Saturday, December 3, 2011

Revisited: Johannesburg O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB)

The worst things about commercial air travel through Africa happen when you have connecting flights.  And the thing that can make or break your experience with connecting flights is the transit airport.

I am quite confident in saying that Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo International Airport in South Africa is the best airport to be waiting in transit for your connecting flight.

In my previous review on O.R. Tambo International Airport, or JNB as it's known in airline speak, I wrote about how much better it is to be landside, because there's a huge variety of cafes and restaurants to while away your time.

This supplementary article offers a few more tips for your trip if you happen to be transiting through O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa:

Tip #1: Allow at least 2 hours between your scheduled arrival time and the departure time of your connecting flight.  You never know when they might refuse to check your baggage all the way through to your final destination, in which case you need to clear customs, collect your bag, go landside, and dodge the porters and taxi drivers waiting inside the terminal, just outside the big glass sliding doors that separate airside from landside.  Just shake your head and say no, and walk straight ahead to the far wall where the big lifts are waiting to take you upstairs to the check-in counters).  It's very easy if you stay calm and don't talk to anyone trying to carry your bags.

Tip #2: If they refuse to check your baggage through to your final destination, look on the bright side.  There is a duty free shop just next to the baggage carousels with fairly cheap liquor.  Buy something nice to enjoy on the other side, and stick it into your checked baggage when you get it off the carousel.  Then you can check it in again complete with liquor!

The only catch is that unless your connecting flight is South African Airways, check-in will only open 2-3 hours before the flight's scheduled departure time.  If you have a few hours to kill before the check-in counter opens, go to Tip #4.

Oh, and if you have less than 2-3 hours before your next flight, check your bags in first before you go looking for a restaurant.  Might as well get the semi-traumatic stuff out of the way (did I mention that they'll weigh both your checked-in baggage as well as your carry-on bag, before they'll even let you through to the counter?  South African Airways imposes a 7kg limit on carry-ons.  Heck - a rollaboard bag itself is around 3kg when empty ...)

Tip #3: Even if you manage to check your bags through to your final destination, if you have at least 2 hours to kill, it might be worthwhile clearing customs just to enjoy a bit of a stroll and a sit in the sun.  When the immigration officer asks you what you're doing, just say that you're transiting.  Thousands of people do that everyday in this airport.  They'll happily give you a transit visa.  In Africa, less is more.  Don't go developing verbal diarrhoea all of a sudden and elaborate on why you want to go airside, unless you want to be embarrassingly turned away or be stuck at the booth for half an hour while they grill you.

Tip #4: If you need something decent to eat, go landside (see Tip #3), if you don't already need to do so because you had to collect your checked luggage to re-check them back in.  The airside "restaurant" (more like a tarted up cafeteria), specialising in overpriced greasy food, is only something you would inflict upon yourself if you had less than 2 hours to kill before your connecting flight and you absolutely had to eat something.  The food is much more reasonably priced in the landside restaurants.

Once you are landside, go to the level in between the arrival and departure levels and find a comfortable place to plonk yourself down in.  I recommend Mugg & Bean.  They make a very nice Red Coffee, which is a mix of rooibos and coffee.  Worth a try!

On the other hand, if you need some fresh-ish air, or need a smoke after a semi-traumatic check-in experience, go to Tip #5.

Mandie's Place, Johannesburg Airport - alfresco area
Tip #5: If you do get to go landside and are after some sunlight, turn right when you get out, and walk towards the Terminal A end of the airport.  At the very far end, you will find Mandie's Place, a restaurant/bar/cafe which sports a huge alfresco area overlooking the on ramp for departure drop-offs.  Of course, any outdoor dining area in Africa has to be shared with smokers (you need to face up to that reality), and my response is to light up a big fat stogie and produce great amounts of fragrant Cuban smoke to counteract the acrid smell of cigarettes.

Mandie's Place also does a decent breakfast, and even has a really nice coffee (although consistency of coffee quality is an issue you have to live with when travelling through Africa).

Tip #6: Allow at least 30 minutes to get back through security and immigration to airside.  And don't dawdle around outside the security queue, otherwise the guard will try to weight your carry on bag again (it's not heavier than 7kg is it?).

Tip #7: If you want to get internet access or find somewhere nice to sit down and chill, go to the Shongolongo or Mashonzo lounges.  You can pay USD20-30 for entry, and the wifi is free and relatively fast.  They also have a computer terminal with internet access, but you may have to queue.  These lounges are usually at less than half-capacity, so there is plenty of space.  What's even better, all drinks are free, including beers, spirits and juices.  They even have an automatic coffee machine which makes decent coffee by automatic machine standards.  Better than the inconsistent crap you will get if you buy a coffee from the cafeteria (see tip #4).  The food is not flash, but is individually prepared and wrapped, so it's as hygienic as it gets, especially after you nuke it in the microwave.  Or wash it down with Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum like I do.  Choose your own adventure, I say!

Mashonzo Lounge smoking area - plush!
Tip #8: If you're not squeamish about sharing indoors with smokers, the Mashonzo lounge has an amazingly plush indoor smoking area, complete with extractor fans (I think) and a sliding glass door that separates it from the rest of the lounge.  The good thing is that you have a heck of a lot more privacy in the smoking area, and there is hardly anyone in there.

Tip #9: Did anyone mention that they don't announce it over the PA when a flight is boarding?  Also, don't take the risk of waiting until you see your flight announced as boarding on the screen.  That usually means that by the time you get to the gate (and it could be a good 10 minutes away), you're too late and they've closed the flight and are unloading your checked baggage.  Get to the boarding gate by the boarding time stated on your boarding pass.  Even if you have to wait a little bit longer, it's better than missing your plan.  Trust me, I've been there, and you don't want to do it if you can help it!

I know that this article hasn't contained much content on culinary delights, but it is an airport after all.  Very few airports offer true culinary delights (like Hong Kong International Airport), so think of this article as minimising the culinary (as well as other assorted) trauma that you will experience while air-transiting through Africa.

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