- The Washington Times - Friday, October 15, 2004

HANOI, Vietnam — When planning months or even a year ahead for the next big trip, money is inevitably one of the top deciding factors. For Americans with a taste for overseas destinations, cheapie off-season flights to Europe and bargain hotels often seem like the easiest and most obvious way to go.

But what if you could go somewhere truly exotic — swaying palms, white sands, lush jungles and centuries-old ruins — during high season and stay in five-star hotels for a fraction of what you would pay for a closet with no bath in London?

It’s all possible in Southeast Asia. Sure, the airfares are a bit daunting — $800 to $1,000 for a flight from the States may be more than double what you’d pay to get to Paris or Barcelona. But let’s put it into perspective: Once you land, a dollar in Asia often equals thousands of the local currency. In Vietnam, $1 equals about 15,700 dong, which goes a long way. Compare that to Western Europe, where the euro trumped the dollar this summer, 1.2 to 1.

Southeast Asia, as it’s usually defined, consists of Papua New Guinea, Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma (also called Myanmar), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, each with a distinct culture and flavor. Great beaches, superb shopping and divine food abound in nearly all of these destinations. And if budget is an overriding issue, there’s no better place to wheel and deal to stretch your cash.

The region once crawled mainly with backpackers toting oversize rucksacks and staying in basic hostels and guesthouses cooled by fans instead of air conditioning. But now average Joe travelers arriving with luggage on rollers are discovering that for $50 or $60 a night, it’s possible to bathe surrounded by marble and lounge on a private deck overlooking the ocean.

For those who like to have all the details planned out, go online for limitless bargains. Sites such as www.latestays.com are great for booking hotels in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but if you like to see exactly what you’re getting before handing over your credit card, then often the best deals can be had simply by showing up and haggling.

This may not be the best option during high season, which varies from place to place depending on the weather, and it won’t likely work in more developed countries such as Singapore. In major tourist destinations such as Phuket, Thailand, or Angkor Vat in Cambodia, if you’re willing to run the risk that your top choice might be fully booked and you don’t mind scoping out a couple of places before checking in, your efforts can often lead to a treasure and a deal.

Once you get settled, a little legwork can save a lot more money. Instead of asking the hotel to book a driver or excursion for you, inquire at independent tourist agencies on the street. But even then, never book at the first place you visit.

For instance, a British traveler on a tour of Vietnam’s Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island recently paid $40 for a two-day tour — while an American couple on the same trip paid $13 each.

The lesson is that it’s best to shop around or cut out the middle man altogether by booking with the company actually running the tour.

Many booking agents, however, will insist that you take “tourist” boats, ferries, etc. True, that’s often the easiest way to get from here to there, but local boats are great for short trips or crossings, and they will save you a bundle. Posh tourist boats from Bali, Indonesia, to neighboring Nusa Lembongan can cost up to $40 each way for a one-hour ride. The local boat (the only locals on board are usually the captain and crew) costs about $5 each way for about 30 minutes longer on a more basic vessel.

Because the tour companies obviously don’t want you to know about this (often denying that a local boat exists), how do you find out about these deals? Easy: Think and ask.

Guidebooks such as the ones by Lonely Planet are helpful, and there are tons of Web sites with prices, schedules and lots of other useful information, including cheap domestic flights, trains and boats. Travel chat rooms and message boards can also point you in the right direction. But when in a pinch, ask a local. Drivers can be very helpful — especially if they think you might be looking for a ride to the place you’re asking about.

One thing is essential, though — negotiate a price upfront. Too many visitors make the mistake of hopping into taxis and expecting a metered fare, only to have the driver tell them they owe $20 for a $5 ride. Again, always ask and bargain. Hard.

The same goes with shopping. You’re in Asia, so shopkeepers expect you to haggle. It can be exhausting, and some tourists flat-out refuse to do it because it makes them feel cheap, but it’s a part of life in most markets and stalls across the region.

The night markets in Bangkok, for instance, overflow with faux designer bags, sunglasses and clothing along with traditional handmade wares. Vendors are sure to start out asking double, maybe even triple what the price should be. Hint: start out low. You can always go higher.

And when booking airline tickets, shop around online on search engines such as Orbitz.com as well as individual carriers’ sites and travel agencies specializing in Asian tours. Cathay Pacific, for instance, offers a great All Asia Pass, which lets travelers visit up to 18 cities for about the same price as a regular round-trip ticket.

If you’re planning on taking a domestic flight, say from Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi, Malaysia, it’s always cheaper to compare and book local carriers once you arrive rather than doing it all at once through a travel agent back home.

Weather varies greatly across the region and even within countries. Hanoi is oppressively hot in July and August but pleasant in October and November, while Ho Chi Minh City’s rainy season typically lasts from May to November.

On the other hand, there are some amazing deals to be had during the wet season, and in a lot of places, rain showers may last only a couple of hours in the afternoon — which is the perfect nap time, anyway.

So, next time you start thinking about affordable vacations, add Southeast Asia to your list. You’ll soon find that the real dilemma will be narrowing down where you want to go.

English is widely spoken in most cities in Southeast Asia, and even in remote areas, you can usually find English speakers in hotels. Menus are typically printed in English and the local tongue, and museums usually have information in a number of languages.

Use common sense. Leave expensive jewelry at home; stash what you don’t need for the day in your hotel safe; safeguard passports and airline tickets; and beware carrying valuables in a backpack, as it can be sliced open without your knowledge while you’re crossing the street or waiting for a train.

ATM machines are not always plentiful, so bring traveler’s checks as well as a few hundred dollars in small bills. U.S. dollars are almost always accepted if you’re stuck for local currency.

Be sure to check far in advance on whether you need to arrange visas to enter the countries you’re visiting. And just because visas are available on arrival at airports, don’t assume the same is true if entering via land borders. Also, if you plan on leaving and coming back, inquire about whether a multi-entry visa is necessary.

Consult a doctor or visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site at www.cdc.gov/travel for updated information on health threats such as bird flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome, as well as the recommended vaccinations for traveling in the region.

Keep in mind that some countries will not allow travelers to board planes with a fever, so if you develop flu-like symptoms, it’s a good idea to get checked out by a doctor.

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