Budget Airlines in South East Asia are an affordable, safe and convenient way to get around both domestically and internationally. There are more than a dozen airlines with flights leaving every hour from most Asian airports.
You don’t need to book weeks in advance, and rates as low as $20 from one country to another are common. For travel from Thailand, to the Philippines, and all the way over Indonesia, low-cost airlines like Air Asia, Thai Lion Air, and Nok Air are your best bet for exploring South East Asia.
It sounds too good to be true, so what’s the catch?
I’ve learned the hard way that while flying with budget airlines in Asia can save you time and money on your trip, they can also cost you. Big time. Read on to learn the hidden fees you need to look out for and carry on hacks essential for taking your first flight with a budget airline in Asia.
Travel Budget Airlines in Asia in 2019 [Video]
Are budget airlines in Asia safe?
First things first: Are budget airlines in Asia safe?! Yes! In fact, traveling around South East Asia by air is much safer than by land. Not convinced? Read more on road safety in South East Asia here.
Look for one-way tickets
Airlines have traditionally charged more per flight for one-way flights than round-trips. For example, a one way to Paris is $1000, or a round trip is $1200 total. This makes sense because it is an incentive for the customer to book a round trip and then fly both ways with their airline.
This is changing and is certainly not the case with budget airlines.
The cheapest flights with the best timing may be found by booking 2 one way flight with different airlines instead of booking a roundtrip with one airline. For example, booking a one-way flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai with Air Asia, and a separate one-way flight from Chiang Mai back to Bangkok with Thai Lion Air.
Consider swapping connecting flights for one-way flights
The same logic “one-way ticket” logic applies to connecting flights. I saved $150 on a recent trip from Da Nang, Vietnam to Bali, Indonesia by booking the first leg (Da Nang to Bangkok) with one airline, and then the second leg (Bangkok to Bali) with another airline. There were no direct flights from Da Nang to Bali available, so I had to make a connection in Bangkok regardless of if I was flying with the same carrier or 2 different carriers.
Option 1: Da Nang-Bangkok-Bali with Air Asia for a total price of $300.
Option 2: Da Nang-Bangkok with Air Asia for $50, Bangkok to Bali with Thai Lion for $100. Total cost Da Nang to Bali =$150 by booking each leg with a different low-cost airline. This was a savings of $150.
Keep in mind that if you booking one-way flights with different carriers and you miss a flight the airline will not rebook or refund you. You will be responsible for covering the cost of the missed flight.
For example, if my flight with Air Asia leaving Da Nang was delayed and I missed my second flight booked with Thai Lion from Bangkok-Bali, neither Air Asia or Thai Lion would refund me.
I recommend you give yourself a minimum of 2 hours between flights as you will also need to check-in for each one-way flight. This means exiting the airport, heading to Departures and going through security all over again. You need to decide if the amount you will save is worth the risk and the hassle.
Where you make the booking matters
There is no real benefit to book directly on the budget airline’s website. In fact, it will usually cost you to do so. Most low cost carriers in Asia will charge an additional $5-$10 in debit and credit card fees when booking through their websites. These fees are added on to your total when you go to purchase the flight.
I search for flights on Google Flights, and then book my flights through Expedia because they are partnered with Ebates (rebranded as Rakuten). This not only means I earn cashback through Ebates/Rakuten, but I also avoid high booking fees. More on how I’ve gotten $100s in cashback on my bookings with Ebates/Rakuten here.
Read the fine print
Regardless of where you make the booking, head to the airlines website and read the rules. Don’t assume anything because every airline is different. Airport in person check-in may be an additional cost, or alternatively, online check-in could be a premium. Budget airlines in Asia make their money by charging for add ons, many that you wouldn’t even expect.
Pay particular attention to your free luggage allowance. You may have 7KG of carry on allowance, you may have none. Arriving at the airport with overweight carryon luggage is going to cost you big time.
Review your booking before submitting. Twice.
Be mindful when typing in your information. A simple spelling error in your name will likely cost you more than the value of the flight to change. The airline’s booking process will also pre-select add ons that you don’t necessarily need. They may even guide you through extras like seat selection without you realizing that it comes at an additional cost.
Checked baggage and insurance will usually be pre-selected. Know that you have the option to opt-out. I use SafetyWing Travel Medical Insurance.
Adjust how you prepare pre-flight
My flight experiences have been quite nice with friendly attendants, English announcements and catchy pop music over the speakers. There are a few things to know that will make your flight experience much more comfortable.
It’s warm. Relatively warm, but still comfortable. Most passengers will be in a t-shirt and shorts. This is vastly different from the sub-zero temperatures of full-service airlines.
This one is simple: There isn’t any. No WIFI and no TV screens. Bring a book, listen to podcasts or download tv shows for free from Netflix.
Charge your devices
Expect to have no USB slot or plugs for charging your devices.
You are not getting any free food or drinks. Occasionally, you may be spoiled with a glass of free water. You can usually purchase meals, snacks and drinks on board. You usually also have the option to pre-book a meal at the time of booking the flight. Air Asia has some decent options at a cheap price.
They have toilets… But they are tiny! This makes sense as most Asians are generally smaller humans than Americans or Europeans. I am 5’6 and find the washrooms to be particularly claustrophobic.
Should you risk carryon only?
Free carry on allowance varies by airline, but one thing is consistent: the limits are small. It is nearly impossible to pack carry on only and be compliant with the rules. As mentioned above, arriving at the airport with an overweight carryon is going to cost you. Budget airlines in Asia are cracking down on weighing baggage and raising last-minute checked baggage fees to even exceed the value of your entire flight. It is up to you if you want to risk having to pay to check your overweight carry on at the airport.
I risk it, and I *usually* get away with it.
- Check-in online, print your boarding pass and head straight to security when you arrive at the airport. The guys at security don’t care if your baggage is within the airlines weight limit or not. This way you are skipping the airlines check-in and bag drop counter completely.
- Have a friend watch your bag while you check-in. Online check-in may not be available, or you may need to do a passport check when you arrive at the airport.
- Research the airline. Online forums and airline reviews will often tell you if past passengers have had their bags weighed and what the charge was.
Your all set to book!
Follow this guide, forget traditional airline rules, and make sure to triple check the airline restrictions and you will be all set to take your first flight with budget airlines in Asia. This is exactly what I wish I knew my first time flying Air Asia while absolutely terrified I’d be in a tiny, one-winged airplane destined to go down in the mountains of Northern Thailand. It didn’t happen, it was a great flight and the start of many more!
Do you book with low-cost carriers? If so, I’d love for you to leave a comment below on your opinion and experience. Also, what’s the cheapest flight you’ve EVER flown? Mine was Bangkok to Chiang Mai for $12. Beat that!