While we’re not offering advice on how to make flying in Southeast Asia entirely painless, the following points and advice will hopefully help you remove at least some of the pain from the process—both for you and your fellow passenger.
Southeast Asia is extremely well served by low-cost airlines like AirAsia, Scoot, Jetstar, Nok Air and Viet Jet (to name just a few). Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are the three largest hubs, but the region is very well connected and in mainland Southeast Asia there is generally an airport within a couple of hours of almost anywhere you’d want to visit.
A few overland routes are good for flights for the more time-pressed, such as Luang Prabang to Hanoi, Siem Reap to Bangkok and any of the longer stretches in Indonesia. You can do these via overland transport of course, but it will just take longer—sometimes a lot longer. For example, to get from Bali to Alor in eastern Indonesian you can grab two flights (via Kupang in Timor) for a total of under three hours in the air, or spend around a week (depending on connections) travelling overland and overwater.
As with much of the rest of the world, flying, specifically getting through airports, is more akin to cattle herding than cutting edge luxury, but there are a few things you can do to ease the pain somewhat.
Leaving your flight booking till the last moment is one of the best ways to maximise your chances of overpaying for your fare. Hanging around for a last-minute deal is generally not a good idea as low cost airlines in particular often jack their fares up as the departure date nears, often being more expensive than a full service legacy airline.
There are exceptions and some airlines and online booking sources offer the ability to sign up for price drop alerts but we’d be wary of holding out for an absolute last minute deal, as if it doesn’t eventuate, you may end up needing to pay a lot more cash than you hoped for.
When you’re at the airport, while everyone ahead of you will still be wearing their metal bracelets, anklets, toe rings and tiaras, remove yours beforehand to minimise your time at the X-ray. Trekking boots and sandals often have metal strips in their base and are notorious for setting off x-rays, as are belts and coins in the bottom of your jeans pocket. Some airports will ask you to remove phones, tablets and laptops from any carry-on and place each in a separate plastic tray for the x-ray. Other airports don’t care about this, but it pays to have your electronic gear packed in a sensible way for ease of access just in case.
Some airports will require you to show a printed copy of your itinerary before gaining access to the check-in area. That these are easily faked doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone. If you have easy access to a printer, we’d suggest printing the itineraries off just in case you are asked. Otherwise, if you have a smartphone, have an electronic version to show security staff. Make sure your phone is charged!
Many airlines now offer online check-in and kiosk check-in. Making use of these can be a handy was to avoid queueing up for an hour at check-in. Inexplicably, some airlines (Hello AirAsia) will still make you queue up in the main queue if you need to drop off luggage after doing a kiosk check-in. So dumb.
If you are checking in in person, speed things up by having your passport and any other documents at the ready when you approach the check-in counter.
If you are checking in luggage, pay attention to your airline’s regulations for maximum weight (and for carry-on) and dimensions. Keeping within the rules will both save you money (no excesses to pay) and help the queue flow faster. Excess charges for overweight baggage can be substantial.
For carry-on, please consider your fellow passengers when trying to decide how much you’re going to drag into the cabin.
Once you are through check-in you’ll need to clear immigration. Again to help the queue flow it helps if you fill out the required forms before you reach the immigration officer’s desk.
When it comes to boarding your flight, leave plenty of time to get to the gate, not least because gates are often shifted from one end of the airport to the other at the last minute. If you’re having a couple of celebratory drinks before boarding a flight, do keep an eye on the departure board and bear in mind your fellow passengers when considering ordering that eighth brightly coloured drink with an umbrella in it.
When boarding, remember most airlines have assigned seats and sitting in the correct seat the first time around makes everything easier for everyone.
If you’re planning on buying food on the flight, don’t forget that most airlines will accept only a limited range of currencies (generally the currency of your arrival and departure points, plus US dollars sometimes) plus credit cards, so make sure you have money you can use. Rest assured the exchange rate offered by the airline will be world class. Not.
Airlines now have a wide range of policies regarding use of phones, tablets and laptops on board. Following the rules is a good route to take, plus please, we beg you, use earphones.
Airline crews on international flights will most likely distribute arrival cards en route where these are required (though sometimes they run out). Bring a pen in your carry-on so you can fill out the form during the flight or on arrival.
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.