Short of buying a Prada backpack, buying a plane ticket to Southeast Asia will be the most expensive single purchase of your trip and it pays to do your research, as even saving $50 will fund a few extra nights by the Mekong.
You can easily overpay by hundreds of dollars—throwing much of your hard saving out the window with a mouse click. Before you start to research your flights, here are a couple of general points to keep in mind.
Southeast Asia’s primary long-haul international airport hubs are Bangkok (Thailand), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and Singapore (Singapore). Other cities that receive a fair number of long-haul international flights include Hanoi (Vietnam), Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, Vietnam), Jakarta (Indonesia) and Bali (Indonesia). Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Siem Reap (Cambodia), Vientiane (Laos) and Yangon (Burma) are reasonably well connected regionally, but not so much as far as long haul is concerned.
Conventional wisdom used to hold that the best approach was to fly into one of the big hubs like Singapore or Bangkok and then get a connecting flight with a low cost carrier to your actual destination. Today, that approach still holds some water, but you’ll often find very competitive flights direct to your destination—especially as most trips will have you starting in a capital city.
If you’re doing a regional trip, it pays to compare flights into some of the different cities to see where you are best to start the trip. If you’re considering an “open jaw ticket” where you fly long haul into one airport and back home from another, compare the cost with a return to just one destination with a low cost airline ticket to bring you back to your starting point.
First up, research carefully where you want to go and draft an itinerary that still allows you some flexibility. Obviously international flights primarily come into the capital cities, but in many cases secondary international airports are available in other cities, such as Phuket, Hat Yai and Chiang Mai in Thailand, Luang Prabang in Laos, Siem Reap in Cambodia and Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. So don't make the mistake of assuming your only option is to fly into the capital.
Research prices for your long-haul flight from home to one of Southeast Asia's main hubs. Look online at the carrier's sites, check sites such as Skyscanner and also give a travel agent a buzz—you never know where you're going to score the best deal.
Consider flying with a legacy carrier into a hub such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. You can either kick off your trip in one of these cities, or look to then catch a budget carrier out to where you really want to go. Budget carriers fan out from these hubs across the region. Be warned though that flight search websites like Skyscanner may not cover all carriers and always check the actual operator websites as well. Or your legacy carrier may go all the way to your desired first destination.
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Google Flights offers very powerful search functions for finding flight availability and forms a solid first base for your flight searching needs. Not all low cost and obscure carriers are included, but many of the mainstream ones are. We’ve found it particularly useful for researching long-haul flights.
A bunch of meta search flight websites including Skyscanner and Momondo allow you to search multiple airline and other agency flights to save you the trouble of doing it yourself. Unlike Google Flights they’ll often send you to a third party agency website to book the flight. If you’re looking to be flexible in your destination (see below) add “everywhere” as your destination. Note these sites do not always index all budget and smaller regional airlines.
Air miles can add up quickly if you're coming from a long way away and plan at least a second trip in the next year or so. Investigate and consider joining a programme. Some legacy carriers may also offer regional tickets once you're in the region—be sure to ask.
Note though that often the cheapest flights with legacy carriers may not include miles, so you can end up in a false economy working to accumulate miles to get a free ticket (or upgrade) in a manner that will end up costing you more than just buying the ticket.
Be cautious of online advice regarding miles programmes, especially those tied to credit cards; the author may have a financial interest in you applying for credit cards. Always do your own research, read the fine print and consider carefully the risks of applying for multiple credit cards in order to “game” frequent flier mile programs. Where mileage “bonuses” cards are tied to minimum spends on the cards, be sure you’ll be able to service those spends—this can quickly spiral out of control. Do the maths carefully and be honest about your financial situation.
If you’re flying to Southeast Asia but don’t really care where you fly to begin your trip, be sure to check alternative destinations and check the prices across a spread of destinations. Alternatives can be other capital cities or regional centres with international airports.
Just because you are going to Bangkok doesn’t mean you need to fly there direct. You may be able to save quite a bit by flying a less direct route, though we’d caution that there are other costs (time and comfort) that need to be weighed up versus flying direct. Deciding to fly Singapore to Saigon via Kuala Lumpur to save $20 doesn’t seem like such a good deal when you’re going to be travelling for 14 hours instead to two.
A lot of connecting flights with low-cost carriers in Southeast Asia will leave you cooling your heels at one of their hub airports for anything up to 12 hours or so. You will spend money across that 10-hour stretch at KLIA2, so again, compare the cost of a direct flight. It could be a false economy.
Flying on the first day of Christmas holidays can cost far more than leaving two days before the holidays begin and likewise for festival dates and other holiday breaks. Shorter “weekend breaks” often cost more if you’re flying Friday and Sunday nights, so look at Thursday to Tuesday (or Monday to Wednesday—you’re on holiday right? Who cares when the weekend is!). First and last flights of the day are also often a bit cheaper—making for an option if you don’t mind rising at the crack of dawn (or getting to your hotel at 02:00. Again, do the maths and also consider the experience you’ll be having in order to save $7.)
Essentially, the prices of airfares are demand driven, so the more people wanting to fly on a specific day and at a specific time, the higher the fares will be. Fly when everyone else is and you’ll most likely pay more than you will at other times.
Read the fine print. The cheapest tickets are often non-refundable and often come with punishing surcharges if you need to change your flights after purchase. We’ve often encountered situations where it is cheaper just to buy a new ticket than pay the change fees on a “non-changeable” ticket. If you’re buying your ticket a long way out, paying more so you can change the dates can be a smart move. Of course, if you know your dates are set in absolute concrete then don’t worry so much about flexibility.
The reason small print is called small print is because it has to fit a gazillion terms and conditions in. Expect your $5 fare to be increased by airport taxes, flight taxes, insurance, fuel levies, picking your seat, mandatory checked luggage, credit card processing and more—taxes and surcharges can easily double or triple the price of a ticket, so when you’re comparing deals, be sure to compare the full price. Unfortunately, airline websites deliberately often make this very difficult to do, often not revealing charges till a good way through the booking process.
There are however some tactics you can use to minimise this. Some carriers will waive credit card charges for specific cards; travel with carry-on only to dodge most luggage fees; go with an airline-nominated seat; and have your own travel insurance so you don’t need to bother with what the carrier offers.
Some cities, like Bangkok, have more than one international airport. There’s not much point saving $20 by flying into one if you’re going to need to spend three hours heading over to the other one to make your connecting flight.
Yes, it will only be a matter of time till you're required to pay money for oxygen on the flight, but some airlines have mandatory charges for checked luggage even if you have only carry-on. AirAsia does this for domestic flights in Indonesia, for example.
Low-cost carriers make a big business of selling food and drinks onboard and they can be very strict about letting passengers bring their own food or drink onto the flight. If you’re on a short regional flight, it is rare you’ll risk dying of starvation on the flight. Skip the meal. If you like a hot meal during a flight, ordering in advance (when you buy your ticket online) can yield small savings (plus you won’t be stuck with Uncle Chin’s chicken rice, which seems to be all AirAsia ever has left by the time the food trolley reaches us).
Carriers can be ruthless when it comes to check-in times, often closing the check-in counter 45 minutes before departure time. If, like we did, you arrive 43 minutes before departure, too bad, so sad, your ticket is cancelled with no refund. Again, read the small print, get to the airport on time and you'll be set.
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.