Pro Tips

How to Travel Around Asia on the Cheap

Step one: Get to Kuala Lumpur.

By Bill Wiatrak November 13, 2017

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Kuala Lumpur is the perfect jumping-off point for visiting the rest of Asia—and getting there can be surprisingly cheap.

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What if I told you that you could fly to Asia for $402? Yes, that’s right. Round-trip flights from LAX to Kuala Lumpur allow a free stop in China and can cost less than flying to New York. Once you’re there, you can use a cheap local carrier to visit Asian destinations for next to nothing.

Now don’t get me wrong: If you were to call a travel agent or try to book a flight from another city, the price might be triple or more. You have to deconstruct your tickets to keep the price low. But I’m going to tell you how.

In my quest to visit every country in the world, I’ve decided to knock out Brunei, Bangladesh and East Timor in January. Pretty exciting choices, huh? Not high on most people’s lists, but we’ll get to that in a minute. You can apply these same tricks to visit places that you’ve actually heard of, like Bali and Thailand.

First, you can use Skyscanner to pull up the cheapest fares. Since it’s not actually a booking site, you’ll be redirected to a third party site once your fares are displayed. Still, it’s a nice way to shop a lot of sites with one search. Keep in mind that some carriers don’t fly the same schedule every day, so you can adjust your departure dates to look for a better price, itinerary, or even different stopover choices.

So why fly to Malaysia? Simple: Kuala Lumpur is the headquarters for Air Asia, one of the least expensive carriers in the world. Even if hanging out in Malaysia doesn’t thrill you, using KL as a hub can save you a ridiculous amount of money. If you live in a big city like New York or Houston, you can search for low-cost flights directly from there.

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Air Asia is the low-cost carrier of choice once you get to KL.

Chances are that your lowest price option to KL will be out of Los Angeles or San Francisco. To get to California cheaply, I usually use a low-cost carrier like Spirit. In this case, I’m coming from Houston and if I travel on a Tuesday or Wednesday and use a promo code, it only adds about $120 to the cost of the trip.

For the cheaper flights that I’m describing (i.e., Air China and China Eastern), there’s a layover in China, but a visa isn’t required if you’re less than 24 hours in the country. You can actually work out your itinerary to have almost a full day in say, Beijing, by picking the longest layover. And as long as you have an onward ticket, you can run around to your heart’s content—heck, you can even go see the Great Wall if your connection is during daylight hours. If not, the night market is great fun. And you can do it both directions, giving yourself two free days in China. In the case of my booking, I’m coming back through Shanghai.

Malaysia doesn’t require a visa for U.S. citizens so you can fly in and out with no complications. Once you’ve got your ticket to and from Asia, you can start shopping for whatever destination your heart desires. KL is near Singapore, Indonesia, Borneo, India—it’s really kind of in the middle of Asia, so you’ve got lots of options. At the time of writing, I’ve found round-trip flights for these prices from KL: to Bangkok for $63, Bali for $77, and Brunei for $76. It’s difficult to beat these prices, but you might find a schedule that suits you better by looking into other local carriers like Malaysian Air or Royal Brunei.

If you decide to book several flights, you can use an app like TripIt to organize them. It can get a little confusing keeping track of departure times and carriers if you’re booking with several random companies, so TripIt monitors your emails and detects travel itineraries. The app then groups your flights and car rentals into one place, where the data is stored offline so you can check your travel details regardless of whether or not you have Internet access.

Expedia is usually fairly competitive on pricing and also keeps track of your trips, so it’s worth checking to see if you can get comparable pricing with them before you finish your booking. Expedia also gives you travel points that you can redeem to get discounts on future bookings. Since Skyscanner is not a booking site and takes no responsibility for the companies or information that is displayed, it’s worth looking up reviews on websites that you’re not familiar with so you know what you’re getting.

It is possible to travel overland as well. You can head north from Kuala Lumpur and reach Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and even Vietnam by road. There are also ferries between islands of Indonesia and it’s only a three-and-a-half hour drive to Singapore. Just remember: The cost of living in Asia is generally lower than Europe or the Americas, so your travel dollar goes surprisingly far.

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