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South African Airways review: Direct flights get you to the lions’ dens

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Going to South Africa on safari?

Perhaps visiting Cape Town and surrounding wine country too?

An obvious airline choice is South African Airways.

South African Airways Review: SAA flies from North America to South Africa and within the African continent.
South African Airways flies from North America to South Africa and within the African continent

South African Airways review

We flew SAA in both Economy Class and Business Class on various legs.

Here’s our South African Airways review:

South African Airways within Africa

SAA flies non-stop daily between New York and Johannesburg.

There’s also another daily direct flight from Washington (but it stops on the way in Dakar, Senegal).

Once in Johannesburg, the airline flies to nearly 20 destinations in South Africa and more than 25 cities across the rest of the African continent.

We flew South African Airways from Johannesburg to Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa for our first Big 5 safari.

South African Airways gets you to prime game viewing spots within Africa

Then we flew SAA again to Livingstone, Zambia, to visit Victoria Falls.

And we wished we had booked SAA for our onward flight to Zanzibar too.

SAA has been voted “Best Airline in Africa” for more than 10 years in global customer surveys by Skytrax World Airline Awards. In 2019, it was voted the No. 2 airline in Africa (after Ethiopian Airlines) in the Skytrax awards.

Certainly, it would have been less expensive and aggravating to return to Johannesburg, overnight at an airport hotel, then fly out from there – rather than the long and uncomfortable flight we took on another airline from Zambia (where we went on safari again) to Zanzibar.

South Africa Airways on time record: Hey, the flights are on time!

All our SAA flights left on-time – critical if you have ongoing connections.

The airline actually boasts a terrific on-time record.

It was named Africa’s most on-time airline in 2019 – and one of the top four on-time airlines in the Middle East and Africa (beaten out only by Qatar Airways, Emirates and Middle East Airlines of Lebanon).

Across its whole network, SAA flights are on time some 85.69% of the time.

Vintage picture - credit SAA
South African Airways has a long history of flying in Africa

South African Airways business class review

If you can, business class is the way to go for the 15½-hour flight from New York to South Africa.

Because the seats are arranged side-by-side (configured 2-2-2), you can talk to your partner more easily than on some other airlines, where seats are laid out in a herring-bone style.

Flying Business Class on South African Airways
Flying Business Class on South African Airways

But if you don’t know your seat mate and want privacy, you need only to raise a small divider.

Best of all?

The seats go back a full 180 degrees, so you can actually sleep on a flat seat-bed.

And, for extra comfort, you’re given a thin cushioned mattress pad, as well as a soft big pillow and cozy duvet.

We also liked the cute beige socks in the amenity kit – with brown non-slip stripes on the soles, they reminded us of the zebras we’d be seeing on our safari.

credit South African Airways
Dinner on South African Airways

And don’t get us talking about the South African wine selection onboard in business class!

An elegant 2007 Bosman Cabernet-Sauvignon, matured in small French barrels for 18 months, went down very smoothly with the beef tenderloin we chose for lunch.

Half-way through the flight, a warm spinach-and egg quiche was quietly served in the darkened cabin to passengers who weren’t asleep – along with more wine.

South African Airways economy class review

South African Airways Economy Class cabin
South African Airways Economy Class cabin

We had one business class and one economy ticket between the two of us on our African flights. (We traded seats on the return international flights.)

This meant we each experienced flying economy class on South African Airways on one leg.

South African Airways Economy Class meal
South African Airways Economy Class meal

Now, we won’t go quite so far as to say we enjoyed it.

Can anyone honestly say they like flying in the back on a long-haul flight?

But we can say that it was considerably better than some other international economy flights we’ve taken.

According to SAA, their flights offers more leg room than competitors (34 inches of seat pitch), and every little inch makes a difference.

Economy passengers also receive amenity kits with eye masks, ear plugs, toothpaste and toothbrush – and the same zebra socks.

All seats have their own on-demand TVs too.

Hanging out in the airport lounge

On the return to North America, SAA’s Baobab Business Class Lounge in Johannesburg is a pleasant place to while away the time after checking in.

As SAA is a member of Star Alliance, Gold members can use the lounge even if they’re not flying business class.

Very futuristic in feel, with curved slate walls and concrete floors, it has smashing views of the runway, a fun colorful children’s area and a staffed bar for more of those luscious South African wines.

We hope to return to South Africa one day.

And when we do, we’ll have no hesitation booking South African Airways again.

More about South African Airways…

What we loved:

The South African wines… Oh, have we mentioned this already?

Be aware of:

If you fly back from South Africa to Washington (instead of New York), the flight is considered a direct flight, but it stops in Dakar, Senegal.

It added a good two hours to our return flight, making it longer and more tiring than if we had flown non-stop back to New York.

Interested in more airline reviews?

Read our posts on:

Qatar Airways | What’s it like to fly Economy Class on Qatar Airways?

EVA Air | We’ll fly Economy Class on EVA Air again! See our EVA Air review.

Emirates | Get the honest scoop on what it’s like to fly long-haul in Emirates Economy Class.


Photo credits: 1, 3, 5 South African Airways


About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews and information, insanely useful travel tips and more!

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Irene S. Levine

Friday 18th of October 2013

Sounds like a great way to get there!

Janice and George

Friday 18th of October 2013

Yes, they were good flights :-).