Southeast Asia probably isn't the first place you think about for a beach vacation, but there are many reasons to consider it as viable alternative to a Caribbean getaway. Frommers.com contributor Charis Atlas Heelan joins host David Lytle to talk about the incredible beach destinations in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, as well as the region's affordable luxuries, cultural experiences, and year-round sunny weather.
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- Year Round: You can find a sunny destination in Asia year round. Compared to the Caribbean, you can avoid the high costs of the peak winter seasons, and avoid the summer hurricane seasons.
- Advantages: Exchange rate is very favorable, and incentives such as food, culture, shopping, makes for a much more well-rounded vacation.
- National Carriers: National Asian carriers not only have incredible service and new planes, but offer very reasonable prices as well for non-stop flights.
- Non-packaged Trips: Book your hotels and flights seperately for a better local experience. Try guest-houses or the smaller bed and breakfast type of accommodations.
- Room Rates: You can find room rates of under $30 a night -- per room, not per person.
- Research Ahead: Research the villa or company you are dealing with to make sure they are legitimate.
- Signs of Legitimate Companies: Ability to pay locally, willingness to give you a phone-number to call, references.
- Travel Insurance: If you are traveling to a third-world country, travel insurance would be a good idea.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.David Lytle: Welcome to the Frommers.com Travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.Frommers.com.
Hi, this is David Lytle, Editorial Director at Frommers.com. Today, we're talking with Charis Heeland, who readers of our newsletter might know, is a regular contributor. Hi, Charis.
Charis Heeland: Hi, David.
David: And today, our topic is going to be beach vacations. But it's not your standard "let's drive to the coast or fly to the Caribbean" vacation. We're specifically going to be talking about Asian beach vacations.
So Charis, why should somebody look at a beach in, let's say, Thailand when for American travelers, the Caribbean is so close?
Charis: I've always felt that Asia provides the best possible beach destinations for a number of reasons. And I think Americans will really be surprised by what they find if they're willing to travel that extra distance.
The Caribbean is lovely and offers a lot of selections of different islands. But the cost is sometimes prohibitive especially in peak seasons, around Christmas, New Year period or when it's winter in the States. And likewise, they also have to deal with hurricane season during the summer months.
Asian beach destinations tend to be all year round destination spots. You can travel to different sides of different peninsulas in different countries at different times of the year, and always find a sunny destination. The exchange rate is incredibly favorable against nearly every currency in Asia, at a time when we all know the US currency is not doing too well elsewhere.
Charis: And there's also the added incentive of food, culture, shopping, and a very all-rounded vacation that you may not find on some of the closer Caribbean islands.
David: Now that's interesting, especially the idea about the exchange rate being better. We're always looking for ways to save money, but what about the cost of airfare to get there? Of course, it's going to be closer for, let's say, Kiwis and Aussies, for whom the Asian islands are sort of their tramping ground.
David: But you know what about the Europeans or American travelers? What are possible solutions for them to get affordable airfare or not outrageous airfare?
Charis: The last year or two, the routes have really opened up for direct and nonstop flights from both East and West Coasts of the United States to Asia. Delta, for example, has expanded it's networking into Asia enormously. But Americans should also not be afraid to try a lot of the national carriers. The airfares themselves change seasonally, and there are a large number of specials.
I always like to fly with a national carrier like Singapore Airlines, Thai International and even Malaysian Airlines. All these airlines have incredible service, brand new airplanes, and they offer really reasonable airfares. For example, a few months ago, I flew to Bangkok from New York nonstop, 18 hours, and the airfare was $1,100 USD, including taxes.
So that's really not prohibitive, especially when you compare that to a peak season flight to the Caribbean. The other thing, besides the cost has to do with the number of hours that it takes to fly there. But take my word for it. It will be well worth the sacrifice of a few more hours in the air when you arrive.
David: Right. And it's true, let's say you want to fly to the Caribbean from a non-major hub, during peak season, you're going from the Midwest in the United States, down to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, or even farther south. You're going to be hitting the $800- 900 mark over the holidays, when it's cold here and it's going to be warm there.
Charis: Yeah, and I've actually heard of several airfares, especially to the Southern Caribbean, that are well in excess of $1,000 during peak season, if you're try to a Christmas or New Year's break, for example.
The other issue is a lot of the people will travel on a package as opposed to an airfare only. With Asian destinations, you can do a package but I think you'll have a far better experience if you're a little bit more versatile with where you stay and how you travel.
David: Where should somebody stay? What do you suggest?
Charis: Well, there are different levels. My first few trips to Asia, especially to Bali, Lombok in Indonesia, Langkawi in Malaysia, and to some of the islands in Thailand, occurred when I was a student. I would arrive and stay in a guesthouse or in one of the smaller bed and breakfast type of accommodations.
Back then it was $20 USD a night. And even today, you can get an air-conditioned room for under $30-40 a night; that is not unheard of. In fact in Indonesia, so many of these hotels, that we would consider three and four stars with a full buffet breakfast, will set you back literally $30-40 a night per person.
The other thing you have to bear in mind is that room rates in Asia are not per person; they are actually per room. So when you see ridiculously cheap accommodations listed on websites, it actually is for the room, and you can fit two to three people in that room. My personal favorite is to either stay in one of the smaller boutique spas, of which there are many, many dotted throughout Asia and especially on beaches, or to a rent a villa. That's a little bit of an extravagance, but price-wise, especially if you get a group of people together, a villa can be a really affordable, luxurious experience.
David: How do you find a villa? I know that, say for Europe, there are several organized resellers or leasing agents like Rent Villas for Italy. How do you find some place that's personalized like that for Asian islands?
Charis: There are a few ways you can do it. My favorite way to do it is to Google the location that you're going to and the word 'villa' and see what comes up. A lot of international websites will do villas in Tuscany as well as Bali, for example.
But you'll find there are a lot more specialized sites for the actual destination that you're going to. So if you're going to Vietnam and you specifically want to rent a villa, if you type in the name of the beach or the country that you're going to and 'villa', you'll come across probably dozens of options.
When I took a villa in Thailand, last year, I actually found it by going to the Phuket Gazette, which was the local English language newspaper. They have an online version where you can take out a free ad.
I placed an ad and I told the audience what I was looking for, and I had several replies from real estate agents, brokers and from villa owners. And that's how I personally found my accommodation, which was to put it mildly, the most luxurious accommodation I think I've ever stayed in.
David: So basically, it was the Thai version of Craigslist almost.
Charis: It really was. I think if you lived in Thailand, you'd probably have to pay for your ad. But to do it online was free and I got a really good response. In fact, I still get emails from certain villa owners asking me if I'm coming back and would I like another villa. It's a really good localized way of getting your information out.
Generally, if you go to a company that's based there, you'll have a better experience than using a big international company; and you'll pay less. However, I did end up seeing the villa that I chose on a couple of websites for a higher price.
David: That's interesting. You rented it directly from the owner.
Charis: That's correct. Let's say you go to ten websites; you will see the same properties with different names and different prices. You'll then look back at the photo and say, "I'm sure I saw that elsewhere", and you did. It's just the way its marketed and the amount of money that the onseller or the broker wants to make from renting it to you.
David: Right. I'm imagining a villa is like a fish in a pond and all these leasing agents have their hooks down in the water hoping to hook that for some other person who wants to stay there.
Charis: Exactly, it's like if you want an airfare and you end up going through Travelocity, Expedia, directly through the airline, or through CheapTickets.com. It's basically the same seat on the same aircraft but different people are selling it.
David: Exactly. Let's say you choose the online advertisement option, when you're offered these properties, it's a good idea as well then to Google the name of that property, to see where it comes up on other sites, and to compare prices.
Charis: Exactly, and you also have to be very sure that the company or the individual you're dealing with is legitimate. There will always be some slight risk when you're dealing directly with the property owner.
There's also a website called VRBO.com, which is Vacation Rentals By Owner. That's a global site, but it's the same issue where you deal directly with the owner and you just have to be careful that you're dealing with a legitimate business.
David: Right. What are some signs that you're not dealing with a legitimate business just to reduce the risk?
Charis: The things I looked for were any changes in prices: if it suddenly got heavily discounted or the owner kept changing his or her mind about the price. Also, whether or not they have you wire the money into a third-world country bank account rather than a local bank account.
In general, people always want money up-front, at least a 50% deposit in US dollars. And so you just have to be careful, especially if you deal with more than one person, or if people are unwilling to give you a telephone number where you can call them.
Charis: I always like to be able to talk to someone on the other end of the line. You may do most of your transactions by the Internet, but you do want to be able to talk to someone and have a different perspective.
Also you can get referrals. They might give you email addresses or telephone numbers of people that have stayed there in the past, and you should feel free to call these people or contact them to get their recommendations.
David: Right, that's a good idea. Does trip insurance cover something like a villa rental, as opposed to, just your airfare or your hotel room?
Charis: I would check with your particular insurance carrier, but in general, there would be coverage. Let's say you paid out a large amount of money as a deposit and something fell through, or you couldn't personally travel. Then yes, it would be covered by most travel insurance policies.
David: It's a good point to raise. Travel insurance is usually three to five percent of your total cost, so it's a small investment to cover the risk.
Charis: That's right. And also, if you're taking a trip that's a little bit out of the ordinary and involves third-world countries or smaller destinations where airports might not be operating fully, it's always a good idea to take travel insurance.
David: Yeah, absolutely. Or, if you're traveling a great distance, like an 18-hour flight to get from the States to the other side of the globe, you have a greater chance of risk from Point A to Point B as well.
David: What sort of cultural experiences have you enjoyed? What do you do for fun when you're going to the Phuket?
Charis: I think the whole idea of traveling throughout Asia is that it's a complete cultural experience. You can choose to sit on a beach or sit by a private pool and do absolutely nothing. Get a private masseur to come in and have the chef cook your dinner. You can do absolutely nothing, or you can choose to participate in whatever's going on in that place.
For example, in Thailand, you've got temples, beautiful architecture, natural landscape, waterfalls, wildlife; and all those experiences are there for the taking. It's really up to you how much you want to be involved. I find that your trip is far more enriched when you get immersed in the local culture.
Charis: I've heard stories of people going to resorts in the Caribbean, for example, and they could have been anywhere. They went to Jamaica, but it may well have been the Bahamas, Venezuela or anywhere. It's because they didn't actually leave their resort once. They didn't eat at the local restaurants or experience any local people, besides the staff.
I think Asia has a way of welcoming you in; the hospitality is incredible. And again, because the prices are so low, you can do a number of different things, whether its elephant trekking in the jungle or taking a helicopter ride over the island; it's all accessible and at a much lower cost.
David: Right, and that's a good point to bring up in comparison to a lot of Caribbean all-inclusives where it's nice on the inside, to varying degrees, but you really are in a locked compound. And sometimes, to leave that compound, you have to wait for a shuttle, or you have to pay an extra cost just to get you into the town. The all-inclusives oftentimes use scare tactics to keep people on their property.
Charis: That's correct. And you often miss out on the best shopping experiences or even the better beaches because you're often away from the main center, or locked into a particular compound.
The joy of having a villa with a driver, and again, it's an indulgence, is that you're the boss. You can say to your driver, "I'd like to spend the day shopping. I'd like to go to these three locations, and then I'd like to go to this beach that's 40 miles away", and all of that is at your disposal.
David: Right, I imagine that having a driver costs extra?
Charis: Some villas actually include it in the cost, as well as, a chef, a maid and staff.
Charis: There are various levels of villas. Sometimes you can stay in a villa for about $70 dollars per person per day. And then there are ones that are certainly more luxurious. The particular one that I stayed in, for example, was a six-bedroom villa. And if you put 12 people in those six bedrooms - we didn't quite have that many people - it worked out to be about $130 per couple per night.
This was in total luxury, including a driver, a chef and a maid, and the only thing that you paid for additionally was the food. So either you would go down to the market with the driver in the morning, or you'd send the staff out to the market to pick up fresh seafood, fruit and vegetables, and then they would cook it for you each day.
David: Wow, that actually sounds really fantastic to me.
Charis: I can't wait to go back.
David: I can't wait to go now. Was that $130 a day?
Charis: It was about $130 a day, plus food and fuel. You have to pay for the gas for the car, because with the changing gas prices, they're a little conscious of that. But I think the total amount we spent for gas in a week was about $75.
David: Right, and then you add in the cost of your plane ticket. So this really is not an exorbitantly expensive vacation. By budget terms, I would say it is a moderately cost vacation.
Charis: Absolutely, especially if you're going with a group of people. If you're looking for something different to do with the group, for example, three couples, a girlfriend getaway or a guys' getaway, these are all options.
Again, it's quite far and you would have to travel for at least a week or two to substantiate the long distance. But even Thailand is still moderate, whereas Indonesia and Malaysia can be even cheaper than that.
David: Right, and think of the setting that you're putting yourself in as well: sunshine, beach, the South Pacific, the color of the waters there and the jungles that are around. You're really putting yourself in an otherworldly experience than the normal day-to-day.
Charis: Yeah, it's very visually beautiful if you're a scuba diver. All the oceans and seas around that area, especially the Andaman Sea in Thailand, the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, offer incredible snorkeling, scuba diving, and boat sports, generally. And the best possible thing is that certain areas have a rainy season and a dry season and then they switch.
For example, in Thailand, if you go to the East coast, the East coast has the dry season throughout what we would call the Northern hemisphere summer. And then it's wet on the West coast, but then it switches. So in the winter, in the Northern hemisphere, you would definitely travel to the West coast to make sure that you could get the sun the whole time.
David: That's really fantastic. And as you said earlier, there's really no off-season for the region because you can just move slightly one way or the other to find the sun.
Charis: That's right, and even within the same country, you can move further down the coast or move from coast to coast and you will always have sun. It follows you around. There are monsoons, the Asian version of the hurricane, but you can totally avoid them at any time of the year.
David: That's great. Well, we're running right up to our time limit here. Is there anything else you'd like to add or suggestions that we haven't been able to talk about?
Charis: I think the new up-and-coming place is Vietnam in terms of beach destinations. There is a huge selection of five-star resorts, villas and luxury boutique spas being built all the way down the coast of Vietnam. This is the next hotspot that I want to visit, especially in the south of the country. I think it is much cheaper than some of the more established areas.
I'm still a big fan of Indonesia, Thailand, and to a slightly lesser extent Malaysia. Another one that's sort of unsung is Borneo, either the Indonesian or the Malaysian sides of Borneo have some magnificent beaches at a very reasonable cost.
David: Wow, that sounds fantastic. Charis, thanks a lot for talking today. I appreciate it.
Charis: Thank you, David. And hopefully, you'll get to travel off to an Asian beach very soon.
David: I'm putting it on my agenda.
Charis: Thank you.
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