We compared South African online travel agents TravelStart, TravelCheck, CheapFlights, and FlightSite – and they were up to 32% more expensive than booking direct

Business Insider SA
Air travel
  • Online travel agents promise to find you the cheapest flights by comparing airlines and sniffing out special deals.
  • But in our testing that proved to be mostly empty promises – and in some cases you could pay a lot less by booking directly with airlines.
  • Only one of the sites we tested found us a cheaper ticket than we could book ourselves, and that saving was just 6%.
  • Here's how TravelStart, TravelCheck, CheapFlights, and FlightSite did when we compare them.
  • For more stories go to

Traditional travel agents still occupy retail space in malls around South Africa, but leaner, feistier and, generally more transparent, online travel agents, or OTAs, are giving them a run for their money.

Budget-conscious travellers are no longer swayed by token freebies and the assurances of a smiling salesperson - instead they’re looking for total transparency and the lowest fares.

Local websites like TravelStart, TravelCheck, CheapFlights, and FlightSite have all positioned themselves in the market as the best way to find cheap flights. They all claim to offer competitive prices for local and international flights, and an easy way to compare prices across a variety of airlines.

In our experience, though, these travel price-comparison sites are best used as a starting point. They’re an efficient way to establish which airline has the cheapest flights for your dates. And on the odd occasion, some may have arranged exclusive deals directly with the airline - usually marketed as limited time specials around birthdays and slower times of the year.

But in the case of domestic flights checked by Business Insider South Africa, you can save between 5% and 30% by booking directly on the airline’s own site instead.

In order to test how much local OTAs save customers in everyday local travel, Business Insider South Africa used the example of a local return flight between O.R. Tambo and Cape Town International, departing 1 November 2019 and returning 8 November 2019. 

These are the cheapest tickets for these dates, when booked directly on the airline website:

Kulula: R1,555.22

FlySafair: R1,998

Mango: R2,065

South African Airways: R2,607.72

And this is what each of South Africa's biggest flight-comparison websites had to offer.

TravelStart: 0.4% to 15% more

TravelStart was founded in Sweden in the late 1990s, and has since moved its headquarters to South Africa. It has grown rapidly in recent years thanks to aggressive social media campaigns and seasonal flight promotions.

Although its promotions at certain times of the year sometimes offer cheaper rates than direct bookings with the airlines, the same is not always true for day-to-day local fares.

TravelStart charges a booking fee on all air tickets. Although it claims to “keep everything translucent” with regards to fees, it does not disclose it as a separate line item on their invoices. Instead, it incorporate this fee under the broader “taxes and fees”, which includes mandatory airline taxes.

It does, however, incorporate this fee into totals from the beginning of the search process, unlike some OTAs that add it on during the payment phase.

According to TravelStart, its flat-rate fees are a benefit to customers, while "most agencies will charge customers a percentage of your overall flight tickets to cover your booking fee". 

Here's what TravelStart offered us.

Kulula: R1,778, or 15% more.

FlySafair: R2,098, or 5% more.

Mango: R2,178, or 5% more.

South African Airways: R2,618, or 0.4% more.

TravelCheck: 6% cheaper to 32% more.

TravelCheck is a relatively new online travel agency, founded in South Africa. It advertises its primary benefit as simplifying the travel planning and booking process.

During its launch phase it offered flat rate discounts on certain flights, and in one case it actually charges less than booking directly with the airline. But like other OTAs, it charges a booking fee for all flights checked by Business Insider South Africa.

TravelCheck does not disclose the booking fee amount during the initial search phases, nor incorporates it into the totals displayed. Instead, it  is added on as a flat rate R75 booking fee during checkout. 

It also charges a cancellation or change fee of R200 per ticket, on top of fees charged by the airline. Then there is also a service fee of R25.50 for reserving seating or adding luggage - on top of the fees charged by the airline.

TravelCheck costs

Kulula: R1,747, or 12% more.

FlySafair: R1,886, or 6% cheaper.

Mango: R2,199, or or 6% more.

South African Airways: R3,451, or 32% more.

Cheapflights: 0% to 9% more.

Cheapflights, founded in 1996, is affiliated to travel comparison giant Kayak. It operates portals in more than a dozen countries, including South Africa.

According to its website, Cheapflights is not a travel agent, but simply an intermediary between travellers and airlines. Unlike other OTAs, this means it acts only as an interface, and takes no responsibility for your booking.

This means you probably won’t pay additional agent fees for things like changes, cancellations, and luggage – but you will need to handle any disputes directly with the airline in question.

Cheapflights does not charge a booking fee on all flights. Instead, it often display the same prices as if booking directly with the airline.

Although two flights were the exact price as booking direct with the airline, two were between 4.5% and 9% more expensive.

Cheapflights costs

Kulula: R1,555.22, or the exact same price as booking direct.

FlySafair: R2,180, or 9% more.

Mango: R2,065, or the exact same price as booking direct.

South African Airways: R2,726, or 5% more.

FlightSite: 2% to 14% more.

FlightSite is a South African travel portal that claims to offer customers "the the fastest way to get the cheapest flight”. It has close ties with the traditional travel agency industry in the form of Club Travel, which it says allows it access to bulk buying power.

FlightSite charges additional fees for booking flights through their website. It does not disclose the exact breakdown of these booking fees, and instead says it charges "reasonable administration fees as well as retaining any service fees levied by us at the time of the booking".

According to Business Insider South Africa’s tests, these additional fees ranged between 2% and 14% when compared to booking directly with the airline.

FlightSite also charges a flat rate fee of R250 for changes or cancellations, on top of the airline fees.

FlightSite costs

Kulula: R1,776.22, or 14% more.

FlySafair: Not listed on the site.

Mango: R2,125, or 3% more.

South African Airways: R2,667.72, or 2% more.

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