Taobao parcel forwarder review – 4PX vs DPEX

There are 4 parcel forwarders on Taobao. I have used 2 of them – 4PX and DPEX. DPEX is a new entrant to this business. I thought i could give them a try since they offer a slightly lower rate than 4PX. So how did they fare?

Well, i’m not going to use DPEX again in the future. Here’s why:

1. They quoted the weight of the items to a single decimal place, instead of 2 decimal places like 4PX does. For example, 0.5kg. Very obviously, they rounded the weight upwards. It is possible that for an item that is 0.41kg, they rounded it up to 0.5kg. You’re not at the scene when they take the weight measurement, so they can really just quote a random weight if they wanted to. I’m inclined to think that a weight measurement having 2 decimal places is more likely to be real. At least, it takes more imagination or creativity to fake a weight measurement of up to 2 decimal places every time. I’m more willing to pay for the extra “work” done of plucking 2 decimal places out of thin air than 1. But anyway, a 1 decimal place weight measurement doesn’t sit well with me, not when you’re billed in 0.5kg quantum. If you’re buying 5 items or more, and every item is rounded up to the nearest 0.1kg, you’re definitely going to be billed for an extra 0.5kg of shipping cost!

2. In the consolidated shipment package, some items came sans their original packaging material. That is a big NO! The stuff you bought from the respective Taobao sellers were sent in a packaging that the seller deemed necessary to protect the item throughout the course of their delivery. Some items can be damaged if shipped without their original protective packaging. Guess what happened to some of the packages when they reached DPEX warehouse? They opened up some of the packages in order to make everything fit into the box they chose for shipping my stuff! What if they have dishonest staff who decided to keep some of the items you bought, or if they were simply careless and left out some items? Nobody will claim responsibility! They should not allow such a possibility in the first place! Here’s the thing that is most repulsive about DPEX – when they ship stuff with the packaging material removed, they still charge you the shipping cost according to the weight which is inclusive of the packaging material! I purchased a camera bag that is listed as weighing 300gm on the product page but was quoted 0.5kg by DPEX. Guess how the camera bag was shipped? Yes, simply wrapped in a plastic bag! If i was billed the correct weight then maybe i wouldn’t mind the repackaging done.

My experience with 4PX was far better. The items are all delivered in their original packaging, the weight is calculated up to 2 decimal places, and i also get an SMS on the day of the delivery (obviously DPEX didn’t do this)! Forget DPEX and go with 4PX!

Update 3 Feb 2017

A lot has changed since i wrote this blog entry. The couriers have changed, and the shipping rates too (more favourable now). I have not shipped via Taobao Consolidated Shipping for a long time, but have used ezbuy and 86OF. Ezbuy for shipping small items, because they have the option of self-collection from warehouse, which totally avoids the hassle of failed deliveries. And they’re likely cheaper too for non-bulky items. 86OF because you can ship large items, which you cannot ship through Taobao nor ezbuy, and for a low price too. If you’re new to Taobao shipping, i would encourage you to try out all the options to see which one works best for you, though for large items, you don’t really have a choice.

Taobao beginners guide

I am presuming you understand the benefits of shopping on Taobao. Let me begin by saying this is not going to be a comprehensive guide of how to complete a purchase on Taobao from start to end. Rather, i will attempt to explain the options available and pitfalls you may face. Note also that this guide is about making a purchase on Taobao directly and not going through an agent.

Account registration
If you are newly registered as a user on taobao.com, your initial attempts to make a purchase may fail simply because you are a new user. I have encountered the situation where my order gets rejected automatically. Some sellers choose to simply not trust purchases from newbies, maybe because they have encountered fake buyers. In other cases, you may be able to speak to the seller directly (through the 阿里旺旺 online chat) and the seller will flip some switches to allow your order to go through. Proficiency with Chinese and also the ability to input Chinese characters is important to get things done on Taobao, often times. Continue reading Taobao beginners guide

4 tips on saving money on your trip

#1 Book ahead

Prices for hotel and car rental normally go up the closer you get to the date you are traveling, especially if it is holiday season. I have seen hotel and car rental prices more than double two months before my travel date, so you can save A LOT if you secure your hotel and car rental bookings way in advance (4 months or more). Sometimes, prices can fall as you approach the date of your stay, probably due to poor hotel occupancy rate (e.g. Booking.com sometimes has a 10% discount nearer to your date of stay), in which case you can cancel your original booking and book again (I normally avoid doing non-refundable bookings). So DON’T just book and forget but check often to see if prices have been adjusted. Car rentals are also usually cancellable without any penalty, so there’s no harm booking ahead and cancelling later if you find a better deal.

Flight fares are more likely to go up than down especially for peak travel period, so i personally think it’s better to book in advance. In any case, without having a firm date for your flights, you can’t book your hotel stays and car rentals, so you’ll likely lose out much more if you waited. The good-value accommodation in popular destinations do sell out very quickly.

While I’m least stingy when it comes to spending on food when travelling, I do want good value food too. I check TripAdvisor to get an idea on how much the meals will cost, and I mostly avoid the super expensive fine dining establishments. In the past when I didn’t do prior research on meals, I had a terrible experience eating at a place just outside the Vatican City. It was a place that served pre-cooked food, like a canteen. The meal which consisted of a chicken main course, some pasta and some veg came up to more than 50 Euros. It was clearly a tourist trap. Since I started planning ahead the meals for trips, i can say that I was seldom disappointed, and i’m quite certain I saved money too.

Other than car rentals, you may also have other transport needs, like airport transfers, or public transportation within the city when it is not feasible to drive. It pays to find out ahead exactly which option will save you money (e.g. day pass vs single trip tickets). When i was in Stockholm, i found out before hand that the metro/bus pass actually covered the ride to the airport (though it requires you to transfer from train to bus). I suspect many people don’t know this and they take the easy but very expensive option of the airport express train.

#2 Choose the right hotel and hotel booking website

Individual personal preference for hotels is a very subjective matter. You usually have to decide between price vs location and comfort. I’m more inclined to get a cheaper place that satisfies the basic criteria of having a private bathroom and a review rating of at least 6.5/10. The cost for accommodation is usually the biggest chunk of your trip expense, so if you do spend enough effort in searching, you will save money. Check out my strategy for hotel search.

#3 Use the right credit card

You may save on exchange rates and transaction fees if you bring cash, but i think nobody brings a huge amount of cash for practical and safety reasons. Credit cards are indispensable for a trip. If you’re renting a car, it is a prerequisite to have a credit card under your own name for the rental. Quick tip: remember to activate your credit card for overseas usage! Since you will be incurring a fair bit of spending on your credit card, make sure you get some cash rebate in return! Check out my post on the credit card i found to be best for overseas spending.

#4 Carry your passport with you when shopping

If you’re going to Europe or Japan, you can enjoy tax-free (8% for Japan and around 5-15% for Europe) shopping IF you have your passport with you at the point of sale.

 

How to choose the hotel for your trip

Choosing a hotel could be a daunting task for a lot of people, because often times there are too many hotels to choose from. Here’s my strategy for choosing a good value hotel.

Hotel Booking Site
First, you have to decide on which hotel booking website to use. I mainly use booking.com and Agoda. When searching for the same hotel on various hotel booking sites, you will have to read the fine print carefully. Some sites include all taxes and service charge in their rates while some do not. booking.com and Agoda’s price tends to be more or less the same (after factoring in service charge and taxes). The hotel is probably obligated to offer the same rate when they signed up for listing with the booking sites. The exception to this is when a website offers a special discount. Agoda sometimes offer a special non-refundable option, while booking.com sometimes has a 10% discounts.

The choices of hotels available from hotel booking websites are largely the same for the more popular sites like booking.com and Agoda, but sometimes hotels.com may have additional choices. Some countries have booking sites that cater specifically to that country (e.g. travelking.com.tw in Taiwan) and more choices can be found on these, so for such cases you should go with the local booking sites. Chain hotels like Accor hotels have their own booking websites and are worth a look, though these are usually more expensive.

Cashback
These days, the cashback scheme has also infiltrated hotel booking sites. A cashback scheme is one that gives you cashback when you complete your booking by going through another website. I’ve written about one such site before – ebates.com. They offer cashback for many hotel booking sites, including expedia.com, agoda.com, booking.com, hotels.com, Hotelclub, Accor Hotels and many more. Shopback.sg is another cashback site (homegrown in Singapore). I found out that hotel booking sites (specifically booking.com) may not be all reliable when it comes to paying you cashback for your hotel bookings. Even though booking.com is supposed to pay 2% cashback, i have only received the cashback a few times, for probably more than 30 bookings done (Update: this was likely due to booking more than 80 days ahead). Expedia, on the other hand, is reliable in paying the cashback (for flights in my case, though i suspect it will be so for hotel bookings also). Hotel booking sites are forced to offer cashback since everyone else is doing it – or risk losing business to competitors. When booking hotels, keep in mind that the cashback could make one hotel booking site cheaper than another even if they have the same hotel rates. Agoda pays S$10 (S$15 when they run a promotion) cashback for bookings above US$50 through Shopback, which is a very significant discount to your overall booking rate. The catch is, Agoda charges the hotel payment to your credit card about a week before your stay there, so you won’t enjoy any credit card related cashback (ANZ gives you 5% cashback for expenses at a hotel), unless you use a credit card that gives you cashback for online transactions (e.g. Bank of China Shop! card). Don’t be misled by those sites that give you 6%-10% cashback – most of the time, their hotel rates are higher.

If you have a rental car
Often times, if you have a rental car, you can choose to stay in the middle of nowhere, where the accommodation is likely to be very cheap (with free parking too). I still recall staying in a remote place outside Amsterdam for 20 Euros per night (inclusive of 2 Euros tax). In many European cities, you can use park and ride (i.e. park at special rates at a car park at the edge of the city centre and take the metro) to tour the city without actually having to stay in the city itself. I do this when i don’t plan to spend more than one day in that city.

Use the map
For a city destination where I am going to use the metro to get around, i look for hotels near a metro station, and you can really only do this using the map. So when viewing the hotel details page, i would click the “Show map” link that points out the location of the hotel and check out the other hotels marked on the map that are also near a metro station. I usually don’t mind staying a little further away as long as the hotel is no more than 30 minutes away by metro to the city centre.

When i have a rental car, for those days when i just need a place to stay for the night while on the way to the next destination i am going to visit, i would use the map to find a hotel that is along the way (or not too far off the path) and is the cheapest. Use Google Maps to help estimate the driving time.

Read the reviews
Reviews offer you the first hand account of someone who has stayed in the hotel. You will have to read beyond the words and take into account if the reviewer is an overly fussy person, which is often the case. It is the norm for people to exaggerate the negative aspects of their experience. Look out for things in the reviews for things you absolutely cannot tolerate, such as a hard bed, sleezy neighbourhood etc.

Update 14/11/2015: I have just discovered why i am not getting my cashback for hotel bookings on booking.com, now that booking.com is also on Shopback. The terms and conditions for booking.com cashback states that no cashback is awarded for bookings done 80 days or more in advance. That applies to most of my bookings, so, i guess the trick is to re-do the booking if there is still vacancy in less than 80 days to date of reservation, or book with Agoda, if the price is comparable. No such condition is stated for Agoda.

Taobao product recommendation – LED lights

LED lights is the first thing i will recommend anyone to get from Taobao. In case you don’t know the merits of LED lights – it saves you more than 50% of electricity (as compared to fluorescent lighting aka CFL) and potentially lasts much longer. I did a rough calculation and my estimation is that i can break even on the change of CFL to LED lighting in less than 2 years. It may sound drastic, but i have changed almost all the lightings in my home to LED even though the CFL tubes have not yet broken down.

When i did my home renovation for my current home, more than 4 years ago, i installed LED downlights for the living room and also the doorway area. Each LED downlight cost me a blood sucking price of S$28! Barely 2 years later, 2 of those LED lights broke down. I was reluctant to pay the cost of getting an electrician to replace them. Finally, I decided to do it myself. I bought the LED lights from Taobao, at an unbelievable price of 9.8 Yuan each for the premium ones. This equates to S$2.3, which is less than 10 times my original buy price! The replacement work was actually very easy, although i accidentally chipped away a small bit of the false ceiling.

3wdownlight
The 9.8 Yuan downlight

Buoyed by the success, I was determined to change the rest of the frequently used lighting in the home to LED ones – those in the living and dining room, kitchen as well as all the bedrooms. These consisted of two types of CFL light tubes – the PL-L 4P 36W and PL-C 13W. Here’s what they look like if you’re wondering:

PL-L
PL-C

It took a while to search on Taobao, because if you searched by those very search terms (PL-L and PL-C), it will be the CFL light tubes or other unrelated products showing up in the search result. The search terms to use are 2g11 led and g24 led. 2g11 and g24 refer to the base pin configuration of PL-L and PL-C respectively. To get comparable brightness, the wattage is the one that is slightly less than half that of CFL. For the 36W PL-L, the corresponding LED is 15W, and the LED is housed in a casing with the exact same length as the 36W CFL light, so you can’t get it wrong. If you do the sums, you save 58% electricity when you switch from CFL to LED. I found the brightness to be about equal or slightly dimmer, and it works fine for me. For a bedroom, you typically need 2 of these light tubes, so instead of 72W, you’re down to using just 30W.

For the PL-C light, you have many choices in terms of the wattage (and correspondingly the length), so you have to be careful to choose one that will fit into your downlight enclosure. For my 13W PL-C, i chose the 7W LED, for worry that if i chose the 5W one, it will turn out to be too dim. 7W is about 54% of the original 13W wattage, so the result was a very significant increase in brightness, and i can tell you it is “shiok” (exhilarating) as it makes your home feel like one of those brightly lit shopping malls! For L-Box downlight, as compared to a centrally fitted light, you need to have extra brightness to achieve sufficient lighting. To get that extra brightness at about half the electricity usage is extremely satisfying.

There are many sellers of LED light on Taobao, and as usual i chose the sellers with the highest sales volume, as the sales volume is a testament to these sellers being reliable. The 15W 2g11 LED cost me 48 Yuan (S$11) each while the 7W g24 LED cost me 23 Yuan (S$5). The pricing is not much more than their CFL counterpart actually, so i don’t see why anyone should be buying CFL anymore.

 

A note on the colour temperature of the light: you probably already know there are 3 types you can choose from – white, cool white, and warm white (basically yellow). In terms of Kelvin, these are 6000-6500K, 4000-4500K and 2700-3200K respectively. White is simply 白, cool white could be 暖白 or 自然白 or 中性光 while warm white is 暖黄 or 暖白. You have to read the specification of the seller very carefully to choose the colour that you want. If cool white is what you want and it is not among the options available, check with the seller if they offer it. If they do, you can ask for it by leaving a remark when placing your order.

plcdownlight
G24 LED in the downlight housing

Now, for the installation of the lights, the PL-C or G24 type of light requires just plugging the CFL out and the LED in. That’s because, by design, the ballast and stater of the CFL is built into the PL-C lighting, and correspondingly, the driver circuitry of the LED is also built-in.

Swapping the PL-L for the LED is a little more involved, because you need to do some re-wiring to bypass the ballast and starter, which MUST NOT be used in conjunction with the LED. Fortunately, the design of modern lighting is such that you can do wiring quite easily, much like how you do it on a breadboard. I tripped the circuit breaker a few times while doing this, but nevertheless, i got the job done myself. Disclaimer: do this at your own risk, and if you are not confident, engage an electrician. See picture below to see the finished job.

pllled
2g11 LED – note the wires leading from the ballast and starter (which are already removed from the socket) are not connected to anything

Update 14 Jun 2016

One year on after switching to LED lights, they became noticeably dimmer, especially for the pair of cool white PL-L (probably because it was used more frequently). I will have to do a replacement purchase, but i don’t really mind that. Something for you to keep in mind.

Update 18 Feb 2017

Besides the LED downlight and the 2 types of LED light tubes i have mentioned above, there is also the integrated type that is becoming very popular now. The integrated type means that the LED light strips are built-in and inseparable from the housing. There are pros and cons to this of course – it comes ready for installation, and you need not worry about purchasing nor installing separate light tubes, but if it breaks down, or becomes too dim over time, you’ll have to replace the entire fixture.

Some of these look very nice, and my preference is for the minimalistic ones, but some of those made for and according to Chinese taste look “obiang”, or Singlish for out-of-place ugly. The search term to use if you want to look for the minimalistic LED are “LED办公室吸顶灯” and “LED办公室吊灯”, which really means lighting for office space.

Check these out:

I bought this one for a home office space, and it has a volumetric weight of 0.09 CBM
Extremely fanciful but with a nice effect
Create any combination you want

And the “obiang” ones:

Do you want this in your bedroom?
Or this for your living room? It looks out of place in the showcase photo

These light fixtures are huge in size when packed for shipping. They are just a tad smaller than typical furniture items. There is only one way to ship them – by sea freight. Here’s how you can ship them to Singapore – 86OF.

What to do with your disused fluorescent light

Don’t bin them! They can be recycled. Please walk the extra mile and bring them to one of the collection points for recycling! A little goes a long way.

Check out my newly published definitive guide.

Taobao product recommendation – Orico Dual Bay Hard Drive Dock

These days, with everything going digital, everyone needs some kind of digital backup storage (to store photos, videos, documents etc.). It can be in the form of an external harddisk, thumbdrives, cloud storage (Dropbox, Google drive etc.) or the now-probably-obsolete optical disks (DVD, Bluray). In terms of safety, probably nothing can beat cloud storage, since it is managed (someone guarantees the safety) and it is offsite (you’re fine even if your house is burnt down). To store a large amount of data (in the Gigabyte range), though, it is probably not practical to use cloud storage, since it will be expensive and considerably slow even with the high-speed internet we have today. I’m a cheapo when it comes to.. well, everything, and my choice of a digital backup storage is a hard drive dock.

Prior to this, i used DVD-Rs to backup photos. Although cheap, it is quite a chore to burn the DVDs, plus, if you missed out some files, you may not be able to add to the already burned DVD. The size of DVDs at 3.7GB is usually not enough to contain all your photos, so your photo back up will span a few DVDs, and it is again a chore to load and eject DVDs if you wished to view the photos. The next lowest cost storage available is the hard disk. A hard disk overcomes all the shortcomings of a DVD, except it may not outlast a DVD. Hard disks have a typical life span of 2 to 8 years, with the added risk that they may fail abruptly at any time. The way to tackle this problem is to have redundancy – do the back up onto two or more hard disks. The likelihood of both hard disks failing at the same time is small enough to make this solution workable. In fact, the practice of having redundancy of hard disks has become standard to the point that a standard is actually devised, called RAID 1. For the average consumer, to be able to take advantage of RAID 1 simply means buying a hard disk enclosure or a Network Attached Storage (NAS) that supports RAID 1. The price point of such an enclosure is around US$70 at present (this excludes the price of the hard disks). The advantage of using RAID 1 is that you need only to do the back up once and it will be automatically duplicated onto the hard disks. If, at any point in time, one of the hard disks fails, you can simply replace the failed hard disk and all the back up data will be duplicated onto the new hard disk automatically. The disadvantage of RAID 1 is, well, the price. You do have to pay a premium for having this facility.

The alternative to RAID 1 is to duplicate the back up data onto each of the hard disks manually. This simply means you need to back up the data more than once (usually twice, since two hard disks is normally sufficient redundancy). I have chosen this as my back up solution, because the hard disk enclosure/dock without RAID 1 is far cheaper. I managed to get one from Taobao at 126 Yuan (S$28) – Orico dual bay hard drive dock (USB 3). Orico is a well known Chinese brand that’s sold on Amazon as well. At this price point you can forgive the slogan ‘Easy your PC’ (a literal translation from Chinese that’s supposed to mean making PC usage convenient) and the past tense of back up being spelt ‘backuped’.

Orico_dock_box

You can plug either 2.5 or 3.5 inch hard disks into the dock. Obviously, a 3.5 inch hard disk is cheaper, so you’ll go for that. I got Toshiba 1TB drives since they are the cheapest available (S$61) and they cost only marginally more than the 500GB one. With only 2 years warranty, these probably will not last much longer than 2 years, if it will last 2 years at all, but redundancy takes care of that anyway. At any point in time, if one of the hard disks fail, you’ll get a replacement and copy all the data into the replacement hard disk, and you’re safe again. And the beauty is, neither brand/model nor the capacity matters. You can just get any harddisk that has at least the same capacity, or more.

Orico_dock

First test run of 10GB back up took 4 minutes to be copied into both hard disks, not bad. To make it easier to copy files to both hard disks simultaneously, i used the utility n2ncopy. My 4 years old laptop didn’t have USB 3, but thankfully it came with an ExpressCard expansion slot. I got hold of a USB 3 ExpressCard from Taobao for 38 Yuan (S$8.50), which is dirt cheap. So, for a grand total of S$166 (inclusive of shipping cost), i managed to put together a 1TB redundancy back up solution with decent data transfer speed.

Taobao – the secret retailers wished you didn’t know

Let me relate how i sourced for Christmas gifts last year. My wife teaches piano, and she does give out Christmas gifts to her students every year. The gifts were typically stationery, sourced from one of those books and stationery fair. Last year, we came across 3D puzzles in a Metro departmental store, and i thought these would be excellent gifts for her students, for Christmas or otherwise. With these 3D puzzles, you construct a 3D structure out of cardboard pieces. They seem fun, for boys and girls alike. The price was a problem, however. At $10 each, they are definitely not within the reasonable price range of gifts for the students.

I reminded myself i had to do a check on Taobao to see for how much these 3D puzzles were sold in China. Afterall, it had a Chinese brand name, so it had to be cheaper on Taobao. Guess what? they were 7 to 13 Yuan (S$1.55 – S$2.85). We ordered them on Taobao without hesitation.

Besides Metro departmental store, i have seen these 3D puzzles being sold at other shops. I suspect many of these shops found their suppliers from Taobao. I always wondered, for how long more can these shops survive, if eventually, i presume, most people will know where to find them cheaper? Well, I think they can survive for some time, because it will still be many years before people are willing to learn about Taobao and other online shopping options. People generally still do freak out at having to complete an online purchase, let alone doing so on a platform in a language they’re not comfortable with. I hope to dispel these fears with some guide on how to buy from Taobao and other online sites.

Singapore is especially suited for online shopping business because of its compactness – goods delivery is cost effective. Also, rising labour and rental costs in Singapore makes retail sale in a brick-and-mortar shop more and more risky. At the same time, international shipping of goods direct to consumers have become a lot easier. All these spell disaster for traders and retailers. Anyway, that’s how a free economy should work. The labour force should be directed to where they are most needed. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, save serious money!

Amazon product recommendation – barista tools and coffee beans

My coffee adventure started with the purchase of a Krups espresso machine, which became the subject of some of my first few blog entries. The purchase of the espresso machine was triggered by the gift of a pack of coffee powder from Ipoh. You must be wondering how a pack of coffee powder from Ipoh (the traditional Kopi type coffee powder) can be used in an espresso machine. You’re right, it couldn’t. I actually did try, and, well, you can imagine the result you get with very coarse ground coffee in an espresso machine. Sadly, not too long after i had the machine, it went back into the box and got stashed away for more than 5 years. I guess my taste buds were not yet ready to appreciate coffee for what it is.

I don’t remember what was the motivation, but out it came from the box and it sat on my kitchen table top again, a year and a half ago. I decided to do it right this time. Now that i have proper filtered water (the absence of which was noticeably affecting the taste of the coffee previously), i was sure i will arrive at a better result. I got serious – i decided to upgrade the tools. Back then (yes just a year and a half ago), the only logical place I thought I could source for the tools was Amazon. Now, well, you know, anything can be found on taobao, for a fraction of Amazon’s price. My recent one day transit in Beijing has revealed to me that China is now a serious coffee consuming nation, so it’s no surprise that taobao has a proliferation of coffee related products.

The tamper definitely had to be upgraded. I’ve read more than once people referring to the plastic tamper that normally comes with an espresso machine as “silly”. Now that i’ve had some experience with tamping the coffee powder, i concur. I got myself a stainless steel tamper, because the ones with a wooden handle cost more than I was willing to cough up. Now that you can buy from taobao, well, nothing is really out of reach. So, contrary to the title of this article, when it comes to buying a tamper, i would suggest looking it up on taobao. The search term is 咖啡压粉器. Quick check on price – CNY 35 to 200.

The next item I thought I should get was a coffee bean grinder. I initially thought i should get an electric grinder. After reading some reviews however, i learned that a blade grinder may not be a good idea, since the stainless steel blades may impart a metallic taste to the ground coffee, and it may be difficult to get the exact grind size you want. Someone recommended that a manual ceramic burr grinder is the best option. I took the advice and got the Hario Mini, from Amazon. This product is sold at departmental stores in Singapore, but Amazon’s was slightly cheaper, even after factoring in the shipping cost. Now, however, contrary to the title of this article again, i doubt Amazon is the best place to get a grinder. You can find the Hario Mini at a lower price on taobao. Search for Hario or the general term 咖啡磨豆机. Price check – CNY 115 to 170 for the Hario. By the way, at this point of time, i am actually waiting for a new grinder to arrive. I must say that manual grinding can be a little tiring, but that’s a compromise i’m willing to make to get fresher coffee. There are electric burr grinders in the market, but the reviews are not so positive, UNLESS you’re willing to spend an equal or higher amount of money on a grinder than you do on an espresso machine, in which case you might get something decent.

The final tool I got was a pitcher for frothing milk. Ok, I must have got the name of my article wrong, because taobao is again the place to get the pitcher now. The term to search for in taobao is 咖啡拉花杯. Quick check on price – CNY 13 to 150.

baristatools
A group photo for my tools. The weight of the tamper helps. I would imagine that a wooden handle will give a more comfortable grip.

With the tools in place, there is one final item needed to make coffee – the beans! This is one item that doesn’t make sense to get from taobao, because China has to import the beans as well. Amazon is a good place to buy the beans, but there are some things to note. Firstly, coffee is not eligible for the free AmazonGlobal Saver shipping. You will have to ship via a forwarding service. Also, the coffee sold on Amazon may be more expensive than if you bought directly from the seller’s own website, so you will have to do proper homework before you buy. I must have sampled no less than ten different varieties of coffee from Amazon. I think I could recommend this one – Dark Guatemalan, good taste and good value. Coffee beans sold in Singapore are generally quite expensive (and they tend to be already ground), so I think it’s worthwhile getting them from the US, from Amazon or other websites.

The best credit cards for overseas travel spending

Note: this post is specific to Singapore. Feel free to browse my other articles if you’re a visitor from the other corners of the world 🙂 

For all my past trips, I have been using the Manhattan credit card for overseas spending, the reason being it rewarded 5% cashback. Subsequently, it was cut to 3%, and I continued using it for overseas spending since I was lazy to find out if there was a better alternative.

Things have changed with the introduction of the ANZ optimum card. It rewards 5% cashback on dining and hotel spending. Before I continue, let me state the disclaimer again that, other than being a regular customer, I am in no way affiliated with any bank mentioned in this article.

Alright, let’s first discuss the transaction fees involved in cross-border transactions. As of now (July 2015), the published cross-border transaction fee for the ANZ optimum card is 2.5%, comprising of 1.5% that ANZ charges and 1% that MasterCard charges. For the SCB Manhattan card, it is 2.5% plus a variable rate of 0.2% to 1% that SCB claims MasterCard charges. It looks like ANZ fixes the MasterCard fee at 1% even though in actual fact it could be a variable rate that is possibly lower than 1%. Nevertheless, the fee charged by ANZ is obviously still the lower of the two. If you consider the cash rebate, the 3% you get from Manhattan is not even enough to cover the transaction fee which is 2.7-3.5%. On the other hand, the 5% you get from ANZ covers the 2.5% fee, and leaves you with another 2.5% to offset the currency exchange premium. Clearly the ANZ optimum card is far better.

Before embarking on my trip, i called up ANZ to find out if paying for hotel stays qualify for the 5% cash rebate. The answer was affirmative. With that, i was set on using the ANZ optimum card for the trip. Afterall, the major expenses incurred while travelling are on hotel stays and meals.

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Towards the end of my trip, a statement cycle had lapsed and i received the bill from ANZ. I earned $258 in cashback, not bad! The Manhattan card has a cap of $200 in cashback per quarter, whereas there is no cap for the ANZ card.

The other major category of spending on an overseas trip is of course shopping. The card I chose to use for shopping was the M1 Citibank card. This card offers a 5% cash rebate if you chalk up over S$3000 of retail purchase in foreign currency within one statement cycle, capped at S$200 (i.e. up to S$4000 spending). That is easy to achieve when you visit Japan (cosmetics), USA (outlet branded goods) or Europe (branded goods). Otherwise, if your spending is under S$3000, you only get a 1% rebate. The rebate comes in the form of Citi Rebate, which you can only redeem by spending at participating merchant stores. Well, the merchants do include supermarkets such as Cold Storage, Giant and Sheng Siong, so it’s as good as cash. By the way, you don’t have to be an M1 customer to apply for the M1 Citibank card.

Update 19/11/15: There is another card that bests the M1 Citibank card – UOB Visa Signature card. You earn 5% rebate with just a minimum of S$1000 worth of foreign currency spend, INCLUDING online spending in foreign currency! The cashback is capped at $100 per month, which allows one to spend up to the equivalent of S$2000 in foreign currency per month. In fact, you have to accumulate S$2000 worth of spending in order to do a cash credit redemption (UNI$4000). It is easy to spend S$2000 when overseas. Just charge the shopping, admission tickets and rental car etc. to the card. If these don’t make up S$2000, then charge your hotel bills and meals too. Here’s a tip: if you use Agoda for hotel booking, then you should definitely use the UOB Visa Signature for payment to get 5% rebate (be careful to choose USD or better still, the original foreign currency of the country of destination for the payment when you do the booking!). Online payments for hotel doesn’t count towards getting 5% cashback from the ANZ Optimum card.

Update 15 Apr 15: UOB Visa Signature test drive result.

Update 12 Apr 17

CIMB credit cards look pretty good for overseas food and hotel expenses, you get 10% rebate for up to S$600 worth of spending plus zero admin fees! I would use CIMB for the initial $600 worth of food and hotel expenses respectively, then switch to ANZ Optimum or UOB Visa Signature.

Update 16 Nov 18

Well, ANZ has ceased to exist, and both the Citi M1 and UOB Visa Signature cards no longer offer 5% cash rebate. If you pump petrol at SPC then you still get the equivalent of 3.33% rebate from UOB Visa Signature. CIMB Visa Signature credit cards remain the same. Standard Chartered Manhattan offers 3% rebate for above $3000 spending in local or foreign currency. Perhaps the YouTrip card is the better deal now.

USA West Coast

Probably all tours to the west coast of the USA will include San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Grand Canyon in the itinerary. The typical must-sees are found in these places and they are within reasonable reach of each other by car. My trip starts with San Francisco.

wpid-wp-1433600551307.jpgThe Golden Gate Bridge is the main attraction.

wpid-wp-1433600544943.jpgLocated along the way to the Golden Gate Bridge is the Palace of Fine Arts.

wpid-wp-1433600538007.jpgPier 39 is good for watching sea lions.

Most people should know about outlet shopping in the US. Gilroy is an outlet along the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It has one of the very few Abercrombie and Fitch outlet stores. There are plenty of outlets in the west coast. In Los Angeles, Citadel Outlets is the one to visit.

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A queue forms outside the Kate Spade shop.

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Coach offers 50% discount. The same discount was also offered at their Las Vegas outlet store. Could be a permanent marketing strategy and it works.

wpid-wp-1433600517162.jpgThe Grove is a shopping mall in Los Angeles with a nice ambiance, worth a visit if you have the time.

wpid-wp-1433598252017.jpgHollywood is famous for its walk of fame. Visit at night to see the glitzy lighting.

wpid-wp-1433598079078.jpgDisneyland is one of the few theme parks in Los Angeles worth visiting even if you are not traveling with kids. The night time parade, fireworks and lights show is bound to leave you wowed.

wpid-wp-1433598135031.jpgA jubilant mood on the main street after the show.

wpid-wp-1433600491196.jpgNow that Disney owns the Star Wars franchise, they have added a Star Wars attraction – the Jedi Training Academy. Kids love it.

wpid-wp-1433566679419.jpgLas Vegas is the next logical stop after LA. Las Vegas is famous for gambling (of course), shows and food (specifically buffets). The fountain in front of Bellagio is not to be missed.

wpid-wp-1433597050124.jpgBased on reviews I went to the Bacchanal buffet at Caesars Palace. It was the best buffet I have been to (granted I don’t normally go to expensive buffets). At USD57 per pax it was very good value. Service was impeccable. The food was almost made to order. The Alaskan King Crab legs are a favourite item among diners. I was most impressed that the Chinese section tasted authentic Hong Kong style (I’m sure they hired a Hong Kong chef).

wpid-wp-1433598059265.jpgDo get there early (6pm) if you intend to dine at Bacchanal. Once the tables are fully occupied, you will have to queue. As you can imagine, people take their time to enjoy a buffet, so it will be a long wait.

wpid-wp-1433600509680.jpgAfter the filling dinner it helps to do a bit of strolling along the strip. You might want to check out the original Venetian Canal Shoppes.

wpid-wp-1433600459302.jpgLas Vegas offers a chance to catch up on outlet shopping if you have not been fully satiated on previous attempts. Pictured above is the Las Vegas Premium Outlets North.

wpid-wp-1433566668096.jpgOn the way to the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam is a popular stop. Not very interesting in my opinion.

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Degadillo’s Snow Cap is a much more interesting stop, and the food is actually not bad. They close at 6pm, so it would be a nice tea break or early dinner stop.

wpid-wp-1433600482923.jpgThe Grand Canyon. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking. I took on the recommendation to hike some way down the canyon and it truly offers a nicer perspective on the canyons.

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wpid-wp-1433566633646.jpgIf you’re fortunate you might see an Elk.