Friday, 22 April 2016

The Financially Conscious Traveller

For most people, saving money is always of utmost importance whilst travelling or vacationing. We're always looking for the best deals out there. Cheaper flight tickets, best accommodation and etc.

I personally love planning for holidays. So much so that even if there's a last minute plan to travel,  I have a default checklist in my head before boarding my flight or continuing on that unplanned road-trip.

Advanced planning goes a long way in helping to save money. It's not always the case whereby you have to sacrifice that experience you were really looking forward to for the sake of saving money. 

Here are my 7 tips from my own personal experience and observations in planning that awesome vacation, saving money where you can and directing that extra bit of cash to where it really matters:

Deciding Priorities

What is it that you want to achieve from this trip? 

Yes, this sounds basic and logical but you'd be surprised how far this simple question can lead to either that awesome holiday or a disastrous one. This question applies across a broad spectrum and will very much assist in your holiday plans. From picking that location suitable in meeting your holiday expectations and budget to deciding when to travel, which hotel to stay in and whether you need a tour guide etc.

For example, often observed for those travelling in groups (family, a bunch of friends, etc.), due to trying to meet everyone's expectations, the choice of hotel wouldn't be as strategic as it can and should be.

So what to do? What I would do is choose a common theme. If you and those in your group prefer to have plenty of shopping sprees and there's a hotel that is located in the middle of all the main shopping areas, that would be the best option. This was exceptionally relevant to my friends and I when we were in Bandung, Indonesia and Kelantan, Malaysia. 

By choosing the right hotel, you can also estimate transport costs. For example, if you can eliminate transport costs because one or two of the places you intend to shop at is within walking distance, all the better. Don't forget that since you'd end up eating out most of the time, having a hotel near that "back-up" restaurant in case you get hungry but too lazy to travel far would come in handy.

Nonetheless, by choosing that common theme does not mean that holiday expectations for the others would go unmet. It just means that time has to be allocated within your travelling itinerary with estimated costs in mind. For example, when my friends and I were in Bandung, though shopping was at the forefront of our plans, we still managed to sample the local fares as well as squeeze in visits to selected tourist trails along the way.

By deciding what to do and determining the main aim you or your party aim to achieve from the trip in advance, you can plan your trip's itinerary. For example, for travellers coming into Malaysia, if you would want to make best use of your stronger currency over the Ringgit Malaysia and satisfy your inner-shopaholic, Malaysia has it's Mega Sales three times a year so you can plan your holiday around those times. If you want to experience culture without being overwhelmed by the usual holiday crowd, avoid peak seasons e.g. one or two weeks after the holiday crowd have gone off. The latter was what we did for our Bali trip.

Timing is everything

Avoiding peak seasons may be easier said than done. 

Peak season is usually where most can easily plan that getaway without interrupting with the children's school calendar etc. Frankly, this tip may not be suitable for everyone. 

For those who can though, it would be worth it. You'd avoid all that price-hikes caused by the high influx of tourists for that particular month. Sometimes, though not all the time, off-peak is due to the weather. However, in my case, I find it manageable. We were in Bali sometime in January, a few weeks after the peak season and everything was fine with a bit of rain here and there. In no way did the rain interrupted with our holiday plans.

As timing is key, so does picking the most suitable flight and route. There's no point choosing the cheapest just because your plane arrives in the wee hours but having to bear extra costs for airport transport due to your arrival time. Note, in most countries, there are extra charges for airport transport past 12 a.m.

A few of my relatives and friends also often opt for flight with stopovers. Not only it's cheap but you get to rest your feet at the airport, let's say in Dubai on the way to the UK. Personally, it's not something I'd prefer. You'd end up losing those precious time where you can recuperate your jet-lag at the hotel of your intended destination and the luxury of touring about without having to rush around wanting to fit all from your travel itinerary. Here, I'd say don't be afraid to spend a bit extra. 

One way is to buy the flight tickets months in advance or during promotions for cheaper flight tickets at rational hours. 

Be careful though. A few friends of mine bought tickets in advance to parts of Europe last year and with the unexpected weakening of the Ringgit, they couldn't back out of their holidays and were forced to go on ahead. They ended up just window shopping or spending most of their time in the hotel due to the limited budget. Yes, unavoidable. So, allocate extra EXTRA funds for destinations known to have higher and stronger currencies. Just be prepared and treat it as though that currency will increase further at the time you'd be travelling. 

Don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone 

Let's say you are well aware that you'd be away from the hotel more often than actually staying in your room. You'd only be using the room in the morning and at night after going around town the whole day.

Rather than your usual comfortable or luxurious hotel, you can choose a moderate style accommodation or local boutique hotels, having regard to safety of course. Nowadays, local boutique hotels are inexpensive, covers the basic facilities and are usually located in busy areas and not too far off town. However, if opting for boutique hotels, check what type of facilities are covered as each country would define boutique hotels differently. A boutique hotel in Kuala Lumpur would be different from the ones in Paris.

That extra fund from where you usually spend extra on accommodation can then be directed to touring about your intended destination or just that extra cash for emergencies.

This tip also links to my first tip highlighted on deciding priorities. 

Research, Research, Research 

Know your destination.

How do I do it? Research. Yes, summon that inner-geek and extra enthusiasm to ensure things go smoothly during the holidays.

Where to stay? Things to do? Things to buy? Places to visit? Places to avoid? Staying safe? Time to travel? Monsoon season? Tax-refund procedures? How much is the airport tax? Hire a tour guide? Hire a supir/driver? Or not?

By getting as much information as possible, you get to manage your holiday better, save time and money. 

A recent example would be about staying safe. You can read more about what transpired recently to a fellow traveller here. I felt that if she had conducted a bit of research beforehand, she may have been able to choose a service apartment at a better location i.e. within walking distance of main shopping areas and places to eat and perhaps install a GrabCar/Uber app on her mobile thus avoiding the risk of being scammed by the taxi driver.

Another element of research is to compare prices for flight tickets and accommodation on various search engines. That way you can make the best decision suitable for you, your family and allocated budget.

Lately, circulating online, there are supposedly things you can do online in getting cheaper flight tickets. I cannot vouch for this as yet as I have not tried it. Maybe you can. Two examples which come to mind would be clearing your cookies before making that flight booking and to buy tickets online on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Worth trying I guess.

All Hail The Latest Technology

Yes, with many free apps at your fingertips, travelling is much easier.

Before reaching your destination, install the appropriate mobile apps on your phone which you feel will be useful. For example, if you wish to know more halal food places at your destination, there are many versions of halal-travel related apps available with proper maps and guides. This way you get to ensure that the place you want to eat is within your budget and you get to avoid that extra costs from taking the wrong bus or routes to the intended restaurant.

I would recommend that upon reaching your destination, get a local SIM card. That way, you can access your mobile internet at a better range i.e. minimal to no network disruption at local package (price-wise). 

Get to know the locals

If possible, don't get caught in the tourist traps. 

Yes, I know, most of the time that said tourist trap is the whole reason for that holiday in the first place. Try to find an alternative. Be it alternative attraction or alternative time to visit. Get your people-trail in order ( Get the gist of "people-trail" from tip number six in this post here). The locals would know the best time and places to go to.

If you know a local or a personal tour guide or driver, discuss with them on what's the best option in covering those tourist attractions scheduled in your itinerary. For example, I drafted an itinerary and then discussed it with our driver upon arriving at the intended destination. He then gave suggestions and after a fair bit of changes in the itinerary, we covered all those planned at a shorter time period than initially estimated. Before our holiday ended, we had an extra one and a half day for free and easy. With that extra time, we decided to cover more tourist trails further out from the capital.

Another benefit is that at times, when you buy souvenirs or local items with a local accompanying you, you'd get a better deal.

Try to blend in as much as possible. Having that local anchor helps.

Be Realistic

Finally, be realistic.

This final tip is merely a reminder in setting our expectations. 

You may have many things to do and places to see in your itinerary but not all can be met. Be flexible and don't rush to try and squeeze everything in. Being too regimented will totally ruin your holiday. That will just result in you being miserable throughout and regretting spending time and money for the trip. The itinerary is just there to serve as a guide. 

Also, don't set too high of an expectation in getting things cheap. For example, if you opt to stay at a luxurious hotel, don't count on getting it for the price you'd pay at a motel or 3-star hotel. Even those with loyalty points don't necessarily secure huge discounts.

Below is an infographic on financial travel hacks which I find very useful, courtesy of Personal Capital. It provides a quick and general overview on cheap destinations, ways to get cheaper flight tickets, alternative accommodations and others. This would especially benefit those intending to travel to the US. My fave bit is on the free spree. Definitely worth finding out if we have something similar here and other countries.