Taobao product recommendation – Self inflating sleeping mats

In preparation for my one month Europe trip, i got these sleeping mats. I would attempt to book twin or double hotel rooms without adding on extra bed for my kids, who are at age 4 and 5 respectively. As you can imagine, doing so saves me a lot of money and pays for the sleeping mats after just 2 hotel bookings. Continue reading Taobao product recommendation – Self inflating sleeping mats

Save serious money on hotel bookings

I have just received S$166.16 in cashback for the hotel bookings of my recent trip, no kidding! Here’s how i did it.

Earn cashback through ShopbackSimple as that. Hotel booking websites take an average of 15% in commission from the hotel/accommodation provider for every booking done through their websites. Yes, that’s an awful lot of money! They’re willing to give you back 6% of that commission, so you better grab it! You can get this cashback if you do your hotel bookings through cashback websites, like Shopback.

Continue reading Save serious money on hotel bookings

Surabaya trip highlights

The most “shiok” (enjoyable) part of the trip was being able to leave my kids to the care of my parents every night while me and my wife head over to the hotel pub or lounge for a drink. The pub experience at The Maj in Hotel Majapahit was one of the best. Unfortunately there was no live music on the night we were there (Sunday), but still, the atmosphere was great, and the price was a steal. A pitcher of Bintang draught beer was IDR 150k (S$15.80), while a plate of Nachos was only IDR 50k (S$5.30).

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There isn’t quite enough to see or do in Surabaya, other than shopping and eating, so I had to make the hotel stay an activity in itself. Hotel Majapahit and Hotel Tugu Malang both turned out go be great. Continue reading Surabaya trip highlights

Surabaya 5 days itinerary

What’s there to see in Surabaya you might ask? Not much actually (no offence intended). I took advantage of a promotion by Singapore Airlines and chose to fly to the nearest destination. At S$180 per adult, it’s a steal. The total came up to S$695 for 2 adults and 2 children. Comparatively, the tickets i bought for my old folks to fly to Surabaya from KL on AirAsia cost more than S$200 per person.

Since i’m travelling with my parents and with young kids, the trip has to be at a very relaxing pace, so it will consist of light sightseeing, food and shopping. Otherwise, the very exciting thing to do if one were to fly to Surabaya is to visit Mount Bromo (3 hours drive away) and Ijen Crater (6.5 hours away). Part of that journey has to be made on a bumpy Jeep ride, and one has to wake up in the wee hours to catch the sunrise, crowding with probably hundreds of other travellers who would do the same. Anyway, just to give you an idea of what Mount Bromo is like:

Mount Bromo

The other possible sightseeing location near Surabaya, which i have chosen to go to, is Batu, about 3 hours away. There are various attractions here, including waterfalls, theme parks and orchards. So here’s my 5 days itinerary:

Day 1
Arrival. Check in to Hotel Majapahit. Hotel Majapahit was founded by the Sarkies Brothers, who also founded Raffles Hotel. The room rates of the Majapahit is about S$140 and up, whereas for Raffles it is S$1040 and up, which is more than seven fold higher. You’d be doing yourself injustice if you don’t capitalize on this opportunity to enjoy some luxury at a bargain price. Staying at the Majapahit is an attraction in itself. The hotel offers a free shuttle service to the Grand City Mall, a good place to get lunch. After getting some rest at the hotel, we will walk to Tunjungan Plaza, the largest mall in Surabaya, for dinner and shopping.

Day 2
Since my mum is an Orchid enthusiast, we will visit the Pasar Anggerik (Orchid Market) of Surabaya. We will be using a hired car with a driver to get around. Previously when i visited Bandung and Bali, i was able to get a hired car without paying a deposit in advance. However, for Surabaya, i only managed to get a response from two car rental companies, and both require a 50% deposit payment. Anyway, both of them seem large-scale enough for me to trust them enough to make the deposit payment, and i went for the cheaper of the two. I will give a review of the car rental (and reveal the name of the company) after the trip.

Update: the car rental worked very well, the driver was very courteous. Thank you Globe rent a car.

Lunch would be at Layar Seafood Bukit Mas, one of the better known seafood eateries in Surabaya. After lunch, we would make our way to Malang, where we will be staying at Hotel Tugu. There is actually a complimentary afternoon tea offered to guests of the hotel, and somehow i’m quite looking forward to that. Dinner is WellDuck Bebek Goreng & Bakar, which obviously specializes in duck.

Day 3

We’ll start the day by visiting an Orchid Orchard along the way to Batu, after which we will check out Coban Rondo, a nice looking waterfall. After having lunch at Warung Wareg, i will bring the kids to Batu Secret Zoo. By the end of a 3 hours journey back to Surabaya, we will probably be ready for dinner, which i have decided on Dewa Ndaru, a restaurant housed in what looks like a former Chinese temple.

Day 4
Spend half a day in Galaxy Mall, one of the bigger malls in Surabaya. Dinner would be at Kya-Kya Kembang Jepun, the Chinatown of Surabaya, with street food sold from stalls.

Day 5
Check out Pasar Atom, a wholesale market. Have buffet lunch at Arumanis, a restaurant of Hotel Bumi. Fly home.

Looking forward to a relaxing holiday, and i think my parents will be pleased.

Perfect weekend getaway in Johor

Pontian is about 1.5 hours from Singapore if there is no jam during border crossing. I initially wanted to go via Woodlands, but on learning there is heavy traffic at the causeway (through the LTA signboard), I immediately changed my route and headed towards the second link. I got my wife to verify via the webcams that the traffic was bad and indeed it was so. On the other hand, there was hardly any traffic at Tuas. Tuas is nearer to Pontian anyway.

I set my GPS to bring me to Kheng Guan Hiong, the Kopitiam that is a favourite among locals in Pontian. Unfortunately, the GPS coordinates didn’t seem accurate, so by the time I found my way there (with just a little bit of guessing) they were just closed (4pm). We went to another coffee shop (a modern looking one run by youngsters) and sad to say, we couldn’t tell the difference between the Kopi and Teh that was served. They were way too milky. The Kaya butter toast was cold and soggy. I think there’s no point for me to mention the name of this place. Continue reading Perfect weekend getaway in Johor

Shopback review

Now that I’ve received the first payout from Shopback, I guess I’m qualified to say something about them. The $25 payout consisted of $15 from an Agoda booking and $10 from the bonus given for signing up through Citibank and for updating the personal particulars.

Shopback Payout

The best part of Shopback so far is in getting $15 Cashback for making an Agoda booking. $15 is awarded for any booking that is above $50. If you do the sums, that represents a whopping 30% discount on a $50 hotel booking! With the cashback, it becomes more worthwhile booking a $50 hotel than a $40 one.

agoda

Shopback relies on cookies for tracking purchases made on merchant sites. It has worked every time (for Agoda, Groupon, Redmart purchases) I used Shopback except my latest Agoda bookings. I’m pretty sure I completed the booking within the same window I was redirected to from Shopback, but the cashback wasn’t registered. Thankfully, Shopback actually provides a feedback form for missing cashback. The cashback entry (with incorrect amount at this point of time) appeared in my account within 2 days of submitting my missing cashback request. It’s pretty amazing that Shopback provides this missing cashback form, since I can imagine that it will result a lot of workload, especially when it can be easily abused.

With the $15 cashback offer, the Shopback and Agoda combo is unbeatable. What’s more, Agoda has a tie-up with booking.com and offers some of the hotels on booking.com as well (at the same price) that would have been otherwise not found in Agoda itself. If you factor in the cashback, it is obviously better to book through Agoda than booking.com.

The only downside of Shopback, and most cashback sites, is the long waiting time to receive the actual cash. For Shopback it is typically 60 days after the completion of the transaction (for hotel or flight bookings this means completion of the trip), plus up to a week to process your redemption request.

All in all, i found that Shopback is quite intuitive to use, and it works. Extra cash is always welcome, right?

Update 14/11/2015: Shopback now offers only $10 cashback for Agoda. I noticed that some of the sites i frequently shop on have been added to Shopback’s merchant list, including booking.com ($10 cashback for $50 and above bookings, i,e. matching Agoda’s offer) and ebay (1% cashback). Shopback is making a lot of progress!

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.