Ten years of travel
A little under a decade ago I booked my first solo overseas holiday.
It was a blustery May day – rainy, cold, miserable. Full-time university and part-time work were eating up my social life. But there was hope on the seemingly all-too-distant horizon - three months of summer holidays to burn.
As I walked past a travel agents’ office between classes, the whiteboard of dream holiday destinations gave me pause. I examined it carefully, imagining the kinds of places I could go.
The Serengeti – none of my friends had been there. Wearing a nifty safari suit, being at one with nature, performing some sort of Lion King re-enactment featuring lion cubs and baboons. It seemed blissful, but at $2200, I couldn’t afford it.
Perhaps Antarctica? It was the perfect opportunity for a wardrobe resurrection - my bear-skin hat had made the journey from the USSR, never to be worn again. But no, too cold.
Malaysia? Exotic, warm and inexpensive – check. And I wouldn’t have to go alone, as friends from uni would be there over summer too.
And so in I walked, wearing a hapless look of anticipation (read: desperation). I gave the travel agent the dates that I was interested in, she gave me a price and I handed over a credit card. That 6612km flight to Kuala Lumpur cost $1600. I forked out another $200 for travel insurance, and paid the rack rate of $100 per night for a hotel the agent recommended. A week before my trip I suddenly realised I had no idea where I’d put my ticket, and almost had to pay a $150 reprinting fee. Luckily I remembered the “safe place” I’d hidden my ticket was in my suitcase.
How not to run a five-star hotel
When I arrived at my hotel in Kuala Lumpur, I expected a five-star paradise. And sure, from the outside it looked quite impressive. But after checking in the first problem became apparent. I popped into my room to change, then headed back to the sole elevator. It stopped on my floor but was completely crowded. I waited for the next one, but that too was full. When one elevator serves 15 floors and hundreds of guests, only those at the top fit inside. So I began the first of my many trudges down the stairs.
When I got back to my room that night, the second problem appeared. The pathetic trickle of water that sputtered out of my shower was only matched by the awkward, pathetic glurp of “flushing” the toilet. When I rang the front desk, a frustratingly polite receptionist informed me that 9pm was a peak time for water-use at the hotel. Could I please wait a few hours, or better yet shower and flush at noon tomorrow?
The rest of the holiday played out in a similar fashion. With no GPS to guide me, my pathetic attempts to read a map resulted in countless delays. I couldn’t keep track of the volatile exchange rate, and with only hard copies of my travel guide, I had to lug around a backpack that practically screamed “steal me”. I had little control over my vacation.
Levelling the playing field
Fast forward to today’s travel industry, and it’s a different picture. With the advent of no-frills overseas carriers and an explosion of websites catering to travellers, the consumer is in the driver’s seat.
Last week I received an email from one of the many traveller newsletters I subscribe to, alerting me to $1500 return airfares to Paris, 16,960km from Sydney. The price was tempting, the available dates were ideal, and my annual leave situation was favourable. After clearing it with my boss, I went directly to the airline’s website, selected the cheapest suitable dates, and printed out my own e-ticket. And there’s no problem if I put it into another of my “safe” hiding places – I can always print another. I paid with my premium credit card, so travel insurance including car rental excess is covered by my bank.
I’ve been looking at accommodation options using websites offering last minute rates, like Wotif, Last Minute and Expedia, and I’m able to cross-reference hot deals with other traveller’s reviews on Trip Advisor. So now I know that when a particular hotel says it is “just a few minutes to the metro”, I’ll be hiking up Parisian staircases and lugging my suitcases for half an hour. And when another tactfully describes rooms as “cosy”, they actually mean there’s no space for your suitcases.
I don’t have to rely on articles written by those who receive the premium service that comes with the journalist-visited-place-X-as-a-guest-of-company-Y tag. Instead, I can post my itinerary on traveller’s forums like Lonely Planet, and receive honest insights on my desired destinations.
And I know that when I head abroad, I’ll be able to take my trusty smartphone and access maps, restaurant recommendations and travel advice on the go, anywhere I need to. Though having read other’s warnings, I’ll be leaving my Australian SIM card at home.
Of course, not everything comes up roses. I know that even with all my high-tech planning, my complete absence of a sense of direction will rear its ever-present head. I may be disappointed by the reality that some of the reviews I’ve read have been written by proprietors trying to boost their own business. And I’ll probably lament the terrible service and lack of legroom on my discount airline. But at least these will be disappointments that result from decisions I have made, with no undue pressure and no one to blame but myself.
Did you use a travel agent the last time you booked your holiday, or did you take care of the organisation yourself? We’d like to hear about it in the comments section. We’d also like to hear from you if you have any advice for fellow CHOICE members on saving money while on holiday.