Nope, this isn’t a stock photo. I took the photo, hundreds of feet in the air, in a metal box attached to rotating twin-blades. Travelling is awesome!
It is that time of the year again for travel agencies to jostle for your money in exchange for giving you the trip of a lifetime. Or, at least that’s what you think?
- Travel Revolution fair, organised by the Singapore Outbound Travel Agents Association (Sotaa), will be held at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre from Feb 26 to 28.
- The National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas) Travel Fair will take place at Singapore Expo Hall 7 from March 4 to 6. Both fairs are free admissions.
Before you part with your hard-earned money, be mindful that what travel operators promise may not always be what you get. More importantly, if you’re the type who like to hunt for a bargain at travel fairs, do your homework before heading there!
This is a monster list I have put together that is really a compilation of all the travel tips and hacks I have learnt over the years through trial and error, plus blood, sweat and tears. Be warned – this is a really, really long article (5,200 words) but it’ll be worth your time! Pinkie-promise.
My wife and I really love to travel. Although there are plenty of countries that we have not set foot on, we have done a fair bit of travelling for leisure and our trips are almost entirely on a free-and-easy basis.
Along the way, we have picked up quite many secret tips and tricks which we realize the traditional travel businesses would never want you to know, simply because it erodes their profits and complicates their workflow. Plus, I work in the hospitality industry so there are open-secrets that I can freely share with you!
Scroll down and you will see all the money and time saving tips that I have carefully compiled into different categories just for you! I have personally used almost every one of the tips listed below, to either save time or money, for my travel adventures. In most cases, I can illustrate each point with a particular scenario or situation that my wife and I have encountered.
Ready? Read on!
A. Bookings & Reservations (7)
B. Flights (9)
C. Accomodation (9)
D. Transportation (6)
E. General (12)
A. Bookings & Reservations
1. Agoda Lowest Price Guarantee
Remember those times when you’ve made a booking for your accommodation only to see a cheaper deal later? A little known feature of Agoda is their “Best Price Guarantee”.
If you have reserved a hotel room through Agoda and then show that you could book the same room for the same dates at a lower rate that is viewable and bookable on another website, they will either match that rate or beat it. If you’re wondering if it is worth the trouble, I have successfully submitted a claim against it when I stayed at Sydney last year.
Quick and easy!
2. Price Aggregator
Use price aggregator like Trivago (for accommodation) and Matrix Airfare Search (for flights) to quickly compare and check out the lowest prices. Sometimes, prices can be listed wrongly online for you to take advantage of. Need a guide for ITA Matrix airfare search? Check out this one right here from Upgraded Points to make full use of it.
When we went to Hokkaido in 2011, we booked a twin room at JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo which sits right on top of the main train station with its super premium location and incredible view – for 16,000 Yen, or roughly S$200 based on today’s rates. A quick check at the official website then had listed it at 36,000 Yen!
3. Use Cashback Websites
Cashback websites like ShopBack provide addition rebates when you access online travel agencies (OTAs) through them. For example, ShopBack offers up to $10 rebates for Agoda and up to 8% for Expedia. This is in addition to whatever loyalty rewards programs internal to these OTAs. By the way, ShopBack is a legit cashback website from which I have successfully cashed out my money.
4. Online Travel Agencies Credit Card Promo
Banks hold an almost 24/7 promo with certain OTAs if you know where to look. An excellent example is once again Agoda + Citibank. They have a dedicated landing page for Citi customers with regularly updated deals that may not show up in aggregators.
5. Email The Property Directly
Tried your best but still couldn’t find a well-priced deal online? Try emailing the property directly. No availability? Email them directly. But don’t forget to lock-down your rate because it will fluctuate daily.
Not all hotel/resort systems are fully automated to interface with online travel agencies (OTAs). If you’re talking about less-developed countries, or if you probably fancy a funky hostel, their reservation system may be nothing more than an enormous spreadsheet.
Trust me – I’ve hosted in one before. Sometimes, the best way is to ask the property directly.
6. Always Try Discount Codes
Very often, you don’t have to pay full price for online transactions because there are usually discount codes and offers. From now until 31st July 2016, use “TAXI25″ for 25% off the price for NTUC Income travel insurance.
Side story – ever since the experience of dislocating my elbow on an island resort (woot!) and surrounded by nothing but the endless sea, I have come to appreciate the value of travel insurance. I had a decent experience making claims from NTUC Income (the hospital/specialist/physio bills I saved are kind of worth maybe a decade of travel insurance fees) and I have made it my default choice ever since.
7. Plan Using TripAdvisor / Oyster
Always do homework to prevent getting scammed! Some official hotel pictures or reviews could be intended to mislead. If anything at all, doing homework helps to avoid costly time and money for changing accommodation.
Most people know to look at TripAdvisor for reviews. Tip – be skeptical of everything you read. Sometimes, tourists tend to suffer from “euphoria syndrome” and their review sometimes focuses on being “better” than the other guy by sharing a superior experience. Weird, but true.
A lesser known tip is to check out Oyster – The Hotel Tell-All. What exactly is it? It has real photos of hotels from angles not shown in official websites. The top photo is from Oyster, whereas the second photo is one that I took inside Eastern & Oriental Hotel. Pretty authentic eh?
8. Cheap Business Class Tickets
Travel packages, even free-and-easy ones, sometimes bundle really affordable business class tickets if you really want to try it without breaking the bank. Really, it is freaking awesome. We flew on Qatar Airways business class (in t-shirts, shorts and slippers LOL) and had the time of our life.
Topping up a hundred bucks or so to your travel agent could *possibly* get you a business class ticket on the cheap. For the more adventurous, try asking at the check-in counter! This is an excellent option when you are on a special trip. Perhaps planning a proposal to your significant other?
9. Free Airport Lounge Access
A frequent-flyer credit card such as Citi PremierMiles Visa Card has many travel related perks. As an example, PremierMiles has two complimentary visits to airport lounges each year because you get a personalised Priority Pass membership card that gives complimentary access to over 600 members-only Priority Pass airport lounges twice a year. This is great for flights with odd timings or lengthy layover.
If you have it, why not use it?
10. Free Travel Protection
Many frequent-flyer credit cards provides free travel protection, too. By charging your travel tickets to my Citi PremierMiles Visa Card, I get up to S$1,000,000 coverage in the event of death or permanent disablement, arising from an accident in a common carrier. I always clock my travel expenses on my frequent-flyer card, just in case.
11. Earn Miles & Cash Rebate
By clocking all travel expenses on your frequent-flyer card, you accumulate miles that you can exchange for free air tickets. Is miles the best deal?
Personally, I’ve found miles-for-economy-tickets to be generally a poor deal. Try business or first class tickets for excellent value! If you don’t like to travel, do you know that you can change miles to cash rebate?
12. Why Visit One Country When You Can Do More?
Another weird but awesome secret tip. Three one-way flights can sometimes be really affordable if you know where to look. Remember the flight price aggregators? Use those. And don’t forget to visit airlines websites directly because special deals frequently don’t get captured into price aggregators.
Just last year, my wife and I flew to Bangkok on Thai Air and spent 2-nights there. Then, we flew via Bangkok Airways to Phuket – guess how much a domestic flight ticket cost? S$70 buckaroos! Inclusive of 20-kg luggage, complimentary lounge access and in-flight meal and drinks.
You may be thinking that domestic flights are really cheap – yes, of course! But don’t forget that you can do it between two countries too. This year, we’re travelling from Japan to Taiwan using the same trick. Our JetStar flight only cost S$130 each inclusive of seat selection and 20-kg luggage.
13. Best Value With Comfort Budget Carrier
Thinking of splashing out on that SIA flight? Think again, when you have Scoot-In-Silence. Being stretch seats, they are super comfortable (up to 35″ seat pitch which is more than SIA economy seats 32″) and suitable for longer flights e.g. Taiwan, Australia where you need to catch a little bit of sleep on that overnight flight.
To make it even sweeter, you can choose to scoot in silence. To parents, sorry, you sweeties can’t choose this area if you travel with kids.
High value, lower price and more comfort – one of our favourite choice when flying. Oh, and we can get off the aircraft earlier.
14. Save On Flights? Waste Time & Money On Accomodations?
Some flights are really cheap because their timings suck. After my wedding a few years back, we flew on SIA to Tokyo because it was a really “cheap” flight – 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster kept many people away, so we took the noon flight on the A380 for only $600++. Awesome!
Although the flight itself was cheap, by the time we landed and got to our hotel, they sky was already dark and we didn’t have much time to do anything except to have dinner at Takashimaya. This meant that we basically wasted half a day, and had to pay for an expensive Japanese hotel room, just because we saved on the flight.
Heck, at least it was upper deck of A380 on Singapore Airlines. Remember that when you are travelling, you’re dealing with two limited resources – time and money. Both are just as important.
15. Be Extra Careful With Passenger Names
Note for low cost carriers – saving money during online promotions is awesome but double check the flight passenger names! Sometimes we are too caught up in the excitement due to the limited time and seats available, and that little typo error would cost you dearly – it could be the equivalent of re-booking a new ticket depending on the situation! They can do this because an erroneous name is sufficient reason to bump you off a flight, and no one wants that to happen.
16. Budget Flights – Don’t Pay With Credit Cards
Paying for budget flights using a credit cards would usually incur you a processing fee. Ouch – if you’re not really paying attention. By the way, do ensure that you are not getting any of the auto opt-ins you don’t need! A really simple way to save on processing fees is to pay by their alternative options such as AXS or SingPost.
For budget carriers, it is the little things that add up and that’s how they make money. They are not ashamed to make money off your mistakes at all.
17. Use Booking.com To Lock In Price For Free Cancellation
Many online travel agencies such as Agoda collect payment up-front when you make a booking. Others, like Booking.com, commonly does not collect payment upon reservation. This is because they operate a different business model.
OTAs like Agoda collect payment from customers first, and then they pay hotels etc. On the other hand, when using Booking.com, customers/guests pay at the property itself, after which the properties would pay Booking.com.
This allows us to take advantage of Booking.com’s system to lock in a favourable price. If we decide to stay at some place else, we can easily cancel our prior booking without incurring any charges. Booking.com even tout this as a feature!
18. Booking.com Luggage Storage Hack
One of the most audacious (in terms of ingenuity) hack we ever attempted was in Tokyo, Japan. Since you have read the previous point, you now understand how Booking.com works.
Our itinerary in Japan was such that we would check out of Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku in Tokyo, travel to Hakone for a one-night ryokan stay, then travel back to Tokyo for our return flight home. However, we didn’t want to lug our luggage all over Japan, so we asked the concierge whether we could keep our luggage at the hotel – which is already four cases/bags by now.
Unfortuntely, they don’t allow overnight storage of luggage. But, there is a secret hidden clause. If we have a subsequent, future booking with the hotel, then we can do so. Can you guess what we did?
I went up to my hotel room, made a reservation for a week later on Booking.com, and then went downstairs to deposit our luggage! We had fun in Hakone, stayed in a ryokan, and then came back to the hotel to collect our luggage the following day. We then took the airport shuttle directly at the hotel itself and headed to the airport. We were finally “home sweet home” before I logged on to Booking.com and cancelled my reservation.
19. Hotel Luggage Storage Services
Nothing as exciting as the last point, but most hotels allow their concierge services to temporarily store your luggage as long as you retrieve them on the same day as you check out.
This is one aspect of hotels to make good use of. We’re going to stay two nights with a cheap Airbnb in Taipei in April, but we have deliberately chosen a hotel for our last night there. Airbnb typically have inferior check-in and check-out timings and obviously no luggage storage solutions. Luggage storage lockers are increasingly common though!
We maximized our overseas time by getting a midnight flight home, and we don’t have to get bogged down by our luggage. Thus, we are free to roam around from 12pm to 10pm! Travelling is sometimes a jigsaw puzzle of logistics requirements so think through your plans carefully before making reservations.
20. Sending Luggage To Hotels/Properties
In Japan, for example, it is very common to send your luggage via postal service because of the convenience. Consider using such a service because it frees you up from the constraints of luggage storage and check-in/check-out timings. They even have specialized services for luggage sending – we’re using it soon!
21. Getting Hotel Room Upgrades
The very first faces of the hotel who attend to you can be the most important as well. The guest service officers at hotels wield certain extremely valuable powers apart from the ability to check you in. Early check-in? Late check-out? Better rooms? Cheap upgrades!
A polite question posed to the guest service officer in a Sydney hotel got me the only top floor balcony room with early check-in for a token AUD$20 fee that I gladly paid. Your chance can be higher on weekdays or weekends, depending on where you are staying at – see next point.
22. Weekend Or Weekday? Leisure Or Business?
The chances of getting a cheap upgrade really depends on the occupancy level. Occupied rooms are better than empty rooms, get it? Upselling is the key to increase revenue.
Dear Sir, how about that top-floor, executive premier king-bed corner club room for only $25 more? It gets you club privileges which includes afternoon-tea at 4pm to 6pm and late checkout? *wide grin*
This means you have to know whether your hotel is a business-centric or leisure-focused one. Business hotels have location and facilities that caters to people who travel for work, and occupancy levels are typically higher on weekdays. Many people travel for work, and offices are open for work only on weekdays. Simple logic, right? Rates in business hotels would typically be higher on weekdays.
The reverse is true for leisure-based accommodation. As a sample, below is the daily rates for Nikoi Island – a fantastically rustic island resort.
Have you ever wondered why some hotels (not all) push out staycation deals on weekends to attract locals? To fill up the rooms! If you check out an overseas resort in say, Thailand – chances are you can see from the daily rates that Fridays and Saturdays command the highest rates. Again, simple logic because occupancy levels are the highest. Just remember that hospitality properties are out to maximize revenue.
23. Beware Of Late Check Out
When you are entitled to late check outs, sometimes funky things can happen when you exceed the original check-out time e.g. 11am. Some hotels are less competent than others, so you might your key cards disabled even though you are still in the hotel. This is because the key cards access can be automatically programmed to be disabled, same for WIFI access.
Ask the front office staff – give an innocent face – to double check your access has been extended to the late check-out time, just in case.
24. Join Hotel Membership Programs
A basic hotel hotel membership program such as IHG Rewards Club is free and grants you various perks such as priority check-in queues, late check-outs and complimentary F&B items. Freebies!
25. More Than Just Hotels
Traditional travellers are very familiar with staying at hotels because these are deemed to be the safest choices. However, if you don’t need the services they provide, there are plenty of alternative options nowadays – Airbnb, hostels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts, or even resorts!
Don’t be afraid to give them a try – they may surprise you and can be way cheaper than an average hotel.
26. Exploit Free-&-Easy Flexibility
If you’re travelling free-&-easy, exploit the flexibility to its full potential. It isn’t something that I can easily explain but let me quote an example. While we were in Hakone, we were queuing up to buy a one-way ticket for the lake cruise but the ticketing counter was absolutely swamped with Chinese tour groups.
I spotted another counter which was empty, scooted over and saw that it was selling first class tickets for the same cruise for a few hundred Yen more, which is really just a few Singapore dollars. One of our golden rule – don’t sweat the small stuff. No point wasting precious time over a couple of dollars. I went over, paid, and boarded the cruise – haha!
From the angle I took the photo, the cruise looked really crowded huh? But over at our private section, there were only two of us and one other family, so the little kiddo had fun running around the top deck.
Tourist destinations are commonly packed by tour groups who often uses the cheapest option. Two upgrades for us probably cost us an extra $10, but an upgrade for an entire tour group costs hundreds of dollars!
27. Use Cheaper Airport Shuttle Service
Airport Shuttle Service is available in many countries and typically use a flat-fee system. It can be much cheaper than using a cab or arranging for private transfers with the same amount of convenience.
In Japan, using a cab is next to impossible because it is too expensive. We took the airport limousine bus service which brought us right into the heart of Shinjuku. Way cheaper but just as comfortable!
28. Airport Transfer No Show
What happens when your pre-arranged airport transfer is a no show, and you have no way of contacting your hotel or resort? It isn’t a big problem if you have mobile service, but sometimes you don’t.
No no no, don’t just hop on a cab at the airport.Chances are you couldn’t spot him, or he couldn’t spot you. Perhaps he is just waiting at the wrong spot for you! Stay calm – go to the customer service counter and ask the lady nicely if she could make an announcement for you.
Believe it or not, we did it twice, once at Bali (usually ridiculous crowd) and once at Batam. Both times, our driver were MIA but quickly found us after the annoucement.
29. Print Out Instructions In Local Language
If you are in a country where the locals don’t speak very good English, always have a back-up plan. While in Tokyo, we headed to Tsukiji Fish Market at 3:30am in the morning and we weren’t sure if our cab driver would be able to bring us to the correct meeting place to rendezvous with our “Safer Tsukiji Tour” guide, Naoto-san.
We prepared a map in Japanese – and it worked!
30. Carrying Loose Change
Try to carry some loose change with you at all times. Once, when I was in Batam, a short cab ride only cost 50,000 Rupiah but the driver apparently didn’t have change for a 100,000 Rupiah note. LOL – I know an awesome scam when I see one. Remember – small notes.
In a country where people can ride like this at the back of a lorry in heavy rain, sometimes we won’t understand how hard their lives can be. Oh well, no point risking anything over a few dollars, so we gave it as a tip to the driver.
31. Optimal Travelling Size
4-pax is no doubt one of the most optimal travelling group size, provided that all of you are really close friends. Great for sharing a cab ride or a private transfer. If you guys and girls don’t mind, many hotels have double twin rooms, and Airbnb can easily cater for 4-pax nowadays. Sharing food in a paradise like Taiwan, Thailand or Penang? Awesome!
32. Go For Less Touristy Accomodation
Less popular and touristy destinations are obviously more value for money, so be sure to look at places before they become flooded with tourists! We visit Thailand regularly, and my wife and I headed to the eastern coast of Cha-am one time and scored an enormous pool villa at a fraction of the price that you would pay at perhaps Phuket or Koh Samui.
33. And Less Touristy Activities
Marketing works in mysterious ways. Visitors to Sydney would definitely have heard of the Bridge Climb. Climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge for the ultimate Sydney experience – see panoramic views from the top of an Australian icon! For the climb of your life – and it is really expensive!
We’re not fans of doing touristy stuff just for the sake of doing them, so we gave the Bridge Climb a miss. Instead, I took the missus on a private helicopter ride! Sometimes, it’s less about how much we’re spending but whether it is worthwhile spending it. Cheaper, better view, and we spend less time. Triple win!
How many folks have the chance to look at Sydney Opera House from this angle?
34. Avoid Major Holidays Of Destination Country
Always check the local calendar. If you are unlucky, shops may not be open and activities may be restricted. For example, Nyepi is a Balinese “Day of Silence” that is commemorated every Isakawarsa (Saka new year) according to the Balinese calendar. I haven’t experienced it for myself but I took the safe option by avoiding this date.
Observed from 6 a.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning, Nyepi is a day reserved for self-reflection, and as such, anything that might interfere with that purpose is restricted. The main restrictions are no lighting fires (and lights must be kept low); no working; no entertainment or pleasure; no traveling; and, for some, no talking or eating at all. The effect of these prohibitions is that Bali’s usually bustling streets and roads are empty, there is little or no noise from TVs and radios, and few signs of activity are seen even inside homes.
Also, do note that other countries are really huge compared to Singapore and the local tourists can make your travel experience a really tough one.
Recently, we hit upon the idea of going to Japan for Sakura season. Well, what do you know? Everything is freaking expensive during super peak season! Even the usually affordable Airbnb accomodations are priced up to two-times its normal rate, or even higher.
If your plan is to go for a cheap vacation, obviously you’re going to avoid the peak travel period.
35. Avoid School Holidays & Long Weekends (Singapore)
Don’t travel during peak period if you can, for obvious reasons, because out-going flights will be in demand.
Basic economics : higher demand + limited supply = higher prices.
36. Keep Updated On Destination News
Danger? Beware! Read up news on where you are going. Pretty common sense stuff as other countries are seldom as safe as Singapore.
Remember the Aug-2015 Bangkok blast? I went to Thailand a few weeks after the event after reading up plenty of related news. The hotel I’m staying at happened to be really near to the blast site. Even when we were there, we could spot heightened security everywhere and the vibe in the air was noticeably different. We tried our best not to stay out too late during our time there.
Keeping yourself abreast of the latest news could save unnecessary lost of time and money for itinerary changes.
37. Go For Free Walking Tours
In many countries, tourist guides aren’t regulated as strictly as Singapore and it can be rather easy to find free walking tours. They usually adopt a pay-what-you-want attitude and don’t really mind if you don’t pay at all, plus you might not even have to make any bookings before the scheduled tour.
I went for a free walking tour in Sydney and enjoyed it tremendously, and paid the guide $10 because they did such a wonderful job. You can take the chance to ask a local on where to have cheap meals and affordable activities! Besides, they would usually bring you to cool places that typical tour guides wouldn’t show you!
38. Haggle When Shopping
If you don’t try, you would never know! One of my favourite places to do so is in Bangkok. But c’mon, if the item is already dirt-cheap, not much point spending too much of your time to reduce the price by a dollar or two. Remember that time, like money, is just as valuable overseas.
39. Currency Changers
In some countries where money changers are easily available i.e. Batam, Indonesia the rates overseas may be better or on par with best local rates. However, be mindful of the opposite scenario. In places like Taiwan, I hardly see money changers so your next best bet could be banks or ATMs.
Sometimes, I simply charge expenses to my credit card. I figured that the 2.0% rebates earned would approximately offset the somewhat poorer exchange rates.
40. Cheap Consumables
Buy consumables overseas if you find yourself having plenty of leftover currency with nowhere to use them. Many times, the pricing structure is based on the cost of living of each country, just like how MacDonald’s is cheaper or more expensive in other countries. Even medications can be much cheaper, plus I can even buy them off-the-shelf.
Likewise, you can avoid packing toiletries if you are confident of getting them overseas. I would buy bottles of moisturizer etc from Taipei’s Watson if I have too much Taiwan dollars – save space and money!
41. Getting Internet Access 24/7
It is now easier than even to get a portable WI-FI router that works for the country that you’re headed to. For some countries, the rates are really cheap. Taiwan, for example, only costs $5 per day. Save time (and maybe money) by getting your router before you leave Singapore!
42. Always Ask
If in doubt, always ask. Don’t be afraid to sound like a “cheapo” but be polite at all times. Remember, you’re asking for a favour here. I can recall multiple incidents when a simple question is all it took to get us what we wanted – you know, like that hotel room upgrade?
When we were at Katoomba, Australia, we had purchased the bus-pass which allowed us to enjoy unlimited rides. It happened that we’re actually staying at a Blue Mountains bed-and-breakfast for two nights instead of a smash-and-grab one-day tour. I asked whether there was a package that catered for multiple days. The guy behind the reception counter gave me a quizzical look and said I just needed to buy the one-day pass. The rest of the duration is free – just hang on to the booklet. Thanks mate!
43. Don’t Forget To Mention Special Occasions
Lastly, nothing beats celebrating birthdays. Hotels and restaurants would give us free cakes and wines, if you mentioned that it is a special occasion. While we were holidaying in Taiwan, my wife informed the hotels we were staying in that it was my birthday and this was one of the surprise we got when we returned to our room one day. Simple requests like asking for a couple pieces of chocolates would not be a problem for many hotels and resorts. Try it!
Phew. That’s Long.
Well. I guess that’s it. All 43 tips for your travel plans in 2016, and hopefully beyond. May this little guide save you some awesome time and money in your future travels.
Has it helped you? If it has, please share it with your friends, family and colleagues! Teach & share everything! I might have left out a tip or two but I’ll update this guide if anything important comes to mind.
What? Want to ask me for a sponsored trip? Let me know!
Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful.
– Anthony Bourdain
P.S. Omg that is such a “click-baity” post title but I hope it has proven its worth
P.S. Disclosure – there are no affliate links on this post except for one pathetic Airbnb referral sign-up