Budget flights with low-cost airlines from Dubai and beyond
Over the past five years or so, I’ve managed to pack my bags for long weekends and immerse myself in totally different cultures and surroundings. Rather than a long-planned for and expensive holiday these have been affordable and more spontaneous short trips – only made possible due to low-cost airlines.
The United Arab Emirates was behind Europe on offering no frills carriers within the region. I used to look longingly at the fares offered for weekend breaks traveling from regional airports in the UK and revelled in the prices and service when I flew with Flybe (I think!) to Poland in 2006.
Then Air Arabia, which flies out of Sharjah, launched in October 2003, Fly Dubai started their service in June 2009 and a host of other carriers have expanded the low-cost carrier choices out of the U.A.E. within the region and farther afield. Here’s my experience of three of the airlines plus my top tips of practical advice for flying ‘no-frills’.
Starting with Cebu Pacific as it wasn’t on my radar until recently. They fly within the Philippines and throughout Asia with recent routes launched to Dubai and Doha from Manila. Named after the island of Cebu, birthplace of their founder John Gokongwei, the ethos of the airline is to make flying a possibility for more Filipinos due to their affordability. This is summed up by one of their slogans ‘flights for everyJuan’ – which basically means within the means of ‘your average Joe’.
The service: Departing from Terminal 1 in Dubai, the planes are new A330 s. No-frills means that everything is extra so you pay for luggage in the hold, food and drink, wi-fi, blankets (a bright yellow, cosy, fluffy fleece blanket is 35 aed) and neck pillows. Hand luggage is weighed and restricted to 7 kg. You can buy up to 40 kg of checked in luggage.
Plus points: There is a Filipino service culture that makes the whole flight cheerful and quite jolly. It’s the only airline that offers online competitions (“fungames”) and passengers wait for this eagerly. A few simple questions are asked and prizes given to the first person who puts up their hand with the right answer. You can buy a sim card onboard too so you can arrive in the Philippines ready to go with a local data package. On the ground we were handed umbrellas to get to the plane when it was raining one day.
Downsides: There is no onboard entertainment or power sockets so you need to be prepared (portable battery packs a must for long flights). You can, however, purchase wi-fi for use during the flight.
Food and drink: Hot meals are available for long haul flights and if ordered online up to 24 hours ahead they include a free hot drink and dessert. Snacks and drinks are available to buy from the cart and brought round regularly but don’t expect anything very healthy – flavoured crisps, instant noodle pots, cookies and a couple of sandwich options on sliced white. There is only dried creamer available if you want tea and the coffee and chocolate is a pre-mix. You can buy wine and beer onboard (San Miguel brewed in the Philippines).
Prices: While Cebu Pacific aims to keep prices low for ‘everyJuan’ generally, there are flash sales (announced through the Cebu Pacific Facebook page) which means at times you could fly from Dubai to the Philippines for 800 AED or less (not including the extras).
Summary: Long-haul, no frills with Cebu Pacific makes it affordable to visit the Far East from Dubai more often, on comfortable, clean flights – especially if you are well prepared.
Fly Dubai was the first low-cost airline out of the Middle East I tried and, as it was set up (although not owned) by Emirates Airlines, I had a high level of confidence in the operation when it launched. It’s the service I’ve used most often including flying to Georgia and Nepal and most of the places they go to are on my travel wish list; it’s the first airline I check for short-haul trips in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe.
The service: Departing from Terminal 2 on the border of Dubai and Sharjah, the fleet is made of Boeing 737-800s and is the only low-cost carrier to offer Business class too. One 7 kg carry on bag is included plus a laptop case or small handbag (total weight not exceeding 10 kg). You can buy up to 40 kg checked in luggage and there are often special fare bundles to make this cheaper. You can buy food, drink and entertainment onboard.
Plus points: Clean modern planes and a good range of destinations. Their staff are well-trained and generally helpful. Terminal 2 is easy to navigate (can be a bit of a scrum checking in) and very quick to exit.
Downsides: The website is a bit glitchy and doesn’t show flights a long way ahead. If you need to change a flight or make a mistake booking online it can be difficult and expensive to change. The customer service phone line often doesn’t answer. There is only one office which is in Deira (with little parking nearby), but worth making the effort to go if something does go wrong as the staff are really helpful. Beware of heavy Sharjah-bound traffic when getting to Terminal 2 at peak times. Le Clos does not deliver to this terminal (although there is duty-free on exit and arrival).
Food and drink: There’s a range of meals available on some routes which you pre-order (not available onboard). This includes a Greek salad and Arabic mezze if you want something healthy. Otherwise baked goods, sandwiches, wraps and drinks (including alcohol) are available from the cart. My friends do not rate the sandwiches. I have only ever tried the tea (with UHT milk) as I usually buy a sandwich from Costa at the airport to take with me.
Prices: Reasonable – e.g. it cost 1256 AED for a return flight to Tbilisi (three and a half hours) with 20 kg checked in. Prices fluctuate and they do run a few special offers occasionally (children could fly for 1 aed to some cities in Eastern Europe last summer for instance). Worth checking for bundle deals with luggage when you book online too.
Summary: Comfortable, reliable, affordable with a great range of destinations.
More info: Fly Dubai
I’ve flown twice with Air Arabia, both times to Jaipur. It can be cheaper than Fly Dubai (not always) but I’d choose my route carefully after my last experience.
The service: Flying a fleet of 44 Airbus A320 aircraft out of Sharjah, UAE (with more on order), your free hand baggage allowance is 10 kg so you might be able to do without check in for short trips. Food and drink available to buy but you can’t pay to secure your seat choice and there is no entertainment.
Plus points: It’s cheap and they fly to over 100 cities direct in the wider Middle East and India.
Downsides: Sharjah airport can be a devil to get to at peak times and a bit disorganised once inside. The last flight I took on Air Arabia was not at all pleasant. The flight was full of male construction workers who hacked loudly throughout the flight and didn’t know how to lock the bathroom door or use it properly once inside. “It’s normal” sighed the weary, saintly, air attendants who bravely donned gloves and went where I was afraid to go every time I had to make a visit.
Food and drink: Pre-order meals online from quite a large range or order in the air (the usual sandwiches, wraps and drinks). Hot meals are very cheap (around 20 aed) which rings warning bells for me. There is no alcohol onboard. I can’t remember eating or drinking anything I hadn’t brought with me on Air Arabia. Bonus tip: There is duty-free alcohol at Sharjah airport (the rest of the Emirate is dry).
Summary: Very cheap flights and routes from the UAE to 101 places including many that no other carrier flies direct – but you have to fly from Sharjah and you don’t know who you’ll be sitting next to.
Other low cost carriers servicing the UAE
Jazeera Airways – Kuwaiti airline flying to ten countries and 19 cities in the Middle East from Dubai.
Wizz Air – Hungarian airline flying from Dubai to Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania.
Pegasus – Turkish low-cost carrier flying from Dubai to Istanbul (with onward options to Europe ).
Flynas – Saudi Arabian low-cost carrier flying Dubai and Abu Dhabi to Jeddah, Riyadh (with onward options to Europe ).
Spice Jet – low-cost Indian carrier flying from Dubai servicing a wide range of cities in India plus Nepal, Afghanistan and the Maldives.
Top tips for flying with low-cost airlines
- Fare searchers don’t always publish low-cost airline options so Google destinations to find alternative carriers.
- Think laterally. If the dates or prices don’t quite work, you can use different carriers for the outbound and return journeys.
- Check all your options online carefully when booking the flight. It can cost you dearly to change or cancel the flight (or you may not be able to at all). Look for bundle deals on luggage and discounts for pre-ordering food, baggage and extras.
- Check your baggage allowance carefully (carry digital portable luggage scales). Low cost airlines can sting you hard for excess kilos or over-sized bags.
- Charge all the devices you are going to use before you go. Take enough entertainment to see you through the flight or distract you from your neighbour.
- Hand baggage essentials: blanket (a good pashmina works well too), good neck rest (mine is memory foam), ear plugs, headphones (noise-cancelling are best), battery power packs, eye-mask socks or sock-slippers, hand-wipes (if the loos get too grim), tissues. An iPod with pre-loaded podcasts could be a life-saver against boredom or an unwelcome neighbour.
- Take food and drink. Pack unsalted nuts, dried fruit and some plain biscuits in your carry-on. Fruit and vegetable sticks are good to snack on too. Buy water and the best sandwiches you can in departures. Check online beforehand what you are allowed to take onboard (Cebu Pacific for instance won’t let you take raw meat or fish, canned goods or cooked food with sauces).
Do you use low-cost airlines or are you first class all the way? Any trips or tips you’d care to share?
Disclosure: I flew to the Philippines as a guest of Cebu Pacific.