Published in The Independent in February 2011

Budget airlines are the great equalisers of sky travel: may they grow more plentiful and cheaper still.  For when the number of “no-frills” carriers does increase significantly, they will surely begin to compete with one another in terms of how nicely they treat passengers as well as their affordability.  Rather than stripping down services to the point where it costs US$1.50 to use the toilet during a flight  (don’t do it, Ryan Air!) and inflating the price of snack food by almost 400 percent, the concept of the complimentary may come back in vogue, even if we are paying a bit less than the rest.

But until this day arrives, passengers seeking a truly budget flying experience should prepare for their flight as they would for a winter weekend camping trip.  Bear in mind that unless you want to spend as much as you would on a regular ticket, you should bring enough supplies of food, water, warm clothing (including blankets) and light entertainment to last the duration of your flight.  But be careful not to over-pack, or that pre-purchased can of Coca-Cola will be worth its weight in gold as excess luggage fees (well, almost).  Self-sufficiency and good planning are critical – as I recently discovered on an Air Asia flight from Dhaka to Melbourne.

To be honest, I was disappointed with Air Asia before I even reached Hazrat Shahjalal Airport.  The flashing neon sign on its website had promised a Valentines Day Special too good to refuse, but after five hours, three separate attempts to complete the transaction (each leg must be booked separately) and finally, a few hundred dollars more tallied onto the credit card, I wasn’t convinced that I’d hooked a bargain.  But at this stage, I at least felt confident that I’d paid a little less than I would for a regular ticket.  Nope, I wasn’t a sucker just yet.

The second disappointment struck when a retro-looking hostess in red said she had no record of my pre-booked meal.  She didn’t tell me that it was printed on my itinerary, which was tucked into the overhead luggage at the time.  And anyhow, I was only moderately hungry by the time we touched down in Kuala Lumpur’s sparkling airport, which, unbeknown to me, would be my home for the next 13 hours.  I’m a very relaxed, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type traveller, so naturally (that is, stupidly) I hadn’t booked a room at the airport’s only budget option, Tunes Hotel, which is owned by the same parent company as Air Asia.  As many of Air Asia’s longer haul flights have transit time gaps of 12 to 16 hours, business at Tunes is going really well and air conditioning continues to be sold in 12-hour slots.  Even the shopkeepers at the airport could confidently guarantee that I wouldn’t get a room after midnight.

After losing $5 to a crooked shuttle bus conductor and being dismissed from the teensy hotel lobby, I ate cheap and cheerful Malaysian fare in an emporium called Food Garden.  While using free wifi into the wee hours, I began chatting to the jolly, middle-aged American man sitting opposite me.  He shrugged off the fact that he didn’t have a hotel room for the night.

“A Tunes room is the size of a matchbox,” he said.  “If you’re serious about sleeping tonight, there’s only one place to go.  Turn right when you get outside – there’s a patch of grass with a bunch of people sleeping.  It’s practically star-rated.  Ha ha.”

After whittling away a third of my transit hours, I left the American to locate the outdoor sleeping club.  But when I turned the corner there was nothing but shadows and not a human in sight.  I shivered and walked briskly towards the fluorescent haze of the airport’s interior.  Though I was by now desperately sleepy, I didn’t want to just fall down anywhere.  I realised I was looking at a public space in a totally different light: if I was a bit clever about it, the night hopefully wouldn’t be too bad.  But if I made the wrong choice, I could wind up robbed, or worse.  I eventually settled on a corner space and lay next to a steel cleaning trolley, primarily because there were only women sleeping nearby.  I rolled out two scarves and placed my body in between them, then draped an arm over my backpack after clipping it onto the metal railing.  I fell asleep with my head on my rucksack as I mumbled, “I’m a hobo in Malaysia, a hobo in…”

The airport was bustling by the time I groggily sat up again.  I was very cold from the air-conditioning and my knees were strangely stiff.  I went to the toilets to brush my teeth and then found a trolley and multiple queues to stand in.  The hardship was about to begin.

The brand new airbus was clean, modern and not overly cramped.  But shortly after take-off, it also became bitterly cold.  “Nonsense,” I muttered as the voice-over announced that it was 23 degrees, before a series of cigarette sale pitches were left on repeat.  Even the hardiest-looking Australians were now in their sweaters and some even donned woolly hats, but I was totally unprepared for the chill.  In fact, I was in such a state of disorganisation that I had somehow managed to lose a sock overnight.  After resisting for an hour and thoroughly dreading the next six that remained, I gave away US$12 for a “comfort kit,” which included a sort of synthetic picnic blanket and an eye mask.

The turbulence was frightening at times, but sporadic at best.  Nevertheless the seatbelt sign remained on for almost an hour, and the laissez-faire air hosts and hostesses had disappeared out of sight.  Confused passengers began catching one another’s eyes like a pack of abandoned kittens.  People began getting up to go to the toilet despite the purported restriction on movement – I suppose because they had to.  And then yes, I had to too.  While waiting my turn, a hostess approached me.  Fearing that I would be publicly scolded, I took the initiative by asking if it was okay for me to have left my seat.

“Just be careful,” she suggested vaguely, before zipping behind a red curtain.

I realise it sounds dramatic, but several children onboard were crying and complaining that they were hungry.  However it had been five hours since we took off.  As I was still unaware that a meal is served once proof of it is displayed on the itinerary, I too wanted to cry when the pre-paid food trolley clunked its way past me.   So I broke another $20 note on a cup of noodles and a bottle of water, and rued the fact that I’d effectively spent $40 during the flight, as the fine print of the menu states that change is returned in Malaysian ringits. It’s a pretty currency, but I have no use for it – well, other than if I spend it on the return flight.  I begged to be given the Australian notes that had been handed over by the passenger opposite me, but to no avail.  By way of appeasement, I was offered a complaint form to fill in.  I felt like a sourpuss as I handed it over, and haven’t heard anything since.

Despite arriving in Melbourne feeling hungry, cold, tired and irritable, I can’t deny Air Asia the credit of reuniting me with my parents after nearly two years.