Jul 30, 2009|
With offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai and Bangkok, a half-century of Escape Routes columns a year and scores of travel stories, we at BK have acquired a few opinions on how best to travel cheaply, safely and comfortably. Allow us to share our wisdom.
1. Book with a Credit Card
The Problem: You had a problem with your flight (canceled flight or lost luggage) and when you turned to your carrier, the answer was, “Tough luck.”
The Solution: On September 16, 2007, a One-2-Go aircraft crashed while landing at Phuket International Airport, killing 89 people. While One-2-Go offered payments of less than two million baht to each victim, the families of two passengers who had booked their tickets with KTC Platinum cards received over B20 million from the cards’ travel insurance.
You don’t have to crash and burn to get benefits from your plastic as long as you read the fine print. Credit card travel insurance also covers simple cases of lost luggage, for example, THAI American Express Platinum entitles cardholders whose luggage doesn’t arrive within 48 hours of the arrival at the destination, to spend up to B30,000 on “emergency purchases” like essential clothing and requisites. Thai Military Bank offers B10,000 to its Visa Gold cardholders and B5,000 for Visa Classic. Citibank pays B5,098 for luggage delayed six hours, and B16,992 if it stays lost.
Furthermore, premium cards grant miles when you shop—in some cases, you can double what you’d get from your frequent flyer program just by shopping with the right card (see bkmagazine.com/feature/plastic-fantastic).
2. Skip Crummy Packages
The problem: Packages that sound good but don’t offer real value.
The solution: Here’s something BK does systematically when writing Escape Routes, when an airline or hotel tells us (or tells you) they have an awesome deal, your first reflex should be to check what the online rate is—particularly when looking at packages. Sometimes, you’ll find out that they’ve simply bundled a few things together and haven’t given much of a discount at all. 10% off is way too common. We’ve even seen room rates that are cheaper than the “special” packages. Instead, look for heavily discounted rooms such as 2-for-1 deals.
3. Get the Add-Ons
The problem: You got a great deal on your room rate but you’re left with a huge bill when you check out.
The solution: Look for add-ons. Breakfast, of course, but also getting picked up at the airport, which is a real money- and time-saver. In Phuket, it’s tough getting a cab for less than B400 out of the airport and even more expensive going back.
Hotels will often make their real money on the spa, food and beverages—not on your room. Those “++” rates go up real quick. Remember that even if you get a discount, it applies to the base price, not the price with government tax (7%) and service charge (10%). Before booking, ask yourself: Can you get to town from where you’re staying? Or are you going pay more for food than for your room?
Despite our caution with packages, free meals or massages can be a real money saver, particularly for hotels in the middle of nowhere. Usually, packages only offer one massage, though. Instead, we like to beg for 50% off the total spa bill (only try this with smaller, independent properties in low season for any real chance of success).
Internet or wifi is also a serious issue. Not every hotel is generous enough to waive wifi fees. For example, the Millennium Resort Patong in Phuket charges from B100 per hour for internet access while The Tique hotel located two blocks away offers free wifi on all five floors.
Automatic-donation schemes are another thing major hotel chains are increasingly imposing on their guests. Sheraton, for instance, has taken to adding US$1 donation to a guest’s bill for its UNICEF “Check Out for Children” campaign. We don’t mind supporting a good cause, but it would be nice for us to know about it beforehand.
When it comes to airlines, they’re cutting everything out of their published rates, so it’s getting increasingly difficult to know how much you’re going to get charged. Some airlines have even gone as far as charging you extra for booking flights by phone. And by the time you find out, you’ve already entered your credit card details and can’t be bothered to look elsewhere. With low-cost Irish carrier Ryan Air considering charging for use of the bathroom, this is only going to get worse. Our tip: look out for the current rock-bottom deals on carriers like Bangkok Airways. They’re nearly on par with low-costs in some cases, as they are all all-inclusive. Furthermore, the service is better.
4. Do Your Homework
The problem: Your friends always seem to get better rooms, flights and seats than you do.
The solution: You’ve probably heard of Tripadvisor.com, a godsend when it comes to picking your hotel, but there are even more sophisticated tools out there, particularly for flights.
Our favorite is Seatguru.com. Get your flight details, then check which plane you are flying. Then you make sure your plane has on-demand entertainment for long-haul (movies you can play and pause on-demand, not just movie channels) and pick your seat. Now, you’ll also want an airline that lets you pick your seat as you book your ticket. With Seatguru, you’ll see that every plane has comments for specific seats: too close to the toilets (noisy), seat doesn’t recline because of the emergency exit, extra leg room, bulky electronic box in the space for your feet, etc. When in doubt, Porntina Tangsajjavitoon, Director of Communications-Southeast Asia of Accor Hospitality, suggests you should always get an aisle seat so you can go for regular walks.
Flyertalk.com is a community of travel geeks and frequent flyers obsessed with airline miles and points. Some people are so good at maxing out miles, they’ll unearth really juicy extra miles deal and fly roundtrip within one day, just to get the miles. This is mostly an American thing, though.
As for room rates, the trend is for aggregators—they compile your favorite hotel booking websites, like Hotels.com, Priceline.com, Expedia.com and Travelocity.com, into one handy page. Try Kayak.com to get a quick overview of what’s out there and save yourself hours of web browsing.
5. Time Your Trip
The problem: You see prices dropping. Should you wait or book now?
The solution: This summer, the hottest question for travelers was “book or wait?” With air ticket prices dropping constantly, the old rulebook—book early for cheaper fares—had clearly been thrown out the window. Surfing on this new reality, websites like Yapta.com started offering services that allow you to track the fluctuation of airfare rates and alert you when a certain fare drops below a point you sent. Is this an improvement? Well, if you can deal with the fact that booking an airplane tickets has become about as complicated as trading stocks, you might get some good deals. We’re not entirley convinced, though, as prices have probably hit rock bottom.
Traveling during low season is a safer bet. In Thailand, that means you’ve got until Oct 31 before the prices shoot back up. Keep an eye on BK’s Escape Routes for regular updates on low-season deals too good to pass up.
If you really want to travel this winter, look for cash-strapped resorts offering high-season deals for those who book and pay now (try Agoda.co.th).
6. Be a Member
The problem: There are a million membership programs out there. Is there real value in to them?
The solution: In short, yes (if you don’t mind the hassle). Sign up, sign up, sign up. In fact, we hope you’re already on a frequent flyer membership program. Starting from one round trip to Europe on THAI, you could already be a Royal Orchid Plus member and get an extra 5kg baggage allowance. Don’t be lazy, fill in that form!
Duty free in Bangkok isn’t that great a deal, according to a comparison we made late 2008 (http://bkmagazine.com/feature/airport-deals). You’re wasting your time with electronics at King Power but booze, perfume and cigarettes are definitely cheaper and, here too, membership comes with a 5% discount.
Most big chain hotels also have their own loyalty programs. Hyatt revamped its Gold Passport (www.goldpassport.hyatt.com) in April to be more accessible and guarantee the best rooms available for Platinum members and one suite upgrade per year for Diamond members. The new Marriott rewards points (www.marriott.com/rewards) can also be redeemed for rooms at its high end Ritz-Carlton partners worldwide. Accor last year launched a free-entry A-Club loyalty program (www.a-club.com). The programs allows loyal customers to earn points on every baht spent at more than 2,000 Accor brands worldwide and points can be redeemed as hotels vouchers, discounts and airline miles.
Do these really keep customers loyal to one brand? Surachai Meephien from American Express says hotel memberships are now like credit cards: people are ready to switch from one to another depending on the benefits they’ll gain. That means the main benefit is often for you, the consumer.
7. Check the Vocab
The problem: Your hotel was not boutique, the “seaview” room was miles away from the beach, and your villa was just a ground floor bungalow that shared a wall with three others.
The solution: Try not to go by the resort names as they’re often misleading—these days everything is boutique and every room is a villa. Next time you’re about to book, double check how many rooms or villas there are on the property. One hundred rooms is not boutique in our book, even though we’ve seen the word used for 400-room properties.
Villa is the other catch word. But what constitutes a villa? Can a villa share a wall with another villa? Should it have a private garden? Is anything with ground floor access a villa? There’s no industry standard so you better ask the questions that correspond to your vision of a villa.
Villas are so 2008. Now everyone wants a pool villa. That’s spawned its own gross exaggerations. The worst is “pool” villas that share a pool. (Guests in villas don’t use the same pool as those staying in standard rooms.) A step up from that is the villa with large outdoor bathtub. No diving, please. Finally, even when a villa gets a half-decent pool, there’s the question of privacy (the whole point of having your own pool villa). Can others see you swimming? Often, the answer is yes, in which case the point of having your own pool is slightly lost.