Pre-travel preparation

May 20, 2009 § 2 Comments




This summer I am traveling for two months through Korea, China, Taiwan, and Japan.  I’ve known that I wanted to go on this trip for a while but I started preparing late and am currently scrambling around to get everything settled.  I recommend putting aside at least two months to get everything done so you don’t get overwhelmed.   Here are some of the things I wish I had known earlier:

1. Travel Buddy-This really depends on the type of person you are.  I think people should generally travel with people more similar to themselves (if you even want anyone).  If you are okay being independent and like to explore on your own, go with someone who can do the same.  If you enjoy the security of having someone familiar by your side at all times, travel with someone you get along REALLY well with because you will be together 24/7.  Also, be very clear from the beginning about your expectations from each other.

I originally planned this trip to go alone and then a couple months later a friend asked to join.  Although I was hesitant at first, I saw the merit in traveling with another person and was excited to share my experiences with a friend.  Sadly, it didn’t work out for a variety of reasons.  But long story short, be clear from the beginning and if you decide that it is not right, give people plenty of time to make alternate arrangements.  I learned this lesson the hard way, essentially throwing away hundreds of dollars in changed flight schedules and deposits.  =(

2.  Flights.  A multi-city trip ticket will be much more expensive than a round trip airfare.  I called many, many airlines (United, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air, Asiana, Singapore, etc.) only to find that most airlines charged about $2500 for a package going from SF to Incheon(Korea) to Shanghai/Pudon (China) to Taipei (Taiwan) to Tokyo/Narita (Japan).  The best deal I got was by calling United and speaking with a reservation agent and fiddling around with dates/times/carriers to find the best fares.  It costs $25 more to book with an agent but it is worth it if you get a good one.  My initial estimate was $1600 for all the flights but I had to pay around $300 more because I changed my itinerary twice.

There are a couple of things you should know.  On each flight, there are different price classes for tickets.  For my particular trip, from SFO to Seoul, I found out from the first reservation agent that the “L” class tickets had the cheapest fares.  The next time I called, I made sure to continually ask for the cheapest class of tickets.  The seats are not of lesser quality than more expensive tickets.  It’s just that they have a set amount of bargain tickets that they reserve during certain time periods.  Also, being willing to make a stop-over slashes the price dramatically.

Booking through a national carrier like United is more convenient  because it has several partner airlines that service the locations it does not.  I was able to book flights from Beijing to Shanghai to Hong Kong, etc. through various different partners of United Airlines.  I’m not sure if it was cheaper (an online comparison showed that the rates were about the same) but it definitely was more convenient than making each reservation separately.

3.  Health.  UC Berkeley has this great service called the Travel Clinic through the Tang Center.  For $60 dollars you get a meeting with a registered nurse/travel consultant who tells you about all the possible diseases you can catch in the regions you are traveling to and what vaccines/medications you should have.  To be honest, I probably didn’t really need one because I am traveling to pretty developed regions but I’m glad I was able to learn about this great service.  I also decided to get the typhoid vaccine just in case.  They will also prescribe medicine for traveler’s diarrhea in case you are overseas and become sick and are unable to understand the local language enough to visit a pharmacy.  A lot of the information is online but the Tang center has your medical charts so they can do a side by side comparison of your specific needs.

4.  Visas.  Out of the four countries I am traveling to (Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan), there is only one place US citizens, regardless of time of stay, MUST get a visa for.  And that is China.  For a whopping $130 regardless of how many times you enter and exit.  Visas for the other countries really depend on how long you plan to stay.  Usually if it is less than 30 days, you don’t need a visa but make sure you check or else you will not be allowed to board your flights.  The Chinese consulate is right next to Little Tokyo in SF with the entrance on Geary Street.  Go early and give yourself about a month for the visa to process.  I was waiting for other people to go with and only gave myself a week to process the visa and am currently screwed because I have no time to pick it up on Friday (the date it is ready) and the office is closed on Monday (I fly out on Tuesday).  We will see what happens with that…

Usually visas to China take 3-4 days to process but because of H1N1, they lengthened the process to 6-7 days.  There is also no mail service so you either have to go in yourself or send a proxy.  Be prepared to wait at least an hour, most likely longer if you are traveling during the busy seasons (summer is definitely one of them).

5.  Couch surfing.  I only recently discovered this.  Basically there is a website that allows you to connect with complete strangers across the world and stay with them, meet up, or host them in your home country.  I am still figuring out the kinks and am still a little dubious about the security of the whole process but I have to say, I think it is a great idea.  I am considering utilizing this service to find locals in the countries I am going to because even though I have friends in most of the regions, they don’t always have the time or enthusiasm to host a tourist.  Couch surfing connects you with people who genuinely love hosting guests or traveling.  Everyone on the website seems so interesting and I can’t wait to meet some of them.

Honestly, I was really freaked out by the idea of staying with a perfect stranger in another country (Craigslist murders, ANY Law and Order episode.. right?) but as I found out more about the website, most of those fears melted away.  Regardless, people still need to be careful and make sure to carefully read profiles before initiating or accepting a request.  I’m sure all the single, 40+ year old males on the site are very nice and interesting but I just wouldn’t feel comfortable staying with a stranger in that demographic.  In the end, it comes down to choice and if you’re not comfortable, you can always contact another couch surfer or just stay in a hostel.  One great advantage about couch surfing is that there is no monetary transaction and people are forbidden to charge for your stay.  However, they can request that you pitch in for your own expenses like food and electricity.  I will write more about this once I actually use it and meet someone from it.

There are so many more things I want to share but if I make this post any longer nobody will read it and it won’t be effective.  My best piece of travel advice is to simply keep an open mind.  I plan to blog my adventures as I go along so please come along for the ride!


§ 2 Responses to Pre-travel preparation

  • Peggy Li says:

    Joanna, are you traveling all by yourself? Where are you going to stay in Taiwan? I can ask my friend to help if you need a place to stay. Don’t go with this couch surfing thingy. I don’t think it is safe. You should be able to figure out their public transportation with some local help.

  • Caroline says:

    I have a question, your total airfare was $1,600 round-trip?? Korea round-trip is like $3,000 alone. Amazring!!

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