Your Guide to O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa

Your Guide to O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg South Africa
••• Aerial View of O.R. Tambo Airport. Grant Duncan-Smith/ Getty Images

With the capacity to accommodate up to 28 million passengers every year, Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB) is the busiest aviation hub in Africa. If you're headed to South Africa or any of its neighboring countries, you will almost definitely pass through the airport at some point on your journey. Known as one of the cleanest and most efficient airports on the continent, it's a great place to spend a lengthy layover - especially since the refurbishment completed ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Originally named for the apartheid-era prime minister Jan Smuts, the airport was re-christened in 2006 in honor of ANC president and freedom fighter Oliver Tambo. 

Finding Your Way Around

O.R. Tambo International Airport is located 14 miles/ 23 kilometers from Johannesburg city center. Getting to (and indeed, from) the airport is relatively easy. Most hotels provide a shuttle service to the airport for confirmed guests, while licensed cabs and Uber drivers can be hired to take you wherever you want to go. The high-speed Gautrain connects Johannesburg with nearby Pretoria, and stops at O.R. Tambo along the way. If you're headed to the airport, you'll need to know which terminal you're leaving from.

This is intuitive - Terminal A deals with international flights, while Terminal B accommodates domestic passengers. The two are linked by a central atrium. 

Remember, all passengers arriving or departing from Terminal A will need to clear customs. This is the least efficient aspect of O.R. Tambo and lines are often long, so make sure to arrive at the airport in plenty of time for outbound flights. 

Shopping & Dining

Home to over 60 different shops and restaurants, O.R. Tambo offers plenty of ways to while away the time between flights. The retail opportunities are eclectic, and include everything from newsagents and book stores to designer clothing outlets and massage services. For discounted prices on tobacco, alcohol and cosmetics, head to Big Five Duty Free. If you're in the market for last-minute souvenirs, you'll find yourself spoiled for choice - although the iconic stop for African-themed memorabilia is undoubtedly Out of Africa.

The store has several outlets located throughout the airport, and sells everything from Zulu beadwork to stuffed safari toys. 

When you tire of shopping, you'll find plenty of places to refuel. There's something for every budget, from African fast food outlets like Debonairs and Steers; to upmarket restaurants serving Champagne and oysters. The range of cuisines on offer is similarly diverse, reflecting South Africa's status as the Rainbow Nation. Need a shot of courage before a long-distance flight? Make your way to the Keg & Aviator pub, a renowned meeting place located at the end of the main food hall. 

Lounges & Other Amenities 

O.R. Tambo also has a choice of lounges, although many of these are available to card-carrying members only. There are five lounges in domestic Terminal B (including two operated by South African Airways and British Airways respectively). In international Terminal A, there are no fewer than nine lounges, with represented airlines including South African Airways, British Airways, Emirates, Air France and Virgin Atlantic. 

The airport also offers a full complement of other services, ranging from abundant (and clean) restroom facilities to prayer facilities for Christians and Muslims. WiFi is available at hotspots throughout the airport, with the first four hours offered free of charge. In a health-related emergency, head to the Airport Medical Clinic, which remains open 24 hours a day. Other useful services include car rental agencies, smoking lounges, ATMs and three different currency exchange companies (all of which are located in the arrivals area of Terminal A).

 

Staying Safe at O.R. Tambo

O.R. Tambo is a modern airport with first-world facilities and a good safety record. However, there are certain precautions that all travelers should take. Firstly, the Johannesburg baggage handlers are notorious for their sticky fingers. Regardless of your destination, if your bags are passing through O.R. Tambo it's a good idea to pack anything of value in your hand luggage. Luggage locks are not necessarily an adequate deterrent - for safety's sake, consider having your bag plastic-wrapped before check-in as well.

Keep your hand luggage on your person at all times. 

Credit card fraud occurs with astonishing regularity here, too. Although using your card to pay for meals and shopping purchases at the point of sale is usually safe, drawing money from an ATM is risky. If possible, arrive at the airport with enough cash to last you through your layover. Lastly, O.R. Tambo employs official porters to offer assistance to those that need it. If you decide to use them, make sure that you are giving your bags to a registered employee with an ACSA permit and an orange uniform.

Be aware that a tip is expected - R10 is considered reasonable.