When it’s time to fly: South Africa’s airline options

Let's face it, flying is not cheap. Even when tickets are discounted it's still a tonne of money that needs to be forked out. With that said, we compare local airlines and throw in a couple of travel tips and tricks to save you a couple of bucks.

Price is a huge consideration when flying, be that domestic or international. Whether you fly regularly or far more infrequently, there are always some factors to consider when booking a ticket, and they can often help bring costs right down.

For the record and according to Afristay, fellow South Africans rank our airline experience as follows:

  1. South African Airways (SAA) is widely seen as a patriotic and also discerning first choice, but they’re not going to be gentle on your pocket.

  2. No-frills Kulula has maintained its presence, from the heyday (or woeday) of low-cost carriers. The cheeky bunch at Kulula have endeared themselves to South Africans by expanding their fleet and cutting prices to the bone at times.

  3. .SA Express is a lesser-known name, at least to some, but the airline is also competitive on price and services many African cities too.

  4. Mango Airlines is essentially SAA trying to compete in the no-frills domestic market, and although their prices are sooometimes good, it leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth knowing that it’s tax money keeping Mango afloat as well.

  5. SA Airlink comes next for the citizenry, and this airline has also expanded its routes and overall offering, while typically being cheaper than SAA and others.

  6. FlySafair is the Safair answer to low-cost domestic travel, and the company competes with Mango and Kulula in the no-frills domestic market.

  7. British Airways (BA) has long been an active local player, via its erstwhile association with Comair. Comair now runs Kulula, but are still associated with BA. Known for being on time and on point, BA is often the airline of choice for South Africans traveling abroad.

Some tips to lower flight costs

Although not the frenetic flight schedule of the average American day, our local market is well catered for and destinations have expanded remarkably from a decade or two ago. No matter when or where you’re flying, here follow a few commonsense considerations to take the angst out of purchasing a flight ticket:

  • For the savvy, getting the best airline price starts way in advance of actually buying a ticket. Sign up for alerts on special deals from Flight Center and the Southafrican.TO and any other flight portal promising to send legitimate deals to your inbox. Combined with a bit of flexibility on schedules, this is often the best route to consistent savings on flights. Especially if it’s leisure time travel, be flexible and scour portals for current offers that can make a huge difference to overall costs.

  • Even if you only fly once or twice a year, join the frequent flyer program if the airline has one. Eventually you’re going to collect.

  • If you pay for an airline ticket with a credit card, there are often benefits like medical insurance when travelling abroad. Apart from that consideration, there are also airline credit cards available. MasterCard and Visa are great international travel tools, for purchasing tickets and swiping all over the world, but Kulula and even Discovery now offer credit cards that are often better priced than others. No matter the benefits of flying on a credit card, always do the maths to make sure you’re not going to pay the journey off at an exorbitant interest rate, that can sometimes double the cost of flights long gone.

  • Put aside unsubstantiated dislikes and consider all airlines when ticket shopping. Less established African airlines are often reminiscent of the old Emirates, offering sometimes ridiculously cheap deals in order to build market share. Ethiopian Airlines and RwandAir are often good options for flying out of the country.

  • Try for midweek flights, assuming your homework indicates them as cheaper on your chosen airline at the time. Weekends are human leisure time, and airlines along with all other retailers are out to glean your money when you’re having fun. Much like restaurants and others who offer specials to plump up Monday and Tuesday nights, airlines also often present as cheaper on weekdays.

  • Avoid local events whenever possible. Unless, of course, you’re flying somewhere specifically for the event. Concerts and other gatherings – notably international holidays – can have a dramatic effect on your budget and convenience. Christmas in Cape Town, for example, is always popular, and frequently a nightmare to fly into. If you have the flexibility, let big events pass so that ticket prices subside, and trade on the flexibility you might have. If your journey is a sure thing months in advance, then book months in advance, to also glean better pricing.

  • And one last tip for us local folk – choose between Lanseria and Jo’burg airports when needs be. Sometimes, using the “all airports” option when shopping tickets online will highlight that it’s cheaper landing at Lanseria, for example. A R100 Taxify ride thrown might see you home for a lot less than landing at OR Tambo. In the same vein, flying out of SA via OR Tambo should often be cheaper than flying out from Cape Town International or King Shaka, as there are more flights to Jo’burg than any other South African city.

Flying smart

Always remember to do the basic confirmation of what your ticket entails. Are there long layovers you might want to reconsider? What facilities are in the lounge you’ll need to squat at for several hours anyway? Some airlines exclude checked bags in their fees, so be sure and ascertain whether you’ll be paying extra for checking in your luggage. For the record, Virgin Atlantic also have a no-frills international option that charges extra for bags, but avoids penalising those who travel light.

Check available categories and tools carefully when on the airline’s site, and make sure that it says what you want it to say at checkout. Don’t make the assumption that “low cost” airlines are always the cheapest. Flight travel is unfortunately one of those arenas where things can change daily, and you’ll want to be up on all current offers before paying for an airline ticket. It pays to take an hour or two to scroll through available intel, so that you feel you can make an informed decision.

Finally, always remember that direct flights are typically more expensive than those with a single or more stopovers. Yes, you expose yourself to more potential delays on the back of bad weather or airline “inter-connectedness” whenever you stop over anywhere, but especially for leisure travel, even a few hours delay normally beats paying full price hands down.