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Hey everyone! It’s been a while. I just got back from a 3-week trip to Africa, and it was incredible! My husband and I spent half of our time in South Africa on safari, and the other half on the beach of a tiny island called Mauritius. I’ve wanted to visit Africa for as long as I can remember (and have already determined that I’ll need to go back many more times, and possibly live there in the future), so this was really a dream come true for me and exceeded any expectations I had for the experience. You can find pictures of all of the adventures and the cute animals (including babies!) on my Instagram.

Today I want to walk through all things MONEY related to this trip! This is a finance blog, after all.

Before we went
We started planning for this trip in January during our annual budgeting process, and had booked and paid for everything well in advance of our departure. We opted for travel insurance and paid extra for pregnancy coverage. Pregnancy coverage is not always a given on standard travel insurance policies so when you’re shopping around, make sure this addendum is added if it’s applicable to you. Basically if I was to conceive a child after the policy was purchased, I would be fully reimbursed for the cost of the trip. Since we planned to spend close to $25,000 on this vacation, it was worth it to us to insure it fully for a nominal additional expense. We also booked the safari portion of the trip through a travel agency, but for future trips to Africa and elsewhere we feel comfortable just booking ourselves. For the portion where we did use a travel agent, we did price comparisons with the quoted rates vs. what we could book ourselves, and when it made more sense, we booked airfare and hotels on our own. While travel agencies occasionally have access to deals that are not publicly available, they do not always necessarily have the best rates on everything, so just double check before agreeing to anything. Another caveat here was we wanted to minimize our commuting time and knew we’d be too jet lagged to want to go out in the city during our layovers, so we opted for less expensive hotels by the airports on commuting days, and opted for more expensive direct flights to our lodge to avoid lengthy ground transfers. Just know the ins and outs of your own trip itinerary and how it aligns with your preferences, and make sure whatever is booked is what you really want – that’s the whole point!

Getting there
We flew to and from Johannesburg on Delta, paid for in part by the miles earned with the Platinum Skymiles credit card. A quick note on this card, and cards in general: DO NOT sign up for a credit card just to get the bonus prize if you’re going to end up carrying a balance on the card, or if you won’t “naturally” spend enough to hit the required threshold. If you’re going to spend the money on things you need to buy anyway, and can pay your balance in full each month, then go for it. I generally don’t go for cards that have an annual fee (and did cancel this card after securing the “Welcome Bonus”) but in this case, Delta was running a promotion offering 60K bonus miles for opening the card, which is a lot. They typically bump up the promotional value at year-end to get that last flurry of sign-ups and boost their metrics for the year, so if you can hang in there till Christmas, you might get a better deal. It ALSO included a companion pass and a $200 travel voucher as touted benefits at the time, so it more than paid for itself even with the fee the first year. Our roundtrip tickets to Africa were 80K miles per person, so this made a huge difference! As I mentioned, I cancelled the card before it was set to renew, because I knew I would not spend enough money on the card to justify the annual fee going forward. I used my $200 travel voucher to book my ticket to FinCon2017, which I’m very excited about! If you’re going to be there too, hit me up! Lastly, with the credit cards, we usually open them periodically when there’s a great promotional deal and we leave them open but do not carry a balance. This works great as a way to get free stuff if you already have good credit, but I do not recommend it for people who are working on rebuilding damaged credit or who are planning on making a major purchase on credit in the near future (like a house or a car) because the inquiries can look a bit overwhelming on a credit report. So just use cards at your discretion and know your limits.

On safari in South Africa, we stayed at Simbambili Game Lodge and it was worth every penny to us. In advance of our trip, a number of people asked where we were planning to stay on safari. When we shared the link to the lodge, more often than not we were met with utter bewilderment at the price tag (or the popular question, “is that per night, or per week?”). So this is a great time to pause and explain the thought process here, because it is extremely important for people to understand. Not because I’m worried about other people judging us (like I have time for that mess), but because my entire job as a money coach is to help people reconcile their goals and values with their financial objectives. Specifically, I value adventure and security almost equally, and both very highly overall. Adventure edges security out by a very small margin, but all that means is I’m willing to invest heavily in supporting both of these values in my life. The Beyond Budgeting Money Bootcamp course I developed, in addition to my 1-on-1 work with clients aims to reconcile the disparity between what we value and what we use money for.

So when it came time to go on a massive adventure I’ve waited my entire life for, I wanted to also make sure we were safe and were getting the most out of our time there. After extensive research we chose this lodge, and could not have been more thrilled with the experience. Not a single detail was overlooked, and it was extremely luxurious and exclusive without being the least bit stuffy. We had expert rangers and trackers guiding us on private drives through Sabi Sand Game Reserve every day along with extensive bush walks, and we got to see rare animals that even lifelong residents of South Africa have never seen (think wild dogs, pangolins, and more!). The staff at the lodge were incredible, and they even threw a surprise birthday party for me one night, knowing this was the impetus for our trip. That said, it’s important to point out that just because this was the perfect place for us, does not mean it would be perfect for everyone. We allocated enough money and chose a length of time we would be comfortable staying for (7 nights, which actually set a record apparently) without breaking the bank. We also knew what kind of experience we wanted to have, which everyone should be clear on before they invest in any sort of trip or event. We actually were a few thousand dollars under budget overall, so we were able to just kick back and enjoy.

In fact, it was because we were under budget overall that we jumped at the opportunity to go on a private helicopter ride through Blyde River Canyon, the largest green canyon in the world. When we looked at the price sheet we opted for the longer tour that included lunch and champagne overlooking the waterfalls. I mean, WHAT? So fancy. And I’d never been in a helicopter before, so this seemed like a really rare, very cool opportunity. We quickly did the currency conversion in our heads and thought the $300 price tag was incredible for everything we were getting. We jumped at the opportunity and locked in our reservation.

The next morning I woke up excited about the upcoming game drive and the helicopter trip that was immediately to follow. I visualized the price sheet again in my head, then jumped out of bed immediately realizing I had done the currency conversion incorrectly.

Our fancy helicopter ride was $3,000, which is significantly different from $300.

I woke my husband up and we both briefly lamented how we could make such a massive error (we’re both finance people, after all … I blame the lunchtime Chardonnay). We quickly got over it though when we remembered that a) we were massively under budget for the trip that we had b) paid cash for with plenty of money to spare and c) we recognized that it was unlikely we would ever have this opportunity again. So we took a collective deep breath, agreed not to frantically try to cancel our reservation mere hours before our departure, and decided to just enjoy the experience. It ended up being completely amazing and it was a great lesson for us; if we had realized upfront what the price tag was, we probably would have declined even though we had the money. After the fact, we felt completely sure that it was well worth the actual price tag, and upon further research it was pretty much in line with what helicopter rides typically cost, which we had no concept of before this trip. So while that initial sticker shock knocked me off balance for a moment, there was a quick recovery, a good lesson learned, and an overall amazing experience. Can’t ask for more than that! What’s important here is this:

When we leave room in our minds, hearts and wallets for magic to unfold, we are always going to be rewarded.

We were able to say yes to an unexpected opportunity for adventure without worrying about whether we would be okay financially, because we didn’t overextend ourselves with the trip we’d planned in the first place. The same goes for buying a house, a car or anything major…leave yourself some breathing room and watch what happens. When it came time for us to leave Simbambili we debated staying and just secretly living under the deck of the lodge as the new resident trolls, but we ultimately knew it was time to move on to Phase II of our trip.

I used SPG Cash + Points to pay for our 8-night stay at the St. Regis Mauritius Resort. We could have booked entirely using points (some of which came from the SPG Credit Card during a year-end promotion where they offered more points than usual), but at the time that we booked, we got a better $-per-point conversion using the Cash + Points option than using Points alone. So now I have plenty of points left over for when we go to Spain (current tentative plan) in January – yay!

All of the water sports we wanted to participate in were included in the room rate, so we just had to pay for food and any “extra” activities we wanted to do. Our anniversary was several months ago and since the theme was “cotton” we opted for something a little more creative than new sheets. We decided our joint anniversary gift would be a sunset sailing dinner cruise around the island (cotton –> linen –> canvas –> sail –> sailboat –> dinner cruise on the Indian Ocean… see what I did there?). So we found out what it would cost, planned for it, and skipped anniversary gifts on the actual day this year. When you get creative and communicate with your partner about shared financial decisions, you can usually do a lot more cool stuff than if you just go rogue and buy sheets to commemorate your second anniversary because society tells you to!

Coming home
We flew home again from Mauritius to Philadelphia on South African Airways and Delta, and with lengthy layovers and some mechanical issues, it took about 46 hours door-to-door. In hindsight, I probably should have booked Business Class tickets instead of Coach, but I was feeling ambitious at the time and wanted to conserve airline miles. It was too many long flights in a row though for that to have been a wise decision, so now I know for next time! We plan to fly First Class on British Airways to Madrid in January, so when the time comes I’ll detail how we plan to use points for most of that trip.

Now that you’ve made it all the way to the end, here are a few photos as a reward! Again, you’ll find many more on my Instagram. Now I’m curious to know what big thing you’re saving money for and what it will mean for you to have it – let me know in the comments!

Picnic midway through our helicopter tour of Blyde River Canyon

Rainbow on our last day in Mauritius – incredible!

ANIMALS! Many more on my Instagram.

Secretly snapped a photo of my husband during our private sailing trip around the island