A Guide to Traveling Asia: Flight Deals, Hotels and Cruises6 min read
The Asia travel pause at Kensington Tours, where monthly sales figures were recently up 80 percent over the same period in 2019, is officially over. Travelers are going to Thailand despite the rainy fall season. They’re booking temple stays in South Korea. They’re going to India at the last minute.
“Vietnam is absolutely bananas,” said Jessica Vandermey, a director of sales at Kensington Tours. “And I’m getting amazing reviews from clients being at Angkor Wat with a handful of people versus the masses.”
After a costly pause in travel that in some places stretched to more than two years, much of Asia is back. Though China remains closed to tourism and Japan has been fine-tuning its policy on independent travelers, hotel and tour operators are reporting strong growth. Intrepid Travel said it’s sending as many Americans to Asia as it did in 2019. At Minor International, a Thailand-based hospitality company that manages Anantara, Avani, NH and other popular hotel brands in the region, bookings have already doubled 2021 totals.
“Consumers have moved beyond revenge travel and are making travel part of their everyday lives again,” said Brett Keller, the chief executive of the online travel agency Priceline, where hotel searches in Asia have nearly tripled in the past year. “This mind-set is taking them beyond the near-border travel they were limited to in the past two years and back to incorporating long-haul, international trips into their lives.”
As in the rest of the world, the pandemic has ruptured the travel landscape in Asia. Rock-bottom prices on flights to and from the region are rare. But the place that was always a value-lover’s deliverance will offer travelers even cheaper prices on the ground for things like hotels and possibly fewer crowds at iconic attractions.
More expensive flights
The first hurdle to travel in Asia — getting there — may be the costliest, at least compared with bargain fares available before 2020. Priceline is tracking round-trip tickets globally to the region at 53 percent more expensive this year compared with 2019, when the average price was about $731.
China’s closure has grounded flights that exerted some of the biggest competitive forces on fares in Asia. Some of the world’s top business destinations, including Shanghai, Taipei and Beijing remain closed or restricted.
According to the aviation analytics firm Cirium, flights scheduled between the United States and Asia are down 54 percent between August 2019 and August 2022. United Airlines, for example, flew around 1,100 flights in August 2019, but was down to 482 in August 2022, according to the company.
The frequency of business-focused flights “had been such a downward force on airfare,” said Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a subscription service that finds bargain airfares. “So many folks were buying cheap flights to Beijing to go on to Hanoi or Bali. Without those flights operating, you don’t see the same number of cheap fares.”
He estimated a good deal today would be 30 to 40 percent more expensive than in 2019. Recently, the service flagged $775 round-trip tickets to South Korea from the East Coast of the United States. In 2019, a comparable fare might have been as low as $550.
“I think until we see a real broad-based reopening of major economies, that will be the new normal,” Mr. Keyes added.
Selling for less than $1,100 round trip, the cheapest trans-Pacific fares searched on Priceline were for airports in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. For example, Priceline recently listed round-trip fall flights between New York and Bangkok from about $830.
Once you arrive in an Asian capital, regional low-cost carriers may provide inexpensive ways to get around. A recent one-way from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok on Malaysia-based AirAsia in early October, for example, was priced at $62 before extras such as seat assignments.
Other low-cost carriers in the region include IndiGo, based in India, and Australia-based Jetstar, which has had recent operational problems, stranding thousands of Australian travelers in Bali last month.
As with any low-cost airline, foreign or domestic, check the cancellation policy as well as inclusions — seat assignments, food and checked bags are usually extra — to ensure it is the best offer compared with other competitors in the region.
Deals on the ground
On the ground, other expenses may be lower. According to Priceline, average hotel rates are 7 percent cheaper than 2019, when the average rate was $120 a night. Hotels under $100 a night are plentiful in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Vietnam and the Philippines, with the best deals under $50 a night in Varanasi, India; Kuchina, Malaysia; Da Nang, Vietnam; Iloilo City, Philippines; Phnom Penh; and Pattaya, Thailand.
A bit more buys more. At Avani+ Samui and the new Avani Chaweng Samui Hotel & Beach Club, on the island of Ko Samui in southern Thailand, a package that includes two nights at each hotel starts at $143 a night and includes airport pickup and transfers between the two hotels.
A deal at FCC Angkor by Avani in Siem Reap, Cambodia, includes an airport pickup, transportation by tuk-tuk to and a guided tour of the temples of Angkor Wat, breakfast and lunch or dinner for two and a couples spa treatment from $129 a night.
Tours can be a good way to stretch your budget. EF Go Ahead Tours has a new 14-day trip to Thailand, hitting Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the island of Phuket from about $3,100, or about $220 a day, including hotels, tours, most meals and internal flights.
G Adventures offers a 10-day tour in Vietnam from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City starting at $999 a person.
Explore Worldwide is offering an eight-day tour of India’s Golden Triangle — including Agra, Karauli and Jaipur — from $840 a person. The eight-day Highlights of Laos tour, starting at $940 a person, visits the French colonial city of Luang Prabang, the capital city of Vientiane and the limestone mountains around rural Vang Vieng.
Japan remains popular and group tour operators are racing to fulfill demand. EF Go Ahead Tours has a 14-day Japan trip that starts around $5,300.
Some travel advisers are proposing South Korea as a substitute with comparable culture and culinary intrigue, but a lower cost of living. A G Adventures eight-day trip in South Korea, including visits to Seoul, UNESCO World Heritage-designated parks and temples, and the seaside city of Busan, starts at $2,249.
Independent travelers in South Korea will find a temple stay at a mountain monastery in Seoul from about $50 a night, including Buddhist rituals and meals from the cultural tour organization Templestay.
Future cruises on sale
Big-ship cruises historically have been a cost-effective way to visit many destinations. But the checkerboard of closures and Covid regulations in Asia make it harder for ship companies to sail as they had in the past.
Consequently, several have postponed their departures in the region to spring and even fall 2023. Celebrity Cruises, for example, operated two ships in the region before the pandemic. Now it is targeting September 2023 to make its return.
To fill some of those ships departing in the future, several cruise lines are offering deals on 2023 and 2024 itineraries.
As of late September, Princess Cruises was offering a five-day sailing in South Korea and Japan next June from $497 a person, visiting Tokyo, Kobe and Kagoshima in Japan and the island of Jeju in South Korea. To reserve it, the line requires a $100 refundable deposit.
Norwegian Cruise Line is offering an 11-day sailing in December 2023 between Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, visiting Singapore and Vietnam en route, from $1,356 a person, marked down $900 as of September (the sale is scheduled to run through October). An 11-day trip around Japan in October 2023 costs $1,919, down nearly $1,300.
In November 2023, Celebrity is planning several ambitious Asian itineraries, including 14 days in Thailand and Vietnam, recently starting around $1,400 a person, or $2,200 off while cabins last.
Anyone booking that far in advance should read the fare rules carefully and look for flexible terms and cancellation policies. In the case of the Celebrity trip, according to a recent search, the line required an additional $386 a cabin to make the deposit fully refundable up until about two months before departure.
Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column. Follow her on Instagram @eglusac.
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