Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Travelling to Macau

The island of Macau is a tourist paradise for the insane. Its highlight is a multitude of casinos. You will need to get a visa unless you are a Chinese or HK citizen. Why would you bother?

Competition heating up in the Asia regional travel market

We are seeing government monopoly airlines coming to terms with the potential of low cost airlines. What we must understand about low-cost airlines is that they offer:
1. Access to regional destinations – you no longer have to go to a sprawling city
2. They offer same price flights no matter which way you fly
3. They always seem to have seats available, so you can book on the go
These favourable criteria seem set to remain as competition heats up in the Asian market. Jetstar is planning to offer budget Asian links to the Gold Coast in competition with AirAsia X. "We won't rule out Boeing 787s planes being flown into the Gold Coast," said Jetstar spokesman Simon Westaway, referring to the aircraft the Qantas subsidiary is set to take delivery of from August 2008. "We think there are more Australian destinations that can support Jetstar International long-haul," Mr Westaway said. His comments have fuelled expectations the boom Australia's secondary airports have enjoyed from budget domestic travel over the past three years will soon translate into long-haul international traffic. AirAsia X also wants to provide customers with low-cost access to Australian regional airports since these carry lower fees. The more lucrative regional airports are the Hastings Fund Management-run Gold Coast Airport (close to Brisbane), Newcastle Airport (near Sydney) and the Lindsay Fox-owned Avalon airport (outside Melbourne). Newcastle Airport is being upgraded to handle the larger long-haul airliners. The Gold Coast Airport has spent $25 million upgrading its runway, and is spending another $100 million on its terminal. Improved international access to the Gold Coast makes particular sense given that 45% of Brisbane Airport users ended up on the Gold Coast.
The deregulation of Australian airports should prove a boon to regional travel – which should see a lot of cheaper holiday accommodation being offered to tourists. This true for the Asian-end of the equation. Consider the prospects for cheap holidays in places like Clark and Subic in the Philippines.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Travel advice - wisdom is better than travel insurance

Having just posted an article on reasons why travel insurance is a waste of your money, I would like to offer some advice on travel precautions. I have a lot of travel experience and a good understanding of scams, psychology, etc. Most of the countries I have been to are poor, and I have stayed in expensive company-paid hotels and cheap backpackers where have picked up the odd case of fungus. On this basis I suggest the following:
1. Lock your baggage. I know it sounds stupid, but I was so innocent at 19yo on my first business trip. Who sends employees to Colombia for a first business trip. The only advice I got was ‘Be careful to get an official taxi’, and I agree
2. Don’t take solicited offers for ANY service. They are the ambitious ones. If they are not screwing you on price, they will find another way. Eg. Taxi drivers that approach you in the airport, guys in the street, girls in the bars, money changers in the streets
3. Change your money in the poorest country you go to, and find out if forex changers are cheaper at the airport or in the tourist district. Go to shops, not street vendors, they will try to trick you. They offer the cheapest rates because they are cheats and are not licensed. Banks are usually not competitive.
4. Research and plan your trip before you go overseas. Go to forums and ask advice.
5. Take any advice from strangers with a high degree of caution
6. Don’t take your eyes off your possessions. Place items where they will not be forgotten, eg. On your lap, not under your feet, unless your feet are resting on them. If you need to sleep in an airport lounge, fix your luggage so you are sleeping on it, your arms are resting on it.
7. Select your luggage for its security features – plus capacity and extra wheels. I have used my case for 15 years on over 50 trips. It will be sorely missed. Its flexible plastic, 3x2 sets of wheels, combination and key locks. Don’t get a case too big – travel with discipline and less weight.
8. Check the security of your hotel room. Can someone climb in the back window, are the locks solid enough.
9. Dress for the conditions - If you are staying in sleazy accommodation, dress sleazy, or otherwise disguise your valuables. Lock all valuables in a key or combination lock-based case. I have always used cases for the security they provide. They are no slash-points on my case.
10. Something that looks like a great deal requires added precaution. Be particularly wary of fellow citizens who are living overseas. They are not a kindred spirit, they are often bigger crooks than the locals, whether they are selling you land, or otherwise. Be wary.
11. Don’t be lured by some local into a dark alley, up a stair case, or the like, even if the person concerned is an ‘intellectual’ looking person in a suit. More often than not they will be unsophisticated kids trying to sell you on a bar in some dark alley. They are more likely going to demand your wallet at knife point
12. Be wary getting into taxis – particularly when they have an associate, when you are traveling back late at night, when you have drunken a lot. Be wary anyway.
13. Have a sense of your location and directions, so a taxi driver (maybe with a fake ID) cant readily take you to some unknown place. We wary of hand signals or telephone calls. I was out clubbing in Manila when I saw a taxi driver signal to another guy to follow.
14. Don’t go places alone at night unless there are a lot of people around
15. Be wary of people offering you drinks, or slipping something into your drink, particularly the girl you are with. I always carried my drink, and if I put I down whilst playing pool, I would place it away from people
16. Don’t be a pleaser – don’t blindly follow others. Being unpredictable might save your life. And even if you come across a difficult time, they will likely panic. So scream, get aggressive, etc.
17. Be wary – stay in the corner of rooms, stay in spaces, move around, observe people.
18. Know what weird people look like and stay away from them – without looking too weird.
19. Remain in control – don’t drink yourself senselessly in a foreign country. You might find you end up going home with a guy (transsexual) or get yourself into worse trouble. I give this warning even if you are traveling with friends because they might be equally as senseless. Stay with your friends.
20. If you decide to meet a girl, you take a huge risk of disease, and not all diseases carry the same threat. They spread so easily. But if you decide to sleep with prostitutes or anyone so accommodating, DON’T go to their place, or any place they recommend. If you go to your place, hide or lock up your valuables, don’t drink anything where they can slip you a drug.

21. Understand people - This comes with experience, but some tips. Dont accept superficial perceptions. Just because some taxi driver has an official looking licence doesnt mean its real. Just because they create an elaborate story to support themselves doesnt make it real. If someone invites you into their home, dont go unless there is a trail of evidence, even then dont go unless they know it, or you know them well enough. Avoid Christians and slf-proclaimed nobles, they are the worst sinners. Avoid humble souls that put readily concede their weaknesses, they externalise responsibility for their actions, and run if they display any sign of ambition. Until you answer those questions, dont trust them, and even then, there is reason enough for caution. You will find alot of people from poor countries want to connect with you. Unless they are as educated as you, dont engage with them on their terms. Just for the sake of avoiding boredom, do it in a public space, so you can readily get away. Some of them will want to sell you something, maybe they want you to meet their ugly daughter, sometimes its their sister (because they want to sponge off you), sometimes they want you to help them get a visa to your country, and they have exhausted honest means. Sometimes they will want you to find them a job, or a free English lesson. Some will just want you to try their Indian curry. BORING!! Just eat out and avoid the politics, and also the disgust of using their public toilet. I went to a English teachers school with a bunch of this students. They were soooo hot, I could not refuse. But I'm glad I didnt need to crap, the toilet was a concrete floor in the kitchen with just a plastic sheet. What the hell is that? They prepare food there? Fotunately I had eaten. Instead I got food poisoning from a students family restaurant. I think being sick is one of the most dangerous things because you are vulnerable to theft, so you might be sick with no money....thats a bad combination. My advice is get to international hospital care as soon as possible, which requires knowing where it is.

Having said all that and acted with caution, I think its often more dangerous in your own country. Why? Well your defences are down. Westerners have an attitude that causes fights. There are fewer criminals, but they are smarter. Mind you, if you look like a tourist, you may as well be wearing a sign saying ‘stupid and loaded’.

Why you dont need travel insurance

I was reading this Sydney Morning Herald article (see Source: The Sun-Herald ) on travel insurance. Surprisingly to me it was favorable towards buying insurance. I can find few instances that would warrant travel insurance. I think its mainly used by business as a perk for the sake of their employees. Frankly as an employee I would prefer the cash. But then maybe companies get better terms? As an employee traveling to Colombia & Venezuela, I was 'green' (innocent) enough to not lock my luggage. I claimed for the theft of a new pair of shoes and a CD player. I bought these for $200 from Broadway, USA en-transit, but since Sony gave me a replacement quote of $350, I actually made a profit. Even still I dont think you should get travel insurance.

Here is why I think you shouldn’t buy travel insurance:
1. You can manage risk – so why buy insurance to protect you – it cant protect you from fatal injury by a thief or murderer who like to prey on tourists
2. Most countries are likely to be cheaper than your own for medical attention
3. Most conditions you are likely to have will not be covered, will be minor, or can be treated after you return.
4. Most countries have modern medical centres or hospitals with quality service, so you might be better off finding out where they are
5. If you don’t know much about the country you are going to, then you don’t know enough to buy travel insurance
6. Insurance companies don’t offer comprehensive cover. They have long contracts which specify all the limitations on your policy. Little surprise that a Insurance Ombudsman in Australia has remarked on the number of travel insurance-related complaints. If you want travel insurance, read the fine print. There is a definite gap between people's expectations and reality. Insurance companies are not clear on what is covered and what is not covered.
7. Insurance companies don’t make all the ‘fine print’ readily available. Behind every insurance policy is a ‘product disclosure statement’ setting out everything you need to know about the product. Since the statement are as long as 85 pages long, should it surprise anyone that they are not read.
8. Services overseas might actually be better overseas than at home. You might question whether you need health insurance (see my article since its cheaper to get treated overseas.
9. Insurance companies are charging you to make a premium – you will go on many trips – just consider it a risk spread over many trips, where your risk will fall with your travel experience
10. Insurance companies don’t like surprises – so they tell you what they will insure, not what they will insure. So if your claim is bazaar it will be rejected.
11. Insurance companies actually exclude all the high risk activities where you would actually want protection. Worse news still is that adventure tour groups (say rafting companies) will get you to sign a disclaimer too, so you will not be covered for anything really risky!!!
12. You are not likely to read your policy statement to see if you are covered. Instead you will act on the spur of the moment….whether you are insured or not. So why bother?
13. Insurance is claimed by the bag people. Most people are too clever to get it, only idiots and cheats get it, so you are subsidizing them, when they should be castrated.
14. Policies vary, but some exclude claims for loss or damage suffered because your airline goes broke and stops flying and you can no longer travel, or you travel to certain countries or against the advice of the Australian Government. Again, another case of excluding the real risks you face. So since the Philippines is a terrorist state, I guess having my wallet stolen at the airport is not covered? See for countries where you cant fly. I wonder getting a new passport would be covered if it was stolen? Will they cover you if a country becomes a terrorist state after you buy.

Some exclusions are reasonable, eg. Non coverage if your travel plans change, or you failed to check if you need a visa (even though your travel agent is obliged to tell you). They don’t cover cash stolen.
Some insurance companies don’t insure you if you don’t report the crime to police.
You need proof of ownership of the goods. Do you have receipts for your valuables?
Many travel insurance schemes do not have an ‘excess’ but that should be a red flag
When to use insurance?
So when would a travel insurance policy make sense? Well it might make sense if you are carrying some weighty contingent liability like a bond over your hire car. Eg. What if I was hiring a $70,000 campervan? Well the campervan company has insurance, but maybe the travel insurance company offers less restrictive terms? Then that could be justification for insurance.
You would think that you might want it if you are carrying digital cameras or computers, but then I think the risks are not so great, and security is so much better these days with video surveillance. Anyway, what is the value – the $500-1000 Dell computer or all the data on it? You were probably due for an update anyway, and you still have to go out and buy another. But guess what? Computers are excluded from an item you can claim? Why? Its too easy to loose them and claim on them?
Disputing a claim
The only positive aspect of insurance is having a internal dispute resolution process – that is an Insurance Ombudsman ( for Australia) to independently assess your complaint. But even then I have found that the insurance company will win if they are not in breach of the law, though many people would argue that a 85-page contract is an excessive imposition. There were 2255 travel insurance complaints in 2006-7, with half in the travelers favor. That is a very high rate. That suggests to me that insurance companies are trying to breakdown the unknowing or tired (me at 20yo) traveller by rejecting even reasonable claims. Why? It helps to increase profits.
Want the insurance companies perspective – read
Examples of rejected claims
Its interesting to look at claims that are commonly rejected:
1. People over 60yo with a pre-existing medical condition, usually related to heart disease
2. Travellers with an alleged pre-existing medical condition which flared up after years of no problem. Eg. You had a heart condition cleared by your doctor, so you are judged fit to travel, but when the doctor is proved wrong, your claim is rejected because there was deemed to be a pre-existing medical condition. These problems arise because the insurance companies are using travel agents to sell insurance and they are not telling 75-year-old travelers the conditions pertinent to them.
3. If something is stolen, you need to demonstrate that the item was not left "unattended", whether it was a camera left on a seat or a wallet left in a hire car. The insurance company defines what "unattended" actually means - but commonsense and insurance company standards will prevail. Leaving luggage right behind you in a hotel lobby while you check in could be considered as unattended.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Top 10 featured cities (places) in the world

Now more than ever we have unprecedented opportunity to travel and work in foreign countries, particularly if you are skilled in cooking, finance, computing, hospitality, teaching (English), nursing and the trades, as these tend to be the areas in which a global shortages or opportunities exist. Most of the cities I have been to are in Asia. I have not been to the EU or Africa, and just Colombia and Venezuela in South America, so I am no expert, but I thought it useful to capture the knowledge I have and to develop a list of features that I think define an attractive place to live. Having started this process, its not so easy because there are a variety of issues to consider. But let me start simply with the factors I have identified, and I will discuss the complexities later.
The features that I think are important are:

  1. Purchasing power: How much of your income do you spend engaging in normal life activities? If you are spending a lot of your income to live in a box, that’s not good, because you don’t have much left to do other things. Korea or Malaysia is very cheap for transport and food.
  2. Diverse entertainment: Which cities offer a diverse range and quality of entertainment experiences? The bigger cities tend to offer a better range. I like the Philippine most for live entertainment, whilst the Philippines and Japan are good for expat bars.
  3. Diverse cultural experience: What cities offer a diversity and unique cultural experience? Is the country bereft of culinary taste, or has it been morphed by franchises. No where I have been is more interesting than Japan with its petite bars and theme restaurants. It is a big city that attracts people from all around the world.
  4. Values or Interesting people: My experience has been that international and externally-orientated cities offer the best, most engaging and interesting people. For this reason I like Tokyo, Taipei, Bangkok and Manila.
  5. Attractive environment: The climate is a compelling part of what makes an indoors or outdoors culture. We tend to like the freedom to go outdoors so temperate climates have an advantage over cooler climates, as much as we like to retreat to those cosy den-like taverns or karaoke lounges at night. Or is it a fire place? We don’t want too restrictive cold, and too much pollution. I like Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, Christchurch, Davao (Philippines) and Queenstown. I think Canada, Korea is too cold.
  6. Natural scenic wonders: We like to be around scenic treasures like bars, beaches, restaurants, our workplace, shopping centres. These things are universally valued, and when they become readily accessible by transport, political openness, then they are rapidly re-rated. You can go past Sydney and Brisbane or anywhere in between.
  7. Good access: Its not enough to be a nice place to live, we also want access to a whole range of other things, whether its proximity to skiing, beach resorts, airport, other countries that offer something different.
  8. Politics: You would hope that a city enjoys a high level of liberalism, tolerance to religion, race and political opposition, and that certain values are not imposed, so you have a comfortable time.
  9. Safety: I think you want to feel safe in a certain country. Is there a tolerance of people different or are people repressed by government or social norms.
  10. Progress: Economic growth can be important. You want to live in a country, city or place that is growing, though development poses its own risks or hazards.
  11. Sustainability: Its not enough that a place is attractive, a place has to retain its charm. That requires some level of management and perhaps exclusion. My feeling is that this element is difficult to achieve, and I suggest that it occurs for some other reason. Eg. No jobs, lack of safety or political oppression.

A lot of my analysis has not been strictly systematic because I simply have not been to all cities, so this was more based on my intuition. But I was more interested in defining a set of criteria to consider. There are a number of paradoxes to consider when you perform a survey of such places:

  1. Externalities: The things that make us like a city tend to make them more alluring and ultimately more expensive, and thus unless we progress with them, we are likely to find ourselves priced out of those markets. Consider that real estate becomes phenomenally expensive, the price of beer and cars goes up. We need not be talking just about cities – it might be a place close to a city – that has ‘the best of both worlds’. It might be a place which has historically been a culturally rich nation, that has become a tourist centre, and ultimately an attractive place to live.
  2. Experience: Attitudes on any factor will vary for very subjective reasons. Eg. a Japanese person’s perception of safety will be different from a Caucasian because of life experience. We also tend to value what we know more than what others know and have experienced.
  3. Context: Attitudes on any factor will vary on the basis of context. If you are a foreigner, a city might be very dangerous, but if you’re a local it might be perfectly safe, so we need to discern whom we are voting for. If you are black in Harlem you will be safer than if you were white. Consider that a lot of Japanese feel a lot of social pressure, but foreigners feel tolerated, so that carries its own set of restrictions, eg. difficulty obtaining visa, accommodation, a job, etc.
  4. Relationships: How easy is it for you to establish relationships, and how many do you need. Would you be satisfied meeting a special girl in a bar, or developing intellectual or business relationships.
  5. Proximity: I have focused on the cities, however some would find the margins of cities more compelling than the cities themselves. What if you can live in the mountains, close to shopping malls, just 1hour from Tokyo. Or on the Northern Beaches of Sydney just 45min from Sydney. This offers people the prospect of more.
  6. Money: There is also the point that money will buy you different types of life experience. Eg. I fancy living in a home in Mosman, Sydney because its just across the harbour from the city, but its quiet, surrounded by trees, has great foreshore walking trails and has good facilities nearby.

By the standards above I have come to think that the most attractive cities in the world are:

  1. Prague, Czech Republic: Culture, climate, purchasing power
  2. Fukuoka, Japan: Culture, climate, relaxed, facilities, proximity
  3. Tokyo, Japan: Culture, diversity
  4. Melbourne, Australia: Proximity, climate
  5. Sydney, Australia: Climate, proximity, variety
  6. Small cities, EU: I don’t know where? – there must be a lot of great places in the USA – I need to do more reading
  7. Belfast, Northern Ireland: Culture, people
  8. Seattle, USA: Safety?? People, environment – there must be a lot of great places in the USA – I need to do more reading
  9. Christchurch: Culture, climate proximity
  10. Hanoi, Vietnam: Culture, purchasing power

By no means is this topic finished!