Category Archives: Travel Planning

Gatwick to New York for £299? It Seems Not.

Earlier in 2014 Norwegian Air launched their budget flights to New York from London Gatwick at £149 each way. The fact that it was supposedly possible to fly directly to New York from the UK for under £300 return was a bit of a watershed moment. I couldn’t recall a standard price for this prestigious route being under £300 for many years.

Six months on, I thought I might eventually take advantage of this bargain flight offering so I took a closer look. Only to find that the each way cost of £149 doesn’t exist.

The very best price I could find on the Norwegian website was around £350 return, but this was only at very specific times during 2015. This is still not too bad, but barely any better than the typical fares of £380 ish offered by Virgin, Delta and the like.

Reviews of the Norwegian service are varied, and mention charges being made for water and blankets. I’m well used to budget flights, and I am happy to deal with these additional lines of revenue, but only if the headline flight price is truly at budget level. It seem to me that Norwegian is not though. Which is a real shame.

Ko Samui to Ko Lanta – a typically random Thai journey

Getting to Ko Lanta from Ko Samui was never going to be straight forward. The journey was to take me right across Thailand by way of the able awful catamaran I had staggered of off a few days earlier, two buses, two minibuses and two ferry journeys. Even as I set off I was thinking that such a journey in one day was a little ambitious.

I bought my ticket though my accommodation. I probably paid over the odds but to me it seemed cheap, and the promise was that I was sorted all the way to Ko Lanta.

Getting off of Samui

This party was easy,which was lucky as I’m a bit dopey in the morning.

I woke at 6am to be picked up by a coach at 7am and taken to the dock. Having swallowed sea sickness tablets I was mildy confident of not heaving up but the sea looked a little choppy. Despite this the journey was nothing like my first a few days earlier and I arrived at Surat Thani by 11am

Surat Thani to Krabi 

I was shown to a reasonably decent coach not long after arriving at Surat Thani. This coach departed in short order but took me to a random bit of pavement somewhere or other where I was ejected along with a small group of travellers and a huge bag of cuddly toys.

You really do have to just relax and let things happen in South East Asia. Just typing this makes me realise how weird the system can be. If you bought a bus ticket in the UK and after only 10 minutes you were ejected onto the pavement and told to wait for some other coach to collect you at some point in the next hour or you would be far from pleased. But in Thailand this is normal, and it does no good to fret. So I sat on my rucksack and made some new friends (the travelers, not the cuddly toys).

After a short while a decrepit old coach arrived and we once again began loading suitcases into the hold, which was as usual too small. So most of the cases went on the back seats and on the floor down the aisle. When I boarded I realised that my relaxed approach hadn’t done us any favours as I ended up standing in the aisle….for the whole 2 hour journey. During the journey a Thai man clambered over the cases in the aisle to attach coloured stickers to the tourists on board.

My vantage point for the 2 hour standing bus journey

During this hair raising 2 hours the bus stopped to collect a couple of local people. We also stopped to discard some huge packages into a road somewhere. As we drove away from these parcels people were appearing and poking and prodding them. Again, totally random, unless you are Thai.

Eventually the coach pulled into a dusty yard and all of the tourists were once again ejected. Depending on what sticker we were wearing we were told we would have varying amounts of time to wait before being collected.

I found out later that this was the outskirts of Krabi.

Krabi to the Ko Lanta Ferry

I was told I would need to wait for 1 hour, but 10 minutes later I was being bundled into the back of a pick up truck with 5 others and taken to a tour operator’s office close by in Krabi. I transpired we were all destined for Ko Lanta and once we reached the tour office we were again told we were to wait. As a group we took the chance to grab a bite to eat and to get to know each other. Crazy journeys like this do bring people together it seems.

After an hour or so a mini van appeared. It had tinted windows and a little too much chrome – as do most minivans in Thailand. We bundled into it, again with cases on seats and the floor and set off to make the ferry crossings which would eventually get us to Ko Lanta.

The Ko Lanta Ferries – Any Excuse for Race

This was where the journey became slightly terrifying. We guessed that we were behind schedule and may miss the ferry. This was the best explanation I could find for the absolutely insane driving. During the journey I chatted to my fellow passengers but it was very hard to concentrate due to the overtaking on corners, hard breaking and fast cornering being expertly performed by our non-communicating driver. Again random locals climbed in during hurried roadside stops and after 30 minutes or so we reached the first ferry in time for sunset.

Sun set from the Ko Lanta ferry

One fellow passenger, a Swede, had made the journey in 2009 and told us that when crossing the island between the first and second ferry drivers race as the second ferry is smaller. So again we had to hang on for dear life during a white knuckle journey complete with some insane overtaking by our driver. We made it to the second ferry just in time and took the final space on board.

Eventually, some 13 hours after departure I arrived at my resort at Hat Khlong Nin beach, Ko Lanta.

My Thoughts on the Journey

I find these kind of journeys fun, but many wouldn’t. They are often frustrating, sometimes dangerous and they can take a very long time.

It seems that flights from Sumui over to the Western coast are fairly reasonable. Or you could break the overland journey up into two days maybe.

But one thing is for sure. The overland journey can give you some great memories and an amusing story to tell your friends.

I have to admit to enjoying the surreal and often terrifying overland journeys in Thailand. This one was particularly fun.

However this would not be for everybody. If you are new to Thai adventures like this it can be stressful, tiring and it is a great way to wast a whole day.

Bare in mind that you can fly from Ko Samui to Krabi for around £60 too.

Travel Advice – Try not to look like a traveller

I learnt this particular “skill” the hard way. At 6’3″ and with dazzlingly white skin (which at best becomes pink in the sun) I doubt I ever truly blend in, but I give it my best shot. I try to not look like a traveller.

What is definite is that there are certain behaviours that which unwanted attention in unfamiliar cities. Here are some of my mistakes that you might learn from.

Maps and Guidebooks

I am an accomplished map reader.  But I also have the memory of a goldfish. So I have to continually look at my map as I navigate my way between locations.

Nothing screams opportunity more than a tourist looking at his map with a slightly confused look on his face. Or thumbing through a copy of The Lonely Planet. If you do this you will receive offers of help at best. At worst you will be relieved of your wallet.

My advice? If you are lost, step into a shop and ask for directions. Or use the relative safety of the shop to examine your map. The good thing about asking shopkeepers is that they can’t leave their store, so they aren’t going to take you on a confusing dash and expect payment in return.

Money

Which leads me nicely on to wallets and ATMs (cashpoints to us Brits). If you flash your cash in any big city you will be spotted and marked as a target.

When I use an ATM abroad I make sure nobody is watching and very quickly slip the cash into a money belt. I retain only a small amount of cash for my wallet, which I stow in a pocket on the front of my shorts or trousers. That way I can keep a hand on it without looking like I am protecting something worth taking.

Also, when I travel to cities that concern me (some have a reputation – Barcelona for instance) I will take a decoy wallet. In this wallet I place an old expired credit card and a small amount of cash. I put this in a more obvious place. That way if I am targeted by thieves they will waste their time and I get to keep my money.

I also stash emergency money in a really unusual place. Either my shoe or my hat. Just so I have enough money to get me back to my hotel in an emergency.

Cameras

These are like wallets. If you aren’t careful a talented thief will become the new owner around 20 seconds before you realise it has happened.

I cringe when I see a tourist strutting around a major city, often in a poor country, with a huge DSLR hanging around their neck, or in a very obvious camera bag. Thieves will use knives to cut the straps on these in order to take them,

I favour a small camera, which lives in a secure pocket in my trousers or shorts. If needed I can quickly take a shot or two and have it packed away in seconds.

My advice? Be careful. Undoubtedly a DSLR takes superb shots (unless I’m using it) so be aware that you will be a target. Carry the bag carefully and keep a hand on the bag at all times. Don’t leave it on the ground at restaurants and if you don’t plan to use it for a while stash it in your day bag.

Clothing

Brightly coloured clothing draws the attention of chancers and scammers.  I know this because I have experimented. I now buy my travelling clothes in dark green, beige and grey.

Try to blend in. That way the pickpockets and “guides” will go after the American in the basketball shirt and the Australian in no shirt before they even notice you.

I am by no means an expert. But in the last 250 days of travel the only things I have had stolen are a bottle of milkshake and a t shirt which I no longer wanted (which I wasn’t wearing at the time!)


 

Do you have any tips? Have you been the victim of pickpockets or scammers? What is the worst city you have visited for crime?

Let me know, and don’t forget to follow the blog.

Cheap Flights – Your Gateway to the World

I love cheap flights. I’ll never get an upgrade to first class, or earn any air miles or whatever they are called now though. I’m just too tight. But I remain smug and happy in the knowledge that I am getting a great deal, whilst I sit with my 6’3″ frame squeezed into a ludicrously small economy seat.

The real beauty of a cheap flight is that it paves the way for countries to be explored so cheaply. Because once you have a bargain flight you can go in search of bargain accommodation too.  And then the bargain eateries and the bargain tours. All courtesy of the internet. Before you know if you have put together your own super cheap tailor made adventure.

I am off to Barcelona early next year. I plan to fly one way and then make my way home from somewhere else. The cost of flying one way from London Stanstead to Barcelona?

Suddenly my trip to Europe is looking like a no-brainer. I plan to fly back from Geneva. The cost?

These two flights are with well known budget airlines RyanAir and Easyjet. But there are many other airlines that fly cheaply within Europe, so the options are immense. I tend to use Skyscanner to drill down and get more options.

When using budget airlines it is important to follow the rules. This mainly means travelling light, with a correctly proportioned carry on bag. Do your research beforehand to avoid getting hit by additional charges.

Such great deals are not limited to Europe though. I have seen a growing popularity for “Open Jaw” flight deals. No doubt these are nothing new, but they are fairly new to me. An Open Jaw flight is a journey which starts and ends in different countries. You then need to arrange your own travel to the start and/or end point, though it is a good idea to ensure that the journey either begins or ends in your own country.

I am a big fan of the Holiday Pirates website which is a great source of cheap holidays and flights. They often list some superb Open Jaw flight options. For example, at the moment they have a suggested flight starting in Madrid, going to New York and then returning to Manchester. The cost is GBP£194. Add to that a flight from Manchester to Madrid, available from RyanAir for less than GBP£30, and you have yourself a really cheap flight to New York, with the added bonus of having the chance to see Madrid.

Obviously this extra layer of complexity does not suit everybody – but to the bargain hunters like me it provides some very tempting deals.

It is fairly easy to design your own Open Jaw flights. I often use Opodo but other sites now offer this option too.

Do you have any tips on finding great flight deals? Feel free to share, either in the comments section below, or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

My 7 Tips To Help You Only Do The Bare Minimum of Travel Planning

Once upon a time I was not a traveller. I remember clearly being somewhat terrified that I had just bought a 7 month round the world ticket. As I sat on my bed, laptop on my lap, guide book to Argentina in my hand, questions rampaged through my mind.

What happens if nobody understands me?

Will I get ill?

What if I hate it?

What happens if this bus service that this guide book tells me about stops running before I get there?

I am almost embarrassed now when I consider how I used to be. Luckily I don’t really do embarrassment and this is the transformation that any new traveller has to go through.

Wind forward 4 months and I was carefully packing my detailed plans for South America safely in my bag. The notes were neatly written, with a useful map on each page, lists of “safe” hostels for every location along with a few well reviewed eateries. I even worked out where the bus station was for each city and town. It took hours. Luckily I had time as I was housebound recovering from an appendectomy at the time.

Who needs all this nonsense?

South America was the second half of my trip. My girlfriend (a somewhat more experienced traveller than I at the time) had chosen to plan the first half through South East Asia and New Zealand. Her idea of planning was to work which were the best beaches and book a flight here and there. Her blase attitude towards foreign travel hardly helped to calm my worries.

The Moment of Truth

Our first destination was Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Which with hindsight is probably not the best place for a painfully pale, under travelled and nervous Englishman to begin his travelling education. The traffic was insane. The motorbikes were really insane. people were hacking up chickens on the pavement. They dug big holes in the pavement for me to fall in! It was incredibly hot and I had no hat.

In for a penny, in for a pound 

By the time we had traversed South East Asia I had got used to being misunderstood. I had dealt with illness. I had eaten and enjoyed weird food (pig penis anybody?). I had even survived the Thai Minibuses of Doom between Siem Reap and Bangkok!

In New Zealand I learnt that you don’t really need to book a hostel. We in fact took to driving aimlessly around ithe delightful roads of New Zealand. Unknowingly we had shaken off any plans that entered our minds

Some 2 months later, as we bused our way around Bolivia I found my notebook, tucked safely in the same place I had put it when we set off. I flicked through it, laughed at how awful my plan had been, and put it back in my bag never to be touched again on foreign soil.

Lesson Learned

And that is why I don’t plan things. The truth is that once you have covered off the basics, like visas, inoculations and flights, any sort of long term travel just looks after itself. Buses got you places…eventually. Hostels are just where you need them to be…there or thereabouts. Food is edible…mostly. And no matter where you go you will probably find like-minded people who can recommend, help and even join you for a while.

Travel is easy. Why ruin it with all that dull planning? That said, let me backtrack a little. Some planning must take place. Luckily it just easy stuff.

How Much Planning is That Then?

It makes sense to do the basics. Some surprises are best avoided. Here is my list of pre-travel checks :

1. Check the weather at the time of year you will be going.

I saw a really cheap flight to Korea a while back. It turned out that it was the coldest time of the year. And by cold I mean COLD!

2. Get inoculated

Some people like to wing it. I don’t, and I really hate needles. If you are in the UK check out the NHS Fit for Travel site.

3. Get Travel Insurance

This happens to be my area of specialism. And like most insurances, people don’t fully appreciate them until they need them. Travel Insurance can get you out of a really big hole.

And whilst I am at it. Buy your Insurance when you book your first flight so that you have the cancellation cover in place. A close friend of mine failed to heed this advice and lost a lot of money when ill health meant that he could not take his flight.

Money Saving Expert has some good tips on this.

4. Save copies of your passports, visas and travel insurance documents to your email address.

Scan them and email them to yourself. If you lose them you will not believe how useful this is.

5. Book (at least some of) your flights

You can get some great flight deals if you book well in advance. Maybe not all of your flights. For example, I just checked and I found a return flight from London to Ho Chi Minh for GBP399 in a couple of months. That’s the sort of flight that dreams are built on!

There are plenty of websites that can do the searching for you, but I particularly like the deals appearing on Holiday Pirates at the moment.

6. Pack the right type of clothes.

I didn’t do this. I was too busy plotting the walking route to Salta bus station probably. So when I got to South East Asia with improper footwear I found out that UK12 size shoes are not easily found in that part of the world.

7. Get your finance solutions sorted

Travelling may be easy but you don’t want to be caught out with no money. I tend to carry 3 credit or debit cards if I am travelling for a long time. One on me, another on my travelling partner and a third well hidden back at the hostel.

I also hide a small amount of cash on my person (I won’t tell you where…..no not there!) just in case.

At present, in the UK the best overseas card option is Halifax Clarity which does not charge a fee for overseas cash withdrawals.

Other than that I might take a pre-paid travel card like FairFX and also my debit card for my UK account for absolute emergencies.

Actually that makes me sound like I do plan!

Well yeah I suppose it does. But some things are just common sense I suppose. Buy you still wont catch me reading hostel reviews when I’m in the UK!

I would love to hear your tips. Get in touch and let me know. Am I mad? Am I missing something?