By Karamjit Kaur, Aviation Correspondent
Two weeks back, a colleague asked if I had a contact number for Tiger Airways.
A friend was desperate to get in touch with the airline but, despite repeated calls and a trip to the airport, had not had any luck.
It was not the first such cry for help from a bereft traveller, and it will not be the last either.
The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) said the number of complaints against low-cost carriers is on the rise - 71 in the first three months of the year compared with 157 for the whole of last year.
Customers' common grouses: They cannot reach the airlines by phone, they are not told of flight changes or cancellations, they are overcharged, refunds are promised but not given ... the list goes on.
Here is the thing. Before you click on that mouse and rush to grab one of those free air tickets that airlines seem to be throwing at travellers these days, you had better know what the real deal is.
It all looks very enticing.
With Tiger Airways, AirAsia and Jetstar Asia dishing out free tickets every so often - a recently ended promotion saw travellers snapping up more than 100,000 seats on flights to various Malaysian destinations - flying to Kuala Lumpur or Penang could cost less than getting on a bus to these cities.
Even with airport taxes and other charges, the total cost of a two-way flight is just about $60.
But you get what you pay for, and for a deal that good, all you really get is a seat.
Five years after low-cost carriers took to the skies in Asia, travellers now know that no food or water will be provided unless they pay extra for it.
They know that it will cost them a few dollars more to confirm a seat number in advance, and to check in bags.
They know that Jetstar Asia and AirAsia operate out of Changi Airport's Terminal 1, and Tiger Airways is based at the Budget Terminal.
They probably know too that there is a free shuttle bus ferrying travellers from Changi's main terminals to the Budget Terminal.
However, many still do not know - and this is where the frustration comes in - the other terms and conditions that come with flying low-cost. Here are some examples:
Once a booking is confirmed, it will cost anything from $70 to $100, depending on the airline, to change flight or passenger details for a round-trip.
Fare top-ups will apply if you were originally scheduled to leave on a slow day such as Tuesday or Wednesday, and you now want to fly over the weekend or during the school holidays, when the airlines charge more.
Change fees are usually waived only under special circumstances. One instance was during the political unrest in Thailand last year, which prompted governments elsewhere to advise their citizens against travelling to affected areas there.
Subject to fare top-ups, airlines allowed customers to book new flights provided they did so within a stipulated number of days of the originally scheduled departure date. Typically, such waiver periods last a week or two.
As a general rule, low-cost carriers do not give refunds. In Singapore, the last time they did was in November last year, when anti-government protesters forced Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport to close.
But the refund process can be tedious, and some of the affected travellers say they are still waiting for their money five months after the incident.
If a flight is cancelled or delayed for whatever reason, you will not get a drink or a bite out of the airline while you wait at the airport, and it will not put you up at a hotel either.
If bags are lost or damaged en route, do not expect a hardship allowance or quick compensation.
A reader said his claim was rejected because he submitted it more than a week after the flight, and the airline's rules said all claims had to be made within seven days.
Getting in touch with budget carriers can be tough, especially in a crisis.
Nobody picks up the phone and there is no e-mail contact for customer service either. In this day and age, some airlines still expect people to send feedback by post. Going to the airport does little good: Chances are, you will end up talking to a ground-handling agent instead of an airline employee.
As outraged traveller Ion Danker, 30, put it: 'Budget airlines are great if you just need to book a ticket, get on the flight and fly off.
'But when something happens, everything is in a mess and it can be very frustrating.'
To be fair, low-cost carriers have been a great boon to travellers. When they burst onto the scene in 2004, the big boys got a major wake-up call.
On routes where budget carriers compete with Singapore Airlines and the like, fares have come down. Ad hoc deals and promotions are offered more regularly.
New markets have also opened up. Places such as Malacca, Ipoh and Kuantan are too small for the big airlines to serve, but budget carriers are filling in the gaps and giving travellers more options.
To offer good deals, low-cost carriers run a tight ship and that means keeping a close watch over expenses. That is fair.
As for not giving refunds freely, or charging for flight itinerary changes, or leaving you to your own devices when flights are delayed or cancelled, some full-service airlines do the same too, so we should not fault the low-cost carriers for that.
The terms and conditions governing these areas are usually clearly spelt out on the airlines' websites, so ask questions and find out more. Do not just book blindly.
Still, the buck needs to stop somewhere. Whether the flight is full-service or budget, every paying customer is entitled to a minimum level of service. If a problem crops up, he should rest assured that the airline is just a phone call or an e-mail away, and that someone will attend to the matter promptly.
If lines are busy, callers must be able to leave messages, confident in the knowledge that someone will call back.
When a crisis occurs, airlines must expect that phones will ring off the hook and that customers will flock to the airport. When they do, staff must be on hand to provide updates and deal with their concerns. They should not pass the buck to ground-handling agents.
There must be enough flexibility built into the system that customers do not get penalised unnecessarily. For instance, if a claim for a damaged bag is made a few days late, it should not be rejected outright.
So far, when things go wrong, budget airlines have generally responded by saying: 'We are sorry for the inconvenience.' Apart from that, little seems to have been done to improve service levels.
Until things change - and one hopes they will - make sure you know just what you are getting along with that cheap ticket.
Fly low-cost by all means. There are many good deals out there and, most times, nothing will go wrong.
But if something does - a coup here or an earthquake there - it is always good to know where your airline stands on matters such as flight cancellations and refunds.
At the very least, you will be better prepared to fight your case.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.
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