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:

13 thoughts on “Flying to Southeast Asia for Cheap”

  1. I think Air China and Thai Air fly direct from Chengdu to Bangkok. I’ve definitely flown directly from Chengdu to Bangkok on Thai Air. The flight was more expensive than if I had connected in KL though.

  2. Now can someone explain to me what it is about the airline industry that makes one 3.5 hour flight (Chengdu – Bankgkok) twice as expensive as about 5-6 hours of air time over 2 flights (Chengdu – KL – BK)?

  3. A few corrections:
    “often cited as it’s biggest downside” should be “often cited as its biggest downside”

    “If you have a multiple-entry visa you’ll need to get a new tourist or business visa before you return.” should be “If you don’t have…”

    All this said, Air Asia can be a seriously frustrating airline to deal with. Their website is always throwing errors; they allow absolutely no changes; there is no transit allowed at KUL so you have to process into Malaysia (make sure you don’t need a visa) and then process out after checking in for your next flight; don’t get to the airport late, as they’ll tell you “buy a new ticket”, often even if the delay was their fault; no outside food allowed on board; charges apply if you want an assigned seat and for all checked luggage.

    • Thanks for pointing those out Jim, I made those corrections.

      I’ve only used Air Asia a few times but haven’t had the issues you describe, although it’s been 6+ months since I’ve flown on that airline. I don’t doubt that there are downsides though, considering how much cheaper Air Asia is than the competition for the destinations they offer. Thanks for posting that info.

  4. Thank you for your information. But I want to add that, at the moment, those traveling to Vietnam can apply for visa on arrival which takes only 1 or 2 working days. I used this kind of visa already, and I got it even in just 4 working days as I needed it urgently.


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