Best travel sites for sore eyes
From travel reviews and hotel bookings to couch swapping and travelling with pets, a sane guide for insane surfers on the road in Asia.
Illustration: Ivy Tsang
IT IS FOUR in the morning, and we’ve rushed to Barcelona Girona Airport only to find that the flight has been delayed, further delayed, and then spoken of no more. With 16 hours to kill and heavy check-in bags, it is difficult to leave the airport, let alone waddle to the counter. The information desk assures us it is worthwhile to explore Girona’s old historic quarters. She is sadly mistaken. After hours of sitting on a bus and dragging our impedimenta aimlessly through a supposedly “picturesque” neighbourhood, we return to the airport, defeated. It is at times like these that travel sites like Sleeping In Airports (www.sleepinginairports.net), with handy tips on where to doss in a modicum of comfort at outlandish flughäfens around the world, really come in handy. But what normal person cruises obscure sites like this?
With the avalanche of information online it is a cliché to say surfers are confused. They are lost. Some never return from that great big black hole in cyberspace. Finding the best travel sites for your needs is a hit and miss affair with no guarantee of success. A decade ago in the infancy of the Internet Age we remained glued to our screens at AmIGoingDown.com, punching in possible air journeys and waiting for macabre readouts of survival chances based on route and carrier. Am I Going Down got straight to the point. The site was a hit. So much so, it got taken over by a nondescript retailer. Some may even stumble upon amusing travel sites like Ghost Tours (www.ghost-tours.com.au), offering spooky white-knuckle tours of Australia’s seemingly most haunted locale, Brisbane; Dog Friendly (www.dogfriendly.com), with useful titbits for travellers who insist on sharing their pillows with their slobbering Rottweilers; or Couch Surfing (www.couchsurfing.org), a social website enabling backpackers and adventurous young ’uns to find welcoming hosts and comfy couches in destinations far and wide.
TripAdvisor: Big on user reviews
There is much mindless mirth and musing online, but when it comes to taking actual travel decisions that will directly affect your wallet, wedding, wife, babes, boss and promotion prospects, the choice for feedback really falls into two broad categories – sites with professional reviews (think drab bespectacled editors and reporters trawling hotel rooms, beaches and business centres and reporting back to their readers, much like a CNET for laptops and cameras), or sites with user-generated reviews serving up feisty opinions in a no-holds-barred format. The latter format is popular and attracts a big following. It does, however, raise one troubling question. Who is the reviewer? And therein lies the rub. Since reviews are highly relative and depend entirely on experience and travel exposure, there is a huge difference between a spotty pre-teen observation, and balanced, professional evaluation. Anyone can have an opinion. But publications with seasoned journalists generate credible, dispassionate content that carries hugely more weight. There is the significant issue of trust. On then with our review of the best travel sites for Asia and a few whimsical oddities.
User-generated review travel sites
The big daddy of Cyberia’s user-generated travel reviews is undoubtedly Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com), with mountains of bumf on hotels, restaurants, and more. This was its sole raison d’etre until it was gobbled up by Expedia to become a front-end for a vast cash-crunching booking machine. This hugely popular site provides some astute holiday tips and user reviews on anything from Bali bike tours to Vietnam hideaways.
Visually, for some, it may be an overload of icons, bargain rates and boxes that encumber a very densely packed site. It can be tedious to surf while its nuggets delight. The information may lack clear review criteria (like “room cleanliness” or “staff attitude”) that many sites have now adopted. Usefully though the reviews are separated into categories from “terrible” to “excellent” so surfers can browse a full range of opinion, and these are also further categorised under “business reviews” “couples reviews” “solo travel reviews” and so on. Trip Advisor is a very handy stop on the trip-planning trail.
Zuji: Air specialist
For many travellers it might be one of the last stops, after they have evaluated and narrowed their choices elsewhere. At this stage it is fun to see what others think of your choices. As a starting point, however, Trip Advisor can be overwhelming. There is just too much to wade through and some hotels rack up hundreds of reviews. Then there’s that ever-niggling question of reliability? Who is the reviewer? Was it the general manager heaping kudos on his scrapheap hostel, or a genuine, seasoned traveller?
Of similar ilk are travel agencies and booking engines like Zuji, Travelocity (partnering with Zuji), Agoda, and Wotif. Farther afield with a focus more on North America and Europe, are biggies like Expedia (www.expedia.com) and Orbitz (www.orbitz.com), stuffed with highly visible Caribbean escapes, less so Bali hideaways, though one can drill down after quite a few frustrating clicks. Sponsored by a group of Asian airlines, Zuji (www.zuji.com) has grown and offers specialist services through dedicated sites for Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand (with Travelocity). The thrust is on cheap deals and bookings leveraged in part by its ability to secure good airfares. There is some limited hotel review information fed in by Travelocity and Trip Advisor. Zuji offers car rentals, cruises, hotel bookings and flights. It is not an information site. Navigation is not the easiest and pop-up ads will keep you busy looking for the “close box” buttons. Similar in thrust is megasite Priceline (www.priceline.com) with website offshoots for Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Agoda (www.agoda.com) is a travel agency site that keeps it simple. The layout is neat with lots of white space. A key feature is its reader hotel reviews with ratings for cleanliness, comfort, dining, value, staff performance and location. Another plus is the extensive library of hotel photography, alas not in large format. It is more than enough however to draw an intelligent impression from these visuals. Wotif (www.wotif.com) is an accommodation specialist and, like Agoda, gets straight to the point, perhaps more so. Select your city, customise the search by picking type of accommodation, location, star rating, and facilities, to zero in on the available choices. Choose from hotels, motels, and inns as well as – in an interesting twist – backpacker lodges. Wotif was launched in Brisbane but there is nothing laid back about its performance. Fill in the details and one click will pull up a range of choices. The layout is dense and tightly packed but easy to navigate. The fact that the site focuses only on hotels and accommodation makes search less taxing. There is a small selection of room pictures to browse.
Agoda keeps it simple
For veteran travellers and fussing geography teachers who already have itineraries firmly in mind and simply want to compare flights and accommodation deals, check out IgoUgo (www.igougo.com). This site has a neat layout with lots of white space and an uncomplicated straight-to-the-point feel. Its specialty is the ability to compare prices for a particular routing or hotel or package from, say, Orbitz, Priceline, Expedia, American Express Travel, Trip Advisor, Hotwire, Hotel Planner and Kayak. Its engine trawls hotel sites, airline sites and other providers as well. Or cut to the chase and look at the prices from someone like CheapoStay (www.cheapostay.com). Also on IgoUgo you’ll find a decent travel forum and some snappy destination guide information.
Hostel World (www.hostelworld.com) is undoubtedly among the best travel sites in this review for unabashed bottom-feeders. This is a booking website with a vast database where visitors can research and compare holiday accommodation. This site also boasts a wide array of informative user podcasts, travel itineraries and reviews on everything from how to make a quick buck while backpacking in Australia, to city pocket guides that highlight the hippest and most happening venues from Tokyo to Bangkok. The majority of information on this website is focused on the trials and tribulations of backpackers, cash strapped youths, and those willing to travel down and out in Asia’s most glamorous locales. This is a travel Bible for the thrifty set, not bankers.
Journalistic reviews and travel guides
For professional reviews of holiday destinations and more balanced insights into travel, visit a travel guide like Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com). The general layout is neat, with a simple tri-colour theme doing the trick. The standard of information is good and includes reviews of a huge assemblage of destinations, hotels, and more. Need feedback on a hotel in Kabul? They have it. The website is user-friendly, with high marks for both the quality and quantity of information. There are useful “fast facts” for each destination. The information is kept up to date, with maps for every destination, and several highlighted key words link on to other stories and reviews. Lonely Planet also includes a “top picks” section with its 10 best travel destinations picked by reviewers.
Lonely Planet: Clean, neat
The Conde Nast Traveller website (www.cntraveller.com) is another user-friendly, professional medium. Featuring a “travel facts” section for every destination, the easy-to-use layout creates a clear navigation path for visitors. Backed by the quality editorial and visual content running in the print editions, the site is information rich but not wordy with deals and luxury options. The focus is on higher-end properties. While easy to read, the destination guide sections lack specific detail and insight and are very general when it comes to items like shopping and sightseeing. The site recommends hotels and destinations and also handles bookings. More advice, weather forecasts, currency conversions and tips from Conde Naste Traveller sister site Concierge (www.concierge.com).
Fodors (www.fodors.com) on the other hand, should be approached with caution. The website is disorganized and comes across as one big advertisement. Littered with promotions, advertisements, and booking prompts, it becomes difficult to spot where the real information is buried. There is not much emphasis on Asia and tourist destinations such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia appear to be completely missing. If you dig deeper there may be information on these areas. Despite the very limited spectrum of travel destinations offered, the ones that are reviewed do contain some quality information. The reviews are a mix of professional opinions and user reviews, giving the reader a well-rounded idea of the subject.
For a contemporary, breezy, and upbeat browse head to CNNGo (www.cnngo.com). The user-friendly design is tailored to showcase feasting, fun, and fiesta. Although CNNGo’s focus is on hotspots in Asia, it only covers a few cities as yet. More are planned. Nonetheless, the information is concise, sparky and engaging, and will appeal to the young and restless. This is not a destination guide in the classic sense with reams of copy and structured recommendations. Stories are random portrayals of people, art, events and dining. Take your pick and acquire a new perspective on things. The appeal may be hit-and-miss for some but this is a feisty should-see site with attitude.
Rough Guides: Meaty info
Rough Guides (www.roughguides.com) is an easy to use website with a snappy modular layout. Its search tab drop-menus allow readers to quickly access different travel destinations in one click. These pages include useful information on weather, visa requirements, key sights, and so on. There are also a host of interesting features and buys to be found on this website, including country phrasebooks, which are both cheap and pocketsize. If this does not suit you, most phrasebooks can be downloaded online as audio podcasts. Rough Guides also includes options for conscientious eco-friendly travellers, like Climate Care’s carbon offset initiative, a scheme that allows travellers to track their own carbon footprint and minimize it with a donation to select NGOs. With a solid print track record, this is a site with lots of credible information.
For an overall view on travel, visit Frommers (www.frommers.com). Not only does the website offer a broad palette of destinations, is also serves up a complete guide to each place, including an overview, travel tips, attractions, nightlife, shopping, and outdoor fun and activities, to name a few. Or jump to something fun like the 10 best subway trips. No demographic is ignored, from gays and lesbians to honeymooners, wheezing seniors and the disabled. Pick a profile and surf the options. That wraps up the serious biggies in this review of the best travel sites for Asia. On to other stuff and some offbeat venues that will raise mirthful eyebrows.
National tourist office sites, from dull to dishy
National tourist office websites wield much clout when it comes to spend, rah-rah design and SEO (or search engine optimisation). They bully and cajole their way into high search engine rankings but don’t always deliver. Expect less advertising, a lot of visual information, and occasional chaos.
Here are a few of note. The Tourism Malaysia (www.tourism.gov.my) website is brisk and to the point. If there’s a megasale on, you’ll know it. The site is well designed, easy to navigate, and the information is a mixed bag. The immediate focus is on attractions and sights rather than hotels though if you drill down there’s accommodation information with links. In general there’s not too much text and lots of white space, a welcome change from bloated sites that attempt to pack too much into their home pages. Drop menus for, say, Island Destinations, brings you to a page with a small interactive fast-loading map with snippet detail and pictures. Also expect a “blog” – this is actually a compendium of small feature articles on various attractions and sights.
Muscle site Incredible India (www.incredibleindia.org) has gone through a makeover. The new look offers large horizontal rotating images and a tiny slow-loading video box that doesn’t do much except to hold up the page. This feature – with a longish clip combining the best of the TV campaigns – would have worked much better in a larger format. While we preferred the old website with its vertical format, the information is still all there under hood, and there’s quite a bit of it. If you want meat, you’ve come to the right place. There is lots of excellent information and drill-down detail. Clicking into a sub-section like “Royal Retreats” for example throws up a vast list of palace hotels in Rajasthan, each one featured on a separate page with details and weblink. Explore subsections for Wildlife, Heritage and so on. There’s also much on history and culture. Expect several dedicated language sites in Japanese, Korean, French, German, Italian, Dutch and Chinese (simplified).
The big and hard-working Discover Hong Kong HKTB site (www.discoverhongkong.com) offers an array of language options from Bahasa to Russian, Thai and Arabic. The main home page is a bit disjointed with lots of floating objects but inside pages assume a better rhythm. Conventioneers can dive right into the Meetings and Exhibitions section under MEHK. For general punters, as is the fashion on NTO sites, all the accommodation detail has been artfully swept under the “Plan your trip” subhead. Of course, hotel booking is not the raison d’etre here so to attempt a booking you’ll need to dig down to the “Hotel search” page or wander back to MEHK. An interesting feature is the Quality Tourism Services (QTS) Visitor Accommodation Scheme with budget options by location. Each hotel is featured with key facts, small pictures, and a link back to its site. The Discover Hong Kong website serves up lots of small format videos via YouTube. Click on these to exit to YouTube for a larger version. The main lead-in “Hong Kong experiences” video is an advertisement story with some great footage but it will take the patience of Job to chew through all nine minutes and 28 seconds to get the dope on Ron Harris from San Jose et al. A useful site with a somewhat cluttered format.
The Your Singapore website (www.yoursingapore.com) is set on a black charcoal background that sets the stage for a series of flip-board frames each pushing a particular item. Visitors could play with this for hours. Click into “Grand Prix season” to see a large format F1 video or hit the “Plan your trip” menu to access instant and neatly presented hotel information with current prices as well as comparative best prices offered through a range of online booking companies. Photos for each hotel are neatly presented in a separate section and reviews are intriguingly presented under key word categories like “location”, “business-friendly”, “luxurious”, etc that immediately pull up relevant reviews that contain that particular word or phrase. We drew a blank on “romantic”. Hmm. These reviews are pulled down from a variety of sources like Trip Advisor and Agoda. All in this is a slick, professional looking site aiming to provide a user-friendly experience with much easy-to-spot information. By aggregating good information from third parties the design does not strain or bloat. Also expect snappy information on “Business events”, “Education”, and “Healthcare” (detailing medical tourism options with approximate costs for procedures).
From here we move on to the sunny side of life, as they like to term it in the Indian Ocean. The Maldives Tourism Promotion Board’s website (www.visitmaldives.com) is a breath of fresh air with its vibrant colours that get the holiday spirit pumping through your veins. It is full of useful information, accompanied by serene holiday snaps that capture beautiful Maldives sun-and-sand vistas. Expect lots of drill-down resort information with more detail on standalone pages.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand website (www.tourismthailand.org) serves up a packed home page with lots of information boxes. The “Travel deals” section offers current hotel packages while the “Travel finder” utilises a drop-down menu to access information by destination and category (including farmstays, homestays, B&Bs, hotels, boats and rafts). That’s quite a spread. The information on inside pages is well presented and to the point. A second iteration from the Tourism Authority of Thailand is its Discover Thailand site (discover.tourismthailand.org) that offers a more visual appeal though hard information is fairly thin on the ground. The large postcard photos on the homepage twitch at any hint of a mouse and are intended to pull visitors into an essentially visual world where images do the talking. The fun Pick-A-Trip feature does a charming data trawl collecting e-mails as it offers registered punters a chance to win a dream holiday worth US$5,000.
Thailand: Travel deals
From Tourism Australia (www.australia.com) an appealing and fun travel site that defaults to your region even if you do not read Chinese or French say. No worries. You can switch back to English or another language. This is a very visual space where it is easy to find accommodation from backpacker establishments to luxury digs. Interactive maps help to track down destinations in one click. Hotel information is accessible along with e-mail and web links. High marks for Oz. The Department of Tourism Philippines site (www.tourism.gov.ph) carries a lot of official information and statistics and investment and tourism strategy that turn what should be a visual feast – a country with over 7,000 islands – into a rather dull browse. You can jump to an equally subdued WowPhilippines (www.wowphilippines.com.ph) and squint to “plan a trip” and find the “best beaches”. Then drill down into Boracay say and the site becomes a tad more lively and visual. The other Wow Philippines sites that once set travellers hopping appear to have fallen into disrepair with the root site hijacked by a retail outfit though some decent country sites linger on (www.wowphilippines.ca). Visit my Philippines (www.visitmyphilippines.com) is livelier and with more video and visuals but you may encounter a warning – “Visiting this site may harm your computer – as you try to access it.
Whimsy and blogs, from couches to cruises
“Participate in creating a Better World, One Couch at a Time”. This is the ambitious vision of the non- profit website Couch Surfing (www.couchsurfing.org) that has been around since 2004. Though, couch surfing has grown in stature – yes indeed – and popularity, accommodating thousands of new members every month, its objective remains the same: to create a cross-cultural network where people can share their experiences, local knowledge and, importantly, their couch with passing travellers. So how exactly does this website work? You’ll have to set up an account first. Couches are not for any Joe Blow. Once you have supplied your personal interests and hobbies and other details it is easier for prospective couch-letters to decide on whom to interact with. New members can enjoy a world of possibilities. There are no strings attached. Each member decides what they want to take from the couch surfing experience. Some choose to be welcoming hosts time and time again; others simply use this website to meet potential friends and contacts whilst far from home.
Couch Surfing: Comfy
Is couch surfing safe? The answer is a resounding yes. The two million members think so. With the exception of a few bad apples, most couch surfers are inviting, friendly people who entertain and travel with no hang-ups. This is not to say the system is not open to abuse. A favourite example is that of the “friendly” Catalan host who generously suggests all his female guests sleep with him in his Casanova set-up – or on the floor. Well, you do have an option. Unflattering peer reviews usually filter out this sort of listing.
Airline Meals (www.airlinesmeals.net) offers reviews of the various airline catering options. The layout of the website leaves a lot to be desired. You’ll find Hong Kong to Macau Turbojet food reviews too with photographs. Despite this you can still dig in for some interesting traveller observations on food on the go. Cruise Mates (www.cruisemates.com) is a useful online cruise resource that combines comprehensive and well researched professional reviews with a peer review system. Its extensive archive covers a host of cruise lines, from the more adventurous Azamara cruise holidays to the luxurious Royal Caribbean fleets that include state-of-the-art cabins with audacious skating rinks and artificial surf rider wave pools. While most of the cruise lines reviewed on this website traverse the Caribbean, Mediterranean and North American regions, many of the cruises companies have ships that pass through Asian waters. Among these are Costa Cruises and Cunard.
A lot of vacationers are out and about tearing their hair, families and bawling kids in two. Travel for Kids (www.travelforkids.com) is a site for them. The website is a bit of a Plain Jane but is easy to navigate. Some information is outdated. For example, when we checked, the site still listed Hong Kong’s “Water World” as a popular hotspot. This attraction closed down around a decade ago, which is more than ample time for an editor’s red pen to cross it out. The site also includes a trip-planner with information on visas, currency, flights, hotels, and family tours.
For vacationers seeking an adventurous experience – in someone else’s home – the welcoming Airbnb (www.airbnb.com) website may be the answer. This site is essentially a market for homeowners anywhere in the world to offer their place to travellers for a fixed rent. This innovative idea of accommodation sharing adds a touch of homeliness for visiting travellers, with most amenities of a normal functioning house present and intact. The website narrows down and filters searches effortlessly, and allows browsers to sort properties by price, space, and even by the language spoken by the owners. Reviews from previous guests are helpful.
Unusual Hotels: Organised
Along a similar theme, though not offering something commonplace in Asia, is Motor Home Holiday Swap (www.motorhomeholidayswap.com). This site arranges temporary campervan and trailer-home trades. Great for New Zealand or Europe. In Hong Kong? Well, a two-seater Smart car can certainly pack in a family of eight at least. That’s how most people live in their flats anyway. Then again, why fly when you can hitch a ride? Enjoy classic ‘60s wind-in-the-hair appeal at Hitchsters (www.hitchsters.com), which offers a novel solution. People have the option of sharing a ride – to and from the airport. Registered members can record the flight timings and dates of their travels on the website, and get paired up with fellow members with similar schedules so the ride and more importantly, the fare to the airport, can be shared. Is that it? What happened to the long handlebar bikes? Hmm…
For those seeking an ‘out-of-the-box’ travel experience, check out Unusual Hotels of the World (www.unusualhotelsoftheworld.com). This fun travel site lists only the most unique hotels in the world, all of which are categorised under themes like "arty", "bling", and "wild". From the chilly Ice Hotel in Sweden, to the Ariau Amazon Towers Hotel, perched high amidst the canopy of the Amazon Rainforest, the website has it all. The site itself is strewn with photos and has a user-friendly layout. Each accommodation listing comes with an overview, pricing and booking details, and comments by previous customers.
For the younger generation going through that transition period from high school or university to the working world, it is becoming increasingly popular for people to take a year off and experience the world. Websites like Gap Work (www.gapwork.com) and Volunteer Travel (www.volunteertravel.com) give you the opportunity to travel to various destinations at a fixed cost, whilst taking up community service, an internship placement, or other volunteer work. The sites are well organised, and do well to visualise the needs and concerns of a young adult, including information about travel insurance, prices, accommodation, and general travel resources.
TravelPod: Keeping track
At TravelPod (www.travelpod.com), you can submit travel blogs that let you chart your trips on a map, share unlimited photos and videos with fellow bloggers, and stay in touch while on the road. Solely a user-review website, TravelPod provides useful firsthand accounts of journeys across the globe. Although not always grammatically sound, the blogs usually paint a clear picture to readers, assisting them in constructing their travel plans. The site offers an extensive list of destinations, with blogs, photos and videos. Web surfers are free to explore the blogs, but have to register (free of charge) if they wish to make a posting. This is a fun, unusual and engaging site if you don’t mind following the whims and antics of random people.
Let’s Go (www.letsgo.com) sports a layout that is both appealing and intuitive. Navigation is a doddle. However, while its travel sections on Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam contain a reasonable breadth of information – from national landmarks to itineraries – its coverage of Asia in general is rather narrow.
Couch surf, borrow a home, crash in a campervan, or doss at the airport. Take your pick. That’s our guide to the some of the best travel sites for Asia.
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