Flying Budget – Tips and Tricks to Getting the Most Out of Your Travel
I travel a lot… so much so that I at any one time I have multiple trips pre-booked and lose track of which is which. As part of travelling, I have learned when to take advantage of budget airlines, and when to stick with a traditional airline. In this article, I share some of the little tricks that I have picked up over the years, and hope they may be of benefit.
Budget Means You Pay for What You Get
For some reason, there is always someone on every flight who seems to forget that a budget airline is a no frills way of flying, where every little thing becomes extra. Most of the time, the advertised price for a flight on a budget airline is just the barebones price for the flight. Every thing else is extra. Check in baggage, meals, entertainment packages, drinks (even water) and even the right to select your seats is extra. In addition, if you realise you need to change your flight date after booking (even 5 minutes after you click the purchase button), it often costs the same (or even more) than booking a new flight.
As a result, if you are comparing prices, and want to do a true comparison between a budget flight and a standard flight, make sure you carefully consider your requirements, and add in the costs of all of the items that you will ultimately require.
For me, I quite often don’t mind that the extras are “extra”, because I frequently travel solo and light (carry on only). I can be flexible with dates, and therefore less likely to want to change flight dates after booking. For shorter flights, I don’t care where I sit, and I don’t know if I want a meal until I am actually on the flight (by which point, I can order and pay on the flight).
However, if I ever had a situation where I might need to change the date, or was travelling with a group, or family, and it therefore becomes important that we all sit together and people have check in baggage and meals (and in-flight entertainment), the price of all the extras (including surcharge for being able to change flight date) means that the budget flight is suddenly getting a lot closer to a traditional airline’s price (on occasion, in peak periods I have even seen the budget airline total price exceed a traditional airline).
Pre-booked meals and package extras deals on budget airlines
I won’t name names, but certain budget airlines offer discounts if you pre-book your meals or if you purchase an extras package (that typically includes a meal, drink, pick a seat and 20 kg check in luggage). Although you pay less by paying for these options up front, I have been disappointed every time I went for one of these deals and wished that I had not gone for the deal and just paid the ordinary price for these items. For example, the pre-booked meal comes with a really cheap bottle of (soapy tasting) water, and you have less meal selection (and even if you do select a meal, there is no guarantee you will get the one you selected). If you purchased a meal in flight without pre-booking, the menu actually seems to include more options, and you get a decent (and larger) bottle of mineral water.
Similarly, the extras package can disappoint on the meal front. My experience has been that although you get to select your meal when taking this option, you rarely (if ever) get the meal selected. I have compared notes with others and they have all almost unanimously had the same experience. It is still not a bad deal as you pay less for food, drink, pick a seat and check in luggage. However, if I require all three of these options, the extra cost is typically starting to get that ticket price a lot closer to a traditional flight in any event.
The Seat Lottery
For airlines that charge extra if you want to pick your seat, here is my little system for trying to get a decent seat (no one likes to be stuck in the middle). Seats are automatically allocated sequentially, starting from the very back row of the plane. The allocation takes place when you check in. Given you can usually check in up to one week in advance, if you checked in early, then you would in theory be allocated the back-most port side window seat (eg 45A or similar, depending on aircraft length)… unless someone pre-booked that particular seat. You can check if the seat is available by going into “manage booking” or equivalent option and clicking on pick a seat. You can then see what seats are free (just cancel out of the page once you have seen what seats are free and do not click on a seat or it may become reserved until your session times out), and keep in mind the rear most free seat will be the one allocated to you if you were to check in now.
Worst case scenario, if you do get a seat you don’t like, you can then bite the bullet after on-line check in and pay to pick your seat. Even after you have electronically checked in, it is not too late to change your seat. Just click on manage booking, and pick your seat, and pay the fee (its usually quite nominal unless you upgrade to a nicer seat). You can even pick seats just for selected flights, rather than all of your flights (I typically pick a seat for a long haul flight, and save the money on shorter flights).
I have also discovered that if your booking is for multiple passengers, they tend to be allocated seats next to each other, so if you are concerned about being given random seats all over the plane, it doesn’t work like that. In my experience, we have (so far) always ended up in seats next to each other.
Bangkok’s Budget Airline Terminal
When Bangkok went from being a single airport city to a dual airport city, I was really impressed with the new airport, Suwarnabhumi. Location wise, I find it really quick and easy to get to from my condo in Bangkok, and traffic around the airport flows really well.
Sadly, Don Muang Airport, Bangkok’s original airport, has now dedicated itself to the budget airlines (as well as a lot of the domestic traffic). Don Muang has always been an absolute nightmare to get to. It is located north of town and to get to or from there you need to get through some of the worst traffic congested intersections in Bangkok (Paholyothin/Vibhavadi Rangsit/Lard Prao being one example). Also, there is still no skytrain option to get from that airport to downtown Bangkok, whereas Suwarnabhumi offers a fairly quick option, which if you are smart about, can get you to your location really quickly (I will talk about my tricks here in a later article). Don Muang is expected to open its skytrain at the end of 2018 (I am not convinced they will meet this deadline though). I will write about this shortly too as the skytrain route does not seem ideal to me.
In addition to accessibility to the airport, the efficiency of operations within the airport need to be considered as well. The departure hall tends to be extremely chaotic. The international departures area gets a lot of travellers, including swarms of Asian (Chinese) package tourists who clog up the area and make navigating the airline check in counters very difficult. This also can result in slow immigration lines and restaurants in the departures area being full. The air-conditioning in the international terminal isn’t quite up to the task of current passenger numbers, so it can be a bit warm once you are waiting for your flight. The domestic terminal on the other hand has had a complete upgrade and is very pleasant. If I have time to kill, I often mosey over to this wing of the airport for the restaurants there.
How to Beat the Check In Queues for Budget Airlines
This applies for budget airlines flying out of Don Muang, but does not necessarily apply to all other airports around the world. To beat those massive queues, check in on-line, and then get your boarding pass from one of the check-in terminals at the airport. The terminals can sometimes be hard to find. First identify the check-in counters, and then start looking for terminals nearby… they are the little almost ATM like terminals standing looking lonely, as not that many people use them (at least at Don Muang; the ones at Kuala Lumpur were packed). You can even check in your luggage this way. Enter the number of pieces of luggage, print out the baggage labels, and then bring them to the baggage drop area. At Don Muang, doing it this way will save you the hassle of waiting in a long queue, as it seems 90% of budget airline passengers still prefer to check in the traditional way.
A Cheap Way to Travel in Comfort
The cost of travelling via a flat bed on a traditional airline is quite prohibitive. It is usually 4 or more times the price of a normal seat, and sometimes you even get ripped off and don’t get the flat bed but one of the old business class seats that are large, but don’t fully recline. For a 10 hour flight, that inability to fully recline starts to get to you and I often then feel like I could have just saved my money.
Several budget airlines offer flat beds on longer flights. Sure, they tend to cost more than an economy class seat on a traditional airline, but compared to business class fares, the budget airlines’ seats prove cheaper. In addition, when you book the budget flat beds, it tends to come with a lot of extras as part of the price, including check in luggage and meals (and you pick your seat). If you want to get some sleep, this is definitely the more affordable option (although for certain destinations you can at times get really good promotions for business or quasi-business (premium economy) seats on traditional airlines).
There are times when I need all the extras to be included and use traditional airlines, but the pricing model for budget airlines can be very useful if you have flexibility, or don’t need all the extras that come with a traditional airline. Why pay for something you don’t really need.
Of course, using budget airlines has created its own learning curve, and can come with a lot of frustrations if you don’t know what you are getting into. Make sure you fully understand what is and is not included before you click that purchase button… and if you are a frequent traveller like me, be ready for the odd occasion where you will completely forfeit the cost of a flight (because you need to change the date due to unavoidable events).
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