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Getting to Asia from the United States can often be a pricey experience (unless you’ve used miles, of course – and even then if there are fuel surcharges). Once you’ve arrived in Asia, you have endless options and extremely large territory to cover – especially if you plan to visit several countries during your time there. An easy and cheap way to get around with burning through all your money is to take advantage of the myriad low-cost airlines that have sprung up there. TPG contributor Lori Zaino takes us through the details of the low-cost carriers in Asia (and a few in the Middle East) and how you can maximize them to your benefit.
The thought of dealing with a low-cost airline may be daunting, but assuming you’ve read all the fine print and are aware of all the rules and fees (which I will do my best to outline throughout this post) it can be easy and a great way to save money that you can later spend on other experience while you are there, like dining, cultural or tourism activities. Feel free to read up on my previous post in this series, Maximizing Low Cost Carriers In Europe.
*Please keep in mind that these rules and regulations are extremely specific and constantly changing. The below information is a basic guide to some of the most popular low cost carriers, but before flying, make sure to check the website for new information and details. If you have any personal experience experiences or tips with these low-cost carriers or others in Asia we’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.
Air Arabia is a low cost airline based in Sharjah, UAE. They started flying in 2003 and now operate flights throughout the Middle East, Africa, Europe, India and Central Asia.
Routes: Air Arabia flies to European destinations like Spain, Turkey, the Netherlands, France and Italy; as well as destinations in Morocco, Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and more.
Sample Itinerary: Sharjah to/from Bahrain, April 4-11, 2014
Air Arabia Price: 513.70 AED ($140)
Qatar Airways Price: 595 AED ($162)
Carry-On Baggage: You are allowed one carry-on bag with a maximum weight of 10 kg (22 lbs) and 7 kg (15 lbs) on flights to Morocco). The maximum dimensions can as big as 55 x 40 x 20 cm (22 x 16 x 8 in), including the handle, pockets and wheels.
Checked Baggage: You can purchase checked baggage when booking or modifying your flight online (in increments of 20 kg, 30 kg or 40 kg) with no limitation on the number of pieces. If you pre-book your baggage allowance ahead you can save up to 90% of baggage charges paid at the airport. The only option at the airport for checked bags is 20 kg (44 lbs). If you exceed this weight and haven’t pre-booked it, you will have to pay excess baggage charges.
The Mashreq: The Mashreq Air Arabia credit card gives cardholders exclusive privileges like inflight food and excess baggage vouchers. You also earn Dirhams, which are points towards flights and add-ons.
AirAsia is a Malaysian low-cost carrier headquartered in Kuala Lumpur. It began flying in 1996 and now operates flights to 100 destinations within 22 countries.
Routes: AirAsia flies to destinatations throughout Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Phillipines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and South Korea.
Sample Itinerary: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to/from Adelaide, Australia April 4-7, 2014
AirAsia Price: 1,021 MYR ($310)
Malaysia Air Price: 1,809 MYR ($549)
Carry-On Baggage: Each passenger is allowed one carry-on bag and one laptop bag or one handbag on board regardless of fare class. The main carry on cannot exceed 56 x 36 x 23 cm (approximately 22 x 14 x 9 inches) and cannot weigh more than 7 kg (15 lbs). (*I have had one personal experience flying AirAsia from Tokyo Narita to Seoul Incheon in 2013 and they did not weigh my carry-on bag, however always be prepared, you never know when they might).
Check in: You have the option to print your boarding pass online or use a mobile boarding pass on your cell phone. If you don’t print your boarding pass, a service fee will be charged for those flying to domestic destinations (the fee varies per destination) who choose to get their boarding pass at the check in counter. You can usually check in online up to 14 days ahead of time.
Fare Types: Depending on which fare type you choose, you are allowed different boarding and luggage options. The fare types are Low Fare, Hi Flyer, and Premium Flatbed.
Low Fare: You cannot check a bag with this fare. You must pay a fee to change the date or time of your flight, for seat selection or to check a bag.
Hi Flyer: This fare allows one checked bag up to 20 kg (44 lbs). You can also change the date/time of your flight up to two times and you have express boarding and free seat selection.
Premium Flatbed: With this fare you are allowed one checked bag up to 25 kg (55 lbs), and a carry-on bag. You also receive a meal, pillow and blanket. You can change the date and time of your flight without penalty fees. You can also change the name on the reservation, however it will cost you a small fee. You are also allowed express check in, boarding, baggage delivery and free seat selection.
For more information on fees for your travel destination, click here.
The BIG Loyalty Programme: AirAsia’s BIG Loyalty Programme allows passengers to earn points for flying and redeem them for free flights. You can also earn points by spending on shopping, hotels entertainment and more. Earning is as follows: if you purchased a low fare, you get one BIG point for every four RM’s spent. With the Hi Flyer, you can get one BIG point for every two RM’s spent. If you have the Premium Flatbed class, you can earn one BIG point for each RM you spend. Keep in mind that one RM is about 30 cents.
Air Busan is a subsidiary of Asiana Airlines and began operating in 2007.
Routes: This airline flies throughout South Korea, and to select destinations in Japan, China and more.
Sample Itinerary: Seoul to/from Tokyo Narita, April 4-7, 2014
Air Busan Price: $297
Korean Air Price: $418
Carry-On Baggage: Passengers can carry on one bag weighing less than 10 kg (22 lbs), and the total size cannot exceed 115 cm (45 in).
Checked Baggage: Each passenger is allowed one checked bag weighing 20 kg (44 lbs) for international flights and 15 kg (33 lbs) for domestic flights.
Partnership With Asiana: Asiana Airline code-share business class flight customers are only allowed to use Asiana Airline Lounge. Eligible passengers are members of Asiana Club (Diamond membership and above).
Bangkok Airways is actually not a “true” budget carrier, it’s more of a boutique carrier and it has perks that other low-cost carriers may not have, but the prices are still lower than some other airlines. The airline is headquartered in Bangkok, Thailand, and has actually been around for quite awhile – it started as an air taxi service in 1968, and then re-branded in 1989 to become Bangkok Airways.
Routes: This airline, interestingly enough, actually owns some airports. It is the owner of the Koh Samui Airport, one in the Sukhothai Province, and a third in the Trat Province. Although other airlines also operate flights out of these airports, they are mainly served by Bangkok Air. Its main routes are within Southeast Asia, focusing on Thailand but also Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Laos, Maldives, Burma, India and Singapore. Obviously, the airline operates several flights out of Koh Samui and from the other airports they own.
Sample Itinerary: Bangkok, Thailand to/from Ko Samui, Thailand, April 4-7, 2014
Bangkok Air Price: 9,080 THB ($280)
Thai Airways Price: 9,789 THB ($300)
Carry-On Baggage: The carry-on baggage size and weight depends on the type of plane:
- ATR72: maximum size: 44 x 28 x 23 cm (17 x 11 x 9 in), maximum weight: 5 kg (11 lbs).
- Airbus 319/Airbus 320: maximum size: 56 x 36 x 23 cm (22 x 14 x 9), maximum weight: 5 kg (11 lbs).
Checked Baggage: Economy class passengers can check one bag weighing up to 20 kg (44 lbs). Blue Ribbon class (Bangkok Airways’s business class) passengers can check one bag each weighing up to 30 kg (66 lbs). You will be charged for excess baggage.
Check In: Even if you check in online, IF you are flying internationally, you must visit the check-in desk 90 minutes before your departure for a verification of documents, regardless of if you are checking bags or not.
Flyer Bonus Program: This program allows you to earn points you can later use for free flights. The current sign up bonus is 15 points. There are two levels of membership, Priority and Premier. Upon sign up, you will be a priority member, and this includes an extra 10 kg (22 lbs) of checked baggage allowance. Once you become a Premier member (this happens by earning 250 points in one calendar year), you can visit one of the exclusive Blue Ribbon lounges, have an extra 20 kg (44 lbs) of baggage, and a special check in counter.
*Another low cost carrier in Thailand is Nokair. This airline flies to destinations within Thailand, including several of the islands, along with a couple destinations in Myanmar and Laos.
Cebu Pacific is headquartered in Manila, Philippines, and dates to 1996. They fly to approximately 34 domestic destinations, and to 24 international destinations in 14 different countries. They also have a partnership with Tigerair in the Philippines (more info on Tigerair below).
Routes: Cebu flies to Brunei, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, UAE, and Vietnam. Of course, they fly to several cities domestically within the Philippines as well.
Sample Itinerary: Manila, Philippines to/from Cebu, Philippines April 4-7, 2014
Cebu Air Price: 1,676 PHP ($37)
Philippines Air Price: 4309 PHP ($95)
There is only one fare class: the Lite Fare. This fare comes with only a carry on bag, and at time of booking, you pre-purchase your baggage allowance from these options:
- Small up to 15 kg (33 lbs).
- Standard up to 20 kg (44 lbs).
- Large up to 30 kg (66 lbs).
- Extra Large up to 45 kg (99 lbs).
Carry-On Baggage: Each passenger can take one carry on bag onto the plane. There doesn’t seem to be a weight or size requirement but it must fit under the seat or in the overhead compartments or else you will have to pay to check it.
Checked Baggage: The cost of checking a bag varies on domestic and international flights, and it starts at approximately 180 PHP ($3) for a small bag up to 2800 PHP ($50) for an extra large bag. For a detailed listing of fees, check here. If you don’t pre-purchase your checked baggage online it will cost more at the airport to check it.
Dragon Air is a low(er)-cost subsidiary of Cathay Pacific, and headquartered in Hong Kong. Like Cathay, it is also an affiliate of Oneworld. Started back in 1985, this airline now flies to 13 countries.
Routes: This airlines flies throughout many countries in Asia, such as China, Korea, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and more.
Sample Itinerary: Hong Kong to/from Taipei, Taiwan, April 4-10, 2014
Dragonair Price: 1,200 HKD ($157)
Hong Kong Airlines Price: 1,390 HKD ($179)
Carry-On Baggage: For all classes, each passenger can bring a free baggage allowance of one cabin bag with maximum size 56 x 36 x 23 cm (22 x 14 x 9 in) in size and a maximum weight of 5 kg (11 lbs). These dimensions include wheels, handles and side pockets. You can also carry a small personal item onto the plane.
Checked Baggage: For travel everywhere except the Americas, you can check as many bags as you’d like. However, the total weight of these bags must not exceed 40 kg (88 lbs) for first class passengers, 30 kg (66 lbs) for business class passengers, or 20 kg (44 lbs) for economy passengers. If you are traveling to/from Central, North, or South America, you can take up to two pieces, 32 kg (70 lbs) per bag for first class passengers, 32 kg (70 lbs) per bag for business class passengers, or 23 kg (50 lbs) for economy class passengers. The total dimensions of each piece must not exceed 158 cm (62 in). If you are part of the Marco Polo Club, you have an increased baggage allowance.
Marco Polo Club: The Marco Polo Club has four tiers: Green, Silver, Gold and Diamond. As a member, every flight you take with Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, or any oneworld alliance airlines (in an eligible fare class) contributes towards your membership status. Flying in eligible fare classes with Cathay Pacific, Dragonair or any of the Oneworld alliance airlines earns you Club miles and Club sectors. The higher the fare class, the more Club miles and Club sectors you will be awarded. This chart will help you to see which Oneworld alliance airlines you can fly on and which fare classes will make you eligible to earn Club miles and Club sectors.
Flydubai is a relatively new low-cost airline established in 2008-2009 based in Dubai. Although it is not technically affiliated with Emirates group, they supported Flydubai during the initial starting phase. The airline recently added a business class cabin to their planes, which is interesting, as they are one of the few truly low-cost carriers providing this luxury type product.
Routes: Flydubai serves destinations in Asia, Europe and Africa, for example, Ukraine, Romania, Kuwait, Baghdad, Bahrain and more.
Sample Itinerary: Dubai to/from Beirut, April 5-12, 2014
Flydubai Price: 1,090 AED ($297)
Emirates Price: 1,665 AED ($453)
Carry-On baggage: Economy class passengers can carry on one item, weighing up to 7 kg (15 lbs) with a maximum size of 56 x 45 x 25 cm (22 x 18 x 10 in). Business class passengers can carry on two items of hand baggage on board with a combined weight of 15 kg (33 lbs). The same size dimensions apply for each item as economy class.
Fare Classes: There are four fare classes: Pay To Change, Free To Change, Special Offer and Business.
Checked Baggage: In the Pay To Change Fare, you must pay extra if you want to check a bag. One checked bag up to 20 kg (44 lbs) is included in the Free To Change and Special Offer Fares. With the Business Fare, you can check up to 40 kg (88 lbs) of baggage. If the Pay To Change Fare passengers would like to pay extra to check a 20 kg bag, the cost is 50 AED ($14). More information on baggage fees can be found here.
Business Class: As Flydubai is one of the few low cost carriers with business, I found it worthwhile to share some stats on it:
- Seat pitch: 42 inches
- Seat recline: 7 inches
- Seat width: 21 inches
- Leg-rest: elevates to 60 degrees
- Head-rest: adjusts and extends
- Power supply: dedicated universal outlet
- Personal HD touchscreen: 12.1 inches
- Material: soft Italian leather
- 12 seats – all window or aisle
- Dedicated crew member
- Choice of meals from the business class menu
- Snacks available on demand
- Access to more than 200 movies
- Power outlet suitable for plugs from over 170 countries
- Blanket & pillow
- Noise-cancelling headphones
Golden Myanmar Airlines
Golden Myanmar Airlines is quite new, as they started in 2012 and launched their first flight in 2013. This is Myanmar’s first low-cost airline.
Routes: Golden Myanmar flies to to Bangkok, Singapore, a couple destinations in India and a few destinations within Myanmar.
Sample Itinerary: Yangon, Myanmar to/from Bangkok, Thailand April 4-7, 2014
Golden Myanmar Airways Price: 134.82 SGD ($106)
Myanmar Airways International Price: 400 SGD ($313)
Carry-On Baggage: The weight for carry-on baggage must not exceed 10 kg (22 lbs) and the size should not disrupt other passengers in terms of cabin space.
Checked Baggage: If you pre-pay when you book your fare for your checked bags, prices are as follows:
- $12 for 15 kg (33 lbs)
- $15 for 20 kg (44 lbs)
- $20 for 25 kg (55 lbs)
- $30 for 30 kg (66 lbs)
- $42 for 35 kg (77 lbs)
- $55 for 40 kg (88 lbs)
If you choose to purchase your fare at the counter, you can only purchase the 15 kg size, and you will then be charged $6 for every access kg.
Seat Selection: The cost changes depending on the row you select:
- $10 international, $5 domestic: Gold Seat Request (Row 1,12 & 14)
- $7 international, $3 domestic: Jade Seat Request (Row 2 to 5)
- $2 international, $1 domestic: Ruby Seat Request (Row 6 to 11 & Row 15 to 31)
If you don’t pay extra to select your seat, you will be assigned one at random.
Peach Aviation is the first low-cost carrier from Japan – and perhaps its most flamboyant. The airline was formed in 2011 as a joint venture between ANA and the First Eastern Investment group, and their first flight was in 2012.
Routes: Peach flies throughout Japan and to destinations in South Korea, Taiwan and to Hong Kong. The airline has plans to offer flights to China and Southeast Asia in the future.
Sample Itinerary: Tokyo Narita to/from Osaka, April 4-7, 2014
Peach Aviation Price: 9,380 JPY ($92)
ANA Price: 31,300 JPY ($306)
Fare Classes: There are two fare classes: Happy Peach and Happy Peach Plus. With Happy Peach you get 10 kg (22 lbs) of carry-on baggage, and with Happy Peach Plus you get 10 kg (22 lbs) of carry-on baggage, one free checked bag, free seat selection and unlimited ticket changes. For the Happy Peach fare baggage fees depend on if you are flying domestic or international, and prices start at about 1000 JPY (about $10) per one way. The seating fees also depend on whether the flight is domestic or international, as well as what type of seat (standard seat, pleasure seat, stretch seat or fast seat). You can read more about the fees here.
Silk Air is a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines that was launched in the early 1990’s.
Routes: Silk Air operates throughout Southeast Asia, India, China and Australia.
Sample Itinerary: Singapore to/from Cebu, Philippines, April 4-8, 2014
Silk Air Price: 440 SGD ($345)
Asiana Price: 1601 SGD ($1,257)
Carry-On Baggage: One piece of carry-on baggage per person is allowed in economy class and two per person in business class. Total weight cannot exceed 7kg (15 lb) per piece and the maximum size allowed per piece is 115 cm (45 in).
Checked Baggage: You are allowed one free checked bag in economy weighing up to 30 kg (66 lbs) and one in business class weighing up to 40 kg (88 lbs).
Silk Air Lounges: If you are a PPS Club member, KrisFlyer Elite Gold member, or a SilkAir Business Class passenger, you can enjoy lounge access. All PPS Club members travelling on SilkAir can opt to invite one guest to the lounge with them. This privilege also extends to KrisFlyer Elite Gold members travelling on SilkAir. The guest should enter the lounge accompanied by the member. SilkAir Business Class passengers are invited to access the lounge. However, this invitation is not extended to their guests. Star Alliance Gold members and KrisFlyer Elite Silver members travelling on SilkAir Economy Class are not entitled to lounge access.
PPS Club Member: PPS Club is Singapore Air’s frequent flyer program. PPS Club membership will be yours when you accrue a PPS Value of $25,000 SGD within a period of 12 consecutive months. You can earn these points by traveling on Singapore Air or on Silk Air.
Spice Jet is a low cost carrier based in India that got it’s start in 2005. It offers single cabin passenger service as well as cargo services on the same flights.
Routes: Spice Jet flies to about 45 destinations within India and 9 international destinations, operating approximately 350 flights daily. Some of it’s international destinations include Columbo, Bangkok and Dubai and the Maldives.
Sample Itinerary: Mumbai, India to/from Goa, India,April 4-7 2014
Spice Jet Price: 3,095 INR ($51)
Air India Price: 7,722 INR ($127)
Carry-On Baggage: On domestic flights each passenger is allowed one piece of cabin baggage with a maximum weight of 7 Kg (15 lbs) and a maximum size of 115 cm (45 in) in overall dimensions on Boeing flights and 108 cm (42.5 in) on Bombardier flights. Keep in mind that NO carry on baggage is allowed on flights originating from Jammu or Srinagar airports due to airport security restrictions. For international flights, passengers are allowed the same amount, plus a small purse or laptop case.
Checked Baggage: On domestic flights, passengers are allowed a free checked baggage allowance of 15 kg (33 lbs) per passenger for all domestic bookings, and from EX-IXJ and SXR free check in baggage allowance is 22 kg (48.5 lbs) per passenger per flight. Passengers are allowed the same amount for international flights, however for some destinations passengers can bring up to 20 or 30 kg (44 or 66 lbs).
Seat Selection: This is free when you check in online.
Check In Counters: This is one of the less convenient factors of flying the airline (and in India in general), but Spice Jet advises you arrive at the airport four hours before their scheduled departure time. Check in counters close 75 minutes before the flight departs.
Spring Airlines is considered to be China’s top “no frills” airline. Based in Shanghai, Spring started flying in 2005.
Routes: Spring Airlines operates flights throughout China (and to Hong Kong and Macau). Additionally, they fly to to international spots like Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam.
Sample Itinerary: Shanghai, China to/from Hong Kong, April 3-7, 2014
Spring Airlines Price: 609 Yuan ($98)
China Southern Price: 7720 Yuan ($1,242)
Fare Classes: Spring and Spring Plus are the two fare class options. With Spring Plus, you can get 25 kg (55 lbs) extra baggage allowance, more spacious seats, flexible ticket changes, more spring points earnings and priority check in. Spring is the basic option where you receive one carry on and one checked bag.
Carry-On Baggage: Passengers can take one carry-on piece weight up to 5 kg (11 lb) in weight and 20 x 30 cm x 40 cm (approx 8 x 12 x 16 in) in size, regardless of fare class.
Checked Baggage: Each passenger can check one bag up to 50 kg (110 lbs).
Spring Pass: Spring Pass is Spring Air’s frequent flyer program. The more you spend, the more points you earn. You can earn up to 15% of your ticket value when you fly. Every 1 point = CNY 1 to spend directly on Spring Airlines tickets and other merchandise.
Tigerair is a low-cost carrier that is based in Singapore. Tigerair won the CAPA Low Cost Airline of the Year Award in 2006 and 2010. Their first flight took place from Singapore to Bangkok in 2004. Singapore Airlines has a small stake in the airline, so if Singapore drops a destination, often times Tigerair makes up for it by flying that route.
Routes: Tigerair flies to Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
Sample Itinerary: Taipei, Taiwan to/from Singapore, April 3-7, 2014
Tigerair Price: 15,170 TWD ($496)
EVA Air Price: 23,673 TWD ($774)
Fare Classes: There are three fare classes: Light, Combo, and Combo Plus. Light fares are basic with no add ons. Combo fares include seat selection and meal onboard. Combo Plus includes preferred seating, priority boarding, meal onboard and option to cancel or change your ticket for free.
Carry-On Baggage: Passengers can bring two small items each with dimensions of less than 54 x 38 x 23 cm (approximately 22 x 15 x 9 in) and weighing no more than 10 kg (22 lbs) combined.
Checked Baggage: There is no checked baggage included in any of the three fare classes. You pay per weight (you can choose from 15, 20, 25, 20, 35, or 40 kg with vary prices depending on destination. Prices start at about $22 for 15 kg (33 lbs) if you purchase online, and purchasing at the airport is more expensive.
Tigerplus: Tigerplus can be purchased at the airport or online for flights departing from Singapore. For 48 SDG ($38), you get a dedicated check-in counter, usage of a premium lounge and priority boarding.
Stripes: Stripes is a members program for Tigerair. For 29.95 SGD ($24) per, year, you get exclusive access to our promotional airfares before everyone else, members-only fares and special partner promotions.
*A low-cost carrier option for flights within Vietnam is VietJet Air.
So that’s a rundown of the major low-cost carriers in Asia, but there are a lot of other smaller companies servicing both major cities and out-of-the-way destinations. Have experience on any of them? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.
Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.