South Africa may seem like the impossible trip of a lifetime, that one you’re saving for your honeymoon, or saving those coins hoping that someday, maybe, kinda sorta you might find a way to get there. Indeed, halfway across the globe, South Africa seems like a world away, but thanks to the Rand (R) to Dollar exchange rate (at press time, the exchange rate is nearly R15 to $1.00) and summer airfare sales, that illusive trip just got that much closer.
Rule number one: Loyalty programs offered by hotels and airlines are your best friend. At every opportunity, you should be trying to accumulate points or cash them in on travel, and there is no better time than summer to do just that.
Summer is high travel season and the airlines want you travel are engaging in aggressive fare sales to fill those seats. South African Airways (SAA), the nation’s official carrier is offering fare sales from Washington D.C. and New York’s JFK airports to Johannesburg from $1199.00 round trip. Trust me on this, unless you’re using a mileage award, your airfare is your biggest expenditure. If you are a loyalty member with an airline, ring them to see if it’s possible to cash in miles for a trip. Credit cards often have loyalty programs as well, and it’s possible to defray the cost of a ticket by redeeming points toward your ticket. You can cash in credit card points for airline gift cards, and offset the cost that way too.
ONCE YOU’RE THERE:
All inbound flights from the U.S. land at O. R. Tambo International Airport (JNB). Rich in history and culture, Johannesburg is the perfect place to start your vacation. Take a quick 15-minute train ride from JNB to the city center for as little $10.00 to get your budget vacation started.
With lodging, loyalty programs are key, every hotel chain has one, so redeem those free points. Consider Marriott’s Fire and Ice Hotel in the trendy Marble Arch area. The hotel offers chic rooms, with a state of the art gym, which you may need after you visit the hotel’s infamous milkshake bar! Rooms start at $69.00 per night.
There are plenty of things to do in Johannesburg, but you don’t want to miss SOWETO. Ask your hotel to recommend a taxi company and hire a driver for a half day excursion (while negotiable, I paid $35 with tip). While there, visit the Mandela House where Nelson Mandela lived with his wife and children during his time as a freedom fighter.
Back in Johannesburg, you can explore the rest of the city by TukTuk (motarized pedicab) for under R30 Phone: 072 316 8099 or take a bike tour for R180. If it’s the weekend, head over to Arts on Main and explore their market and street vendors then head over to Johannesburg’s coolest rooftop bar, The Living Room to watch the sunset.
SAFARI ON THE LOW:
There plenty of safaris in South Africa ranging from 5 stars to roughing it in the bush, but a nice midrange option to consider is the Ubizane Tree Lodge. Hop a quick 45 minute, $100.00 flight on SAA (at press time) and nestle in your comfy and chic tree house and choose your meals and game drives on an a la carte basis. You can get rooms and a safari drive to see the Big 5 for $100 per person per night! Most safari lodges are miles from nowhere, so spend those 2 days communing with nature and reading books, you can’t get any freer than that.
TAKE IT TO THE BEACH:
A quick 2 hour drive and you are at the beach. Durban, that little slice of heaven situated on the Indian Ocean has a subtropical climate, and plenty to do. Stay at the Southern Sun Elangeni right on the Golden Mile, Durban’s stretch of pristine beachfront. (rooms from $135.00 night)
There are the usual suspects for tourist activities: uShaka Marine World is the largest Aquarium in the Southern Hemisphere, visit the Suncoast Casino and shop at several of their malls. But Durban is special for Black folks. It’s the real heartbeat of the ANC, so go back in time and see how the non-violence movement got its start. The Inanda Heritage Route begins at the Phoenix Settlement, Mahatma Gandhi’s former home, situated on a 100-acre site on a beautiful hillside which is now a museum memorializing Ghandi’s fight for justice against the South African government. Just up the hill, visit the Ohlange Institute where Nelson Mandela cast his first vote as a free man, that same vote elected him President of South Africa. Take a visit to the Mandela Capture Site, the exact place where Mandela was arrested now has a monument erected by the South African government which stands over 30 feet tall. Lastly, visit the Victoria Street Market for spices, low cost luggage and clothing, and remember to bargain with the vendors.
Now is the best time to travel to South Africa. Plan ahead, use points, check your corporate rate at hotels and take advantage of the incredible exchange rate to get there. In the words of the African proverb: “The only man I envy is the man who has not yet been to Africa…for he has so much to look forward to.”
Lisa Bonner is an Entertainment Lawyer and travel aficionado on a path of creative transformation. Follow her on Twitter @lisabonner.