Saving on an African Safari with Points and Miles

Pam

I just completed one of my bucket list destinations using points and miles for a portion of it. Africa and Zanzibar on points and miles was an absolute dream! While we had purchased our safari on Travelzoo with cash, the flights, hotel in Arusha, and all of Zanzibar was done with points and miles. Here is what we purchased on Travelzoo:

 

 

Honestly, $6,000 for two people was a steal! I talked to the owner of Taasa Lodge and he said they did it just because they were coming out of COVID.  I read the review on Trip Advisor and was sold and then I saw that the Bucket List Family had stayed there a few times and was more than sold!

Travelzoo is a great option for when you don’t have enough points and miles for a certain trip or when you prefer a trip to be more mapped out. I have a trip to the Maldives in October with the hotel booked through them too.

There were added costs too. We had to pay nearly $1,000 for entrance fees for the Serengeti, about $600 worth of tipping, and we paid about $3,000 for flights to Zanzibar and all ground transportation and visas. This proved to be money well spent as we had people helping us every step of the way. More on that later.

 

Flights to Africa

We traveled with good friends who I recently got into travel hacking. The husband was very skeptical. After using miles to book business class seats, he came up and thanked me for getting him into it. Skepticism reigns supreme with some of our closest friends until they have tried out the miracle that is credit card points and miles.

We found flights on United using United Miles we had from several United Airlines Credit Cards. We had a 9-hour layover in London so we went into the city for a few hours to visit our daughter and family. I was so bummed that I hadn’t booked a stopover there.

Here was our itinerary. It had 3 stops and normally I would not have done that but we had lay-flat seats all the way and that made it doable. Airport lounges also helped!

 

 

Believe it or not, these flights would run $10,000-$12,000 each!! Do people really pay that amount? I certainly never would! But I am more than happy to fly them for 176,000 miles and less than $100 a person!

 

 

United Flights to Houston and London

These flights were on United Polaris Business class and I personally love them. I particularly like the ability to use the United Polaris Lounges but our layover in Houston was super short so we could not do that this time. We did have lay-flat seats on both flights which surprised me since it was just a short flight from Denver to Houston. The food was great, the service was great, and I enjoyed both of these flights.

 

 

We had a 9-hour layover in London which most people would hate. Not us. We quickly went through customs and got on the Heathrow Express to Paddington which takes 15 minutes. We grabbed a taxi and were quickly at our daughter’s house. Getting to spend about 5 hours with them was quick but so, so nice. We had a quick lunch, made a surprise after-school pickup, got some yummy cupcakes, and we were back at the airport. Way too quick, sadly.

 

 

Ethiopian Airlines

And then there was Ethiopian Airlines. We were not impressed. The cabins and seats seemed very old and outdated. While the staff was kind and friendly, the food was not good. I have to admit, I am picky but my husband is not. He didn’t like it either. I was not looking forward to flying home on them. I even tried to rebook through another airline to go home but ended up keeping our itinerary when it got too complicated. I know, I know, life is rough when you are complaining about lay-flat airplane seats lol.

 

We landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and met our friends. We used the business lounge there and it was quite large and nice. However, my husband had gotten sick on the previous flight and had a terrible stomachache. It continued to escalate during our 2+ hour layover. It started in the left flank and moved to the abdomen. I was worried it might be a kidney stone (I am a retired RN). We were not sure he could continue and get on the next flight.

I noticed there was a first aid station there so we went in and they gave him an injection of Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory. They almost didn’t let him board the plane and encouraged treatment in Ethiopia but we persisted and they let him board the flight. We definitely didn’t want to be stuck in Ethiopia without our friends or the support team from our safari.

 

 

Tanzania

We arrived in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania on February 23rd and had to spend the night before our safari began. Using points to stay in Arusha which was about 25 minutes away from Kilimanjaro was great. The room cost us only 12,500 points and would have cost $206. Platinum Premier status got us free breakfast in the morning and our suite night request got us a suite.

 

The plan was to stay one night. Unfortunately, my husband’s pain returned and he was extremely miserable. We went to one of the small hospitals in Arusha where he received lab work, a pain shot, and an abdominal ultrasound that was inconclusive. We were told to come back the next morning for a CT scan. Note on the hospital – it was what you would expect in a smaller African town. Outdated, dingy, and not very clean. However, the staff was great and the doctor ordered all the right tests I would expect to determine if someone had a kidney stone. Our trip to Africa with points and miles definitely had some twists and turns we didn’t expect!

Luckily, I had points and booked us another night at the Sheraton.  Fortunately, because we had paid for ground transportation through Taasa, we had someone with us every step of the way. They were helpful, and compassionate, and made a scary experience in a strange country as good as it could have been.

We returned the next morning for the CT scan and found out that because it was a Saturday, nobody could read it until Monday. My husband was prescribed pain meds (not nearly as strong as he would get in the United States) and we made plans to head to Taasa Lodge in the morning.

 

Trip to Taasa Lodge

We went to the very tiny Arusha Airport in the morning and boarded the 12-seater airplane. We were the first passengers but we made 2 stops picking up 2 people at each stop. Because the planes are small they told us there was a 33 lb. baggage limit and you had to pack in a duffle bag or backpack. We followed the rules to a tee but saw many people with small roller bags.

 

Arusha Airport

Can you see my excitement in finally being able to take off?

A couple of these landing strips we used on our trip were just dirt landing strips but the ride was pleasant and calm. We landed at Lobo Airstrip and were met by our guide Logo and tracker Reuben from Taasa Lodge and our friends who had arrived the day before. I can’t say enough good things about our guide and tracker. They were knowledgeable, funny, and ALWAYS smiling. In fact, everyone we met at Taasa was always smiling or laughing. The people we met there were some of the kindest, most loving people we have ever met.

They had beverages waiting and some scrumptious muffins and we climbed into the 11-seater Land Rover to begin our adventure. (And no, my husband hadn’t miraculously recovered. He was pretty darn miserable still.)

It didn’t take us long to start seeing animals. Before we got to the lodge (which is about an hour away) we had seen herds of elephants, giraffes, lions, topi, and impalas. We were entranced and amazed at how many animals we saw and how close we could get to them. I’m not going to lie, there were times that I was a little scared at being 7-10 feet from lions eating a kill!

 

Elephants could be seen all over the Serengeti, multiple times a day.

We were so excited to see this beauty!

Getting up close and personal to lions eating their kills definitely made me a tad nervous!

Zebras were one of my favorite sightings.

We saw a jillion giraffes on our safari!

Our arrival at Taasa was met with drums, dancing, and beverages.

 

Taasa Lodge

Taasa Lodge consists of 12 luxury tents unlike what I could have imagined. Our front deck overlooked the Serengeti and the view was phenomenal.

 

 

When we drove up the entire staff was out front singing and dancing to welcome us with delicious cold beverages. Immediately, I knew this was going to be special. We were introduced to Leyan our butler who anticipated our every need throughout the stay. One of my favorite things was the delicious hot chocolate and sweet biscuit he brought with him every single morning to wake us up.

 

We couldn’t carry a thing. If I had my backpack, he took it from me. If I had a sweatshirt, he took that. He would take out tennis shoes and bring them back looking new, he washed our clothes daily and waited on us hand and foot. He was a delightfully, kind person and we adored him.

 

At Taasa, you have three meals and can order the specials or off the Bistro menu. I had mixed reviews about the food. I loved some items and some were okay. The soup and rolls served before lunch and dinner were always delicious as were the buffet breakfast and the made-to-order breakfast. That was my only criticism of all of our experience though – I would otherwise rate it a 10+ on all areas!

 

 

Animals are known to roam the area so you are accompanied by someone carrying a sword every morning and at night after dinner. I did hear hyenas at night. There were multiple lions in the area one night and our friends heard them roaring. The staff found one laying on the breakfast deck the next day.

It was quite warm when we were there but the infinity pool quickly cooled us off. The Lodge itself where meals are served is beautifully decorated and I would go there to read or use my computer in the limited time off we had.

 

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I cannot express in words the service we were given by the people at Taasa. They anticipated our every need, treated us like royalty, and did this while always smiling and laughing. I will be forever changed by these kind people who have much less than us but are so happy. We truly love these people.

 

Activities at Taasa

Game Rides

They like to keep you busy here! However, you meet each night with your tracker and guide to decide what you want to do. I opted out of a couple of guided trips and that is fine. My husband was still dealing with a kidney stone so I was worried about him and slept poorly so I napped a couple of days.

Every day we went in the Land Rovers on safaris to find animals. And find them we did! It was not hard – we saw tons and tons of animals. Besides the ones I listed before, we saw Warthogs, Cape buffalo, hyenas, zebras, baboon, a cheetah, and leopards.

 

All bundled up for an early morning drive!

One day we heard some hyenas had attacked a Cape buffalo so we headed there. We found they had been chased off by 3 lions who were devouring this buffalo. I couldn’t believe how close we drove up to it. We were probably 15 feet from them. Honestly, I was a little uncomfortable especially when I found out that they didn’t have a gun or spear with them. They convinced me we were safe and that they can “read” the animals and knew when to retreat. I have to say, I was still nervous!

Getting that close to huge elephants was also a tiny bit unnerving but also completely awesome! It amazed me how unabashedly comfortable they were with us being close to them. Some animals were a little skittish but the lions, elephants, and giraffes didn’t seem to really care. It was amazing that we could experience all of this craziness in Africa with some points and miles.

Dinner Under the Stars

One night we walked up a lantern-lit path to the top of a hill to watch the sunset and eat dinner. The staff who are all Masai people danced and sang for us and then cooked a delicious African barbecue. Truly a magical evening!

 

Visiting the Masai

We spent one morning with the Masai people learning about their culture and traditions. One man can have several wives and it is a very patriarchal society.  I wouldn’t like to be a woman in their village. They build the huts, build the rounded barrier protection, gather the water (not nearby), tend the children, etc. They can’t even look at the meat their husbands eat so the men cook that themselves. Talk about patriarchy! But the amazing thing is they are all happy and smile while having so little.

 

We visited their school and met the cutest children. They were so happy to see us, sing for us, and fist-bump our husbands. Each class had 70-100 children! Those poor teachers – I don’t know how they managed to teach a thing!

 

 Early Breakfast

We were encouraged to rise early one morning for an early morning drive. On this day, we heard about a teenage giraffe that four lions had killed close to the lodge. We headed there to check it out. Upon approaching, we noticed one lion eating the giraffe and multiple hyenas close by hoping to get some food too. Multiple tall giraffes were in the area hanging around. The guides told us that they stayed nearby to mourn the loss of their friend. It was interesting to see the hyenas try and approach and the other lions chasing them away. It was incredible how close we would get to the lion that was eating. Close enough that I was nervous! The guides repeatedly told me that the lions don’t see well and that they see our whole vehicle as one big animal and that we were safe.

After spending a fair amount of time watching this circle of life we drove off where we were surprised by our own early breakfast in the bush. It was set up with an omelet bar, fruit, juices, cereal, and pastries. The staff at Taasa loved to surprise us. There was even a portable toilet!

 

The seven of us became family on the safari – it was so hard to say goodbye!

Bottom Line

Africa was everything that I hoped it would be and more. I knew I would love seeing all the animals. I knew the lodge had great reviews. What I didn’t know was how much I would grow to love the people. In every way, they impressed me with their joyfulness and kindness. Africa on the cheap with points and miles was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

 

 

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