PACKAGE YOUR OWN TOUR © Duncan Graham 2005
Fancy a break in Bali – five days with some white-water rafting thrown in? The hotel deal looks OK, but riding rapids gives you collywobbles.
So how about a week in Malacca plus guided tours of the Straits settlement? The history bit appeals, but the hotel is too expensive and you have only two days.
The problem with package tours is that you have to take the travel agent’s offering and it’s almost impossible to tailor your tastes to their product without paying big premiums.
So why not design your own package and pocket the commission?
It’s not so difficult and the cost savings can be significant.
All you need is an Internet connection, a credit card and organisational skills, plus patience and perseverance. For ease and comfort it helps if you have a personal high-speed system, but working from a Warnet is just as effective.
A bit of research makes the process easier. If travelling overseas check visa requirements and make sure you have more than six months before expiry. (The passport, not you.)
Get an impartial guidebook of the area you fancy. Lonely Planet seems to be the world standard, with the Rough Guides a distant second. These books tell you how it is with the gloss rubbed off.
Many countries run government web sites promoting their wares. Naturally these show unspoilt beaches and uncrowded streets. Best to seek Virtual Traveller websites where people post frank comments and useful tips.
Let’s assume you’d like to visit some neighbour countries. First air fares: Type ‘Travel Jakarta to Singapore (or wherever)’ into your search engine and select an airline.
Many now encourage Internet bookings. Select the flight you need and confirm booking through Visa or MasterCard, or sometimes American Express. The airline then e-mails you with a booking code that you show at the airport check-in.
I’ve yet to encounter any problems using this system in Indonesia or other APEC countries. In most cases it’s as speedy as presenting a standard ticket.
However there are some cautions. It’s essential to read the pinhead-size print on the airlines’ conditions. Some tickets include airport taxes in their charges – others don’t. And watch out for the synonyms: Is an ‘airport tax’ the same as a ‘passenger service charge’?
Well, sometimes. If you don’t check carefully you could find yourself paying a surcharge in the departure lounge just when you’ve quit the last of your local money. This is a problem in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.
Not all airlines have user-friendly sites. I’ve found Air Asia to be the simplest, but the ease of use is offset by the discomfort of jostling for somewhere to sit, as the company doesn’t allocate seat numbers.
OK, you’ve organised the flights. Now look for accommodation.
The Lonely Planet books rank hotels and offer comments and prices. These change with time so ensure you update off the Web. Just search for ‘Hotels Phuket’ or wherever you fancy and you’ll be hit with multiple choices through a portal that brackets rooms according to price and location.
This part of the hospitality industry is well advanced in electronic booking to the point where the buyer can be overwhelmed by choice. It’s like buying milk in a supermarket: Low fat, calcium added, vitamin enriched, flavoured (six varieties), local, imported … no wonder customers get shelf-shocked.
Discipline is important. Select your star rating and price in advance and keep a note of the sites you visit otherwise you’ll be going round in circles.
Also check the location and access. Your dream deal may turn out to be nightmare if you have to pay more in cab fares than room rates and find your hotel is directly under a flight path.
So study city maps in guidebooks and on the Internet. Check the calendar for local festivals. Arriving in Kuala Lumpur during the Indian Deepavali festival when every contract worker from the sub continent is in town to celebrate can be daunting.
Keep a clear head while manipulating your mouse or you’ll confuse rupiah with ringgit and think you’ve scored a bargain when in fact you’ve just bought the presidential suite in the Sheraton. Type ‘Exchange Rates’ into the search box for up-to-date values because most charges are in the local currency.
Hotels in some big cities and resorts have organised a late stay booking service. This is really handy for the budget traveller. It works like this:
Cooperating hotels notify the agency that they have unsold rooms for particular nights and often discount these heavily. Sometimes breakfast is included, sometimes not. During peak periods a surcharge may apply. As with the airlines, read the small print.
You book through the Internet using your credit card and don’t pay the hotel. If you find a good deal you have to negotiate a longer stay on the Internet and not at the reception desk.
Of course there can be hiccups and hazards, as with using agents. Designing your own package tour is not for the nervous who fear Internet fraud. Reputable sites have encrypted pages when you give credit card details.
To make a booking you’re required to fill in ID or passport details and credit card information. Hassles can arise when you have a different address for your credit card statement than your home address.
Indonesians with only one name also encounter minor difficulties because the system expects everyone to be binominal. Repeating the name seems to satisfy the machines that read your form. And if you haven’t got a postcode just invent one or your application will be rejected, as empty boxes are anathema.
Check your e-mail regularly even when on tour because these booking systems do not use phone or fax contact.
Finally – travel insurance. Indonesians tend to ignore what Westerners consider essential. Whatever your views you can shop for rates and buy on the Internet.
People still sit around travel agents and queue at airport offices, but such primitive behavior is no longer essential. Why go to town to buy someone else’s holiday offering when you can custom-make your own at home? Vacation
adventures start at the keyboard.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 22 November 2005)