Low Cost Carriers (LCC) are truly the cheapest and easiest way to get around Asia. For less than $50 a person I was able to secure seats from Manila to Kota Kinabalu r/t on SEAir, a low cost airline based in the Philippines that is now a subsidy of larger Tiger Airways. Being the cheapest way to get from the states to KK, I was up for some LCC flying between the two destinations, saving hundreds of dollars.
Our flight from Manila was at the smaller Clark airport, located about two hours north of the city center. We opted to take the local bus from downtown, saving ourselves the hassle of trying to barter with a cab driver. However, like most buses in the Philippines, the bus to Clark was late, leaving us nervous that we might miss our flight.
We arrived at Clark about 45 minutes before departure, check in was still open, yet we were among the last people to check in for our flight. We had booked out return flight separate, so before finishing checking in, the airline required proof of our onward ticket from Malaysia. Once presenting this, we were able to finish our check-in process and drop our bags. We then headed over to immigration. In the Philippines, the terminal tax is not included in the price of the ticket, so each person had to unexpectedly pay another 600 PHP (~$14.50). If this tax wasn’t enough, my friend, a dual citizen of the USA and the Philippines, was traveling with only his Philippine passport (he resides in the Philippines for school at the moment) and he was subjected to another 1600 PHP ($39) Filipino citizen departure tax! The airport authority said if he had his US passport on him, they would wave this fee, but since he did not, he was subjected to a tax. Just a random side note, this tax is approximately ¼ of the average Filipino monthly salary!
The line at Immigration moved at a snail pace. With 3 international flights departing all within minutes of each other, one would think that more than 3 immigration officers would be working, however, this was not the case. By the time we had cleared immigration our flight should have departed, and the airport departure monitor read “final call” for our flight. Worried that we missed our flight, we ran towards the gate. Once clearing security, a gentleman at the entrance to the gate area (more specifically the entrance to all the gates) retained a portion of our boarding pass, but then proceeded to give us no further information. When we asked what gate, he pointed to gate 3, which was in the process of boarding. We rushed to gate 3 where we were stopped by the gate agents. Despite the gate monitor stating gate 3 was the flight bound towards BKI on SEAir and read “final gate”, gate three was actually boarding an Air Asia flight!
In the midst of the confusion, we split up, all going to different gate in search of our flight. The monitors read final call and we could not afford to miss our flight. With our ticket stubs now taken by a random airline employee, we were more confused than ever. Even when returning to the airline employee who took our ticket stub, he again just pointed and told us to board at gate 3. Finally, after frantically searching the airport, we were told the monitors were wrong and our plane would be boarding from gate 3 after the Air Asia flight had finished boarding. With no clear directions from anyone, and with no one to answer a simple question, our trip had started bad and we were already frustrated. Not to mention, my Filipino friend was overly harassed by immigrations because he didn’t have his student ID card on him and the immigration officers didn’t grasp the concept that he was going on vacation to Malaysia for two weeks. Needless to say, the pre-disembarking process was stressful!
Finally, once the Air Asia flight finished boarding, we were able to locate a large group of travelers who, like us, also seemed confused about the boarding process. They all held the same old fashion 1980 paper flight vouchers in their hands so we knew they were going to the same place we were going. A few minutes passed and finally a SEAir employee appeared at the same gate that was just previously used by Air Asia and they announced the flight to KK on SEAir would begin boarding. Boarding was not carried out in any particular order and everyone flooded the gate. However, since my friends and I had assigned seats we waited at the bar until everyone had cleared the gate area, and then we boarded.
Boarding at CRK was not via a jet bridge but instead we walked directly out onto the runway. We had to walk about 300 meters to the plane. We boarded the plane via a mobile jetbridge/stairs that were at both the front and the back of the plane which sped up the boarding process and within 15 minutes from the time they announced boarding the entire plane was boarded and seated and the cabin doors where closed. I would love to see a US airline do this!
We took off without further delay and were on our way to KK. We were confused and slightly frustrated, but were happy to be on board and to have not missed our flight due to slow immigration and lack of communication from just about everyone in the airport.
Flying discount airline in Southeast Asia can be very different than flying in the United States at the same time, it’s almost the same, if that makes any sense. The entire cabin is economy (like southwest), seat pitch is a bone crushing 28-29 inches (like spirit) and snacks and drinks, including water must be purchased (again like Spirit or Allegiant). Everything is unbundled and nothing is included in the price. Thankfully, unlike US airlines, the add-ons are cheap. 20KG of luggage cost only $5 to check, early boarding is another $3, Instant noodle soup $2.25, a soda $1. As you can see, these prices are DIRT cheap in comparison to what US legacy and discount carriers are charging.
Our flight was relatively uneventful. There was no IFE, but again this is a Low Cost Carrier, not a full service airline. My legs did hit the seat in front of me, but thankfully, I am only 5’10”, my seatmate who is 6’3” had an extremely “comfortable” ride if you can imagine, having to almost sit sideways with his legs extended into the aisle! The flight was a short 2.5 hours and cabin service was only offered once. The only thing I thought strange was after the FA’s passed through the cabin once, they spent the rest of the flight hidden behind a curtain, avoiding all passengers on the plane. I would think they would have passed through with the food cart a couple of more times trying to upsell products, however, this was not the case.
Upon landing at the LCC in Kota Kinabalu we cleared custom and within 10 minutes our luggage appeared on the carousel, again faster than most US airlines in any airport I’ve ever been to. The flight was short and semi comfortable and was more than sufficient for a short flight in Asia. I would highly recommend LCC travel for short flights, but I also have a few words of advice for you.
1) bring your patience with you! You’re going to need it, especially with the confusion at Clark!
2) If you’re tall or need the leg room pay the extra 5 or 6 dollars for the exit or bulk head seats. The exit rows are larger than most US airliner exit row, so large in fact when sitting, I could not reach the seat in front of me with my arm fully extended
3) If you are among the last to check in, request a seat in either row 1, 12 or 13 if you’re flying SEAir, these are the bulkhead/exit row seats. They will give these to you for free at check in
4) Always travel with your onward ticket if you’re not from the country of origin, SEAir will NOT let you board if you do not have proof of onward ticket (even if you’re leaving the country by bus/train).
5) You are allowed to bring food/drinks onto the plane, so plan ahead and pack a snack/water
6) Finally, buy early and fly often! LCC in Asia are cheap and some airlines such as Airphil express and Air Asia offer Frequent flyer program and incentives.
Flihght coupons/ I haven’t seen these type of boarding passss in ages!
Boarding gate Chaos
The tiny bone crushing seats
Boarding the plane-flight already nearly full