Here’s a potentially money saving tip for your next Southeast Asia trip: Get the cheapest airplane ticket you can to the region (ie Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur) and then separately purchase an onwards ticket to your other regional destination(s) on a low cost carrier.
Southeast Asia is rife with budget airlines operating frequent schedules with decently-reliable service. One-way tickets within the region go for as little as $100, $50 or even less. We once flew from Luang Prabang (Laos) to Hanoi for $28 and have seen domestic flights within Indonesia for $5!
Here’s our rundown of some of Southeast Asia’s budget airlines, subjectively arranged from the most to least useful:
Air Asia is the region’s dominant low cost carrier, the Southeast Asia equivalent of Europe’s Ryanair and the United States’ Southwest Airlines. The airline also operates Flyasianxpress, AirAsiaX, Indonesia AirAsia and Thai AirAsia. But don’t let the schizophrenic branding throw you—those name variations are essentially the same airline bookable through the same website.
Air Asia’s route structure is especially strong in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand but they operate in all Southeast Asia countries (except East Timor) as well as destinations further afield including Taipei, Hong Kong, Macau, Clark (Philippines), Colombo (Sri Lanka), Dhaka and even Melbourne, Perth, Abu Dhabi and London. Heading to Singapore? Save money by flying to Johor Bahru, which is across the border in Malaysia, and then booking your hotel and activities together in a Singapore holiday package.
One word of warning on Air Asia: Four out of the last six times we’ve flown them they’ve changed the time of departure the day before the flight. Maybe that’s coincidence. Maybe it’s a ploy Air Asia uses to ensure their flights will be technically counted as being “on time.” Regardless, we highly suggest confirming your Air Asia flight the day before you travel.
Bangkok Air claims to be “Asia’s Boutique Airline.” That’s more than a mere marking slogan. This airline’s service really is fantastic—in Bangkok they even have a complimentary juice bar and snack buffet while you wait for your flight. The large majority of Bangkok Air’s routes go to and from Bangkok (go figure); in addition to popular Thai destinations such as Phuket, Chiang Mai, Samui and Trat the airline also flies to Rangoon, Male (Maldives), Siem Reap (for Angkor Wat, Cambodia), Xian (China) and Luang Prabang (Laos). Their fares tend to be a few baht more than competitors Nok and Orient (see reviews, below) but we think well worth it.
Tiger Airways is a joint venture between Singapore Airlines and Ryanair. Unfortunately, the airline too often delivers the service of the later with the prices of the former. Occasionally, however, the airline offers some bargain fares (particularly if you book in advance). All of Tiger Air’s Southeast Asia flights run through their Singapore hub. Some of their destinations include Bangkok, Phuket, Padang (indonesia), Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Manila, Bangalore, Chennai and several destinations in Australia.
Jetstar is an Australian airline geared mostly towards shuttling travelers between Down Under and Southeast & North Asia. However, they also operate several useful routes within Southeast Asia including Singapore↔Rangoon and Bangkok↔Ho Chi Mihn City.
Silk Air generally has fares that are too expensive to be considered “budget.” However, this regional subsidiary of Singapore Airlines does offer some cheap fares if you can book well in advance. From the point of view of a traveler exploring Asia, Slik also have several useful destinations departing Singapore, including Kathmandu, Siem Reap, Phnom Pehn, Lombok (Indonesia) and Thiruvananthapuram (India).
Batavia Air operates a huge array of routes within Indonesia, including twice daily Jakarka↔Densapar (Bali). Batavia has been slowing expanding their international routes; from Jakarta they currently fly to and from Singapore, Guangzhou and Kuching (China).
Firefly is a Malaysian airline with hubs in Penang and Kuala Lumpur’s Subang airport. Beach hoppers will especially appreciate Firefly’s cheap Ko Samui↔Subang and Phuket↔Penang flights. They also run several short flight across the Straights to/from point on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia.
Cebu Pacific Air
Cebu Pacific Air has grown in recent years such that today it is the Philippines leading domestic carrier. On popular domestic routes you can pretty much show up at the airport and get a seat at a reasonable fare. International destinations include Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Hong Kong and Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia). Beach goers might especially appreciate Cebu Pacific’s Singapore↔Cebu route.
Zest Air is another Philippine Airline. The vast majority of their routes are domestic though they do operate particularly useful and inexpensive flights Hong Kong↔Manila.
Nok Air briefly flirted with international routes but is today purely a domestic airline within Thailand, operating all its flights to and from Bangkok’s “old” Don Muang airport. Unless there’s some advantage to arrive at Don Muang (eg you are immediately hopping a train heading north from Bangkok) you are better off on Air Asia, which generally has the same prices as Nok Air.
Mandala Airlines isn’t the most useful airline for Southeast Asia travel unless you are making your way between points on the Indonesian islands of Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan. However, this airline’s fares can be outrageously low. We’ve flown Bali to Jakarta for Rp. 270,000 (about US$27) and seen fares as low as Rp. 50,000 ($5)!! At present Mandala offers no international routes.
Lion Air is the largest private carrier in Indonesia (and also one of the few on this list to offer a business class). We have them towards the bottom of our review because, technically speaking, this airline gives us the creeps. Maybe that’s partly because the airline doesn’t hide its preference that customers pay in cash (in fact, they don’t accept credit card payments 48 hours before a flight). In any case, Lion’s non-Indonesia destinations include Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Singapore.
Orient Thai and its spin-off One-Two-Go are just bad. This airline had an infamous, and fatal, crash in 2007 and is still banned from flying in the EU for safety reasons. But even when their planes arrive and land safely the airline’s flights are late more often than not. Stay away.
Meters Come to Bangkok’s Motorcycle Taxis
Priority Pass: Go First Class At The Airport (Even Flying Economy)
Our Favorite Hotel Rooms In Bangkok
A Visit to the Chocolate Hills, Philippines
Bangkok’s Two Coolest Bars