London-Bangkok by plane and train for under US$1,000 feels like a bargain with airfares soaring. Did we say it took 9 days?
- High demand has made airfares pricey in 2022. Can long-haul travellers save money by taking several cheap flights, and trains in between? The Post has a try
- 4 flights, numerous trains, 9 days and US$990 in fares later, we land in Bangkok. One decision left: fly to Hong Kong direct or with a 9-hour layover for less?
It’s been a chaotic summer at airports across Europe. Staff shortages have resulted in the cancellation of thousands of flights; baggage has gone missing on an industrial scale; and strikes by air traffic controllers and airline workers have caused further disruption.
And all this during the hectic school holiday season.
When I leave Hong Kong on travel assignments, I don’t usually bother buying a return ticket, as something competitively priced usually turns up. Nothing competitive is available this summer.
A scarcity of supply at a time of maximum demand has led to an eye-watering spike in fares for both short- and long-haul flights. Tickets are at least quadruple the usual price and often involve a stop or two en route.
The journey from Indonesia to Romania ended up taking a mind- and buttock-numbing 41 hours. Only a fool would try to emulate his feat, surely?
I decide instead to book only my first flight and improvise thereafter, but soon discover asking prices for tickets to European destinations are what I usually pay for a one-way to Hong Kong.
Things look bleak until I spot a reasonably priced – for summer 2022, at least – ticket from Stansted Airport near London to the Dutch city of Maastricht.
Not an obvious first port of call for someone trying to get to Hong Kong, I grant you, but to paraphrase a Chinese proverb, a journey of six thousand miles begins with a single Ryanair flight.
Located where three countries meet and five languages are spoken, Maastricht is one of the Netherlands’ oldest settlements. I’d love to linger in the beautiful university city but I’m in a hurry to continue eastward. Fortunately, the German city of Aachen is only an hour’s train ride away.
Renowned for its 8th-century cathedral, resting place of that cultural revivalist Emperor Charlemagne, it’s also a spa town prized for its curative waters. Instead of soaking up the sights, however, I make a beeline for the Hauptbahnhof, or central station.
In what has been described as “probably the best deal in the history of German train travel”, the national railway company is promoting a €9 (US$9) ticket valid for travel anywhere in the country during June, July and August.
Much as I would like to criss-cross Germany, visiting Berlin, the fairy-tale castles of the Black Forest, the Bavarian Alps and so on, I’ve noticed that Poland looks a good bet for tolerably expensive air fares to Asia.
The woman at the ticket counter seems mildly irritated that I want to use the €9 pass to hop across her homeland in a single day. “You realise you can’t use intercity services,” she warns me. “It’s only valid on regional trains. You’ll have to change at least six times. It’ll take forever – only a fool would even try it.”
Having left Aachen at 6.50am, I reach Dusseldorf by 8.30am, Cologne half an hour later, and spend the rest of a sweltering day in a soporific daze as a succession of crowded trains whisk me from Bad Oeynhausen to Braunschweig, Berlin and beyond.
After 13 hours and 800km (500 miles), I alight at the German/Polish border town of Frankfurt on the Oder – not to be confused with Germany’s finance hub, Frankfurt, which is located around 550km (340 miles) away.
I’d like to stroll down to see the eponymous river, but I’m exhausted from sitting looking out of a window all day.
The next morning, refreshed and raring to go, I buy a ticket to the Polish city of Poznan, which turns out to be an agreeable place. The locals are cheerful and ready to help a train-lagged tourist, and the food is deliciously stodgy.
Best of all, it’s not far from Warsaw, should a temptingly priced flight materialise.
I give my camera a thorough workout, capturing the pastel-painted, Renaissance-style buildings in Old Market Square and the edible-looking Baroque Church of St Stanislaus.
But my favourite snippet of Poznan trivia is that the city straddles the appropriately named River Warta – though the locals don’t pronounce it “wa-ter”.
After a couple of relaxing days it’s time to move on, but I’m not sure where to. Economy seats from Warsaw to Hong Kong are still at business class prices and tickets to Bangkok are equally extortionate. But just as I’m plotting a detour to the seaside city of Gdansk, I spot a flight from Krakow to Dubai.
Krakow is five hours from Poznan by train, which would have been daunting a couple of weeks back, but now I can do it in my sleep. And probably will.
The only hitch is that most passengers booked in advance. My last-minute ticket comes without a seat reservation, so I find myself squeezed into the space between the carriages next to the toilets. Maybe planning ahead isn’t such a bad idea after all.
I’ve visited Krakow before, but on this occasion there’s only time for a Phileas Fogg-like dash around the photogenic city.
On the bus to John Paul II International Airport, I book a room at the snappily named Pokoje Gościnne Pałac w Balicach Instytut Zootechniki PIB, which roughly translates as Guest Rooms of the Balice Palace National Research Institute of Animal Husbandry.
The stately looking property is situated in the middle of a forest, 15 minutes by taxi from the airport. The room is fine, the staff eager to please, but perhaps I should have stumped up for a suite at the Airport Hilton, which is a two-minute walk from the check-in desks.
Early the next morning I receive a text alert from the Polish Met office – “Warning! Heavy rain and strong winds expected. Risk of power outages. Avoid open spaces.” I skip breakfast and phone around for a taxi back to the airport.
Fortunately there are still drivers willing to head out to an animal husbandry research centre in a forest as a hurricane approaches. My cabby drops me off at 9am as the skies darken. Problem is, my plane doesn’t leave until 7pm.
Minor storm-related turbulence aside, the overnight flight to Dubai is uneventful – which is exactly how I like my flights.
After I’ve had a reviving nap, the receptionist at the Howard Johnson Plaza by Wyndham Dubai Deira hotel gives me directions to Nasser Travel travel agency. “It’s only a 10-minute walk away,” she says, omitting one important detail. July in Dubai is hairdryer hot.
Temperatures are in the mid-40s Celsius (around 113 degrees Fahrenheit) with Hong Kong-like levels of humidity. Only a fool would venture onto the baking streets.
I load up with bottled water, don a wide-brimmed hat, apply sunblock and lip balm, and set off. At one point I spot the travel agency but it turns out to be a mirage. I eventually arrive soaked in sweat, prompting the sales manager to ask whether I swam over.
Asim suggests I fly from Dubai to Bangkok via an Indian city. He recommends Mumbai, but I put my foot down when he mutters something about having to spend 22 hours in transit. We rule out Bangalore too (15 hours) and settle on New Delhi, with Indigo Airlines, which involves a five-hour layover.
Next we discuss the issue of an Indian transit visa. Asim makes a phone call and receives assurance I won’t need one. My bags will be tagged all the way through to BKK. I’m relieved that I won’t need to collect them from the carousel at New Delhi, check in again and clear immigration for the onward flight.
I’m then free to spend my remaining 24 hours in Dubai frying eggs on car bonnets and seeing how long I can survive in my hotel room after turning off the air conditioner.
Apart from its colossal size, Dubai airport is notable for the number of ambassadors offering assistance at every turn. It would be impossible to get lost finding your way to check-in or the departure gate.
At one stage, I fear passenger service assistant Denis from Uganda is going to board the plane and show me to my seat.
Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport is similarly enormous and would get a solid 9/10 from me if it weren’t for the chaotic hand baggage security check all transit passengers have to negotiate.
We have our belongings thoroughly screened and our persons meticulously searched, despite having already been through the entire rigmarole in Dubai. The queue is long and slow-moving, and we’re barked at for minor infringements by bored-looking customs officers.
Then we board the reddest of red-eye services and, as we touch down in Bangkok, I work out that it’s been 9 days – and about £820 (US$990) in airfares – since my original Ryanair hop to Maastricht.
I only have one leg to go and could be in Hong Kong in less than three hours. But I’ve spotted a slightly cheaper flight with a nine-hour layover in Singapore.
Only a fool would consider that option, surely?