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All About Our Family Trip to South Africa

safari jeep

For spring break this year, we went on a family trip to South Africa! It was a bucket list trip for our family. Here are all the details of where we stayed, what we did and how we planned this big trip.

 

 

This spring break we went to South Africa as a family. We had been planning this trip for almost two years and it was a big bucket list item for us.

I wanted to share all the details of our travel, including our Safari, and how we planned this family trip to South Africa!

 

Our Family Trip to South Africa

We (and by we I mean my husband, PW) have been planning this trip for the last year and a half. Going on an African safari has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember, and now that we’re in this special window of time when all our boys are old enough to travel well, we’re taking full advantage.

I shared all of our trips on my instagram stories day by day, and saved them all to two highlight bubbles, PART 1 HERE, and PART 2 HERE.

Since there are so many questions that came in about this trip, I’m going to answer all of them in a Q&A format below!

What was our trip Itinerary?

DAY 1: Fly from St. Louis to Atlanta (layover), fly from Atlanta to Cape Town, South Africa.

DAY 2: Arrive in Cape Town – we arrived in the afternoon, so we had dinner at Nando’s Chicken, checked into our hotel, and went to bed.

DAY 3: Tram up Table Mountain, lunch and swim at the hotel, meet tour guide for driving tour around the Cape, which took about 6 hours.

DAY 4: Checked out of hotel early, back to the airport to fly to Kruger Airport (flight was about 2 hours), then pick up small plane to Phinda reserve (flight was just over 1 hour). We arrived in the early afternoon at the Phinda airstrip, met our driver and tracker, and got checked into the lodge. We did our first game drive that night, then had dinner at the lodge and went to bed.

DAY 5: SAFARI at Phinda Reserve

DAY 6: SAFARI at Phinda Reserve

DAY 7: SAFARI at Phinda Reserve

DAY 8: Last morning game drive, back to the Phinda reserve air strip, flight back to Kruger airport, then flight back to Cape Town, South Africa. Checked into Waterfront hotel, walked around the waterfront, got dinner at a restaurant on the waterfront, and off to bed.

DAY 9: Breakfast at hotel, checked out, met with tour guide for city tour, putt putt golf, and toboggan rides. After the tour, our driver dropped us at the airport. Flight was at 10pm from Cape Town to Atlanta, Georgia.

DAY 10: Arrive in Atlanta, quick layover, flight to St. Louis, home by 12:30pm.

 

What kind of prep was required to travel to Africa? We chose South Africa for our safari because no malaria pills or vaccinations were required. Every other place that I’ve heard of that does safaris does require at least some pills or vaccinations, but we did none of that.

Rough estimate of total cost/price range. This is a tricky one to answer, because of course everyone’s budgets will be different. You could absolutely do a safari on a much lower budget if your travel dates are flexible and you can get inexpensive airfare, or if you wanted to stay at a more affordable lodge or even go camping. Our safari driver, Emma, grew up in Johannesburg and said her family went camping in the bush all the time (they stayed in a tent on top of the car, which is required!)

&Beyond specializes in luxury travel, so this was definitely high end and between the flights and the hotels and the safari, it was the most expensive trip we’ve ever taken. We upgraded to Comfort Plus seats on the plane so we could all sleep and be more comfortable on our 16+ hour flight to and from Cape Town, and we wanted to stay in a beautiful lodge for the safari. You can see all the rates for everything HERE, but keep in mind that the lodge is all inclusive, so it includes all your meals and drinks (we don’t drink, but alcohol was included in the price), as well as the price for your driver and tracker on the safari vehicle. It was a very high end experience and was absolutely worth the high price tag for us.

Where did you stay in Cape Town? When we arrived in Cape Town, we stayed in the Mount Nelson hotel. It was spectacularly beautiful and such a fun place to stay. We absolutely loved it and I would stay there again in a heartbeat. We stayed there for two nights. When we returned to Cape Town after our safari, we stayed at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront Hotel. It put us in a different part of the city, and although it was a nice hotel, it wasn’t anything compared to the Mount Nelson.

Where did you stay on the safari? We traveled to Kruger National Park and stayed on the Phinda Reserve at the Mountain Lodge. &Beyond has several lodges on the reserve, and my husband checked out all of them and decided on the Mountain Lodge. The lodge said many people will come to the reserve and hop around to different lodges for several nights to get a feel for one or two of them.

Did you plan yourself or did a travel agent plan it for you? If you planned, what resources did you use to plan? My husband, PW, did a lot of research on companies that do luxury safaris, and he finally landed on &Beyond. As soon as he reached out, they connected him with a travel concierge who handled EVERYTHING. The only thing that PW did was book our flights from St. Louis to Cape Town. After that, she handled people to meet us when we got off the plane, help with luggage, drive us to the hotel, she booked our hotel for us (she recommended some hotel options based on our needs and wants and budget), then she booked our flights from Cape Town to Phinda, and arranged everything in between. Everyone who helped us was an &Beyond employee, and they were all phenomenal. The company clearly takes such good care of their employees and they’re making lots of conservation efforts, which is amazing. We heard over and over from our safari driver and our tour guide about how incredible of a company they are, and how they are so proud to work for such a great company. We had never heard of &Beyond before, but I’m so glad we ended up with them!

How did your kids handle jet lag? They actually handled it really well! We all slept on the plane for at least seven hours (we upgraded to Comfort Plus seats so sleeping was much easier) and then we arrived in the late afternoon, so we were able to get a full night sleep not too long after arriving in Cape Town. That helped a ton. We were all on the time zone almost immediately. Coming home was a little harder — we all felt pretty tired for a few days, but we survived!

Did you feel safe traveling there? (Both in the city and bush). Yes! We had a tour guide pick us up from the airport and take us to our hotel, and also take us around on our city tour at the end of the week. There were a few areas that he told us were not very safe, but we just drove past and we were totally fine. We walked from our hotel to dinner and back our first night and there were plenty of people out, and it felt fine, although I’m always cautious to keep my children close whenever we travel, regardless of where we go.

In the bush, the animals were obviously wild, but our driver and tracker were great about helping us feel safe, and that our safety was their #1 priority.

What made you choose South Africa over other similar countries? As I mentioned above, no vaccinations or pills were required in South Africa, so that was the biggest appeal for us. We also wanted to visit Cape Town!

What lodge/tour you went with. What did you look for in a lodge when choosing? We booked everything through a company called &Beyond. They have lodges and camps in Africa, Asia, South America, and Antarctica. PW absolutely LOVES hotels, so he wanted a beautiful place to stay, but also when he did all his research, he was looking for good reviews, location, and overall experience. As I mentioned above, &Beyond handled everything for us, and were the ones to pick us up from the airport, help with our bags at the airport, get us from place to place, arrange our city and Cape tour, book our hotels, book our flights within South Africa, and so much more. They did everything so smoothly and so well, and it was a perfect experience. PW usually plans our trips down to every last detail, but since they handled it all, he said it was a really fun experience for him to come on the trip and not know exactly what to expect, knowing it was all taken care of.

How far in advance did you book everything? We booked our trip a year and a half ago. You don’t have to book that far out, but the lodges are small so they book up quickly, so it’s good to book earlier than later so you get the dates and details that you’d like. We wanted the family suite at the Phinda Mountain Lodge, which accommodated our whole family, plus my father in law. There was only one family suite, and we wanted to stay for 4 nights, so we booked early to make sure we got the rooms we wanted.

Coming out of COVID, they recommended 18 months in advance. So it just depends on what you’re looking for, how long you’re wanting to stay, and what kind of room you’d like.

However, our first two nights, there was availability at the lodge, so you could have booked it at the last moment and got in. But obviously there’s no guarantee!

How old are your boys? Did you feel like this was a good age for the trip? I think their ages were absolutely perfect! They’re 8, 11, and 13, and they’re all old enough to appreciate and enjoy this kind of experience, while still being young enough to feel the magic of it all and not be “too cool.” There was another family at the lodge the same week as us and they had one boy with them who was probably 17. We saw their vehicle a few times when we were watching cheetahs and the male lion, and both times I noticed him on his phone. I have no idea what their situation was – maybe he lived in South Africa and had been on 15 safaris before. But I was glad my kids didn’t have phones and wanted to look at those more than the incredible animals.

Ideal number of days for a trip like this. We originally planned this trip when we lived in Texas and our spring break was one and a half weeks. We planned for a 5 night safari originally. But when we moved to Missouri and our spring break was only a week, we had to shorten it to 4 nights. Our driver, Emma, said that 4 nights minimum is her ideal because it gives her time to show the guests as much as possible and be able to explore more of the reserve. It’s a huge reserve, so you need that extra time if you’re going to see more of it. When guests come for one or two nights, it’s stressful for everyone, trying to pack in the best experience possible and see as many animals in a short amount of time. We had lots of time to drive 45 minutes north to see the elephant herds, or drive an hour west to look for male lions multiple days. You don’t have that kind of flexibility when you only have one or two days.

What was the food like? The food was good! At the lodge, we ate in the dining room every other night for dinner, and the Boma the opposite nights as long as the weather permits. The Boma is a large outdoor dining space with tons of tables, beautiful lighting, a large outdoor kitchen, and a bar. In the Boma, they do more traditional foods in a buffet style, in the dining room they do a mix of things. The menus weren’t super extensive – usually three options for a main course, one being vegetarian. However, they had a kids menu available everyday for lunch and dinner with chicken nuggets, fish sticks, hamburgers, steak, and other more kid friendly food options. For breakfast, they had a beautiful buffet spread each morning with fresh fruit and amazing granola, cheese and cured meats, and a waffle station. They also had hot breakfast you could order with eggs and bacon and omelets and all sorts of other familiar dishes.

How many game drives did you do? Could you choose how many? The lodge did 2 game drives each day, one in the early morning and one in the later afternoon. Our driver would call the room at 5am to wake us up, and then we’d meet in the dining room at 5:30 for a quick breakfast for anyone who wanted it (the boys usually just wanted some hot chocolate), and then we were off. Game drives were 3 to 3 1/2 hours, depending on what you saw and the weather. Then we had another drive in the afternoon, starting at 4pm, and going until usually 7 or 8pm. All of the drives were optional, and we could have skipped any that we chose, but we never skipped because they were so amazing and so fun. Also, since we selected the family suite at the Mountain Lodge, that room came with a private vehicle, so we had our own tracker and driver, and they would go at any time we wanted. We decided we wanted to leave at 3pm on the afternoon drives so we could get more time before it got dark, and they happily obliged!

What was a typical day like on the safari? Wake up call at 5am, meet in the dining room at 5:30 for a quick drink or snack before 1st game drive, then off on the game drive for 3 to 3 1/2 hours. At the beginning of the drive, our driver, Emma, would ask us what we wanted to see that day. She would tell us what animals had been spotted recently, and then we’d make a game plan and head out in the direction we chose. Sometimes we found the animal, sometimes we didn’t and we just saw other animals along the way.  When we returned, we had breakfast in the dining room, and then the rest of the morning and early afternoon were free for us to spend how we’d like. We took naps, went swimming, exercised in the gym, had lunch on the dining room patio, and also Emma would collect the boys to do fun activities, like track molding, fishing, and painting the vehicle. In the afternoon, we’d meet in the dining room for high tea, and then head out on our evening game drive for several more hours. When we moved our drives to 3pm, we missed high tea, which was at 4pm.

Once we returned from evening game drive around 7 or 7:30pm, we went back to the room, did a quick change and freshened up, and then headed to dinner. After dinner we were usually so tired that we went straight to bed and then did it all again the next day! Also, on some of these long game drives, the boys definitely got tired and fell asleep. There were long stretches of time when we were driving and not seeing many animals, so the boys would curl up in the blankets and fall asleep, and it was a perfect way for them to spend that part of the drive. The lodge also always packed snacks and drinks for us to eat while we were out! Many groups would stop at certain lookout points to have a drink or a snack, and that was offered to us everyday, but we decided to skip that and just snack on the go so we could explore more of the reserve and see more animals. But there was so much flexibility and they were so prepared and accommodating on all levels!

Did you choose your driver and tracker? We did not. They were assigned to us, and we got so lucky to have been paired with the most incredible team. Emma is one of two drivers at Phinda Mountain Lodge who specializes in family/kid safaris. She wants to be a school teacher someday and open a school in the bush, but in the meantime, she is creating the most amazing memories for families who visit the lodge. She is always teamed up with Bethuel, the tracker, and he was phenomenal. So kind and sweet to the boys, and so skilled at helping us find so many animals. They truly MADE the trip for us. Most trips don’t have this element of relationships — you have tour guides for a few hours, or meet other travelers, but this was five days of spending almost a full day with these two amazing people, so we came to love and trust them, and it was so sad to say goodbye at the end of our stay! If you ever go on a safari at Phinda Mountain Lodge, I hope you get Emma and Bethuel too.

Did you have to wear neutral colors or was that a personal choice?  I was shocked at how many questions I got about this! It was 100% a personal choice. There were no guidelines about what we could or could not wear, but I never like to dress like a tourist when I travel. I like to fit in and I think it makes your photos and videos turn out so much better. I picked up a couple of new things for myself, but most did mix and match outfits from neutral pieces already in my closet. I bought the boys and PW a few things, but all items they can continue to wear. I’ll be sharing links to everything in a separate post later this week!

Was this a good time of year to visit? It was! They’re heading into winter in South Africa, so the weather is cooling, but it’s been VERY rainy this year, much more than usual. The only downside to the rain was that we couldn’t off-road if it had rained within 24 hours, so if an animal went off the road, we were unable to follow. The had received a TON of rain the week before we got there, so the roads were a disaster with tons of potholes. But the weather was nice and not too hot, and that made our trip so much better when we weren’t sweaty and miserable all day on our game drives. I’d for sure recommend going when it’s cooler.

Was this a good trip for kids? Any tips for navigating it with kids? Yes, absolutely! With any of our trips, we make a big effort to prepare our kids. I think it’s a major disservice to kids when they go into a big trip like this totally blind without any expectations. We do this for Disney World, New York City, Hawaii…literally anywhere we go! If we don’t prepare them, it doesn’t give them a chance to really appreciate it or understand it or even get excited about it. We looked at lots of pictures, several videos of the lodge we were staying at, and I purchased a few books that we read together and separately to learn about the animals and the safari. We’ve been reading THIS BOOK “Don’t Look Behind You” for the last few weeks before bedtime, and it’s stories from an African safari guide. It’s filled with sweet and funny and heartbreaking stories, and we’ve loved it. We didn’t finish in time for our trip, but actually I’ve loved coming home and reading it again with a new perspective and able to imagine everything a little better.

The other books I purchased were: Flat Stanley’s African Safari Discovery, The African Safari: An Introduction to Africa’s Indigenous Animals, and The Ultimate Book of African Animals.

Were you scared of the animals being so close? I was only nervous one time, and that was when we happened upon a herd of elephants, and one curious one started coming for our vehicle as we slowly reversed. Our driver was calm and collected, but driving backward to get out of there, with trees on all sides and driving on a dirt road made me feel a little nervous. Thankfully the elephant eventually got bored and wandered off, but it got my heart beating pretty fast. None of the other animals showed any aggression at all, and our driver, Emma, and tracker, Bethuel, were very quick to assure us we were safe all the time, and they were prepared to get away if they saw any signs of danger. They’re all highly trained in animal behavior, so they could tell if the animals were agitated at all. They also have worked very hard to get the animals used to the vehicles and see them as a non threatening unit. When we were around certain animals, the tracker, who usually sits on the seat in the front of the vehicle’s hood, had to get inside the vehicle for safety. We were also asked not to stand up around certain animals, or make loud noises. They taught us these things as we went around, and we were all careful to respect the animals and their habitats.

What safety precautions did they take on the safari? Each of the vehicles carry a rifle with them in the case of severe danger, but Emma said that they have many other things that they can do before they would ever resort to using the rifle.

What camera did you use? Only my iPhone!

Packing list? I’m sharing my entire packing list, what suitcases we brought, requirements for weight and size, and all my outfits this Friday on the blog!

Is there anything you’d do differently next time? The only thing I’d do differently is add on two more nights at the reserve. I felt like we had plenty of time in Cape Town, although I would have loved one more day at the Mount Nelson hotel, but the safari itself went by so quickly and I would have preferred more time there. Four nights was absolutely plenty, I just loved it so much I could have stayed for several more days. Besides that, it was truly perfect.

 

Now here are a ton of photos from our time there!

 

boys safari elephant
binoculars Foster safari
elephant
merrick and philip safari jeep
merrick safari giraffe
boys fossils south africa safari
safari cheetahs
safari cheetahs
safari plane
zebras
merrick safari phinda mountain lodge
giraffe
boys safari
sanny sleeping safari
male lion
emma and bethuel safari driver and tracker
boys painting vehicle safari
boys painting vehicle safari
boma dinner safari
baby lion cubs
safari elephant skull
flat tire safari
cape town ferris wheel
boys on top of table mountain
penguins merrick merrick white collection dress
cape of good hope family

5 Comments

  1. Dabs says:

    Was there a particular reason you wanted to avoid vax/malaria pills? I thought it might due to not enough time to get it in but you said you booked this 18 months out.

  2. Kate says:

    Was gratuity for the driver and tracker included, or expected? what other staff did you need to tip? if gratuity was appropriate, how did you take care of that? (in their currency? through &Beyond?)

  3. Naomi says:

    I was so excited to see this! We moved from oregon to south africa almost two years ago now and we want to plan a trip to kruger national park! We’ve been on small safaris but would love to elephants in the wild! Thanks for the thorough post.

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