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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bangkok's 2 Airports - How to travel between? Which airlines?

green tunnel airport interior

Four airlines now fly out of Bangkok's old Don Muang Airport while the others continue to use Suvarnabhumi Airport over 40 kilometers away. How to travel between them?

Updated MayAirAsia became the first budget airline to switch its Bangkok base from Suvarnabhumi Airport to Don Mueang Airport back in October 2012.  AirAsia, Orient Thai's 1-2-3-Go, Nok Air and Indonesia's Lion Air now fly out of Don Mueang.

THAI Smile, Thai Airways' new budget airline that flies domestic routes as well as Bangkok-Luang Phrabang, Bangkok-Macau and Bangkok-Mandalay routes does not fly out Don Mueang. It is based at Suvarnabhumi so bear that in mind if you were thinking of moving from an AirAsia (aka Thai AirAsia) or Nok flight (which use Don Mueang) to a Thai Smile one. (No, it's not your computer; THAI Smile's website must be loaded with huge images. It could churn for hours.)

Known for decades as Don Muang Airport, it was the sole Bangkok airport prior to Suvarnabhumi's opening in 2006. 

Before AirAsia's shift, the only scheduled airlines using Don Mueang were 1-2-3 Go and Thai Airways' affiliate Nok Air. The airport is also used by charter services like Solar Air, PC Air and MJets and small private planes and jets. However, charter carrier Jet Asia has been flying out of Suvarnabhumi.

Cebu Air, Jetstar Asia, Tiger Airways, T'way

If you book a flight arriving at or departing from Bangkok, your AirAsia ticket, itinerary and boarding pass may still list "BAK" as the airport in question. Don't worry; it will fly into and out of Don Mueang. "BAK" is the code for the new Suvaranbhumi Airport now. Don Mueang's code is "DMK" and eventually AirAsia tickets will reflect that.

Cebu Air, Jetstar Asia, Tiger Airways and 
Korea's T'way are continuing to use Suvarnabhumi. Since they are all low-cost or budget airlines and Suvarnabhumi is becoming crowded, the government airport authorities want to move them all to Don Mueang but these airlines show no signs of movement as of 2014.

Although it isn't a budget airline, Bangkok Airways might switch to Don Mueang someday but for now remains at the bigger airport.

The only way to make absolutely sure these airlines haven't switched yet is to call the airline yourself; emails to customer service are useless. I'm not sure I would trust a travel agent, not one in Thailand anyway.

Scroll down to see how to transfer between the two Bangkok airports.

India's Jet Airways, a premium Indian budget airline, and IndiGo, which is straight-out budget, also fly out of Suvarnabhumi Airport. (Kingfisher has suspended operations, by the way.) Their websites don't say otherwise, so apparently they will continue to use Suvarnabhumi. Compared to the other budget airlines, they are long-haul, so that makes sense.

Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi Airport Codes

colorfully painted Bangkok Airways plane - image by Bangkok Airways
Travelers heading from Thailand to Cambodia by air would like to see Bangkok Airways shift to Don Mueang. 

If you're staying on Koh Samui and want to fly to Angkor, the standard way is to take one of the several daily Bangkok Airways flights to Bangkok and then connect with the daily Bangkok Airways flight to Siem Reap. Making the connection (or any connection) at Don Mueang Airport would be much, much easier than it is now at Suvarnabhumi because the old airport is so much smaller. From entrance to boarding gate doesn't seem to take more than 15 minutes.

Each of Bangkok's two international airports has its own code number on flight ticket and baggage claim. East of the city in Samut Prakan province, the main Suvarnabhumi Airport  (aka Suwannabhum) has code BKK.  North of the city, Don Mueang (formerly spelled "Don Muang") has the code DMK

Shuttle and Taxi Between Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang 

Yes, there is finally a free shuttle bus running between the two airports! The bus runs every 15 minutes "starting very early" until 10 pm and then every half hour until midnight. That's what I was told by an official-looking person at Don Mueang; "Very early" would be around when the day's first flight lands at Don Mueang: 7 am?  Note that's the shuttle schedule for journeys originating from Don Mueang. The specifics might be slightly different originating from the Suvannabhumi. 

When you come into the narrow arrivals hall at Don Mueang, you will see signs for "shuttle bus" and "bus"; the latter refers to the bus to the subway (MRT) and and Skytrain stations. Since I haven't observed the Suvarnabhumi departure point in person, I am only guessing but the shuttle probably departs from the ground-level (2F) arrivals area there, near Exit door 3.

Unfortunately, something like 75 percent of the long-haul flights landing at Suvannabhumi arrive between 11 pm and the small hours of the morning, so if you want to settle in near Don Mueang (DMK) for an early morning flight departing from there, the shuttle bus won't be an option.

The distance between Don Mueang (DMK) and Suvarnabhumi (BKK) is daunting. Depending on the route, it runs from 40 to 46 kilometers (25 to 29 miles). Go to Google maps and plug in one airport as your destination. Or press the location link at the bottom of this page, which will bring you to the Don Mueang map. In the directions box, plug in the name of Suvarnabhumi as your destination. You will see three suggested routes appear with the optimistic suggestion that traveling by any of these routes, two of which involve tolls, should take less than an hour. 
airport interior - check in counter

Considering that the vast majority of visitors coming in on long-haul overseas flights arrive and depart between 11 pm and the wee hours of the morning, the suggested timing will be reasonable for many travelers. However, most people familiar with Bangkok would say that estimate is absurd. I'd recommend a 90-minute buffer. If the travel time is between 7 am and 9 am or between 5 pm and 8 pm, allow for at least two hours.

If taking a taxi, choose the tollways unless it's very late at night or early in the morning.The taxi passenger pays these tolls, which will 125 baht if you take them all. Expect to pay another 300-400 baht for the trip plus a 50 baht surcharge just because it's an airport taxi.

Mini-Vans Between Two Bangkok Airports

Nok Air, long operating out of  Don Mueang, had a free shuttle bus running between the two airports but it could only be used by those fluttering a Nok Air ticket. With the aforementioned free shuttle now open to all passengers, I don't know if it's still running. 

For now, I will include the information about the inter-airport van service I described here before the shuttle existed.  With the free shuttle, this information probably will not interest those unfamiliar with Bangkok.  But vans tend to be quicker than big buses and are better suited for those with bulky luggage

The mini-van service running between the two airports supposedly departs from the same general areas as the taxis and airport buses at both airports but I can't tell you much more than that: specifically, do you buy a ticket from a counter in the arrivals hall or out in front at the pick-up area? Do you need to spot the van on your own? (FWIW, these vans are usually white). I see another report that the mini-vans leave from Suvarnabhumi arrivals at 1F, which is underground or at least garage-like. I think catching this van would be challenging for a jet-lagged newcomer to figure out.

As for those set-route "airport buses" with a few stops along set routes: Before Suvarnabhumi opened in 2006, Don Muang also had three set-route buses into the city. With enough demand, maybe they will be launched once again.  

Don Mueang to BTS Stations: The Other Shuttle Bus

However, there is a cheap shuttle bus service from Don Mueang that partially makes up for the lack of the old airport buses: this is the air-conditioned orange city "BTS bus"  running between Don Mueang and the  Chatuchak subway/ Morchit (or Mor Chit) Skytrain stations for the equivalent of US$1. This bus then continues on to the inter-city Morchit bus station where long-distance buses run to the North and Northeast.   

Update! Make that two BTS (Bangkok Transit System) shuttle bus services: there's now a similarly priced shuttle, the A2 route, running from Don Mueang to Morchit/Chatuchak and then on to Victory Monument. (See the Taxi-Skytrain-Airport Solution below for a few more details.).

Note that, even now, the airport buses running on set routes from Suvarnabhumi into the city, costing around 130 baht, only operate until 11 pm or midnight. And the Airport Link train from Suvarnabhumi, like the Skytrain and the MRT subway, shuts down at midnight too. In other words: there is a good chance you will end up taking a taxi.

The Taxi-Skytrain-Airport Link Train Solution Between Airports

interior direction signs at airport
So you have arrived at Don Mueang at 5 pm or 6 pm after a flight delay. You need to reach Suvarnabhumi by 9 pm to begin the long thread through the enormous airport. With the possible exception of Sunday and holidays, the traffic is already near gridlock. Taking the free shuttle bus seems risky.

If you don't have too much luggage--just a backpack, perhaps--I'd suggest the following route. Of course, if you're arriving at Suvarnabhumi, you can do it in reverse. Bear in mind that the Airport Link train only runs from about 6 am to midnight.

1) Take either the "BTS bus" or a taxi from Don Mueang to the Mo Chit (or Morchit) Skytrain station, which is adjacent to Chatuchak Park and the famous Weekend Market.  

This is the aforementioned regular cheap bus that runs from Don Mueang to the Mor Chit Skytrain and Chatuchak subway stations. And this is the A1 route. By regular bus, I mean it is the same type of orange public bus with narrow aisles that runs local routes around Bangkok, not the old so-called "airport buses" with a wide door and luggage hold. 

Still, almost all the passengers are in your situation with cumbersome luggage, so it's not too embarrassing to take this bus. The fare is  30 baht--about $1. Just walk right outdoors to the curb--it's not a large area--and ask or look around for the "BTS bus." You pay on the bus. I have never had to wait for one. There has always been one sitting there, although supposedly there are only 14 round trips a day, starting roughly at 5 am and winding up at midnight.

Since March 2013, there is also a cheapie orange "BTS bus" (30 baht) running between Don Mueang and Victory Monument, also from 5 am to midnight. This is the A2 route. Victory Monument is only one Skytrain station north of the Phayathai Skytrain station, which intersects with the terminus of the Airport Link. For walkers with wheeled suitcases, I'd estimate the distance as between two and three city blocks. From around 5 pm to 7:30 pm the Skytrain cars can be packed, so this bus can be a good way to avoid the Skytrain altogether. 

So: Back to the Don Mueang airport, where you're attempting to reach the Airport Link: If you're in a hurry, take a taxi. The taxi queue is clearly marked; at a booth, a clerk will ask your destination and give you a slip of paper to hand to the driver. The fare to Mor Chit shouldn't be more than 200 baht even if traffic is thick. You also have to pay an additional 50 baht directly to the driver and, if you opt for the tollway, another 60 baht. I always opt for the tollway.

You're heading for the Skytrain's Mor Chit station--not the MRT subway, which also has a nearby station (called Chatuchak). Because this is the beginning of the Skytrain line, you should be able to get a seat and avoid annoying people with your baggage. 

2) Once on the Skytrain concourse, buy a Skytrain ticket to Phayathai station (maybe 25 baht) and stock up on change. Get off at Phayathai station and follow directions to  transfer to the Airport Link.  The Skytrain platform is connected to the Airport Link platform. Give yourself 10-15 minutes to slog from one platform to another, going up an elevator or escalator, etc.

3) Buy an Airport Link ticket for a Cityline train.  (You already have change handy for the machine, right?)

You are offered a choice between the every-station Cityline or the Express. The latter only stops at a few stations and is the fastest way to the airport. Nonetheless, choose the Cityline: it runs more often. The Cityline trip is about 40 baht now but fares do change fairly often. If it's a weekday, either train can get crowded because residents use them for commuting.

A note on the reverse route: once you get on the Skytrain at Phayathai for a journey to Mor Chit, the train will be crowded. It's unlikely you will get a seat and baggage will be cumbersome. 

Coming from Suvannabhumi, you will arrive at Mor Chit station and perhaps be looking for the orange BTS bus that runs back and forth to Don Mueang Airport. You probably shouldn't depend on that; take a taxi. I have never seen the BTS bus heading to the airport and suspect it's something like the phantom bus that shuttles between the Mor Chit Skytrain/Chatuchak stop to the Morchit bus station ("Mor Chit 2"; no, the station is not close and no, no one but a taxi driver will understand that you want to go there). I can locate the buses going from bus station to the BTS stations but have never seen a bus going in the reverse direction.

Copyright +Susan Cunningham. No republication without permission. Contact SoutheastAsiaTraveler @ gmail.com