Where and how we travel has changed dramatically over the last couple decades. What’s changed at an even faster pace is the way we plan our trips and the tools we use. Just a few years ago travel guides were more or less the ‘Holy Grail’ of learning about where to go, how to get there, and most importantly, how to find a decent place to sleep. In just a few years we’ve started to ditch printed books for websites and increasingly turned to our mobile devices while on the road. Today we’ll look at the tools that are shaping how we travel and ones we enjoy using.
Trevor: For many years, I was a travel guidebook writer, first for Fodors and then for National Geographic; I also did a lot of work for the Tourism Authority of Thailand, revamping their website for web 2.0 and developing social media promotions. Scott worked on various country editions of Groovy Map, a travel guide map, and of course was a partner in a luxury travel company. Over the past decade the landscape of travel information has shifted from print to online to mobile, and during that transition I worked with a friend to try to develop a next generation travel website and and mobile platform. One of the great challenges we experienced was simply that the landscape was changing so quickly and while print guidebooks were struggling, no one alternative product offered the best new solution.
Scott: Nowadays, travel guidebooks are still purchased, but increasingly, people are relying on websites such as TripAdvisor, which are contentious in large part because of the validity of the reviews and the quality of the advice they offer. As we’ve both lived, worked, and traveled the region extensively for more than 15 years, we’ve decided to have a look at how we now plan travel and how that process has changed over the last decade-and-a-half.
Planning: Where to go – Researching destinations
Scott: Clearly you’re not going to go out and buy a guidebook until you know which countries you’re going to visit. How can you find out where in Asia you might want to travel? Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam? How long do you want to spend in each destination? How are you going to get from A to B? and how easy is it to get visas for these countries? You really can’t find out all of this information in one place, so where should you start?
Trevor: If I’m going to a place I’ve never been before, I rely heavily on friend’s advice and opinions. I use Facebook to post questions to friends who I know have traveled to certain places and I use Google to just hunt for random information, avoiding the major online players like T.A. because I don’t trust their advice. So many people contact me to ask for my advice and recommendations, but frequently they go with whatever LP says and often report back to me afterwards that the places they went were super touristy etc.
Scott: I think age and prior travel experience plays a big role, but like you it’s talking with friends. I often get curiosity sparked by chatting with friends. When I do want to know more about a destination though, I’ll pick up a Lonely Planet in a book shop, but more likely run a Google search and then follow some interesting-looking links that come up.
Trevor: I agree that going to a bookstore and picking up travel guidebooks can be a really useful way to get a lot of information quickly, but I’m not so eager to pick up a Lonely Planet. One of the main reasons for my anti-LP bias is from market research on guidebooks I did years ago. What I have found is that the most recently published first or second edition of any guidebook is usually more accurate than a 10th edition LP. The problem with guidebooks in general is that they don’t have the most up-to-date information and I’ve found that the later editions aren’t usually as good because the people who do the updates (especially LP) are often paid little and do a perfunctory job, whereas a recently published first edition will have much more in-depth research. So whether its Rough Guides, Nat Geo, Moon, or Fodors, if its a relatively recent edition its probably the best.
Booking Airline Tickets
Scott: The no frills airline world in Asia has and is exploding. Whether you’re traveling in China, India, or SE Asia, there are a ton of airlines that offer good service, great routes, and very affordable prices. It’s not uncommon to fly from one country to another, up to a couple hours in length, for $50/way or so.
Trevor: Air Asia is clearly your best bet for cheap online fares around the region, but there are a number of smaller carriers such as Nok Air, Jetstar, Tiger, Cebu Pacific, sometimes Bangkok Airways, Scoot, IndiGo, SpiceJet, Lion Air, VietJet, and more. Many of them have good apps as well. While booking a month or so in advance can save you money, sometimes there are good sales just a week before and even full fares aren’t very much if you want to wing it as you go.
Scott: I don’t really find using an airline aggregator a good option in Asia. I never get the best rates or routes. I think it’s best to go to the actual airline website or use one of their apps. The apps are getting better by the month as well.
Trevor: That said, I booked a $700 ticket to Hawaii on JustFly.com, so there are some good fares on some of those aggregation websites.
Trevor: I use Agoda, an online hotel booking website that started in Thailand, a lot because they have great rates. But I often just book one night, max two as I don’t trust the reviews entirely. I like to get on the ground and look around to see if I can’t find a place I like better once I’m in the town.
AirBnB is operational in a lot of the region, particularly Thailand (and Singapore), as the Thais and Singaporeans are pretty dialed in and many people rent out apartments merely to rent on AirBnB. Even small guesthouses list there.
Scott: Apps like HotelQuickly and Late Stay can be good as well if you want to book a room today for tonight. They are gaining traction. (I haven’t ever found these useful – can get same rates on agoda)
Trevor: Getting visas online is great for a few reasons: first, you don’t have to waste time going to an embassy or consulate (often twice: to drop off and pick up) and, at least in the case of the on-line Cambodia visa, it doesn’t take up a page in your passport (though some people want the physical stamp, I prefer to stretch the usefulness of my passport out as long as possible). One downside is that you can lose the piece of paper with the visa (though I forgot it one time and they were able to look it up on a computer. Now I take a pic with my phone).
Scott: Cambodia can do online, Vietnam, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and others. It’s often $10US or so more for an online visa but sure can save time and with some countries, like Cambodia, the e-visa doesn’t take up an entire page in your passport.
Beware websites that pose at the ‘official government’ e-visa page, but charge much more. They basically will get your visa, but add a huge service fee on-top. My dad got stung with this when arranging one for Sri Lanka. Tips for avoiding this: look for a few searches about the correct website before buying one.
Trevor: For countries that don’t offer online visa, you should make sure to get all your visas before you leave or make sure there is ample time in capital cities (where embassies are located) to drop off your passport one day and pick it up the next. Note that you can’t do visas on weekends or holidays so its good to know local holidays, when embassies will be closed. Like, suppose you are in Vietnam and want to get a Cambodian visa in HCMC or Hanoi; if its a Cambodian holiday the embassy is likely to be closed. You can add national holidays to Google calendar, which is really useful.
Trevor: Aside from the obvious, local taxis, busses, trains, etc, much of Asia has mobile transportation options. Believe it or not, there is Uber in Asia. Uber is, of course, great because you don’t have to negotiate the fare and you can be sure of getting a taxi wherever you are and getting to wherever you need to go, such as a bus station or obscure bar, without having to get lost, get taken for the proverbial ride, etc. — Uber is available for select cities in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia
Otherwise, there is also GrabTaxi (and now even GrabBike) in Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Putrajaya, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Malacca, Penang, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu, Singapore, Manila, Cebu, Davao City, Iloilo City, Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang Rai, Phuket, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Jakarta. And then there are a host of country specific ones i’ve heard about for Japan, India, Korea, and China, such as BlueBird in Indonesia.
Tip: These are really handy because the driver knows where you want to go when they accept the job/and/or can’t refuse your ride and they will pick you up where you are. Often getting into a city using one of these can be good. Drivers can’t officially pick up at the airport but will wait just outside and if you book them, will call and then come and fetch you.
Trevor: I rely a lot on GoogleMaps. If you get a local SIM card for your smartphone you can get access to GoogleMaps and it’s so helpful. When you’re in a taxi and want to make sure you’re headed in the right direction or even when you’re cruising around on a motorbike and don’t want to get lost. It’s invaluable. Their listings aren’t always so accurate — There were a lot of inaccuracies in Chiang Mai last time I was doing the NG Thailand guidebook update, trying to find certain things that were not where GoogleMaps said they were, but I’m often looking for some pretty obscure things.
Scott: Many maps are allowing you to save them online, but when I don’t have data, I’ll call up the map before heading out then it will show where I am in relation while walking, even without a local SIM.
For Train Schedules in Thailand you can check the State Railway of Thailand website but you can’t book tickets online: you still have to go to the train stations. There’s an SRT app that shows schedules, prices, and how late the train is at each station.
Later in 2016 the train line from Thailand into Cambodia will open which is going to be an exciting way to get between the two countries. The larger region is going to really open up in the next decade as well through Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, offering much greater connectivity and greater speed.
Destination Specific Resources
Trevor: One thing I’ve found, is that there are lots of local print publications that are regularly updated. Guidebooks are great because we give you well-researched history, insightful tidbits on off-the-beaten-path attractions, etc. But after a year or so on the shelf… well, these countries are changing so quickly. Meanwhile, they’re written by people who live in the destinations so you’re generally getting better advice than on T.A. which is written by tourists who don’t know how to evaluate the best local food, for example.
Scott: Bangkok 101 isn’t free, but it’s fairly easy to find, and has both insightful articles and updated listings. Good reading material on planes or busses and good listings for restaurants and bars. They have a relatively decent website too.
BK Magazine is a weekly print publication that is free and can be picked up at just about any Starbucks. Their website is quite good and their Facebook feed is constantly updated. Obviously it’s a bit biased, depending on the preferences of their staff, but they’ve got their ear to the ground and have the most up-to-date offerings of where to eat, shop, drink, see art, live music, you name it.
Trevor: TAT mini guides are available at most local TAT offices, but in Bangkok, at the TAT headquarters on Petchaburi (near Nana), they have mini guides for every province in the region. I like these not for hotels or restaurants, but for listings of and maps of attractions in the region. On a similar note, I think there are some great road map books that you can buy at Asia Books, Kinokuniya, or any large bookstore in the region. They have all the major attractions on the maps. Oh, and Coconuts Bangkok: they have sites in other countries in the region can often have some useable articles if you give a look.
Trevor: Cambodia Pocket Guides: Out and About, Drinking & Dining, maybe another one or two. They’re updated every two months and are easy to carry around. Good little maps and good way to find restaurants or bars in any given area.
Scott: Canby Guidebooks is another free publication series with the good maps of different regions of Cambodia, from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, that have good temple info and good beaches and islands info, including quite updated info on busses, borders, etc.
Trevor: Of course I’ll suggest that you get a National Geographic Cambodia guidebook to give you background on the country and great tips for experiential travel, but I think you could leave the Lonely Planet at home and pick up both of these free guides (and possibly AsiaLIFE magazine) and you’d be pretty set up for getting around Cambodia and seeing all the things you need to see.
Trevor: We hear that the local what’s-going-on publication scene is a bit saturated, but that Asia Life, The Word and Oi magazine are useful and available online as well as in print. We’ve been told that City Pass Guide, is pretty good too for straight-up tourism info. Beyond HCMC it seems you’ll need a proper guidebook or online resources.
In Jakarta and Bali, Indonesia there is a good weekly magazine called The Beat that has good maps of major areas and listings of restaurants, bars, and other entertainment options.
Guidebooks and Apps
Trevor: For online guides, I’ve always been a fan of TravelFish. Full disclosure, I did a bit of work for them here and there over the years, but I’ve always found their website and apps useful, if not ideal. Their website has good feedback from real travelers: it doesn’t seem that there is the type of distorted information that you may find on sites like T.A. Also, it’s mostly backpackers and flashpackers, so if that’s your style of travel, then you’re getting advice from similar travelers. Also their off-line mobile guides are quite good for finding hotels in various areas of a destination: Bali for example. They have a good selection of hotels in Amed, for example.
I’ve tried so many apps like Gogobot or even Foursquare, and I just lose interest after some time, as the information they provide is either generic or limited.
Using guides and apps to plan a trip –
Treor: Ok, so a group of us were planning a surf trip to the Philippines a couple years ago, and we had some tips from friends who travel there often, including friends of friends who had a resort on one of the islands. So, for planning a surf trip there are specific websites to help you find the best options for surfing (getting away from crowds, which areas get the best swells at what type of year etc.), so I think that you should have some idea about what you want to do and then look for sites that will give you specific advice (for example, the Ultimate Cambodia Travel Guide, which is specific to visitor who want to explore Cambodia by motorcycle) rather than something generic, like TA. But then not everyone in our group surfed, so we wanted to find someplace with a balance of things to do so I googled “diving Philippines” and “fishing Philippines” and then I cut and paste all my findings into a word doc, looking for overlap. Once on the ground somewhere, I prefer discovering places to eat, just wandering around.
In closing, we should say that Scott and I clearly may have left out some destination specific resources that some of you, our listeners, may be more familiar with. Know a great mobile app or online pocket publication for exploring India or the Philippines? Please share and we’ll make sure to check it out and mention it when we do a follow up episode!
Sites & Apps We Like & Use
- Travel Fish
- Canby Cambodia Guides
- Department of National Parks, Thailand
- Cambodia Pocket Guides
- Vietnam Visa Online
- E-Visa Cambodia
- State Railways of Thailand
- Late Stays Thailand
- Hotel Quickly
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