The different flights to Chiang Mai, from the various backpacking destinations in Asia
When backpacking in South-East Asia, flights will often take bite-sized chunks out of your budget, so whether its flights into Chiang Mai or an obscure return ticket through Yangon, being prepared is everything. The last time I saw some friends preparing their 2-month tour through Asia, I noticed they had a spreadsheet with cost estimates. Fascinated, I leaned over to see a detailed analysis with a variety of columns for “flights”, “accommodation”, “daily expenditures” and a list of specific activities they had already agreed upon like a cooking class or an Elephant Sanctuary.
Now, these guys came prepared and this really pays off. Because of that, I will list some of my thoughts on online ticket pricing and preparation in this article. But if you are in the middle of your trip and you’ve ended up on this article because you want to fly to Chiang Mai at some point, simply scroll down for the information about the different airports in South-east Asia.
In the sections below I will go over the top 5 destinations in Thailand, and add some additional points here and there as well. I am well aware that a backpacker is looking for different information than a retiree looking for the best golf courses and restaurants. But bear with me as I think reading the article will paint you an accurate picture of what you would like to do.
A word on online ticket pricing
Anyone who has ever tried buying a ticket online has noticed the inexplicable differences in pricing. Seeing that there are a variety of different companies selling the same tickets, and knowing that all these companies have unique pricing arrangements with the airline, the differences are apparent. On top of that, every single company trying to sell the same ticket does so with a unique set of variables. One company may try to sell as many tickets as possible, going for high volume/low margins, while another operator will count on walk-in customers that appreciate personal service and gladly pay an additional 7% for a ticket that is handed to them personally instead of sent by email.
Mind you, this is a very simplified example, as there are a countless other factors that determine the prices of these companies. Predictions, a holiday calendar, sunk costs, the country you are in, loyalty programs and economic factors are all taken into account when the carriers price their tickets.
And while initially price comparison sites like Kayak, Momondo or Skyscanner were a blessing, it is not uncommon to come across tickets which are even cheaper than these websites. And here is why: Firstly, these portals can only display results from existing booking engines, or apply the prices they have agreed upon with the carrier themselves. But the prices these carriers reserve for their “own” customers with newsletters, apps or spectacular at-the-gate offers is beyond third party websites. But, to make things more complicated, there will always be exceptions to that rule too.
I’ve even come across an old brick & mortar type travel agency in Patong, Phuket that was often able to underbid my flights to Europe with no less than 10%. When I asked them how they could possible underprice online companies, their owner said his “overheads are low” and that he “doesn’t advertise online”.
When buying airline tickets online, the systems are so complicated that there are a variety of ways to game them. Entire YouTube channels are dedicated to beating price comparison sites at their own game, and they will often throw in a lot of other useful tips like “how to get upgraded” or keeping your excess luggage fees to an absolute minimum.
So all in all, it makes a lot of sense to double check whatever price you come across. For instance:
1) Check kayak, and then focus on the cheapest ticket.
2) Double check the carrier for that same ticket, and see if you can’t find any coupon codes, or newsletter offers from that same company.
To not miss out on coupons and special offers, it makes a lot of sense to be subscribed to all of these airlines, as well. Setting up your mail account correctly will make sure this doesn’t interfere with your regular email traffic and when the time comes, you can quickly filter for any special offers that have made it into your inbox. Winning!
When is the best time to buy?
With the incredible complexity of these booking systems, there are no real rules of thumb that always apply, and a lot of it boils down to common sense. For instance, tickets around the holidays will always be more expensive that other periods in time, as it is know that people will pay that premium to spend their days off with their loved ones. Avoiding these price surges will require you to buy your tickets well in advance, especially when it comes to the Christmas and the New Year period. And the further you intend to fly (say, outside of your continent) the more money you can save.
Likewise, these rules will only affect you marginally if you are looking for a short haul flight from one holiday destination to the next. If that is the type of ticket you are looking for, being well-informed of all your options is half the battle. If you also manage to buy those tickets at least two weeks in advance, preferably three, you are very likely to get a great price for your ticket.
Last minute your only option?
But let us assume you are not one of those people who likes to plan and the mere idea of researching your Asia trip with a spreadsheet disgusts you. Or maybe you have just missed your flight and you need to get another ticket absolutely last-minute. In that case, walking around the airport terminal doesn’t hurt either. Find out which carriers are still flying to your destination that day, and visit their sales desk. Especially the low-cost carriers will not have an office that’s easy to find, so make sure you ask at the information. The staff at the sales desks are usually the guys who can get you on the next flight at an attractive rate.
Pro tip: Staying friendly always pays off, but especially with the staff who just told you that you are too late to board the plane. Because these are the sample people who decide whether you will get that ticket for free on the next flight when someone doesn’t show up at the gate. If you become superbest friends forever, he or she may even get you an exit seat, with ample legroom.
Bangkok – Chiang Mai
With more than 50 flights a day, travelers have a lot of choice, and Bangkok to Chiang Mai flight time only takes about 75 minutes on average. Bangkok Airways, Thai Smile, Thai Vietjet, Thai Lion and AirAsia are all carriers on this trajectory. Keep in mind however, that these carriers will often change their destinations. Not too long ago, AirAsia moved from Suvarnabhumi airport to Don Muang, and carriers will often add and remove certain destinations when they are not profitable anymore. Direct flights to Chiang Mai will come and go.
Nok Air also flies to Northern Thailand, and with over six flights a day and low prices they are my favorite airline for this short haul. AirAsia offers no less than twelve direct flights to Chiang Mai per day, But I’ve noticed a weird tendency of their tickets being more expensive in the morning and being cheaper than the competition in the afternoon. Again, comparing prices pays off.
For international travelers needing connecting flights to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, take into account that immigration can take up to two hours on busy days. If you bought the ticket(s) in one go however, this has already been taken care of. I heard that occasionally travelers transfer directly on Suvarnabhumi airport and only go through immigration at their end destination, Chiang Mai.
Phnom Penh – Chiang Mai
A very different trajectory, with over 3.5 hours of flying time and a few flights per day. AirAsia, Bangkok Airways and a number of foreign airliners like Silk Air, China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Korean Air and Singapore airlines operate on this route as well. Mind you none of them get close to the AirAsia packages and most of them are at least twice as expensive as their low-cost competitor.
Phnom Penh is not my favorite airport as it is small, and like all airports it is overpriced. Backpackers may find that they are not allowed to sleep on the premises and are encouraged to find a hotel nearby. Wifi is for free though, so if you manage to find an outlet AND you brought your adapter you can spend some hours there, quietly typing away on your laptop. Forget about YouTube, as the bandwidth is going to make you weep.
I haven’t mentioned any Siem Reap flights here, as there are no direct flights to Chiang Mai from there anyway. Note that Siem Reap was voted one of the worst airports in Asia in 2016, with complaints about bribes and waiting times. Having passed through there myself repeatedly I disagree – it is a small airport, but not that bad.
Another interesting quirk is that Phnom Penh, Siem reap and other Cambodian airport are unsuitable for quick visa runs. Unlike Kuala Lumpur, where you can land and take-off within hours, Cambodian airports require a 24-hour stay. Trying to buy an in- and out ticket within 24 hours will produce a warning pop-up on most airlien websites and at the very latest, the check-in staff will not allow you to board the plane unless you reschedule your departure ticket.
Hanoi – Chiang Mai
Hanoi is interesting in the sense that geography of these two cities really justifies direct flights to Chiang Mai. Yet all flights are either over Bangkok, which is a hefty detour on its own, while China Southern Airways decides Guangzhou is a great stopover. Cathay Dragon is even more daring, suggesting you fly to Hong Kong first, after which you will eventually make it to Chiang Mai.
With almost five hours of flight time, this is a very unfavorable trajectory. But if this is a flight you have to take, prices are astonishingly low with Nok Air, so get a good book or cram some additional movies on your iPad and get ready to fly on the cheap!
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) – Chiang Mai
Similar to Hanoi, Saigon (that’s what people usually call Ho Chi Minh City) doesn’t have any direct flights to Chiang Mai either. However, geographically this actually makes a lot of sense as Bangkok is smack-in-the-middle of the trajectory. So making that stop in Bangkok for a transfer actually makes a lot more sense.
Now if I were to make that trip, I probably put some diversity in that traveling schedule. The flight is still close to four hours, and I guess that about half of that is actual flying time. So instead of getting on that second flight, how about getting off in Bangkok, and finding your way to Chiang Mai alternatively?
Just the other day, there was a girl on a Chiang Mai Facebook group asking how she should get up to Northern Thailand. She didn’t want to fly and reserved five days for the trip alone. That’s awesome, because she could take a night train, cross the Thai countryside with a rental car, buy a ticket on a VIP bus, basically anything that makes it more about the journey and less about the destination.
If you must fly there though, be sure to book your tickets well in advance, and stick to the low-cost carriers instead of some exotic semi-national airline. The latter is almost always more expensive.
Yangon – Chiang Mai
Myanmar simply isn’t as connected to the rest of the world in terms of tourism, and that is reflected by the very few flights going in- and out of the country compared to its direct neighbors. A quick search on Google reveals around three flights a day from Yangon to Chiang Mai, and while the flight is only about 80 minutes, you better pick a day when there are flights scheduled. It’s just not that popular a route, and I have heard from several Chiang Mai travelers they prefer to cross the border by car or trekking with a guide. That would certainly be my choice as well. Either way, this is not a good way to fly into Chiang Mai.
Pro tip: When traveling into Myanmar, make sure you bring pristine dollar bills into the country as no other denomination is as accepted as the US dollar. Moreover, any tear, dirt or other mark will likely result in that bill not being accepted by the locals or a crappy exchange rate. So check your dollars, make sure you have equal amounts of 50, 20, 10 and 1’s as the smaller bills help getting you food and drinks.
Mandalay – Chiang Mai
If you think Yangon – Chian Mai is bad, you haven’t tried getting on a flight from Mandalay to Chiang Mai. Like the other Myanmar connection, these are obscure flights and for travelers, busses and minibusses are simply much more common.
Every few years a press release is issued by a carrier opening flights three times a week from Mandalay into Bangkok or other cities, but these are not the most profitable routes and with murderously expensive tarmac fees, these are usually the first flights to disappear when an airline carrier wants to cut down on costs.
What’s more, the Mandalay International airport is built far outside of the city, in the middle of nowhere. So you may need to budget in some additional time and money to get there.
A lot of travel sites and guides recommend adding two or three days to your planning, as schedules inside the country often change and you may find yourself being delayed for several days when a bus or train doesn’t leave when you expect it too.
Myanmar really is that much of an adventure still.
Kuala Lumpur – Chiang Mai
There are direct flights to Chiang Mai from Kuala Lumpur, and you should know that AirAsia is a Malaysian carrier. This means AirAsia is headquartered close to Kuala Lumpur and they offer most budget flights out of the country.
There are two direct flights, and a host of connecting flights as well. But experience teaches us that these connecting flights are nearly always more expensive than the low-cost carriers. It’s a three-hour flight though so if you have some time to spend, and you are feeling adventurous, consider just flying into Phuket instead.
Direct flights to Chiang Mai vs. connections
In conclusion, I would like to recap that your safest bet on getting a good deal is sticking to the low-cost carriers in Asia. There are several of them, many of them compete on the same routes which will play out in your favor. Avoid the posher National airlines, as they are on a completely different business model, and will often set you back an arm and a leg.
In an ideal situation, book your tickets two-to-three weeks in advance, and for some reason, buying your online tickets on a Tuesday midnight is cheapest statistically, while bookings around Friday 3am are the most expensive ones. Wednesdays are your cheapest departure dates, and you should return on a Wednesday as well from an International flight.
Domestic flights are best returned from on Tuesdays. I know this sounds insane, but there are countless articles written by people much smarter than me backing up these statements with serious statistics. Or, to put it in layman’s terms – stick to these rules and you will save hundreds of dollars!
Also try to find a balance in flying and traveling over land, as I have said it time and time again that Asia can only truly be experience when you travel outside the bigger cities and into the country. You are likely to learn more about Vietnam at a reststop in the middle of nowhere during a lunchbreak, as you ever will going up and down the banana-pancake trail with other travelers.
More Thailand: Check out other amazing things you can do in Thailand