While it is entirely possible to arrange for flight tickets and hotel packages online, we found it better in many ways to go with a tour company specializing in outbound travel services. Moreover, our Holyland trip reservation prepared us to better deal with the shortcomings of the tour company personnel. Even so, many surprises lurk for a first-time South Asia bound traveler. Below is a list of gotchas to avoid when reserving a trip to South Asian countries from Kerala:
Last Updated: 10/2012.
- Travel agents offer vanilla packages that include a city tour and/or one or more attractions, depending on the number of days planned for a particular city. The standard packages are very economical. They are only slightly flexible when it comes to adding/deleting items in the package itinerary and upgrading hotels. Half-day city tours are a given for many of these packages and are worthwhile only for first-time visitors. In general, tour companies do not favor altering packages for it involves more work on their part. We preferred Taman Nagara instead of Genting for the Malaysia wing and it took the tour company a few weeks before getting back to us – the quote was a whopping $2700 compared to the $1000 for the Genting package.
- When choosing packages, it is vital one is clear on what exactly is offered. The itineraries provided tend to be on the cryptic side. It pays to ask and verify what the offer comprises of before signing up. Further, it is best to contact the tour providers in the host country directly with one’s concerns as opposed to the tour company you signed up with in Kerala. The local tour company representatives are not the final authority and in many cases can be fairly inaccurate.
- August-September is a pretty good time to visit Thailand, Malaysia, and other South Asian countries – though it can be a little bit wet in September. For the Middle East, December through February is the best time to go.
- Phuket is a lot more popular that Pattaya as a beach town. Our package offered Pattaya although switching to Phuket was no big deal for the tour operator. That option is slightly more expensive as a local flight is necessary to get to Phuket. From our perspective, Pattaya worked just as well and we have no reservations recommending it.
- The tour companies provide visa services at reasonable costs – Rs 1500 and Rs 2400 respectively for Malaysia and Thailand. We didn’t avail this option, instead decided to deal with this at the airports concerned. As per the recommendation for the US consular affairs – there is no charge for visas for US citizens in Malaysia and Thailand.
- The tour operators primarily offer packages with full-service airlines. When we approached for a quote, we were routed through Bangalore or Madras in either Malaysian or Thai flights. These options were comparatively more expensive than direct flights through Air Asia. Furthermore, Air Asia’s discounted fares when purchased directly from their website could not be matched by our tour operator even after we informed them about the discrepancy. Finally, we paid around $50 more per person going through the tour operator for our Air Asia tickets – as our credit/debit cards were not getting accepted when trying to purchase tickets directly from Air Asia website, we bit the bullet and went with what the tour operator offered.
- Air Asia flight ticket rates can vary vastly depending on the date chosen. So, it is worthwhile to play with the rated quotes, if dates are flexible. Our initial quote from our tour company was with Thai Airways flight via Madras for about $175 more per person compared to the Air Asia flight they first quoted. After playing with the website, we suggested different dates which brought down the pricing further by around $110 more per person.
- Online check-in is a breeze and highly recommended for Air Asia flights as otherwise one might end-up in crappy seats – online check-in can be done 7 days in advance. There are pages to sign-up for seat selection, seating upgrades, travel insurance, etc. But, there was no option to purchase meals in that interface. Better to do that via your travel agent or through the website.
- US dollars are generally not accepted by retail vendors in both countries. Airport counters are generally not that competitive compared to money exchange counters in the cities. Exchange minimal amounts at the airport and do the bulk of your exchange needs once you are in the city.
- The LCC Terminal in KUL is exclusive to Air Asia and facilities are very limited. A new one is being built with a tentative opening date of April 2013. We had a long wait at LCC Terminal and transfer counters didn’t open till 7AM in the morning. Even though we were on transit, we still had to go through immigration and get a 30-day visa. They do have a 120-hour transit permit option, but we were told to go through immigration – not sure why. Departure gates open only 3 hours before the scheduled flight. That is a bummer, as outside there is limited seating while many retail shops and much better seating and food options are available once inside the departure gates. We managed to find seats to spend about 5 hours overnight only to find special waiting room and a premium lounge by the side of the transit counters later – definitely a better option, if only we were aware.
- The 7 kg Air Asia cabin-baggage limit is enforced during the first check-in and there were no other checks for the rest of the flights.
- It is preferable to ask men instead of women for directions in Thailand. Possibly because of a lack of respect for women, being rude is second nature to many women. Also, it is worth being aware that Thailand is big on white-worshipping.
- Alcohol is readily available in Thailand. But, it is very expensive and harder to find in Malaysia – it is heavily taxed and hence it is best to get it at a duty-free before arrival.
- Accommodation can be iffy, if the travel agent’s default package is accepted at face value. If one can afford, it is worthwhile to get an upgrade to better hotels – online travel review sites can be a great resource in this regard.
- For half-day city tours, marketing stops are mandatory and it is best to hurry through them – their offerings are generally overpriced. Sometimes cabs offer hugely discounted fares, if you volunteer to go inside their client’s retail shop. This can be a good deal, if you can resist buying their wares.
- Genting First World hotel can be a frenzied experience although if you know how things work, things can go very smoothly: Check-in counters in the main lobby uses a ticket-based system – take a ticket and wait for your number to be called. Most places you would want to go are accessible via the indoor walkways – sticking to them is preferable to going out into the street and trying to locate the building. Check-out can be a breeze, if the kiosk is used. The bell counters work OK but there can be a big line at certain times of the day. Buffet breakfast can be very chaotic unless you go really early (6:30 AM) – vegetarian section is usually empty.
- Trip Report to Genting.
- Trip Report to Kuala Lumpur (KL).
- Trip Report to Pattaya.
- Trip Report to Bangkok.
Last Updated: 10/2012.