Navigating the Clouds: South Africa’s Domestic Airlines Ranked for Your Next Trip

Navigating the Clouds: South Africa’s Domestic Airlines Ranked for Your Next Trip

Written by: Rowan Levieux



Time to read 4 min

Since COVID shuffled the deck on us, the South African skies look quite different with the exit of old favourites like Kulula and Mango shaking up our options. It’s clear the departure of these old staples has seen prices climb sky-high, just as every flight seems to be jam packed.

Remember the luxury of lounging next to a free seat under the comfort of an emergency exit's extra legroom? Those were the days, eh?

With so much change up in the air, it seems about the right time for a good old airline rating, Wayfare style. We're diving into the crowded skies to see who really stands out.

I thought it’d be insightful (and a bit fun) to review these airlines based on a typical weekend getaway from Johannesburg (O.R. Tambo) to Cape Town over a regular June weekend (Friday 21st to Sunday 23rd). Here’s how they fare for a standard Friday post-work flight to a leisurely Sunday return, with one bag checked:

With this in mind, it’s time to reveal our Wayfare 2024 Domestic Airline Ratings:

5th Place - CemAir

Firmly at the tail end is CemAir. Admittedly, I haven’t braved the Johannesburg to Cape Town route with them, but my flights to Plett were enough to make me kiss the ground upon landing.

While I'm sure their aircraft are compliant with all the necessary standards (legal disclaimer advised), their steep price of R5,801.00 doesn't help their case, making them the priciest ticket to the Mother City by far. 

With a shaky online presence that offers little info on fair changes, CemAir's quaint charm is best suited for the brave heading to destinations where the other airlines don’t dare to go.

4th Place - Safair

Next up is Safair, Oh Safair, the self-proclaimed "world's best on time low-fare carrier," ironically isn't the most wallet-friendly for this route on our dates, charging R3,500.00 with no meals included and a R300 change of flight fare.

They offer a no-frills, no-space, hope-you-brought-a-sweater kind of ride. They’re the Ryanair of South Africa: packing us in sardine-tight with extra charges for breathing (okay, not really, but close). Their tagline might need a reality check. 

Nonetheless, their sheer volume of flights almost redeems them, but really, they’re my last resort for when I'm booking at the last minute or needing to travel at specific times. 

3rd Place - South African Airways

Claiming the middle spot is our beleaguered national carrier SAA. This might surprise those who follow airline news. However despite their corporate rollercoaster ride I'm not so sure their offering deserves the flak it gets.

In my experience, SAA offers a solid service with the most generous legroom and a real meal included in the ticket price of R3,722.00. They stand as the priciest among the top contenders but justify it with superior comfort and complimentary in-flight perks. Plus, no fee for changing flights—as far as we can tell. 

Go on, give them another try, after all your taxes paid to keep them airborne!

2nd Place - Airlink

Just missing the top spot is Airlink and maybe harshly so. Flying one of their Embraer jets is like being in a classy regional theatre - small but not cramped, intimate but professional. 

Their flights for our weekend rendezvous are priced at R3,228.00, the most affordable of the group, and include a snack (not a meal as advertised) and a decent beverage service, making them a favourite among budget-conscious business travellers.

The only hiccup? A R500.00 change fee, limited availability when trying to change and occasionally spotty customer service (I had a bad experience okay) prevent them from clinching first place.

1st Place - Lift

Soaring into first place is Lift Airlines, a relative newcomer that's quickly become a favorite for their competitive pricing and onboard vibe - the breath of fresh air we domestic travelers needed and definitely deserved.

At R3,410.00 for our trip, they’re cheaper than the ‘worlds best on time low-cost carrier’, and they're just a smidge pricier than Airlink, but offer a level of service and legroom (second to SAA) that can justify an extra couple of hundred Rand. 

Flight changes are free (in fact last week they let me catch an earlier flight without paying the difference!).

Sure, the meals are more a party pack than a feast and the Vida e coffee isn't a cappuccino, but they make up for it with a commendable drink selection that includes craft gins and unique wines, which is enough for me to get the holiday mood rolling as soon as I buckle up.

Final Boarding Call

Navigating the local airline market is more about managing expectations and embracing the quirks of each carrier. Whether you prioritise cost, comfort, or culinary offerings, there’s still a domestic airline that fits your needs.

With an hounorable mention to Airlink, Lift is a must try. Their combination of price, comfort, and service, makes them a worthy winner of the ‘prestigious’ Wayfare Domestic Airline Awards 2024. 

Remember, fellow Wayfarers, at the end of the day, it’s about the journey as much as the destination. Here’s to smooth skies and tailwinds all the way, wherever your travels may take you!

Disclaimer - The opinions and ratings of each airline are not necessarily factual but based on the personal experience of the writer -> a self proclaimed travelholic. Who is always willing to give the airlines another go for free tickets.

The Author: Rowan Levieux

Rowan is the passionate founder of Wayfare Culture, born out of an insatiable love for travel and a desire to merge style with practicality on the go. Wayfare Culture's products reflect a deep understanding of what it means to explore with confidence and ease. 

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