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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Trimming the cost of an Asia trip

By Michelle Higgins

New York Times

Planning a trip to Asia this year? Better get booking.

International tourist arrivals to the region increased 11 percent in 2010, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association. And tour operators that cater to U.S. travelers say bookings this year are already well ahead of last year.

"Our most popular 14-day tour of China already has more passengers booked to travel in 2011 than the entire 2010 season," Marty Seslow, vice president for sales and marketing at Gate 1 Travel, based in Pennsylvania, said a few weeks ago.

That means bargains will be harder to come by for travelers only now planning vacations. Rising jet fuel costs aren't helping matters. And stronger Asian currencies, from the Taiwan dollar (up about 8 percent against the dollar compared with a year ago, according to Travelex, a currency exchange company) to the Malaysian ringgit (up roughly 11 percent), means Americans have less buying power. (One exception is Vietnam -- where U.S. travelers are getting about 12 percent more for the dollar than a year ago.) But it's still possible to save on your Asian vacation if you plan carefully.
One of the biggest expenses of any trip to Asia, whether a whirlwind tour of China or a beach holiday in Bali, is simply getting there. Discounts, offered sporadically, aren't as deep as they were a few years ago.

Want to take advantage of the few discounts out there? George Hobica, founder of, advises: "Sign up for frequent-flier programs, and airline emails, even if you won't really be doing it for the miles." Asian airlines often reserve their best fares for their own websites, he said, noting that Singapore Airlines recently slashed fares by $300 to $400 on more than two dozen routes -- a sale it disclosed via email to its frequent-flier members.

If you have a stockpile of frequent-flier miles on an airline that doesn't fly to your Asian destination, you still may be able to use those miles, thanks to airline alliances. For example, American Airlines does not fly to Hong Kong, but Cathay Pacific, a OneWorld alliance member, which has a code-share agreement with American Airlines, does and accepts American miles.

Jetting around Asia

Once in Asia, use budget airlines such as AirAsia or Tiger Airways. "They have ridiculously low fares," said Stephanie Trzaska, a U.S. expatriate who has been living in Asia for the past four years, including in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore.

She recently paid $226 total for round-trip flights on Tiger Airways from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for herself, her husband and their daughter. The same flight on a mainstream airline, she said, would have been at least double that amount.

She added that, Travelocity's Singapore-based affiliate, can be helpful when searching for budget carriers. But be sure to check the airline site directly before you book in case the fare is lower on the carrier's site.

Many Asia-bound travelers have several destinations on their itineraries. If you fall into this category, consider an air pass. Cathay Pacific, OneWorld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance are among the airlines and alliances that offer passes, which allow travelers to fly to multiple cities within a country or region, often for hundreds of dollars less than if you bought individual tickets. But read the fine print; the tickets often come with booking restrictions and hefty change fees.

One with fewer restrictions, said Simone Farbus, air travel manager at Asia Transpacific Journeys, is the Discover Asia Airpass, operated by SilkAir, a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines, which offers flights between 22 Asian destinations, ranging from $145 to $345 per segment.

"There are no minimum or maximum restrictions on the amount of coupons or segments, and there's also no minimum stay requirement," she said. "We also like the fact that if circumstances change and the client has to cancel or change their ticket, it will only cost $25."

One drawback: Because the air pass uses Singapore as a hub, travelers who want to fly to, say, Siem Reap in Cambodia from Yangon, in Myanmar, must first fly to Singapore. But that additional flight can shave a lot off your costs. A trip in late April along that route starts at $980 when using the air pass, versus $2,885 if booked as individual tickets, Farbus said.

One air pass that doesn't require backtracking is the Discovery Airpass, operated in a joint venture by Bangkok Airways, Lao Airlines and Berjaya Air, with flights between Thailand, Cambodia and Laos and many small island resorts in the region. Flights between countries are typically $120 per segment, according to Farbus, and domestic flights range from $65 to $113.

Hotel savings, purchased by Priceline in 2007, is a good place to begin your search. It offers deals at more than 10,000 hotels in the Asia-Pacific sphere, including specially negotiated last-minute rates that can offer savings. For example, a "family" room, which comes with a double and a single bed, at the Yeng Keng Hotel, a 20-room boutique hotel in the City of George Town in Penang, Malaysia, was offered for $118 in mid-March on Agoda versus the promotional rate of 380 ringgit, or about $125, listed on the hotel's own site.

You can also bid for hotels in major Asian cities on, choosing trip dates, hotel star rating and the general neighborhood you wish to stay in, and then naming your own price -- just as you do on the U.S. site but this time in Hong Kong dollars. As on Priceline's U.S. hotel site, you learn the name of the hotel after you pay.

Package, seasonal deals

Packages that combine air and hotel are another way to save. For example, Singapore Airlines Vacations' Amazing 5 Nights Bali Package offers five nights at the Nusa Dua Beach Hotel, round-trip flights from Los Angeles for two, airport transfers and daily breakfast for $3,028, including taxes, in early May. If booked separately, five nights at the Nusa Dua Beach Hotel ($640) and the airfare for two ($3,068) came to $3,708 for the same trip.

You'll get the best rates in the offseason, of course, but there are trade-offs. You can have the Forbidden City practically to yourself in Beijing in December, but you'll have to bundle up, with daytime temperatures hovering around freezing.

The so-called shoulder season offers something of a sweet spot for travelers looking for deals. For example, the 10-day Taste of China Tour offered by Friendly Planet Travel costs a few hundred dollars less in April, when the weather is milder, than during peak summer season.

"All the components for the various prices are the same," said Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel. "The only thing that changes is the departure date."

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