuts there unfortunately).
If you were to do 25k in December and 25k in January, you could have 150,000 Choice points. Here are some African luxury hotels you could use those points on.
Stanley & Livingstone Game Reserve, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe – 60,000 Choice Points
The world known attraction here is Victoria Falls, which would be epic on its own. But the area surrounding the falls are lush and it’s in between two national parks. There is a lot happening here and while one night is 60,000 points, it’s really only 20,000 Chase points. Otherwise the hotel goes for $400+ a night.
Gondwana Game Reserve, Mossel Bay, South Africa – 60,000 Choice Points
Can’t honestly say I know much/anything about Mossel Bay in South Africa, other than it’s on the south coast of South Africa, east of Cape Town. The game reserve is 20 miles from the coast though. And the hotel looks like a mix of a game reserve with the “big 5”, a retreat center, and some super cool hobbit houses. Another hotel that brings in $400/night or 60,000 points.
To be honest, on my next trip to South Africa, I’m either spending my time in Kruger National Park or Cape Town. Kruger seems like one of the most epic places to safari in the world. So this is very light compared to that. FYI.
Hotel Carlton, Antananarivo, Madagascar – 30,000 Choice Points
Okay, the Hotel Carlton is in Antananarivo, Madagascar, which is not a safari locale. But I would be excited to just be in Madagascar! But really, this is likely where you’d fly into if you cash in on some Flying Blue points. So it’s in the city, but the only points option in Madagascar that I know of… So I included it.
It’s half the price of the other hotels at 30,000 points, or $150.
Points for non-Chain Hotels
There are sometimes points hotels in the big cities like Johannesburg, for example, which we did a day trip from to get to Pilanesburg. However, staying near the park is essential if you’re doing more than one day. And in Kenya, staying in the park is essential to saving $75 per person per day.
But the truth is, points hotels with major chains don’t have hotels in or near these parks. So my recommendation would be to use a card that reimburses travel expenses at a good rate, like the Barclay Arrival Plus.
Serengeti National Park
Maasai Mara is the best example because the lodge is only $100. I can book on Kayak, and totally cover all the expenses with Barclay points. However, looking for hotels in Serengeti National Park is a different story. The cheapest hotel on Expedia is $474. That’s a little too much for me, even if I can generate the points. At that point I could be covering something else.
But it’s not like you can’t book other places. There are camp sites, and probably guest houses in the area… but to pay with Barclay points, you have to pay with credit card. And online booking sites is a good place to start when figuring out who takes credit card.
Kruger National Park
Kruger is another great example with tons of hotels outside but near the massive park, for $50 a night. $50 a night is very doable for me on Barclay points, or Expedia BRGs, or any OTA’s BRGs.
Being outside the park in this case may or may not be worth it depending on the size of the party. But it’s less of a big deal when the entrance fee is $20 and not $75. But still an extra $40 per couple per day is a cost I’d like to avoid.
Reality is, Africa is huge. Enormous. And there are tons of places I would love to see wildlife in that aren’t Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa. Truly I’d love to do the highlands of Ethiopia, the delta’s of Angola, the jungles of Uganda, and many more. But most people will likely be interested in these main parks with a tourist infrastructure. Hotels that take credit cards, airports nearby, and easy access by road. All that makes sense and therefore I hope this has provided some value while leaving out 99% of the continent.