Flying to Southeast Asia for Cheap
Sometimes after a particularly long string of cloudy days in Chengdu, you’ll wish you could escape to somewhere like Thailand: a beautiful and tropical retreat from the cold weather.
Why Southeast Asia?
It’s one of the most beautiful and culturally diverse places on earth, while at the same time being affordable and mostly very easy to navigate. Whether you go to Bali, Indonesia or Koh Lanta, Thailand, the region will stun you with its natural beauty and accessibility if you haven’t experienced it before.
And as anyone who’s lived in Chengdu for an extended period will tell you, the lack of sunlight can get you down — especially in the colder winter months. Chengdu’s weather is often cited as its biggest downside, and considering the months of fog and cloud cover that inundate the city for much of the year, that seems like a reasonable claim to me. The good news is that it’s easy and cheap to get to beautiful and warm locales without spending a lot of money — most countries in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, especially) are easily accessible via a flight from Chengdu Shuangliu Airport.
Booking a Ticket: Local and Online Options
In the past I’ve booked international flights through local travel agencies, of which there are hundreds in Chengdu. Walking on the street you might get handed the promotional business cards of these, which list rates for domestic destinations and can book international tickets as well. When you call and ask the price, they’ll take your number and call you back with a quote.
In preparation for writing this post, I called four such agencies and got a number of prices for a direct flight from Chengdu to Bangkok, ranging from 1,800 yuan to 2,500. You’re best off calling a few and going with the one that offers you the lowest price, and if you travel often, building a relationship with that particular outfit.
You should book at least two weeks in advance as tickets to Southeast Asia originating from China tend to sell out in the high season, which is November to March. Once you’ve found a flight that suits your schedule and budget, the travel agency will send a courier to your house to exchange the ticket for cash after you’ve provided your passport name and number.
The ubiquity of travel agents in China is a blessing: their competition lowers prices for consumers. But as of last fall, there’s another option which might save you some scratch.
Since October 2009 Air Asia, the best and largest discount airline in Asia, has been offering flights from Chengdu to Kuala Lumpur for bargain rates. Although they aren’t currently as cheap as last fall (300 yuan direct to the Malaysian capital including taxes) you can book a ticket today for 700 yuan. Once you’re in Kuala Lumpur you have access to their enormous network of destinations including virtually all of Southeast Asia along with Australia and the United Kingdom. Currently, a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok will run about 350 yuan during this time of year. Although that includes a brief layover in Malaysia, you’re saving a significant amount of money versus flying to Bangkok direct via Air China or Thai Airways (thanks for correcting me, Rick).
Visa Regulations and Re-Entering China
If you leave China and plan to re-enter, you’ll need either a new visa for re-entry or a multiple-entry visa before you depart. Almost all visas are available in the multi-entry variety and you’ll typically have to pay a small premium for an extra entry or two, with unlimited entries available as well. If you don’t have a multiple-entry visa you’ll need to get a new tourist or business visa before you return. If you’re in Bangkok, there’s a Chinese consulate which can manage your visa requests and questions. Fortunately, it looks like the visa situation is improving.
Visa regulations depend on the passport you hold and your destination. To cover the three most popular destinations from Chengdu:
Holders of most Western passports (US & EU) will be issued a 30-day tourist visa on arrival, free of charge. Russians, Japanese, and Hong Kong passports are no problem, too. If you hold an Indian or Chinese passport you’ll have to buy a visa on arrival.
For more information about Thailand visa requirements, click here.
Most nationalities require a tourist visa in advance, which will cost about $40 for a one month duration, taking 4-7 days to process. A few nationalities get special treatment:
Free 15-day visas issued on arrival: Denmark, Finland, Japan, Norway, South Korea, Sweden, Russia
Free 30-day visas issued on arrival: Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia
For more information about Vietnam visa requirements, click here.
A few nations (including Japan, Russia, and Switzerland) don’t require visas on entry but everyone else will have to arrange one in advance or get it upon arrival. The fee for a one month tourist visa ranges from $30-50 depending on nationality, with Canadians paying the most.
In a future post I’ll share information and tips for traveling overland from China to Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this: