In Which I Accidentally Cancel My Flight Out of Cape Town

Cape Town gardens and fountain
At least I would have an extra day in Cape Town?

Up until Valentine’s Day, Angolan Airlines was my new favourite airline in the world.

Now that I’m based in Lisbon, I’d been concerned I’d end up spending more on travel than I had in the past. I’d be travelling faster, because now that I pay rent in Portugal, I couldn’t justify rocking up in a new country and spending three months there in order to save money. On top of that, I’d have to buy round-trip flight tickets instead of taking one-way flights, which would undoubtedly boost my transportation expenses.

But thanks to Angolan Airlines, I could start exploring a small part of the African continent for super cheap.

A return flight to Mozambique in January; to South Africa in February; to Namibia in March. All for around $250 each.

I booked each of those flights, not paying attention to the dates; too excited to be scoring such a great deal than to actually plan a route.

I paid so little attention to them, in fact, that it was a week before my flight to Mozambique when I realised I’d done something stupid.

I’d booked my Mozambique and South Africa flights so close together that I’d be returning to Portugal from my solo trip to Mozambique then flying out to South Africa with Dave just five days later.

Yeah, that was pretty ridiculous.

I decided to move things around and spend longer in Southern Africa. Why go through all of the hassle of two long-haul overnight flights when I could hang out somewhere new for a little while longer?

I’d take my flight to Maputo then just return from Cape Town.

It felt like a smart decision. Thanks to that extra time, I got to spend more time in Vilanculos, beach it up in Durban, and hop over into Swaziland for my first ever game drive.

From Mbabane, I flew to Cape Town, while Dave made his way from Lisbon to my side. And it was while he was in the taxi on the way to the airport that I had a sudden thought: when he checks in for his flight, he should definitely tell the staff I wouldn’t be making outbound flight with him, but would be okay to take the return.

Just to be safe.

Just so they’d know why I hadn’t turned up.

The staff at check-in didn’t have an answer, so he queued up at the Angolan Airlines desk for half an hour to speak with someone from the airline. Someone who immediately told him not to worry. She told Dave she had made a note that I wouldn’t be boarding the flight to Cape Town and that my return flight to Lisbon wouldn’t be cancelled. I had nothing to be concerned about and I’d be able to board my trip home without an issue.

Dave clarified this with her multiple times, then we both breathed sighs of relief and set about having the best. time. ever. in Cape Town.

But Dave, can’t we stay in Cape Town foreverrrrrr?

Twenty-four hours before we were due to head back to Portugal, my phone buzzed to remind me to check in for our return flights. We were going to be up for an overnight flight with a layover in Luanda, and the only thing that could make that experience worse would be a middle seat.

Dave checked us in on his phone while I began to pack.

“Uh, Lauren?”


“I can’t seem to find your flight online.”


“You’re joking.”



“My flight’s here. There’s nothing for you, though.”

“But they said…”

I rushed to my laptop and smashed at my keyboard with my fingers, entering in every booking code I could find in my confirmation email before I finally sat back and groaned.

“I can’t believe the girl at Lisbon Airport lied to you! I can’t believe they cancelled my flight.”

I checked the Angolan Airlines website in the hope there’d be something I could do, but tickets were sold out and I couldn’t change a booking that no longer existed.

“So I guess I won’t be flying home with you tomorrow?”

It turned out there was something far worse than a middle seat on an overnight flight: accidentally cancelling your flight and only discovering you’d done so 24 hours before you were due to take it.

I stifled a sob and pulled my debit card from my purse.

Cape Town gardens and fountain
At least I would have an extra day in Cape Town?

How could I be so goddamn freaking stupid?

I’d been travelling full-time for six years. How had I never heard of this rule? And as I researched online, I discovered that practically every single airline in the world will cancel your return flight if you skip the outbound leg.

And I mean, in my defence, I’d spent the past five years travelling full-time, which is often different to jetting out for a defined trip to one country. For starters, I hadn’t had to buy any return flights as a digital gnome — one-way tickets were the way to go, so I wasn’t fully aware of the rules of round-trip flying.

Which isn’t much of an excuse, really, is it?

But also! Someone from Angolan Airlines told Dave they wouldn’t cancel my flight! Was it so stupid of me to believe them?

I tried calling the airline to complain, but nobody picked up the phone. I emailed them multiple times but nobody replied. Three months later, I still haven’t received a reply. Their live chat was offline. Their customer service was non-existent.

So what should I do now?

I did what I always do when I’m in need of a cheap flight and jumped straight on Skyscanner to see how much money I’d be up for. Or whether I’d end up stranded in Cape Town for a week until an inexpensive flight popped up.

A one-way for $412 with Emirates, stopping over in Dubai.

Not terrible, and it was with Emirates, so y’know, I’d be flying with one of the best airlines in the world rather than one of the worst. Even better: I could work in a 24-hour layover in Dubai — a city I’d yet to visit — at no extra cost, so at least my trip wouldn’t be a complete waste of money. I hit confirm and started to giggle at how ridiculous this day had been.

And then I stopped.

“Tomorrow is the 16th, right?” I asked Dave, my stomach starting to fall.

“Nope. The 15th.”

“Motherfucker! Shit! Fuck! Cock! Bollocks! Fuckkkkkkk!”

I’d booked my flight for the wrong. fucking. day.

It was at this point that I actually started crying.

And it was at this point where I felt it was pretty justified to ask myself how could I have been so stupid.

“What the fuck am I doing in life?” I groaned at Dave.

Ahhhh! My book!
Surprise! You’re an idiot!

But surely it had to be okay?

I’d only booked the flight ten minutes ago. Surely I’d be able to change the date, even if the flight was less than 24 hours away?

I held my breath and tried on the Emirates website only to be rejected.

I called the local Emirates office in Cape Town to beg for a flight change, and that’s when the fun truly began.

Cape Town isn’t known for having great internet speeds, so my Skype call was a struggle at best.

“I need your reservation number,” the guy on the phone told me. “Can you say it using the phonetic alphabet for me?”

I blinked, before stared over at Dave in panic. What does that mean? I mouthed.

“Alpha, Bravo, Charlie,” he whispered at me. “You know!”

I shook my head and gulped. I’d never had to use the phonetic alphabet before and had no idea which words I was supposed to use.

“Um, sure,” I told the guy on the phone, and then took a deep breath. “L for… um, ligament? E for… extraterrestrial? M for, um, um, um, malevolent? B for… ball?”

“I’m sorry what? Did you say wall? What? This is what the phonetic alphabet is for.” I could tell he wanted to hang up on me.

Dave dropped his head in his hands and groaned.

“Um… ball?” I repeated in a panic. “BALL. Um…”

And for the life of me I couldn’t think of any other word that began with B. So I continued to uselessly bleat the most ridiculous word choice down the phone at this man.

Bravo,” Dave yelled at me.

“Bravo!” I shouted down the phone, my face flushing scarlet.

Somehow the guy managed to correctly enter in my reservation number and I thought about telling him I have a degree in theoretical physics in an attempt to convince him I wasn’t the biggest dipshit in all of Cape Town. To be fair, though, I expect everyone reading this post also wholeheartedly believes I was the biggest dipshit in all of Cape Town. I certainly thought I was the biggest dipshit in all of Cape Town.

My embarrassment faded as quickly as it had arrived, thank god, when I received the good news that my flight had been changed and I was going to make it home on the right day after all.

Next stop: Dubai!

Did you know that if you don’t take your outbound flight, the return is automatically cancelled? How would you rate my stupidity out of 10?

Related Articles on South Africa

🇿🇦 23 Wonderful Things to Do in Cape Town
🏝 8 Reasons Why I Fell in Love With Cape Town
🥾 Hiking Lions Head: A South Africa Highlight

About the author

Lauren Juliff

Lauren Juliff is a published author and travel expert who founded Never Ending Footsteps in 2011. She has spent over 12 years travelling the world, sharing in-depth advice from more than 100 countries across six continents.

Lauren's travel advice has been featured in publications like the BBC, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Cosmopolitan, and her work is read by 200,000 readers each month. Her travel memoir can be found in bookstores across the planet.


  1. April 28, 2017

    Oh my word, looking back now you probably laugh at the situation but at the time it wasn’t so funny!

    • April 29, 2017

      It was stressful at the time, but hilarious to me now! :-)

  2. April 28, 2017

    To be fair until I read your updates on Twitter/Facebook I wasn’t aware of this rule either. I would – like you – have assumed that once my flight was booked, it wouldn’t be cancelled unless either I cancelled it, or the airline had overbooked (in which case, they’d let me know and offer an alternative flight, right?)

    But I guess from their point of view, how can you return from somewhere you never flew to in the first place? ?

    Makes sense when I think about it, but it would never have occurred to me to do so!

    • April 29, 2017

      Yeah, and also because airlines sometimes offer return airfare for cheaper than two one-way tickets, so I guess they don’t want people taking advantage of the cheap flights and only turning up for one of them.

  3. Cassandra
    April 28, 2017

    First off, I love your blog! I found it while researching some travel last summer, and it was my primary inspiration for planning 3 international solo trips over the past year!

    This post definitely made me laugh, though we have all been there in one way or another. (Once for a weekend trip, I bought two one-way tickets instead of a return trip in order to get a better deal. I realized the day I left that both tickets were one-way to the same destination, and I had no way of getting home!)

    I am based in the US and in the past few years I have skipped my outbound flight and still kept my return flight on a few occasions due to unexpected business travel backing up to personal trips. However, all of these flights were domestic and on US-based airlines (Delta and JetBlue).I will caveat that I have no idea if I got lucky, or if this is actually their policy — don’t hold me accountable if you try it again ;)

    • April 29, 2017

      Thank you so much, Cassandra! It means the world to me to hear that :-)

      That’s hilarious that you bought two one-way tickets to the same place, and definitely sounds like something I would do! And interesting that you were able to keep your return flight — I wonder if they were technically booked as two one-way flights, like budget airlines like Ryanair do, or if they just don’t have that rule there. Either way, I’ll be contacting the airline in advance if I ever find myself in this situation again!

  4. April 28, 2017

    You made a mistake, you fixed it, and you got something good out of it :) I am of the philosophy that whenever you misstep, if you act quickly you are bound to realize it’s a serendipitous blessing in disguise. Looking forward to the Dubai post!

    • April 29, 2017

      In most cases, I agree with you. I had a much better experience with Emirates than I would have done on Angolan Airlines, and I got to see a new city, too!

  5. Haha! I was giggling at your phonetic alphabet fiasco. I only know a few of them and if I’m asked, I forget 90% of what I know!

    It’s a shame that customer service lied to you. I’d never really thought about that rule before but I guess it makes sense.

    • April 29, 2017

      Yeah, I guess the rule is so unknown that even the customer service person had no idea it was a thing!

  6. April 29, 2017

    Ooh I once changed my plans and wanted to just go to the city I was connecting in and not my final destination – until I realized my checked bag would be continuing on without me. Oops :-/ Also I laughed at loud at the part about the phonetic alphabet, I can’t imagine what I’d say if I was asked that. Surely they don’t expect people to really know it?? Glad everything worked out for you, though!

    • April 29, 2017

      Hahahaha, oh no! Did you manage to get your bag back in the end?

      • Jen Ambrose
        April 29, 2017

        Fortunately I realized a couple days before the flight that the bag would be a problem and was able to change the ticket :D

  7. April 29, 2017

    I also don’t know the phonetic alphabet and make the most ridiculous word choices. Yesterday, for th letter V, I chose vonage. Vonage is a really small cell phone company. The lady said, “V as in Victor?” And I sheepishly responded, “yes.”

    For the record, I also didn’t realize your return flight would be automatically cancelled if you weren’t on the outbound flight. Especially after they assure you that it won’t be. *shakes my head*

    • April 29, 2017

      Hahahaha! I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who hasn’t memorised the phonetic alphabet. The guy on the phone made me feel so embarrassed for not knowing it!

  8. Caroline
    April 29, 2017

    Ha! I’ve run up against this rule a few times in the US (flying domestically for me, because I’m an American) — that cancelling the outbound flight also means cancelling the return. But it’s REALLY not well-publicized, and I didn’t know about it until I had one leg get cancelled by a snowstorm one time! I haven’t had a problem contacting US airlines about it and getting the rule waived for me, but maybe that’s because I’ve done it far enough in advance — or maybe I’ve gotten lucky!

    • April 29, 2017

      That’s ridiculous they cancelled it because of a snowstorm, as it’s not something you could have prevented from happening! Glad to hear it could be possible to get around it through speaking to the airline. I’m not sure I would have been able to ever get through to Angolan Airlines, but I’d definitely try it with anyone else in the future :-)

  9. Josh
    April 29, 2017

    Lauren, Lauren, Lauren! I can’t believe you booked the flight for the wrong day!

    • April 29, 2017

      Would you be shocked if I told you this wasn’t the first time I’ve done it?

  10. April 29, 2017

    I use to work customer support and I too either had to think of alternatives to the phonetic alphabet because I could never remember them. And I always loved the random things customers came up with when they they had to do the same.

    • May 6, 2017

      Ah, it would be so much fun to be on the other end and hear people struggle to come up with words!

  11. Jeff
    April 29, 2017

    I have been following your blog for awhile now and always appreciate your openness & honesty when talking about anxiety. This entry was just so well written and your tremendous self-deprecating sense of humor had me laughing out loud! Thanks for brightening up the day!

    • May 6, 2017

      Yay! Thanks so much, Jeff! Your comment made my day :-)

  12. April 30, 2017

    Omg, this sounds like something I would do! Thanks for the heads-up!

    • May 6, 2017

      Right? It’s really not well publicised.

  13. April 30, 2017

    Miraculously, I was actually aware of this rule. But only through asking on forums before booking any flight, and for the first time ever reading through the terms and conditions of the airline. Taking the outbound and not the inbound seems to be fine, but not taking the outbound and trying to take the inbound automatically cancels your flight. Which really sucks! I’d found that some flights in Europe were cheaper to book a return than a one way. Ridiculous really.

    • June 10, 2017

      Yeah, it’s frustrating! You’d think that as long as you paid for the return, they wouldn’t care if you were on the plane or not. Lesson learned!

  14. jonny
    May 2, 2017

    there is a Michael McIntyre sketch about people panicking because they don’t know the phonetic alphabet – you’re not alone!!

    And that airline rule is stupid. If I go to a shop and want to buy two T-shirts, but then decide to take one back, I am pretty sure I am still allowed to the keep the other one! :-)

    • May 6, 2017

      I love this sketch about the phonetic alphabet: it’s so funny! And good to know that I’m not alone in having no idea what any of the words should be.

      I think because the airlines will often offer a discounted price for return flights is why they don’t do it. If the t-shirts were buy one, get one half price, they wouldn’t give you a full refund if you wanted to return one.

  15. May 2, 2017

    I totally didn’t know this was a thing! I guess it makes sense but surely there must be more people than you who change their plans and flights. Silly rule, especially as sometimes it’s cheaper to book return flights but only fly one leg of them!

    • May 6, 2017

      Yeah, I think that’s exactly why it’s a rule: so people don’t take advantage of the return deals and only fly one leg.

  16. Northern Peru Travel
    May 2, 2017

    What a great adventure !! It is true that usually you can’t cancel your outbound flight. I can absolutely understand that you were super derouted.

    Finally it didn’t turn out that horribly, but you must have had a good adrenaline push !

    • May 6, 2017

      I was definitely filled with adrenaline, that’s for sure!

  17. Hilarious stuff! ‘Glad to hear that you made it out in the end Lauren. But seriously, I don’t think I know the phonetic alphabet either. I can get to as far as Delta then it’s “E” for elephant, as far as I’m concerned!

    I didn’t know that all the flights would be cancelled, but I did know that you would be penalised financially. I just didn’t know how!

    On the other hand, you’re not alone. I travel so much that I have actually booked flights, and then forgot about them.

    I’ve done that with hotels too….!

    • June 12, 2017

      This post has been so great for showing me that I’m not the only one in the world who hasn’t memorised the phonetic alphabet! Although the fact I haven’t even memorised what B is is a little embarrassing, haha :-)

      I’ve done the opposite to you: I’ve thought I’ve booked flights and not realised I didn’t actually book them until I was on my way to the airport!

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