REVIEW: AirAsia Economy Class Vientiane - Kuala Lumpur - Bali
AirAsia (D7) Flight 552 & 378 - Vientiane (VTE) to Kuala Lumpur (KUL) to Denpasar, Bali (DPS) Airbus A320 , Economy Class, Seat 14E
AirAsia (AK) is one of those airlines that a lot of people have heard about but not as many have actually experienced unless you live in or frequently travel to Southeast Asia. Often described as the Southwest Airlines of Asia, it is the largest low cost carrier (LCC) in Asia and the fourth largest in the world. While AirAsia's route network focuses largely on moving traffic around SE Asia, over the years their reach has extended north into China, Korea, and Japan, south into Australia, and east into India and the Middle East. London and Paris constituted the furthest reach ever achieved in AK's network, though rising fuel costs ended those routes in 2012. Four years of absence seems to have been enough for the carrier though, as AK is seeking to return to Europe by launching Kuala Lumpur to Barcelona service through Istanbul in October.
In total I've flown with AirAsia on 11 flights, which doesn't make me a frequent flyer by any means but I suppose gives me at least a decent base upon which to discuss the service and experience you can expect should you find yourself considering a trip with this airline. If you find yourself looking to move around SE Asia, chances are AK is going to be an option that pops up when planning, and it'll likely be a pretty inexpensive option at that. I've made the decision to fly with them quite often and (spoiler alert!) I think you probably should, too!
Without further ado, here's the AirAsia experience!
BOOKING & FEES
AirAsia flights can booked directly on the carrier's website (www.airasia.com) or through the numerous airfare aggregation sites cross the web such as Kayak, Priceline, and Orbitz. If you're booking on AK's website, you can see the variety of fare types that they offer. If you're booking on a non-AK website though, you're pretty much guaranteed to be buying a bottom of the barrel fare with limited amenities.
AirAsia offers four types fares - low fare, variety pack, premium flex, and premium flatbed. I won't be discussing the premium flatbed fare because it's only offered on AK's long haul "X" planes which means it's not available on all flights.
Low Fare - bottom of the barrel, cheapest ticket available. One piece of cabin baggage (36cm x 23 cm x 56cm maximum) is allowed along with a personal item (laptop bag, backpack, purse, etc...). Checked baggage costs 45 Malaysian ringgit (about $11 USD) if paid during booking or 52 MYR (~ $13 USD) if paid afterwards. All food or amenities such as a pillow or blanket are buy-on-board. Changing the flight's date or time comes with a fee. Seat selection incurs a fee.
Variety Pack - A slight step up from low fare. It includes one checked piece of luggage and a free hot meal or sandwich depending on the destination's catering. Seat selection is free for any standard seat (non-extra leg room).
Premium flex - The nicest non-business class fare offered by the carrier. Includes everything the variety pack fare offers but is improved by allowing the passenger to have their choice of any meal onboard without restrictions as well as up to 2 free time and date changes. Premium flex fares also automatically include the carrier's "Xpress" features which are usually sold as ancillary products. These include express baggage delivery on the belt, access to express check-in at the airport, early boarding, and selection of any non-business class seat on the plane including those with extra leg room (billed as Hot Seats).
The fare classes also earn different points in the carrier's loyalty program (called BIG), but since chances are slim to none that you're earning points with AirAsia, let's just skip that! As I mentioned above, you can opt to pay nominal fees (between $5 - 20 USD typically) to add the "Xpress' services to expedite your check-in, boarding, and baggage delivery.
The last thing to know about the booking phase is the option to pay a fee for a Hot Seat. These are seats on the plane that AK has identified as having additional space over the standard seats. The additional space can be leg room, lateral room, or recline room depending on the location of the seat. Keep in mind that some of AK's Hot Seats near or in the exit row have additional space but do not recline at all. The website notes this when selecting seats. The standard space in AK's cabin is a bit of a tight squeeze, especially if you're a larger Westerner. I was traveling with my partner on a good number of these trips, and at 6'2" we always opted for the additional leg room available for a relatively small fee so he's comfortable. If you're a shorter person or relatively fit, the standard seat should be sufficient for AirAsia's flight times, most of which do no exceed three hours.
CHECK-IN & AIRPORT EXPERIENCE
The check-in and airport experience for any airline can vary based on which airport you're departing from, so for AirAsia I am going to focus exclusively on their Kuala Lumpur operation as it is their largest and most important hub. One administrative note about the pictures in this post for this section - a few of them were taken prior to the opening of Kuala Lumpur's KLIA2 terminal which is a new facility that replaced the aging and decrepit Low Cost Carrier terminal AK was previously housed in. The new KLIA2 is a VAST improvement over LCCT, as the old facility looked like AirAsia was operating out of a giant garage. It was dirty, noisy, humid, and the absolute worst thing about flying with AK. Now that a nice, modern, yet modest facility has been opened up in Kuala Lumpur for AK and other LCCs, this is no longer a concern.
I will be publishing a review of AirAsia's business class flatbed product relatively soon, and I will go over the changes to the terminal in that post in more detail.
Like many airports, you'll need to check the overhead boards when you enter the terminal to figure out which check-in area you'll need to head to in order to get your boarding pass. Even in the new terminal, the check-in area for KLIA2 is a bit of a mad house with people meandering around carting trolleys filled with luggage in a never ending zig zag across the floor. If you want to avoid this entire process you can simply use AK's online check-in service, which can be done as early as two weeks prior to departure for most of their flights!
Being a true LCC, AirAsia only offers boarding passes printed on receipt-style paper. It will include a bar code as well as all the standard boarding pass information. A section in the middle listed as "SSR Codes" notes any special options you've paid for such as early boarding or meal selections.
Generally speaking I would give yourself a good amount of time to get through security and passport control. AirAsia operates to a variety of countries within Asia and beyond, and some of the folks moving through the airport have rather complicated visa requirements for entry and exit into Malaysia and their future destinations which can cause delays. Also, a few passengers on AK may be experiencing air travel for the very first time (see my post about flying out of Nepal on AK with a plane full of first time flyers here: LINK), so security protocols that travelers know to expect can surprise other passengers, further slowing down the process. AirAsia's low fares within SE Asia and beyond have made air travel much more accessible for a lot of people, so don't be surprised if some folks aren't exactly "in the know" when it comes to the routine of the airport and airplane.
The new terminal now has individual gate areas for each AK flight, whereas before people were placed into one big holding pen with a variety of doors with gate numbers above them where passengers would be walked out or bused to their planes when boarding time came around. KLIA2 and AK now have a much nicer and more orderly method for boarding planes with jetbridges and individual gate areas with seating options for passengers.
KLIA2 is a decent place to pass some time with a lot of food options pre and post security. There's a bit of duty free shopping available from a handful of luxury brands. There's even a pay-access lounge and day room rental facility operated by the Sama Sama hotel, the attached airport hotel in Kuala Lumpur.
ONBOARD EXPERIENCE & SEAT COMFORT
AirAsia's planes are pretty easy to spot when they're out on the apron, almost always painted in bright red and white paint with slogans slathered across the side advertising their low prices. The exteriors match the interiors in terms of gaudy tackiness - black leather seats fill the cabin with the Hot Seats denoted by the occasional punch of red leather on those seats' head rests. It's a lot of "look" for an enclosed space but since you're unlikely to be onboard for an extended period of time the lack of soothing tones isn't that big of a deal, in my very humble opinion.
Unlike what Americans might be used to back home, the seatbelts on AirAsia are almost always neatly folded in a crisscross pattern when you board. As you can see from the picture below, leg room is very nice for the short and medium length flights that are AK's bread and butter. Keep in mind though - these are photos of AK's Hot Seats with extra leg room due to my tall ass boyfriend. The standard seats have less leg room but enough to be survivable on most routes.
There are no people in the picture below for context, but this is the leg room provided on standard seats.
Now for a quick discussion of the service on board. My experiences have all be excellent. You're on a low coast carrier so it's not like the flight attendants (FA) come around and massage your feet while passing out expensive china filled with caviar, but it's still been very good every time I've been on board. There isn't much standardized service on short flights with an LCC other than a single pass through the cabin with the trolley, but they smile and say hello when you board the plane and are very polite with passengers when answering questions and checking the cabin during safety demonstrations. I was particularly impressed during one flight from Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur when it was very clear that almost the entire flight was filled with people who had never been on a flight before. The FAs never once got frustrated, patiently showing a plane filled with over 200 first-time flyers how to buckle their seatbelts and telling them when to remain seated. With smiles. Genuine ones!
In-flight meals on AirAsia can either be ordered on the plane from a menu or during the booking process/online on AK's website. Menus can vary from flight to flight as AK offered a variety of dishes in-flight and not every dish is offered on every flight. If you're ordering online, the options for your flight will be narrowed down to those that are confirmed to be standard on that route. If you order in-flight, you can occasionally see something listed on the menu that the FAs will let you know is not offered on today's flight, but the variety is pretty large so you'll likely find something else that will make you happy. During my flights I've ordered both online and on the plane and have been well fed each time.
Here are a few pictures of AirAsia's in-flight menus to give you an idea of costs and options you may encounter:
As you can see, most entree items average at less than $3 USD per dish though these were taken in mid-2015 and the airline has since increased the cost of items slightly. From what I understand, the average is now around $5 USD. There's a good mix of Southeast Asian, South Asian, and Western dishes on offer, even offering a mix of breakfast and lunch/dinner options. Drinks average at about half the cost, $1.50/$3 USD ish per item regardless of type or size of drink. If a full entree isn't for you, there are instant cup noodles and other light snacks on offer. Overall, a really nice set up and price point for food on board, especially considering the cost on US carriers.
While the food might be cheap the flavor certainly isn't. Overall I think the quality and taste of food being offered by AirAsia is certainly above many similar options of buy-on-board food offered in the US. Flavorful and well-put together are two things I generally associate with AK's catering. It's not always the most pretty or well presented, but flavor is what you really care about and that's where AirAsia almost always delivers.
Here's a few photos of meals I've had on-board with AK:
If you pre-order your meal on the website or during booking, your boarding pass is coded with the information and you simply present the pass to a FA when they make it to your row during the in-flight service and they will hand over the meal. Once served, they'll stamp your boarding card to note you've been served, so no opportunity to present the pass to a different FA and get a second dinner. Not that I've tried. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
If you're a shopper, AirAsia has you covered there, too. They offer a variety of items to tantalize you, though it's not on par with what most major airlines offer through their duty free sales on board. It's a lot of travel related items plus branded items from the variety of partnerships and sponsorships they have with organizations/business. And of course, for the aviation geeks like me out there, they offer quite a few items branded with AK's own logos.
WRAP IT UP MYRTLE....
So that's a general overview of what AirAsia offers to travelers. Overall I've had very positive experiences with the carrier, particularly considering how cheap many of their tickets cost. AirAsia is very good at offering low base fares and charging ancillary fees for anything extra passengers might want like expedited boarding, extra leg room, or food. Not an uncommon feature in today's day and age, but they do it better than most other carriers. But if you're a simple traveler and not looking for a lot of frills, this works well. Plus, the fee you pay to add additional comforts back into the process are much lower than US carriers charge.
AirAsia is a fantastic option for moving around SE Asia and beyond when available, so if you find yourself faced with the option to take a flight with them I urge you to not immediately turn your cheek due to a pre-conceived notion of what the carrier might be like as an LCC or the fact that they recently had a plane crash. They're a solid option in this corner of the globe, so if the price is right and timing works out - give them a try!