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I recently booked two flights for only $102 total on Asian low-cost carriers. Asian low-cost carriers are so cheap that there are effects on United and American awards you might be considering booking.

I booked Kuala Lumpur to Lankawi for $27 on Air Asia, and I spent another $75 on a Firefly flight from Penang to Phuket. (I ferried between Langkawi and Penang for $19.)

What important effects do Asian low-cost carriers have on award booking strategy?

Both low-cost carriers followed the same playbook: advertise an outrageously low base fare–as low as $14 on one flight–then tack on a fee for everything. Yet both all-in fares were still incredibly cheap.

Only $75 including the $3 seat selection fee.
Couldn’t figure out how to remove the $2.50 insurance, so I spent $27.

So far I’ve flown the Air Asia flight, and it was adequate. I actually moved back one row from the seat I paid $2 to select and napped for half an hour in a totally empty row.

From what I was conscious for, there was nothing wrong with the flight that would make me want to pay any more to fly any other airline.

Since these flights are dirt cheap and adequate, they affect the best strategy for booking awards to Asia.

Effect on United Awards

United roundtrip awards allow one stopover and two open jaws. Free oneways on United awards require using that one stopover at your home airport.

That means you have a choice:

  • You can use your stopover at your home airport and create a free oneway. The downside is that the award can see fewer cities in Asia.
  • You can use your stopover in Asia and see more cities. The downside is that you have burned the stopover you need for a free oneway.

I’ve written about this choice before. See Choosing Between a Free Stopover and a Free Oneway on United Awards. On some trips, this might be a tough choice, but with dirt cheap Asian low-cost carriers, you should definitely preserve your stopover for a free oneway and hop around Asia with paid flights.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example to see why it’s so much better to pay for flights in Asia and save your stopover for a free oneway on more expensive American flights.

Consider the award I booked my friend the other day. Imagine he had wanted to fly from Los Angeles to Bangkok and Phuket instead of just Phuket. He could have booked the award like this:

  • Los Angeles to Bangkok (uses his only stopover)
  • Bangkok to Phuket (outbound destination)
  • Phuket to Los Angeles (return destination)

That’s fine, but it means he wouldn’t get the free oneway from Los Angeles to Newark that I booked him.

To keep that, he could book this:

  • Los Angeles to Bangkok (outbound destination)
  • Phuket to Los Angeles (open jaw between Bangkok and Phuket to preserve his one stopover, which he uses in Los Angeles)
  • Los Angeles to Newark (free oneway to return destination)

Then he could purchase Bangkok to Phuket on a low cost carrier.

Which is better? It depends on whether Bangkok to Phuket or Los Angeles to Newark costs more. The answer is Los Angeles to Newark by almost $140.

And the difference could be even larger because free oneways can go to almost anywhere in the domestic US and Canada, and there are plenty of Asian flights below $43.

The conclusion is clear. On United awards to Asia, you are very likely to be better off paying for the low-cost carrier flight intra-Asia to preserve a free oneway possibility in the US.

Effect on American Airlines Explorer Awards

American Airlines has the best round-the-world and multi-stop award possibility of any airline that it calls the Explorer Award.

Explorer Awards have several relevant rules impacted by Asian low-cost carriers:

  • The miles price of an Explorer Award depends on the total distance flown.
  • You are limited to 16 segments on an Explorer Award.
  • You are limited to one open jaw on an Explorer Award.

If you want to save American Airlines miles or preserve your 16 segments for longer, more expensive flights, consider paying for low-cost carrier flights in Asia.

You can hop around super cheaply throughout Asia on paid flights, then restart your Explorer Award for long-haul flights.

Just keep in mind that you only get one open jaw on Explorer Awards. You may want to preserve it. In that case, fly the low-cost carriers in a loop, so that you can pick up your Explorer Award in the place where you left off.

Totally Free Flights in Asia

Paying $102 for my two flights or $43 between Phuket and Bangkok is still worse than paying zero. The ideal way to get free flights intra-Asia is to open theBarclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®.

The card comes with a 40,000 mile sign up bonus after spending $3k in the first 90 days. In addition, you get 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, and a 10% rebate in miles on all travel redemptions.

Arrival miles can be used for any flight, any airline, any time–with no hunting for award space–at a value of one cent per mile. That means that the 42,000 miles you have after meeting the minimum spending requirement is worth about $470 toward any flight.

To see how the card would work, consider my $27 flight from Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi. If I purchased that flight with the Arrival card, I could then redeem 2,700 Arrival miles (1 cent per mile) to remove the charge from my statement. That means the flight is free. Plus I would then get 270 miles (10% of my redemption) rebated back into my account.

The Arrival card is perfect for a lot of situations when ordinary airline miles provide poor value including super cheap cash flights intra-Asia. It’s also one of the three cards that I strongly recommend to big spenders. See my full analysis of the card.

Purchasing Low-Cost Carrier Flights

Low-cost carriers don’t always appear on search engines you might use like Kayak. The best way to purchase a flight from one is on its own site. You can find out which carrier(s) serve a route you want to fly by using my secret weapon: wikipedia.


Flights within Asia are so cheap that you should often buy them with cash to conserve miles or set up free oneways on your award tickets.

Buy the flights with aBarclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®, and they go from cheap to free.

  • Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days — that’s enough to redeem for a $400 travel statement credit
  • Earn 2X miles on all purchases
  • Get 5% miles back to use toward your next redemption, every time you redeem
  • Chip card technology, so paying for your purchases is more secure at chip-card terminals in the U.S. and abroad
  • No foreign transaction fees on anything you buy while in another country
  • 0% introductory APR for 12 months for each Balance Transfer made within 45 days of account opening. After that, a variable APR will apply, currently 16.24% or 20.24%, depending on your creditworthiness.
  • Complimentary online FICO® Credit Score access for Barclaycard Arrival cardmembers

Application Link: Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

Just getting started in the world of points and miles? The Chase Sapphire Preferred is the best card for you to start with.

With a bonus of 60,000 points after $4,000 spend in the first 3 months, 5x points on travel booked through the Chase Travel Portal and 3x points on restaurants, streaming services, and online groceries (excluding Target, Walmart, and wholesale clubs), this card truly cannot be beat for getting started!

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