Two trips are better than none

February 18, 2021

A week ago I lamented how travel planning to South Africa this year has become a Sisyphean task. After all, I’ve been relentlessly battling challenges to get back the Kruger National Park since arriving home in March, 2020 just a few days before the Covid shutdown.  By last Friday I was spiritually drained from the fight to book a trip for me and a friend to the Kruger National Park the last two weeks of July.  I finally had to give up on that one. 

I was disappointed for my friend because his work schedule is crazy through 2022, and this was his sole travel window for more than a year.  I sheepishly sought selfish solace in knowing that a November trip to the Kruger with my wife had already been planned, booked, and paid for. 

Not that the November trip had itself been easy to nail down.  It was extraordinarily difficult to make work after flights were canceled by Delta Air Lines twice before, as I documented in a number of earlier posts.

Heck, was it even reasonable, I wondered, to expect the moon and stars to align in putting together a second trip to the Kruger in the same year?  During the chaotic uncertainty of the pandemic?  If so, it certainly wasn’t going to be in July because I had belatedly discovered that scarce Kruger accommodation in that month was due in part to a lengthy South African school holiday period. As starved for outings as we are, South African families are flocking to the Kruger in July.

Then came an unexpected breakthrough: My friend announced that he could go in early August instead.  That news led me to spend large parts of last weekend back at the task of making the new dates work.  I figured we had a shot since kids in South Africa would then be back in class.  Meaning he might get to see African wildlife after all.

Usually, I send an email to a reliable (and free) booking service licensed by South African National Park (SANP) to test Kruger accommodation availability as I try to balance possible Kruger dates against reasonable airfares and schedules to get there. 

But his August date news came last Saturday, and the booking service is only open weekdays.  That meant I’d either have to wait until Monday or attempt booking Kruger bungalows myself on the confusing, slow, and unreliable SANP website.

Trouble was, I couldn’t wait for Monday for an answer because the United Airlines special low intro fares were due to expire on Monday, February 15, after which UA airfares would rise dramatically, putting the cost of the trip out of reach (I’d already confirmed other airline fares were unacceptable). 

For all those reasons, I launched, with trepidation, into booking Kruger camps on the balky, Dr. Seuss-like SANP system.  At least I remembered my client code and sign-in credentials, and soon I was busy relearning the twisted logic of SANP self-booking tricks and traps.

After lining up mostly just the right bungalows among four Kruger “rest camps” (the archaic South African term for the park’s marvelous self-contained villages in the wilderness), I hit the “continue” button to complete the reservation and pay.  Only to watch in consternation as the SANP site returned a fatal error message that I needed to start over from scratch.  SANP’s creaky software had dumped my complex, carefully-constructed itinerary. 

Some choice swear words came next, after which deep breaths, withdrawing from my laptop, and marching outside to rebalance before beginning anew.

In a half hour I was back at it, doggedly reconstructing the itinerary.  I had not been able to copy it out, but I’d scribbled something on paper which I used to build back the overnights in the Kruger Park.  This time the uncooperative system let me proceed to the payments page.  I entered my Amex card data, and pressed “pay now” on screen.  At once, my phone dinged with a reassuring text message letting me know that my Amex card had been charged in the South African Rand equivalent of $1446 and change. 

Looking up from my phone, I stared at the SANP website awaiting confirmation of my $1446 booking…and presently a notice appeared saying my booking had been “automatically canceled.”  My booking had sunk out of sight quicker than the Titanic.  No reason given, but at least a reference number was provided, a tiny bit of flotsam I could cling to in my misery. 

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy to untangle, so I carefully went through the tortured motions required by the ancient SANP programming to find that reference number and ask where my money was. 

Only a general inquiry email was thrown up to write to.  I composed an email detailing what had happened and sent it off into the ether, knowing I wouldn’t hear earlier than Monday because SANP, like the booking service, is closed on weekends. 

Now I had two problems.  Where was my $1446 and the booking I had paid for?  And what was I going to do to get a replacement Kruger booking before the special United fares expired Monday night?  I sure as heck wasn’t going to risk a third try using SANP’s pathetic portal.

Maybe, I thought, my Kruger booking service in South Africa could secure space in time on Monday to purchase the UA airfare before the midnight deadline.  I detailed my SANP self-booking travail in an email and sent that off late Saturday, hoping to get a fast reply by Monday.

Sure enough, before noon on Monday the booking service confirmed Kruger reservations for me and my traveling companion mostly duplicating the dates and accommodation of my failed Saturday itinerary.  The service has access to the SANP system and confirmed that my reservation had inexplicably canceled, but my Amex card had nonetheless been charged.  They recommended waiting to see how SANP would respond to my inquiry.

Meanwhile, I lost no time in accessing the SANP website again, referencing the new Kruger reservation and paying in full—AGAIN—using my Amex card, which totaled a bit over $1500.  This time the system confirmed payment in full with the new reservation intact.

Confident, finally, of secure Kruger bungalows for the two of us, I gave the green light to my friend to buy his United Business Class ticket for our revised dates (early August).  I also purchased mine, except I opted for the cheaper UA Premium Economy fare: $1900 round trip from Raleigh to Johannesburg versus $2900 in Business Class from Newark to Johannesburg. 

Both tickets were issued before the Monday, February 15 midnight expiration.  Whew!  We had made the deadline!

And then United announced it was extending the special fares through March 2.  All that stress and work over the weekend, including the double charging for the Kruger accommodations and the back-and-forth emails to South Africa, could have been avoided had UA let the world know sooner that the Feb 15 drop-dead date was loosey-goosey.

Another airline anomaly: Who knows why United posted a special Business Class fare ($2900) only if originating from Newark, while the special Premium Economy fare ($1900) applies not just from Newark, but also if originating from RDU?  The RDU to Johannesburg Business Class fare connecting to the same Newark flight was thousands higher.

The Business Class bargain EWR/JNB was sufficiently low, though, to attract my friend to it (and me and my wife, too, for our trip in November). Attractive even with the need to buy a separate ticket Raleigh to Newark and back to self-connect to the Jo’burg flights. 

Thus my traveling companion booked a second United ticket for the RDU/EWR/RDU legs, albeit on a coach fare.  Buying that separate ticket, however, put a spotlight on another United Airlines issue, namely that their elite level is an empty suit.

As mentioned in previous posts, the two trips in August and November to Johannesburg will be my first UA flying in a long time.  Formerly a top-tier United loyalist, I turned away after a long series of bad experiences flying United in the 90s. Now I am the lowest of the low, a mere UA “General Member” with no status whatsoever. 

Which means that on my flights Raleigh to Newark and back, I had no elite means to juice an upgrade.  So I simply paid for an upgrade to First Class on those two legs. 

By contrast, my friend traveling with me is a decades-long United super-elite member.  Though I’m a MileagePlus peon by comparison to his millions of miles, UA was more interested in pocketing $69 for my seat in First Class than in bumping my friend up.  So far refusing to fork over more money to the airline, he remains way back in row 17.  Proving that United’s revenue management yield algorithms rule, not elite status.

So, wow!  After mostly living in a cave since March of 2020, I went through travel planning hell to confirm two 2021 trips back to South Africa’s Kruger National Park.  Of course, a previous confirmed trips in February (I would be there now) was canceled by the airlines and moved to May, which was later again canceled and moved to November, so anything might happen.  But I am optimistic and happy today to have these two trip to look forward to. 

Now if only South African National Parks will refund the $1446 for the booking their crummy online rez system canceled.

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