Flashback Friday: African Sunsets

Flashback Friday is a picture series where we “flashback” to some of our favorite memories- from either our prior travel or from home. We hope you’ll enjoy some of our remembrances!

One of the many things we miss from our time in Africa was the amazing sunsets. Every single night of our self drive safari would serve up an absolutely gorgeous, colorful sky.

So, we decided to dish up some of that sunset porn just for you on a new photo post.

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Khumaga Camp, Botswana

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Sunset over the Okavango, Savuti Camp, Botswana

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Sunset over the Okavango, Chobe Safari Lodge, Botswana

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Sunset over the Halali Waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia

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Sunset over the Halali Waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia

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Namibia

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Solitaire, Namibia

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Solitaire, Namibia

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Solitaire, Namibia

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Quiver Tree Forest, Namibia

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Planning Our Self-Drive Safari

Why Self-Drive?

When setting out our overall itinerary, we decided that we wanted our first stop to be South Africa.We also know we wanted to do some sort of safari to see some of the amazing wildlife and sights that Africa has to offer. But what kind of safari should we do?

First, we had to figure out where we wanted to go. Some people just go out to Kruger National Park in South Africa. While that sounded like an excellent destination, once we saw pictures of places like Sossusvlei and Victoria Falls, we decided to focus on getting to both Botswana and Namibia out of Johannesburg.

A quick glance at the prices or the luxury guided safaris let us know that was a no-go. Another option that a lot of “backpackers” do is to do a group “overland” tours through a large tour operator. This would have allowed us to see a lot the highlights, but the downside seemed to be to us that we wouldn’t be able to set our own pace.

Then, we stumbled across a blog by Traveling 9 to 5 about a self-drive safari. Intrigued, we looked into this further and thought it sounded pretty cool. You rent a truck with camping equipment and drive yourself on your own itinerary. This seemed like it would allow us to see exactly what we wanted while not breaking the bank. So, we started planning for this option.

Picking a Truck

There are many operators in Johannesburg that will rent you the standard self-drive safari vehicle: a four-wheel-drive pickup (always white for some reason) with a tent mounted on top and camping supplies included. We wanted to find a good deal, but also wanted to go with someone that seemed responsive to our concerns.

We got quotes from a few different places, then made a spreadsheet to compare their daily costs, insurance options and other fees. In the end, we went with Bushlore. Their costs were on the lower end of the spectrum, and they were very responsive in answering questions. From their selection of trucks, we chose the Toyota Hilux with Safari Camper.

Choosing the Route

The next step was to figure out where the truck was going to take us. July is part of the high season for safaris, so we couldn’t afford to dawdle. Conveniently, Bushlore offers a service to help plan the itinerary and book accommodations along the way. So, we got in touch with the booking department and started making plans.

The agent came up with a day-by-day plan and quoted us a price to book the whole thing. However, we felt like we needed a little more information. First, we mapped out the itinerary ourselves to see if the number of days could be condensed. Then, we researched all of the proposed campsites (cross-referencing against Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor, of course) to see if any of them could be booked by us directly.

Our first attempt at mapping out the destinations

Our first attempt at mapping out the destinations

It required a little back and forth, but eventually we settled on a route and cost with the agent. We came up with a 25 day itinerary, which doesn’t allow for a lot of downtime but hopefully won’t be too hard to get done. It turned out that it was easier and almost as cheap for Bushlore to book the campsites for all but one of the destinations…

The Time We Wired Money to Africa

The website for Etosha National Park in Namibia seemed petty straightforward, and the price they were requesting for a campsite was about half of what Bushlore quoted. So,we decided to try and book it on our own. Things seemed to be going pretty smoothly until it got to the whole payment part of it.

We had thought we could pay by credit card, but it turned out the only option was to wire money. We hadn’t really done that before, so it took a little figuring out how to even do that. It was tough to even figure out if we were sending it the right place – the way it was supposed to work was that we wired to an account in the US that is associated with a foreign exchange company that would then send the appropriate Namibian dollars to Etosha.

We were a little scared that somehow this was a scam (and trying to explain that we were attempting to wire money to Africa while talking to representatives of our bank felt a little silly), but by this point we were in deep enough that we decided to just send the money anyway. If we ended up losing it, it wasn’t going to be the end of the world and would be a good lesson learned. We were getting a little nervous because it took Etosha quite a while to email that they received the payment… but they finally did (after close to 3 weeks)! Hopefully when we show up there, they will still remember that…

 

After telling everyone how flexible we want to be on our trip, it feels strange to have planned out the first month in such detail! We’re just hoping that all of this up-front planning will help make this self-drive safari go as smooth as possible. Look forward to more posts in the future about how close we can stick to this plan 😉

How We’re Getting to Europe for $200

We’ve bought our second set of plane tickets for our trip! It wasn’t quite as cheap as our first flight, but we were still able to use miles!

The Africa leg of our trip will be concluding in Cape Town, and the next stop on our journey is Prague in the Czech Republic in Central Europe. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to search for award flights between these two airports.

As with our flight to Africa, the Star Alliance seemed to be the best bet for finding an award flight because they have the most members that fly in the region. It costs 30,000 United miles to fly from South Africa to Europe. Luckily, Della just got 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (transferable to United) from the Ink card, and Eric had just enough left over from his Sapphire bonus.

Award availability was good for the week we wanted to fly as well. For a while we just watched the flights and pondered which day of the week we wanted to leave. It seemed like the best bet was going to be on Turkish Airlines flights with a layover in Istanbul. However, by the time we got around to booking, that flight on that day had disappeared.

But… we noticed one of the other flights that was available had a 8 hour layover in Munich, Germany. Sounds like a good chance to add another country to the itinerary! Eric was especially excited when he found this well-organized guide to Munich layovers. It is always nice to have the options so well laid out, plus a chance to see the oldest brewery in the world is hard to pass up!

In the end, the fees were a little higher than the Turkish Airlines option: $100 a person. But, the departure date was right and the opportunity to (briefly) see Germany seemed cool too, so we went ahead and booked:

Screenshot from 2014-04-15 20:49:50

How We’re Getting to Africa for $7

One of our first steps in planning the trip is to buy plane tickets. You may think this would be a big expense, but with a little effort you can get a ticket for really cheap. Like the title says, our main tickets to Africa from the US are only going to cost us $7 total!

Ticket Types

One of the early decisions we had to make was what type of ticket to buy. The big airline alliances do sell “round the world” tickets which allow you to group a bunch of different flights under a one fare. We looked into this, but in the end we decided it wasn’t the best fit for us. On one of the RTW tickets, you are only allowed a certain number of stops, and you have to plan out your dates far in advance. We want to figure out some of that as we go, so not exactly a match for us. Plus, we would have had to pay lots of money for that. But why pay money when you have miles?

Using Miles to Buy Plane Tickets

For the past few years, we have gone on many trips for very little money out of pocket.We do this by “paying” for the flights with frequent flyer miles.

We don’t actually rack up the miles by flying though. Instead, we get big chunks of miles by applying for credit cards with hefty sign up bonuses. It may sound risky, but if you are careful with how you use the credit cards (like we always are) then it can get you some great deals.

Getting credit cards is only a good solution if you are responsible with how you use them. Always make sure to pay off your balance in full every month!! You may worry about negative effects on you credit score, but in our experience our scores have stayed fairly constant.

For some of the cards, you only get the sign up bonus if you complete what they call a “minimum spend”. It’s usually a few thousand dollars within a few months. We don’t typically put that much on a credit card, so we’ve had to figure out some creative ways to do this. If you’re interested, let us know and we can share our strategies.

Getting to South Africa

Based on a variety of factors, we decided to start our trip in South Africa. We knew from research that the best miles to redeem to get to South Africa would be United miles. (We aren’t actually flying on United though. One other cool thing about miles is that you can redeem them on an airline’s alliance partners. United in in Star Alliance along with a few African airlines).

We also knew from the award chart that you need 40,000 United miles to get to South Africa from the US. Luckily, we also knew that the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offered a signup bonus of 40,000 United miles. We each got the card, completed the minimum spending requirement, and had our miles.

Then we had to search for the flight. Using the United website, we searched for award redemptions to Johannesburg from a variety of U.S. cities. Unfortunately, availability was a little limited so we didn’t have a lot of options. We were this close to flying via Nigeria until we read some horror stories about layovers there. On the other hand, we read some positive things about layovers in Cairo, so we ended up booking a ticket on Egypt Air. We should have time on our 12 hour layover to see the pyramids – pretty cool!

But, very little in life is free unfortunately. There are some fees associated with the journey: $3.50 per person. So, we can’t say we are flying to South Africa for free. It’s going to cost us a whole $7.

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You may notice that we still need to figure out how to get to NYC for our flight. No definite plans on that yet, but we are hoping we can figure out a way to use miles :-).

If you’re interested in learning more about how to travel for cheap, here are some resources we enjoy: