Think back to that Psych 101 class in your sophomore year of college, and dust off the high-falutin’ theory of cognitive dissonance. Outside of the New Yorker I haven’t seen it used much lately, but it’s the term that sprang to mind when I read about the potential for undetectable weapons and/or explosives being secreted onto airplanes that’s behind stringent new TSA screens, especially overseas.

As a reminder, “cognitive dissonance” is the mental stress and pain one experiences when holding contradictory beliefs or values at the same time. In the case of flying, we have all come to rely on the convenience and reliability of being able to catch a flight from virtually anywhere to anywhere on earth. Commercial air service, because it is first and foremost a safe way to travel, has come to be a defining characteristic in how we work and play, so commonplace and accessible that the usual put-down that flying is now “like a bus service” is actually a great compliment. We take frequent and safe air service for granted, like we do clean air, a constant source of electricity, and clean running water.

Like the utilities that have become necessary for maintaining our everyday existence, how could we live without air service? It has become extremely valuable to our way of life. That’s one side of the dissonance.

The other side of the new cognitive dissonance is the top-dog human value of remaining alive. The abject horror of plunging 33,000 feet to be atomized on impact with the earth into nothingness is a contemplative nightmare that infinitesimally low crash statistics have, until now, kept at bay. Every time we very frequent flyers walk down a Jetway to a plane, we hold two boarding passes, one of paper with our seat number, and the other a virtual pass of surety that we will be walking off whole and vertical at our destination. If we didn’t believe flying was safe, none of us would fly again.

Personally, the specter of undetectable devices in the hands of malicious passengers that might bring down a plane fills me with dread. But it’s still all about statistics, and the stats are good for now. I can resolve my own cognitive dissonance of flying on the basis of confidence that effective counter-measures can and will be developed to keep planes safe. So far, so good. I intend to keep on flying.

I just hope that my faith in the system to keep flying safe isn’t like the old joke about the guy who fell from the top of the Empire State Building. As he plummeted past the 59th floor, a woman stuck her head out of a window and yelled, “What’s it like?” “So far, so good,” he said.

Joe Brancatelli long ago coined the adage: “Once a trip starts bad, it goes bad the entire time.” Turns out Joe was mostly right! Last week I made a trip to San Francisco from Raleigh that seemed to start well, but quickly took a turn for the worse. And then another. And yet another. And so on, until…well, you get the idea. Here’s what happened:

The best alternative available when I booked RDU/SFO was on AA via LAX. I was curious to sample the RDU/LAX nonstop so took it and ended up in First Class on that leg. Service en route was reminiscent of NYC/West Coast transcons, and it lulled me into a false senses of tranquility and security.

On arrival at LAX, my troubles began when I discovered that the connection to SFO was almost two hours late. I had coordinated to meet up with a buddy flying to SFO from EWR and was going to share his private car into the city, but that killed my plan–or so I thought at the time. Since I was also overnighting at my friend’s pad in Pacific Heights, I figured I would now have to find an alternative place to rest my head.

I went to the LAX Admirals Club and started researching hotels near SFO Airport. To my surprise, everything was booked. I finally started calling individual properties to see if I could snag a last minute room. A front desk staffer at one of the Hyatts told me I wouldn’t find anything because there was some sort of Google convention underway.

He was wrong, though. I found two properties in downtown San Francisco with a few rooms. One was priced at $654 per night, and the other was $832 per night. I figured I would end up sleeping on the floor at SFO rather than pay those rates.

Resigned to a night of misery and discomfort, I boarded my delayed flight. The pilot scooted us up the California coast quickly, and we arrived just past midnight. A text message awaited me saying that my buddy’s flight was even later than mine and would not arrive SFO until 1:03 AM, thus solving my need for a hotel room and ride into the city. But it meant we wouldn’t get into the city until after 2:00 AM.

I decided to wait inside security for my friend’s plane to land and happened to notice that the same AA flight SFO/ORD I was booked on the following Saturday night, an 11:30 PM departure, was boarding and posted to depart at 12L30 AM. When I casually asked the gate agent if this was an anomaly, she said, no, this flight was delayed every night one to two hours due to late inbound airplanes and crew and because SFO was doing nighttime construction on runways which delayed late evening departures.

That prompted me to check the history of that AA flight number on FlightAware.com. Sure enough, it had not been on time in 10 days. Checking AA’s schedules for my ORD/RDU connection, I could see that I wouldn’t make it. I phoned AA reservations and explained my dilemma. They agreed, and said if I missed my connection in Chicago on Sunday morning that it could be Monday before they could get me to Raleigh due to full flights. My only option, they said, was a connection 14 hours earlier on Saturday leaving at 9:30 AM and going through DFW. This would ruin my planned day of leisure in Napa, but having no choice, I took it. I met my friend’s plane shortly after one in the morning, and we went into the city.

My tale of woe with AA was to continue, however. Turns out my return flights were also wrecked. AA called my cell at 3:48 AM Saturday morning (which was plugged in recharging near the bed where I was sleeping) to say the 9:30 AM was more than 2 hours late, causing me to miss my connection in Dallas. I frantically called AA just before 4:00 AM to reschedule yet again and was put on an SFO/DFW flight at 8:10 AM instead. That necessitated me staying up to shower and then paying $65 to a car service at 5:30 AM to get me to the airport by 6:00 AM (my friend has planned to drive me to save money, but not at that hour).

The AA rez agent at the Exec Platinum line that morning at 4:00 AM was on the verge of tears because she said she’d been dealing with similar problems all night. She also commended me for calling immediately to look for other flights because she said almost everyone on the 9:30am flight was going to misconnect. I got one of the last seats on the 8:10am departure. There were no aisle seats available at the last minute, so I opted for a bulkhead window seat.

Thinking I wouldn’t get breakfast in coach, I decided to eat something before the flight. The Admirals Club at SFO wanted $5.41 for a plain bagel. The same bagel was just over three bucks outside the club. Even the bartender advised me not to buy it in the club.

At gate 57 for the 8:10 AM flight to DFW, the agent announced the flight was overbooked (no surprise since many folks on the 9:30 AM flight had been moved, like me, to the earlier flight). Once we boarded, an Executive Platinum flyer plopped down in the center seat next to me. He was fuming mad and acting belligerent. I figured he, like me, had been inconvenienced, and, worse, had had to take a center seat assignment since nothing else was available. Probably he’d lost his First Class upgrade on the later flight, too. But it took me aback when he literally assault me.

I was in 8F, the bulkhead window seat because, as I mentioned, no aisles were available. The guy in the center seat 8E, a very large man, tried to shove my arm off the armrest and to put his hairy legs (he was in shorts) in my already crowded space. When I pushed back to demonstrate that I was going to maintain my half of the miniscule armrest, he took his Bose noise-cancelling headset case and threw it on the floor by his feet as hard as he could. He had a tantrum like a baby. He then tried again to shove not only my arm but my entire body as hard as possible against the bulkhead—-all this while we were at the gate in SFO during the boarding process. He wouldn’t engage me in conversation when I tried to reason with him, so I pushed back until I regained my personal space including my half (the back half) of the armrest. He continued to push against me as hard as he could until the plane pushed back, at which time he fell asleep. I have no idea what his problem was, but it was a miserable 3 hours, 45 minutes to DFW. the jerk never once uttered a syllable.

Our plane left SFO on time but arrived DFW late with no explanation from the crew. We arrived at gate D29. My RDU connection was by then 55 minutes from departure and at C31, as far away from D29 as you can get. I rushed over on the train, stopping only to pick up a turkey sandwich to eat on the next flight. En route via the train my cell phone rang with a message from AA saying the gate had changed to C10, but I had just gotten off the train at the C21-39 gates. I got back on the next train and took it to the C1-20 gates and ran to C10. Just as I got there the gate agent announced the departure had changed gates AGAIN, this time to C37. I ran back upstairs and got the train going the opposite direction back to the stop for gates C21-39 and ran down to C37. Miraculously, despite the lost time, the plane boarded quickly and buttoned up by 2:55 PM, scheduled departure. However, the bags didn’t move as fast as we humans. The had been staged at C31 originally and were then moved to C10. Then they had to be moved again back to C37. We left 30 minutes late for RDU and didn’t make up so much as a minute on the thousand miles en route. Like the first flight, the cockpit crew never made an announcement after explaining that the bags caused the delay.

And to this series of bungled flights, AA provided this little cherry on top: They charged me $30.09 for the Main Cabin Extra seat 8F on the SFO/DFW flight wherein I was cramped, uncomfortable, and set upon by the seething fury of the miscreant in the center seat 8E.

The following day I found the email complaint portal at AA.com under Customer Service and sent them a complaint. Less than a day later they credited my account with 15,000 AAdvantage miles. Frankly, I’d rather their flight operations had gone smoothly. The stress and misery of their bad flights didn’t equate to 15,000 miles.

My first flight was in 1960 from Raleigh to Kinston, NC on a Piedmont DC-3.  I was 12 and didn’t have much need for luggage, but I do remember that I had a modest carry-on flight bag given me by the airline (I think I still have it). I didn’t check anything, and the flight bag had a shoulder strap and no wheels (well, no bag had wheels then).  I was welcomed aboard and threw my little bundle in the open rack above my seat.

Piedmont DC-3

Fifty-four years and several thousand flights later, I still prefer not to check my luggage.  A lot of folks are like me in that regard, or at least it appears that way at the TSA screen and on board.  However, unlike me, almost every flier these days brings a roller bag to the airport.  I still prefer to lug mine on my shoulder, which makes me an anachronism.

It’s true, of course, that most of today’s carry-on takes the form of roller bags, some the first gen two-wheel jobbies, but, increasingly, the four-wheel version that pivots in any direction, like your bag on a pair of roller skates:

gucci four wheel diamante carry-on suitcase_2

That’s not me, though.  I never moved on to any type of luggage with wheels after my first flight, not even when some entrepreneur came out with folding luggage trolleys, the precursor to built-in wheels. Remember those?  They were all the rage before roller bags and cluttered up overhead bins even worse than the current all-in-one models:

foldable-luggage-trolley

So now the whole progression of carry-on luggage evolution is clear:

Larson wheel cartoonicon_arrow_right_green_clip_art_9471foldable-luggage-trolleyicon_arrow_right_green_clip_art_9471Tommy-Bahama-Retreat-II-21-Wheeled-Carry-On-Upright-P14980878icon_arrow_right_green_clip_art_9471Zero_Halliburton_Classic_Polycarbonate_Carry_On_4_Wheel_Spinner_Travel_Case_Silver_Main_1__32989.1397745956.1280.1280

Rolling luggage is fine and dandy; I’m not knocking it.  For reasons buried somewhere deep inside my genetic code, though, I still prefer to sling my bag’s strap over one shoulder while the other shoulder is bearing the considerable burden of my over-stuffed briefcase, which contains my big laptop.

Sure, I’ve tried a bunch of roller bags over the years.  For instance, Delta graciously awarded me a snooty, cutting edge Hartmann roller bag when I hit one of my five million mile marks with them, but it mainly sits in the dark of a closet, pining to be tossed into an overhead. Every time I take a roller bag somewhere I feel like, well, like everybody else, like I have somehow lost a part of my identity and individuality.  I always go back to my two tried-and-true pieces, pictured here:

20140624_090330-My existential luggage dilemma 1

One is a typical Hartmann suit bag designed, I’m guessing, in the late eighties (charcoal color) in those air travel Stone Age days before wheels were married up to luggage.  It appears to be made of some kind of rugged carpet–not very pretty, but it’s virtually indestructible.

The other (the blue one) is a very old and very durable Henley soft-sided canvas bag that will expand or contract to hold whatever is demanded.  Its durability is legendary, only topped by an Atlas leather bag (which I could never afford in my early years of consulting).

These are the ones I carry most often going anywhere, for work or pleasure (one or the other, of course, never both together).   People in TSA lines look at me funny because my luggage doesn’t look like theirs:

carryon at security line.jpg

The fact that I am physically carrying mine is a curiosity.  I get a few smirks.  I don’t care, but I have sometimes wondered why I alone am shouldering my bag in the writhing lines of rolling luggage snaking through security or crowding the boarding door.

Suddenly, though, maybe my carry-on strategy is the right one.  As the airlines seem poised to crack down on carry-on that doesn’t comply with their exact measurements of 22 x 14 x 9 (see my earlier post), they use the dreaded luggage cage to test potential offenders:

luggage cage.jpg

Most roller bags are either rigid or not very flexible.  They either fit or they don’t fit, and many just don’t fit.

My two shoulder bags, happily, are both supple and will squeeze down to fit perfectly in the cage.  The Hartmann bag is technically two inches too wide, but experience shows that it will compress nicely and without forcing it into the airline test devices.  The Henley is like a jellyfish and will fit itself into the shape of any airline cage.  It, too, is technically too big (high by one inch), but a little push when placing it into the bars will ensure it lines up at or below the rim.

Most roller bags can’t do that, and the new-fangled four-wheelers seem more rigid than ever.

Of course both my over-the-shoulder bags technically violate the standard 45″ linear limit, but there’s no need to be concerned about that. The airlines don’t have time to measure and calculate whether a bag exceeds 45 linear inches.  If it passes the cage test, it’s going on the plane as carry-on.

Because my bags are now uncommon and definitely not any type of roller bag, airline personnel seem more forgiving even if the top of one peaks over the edge of the cage or bulges a bit.  It’s like a free pass, almost an acknowledgement that anyone who still uses sheer body strength to defy gravity should be rewarded with some bin space on board.

Or so it seems to me.  Whatever is the reason, my bags have not been rejected yet.

Immediately after writing my previous post I flew Delta to Billings, Montana from RDU through Salt Lake City and snapped this photo at my connection gate, proof positive that Delta isn’t enforcing its own carry-on policy (at least not at SLC):

 

Image

My own carry-on bag was considerably smaller but still technically illegal by one inch.

 

It’s not new news that the three legacy airlines, American, Delta, and United, have similar carry-on luggage policies, but I guess I missed the day when their policies somehow came into perfect alignment.  For some reason that seems ominous to me.

What piqued my interest was this Yahoo news article of a frequent flyer on AA out of JFK in Business Class who was forced to check a carry-on bag that he’d been taking on board for years all over the world.  The real kicker was–at least in that case–American’s strict adherence to their maximum dimension rules.  The writer was forced to check his bag because one of the three dimensions (length) was an inch over AA’s published carry-on maximum even though the other dimensions (height and width) were less than AA’s published carry-on maximums.  The lesson in that story seems to be that stricter enforcement of existing carry-on policies is coming and that the airlines will no longer be flexible about them.

I looked up the current carry-on luggage maximums on United, Delta, and American and raised an eyebrow when I saw policies at all three legacy carriers are identical.  Maximum linear inches = 45, and maximum dimensions can’t exceed 22 L x 14 W x 9 H, as shown in the following graphics taken from the UA and AA websites:

carry-on bag imageCarry-On Bags Cannot Exceed 22 Inches Long, 14 Inches Wide And 9 Inches Tall

Delta’s website didn’t have a picture, and the words were softer, but the linear and dimensional maximums are the same as UA and AA, that is, 22 x 14 x 9 for a total of 45 linear inches.

The airlines all claim they are enforcing FAA standards, but here is no FAA carry-on standard, as you can read here. FAA just says, “Think small.”  And it suggests as follows: “The maximum size carry-on bag for most airlines is 45 linear inches (the total of the height, width, and depth of the bag).”  Joe Brancatelli reminded me that the FAA rules haven’t changed, only the on-and-off enforcement by individual airlines.

The obvious question is, Are the airlines moving in the direction of tightening the carry-on screws for everybody dragging their stuff behind them in roller bags, even for elite level flyers traveling in the front cabin?  Honestly, I don’t know.  But they don’t care about us, first-time flyer or five million miler, so it seems plausible.

What I do know is that I need to be prepared.  If the carry-on policies, already synchronized by the Big Three like the sun and stars lining up on the Vernal Equinox at Stonehenge, are suddenly enforced, where does that leave me?  After all, I never check my bags–never, ever!

Could I live with the maximum of 45 linear inches, and do all of my expensive bags meet the dimensional maximums of 22 x 14 x 9?  I decided to run an experiment with my family’s luggage to see which ones complied.  I pulled out seven pieces that we have used regularly as carry-on for many years.  I only pulled out the seven that I know for dead certain from long experience fit perfectly into the overhead compartments of every type of mainline airplane without having to be turned sideways.

First I checked all four of our traditional roller bags.  Two are American Tourister, one is a very durable Hartman, and the last is an even more durable Rick Steves bag.

The other three are not standard roller bags.  One is a soft-sided heavy canvas piece made by Henley that’s been all over the world with me on six continents for forty years. It’s been repaired in Florence and in Peru and patched up in the Kalahari in Botswana.  Another is a small over-the shoulder Hartmann garment bag that was a favorite of mine for a long time in consulting.  The last one is an odd duck, a Hartmann hybrid garment bag with wheels and a handle built in.

Measuring each piece (the soft-sided ones I first filled with clothes for an accurate test), I was chagrined to discover that not one is legal in every dimension (22 x 14 x 9), and only one meets the linear max of 45 inches,  Here are the results:

22 x 14 x 10 (46″) – Henley soft-sided canvas bag (one inch too high and exceeds the linear limit)

22 x 16 x 9 (47″) – Hartmann over-the-shoulder garment bag (no wheels or handle) (two inches too wide and exceeds the linear limit)

21 x 20 x 10 (51″) – Hartmann hybrid garment bag with wheels and handle (exceeds two dimensional limits and the linear limit)

23 x 15 x 10 (48″) – Hartmann roller bag (exceeds every dimensional limit by one inch and the linear max by three inches)

22 x 14.5 x 8.5 (45″) – Rick Steves roller bag (comes closest to being legal of any tested, but misses the width limit by a half inch)

20.5 x 14.5 x 9.5 (44.5″) – American Tourister roller bag (under the linear max and one dimensional max but exceeds two dimensional limits)

21 x 14.5 x 10 (45.5″) – American Tourister roller bag (exceeds the linear limit and one dimensional max)

My conclusion is that I am going to have to invest in a whole new set of luggage if the airlines crack down and enforce their own, now uniform, carry-on luggage policies.  No matter how close each of the measurements are above to being legal, none meets the restrictions precisely.

Do I want to throw in the towel, say “Screw it!”, and start checking my bags?  Hell, no.  At worst the airlines lose my luggage or damage it.  At best it’s a long and non value-adding delay waiting at the luggage carousel.

Assuming it happens, would a new focus on carry-on be fair?  Of course not.  Should we be surprised?  Of course not.  Outraged?  Well, about the same as usual.  Mad enough to find alternative carriers to fly on?  The Yahoo news article mentioned that Jet Blue and Southwest have more generous carry-on policies, but for how long?

Maybe it’s time to ask, What are the dimensions of the carry-on pieces in your closet?

As I have mentioned many times before, going to see the African wildlife in their natural habitat in the Kruger National Park of South Africa is not like going on a photo safari to, say, Kenya, Tanzania, or Botswana.  In those places visitors join small groups led by trackers, rangers, and staff who provide the vehicles, know the roads and where to find wildlife, and move the group from camp to camp as the tour progresses.  All the logistics are included (except airfares to get in and out and not counting gratuities).  Typically, such an arrangement covers food, lodging, making and breaking camps, trucks and fuel, park fees, and all labor (trackers, drivers, cooks, rangers, etc.).  In Botswana those costs are about $500-600 per person per day.  Thus a 10 day camping safari (albeit a luxury camping safari since everything is done for you) for a family of four would run about $22,000, not including air to get to Botswana.  Call it $30,000 including air, or $7500 per person.  To my way of thinking, a vacation that costs $3000 per day for my family of four is high.

A self-drive safari to South Africa’s Kruger National Park, on the other hand, costs much less, but the costs and logistics are all unbundled, which means you have to make and coordinate all the arrangements yourself and then drive yourself through the Park.  That’s not a big deal; the South Africans perfected this economical way of experiencing wildlife over a hundred years ago, and people from all over the planet visit the Kruger regularly.  Comparing costs between the pricey guided safaris in East Africa and Botswana and the DIY option to the Kruger in South Africa, the difference is substantial.

Note that the price comparisons below INCLUDE air fares, which my previous post did not, and that accounts for why this analysis differs.  I also bumped up some of the Kruger costs in the below comparison to account for rising prices.

Let’s get started in looking at how to plan your own trip to the Kruger and what it will set you back:

AIR ALL THE WAY TO THE KRUGER

Using my home airport of Raleigh-Durham (RDU) and connecting to Delta’s nonstop from ATL to Johannesburg (JNB), airfare in Economy has varied recently (depending upon time of year) from $1200 to $1800 round trip.  A separate ticket must be bought between JNB and one of two small airports near the Kruger.  You can fly to Nelspruit/Mpumalanga airport (MQP) or to the recently re-opened Skukuza airport (SZK) which is literally in the Kruger National Park near Skukuza Restcamp, which serves as the Park headquarters.  Either way the cost varies between $180 and $300 round trip.  Both the Delta and South African Airways flights can be easily booked online.  To get the cheapest fares, you have to plan and purchase your air tickets well in advance.  I usually plan more than six months ahead.  For a trip in February, 2014, I paid $1500 total RDU/MQP (which I purchased in July, 2013), but for a trip in December, 2014 over the busy Christmas holidays, the airfare was $2000 total RDU/SZK (which I bought in April).  I’ll use $1750 round trip per person for the comparison.

HOTEL OVERNIGHT IN JOHANNESBURG

Because Delta’s nonstop arrives JNB in the late afternoon, it’s too late to get a connecting flight to one of the two airports near the Kruger that I mentioned above, thus requiring an overnight at an airport hotel.  There are a number of choices, but the best rates for safe, nearby properties including breakfast and tax and free shuttle service are around $120 for a double room,  Some hotels limit room occupancy to two, requiring the purchase of two rooms.  I stay at a very comfortable and safe hotel that allows four per room, but we receive only two breakfast coupons at that price.  Assuming two rooms, I will use $60 per person for the room rate.

RENTAL CAR & FUEL

Avis, Hertz, and other rental car agencies are available at the Mpumalanga airport (MQP).  Avis is available at Skukuza airport (SZK), but other rental car companies are planning to offer service there as well.  My best deals have been using Avis (at either airport) because I can get an all-in rate quoted in US dollars with unlimited kilometers.  For my family of four I opt to rent a large VW van because it has room to move around, lots of glass for viewing, plenty of storage space for luggage and a cooler, and sits up high off the ground for good visibility.  The vans are diesel-powered and use very little fuel (usually around 85 kms/gallon, the equivalent of about 55 miles per gallon).  The very low speed limits in the Kruger of 25-30 MPH contribute to the superior fuel economy.  On the other hand, the more you drive, the more animals you see.  I usually drive over 100 miles a day (160 kilometers), sometimes more.  Diesel fuel comes to about $15 per day.  Vans rent for more than regular sedans.  I usually pay about $100/day.  Thus 10 days in the Park cost $1150 ($1000 for the rental plus $150 in fuel).  That comes to $287.50 per person.

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK CONSERVATION FEES

The Kruger used to charge a “daily conservation fee” on top of a daily entrance fee per person.  Now they combine both into something called a WILD CARD which is good for entry into all the South Africa National Parks (SANP).  Wild Card information can be found at https://www2.sanparks.org/wild_new/.  An International All Parks Cluster Wild Card (which is the one for non-South Africans) is currently R3120, which is about $312 at today’s US dollar/South African Rand exchange rate ($1 = R10.7).  That card will cover a family of up to seven, including two adults.  For a family of four, that averages to $78 per person and is good for one year from date of purchase.

KRUGER PARK ACCOMMODATION

There are 12 main “rest camps” in the Kruger National Park.  “Rest camp” is a quaint South African term meaning a self-contained village surrounded by electrified barbed wire to prevent wildlife from getting inside to eat the tourists!  Each rest camp includes lots of accommodation choices, camp grounds, one or two restaurants and snack bars, a grocery store and curio shop, a gas station, ranger offices and camp reception, and often swimming pools. There is also room to walk around the entire camp in each place, and parking for everyone’s vehicles next to their accommodation since the entire Kruger is premised on self-drive.  As I said, each rest camp is its own very comfortable village.  You can see a map of the camps here:  http://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/tourism/map.php.  And here is where you can book your own accommodation choices online: http://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/.  You must book and pay for your accommodation early to get what you want.  I do it at least six months in advance.  The Kruger is extremely popular with South Africans and overseas tourists alike, and the early bird gets the worm.  These days it’s costing about $200 per day for top-flight accommodation in the Kruger for our family of four.  That cost covers comfortable and spacious rooms in beautiful thatched-roof rondavels (round bungalows) with private toilet and shower, air-conditioning, fridge, hotplate and kitchen utensils (in case you want to cook your own food purchased from the camp grocery store), and a parking pad adjacent to the rondavel.  Thus 10 nights totals $2000, or $500 per person.

FOOD & CURIOS

The Kruger’s 12 rest camps boast restaurants open all day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and for snacks in-between meals.  The food choices are varied and delicious (to me), and the prices are very reasonable, especially considering the Kruger is in the African wilderness where the logistics of getting food delivered is challenging.  Menus include a decent selection of South African beers and wines, too.  The camp grocery stores also stock a large curio collection for just about any taste, and of course you can buy and prepare your own food if you so desire.  We eat and drink well but rarely spend more than $50 per day for all four of us.  Let’s push that up a bit and call it $60 including curios.  That’s $600 for 10 days, or $150 per person.

TOTAL COSTS FOR 10 DAYS IN THE KRUGER

That comes to $2825.50 per person for 10 days in the Kruger, or $11,302 for a family of four, compared to $30,000 for a family of four on a guided safari.  That makes the Kruger 62% less expensive when airfares are included (in my last post, I did a comparison without air). You can decide which is the best option for your family.

If you need more information on planning a trip to the Kruger, please contact me at will@allenheuer.com.

 

 

Seeing African wildlife in their natural habitats in Southern Africa is awe-inspiring, unforgettable!  How you go about planning such a trip can range in expense from a lot to a little.  As an old African hand experienced in trips to the African bush pointed out to me over twenty years ago, you will see the same animals regardless of the style of travel.  The only question, he said, is whether you need silk sheets, silver candelabras, and Champagne at night while being waited on hand and foot or will be satisfied with basic creature comforts, everyday food and drink, and doing things yourself.

I began going on camping safaris to Botswana through a South African-based company called Afro Ventures (now Journey Beyond) in 1991.  I lost count of the number of those tented safaris I made over the ensuing twenty years, but every one was an astonishingly rich experience into the wilderness.  On various trips we had hyenas sit with us at dinner by the campfire (it’s an unnerving realization to see a full-grown hyena three feet from your plate staring at you); two angry male lions raided the camp one night and sent us scampering up onto the top of a truck; a herd of elephants daintily walked around our tents during the night more than once, never trampling anything; baboons several times unzipped our tents and went through our belongings looking for food; large families of mongoose many times overwhelmed us and stole breakfast off our plates (they especially like eggs); large scorpions ran between our feet while we were enjoying a beer after dinner; red-billed hornbills swooped down and expertly grabbed sandwiches out of our hands at lunch; once we ran over a pit viper by accident while loading up the tents; warthogs at some places liked to browse through our camp sites; we often had hyenas nosing at the sides of our tents in the middle of the night looking for snacks; not to mention the occasional hippo at midnight en route back to the river.  Believe me, they were memorable trips!

In the 1990s and early 2000s Botswana used to be a modest $100 per day per person.  Camping safaris were more rustic than now.  It wasn’t TOO rustic, or I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but by comparison to today’s trips, it was more hands-on for the traveler.  We put up and took down our own tents; we collected firewood for the cooking and camp fires; we used primitive toilets that barely functioned; we took cold showers with mere trickles of water; we helped cook the food and cleaned up the dishes; we hauled our own trailers full of tents and food and supplies of all sorts behind our game-viewing vehicles.

These days on Botswana “camping” adventures staff does all that for you. They go ahead in separate trucks and trailers and set everything up while guests take leisurely game drives in open vehicles en route to the next camp.  They cook and clean and break down the camps.  They say that guests have few duties now.  The tents are larger and have small toilets attached (we used to have to brave hyenas and lions to go pee in the middle of the night to a toilet distant from the tents; I have never been so scared in my life—but I lived; we all did).

The Botswanan government tourist licenses for the world-class game parks in Botswana (Chobe, Moremi, Xakanaxa, Savuti, Okavango) are hard to get, and expensive.  They have to be paid for whether guests are roughing it on cheap camping safaris or staying in luxurious lodges; the license fees are the same, regardless. Tour operators of long standing like Journey Beyond figured out that they could make more profit per guest by raising the bar on luxury, and that’s when prices skyrocketed.  We will never see $100 per day per person again.  Everyone pays the market price of about $500 per person per day.  For that money, operators provide uniformly excellent service.

Some operators charge much more.  The super deluxe camps in the Okavango (Botswana) and in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa (e.g., Mala Mala, Londololozi) charge as much as several thousand dollars per person per day.  Yet, as I said above, you will see the same animals in the same places without respect to what you are paying to be there.

Oh, I forgot to mention that even on deluxe camping safaris, alcohol, juices, and soft drinks are usually extra.  It seems ridiculous after paying so much, but it’s true even if you pay $3000 per day that drinks are extra.

Gratuities, too, are extra.  At the end of a really good 10-day camping safari in Botswana, I used to tip the two staff who accompanied us about $50 each ($10 total per day for tips).  I don’t know what is appropriate today.  On ocean cruises (which I never take), I am told that a single daily tip fee is collected and pooled for all staff.  Perhaps that approach is the right one.  Seems to me that if you are already paying quite a lot of money that is going to the staff, tipping should be based on one’s sense of whether you received high value services.

Just last week I helped some friends arrange a weeklong camping trip to Botswana on an itinerary similar to the ones I used to take.  The costs were about what I expected: $509 per person per day.

And not even deeply into the Okavango, just on the periphery at Xakanaxa (which is very lovely, but not very far into the Okavango).  Then Moremi (Khwai, on the Khwai River), Savuti (Savute), and Serondella (which they call Chobe; actually the Chobe National Park encompasses both Serondella and Savuti).

My friends are flying into Botswana from South Africa to Maun and flying out of Kasane.  From Serondella (Chobe), it is a short drive to Kasane.  I’ve done that drive innumerable times (but not recently).  The airfare to and from Botswana is also extra and not included in the $509 per person per day.

I am not criticizing their itinerary or its costs, but merely pointing out that though the itinerary is over 7 days that it is actually 5.5 days of actual game viewing/camping.  The first morning is given over to flying into Maun and then driving to camp at Xakanaxa, and the seventh day is finished after breakfast before driving to Kasane: Therefore, just 5.5 days for $2800 per person, or $509 per person per day.

Sadly, that is why my family and I cannot afford to go any longer to those fabulous places.  For 5.5 days of game viewing it would cost $11,200 for my family of four—and, as mentioned, that does not include airfares (USA to/from JNB and then JNB to/from Botswana), tips, or alcohol.  On top of which after just a little over five days we’d be leaving and largely not satiated.

Yet we (my family of four) can spend 12 nights in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, including the rental car, food/drinks, and petrol (but excluding airfares for an apples-to-apples comparison) for about $3,840, or $80 per person per day.  That’s 84% cheaper than Botswana.  Not as exclusive or fancy, no, but we see the same animal species and spend 13 days and 12 nights doing it versus 5.5 days in Botswana.

Just saying that I can afford to go back much more often and to stay longer when I do go back by going to the Kruger. One major difference is that it is a DIY safari in the Kurger National Park.  All the South Africans do it, and I’ve been going regularly for 24 years.  My family of four is going again in December for 12 nights in the Kruger.

Recently the New York Times sent a reporter to cover the Kruger.  He was amazed at how easy it was.  Here’s a short video posted on the NYT website about it:

http://www.nytimes.com/video/travel/100000002789568/the-self-drive-safari.html?emc=edit_tl_20140328&nl=travel&nlid=48463981

His “rustic” tent accommodation was by choice.  Most accommodation there is quite comfortable, with electricity, hot and cold running water, heating and air-conditioning, private toilets and showers, big porches, refrigerators, and good beds.  I will be writing more about the Kruger in future posts.

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