5 Things I Wish I Had Known Before We Went to South Africa


As I told you a few days ago, I’m going to spend the most of the next two weeks here sharing all about our recent family trip to South Africa. There are so many beautiful stories to share from our time there, but I wanted to start this series from the very top — by sharing some practical lessons I learned on this trip when it comes specifically to international travel.

I’ve done some international travel in the past few years (this was my fourth trip to South Africa in four years + I also took a trip to Rome and Israel) and, each time, I learn new tricks and tips for international travel. If you are a seasoned pro at international travel, these tips will likely be ones that are incredibly obvious and no-brainer to you.

But I wanted to share these with those of you who might not be seasoned travelers and might be planning an international trip in the future. There were things I wish someone had told me these things ahead of time and (for the most part) had to discover the hard way:

1. Check Your Seat Assignments on the Airline’s Website

We flew through South African Airways this time and had booked through a third-party website because the prices were much cheaper to do so. However, we didn’t realize that the seats we chose on that website wouldn’t transfer over to South African Airways and that we actually needed to get on the SAA website to book our seats.

We accidentally discovered this about two days before our flights — when we happened to get online and check something and saw that we had no assigned seats! Gratefully, we were able to choose seats that were decent even though it was so close to the departure date, but had we waited until we showed up at the airport, we could have ended up with really bad seats that weren’t together — because our flight there ended up being 100% booked.

So lesson learned: Always double check your seat assignments on the actual airline’s site as soon as you book and then maybe double-check again the week of your flight. (Yes, I’m one of those weird people that typically double and triple checks things, just to be sure!)

2. Find Out if There is a Weight Limit for Carry-ons (Before You Pack!)

This was probably my biggest mistake of the trip. The thought never crossed my mind to check if there was a weight limit for carry-ons.

I guess this is a really common thing for international flights, but I think that SAA hadn’t either enforced this or had this policy the first time I flew to South Africa. Then, we flew Delta the last two times to South Africa and they don’t have weight limits for carry-ons. When we fly domestically, we almost always fly American Airlines, which also doesn’t have weight limits for carry-ons.

So, believe it or not, I’d never encountered a situation where an airline had a weight limit for carry-ons. Which meant that I never thought to check on this ahead of time.

I was so thrilled at how “well” I had packed and how I had easily fit everything into my backpack and carry-on for this trip. Everyone had packed the same: one backpack and one carry-on. I thought we were being so smart and efficient. Ahem.

Then we got up to the check-in counter and I saw all of the signs about the weight limit for carry-ons and knew that my grand plan wasn’t going to work so well! They had to weigh every single backpack and carry-on suitcase and Jesse and my carry-on were way over the limit.

However, the good news is that we got a free checked bag per person since we were traveling internationally and we had only planned to check one bag (see more on that below). Since we were able to check up to five bags for free and only Jesse’s carry-on and my carry-on were over the weight limit, we didn’t have to pay anything extra. I did, however, rearrange a few things and pull out an extra outfit — just in case I needed it while on the plane or something (remember, I’m the girl with the mantra of, “Always be prepared.” :))

3. Don’t Put Valuables in Your Checked Luggage

I made another very newbie sort of mistake here: we brought a big suitcase full of gifts for the team in South Africa and the bag included two brand-new laptops and wireless security cameras that one of them had ordered and shipped to our house for us to bring as that was less expensive than having it shipped to South Africa.

In past trips, we’d had multiple items stolen from our carry-on luggage on the flights — mostly small, brand-new items that we had purchased in South Africa. Because of this and because I thought it made more practical sense, our big suitcase had all of the gifts in it, including the laptops and wireless security cameras.

Well, when we showed up in South Africa, the big suitcase wasn’t there. It didn’t come out with the rest of the luggage. It wasn’t in the oversized luggage. It wasn’t anywhere. We went and talked to the customer service counter and they looked, too, and couldn’t find it.

We’re not sure where it was, but no one could locate it until three days later! And I was pretty sick that they we had put all those valuables in it.

More on this story below, but the short of it that they did finally locate it and everything was still in it (gratefully!), but from now on, I am going to do the best I can to make sure that any valuables are in our carry-on luggage (which will also be under weight limit!) and we’ll keep a very close eye on them throughout the flight to make sure nothing is stolen in flight.

4. Don’t Assume That Your In-Seat TV Will Work

Our flight to South Africa was 18 hours long. I’ve done this (or a similar flight) 8 times now and I can tell you that that is a LOT of hours to be confined to an economy seat on an plane! 🙂

I try to sleep at least 7-8 of those hours, I usually read for at least 3-4 hours, and then I typically watch at least one or two movies to help pass the time.

This time around, on our first flight, my in-seat TV had all sorts of issues and only worked for a tiny bit of the flight. I asked the flight attendants to reset it twice and it would work for a little bit and then stop working. I finally gave up on trying to make it work.

Next time around when I have a long international flight, I’ll prepare for this possibility by making sure my phone is stocked with some great podcasts to listen to and some things to read or watch, just as a backup.

5. Be Persistent When It Comes to Customer Service

This isn’t something I wished I had known before we left for South Africa as much as it is a continuation of something I’ve been working on in my my life and that is: stating my needs and being gracious but persistent in asking for help. I had a lot of reatopportunities to practice this on our trip!

When our bag was lost, we filed a claim with the customer service rep at the SAA desk in South Africa. They acted like this was enough, that we didn’t need to do anything else, and they’d keep us posted.

But after we didn’t hear anything from for 24 hours, we decided to email their customer service with specific details on our bag and the contents. They said they would check on it again and that our claim was in the system and we would be notified when they found anything about the bag. But again, we didn’t hear any updates for hours.

So, even Jesse thought I was being a little bit too aggressive, I said we needed to call them and try again with a different customer service representative. Well, guess what? Because of that phone call, a customer service rep got on the ball and sent emails out about our bag to multiple department, and within 12 hours, they had located the bag! We’re still not sure what happened, but we were SO grateful that it was finally located — and that all of the contents were still there!

Yes, it felt sort of like we were badgering them or being impatient to keep contacting them, but I don’t know that our bag would have gotten found had we not been persistent and kept contacting them until we found someone who seemed to really take it seriously.

Be gracious, but don’t be afraid to be persistent if it seems like you’re not getting the help you need.

A few more tips and suggestions gleaned from this trip:

Have a Chill Day Before and After Your Flight Day: This time around, we decided to fly to DC and spend 24 hours there and then fly to South Africa. On the way home, we spent 24 hours in DC before flying home. I felt like this made the trip as a whole more relaxing and helped us transition better on both ends. We would definitely do this again if it worked out and the price was significantly cheaper.

Wash & Moisturize Your Face on the Plane: When you’re on a long flight, I recommend washing your face and moisturizing it in the airplane bathroom before you go to sleep on the plane. Then, a few hours before the plane lands, wash and moisturize your face again and do your makeup. You’ll feel more awake and your skin won’t feel dry and parched! Plus, it makes you feel a little less grungy when you land!

Have Everyone in Be Charge of Their Own Luggage: Since our kids are 13, 11, and 9, we had them be completely in charge of their own luggage this time around. They packed their bags, with a little oversight from me, and then they were in charge of lugging them everywhere we went. This made it so easy — and it kept things organized and simple. We just always made sure that everyone had a backpack and carry-on bag + our checked bag and we were good to go.

By the way, I had everyone pack a travel blanket, travel pillow, eye mask, hand sanitizer, tissues, baby wipes, head phones, snacks, lotion, lip gloss, and a few activities for the plane in their backpack. That way, they didn’t have to ask me for anything other than nausea/sleeping meds on the flight. It really helped everyone be self-sufficient and have what they needed.

What are your best tips for long international flights? I’d love to hear!

Tomorrow, I’ll be sharing all the details on what I pack in my backpack for international trips.

If you enjoy posts on international travel, be sure to also check out the following posts I’ve written on the topic:





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