Is booking a cheap plane fare really worth it?

26 December: Manila to Puerto Princesa

The scene at NAIA Terminal 3 that welcomed me at 6:30 this morning can be likened to Divisoria. I wish I could put a nicer description and say that it wasn’t so, but it really resembled the rush and chaos that is Divisoria. An airport as a market place? It sure looked like one. The atmosphere reeks of stress and frantic people and when I got through the gate, the first thing I hear was a foreigner saying, “Where in the world are we?” You know then that it is never a good sign and never a good promotion for tourism.

23 December: Puerto Princesa to Manila

My very short three-day vacation was made shorter by one day when my flight (Cebu Pacific flight 5J642, 23 December) from Puerto Princesa bound for Manila was cancelled two hours later. The cancellation in itself is an interesting story to tell. First, because it was not announced. I found out it was cancelled when the flight before us (5J640) was cancelled. An announcement was made for flight 5J640, and immediately, people flocked the counter. In my past life I was probably Sherlock Holmes because boy, do I get to the bottom of things and investigate to my heart’s content. Even when no announcement has been made yet on our flight, something didn’t feel right. Hmm. Maybe they will cancel our flight, too. I better go check. That was how I thought so I went to the counter, squeezed my small frame in, and asked the lady officer if there were updates about flight 5J642. “Ah yes, ma’am, meron na po. Cancelled na.” Normally, I would react in this way: “What?!? How come no announcement was made? You mean to say you were going to make us wait like these other stranded tourists?!” (Similar stories here)But I stayed calm and thought about the next best solution. “Okay, please, please, I need to go home as soon as possible. Can you book me to the earliest flight out tomorrow?” People beside me and behind me were already at shouting matches with the the ground staff. One said, “Why did you even make us wait five hours when the flight will be cancelled anyway?” Another said, “Where’s your manager? What do we do now? Where do we stay?” The crew, ever so trained like parrots, only had one line to say, “We’re very sorry. Force majeure. We can’t do anything about it.” And yet no answer was given as to the guests’ accommodation, meals, and the basic “so what do we do now?”

Because the mood was already so tense, I just decided to be calm and let the lady crew book me for the first flight out the next day. Immediately, my itinerary ticket was printed, and I was thankful. I made a mental note to check in online when I got home. I got back to my seat, took my bags, and went back home.

That’s where the difference lies. I had the convenience of coming home because I was from Puerto Princesa and a nice bed was still waiting for me. I also had the convenience of time because my scheduled dinners for 24 and 25 December were still intact and not affected by this cancellation. But what about the hundreds of stranded tourists who now have to shell out for an unnecessary expense such as hotel accommodation and meals and have to cancel other important dinners or reunions? And what about connecting flights that they will miss? I felt bad for the many tourists I passed by who were left in the dark by the cancellation. I just hoped that the next day, my flight would not get cancelled again. To be sure, I checked in online, printed my boarding pass, and off I went to dreamland.

24 December: Puerto Princesa to Manila (after cancelled flight)

By 4:30 AM, I was back at the airport. My boarding was at 5:55 AM, and my flight (DG7065) was departing at 6:25 AM. It was an easy morning because I had already checked in online. That’s my practice. Since I don’t check in any luggages, I just go straight to paying my terminal fee, buy a hot cup of choco, take my seat and read a book. A plane arrives at 6:05 AM but no announcement is made. People stood up like there was an unwritten understanding that this is their flight. They lined up at the 5J640 counter on the far left and I assumed these were the guests whose flight was cancelled yesterday ahead of ours. My inquisitive spirit got to working again. I asked the family behind me, “Ano pong flight ninyo?” They go, “na-cancel kami kahapon, 5J642.” “Ah, pareho po tayo ng flight! So ngayon po saan kayo nakabook?” “Hindi ko alam, siguro 10:00 AM pa boarding natin.”

Something didn’t feel right again. The people lining up ready for boarding started exiting the gate to get to the plane. It was 6:18 AM. I went to the counter and asked the lady, “Miss, what time does the 6:25 AM plane arrive? I was rebooked yesterday from flight 5J642 pero wala pang announcement.”

“Ay, Ma’am, boarding na po! Yan na yung plane. Yung next na po is 4:00 PM.” “Huh? Can you check if I am booked for that flight? Kasi walang announcement eh two cancelled flights kahapon. Baka yan yung sa 5J640.” Turned out, my name was on the manifest and so I run like I’ve never run before. I grabbed my things and the family behind my seat that I spoke with earlier asked, “Naka book ka diyan?” I said yes, I was already checked in yesterday. I apologized I could not stay longer and I made a dash towards the gate. I was the last to board the plane.

I don’t really understand why no announcement was made (that this was flight so and so). From how I understood it, since there were two cancelled flights, the first cancelled flight from the day before gets the first flight out. Apparently, it didn’t work like that. You have to rebook yourself individually on whichever flight was available and unfortunately for the people on my flight, they were rebooked automatically for an afternoon flight without their knowledge. Until now, I am confused.

Imagine if I had been left behind when I had already checked in, when I was early at the airport and sitting pretty. I don’t know why no announcement was made on the flight.

Going back to my flight on December 26, Manila to Puerto Princesa, the scene that welcomed me was just like Divisoria, not an airport. The pictures you’ve seen online and the videos of crammed lines and people fainting, people shouting and chanting –they were all accurate. I could tell you right now that the foreigners I saw were all confused and angry and unsure about where to go, what to do next, simply because the announcements were all so confusing. I felt embarrassed for them as a Filipino. If this is the impression they get of our country, little wonder we don’t attract as many tourists as our neighbouring Asian countries. Our boarding gate was at 117. We were asked to move to 118. And finally to 134. Our flight was at 8:05 AM but we left at 10:30 AM due to “the late arrival of the returning plane.” There was a big family of 14 in our flight. They had kids and grandparents with them. The walking from one point to another took its toll especially for the elders. There was another group of foreigners, about 6 of them. I heard one say, “this is ridiculous. This is just a mess!” I simply nodded in agreement. Read more here.

Cebu Pacific offers a lot of promo flights and it is a budget airline. Understandably, the cheap airfare is a big draw to everyone, especially to families. But I wonder: if this is the level of stress and chaos one gets from getting a cheap airfare, would it be much better to go for a few hundred bucks, maybe a thousand pesos more, if only to avoid this situation? If it’s not that, then Cebu Pacific better shape up and IMPROVE their operations. Personally, I have benefited from the low fares and it might simply just be the holiday rush. That said, they cannot simply throw people aside and ruin their vacations! I also have another question. Supposing that you arrived three hours before your flight, YET you still did not get to check in because of the long, long lines, whose fault is it? You can’t check in online anymore, and you did arrive just in time for the check in period. But because the lines are so ridiculously long, you missed out on your flight. Will that be your fault, or the airline’s faulty overbooking system?

Photo credits to Andrew Agunod, with permission.

Photo credits to Andrew Agunod, with permission.

My friend Andrew posted a picture on the dichotomy of PAL and Cebu Pacific flight check ins. On the one side, Cebu Pacific was so packed like sardines, and on the other side, PAL was linalangaw. YET, I was told by my friend Josiah whose flight was also delayed by PAL, that despite the system being down for PAL, PAL was still able to function efficiently. It should tell you something about the way they run their operations, and their professionalism.

Here are some tips I could give to help fellow travellers ease the load on airline (mis) management. I know, I know. They’re supposed to do their jobs. But we’re also supposed to do ours.

1. Check in on line AND print your boarding pass – This helped me a lot. I breezed past through the check in counters and all the long queues simply because I was already checked in. True, you won’t get a say on the seat reservation. But the seat should be your last worry. You also already have your boarding pass so all you need to do is to pay the terminal fee (if it isn’t included in your ticket yet).

2. Arrive earlier than 2 hours. – Anything can always happen. Long lines of people, traffic. My practice has always been, if I had not checked in online, to arrive earlier so that I can find a good spot where I can wait until the check-in counter is open. This also clears my head of worries about being delayed because I am already at the airport this early.

3. If it is only possible, don’t check in luggages when you can just hand-carry them. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like checking in luggages if I’m only going on a short vacation. I carry a Deuter 27-liter backpack that fits most of my clothes. The other things like wallet, etc, I put in another shoulder bag for hand carry. That’s it.

4. Double check your itinerary. Make sure you know which terminal you are supposed to go to. It is a grave mistake to end up in terminal 3 when you’re supposed to be at Terminal 4. It could mean you missing out on your flight.

As a last tip, if you have to kill time, bring a book. In this day and age, people are all hooked up in their ipads and phones, but I still cherish a good book over an electronic one. :-)

2 thoughts on “Is booking a cheap plane fare really worth it?

  1. A friend said, “it’s a budget airline, what do you expect?” To which I said, Yeah… poor excuse for terrible customer service though. It’s like saying you have no right to complain when in fact, you are afforded the same passenger bill of rights regardless of airline, and you did pay after all. less than premier airlines but still shelled out hard-earned money for most people. that should account for something at least. it’s a terrible excuse for budget-restricted services. of course you expect its not as good as PAL’s, for example, but they should still acknowledge your rights – to rebooking, to refund, etc. this did not happen in many cases last week during christmas rush. Mind you, even those who paid expensive non-promo tickets were affected as well. If this is an excuse, they might as well publish it for all to see: “Budget airline so expect the worst.”

    Terrible excuse, in my opinion.

  2. I am sorry to hear about your experience. I had a bad experience with CebuPac before and I did not fly with them for a while. So I was glad when the air passenger bill of rights was passed. I agree with the above commenter. Even though you cannot expect the best service from a budget airline, they should at least adhere to the a bare minimum, following the law on passenger rights.

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