Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine Flu and travel woes

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared a Phase 5 for the outbreak of the current swine flu situation, the second highest in its threat scale. This means that a pandemic could be imminent unless there is drastic improvement in the next few days. This will also mean that there will be uncertainty in the travel plans of many holiday makers especially those travelling to places where there are confirm cases of swine flu.

Since travellers normally make plans months ahead of their travel, they are always wary of such sudden change of events. These will fall into three main categories - natural causes, man-made causes and those in between. The first will include natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunami, hurricanes and other sudden adverse weather conditions. The second will include terrorist attacks, demonstrations and other political unrests. The last case will include this current swine flu outbreak which occurs in nature but propagated by humans.

When any of these events strike, the hapless traveller will be caught in long queues in the airport because of tighten checks and screenings and delays in their flight. Worst still, they may become a suspect and found himself detained or quarantined and there goes his holiday plans.

I still have about 20 more days before I start my holiday in Turkey. What do I do now? Cancel my trip early and get some refund or just wait and proceed as planned? Will it then be too risky? I suppose it is still early to make any decision since there could be two possible scenarios. First, the situation will improve and I will be able to travel as planned or alternatively it can become so bad that all unnecessary travel will be banned and I will be grounded. So all I can do now is just sit tight, wait and hope for the best and maybe let the travel agency make the decision.

I suppose it is not so bad if things happened after you have started your trip as you would probably just carry on unless it is something so bad that you need to turn back. It is actually harder to decide if you have not started since the choice is entirely yours. So while waiting for the next development, I will post on my previous travel to Eastern Europe and hope that I will have my travel memories of Turkey when the time comes.

Here are just some teasers from my Eastern European trip.

Budapest, Hungary

Bratislava, Slovakia

Prague, Czech Republic

Scenic Austria

Ronald Kwok

Friday, April 17, 2009

Choosing a package tour

(This post refers to the travel scene in Malaysia.)
Since it will soon be the school and summer holiday season, I am posting some pointers for those of you considering a vacation overseas. Let's look at some of the main form of overseas travel. The two extremes are

1. Full package group tour. Here, everything is taken care by the tour agency from the airline tickets, airport transfers, the hotels, the meals and all the site visits complete with a tour manager to look after the group. As such, this is the most hassle-free but the least flexible as you have no or very little option during the tour to do visits on your own. You may have some free time but this is usually very limited. The plus side is that everything is taken care for you and you just pack your bags and go. This is generally good value for money since you will be able to visit plenty of places in a limited time but it will probably be just the usual tourist sites without any in-depth visit to a particular city. There's a Chinese saying, "watching flowers on a running horse" which describe this aptly.

2. On your own tour. This is where you have to plan everything yourself; the airlines tickets, hotel bookings, local tour selection or your self-drive arrangement. This will give you the best flexibility as you can stay as long or as short at a particular place as you like. You can visit sites that are off the beaten tourist track and take in only what you want to see. You can also pick the hotel of your choice and you also have full control on what you eat.

In between the two extremes you have packages such as ground arrangement only (airline tickets plus hotel only), two to go (airline tickets plus the local arranged tour) and some other combinations. Which is the best arrangement? It all depends on the individual and there are pros and cons in any of these choices. Personally, I feel the best would be to take the full package group tour and have an extension on your own. In this way, you would have seen the major tourist sites with an overview of the place and then you can extend with your own itinerary of in-depth visit to places not covered.

Now more on choosing the all inclusive package group tour since this appears to be the most popular. After deciding on this mode of travel there is still the task of choosing the tour agency since there are so many of them offering more or less the same itinerary but at varying prices so which one do you choose, especially for first time traveller? For those who have gone on such tours, they would normally pick the same tour agency again since they would have tested them unless the previous tour was an unhappy one due to some faults of the agency so first impression do count.

The variation in prices are due mainly to four items and they are:
1. Airline
2. Hotel
3. Local tour operator
4. Food

1. Airline. You will know what airline is used by the tour agency. Many of the Middle East airlines will throw in a free night stay at their home city so it is an attraction if you have not been there before. Otherwise it could add to the time in the overall tour. Some pick their tour agency based on the airline used.
2. Hotel. You have no choice in this matter and you would not even know which hotel will be used until a few days before your departure. Some tour agencies give the names of the hotels but usually add "or equivalent" so the hotel you end up in may not be the one shown. Hotel out of town would be better in star quality (for the same cost compared to those in the heart of town) but you may lose time in the journey to and from the hotel and you cannot do a walkabout in town. Since you will be using the hotel mainly for sleeping, I suppose any hotel is OK as long as it is clean and comfortable. As breakfast is normally included, those hotel with a decent selection would also be welcomed to start off the morning well.
3. You will not know the local tour operator since this fact is not disclosed. Most of the itinerary for many of the package tour are very similar so your choice may be dependent on the specific sites that you want to visit. The quality of the local tour guides do vary but you have no choice in this matter. It will help if your tour manager is also knowledgeable and it will add to the enjoyment of the trip.
4. Food. Some cannot live without the familiar food back home while others would love to try the local cuisine. Thus usually Chinese food is included together with some local food in the package tour. The Chinese food included is normally nothing to shout about as it is just to fill the stomach unless it is those special food tours in China. You can always eat on your own if you find that the food provided does not suit you but you may not have enough time to look for alternative since group tours are usually on a tight timing.

So which one do you choose? If money is not a problem and the itinerary suits you, choose the most expensive one since this will most likely give the best hotels and the best food. On the other hand, if you are on a tight budget, go for the cheapest one. If you want value for money, go for something in between. If you have some good experience with a particular tour agency in the past, you may pick the same one so as not to have any surprises or you may try a new one for a change. Thus it would be good for past travellers to give their experience on a particular tour agency so that we have something to compare.

But in the end it is very much a personal choice. Bon voyage!

Ronald Kwok

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

MATTA fair and Malaysian Travel Agencies

The latest MATTA fair has just come and gone. There was the usual crowd and according to the organisers, the number of visitors is even greater than that of the previous fair so what recession are we talking about? The truth is maybe more people are going on local tours rather than on overseas tour because of the economic downturn but nevertheless there are still plenty of people at the travel agencies organising overseas tours.

Since there are so many travel agencies organising basically the same tour to the major tourist destinations overseas, how can a typical consumer decide which agency gives the best value for his money? It would be good if one can just look up a travel agency and get comments and feedback from previous customers on both the good and bad points of that agency. Hopefully, this blog can be a starting point but it will depends on the response generated.

To start off, here's an overall picture of the Malaysian tour agencies as I see it and readers could expend on it. I'll limit it to European tours first so as to be a little more focus. First the major players and they are GTT (Golden Tourworld Travel), Reliance, Parlo Tours and Chan's World. The rest would include Pearl Travel, Malaysia Harmony, Sedunia, Udara and so on. Readers may not agree to this classification but they are free to give their favourite travel agency and their comments.

I do not have first hand experience with any of these agencies as I shall be travelling with Parlo to Turkey only later in May. My past experience was with Excellence Holidays who has now gone burst. Based on the brochures available, I find in general, the most expensive to be GTT but they are also reputed to be the most reliable. The itinerary of Relieance tour appears to be the least comprehensive. Parlo seems to be less expensive and the itinerary good so it appears to be good value, hence I picked them for my next tour. Chan's Travel is also OK but a little inconvenient since the tour starts and ends in Singapore though they can include the flights between KLIA and Singapore if so desired. The price difference between tours may be due to the quality of the hotels and the food arranged but we are normally looking for reasonable accommodation and food since we usually do not have much time to spend inside the hotel and only need it for a good night's rest.

So what are your views on these travel agencies? Do you have some very good or some very bad experiences that you would like to share with the others? Please share your experience here so that other fellow travellers will benefit from your feedback.

Ronald Kwok