Capricious COVID-19 trip costs

June 24, 2020.

Three months into safe, but dreary pandemic confinement, preserving my sanity requires that I have a travel adventure to look forward to. I’ve decided to head back to the Kruger National Park in late January and early February, 2021. 

Planning the trip is nearly as exciting for me as making the journey, and I’m a master at making the arrangements.  Given the devaluation of the South African Rand against the U.S. dollar and the long shutdown of all leisure and business travel to South Africa—including to the Kruger—I expected travel costs to have declined.  To my surprise, however, almost no prices have changed.

Well, except for one big one: Delta’s business class fare to Johannesburg has dropped precipitously from Raleigh/Durham, as I will explain.

The COVID-19 lockdown began just a few days after I returned March 13 from my umpteenth visit to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The Kruger became one of my favorite places on the planet after my first trip there in 1991. I always miss it the moment I leave and usually return every 18-24 months for one or two weeks.  But this time I am going back just 11 months after my last trip because quarantine has taken its toll on me.

(I’ve lost count of how many trips I’ve made to the Kruger and have written extensively about many of those trips at my Allen on Africa blog.  See here for pictures and narrative of my March, 2020 trip, including the spectacular variety of wildlife.)

AIRFARE RALEIGH TO JOHANNESBURG

Since air is usually the most expensive component, I start by checking fares, being agnostic about dates until I ascertain the best deals.

On Delta I was able to get $2,900 round trip RDU/JNB in their decent Premium Economy cabin going on the DL nonstop ATL/JNB and, astonishingly, returning in business class on Air France from Jo’burg to Paris CDG and then connecting to Delta’s nonstop CDG/RDU. 

That’s really cheap for premium cabins.  I think I paid $2,300 and change for Premium Economy in both directions for my March, 2020 flights on Delta. And Delta’s business class fares for the same late winter period were over $6,200.  So the same fare (PE going and biz class returning) was around $4,850 on Delta last year.  That’s nearly a two grand price drop.

Another option was to route myself on Delta to Amsterdam and then SkyTeam partner KLM to Johannesburg.  That was $4,100 in business class both ways, but the $1,200 difference gave me pause.

When I pointed out the Delta/KLM joint fare, Delta offered to match it using the direct ATL/JNB flight—in other words, to discount their inviolable Business fare on the nonstop for the first time ever, to my knowledge.

In coach, RDU/JNB was as little as $887 round trip on AA connecting to Qatar, and about $990 on Delta.  Roughly the same on other airline partnerships.

I opted to go with the Premium Economy out, Business Class return fare and had it held while I checked other trip costs.  I was pretty heady about the great Delta fare and hoped to find more bargains.

OVERNIGHT HOTEL COSTS IN JOHANNESBURG

Delta’s nonstop from Atlanta gets to Johannesburg in late afternoon, too late to connect to Skukuza.  Being stuck until the next morning requires a one-night layover in Jo’burg. A lot of hotel options are offered around the JNB Airport, but I prefer the convenience of just walking 8-10 minutes to the City Lodge OR Tambo International Airport since it sits on top of the airport car park garage. 

When I checked for late January, 2021, rates at the City Lodge were the same as always before COVID-19: $110/night.  No discount on account of the pandemic or exchange rate, but it does include an enormous breakfast.

Okay, a huge breakfast, but no bargain overall. 

AIRFARE JOHANNESBURG TO SKUKUZA

Delta only gets me to Johannesburg, so I must book a separate air ticket from JNB to Skukuza (SZK) Airport, the gateway to the Kruger Park. I found that SA Airlink, which has a monopoly flying ER-135 airplanes on the JNB/SZK route, is exactly as last year at $267 cheapest, up to around $330 (both round trip). 

Unlike South Africa National Parks, which quotes accommodation prices in South African Rand, SA Airlink shows fares in the currency of the country booking the itinerary, in my case, of course, dollars.  Since the Rand is so low against the dollar right now, I wondered if domestic SA Airlink fares shown in Rand are lower.  But I couldn’t test my thesis quickly, so accepted the $267 fare.

Again, though, no bargain compared to before the pandemic.

RENTAL CAR RATES IN THE KRUGER NATIONAL PARK

Then I needed to reserve a rental car for driving in the Kruger, and Avis has a monopoly there.  Rates at SZK airport were quite reasonable for January, 2021. I chose $170/week all-in for a small SUV/van (a Toyota Avanza, which I always try to rent), the low cost due to the depressed R17.32 = $1.00 exchange rate. 

That’s about $25/week cheaper than I paid in March for the same car, so no great savings there, either.

KRUGER ACCOMMODATION COSTS

Kruger accommodation rates were about the same as last year at the equivalent of $110/night for a deluxe perimeter (by the fence) or riverside-river view single bungalow. That means SANP (South African National Parks) has raised rates to account for inflation and currency devaluation.

Well, again, no savings.

BOTTOM LINE

The upshot is that I’ll pay about the same overall cost for my Jan-Feb, 2021 Kruger trip as I did for my Mar, 2020 visit.  The only difference is that my ride back home next year will be more comfortable in Business Class than Premium Economy was this past March (and it wasn’t bad).

A CLOSER LOOK AT DELTA’S BUSINESS CLASS FARES TO JOHANNESBURG

After Delta offered to match the Delta/KLM $4,100 fare round trip in Business on their connecting nonstop ATL/JNB, I decided to dig deeper to understand Delta’s sudden discounted Business Class pricing strategy to Johannesburg.  For as long as Delta has flown to Jo’berg, fares for Business have been sky-high in money or award travel costs, such as last year’s 960,000 SkyMiles for a round trip RDU/JNB in Business. (I didn’t bite.)

It sure looks like RDU catches a break with $4,100 round trip.  The lowest biz class from Atlanta round trip on the same nonstop flight to Johannesburg is over $6,200.

I checked Business Class to JNB from Orlando and from New Orleans and found they are also $4,100—the same price as from RDU.

Looking even harder at the discounted fare from Raleigh, I discovered that, officially, the DL biz class fare round trip is just $2,100, but Delta adds a $1,829 “luxury surcharge” plus 12 different taxes to get it to $4,100.

Made me wonder why Delta doesn’t just increase the fare rather than add a bogus luxury surcharge.

I’m guessing it’s because if a big company’s corporate travel department negotiates a discount on the Delta biz fares, then Delta probably claims the discount is only on the base $2,100 fare and will not discount the “luxury surcharge”, resulting in a smaller discount on the total for large corporate customers.

Naturally, I’m glad I found a good deal for this particular trip, though that doesn’t happen often.  I don’t know how anyone these days can navigate such volatile airline fare structures.  It’s a maddeningly unpredictable and illogical landscape. 

One thought on “Capricious COVID-19 trip costs

  1. Make sure your flights, etc. are refundable. At this moment Americans are probably not going to be admitted to Europe this summer and if Covid gets worse in this country who knows what January will bring to SA.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s