Touching down in Africa is special. There is a sense of vastness to the continent; largely undeveloped, it gives the traveler perhaps the closest feeling to Earth’s primal state. While I am a personal fan, after four separate trips, this fandom is shared with almost any person that has spent time in one of the major tourist destinations: South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Morocco - and several, several more.
The hardest part is getting there. New York residents may be lucky enough to score a direct flight to Johannesburg or Casablanca, but you will very likely have to connect to your final destination - if not twice. Without frequent flyer points, the cost will be extraordinary; this is compounded by extremely high prices at luxury safari camps, from $1,000 per night and up.
With that said, now might be the best time to book an African safari, specifically using United miles that are transferable from Chase. Whether because of the string of bad press or otherwise, availability is wide open on most African routes, including multiple business class seats. If you do opt for business class - having recently flown from Los Angeles to Zurich on Swiss business - I would highly recommend finding a flight with a stopover in Europe, versus something like Ethiopian Airlines or even South Africa Airlines that has a layover in Africa. Swiss Air or Lufthansa will have fully lie-flat beds, for example, and typically shorter layover times.
Our recommendation is to visit South Africa and maybe Botswana, budget permitting, if it is your first time on the continent. Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Kruger National Park is a popular trio to book and can be easily visited within two weeks, including travel days. The luxury resorts in Kruger are also among the cheapest, making the overall journey more cost-effective than, say, Botswana, and Cape Town adds a modern urban experience that is unmatched anywhere else I’ve been in Africa. For those visiting for the second time or more, Namibia, Kenya, and Tanzania offer different safari experiences with plenty of game viewing and unique geography. Morocco is a separate trip altogether.
How to book
After scoring a United points flight, first-timers may find it less overwhelming to book the rest of their adventure through a travel company that specializes in Africa; this is the only place in the world where I would recommend this. We have personally used Go2Africa twice, and both visits were planned well and without a hiccup upon arrival.
For those that prefer to piece together on their own, there are still points-eligible hotels throughout the various destinations, like the Fairmont Masai Mara, one of the only safari experiences eligible for points redemptions. American Express points can also be used to book many luxury hotels, like the Four Seasons Serengeti in Tanzania.
Where to stay
Price will largely determine what you want your route and overall experience to be. I prefer to spend the majority of funds for a "luxury" safari experience, then save elsewhere in the trip. I use luxury in a very real sense - but be wary of hotels using the term that do not have modern amenities like air conditioning, if you require that type of accommodation. It is likely the only place in the world where a $500-a-night hotel doesn't have a/c. Meanwhile, on the upper end, everything will be included: brick-and-mortar hotel room overlooking a watering hole, free meals and drinks, game drives, laundry, and more.
Regardless of your preference, the safari drives will be the highlight, so spending more here just enhances the uniqueness of the vacation. One way to ensure this quality is to utilize the many offers for staying three or four nights and getting one night free. Because luxury safaris are almost always all-inclusive, the difference in staying an extra night may not be as expensive as you think, considering the cost to fly in and alternative options. Make sure to ask your travel advisor or consult the hotel website for the current offers.
Let’s start with South Africa. Sabi Sands is an excellent safari starter, offering 5-star luxury at under $1,000-a-night. For African luxury, that’s cheap - due in part of the difficulty in getting supplies to the camp, luxury options regularly exceed $3,000 or more per night. If cost is less of a concern, add a Botswana safari at Abu Camp for a truly transformative experience - just make sure to visit during peak season, as the Okavanga Delta transforms from a lush paradise to fairly barren in dry season. March and April are ideal.
For non-safari options, we enjoyed the Victoria & Alfred’s proximity to the waterfront, and a short drive from central Cape Town, Table Mountain or Camp’s Bay (more on this later). Points options in Cape Town include the Westin and DoubleTree by Hilton; both have good locations and strong reviews. In Stellenbosch, which might as well be Napa, California, there is a litany of B&B’s to choose from at extremely low rates. A card like the Capital One Venture would give you points redeemable for any travel purchase, meaning car and B&B could be covered. There are also multiple Marriott properties with strong reviews in the area, although the generally low cost means point usage is not as strong of a value.
If you choose to start elsewhere on the continent, Namibia, Kenya and Tanzania are other popular routes - especially the wildebeest migration in Serengeti, which is one of the most popular attractions in all of Africa. Morocco is a completely different Africa experience, that is more of a blend of Africa, the Middle East, and Europe - but there's still natural beauty in the Atlas Mountains and human beauty in the souks of Marrakech.
What to do
Let’s make this abundantly clear: the highlight of your trip will be a safari. Talk to any friend or family member that has done this, and they will say something similar. Because a safari - a true safari - takes place in vast, open national parks, it is one of the only times you will feel like you are on their territory. Lions, elephants, giraffes, buffalo, you name it - these are the true inhabitants, and you are just visiting. It is a special feeling.
But there is much else to do on the continent besides game watching, especially in South Africa. Cape Town and Johannesburg headline the cities to visit, the former of which I have spent a combined two weeks now - which is where I’ll focus on here. Hiking Table Mountain is a must, just make sure you are aware of the moderate difficulty and steep ascension (bring water). Camps Bay is a more ritzy neighborhood on the beach, with restaurants and bars steps from the ocean. Cage diving with flying great white sharks is available for thrill-seekers.
As I mentioned before, Stellenbosch offers premier wine tasting and elegant accommodations. A 45-minute drive from Cape Town, you can visit this charming town in a single day or spend several nights. The wine route alone has over 200 wineries to visit and great food is available, but otherwise it is a sleepy town.
Like I mentioned before, Africa may be the only destination that I still recommend travel providers. Go2Africa is a great company and I can safely say you will be taken care of during your first visit to the continent - and do not receive any affiliate revenue for saying so. For South African trips, you will very likely be recommended to book a rental car - and I highly recommend this. While you have to get used to the left side of the road, having your own vehicle felt far more secure than any public transport, and the flexibility allowed you to see all the sights. If safety is a concern, only take the roads during daylight.
After visiting South Africa and Botswana, you can expand your mind to further adventures: visiting Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, gorilla trekking in Uganda, or walking through the medina of Marrakech, Morocco. There are many more that I am missing - or have not yet discovered. If you fall in love with the continent like I have, you’ll be planning your next African escape from reality - even before you return home.