The idea of taking a flight of ten or more hours on a budget carrier remains alien to most people – despite the growth of specialized carriers such as Air Asia X and Jetstar which market themselves as long haul carriers minus the cost. Until recently, it was an alien concept to me as well. Even with full service carriers, I get fidgety after the first four hours of the flight. Any attempt to sleep beyond 40 minutes at a time becomes futile as the extremely limited incline and space attest to the sardine can nature of
economy cattle class.
What convinced me to try out the budget long haul flight this time was not convenience. Certainly it was not to satisfy my curiosity. But rather, I got a very good offer to fly from Malaysia to New Zealand roundtrip via AirAsia X for just about USD 200. It was obviously an offer too good to miss as a roundtrip flight on this route usually costs somewhere in the region of USD 1,000.
A few days before the flight, I tried to do some research in order to have some indication of what I can expect but unfortunately, the information out there is scanty aside from one or two pictures from AirAsia themselves which may have been enhanced in one way or another.
Over the Easter – May Day holidays, I flew two sectors, namely KUL to CHC and CHC to KUL (around 10 – 11 hours flight each way). Here are my general impressions of it:
Check-in: The check-in procedure was tortuous. Since it was a long haul flight, an Airbus A330 was used which meant a capacity in excess of 300 passengers (FYI – for the short-haul routes, the capacity is normally around 160 people with the Airbus A320). Despite this, there were only 2 check-in counters opened. The airline could not check-in everyone on time and this resulted to the flight being delayed for 15 – 20 minutes.
Onboard: As it was a long-haul flight, the seat pitch was noticeably longer compared to AirAsia’s short-haul flighs with seats in alternating colors. The cabin was reasonably well-maintained. No issues here.
Food: For a 10 hour flight, there were 2 meals served. As this was a budget carrier, passengers had to pay for the food either by reserving it beforehand or buying it during the flight. Passengers were allowed to choose between 3 kinds – Asian, Western or Vegetarian. The portions were quite small but the price they’re charging is quite reasonable – especially when compared to other budget airlines. A meal was about MYR 13 (for KUL outbound flights) and double the price for KUL inbound flights. Meals booked online include a complimentary bottle of water.
Amenities: For long haul flights, additional amenities are offered such as a comfort kit (MYR 25 when booked online) consisting of a pillow you had to inflate yourself, eye mask and blanket as well as an entertainment set (MYR 30 when booked online) which contain movies, tv shows and games. Again, these have to be purchased prior to or during the flight. Aside from the pillow that passengers had to inflate themselves, I had no qualms about the rest. I did not rent the entertainment set as I slept during most of the flight.
You do get what you pay for. In my opinion, the deal I got offered a lot of value for money as it was 70% cheaper compared to the alternatives. Admittedly, the service may not be as good and there’s no pampering when it comes to a budget airline flight. But then again, when comparing the experience with a full service airline, I did not find the budget option to be a radical deterioration.
- Food – The food in the budget option is indeed worse-off, but then again this is airline food we’re talking about
- Sleep – Well, I’m the type of guy who can’t sleep for long even on a Singapore Airlines flight so I don’t see a big difference in this aspect. A general tip I’d give when taking (read: ANY) long-haul flight is to deprive oneself of sleep the previous night in order to sleep like a baby on the actual flight
- Comfort – Not much difference either. Full-service airlines can probably offer a slightly better recline. But the seat pitch offered by Air Asia X is roughly in line with other carriers (at 31″)
- Service – This is probably the largest disparity I’ve noted between full-service and budget airlines. The cabin crew may take long to arrive whenever you call for their attention and service with a smile is more of a rarity rather than the convention. But then again I don’t think it’s fair to expect Singapore Airline-type of service given that passengers are paying much less
- Entertainment – For passengers who rent the entertainment set, the experience is more or less in line with full-service airlines except that the movies offered may be a little bit older and the selection a bit less compared to what Emirates, SQ, Cathay or the other big players are offering
- Upgrades / Miles – Out of the question for budget airlines, though AirAsia X offers their own version of “business class”
- Reliability / Delays – My flights (both ways) were not substantially delayed so can’t comment on this aspect
For those who do not mind any of the differences detailed above, a general rule of thumb I would recommend is to go for the budget option if the fare difference is 40% or more. The economics just makes sense. For 25 – 40% difference, you may go for either option. But if the difference is less than 25%, I would definitely recommend going for the full-service option.