We were having our weekly office lunchtime catch up, talking about the best places to eat Asian food in London, when Becky asked a million-dollar question: “Lowest room category at the best hotel, or highest room category at lower-end hotel?”
About three hours later, when pandora’s box had been well and truly opened and we had discussed a whole range of top travel planning secrets, we decided it was about time we share some of these gems with you, rather than just keeping them to ourselves.
We hope that sharing our thoughts below might help answer some of your burning questions, or just get you thinking about planning your next holiday in a slightly different way…
Feel free to fire more questions in the comments section and we’ll try out best to get back to you.
The ETG Team
P.s Don’t forget, we’re Asia specialists, so all of these are based around that region of the world.
Top Travel Planning Secrets Involving Flights
Flight times. Those in the know pick flights to Asia that leave the UK at night and arrive in Asia in the afternoon. Arriving late is always best; flights that arrive in Asia in the morning can look like they’ll maximise your time, but the jet lag is much worse, and you’ll be struggling by noon. If your only option is a morning arrival, make sure you have arranged an early check in at your hotel so you can sleep for a few hours and wake up refreshed in the afternoon. People often talk about ‘losing’ or ‘gaining’ days depending on when they fly, but remember you’re not gaining anything if you land and can barely keep your eyes open. Sometimes it’s completely unavoidable and we get that – but proceed with caution and awareness of the implications.
Domestic flights. Not many people know that you can sometimes get free domestic flights in Asia if you travel to your destination with its national airline (e.g., Thai Airways or Vietnam Airlines). Whilst Qatar Airways or Emirates no doubt offer the best product and service, if you travel with the likes of Vietnam Airlines, Thai Airways or Malaysian Airlines, a tour operator like us will be able to help you maximise the benefits of their associated domestic flight networks, which can make for significant savings overall. If booking yourself, always take a look at the country’s main carrier and see if you can ‘construct’ a ticket with all the flights you need. It can be tricky doing it yourself, but it’s definitely a possibility.
Reward flights. Reward flights booked with BA can be both a blessing and curse. Obviously post-pandemic things are going to be a little different, but over the years we have found clients having to compromise so much in order to take advantage of their hard-earned reward flights. Sometimes they end up spending a fortune on extra nights, other times they can’t connect at the airport because the timings are off – and all the additional costs start to add up. Yes, you get to fly Business Class, but don’t underestimate how much of a faff it can be… which can start to negate the benefits of that lie-flat seat. Using your miles to go to the Caribbean or the USA is much more straightforward.
Upgrades. What do you have to do to up your chance of getting an upgrade? It’s more of a science than most people would think and is often quite tricky – but definitely possible. Want to fly Business Class at Economy prices? Here are a few tips to get your started.
Top Travel Planning Secrets Involving Hotels
Arrival times. Think long and hard about flight times, early check ins and late checkouts. Just telling yourself ‘it will be fine’ when you are thinking about costs during the planning stage is one thing, but landing at 6am, getting to your hotel at 8.30am and not being able to check in until 2pm, (after little to no sleep) isn’t much fun in practice. Even when travelling during off season (e.g., monsoon time in many Asian countries) hotels can be very busy – because now most destinations have thriving domestic markets. In our book, it’s not a risk worth taking. You’ve been warned!
Hotel booking sites. When sites like Booking.com say ‘one room left’ this is most likely the one room left of their allocation given to them by the hotel; it doesn’t actually mean the hotel is nearly full, it’s just a tactic to try and get you to book. We can normally find you availability even if Booking.com shows everything is sold out. And, if you’re not booking with a tour operator, then why not book directly with the hotel? Hotels pay serious commission to booking sites, so always appreciate you getting in touch.
Family rooms. Sharing rooms as a family? Before booking ask yourselves a few questions about what the reality of all staying together will look like. Will you have to tip toe around each other? How many people will be sharing a bathroom? Will you wake everyone else up when heading to the pool early in the morning? Will everyone get on each other’s nerves? Family rooms have lots of benefits but, generally speaking, we find clients get a bit caught out after a few nights of group living.
Before committing ask yourselves if you’d be happy living like this is at home. This is a holiday after all – you might save on that extra room but it might end up negatively impacting your trip overall. Something to think about!
A great option is to invest in a multi-bedroom suite or villa. We often get asked why two bedrooms are so much more expensive than one. This is usually because you get a living area and a larger overall footprint which makes a family stay that much more comfortable – so it can be worth the additional cost.
Also, by thinking outside the box, we’ve got some great options up our sleeves. For example, renting a villa in Sri Lanka can be really cost-effective, especially when offsetting with food and beverage prices – e.g. staff going to the market and buying all your drinks at local prices.
Room categories. The ETG team is actually divided on this next one; whether it’s better to pick the top room in a lower category hotel or the lowest category room in a better hotel (sometimes there’s not a huge different in price).
When it comes to our clients, we present the options and see what they believe is the best way to go. But we think it’s worth challenging the way you always do things. Ask yourselves the crucial questions; how much time are you actually going to spend in your room? Are the hotel facilities more important to you or the comfort of the room itself? If you go for the lower-priced hotel, will you be rewarded with cheaper food and drink during your stay? Or, conversely, if you stay somewhere more luxe will there be loads more stuff thrown in for free (like drinks, water sports equipment, snacks by the pool, wifi, Afternoon Tea etc)? You may end up surprised!
Sometimes having the nicest room in a hotel can be brilliant – you could get the view, a beautiful bathtub facing the ocean and loads of extra amenities like club room access. But then again, put the same amount of money into a high-end hotel and go for the ‘lead-in’ room and you might get an overall better location, higher levels of service, but a small room, obstructed views and located further away from the facilities.
There’s definitely no right or wrong answer to this one; it’s dependent on location, what’s available and, of course, personal choice. Places where there’s a huge range of hotels (think Hoi An in Vietnam) is where it’s worth taking your time to mull over what’s most important to you.
Top Travel Planning Secrets for Bookings/ Logistics
The best time to travel. Each destination has that sweet spot that perfectly combines being a great time of year to go yet offering great value. This won’t be around any of their major festivals or key holiday periods and will exclude the UK’s key travelling periods. It’s normally just at the point where prices drop as the destination moves into ‘shoulder season’ – yet still offers great weather. Our favourite is Sri Lanka in September. But we also love Kerala in April, Vietnam in May, Indonesia in June and Bhutan in December.
Pick your travel dates carefully. Be clever with your itinerary; avoid long transfers on weekends when roads are busier, steer clear of big sites (and those popular with locals) on weekends or at certain times of the day and make sure to be in big cities on weekends when they’re at their most lively. Knowing the difference that these ‘small’ (read actually quite important) details can make to an overall holiday is our bread and butter.
Start slow. Ideally, spend two nights at your arrival destination. It’s so tempting to just “get going”, but this can often mean starting your trip on the back foot and then never fully recovering from the long journey, different time zone and culture shock (different foods and climates can take getting used to). This is particularly important for somewhere like Sri Lanka where you don’t actually land in the capital (Colombo is at least an hour’s drive from the airport, and that’s when there’s no traffic). Talking of Sri Lanka – we’ve complied some options for the best places to stay on arrival.
Pace yourselves. Start slow (as mentioned above). Here at ETG we’re firm believers in picking up the pace gradually as you travel. Start on the beach or somewhere totally relaxing where you have time to get into holiday mode; refresh, recharge, get your bearings and get a sense of the local culture. The next stop should be slightly more energetic, and, ideally the next one even more so. This kind of schedule eases people in to their trip, and generally gives them the chance to gain a deeper appreciation of the country. It also works well with those heading straight on holiday from a stressful last week at the office, as you’re never that relaxed the first few days of a trip – and running around sites can feel that bit too much.
Go out on a high. We’re big believers in finishing a trip with a bang to maximise your time off. This isn’t for everyone, but hear us out! We say ditch the usual ‘finish on the beach’ route which seems the norm (see our earlier point) and instead go out on a high in a buzzing cosmopolitan city.
This is because, if the beach is your final destination, you’ll be more likely to be sitting on your sun lounger dwelling on the fact that your holiday is coming to an end and thinking about the chores that await you back home rather than enjoying every last minute. Whereas, if you have 1-2 days in a lively city before heading home, you’ll fully relax at the beach because you’re still looking forward to that last stop! Your city stop-off then feels like a weekend break – when there’s no time to dwell on going home because you’re busy stocking up on sarongs and clinking glasses at a rooftop bar!
Travelling during family holidays. If you’ve got kids, always book as far ahead as you possibly can. There is such concentrated demand for flights around school holidays that they’ll never be cheaper than the day they go on sale. Yes, flights have dynamic pricing and there can be sales, but these pretty much always have ‘black-outs’ over holidays. Remember that, as tour operators, we can often hold flights for much longer – locking in that initial price. It’s a little trick that some of our repeat families know very well.
Top Travel Planning Secrets Involving Experiences
Rise early. We can’t say this enough, but rising early when travelling in Asia reaps rewards. You’ll be amazed at how much life there is out on the streets, even at 6.00 am. Also, for photographers (or those looking to up their Insta game), the light is often amazing at this time of day and results in super special shots. In places like Hanoi you’ll see people doing Tai-Chi, jogging or shopping for food at local markets; in other words, real life, but not the way you know it. In Cambodia you’ll catch boats coming back from fishing or the kids rowing to school on Tonle Sap Lake – absolutely magical stuff.
Top Travel Planning Secrets about, well, travel
Take a step back. Ever thought about Travelling with Intention? Matt (ETG’s Head of Marketing and Brand) went on a journey of discovery to look deeper at why we travel and understand the intentions behind the trips we go on. He found it to be a wonderful experience. If you feel inspired to do the same, you can read up on his journey here.
Mobile phones – both a blessing and a curse. Now we wonder how we ever travelled without them, but equally we feel things have gotten a bit out of control. We’ve thought a lot about this and wonder whether mobiles are in fact destroying the way we travel. Something to think about next time you post that photo on Instagram or share it with friends.
Make a difference. A hot topic at the moment – and rightly so – travelling ‘sustainably’ can feel overwhelming. However, there are small and easy ways that you can make a difference, starting with your packing habits. To help, we put together a sustainable packing checklist. It all adds up after all.
Top Travel Planning Secrets, Best of the Rest
Multi-country Box-Ticking. We often get the “we’d like to go to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and we’ve got 12 days including flights” soundbite when we start talking to clients about a trip to Asia. We’re always hesitant to organise this kind of tour because we just know it’s going to be so full on that you won’t actually know what’s hit you, and you probably won’t enjoy it. Dipping your toes in three countries might seem like a good idea – because, you know, you may never go back – but it’s a bit like going to Portugal, Spain and France in 12 days – not many (sane) people would do this. So, slow things down and just go to one destination. It’s a more rewarding experience.
The Maldives. We could probably write about 20 tips on the Maldives alone, but the most important is board basis – something to carefully consider in advance. Balking at an ‘All Inclusive’ price is definitely a normal reaction, but a lot better than doing it every time you order a $6 coke and $10 beer while on holiday, which can quickly add up, especially when you’re travelling as a family. In our view it’s got to be half board minimum, so that after a lovely day, you can relax at dinner without the stress of worrying about the bill. We’ve got loads more FAQ’s on planning a holiday to the Maldives. Definitely check them out before you start planning your trip.
Well, there you have it, our top travel tips… we’ve spilt the beans and shared our now not-so-secret insider knowledge with you. Now that that’s done, it’s time for us to sit back, relax and have a well-earned gin and tonic – all in the name of research of course.