This is the first article in an ongoing series on AwardTravelWisdom which will highlight our experiences booking flights and flying on Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) around the world. LCCs are known as such because they target travelers who are especially price-conscious by offering a “no-frills” flying experience that is all about getting from point A to point B. By breaking apart many of the costs included in a traditional airline fare and charging for them a-la-cart, LCCs are able to offer extremely low fares. Their everyday fares are usually less than half the standard airlines, and if you manage to snag one of their promotional fares, almost the entire fare can be taxes. However, they tend to charge you extra for pretty much everything, so if you are the type that wants to bring three bags, wine and dine while flying and the such, then you’ll find that the “low fare” turns into an expensive flight very quickly.
HK Express is a relatively new Low Cost Carrier (LLC) based in Hong Kong. Most of you will probably never have heard of it before, which is the main reason I’ve chosen it as the first airline to review in this series. We enjoyed two comfortable flights on HK Express in November 2013, and thus recommend it highly as a low-cost way to travel to cities on their currently limited route network.
The other reason I’m highlighting them at this time is that they are currently running a Mega Sale through May 21st, with base fares for their flights from as low as $50 HKD (about $6.50 USD) if you fly between September 1st and March 28th 2015. Note that the extra fees that get tacked definitely add to the cost, but you can net a one way to Chiang Mai, including 20kg bag, for about $55. As a comparison, the cheapest alternative option is AirAsia’s direct flight, which will run over $100. Flights to Korea and Japan aren’t as cheap, but are still in the $100-150 range during this promotion.
HK Express is based in Hong Kong and started operations in late October 2013. Their parent company, HNA Group, also owns Hainan Airlines, one of China’s largest carriers. I came across HK Express last October when I was trying to figure out the cheapest and most efficient way for us to travel from Taiwan to Chiang Mai (CNX). Looking at a map, you’ll note that Hong Kong (HKG) is directly between these two places, but during my initial research in summer 2013, I noticed that there weren’t really any direct flights between HKG and CNX. The most direct route at the time cost several hundred dollars, and the cheaper routes involved flights that connected in either Singapore (TigerAir) or Kuala Lumpur (AirAsia). AirAsia has since started a direct route from Chiang Mai to compete with HK Express.
Hong Kong has historically had minimal options for budget travelers, as the flagship carrier at the airport, Cathay Pacific, has done what it could to keep LCCs out of the airport. This is a stark contrast to many other large Southeast Asian cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Singapore, where LCCs have a huge presence and give travelers cheap flight access across the region. Thus I was very happy when I heard that HK Express was starting operations, even though there were of course minimal reviews of their operations (at least not for English speakers).
HK Express has a small but growing list of destinations out of their hub in Hong Kong. They began by targeting routes that few to none of their competitors flew directly from Hong Kong, but have since expanded to include some more popular routes. The Chiang Mai route in particular was an intelligent choice in my mind. HK Express proved that the route had plenty of demand, as evidenced by AirAsia recently started their own daily service in January 2014.
HK Express review: Our Experience on two flights
We ended up booking two separate flights on HK Express in order to give us a chance to visit Hong Kong: Taichung to Hong Kong, and then Hong Kong to Chiang Mai 48 hours later. The flights were both comfortable and uneventful, exactly what we want when flying.
I wasn’t terribly surprised to see that our flight from Taichung was only 25% full; Taichung is out-of-the-way and HK Express had only started operations a couple of weeks prior. In order to reach the airport we had to take a 2-hour train from Taipei to a tiny station near Taichung, then hop in a taxi to the airport. We weren’t even sure the taxi driver understood where we wanted to go until we got to the airport, as the only way we were able to communicate it was to show him a picture of a plane on my iPhone. The airport itself was actually quite nice. The terminal was recently built and had a restaurant where we were able to get ourselves a delicious noodle soup. However, it wasn’t immediately clear where to check in, as HK Express didn’t yet have their own dedicated desks. I imagine that has been sorted out by now. When we landed in Hong Kong, the plane parked on the tarmac and we were bussed to the terminal. This is one of the many ways that LCCs cut costs in order to lower the cost of your ticket.
On the other hand, our Hong Kong to Chiang Mai flight seemed to be sold out. The flight was especially popular with locals, as we were among just a handful of passengers who didn’t seem to be from Thailand or Hong Kong. HK Express operates out of terminal two at Hong Kong Airport, so we actually exited on the other side of the train when we arrived at the airport station. Once we checked in, an underground train took us to the gate, from where we once again got a bus ride to the plane. The negative is that accessing all the food and shopping options in the main airport terminal can take a while, as the gates are on the ground floor away from everything. The flight went by quickly as we happened to sit next to a young internet entrepreneur who told us a bit about his company and why he was moving to Chiang Mai. We knew Chiang Mai was a popular place to stay for expats, but learned that it is also becoming a popular destination for digital nomads. There is even a shared work space, Punspace, in the trendy Nimman Haemin district west of the city center.
As previously noted, we enjoyed both flights and were very happy with the price, especially considering we only booked them a week in advance. Our Taichung-Hong Kong flight was only $75/person, and Hong Kong – Chiang Mai was about $80/person. As noted previously, they are running one of their regular Mega Sales until May 21st, so take a look if you are shopping for flights.