Back in 2019, Thailand was one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world and Bangkok actually hit the #1 spot for the most-visited city, beating out Paris. Then the world went into lockdowns and the tourism recovery was a confusing mess. Despite the rough times, six airlines are left standing for domestic flights in Thailand, so you’ve got a lot of options for traveling around this attractive country.
Thailand has been in every edition of my book The World’s Cheapest Destinations because it was a terrific value when I put their first edition out in 2002 and it’s still a great vacation deal today. It serves backpackers well and it serves free-spending luxury vacation travelers well, plus everything in between. It doesn’t hurt that it’s so easy to move from one spot to another in this country with so much to offer, including by air.
Why Take a Budget Flight in Thailand?
When I criss-crossed through Thailand many times in my backpacking years in the ’90s, only rich people took a flight. The rest of us were on buses or trains no matter where we wanted to go, even if it was going to take us 12 hours to get to where we were going. Flights were just too expensive to justify since we weren’t in a hurry. One flight could cost five times as much as the alternatives.
Times have changed dramatically, however, with the proliferation of budget airlines for Thailand that serve all the popular destinations plus a few you’ve probably never heard of. Domestic flights in Thailand are more numerous than you’ll find in most countries of this size. There are more airlines serving the route from Bangkok to Phuket or Chiang Mai than you see serving any two cities in the USA or Mexico. You could pull up one of those routes and see 40 options in a day.
Prices are unbelievably cheap on these airlines too, even when you factor in a checked bag and the other fees they tack on. When I looked today as I was writing this, you could get a flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai for $40 if booked a month ahead and from Bangkok to Phuket the range was from $32 to $65.
It is now sometimes cheaper to fly than it is to take a bus or train. Many times I say that’s not a fair comparison because it costs you money to get to the airport, but the public transportation system is so good to the airports of Bangkok that it’s a negligible amount there. You’ll probably spend about the same taking a train to the airport as you’d spend taking a taxi to the bus or train station from your hotel. (Assuming you’re near a metro or SkyTrain stop.)
Because the flights are so inexpensive, you’ve got an incentive to see more of the country. I’m all for using the power of slow travel to keep the budget in check, but if you wanted to see four places in three weeks in this country, the domestic flights in Thailand are not going to run up your vacation costs very much.
Here are the airlines you have to choose from, leaving out national carrier Thai Airways since they leave most of their domestic routes to sister company covered first below. (I do like Thai Airways a lot for international flights though and they’re part of Star Alliance.)
Booking a Flight on a Domestic Airline in Thailand
To find the best flight deals in Thailand and then book a ticket, you might have to go through multiple steps. As you encounter on other continents, a search on Skyscanner will turn up a lot of options, but you can never be sure that’s all of them. So first do a search between your two destinations there to get a general idea, playing around with the dates a little to see if it makes any difference.
Then if any of the airlines below is missing for some reason, go to their website and search there. It may be missing because they don’t fly to that destination. But it may also be because they’re not feeding their data to the online booking sites—sites that will take a portion of the sale as their fee. This is not suspicious or even unusual: Southwest and Allegiant are just two of the airlines that don’t share their data with booking sites in the USA.
Keep in mind also that not all airlines fly every day between any two given cities. That’s why playing with the dates is important. They may fly on Wednesday but not Thursday or Friday, or vice-versa.
Thai Smile Airways
This is the budget regional airline division of the national carrier Thai Airways. In addition to domestic flights, Thai Smile Airways also flies to five Southeast Asian countries, Nepal, India (five cities), China, and New Zealand (Auckland). They’re planning to add Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and more in India next year.
They serve 11 destinations in Thailand itself, with a smile I’m assuming, and this is the airline to choose if you hate getting dinged with extra fees. There’s no culture of “bait and switch” here where you see a low fare and then the fees add up to more than that. You get a checked bag of up to 20kg (44 pounds) included on domestic flights, a complimentary meal unless the flight is too short, plus your seat selection is included in all fares—something very few airlines anywhere are still offering these days as they have all raced to the bottom. They still have special meal options too like vegetarian, halal, gluten-free, and “bland.”
This is the airline of choice if you’re a surfer since they’ll check your board in addition to your suitcase without dinging you for extra charges.
Because of their positioning as the premium choice, fares here can appear to be slightly higher against the bare-bones options, but once you add up the latters’ fees, it’s often a wash. The fares are still quite attractive, starting at $55 from Bangkok to Hat Yai and the same for Phuket to Bangkok.
See more about the airline on their home page here.
If you’ve spent much time in Southeast Asia, you’ve probably flown on AirAsia. It’s the biggest budget airline in the region with 30 destinations and the one that wins the most on-time arrival awards on a regular basis. I flew on their domestic Thai airline version recently between Bangkok and Phuket and my wife flew the return back last week. Overall, it was a good flight and a great value: we paid a shade over $50 one-way including checked bags, selected seats, and a meal.
That last part was interesting because not everyone received a meal. When I was booking the tickets, I was going to check a bag and my wife was going to bring her carry-on. It turns out though that if you want to bring a carry-on, it’s going to cost you. In theory you can carry on for free, but the carry-on plus your personal bag combined are limited to just 7 kg total (15 pounds). Few people can manage to pack that light since most suitcases weigh 2-3 kilos with nothing in them. After that you’ll pay $13 to make it 14 kg in your carry-on instead.
Meanwhile, a “Value Pack” upgrade package with a checked bag, seat, and meal was only $18. (As I noted in this recent article about checking a bag vs. carrying on a bag, this is becoming more and more common, muddying the waters on which is a smart choice price-wise.) The two different meals we got were both quite tasty, with something to drink, and we had good seats. So that’s a no-brainer.
The funny thing about this airline is how unapologetically commercial it is: every overhead bin had an advertisement on it, as classy as a subway car. There was also an ad on every tray table. Seat pitch is at the low end of the range for Thailand’s airlines, ranging from 28 to 30 inches. See more about the airline here.
This is the other Thai airline I’ve flown before and back when it was on it the whole experience felt like a yellow dream. The plane was yellow, the uniforms were yellow, I think maybe the seats were too. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they handed a banana to everyone upon boarding. On this trip I was glad to see they’ve toned that down a little, though the website will still make you feel like you’re walking on sunshine.
Nok Air now has the largest route network within Thailand, with flights to more than 20 destinations throughout the country. So no matter where you’re going, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to get you there. They fly up to Chiang Rai in the north and Hat Yai in the far south. The price is right as well, with fares that are usually the cheapest or close to it.
Good luck figuring out what your baggage fees will be from this explanation page though, no matter how much scrolling you do. You’ll have to go through the process of actually purchasing a ticket and navigating all the different options to see what you’ll really be charged on top of the initial low fare. I did that for a flight a month out from Bangkok to Trang, the route I took with them last decade, and got three options. The cheapest was $36, but that “Lite” version only allows 7kg of luggage and a seat selection only one day before departure (from what’s still left). I think it’s $13 more to bring a carry-on with more than one change of clothes in it.
The one with a checked bag was $49 (with seat selection at the time of booking) and the level with a checked bag and a meal was $59. That last one is actually the best value because it allows a heavier checked bag and lounge access in Bangkok in addition to your in-flight meal. It’s the equivalent of budget airline biz class!
The airline using Thailand’s capital as its name has a few factors setting it apart from its competitors. I haven’t flown them myself, but from what I can find online, they appear to have the most legroom of any airline on this list, with a seat pitch of 32-33 inches. They also have a monopoly on one route it seems. Thanks to the fact that they own and operate the Ko Samui airport, they’re the only airline flying to that island.
Ko Samui is one of Thailand’s most popular destinations, so this is the equivalent of Spirit Airlines being the only carrier allowed to fly to Orlando or Ryanair being the only carrier allowed to fly to Ibiza. It’s basically a license to charge whatever the market will bear and practice your best Bond villain laugh while counting your cash.
So if you’ve got even a basic grasp of economics, it’s no surprise that this is the most expensive domestic flight route in Thailand, averaging $116 one-way for a flight that’s just one hour and 15 minutes. People pay it because hey, what else are you going to do? The alternative is taking a bus and a ferry, which is cheaper but not exactly fast.
Bangkok Airways also owns two other airports so you’ll be booking with them if you’re headed to Sukothai or Trat. The town of Trat is the ferry port to Ko Chang, so a bus alternative is not bad since it’s close to Bangkok. Awesome Sukothai, a previous capital, is a pain to get to though so flying there can be worth the premium. This airline also flies to places it doesn’t have a monopoly though, 12 Thai destinations in all, plus several regional international routes. See more info here.
Thai Lion Air
Thai Lion Air is a division of an Indonesian airline that serves the Thai market with 15 destinations. I appeared to stump their PR reps with a really hard question when I met up with them in Thailand and asked what set them apart from the many other budget airlines in the country. They looked at each other and back at me all confused and I don’t think it wasn’t a language barrier issue. “We have a lot of low fares to many destinations” was the answer.
Foreign bookings don’t seem to be the main focus when you land on their website since half of it is in Thai even on the English pages. Then the booking process is quite frustrating if you want to know how much you’ll actually pay in the end. I found a $43 fare a month out for Bangkok to Phuket, but there was no way to see the additional charges without entering my info to buy a ticket.
You only get 7 kg for a carry-on, close to useless, then their baggage fees page doesn’t tell you how much it will cost to add more. The screenshot above seems to indicate you only get 10kg free for a checked bag too, which would be an almost superhuman packing job if you could pull that off. Unlike with most of the others covered here, there’s no tiered package option clearly showing you what you get when you spend more.
It’s worth considering this one if you like the flight schedule and it’s clearly a better deal than the alternatives. The lack of transparency for fees is worrisome though if you’re trying to see the full fare before booking, complete with all extra charges they’ll tack on. Check their website here.
Thai Vietjet Air
The Thai division of Vietjet Air flies to nine destinations in the country, including a couple that will get you close to the borders of Laos and Cambodia. They also fly internationally to locations in Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, and even Fukuoka, Japan.
As with most of the other budget airlines, the fare you see when you first do a search is only the starting point. The airline runs lots of weekly promotions to fill up the remaining seats on routes, but where they make their real money is the fees that go on top. It seems like they’re all copying each other with the restrictive 7 kg of luggage allowed as a carry-on and that’s the case with Vietjet Air as well.
They’re also extra-sneaky displaying fares as they show them without taxes at first, then add them once you make a selection. So you will never pay the initial fare you see, even if you’re traveling without luggage. Then if you are going to carry on more than 7 kg, that appears to be 300,000 Vietnamese dong (even though you’re booking for Thailand), or $13.
As with AirAsia, at first glance it seems like you’ll get a much better value if you just embrace the add-on model and opt for the best package. If you spend $18 extra for their “Deluxe All In Package” you supposedly get a checked bag, a reserved seat, and a meal on board. Including all that, the flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok a month from now would only be $58, a great value.
Alas, this airline still has a few tricks up its sleeve. When you look at the fine print about what’s included in your All-in Package it says, “Food & beverage applicable on routes with a flight duration from 7 hours and above.” Vietjet has almost no flights that are 7 hours and above, so forget about that meal sucker. Can’t believe you fell for it!
Have you taken any domestic flights in Thailand since the country opened back up? How did it go?