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How to survive flying from West Coast to South Africa?

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We'll be going from SFO to JNB in September & are now getting ready to buy the airline tickets. The length of flights have me in a swivet -- don't think I could do a 17 hour flight in coach back to NY as per SAA (with a midway stop without de-planing!), then follow up with a layover AND a 5-6 hour flight home to SFO. I'd be bananas. It makes me nuts just thinking about it. So my preference is to do AA/BA flights through Heathrow, spending a night with friends in London both coming & going, thereby breaking the whole journey into 4 10 hour segments (and getting award miles). I know 10 hours is doable. My husband wants to get the whole thing over with and is pushing for SAA , with a night in NY on the way. The outward journey, done like that, sounds okay -- but coming home there is no getting around that miserable journey mentioned above. Wouldn't want to mess around in NY for a whole day & night after a 17 hr flight. I have suggested traveling separately & was not joking!

Some months ago when I was first beginning to think about this, a woman from SF wrote she found the long flights a good time to get her head around the trip, relax after trip preps, and -- with aid of ambien & wine -- sleep quite a lot. I'd love to know any tips, tricks etc. others have used. Also route comparisons from those who have tried different ways -- e.g. is the benefit of shorter flights outweighed by the hassle of leaving/returning to the airport? Wish we could afford business/first class -- but that will have to be in another life...

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