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Making the best of the low-cost boom


With low-cost airlines booming in the region, there is no better time to book a flight to one of Cambodia’s neighbours for a quick getaway.


The budget airline market is getting competitive with airlines like Australia’s Jetstar and Singapore’s Tiger Airways expanding services and lowering prices.

But for the moment, Air Asia remains leader of the pack, offering regular discounts to an increasing number of Southeast Asian destinations.

The airline’s best bargains work with purchase and travel windows, so you must buy tickets by a certain date for travel that takes place within a specified time frame.

Sales come on short notice and end fast, so the impulsive travellers will be happy, but there’s no room for the over-thinkers.

Some tips for making the best of regional budget airlines’ race to the bottom:

First off, don’t be fooled by the magnificently low price that initially comes up in ads or searches. As with most online buys, taxes and fees squirm into the final price.

Take the US$16 flights from Phnom Penh to Kuala Lumpur getting advertised on Air Asia’s website last month. A $32 round trip to Malaysia? Too good to be true! Well, yeah, it was – though to be fair it’s not entirely Air Asia’s fault.

Unfortunately, the hefty $25 “passenger service fee” that Cambodia began charging last year on all international departures is higher than the sale price for many of Air Asia’s discount flights, which are regularly under $20. Add to that a  $6 “fuel surcharge” and a $5 “airport fee”, and the $16 departure flight ballooned up to a significantly higher, though still affordable, $52.

The return flight from KL came out a bit cheaper, with only two add-on charges – a $6 fuel surcharge and an $11 airport tax – that put the price up to $33.

Though more than double the price of the too-good-to-be-true $32 advertised round trip (the company was recently taken to court in Australia for failing to accurately advertise the full price of flights), an $85 round-trip flight to Kuala Lumpur is still one of the best deals around.

Mind you that this low price doesn’t include a barrage of add-ons and fringes that the airline tries to sneak into the purchase, which at times feels like an obstacle course of “Cancel” and “No, Thank You” buttons and pop-ups.

Only the deft navigator will get through a purchase without hitting the back button a couple of times after realising they’ve been charged extra for an on-board meal or travel insurance. Even the luxury of picking your own seat comes with a price tag – $3 for “standard” seats and  $11 for “hot” seats with extra leg room.  

It’s common knowledge that low-cost carriers make up for low prices by cutting on fringe luxuries like blankets, on board meals and, apparently in the case of Air Asia, customer service.

The airline recently shut down its customer service hotline in favour of online “self service”. This proved a pain when I had to make a last-minute booking change to my flight and was unable to do it on the website.

A very frustrating online chat didn’t help since the Air Asia representative on the other end didn’t have access to the booking system and could therefore not make any changes.

The only saving grace in this last-minute fiasco was the Travel Centre that the airline just opened on Phnom Penh’s Riverside a few months ago. The office opened early, service was quick and pleasant and my flight was changed – with a $25 change fee.

Good for those in the capital, but not much help for those with customer service needs in other cities without a travel centre.

Currently, the only Air Asia flights out of Phnom Penh are to Bangkok and KL.

From KL, though, the intrepid traveller can book a second flight to some of the airline’s other discount-priced destinations.

And the long-haul Air Asia X line, with low-cost flights to China, Japan and Korea, just debuted this month.

Sushi, anyone?

To contact the reporter on this story: Diana Montaño at



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