In the past 3 months I have been to 6 countries (7 if you count Borneo separately), taken 19 flights and stayed in 22 places from 5 star hotels to youth hostels. You’d think that would make me a travel aficionado! It doesn’t.. the rules of flying let alone travel elude me and I’d say the rules of the game are that there are no rules. Take airports, inconsistency is king and each airport/ airline has its own idiosyncrasies to trip you up. However, for what it’s worth, here are my tips and tricks for flying, booking accommodation and travelling in general. Most of this will be sucking eggs but I know I probably would have read it anyway. So, without further ado..
Baggage and packing
I have been dreadful at that this time, I need to take my own advice! But it’s so much easier to get from accommodation to other accommodation or to airports, bus stations etc. And you won’t need as much stuff as you think you will, take it from a chronic overpacker. You will be so much more mobile and it will make your life (and those around who may end up helping with your luggage) a lot easier.
Roll your clothes in vacuum bags-
This was something we only discovered for our recent trip. They are great if you’re spending a while in one place, they probably aren’t ideal if you’re moving around all the time as they’re a bit of a faff to do but they can give you more space by compressing your clothes and help you compartmentalise your clothes (e.g. Clothes for warmer climates vs cooler)
Beware of your luggage allowance on flights-
For larger international flights the allowance will be bigger but for smaller planes/airlines/ shorter international or domestic flights they will be fussier. Many will let you exceed your allowance but maybe only up to a kilo ( e.g. Air Asia was really fussy with any extra weight)
Get as much in your hand luggage as possible –
Despite airlines carefully weighing your check in bags they rarely weigh your hand luggage. They will give you a size allowance and they’ll say your hand luggage can only weigh a certain amount (e.g. Air Asia say 7kg) but not once did they check.
Bring two pieces of hand luggage with you –
Most airlines actually let you through with two pieces while saying you should only have one. They allow you a personal bag (ie a handbag or a smallish backpack) but you also seem to get away with a wheelie bag too ( as long as it will fit in the cabin space above your seat). So they’re essentially allowing you to bring more, hurrah!
Let’s fly away!
Consider flying during off peak hours-
We flew from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur on a flight taking off at 3.30am. At the time we were wondering how an earth we ended up on a flight that time (it was part of our sta round the world ticket). However, there are some clear advantages:
– the airport is really quiet, check in and security are so straightforward
-the plane is really quiet too so you can usually find multiple free plane seats together, i.e. stretch out and get some sleep
Familiarise yourself with the layout of the airport before you fly-
There’s not always time but if you can it really helps to identify where security is, where the shops and restaurants are and where the gates are. All in all it means you’re more prepared and can decide whether to go through security dependent on what’s going to be waiting for you on the other side.
Bring an empty water bottle with you-
Although you will lose any filled up water bottles/liquids over 100mls at security most airlines seem to let you go through security with an empty bottle. And most airports have water fountains which means you can fill up said bottle without having to purchase a new one. However, FYI I’d be wary of drinking the water in the fountains at Asian airports as you’re not supposed to drink tap water out here and I’m not sure where the airport water comes from.
Bring herbal teabags on the plane/holiday with you –
If you’re like me and you like herbal tea then bring some teabags with you. Every single piece of advice on flying will tell you not to drink caffeinated drinks on the plane because they can leave you dehydrated and mess with your stomach but very airlines offer herbal teas or decaf instead. Therefore I always bring my own and ask the air stewards for hot water so I can add my tea bag. Geek maybe but I’m not ashamed!
Also many places have tea making facilities in the room and they’ll usually only provide caffeinated drinks.
Choose your seats early-
Many airlines let you choose your seats more than the traditional 24 hours before you fly so once your flights are booked try logging into your account to see if it will let you (some require an extra fee for this). If you can do this for no extra charge then it saves having to log on 24 hours before you fly to see that all the aisle seats have already gone.
Choose aisle or middle seats if you have a weak bladder-
I would always advise aisle access for a long haul flight. I’ve always liked sitting near the window (I sleep better there and I like taking pictures of any views you may get during landing or taking off). However it’s important to walk around and stretch your legs during a long haul flight to avoid deep vein thrombosis and obviously nature calls when you’re drinking more water to avoid dehydration (you’re supposed to drink 8 ounces of water an hour/one litre every 5 hours). But too many times I’ve been unable to use the loo because the person in the aisle sleeps for the entire flight (how??!!)or is rude and makes you straddle and climb over him to get out (Irish guy on Vegas flight I’m looking at you!) For me personally with the world’s weakest bladder (I kid you not!) being on a plane for hours and not being able to get up as often as I need to is torture but I don’t want to be that annoying person that wakes someone up every hour.
However, if the plane is a big one and has 3 or 4 seats in the middle of the plane then we tend to go for those ones. Yes you’re far from the window and any views you may get from taking or landing but it means that as a single person or couple you have aisle access. And for the person that sits in the middle not next to the aisle you’re climbing over someone you know not a stranger if you want to stretch your legs or use the loos.
For subsequent separate flights allow 3-4 hours leeway between when the first flight is due to land and the next take off –
So much time is eaten away waiting to get off the plane, queuing for immigration, waiting for baggage, finding departures (which could be in a different terminal altogether), checking in/bag drop, going though security and getting to the gate. Depending on the airport’s organisation and size the check in-get to gate process can take an hour and a half, as can the getting off the plane – getting your baggage so allowing any less time than three hours in between flights can make things a bit stressful especially if your first flight experiences any delays.
-and if you do have a tight deadline try to book seats at the front of the plane as they usually disembark first and it avoids the long queues you can get on a big plane if you’re at the back.
Carry a nasal decongestant in your liquids bag –
Nasal problems can occur on a plane when you least expect it especially since tooth pain or ear ache can also link to the sinuses so carrying a decongestant and using it about 30 minutes before landing will help to clear the airways
Always bring insect repellent –
Bit of a no brainer but pretty much every foreign holiday involves insect repellent.
Bring plenty of medication –
I would always advise bringing pills for headaches, an anti histamine, Imodium/anti diarrhoea medication and rehydration sachets with you. In most places you’ll be able to buy them but there’s always the off chance you won’t if you go off the beaten track and often foreign medication won’t be the same as the medication you’re used to. If you’re heading out to Asia or are going to away for a while I’d also speak to your Dr before you go to see if they’ll prescribe an antibiotic or something similar in case you get ill whilst away. It has saved me in the past when a stomach bug almost stopped me from flying home and it can be quicker and easier than seeking help in an unknown medical system.
Bring a scarf/sarong –
This tip is on many travel blogs and it’s really helpful. Obviously it helps keep you warm (e.g. On a plane), it can cover up shoulders or knees if you’re visiting places of worship and need to dress respectfully, you can use it as a blanket or towel.
Bring light long sleeved tops/trousers-
Obviously if you’re doing a city break or going to a cold country this is obvious but even if you’re going to a hot and humid country then it’s useful. For our Borneo tour long sleeves was listed as a must bring. Long layers protects you from the heat of the sun, from getting bitten by insects and is also useful for places of worship as some places don’t accept sarongs/scarves as a proper way to cover up. I also always travel in long sleeves/ leggings/loose trousers because I get cold on the plane.
Bring a stronger suntan than you need –
I would always bring factor 50 for my face in particular. The strength of the sun elsewhere can be much stronger than we’re used to in the U.K, especially close to the equator. Aside from the obvious benefits of protecting yourself from the sun, sunburn isn’t fun especially if you’ve got burnt shoulders and are lugging bags around
Bring a torch with you-
In the last two months we’ve had two power cuts and stayed in multiple places where you need a torch to get to a main road without falling over. There’s not always much street lighting or even pavements and so many places get built on dirt roads out here so a torch is a must to get around in the evenings.
Always carry a small hand sanitiser and set of tissues-
Useful for Asian toilets and keeping clean and bacteria free whilst flying/at the airport
Bring a portable phone case/ charger with you –
To give your phone extra juice on the go
Carry as little as possible visible on your person –
In Cambodia I would often get warned about looking after my bag as I left the hotel. I’m sure the staff were being over cautious but it made me feel as if I look like someone worth stealing from. In Argentina on my first day travelling almost eight years ago my friend and I were almost mugged walking down the street with our backpacks. It really scared both of us and wherever we went in South America we didn’t ever feel safe. This led to many comedy moments of hiding money in our bras, down our trousers, in our socks – all well and good until you need it to pay for something!
Petty theft can happen anywhere but there are obvious places where I try to avoid bringing out a bag as it makes me feel more relaxed. These include public transport, places where lots of people gather such as busy touristy roads e.g. Bangla road in Patong, Phuket where there are millions of people in the streets trying to sell ping pong, lady boy and sex shows or get customers into the already heaving bars. You literally can’t move for people putting their wares in your face. It’s very hard to keep an eye on your belongings when there’s so much going on around you. I also found it in Kuala Lumpur too, a city of few travellers and as a white blonde woman I stood out like a sore thumb and got stared at by the groups of men hanging around the streets. I didn’t really know what their intentions were so not having them ogle my bag was a start. I’m not encouraging paranoia but being sensible and not flaunting your valuables is just common sense.
Getting up early-
What is it they say about catching the worm? Well I’m a night owl not an early bird but if you can get up early then do as you’ll often see the best weather (e.g. In many parts of Asia you get afternoon showers), it’s cooler for so you’re avoiding the heat of the day and if you’re sightseeing you’re more likely to avoid the crowds and be back for siesta time.
Don’t trust weather apps –
Ive tried Googling the weather forecast, Accuweather, BBC, iPhone weather… none of them are accurate unfortunately so it’s almost impossible to plan the best day for an island trip or a day out so it’s just about luck.
Location location location:
Booking accommodation –
For our three month trip we’ve had to choose a lot of accommodation and with the volume of things we had to organise we weren’t able to do as much research on each place as we’d usually do for a two week holiday. It means you make mistakes, you book things months in advance that look good in paper and get it wrong. It’s very difficult to avoid this as you can only go on the information provided and the reviews but before booking somewhere think about the following:
How long am I spending in the accommodation and for what purpose? If you’re somewhere where you’ll be sightseeing all the time then you don’t need to pay extra for a great room or a spacious pool area because you’ll spend the majority of your time out and about.
However if you’re going to be spending two weeks somewhere relaxing then the hotel is more important as is a nice room/pool area.
How close do you want to be to the town centre? Are you happy to save money and stay further out of town or are you going to be spending that money getting cabs in and out (in which case it likely won’t be a saving). Can you hire a car or a bike? If not then being close to the centre of town is a must. Or are you happy to find a resort and intend to stay put for most of it? In which case location is less important but facilities, room, pool and restaurants on site are key.
Are you a beach person? I’m not, I’ve always preferred sunbathing by the pool but I’ve realised I like the beach when the hotel has a designated beach area with sun loungers and the option to return to the hotel to get some shade or use the loos. Many hotels do offer this so it’s something to bear in mind.
Do you prefer larger resorts or smaller boutique places? Larger resorts tend to have better facilities and more offered on site and can be perfect for those who don’t necessarily want to leave very often. However, they are often busy, they can feel impersonal and problems tend to be less easy to fix because of the numbers of people staying. Whereas small boutique hotels tend to offer a more personalised service but are can feel more basic.
Beware of the 4 stars –
4 star hotels feel like the best compromise when you’re going away and you can’t afford a 5 star hotel (as is the case most of the time). You would assume a 4 star will give you a pretty decent standard of stay, not perfect but if you’re anything like me your expectations will be relatively high. However the star rating is based on the facilities the hotel has, not necessarily the level of service or hospitality you’ll get. For instance our last hotel was a four star and had a beautiful pool, a kids club and a spa (hence the 4 star rating) but we had no help with our bags, check out took forever and our shower kept oscillating from hot to cold and back again at disturbingly regular 20 second intervals. When we mentioned it to reception they told us it was they’d send someone to look at it and they didn’t get round to doing so. Customer service fail. Whereas often 3 star hotels don’t have the same plethora of facilities but they also don’t have the same number of customers to look after and therefore if you do go to them with a problem they may be more likely to fix it promptly. It’s not a hard and fast rule by any means but just something to bear in mind.
Read the bad reviews as well as the good –
Booking accommodation is a bit of a lottery. And reading reviews can be misleading because opinions tend to conflict and we all have different standards, expectations, likes and dislikes. But I always read the bad and average reviews on Tripadvisor to see if the issues that others are picking up on are things you can live with and whether lots of people say the same thing. For example I’ve seen poor reviews of the hotels we’ve stayed at based purely on the coffee at breakfast. I can live with bad coffee. Or parents bemoaning the lack of facilities for children. Again, not a concern for us. Some people judge a hotel based on 5 minutes in the restaurant! However, in the previous place where we spent over a week having now spent the time reading all the reviews I can see issues in the negative reviews that I do wish I’d read earlier such as far from the main beach, poorly designed bathrooms and lots of mosquitos. These things may not bother everyone but bother me. If you can live with the negatives and go in prepared for them you’re much more likely to have a better stay or if not then you know to try other accommodation instead.
Beware of garden resorts-
In theory it’s lovely to stay in a place with beautiful plants, trees and flowers such as our current accommodation. It looks absolutely stunning and can be great if you like getting close to nature. However gardens attract bugs, mossies and ants and again if you’re sensitive to bites or insect repellent then it may be worth thinking twice about staying in a garden resort.
To plan or not to plan-
Most travel blogs (and many people we spoke to before we went) will advise you not to fully plan a trip. For me it isn’t as cut and dry as that.
If you’re going away for a long time or are planning on staying within a relatively small area/set of countries then I would agree that having a flexible plan is desirable. It does mean that if you don’t like a place or the weather is bad (i.e. monsoon weather in Phuket when it should be dry season) then you have the option of moving elsewhere with minimal loss of money. If your main priority is good weather then flexibility is definitely best.
However, having to book travel on the go can be really time consuming to look through accommodation, work out how to get from a to b and it requires a good wifi connection. It’s a million times easier with smartphones but it still takes time out of your trip when you want to be enjoying yourself. It also depends on how much research you want to do or how fussy you are about where you’re going next or where you want to stay. Obviously booking things last minute means you’re left with places that aren’t already booked up and you can often get good deals but you can also end up staying somewhere you don’t want because nothing else is available. Check out whether you’re travelling in high season as this can mean that a lot of the best budget /mid range accommodation is gone.
There’s definitely pros and cons to both and I wish we had been a little more flexible with our plans. However it really depends on how much you like to go with the flow or whether you’re planners like us.
And finally.. a few tips on individual airports we’ve been to:
Phnom Penh – don’t arrive too early:
We were only allowed to check in two hours early despite it being an international flight. As it’s a small airport you don’t have to walk far to the gates and although it’s quite a convenient airport there isn’t going to be lots of shopping. There’s a decent sized duty free, a book shop, a pharmacy and a small food court.
Kuala Lumpur airport- for international flights allow the full three hours, for domestic don’t go through security until you really have to:
I’ve spoken in more detail about KL airport in my Malaysia post but in a nutshell…
– there’s 2 terminals, one for international and one for domestic
-you need to pay for a train to transfer you between the two
-the international airport is essentially a few floors in a shopping centre
-for international flights allow the full three hours because there are so many flights leaving KL and the check in desks are chaotic with long queues
– you don’t go through the liquids scanner as you get into the gate so I’m not sure how or where you can buy water for the flight but I didn’t have time to ask
– for domestic flights there’s almost nothing once you go through security so eat before you go through
-immigration takes ages as you have to queue for a transfer train to take you to immigration/baggage reclaim and immigration has long queues
– and if you’re leaving the airport from the international airport it’s very confusing and you have to go through the shopping centre to get to the floor where the buses/ taxis are and even then it’s badly sign posted so ask for directions from a member of staff
For many domestic flights you can only check in an hour before your flight – e.g. Nelson airport, Siem Reap
It feels like some places take domestic security more seriously than others and there’s a definite inconsistency on liquids and water. For most of our domestic flights there haven’t been the same rules but at Siem Reap and Bangkok airport (both domestic flights) we had the strict liquids rule.
Phuket airport – do not take the minibus option
-I can’t comment on immigration as we’d already done it at Bangkok and so our flight to Phuket was a domestic one.
– so for us we got out of Phuket airport quickly (but I have heard horror stories if you’ve come from an international flight
-we haven’t flown out of Phuket yet but again we’ve heard we need to allow the full three hours
– if you’re trying to get picked up from the domestic airport you may not want to take the shared minibus option. It’s cheaper than a cab but they pick up from the international airport first and the buses (in our experience) are almost entirely full already. It’s at the drivers discretion as to who gets picked up, there’s no queuing system in place so we found we got overlooked many times (as did some other guys who’d got looked over for multiple buses for an hour). Yes it saves money but for the stress and frustration that comes with it I’d say it’s not worth it and the staff were pretty rude and unhelpful.