Best way to book a ticket to Southeast Asia
October 12, 2013 10:10 AM   Subscribe

A number of questions about planning a longish trip in Southeast Asia

My wife and I are planning on traveling in Southeast Asia for ten to twelve weeks starting in January — something like a modified version of this itinerary.

We've read posts on various forums saying that the way to book tickets for a big Southeast Asia trip is through a travel agent — that this is one of the contexts where they actually are helpful for planning itineraries and good for finding cheaper tickets. However, we didn't have much luck with the one travel agent we called — basically, when we asked for planning help, the response we got was "I dunno, but mail me what you want and we'll sell you a ticket."

So, question 1: Have you done this kind of trip? How did you book your ticket? Did you / could you get a travel agent to help you?

Question 2: We have a fair bit of flexibility with regard to the amount of time we can stay gone. As such, we'd love to find tickets that we could rebook inexpensively. We've heard that Korea Air lets you rebook tickets pretty much at will for free; is this true, or total insanity?

Question 3: Is it [possible / not astronomically expensive] to book a one-way ticket there in advance, and then, when we're ready to leave, book a relatively short-notice (say, only one or two weeks in advance) ticket back?

posted by You Can't Tip a Buick to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are you flying from America?

I've done this trip before, you'll have a great time almost no matter what you do. I've never had luck with regular, full-service travel agents in America, I think that at this point they are just there for older people and/or first-time travelers who aren't comfortable booking online. That being said, I have found that when booking trips within Asia or SE Asia, local travel agents can be helpful, quick and very inexpensive.

I've also found that some niche agencies in the US that specialize in a particular area have been able to get me good deals, though this has been much more variable. E.g., I got a great fare to Guatemala with just a $100 fee to change my return date so my trip was effectively open-ended if less than a year. This was an agency that catered mostly to Latinos living in America who frequently travel back and forth to Central America. You might be able to find an analogous agency for your trip.

I'd try to shop-around for a flight into Bangkok (Manilla is also a cheap hub) and see if you can get a flexible return date or reasonable fee to change dates. I've been able to find somewhat reasonable one-way fares from Hong Kong to America, but never been able to find a good price for a one-way flight from America to Asia.
posted by skewed at 10:31 AM on October 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: D'oh — yes, we're flying out of the US (from Seattle).
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:37 AM on October 12, 2013

No travel agents. Besides, you don't want to lock yourself into an itinerary at this point. Also, if you need to change a flight, you might have to do it through the original travel agent back in the US (happened to me this year) which just adds another layer of time-zone complication when you are traveling.

Really, all you need to do now is book your flight to BKK and back. Once you are in SEAsia, you can book cheap flights online with Air Asia between countries or travel overland whenever you feel like going.

Start with to get an idea of prices for your overseas flight. From the East coast, the best fares to BKK now are with Qatar, Korean, and Cathay Pacific, so you should check out the latter two.

Some airlines have the best deals on their website, ie Singapore (which doesn't charge for ticket changes, not even for the cheapest fares) (even though their website says they do, for $20) (and I change my return ticket a lot). I haven't looked into this lately but IIRC, fares are based on "return within 15 days", then there was "return within 30 days", valid for 6 months, and valid for 1 year. It's probably explained in the Terms of Service or whatever the fine print is called.

Buying a one-way ticket out of the US--besides being virtually the same price as round-trip--probably sends up all kinds of flags nowadays.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 12:10 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

You'll spend a bit more with one way tickets, but probably not that much. Play with to see the differences.

Once you hit the ground, just buy your tickets on spec. Pretty much everyone goes to a ticket shop a day or 2 in advance and buys a bus ticket or train ticket to travel around. You'll be more flexible and can pick up recommendations from other people travelling around about where to go. You can use planes, but bus/train/boat is much smarter.

I've been part of that route. The traditional thing to do was to take a slow boat down the Mekong in Laos (reached by bus from Chiang Mai or wherever), stopping at Luang Prabang. It was a nice way to travel. In Laos, everyone got around in modified trucks with a bench on either side or on cramped little buses. The roads were terrible but it added to the adventure.

I've heard Vietnam is more restricted in how you can travel. They like you to stick to their plan.

When I went there, I preferred Laos to Thailand. You might not know what you like until you get there, so being flexible about where to go and how long to stay is important. The whole of that region is so well set up for travellers that it's very easy to make a spur-of-the-moment decision and just go.

Last time I went there, I landed in Bangkok in the morning, went straight to a ticket shop from the Airport and booked a ticket to Nepal for that evening. Not much extra expense. In the end the plane was delayed 2 days, but they put me up in a hotel and I got a couple of free nights in Bangkok anyway.
posted by nevan at 2:23 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice above. My thoughts:

1. Figure out your start point and your end point: SEA->___ and ___->SEA. Figure out the dates for those. You need some anchor points or you'll be in analysis paralysis. (Don't necessarily book them yet.)

2. Figure out what are the key must visits and must visit by dates. AAA Festival in BBBland? Plan it - set that as an anchor. Just want to wander around in CCC city? Maybe don't plan it. Limit the number of anchors.

3. Utilize (much more powerful and robust than kayak in my mind) to try booking various combinations of these anchors. It might be that adding one of the mid anchors costs only a little bit more than the start/end anchors.

4. Look at the airports for all the cities you're interested in going to. Go to their websites. Find out who flies in/out. Use that to stitch together the remaining points

Best of luck!
posted by Mushroom12345 at 3:34 PM on October 12, 2013

Although TWinbrook8 makes good points about travel agents, you might have better luck with another, specifically one who serves the Vietnamese/Thai communities in Seattle.

And yes, I've had free&easy rebooking with Korean, but that was a long time ago. It's generally easier with international tickets, but depends on the ticket type, and a skilled agent makes sure you get the kind you want.
posted by Rash at 10:55 PM on October 12, 2013

I've done a very similar trip to this, however with rather more time. Booked flights in and out of Bangkok and arranged it as we went and the mood took us. We were able to get a ridiculously cheap one way ticket from Hanoi to Bangkok for the return. However, you should ensure that you aren't depending on this, if worst came to worst.

In seven weeks, our trip took us approximately from Bangkok->Ayuthaya (local train);->Chaing Mai (overnight train)->Chaing Rai (bus) (jungle trek near Burmese border)->Huay Xai(bus, ferry)->Luang Prabang (2 day long boat)->Vientiane (bus) ->jungle trek -> Paske->Champasak->Wat Pho (bus, boat)->Paksong (coffee region in Laos)->Hue->Hoi An ->Da Nang->Hanoi (train)->Bangkok (air).

I spent nearly five months in Vietnam the following year based in Hanoi where I spent time in Cambodia, including Siem Reap and Battambang. Further time in southern Vietnam, and Da Lat and Nha Trang in central Vietnam and of course Sapa, Ha Long Bay and local hill towns and bays only visited by local Vietnamese tourists (I had a motorbike).

It is great region, and constantly changing. It was great not having any firm plans, and taking advantage of information and opportunities as they came along. Vang Vieng didn't sound worthwhile for us, spending more time in the Chaing Rai region and only passing through Chaing Mai was a good call.

This was March / April, beware that January in northern Vietnam (Hanoi and Sapa) will be surprisingly cold.

We didn't spend any time in Bangkok on this trip, despite it being our international transit hub. The itinerary does include some great highlights, and is very doable on the fly as you go along. Make sure that you spend as much time as you need in one place without feeling that you need to constantly move for the next 'sight'. The border visa into Laos is easy to get, but lasted for 30 days I think, and we needed a slight extension and the police were on holiday. No problem, but it took a little bit of extra time.

Have fun!
posted by Flashduck at 12:40 AM on October 13, 2013

Lots of good suggestions in this thread about booking it yourself, but, yeah I did want to say that if you're going the travel agent route, to try to find one specializing in Asia/Southeast Asia, especially if it's geared toward that immigrant community in the US.

I've never used a "mainstream" travel agent in America but have definitely used travel agents that are focused on the Chinese-American community and have gotten good results on wacky open-jaw routes in Asia.
posted by andrewesque at 6:25 AM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

My experience has been that if you are finding bargain tickets on the internet, one-way is not much more than round trip.
... but leaving the US on a one-way ticket is very difficult. The airline people (not Homeland Security oddly enough) are trained to interrogate you about it, and it isn't impossible that they would not let you board. I was leaving the US with my wife and kids who are Malaysian nationals, but because I didn't have a spouse/employment visa, I had an extremely difficult and stressful time getting on the plane. Wouldn't recommend it.

As others have said, if you just book your roundtrip to and from your first stop, you can shuttle around within SEAsia cheaply and easily on local carriers without visa worries. AirAsia is one, MalindoAir is another cheap new one.
posted by BinGregory at 6:48 PM on October 13, 2013

« Older The first instance of a journal written by more...   |   How do I learn to hear sonatas and symphonies as... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.