April 14, 2021
That was the catchphrase of Roseanne Roseannadanna, the SNL Weekend Update character Gilda Radner made famous in the 1970s: “It’s always something!” Then she would go on to say, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!” Uproarious and nutty, yes, but this week I kept thinking how right she was as I struggled to coordinate the many interrelated moving parts of a trip I’m planning for five people (including me) to South Africa’s Kruger National Park next February and March. Early last year I touched on the complexities in a post called “Travel planning is never done,” but I barely scratched the surface. Here’s my checklist of items to get right for this trip so far:
- Choosing how many nights to stay in the Kruger. Usually I plan for 12 nights because that puts the trip at about 15 days in total, counting travel, and it’s hard to be away longer than that.
- Choosing the right time of year to go to the Kruger is critically important. I avoid major South African holiday periods like Christmas and Easter, and I always consult the SA school calendar, too, to dodge long breaks when families like to flock with their kids to the Kruger National Park.
- Although I can do it myself online, I usually book accommodations in the Kruger through an independent service. They get a commission from South African National Parks (SANP), so using them is free to me, and the service has access to Kruger reservations 11 months in advance, whereas if I do it myself, I can only book 10 months out. To get the optimal “perimeter” and “riverside” bungalows near the fences with the best views, I have to book 11 months in advance.
- However, which of the 12 Kruger “restcamps” I reserve, the type of accommodation in each camp (Bungalow? Guest house? Family cottage? Luxury safari tent?), and the location of the accommodation within each camp (as I said above, perimeter and riverside are best) are decisions entirely up to me and require a good deal of knowledge to optimize game-viewing and sightseeing opportunities. Therefore, I must carefully plan the day-by-day itinerary for the 12 nights (or whatever number of nights I’ve decided upon) based on my 30 years of experience visiting the Kruger. The booking service is indifferent to my choices, but they do know how to get the very top accommodation I ask for, which is another reason I use them instead of doing it myself.
- Until the pandemic abates, I’ve got to plan where and when to get a Covid test before we leave so that results are not more than 72 hours old by the time of my first flight.
- Balancing airfare options Raleigh to Johannesburg versus schedule options Raleigh to Johannesburg means prowling airline websites 330 days in advance (usually, the max time fares and schedules are loaded) to look for bargains and reasonable times en route.
- If the flight I ultimately select is scheduled to arrive Johannesburg from mid-morning on, then I have to choose a hotel for one night near the airport because there are no local flights between Johannesburg and Skukuza Airport (SZK) in the Kruger that leave after noon.
- Oops! If I’ve chosen a flight that arrives JNB airport later than mid-morning, which necessitates having to stay a night in Jo’burg, then I have to readjust my departure date backward by a day and start the planning over. Like Roseanne Roseannadanna says, “It’s always something!”
- Oops! Moving my departure date might change the fare, especially if it’s on a busy U.S. travel day to connect, like a Sunday, Monday, Thursday, or Friday. Heavy business travel domestically can diminish favorable international fare classes for my connecting flight to Johannesburg. “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”
- Gotta watch the American holiday periods, too, in order to get the best fares. If I have inadvertently backed up to a busy period, then I have rebalance everything again, including the Kruger booking dates. “It’s always something!”
- If I chose a hotel near the Johannesburg airport, then I have to build in courtesy bus travel time to my calculations for the following morning when I need to get back to JNB airport for the internal flight to Skukuza. If I stay in one of the two airport hotels, then I can simply check out and walk to the terminal through the carpark complex without having to wait for a shuttle bus. But sometimes the airport hotels are too expensive, so I have to compare prices before making a decision, especially when other folks traveling with me might be (and usually are) more price sensitive than I am.
- Oh yeah, I must buy separate tickets on SA Airlink (flyairlink.com), too. Airlink is the private air carrier that has a monopoly on flying to the Kruger (SZK airport). Airlink doesn’t partner with U.S. carriers, so I can’t buy a through ticket from Raleigh to Johannesburg to Skukuza. This ticket has to be bought by itself and becomes a critical success factor for the entire Kruger trip. SA Airlink only schedules two 50-seat ERJs between Jo’burg and Skukuza each day, a factor that can complicate the entire planning process if both flights are fully booked. In which case, oops, I have restart the entire planning process of international air and Kruger accommodation booking around when Airlink flights have space. I can see Roseanne Roseannadanna shaking her huge, hideous hairdo and screeching, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”
- SANP requires that visitors to any national park, including the Kruger, either pay what’s called a “daily conservation fee” or purchase an annual “Wild Card” to cover the conservation fee. Depending on how many nights I am staying in the Kruger, the Wild Card is usually the most cost-effective option, but if my traveling companions opt only for 5-8 days in the park, then sometimes it’s cheaper to pay the daily fee. I have to consider the circumstances of each person traveling with me to calculate which means of paying the fee to recommend to them—another time-consuming task. If a Wild Card, I must sign in with lots of detailed information (DOB, passport, address, etc.) to purchase the card and get a PDF of proof to show in the park.
- Avis and Budget have a monopoly on rental cars at little Skukuza Airport, and renting a vehicle is another critical success factor since the Kruger is a DIY safari (visitors drive themselves entirely, one reason the Kruger is a bargain compared to nearby uber-expensive private game lodges that provide safari vehicles and guides). Part of my planning process includes comparing prices between Budget and Avis at SZK airport, which is absurd since both firms operate from the same tiny kiosk at the same tiny airport. Experience has shown, though, that price differences for the very same vehicle can sometimes occur. And there’s another “oops” here if for some reason no cars are available for the days I need, which again forces me to start all over again. “It’s always something!”
- A small but important detail is remembering to renew my International Driver’s License at AAA before I leave the States and advising all traveling with me to do the same. It’s just $20, but without it, Budget and Avis in South Africa won’t rent to me or my companions.
- I’m pretty obsessive about checking that all passports don’t expire for at least six months after return travel date, too, because that can ruin a trip. Airlines will turn away customers holding passports that expire less than six months after the return.
- I always check my WHO vaccination record (the little yellow booklet) to ensure everything is up to date, and now I include my CDC Covid-19 vaccination card. I remind others to do the same.
- Malaria meds are a good idea when visiting the Kruger, and I call my physician for a prescription well before leaving.
- Where and how to get a Covid test at or near Skukuza on the way home is a new wrinkle, and also complicates things. I recently phoned the doctors’ office at Skukuza—the only Kruger camp that has a doctors’ office—to see if they are doing tests. Yes, they assured me, but the medical staff has contracted with an outside lab which only picks up the test swabs Monday-Friday. Test results are sent by email and text “usually within 24 hours,” they advised. The Monday-Friday testing limits therefore imposes a new factor: that I book Kruger accommodation to be at Skukuza camp the last two days of the trip, and those two days must be on week days to ensure we can get tested and get the results back as required by the CDC before boarding our flights home. Oops! That means juggling the entire Kruger trip to ensure we are at Skukuza on the last two days, which must be week days. Again, I may have to go back and start the entire process again around this new critical success factor. I hear Roseanne Roseannadanna laughing, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”
- Double-checking the South Africa visa requirements is another routine precaution. Just to be sure, I research this at the US State Department site for foreign travel as well as at the South African sites.
- I’ve learned the hard way to take only new, crisp U.S. currency to exchange for South African Rand on landing. Having local cash is essential for tips and sometimes for buying gas, groceries, and so on in the Kruger, as the Wi-Fi connections to credit card machines in the Kruger are wonky and fail intermittently. Without Rand, I might go hungry for a night, and I can’t get cash unless my American bills are brand new and clean with no wrinkles or markings.
- Plug adapters and cell phone chargers are essential everywhere, the Kruger being no exception.
- I always advise my fellow travelers to buy an international cell phone data plan good for South Africa before leaving to avoid really, REALLY expensive local rates.
- Sunscreen, baseball-style hats with brims, long-sleeve shirts and pants, and bug spray are also a good idea for me, as I burn easily, and the worlds’ bugs seem to like me.
- I always bring along good noise-cancelling headphones for those looooong flights (16 hours), too, along with extra batteries.
And that’s just the start. Roseanne Roseannadanna would have had a field day mocking the variables and complexities!
For example, United Airlines has been offering low-low introductory fares in Premium Economy from RDU to get folks to book the airline’s first-ever nonstop to Africa (EWR/JNB). UA has also been offering a bargain basement business class fare to Johannesburg, but only from Newark, not from Raleigh. If I or my traveling buddies choose to fly in biz class, that requires booking a third air itinerary RDU/EWR to connect to UA. This is doable, but complicates travel planning for this trip even further.
For the trip next February and March, five of us are traveling together, two singles (me and another fellow) and a family of three. It was hard getting the Kruger camp accommodations right due to one, one, and three traveling together. Some of the most desirable bungalows have only two beds, necessitating a fourth bungalow for those camps, but the booking service, despite my clear instructions, assumed we would want to save money and put two in a bungalow sharing (1, 2, and 2) without discriminating who might or might not want to bunk with whom. I twice had to correct the bookings, spelling out exactly who would occupy which bungalows and specifying four bungalow bookings, not three, in two camps for certain nights.
All of which confirms: “It’s always something! If it’s not one thing, it’s another!” Despite the unending challenges, it sure is fun to plan.