Southeast Asia is the budget traveller's mecca. Nowhere else does your dollar/pound/baht/ringgit buy your more quality than here in SEA. Nice hotels and guesthouses for as little as $10 USD, cheap eats, affordable drinks and enough culture to keep you intrigued for months (or years, in my case).
Luckily, this also extends to the air infrastructure in the region and thanks to LCCs (low cost carriers, the fancy word for budget airlines) you can flit between different countries in the region on international itineraries for as low as $25 USD. Try that in Central or South America (ain't happening)!
The three biggest budget airline conglomerates in the region are:
In addition to the "big 3" conglomerates there are plenty of one-country budget airlines as well:
While this sounds like a lot, for your specific route there are probably only 2 or 3 of these airlines that fly it, which will simplify your decision substantially.
Amongst the big 3, Air Asia is generally regarded as the "nicest", with Jetstar 2nd and the Lion Group last. Keep in mind that "nicest" is relative, and AirAsia seriously comes up short when comparing to full-service airlines like Singapore Air, Thai Airways, Garuda Indonesia, etc.
Think of these budget carriers like buses-of-the-sky and then your frame of mind will be about right.
In particular, Thai Lion Air is mostly OK except for their incredibly predatory checked baggage fees if you buy at the airport. Prepaying for bags is fine, but if you forget and need to pay at the airport (or your carry-on bag is judged too big and needs to be checked) you are looking at fees of as much as $10 per KG (so a normal 20kg checked bag would cost $200)!!
In contrast, AirAsia also marks up checked bag prices at the airport, but not to such predatory levels. Depending on the route you might pay around $80 to check your bag at the airport, versus the $200 of Thai Lion. Still a rip-off, but a smaller rip-off.
While all these low cost carriers have their pros and cons, at the end of the day they are pretty similar. And let's be honest --- you and I both are probably just going to pick whichever is cheapest!
Keeping with my "bus-in-the-sky" analogy, you need to go into your flight simply expecting to be transported from "Point A to Point B". Nothing more, nothing less. Most of the negative reviews you read online are from unprepared people (e.g. who don't read articles like this) who are expecting their flight to be just like a regular full-service carrier (while all the while paying budget airline ticket prices).
If you want to eat, bring your own food. If you want water, bring your own water bottle. These flights are all pretty short, so just grit your teeth, lower your expectations and get through the 3-4 hour journey.
As long as your mindset is right, flying budget airlines is a no brainer. After all, that $150-$200 you might save on your ticket can be put to much better use at your destination than paying for some fancy flight.
Here's where things get tricky Thai Lion Air. Unfortunately, the official Thai Lion Air website does not accept foreign (non-Thailand issued) credit or debit cards.
Rest assured, there is nothing wrong with your card and your bank is not blocking the payment. There is simply a rule in Thai Lion Air's payment system that rejects all foreign cards. Luckily, if you simply need to buy your ticket you can use one of the many OTA websites (online travel agent) such as Trip.com, Kiwi.com, Tiket.com and others which offer Thai Lion Air flights.
Using an OTA will work fine except if you need to check a bag (or want to buy any other incidentals such as reserving a hotel meal or selecting your seats). Unfortunately, none of the OTAs support buying these add-ons, just the ticket. So if you do need any of these (especially a checked bag), read on to see why it is so important to buy your checked bag ahead of time.
Most budget airlines have "gotcha" fees for passengers who don't follow all of their terms and conditions exactly. Since budget airlines offer tickets for so cheap with slim profit margins, this is an extra revenue stream to substantially boost up the budget airline's profitability. In Thai Lion Air's case, if you don't buy your baggage ahead of time they will charge you the outrageous price of 300 THB ($9.69 USD) per KG (for domestic flights) or 500 TH ($16.16 USD) per KG (for international flights). For a typical 20kg checked bag this could lead to anywhere from $200 - $320 USD!!!
Since your ticket itself might only be $50-100 USD, many many people end up paying more in baggage fees at the airport than the price of their ticket itself.
Imagine yourself in that situation at the airport --- if you don't board your flight all of your travel plans will be messed up --- but the only way you can do so is to pay the $100s of dollars in fees (or to leave your checked luggage behind!!!).
Amongst budget airlines, Thai Lion Air is particularly egregious in this regard, as most other budget airlines might make you only pay double or triple to check a bag at the airport rather than the 10X charge that Thai Lion does.
Now what makes this situation especially messed up (& why I started BuyBaggage.com) is that for the people who bought their ticket using an OTA (& don't have a Thailand-issued payment method) there is no way for them to buy their baggage directly from Thai Lion Air...
This happened to me on my flight from Jakarta to Bangkok on Thai Lion Air and I had to resort to asking a Thai friend of mine to buy the luggage for me. But obviously not everyone has a Thai friend they can ask in a situation like this, hence I opened my own Thai bank and created BuyBaggage.com to solve this problem once and for all.
Your experience at the airport can be very streamlined if you prepared ahead (purchasing your baggage, ensuring your carry-on is under the 7kg weight limit, etc) or nightmarish if not.
The check-in line tends to be slow with Thai Lion Air due to the tense & heated negotiations between unprepared passengers and the check-in staff as people desperately try to negotiate down their checked baggage fees. Regardless of if you purchased ahead, you'll be delayed while you wait for these passengers to eventually cough up the cash to check their bags.
Other than that, Thai Lion is pretty good about taking off on time (unlike their parent company, Indonesian Lion Air which is notorious for their delays). So once you get past check-in, it should be smooth sailing.
Again, using the bus-in-the-sky analogy is apt for the flight itself. If you didn't pre-purchase any meals, don't expect any food. If you didn't bring your own water bottle, expect to have to pay (in Thai Baht currency) for any drinks.
Other than that, nothing was particularly notable about the flight itself. Luckily, most of these flights are short so just kick back, relax and wait until the flight is over.
As you can tell from reading this review, the kafka-esque situation some foreign passengers find themselves in after purchasing their ticket from an OTA and needing to check a bag is plain messed up. Nobody should be forced to pay insane fees just to check a bag, and not everybody should be expected to be able to pay for their bags with a Thailand-issued credit/debit card (either theirs or a friends).
That's why I started BuyBaggage.com, where for a reasonable $10 service fee we will purchase your bag for you on Thai Lion Air (and other airlines too) to ensure that your time at the airport check-in counter goes smoothly.
Overall, as long as you are well prepared flying with Thai Lion Air is a breeze. Personally, I often fly between Mumbai and Bangkok and near-100% of the time Thai Lion Air has the best prices on that route. Because of the fact that I know their policies inside-and-out and that they have the best fares, I will continue to fly Thai Lion Air in the future.
Be prepared, keep your expectations low, and you will have a fine experience flying with them.