Budget travel blues

Low-cost travel is a boon. Budget service is a bane at times. While bargain-hunting travellers can be both, behaviourally.

The concept of cheap travel, pioneered by Southwest Airlines with cabin crew in orange hot pants and white go-go boots in the late 1960s, ushered in an era of widespread travel for the masses and created fortunes for shrewd operators. Routes mushroomed, less-known tourist spots flourished, a global revolution triumphed.

What was always part of the bargain was the cutting back of frills. But budget service, of course, does not mean bad service. This bears reiteration as complaints against airlines are on the rise again, according to the Consumers Association of Singapore. While these form a fraction of the passengers served, sudden cancellations or long delays must be smoothly handled. In turn, consumers should not throw a tantrum or, worse, hot water at cabin crew - as a couple from China did recently on a Thai AirAsia flight - when service does not meet expectations.

Extra demands are sometimes fed by extra costs that are piled on consumers progressively, like booking fees, baggage charges, seat selection fees, and credit and debit card surcharges levied ad nauseam. Dynamic pricing, rigid booking systems and strict exclusion policies can also add to their woes. AirAsia, for example, gives no refunds whatsoever once a booking has been confirmed. Airlines owe it to customers to be more flexible and transparent about, say, actual costs of extra baggage and seat selection.

The low-cost model is an attractive one to travellers and operators alike. With nearly 50 such operators in the Asia-Pacific region and good growth potential, one hopes they will be able to rely less on gimmicks and creeping charges and "learn to operate like mature companies", as an industry observer noted. To make travel pleasurable for all, people should also learn to act maturely on the move.