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Why the New Nonstop to Cape Town Will Change My Life—and Yours

By Mary Holland

Jan 14, 2020

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Be sure to sit on the right-hand side of the plane for a choice view of Table Mountain.

Photo by Shutterstock

Be sure to sit on the right-hand side of the plane for a choice view of Table Mountain.

A new direct flight from North America to the coastal African city opens up a new world of travel.

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When I moved from Cape Town to New York six years ago, I knew traveling home would be a challenge. With no nonstop flights from the United States to Cape Town, it was impossible to eliminate the dreaded layover. I either had to fly from New York and connect in Europe, or take a direct flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Johannesburg and then hop on another two-hour flight home. Neither option was remotely appealing. I had to choose between fussing through security in Paris or Amsterdam halfway through my 20-hour-plus journey, or rechecking my bag on arrival in Johannesburg (after a 14-hour flight) and then boarding yet another plane, all while being thoroughly jet lagged and sleep deprived. The journey was grueling. But it was home, so I did it unquestionably, more than 10 times over the years.

As of December 15, home isn’t quite so far away anymore, thanks to United Airlines’ new flight from Newark Liberty International Airport to Cape Town. To say this route is a game-changer would be an understatement. It’s the first nonstop service from North America to Cape Town in almost 20 years, a service that has long been missed since South African Airways discontinued its Miami–Cape Town route in 1999.

Cape Town, a city that consistently tops lists as one of the best places in the world to visit, draws globe-trotters to Africa with its idyllic nature and exceptional food and wine scene. Finally, visitors from the greater New York area can hop to South Africa’s seaside city in 14.5 hours—only a few hours more than it takes to fly directly from New York to Hawaii—on a new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. The new route, which will cut flight time by approximately 8 hours, is part of United Airlines’ strategy to service more cities that attract leisure travelers (routes to cities such as Naples, Palermo, and Nice will launch next year). 

The seasonal Cape Town flight will run from December 15 through March (high season), leaving from Newark on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 8:30 p.m. and landing in Cape Town at 6 p.m. the following day.

United worked with the Cape Town Tourism Authority to launch the route, which is expected to bring in around 24,000 passengers (growing the market by 20 percent), create 890 jobs, and encourage $30 million in direct tourism spending by 2021, according to a 2017 study commissioned by Cape Town Air Access, a group made up of city and regional government, tourism, and airport representatives. The hope is that the traffic will ripple across the country and passengers will use South African Airways, another Star Alliance member alongside United, to reach other gateways in South Africa, like Durban or Port Elizabeth. 

Biltong for everyone! What it’s like on the 14-hour flight

When I arrived at Newark on December 15, there was no mistaking my gate. Balloons climbed the walls, dancers welcomed passengers, and a celebratory cake had been cut. The acting South African Ambassador Yoliswa Mvebe and Newark City Council President Mildred Crump gave speeches about the positive impact of the flight, then the ribbon was cut, and we all boarded the plane for the first-ever direct flight from New York to Cape Town. Onboard the captain welcomed passengers in Afrikaans. Few passengers probably knew what he was saying, but honestly, no one cared, because we were escaping the bitter winter weather for the soaring 70s across the Atlantic. 

In the business-class cabin, the excitement was palpable. Passengers were in a flurry, chatting with each other, taking pictures with the team, and changing into airline pajamas emblazoned with a map of the route and the words, “Good night New York, hello Cape Town.”  This was a PJ set to keep.

I overheard two passengers say they had chosen to fly this route because it was effortless. One student told me he was going to visit a friend in Cape Town–he’d recently finished classes and booked himself on this flight because it was so much easier. If this route wasn’t available, he probably wouldn’t have booked the trip at all. I heard another man say he’d been traveling from San Francisco to Cape Town for several years. This new route was an absolute time-saver.

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Another woman didn’t even realize she was on the inaugural flight. She had unknowingly booked her tickets months ago because the date was convenient. Nevertheless, she was glad to be part of the festivities. One South African flight attendant couple, based out of Washington, D.C., was delighted to be on the inaugural flight. Not only were they experiencing a historic moment, but their daughter had recently given birth in Cape Town and this journey presented an opportunity for them to meet their grandchild.

The South African captain walked around the cabin, greeting passengers and dishing out packets of biltong (jerky, but better), while another crew member handed out cookies painted with the South African flag. During the meal and drink service, South African wines (an Indaba red blend and a chardonnay) were served alongside beef short rib, ginseng chicken, and seared lemongrass salmon.

We landed at 6 p.m. in Cape Town—right on time—on December 16, the Day of Reconciliation, a significant national holiday that promotes unity across the country. For the first time ever, I’d be approaching Cape Town from the western coastline, as opposed to the north or east. I was excited, but as we began our descent over the Atlantic ocean and we circled Table Mountain I realized I was on the wrong side of the plane. If you want to see Table Mountain in all her glory, book a seat on the right-hand side of the plane. But I didn’t care, as I’d seen that glorious mountain a million times before. Thanks to the new flight, I knew I’d be seeing it again and again. 

When we landed, the passengers clapped and cheered. Arriving in Cape Town felt strangely new, like no plane had landed there before, as though this would be the first meeting of two foreign cultures. “Welcome to South Africa,” people sang as we exited. A band was there to greet us, singing and dancing; it felt good to be home. I never thought I’d say this about a 14-hour flight, but really, I’ll gladly do it all again. Only next time, on the right-hand side of the plane. 

>> Next: AFAR’s Ultimate Guide to Cape Town

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