Sunday, 28 November 2010

Malaysia & Singapore I: From budget flights to classy coaches

In November 2010, I flew to Southeast Asia to visit my friend C, who's now a Brit abroad in Singapore. Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be recounting my Asian adventures.
I may have been up there among EasyJet's most frequent passengers in 2010, but even I baulked at the idea of a long-haul flight with a budget airline. Twelve hours of being flogged scratchcards and informed that the last vegetarian pizza had just been sold? It sounded like hell on wings. However, when Air Asia's direct flight from London Stansted to Kuala Lumpur shaved a massive £300 off the average price of a ticket to visit C in Singapore – even after luggage, meals and a bus transfer had been added on – this sceptic reached for her credit card. After all, the saving on the fare could fund a few days in Malaysia, and I've never exactly been one to turn down a holiday opportunity.

A few days before boarding, my building nerves were only slightly settled by the Guardian's review of Air Asia's inaugural Stansted-KL flight. Pre-assigned seats removing the scrum at the gate sounded more refined than the usual budget argy-bargy, but would the on-board comfort really match that of a 'frills included' carrier?  It wasn't exactly reassuring that their online check-in failed to work every time I tried it, but one lengthy airport queue later, I was on my way to the boarding gate. Unusually for a budget airline, nobody harangued me for having both a handbag and a piece of hand luggage; no cases were dropped in gauges to check their size. Hopefully this boded well for the lack of smokeless cigarettes on sale.

The plane was certainly smarter than those of most low-cost carriers – in fact, the difference was indistinguishable. My aisle seat near the rear of the plane wasn't the roomiest width-wise, but my 5 ft 4 frame was certainly happy enough with the leg room – although the 6 ft something chap next to me was no doubt rather less comfortable. There was none of the usual scramble for overhead locker space so common on European budget flights, and after a safety demonstration from the shiny-haired, heavy-eyelinered hostesses in their neat little red uniforms, we were on our way. As it was a night flight, the 'pre-booked' (formerly known as booked) meals were wheeled round quite quickly. As the flight from West to East lasts twelve hours, I was certainly glad of the meal, but I noticed that plenty of passengers had opted to bring their own sandwiches on board instead. With no offer of the media players loaded with films and music that I had read about, lights were dimmed and I had to press the bell to purchase one of Air Asia's 'comfort kits', comprising a blanket, neck pillow and eye mask (£7).

Three and a half hours before we were due to land in KL (at 20.30 local time), the lights snapped on again and our second meal of the flight (pasta) was served. Apart from the lack of entertainment, the overall flight experience wasn't too different from that of a 'normal' carrier. Yes, you have to pay for any 'extras', but they weren't noisily announced over the tannoy and carted past every five minutes. In fact, it was sometimes difficult to know exactly what was being wheeled along and to get the stewards' attention if you did want anything – which was actually almost as annoying. But for less than £400 return minus the extras, I wasn't exactly complaining.

The next day, I upgraded from budget to luxury on Transtar Travel's First Class Solitaire coach from KL to Singapore. At 40 Singapore dollars for the five hour journey, a Transtar ticket is the most pricey on this route, but as that only amounts to £20, I decided the price was worth it for a swanky service which included entertainment and an airline-style meal served by hostesses (only minimal eyeliner in evidence here). As I settled my jet-lagged body into the enormous reclining chair (its seat pitch occupying that of 4 seats on a normal coach), complete with massage function and footrest, I was glad I'd opted to travel by road rather than taking another budget flight. All sixteen passengers on the double-decker Solitaire have their own personal TV screen loaded with up-to-date films and games (to the delight of one hyperactive child), so I lay back, snuggled up with the blanket provided and got engrossed in a Harry Potter flick. Another vegetarian curry, two cups of a tea and a snack later, we rolled into Singapore right on time. Budget bus? No thanks! National Express, take note.

  • Air Asia flies daily from Stansted to Kuala Lumpur, where passengers can connect to fights to Australia or other destinations within Asia. On the return journey, we were offered the chance to rent a media player loaded with recent films, TV programmes and music for £7. Transtar offers a variety of services between KL and Singapore several times a day. The First Class Solitaire is their most expensive and luxurious service.

1 comment :

  1. Thanks for the information..Its a great post..I am soon traveling Singapore for work and from there I will take the flight for California..I was just wondering to know how much time will it take to reach there? I have no idea about it so please help!


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