Pricey South Africa

August 8, 2022

Having flown once or twice annually to South Africa since 1991, I’ve never experienced such high airfares as now in premium economy and business, the so-called “premium” classes.  Whether in dollars or miles, it’s a costly trip these days.  If I wanted to go RDU/JNB this week in business class, round trip would be a whopping $14,709 on Delta or a mere $10,974 on United. Ouch!

Neither would I find an award travel bargain at 990,000 miles to fly in Delta One business class.

Heck, Air France is charging a million points from Paris to South Africa to sit up front, which may take the prize for most expensive award travel to date.  But I’ll stick to looking at fares and classes from my home airport here in Raleigh (RDU) since I don’t live in the City of Light.   

As a basis for comparison, here’s what I paid for recent roundtrips RDU/JNB (Johannesburg):

  • June 2019 – $2110 on Delta in premium economy (for travel Feb-Mar, 2020)
  • January 2021 – $3300 on United in business (for travel in Jul-Aug, 2021)
  • March 2021 – $3300 on United in business (for travel in Oct-Nov, 2021)
  • June 2021 – $3300 on United in business (for travel in Feb-Mar, 2022)
  • May 2022 – $1724 on United in premium economy (for travel in Feb-Mar, 2023)

I used Google Flights to look at economy (Y), premium economy (PE), and business (J) fares for mid-month, midweek travel for 14-day stays. 

I started with near-term dates in August, just a few days out, and then checked every three months (November 2022, February 2023, and May 2023). 

Only Delta and United fly nonstop from the USA to South Africa now that South African Airways is kaput.  SAA has become the Alitalia of the southern hemisphere, failing frequently and having to be bailed out. 

Both Delta and United now fly to both Johannesburg (JNB) and Cape Town (CPT), DL from Atlanta, and UA from Newark.  I checked fares to both JNB and to CPT.  However, Delta doesn’t start flights to Cape Town until December 17, so fares for the direct service in August and November are nonexistent.

I also checked a few fares for flights connecting through Europe.  Direct flights from EWR and ATL are 15-16 hours to both JNB and CPT—long hauls, but still preferable to 6-12 hour layovers in European gateways like London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Paris. That makes the total travel time much longer than using the nonstops.  I looked at AA/BA fares via LHR, AA/Qatar (QR) fares via Doha, and finally, Delta/Air France or Delta/KLM fares through CDG and AMS.

I did not attempt to shop for the cheapest (or most expensive) dates within a month.  Google Flights conveniently has a price matrix for entire months to allow that, but I wanted to use midmonth two-week periods, usually Monday or Tuesday outbound and Tuesday or Wednesday return, letting the fares fall where they may based on demand for those dates, not on low-fare shopping.

Here, then, are my matrices of airfares:

My principal takeaways are:

  • Except for near-term dates, economy fares are cheap and varied the least.
  • Cape Town economy fares on DL and UA are a little higher than to JNB.
  • Delta PE fares to both JNB and CPT are generally higher than UA.
  • Delta PE fares to JNB on some dates are not significantly higher than I paid in 2019.
  • United PE fares to JNB are generally higher than I paid back in May, though similar on some dates.
  • Delta business fares to both JNB and CPT are sky-high five-figure sums, whereas United’s business fares are half or less except for August (just a few days in the future). 
  • Many Delta premium fares were not returned, perhaps indicating sold-out cabins on the dates I checked.  Does this imply that the market favors Delta’s PE and J products, or something else? 
  • I don’t know.  I’ve flown both United’s and Delta’s current business class, and there was a difference in customer service in flight, not seat product.  But the difference isn’t worth paying double in my opinion.   
  • United fares were returned for nearly every date and class to both cities and were mostly far cheaper than Delta.  After three round trips to South Africa in the past 12 months in UA Polaris cabins, I just don’t see how Delta One cabins merit a 100% fare premium.

Next, I matched award mileage to dollar costs for both UA and DL using only the May 2023 dates for RDU/JNB: 

Damnably expensive in business class in either miles or dollars!  But if points are still worth 1.0 to 1.2 cents each, then award travel is pretty close in costs to real money.  

Which is no real comfort.  Because no matter how I price flying a premium cabin to South Africa, the cost is dear.  I’m glad to be locked in to fly next February and March for $1700 in premium economy.

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