When my girlfriend and I packed up our bags and set off with our first round-the-world tickets in hand, the thing that gave us the most jitters was the airlines we were flying on. The only one we had heard of before was Virgin Air for the London leg, but we had taken whatever the agent had given us in order to get the best fare. We were scheduled on Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways, Biman Bangladeshi, Royal Brunei Airlines, Garuda, and Air India. What the &%#@?!
It turned out, in most cases, to be a pleasant surprise on all counts. Our very long flight across the Pacific to Tokyo on Air Malaysia I would even describe as “blissful.” The beautiful flight attendants pampered us with hot towels, free-flowing drinks, a menu with choices of great meals, and free headsets for three movies. Legroom was several inches more than any US carrier I have ever been on.
As we flew on the other carriers, I quickly realized that the bare-bones service and cramped spaces we were used to with Delta, USAir, and the like were not standard around the world. There were quirks of course (no alcohol on Royal Air Brunei, unbelievably rude flight attendants on Alitalia), but overall the service was much better than expected. I really saw this contrast when I later flew from Korea to New York on Korean Air, then back from New York to Korea on Delta. The first flight was pleasant and the time went by relatively quickly. The latter flight sucked bigtime and seemed to take a lifetime.
On subsequent trips, we had great flights on a long list of obscure carriers and heard rave reviews from other travelers–everything from Gulf Air to Taca to Royal Air Maroc. Some backpackers were even known to add a stop and a few hours to their trip in order to fly on Singapore Air—it’s that good. My only really bad experiences were on El Al (a 3-hour security hassle for foreigners, while Israelis went straight onto the plane) and Tarom, which stranded me in Bucharest for three nights. (They covered hotel and meals though, so it wasn’t so bad.)
This is my own anecdotal experience over years of international travels, but apparently I am not alone. Last week the Wall Street Journal published a lengthy article confirming what I had suspected: smaller international carriers are not only cheaper, they’re usually more comfortable as well. The Journal writers flew on a dozen little known airlines, such as Air Emirites, EVA, and Lan Chile. They reported back on amenities, legroom, and service in the air and on the ground. Not surprisingly to me, the lesser-known carriers trounced the likes of American and British Airways, despite better rates. Most offered more and better food, less knee-crushing, and lots of extras. The one bare-bones offering in the lot was IcelandAir, but considering their fares between the US and Europe were about half that of rivals, you can afford to bring lots of your own snacks and booze!
For shorter hauls, of course, amenities are not such a big deal. Some smaller airlines are capitalizing on this and extending their cut-rate deals from the US to the Caribbean and Mexico. Upstarts like Spirit Airlines, JetBlue, and ATA are cashing in on frustrated immigrants and tight-fisted vacationers by offering drastic reductions to what is being charged by their larger rivals. Considering the monopolistic options previously available to these places, it’s a welcome breath of fresh sea breeze. The same is true in Europe, where cut-rate carriers such as RyanAir and EasyJet and making short haul flights across Europe cheaper than a train ride.
So whether you are heading to one of the world’s cheapest places or trying to cut down the costs to an expensive one, open up your airfare horizons. Check the big city papers for consolidators (bucket shops) who will always know the cheapest deal for their specialty area. Or check your local ethnic newspapers to see how immigrants are getting to their mother country. Pick up a guidebook to see what carriers serve the country you want to visit, then check out their web site for deals.
Once you are airborne, you might be served a special wine or beer you’ve never heard of, and get a tandoori or pibimbap that is so good you can’t believe it’s airplane food. Your adventure will start before you even touch down, plus you’ll have more money in your pocket to spend on arrival—a great combination!