Traveling to South Africa is no small feat. For international travelers flying into South Africa, it can take anywhere between ten to twenty hours or more! People fly from all over the world to visit South Africa to experience animals in their natural habitat, drink delicious wines in Cape Town, or to take an epic road trip throughout South Africa. The reasons people want to visit are endless, but one thing you should know before visiting South Africa is how to successfully fly to and from there.
We spent a combined ten nights in South Africa and Zambia. During that time we flew eight times!!! We flew to and from Johannesburg, within game reserves in South Africa and Zambia. Therefore, we encountered a lot of flight and traveling situations unlike any we have ever experienced in our traveling careers. So I created this post is to help all the world travelers flying to South Africa and other countries to/in Africa. My tips are from our own experience in South Africa (at several airports) and Zambia.
So, before you do your happy dance…
Check out these tips that can help you on your next trip to Africa!
Table of Contents
Make Copies of Your Passport
Before you leave home, make copies of your passport. When you arrive to your hotel keep your passport copy in the safe and your original passport with you at all times. You never know when someone will ask to see it and if anything bad were to happen, you will always have a backup.
Always Keep the Small Boarding Pass
Every airline in every country is different. For the United States, when we hand the flight clerk at the counter our ticket, they scan it and either give our ticket back to us, or they may keep it. Then we walk to the plane and find our seat and wait for take off. This is not the case in Africa. When you hand your ticket to the flight clerk at the counter they will rip off the ticket by the divider and hand back the smaller portion. Keep this small ticket with you all the way until you finally take your seat because they ask for it when you arrive at the plane. Then a flight attendant verifies it by looking at it and directing you to where your seat is. In some cases it is helpful on the big planes that have two rows, but in most other cases the plane is small and we really do not know what the purpose is.
Always Have Your Passport Ready
The same thing from above applies here. You are constantly asked to show your passport from security checkpoint one (sometimes again at another checkpoint), to when you hand your ticket and lastly when you board the plane. It is easier to just always hold your passport securely in your hand until you sit in your seat rather than putting it away and retrieving it constantly.
A Small Travel Document Holder Will Be Your Lifesaver
If we did not have our American Express travel document holder, we would have been a hot mess! It can be a small bag, pouch or folder. By day 4 in Africa we had about 8 previous tickets and a lot of documents that we needed to keep with us at all times, such as, insurance, yellow fever card and more. Having the document bag is great because it keeps everything in one place and you can easily keep it safe in your backpack when you do not need it.
Airport Lounges Will Become Your Best Friend
Every airport and terminal we were in had a lounge that we were able to use, including small airports like Kruger International Airport. Having access to airport lounges is awesome for budget travelers because every lounge has free Wi-Fi, food, drinks and yes, alcohol! We highly recommend the Priority Pass (get it for free with Chase Sapphire Reserve – click here to read how to get your card), we were able to use our pass at every airport. We really cannot stress how much of a lifesaver this was to us. We never had to struggle to find a seat in the terminal and never had to fight over an outlet to charge a device.
Arrive to the Airport 2 Hours Beforehand, No Matter What!
We were told one hour before is enough time, but we found ourselves always rushing and getting confused, ESPECIALLY at O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB). Even at Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport in Livingston, Zambia – a very small airport, we had to arrive two hours early. The airports themselves are not gigantic but the staff told us wrong directions several times at O.R. Tambo and nearly had us miss some flights. While at Harry Mwanga it took a long time to check in because the line was very long and they had very few staff members available. So, whether its a big or small airport, always arrive two hours beforehand – you never know what you can encounter.
When in Doubt, Trust Your Ticket
If your gate number changes before you arrive at your original gate, go to the original gate and ask the flight clerks if it really changed. We had two experiences when the TVs changed either our flight time or gate number, and both times the TV was wrong. We found ourselves running and sweating our way through airport terminals in utter panic that we would miss our boarding because our ticket said gate A14, but the TV said gate E20 – completely different directions. We also almost went back to our airport lounge when a TV displayed our flight was delayed, but after we asked a clerk, we learned that it was actually on time. Trust your ticket and then ask questions!
Turn Your Phone Off!
We are not sure what it is about flying in Africa, but nine times out of ten, we were asked to turn our phones completely off – airport mode was not acceptable. When the flight attendants announce to turn your phone off, DO IT! We experienced a traveler (sitting right behind us) and a flight attendant get into a riff because the traveler was not turning his phone off when asked. The flight attendant did not leave his sight and kept demanding he turn off his phone right there and then. It was really unnerving to see and hear it, so don’t make a scene, turn your phone off!
Disinfection Spray While Onboard
Do not be alarmed when the flight attendants go down the aisle spraying a disinfectant. They will warn you beforehand as they may go down the aisle more than once because they must spray an entire can. The disinfection spray is not a pleasant smell, so travelers are advised to cover their mouth. It is not harmful to humans, but strictly a protocol all airlines must abide by from the World Health Organization. “All International and Regional services operating in and out of the Republic of South Africa must be disinfected according to the “blocks away” method at the last point of call prior to leaving and entering South Africa (travelstart source).”
You Will Never Go Hungry!
With the exception of our flights to and from our lodge, we always received food! We are not talking about your small bag of pretzels or peanuts, we are talking about meals. Even on our flight from Johannesburg to Livingstone, which was only an 1 ½ hour flight, we were served a hot lunch meal. Christina is a picky eater and even she enjoyed the food (most of the time).
ALL of our main flights offered complimentary wine! It was not cheap wine either, it was good South African wine. If you are not feeling like drinking wine, ask your flight attendant if they have mango-orange juice – it is so delicious!!!!
Goodbye Jetway, Hello Tarmac
For most of your flights, the plane will be parked on the tarmac. For the larger airports, after you hand your ticket to the flight clerk (remember to hold onto it), you will take a bus onto the tarmac and then walk up a flight of stairs to board the plane. After you land the same thing applies, walk down steps, board a bus and then you arrive at the airport terminal. For the smaller planes we sometimes walked out the doors and the plane was waiting just a few yards away from us on the tarmac. It was definitely a more unique way of boarding and departing a plane – it was a cool experience.
Expect Things to go Wrong
We either experienced a lot of bad luck, or this is normal when flying in Africa. Not including our flights to and from D.C. to Johannesburg, but four out of our six flights were always delayed because of various reasons. Christina has a co-worker from Liberia, Africa and she even said that everyone in Africa will always try and book direct flights because things always go wrong. Some things you cannot control, so just be aware that your flights may be delayed quite often.
Check With Your Smallest Aircraft For Their Luggage Protocol
As we stated early in this article, most travelers fly to Africa to enjoy safaris. With that being said, travelers often fly to main cities and then take smaller aircrafts to their respected airports near their safari game reserves. So, if you are flying within Africa, check with your airline’s baggage allowance, especially the smallest aircraft. We were only allowed one duffel bag each with no wheels and had to be smaller than 24 inches. Do not let your vacation be ruined because you cannot bring your suitcase full of your belongings on the plane!
Do Not Forget To Add Your Points!
We were able to receive points/miles for every flight we took. Every point and mile counts, so do not forget to add them to your account to go towards that free flight!
I hope these tips were helpful for you on your trip to Africa! We came across all of these without any prior information and wanted to help the next person to not have to go through any stressful situations we went through. If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to comment below.