Good thing October’s over, because I was out of Halloween ideas. What could I write about? Haunted houses? Vampires? Budget air tra…Oooh, good one. To make up for my missed Halloween special, here’s a write-up on budget airlines: Are they really a good deal? Because when you’re risking your life in a tin can strapped to propellers at 40,000 feet, the first thought on your mind should be: “How can I cut corners to make this even more lethal?”
What Are Budget Airlines?
To this day, air travel’s hodge-podge of fees, taxes, fuel costs, etc. remain incomprehensible. Airlines prefer not to disclose them anyway, for fear of disproving most known laws of maths.
Budget airlines cut through the clutter. They minimize airport taxes by landing at odd hours, do away with middlemen (most bookings are done online), and make amenities like food and in-flight entertainment optional.
Detractors claim flying with them is like living in a Viet Cong POW camp, except airborne. Fans claim it’s a financially sensible way to fly, and that said detractors shouldn’t be crying as hard as little girls.
Let’s have a look at both arguments:
The Pros of Budget Flights
(The main budget airlines in Singapore are Jetstar Asia, Tiger Airways, and Air Asia. There’s also a new, up-and-coming competitor called Scoot. All pointers are from people who’ve used these airlines).
- Low Cost
- Early Bird Discounts
- One Way Bonus
Obviously, budget airlines are cheaper.
As with regular airlines, fares vary based on time and destination. In general, return air tickets (not counting taxes, extra luggage allowances, etc.) for budget flights are about $150 – $200 on weekdays, and $200 – $300+ on weekends.
For the sake of comparison, I checked the price of a budget ticket to Manila from Tiger Airways:
Raw air fare (Departing from Singapore at 5.10pm, arriving in Manila at 8.50pm) = $82
Raw fare on return (Departing from Manila at 9.30pm, arriving in Singapore at 1am) = $86
Total cost of air tickets: $166
You also need to add around $15 for luggage, unless all your stuff fits into a hand carry. The overall price, not including various airport taxes, surcharges, etc. is $181++
On SIA, an economy class ticket for a similar trip was around $760+.
Early Bird discounts
If you book your budget ticket early, it could shave up to 30% off the price. Frequent traveller Dom Wen, who flies to Hanoi twice a month, tells me:
“Usually to get the best price, you need to book about three months ahead. Also, you need to go and like all the budget airlines (He means like them on Facebook – Ed.) for the offer updates. If you book at the last minute, it’s always more expensive.”
One Way Bonus
On regular airlines, it’s usually cheaper to get a round trip ticket. With budget airlines, you can save even more by using another carrier to get home.
“Just because I use Jetstar to get there, doesn’t mean I have to use Jetstar to get back,” Dom says, “Sometimes when I’m there, I will search other carriers for tickets back. Sometimes you can save money by flying there on Jetstar and coming back on Tiger Air, or some other combo.”
The Cons of Budget Flights
Apart from the rumour that their pilot training program is an iPhone app? The main downside is inconvenience. You have to contend with:
- Bad Flight Times
- Delay and Compensation Issues
- Might be Free Seating
- No Amenities
- No Bonus Miles
Bad Flight Times
Budget airlines lower costs by landing or taking off at off-peak hours. That’s why you see funny time slots, like 1 am landings.
Of course, landings that are too late (near midnight) are bad as well. The later you arrive, the less time you have at your destination. That’s not an issue on business trips, but a big deal on vacations.
Delay and Compensation Issues
Budget flight got cancelled or delayed? You’re in trouble. Especially if you’re in a foreign country.
Besides the refund, you’d be lucky to get a half-eaten peanut off the airplane floor. Forget about complimentary hotel stays or any of that “customer service” crud; you get what you pay for.
For this reason, always be ready to book a last minute ticket on an alternative carrier. Have some extra cash on you.
Might be Free Seating
Thankfully, this is no longer the case with airlines such as Tiger Air. But if you’re faced with free seating, you need to show up early.
“The seats near the doors get taken up first,” Dom explains, “If you’re squeezed in the back, it’s harder and slower to get off the plane. Also, free seating is damn irritating when everyone squeezes into the plane, and some people jam up the corridors.”
There’s no food or in-flight entertainment. For longer trips, it’s advised that you:
“Sneak in a snack or something,” Dom says, “If you are not obvious about it, they usually close one eye. Otherwise you need to buy food and drinks for them. One of their sandwiches is about $5 to $7, so quite expensive.”
And in an age of iPads and cheap airport novels, I’m amazed anyone needs in-flight entertainment.
No Bonus Miles
One way regular airlines are competing is with frequent flier miles, which are now easier to get than ever. I’m referring to credit cards like the KrisFlyer Gold Credit Card, which do nothing but accumulate miles.
But does this compensate for the lower airfare? I got mixed responses. The most coherent was this e-mail from Aaron Seet, who is a frequent flyer:
“If you fly often enough, bonus miles are useful. I get about 1.6 miles to $1, and at the end of my work year, I can usually get a free round trip ticket to Hong Kong. Sometimes more.
Okay, so I can’t get that flying budget. But the question is: Would you rather the money you saved from budget travel, or a round trip to Hong Kong? That’s what it comes down to. Also, I should point out that the money you save by flying budget three or four times, maybe you also can buy a round trip to Hong Kong.”
Aaron believes the lack of bonus miles is not a big drawback, if you don’t fly often:
“If it takes you four years to get enough miles for a free ticket, you may as well save the money and fly budget.”
Do you like budget airlines? Tell us your experiences!
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