Cheap flights with Kiwi.com saved me US$1,500 but was it worth it? My 41-hour journey from Asia to Europe
- A seasoned travel writer used Kiwi.com to find the cheapest flights for a budget trip from Indonesia to Romania after the one-way fare had more than doubled
- His route, which took him via Vietnam, India and the UAE, involved lengthy layovers, little sleep and long security queues – so would he recommend it?
Before Covid-19 struck, I flew around the world to produce travel stores for about 10 months of every year. But for the past two-and-a-half years I haven’t set foot far outside my home in Indonesia. As things slowly returned to normal, I decided to fly to Europe to reboot my career, starting in Romania.
But I was shocked to discover the going rate for the most direct one-way fare from Denpasar, on Indonesia’s Bali island, to Bucharest, the Romanian capital – with only one stop – had skyrocketed to US$2,200. That’s more than double what I paid when I took the same route in 2019, caused by a perfect storm of surging oil prices, limited flights, sudden demand, supply-chain shenanigans and the war in Ukraine.
I didn’t have to knock up a spreadsheet to deduce that with airfares this high, working as a travel writer in Europe or any other long-haul destination no longer made financial sense.
But then I stumbled upon Kiwi.com – one of a new breed of online travel agent that uses artificial intelligence to scour the web for the cheapest flights and creates complex itineraries that will take you anywhere you want for a fraction of the price that legacy airlines are now charging.
The route Kiwi.com built would take me on separate flights to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Mumbai in India and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates before depositing me in Budapest. With lengthy layovers, including 13 hours in Mumbai, the journey would take 41 hours compared to the 17 with a legacy airline. But it would only cost US$430 – representing savings that more than justified the inconvenience.
Then I began reading the fine print. At each of the three airports I visited en route, I would have to collect my luggage and pass through customs and immigration to get a new boarding pass. And I would have to organise any visas and Covid-19 paperwork required at each stop. And if any of my flights were delayed and the next connection was missed, I would be left stranded – unless I paid Kiwi.com another US$130 for insurance.
A 20kg (44lb) piece of luggage would add another US$95 to the bill, though I opted for a cheaper option of US$50 for a 7kg piece of cabin luggage to mitigate complications. By that stage, the fare had climbed to US$710, plus another US$10 for an Indian visa, which I applied for online.
When the big day arrived, I arrived at Denpasar airport to learn my first flight would depart four hours late. I hadn’t even left the ground and it seemed Kiwi.com’s high-altitude house of cards had already fallen apart. But as the first and second legs of my journey were with the same budget airline, VietJet, and half the passengers on the flight were in the same boat, VietJet delayed the departure of the second flight.
The airline also sent staff to hand us our boarding passes when we landed in Ho Chi Minh City, saving us the time and hassle of exiting and re-entering the transit area.
The first two flights were surprisingly pleasant. I got a row of three seats to myself on both flights and the Vietnamese aircrew were all smiles. But the moment I landed in Mumbai I began paying the real price of booking with Kiwi.com. I had to queue for an hour to get through immigration and then queue for another hour to pass through customs.
The sleeping pods at the airport lounge where I had planned to kill time were all occupied, while the regular part of the lounge was crowded, lit up like a K-pop music clip and in no way conducive to sleep or relaxation. The airport hotels were either luxury brands that were out of my reach or cheapies with horrific online reviews.
I found a corner of the airport floor, where I was able to steal a few hours of sleep. But when I awoke at dawn, I felt even more exhausted than I had the night before – and I was only halfway through my ordeal.
After a sponge bath in a toilet and two of the blandest, most expensive samosas ever sold, I collected my third boarding pass and joined a long, slow-moving queue to pass through the most over-the-top airport security screening I have experienced in three decades of air travel. Two hours passed until I reached the other side.
When I boarded my third flight – to Dubai, on Air India Express – I passed out within seconds in a tiny seat, on a beat-up old airliner where the air conditioner barely registered, only to wake up an hour later. The remaining two hours of flying were unpleasant and sweaty. Every time I or my neighbour, an elderly Indian man, moved, our shoulders became glued together with sweat.
Going through customs and immigration in Dubai was easy enough, though I spent the next six hours in the departure lounge shivering from the cold thanks to an air-conditioning system on steroids. But at least there was Wi-fi, which hadn’t been the case in Mumbai, and a KFC, where I paid US$10 for a combo meal.
It was with much relief that I boarded my final flight to Bucharest, on Wizz Air, a Hungarian budget airline that has clean, new aircraft and decent-sized seats. (Fortunately I hadn’t seen the recent news reports about the airline’s chief executive telling exhausted pilots to stop complaining; “We are all fatigued but sometimes it is required to take the extra mile,” said Jozsef Varadi in an internal briefing.)
We touched down at 2am and by 3am I was in a hotel.
Kiwi.com’s prices are unbeatable, but they make you pay an arm and a leg in many other ways. I would recommend the service for young adults or those spending extended periods overseas. But if you are a bit old and grumpy like I am, or on a short two-week trip, the lost travel time and discomfort are probably not worth the savings.