Air travel in and to Vietnam

If only I had found out about Jetstar before I went to Vietnam!

Flights on the national carrier, Vietnam Airlines, are nice enough, but booking is a giant pain in the neck — because you must pay cash. Yes, the national airline does not accept credit cards! Even inside the country, when I booked a flight through my hotel, I had to get 2 million dong in cash to hand over for my ticket. (The same hotel accepted my credit card for my hotel bill.) Ridiculous. Especially because many of the Vietnamese banks’ ATMs would not give me cash, even though they recognized my card.

Jetstar is a budget carrier, a joint venture between Australia and Singapore. Like the fabulous AirAsia (which I recommend very highly!), Jetstar offers bare bones service, charges for extras, and has nice new planes that make travelers feel perfectly safe. I have flown on AirAsia at least six times, including recently from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh — check out their wonderful fares. Unfortunately, they don’t fly domestic legs within Vietnam.

I guess I didn’t search hard enough, because before I left the U.S., I didn’t find out about Jetstar. We flew from Danang to Saigon on Jetstar last week, and it was a perfectly nice flight — for about US$40. (The hotel charged me $103 for a ticket on Vietnam Airlines from Saigon to Hanoi; Jetstar has it for $53 t0 $84.)

Vietnam Airlines does not publish ticket fares on their Web site. This enables travel agents to totally gouge travelers — like the taxi drivers in Hanoi, I might add. (All the taxi drivers I encountered in Saigon were honest.) The first travel agent I contacted in the U.S. to try to buy a ticket on Vietnam Airlines from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City wanted $198 for it. Another agent (TNK Travel) wanted only $110 for the same ticket, same day and time. (Oddly enough, the first travel agent, VINA Travel in San Francisco, was recommended by Vietnam Airlines, which will not sell tickets directly in the U.S.) I had to wire TNK the money via Western Union because they too do not accept credit cards (unless you fill out a crazy form with way too much personal information on it and MAIL it to them — yeah, right). They wanted a bank transfer, but my U.S. bank charges $35 for that; Western Union charged $4.

Jetstar (like AirAsia) permits you to book on the Web site and pay with a credit card (like any normal airline, ahem).

Watch out for extra baggage fees if you fly on the cheap carriers — weight limits and number of bags are strictly enforced. Both AirAsia and Jetstar make this transparent on their Web sites.

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