The short answer is on a budget airline. We booked flights to and from Manila on Tiger Airways, which is the cheapest of the cheap. Our flight to Manila was direct from Singapore, but our flight from Manila to KL involved a one-hour layover and a plane change in Singapore. The fact that we could not book this as one ticket and had to individually book the legs from Manila to Singapore and then Singapore to KL should have raised a warning flag. It was, but it was not large or red enough as we ultimately decided that since the tickets were on the same airline, they should let us check-in for both flights in Manila and hopefully accommodate us if the first flight was late. Ha. You get what you pay for and this was not Singapore Airlines.
Spend six hours getting to/waiting at the airport
I suppose too much time is better than not enough, but our first adventure was actually getting to the airport. Flying a budget airline to/from Manila involves the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (formerly Clark Airforce Base), which is a good two-hour bus trip from the city. The shuttle schedule meant a 6:30 am bus, which got us to the airport at 8:30am. The check-in desk for our flight didn’t open until 10:40am and the flight didn’t leave until 12:10pm. I was glad we had a deck of cards and a box of doughnuts.
Spend all of your currency before you get to the airport
We immediately noticed two interesting things about DMIA. The first was that only ticketed passengers were allowed into the airport. The second was that there were signs announcing a 600 Peso (US$12) departure fee. I had about 140 Pesos on me. I tried the airport ATM, but it wouldn’t give me any cash. This was not entirely surprising, as I’d had about a 50% success rate with ATMs in Manila. Thankfully, I still had some Singaporean dollars on me that I was able to exchange, or we might still be cleaning the bathrooms at DMIA.
Realize you have (maybe) 20 minutes to clear immigration/customs and check-in for your next flight.
At the check-in desk, we confirmed that we could not check into our second flight. We had asked in Singapore and the desk agent had seemed skeptical that we would make the second flight. While a one-hour layover is normally fine, having to check-in at Singapore changed the game, since the desk closed 45 minutes before departure. This gave us 20 minutes from the time our first plane was scheduled to land to disembark, clear through immigration and customs, and check-in for the second flight. The Filipino desk agent was more optimistic than the Singaporean that we would make our flight. I think this was because she had no idea what was involved.
Bring items that aren’t allowed on the plane
Normally in foreign countries, airport security is somewhat looser than in the U.S. You never have to remove articles of clothing and they don’t seem to really care what you bring in, although there are probably some signs saying weapons aren’t allowed . At DMIA, not only did we have to take off our shoes, but my bag was pulled over for a prohibited item. I figured it was my contact solution, because I had a normal-size bottle and Singaporean security had tried to take it away. (Apparently there is no exemption for medical liquids in Asia.) However, my contact solution was safe because the security guard was distracted by a larger threat – my umbrella.
I was told I could not bring the umbrella on board and could either surrender it or check my bag. This was problematic since we had no time to pick-up checked luggage in Singapore. We also couldn’t wrap our heads around this seemingly ludicrous rule. In the U.S. TSA makes us take off our clothes, put our 3 oz bottles in plastic baggies, wait in hour-long lines, remove our laptops, and stand on our heads while singing the National Anthem, but they would never take away an umbrella!
I should point out that this is not any umbrella. It’s a Brookstone wind-resistant umbrella that’s one of my prized possessions in Singapore – during a monsoon, instead of getting completely drenched, I merely get soaked. Our conversations with security were frustratingly circular (you must check your bag; we can’t check a bag; repeat) and I was ready to relinquish the umbrella. Somehow, though, they decided to let me check just the umbrella and we were on our way.
Run through an airport terminal like a wild animal is chasing you
Upon arriving in Singapore, our plane proceeded to take a scenic tour of Changi airport while taxiing. After a brief scare wherein we convinced ourselves that the plane was actually taking us to Terminal 1 to clear through immigration/customs, and that we had no chance of making it through and back to the budget terminal in time, we thankfully arrived at the budget terminal.
Before the plane technically stopped, I was out of my seat and was the first person in line to disembark. (We were in row two, so I only cut about six people.) I waited impatiently as the crew ever-so-slowly attached the exit staircase to the plane. They finally opened the door and I ran down the stairs on shaky legs – I couldn’t tell if they were shaky from sitting for 3 hours, the sugar crash from the chocolate doughnuts six hours earlier, or the anxiety of the travel feat I was about to attempt.
I groaned as I entered the airport and had to run up a twisting ramp, but this was nothing compared to what I saw at the top of the ramp. Our plane had literally parked at the gate farthest away from the immigration point, which wasn’t even visible. There was simply a sign with an arrow that pointed towards an empty corridor that stretched as far as I could see. As we ran down the never-ending corridor, we passed several clocks that ominously read 4:20pm. We had five minutes. I thought I was in shape, but I had to slow down. In a high-stakes relay, I passed off our passports and the ticket info and gasped for breath.
I started running again and finally turned the corner towards immigration. I would say that “Chariots of Fire” was in the background, but it’s much too slow for what was happening. Unfortunately, all of the immigration lines were twenty-people deep – all except the one for Singaporean citizens and residents. I don’t think I count as a Permanent Resident (an official category normally implied by resident), but I do have a green laminated visa/training pass and decided it was worth a shot. I don’t know if it was the visa or the fact that I was panting and looked like I might collapse, but they let us through.
As we ran by customs, I thought we must look suspicious, but we weren’t stopped. We ran through the doors and were immediately hit by the Singaporean heat and humidity. I guess I’m used to the weather here, because it didn’t slow me down. (Although my adrenaline level may have increased by this point and to be fair, the distance was much shorter than the corridor.)
I entered the departure area of the terminal and while I didn’t immediately see the check-in desk for KL, it was there. We had made it. We asked how much longer we had, and the desk agent said we were the last ones to check-in. The clock read 4:25.
After making the flight, I felt like we were capable of anything. I wish I had a tape to send to the people in charge of casting for the Amazing Race, because I’m pretty sure we’d leave the other contestants in our dirt. (Well, maybe I should work on my long-distance running first.)
After all of that, the flight to KL and the train into the city was rather uneventful. Once we got to our hotel, we spent a well-deserved evening relaxing by the gorgeous pool.And when we got back to Singapore, my umbrella was waiting for me. Coincidentally, it’s monsooned the past two days.