Leopard South Africa safari Sabi Sands Kruger

Africa: How To Plan a 27 Day Safari with an Award Ticket and Luxury Tent

Posted on Posted in Africa, Airlines, Safari, South Africa, Travel
Elephant in Botswana on safari in Chobe - good safari planning achieved this
Elephants in Botswana were a great reward for my safari planning and award ticket research

Going on an African Safari has always been on my list but I dismissed it forever thinking I couldn’t go alone, I didn’t have the money, the time, you name it, I talked myself out of it and put in the “when I hit the lottery bucket”.  Well, since I believe the universe does have a hand in many things (good and bad), I read about the safari feature at the New York Times Travel Show with vendors from Africa on site as well as panels and seminars.  One in particular “How to plan your safari” seemed perfect for me – perfect enough to book the Amtrak and a hotel for the overnight in the city. Safari planning here I come!



Safari Planning – Research at The NY Times Travel Show

I arrived at the travel show and went to the “planning your safari” seminar which was packed with others like me, without a clue where to start and eager to go.  I chatted with a few private guides who provided resources and their opinions on what was best.  (what a great job – going on safari as a private guide from the U.S., um, anyone want to hire me to travel with them?)  Ok, fine, my skills are a bit limited to best chocolates, desserts and wine but you need to start somewhere right?

Anyway, the panel consisted of travel operators from Africa  as well as a guide from Kenya.  The seminar alone was worth the travel costs from Philly – much better than any guidebook could do in the planning stage – they helped me question where do I want to go?  when do I want to go? and what do I want to see?  After taking lots and lots of questions, they invited you to visit their booth for more one on one discussions and to meet their team.

Having dozens of tour operators who focus specially on Africa and a few from Africa direct was the best research I could do.  I met with a few who organize tours and said “you can join the tour” which was not what I wanted.  Another said no problem, we can organize for you but as a solo you need to pay single supplements if that’s ok – again no. An operator said all inclusive but I wanted to use my miles for business class not coach flights – sorry, we don’t do that.  I started feeling like Goldilocks looking for the “just right” travel planner.

Giraffe safari
Giraffe bending over – never saw this pose in a zoo!

Safari Planning – Choosing the Travel Agent

I found the perfect tour company – Rhino Africa and the planner, Nikki.  I described that I would be solo (no problem), using my frequent flier miles/points for air/hotel (no problem) and would be booking late (three months out due to work) – again no problem.  Nikki and a few colleagues journeyed to the show from Capetown with the owner, David, who was on the safari panel.  Each client booking is unique as you work together via email to craft the perfect trip itinerary.  The company does due diligence on the properties so they have first hand knowledge what the client would experience which is the minimum everyone should require.  How many travel agents have I met over the years that are happy to help me but have never left the US, let alone experienced firsthand the destination I was interested in.    Nikki gave me some information, said to check out their website and facebook when I compare other vendors and let her know if any questions. No pressure and I appreciated that.  I went home with piles of brochures from the Africa specialists with more questions than I started with and no ticket -so that would be step one.

Rhino South Africa Safari Sabi Sands
The Rhino is such a fascinating creature

Safari Planning – Finding the Africa Award Ticket

Once home, I queried the points community for their opinions of flights to South Africa.  Lots of great suggestions to consider and provide alternatives as the award ticket in business class was going to be a challenge.  I wanted to go in September which was the end of the winter season and on the cusp of spring so it would not be green but provide a higher chance of animals sightings and the bugs would not be too bad (my colleague spent her honeymoon during a wet, lots of bugs along with a perfect storm for the one day termite mating ritual which when she explained to me – I was super freaked out and made sure to avoid the bugs – September seemed perfect).

I started looking at the top choice – a direct flight from the U.S. (JFK or D.C.) to Johannesburg (JNB) on South African Airways (SAA) in J (business class) – each city has one flight a day..  I wasn’t able to find anything six months out which is normal since most people book a year out when the windows open.  No luck.  I then looked at other cities, thinking maybe I could find something that way.  I plugged in Boston, Chicago, Orlando, Atlanta and finally Seattle (I have family there and thought maybe a visit first) to JNB.  Seattle was the winner as it showed a connecting flight in Washington, DC. on SAA -the flight that I wanted. I don’t know why it didn’t show when I looked but there it was.

Okavango Delta Sunset
Sunset on the water from my mokoro in the Okavango Delta


Safari Planning – Airline Reservations Fun

I immediately called USAir (now AA) reservations  to see if we could find a flight home.  Jim, in Arizona, answered happy to help me on what he called my dream trip.  Well Jim, let’s see about that.Before my internet crazy search, I had called USAir (now AA) to inquire about a flight to JNB on SAA in J and the agent said “What is JNB?” Oh boy, you work for the airline?! I said Johannesburg.  “Where is that”?  I know better, but bit my tongue and said “Johannesburg, South Africa” and she replied “USAir doesn’t fly to Africa!” – At this point, I was calm and said, I know that which is why I gave you the information when we started – SAA is South African Airways (your partner) and they do fly to JNB in J (business class).  She did a cursory – “nope, nothing available”.  I started to have fun with her (yes, I’m mean).  I said to look at partners via Europe which could connect to U.S. home.  I think her head exploded as this would be a long call looking at all the options, so again she did a “nope, nothing available, sorry” which is key for “I’m not looking at all, this is too hard”.  I told her since it didn’t seem she was familiar with this type of booking, I will call back later.  Everyone who has tried to redeem an award ticket has customer service stories to tell – you sometimes wonder how they got the job working for the airline, not knowing the airline codes or partners or routing.  I shouldn’t ding the airlines – the hotel lady didn’t know what or where Istanbul was – but that’s for another trip.

So I explain this to Jim and he said, so sorry, I’m going to get your dream ticket. I said “Jim, you are giving me hope, please don’t squash it and disappoint me”.  I gave him the flight out of D.C. that I found and he confirmed the space (a good sign) and started the booking (my safari planning was just starting).  Coming home was a bit trickier so I said, I am open to come home anyway you can find via Europe, South America, etc. (ok, was hoping to add in another destination to my award ticket).  But Jim and the universe had other plans – specifically a direct flight to JFK.  Fantastic!  Yeah, Jim! You rock! He started laughing – I guess not a lot of people are super excited to find award space or say nice things to him.   So you would leave on September 9th and come home October 2nd?  Yes, that’s all I can find in business class, can I book it?  I would be gone almost a month – can I swing the budget for that?  Will my boss approve it?  What is the penalty to cancel?  All of these were running through my mind – see I wanted to go but now the reality of it sinks in quickly and you don’t get much time to think – this was the award ticket I wanted, it was rare and needed to be done now.  “Ok to book it”, I tell Jim.  He says “let me get the confirmation for you” – since this is a partner award it took some time – about twenty minutes during which time, I get anxious, thinking they won’t confirm it, there is a problem, etc.  Jim comes back on the line and said all good, 110k miles and about $300 in taxes or so – you have a hold for x amount of time, so you need to call back to issue the ticket and if you do that, you are going on your dream vacation.  I was super thankful to him and wished they had direct numbers to contact them to avoid the first lady.

Safari Planning Africa Sunset
The beauty of the sunset in Africa is something that is burned in my memory

Safari Planning – The Hard Part Begins

So in my mind the universe was super cool to guide me to the NY Travel show, the seminars, the travel agent and to Jim.  I now had the ticket, approved vacation time and had to figure out what to do for 27 days. How do you plan for almost a month away? I was methodical in my research, had to decide if my inner hotel girl could survive a tent in Botswana, a luxury camp in Zimbabwe and how many points to redeem in Capetown at the Westin.  Tough work – luckily I had a fantastic travel agent to guide me and that amazing trip led me to start this blog to help others.

Elephant Camp safari luxury tent Zimbabwe Safari Planning
Not all safari tents are created equal….my uber luxury safari tent at Elephant Camp

Want to go on Safari?  Let me help you plan your dream trip without the stress. You can have a custom trip, join a group or hire a private guide.  Ultra Luxury or Budget – Africa is wonderful for all price points and creates amazing memories. 

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