Protea Hotel Kruger Gate – a Marriott Rewards Sweet Spot

IMG_9454

Long before discovering points and miles as a method to travel, my wife and I had a shared dream trip: a safari. I think it’s the child within — the chance to see lions and leopards and elephants in their natural habitats rekindles the amazement of seeing them on TV for the first time as kids.

It’s hard to describe the difference between watching Animal Planet and finding those scenes play out in real life in front of your eyes, but suffice it to say that after two trips the magic hasn’t died.  Last month, we returned to Kruger National Park in South Africa for the second time and felt like kids in a candy store as we drove ourselves around the park watching for wildlife and snapping photos along the way. I am no J.M. Hoffman, but the diversity in Kruger park is wonderful and makes it hard not to take a few pictures you like.  You can see elephants playing in the water:

42

Or lions…..lying:

140

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

Or maybe even stumble on a leopard:

IMG_9448

Sightings are abundant.  With a few days, some patience, and a good eye, you’re likely to find a little bit of everything.

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

A warthog playing with the kids at the pool

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

IMG_9125

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

IMG_8794

77

If you’ve looked at safari packages before, you’ve probably assumed that it would be a major expense.  And it can be — luxury safari packages can easily run in the thousands and may be the right choice depending on your budget and desires. On the other end of the spectrum, you can rent a bungalow in one of the many rest camps within Kruger National Park for just about $100 a night (or camp for quite a bit less).  Bungalows are simple and typically clean enough, though on our last night this time around we did find a scorpion in our bathroom in the middle of the night:

scorpion

And that led us to find an opportunity to enjoy everything Kruger park has to offer while sleeping cheap on points: The Protea Hotel Kruger Gate, a Category 1 Marriott Rewards property.  Sitting just 100m from the Paul Kruger gate, the location of this hotel can not be beat. All of the photos taken above were within a day’s drive from the hotel.

Cash rates at the Protea Kruger Gate can often easily exceed $200 a night, making 7500 Marriott points (or 2500 Starpoints converted to Marriott) a good value redemption:

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

The lobby looked very promising — completely open-air:

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

As this hotel sits literally 100m from the Paul Kruger entrance gate, it is surrounded by animal life and includes a nice nature walk:

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

You can get a spa treatment under one of roofs to the left, listening to monkeys swinging in the trees or watching zebra pass by.

There are monkeys playing in the nearby trees/structures:

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

And sometimes even running across the dinner tables as they set up:

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

You can’t see any running across the tables here, and when we were eating dinner an hour later, we were happy to be in denial as well.

The room itself looked decent:

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

But the problem here is that each room opens to the outdoor hallways, and the two rooms we saw both included a gap between the door and frame that can allow something like, say, a 3-inch spider into the room. To be fair, we only found one such spider and the hotel offered to have the room cleaned again. We took them up on it and didn’t see another insect while we were there — but in a Malaria zone with venomous spiders and scorpions, I would expect a $250-a-night hotel to have doors that close a bit better.

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

Another potential disadvantage to the Protea would be that your access to the park will be about an hour behind those staying within the park (camp gates open earlier than park gates).  Still, the ability to self-drive within the park means that you can choose your own path and adventure in search of the wildlife you hope to find.  While some say that the crowds at Kruger can detract from the experience in comparison to some lesser-visited safari locations, we didn’t find this to be the case during our two trips. In fact, we drove for hours at a time without seeing anyone — though lion sightings do tend to draw a handful of cars.

In the end, the biggest surprise for me on this trip was having access to the wild world above while staying at a Marriott Rewards property. The Protea Hotel Kruger Gate may not be perfect, but I found it to be perfectly well worth 7500 Marriott points. Better yet, convert Starpoints to stay for just 2500 Starpoints per night.  The current signup bonus on the Amex SPG cards would be enough to spend two weeks on safari at this property.  While that’s probably not what I’d do with all of those Starpoints, it’s a pretty strong value nonetheless.

One thing the Protea Hotel Kruger gate did reasonably well: dinner. The Protea’s dinner buffet was large, diverse, and pretty tasty even if a bit expensive compared to the restaurants within the park (neither breakfast nor dinner are included when redeeming points):

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

Grilled meats, including Kudu, pork sausage, chicken, etc.

Marriott Protea Hotel Kruger Gate Marriott Rewards sweet spot

Pasta Station with various sauces

163

Dessert Station

And the wildlife viewing in Kruger National Park is amazing. We will definitely be back again (this was our second trip to Kruger in 13 months), and when we go back we will likely use Starwood/Marriott points to stay at the Protea Hotel Kruger Gate.  If your travels take you to South Africa, check out what Marriott has to offer — Protea may surprise you!

About Nick Reyes

Nick Reyes is a (fairly) regular guy with an animalistic passion for maximizing the value of miles and money to travel the world in comfort and style. There is little in life that he loves more than finding a fantastic deal and helping you shop smarter & harder to achieve your travel dreams.

More articles by Nick Reyes »

Pingbacks

Comments

    • I couldn’t find my folio, so I just called to ask. Dinner is 260 rand per person — about $20. To put that in perspective, I took photos of the entire menu at the Mugg & Bean restaurant at Lower Sabie. Most of the entrees, which were pretty substantial and varied, were between 50-80 rand, with the most expensive platter being 160 and the most expensive bottle of wine 139. Mixed drinks like a pina colada or margarita were about 50 rand (~$3.88). So 260 per person at the Protea without your drink included was steep comparatively. Still, I didn’t find it ridiculous for amount of food on the buffet.

      Breakfast was 195 — about $15.12. I did not eat breakfast and probably wouldn’t as you’ll want to be in the park and driving at that time. We just stopped at a rest camp for breakfast. At the Mugg & Bean, a Croque Monsieur/Madame was 49.90 rand, a 3-egg design-your-own omelet was 34.90 rand, a pineapple manana and coconut smoothie bowl was 36.90 rand….a bottomless coffee 21.90 rand. I couldn’t have eaten 195 rand worth of food if I wanted to.

      Enjoy your trip — definitely a favorite of mine!

  1. Nice pictures. I was never sure when I saw a leopard if it was a leopard or a cheetah. They look alike to me.
    I stayed in a “luxury” tent just outside the gate 6 months ago. Best part about the accomodations was the evening brai where all the tenters got together to eat and share sighting stories.

    • Sounds fantastic! Do you know which one it was that you stayed at?

      Leopard vs. Cheetah: cheetahs have a line on either side of the face. It almost looks like two long tears. That’s the easiest way to tell. After seeing both, the coats are also more different than I had ever realized from pictures. The leopard almost has a glimmer to its coat like snow in bright light, whereas the cheetah has a more yellow/matte appearance (just my total unprofessional analysis there….both were beautiful animals!)

      • Cheetahs are skinny as hell compared to leopards. Also the spots on leopards look more like camo where the spots on a cheetah are definite spots and are more of a contrast with their regular coat color.

  2. Will you take tape for the cracks in the doors? Looks like a great bargain except those cracks would be a concern for me. Did you have any mosquitoes in the room?

    • Not a bad idea on the tape. Can’t really keep the door taped when you’re not there and I did see housekeeping cleaning with doors propped open, but it might give you peace of mind at night.

      We saw one spider shortly after checking in. After they re-cleaned the room, we didn’t see any other insect at all in the room. There were some mosquitoes at dinner since it was an outdoor barbeque. Not an outrageous amount – they had pretty powerful lights pointed upwards that seemed to keep most of the bugs overhead actually.

      During the entire trip, we seemed more concerned about mosquitoes than anyone else, with a lot of people wearing shorts and short sleeves. We kept arms and legs covered and used repellent.

      • Thank you – glad you enjoyed. I’ll work on putting that together. The short version of the story is that I got there on United miles — while not necessarily the cheapest way to Africa, I had a bunch of UA miles to use. I used 92.5K miles altogether — 80K is the price for one-way business class to South Africa (plus about $80 in taxes if memory serves correctly, but I’d have to double check). I flew Lufthansa EWR-MUC and then South African Airways MUC-JNB-CPT and spent time in Cape Town and driving up to Durban and then Kruger.

        The other 12.5K was to get a free one-way. I used the method you’ll find explained here to get a free one-way:

        http://liveandletsfly.boardingarea.com/2016/10/12/united-award-routing-restrictions/

        Essentially, I added a one-way domestic US leg on my ticket so I could get a free one-way within a region — I used it to get from Johannesburg to Maputo, Mozambique to pick up the next part of my trip. That flight wasn’t very expensive as a cash ticket, but for 12.5K miles more than I was going to spend already, I was able to get that flight and a domestic US one-way, which was a deal for me.

        It wasn’t easy to get that ticketed — it took a few phone calls and some patience on my end, but I got it there.

        I’ll work on putting something together to run down the other options for getting to South Africa for fewer points as well as more info on the costs of food and lodging within the park. Thanks for the suggestion!

        • Would you also write a piece on the driving part, i.e. from Cape Town to Durban and then to Kruger?

          We have a very similar plan this coming Sept – After Cape Town (our 3rd visit so this time would only be 2 days) we would drive the coastal route then Garden Rote, eventually the East Coast to Durban and onto Swaziland. Still debating if we would return to Kruger – may be entering from the South and exit from the North. We have the Wild Card bought last Sept so we will use it on the upcoming trip before it expires.

          Therefore would really look forward to an article on this driving part if you would write it!

          South Africa is an amazing country and it is probably the best bang for the travel money even the exchange rate has gone back up some.

          On our first trip in March 2015 we redeemed US miles wen it first joined OneWorld and flew QR. The exchange rate was 10 to 11 Rand, for US$1.
          We went to Mountain Zebra NP and Addo Elephant NP – both are north of Port Elizabeth. While they dont have big cats, the other animals are no less than Kruger. Mountain Zebra’s rest camp facilities are much better than those found in Kruger, and cheaper!
          We used the stopover at Istanbul but we actually bought TK’s dirt cheap domestic tickets to Adana, from where we started a 7 days driving trip to visit Cappadochia and then back down to the Med and Aegean coast. Returned our car at Bodrum. Flew to IST for 4 days and then back to US. Too bad the Turkey part probably would be fairly unsafe to do now.

          Our second trip in Sept 2016 was a straight AS redemption with stopover at HKG both direction. This time we went to Kruger. Then to Cape Town for 6 days.

          On both trips we bought tickets on the JNB-CPT shuttle flights from Kulula.com, the LCC under Comair which is owned 100% by BA. Cheaper than redeeming Avios, except the JNB-PLZ we used Avios.

          Our third trip will be in Sept 2017. Outbound on AA award flying QR to CPT. Then do the drive in reverse order from our first trip. Go to Swaziland, (my cruise agent told me she saw much more big cats there than in Kruger).
          Inbound is an AS award JNB-HKG-LAX-SEA-SLC, with stopover at HKG. Then tag on a 10 days trip in the Rockies.

  3. Love tme photos. What focal lengths are a lot of these photos being taken with? Some of these look like you are close enough to reach out and touch the animals

    • Thanks! Most of the photos were taken with a Sigma 150-600mm contemporary on a crop-sensor Canon T3i. A few of the photos were taken with the older Canon 55-250mm lens.

      Many of the animals were very close — for example, that leopard was sitting right next to the road. We stopped the car and it walked right out in front of us and across the road right in front of our car. The close-up of its face was a bit further away — it was taken at 335mm, though factoring in the crop sensor that’s more like 536.

      One of the things I love about Kruger is how you will often find wildlife right near or even in the road sometimes. One day, there was a male and female lion just sitting in the middle of the road. We stopped 70 or 80 yards away and watched them for a while. Eventually, they got up and walked directly at us and by the car. You could have reached out and touched the male — though we certainly didn’t have the window down for fear he might have the same thought about us :-). As they passed by my wife’s window, the male let out a small roar — nothing aggressive, just letting her know who was in charge I think. It was a low, deep sound that I’m sure we’ll remember for a long time.

      I’d say that the farthest animal in those particular pictures would have been the cheetahs. They were probably 30 or 40 yards away initially — though one got up and marked his territory and then walked over to the road and sat down directly across from us.

      Long story short, the viewing is as good as it appears.

  4. We took our 3 boys to South Africa for a safari last March. We stayed at a ‘luxury’ safari place (Phinda) and it was FANTASTIC, but pricey. We used United miles for our 5 tickets on South African Airways, however, which really helped with the costs. I cannot recommend a safari enough. We don’t typically plan to return to our destinations as we like new experiences, but I have no doubt that another safari is in our future.

  5. The time of year has a lot to do with bugs…we were in South Africa [Sabi Sands] in mid September which is late winter, early spring and there were few mosquitoes or other bugs about.

    We stayed at a Protea in Johannesburg for 3 nights…Fire and Ice – Melrose Arch. It was a lovely hotel in a great area with lots of excellent restaurants. This was in 2015 when Marriott had just taken over Protea. No points at that time, sadly.

    The one thing to consider, and this shouldn’t deter anyone from what looks like a great way to use points — Kruger, being a Public/National park, you must stay on the roads; that is, you cannot follow or search for animals. In Sabi Sands [as in other private reserves that border Kruger] you can go off road. But you can’t self drive, so I guess it’s a trade off.

    I too have wonderful photos of what is probably the best trip I have ever taken, and that includes some grand trips elsewhere. Seeing the wildlife was life changing, truly a bucket list item.

    FYI – we flew from NY to JNB on Etihad via Abbu Dahbi on the error airfare of Dec 2014. It was $300 TR each!! We did take advantage of the option to bid for an upgrade to business and got it for $1100 pp each leg.

  6. Did you do anything else on this trip or just Kruger? Would love to see your full itinerary, including all hotel stays. Just love this post!!!!!

    • Thanks! Yes, we did quite a few things :-). We just returned to the US yesterday and have been traveling since January 18th. I’ll definitely have a couple more posts on some of the other places you might want to check out. Thanks for reading!

  7. Noticed that the inline images are huge files, scaled down for display. This is pretty punishing for mobile users. You might want to consider generating scaled-down images for the blog post and linking to full-res originals.

  8. Worth to mention is, the cash rates you post, are half-board rates. It include breakfast and dinner. However 7500 pts award night does NOT include any meal plan. Not sure if one could buy it.

    We stayed at Protea Kruger Gate before and after our 4 days inside Kruger. We checked out the buffet offerings but did not like what we saw – it was almost 7pm (we exit the park at the nick of the time at 6pm) the restaurant was not “officially” opened for business, probably due to the big tour groups haven’t returned yet. We asked to see what were offered – most everything was out and covered with shrink wrapped but they did not look appetizing. So we passed.

    We did take Malaria prevention pills before heading to the area. No matter which month you go, you should take the prevention pill even it is not really 100% prevention. There are reports of infections among the workers who do not care when out and about (not wearing long sleeves/long pants). So if a mosquito bit an infected person and later bit you, you would be in danger.

    You are very lucky to see Leopard and the very illusive Cheetah.

    We went in Sept. Only saw Leopard once, he was atop of a tree after finished his meal. We got the news when we arrived Satara rest camp and checking the board on reported sightings. A couple told us they saw the Leopard killed, just about 30 min drive and inside a dirt road for about 2 to 3 km. So off we went and found it was still there but now up a tree. Plenty of vehicles waiting around to get a close glimpse though.

    Did not see Cheetah but saw 2 groups of Wild Dogs at different locations – one quite near Skukuza main camp.

    Kruger is amazing but I think Swaziland would be even more so as the parks there are much smaller so the driving would be far less in order to see games – to us it is more efficient to use the limited time any visitors from far away countries.

    • We rented from Avis. You don’t need anything special — some of the roads are dirt, but as long as you drive slowly, you’ll be OK. The first time around, we rented a mini of some sort. This time, we got a very small SUV/crossover type vehicle — but it doesn’t really matter. If an elephant decides to sit on your SUV, you’ll in just as much trouble as if you had a small hatchback.

      I rented one-way from Avis in Cape Town, but you can pick up a rental right at the Skukuza airport within the park if memory serves me correctly (I believe there is an Avis there).

      • Yes, the rental car facility at Skukuza airport is an Avis.

        We too, rented Avis on both trips. Talked about the possibility of an elephant decided to sit on your car – we were very wary about this at the Addo Elephant NP when a big group of elephants walked pass us – our little corolla was the first car on one direction, and the other direction the first car was a small jeep. The elephants walked so close that I could not take their full pictures from my passenger seat because their bodies covered the whole windshield. My husband mumbled about, “we would be toasted if they decided to sit on our car…”

  9. Looks like 40K on United for economy each way from the States (have to fly 4 ppl, so can’t do business). Could fly into Jburg and home from Cape Town (or vice versa). One way flights between those 2 cities are only $70 pp.

    Did you need to stay somewhere in addition to Marriott in order to see all of Kruger? Just looking at a map, it seems that it might be easiest to stay somewhere up north for part of the trip.

    Loving this trip. Ready to go right now!

    • You certainly *can*. The park is MASSIVE. We spent 4 nights in the rest camps and only 1 at the Protea Kruger gate — though, like I said, all of the photos above were taken within a day’s drive in and back out from the Protea hotel (albeit in different directions — you wouldn’t hit all of those locations in one day, but you could plan different routes for different days).

      While staying in the rest camps, we left the camps when they opened the gates at 4:30am (this varies depending on the time of year) and returned about 5 minutes before they closed them at 6:30pm. We stopped in a camp for breakfast and then usually drove all day and ate dinner after returning. My understanding is that the wildlife viewing in the northern end of the park is much less concentrated than the southern end, though I haven’t spent much time north of Satara. On this trip, our last night in the park was at Olyphants, where we found the scorpion. However, we saw 2 leopards within about 3 miles of the gate to that camp (including the one pictured above). The cheetahs were closer to Satara and most everything else was around Lower Sabie. If you decide to stay in the park, Lower Sabie would be my pick. Get a perimeter bungalow to have a view of the river (and hear the hippos in it and see elephants passing by now and then).

      You’re probably not going to see “all of Kruger” unless you do stay for at least a couple of weeks, but you don’t necessarily need to see all of it, either. You want to go slow and take your time looking for what you might find.

  10. Thrilled to read this post as I arrive Johanasburg in a few days for safari. Your pictures were great and we will be doing a self drive for a few days before arriving at our camp. Did you just do a transfer in Maputo or did you enter Mozambique? If you entered, did you arrange for a visa prior to your arrival? I have been reading that visa on arrival rules have been relaxed. I am very interested in your experience.

    • Glad to hear that my pictures are helping to build your excitement!

      I entered Mozambique as I flew in one day and flew out the next.

      Technically, it seems that you are supposed to get a visa in advance if you come from a country where Mozambique has an embassy.

      However, I called the embassy in Washington again and again and couldn’t get a human. The recording tells you to go to the non-working embassy website. I had read about the ability to get a visa on arrival.

      That said, the visa on arrival was not at all easy. There is a desk at the airport for visa on arrival, and it seems that the process is very easy for those from countries without an embassy/consulate. As Americans, it turned into a process that took more than 2 hours. Initially, we were told that we could not get a visa and had to stay in the airport overnight. Nobody would answer questions (nor did they even respond to us when we asked — communication was one-way). Thankfully, I had arranged for an airport pickup with our hotel and our shuttle driver took the initiative to walk all the way into immigration when we hadn’t gotten to the car and he was a people-person. He spoke with the immigration officers and after some phonecalls (presumably with the hotel) and more waiting, they took our photos and asked for our money. While everyone else who got a visa on arrival was able to pay via credit card, we were told that we had to pay in cash.

      There was also a British man next to us who was there before us and still there when we left 2 hours later because he didn’t have a paper copy of a letter he needed (I think he was there on business). He had a digital copy on his phone, but they wouldn’t accept that nor would they help him print it.

      Long story short: It’s not impossible, but it may not be easy. Maybe I just got unlucky, but I would not suggest going without a visa based on my personal experience (but YMMV). The visa is much cheaper if you get it on arrival (and especially if you pay in either South African Rand or Mozambican Meticals), but I would strongly suggest getting a visa before arrival for simplicity.

      The prices on arrival were about $80 each if paid in US Dollars, about $50 each if paid in rand, or about $25 or $30 each if paid in Meticals if I remember the prices correctly.

      Enjoy your trip!

      • I cannot thank you enough for your very detailed experience.
        While I appreciate your advice in getting a visa prior to arrival, that is no longer an option. My paperwork and local currency is complete. If difficulties arise, I will either stay in the airport or change my MAP to JNB departure. About to begin the self drive in a few hours then head to Pafuri in the far northern area of Kruger where we see Mozambiqueans cross the river border in large groups daily. Again, many thanks for your response.

      • I want to report my experience with visa on arrival at Maputo. It was a simple and quick procedure. Paperwork that was required consisted of: proof of hotel reservation, proof of plane ticket to leave Mozambique and fee which was payable in local currency, Euro, Rand, or USD of $31.00. Photos were taken there and it became part of your visa. Thank you again Nick for taking the time to explain in detail your experience. We arrived in Mozambique on March 18th and it seems that the procedure has been relaxed.

  11. One of the cool things about Kruger is also the activities. If you are staying at one of the camps you can set up ranger guided drives. They will take you on some of the off the beaten path routes that you cannot drive yourself. You can also book one of the walks which is the only way to walk around outside the camps.

    Nick, I’m curious about a couple of the shots that seem like they were taken from a pretty low perspectives (especially the lions). Were you out of your car?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *