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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!

These international flying tips are invaluable! Read this before you take your next trip!

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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45 Comments

  • Lisa says:

    My number one travel tip for long/international flights is to change your watch to your destination time AS SOON AS you get on the plane. If you are making connections, you change your watch for each layover location as you get on the flight to that location. (So, Atlanta to Amsterdam, you set your watch to Amsterdam. Then AMS to Johannesburg, you set your watch to Johannesburg). Then, you purpose yourself to live your hours on the plane based on what “local” time is. It helps us hit the ground running. This summer we took 13 flights in 4 weeks (10 were international- though none as long as yours) and never struggled with jetlag that impeded our vacation.

  • Muriel says:

    I love reading how other people pack to get ideas on how to make it simpler and ideas on what is really worth packing. Thanks for the post.

  • Cindy Brick says:

    One struggle we’ve had when traveling to Mexico, plus dealing with the “no-liquids-in-large-amounts” rule: there was a 50/50 chance our suntan lotion (packed in the checked luggage, by necessity) would be inside the suitcase when we arrived!
    And sunscreen is REALLY expensive in the South American countries. (Our guide in Brazil said a bottle of lotion was about a month’s pay in his area.)
    I’ve heard that the liquid guidelines are going to be relaxed, due to new screening techniques. That would be wonderful. At least in Denver, CO (DIA), you no longer have to remove your shoes. That’s nice, too.

    I’m amazed, quite frankly, that the laptops were still in the checked suitcase. (God’s grace.) At least in the carryon luggage, you have a fighting chance of seeing people mess with your bag — I’d just make sure it was in the bag that went under the seat in front of you.

    Welcome home.

    • I often put smaller amounts of liquids into squeeze tubes and sometimes will bring more than one in different suitcases. Not sure if that is an option for you, but that might be something to consider? We have TSA Precheck and it has been SO nice (and saved us a LOT of time!) when flying domestically!

  • Mireille says:

    Great tips! We did have the same problem with our cartoons and had to check of them in. Thankfully no lost luggage!

  • Trish says:

    Thank you for this post, just in time for my trip to England in several weeks. I like the make-up tip. Makes sense!:)
    Also, do you have a good sleeping aid/pill recommendation? Thanks!

    • We all use different things: Jesse uses straight up Dramamine. I use the Natural Dramamine (I also get motion sickness). Silas uses the children’s Dramamine. The girls use ZZZquil.

      • Michelle says:

        A quick money saving tip on sleep aids (which can be very expensive!) Check the ingredients – many sleep aids are actually just Diphenhydramine HCl (ZZZquil is one of them). That’s the generic name for Benadryl (allergy medicine). A lot of sleep aids are just antihistamines. You can just pack generic benadryl (about $4 for 100 capsules at Walmart or Target) and use it double duty as a sleep aid or for allergies.

  • Beth says:

    Another thought regarding bags: if you have domestic flights in the country you’re visiting don’t forget to double check that you’ll meet the requirements. If your domestic flight is connected to your international flight then international rules apply. If it’s not, either because it was cheaper to book separate tickets or you’re making a trip in country, then double check the domestic rules for that airline.

  • Therese says:

    I always pack toothbrush and toothpaste, mouthwash and a small deodorant in my carry on so I can use them on the plane or on a layover.

    Mouthwash is also helpful for brushing your teeth in case you end up somewhere where potable water is not readily available (e.g. arriving in a rural area of a developing nation late at night on a missions trip) =)

    • One of my favorite things to bring for travel is Listerine Strips! They are so great if you don’t have access to water or you are going to be out for long periods of time during the day or you just want to make sure you have fresh breath!

  • Sarah says:

    I like to have a thick warm pair of socks for long international flights. My feet always swell a bit on the long ones so shoes become uncomfortable. The thick socks make sure I don’t freeze when they crank the AC up.

    • Great tip! I wore slip-on Tom’s this time instead of socks and I ended up liking them better because I don’t like to wear socks into the bathroom because there’s usually water or other liquid on the floor (yuck).

  • Jay Kay says:

    Don’t assume you will only go thru security one time. My husband flies internationally for work and has had this happen several times. He once bought me a very nice set of lotions in a gift shop in the Milan airport, only to have one of the bottles confiscated (larger than 3 ounces!) when he went thru security again in Frankfurt. The problem occurs when you have to go to another international terminal for your connecting flight. He also recommends noise cancelling headphones!

  • Meliss says:

    Sleeping meds? We are taking a long flight in one month what do you suggest?

    • I would probably recommend testing out a few ahead of time because it seems like they work differently for different people. I like the Natural Dramamine, but Jesse prefers regular Dramamine. Another one we like is Zzzquil (or the store brand knockoff).

  • Terri says:

    We live in Germany and fly back to the states at least a couple of times a year. We always carry our electronics with us simply because the checked luggage gets thrown and jostled around so much by both the human and mechanical baggage handlers. We download movies and TV show episodes to our iPads from Netflix to watch in case of inflight entertainment issues. This has saved us multiple times, plus it has helped keep us occupied during long (and sometimes unexpected) layovers. We have learned to pack lightly also. I think every airline we have travelled has had weight limits on both checked and carryon bags. Planning outfits in basic and coordinated color schemes has become a necessity with all of the extra costs for checked and overweight baggage.

  • Jennifer Ott says:

    Hey! Most airlines do have weight limits on luggage, they are just sporadic at enforcing them. American Airlines is 40 pounds (https://traveltips.usatoday.com/american-airlines-carry-on-requirements-1587.html). Travel is always an adventure! I will say our two least favorite airlines in Africa are South African and Kenyan for luggage issues, though we will fly them if cheapest (since we buy 6 tickets at a time!).

    • I didn’t know that about American, but I’ve never had a carry-on that was remotely close to 40 pounds so I don’t think I will have anything to worry about there! SAA is 8 kg and they weighed every single carry-on and personal item (our backpacks). Gratefully, only Jesse and my bag were over the 8 kg/18 lb weight on the way there (our bags were both around 25 lbs). On the way back, we were able to pack things differently and stayed under the 18 lb. weight limit. When I go to India in a few weeks, I’m packing differently with the carry-on weight limit in mind. Live and learn! 🙂

      • Heather says:

        When we fly Middle Eastern airlines, they typically have a 7kg (15 lb) weight limit. The first time we realized this, we weighed our carryon bag at the time and it was half that weight, so we’ve started using a duffel bag, because 15 lbs isn’t that hard to lug around. 🙂 Interestingly, on our most recent flight, our airline was only weighing the bags of people using traditional carry ons. They didn’t even ask to weigh our backpacks and duffle bag.

  • De says:

    Thank you for the great tips. I will look forward to your other posts as well. Since we will be traveling internationally with four kids in a few weeks, this is much needed info.
    Where did you get your backpack and carry on? Did you like it?
    Thank you!

  • Emily F. says:

    Don’t underestimate the headache of having your luggage lost even on your return home. My dad and husband renturned 10 days ago from a 10 international trip. Both had their luggage delayed and th airline ended up having to replace my dads expensive medical device, due to the delay.

  • Holli says:

    For any flight, I recommend that you put a least one full outfit (including undergarments) in the other person’s luggage. So, if they lose only one suitcase, that person will have something to wear!

  • CT Mom says:

    Global Entry so worth it after any international flight. The bonus is you are automatically enrolled in Precheck for domestic flights. Talk about a time saver.

    • Jesse was wondering about that and thinking of looking into it. We used the app — which made passport entry so much faster!

      • Dara says:

        I second this. I don’t have it, but used to work for an international company that required travel from a lot of the corporate employees. My boss and two coworkers travelled together frequently and one didn’t have it while two did. It saved the two so much time and they were always waiting on the other guy to get through.

  • Shelley says:

    Always read the benefits brochure for the credit card you use to purchase your tickets. Many offer perks and/or insurance at no additional cost. On a recent international trip our return flight was delayed overnight. The airline offered no compensation, but our credit card company had a free insurance policy that paid for our meals and hotel during the delay.

  • Libby says:

    If I’m checking luggage, I’ll zip tie the zippers together. This way:
    1. If security wants to check, they can easily cut the zip tie and inspect.
    2. I’ll know if anyone opened my bag.

    I’ve done this for years since luggage locks were discouraged/banned – not sure which.

    I also try to have some coins in the local currency. In many countries there is a charge to use a public restroom.

    I pack easy-to-eat fruit (grapes, cherries, apple slices) in a small plastic container that I don’t mind jettisoning along the way. Usually they are the take-out containers for soup when we order Chinese.

    Luggage tag on all luggage – even carry on.

    If I’m taking an overnight flight to Europe, I make sure to eat dinner either at the airport or buy food at the airport to eat as soon as I get on the plane. This means I have a longer stretch to sleep rather than waiting for dinner on the plane to be served.

    I also pack a ziplock bag in my carry on bag. Great for quarantining something if it gets wet while traveling, isolates my pen in case it leaks with the air pressure changes, etc.

    I bring an extra layer for the flight: sweater or fleece to wear on the plane. I find it easier to keep warm than a blanket that can be prone to sliding off.

    Finally, I keep a spring-loaded clothes pin in my luggage. I’ve needed it often to make sure the curtains where I’m staying stay fully closed. Not so much a tip for the plane, but the clothes pin lives in my roller bag 🙂

    Happy Trails!

  • Laura says:

    Wow, Praise God!!! When I read you packed those valuables in your checked luggage, I cringed, thinking you would say it was all stolen. I lived in Mozambique for 15 years, traveling through Joburg airport often. Every person I know has had something stolen from their checked bags, usually more than once. It truly is God’s protection and miracle those items weren’t, it has one of the worst records of airports in the world for theft. To think it sat somewhere for three days and wasn’t tampered with is amazing! Wonderful!
    I love these tips!
    SAA has had a carry on weight limit since I first flew in 2000 but only enforce it sporadically. That year I took a team of 16 students to Moz – we all had to check our bags from the gate because they were over the limit and some people didn’t take out their valuables due to the last minute and being hurried. Not one bag arrived without something missing, so sad. Every international airline I know of, except British Airways, has a very low carry on weight limit – often only 7 or 8 kgs. (British Airways last time I checked allowed you a full 23 kgs! Same weight as a checked bag!) It’s hard when we are used to domestic American flights with no limit. However, they often don’t check, you just never know.
    Love your tips and the ones in the comments! (I also travel with a clothespin, ziplock and a sharpie.

  • Dahlia says:

    Pack lots of empty zip top gallon bags! Then if a tummy bug goes through the family while traveling abroad (recent experience) you can seal up any “waste” to take to exterior garbage cans and store soiled items until you can wash them. Containing odors is very important!

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