Comparing budget flights with Nok Air and Air Asia

Sometimes I’ve been guilty of falling in love with a product and/or service to the point where it blinds me from trying something else. When it comes to flying around select destinations in Asia, I’ve been a huge fan of Air Asia for years. Almost exclusively I’ve flown with Air Asia – on both long and short haul flights – whenever I haven’t taken more local forms of transportation such as trains or buses.

As a traveller that seeks value over comfort, I’ve come to appreciate being able to take flights (when booked well in advance) that costs a mere fraction compared with major airlines. In certain cases, I’ve found flights with Air Asia that were far cheaper than taking either the bus or train!

Nok Air versus Air Asia: Which Budget Airline Is Better in Thailand And Southeast Asia?

Recently, I was forced to look at flights with another carrier when the route I was looking for, a flight from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Penang, Malaysia, was fully booked. With an impending Visa run just mere days away, I had yet to book a flight out of Thailand.

I had heard about Nok Air, from several friends who had flown with them before; although, they had mentioned positive things about their experiences flying with Nok Air, I had yet to really consider them for my own personal connections.

Air-Nok-Air-Asia-Thailand-Visa-Run (3)

Scrambling last minute, I was initially disappointed when I noticed they also didn’t have any available flights from Chiang Mai to Penang. Randomly, I started thinking of destinations in the southern part of Thailand that were close to the Malaysian border; Hat Yai and Krabi immediately came to mind.

When I discovered that a flight from Chiang Mai to Hat Yai, on a promo fare, would cost less than half of the price of a train ticket I immediately pounced. Not knowing what to expect, concerns about safety, service and reliability from this ‘new’ airline crept into my mind as time grew closer to my departure.

Now that I’m writing this post from Phuket, Thailand, having just completed my Visa run to Penang, Malaysia, I’ve only got overwhelming positive things to say about Nok Air. When compared to flights I’ve taken in the past with Air Asia, three things really stand out:

source: Samuel and Audrey on YouTube


Free wifi in the airport? For those accustomed to flying out of the highest rated airports in the world, such as Changi International Airport in Sinagore or Incheon International Aiport in Korea, free wifi has been in play for years; however, for those in North America – or flying with budget airlines – waiting for delayed flights can be excruciatingly painful without a wifi connection.

What I loved about Nok Air, is that they had free wifi for customers waiting to board their flights. To connect, it didn’t require any fancy password or login id; I just simply had to enter my boarding number and within seconds I was surfing online.


Another huge bonus was that I didn’t have to pay extra online (or at the check in counter) for luggage. Because our bag was under 15 kg it was free to have it checked. When booking flights with Air Asia, I always find it a bit misleading when I have the fare etched out in my mind and then suddenly the extras (such as luggage) tack on a significant amount more.

Air-Nok-Air-Asia-Thailand-Visa-Run (2)


Now the real kicker was having a surprise snack and beverage on board Nok Air! I’m used to having to purchase overpriced tiny portion meals from Air Asia; and in the rare case that I actually do decide I’m hungry enough to fork over money for something to eat,

I end up paying more money out of pocket. Although the snack on Nok Air was merely nothing more than a couple of coconut pastries filled with raisins along with a water, I felt as though I was a valued customer.

Air Asia flight as a budget airline option in SE Asia

Air Asia Information For Travelers

AirAsia is a low-cost airline based in Malaysia that offers flights to destinations across Asia and beyond. Here are some key pieces of information that travelers should know:

  1. Booking: AirAsia allows you to book flights online through their website or mobile app. You can also book through a travel agent.
  2. Baggage: AirAsia has strict baggage policies, so make sure to check their website before packing for your trip. You may need to pay extra for checked baggage or for bringing a carry-on bag on board.
  3. Check-in: AirAsia offers online check-in, self-service kiosks at the airport, and counter check-in. Make sure to arrive at the airport with enough time to check-in, clear security, and get to your gate.
  4. In-flight experience: AirAsia offers a no-frills experience, which means you’ll need to purchase any food, drinks, or entertainment on board. You can purchase these items online ahead of time to save money.
  5. Safety: AirAsia has a strong safety record and is committed to ensuring the safety of their passengers. They have implemented enhanced cleaning and safety measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  6. Loyalty program: AirAsia has a loyalty program called AirAsia BIG that allows you to earn and redeem points for flights, hotel stays, and other travel-related expenses.
  7. Customer service: If you have any questions or concerns, AirAsia has a customer service team that you can reach through their website, social media, or by phone.

Overall, AirAsia is a decent option for travelers who are looking for affordable flights to destinations across Asia and beyond. Just make sure to familiarize yourself with their policies and procedures before your trip to ensure a smooth travel experience.

Nok Air is a Thai budget airline

Nok Air Information For Travelers

Nok Air is a low-cost airline based in Thailand that offers domestic and international flights to various destinations in Thailand, Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Vietnam, and more. Here are some key pieces of information for travelers:

  1. Booking: You can book flights on Nok Air’s website or through their mobile app. They also have partnerships with travel agencies and online travel booking platforms.
  2. Baggage: Nok Air has a baggage allowance of 15 kg for checked baggage and 7 kg for carry-on baggage. You may need to pay extra for additional baggage or for oversized or overweight baggage.
  3. Check-in: Nok Air offers online check-in, self-service kiosks at the airport, and counter check-in. Make sure to arrive at the airport with enough time to check-in, clear security, and get to your gate.
  4. In-flight experience: Nok Air offers a no-frills experience, similar to other low-cost airlines. They do offer food and drinks for purchase on board.
  5. Safety: Nok Air has a strong safety record and is committed to ensuring the safety of their passengers. They have implemented enhanced cleaning and safety measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  6. Nok Fan Club: Nok Air has a loyalty program called Nok Fan Club that allows you to earn and redeem points for flights and other travel-related expenses.
  7. Customer service: If you have any questions or concerns, Nok Air has a customer service team that you can reach through their website or by phone.

Overall, Nok Air is a good option for travelers who are looking for affordable flights within Thailand and to nearby countries in Asia. Just make sure to familiarize yourself with their policies and procedures before your trip to ensure a smooth travel experience.

Air Asia versus Nok Air head to head comparison between discount budget airlines in Southeast Asia

Air Asia versus Nok Air Comparison

AirAsia and Nok Air are both low-cost airlines based in Southeast Asia, but they differ in some key aspects that may affect travelers’ preferences.

  1. Network: AirAsia has a larger network and flies to more destinations compared to Nok Air. AirAsia also offers international flights to destinations beyond Southeast Asia.
  2. Prices: Both airlines offer affordable fares, but AirAsia may sometimes have lower prices than Nok Air, especially on international routes.
  3. In-flight experience: Both airlines offer a no-frills experience, but AirAsia offers more amenities and services on board, such as in-flight entertainment, hot meals, and more comfortable seats. Nok Air, on the other hand, offers a simpler and more basic in-flight experience.
  4. Baggage allowance: Nok Air has a more generous baggage allowance than AirAsia, with a free checked baggage allowance of 20 kg and a carry-on allowance of 7 kg. AirAsia, on the other hand, charges for checked baggage and has a lower carry-on allowance.
  5. Loyalty program: Both airlines have loyalty programs, but AirAsia’s BIG program is more extensive and offers more opportunities to earn and redeem points.
  6. Customer service: Both airlines have customer service teams, but AirAsia has a larger and more established customer service network with multiple channels for support.

AirAsia may be a better choice for travelers looking for a wider network, more amenities on board, and a more established loyalty program.

Nok Air may be a better choice for travelers who value a more generous baggage allowance and a simpler in-flight experience. However, it’s important to check both airlines’ fares, schedules, and policies before booking to find the best option for your travel needs.

Budget Airlines in Southeast Asia kitchen views

Historical Background

Air Asia

Founding and early years:

AirAsia, founded in 1993 and commencing operations in 1996, started as a government-owned entity in Malaysia. It was bought over by former Time Warner executive, Tony Fernandes, in 2001 for a mere 1 Malaysian ringgit, with the idea of transforming it into a low-cost airline.

Under Fernandes’ vision, AirAsia quickly adopted the no-frills approach, which was inspired by Southwest Airlines from the United States. This low-cost model meant eliminating traditional airline amenities, resulting in significant savings which were passed on to consumers in the form of lower fares.

Early years were marked by intense competition in the domestic Malaysian market. To distinguish itself, AirAsia championed its tagline “Now everyone can fly,” emphasizing affordability. Within two years of Fernandes’ takeover, the airline became profitable, defying skeptics and marking its place as a significant player in the Southeast Asian aviation market.

Growth and expansion strategies:

  1. Hub-and-spoke model: AirAsia began expanding its domestic routes before branching out internationally. The carrier implemented the hub-and-spoke model, which centered operations at primary hubs like Kuala Lumpur and later added secondary hubs in countries like Thailand (with Thai AirAsia) and Indonesia (with AirAsia Indonesia).
  2. Affiliate airlines: Recognizing the diverse aviation regulatory landscape in Asia, AirAsia pursued joint ventures, spawning affiliate airlines like Thai AirAsia, AirAsia Indonesia, and AirAsia India, among others. This allowed AirAsia to tap into local markets effectively while maintaining its brand consistency.
  3. Fleet uniformity: To reduce maintenance costs and streamline operations, AirAsia predominantly operated a single aircraft type: the Airbus A320. This strategy helped in reducing training and operational complexities.
  4. Ancillary revenue: Beyond ticket sales, the airline capitalized on ancillary revenue streams, such as baggage fees, in-flight meals, and premium seat selections.
  5. Digital Innovation: AirAsia leveraged technology to its advantage, introducing web check-ins, self-service kiosks, and a robust mobile application, all in line with its strategy to reduce human intervention and operational costs.

Nok Air

Inception and its significance in the Thai market:

Nok Air was founded in February 2004 as a joint venture between Thai Airways International and the Shin Corporation. The name “Nok” translates to “bird” in Thai, symbolizing freedom, simplicity, and movement.

Nok Air emerged as Thailand’s second low-cost carrier, after Thai AirAsia. Its colorful, bird-themed livery and youthful branding resonated with the younger demographic. While the Thai aviation market was dominated by full-service carriers like Thai Airways, Nok Air’s entry created a more competitive environment for budget travel within the country.

The airline focused on underserved routes, targeting domestic travelers and smaller cities that were not yet catered to by larger carriers. This strategy allowed Nok Air to carve out a niche for itself and capture a substantial share of the Thai domestic market.

Evolution over the years:

  1. Expansion to secondary cities: Nok Air followed a distinct strategy by focusing more on secondary and tertiary airports in Thailand, often flying to destinations not served by other major airlines.
  2. Fleet diversity: Unlike AirAsia’s one-type fleet, Nok Air diversified its fleet, operating both Boeing 737s for mainline routes and smaller Q400 turboprops for regional routes. This allowed greater flexibility in serving varied route lengths and demands.
  3. Nok Mini: Recognizing the demand in ultra-short routes and smaller markets, Nok Air introduced Nok Mini, a service using smaller aircraft to connect remote regions in Thailand.
  4. Collaborations: The airline entered into code-sharing and interline agreements with carriers like Scoot, enhancing its reach beyond domestic borders.
  5. Challenges faced: The journey wasn’t always smooth. Nok Air faced financial challenges, management changes, and competitive pressures, especially from other LCCs like Thai AirAsia and Lion Air’s Thai Lion Air. However, through continuous restructuring and strategy refinement, the airline has managed to sustain its position in the market.

Both AirAsia and Nok Air represent the dynamism of the Southeast Asian aviation market, showcasing how visionary strategies can lead to market dominance, even amidst challenges.

Operational Strategies

source: Josh Cahill on YouTube

Air Asia

Business model (low-cost carrier):

AirAsia’s business model is rooted in the principles of the low-cost carrier (LCC) model, a concept that transformed the aviation industry worldwide. Their primary focus is on offering no-frills, low fare services to their passengers. Key aspects of this model include:

  1. Single passenger class: By offering only economy class seating without added amenities, AirAsia keeps its services simple and efficient.
  2. Efficient utilization of aircraft: With quick turnaround times, AirAsia maximizes the operational hours of its aircraft, allowing more flights per day.
  3. Ticketless operations: Embracing digital technology, they adopted ticketless travel, saving printing and distribution costs.
  4. Direct sales: The company prioritized selling tickets directly through their website or mobile application, bypassing travel agents and intermediaries, thus saving on commission expenses.
  5. Ancillary revenues: A major chunk of their revenue, apart from the ticket price, comes from added services like baggage charges, in-flight meals, seat selection, and travel insurance.

Fleet management:

AirAsia operates a simplified fleet, primarily consisting of the Airbus A320 family aircraft. This strategy has multiple advantages:

  1. Uniformity: Operating one type of aircraft reduces maintenance complexities, spares inventory, and crew training costs.
  2. Bulk purchases: AirAsia often places bulk orders with Airbus, securing substantial discounts and better delivery slots.
  3. High-density seating: To maximize revenue per flight, the aircraft are configured with high-density seating.

Route planning:

AirAsia’s route strategy revolves around the hub-and-spoke model:

  1. Primary hubs: Kuala Lumpur is the primary hub, supplemented by secondary hubs in countries like Thailand and Indonesia.
  2. Frequent short-haul routes: The airline focuses heavily on short-haul routes, ensuring quick turnarounds and high aircraft utilization.
  3. Underserved markets: AirAsia often ventures into underserved or unserved markets, capitalizing on low competition and demand for affordable travel.

source: Probably Together on YouTube

Nok Air

Business model:

Nok Air operates with a hybrid business model that combines elements of traditional full-service airlines and low-cost carriers:

  1. Multiple service offerings: While primarily an LCC, Nok Air offers various fare types, including promotional, standard, and full-service fares, giving passengers more choices.
  2. Partnerships with parent company: As a subsidiary of Thai Airways, Nok Air leverages interline and code-share agreements to offer more destinations and seamless travel for passengers connecting from international flights.

Aircraft type and maintenance strategies:

Nok Air operates a diverse fleet:

  1. Boeing 737s: These are used for mainline and more popular routes.
  2. Q400 turboprops: Ideal for regional routes and smaller airports, allowing access to destinations that aren’t feasible with larger jets.
  3. Maintenance: Given the diverse fleet, Nok Air’s maintenance strategy is more complex than single-fleet airlines. They ensure rigorous training for technicians and maintain a comprehensive inventory of spare parts. Collaborative agreements with manufacturers and MRO (Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul) providers ensure timely checks and aircraft upkeep.

Route and network strategies:

  1. Focus on domestic markets: Nok Air primarily targets Thailand’s domestic routes, especially underserved regions.
  2. Strategic time slots: The airline schedules flights at times convenient for passengers, such as early morning or late evening for business travelers.
  3. Partnerships: Nok Air’s collaborations, especially its code-share agreement with Scoot, expand its reach beyond domestic destinations.

In conclusion, both airlines, though operating within the broader LCC framework, have nuanced strategies tailored to their strengths, target audience, and operational contexts.

source: Portable Professional on YouTube

Budget Airlines In Southeast Asia

There are several budget airlines in Southeast Asia that offer affordable air travel options to passengers. Here are some of the most popular ones:

  1. AirAsia: Founded in 1993, AirAsia is one of the largest and most well-known budget airlines in Southeast Asia. The airline operates flights to over 165 destinations in 25 countries, including domestic and international routes. AirAsia is known for its low fares, which are often significantly cheaper than full-service airlines. The airline frequently offers promotional deals and discounts to further reduce the cost of air travel. In addition, AirAsia offers a range of in-flight amenities such as hot meals, in-flight entertainment, and comfortable seats to enhance the flying experience.
  2. Lion Air: Lion Air is an Indonesian-based airline that operates flights to over 100 destinations across Asia and Australia. The airline is known for its low fares and basic in-flight experience, which includes no frills or amenities. Lion Air was founded in 1999 and has since grown to become one of the largest airlines in Indonesia. The airline’s low fares make it an attractive option for budget-conscious travelers who are willing to sacrifice some comforts for affordability.
  3. VietJet Air: VietJet Air is a Vietnamese airline that operates flights to over 40 destinations across Asia. The airline was founded in 2007 and has quickly become one of the fastest-growing airlines in the region. VietJet Air is known for its low fares and distinctive in-flight experience, which includes cheerful flight attendants who perform dance routines for passengers. The airline also offers a range of optional add-ons such as baggage allowance, seat selection, and hot meals.
  4. Nok Air: Nok Air is a Thai-based airline that operates flights to around 30 destinations in Thailand and neighboring countries such as Myanmar and Vietnam. The airline was founded in 2004 and is known for its affordable fares, simple in-flight experience, and more generous baggage allowance compared to other budget airlines. Nok Air’s in-flight experience includes no frills or amenities, but the airline’s low fares make it a popular choice for budget-conscious travelers.
  5. Cebu Pacific Air: Cebu Pacific Air is a Philippine-based airline that operates flights to over 60 destinations across Asia and Australia. The airline was founded in 1996 and has since become one of the largest airlines in the Philippines. Cebu Pacific Air is known for its low fares and frequent promotional deals, which often include discounts on flights, baggage, and add-ons such as seat selection and meals. The airline’s in-flight experience is basic, but passengers can choose to purchase additional amenities such as hot meals and entertainment.
  6. Jetstar Asia: Jetstar Asia is a Singapore-based airline that operates flights to over 20 destinations across Asia and Australia. The airline is known for its low fares, simple in-flight experience, and optional add-ons such as checked baggage and hot meals. Jetstar Asia was founded in 2004 and is a subsidiary of the Australian airline, Jetstar Airways. The airline’s low fares and frequent promotions make it a popular choice for budget-conscious travelers in the region.

In conclusion, budget airlines are a great option for travelers who want to save money on air travel in Southeast Asia. Each airline has its own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s important to consider factors such as fare prices, in-flight experience, baggage allowance, and safety records before booking a flight. With a bit of research and planning, travelers can find affordable flights to many destinations in the region.

Sunset views and clouds looking out of the window of the airplane


Overall, I was so thoroughly impressed with the service of Nok Air, not to mention the silky smooth flights, that I’m going to consider them AHEAD of Air Asia on routes in and around Thailand and nearby borders.

Although, I’ll likely price compare with Air Asia, and ultimately select the best value flight, if it is anywhere close to a tie I’m going with Nok Air hands down. I’ve found that it’s the little things, such as free wifi and a small snack, that can make the world of a difference when flying from point A to B.

Moreover, I realize budget airlines often come with reduced service, or as they say in the industry ‘with no frills’; however, I think that there is a difference between being frugal (or value conscious) with your service versus being flat out stingy.

I feel that Nok Air scores much higher in this area than Air Asia and it has consequently won me over as a customer.

Have you ever flown with Nok Air or Air Asia? What was your experience like?

How about your experiences flying with different airlines? Have you been as ridiculously stubborn and loyal as I’ve been in the past? What sort of things do you value when flying?

Let me know in the comments! 🙂

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  1. says: Jorge Vieira

    I’m doing some research these days for my upcoming trip to SE Asia and this post caught my eye. Not sure if Nok is on momondo or skyscanner but, if they’re not its their loss (and mine).
    Unfortunately I already booked my Air Asia tickets (5 in total). Will make sure to check their website next time I go there.
    Free wifi is great BUT free luggage (15kg) is unbeatable. There’s where the cost increases when you’re backpacking.

    Great blog Samuel, found it through your videos. Haven’t done anything else today but browse through them

  2. says: Simon D

    I’m a fan of Nok air over AirAsia anytime. Too bad they don’t have a large presence outside of their home base yet. They’ve just started to expand again into Vietnam (the other international destination is Yangon, Myanmar). They are the pioneers in feeder service (bus – with connections to Laos, Northern Malaysia, other parts of Thailand & ferry – to many islands in Thailand) which AirAsia has now copied the concept.

    Not sure if you have flown with them recently, some of the newer 737 aircraft comes with free wifi ON-BOARD !!

    By the way, Nok mean bird in Thai, hence the livery looking like a bird. Nok is also one of the common nicknames for woman in Thailand. Jib Jib has double/triple meaning – (1) to Thais its sounds that birds make, (2) as a slang it can mean ‘easy’

  3. says: David

    I fly into Thailand monthly and have to get a connection to Sakon Nahkon, due to my arrival time into Thailand i have to get the evening flight with Nok air, Not once has this flight been on time the delays have been between 30min late to 5 hours late if i had the choice i would fly Air Asia, next time i will stay the night in BKK

  4. says: Peter

    Just flew Nok Air from Udon to Chiang Mai on one of their Saab 340’s. My Girlfriend couldn’t get over how cute she thought the planes blue livery was. Very impressed for a low cost airline. Staff were great, free wifi and snack and the plane even left 10 mins early…. Was rapt with the service and wouldn’t hesitate too fly them again.

  5. Great to know. I hadn’t even heard of this airline.
    Have you thought of searching on wikipedia.
    For example “Airlines in Malaysia,” and then checking in their websites directly? I’ve gotten great results that way with those airlines that have like 2-5 airplanes.
    I am definitely going to write this one down.
    BTW how much was it?

  6. says: Peris

    the nok air’s bird livery that caught my attention when flying from Bangkok to Hatyai a few months back but at that time already booked AirAsia… i’m totally agreed that a few simple treatment can make us feel appreciated as a customer.. Will try Nok Air next time.good review ..

  7. says: Sista Voyage

    Sorry Sam, didn’t read the post because I was just amazed at how fly the planes looked. Get it? Fly??!!

    *drops mic and walks off stage*

  8. says: noel

    I’ve never heard of Nok Air, those are great perks which AirAsia nickel and dimes you with each add-on service or upgrade (I hate that) will have to try it next time I’m in the area that services my needs.

  9. says: robin

    I admit, I am ridiculously loyal to Delta and their Skyteam, but only when flying to a large city. When it comes to hopping around Europe (as I’ve never flown around Asia), I go for whomever is cheapest and seems safest. I’ll definitely look into Nok Air when I’m finally making the leap in Asia.

    1. Thanks Robin!

      Definitely check out Nok Air and possibly other budget carriers in SE Asia. I’ve been too loyal to Air Asia and I’m now exploring my options when flying in the region.

  10. says: Miruna

    Your posts are always interesting and useful, Sam, and I would like to thank you and Audrey for sharing with us your adventures and experiences. Regarding the question at the bottom of the article, the only think I value when I’m flying is my life.

    1. Thanks Miruna!

      That’s a very important thing to value. I’ve avoided certain airlines because of their shady safety standards/records. It’s not worth saving a few dollars in certain situations.

  11. says: Nicole

    Well, it looks like the bird is the word.

    We are fairly loyal to delta airlines. When we took the a budget airline on easy jet, we loved it. So inexpensive and expedient. Can’t beat that. 🙂

  12. says: Helen

    I agree with Amber, I’d fly with them just for the funky looking planes. And the pastries.

    Will definitely look them up for next time I’m in Asia!

  13. says: Amber

    I want to fly them because of their livery – I would love to fly a duck plane. I was aware of the free wifi, as it popped up on my computer as an option while I was waiting for an Air Asia flight in Bangkok. I was not aware of luggage, which makes it a viable option. I will definitely research them more in the future. Thanks for this info!

  14. says: Talon

    I was wondering about Nok the last time we were in Thailand. The free WiFi is what caught my eye initially. Glad to know they seem like a good airline.

  15. Do skyscanner include Nok? On internal flights I’ve had a few Nok but recently in the Southeast Asia region I’ve been on Tiger and SEAir flights. They tend to be cheaper than AirAsia for areas like Singapore and Philippines. In fact Airasia tend to **** right me off these days. Booked flights last night and they now try and push every ‘frill’ on you from the start. A whole lot of time wasted unchecking baggage, insurance, assigned seats etc… Surprised Nasi Lemak isn’t forced on you. Again Tiger and SEAir still leave from Suvarnabhumi. Free wifi everywhere and easier to locate than Don Mueang. While I would normally promote the local Thai Airasia and Nok…. they have become too complacent in the market.