In common with many FT households around the world, it’s only a matter of days after you come back from your last trip that you turn your mind to where you want to go next. So it was in August 2007 when Mrs BiH, our son and I had just returned from NY that we wondered where to go next. We had talked about South Africa and how we would like little Hand-baggageinhall to experience the delights of summer. His first and only summer was London 2007 which consisted mainly of grey skies and rain, lots of rain.
We travelled to NY in PE (VS PE LHR-JFK + Gordon Ramsay & Les Halles) which we paid for rather than using miles. We decided it wasn’t for us and so I knew that it was time to grab several cans of Diet Coke and get onto the ANA website to try and redeem some BMI DC miles.
The DC line can be rather hit and miss, it really depends on who answers the phone. I decided to ring as I searched to see what they could find. My criteria was 8-12 days in SA, preferably flying in and out of CPT but JNB would do, in mid-March.
(Several minutes later) DC Agent : “I can’t see anything at all, oh wait, I can get you one seat on TAP via Lisbon to JNB with a stop in Maputo” Me: “Thanks, I’ll call back”. My own search had yielded little, in part because I began by searching for 2 adults and 1 child, before remembering half an hour in that HBiH doesn’t count as he is under 2 (the obvious things you overlook when in a hurry!). I assumed that as direct flights to/from the UK to SA are stuffed to the gills throughout the year, that it would be pointless searching for seats on SAA and so I concentrated on LH via FRA. Nothing. What about TAP via Lisbon, Maputo and Jo’burg, nothing, thankfully.
I may as well try SAA I thought and so the criteria changed I plugged away when suddenly, l saw it. I imagine the delight on my face was akin to a person standing at LHR Terminal 5 baggage reclaim, assuming and fearing the worst, they might be in London but their bags are now probably in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, when out of the corner of their eye they spot a black Travelpro with a familiar scratch and an AeroPeru First Class label that they can’t part with – the excitement, it’s my bag, it’s my bag! They rush over, pick it up and skip around the terminal in delight.
Back in SW London, I had found two seats in Business Class, LHR-CPT // JNB-LHR, 10 nights apart. It was almost the perfect itinerary. The DC line would close in 15 minutes time but I was able to get through and book them before they disappeared. My work here was done. I felt so proud. Could I feasibly sit on the sofa and watch repeats of Top Gear until next March – No, was the answer from Mrs BiH. Back to earth with a bang.
In the months between August and March, I regularly checked back with DC to see if there was any availability between CPT-JNB to tack onto the return leg. Sadly, there wasn’t and so I purchased seats on an SAA service between the two cities. I waited so long that the difference between Y and J was minimal and so J it was for the short hop.
I also recall reading some time ago about someone who flew in F on SAA from LHR and when they checked in, were asked if they liked chicken nuggets. Somehow, SAA had booked children’s meals for them all. Keen to avoid such a fiasco, knowing there was an infant in our booking, I rang and ordered him a child’s meal and ensured that we had the ordinary adult serving.
21:00 – 09:50
Seats 2A and 2C
We arrived at LHR a little later than planned. We constantly forget how having a young child with you can make everything take a good half hour more than normal! Terminal 1 at Heathrow is in a state of flux at the moment with *A building new facilities and changing the existing ones. The SAA First and Business Class desks are located towards the far end of the terminal away from most of the crowds. SAA no longer operate the 747-400 and so do not have a First Class cabin. The signs on the queue rope seemed to suggest that the First Class desk was for SAA Platinum FF’s and *G, whilst the Business Class desk was for passengers in the renamed ‘Premium’ cabin as well as *S.
Check-in was uneventful, save that the agent informed me that as my son was linked to my booking, SAA had loaded a childs meal for both of us. Great. She also very kindly blocked the seat next to us (2D) in the vain hope that if the cabin wasn’t full, one of us could move to 2D and the other could use 2C whist our son had 2A. She explained that there was no guarantee that the seat would remain blocked. We thanked her for her efforts knowing that if it happened it was a real bonus, but if not, the SAA seats were big enough to accommodate one of us and an infant.
As she told us this, her colleague on the F desk (who had heard the conversation) reminded her that the second JNB flight of the night was delayed by 2 hours and that some passenger were being transferred onto our CPT flight, the upshot being that the cabin was likely to be full and our ‘blocked’ seat would disappear.
The queue at security was fairly lengthy. There are cards placed at intervals which purport to estimate how close (in time) you are to the front of the queue. There is no ‘FastTrack’ line at T1 so its every man, woman and child for themselves; except when you get near the front and cute child in a pushchair / stroller, gets the lady controlling the queue to divert you down to the empty staff lane at the end. All told, it took 10 minutes to through and a further 5 minutes to get dressed again having had to disrobe several times…
After a brief stop at Travelex to pickup the currency I had reserved the night before, we headed off to the SAA lounge. To anyone who needs to purchase foreign currency at a UK airport, it is worth buying it in advance on the Travelex website as you will (i) get a better rate and (ii) usually be charged little or no commission on the deal. The difference between the deals can be startling.
The SAA lounge is split into two halves, First Class on the left and Business on the right. Since the demise of FC, it is now SAA Platinum FF’s to the left and the rest go right. The Business Class section of the lounge is nothing special at all. It’s the standard fair of seats, a bar (manned) and a small selection of snacks. The space itself is small and I can imagine that with three full flights (circa 100 pax) and a sizeable number of people with shiny FF cards, this place can get uncomfortably crowded and become standing room only. Not so this evening, we snagged a table toward the back and Mrs BiH took Junior off to change into his PJ’s.
A mere 15 minutes later and the first boarding call was made for the Cape Town flight. We packed away our things and made our way out of the lounge walking the short distance to our gate. The gate area was empty and after a brief pause to collapse our pram, we walked down the jetway towards the long thin tube (A346) that would be home for the night.
We were greeted at the door and turned left toward the Premium cabin. There was every indication that it would be full this evening and a quick enquiry of a passing member of cabin crew confirmed that.
Champagne and juice were offered, I balanced mine carefully knowing that I had an infant who was getting a little restless as he wanted to sleep. There was a short delay as some of the cargo was shifted around and as the cabin lights were dimmed, the boy fell asleep. We taxied out and took our place in a relatively short queue taking-off almost an hour behind schedule.
The forward part of the cabin was crewed by two men in their late 40’s. Speaking to both later in the flight, I can say that the man on our side was far more perfunctory and serious than the chap on the other side who seemed to actually enjoy his job!
During the first drinks round, our crew member came over and showed us the manifest. It seems that my fears re catering were well founded. The SAA agent in London with whom I spoke 5 days before the flight had, despite confirming to the contrary, booked ALL three of us a child’s meal. We were told that in light of that, we couldn’t select from the menu until he had had taken everyone else’s order. When I asked if that included those who had been upgraded (I could see from the manifest that 6 people had been – someone had marked UPG in manuscript next to their names), the answer was yes.
Now, I have no idea what impact 2 extra children’s meals had on the number of main course meals loaded in C. The fact that we got regular offerings in the end means that it had been sufficiently over-catered. Nobody would have ended up with chicken nuggets and chips. The question is, where SAA had made a mistake (and the crew acknowledged that), shouldn’t a person booked in C (be it using miles or money) be given priority over an upgraded passenger?
The menus were handed out with the drinks round. I would copy it out here but as I discovered toward the end of the flight, SAA collect the menu cards back in at the end of the flight and reuse them. From memory however it was:
Starter: Salad and a grilled King Prawn
Main: Lamb chops / A vegetarian pasta / Fish / Malay chicken
Desert: Non-specific cake and a cheese platter
Wines: I can’t find the copy of Voyager that I brought home, but it lists 4 reds and 4 whites; two of each are available on any given flight. None of them caught my eye and so I stuck to Champagne.
We decided to use one tray table (our son was comfy sleeping across my lap) and our trays were placed side by side (portrait rather than landscape) so that we could both eat. We were given the children’s starter which was the salad minus the King Prawn. We were told that the only main course left was the lamb, which coincidentally was what we both wanted. Two mouthfuls later and I changed my mind.
Mrs BiH and I are real ‘foodies’, but at the same time are happy to accept the limitations of airline food. That said, the two lamb chops had, by the time they arrived in front of us, been cooked to the point where the meat was brown and dry. I know that some people won’t eat meat that is even remotely pink but this had crossed the pink threshold some days ago…
I gave up after a few more bites and asked for the cheese platter with a glass of port. Much better. The crew were multi-tasking, clearing away dinner, serving drinks and providing everyone with their pillow and blanket. Mrs BiH and I swapped seats so that she had Junior.
The SAA Premium seat on their A340’s has won a number of awards. My recent trips in C have been on LH and NZ. I would rate the SAA seat as being somewhere between the two. It’s better than the LH seat because it is fully flat, but I think the NZ seat is more comfortable because it’s made up of fewer parts and therefore feels less ‘lumpy’. That said, I slept fairly well waking up around 3.5 hours out of CPT when I felt a little hand on my face…
I had asked the crew what time they would begin to serve breakfast and was told that it was between 1.5 and 2 hours from landing. I figured therefore that I had to quietly entertain our son for about 1.5 hours to avoid incurring anyone’s wrath. This was easily done by taking him around the aircraft, feeding him and reading several books (I can now recite ‘Monkey and me’ and “That’s not my monster’ from memory).
Somewhere over Namibia, I found myself trying to eat a piece of fruit with one hand whilst feeding the little monster his cornflakes. I declined the offer of the hot option (eggs of some sort) in part because I wasn’t hungry but also because judging by dinner I was probably going to be disappointed.
As we skirted over the edge of SA the First Officer told us (with a genuine sense of disappointment in his voice) that our approach into CPT was such that we would all be deprived of a great view of Cape Town and Table Mountain! Moments later we began our decent and quickly found ourselves taxing to a remote stand at Cape Town International.
I quickly remembered just how much fun it can be trying to juggle three pieces of hand luggage and small child between two people. I was a little disappointed that our fellow travellers had no hesitation in jostling me out of the way and pushing past me to get the last seat on the bus. I wasn’t asking for help, just a little courtesy.
Once inside the terminal building we joined a short queue (comprising solely of our flight from what I could see) and proceeded through immigration. Just in case there are any US INS officials reading this trip report (unlikely I know!), your equivalent numbers in SA are living proof that smiling, engaging with people and showing a little appreciation that someone wants to visit your country has no negative effect on your ability to perform the very important and solemn task that you are employed to do.
As we walked into the baggage reclaim area an SAA ground agent came up to us and asked if we had a pushchair and if so what it looked like, we replied and she walked off returning a few minutes later with said article – excellent service! My wife realised that she had left her jacket on the aircraft; just as we wondered how difficult it would be to try and retrieve it, one of the cabin crew came into the reclaim area and handed it to us!
Following a short interrogation by Customs we were out into the Cape Town sun and being driven to the Vineyard.
Cape Town: We stayed at the Vineyard in Newlands. In a word, fantastic.
Stellenbosch: The Village at Spier. Lovely location marred by terrible service. The chap at the Reception desk was openly rude to me while checking-in. The service at the restaurant and café was painfully slow to the point of annoyance.
Franschhoek: Le Quartier Francais. Also fantastic. Enjoyed dinner at the Tasting Room which was criminally cheap by UK prices! (circa £60 per head for an 8 course tasting menu with matching wines).
Seats 2H and 2K
After a thoroughly enjoyable trip, it was time to say goodbye to South Africa and head home. We were driven to CPT and dropped off at the domestic terminal. On our previous visit 5 years before we had flown home from CPT direct to LHR and so I recalled fondly a large, spacious and possibly underused terminal building. That of course is the International terminal; the domestic terminal is a different kettle of fish.
As we walked through the automatic doors we entered a small check-in area packed to the gills with people. Immediately to the right I could see a sign saying ‘Premium Check-in’, and approximately 40 people waiting in line for 3 agents. It took almost 20 minutes to reach the front of the queue where we were checked-in quickly and efficiently. The agent handed us our boarding cards and directed us to security and the SAA lounge.
Security was quick and painless. One look at the chaos of the small departure area and we realised that being able to hide in the lounge until our flight was worth every penny. The SAA lounge is upstairs opposite the BA/Comair lounge. Its quite small and perhaps a little inadequate for the numbers it caters for. The standard SAA bar and paltry sandwiches are on offer. We headed for the separate children’s area and let the little man play with some of his toys.
The flight was slightly delayed, as in fact were all the three other JNB departures that afternoon. I wonder if the long chaotic lines at check-in contribute to the delays? We were eventually called to board and made the short trip downstairs to join a very long line waiting for a bus to the aircraft.
I had chosen the daily CPT-JNB flight that was operated by an internationally configured A34x, in this case it was an A340-200. The A340 was parked some distance from the terminal building and the bus that took us to the plane had to stop more than once to allow an aircraft to pass. Passengers were able to board from the front or back and left to their own devices to decide which to use.
Once everyone was onboard we taxied the short distance to the runway and took-off towards JNB. The flight was short and uneventful save that our son wasn’t too keen on being cooped up during the mid-afternoon and wanted to explore the entire aircraft. He was distracted with a number of books and fell asleep as we were coming in to land.
We taxied for approximately 10 minutes to a remote stand on the edge of the airport. From there it was quite a wait until buses arrived to take us to the domestic terminal. This I suppose is the huge downside of taking what is, essentially an aircraft repositioning flight. The aircraft would later be used that evening on an international SAA service and so the long taxi, wait for buses and bus ride meant that it was almost 30 minutes until we got to the baggage hall. The upside however, was that we drove past (and close by) to a number of heavies – I still enjoy getting up close and personal with big aircraft.
Though it took us 30 minutes to reach the baggage hall, it was at least another 30 minutes before any bags arrived on the baggage belt. The priority tags were of some use and our bags turned up quickly. We negotiated the journey out of the terminal building to the international terminal with all our bags and a little boy who just wanted to get out of his pram and run around.
We got to the international terminal. Or was it a zoo?
21:10 – 06:25
Seats 2A and 2C
Wow, I mean wow, really wow, where was I? I had long wondered whether it was really necessary (in some countries) to limit access to the terminal building to passengers only as they do in India – I now know why.
The International Terminal at JNB was heaving with people. It seemed ill equipped to deal with departing passengers, let alone the huge number of friends/family/etc who also seemed to be in the building. I eventually managed to find out that the SAA premium check-in was to the far right end of the terminal. Dodging the long Qantas check-in line, we managed to make it to the relative calm and serenity of the premium area. Once we reached the head of a queue that must have been no more than 5 deep, there was a moment of humour as I failed miserably in my effort to drive the trolley containing our bags onto a metal platform that was an unfamiliar weighing machine. The problem was that the heavy trolley needed some force to get it moving, that force however succeeded only in moving the platform further away. Eventually trolley and platform aligned in perfect harmony and the agent waved us towards a check-in desk confirming that we had not exceeded our permitted baggage allowance.
We were directed to a check-in agent who took almost 15 minutes to tag our bags. She did so whilst exchanging as few words with us as possible. The next aspect of the terminal design did find favour with me; once you have checked-in, you walk behind the desk to a security check point.
The security check was quick and had no queue (it was for the use of SAA premium pax only) so we were able to get to the lounge within a few minutes. The lounge is downstairs opposite the BA lounge. The lack of windows gave it a distinctly ‘bunker’ feel. I was feeling hungry having not eaten on the CPT-JNB leg; I would remain hungry as the small selection of dodgy sandwiches simply couldn’t tempt me.
The lounge itself was pretty basic and uninspiring. There is just about enough space to sit though as the little man wanted to play we retired to the children’s area of the lounge and let him tire himself out.
I did leave the lounge for a bit in a vain attempt to find something else to eat. The food options were either a full sit down meal or some dodgy looking sandwiches! The new JNB terminal is quite impressive. It’s large and spacious with numerous shops to while away the time if you don’t have access to a lounge.
I returned to the lounge and continued to wait for our flight to be called. On arrival at JNB earlier in the evening, we had discovered that our flight had been delayed for by about an hour. This proved to be correct and it resulted in both London flights being called at the same time. To prevent any confusion however, the flights departed from gates that were nowhere near oneanother. It was a long walk to the gate and when we finally arrived we were confronted by a long snaking queue that moved rather slowly. I enquired as to whether there was a Premium line but the answer was no. It took 20 minutes or so before we were on a bus heading out to a remote stand where our A340-600 was parked, ready for its flight to Heathrow.
Once onboard we began to get junior comfy in the hope that he would sleep straight away as he had done on the way out. My wife went to ask for the infant belt extension and was told by the very friendly crew that they were looking at re-seating us. Sure enough, we were invited to use 1C, 1D and 1G. Mrs BiH used 1C and, the boy had 1D and sat in 1G. After a short taxi out to our designated runway we took off and headed towards LHR. I extended 1D out into the flat bed position and strapped Junior in – he fell asleep within minutes. A number of passengers who visited the bathroom before the drinks service commenced were amused to see a little boy flat out using up less than half the seat!
The only downside of our new seating arrangement was that Mrs BiH and I were no longer able to talk – the tradeoff was worth it however. I had a gin and tonic as I perused the quite familiar menu. A glance at the bottom revealed that it was the LHR-JNB/CPT menu and so I resolved to not try the lamb but probably the fish. Minutes later however, one of the crew came round and swapped the menu for another which correctly said it was for JNB/CPT – LHR flights.
Once again, though I knew that the menu would be collected, I forgot to note the 4 dining choices. I selected the beef and a nice glass of CabSauv. The wine was nice, the food was, once again, terrible. After port and little bit of cheese, I flattened my seat into a bed and got some sleep. I was woken up with about 2 hours to go by my son was tentatively patting my head. He drank his morning bottle and then much of my breakfast tray which came around with 1.5 hours to go.
The rest of the flight seem to go very quickly and before we knew it, we were coming in to land passing over London and many of its famous landmarks. We taxied to a remote stand and waited again for what seemed like an eternity for bus to take us inside. It was as we walked to Passport Control that I remembered that due to T5 opening that morning, the building would be quiet and indeed it was.
Our bags were quickly off the baggage belt. Whilst we stood waiting (albeit briefly) for our bags, an Australian couple told us that the little boy was very well behaved during the flight. An hour and a half later and we were home. The journey was over.
True to form, 3 weeks after we got back I booked a trip for Mrs BiH and I. We are leaving the boy with his Grandparents and going to NYC in October on Swiss in First Class.
Last edited by baggageinhall; Oct 11, 08 at 4:04 pm..
Great report thanks, which brings back wonderful memories of our reverse LHR-JNB-CPT-LHR trip on SA C last Xmas.
We'd orginally booked our trip when SA were still flying the 747s and therefore originally had F tickets. As a result we were able to turn left when we went in the LHR lounge and, I have to say, it was significantly better than the C lounge to the right.
We also stayed at the Vineyard for a week and I agree it was great, with a perfect relaxing location away from the hustle and bustle of the waterfront.
We also stayed in Franschhoek and, whilst le Quartier Francais is excellent, we had the most stunning meal across the road at Reubens. Simply sensational and if you haven't tried it I'd highly recommend it if you ever make it back to Franschhoek.