AirAsia has won the award for the best budget airline 6 years in a row. It has made it possible for a whole generation of newly middle-class folks in South East Asia to travel by plane for the first time, even leave their home country! And it has made lots of friends in the process. At the same time, you can read online reviews with an amount of vitriol that makes a Greyhound bus sound like a good idea – so what’s the scoop, bargain or punishment?
I have flown AirAsia numerous times over the last few years, all across South East Asia. I was happy enough with what they offer to sign up for their ASEAN+ pass and book 11 flights across the region within 30 days for a grand total of $350 (read more about the pass here, my trip here and here and tips & tricks here). So, how is it to actually fly with AirAsia?
Booking/Pre-departure: Your best bet to book your ticket is via the AirAsia web site. It is a modern design and allows you to easily find the lowest fare for the trip you are planning. It is unnecessarily tricky to finish the booking, because AirAsia will do its best to sell you add-ons, like luggage, food or insurance. While I understand the LLC model, it’s annoying, so you have to pay attention to ensure you are only buying what you want.
You can check in online 14 days before departure and get a seat at that time (do it – airport check in costs extra!). If you don’t have luggage to check (carry-on is 7kg plus a personal item), you can go straight to security and your gate and be on your way with minimal hassle. If you drop-off luggage, the staff is friendly and precise – in a Germanic-kinda way. If your luggage is over the allowed weight by a few grams, you will have to pay extra, which usually involves a trip to another counter (worst case, at the other end of the airport, I know!) and is one of the factors contributing to bad reviews! In fairness, it’s typically not AirAsia’s fault – lots of people try to save a few pennies, overpack and get caught…
Service: The onboard service is overall friendly and professional – better than what you will find on most US carriers, budget or full-service. The staff is helpful and friendly to a fault when dealing with the many first-time fliers, families and people in need of extra help. I have seen United staff explode at passengers for a lot less. And frankly, that’s in my opinion one of the reasons people report bad experiences with AirAsia – they see some unruly passengers, chaotic boarding process or just shocking behavior on board – and blame the airline. When really, it is a function of lots of people getting on board a plane for the first time in their live: ignoring crew instructions to use seat belts, sit down, open window shades, trips to the bathroom during taxiing, jumping up to get the carry on right after landing and on and on…. I have seen the crews deal with it the best they can and trust me, this is common across carriers in the region!
You can pre-order meals or buy on board. The selection and quality is comparable to what other airlines offer in economy class, so it will stop you from starving, but it won’t win any Michelin stars.
Hard Product: AirAsia has standardized on Airbus A320, so your economy experience will be as consistent as on any airline I have ever flown. Their AirAsia X subsidiary fhas standardized on Airbus A330 – and I have yet to fly them…
The A3320 has a standard 3-3 layout with a 29in seat pitch – that’s 2-3in less than what people complain about on US or European carriers. It’s very tight and if you are taller than 190cm, it will be uncomfortable. You can try the bulkhead or exit rows for a little more room. The seats are slim, reasonably comfortable for short flights and clad in black leather. There is no entertainment other than the airline magazine, so bring your own tablet/phone for music or movies.
Overall, you fly from A to B for a very low fare, are reasonably comfortable on short flights and get a drink and some food in the process. And at the fares you are paying, the question is often not how it compares to another airline, but how it compares to a bus or ferry – that’s usually the same price range, with full-service carriers sometimes as much as 5 times more expensive! It’s not glamorous, but it gets the job done and might allow you to make a trip that wasn’t in your plan or budget! Go ahead, book a cheap flight, sit back, relax and consider the antics of your fellow passengers as free entertainment!