AFTER FOUR HOURS OF SHITTY MATH, I found myself awake past 11:30 last night, staring at my computer screen, clicking and refreshing as my desk lay covered in sticky pads noting various potential flight routes. PUS – CGK, CGK – PHN, BKK – PEN. Or PUS – BWN, BWN – KL, KL – BKK. PUS – CGK, JOG – SIN, SIN – BWN?
Suffice to say, I know I a lot of airport codes now.
The short answer to the headline-stated question is, simply, Air Asia. I have no idea how they do it, but they are indisputably the lowest of the low-cost carriers; with a few months’ patience, it is possible to travel anywhere in Southeast Asia exclusively through them for basically pennies.
Here’s a breakdown of the current route I’m fond of, which is in no way down in stone:
FLIGHT: Busan – Surabaya ($165)
Surabaya – Yogyakarta – Jakarta (overland train)
FLIGHT: Jakarta – Brunei ($70)
Brunei – Miri – Kuching (overland bus)
FLIGHT: Kuching – Penang ($30)
Penang – Kuala Lumpur (overland bus and ferry)
FLIGHT – Kuala Lumpur – Phnom Penh ($20)
Phnom Penh – Siem Reap – Bangkok (overland buses)
Total flight costs, incl. taxes: $285
All of those flights are via Air Asia, and none of their competitors can match any of it. In truth, the price may go down even further, because we haven’t booked it all yet. Following the golden “Six-to-Eight Week Rule” that dictates the best sales appear six-to-eight weeks before departure (some mathematical equation balancing buyers’ premeditation with last-minute sales, so I’m told), we still have until the beginning of July to pounce on sales for this particular journey.
The logic behind the cost
Here are a few tips I taught myself, in handy Internet-friendly list order.
1) Find your pillars. By “pillars” I don’t mean the places you want to see the most, but rather your most expensive flights. Start by finding the cheapest route in or out of there. In my example, Brunei and Phnom Penh are the pillars. Because they’re the farthest out-of-the-way sites, they can easily be dead-ends when looking for cheap flights.
2) Find your hubs. Hubs will offer the cheapest and widest variety of flights to harder-to-reach destinations. So, for me, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur are hubs, as would be Bangkok and, if I needed to use it, Singapore. It’s silly to start a trip like this by first buying a commonly cheap flight like Jakarta – Kuala Lumpur. In my case I’m traveling to India after Southeast Asia, so I knew I needed to end up in one of these hubs, because that’s the only way I can reach India for $100 or less; Bangkok works as well as anywhere. (Though for a while I was considering Singapore because of Tiger Airways, but their sales are less frequent and frankly less good, plus they sneak taxes in at the end, which Air Asia mercifully does not.)
3) Wait for the cheapest flight out of what should be an expensive destination. In other words, connect yer hubs to yer pillars. Once Air Asia offered an after-taxes $18 flight to Phnom Penh from Kuala Lumpur, there was no question—most other flights in or out of Cambodia, even via Air Asia, float at $70 minimum. What should’ve been one of my most expensive flights is now chopped down to my cheapest.
4) If an airport is expensive, move until you find a cheaper one. Earlier we’d planned on flying into or out of Siem Reap, but that turned out to be inescapably expensive to basically anywhere but Kuala Lumpur or Manila, which is why we decided to not bother with it at all and simply bus to Bangkok instead, a city that ultimately offers way more options. Brunei is kinda similar—despite a few clutch sales, flying out of Brunei is costly, making it easier to plan an escape route via Kuching to mainland Malaysia for a guaranteed $30.
5) Stick to a country until you’re finished with it. This is pretty self-explanatory. Flying from Indonesia to Kota Kinabalu is cheaper than flying directly into Brunei, but then we’d have to exit and re-enter Malaysia on either side of Brunei, and the added customs complications and transport costs stop seeming worth the $30 in flight savings. Keep it together and move towards your next destination within the same country; i.e. moving from Brunei to Kuching to Kuala Lumpur. A logical path will generally reveal itself.
6) Buy one-way tickets. Yes, most airlines give discounts to round-trip travelers. But $200 for a round-trip flight is still more than its $150 one-way counterpart. My preferred method is to keep moving forward. Again, it helps that Air Asia’s fares are so bare-bones that they don’t even discount round-trip fares much, if at all.
7) Wait for the cheapest flight away from home. I still think we can do better than $165 into Surabaya; I’m keeping my eyes open for anything under $130 into Java, and have a good month or two to sit on it. Flying into most of our other destinations—Bangkok, Brunei, Kuching—costs upwards of $200. But Air Asia’s been good to us so far, so I’ll sit and have faith.
There’s no question that my eyes would hurt less if I simply bought a Hipmunk-endorsed flight, or a single round-the-world ticket in one fell swoop. But I’ve compared my costs against BootsnAll’s admittedly terrific RTW flight finder, and it came to over US$1,600 per person. That’s a huge cost for convenience.
So until there’s a technology that can calculate logic as well as convenience, obnoxious weeks of manual labour will have to make do.