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Budget Asia

/ 09:29 PM November 03, 2011

“Only $467?” the accountant was incredulous, re-adding the figures twice to make sure about the amount.

Applying for a reimbursement with conference organizers usually means dealing with cold and grumpy staff who scrutinize every document you submit. But this time around, the accountant seemed almost happy, as she told me I was asking for so little compared to the other tickets. The conference was Yogyakarta (Yogya for short) and delegates flying in from Bangkok, the accountant said, paid $700 to $900 each while the ones from Hanoi went as high as $1,100. The other Filipino delegates paid $800 to $1,000 each.

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I felt triumphant, having done my own booking all on the Internet. I did explain to the accountant that the first time I looked around I came up with a ticket that cost almost $1,000, with a roundabout itinerary that would have meant flying from Manila to Singapore, then Singapore to Jakarta and finally Jakarta to Yogyakarta. That was the route the other Filipino delegates took.

Fortunately, Anita Hardon, a Dutch professor who was also heading out for the Indonesia conference told me to check out Air Asia, which she said had direct flights to Yogyakarta from Singapore. The Dutch are adventurers, Anita having backpacked through the Philippines in the 1980s when she was still a university student, using every known form of transportation. Now a full professor and director of research in her university, she doesn’t backpack anymore but can still spot the best bargains for airlines and hotels.

I knew of Air Asia. When I was chair of our anthropology department we once had a field school in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, and the class flew out from Clark, with airfares even lower than that for a  Manila-Cebu roundtrip.

But I didn’t want to go all the way to Clark to catch a flight.  Fortunately, the Internet helps to figure out the options for travel routes and I ended up with a Philippine Airlines (PAL) ticket for the segment between Manila and Singapore and Air Asia for Singapore and Yogyakarta.

Then the PAL labor row broke out and every day I’d read about a dozen or so international flights being cancelled, including those to Singapore. About two weeks before departure, I cancelled my PAL flight and shifted to Singapore Airlines, getting a ticket that was actually cheaper than PAL’s but without frequent flier miles, which was fine with me.

Ever since my mother had a stroke last year, complicating other health problems she had, I’ve turned down all invitations for international travel. I finally said yes for Indonesia since it was close enough. Booking the flights made me realize budget travel, which has been slowly developing over the last few years, has become truly low-cost in the last year with so many more options. Not only that, the Internet has made it so much easier now to compare prices, and to book the flights.

No frills

Air Asia, like Cebu Pacific and other budget airlines, works on the same principle of offering a basic low-cost, no frills flight. If you want the frills, which not all passengers look for, then you can add them on and pay.

Air Asia has a 15-kg limit for checked-in luggage but you can pay ahead of time to make that 20 kg, 25 kg, even 30 kg.  You can pre-order meals, from a menu that includes vegetarian meals. Oh, and you can choose your seat ahead of time, and if I remember right, there was no extra charge for that.

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The one major inconvenience about Air Asia is that it can’t check your luggage through to another airline.  So I actually had to go through immigration in Singapore, get my bags, then check in again with Air Asia. That was a breeze at Singapore’s Changi airport but it would probably be less pleasant with other Asian airports.

Another thing about Internet bookings, whether on budget or regular airlines: they usually don’t include Philippine travel tax so do be prepared with P1,620 to pay at the airport. That’s separate from the P750 airport tax.

I still intend to keep overseas travel to a bare minimum but this trip to Yogya with Air Asia did get me thinking about how lucky young Filipinos and Asians are. One of my medical anthropology graduate students, Gideon Lasco, knows this. Even in medical school and certainly right after graduation, he’s been able to take off to all kinds of destinations on budget airlines. He soars into the sky, lands, then goes off to climb mountains. With budget airlines, you book way ahead of time for the cheapest fares and he’s done this for December, when he intends to climb, get hold of yourself, Kilimanjaro in Kenya.

Discovering Asia

I’m hopeful that young Filipinos will rediscover our Asian links through budget travel. I don’t just mean Southeast Asia but China and India as well. I was tempted to book an Air Asia flight out from Kuala Lumpur to New Delhi for $245, round trip, all in. India beckons even more now that Filipinos and other Southeast Asian nationals can apply for a visa upon arrival. The visa is $60 and good for 30 days.

Rather than going off to Disneyland in Hong Kong I’d rather  have the kids visiting heritage sites and nature reserves (one place in Kota Kinabalu offers breakfast with the orangutans), watching the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, the water puppets of Hanoi, or one of many Ramayana performances throughout Asia. I’d also have them stay in smaller but friendlier guest houses or boutique hotels and taste street food.

During the final night in Yogya the conference organizers treated us to  dinner and a Ramayana performance. . .in the ruins of Prambanan temple. An occasional and slight drizzle only added to the magical ambience of the open air theater, Ramayana’s colorful characters prancing across the stage with Prambanan silhouetted in the background.

“Someday,” I thought, I have to bring the kids here to Yogya. This was the first Indonesian city I ever visited, some 30 years ago, when I was asked to look at the jamu (medicinal plants) industry. Here, in the world’s largest Muslim country, were Hindu temples like Prambanan, and the huge Borobodur complex, which is Buddhist. Air travel was still difficult, and expensive, at that time. But, like Anita, I had learned to do a bit of backpacking, staying in a cheap losmen or guest house, which turned out to be far more luxurious than I had expected, a huge room, a full breakfast and a garden filled with flowers.

Two years ago one of my graduate assistants at UP, Rej Cruz, organized his barkada on Cebu Pacific for a trip to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. I got lost with their stories of what they did there, including making their way, by bus, to Phnom Penh in Cambodia! They ran out of money and couldn’t make it to Angkor Wat but they’re saving for that.

I have no doubts we will see a generation of young Filipinos who will be more adventurous, yet appreciative, respectful and thoughtful, about rediscovering Asia.

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Email: [email protected]

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