Edited by: Nick Ellis
& Stella Shon
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Airline: South African Airways
Aircraft: Airbus A320-200
Flight #: SA40
Route: Johannesburg (JNB) to Victoria Falls (VFA)
Date: April 25, 2023
Duration: 1hr 25min
Cabin and Layout: Economy class, 3-3
Cost: $263.35 (for round-trip airfare)
When a friend heard that I was planning a safari for my family in Madikwe, South Africa, flying in and out of Johannesburg, she offhandedly mentioned that I should add on a side trip to Victoria Falls.
My husband and I love waterfalls, I had at least heard of Victoria Falls, and it didn’t seem too far away … so in the spirit of crazy spring break travel, I figured why not?
After booking my round-trip flights in and out of Johannesburg for the safari, as well as my lodge stay at Victoria Falls, reality set in: I would need to book the next set of round-trip flights to get to Victoria Falls.
Travelers have 2 main airport options: Victoria Falls Airport (VFA) in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, or Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport (LVI) in Livingstone, Zambia. Given my accommodations and shuttle options in Zimbabwe, flying into Victoria Falls made the most sense for this trip, though flights into both airports were similarly priced from Johannesburg.
My travel dates and times were fairly firm, and my main options to travel from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls were with Airlink, fastjet, and South African Airways (SAA). Despite the news of a United codeshare with Airlink and South African Airways’ participation in the Star Alliance, I was never able to find award inventory for my desired flights on United.com.
I began tracking fares via Google Flights and for weeks saw prices steadily increasing. With mileage inventory still not available, I opted to purchase the tickets with cash. I made my purchase via Capital One Travel and was able to price match to the cheapest available fare while using my Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card to earn 5x Capital One miles on the tickets. I chose to use the Capital One Venture X card as it also has solid travel insurance coverage, such as trip cancellation and interruption, trip delay reimbursement, and lost luggage reimbursement.
After the price match, I paid $263.35 per ticket round-trip (I purchased 5 tickets total for my family) and earned ~1,317 Capital One miles per ticket, worth about $24 as we value Capital One miles at 1.8 cents each. Additionally, I earned a paltry 287 United MileagePlus miles per ticket (worth less than $4).Hot Tip:
In the days leading up to my flight, I received a few emails from South African Airways with the opportunity to upgrade my economy class seats to business class. I played around with the website and the bid options ranged from $85 to $220. For such a short flight, and since there were 5 of us on the itinerary, I declined to pursue an upgrade any further.
After dropping off our Avis car rental at the airport parking deck, we walked into the main terminal via a connector and attempted to find our check-in area. I had checked in online, and while my Apple Wallet boarding passes indicated that the flight would depart from Terminal A (International Departures), we found the check-in area for SAA in Terminal B (Domestic Departures).
We had 1 bag to check, and since I had checked in online, we bypassed the general economy check-in line and headed straight to bag drop. We were helped right away and the agent mentioned that we would not need printed boarding passes (as we could use the digital boarding passes I already had), but she offered to print them as souvenirs for our kids.
With our bag on its way to Victoria Falls, we headed to immigration.
On the way to immigration, I caught a glimpse of a sign pointing towards an aircraft viewing deck which was up just 1 level.
The elevator was out of operation, but we easily toted our carry-on bags up the 1 flight of stairs and were rewarded with sunny views across the apron.
O.R. Tambo International Airport has 2 aircraft viewing decks, both located landside. The one I visited is located at level 2 of the atrium in the international terminal, and another is located at level 3 of the domestic terminal.
After passing through immigration, we headed to the Bidvest Premier Lounge, which I’ve detailed further in a separate review.
To locate the lounge, take to the escalator to the left of Jo Coffee (closest to gates A0 to A4 at the terminal’s south end) up to the mezzanine floor and turn left.
Open 24 hours a day, you can gain access through eligible bank partners or lounge networks. The lounge is also available to eligible Air Austral, Condor, LATAM, Malawian Airlines, RwandAir, and Uganda Airlines passengers. Day passes are also sold, with the cheapest option being R428 (~$23) when purchased online.
Thanks to the Priority Pass membership I have via my Capital One Venture X card, as well as the separate membership bestowed to my husband as my Capital One Venture X card’s complimentary authorized user (rates and fees), my entire family of 5 was able to access the lounge for free.Hot Tip:
Check out our guide to the best credit cards for airport lounge access!
Our flight was scheduled to depart at 10:50 a.m. and we entered the lounge at around 8:40 a.m. For a morning departure, the lounge was extraordinarily empty and seating options were plentiful.
There was a mix of wingback chairs (some with ottomans), comfortable club chairs with outlets, conference tables with outlets, and dining tables with chairs.
My family was able to find a group of 4 club chairs arranged with a coffee table between them — perfect for snacking and propping up tablets — but my husband noticed that most of the seating wasn’t arranged for groups.
The Wi-Fi signal was strong at 21.73 Mbps, and the password was displayed throughout the lounge. My kids were able to stream a show from Netflix without any issues, and I was able to catch up on work with ease.
My visit was timed to breakfast service, and there was an extensive mix of cold and hot items to choose from. My kids favored the variety of muffins, croissants, and fresh fruit, which were the most visually appetizing options on offer.
I also tried eggs, potatoes, mushrooms, and sausage from the hot stations.
There were 3 Carimali coffee machines available to make your own Americano, cappuccino, latte, hot chocolate, or espresso.
As a non-coffee drinker, I headed to the beverage coolers, where it was clear that a restock had not happened from the previous day. That said, that last Diet Coke had my name on it.
The unisex bathroom area had individual water closets that were stylish, modern, and clean.
There were also separate shower rooms available, with towels at the front desk.
My family headed to gate A1, quite close to the Bidvest Premier Lounge, at around 10:15 a.m., about 35 minutes prior to departure. The gate was at the end of a long corridor with a mishmash of seating in varied colors.
There were no announcements or indications as to if a particular group was boarding, so we joined the non-priority queue and had our boarding passes quickly scanned.
While on the jet bridge, I was able to sneak a peak at the A320-200 that would be taking us to Victoria Falls.
South African Airways’ Airbus A320-200 has 24 seats in business class and 114 seats in economy.
We entered the plane and passed through the large business cabin. The aisle was absolutely spacious. No need to watch my bags or passengers’ elbows here!
The camel-colored seats certainly looked roomy and comfortable.
Though this aircraft was over 9 years old, the interior of the cabin with its smart leather seats would leave you believing you were on a newer plane. However, when the archaic IFE screens drop down, you’re swiftly reminded just how far onboard entertainment has come.
The seats were covered in camel and black leather and were in great shape. I much prefer this style of seat covering over fabric as it just seems a touch cleaner.
While I did not see a reason to adjust the headrest, SAA’s website indicates that these are moveable with adjustable ears.
There was an announcement upon seating that the plane was being refueled and that passengers were to remain unbuckled and not use devices that might cause a spark. This type of warning was new to me but easy to accommodate.
My family was seating in 5 of the 6 seats of row 22, with 1 empty seat. Prior to takeoff, my husband was advised by a flight attendant to buckle the belt of the empty seat (though I was not advised of this on the return flight under the same circumstances).
The seatback featured a typical tray table above a netted periodicals pocket.
The tray table was 1 solid non-adjustable piece and had an indentation for a drink.
The seatback pocket featured Sawubona, SAA’s inflight magazine. My kids have honestly never seen an inflight magazine, so my son proceeded to describe every single movie option (that we didn’t have) out loud.
The legroom below the seatback pocket was slightly obstructed by the in-seat power, but this was situated between my 2 kids in the center and window seats and not my aisle seat.
While it may look like a tight squeeze, I actually was quite comfortable and had room to extend my legs with ease.
There was a USB port and universal outlet available for use, though these were glowing green prior to takeoff and were red throughout the flight.
Above the row were directed air vents and personal lights, all operated individually. Other seats had IFE screens retracted above them.
Towards the rear galley was this metal design element with a raised South African Airways logo.
The cabin was abruptly sprayed with an aerosolized insecticide before departure, which is common on some international flights to prevent agricultural or environmental issues. While this is said to be safe for passengers, the scent and fog were quite noticeable immediately after spraying but dissipated soon after.
The flight departed on time at 10:50 a.m. and lunch was served just 20 minutes into the flight, with beef or chicken with rice offered. While I specified chicken, I was given a vegetable curry.
The vegetable curry was surprisingly robust and featured carrots, peppers, and zucchini in the curry, yellow rice, and steamed broccoli and carrots. It was accompanied by a cold roasted vegetable salad with cucumber, cherry tomato, yellow pepper, red onion, mushrooms, and a dressing packet. The chocolate chunk cake for dessert had an artificial peppermint note but was still a family favorite. There was also a multigrain roll with butter.
The meal was served on 1 tray with a metal cutlery set, toothpick, and salt and pepper packet.
My daughter barely touched her beef, but it had a blander yellow rice, roasted zucchini, and roasted yellow pepper. I did not recall an option to order a child meal prior to departure, nor did I see any special meals distributed to other passengers.
Drinks were served from a separate trolley around 15 minutes after the meal service, prior to trash collection. There wasn’t much room on the tray to accommodate drinks, but, fortunately, tray removal occurred just a few minutes later.
Economy class passengers could use the 2 lavatories at the rear of the aircraft. The space was standard in size with a grab bar for assistance and a baby-changing table if needed.
There was nothing in the way of unique amenities, with just soap, tissues, and paper towels offered.
Shortly after takeoff, the inflight entertainment screens lowered from the ceiling and played a random set of short programs. I don’t recall any closed captioning, and headphones were not offered.
My kids had never seen this type of IFE before and were fiddling around with the various channels on the seat, wondering what these buttons did.
After the programming finished, the flight map stayed on for the duration of the flight.
Talk about speed. We weren’t expecting a meal on an 85-minute flight, but the crew distributed meals and beverages with superspeed — the efficient service lasted just 18 minutes from tray drop-off to pick-up.
A crew member also distributed customs forms prior to landing and had a friendly smile and attitude that were contagious.
We arrived at the gate at Victoria Falls Airport (VFA) in Zimbabwe at 12:12 p.m.
After passing through immigration, we easily collected our bags and were on our way to catch our shuttle.
We visited during the time of the Transform Africa Summit, with many top officials visiting, so there was a bit of fanfare with dancers and music outside of the arrivals area.
While Americans are eligible for a visa on arrival with U.S. dollars in cash, I had researched the Zimbabwe eVisa options ahead of time as you could use a credit card for these transactions (meaning I could earn at least 2x Capital One miles per dollar spent).
I applied for the KAZA UNIVISA ($50 per person) which allows for multiple-entry visits to Zimbabwe and Zambia. It is also ideal for exiting and re-entering Zimbabwe due to day trips to neighboring Botswana (while Victoria Falls was spectacular, our day trip to Botswana’s Chobe National Park for a river and land safari was one of the highlights of our trip). We opted for this visa as my husband was on a mission for stamps on this trip; we left with 14 in total between South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana — make sure you have enough blank passport pages!Hot Tip:
Single entry ($30) and double entry ($45) visas are also available in Zimbabwe but note that you do not need a visa to enter Zambia if you are just touring the Victoria Falls Bridge (simply ask at border control for a bridge pass).
My first flight on South African Airways was reasonably priced, convenient, and comfortable.
I was really impressed with the flight attendants’ lightning-fast meal service. Even though I didn’t receive my first choice of meal, I went with the flow and enjoyed a veggie curry that I wouldn’t normally have tried.
Based on my experience, I would not hesitate to fly SAA again in the future.
The information regarding the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.
South African Airways has 4 fare types: Saver, Plus, Select, and Business.
Across the economy options:
Business offers free cancellation, a refund of the cancellation admin fee, and free seat selection, with additional baggage depending on the route.
For flights within Africa (excluding domestic South Africa travel), business class passengers are allowed 2 pieces not to exceed 32 kilograms (70 pounds) per piece. Economy class passengers are allowed 2 pieces not to exceed 23 kilograms (50 pounds) per piece. View South African Airways’ checked baggage policy online.
Business class passengers are allowed 2 bags not exceeding 8 kilograms (~17 pounds) each. Economy class passengers are allowed 1 bag not exceeding 8 kilograms. Both classes are also allowed 1 small handbag or laptop bag as a personal item. View South African Airways’ hand baggage policy online.
Travelers can select from 2 main airports: Victoria Falls Airport (VFA) in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, which is about 11 miles south of the city, or Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport (LVI) in Livingstone, Zambia, about 3 miles north of the city. The airport you fly into may largely depend on where your accommodations are.
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