Explorient’s Top 10 Asia Travel Tips and FAQs

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(Post written by Kervin Yu)

Taking that long awaited trip to Asia is no doubt exciting but can also be daunting at the same time. Combining our in-house on the ground expertise with invaluable feedback from our esteemed travelers throughout the years, we have compiled a nice list of useful travel tips and answers to many of the frequently asked questions to help you get a leg up for your journey.

(1) MONEY MATTERS: How and where to exchange money? What currencies to use in each country? These are perhaps two of the most frequently asked questions and we have your answers:

  1. It is almost never necessary to exchange foreign money prior to arriving that country. Unless you have special arrangements with your bank or credit card company, you will likely pay a hefty premium – sometimes 10% or more. Equally expensive, if not more, are the money exchange booths at airports – so try to avoid those if possible. That being said, we suggest changing money on the ground after you arrive, either at a local ATM Machine or if exchanging cash, at your hotel or local currency exchange booths.

  2. There are several Asian countries where USD remains widely accepted. In such cases, it may be optional to get local money. In general, goods and services tend to work out to be a little cheaper using local currency. USD prices could also mean “Tourist Prices”. You can of course do some rough math once you arrive to see what works out better. Countries where USD is widely accepted are: Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Nepal.

  3. ATMs: ATMs are found in most major cities throughout Asia so getting local money is seldom an issue. Though it is important to keep in mind banks on both ends of the transaction can charge hefty transaction fees (on top of not so favorable exchange rates). So take out larger sums of cash at a time when using your ATM Card. PLEASE NOTE: few to no ATMs exist in Myanmar, Bhutan and Laos (though this could change over time). It strongly advisable to bring ample cash when visiting these countries.

  4. Cash exchange & Travelers Cheques: for cash exchange, it is OK to exchange local money at the hotel for countries in China and Vietnam as exchange rates are fairly standardize with no significant premiums/fees charged by the hotels. For all other countries, exchanging money at the hotel can be rather expensive (in terms of poor exchange rates). In such cases, look for local currency exchange booths for the best rates. Travelers Cheques function much like cash (USD) where they can be used to exchange for local money. However, these can be expensive to purchase (a 3 to 5% transaction/service charge usually applies), receive less favorable exchange rates when exchanging money, and not all places accept them. If you are uncomfortable carry a lot of cash, we favor ATMs over travelers cheques, unless of course you’re visiting a country where there are few to no ATMs.

  5. Credit Cards: much of Asia is still very much a cash-based society outside of the hotel. Besides very modernized countries like Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, most smaller shops and local restaurants in other countries only accept cash. Moreover, while some larger establishments show credit cards are accepted, they may only take non-foreign issued credit cards. In general, unless you’re traveling to the aforementioned countries where credit card use as common, cash should be your primary means of expenditure. 5. Visa Fees: for countries where visas are obtained on arrival, USD is the commonly accepted currency. Be sure to allocate these funds for visa needs.

(2) TRAVEL DOCUMENTS:

Everyone knows a valid passport is required to travel abroad, but a less known fact is that your passport must remain valid for at least six (6) months from your last port of call. So for instance, your trip starts on June 12th and ends on July 15th, your passport’s expiration date must be after January 15th. Otherwise, you could be denied boarding at any point during your trip. Some countries follow this very strictly so never, ever, leave this to chance!

While a good number of countries do not require visas for U.S., Canadian and many European nationals, here are some that do require them. We have broken them out into three categories – (1) Visa Exempt; (2) Visa on arrival; and (3) Visa applied for in advance:

  1. Visa Exempt (for tourists): Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Republic of China (Taiwan) and Thailand. Please note visa-free period vary by country. Be sure to check with the respective consulate(s) if your stay is 30 days or more.
  2. Visa may be obtained on arrival: Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Nepal, Vietnam*. Visas for these countries may also be obtained in advance as per the traveler’s preference.
  3. Visa must be applied for in advance: Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar

*In order to apply for visa on arrival in Vietnam, a pre-approval/invitation letter is required. Our office can assist with obtaining this letter on your behalf.

Explorient can assist passengers with their China visas, but only for those residing in the Northeast. Click here for the list of states to which each Chinese Consulate is assigned. For residents in states NOT assigned to the Chinese Consulate in NYC, you may find an authorized visa agent locally or contact VisaRite (www.visarite.com) for assistance. VisaRite can also handle visas for Vietnam, India, Thailand (for non U.S. passport holders) as well Brazil and Russia. In addition, VisaHQ is a great resource for looking up various countries’ visa requirements specific to the traveler’s nationality. But be sure to also check with the respective consulates/embassies for up to date information.

(3) BAGGAGE

Unlike North America and Europe, airlines in Asia do not (not yet at least) heavily rely on baggage fees (and other countless misc. fees) as one of the main revenue streams. Therefore, unless you’re flying on a low-fare carrier such as Air Asia, JetStar, Tigerair, etc. whereby their fares are extremely low to be compensated by baggage, meal, seat fees, etc., economy class passengers are permitted up to 20kg (44lbs) of free checked baggage plus a carry on item per passenger. If you over this weight allowance, excess weight fees would likely be assessed. This fee will be calculated based on the overage amount and the travel distance of that flight. On low-fare carriers such as ones mentioned above, it is strongly advisable to prepay for checked baggage prior to check-in. Doing so at the airport will be significantly more expensive.

 (4) COMMUNICATIONS (Phones, Internet, Mobile Devices, etc.)

It’s hard to imagine life without electronic gadgets nowadays – our phones, iPads, laptops, etc. Traveling to the other side of the globe doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be out of touch. Here are some tips and insights on communications while abroad.

Internet Access: Wifi is prevalent throughout much of Asia. Nearly all hotels we use provide wired or wireless access. Some will charge and some don’t. Ironically, the ones that do charge are typically the more expensive properties (since their clientele probably isn’t so concerned with a few extra bucks added to their $600+ a night bill) and can be quite expensive ranging between $10 – $20 per day. Several major airports in Asia such as Hong Kong International Airport, Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and Singapore’s Changi Airport provide free Wifi access, and more are expected to follow. In addition, many public areas and restaurants throughout Asia are also equipped with free wifi. Finally, Internet cafes are fairly abundant and offer very reasonable rates.

Phones: Most major U.S. cellular providers offer international roaming capabilities that you can add to your existing plan. Rates and availability will vary depending on the carrier and the country to which you’ll be traveling. If you have T-Mobile, you’re in for a real treat. Effective October 2013, T-Mobiles offers Free Text & Data and $0.20 local calls and calls to the U.S. in more than 100 countries as part of its basic service. Since T-Mobile doesn’t require a contract, signing up for their $50/month Simple Choice plan for even just the trip will quickly pay for itself.

If neither of the above is an option, you can purchase an inexpensive cell phone and SIM card while abroad (using prepaid calling cards for usage). But note SIMs (and some phones as well) are country specific so you will likely need to get one for each country you’ll be visiting. While a bit on the expensive side, phone rentals are available in some countries. A few select hotels even provide cell phones for their guests during their stay. Finally, be sure to take advantage of great smart phone apps such as Skype, Whatsapp, Viber, etc. that can make communications while abroad convenient and inexpensive.

 (5) ELECTRONICS

Nearly all portable electronic devices such as cameras, laptops, tablets, cell phones, iPods/iPads, and other mobile devices do not need an electrical converter since such devices typically accept a voltage range between 100-240v. However, it is necessary to bring an adapter kit for the plugs/outlets as most are unique to each country. These adaptor kits are readily available at Radio Shack and travel/luggage shops for around $10-$15. For other items such as small appliances or medical devices, a converter may be necessary. You can confirm this by checking with the voltage requirements at the back of the electronic device.

(6) WHAT TO PACK

OK. Most of us are guilty of this: packing way more than we need for any given trip. This may well be especially true for Asia given it’s a world away but here are some considerations to be mindful of. While most internal flights allow free checked baggage, a weight allowance of 20kg (or 44lbs) is not a lot considering the average trip to the Far East is about two weeks. Sure, you can balance your load using carry-ons, BUT what about all the great shopping you’ll inevitably do while abroad? Our advice: with the exception of a few items which we’ll mention below, anything you can buy here (i.e. clothing, personal items, mosquito repellents, sunscreen, umbrellas, beach toys, etc.), are readily available in Asia, and probably for less. Besides the obvious ones, here are a few items that come to mind you should bring:

  • Home remedies (Advil, Pepto-Bismol, Tums, sleeping pills etc.), baby formula, prescription drugs. While similar products are available overseas, it could be difficult to find the same brands. In addition, make sure to have ample supply of any prescription medication. Since the chances are you will be moving from hotel to hotel, if these prescription medication are critical,  perhaps splitting them into two separate containers could be a good idea in case you lose one. While not required, it is also advisable to use original prescription bottles where possible.
  • Much of Southeast Asia is warm/hot/humid year round with very few places requiring formal attire, so light, casual clothing will suffice for nearly the entirety of your trip. In the spirit of packing light, there are numerous local laundry shops that wash, dry and fold your clothes very inexpensively. For some temple visits, ladies should wear pants or skirts that cover the knee and avoid tank tops (and clothing that may be overly revealing). For the rest of Asia in places like China, Japan, South Korea and the mountainous regions of Nepal, you’ll need to bring some warm clothing if traveling during the winter months (weather patterns are similar to those in the Northeast). Nonetheless, whatever you don’t bring, you can easily buy them while abroad.

  • Do feel free to bring any electronic devices with you on the trip as Internet access is abundantly available throughout Asia. However, please remember to bring an adapter kit for electrical receptacles that can be specific to each country.  We have heard rather preposterous “myths” such as certain governments snooping on your phone conversations, stealing your personal data, even planting viruses into your devices. These claims are baseless, and unless you’re on a “Most Wanted” list, there is absolutely nothing to worry about.

(7) TIPS ON OVERCOMING JETLAG

Traveling half way around the world and landing on your feet (awake) is no small feat, especially when the time difference is between 12 to 14 hours. Here are some tips on how to lessen the effects of jetlag and to overcome them sooner than later:

Stating the obvious here, it would be best to catch some Zzzzzs on the plane if you can. If your transpacific flight departs at night, your body will be tired naturally which will hopefully allow you to sleep some. On the other hand, if your flight takes off during the day, consider sleeping less the night prior so you’re ready to hit the sack once on board. Remedies such as Melatonin, Benadryl or a good o’ glass of wine can certainly give you a leg up. Either way, try to get rested before you arrive. You’ll need it for the fun days ahead!

On the flip side, if you arrive your final destination at night, that is probably the most ideal as you will likely be very tired after the long journey. After checking in at the hotel, enjoy a glass of wine (or pop a pill) and you should be on your way to some shuteye. Conversely, if your flight arrival is during the day, it’s important that you try your best to stay up until the evening hours (at least 8pm onwards). Otherwise, you’ll be waking up at odds times in the middle of night with a hard time falling back asleep, ultimately prolonging, even worsening your jetlag. Don’t be afraid to lean on your sleep aid the first few nights of the trip as they tend to be the most challenging achieving a full night of sleep. From experience, you probably won’t sleep very much the first couple of nights. Don’t fret. If you can get 5-6 hours of sleep, that’s not bad at all. Yes, you will be somewhat fatigue during the day but the excitement of being in an entirely new country will help compensate for this. If you follow the above advice, you should be well adjusted to the new time zone after 3 days or so and enjoy some much needed sleep.

All of the above points remain true for your return trip home, but in all likelihood quite a bit harder, as most of us will be returning to work shortly after the trip. This time around, there is no “excitement” to keep you up so fatigue tends to be more severe than the way there. It can take up to a week (sometimes even longer for some) to adjust to your normal sleep patterns. Again, to the extent possible, try to stay up until your normal sleep time in order to shorten the adjusting period.

(8) TIPPING

Tipping in its entirety is not customary, expected or even appreciated in Japan. It’s just not part of the Japanese culture. Outside Japan, however, tipping for guides and drivers is customary – even expected. Much like restaurant servers in the U.S., guides and drivers in Asia work very hard to service their guests, and rely on gratuities as part of their total compensation. Guidelines for gratuities depend on the tour itself and number of people in your party. Since the vast majority of Explorient trips are private tours, we suggest a range of $10-$15 per person per full day of service. This will cover both the guide and driver and may of course be adjusted up/down depending on the your level of satisfaction. For restaurants, tipping is not customary but greatly appreciated. Hotel F&B outlets or fine dining establishments typically include a service charge between 10-15% so additional tipping is not necessary. For local restaurants, just rounding to the nearest sum usually in the neighborhood of 5% to 10% of your bill would suffice. Finally, hotel bellmen do expect tips. The suggested amount is $1 to $2 per bag uring hotel check-in/check-out.

(9) EATING AND DRINKING

Except for Japan, tap water is not potable anywhere in Asia, though nearly all hotels will supply at least two bottles of water per day. Bottled water is abundantly available at local stores and is quite inexpensive. Asia is synonymous with great food. While cleanliness isn’t necessarily the main issue, it does take the body to adjust to the local spices and flavors. It is not at all that uncommon to have an upset stomach at some point during your trip. Therefore, be sure to bring along your usual remedies (Tums, Pepto-Bismol, etc.) just in case. Street foods in Asia are very delicious and can be quite tempting. However, as water is a major source of sickness, be sure to buy only fruits you peel yourself and try avoiding foods that are either cooked in water, or require dishes/silverware potentially washed in contaminated water (i.e. make sure the food stall you buy from has supply of running water). Remember, when it comes to food safety, common sense always prevails!

Much of Asia has adapted to accommodate food allergies and dietary restrictions for visitors. For those with specific dietary needs (vegan, gluten-free, peanuts, etc.), special meals can be arranged on flights and at restaurants in advance. Once on the ground, ask your guide to write a note in the local language specifying your dietary restrictions to be shown to the restaurants when dining on your own. Breakfasts (typically included in your program) should be just fine since they are of buffet-style with a large spread of local and Western fare to choose from.

 (10) OTHER MISC. TIPS

Most parts of Asia are very safe for the tourist.  But as in any big city, there are always opportunists and petty theft. Be sure to use common sense and exercise the same precautions as you would traveling domestically and abroad. Here are some pointers to ensure a safe and carefree journey:

  • Immediately upon checking-in to your hotel, place your travel documents (passports, tickets, etc.), iPads, laptops as well as the majority of your cash (or travelers cheques) and other valuables into your in-room safe, nearly all hotels are equipped with them. Bring only what you need for the day.
  • Be vigilant with your personal items: do not leave them unattended anywhere and beware of pick-pockets. Again, there are always opportunists lurking in any given city. All it takes is one bad apple and a few seconds to ruin your vacation.
  • Shopping: Bargaining is NOT customary anywhere in Japan. For other parts of Asia, bargaining is quite common (even encouraged) at street markets and small shops (you can tell if prices are not marked), non-metered taxis (such as “tuk-tuks” in Thailand and Cambodia), and some local “pick your catch” seafood dives – so  be sure to bring your bargaining skills along!
  • Beware of Contrabands: while some goods are prevalent throughout Asia, it is possible they are restricted goods in your country (or even other countries within Asia). Besides the obvious ones (firearms, drugs, etc.), items such as agricultural products, certain foods, animal products (i.e. crocodile skin products, ivory, goods made of endangered species, etc.) are prohibited in the U.S. For more information, please refer to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.
  • Vaccinations are not required for traveling to Asia except if you have recently traveled to an infected region (of Malaria, Yellow Fever, etc.). However, for the extra peace of mind, and good practice in general for frequent travelers, we recommend vaccinations against Hepatitis A and Typhoid, both are spread via contaminated water and food. For detailed and up-to-date health information, and advisories, please visit the CDC’s Travel Health website before your trip.

Comments (1)

  1. Caryl Anne June 26, 2014 at 11:14 am

    Such an informative article! When it comes to traveling, you can never be over prepared. Your tips definitely provided great insight into traveling overseas, which I found to be very helpful! Thanks for sharing!