“Should I pay for that?”

This shouldn’t be a surprise given the headline, but this post won’t be a full-blown review. It primarily seeks to answer some questions that I get a lot: are a few extra inches of space/baggage/food worth the extra cost? If you’re flying on a low cost carrier like AirAsia, there’s a good chance you’re budget conscious and you want to balance your comfort with your expenses. Perhaps this post will give you a better sense of what to expect.

“Should I fly a low cost carrier within Southeast Asia?”

TL;DR: Probably yes, because flying is reasonably efficient, comfortable, and most importantly, cheap. If it fits into your schedule/budget, flying is the way to get around the region.

My father and I flew an Asian LLC when we split up our time in Bangkok with a quick jaunt to Cambodia. In the early planning stages of the trip, we figured that we could take the train to save money, plus see the country from a different perspective. When we started to read about the experience — no air conditioning, crowded cars, issues crossing the Cambodian border, questionable infrastructure — we began to second guess ourselves.

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I’m all for adventure, but this might be a little too far…

We thought maybe we would instead be able to fly the short hop from Bangkok to Siem Reap for a marginally more expensive ticket. Thanks to the proliferation of low cost carriers in Asia, we had lots of options, and ultimately booked a cheap round trip fare on Thai AirAsia, a subsidiary of the Malaysian-based AirAsia.

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$70 roundtrip between Bangkok and Siem Reap. That’s a great price, and it’s only marginally more expensive than the alternatives.

Even though there was a slight price premium over the rail options, we found that it was well worth the difference. We got where we needed to go in a fraction of the time (less than two hours by plane compared to more than six by train), in reasonably comfortable accommodations with available food, drink, and air conditioning.

“Should I pay for a suitcase?”

TL;DR: If you have to, by all means, yes.

Don’t underestimate the size of your bag when you’re preparing to fly on an LCC like AirAsia. That said, AirAsia is far more lenient and generous than some of its counterparts, as they give all paying passengers a free carry on and personal item. So while the airline is flexible in this regard, do be aware that these two bags collectively must weigh under 7 kilograms. That’s not very much, and if you know that you’re going to need more stuff than that, definitely prepay for a checked bag during booking.

Prices are reasonable early on, but if you get forced to check your bag, you’ll be hit with a much higher fee. This can sour your traveling experience really quick; don’t let that happen to you. The AirAsia check-in agent weighed our shared carry on when we flew to Cambodia, as well as both of our personal items. We were underweight, thank God, but it was close. If we were over the limit, then we would’ve been forced to check our luggage and pay an additional $50 or so.

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These rules are enforced on AirAsia!

“What’s the airport like?”

TL;DR: Meh, it’s okay. Functional, but not at all glamorous.

Bangkok in particular has an interesting airport situation. It had long been exclusively served by Don Mueang Airport (DMK), which is located to the north of the city. When Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) opened in September 2006, commercial airliners relocated all of their services to the new airfield, which rendered the old one out of service. BKK soon became overburdened by the influx of traffic, so in early 2007, DMK was reopened to help alleviate congestion. Then in 2012, the sitting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra mandated that LCCs and chartered flights must operate out of Don Mueang.

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The main terminal at Don Mueang Airport

The facility has certainly seen better days, but it is by all means functional. There’s even a Priority Pass lounge; we didn’t have time to visit it, but it seemed nice enough. Otherwise, my father and I arrived at the airport, and proceeded to clear check in and security promptly.

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Inside Don Mueang Airport, courtesy of its Russian Wikipedia page

Even though there are lots of unused gates at Don Mueang, AirAsia relies heavily on remote stands. I suspect this might have something to do with financing; jetways are far more expensive to operate and are more convenient than a set of airstairs. The luxury of being right in the terminal after deplaning comes at a cost, after all…

So, we boarded a shuttle bus to go out to the plane. It was a short drive, and we got great views of the traffic on the tarmac.

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A Thai AirAsia A320
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In front of a Thai AirAsia A320

All things considered, Don Mueang isn’t a bad place, but it isn’t particularly memorable either. If you went golfing on the runway infield though, you might have had a different experience though…

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There is a golf course at Don Mueang Airport, which is certainly a unique environment to play a round in.

“Should I pay to sit in the front/for extra legroom?”

TL;DR: Absolutely yes. The standard pitch (29″) on AirAsia is unacceptable. When considering that an exit row/front row seat is only marginally more expensive than the price of the fare, you’re better off paying the difference.

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A very, very tight cabin. Priority seats (aka Hot Seats), either near the front of the plane or in exit rows, are designated with their red headrests.

My father and I had two flights on AirAsia during this trip, from Bangkok to Siem Reap and back. On the outbound leg, we had regular seats, and on the return, we paid about $15 extra to sit in the front row. As we sat down in our standard seats for the first time, my father muttered, “wow, this is too cramped.” He had a hard time getting comfortable, even for such a short flight. I’m 8 inches taller than he is, and, well, let’s just say I didn’t have a very good time either. Getting settled into the seats is a challenge. Our mobility was seriously impaired by the tiny space, and the two of us are in decent shape.

We were in bulkhead seats 1A and 1B when we returned to Bangkok.

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Seat 1A

Even the front of the plane was reasonably tight…These seats were far more comfortable than those on the first flight, the legroom wasn’t “unlimited.” I’ll gladly take the these though if they’re available, especially given the relatively low cost.

airasia seat bulkhead legroom
This legroom was serviceable for a flight less than an hour long, but it’s still not great.

On a design note, there was a divider separating us from the main cabin door, and it had a transparent panel that allowed the flight attendants to watch over the passengers. Even though it might be awkward to be staring face-to-face with the crew during take off and landing, the extra space is so worth it.

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The “windowed” bulkhead divider

In the future, I will always try to sit in the front or in an exit row every single time I’m on AirAsia. Anything else would be much less comfortable.

“Should I order a meal?”

TL;DR: Depends on how hungry you are. I wouldn’t actively go out of my way to eat on AirAsia though.

I didn’t try the food on my AirAsia legs, and few other people did. The flights were just too short to warrant splurging for a meal. The prices were comparatively expensive; meals on American LCCs cost about the same as those on AirAsia. Given the regional differences in costs of living (the U.S. is much higher than Southeast Asia/Thailand), it’s disappointing to be paying as much as you do, especially when the food on the ground is much better and much cheaper than in the air.

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Thai AirAsia’s online menu

That said, if you’re staving in the middle of a flight, it’s not like you have a lot of other options, and you can get a full meal on board. Be warned though, you will be eating a budget airline’s take on Bangkok street food favorites, microwaved at 38,000 feet. You might love the experience — I guess it could be considered “authentic” cooking — or you might also find it quite overwhelming. Strong aromas filled our planes during the meal services, and while I didn’t mind the smells, a lot of other passengers did. I’m not trying to be rude, all I’m saying is that you may find your appetite gone depending on how sensitive your nose is…

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If you do decide you want to eat a meal, you’ll have a fairly standard tray table.

“Will I earn frequent flyer miles?”

TL;DR: Yes. The points won’t be very valuable though.

AirAsia’s loyalty program, AirAsia BIG, isn’t particularly compelling. For award ticket redemptions, the required number of BIG Points is determined, rather uniquely, by transit time. So, a flight under one hour only costs 4,500 points, while a flight over six hours costs 30,000 points. When you consider those prices with the standard earnings rate of 1 point per 2 Malaysian Ringgits (MYR) spent, you’d need to spend MYR 9,000, or roughly $2,100, for a seat that might otherwise cost $40. That’s not a good value, and when you add in that AirAsia doesn’t have any other airline partners and only a smattering of hotel associates, your usage of points will be fairly limited.

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AirAsia’s award chart

What you get is better than nothing though, and simply being on AirAsia as a paid passenger could be very “higher flyer” in and of itself. Provided that you book steeply discounted tickets, you can travel to places that would otherwise be unaffordable thanks to the low cost carrier.

“Anything else worth knowing?”

  • The King of Thailand died last October, and as per tradition, there is a nationwide state of mourning for a year. Citizens are expected to consistently (and constantly) pay respects to the memory of the King, as well as make offerings on his behalf. On Thai AirAsia, prior to the routine safety demonstration, flight attendants play a recorded prayer over the PA system in the King’s honor.
  • AirAsia operates really old Airbus A320s. On the particular models that we flew on, small amounts of smoke filled the cabin during the initial climb, and then again during the descent. I suspect it has something to do with pressurizing the plane at higher altitudes, but it was still disconcerting nevertheless. Don’t freak out like some of the other passengers did.
  • Flight attendants will try to sell you lots of things. Even on short hops, like our hour-long flights to and from Siem Reap, the crew was working the aisle for most of the duration of the flight. From food and drinks to stuffed animals with AirAsia branding, it’s clear that they wanted to move things. There were also lots of advertisements.

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    Advertisements were plastered all over the cabin.
  • Both crews had really strict flight attendants. I was yelled at repeatedly for not only taking lots of pictures, but also having my phone out during takeoff and landing. That wasn’t cool; my apologies for a lack of pictures too!

You probably won’t love flying on AirAsia, or any other LCC for that matter, but the experience is perfectly serviceable. The price is so consistently right, and I wouldn’t hesitate to fly AirAsia (or its competitors) again for quick trips around Asia. Just be aware of what you’re getting in to (no frills, staunch baggage rules, cramped seats), and you’ll appreciate the value for what it is: budget higher flying.

airasia boarding plane view from wing
I would get on board AirAsia again!

Have you flown AirAsia? What were your experiences like?