Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Ahming's Travel Guide

I love to travel and planning for a trip is usually the best part of it.. It makes me forget about my boring Singaporean boxed-up reality and looks forward to going for my well-earned holiday. Anyway, reading Kenny Sia's blog post has inspired me to write my version of planning for a trip on shoestring budgets, because quite a few people have asked me before about various things.

Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, USA 2007

1. Preparation
- Check passport and visa requirements. Also, make 2 photocopies of your passport and bring 1 with you. Keep in a separate place from your actual passport. Leave the other with your family/friends in SG so that they can vouch for you if your passport gets stolen. Bring 2 passport sized photos as well in case you really need to make emergency travel documents. Also, write down the contact numbers, addresses and opening times of the local embassy/consulate wherever you're headed.

Christmas lights, Carmel-by-the-sea, USA 2004

- Gear: Sturdy luggage / backpack (with wheels!!), money belt, power adaptor (find out the type of powerpoint your destination has first!), combination locks to lock your luggage (bring 3-5), small backpack to carry out each day, collapsible bags (the soft kind) to store any extra purchases. Note that flights out of USA will have their baggage opened and checked, so buy a bag clasp to hold your bag together after it has been opened, and leave your combination lock at the "open" combination.

This kind is very good as the front backpack is detachable and you can carry out for your everyday usage. Some versions even come with handles and wheels so you can pull the backpack over level ground. And NO, I don't own it.. Wish I did!

- Travel guidebooks. These are absolute MUST as they give you lots of tips on accommodation, getting around etc. I usually go to the library (Central and Orchard are the best as they have the widest and newest range of books.) Get the most recent editions possible as information in the older editions may be outdated. Borrow the books 3 weeks before you leave, then renew the books online just before you leave, which gives you another 3 weeks. Renewal cost is only 50cents, and you don't even need to buy the books! I tend to prefer Lonely Planet, Fodor's and Frommers. There are also some specialty guides. Eg Top 10 things to do, traveling with kids, traveling on a budget, you can choose to suit your needs. I will usually get 1 travel guide per city/country as they can be rather heavy. If too heavy, then photocopy the pages you need or copy out the information. The travel guides are also good reads when you're waiting in transit or for plane departure.

- Travel websites. Most places have travel-oriented websites to give you more information on the place. You can also request them to send you a package of information. Also, read reviews of others' experiences, because it gives you a better (and truer) picture of the places you want to go to. It's also much more up-to-date than travel books (eg. they might tell you that XX place is under renovation). Just Google for the name of the city/attraction/hotel and add the word "review" behind it. Its also important to check each review, and not just the percentage of "good" rating. If the more recent reviews are the better ones, then you can safely list that place into your itinerary.

Yosemite National Park, USA 2007

- Discount cards. In general, International Student Card (ISIC), International Teacher's Card (ITIC), and Hostelling International Card (HI) are very useful for travel, especially in Western countries where they are more accepted. You get a lot of perks like discounted travel, admission to attractions etc. In Singapore, the place to apply for them is STA Travel which has a branch located in NUS as well as in North Bridge Road. The savings you get can be well worth the application fee if you play your cards right.

Hee hee. AW SHUCKS!

- Bring a small notebook in which you can journal your experiences, keep track of your spending, jot down things like contact info of people you meet etc. You'll be glad of it!

- Important! Bring at least one same-sex (if you're single), like-minded friend. Ha.. the friend sounds like a piece of baggage! But it helps to have someone to look out for you and your stuff and you can definitely share costs like taxi, rental car, 2-bed hostel room etc. Also, you can get more discounts if you buy 2 packages or tickets together.

My best travel companion =) USA 2007

2. Air Travel

Super early morning flight to Korea, 2006

- Keep your eyes peeled for specials in the papers. There are sometimes very good fares available, especially if you can confirm travel plans early. Also, sign up for email alerts from airline websites, or Zuji - can also get pretty good fares. The budget airlines also have good offers, however these are mostly regional. Check out the planes the airline will use to fly you over at Seatguru.com, you can avoid lousy seats which is especially important on a long haul flight.

Bali, 2006

- If multiple flights are available, choose the ones that allow you to arrive at good timing. Good timing is generally in the morning, 8-11am. As you can then make your way to your accommodation by the middle of the afternoon and have time to explore the city. And choose the return flight that leaves as late as possible so you can maximize your time in the holiday destination. Who cares about what time you arrive back in SG?? Here, its easy to get cab or get people to fetch you..

Street kids in Bali, 2006

- Choose the flight with a short stopover time. Ideal stopover time is about 1.5-2 hours, as you would need that amount of time to get out from your aircraft, find the gate to board your 2nd flight and have a toilet / coffee break. Shorter than that, you will find yourself running from one end of airport to the other to make it to your 2nd flight.

Hiking in Mongolia 2004

- In case you have a long stopover, most airports have websites detailing their airport facilities so you know what you can look forward for when you have a stopover. Singapore's Changi, Seoul's Incheon and Hongkong's Chek Lap Kok have fantastic airport facilities including free internet, lounges, TV, shower, lockers for you to store your hand baggage as well as plenty of shops to entertain you. But the airports are so huge that if you didn't know about it beforehand, you would not know where to find these things.

Stoning in cafe at Vienna's International Airport, enroute to Israel 2005

- If your stopover is really long (more than 6 hours), some places also offer free city tours. Singapore passport is excellent in such situations, as a visa is not needed to enter a lot of countries.

Korea's World Cup Stadium, during 14 hour stopover in Seoul enroute to Mongolia 2004

- Most airports also have airport shuttles or public trains that travel to various points in the city. These are much cheaper than cab, especially if the airport is very far from the city, and they are customized with space for big bags. The shuttles tend to run at all hours and are usually cheaper if you book round trip (ie both to and from the airport). Be aware, though, that if you take train your destination station may not be very baggage-friendly.

Getting to our hostel via Seoul's Metro, Korea 2006.

3. Accommodation
- Youth hostels are pretty good places to stay. The cost ranges from about SGD 20-40 a night, much cheaper than hotels. The accommodation types range from dormitory style with shared bathroom to 2- or 4-bed rooms with their own toilet. Most hostels are clean and well-maintained. They also have facilities like internet access, laundry, kitchen, common rooms with TV and programs for their residents. But if you do intend to stay in hostel, it will be good to bring a sleeping bag and towel of your own (the quick-dry kind) as they may charge you extra for sheets and towels.

Poster in Mongolian apartment-for-twenty-five, 2004. Super squeezy but super fun.

- Most cities have YHA (Youth Hostelling Association) hostels which give better rates for Hostelling International members. Hence, the HI card is a good investment if
(amount of discount x number of nights stayed > card application fee).
Each country has its own YHA association, so Google "YHA" followed by the name of the country.

- However, also bear in mind that not all hostels come under YHA/HI umbrella, there are plenty of private hostels as well. Sometimes they are better in terms of price, facilities, location; sometimes, they are not. University dormitories sometimes open up to foreigners, particularly in holiday months; they may also be worth checking out.

Student dorm at Korea Science Academy, Pusan, Korea 2006

- Budget hotels can also be worth it, particularly in cities like San Francisco where you can get a room near the city center for about 70USD (ie 35USD per person) as compared to hostel dorm of 25USD per person which is on the outskirts of the city.

The Mosser, budget hotel in San Francisco, USA 2007. The room is barely bigger than the bed it contained! But they have squeezed everything you could possibly need into that small space.

- If traveling with 5-6 people and staying for more than a few days in one place, it may be worth it to get a serviced apartment. These usually cost about SGD 100plus a night, and get cheaper if you stay for a certain minimum number of nights (usually a week). if you divvy up among the 5-6 people, it can actually be more worth it than hostel. It is basically a fully furnished apartment which usually includes parking facilities, washer, dryer, cooking facilities and utensils, fridge, TV, etc.

Freezing on Alcatraz, USA 2004

- Always, always, always check the reviews! Travelocity and TripAdvisor are good for such things. Hostel/hotel websites sometimes offer discounts if you book online, and some offers can only be found at the website. Also, you can get package deals for airfare+accommodation, or airfare+accommodation+car rental which can shave a few hundred bucks off your total cost. However, there are generally rather strict rules eg. stay for X number of nights, flights only to certain destinations, etc. so get these only if it suits your plans.

4. Getting Around
- Car rental: May or may not be worth it. Factors to consider: Number of people splitting for car payments, price of fuel in the country you're in, distance needed to travel, parking charges, ease of finding parking, difficulty of driving in the place you're in. Most worth it in Australia with 4-6 people, where rental and fuel are cheap, parking is abundant (though not in the cities!), roads are well maintained and it's right-hand drive. If you do rent a car, consider staying in a motor inn instead of hostel, as motor inns have parking spaces right outside the rooms and generally offer cheaper parking.

Flies on the car in an Ozzie summer. OMG =X Australia 2006

- Public transport: My best choice of getting around. Most places are really easy to travel in with good bus and train services. Some places offer passes, like the Citypass in San Francisco, that allow you a certain number of days of unlimited public transport. Again, check if it fits your schedule. You also get to interact with the local people and really get to immerse in the culture of the city. Bus routes and train routes might just take you past places you never thought you would visit. And because of the flexibility you have, you might just decide to hop off the bus and stop there!

Boy on the San Francisco cable car, USA 2007

- Long haul travel: domestic flights, rail services or coach services. Check out the prices and schedules before you decide. Also, weigh the cost against the time you'll spend in transit. You might be able to get discounts on travel at certain times (generally the very early and very late services) with an ISIC. Note that if you're traveling yourself, you should not sleep unless you're very very sure your baggage is secure. If there are regional airports, check the flights that originate there as they may be cheaper than those that originate from the international airports.

Star Ferry, Hongkong 2004

5. Attractions/Shopping
- Make a stop at a Visitor Information center to pick up maps, brochures and discount coupons. If you want to make any calls / bookings, a good idea is to get your hostel/hotel staff to assist you with it. They'll call from the reception and it'll be free, and they'll know how to navigate the phone system and can speak the language!

Shopping in Dongdaemun market, Seoul, Korea 2006

- Check out opening times and days. As usual, your best friends are the websites and travel guidebooks. Also, some places have got "free admission days" or "half-price days" (eg. first Tuesday of the month) etc. Others offer free concerts or performances on particular days of the month. There are also tandem tickets for 2 or more attractions that will be cheaper than buying the tickets for each attraction separately. It is a good idea to plan your own itinerary for each city, so that you know when you should visit each place in order to pack in the most stuff in the time that you have.

Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel 2005

- Visit a market / flea market. Not the vegetable kind of market but those that sell goods and wares. It'll be cheap and a really authentic, immersive experience.

Father and child, night market, Tiberias, Israel 2005

- Walking tours. Walking tours are a great way to get started around a compact city, and though you won't have much time to linger in any one place, you can pick out sights that you can come back to later and you'll be better able to find your way there. Some cities have free tours guided by locals, like San Francisco, which are a great way to get around. Also, you get to see where the locals go, which is infinitely better than any uppity touristy-unreal view of the place.

Walking the Via Dolorosa through the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel 2005

- If the place you want to go to is really far out of the city and there is no convenient public transport, you might want to consider a day tour. Many companies offer day tours (or even longer) which you can book online. Again, it's usually cheaper to book online and multiple tours from the same company. If you're satisfied with their reviews, use the same company throughout for all your bookings. Not all tours run every day, so plan your schedule accordingly.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, aquarium next to the Pacific Ocean and one of the most beautiful in the world. A day tour from San Francisco, 2004. I like the starfish next to the shark.

6. Eats
- Find the closest supermarket / grocery store to the place you stay in and head in to stock up on biscuits, bottled water, fruit and snacks. In countries where there are water fountains available in public places, buy one 1.5L bottle per person and refill it every day. Saves you loads on food when you don't need to buy from the snack stands at expensive touristy places. It's really rare to get fruit with meals so if you are the fruit addict like me, buy from grocery stores! Some supermarkets, especially the bigger ones, also sell hot food like roast chicken and soups, which will be a sight cheaper than buying from cafes.

Cherries and strawberries.. yummy!

- Bring plastic bags / ziploc bags / plastic containers. If your accommodation offers a buffet breakfast, or even bread with spreads, you can pack these into your trusty containers and eat it as lunch / snacks. On the way home, your spare bags and containers can protect your precious purchases.

- Consider bringing a
travel cooker which you can use to heat water and/or cook instant noodles. In winter, especially those places where shops close really early, you may just not want to venture out because it's dark and cold and you've got to go so far just to find chow. Also, hostel kitchens may not have the cleanest utensils. If you're doing this, useful things to bring are instant noodles and packet coffee/tea/milo. You'll be grateful for it!

The travel cooker I used to have but tragically lost when my uni roommate left it on and it melted!

- Eat as the locals do. Go to the markets (and this time I mean vegetable markets) and try their snacks. It may be gross but hey, its part of the experience! And it'll also be cheaper than eating at cafes.

I thought it was tau huay zui but it's salty, cold and the jelly is chewy. Eew! Pusan, Korea 2004

- Ask your hostel/hotel reception where the good chow places are nearby. Some of them are surprisingly cheap and good - fast food in USA, for instance, had burgers for between USD 1-2 each when eating at a cafe or even food court would have cost about USD10 per person. Also, fast food does not charge you tax! You should also ask them where good discount shopping is, and where the nearest and cheapest internet cafe is - deathly important for printing out discount coupons, day tour booking vouchers, online boarding passes etc.

OK thats all I can think of - whew that was long! Enjoy!

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