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Flight Review: South African Airways Business Class JFK-JNB

by on January 7, 2013 · 48 comments

in South Africa, South African Airways, star alliance, Trip Reports, US Airways

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This is the second post of my South Africa Series. Follow along to read my reviews on several different aspects of my trip. Other posts in this series include: Come Along With Me To South Africa!Hotel Review: Westin Cape TownTrip Report: Watching African Penguins at Boulders Beach and the Cape of Good HopeCape Town DiningHotel Review: Hilton Cape Town10 Things I Love About South AfricaHotel Review: 12 Apostles Hotel and Spa Luxury RoomTrekking Up Table Mountain In Cape TownHotel Review: Hyatt Regency JohannesburgTrip Report: South Africa Safari at Savanna Lodge in Sabi Sands Private Game ReserveSafari Highlights at Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa.

When deciding how to get to South Africa (just about three weeks ago!), my first thought was to use my Star Alliance miles from either United or US Airways to fly their partner airline, South African Airways, which flies non-stops to the US. Otherwise it would probably have meant transiting through Atlanta on Delta or through London (so two long flights instead of one) or somewhere else in Africa like Cairo aboard Egyptair, which would have added on a lot of extra time on an already lengthy trip.

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My South African Airways A340-600 waiting at JFK.

Searching for Availability

I thought it might be difficult to track down award availability given the tight time frame and the fact that I have to be back in New York by the time of my presentations at the New York Times Travel Show later this month, but even when first searching just the flights between the US and Johannesburg on United.com’s award search, I found space on both the JFK-JNB and Washington Dulles (IAD)-JNB flights the first weekend in January.

My next step was to search for connections within South Africa since I wanted to start my trip with about a week in and around Cape Town, then transit up through Johannesburg for safari in Kruger National Park and then get back to the US from Johannesburg.

Turns out there was tons of award availability in both business and economy within South Africa aboard SAA, so I just kept checking back over the course of two days in mid-December to find the outbound availability I wanted, and when the JFK-JNB flight opened up a business class award seat, I booked it on the hunch that once that was taken another one would open up, and sure enough, the next morning there was another business class award seat aboard the same flight that I booked for TPG Managing Editor Eric (who says I’m a terrible boss?), and then routed us both back to New York via the JNB-IAD flight, which had plenty of availability that whole time while the JNB-JFK route looked to be completely booked (people coming home from their big holiday trips).

US Airways Restrictions

I decided to use US Airways miles since I have a stockpile of them thanks to Grand Slam diligence the past couple years (sadly not in 2012) and taking advantage of the Miles Multiplier and the lucrative transfer miles bonus in 2012. I also wanted to use these miles because business class to Africa is one of the sweet spots in their Star Alliance partner award chart- only 110,000 mile roundtrip.

You only need 110,000 US Airways miles for a business class award to Africa.

You only need 110,000 US Airways miles for a business class award to Africa.

A roundtrip business class ticket from the US to Europe is 100,000 miles, yet a roundtrip business class ticket from the US to the very southern trip of Africa is only 110,000 miles – just 10,000 more! United would have only required 120,000 miles, but I value them more so I wanted to use US Airways miles for this trip.

Just for another contrast, friends of mine actually just flew Delta from Atlanta to Johannesburg non-stop and they were only able to find low-level availability one way, so it ended up costing them 190,000 miles instead, which they viewed as a huge success. Granted they flew on a 777-200LR with Delta’s international BusinessElite seats, which I flew from LA to Tokyo back in 2011 and would have found more comfortable than SAA’s seats (see below), but it would have meant transiting through Atlanta and a whole lot of extra miles and unreliable availability, so I chose Star Alliance instead.

However, I had to keep in mind a few restrictions US Airways places on award tickets. First, I could only have one stopover or one open jaw, meaning that since I wanted to fly JFK-JNB and then on to Cape Town for about a week (final destination), return to Johannesburg and stopover for a few days for my safari, that I would have to fly back to New York rather than another destination. That’s also because US Airways only allows roundtrip award tickets, so I had to have the full amount of miles for both of us, which I did. Lastly, US Airways does not allow any changes to awards once travel has commenced, whereas I would have been able to continually enhance my ticket if I used United since I have Platinum status and they allow changes for free (so I could have switched to the JNB-JFK flight if it opened up close to departure).

The Value

After some long conversations going through the routing segment by segment with a US Airways awards rep – I had to call because you can’t book partner awards online with US Airways – who was less than helpful and seemed a bit put out that her entire morning was spent helping me assemble this itinerary, I finally got everything booked. The grand total: 110,000 miles plus $121.87 in taxes and then a $75 fee for booking within 21 days and an award processing fee of $50 since I don’t have US Airways elite status.

Sample South African Airways Itinerary Pricing.

My South African Airways itinerary would have cost almost $9,000.

If I had bought my ticket, it would have cost about $8,775, so minus the fees, my miles were worth 7.75 cents each. Because Eric was coming from LA and ostensibly heading back there after our trip, Eric’s ticket would have cost closer to $10,000, bringing the CPM closer to about 8.25 cents each.

Checking In

I was excited to try out South African Airways since I’d heard good things about it and the airline seemed to up its game around the World Cup a few years ago.

During check-in right at the door of Terminal 4 at JFK, I was given a lounge pass to the Swiss/Star Alliance Gold lounge in the terminal which is, unfortunately, outside security, so it’s hard to sit back and relax for long knowing you’ve got to get through security and to your gate when they announce boarding.

Lounge area at JFK.

Swiss/Star Alliance Gold Lounge area at JFK.

It was just a small, cute little space that looks like the lounges in Zurich with limestone walls, dark leather furniture, and a small café area with breakfast and finger foods, a self-serve bar and espresso-maker as well as a conference room, small office area and a relaxation room with lounge chairs.

The Flight

Boarding was a breeze – there was no one else in the business class and priority line by the time I got there, and I settled into my seat.

Business Class is in a 2-2-2 configuration.

South African is one of those airlines that has foregone first class on its long-haul fleet including the A340-600 that I was on in favor of a premium business class experience. The cabin was all white and blue with 42 seats arranged in a 2 x 2 x 2 configuration in seven rows. I was right in the middle of row 5 since I like direct aisle access on long-haul flights rather than having to climb over someone to get to the lav. The first thing I noticed was that the aisles were super tight and I couldn’t even roll my standard carryon-on roller- I had to turn it sideways and drag it down.

Overview of business class during boarding.

Overview of business class during boarding.

I was handed a glass of Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut and a South African newspaper by a pleasantly bossy flight attendant who saw to us for flight and checked out the seat.

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Seat controls.

I was a bit disappointed that they only have a smidge over 6 feet in pitch, which meant that even though the seat reclines to a fully horizontal 180 degrees, I was still pretty cramped, being 6’7″. The width was decent, though not completely spacious at 20.5 inches.

Although it was nice the seat was completely horizontal, I didn't quite fit!

Although it was nice the seat was completely horizontal, I didn’t quite fit!

They provided a small mattress liner, but I found sleeping to be difficult- not just because my feet were crammed and I had to sleep on my side with my legs bent, but also because the pillow and blanket were thin. Delta leads in-flight comfort with a huge comfortable duvet and well-padded lie-flat bed. While I did end up “sleeping” for about 6 hours, it was mostly thanks to my good friend Xanax and the fact that I was still exhausted from a crazy week in Miami for New Years, hosting a group of friends from New York. I actually found the seat to be more comfortable in the recline position, so if you are tall and don’t fit, don’t think you have to keep it as a flat bed all night. Play around with the settings and see if there is another position that is more comfortable.

In flight entertainment.

In flight entertainment.

The entertainment system was a 12.1-inch personal screen that popped out from the center armrest and was controlled either by touchscreen or the remote, though they seemed to be experiencing problems with the entertainment system throughout the flight, so I’m glad I loaded up my beautiful 15″ Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display with Homeland, which I watched for several hours on the flight.

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Lie-flat seat.

The amenity kit was small and sparse with just the usuals like an eye mask, toothbrush and toothpaste, footies, a brush-comb combo, ear plugs and some face and lip moisturizer.

Amenity Kit.

Amenity kit.

The seat also had a little cubby for shoes, a pouch where I could put my laptop, and a sort of rough cotton mattress pad that wasn’t quite big enough to cover the seat in reclined position and a light duvet as well as a medium-size pillow.

Meal Service

My sassy South African Airways flight attendant.

Call me crazy, but on a 15 ½ hour flight, I think you should probably get more than two small meals – more on that in a sec.

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Three small canapés two with goat cheese and smoked beef and sundried tomato and a third with crab salad.

Lunch was served quite soon after takeoff. It began with three small canapés, two with goat cheese and smoked beef and sundried tomato and a third with crab salad. We got a choice of two appetizers so I chose the Long Island duckling with fig and quinoa salad and the small seasonal salad.

Long Island duckling with fig and quinoa and small seasonal salad.

For a main, I decided to try the black truffle risotto with snow peas, grilled tomato and truffle sauce, and thought it was pretty flavorful for an airline meal. Eric had the Thai green chicken curry, which ended up being…well, “soupy” is the best way I can describe it. Portions were also tiny. With lunch I decided to try a South African Sauvignon Blanc called Ntahera, which was fine but not remarkable – crisp and citrusy.

IMG_0026

Black truffle risotto with snow peas, grilled tomato and truffle sauce.

For dessert I had a cheese plate and a glass of South African Boplaas Cape Tawny non-vintage Port.

Eric’s soupy Thai green chicken curry.

I woke up in the middle of the night and asked for a snack and was given what was basically a hot pocket. I visited the galley for snacks and all that was offered was bottles of water and Oreos. That tided me over but by the time breakfast was served about 90 minutes before landing, I was starving again and the small plate of scrambled eggs with Irish bacon, mushrooms, a grilled cherry tomato and rosti potatoes just didn’t cut it, though I did get a small bowl of yogurt as well.

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Scrambled eggs with Irish bacon, mushrooms, a grilled cherry tomato and rosti potatoes.

All in all, though the flight experience was pleasant enough, I wasn’t blown away. On a flight that’s that long, of course you’re going to nitpick every little thing because you have time (and even more time!) to think about them all, so I must say that for flagship service aboard a carrier that bills itself as a premium airline (they kept saying they were voted the Best African Airline, but not by whom though I guess the competition isn’t as fierce as in Asia, for example) I thought the experience was a bit lacking. For instance, all the flight attendants disappeared during a very long portion of the flight – there was no one in either galley to ask for a glass of water or to reset the entertainment system (again). It felt like they were only around for the first two hours and the last two hours of the flight.

Although I was still jazzed after the flight and excited to be in South Africa, and I do still think this was a tremendous use of miles, I’m hoping the experience on my flight back is more enjoyable.

Pros: Non-stop flight from New York to Johannesburg, ability to book multiple flights within South Africa a stopover, great value for miles, fully lie-flat seat

Cons: US Airways award rules fairly rigid (ie roundtrip requirement), seat was cramped, service was spotty

However, I’m still thankful for being able to use miles and ~$225 to book an extremely expensive ticket. Though if I was paying out of pocket and deciding between South African and Delta based on comfort and in-flight experience, I’d definitely go with Delta.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Haroldhoeg

    Enjoyed your review of SAA. We did exactly same routing last summer and had much the same pros and cons. What would be your second choice for Star Alliance reward travel to South Africa?

  • thepointsguy

    Second choice would probably be Lufthansa first class with a stop in Germany to break it up.. Or Turkish for business class

  • Mohsin

    Did anyone fly the Turkish 777-300ER recently on J? I have that trip coming up and wanted some reviews on that.

  • mikeyyc

    I’d hit IAH-Lagos on United 787 and then SAA to Joburg

  • Nick

    You’d take Delta over SAA? That’s insane. I realize you’re 6’7 so that affects your comfort level but I don’t think anyone will ever say DL can compete with SAA (or TK, LH, LX) on service…ever.

  • thepointsguy

    Delta’s business class is in a 1x2x1 layout so every seat has aisle access. SAA is in a crammed 2x2x2 and the seat is much shorter and less comfortable. Service-wise, the SAA flight attendants were MIA for roughly 10 out of 15 hours.. so maybe I had a bad crew, but the Delta hard and soft products were superior in my experience.

    I’d also fly Delta lie-flats over Lufthansa angled, cramped business class seats any day of the week. My Lufthansa business class service has also been iffy.

    I’m not saying Delta is the best, but their premier business class product on the 777LR is very competitive and superior in many ways.

    What about SAA is better in your opinion? Just curious.

  • Ronbeck

    Do you think it’s possible to have a stopover in SA on the way to south Asia? Using US airway miles, ofcourse. Thanks

  • JakePB

    Using United miles, could one chose the Seychelles as a stopover either to or from Johannesburg and the US?

  • JakePB

    Oops – meant to write choose…

  • http://twitter.com/darrinearl Darrin Earl

    I flew the ATL-JNB route a year or so ago on the DL 777-200LR and as you say, the DL lie flat seats on the route are tremendous. Just as seats, I’d put them up against any business class I’ve flown.

    Service-wise, as mentioned, it’s very VERY easy to quibble on such a LOOOOOONG flight, but I had a good crew, and decent food, entertainment system worked fine, so no complaints.

    When DL adds satellite WiFi to their IC fleet, they’ll continue to lead the American carriers on international business class for a long time.

    My feelings about trying to actually use my Skymiles (let alone through their booking engine) are about as reversed as my opinion above however.

  • riverchica

    I fly to Cape Town with some regularity and prefer to stop over in Europe for one night. Coming from the west coast, it helps me adjust to the time change while I’m travelling and I certainly arrive more rested and ready to go than on the loooooong direct flights to ZA.
    I’ve found my SAA business class flights to be spotty. I’ve had some really great flights with excellent food and service and some where, just like you mentioned, the flight attendants seem to vanish for much of the flight.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fabiovilela Fábio Vilela

    Did you manage to get any intra south african flights using *A miles? Like Krueger Park for example?

  • Bob

    Google is your friend.

  • Spotter

    Really crying over not enough food while en route to a country plagued with famine and with 40% of the citizens lacking access to fresh water. Shame on you, TPG. You have lost a reader. Why don’t you try and grow a pair–you got 3 meals and Oreos. Get a life. #jackass

  • thepointsguy

    The point of a flight review is to compare products so people can make smart decisions and know what to expect (especially since airlines like South African charge a small fortune for this experience). . If I simply said “it was amazing because I’m thankful my family isn’t facing famine” wouldn’t be too useful, right?

  • iah_phx

    I actually flew this flight last year — in coach. I also found the food to be on the light side (I had to raid the galley for some snacks, too) and the service to be inattentive. South African is just not a great airline. After JNB, I was headed to FRA and was glad I chose Lufthansa in the Star Alliance for that flight instead of South African. Lufthansa also flies the A380, so that was an added bonus.

    BTW, when I redeemed miles for South Africa for my family, I pulled points from both our UA and US accounts. With the US accounts, I had a problem getting some internal S.A. flights because South African was flying the route with one of their subsidiary carriers. This confused US. With UA, I had no problem booking award travel on the affiliate.

  • Gawst777

    Great review post, thanks
    Interesting to us, as we are planning a Capetown to Mauritius cruise ( or reverse) with an add on to Victoria Falls originating from IAD or IAH

    Do you have any suggestions on a flat bed routing ?
    Should we consider looking for IAD –JNB — Victoria Falls ( stopover for a few days ) —Capetown — then back to the US ??

    Any helpful ideas appreciated.

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  • SA Expat

    Interesting review, thanks.

    We’re flying Business Class for first time with kids in March. I have flown Economy > 7 times from USA-JNB on SAA, and service is dependent on the crew. Being a South African ex-pat, I feel home the minute I hear an accent, so I’m not that picky :-).

    I have also flown Delta to JHB and it sucked! Would never fly with them again.

    Gawst777, can’t help you on flight questions, but I spent my Honeymoon in Vic Falls. All I can tell you is bring pencils and t-shirts to trade for African Art. The people are desperate for usable items, and it would really help them. Also, trading on the “black market” will get better exchanges then your hotel. You’ll see what I mean. Fun trip!

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  • Dave

    Good suggestions but when we went to Vic Falls back in 2009 I did the same thing, bringing items to barter with, in the end I think its cheaper to just pay cash. The shirts I bought in the the US for $20 was traded for items I think I could have paid even less for. Just saying… If anything, bring lots of items to just donate. We did that too and we felt really good about that. They need it more then us.. Have fun!

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  • jasonjm

    how do you book SAA flight using my US airways miles?

    is it on the US airways site? or which website? anyone give me a quick summary of the procedure?

    thanks

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  • abbot jackson

    Google is famous in the entire world.

  • Shaun

    South Africa has had no incidence of famine for several hundred years. While other African counties such as Sudan and Ethiopia have been afflicted by famine, South Africa has not and is an entirely different nation. Africa is not one country you ignorant fool :)

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  • Bill

    Thanks for the review. It helps to build expectations. I’ll soon be flying business on SAA. The bubbly would have led me to expect great food and service, but it sounds like they should stop that and spend the money on more/better food. I’ve been on flights that have an on-board chef prepare your food. Now I know to expect the worse and hope for the best. I’ll bring some of my own snacks and steal a couple of bottles of water from the first class lounge at the airport. One of the better things about upgrading, besides the leg room, is the food and service. I’m used to being fat and happy upon landing and not really wanting to deplane. In coach, all you want to do is get off the plane, even before it takes off. Sounds like I’ll be chomping at the bit to get off my flight upon arrival.

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  • gatorgirl

    ok have read & re-read everyone’s notes on getting flts from US to JNB. Just in planning stage and trying to figure out on what cc cards to accumulate points in order to secure business class seats. Already have Chase Sapphire PReferred but now realize can’t use on Delta just United. would like to get other cards to use for this particular trip acquisition. Help?? So confused. don’t know all the ins and outs about securing seats or really how to look at the sites mentioned to figure out flt schedules. Would anyone like to help this newbie understand??? Pleaseeeeeeeeeeee

  • Savannah Johnston

    Interesting the different ways people see SAA. It might depend where you’re flying from. SA261 (Frankfurt to Johannesburg) seemed to provide a good experience for PlaneHunter (http://www.airliners.net/aviation-forums/trip_reports/read.main/198978), and they weren’t even in business class. Their meals were both quite large. Your meals definitely look smaller in comparison, but in addition to this, forgive me for saying that a 6’7″ man might not be the most balanced judge of meal size adequacy. XD

    And Matt Long found flying from South Africa to the US (again, in coach) to be the best in his review of three economy class experiences, and he had mostly good things to say about it. He found the stewards to be very attentive and friendly, in contrast to your complaint that they were absent for long periods.

    So…perhaps what we should glean from your article is not that SAA provides mediocre service, but that SAA flying from JFK airport does? ;) Then again, maybe they’re just patchy in general. A user below does mention spotty service where sometimes the attention from stewards was excellent and sometimes it wasn’t. One review I read said that there was one flight where they didn’t get the amenity kit, when they’d always gotten it on previous flights. *shrug*

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