Tourist First

Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Southeast Asia: Air Fares and More

Lao Airlines was one of several small carriers my wife and I used on our winter 2012-13 trip to Southeast Asia.

We booked all of our flights ourselves over the Internet, months in advance. Air travel in Southeast Asia is not that different from flying within the United States. Each airline's crew spoke their national language, of course, but the second language for announcements was always English.

Passengers who buy tickets online are expected to print and keep their e-ticket confirmations, which are taken to the airport and presented at check-in.  We discovered that boarding passes for Lao Airlines, Vietnam Airlines, Cambodia Angkor Air and Bangkok Airways were not available online, though you might be instructed to go online the day before to confirm your flight. And, if you get to the airport early, you may have to wait to get the boarding pass there: check-in is usually not available until three hours before a flight. Though most of the flights we were on were full, we saw no sign of the overbooking that's common among U.S. domestic carriers.

Other differences have to do with routes and ticketing.  Cambodia Angkor Air, for example, had a daily flight from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, two popular tourist stops in Cambodia.  But it did not offer a fight from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap.  Passengers would have to buy a Sihanoukville-to-Phnom Penh ticket and then a Phnom Penh-to-Siem Reap ticket -- and most likely they'd have to collect and recheck their baggage when changing planes.

Vietnam Airlines had the same problem with multi-leg flights.  We wanted to fly from Danang, Vietnam, to Phnom Penh, Cambodia,  both cities served by Vietnam Airlines. We'd have to go through Ho Chi Minh City. The tickets for each leg had to be purchased separately.  In Danang, we were told we would have to pick up and recheck our checked bags in Ho Chi Minh, where we'd have an hour and forty minutes between fights.  That was fine until the flight out of Danang was delayed an hour.  Vietnam Airlines agreed to check our bags through to Phnom Penh and to expedite our own transfer (going between the domestic and international terminals in Ho Chi Minh).  It turned out that there was no one in Ho Chi Minh to help us make the flight to Phnom Penh -- we literally had to run and even then we had the wrong gate information.  Fortunately, we made the flight.  Unfortunately, our luggage did not.  I filed missing baggage forms at Phnom Pehn airport and, once at our hotel, I emailed Vietnam Airlines directly, and I think this may have made a difference.  Someone named Kim Chi  responded and said she would forward my information to people who could help.  Later, the Vietnam Airlines station manager in Phnom Penh, Tran Ngoc Tuan, emailed me to say that the luggage had been found and would be sent to our hotel.  We got our two wheelies the next day. Vietnam Airlines had placed tamper-resistant plastic locks on all the zippers, which we easily cut off.  The day without the suitcases was a minor inconvenience, but we certainly appreciated the airline's efficiency in locating the bags and getting them to us intact.

Our baggage experience on the way home was the opposite. When we went to check our bags with  Bangkok Airways at the Siem Reap, Cambodia, airport, the check-in clerk asked if Bangkok was our final destination. It wasn't.  After a 12-hour layover, we'd be flying out on All Nippon Airways to Tokyo and then to Washington, D.C.  She said she could check our bags all the way through to Dulles, even though the different airlines are not code shares.  It worked beautifully -- our bags, with orange "priority" tags added somewhere along the way, were among the first to appear on the carousel at Dulles.  And, since ANA doesn't allow check in until three hours before the flight, if we had picked up the bags in Bangkok, we would have had to carry them around for hours. As it was, we were bag-less and easily able to slip into the city for our last hours in Asia.

Security checks at each airport were similar to what travelers face in the U.S., although we could keep our shoes on there.  A small pair of scissors was found in our carry-on in Luang Prabang and confiscated -- scissors that previously made it through security checks n Washington, Tokyo and Bangkok.
 
Our round-trip Washington-to-Bangkok flights, which required a short layover each way at Tokyo's Narita airport, were on United and its code-sharer All Nippon Airways.  Each time at Narita, we had to go through a security screening again before connecting to the next flight.

Fares 

When planning our travel within Southeast Asia, I used Expedia and other travel services to find which airlines flew the different routes.  Then I went to the airlines' own websites to search for times and fares.  In each case, I bought tickets in the least expensive fare categories for the most conveniently scheduled flights. Fares on the airlines' sites were much less than prices on sites like Expedia. None of these airlines charge for checked bags as long as collectively they don't exceed a weight limit.  Our densely packed wheelies were way below the limit.  Here's what we paid for all these one-way flights:

Bangkok, Thailand, to Luang Prabang, Laos: $157 each on Lao Airlines.  One hour, forty minute flight.  Plane was a turboprop, so we boarded on the tarmac and entered the plane at the rear.  Even though some of the seats are designated first class, they're all the same except for the upholstery. None have much legroom.  Click HERE for the Lao Airlines website.

Luang Prabang to Hanoi: $145 each on Lao Airlines. One hour, fifteen minute flight. Same sort of plane.  Our original flight was cancelled after we arrived at the airport, but Lao Airlines got us onto another flight that would arrive at almost the same time.  Since our hotel in Hanoi was arranging airport pickup, we wanted to send it our new flight number.  A Lao Airlines person allowed me to use his computer in the airline office to contact the hotel.

Hanoi to Danang: $107 each on Vietnam Airlines. One hour, fifteen minute flight.  Like the rest of our flights here, this was on a jet, an Airbus.  Comfortable. Click HERE for the the Vietnam Airlines website.  Our destination, Hoi An, is about 45 minutes south of Danang by car.

Danang to Ho Chi Minh City: $107 each on Vietnam Airlines. One hour, ten minute flight. This was the first leg of our journey from Danang to Phnom Penh.

Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh, Cambodia: $222 each on Vietnam Airways. Forty-five minute flight.

Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Cambodia: $90 each on Cambodia Angkor Air. Forty-five minute flight.  Click HERE For the Cambodia Angkor website. Our other travel within Cambodia, to the Elephant Valley Project and to the coastal town of Kep, was by car.

Siem Reap to Bangkok: $217 each on Bangkok Airways. Fifty-five minute flight. Click HERE for the Bangkok Airways website.