How My Dad Flew To South Africa Without Knowing It

Filed Under: Air France, Travel

I’ll continue the “formal” trip report shortly, but wanted to first write about what we managed to pull off over the weekend thanks to the help of some very dedicated and creative Air France employees.

On Sunday morning my dad, Ford, and I, landed in Johannesburg. The only thing is that my dad actually had no clue where we were. It was only after passing through immigration that he figured what continent he was on, much less what country he was in.

How did this happen?

My Dad Loves Surprises (And I Love Surprising Him)

When my dad turned 70 I took him on a surprise round the world trip, and it was easily my most memorable trip ever. My dad had no clue where we were going, and only found out our next destination as we arrived at the airport for each flight.

Suffice to say that these kinds of trips aren’t for everyone. Fortunately they are for my dad, as he loves surprises. He had so much fun having no clue where we were going, and frankly I got at least as much of a thrill out of creating a game around it.

Now that my dad is about to turn 75, we’re on another surprise trip. As I’ve been sharing in the trip report up until now, he learned about the trip as it progressed

  • Last Wednesday while in the Air France Lounge at JFK we told him that our first destination was Paris
  • On Saturday evening we flew Air France from Paris to Johannesburg, except he had no clue whatsoever where we were going next

But this time we took it a bit further. We didn’t just wait until we got to the lounge to tell him where we were going. We didn’t even tell him onboard where we were going. Rather he only found out after landing.

How I Pulled This Off (With The Help Of Awesome Air France Staff)

Saturday evening we went to Charles De Gaulle Airport for our flight. We headed to Air France’s La Premiere (first class) check-in, and I handed the very friendly check-in agent our passports.

“By the way, this is a surprise trip for my dad, and he doesn’t know where we’re going next. Please just give me all the boarding passes, and let’s see how long we can keep the secret from him.”

I almost mentioned it jokingly, since historically I let him know our next destination when we get the boarding pass. Well, in this case the entire Air France team took it upon themselves to take this to the next level.

We were escorted to the lounge, and at no point was my dad given his boarding pass. The La Premiere Lounge has no departure monitors, so there were no clues there for my dad.

The check-in process took quite a while, and unbeknownst to me that was because the agent had phoned ahead to the La Premiere Lounge and let them know of this plan. So as we walked to the lounge, she told me “nobody will mention anything.”

When you’re flying in La Premiere they drive you to the plane, and the person driving us to the plane was incredible.

“Your flight is ready, may I take you to the plane.”
“Yes, but where are we going?”
“Where do you think you’re going?”

I figured once we were onboard he’d finally find out. Nope, The La Premiere agent had also let the chief flight attendant know about this little surprise, and she let the captain know.

The captain came out during boarding to personally greet us (as they usually do in La Premiere), and the captain approached my dad

“So do you know where we are flying tonight?”
“Okay good, neither do I.”

Even during the captain’s welcome aboard announcement he informed everyone of the flight time of 10 hours, but at no point was our destination mentioned over the PA, either by him or the chief purser.

My dad tried to turn on his TV, and the chief purser stopped him. “Mr. Schlappig, I’m very sorry, but there is a problem with your map, we won’t be able to turn it on.”

To say that my dad loved the mystery of all of this would be a severe understatement. And I’d be lying if I said I was having any less fun with this than he was.

Several times during the flight the crew came up to him and asked “so where do you think we are flying to?” My dad studied Air France’s map in the magazine to try and decide.

Excitement is contagious, and the crew couldn’t have been better about playing along. I thanked the chief purser profusely for playing this game, and she said “we love this too, this is so much fun.”

My dad finally decided that we were going to Africa after waking up from his sleep. When he woke up it was light outside and the sun was on the left side of the plane, so he decided that we must be flying South based on that.

He was correct, though he still had no clue where we were flying to. I asked him to guess, and based on that his top guess was Mauritius. Then he guessed East Africa. Then he guessed West Africa about an hour later. Somehow South Africa was never on his horizon…

It was only after we were off the plane and through immigration that he figured out we were in Johannesburg, based on a sign with the airport’s name.

Bottom Line

I didn’t think I could ever make a flight more of a “surprise” than I’ve done with our trips together.

However, the incredible Air France staff we dealt with really took this to the next level. They couldn’t have been kinder and more fun. Most of all I was impressed by just how cohesive everything was. What started as a remark to our check-in agent ended up making it all the way up to the onboard crew, including the chief purser and captain.

What a fun day — stay tuned for the actual reviews of the ground experience and flight!

  1. Wow, such fun. And again, kudos to Air France. All the AF team really went out of their way to provide an exceptional experience. Not a sentence I had ever expected to write!!

  2. Wow that is such a lovely experience for you and your dad. Congrats to everyone at Air France for pulling it off!

  3. @Mjolnir22

    Lived in Africa, specifically areas with a lot of malaria cases for 10 years didn’t have malaria once. Don’t think Lucky will run into that issue, people who’ve never been to Africa think every other person had malaria, not really true. Plus SA generally has relatively few malaria cases.

  4. On one hand, I think this is really cool. But part of me wonders if Air France might have had concerns that your Dad was being taken some place he didn’t want to go? I’m sure your Dad was so friendly about everything that would have dampened any suspicions, but I could also see this being a concern on their part. Or maybe I’m just getting overly cautious in my old age…

  5. I’m so happy that Lucky was not arrested or questioned for human trafficking. Imagine if a smuggler of a sex slave made up that story and the crew complied?

  6. This story put a smile on my face. I really admire your closer relationship with your dad. You all seem to be having the time of your lives and that is what makes this site special. I can’t wait for the next installment.

  7. This is amazing. AF is awesome. Imagine if you told a check in agent at the Concorde lounge that you were doing a surprise, they would’ve snarled. Lol

  8. I suppose it’s nice that your dad enjoys being kept in the dark (assuming he’s not just playing along half the time because he thinks it makes you happy).
    I appreciate that you are doing something special for your dad, and respect your right to decide the best way to do it. But FWIW, at least this one person is not impressed with the idea. I view anticipation and planning as part of the fun of travel.
    Best wishes to your dad on his 75th. I hope you have many happy trips with him in your future.

  9. Awesome! Way to go lucky. I’m in the middle of planning something similar for my wife’s 50th bday and go some great tips here!

  10. I’m attempting to do this very same thing with my boyfriend on Royal Air Maroc in J next week JFK-CMN-ORY. Let’s see if they are as suave about it as Air France was…

  11. Congrats. Great trip. I tried to find your explanation on how you booked AF – First. I am heading to JNB later this year and have 2 seats booked on BA as back up but hopeful LH F space may open within 14 days…how did you book AF First?

  12. Congrats. Great trip. I tried to find your explanation on how you booked AF – First? I am heading to JNB later this year and have 2 seats booked on BA as back up but hopeful LH F space may open within 14 days.

  13. Haha, this is a beautiful story, I love this AF ground and air crew especially the captain. Who has ever been on a flight where the flight deck or crew have NOT announced the destination? I sure never have. And that line: “Neither do I” that is so funny, LOL.

  14. Ben,
    Do you suspect that Air France knew who you are and possibly even your surprised trip for your dad from your earlier blog and thus gave some directive to their crew to do this for you?

    As for for people who commented that whether Air France should or could suspect that your dad was taken against his will, I would first refer back to the fact that they may know who they are beforehand. And even if they do not know he’s a well known blogger, they can see that they have the same last name, his dad was happy to be there and most importantly, this was a party of 3 flying La Premiera, which would be a very expensive and luxurious way to kidnap someone.

  15. A fantastic story! And one that will surprise those who love to put-down Air France and its personnel because, you know, the French are so ‘snooty’. Imagine trying to pull this off with a U.S. airline!
    I hope the rest of your trip is as amazing for you, Ford, and your dad as the flights to Paris and Johannesburg.

  16. Nice story. I surprised my partner with a surprise long haul trip in Business Class on Emirates, but never thought to try to keep the destination secret beyond the initial airport check-in when she received her boarding pass!

  17. I have been reading this blog since the beginning. I think this might be my favourite post (I’m usually not into gushy stuff) but this is incredible. Air France were beyond amazing! I loved your dad looking at the map, just really nice and special.

  18. Awesome. I try to surprise my wife like that… couple years back we ended up in Turks and Caicos (she thought we were going to Florida). Key was distraction she caught on right before we went through customs.

  19. Nice job Ben and AF.

    I’ve only ever been able to maintain the surprise till the boarding gate since the screens there give the game away :). Once on a multi leg trip through LHR I wrote a little note asking the immigration officer to please not ask me about our plans since the trip was a surprise and I didn’t want to announce we were going to Paris next. He played along!

  20. Wow! Some of you really know how to ruin a mood. I was really feeling the article until I read all these ‘human-trafficking’ comments. I’m glad airline workers have some common sense to be able to tell the difference between taking someone somewhere against their will and a very sweet, thoughtful birthday present.

  21. AF, like many other airlines, have the PA system separated by cabin. I’d guess that JNB was mentioned a bunch of times in the other cabins, as usual.

  22. This is so sweet that AF is willing to play along. Obviously this only works because when traveling La Premiere, you don’t have to go through the normal immigration process! Enjoy Singita! And I hope on your return back to Johannesburg, you will stay at the Saxon. This is where Nelson Mandela stayed when he wrote Long Walk to Freedom.

  23. Unless you kidnapped him and he woke up either on the plane or at the destination, then no you couldn’t have made it more of a surprise

  24. I am pretty sure that AF knew exactly who Ben was and was playing along for publicity. Glad Ben’s dad was happy and Ben had fun, but to deprive the whole plane of passengers of proper announcement of destination is not right. What if someone else decides to keep his loved one in suspense with an announcement of a fake destination.
    But AF apparently craved publicity with bloggers, what with $4200 tickets and special surprises.

  25. Charming story! Looking forward to learning how you flew first class. Hope the answer isn’t a paid ticket!

  26. Brilliant ! I really LOL’ed !
    If PA are cabin separated as someone said above, as you had the F cabin all to yourselves, then you made AF’s job all the much easier.

  27. Fantastic! So much fun, and I’m impressed by how the AF team came together to make this a really memorable experience. Great story.

  28. @Sean M. and @Michael : Somehow I don’t thing people smugglers fly their “cargo” first class – maybe that was the give away that all was fine?

  29. @Jo145. Notice the smiley face at the end of Sean M.’s post? It’s the giveaway that he’s joking about the human trafficking 🙂

  30. I literally just LOL with pure joy a few times while reading this article at a hotel bar. What an amazing surprise to pull off for your dad. Inspiring!

  31. What @ Terri said. There is little chance the AF La Première staff at CDG is not aware of Ben’s profession. I can not imagine a 10 hour flight where the destination was not mentioned in any announcement enroute.

  32. What a brilliant and sweet story! This is awesome on every level!

    And those of you who only are so focussed on negativity just drop the human trafficking stuff?
    So glad you pulled this off Lucky! Have fun in SA.

  33. Not so Good news coming out of South Africa today! many dead in Riots all across the country. They do not like foreigners taking their jobs.800 Truck Drivers have died in recent years because most of the Truck drivers are Foreigners. Zulus are not allowing any Asians to go to their Homes.

  34. “By the way, this is a surprise trip for my dad, and he doesn’t know where we’re going next. Please just give me all the boarding passes, and let’s see how long we can keep the secret from him.”
    Maybe the Saudi death squads can use this same ruse in the future to fly their victims back to Saudi without their knowing it! :/

  35. This was brilliant!! Love it that you were able to put it together and I bet it took some convincing for all the crew too. <3

  36. Great story hope my children can treat me the same way. Enjoy your trip and time with your dad . Kudos to the staff of AF

  37. How wonderful that you are so privileged that you can fly first class half way around the world, and ask workers to assist in your vanity prank. Pilots have more important priorities than your jollies. Other passengers most probably had more urgent matters for attendants to care for than your selfish priority.
    Keep this to yourself. It was not one smile at a time, I truly found this horrible.

  38. Agreed. AF lounge staff in CDG and JFK and our inflight crews have gone above and beyond for us when traveling with our twin babies. Same for premium res agents. Flying Blue and regular res agents not so much. BTW I look forward to what you thought of the JFK La Premiere lounge. The JFK pre-flight dining in the J lounge (and inflight dining) were excellent when we were there last month. The French know how to cook a steak inflight. 🙂

  39. This is the best story I have ever read on my phone. I am one of the people that burst into years laughing. I pray to have some similar experiences. People can be such a blessing. Cheers

  40. What a heartwarming story. I smiled the whole time I read it! So glad you were able to surprise your dad. He looks like a kid in a candy store with every picture you post. 🙂

  41. Xxx you appear to in the minority ie 1 negative comment /75.
    And crew do have time to interact. They are not robots

  42. So I had to play along a little bit. The pilot said 10 hours, so the distance was probably between 5000 and 5500 miles. Assuming that you wouldn’t go east to go back west (not necessarily a great assumption with you) that reasonably left only South Africa, Madagascar, Thailand, Hong Kong, China or South Korea. Good on him for using the sun to figure out the direction.

    If you haven’t played with Great Circle Mapper ( it’s pretty fun.

  43. Just a thought about destination as well they may have boarded Lucky, Dad, and Ford at the very end and made a full cabin destination announcement before they boarded.

  44. Thank your stars he’s mobile enough to enjoy this trip with you. Memories like these are getting few and far in between for our elderly. Please cherish the moment with your father. You’re doing the right thing.

  45. I am pretty sure AF knew who they were so weren’t worrying too much about those human trafficking nonsense. And if they bothered googling Lucky’s name probably take less than 1min to realise he is a famous blogger.

    Would airlines google on who is booked on a paid first class ticket?

  46. Oh wow… I was on this flight Paris – JNB and it did hit me that nothing was ever said about the final destination but I could not understand why!! All makes sense 🙂

  47. I have only just discovered your blog/web site and I am truly amazed.
    Your story of taking your father all of the way to Johannesburg was fascinating, so well written and so full of love that it almost brought me to tears!

    I so hope that he, and you, enjoyed the trip of a lifetime.

    And what stars are Air France? The cabin layout looks to so much nicer that the “work station” effect of others, and the wines isted are superb – I woud have to spend ten hours sampling them all!

    But it sounds as though the Air France staff were the one who shone. What incredibly nice people. I know with whom I shall choose to fly next time.

    When I win the lottery!

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