The furthest south I’d ever been in Africa was Tanzania…and it was beginning to irk me! I was born in East Africa and had been living there for the past 12 years; I grew up in West Africa and had traveled there quite a bit; although I had never been to North Africa, I had been to Niger in the Sahel, and that satisfied my curiosity somewhat about North Africa. Southern Africa though? No. Never.
I started to feel this way about a year or so before the happenings I am going to tell you about in this post, but with air travel across Africa being so expensive, I knew I wasn’t going to just randomly take a trip south (or so I thought). I missed a dear friend’s wedding in South Africa, at some point, because it was going to be just too costly for one weekend. When my boss recently told me about his amazing two-week family trip to Namibia, my desire to go south only grew stronger. I craved to see what South Africa was like, but I put those desires on the back burner in the hopes that one day the perfect set of circumstances would come together so I could satisfy them.
Fast forward to late last year. Some family members casually told me one day that they’d be going to Johannesburg and asked if I wanted to tag along. Of course, I wanted to tag along! Without hesitation (think: one too many drinks in me), I told them to count me in. We were going to Johannesburg!
And then, I woke up the next morning and started to do the math. How much exactly was this going to set me back financially? I checked online and realized that a return ticket to Johannesburg would set me back upwards of US $700. And that was just the flight. Oops, it was time for me to start backpedaling.
But…I really wanted to go! So I only half-backpedaled, giving my family a disclaimer that I needed to think about it some more. In the meantime, I looked for cheaper flights. I could get a return ticket on Kenya Airways for $100 less than on South African Airways if I traveled through Nairobi, but even that didn’t quite fit into my budget. The debate continued to rage in my mind with me deciding one minute to seize the day, after all life is short, and the next minute deciding not to go because I knew that good financial planning went a long way to creating a peaceful life.
And then, one day, as I was driving to Mlimani City mall, I saw a huge billboard advertising Fastjet’s new flights to Johannesburg priced at only Tsh. 160,000 (approximately US $100). What?! It couldn’t be. Of course, I had heard of Fastjet before—Tanzania’s new budget airline—but to the best of my knowledge, they only flew within the country to Dar es Salaam, Mwanza, and Kilimanjaro (now also Mbeya). Was I really going to trust a new budget African airline to fly me safely to a city 2,500km away? I put what I had just learned to the back of my mind and decided to look into it further when I got home.
As soon as I got home, I visited the FastJet website and learned a couple of things: yes, Fastjet was set to be flying between Dar es Salaam and Johannesburg at a base fare of Tsh. 160,000 one way (exclusive of taxes and other charges), but the flights had not begun as scheduled and at the time, the inaugural flight was about two weeks late. I knew there would be a catch!
I decided to get on Facebook and Twitter to see what people were saying about Fastjet in general. The Fastjet social media accounts seemed to be well-organized and very positive about their services, especially about their upcoming new flight service to Johannesburg, but I also saw lots of people (including people I am connected with on Twitter) who were complaining about the recently canceled flights to South Africa and refunds that had not yet been issued. Oh! I decided I’d watch it for a while before I made a decision.
Eventually, in mid-October—I was planning to travel at the end of October—Fastjet flights between Dar es Salaam and Johannesburg began, and from what I could tell, customers (and the airline) seemed pleased with how they were going so far. I decided to stop pussyfooting and commit. I was indeed going to go to Johannesburg and I was going to fly with Fastjet!
Everyone knows that when something looks too good to be true, then it probably is, so of course, I didn’t expect Fastjet’s fares to be as good as advertised. I’d heard through the grapevine that despite their very low fares, they were good at bumping people off flights with no refund if you were late to the airport and that they charged an arm and a leg to transport luggage. I turned to their website for the fine print.
I managed to find a base fare of Tsh. 180,000 for each leg of my journey (Fastjet ticket prices increase the closer you get to the travel date), and with one piece of luggage pre-booked for each flight, the total cost of my return ticket was Tsh. 554,390, or approximately US $350. Wow! That was less than half what I would have paid for the same ticket on South African Airways! Now, all that was left to see was what the actual traveling experience would be like.
Early on a Monday morning, I made my way to Julius Nyerere International Airport (Dar es Salaam airport) for my flight to Johannesburg. In the flurry of activity the day before, I had completely forgotten to print out my e-ticket. Ok, maybe I didn’t so much forget to as chose not to; I had learned a long time ago, that it wasn’t really necessary. If I showed up at the check-in counter with my identification in hand, my travel details could always be pulled up and no one seemed particularly bothered by this. So that’s what I did. I showed my e-ticket, displayed on my phone, to the security guard at the entrance of the check-in area. As expected, he let me through with no problem. I made my way to the Fastjet check-in counter. Smiling, I apologized to the ground hostess for not having a printed e-ticket as I handed her my passport over the counter. I knew the drill: I had done this many, many times before. Smiling, she apologized too and told me that unfortunately, she wouldn’t be able to check me in without a printed e-ticket. Huh?! Wasn’t there a central reservations system through which she could pull up my booking. She told me that there wasn’t.
What had I gone and done? What airline was this that didn’t have a central reservations system? How was I able to check my booking details over the internet yet she couldn’t do this from the check-in counter?! Not to start my journey on a bad leg, I calmly gave my phone (yikes!) to another ground attendant who offered to print out my e-ticket. After 45 minutes, he had not come back. The holdup, he eventually told me, was that there was no paper in the printer. Alright!
Eventually, my e-ticket got printed and I was checked-in. I ranted about the situation on Twitter and proceeded to the departure lounge. Needless to say, I wasn’t very impressed with Fastjet at this point.
In hindsight, this initial experience had little to do with the actual flying experience I had on the airline (or at the airport in Johannesburg). When I got on to the plane, an Airbus A319, I was impressed with how big and spacious it was. I finally understood why the flying time to Johannesburg was only going to be 3½ hours. I settled in to my window seat.
The flight to Johannesburg was one of the smoothest flights I’ve ever taken (and I’ve been flying regularly since I was 2½ years old). Although there were no free refreshments offered during the flight–I knew this when booking my ticket–there were affordable drinks and snacks on sale. For less than half the competitor’s ticket price, I had no problem buying myself food and drinks. (Well, actually, I just had breakfast at the airport in Dar es Salaam and lunch at the airport in Johannesburg.)
My flight back from Johannesburg was equally as pleasant, and of course, I had a great time while there (more about that in my next post). Given the chance, I would fly Fastjet again in a heartbeat and can’t wait for them to start flying on routes that I travel on more regularly such as Dar es Salaam–Nairobi or Dar es Salaam–Entebbe (Fastjet says they plan on opening up more international routes, for instance they now fly to Lusaka, Zambia). If you are ever looking for a cheaper flight and Fastjet happens to operate on your route, then I recommend them wholeheartedly. If you ever do fly with them (or have flown with them before), I’d love to hear about your experience–leave me a comment below!
Until the next time,
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