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First-timers to online booking systems of airlines might think it frightening, but it doesn`t have to be.

The internet has made our world one that is more DIY than ever before and in terms of travelling, it is allowing us to book our own flights online. Gone are the days of waiting in long queues at travel agents` offices to simply book a flight to your destination. Now you can make an online booking and get an e-ticket immediately. However, there are various pros and cons to online booking, depending on your choice of airline.

As not all sites are created equal, we decided to put them to the test and see how good (or bad) our local airlines are. We selected four, simply booking a return flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town at a busy time of the year.

Surprisingly, the low-cost airlines did a really good job, compared to the bigger lines.

But all had problems: finding the cheapest fare, fitting available flights into a tight schedule and comparing prices becomes an exercise in frustration.

Of all the sites, I found the easiest and most fuss-free site that took the least time and required very little effort.

Mango was the cheapest, but that`s fairly arbitrary, as prices vary wildly depending on when in the week you fly and how far ahead you book. And that`s another gripe I have with booking tickets online: it`s just too hard to compare the best deals. Travel portals help a bit, and flesh-and-blood travel agents do the hard work for you, but I really think the airlines could do more.

With the goal being to simply book a return ticket between Johannesburg and Cape Town - for a flight of less than two hours - going through the heartache of long-winded SAA and BA sites just doesn`t seem worth all the trouble. Yes, and Mango require you to buy food or take "padkos", but it`s a small price to pay for quickly and easily booking a flight online.

Having said that, low-fare airlines are known to be the first ones to experience delays and such; so you have to weigh up your options and decide what works for you.

As a suggestion, paying by credit card is always the quickest option, and you have the safety net of being able to query a transaction if the server makes a mistake.

Our national carrier SAA is not the quickest or most user-friendly site to manoeuvre through to book a flight. You are bombarded with loads of info (some totally unnecessary) and distracted by many pop-up windows.

On the home page you have a choice of searching for Round Trip, One Way or Multiple Cities flights. You can also search for flights on exact dates only or be given more options by ticking the "I`m Flexible" tag, which you actually have to research to understand what this means. You`ll find the info elsewhere on the site, but do you have the time to search for it?

When you finally find a date and time of flights at the right price, simply tick those you want, scroll down, choose a payment option of either paying immediately online with a credit card or paying later, and click continue. The next page will prompt you to complete your details as they appear in your ID, as well as contact details. You will have to read and accept the terms to complete your booking.

On this page you are also allowed to order a special meal, although the previous page clearly stated that you have to call the SAA Call Centre to order such a meal three days prior to departure. This is just confusing.

If you`re paying later at an Airport Ticketing Office (ATO) or City Ticketing Office (CTO), a service fee applies for issuing the ticket. Service fees are R200 per ticket for domestic departures and R500 for international departures at ATOs, and R200 at CTOs, inclusive of VAT.

When paying online, you are issued with an e-Ticket, which you can print as confirmation, but don`t have to. e-Ticketing allows you to check in without a physical ticket. All you need to do is present any form of identification document and credit card (for authentication purposes) to the check-in agent and you will be issued with the normal boarding pass.

More confusion here, since SAA e-Tickets are only available on certain routes.

You start off with a home page where you choose your place of departure and your destination, the dates on which you intend to travel, and which class (Economy, Premium Economy, Business class/Club or First). You also have the option to choose for your search to be the "Lowest Fare" or "Flexible". (I chose the former option.)

After confirming your search requirements, the next page offers you the lowest fare on your chosen dates for departure and return, but no available times. Only after choosing the lowest fare according to your preferred date of departure and return will the next page give you options of the various times of flights available. You then have to choose again what times would suit you best, bearing in mind that it might not be available at the same "lowest" fare you were quoted on the previous page and at the time you want to depart. This entire process gives the impression that the airline is coaxing you to just click through and make a rash decision on time and fare (which might be higher that you wanted to pay) simply to avoid having to go through the whole process again. You do, however, on this page, have to click on quick tabs for options on the previous or next day.

After confirming dates, times and fares suiting your needs, click the "Continue" tab. The next page will ask you to confirm your choices again as well as accept the terms and conditions. This page seems like an unnecessary step in prolonging the process. Also note that all prices quoted up to now exclude taxes. Only halfway through the process are you given your actual price. This, again, feels like the airline is bargaining on the fact that you will just accept the price to avoid having to start over again to get a better deal.

The next page asks for your details and double confirmation of your e-mail and whether you want to be updated with special offers. The next page asks for credit card details and billing address, which is tedious to complete, but then you are finally finished.

A final confirmation of your e-Ticket is then e-mailed to you. To book in at the airport, you need to present identification and the credit card you used to book your flight. In all honesty, booking a ticket for BA online is not as quick as you might have expected.

Kulula`s home page requests the same information as all the others, like dates you want to depart and return and place of departure and your destination. And as there is only one class option (Cattle), you are spared the step of choosing that option.

However, when choosing dates on the pop-up calendar, there is an additional step, which requires you to click on the "select" button after clicking on a date. It does not, like all the other airlines` calendars, automatically register your choice of date, but one extra click isn`t that serious.

Page two gives you times and price options (excluding a R69 airport charge you still have to take into account). Tick the times and fares that suit you, accept the terms and conditions, and your off to page three to complete your personal details and contact information as well as payment options: pay now with Kulula Moolah (loyalty points), pay with credit card, pay with eBucks, or pay later.

Choosing any of the first three options will require you to complete another section with credit card or other details. If you choose the `pay later` option, you click on "Go" and your confirmation is immediately sent to your e-mail address. However, if you do not pay within 24 hours, your booking is automatically cancelled, something you have to keep in mind if you`re shopping around for deals and forget to confirm.

Your first step on Mango`s home page is not much different to Kulula`s. Choose dates and place of departure and destination. However, you can also choose to see fares and flight availability for exact dates, a week`s or a month`s dates.

Page two gives the available options` dates and fares only. Once you choose from these, page three gives you more details on times and fares. This page also has tabs to quickly take you to options for the previous or next day. Select what suits you and click "Continue".

Page four requires you to complete all your details. This page also gives you an option of requesting special requirements, such as wheelchair bookings and travelling with sporting equipment (for which a R100 extra charge is added). There is also an option for travelling with a golf bag, which, last time I checked, was sporting equipment, but no extra fee of R100 is charged for this. Maybe the Mango execs play a lot of golf. If requesting any assistance with medical conditions (such as the wheelchair), you are required to download a separate form to complete, which you need to fax to a number supplied. Why you need to do this I am not entirely sure, but it`s a pain.

You are also prompted on this page to choose your payment option from a drop-down menu. These options include paying online by credit card, paying via an Edgars account (add another R113.20 to the fare), cash payment or using a voucher. You also have to accept the terms and conditions on this page.

Choosing to pay by credit card is the easiest option here. Clicking on this option requires you to enter your credit card details and when done, a confirmation is sent to your e-mail. Choosing the cash payment option, for interest`s sake, requires you to pay the money at any Nedbank branch into an account of which the details are supplied. You then have to fax the proof of deposit to the company, quoting your booking reference number along with your ID or passport number. Payment must be made within 48 hours of confirming booking or it will be cancelled.

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