Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Airlines Serving Cambodia - International and Domestic

cockpit of Cambodia Angkor Airways airplane
An incredible 17 airlines are now flying directly to and from Cambodia but you probably only need to know about Bangkok Airways, cheap airlines AirAsia, Jetstar Asia, Thai Smile and a few others.

Updated March 16, 2016.

Below I have compiled the international air routes to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and the airlines flying them. This section is followed by the meager offerings in domestic routes served by Cambodia Angkor Air. Then I describe the three (arguably four) types of airlines operating along these routes and how to find the best airfare to Cambodia.

The most recent street addresses, phone numbers  and emails for all airlines that have offices in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap are covered here.

Airport code for Phnom Penh Airport: PNH.

Airport code for Siem Reap Airport: REP.

International routes to Phnom Penh, airlines flying them

What follows are the airlines operating scheduled flights directly to the capital of Cambodia.

Many websites,  trawling for clicks, may lead you to believe that AirBerlin, Lufthansa, British Airways or KLM flies directly to Cambodian airports. Sorry, Cambodia is a small, developing country. If you're starting from Europe, North America or Australia, you're obliged to link up with one of the airlines listed below at a major transit hub like Bangkok or Hong Kong or Singapore.

* Yes, Bangkok has two international airports and thus two airport codes. I put the asterisks below as an alert because since October 2012 budget airlines, notably AirAsia, began to shift their bases from the newer Suvarnabhumi Airport, opened in 2006, to old Don Mueang Airport. I go into more detail  here, where I also explain how to travel to between the two airports, and list all the airlines operating from what was once  called Don Muang Airport. 

** I put the double asterisks at Kuala Lumpur below because all the airlines, budget and otherwise, now fly from the KLIA airport (code KUL) close to the city. However, AirAsia and all its permutations (AirAsiaX, AirAsia Zest, Thai AirAsia, etc.), Cebu Pacific, Lion Air, and Tigerair are now based at KLIA's nearby terminal KLIA2, which is reached from the main terminal by a modern shuttle train, the so-called Aerotrain. As best I recall, the train takes about 20 minutes to travel between the two terminals  but you need to find the platform, wait for the train, etc.--so you'd have to be lucky to make the transfer in less than an hour. Jetstar Asia is operating out of yet another (third) terminal called the Satellite terminal. This also is connected to the main terminal by the Aerotrain shuttle, but I can't tell if it's in between KLIA and KLIA2 or what. The Aerotrain continues on into the city, terminating at the multi-purpose Sentral station. The trip took about 40 minutes from KLIA2 to Sentral.

If all that sounds like a hassle, until spring 2014, there were two far-flung airports but only one code, KUL. AirAsia and Tigerair/Tiger Airlines landed at LCCT airport, way out in the middle of nowhere north of the city, while all the other airlines landed at the big full-fledged airport. Now your mind can be at rest: you don't have to schedule hours and hours in between if you're switching flights from, say, AirAsia to Malaysia Airlines. Nor do you have to worry about booking way ahead of time at the sole hotel (AirAsia's Tune Hotel) at the dinky LCCT airport. 

Phnom Penh - Bangkok (DMK*): AirAsia, Bangkok Airways 

Phnom Penh - Bangkok (BKK*): Thai Airways, Cambodia AngkorAir

Phnom Penh - Phuket: Jetstar Asia

Phnom Penh - Hanoi: Cambodia AngkorAir/Vietnam Airlines

Phnom Penh - Hong Kong: Dragonair, Malaysia Airlines

Phnom Penh - Kuala Lumpur **: AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines

Phnom Penh - Seoul (Incheon): Asiana, Korean Airlines

Phonom Penh - Singapore: Jetstar Asia/China Eastern, Qatar Airways/Vietnam Airlines

Phnom Penh - Guangzhou:  Cambodia Angkor Air/China Southern Airlines

Phnom Penh - Saigon (HCM City): Vietnam Airlines/China Eastern

Phnom Penh - Shanghai: Shanghai Air

Phnom Penh - Taipei: China Airlines, EVA Air 

Phnom Penh - Singapore: Jetstar, SilkAir, Singapore Airlines
Phnom Penh - Vientiane (QV): Lao Airlines

International airlines flying to/from Siem Reap

Bangkok Airways plane
Siem Reap's airport code is REP. Cambodia Angkor Air is one of Cambodia's plays at having its own national carrier. It is half-owned by the Cambodia government and half-owned by government-owned Vietnam Airlines. The sole international flight is to Saigon (HCM City); if you see a Vietnam Airlines flight scheduled from Siem Reap, it's a code share with Cambodia Angkor Air. All the executives are Vietnamese. 

The pilots aren't Cambodian and may well not be Vietnamese. There are a lot of foreigners piloting the smaller airlines of Southeast Asia. The might be Aussies or Indonesians or Singaporeans or another nationality. Here's a video from  inside the Jetstar Asia plane as it takes off from Siem Reap. That's an Aussie pilot's voice.

The Jetstar Asia flight from Siem Reap to Singapore is a bit of a misnomer since it stops in Phnom Penh for a short while and passengers must disembark there. AirAsia began  flights between Bangkok and Siem Reap in October 2013, thereby becoming the first truly budget airline to serve that route; bear in mind that AirAsia's Bangkok base is at the old Don Mueang airport, not Suvannabhumi Airport. (Yes, this also means the tourist numbers to Siem Reap are scary staggering: something like 3.5 million in 2013.)

China Southern Airlines is probably primarily occupied hauling group tours from China. Given that the Angkor temples are mobbed in the best of times. I suggest not planning your visit during Chinese New Year or other Chinese holidays. 

Launched in November 2012, Tonle Sap Airlines is primarily engaged in running charter flights between Siem Reap and several cities in China as well as Hong Kong, Taipei and Phuket (terrifying to imagine the Siem Reap crowds, right?). But it also runs regularly scheduled flights--about two each week--between Siem Reap and the Chinese cities of Kunming, Shanghai and Ningbo.

This new airline also aspires to serve destinations in South Korea and Japan. If Tonle Sap Airlines survives, that might very well happen because, like Cambodia Angkor Air,  it appears to legally be a Cambodian airline; the foreign partner in this case is Taiwanese instead of Vietnamese.

Siem Reap - Bangkok (BKK*): Bangkok Airways, Thai Smile, Cambodia AngkorAir/Vietnam Airlines

Siem Reap - Bangkok (DMK*), AirAsia 

Siem Reap - Hanoi, Cambodia AngkorAir

Siem Reap - Kunming: Tonle Sap Airlines

Siem Reap - Ningbo: Tonle Sap Airlines

Siem Reap - Saigon (HCM City): Cambodia Angkor Air/Vietnam Airlines

Siem Reap - Phnom Penh - Singapore: Jetstar Asia

Siem Reap - Guangzhou: China Southern Airlines, Cambodia AngkorAir

Siem Reap - Shanghai: Tonle Sap Airlines

Cambodia Domestic Flights - Cambodia Angkor Air

red, white and blue current Khmer flag
Cambodia Angkor's prop planes provide the only domestic air service. Chinese-funded Apsara International Air debuted in October 2014 with flights between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and a plan to fly between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville before the end of the year. It halted service for an "upgrade" on November 1, so it might appear again. Its offices are at the Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports.

Cambodia Angkor Air's international flights, now to China, Thailand on Vietnam are on the increase. They use an Airbus 360 and are also coded as Vietnam Airlines flights.

I used to wonder why anyone would fly between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but the road has deteriorated a lot. A journey that used to take three or four hours, now takes six. A more pleasant option: go from Siem Reap down to Tonle Sap Lake and take the boat to Phnom Penh. See the Vietnamese fisherfolk and their houseboats and floating shops and schools. The boat pulls up in Phnom Penh right along Sisowath Quay. 

As for alleged daily Cambodia AngkorAir flight between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville: it's not direct: there's always a "stop" in Siem Reap. So that explains why a one-way flight starts at $150 and takes from three to six hours. The road between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville is much better than between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. It's plied regularly by both mini-vans and modern buses that leave from near Phnom Penh central market. Why fly?

If you have ever heard of Siem Reap Airways--perhaps it will return--that was Bangkok Airways. Its flights to Cambodia were flagged as Siem Reap Airways, with a Cambodian code, but  actually were completely run and staffed by Bangkok Airways. Even a country as small as Cambodia wants to have its own national airline.

Can you fly Jetstar Asia between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh? Only if you're starting or ending your journey in Singapore. Some Jetstar Asia Singapore-Phnom Penh flights stop in Siem Reap; all Jetstar  flights from Siem Reap to Singapore stop briefly in Phnom Penh. But buying a ticket from Jetstar Asia--a foreign airline--solely for the Siem Reap-Phnom Penh stretch appears to be prohibited.  I suppose you could buy a ticket all the way through from Siem Reap to Singapore and just not use the Phnom Penh-Singapore leg.

Phnom Penh - Siem Reap: Cambodia AngkorAir

Phnom Penh - (Siem Reap) - Sihanoukville (Kampong Som): Cambodia AngkorAir

Siem Reap - Sihanoukville: Cambodia AngkorAir

Cheap Airlines, Full-service, Public, Premium

wing tip with propeller prop plane
Given the short hops to reach Cambodia from elsewhere in Southeast Asia, you probably first want to know about the budget airlines, also known as no-frills, discount or cheapie airlines. They prefer to be called "LCCs" or low-cost carriers.

Not only are these airlines no-frills, you can only book point-to-point and, once a ticket is bought, you can't change times or dates. There are only two discount airlines flying directly to Cambodia. They are Jetstar Asia, based in Singapore and partially owned by Qantas, and AirAsia, which is based in Malaysia but with a substantial hub in Thailand.

Technically there are at least four AirAsia airlines: the original Malaysia-founded AirAsia, Thai AirAsia, Indonesia AirAsia and intercontinental AirAsiaX. Thai AirAsia is a separate, majority Thai-owned affiliate company. That's why you can fly AirAsia between two ldomestic points in Thailand; you can't yet do that in the Philippines yet, though Indonesia AirAsia is in the process of following Thai AirAsia's model.

The nations of Southeast Asia may be small but they are very touchy about sovereignty issues. Most of the time, travelers need not worry about the legal distinction between the two AirAsias: you go to one website; the office in downtown Phnom Penh or the airport counters readily sell tickets to anywhere on the AirAsia network, even if you aren't flying from Cambodia on the airline. But it does mean there are different flight codes. Your flight between Cambodia and Thailand will have an FD number; flying onward from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur, it will be AK.

Bangkok Airways will be another popular choice because during the November-January tourist season it operates eight daily flights from Samui to Bangkok, from which you can connect to another Bangkok Airways flight to Siem Reap. During the rest of the year Bangkok-Samui flights run several times a week. The airline has a near monopoly on flights out of Koh Samui because it actually owns the airport there. 

Bangkok Airways is a small, private airline that long predates the creation of discount airlines. It has the expected pros and cons: more expensive than discount airlines but without the hidden extra fees and with more of the comforts; you're able to change the times and dates of a ticket. Because it's not a point-to-point LCC, Bangkok Airways also may offer a discount for several flights and it facilitates the transition between its flights.  It often offers some great discounts--though you might have to book months in advance to take advantage of them.

SilkAir and Dragonair, Singapore and Cathay Pacific

Singapore's SilkAir and Hong Kong's Dragonair have a profile similar to that of Bangkok Airways. Singapore Airlines started SilkAir as an alternative to the cheapie airlines: SilkAir bills itself as premium budget airline, as does the Thai Airways-spawned Nok Air.(Thai Airways' newest baby, Thai Smile, is a budget domestic airline.)  Dragonair's origins in the 1980s were more like Bangkok Airways'. It was started in Hong Kong as a competitor to Cathay Pacific. Although Cathay Pacific wasn't a state-owned airline like all the other original Asian national airlines, it was protected as such. DragonAir had a special niche traveling to secondary cities in China; it is still perceived as much safer than mainland China's airlines.

In the mid-2000's, Dragonair was completely taken over by Cathay Pacific, which nowadays counts the Chinese government's Air China as a major shareholder. Dragonair operates something like SilkAir in that it flies to Asian destinations--though to far more of them--but does not fly across the Pacific or as far as Europe. You can change your flight times with minimal penalty. Dragonair is safe and efficient. It has frequent flyer programs and clubs but it's a mite cheaper than Cathay Pacific.

Flights from Korea and China to Cambodia

Next, we have the old-fashioned, full-service, full-perk pricey airlines, which you should book for business or government-footed travel:  Korea's Asiana and Korean Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Taiwan's China Airlines and EVA, and Thai Airways. As I point out below, Malaysia Airlines nonetheless has some very good promotions that can occasionally beat AirAsia's fares, so it's worth subscribing to its newsletters and checking the website. Not sure if still true, but EVA Air used to be known for good deals and perks as well. Korea's Asiana and Taiwan's EVA are counterparts in that both are private airlines that were started as upstart competitors, respectively, to the government-owned KAL and China Airlines.

As for Shanghai Air and China Southern Airlines, they aren't owned by China's national government. They were started, respectively, by entities of the Shanghai and Guangzhou provincial governments. They certainly aren't budget airlines. They were founded partly on the model of full-service national airlines, partly on the Dragonair model of operating regional China flights. For Cambodia, I believe the China airlines mostly ferry Chinese group tours as well as Chinese businessmen. I frankly don't know what their policies are regarding rescheduling or frequent-flyer miles. Hey, I'm a Southeast Asia expert! I'd like to know more about their reputations and safety records.

As for the new but small Tonle Sap Airlines, it's legally Cambodian but apparently operated by Taiwanese. As I mention above, it is operating scheduled flights several times a week between Siem Reap and the Chinese cities of Kunming, Ningbo and Shanghai. It is operating many more charter flights to Siem Reap from Chinese cities, including Hong Kong, as well as Taipei and Phuket. 

Getting the Cheapest Air Fare to Cambodia

Perhaps Expedia and Priceline are excellent flight search engines  for comparing air ticket prices across the Atlantic and Pacific. They're lousy for finding the best flights around Southeast Asia or from the region to countries in the  vicinity. They're especially poor for finding or comparing flights to India and Sri Lanka, where you probably need to stop if you're heading to the Persian Gulf the economical way. The big US online travel search engines omit the budget airlines. They give the impression that Lufthansa or Northwest fly directly to Cambodia. Their fares for flights on SilkAir, Thai Airways and so on seem way too high as well.

Maybe airfare search engines are improving. AirAsia has been working with Expedia to improve regional listings and ran a big ad campaign last year. It's hard, though, to imagine how they will improve on Skyscanner or Wego, a Singapore-based travel search engine.  Check it out Wego if you're new to the airlines serving Southeast Asia. 

That being said, I still look at the individual airline websites after glancing at Wego to see if there's anything better or a special promotion going on. Some people prefer Scotland-based Skyscanner, which started comparing European and North American flights and then added Asian flights, including budget flights, in the past few years after opening offices in Singapore and Beijing. I find that the site keeps defaulting to Thai, I keep pressing the translate thingie and, in the end, Wego is less of a pain in the butt.

If you're planning a holiday far in advance, checking the individual airline sites and signing on to mailing lists become especially important.  AirAsia frequently runs promotions with deep discounts (even  Kuala Lumpur to Australia!) but the booking period is often many months ahead of the flight and of course the cheapest tickets are small in number.  For example, the booking period might be March through July for flights between October and December. I have heard that Bangkok Airways also offers deep discounts for flights outside the prime holiday time of December and January--but they must be booked months in advance.

The other point in the case of Cambodia: not that many airlines fly betweeen your two desired points, as you can see from the routes list above. So why even bother looking at a search engine? 

Starting from Singapore? You're going to first look at Jetstar Asia and perhaps check SilkAir, though both mean stopping in Phnom Penh. Jetstar's Singapore departure at 6 am will give many people pause and the airline doesn't fly to Siem Reap daily. If you want to fly to Siem Reap directly and skip Phnom Penh, you'll probably want to first fly to Bangkok or Phuket  and catch a Bangkok Airways or Jetstar Asia flight onward. Saigon-Siem Reap? You will need to fly on Vietnam Airlines aka Cambodia Angkor Air.

If you're in Kuala Lumpur, the natural impulse might be to book on AirAsia, but make sure to look at Malaysia Airlines, even at short notice. (Of course, I'm aware of Malaysia Airlines recent troubles but, really, it was or is a very nice airline.) Malaysia Airlines sometimes has rates or promotions that beat AirAsia's and the comforts, meals and relatively straight-forward pricing of a full-fledged airline are a welcome change.

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