Luang Prabang: A Reality fare check

SINGAPORE, 18 January 2019: Was Scoot guilty of pulling the wool over our eyes when it announced, earlier this month, it would start a new flight to Luang Prabang, 1 April?

Not really, it just looked that way when the low-cost airline conveniently omitted to mention that it was actually a lateral shift that replaced sister-airline SilkAir on a route served since October 2016.

The UNESCO listed World Heritage town is not gaining extra flights or seats out of Singapore.

Both airlines belong to the Singapore Airlines group. SilkAir struggles to find a fit with consumers, while Scoot happily thrives in the low-cost space.

Initially, the brand change brings a few tempting travel deals. In the Singapore market Scoot offers a one-way fare for SGD80 for bookings made in January. In Australia’s major cities served by Scoot, travellers were offered one-way travel to Luang Prabang for as low as AUD189 from Perth, AUD199 from the Gold Coast and AUD209 from Sydney.

These tempting offers out of Australia close 22 January, but the actual travel dates extend to October.

Hoteliers in Luang Prabang, keen to see markets open through lower fares and more convenient air services and routes, will welcome the news.

New hotels and guesthouses opened late last year with the most recent, the 123-room Pullman Luang Prabang, causing considerable competition at the top-end of the market. Also, adding more rooms at the top-end of the market, the four-star Le Bel Air Resort Luang Prabang opened 15 November with 166 keys.

Scoot’s stronger marketing and its savvy travel deals should draw more travellers from Singapore, who are looking for short break holidays, although having just three weekly services is a drawback and flying via Vientiane on the return leg is a nuisance adding more than one hour to reach Singapore.

Luang Prabang’s hoteliers are hoping Scoot will consider increasing services to at least four weekly and ending the diversion to Vientiane on the return sector, which has very little value for tourists or business travellers.

However, it’s a stretch to believe Scoot will pick up more bookings in Australia for trips to Luang Prabang even with the sub-AUD200 one-way fares.

On the outbound leg from Australia there’s a stop in Changi airport to connect with a flight to Luang Prabang. Downtime between flights is six hours and 30 minutes during the dead of night 0230 to 0900. Even though Changi is the best airport in the world it looks forlorn in the wee hours of the morning when most of the food outlets are closed.

The return journey to Australia involves two stops; a transit in Vientiane and a change of plane in Changi with a 20 hour and 40 minute wait between flights. Total flight time on the return trip is 31 hours compared with around 15 hours on the outward journey.

Like so many Mekong Region destinations the sales pitches far outshine the reality for the time-starved traveller resident in Asia-Pacific. Often end-to-end travel is equivalent in time to a trip from Asia to Europe. Destinations that should be served by flights of two to three-hours take five to six hours.

On the route Singapore to Luang Prabang the best deal in April is a USD262 roundtrip fare on Scoot.

If you are travelling from Sydney to Luang Prabang the lowest roundtrip fare is a combination of Emirates and Bangkok Airways priced at USD964. End-to-end travel is 20 hours on the outbound sector with connecting flights in Bangkok and 16 hours on the return trip.

From other regional gateways, the flight options to Luang Prabang are limited.  During April, out of Bangkok, the best roundtrip offer is on Thai AirAsia at USD118 with a flight time of one-hour and 50 minutes on an Airbus A320. 

Bangkok Airways quotes a roundtrip fare of USD262 using the smaller 70-seat ATR 72 that takes two hours and 10 minutes to complete the flight.

Fares are higher from Hong Kong with Bangkok Airways offering a one-stop service via Bangkok at USD601 and an end-to-end travel time of seven hours and 35 minutes.

Vietnam Airlines quotes a roundtrip fare of USD574 with a flight time, including a change of plane in Ho Chi Minh City, of seven hours and 35 minutes, but the return trip takes 17 hours and 15 minutes.

Kuala Lumpur another obvious gateway target for Luang Prabang’s tourism industry has limited options.  There are no direct flights.

AirAsia flies from Kuala Lumpur to Luang Prabang with a change of planes in Bangkok and a journey duration of six hours and 20 minutes. The roundtrip fare is USD206.

Bangkok Airway quotes a roundtrip fare to Luang Prabang of USD411 with a change of plane in Bangkok and a travel time of five hours and 55 minutes on the outward leg and six hours and 45 minutes on the return.

Malaysia Airlines quotes a fare of USD579 to Luang Prabang with a stop in Bangkok to connect with a Bangkok Airways’ service, under their codeshare agreement, hence the higher fare on the Malaysian airline.

For the travel and hospitality trade in Luang Prabang the message is pretty clear that as long as airlines send travellers on roundabout routes that double travel times from major cities in Asia, the time wasting and travel costs are a real snag preventing value-for-money weekend breaks in one of the region’s exquisite chill-out destinations.