Flying between Manila and Hong Kong : Cathay Pacific, Philippine Airlines or Cebu Pacific

I consider myself a commuter of the Hong Kong-Manila-Hong Kong route. I fly it at least once a month, up to weekly in some months. Flying these flights gave me a chance to compare the airlines flying those routes. Comparing these options solely on the service is unfair, as Cathay Pacific is a 5-star airline, while both Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific are 3-star airlines. But don’t worry; this comparison will dig deeper than that. Keep in mind though that this review is focused on their Hong Kong-Manila and Manila-Hong Kong flights.

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Cathay Pacific

Pros: In-flight entertainment to keep you busy during the flight.
Cons: Steep price. Doesn’t serve hot meals on economy.

Philippine Airlines

Pros: Warm service. Hot meals on all service classes (that includes economy).
Cons: Terminal at Manila Airport is horrible. First flight to Hong Kong doesn’t leave until 8am.

Cebu Pacific

ProsCheapest option.
Cons: No in-flight entertainment, at all! Bring your own sleeping essentials as they don’t offer it for free.

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Ticket Prices

On average, Cathay Pacific charges the most for these flights. Next would be Philippine Airlines while Cebu Pacific is the cheapest – but cheap doesn’t always mean worst.

Budget travelers might be inclined to choose Cebu Pacific due to their cheap fares. Be aware that though that on peak days (i.e. long holidays, Christmas, Holy Week), their ticket prices can soar high – narrowing the price margin between their’s and their full-service carrier counterparts’. During this season, airports can get crowded and any cancellation and delay will surely be stressful. Full-service carriers such as Cathay Pacific and Philippine Airlines handle these situations better so if the price difference isn’t that big, I suggest you choose a full-service carrier.

On usual days, choosing Cebu Pacific and adding ancillaries such as baggage allowance, hot meals and choosing a seat of your liking is still much cheaper than flying Philippine Airlines. You get almost the same quality of service but for a cheaper price.

Manila to Hong Kong Flight Schedules

The three airlines fly the route 17 times a day. Bulk of it is from Cathay Pacific which flies the route seven (7) times a day, while Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines both fly it five (5) times a day. This frequency gives you lots of options what time to fly.

For commuters like me who fly from Hong Kong to Manila right after work on Friday nights and catch the first flight on Monday mornings, you’ll love Cathay Pacific and Cebu Pacific as they both fly out of Manila as early as 5am. Meanwhile, Philippine Airlines doesn’t fly to Hong Kong until 8am – a little too late for me to arrive at work on-time. The last flights going back to Manila for the three airlines are at 10pm – a convenient time for tourists who’d like to maximize their last day in Hong Kong or for those who’re flying straight right after work.

Pre-Flight Experience

Thankfully, all of these airlines offer convenient online check-in. Thank you, digital age! However, in Manila, you still have to go to the check-in counters even if you’ve checked in online. They have dedicated lanes who’ve already checked in online, but these queues won’t always be shorter so feel free to use the regular check-in counters if you think it’s faster.

Hong Kong International Airport

Hong Kong International Airport

Cathay Pacific and Cebu Pacific’s check-in facilities are found in Terminal 1 of the Hong Kong International Airport. Philippine Airlines, on the other hand, is in the more outdated Terminal 2 – which shouldn’t be an issue since after clearing security and immigration you’ll have to ride the train going to Terminal 1, where all flights depart. If you’ve already checked in online and have no bags to drop, you can clear immigration and security at either terminals. Immigration and security queues are efficient in both terminals.

Boarding gates at HKIA are found at three (3) buildings: the main building of Terminal 1, the North Satellite Concourse, and the Midfield Concourse. All Cathay Pacific flights to Manila have their gates at the main building. Philippine Airlines uses both gates at the main building while Cebu Pacific flies solely out of the new Midfield Concourse.

Ranking the three of them, I prefer the main building best, as it has the most retail and food outlets. Next would be the Midfield concourse. Even though it’s at least two stops away using the Automated People Mover, it looks much really slick and modern. It would have been better if more stores open there. The worst is the North Satellite Concourse, it gives injustice to the Hong Kong International Airport. Aside from the limited food and retail choices at the North Satellite Concourse, the waiting area at the gates looks outdated and you have to ride a bus to reach it. Don’t worry, the bus and train rides are free!

As you’d expect in a busy airport like HKIA, the boarding experience is a breeze—just cooperate with the crew, and things will go smoothly.

Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA)

NAIA Terminal 2

NAIA Terminal 2

Sometime in the past few years, NAIA was dubbed the worst airport in the world. Thankfully, they’ve made incremental improvements over the past few years.

Cathay Pacific and Cebu Pacific both use Terminal 3 in Manila. It’s the biggest of the four terminals and is my terminal of choice. The only issue I have is that the gates are just too damn far, and sometimes the walkalators/moving walkways are inoperable. Terminal 3 has a good selection of lounges. Cathay Pacific has a lounge to cater to their first class, business class, and Marco Polo Diamond, Green, and Silver members. Some credit cards also give you free access to Skyview Lounge and Pacific Lounge at Terminal 3 but if you don’t have one you can just pay for it. If you’re a Priority Pass member, you’re in luck, as you can also use the lounges there. Immigration and security queue at this terminal are tolerable on peak hours.

Philippine Airlines, as always, is an outlier! They are the only airline that uses the NAIA Terminal 2. To put it bluntly, this terminal hasn’t aged well. Food choices are limited and overpriced. They have exactly one lounge, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay Lounge. Unless you’re flying business class with them or have their elite status, then you’ll have to stay at their overcrowded gates. The only smoking area in the airside of this terminal (the part of the airport past security and immigration) is inside the Mabuhay Lounge, so good luck if you’re flying economy and don’t hold an elite status with Mabuhay Miles! Immigration and security queues during peak hours are horrible at this terminal, it’s something they should work on. I don’t have anything good to say about Terminal 2. In fact, this terminal is one of the biggest reasons I don’t fly Philippine Airlines often.

Experience Onboard

Philippine Airlines

Once onboard, you’ll immediately feel the warmth of the Filipinos, living up to their tagline “The heart of the Filipino.” Their flight attendants flash you a genuine smile, and they’re always willing to help. Of these three airlines, they’re the only one that provides full service for the route. They serve hot meals to everyone, regardless of service class. Sometimes they drop their in-flight duty-free service, but that’s fully understandable, as it’s really hard to squeeze meal service and duty-free into the time after take-off and before final descent in a sub-two-hour flight.

Philippine Airlines offers Wi-Fi onboard this flight for a fee, once you consume your data allocation. You have to bring your own device and install their Android or iOS app to access their pseudo-in-flight entertainment. I’d recommend bringing a tablet to enjoy the movie streaming on a bigger screen; it’s kinda weird to watch a full movie on a tiny screen. Make sure to charge your devices before you board so that you can keep yourself busy during those two hours in case you’re not planning to sleep.

Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific’s service is generally good, but I’ve encountered hiccups before. They’re very efficient but a bit cold. If you’re flying Cathay, don’t expect the warmth of service you’ll get from a Filipino airline.

Unlike Philippine Airlines, Cathay doesn’t serve hot meals when you’re flying economy on this route. In economy, you’ll get a paper bag with pastry, carton-packed juice, and a cookie. They’ll serve it lightning quick, then proceed to the beverage service. If you’re planning to keep the paper bag as a souvenir, I recommend that you tuck it away before they start collecting trash. They’ll grab it from your tray table and discard it before you have the chance to plead to keep it. As I said, they’re efficient!

Me, scoring a free upgrade to business class with Cathay Pacific!

Cathay Pacific is also generous in giving out free operational upgrades. I’ve scored op-ups at least twice before joining Marco Polo Club, and thrice since I joined their loyalty program. With operational upgrades, you’ll get all the onboard perks of your upgraded class except for lounge access. These op-ups gave me the opportunity to try their business class product, which is good but certainly not stellar.

On most flights, they only offer recliner seats in their business class product – they call it their New Regional Business Class. In my opinion, it’s not worth bragging as a new product since they’re just recliners – something offered as just a premium economy seat in some of their planes and in other airlines. In rare cases, they send out their Boeing 777-300ER (extended range) which is actually meant for long-haul flights. These planes has business class seats that turn into a flat bed. It should be amazing but unfortunately I haven’t tried it yet. Food in business class is average and is served all at once so don’t fancy flight attendants serving you each course one at a time!

Among these three airlines, they’re the only one with real in-flight entertainment. This should keep you sane during the boring two-hour flight—and it’s the best part of it. They fly this route with a Boeing 777, the Airbus A330, and the Airbus A350 at least once a day.

Cebu Pacific

If you can’t afford to fly with a full-service airline, you can still experience the same level of service with Cebu Pacific – just be sure to order a hot meal  either online or onboard! I usually order this onboard as it takes them at least 30 minutes to serve it. Waiting for my meal to be served is my only way to distract myself onboard as they don’t offer in-flight entertainment at all. If sleeping is your game plan, don’t forget to pack your sleeping essentials, as they’re not offered onboard for free.

There’s an upside though: for a lower price, you get an excellent and warm crew, and you’ll still get to your destination (hopefully). When I’m flying out more than twice in a month, I usually fly with them and just sleep through it. It’s actually not bad, and I think you’re getting a bang for your buck.

Conclusion

Even though I really want to #FlyTheFlag and support Philippine Airlines, their flight schedule and the aging Terminal 2 force me to avoid them. I can’t afford to wait for their first flight on Mondays since I’ll not arrive on-time for work. They have a late-night flight that would be useful for Friday nights, but their pricing structure is such that two one-way tickets are way more than half of one round-trip ticket. Subsequently, I usually fly either Cebu Pacific (5J143 and 5J108) or Cathay Pacific (CX905 and CX904). Terminal 3 in Manila (used by Cathay and Cebu Pacific) also gives me access to a lounge that I can actually use, and the queues are much more manageable, even if you don’t have elite status with an airline.

If I had elite status with Philippine Airlines and didn’t have to take the first flight out of Manila, I wouldn’t mind choosing them over the two others. And then I’d get to enjoy the comforts of the Mabuhay Lounge!

Written by

I'm Mikko, an overseas Filipino worker based in Hong Kong.

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