Use our handy Asia travel checklist to tick off these 10 things to organise before your Asia trip to make your Asia travel planning easier. If you’re dreaming of a winter holiday in Asia, where winter is high season in Southeast Asia and gets busy in places such as Harbin, China, home to a winter ice festival, you need to start planning right now. Here’s how.
While many of you are not long back from your European summer travels and are still sharing pics on social media and stories with anyone who’ll listen – hopefully not horror stories of missed connections and lost luggage! – some travellers are starting to plan a winter holiday in Asia, where there’s been none of the airport chaos impacting travel elsewhere.
There are still things to consider to prepare for an Asia holiday – things that many travellers overlook or leave until the last minute – which is why we’ve created this handy Asia travel checklist so you can tick off these 10 things to organise before your Asia winter trip.
Why travel Asia in winter? Weather-wise, winter is the most comfortable time to travel tropical Southeast Asia. It is cooler, yet it’s still warm enough to lie on a beach, and it is dryer, as the wet season ends in November in mainland Southeast Asia.
The humidity will also be lower – the only thing that will fog up your glasses will be a face mask in places where they’re still required or situations where it’s good manners to wear one. Even before the pandemic, Asians wore face masks if sick, if people around them were sick, or if moving about a polluted city.
Dry season is also high season in Southeast Asia, however, which means flights, hotels and tours are starting to fill. The tourism industry in the region is predicting the busiest winter season since the pandemic started, so you’ll need to begin to finalise your Asia travel plans soon.
Further north, parts of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China are winter wonderlands with snow festivals galore, loads of opportunities for skiing, snowboarding and ice-skating, and plenty of cosy mountain resorts with blazing fireplaces and hot springs to bathe in.
While countries such as Japan, Korea and China have been starting to open up, they still have Covid requirements in place, with entry rules just beginning to ease in Japan, and testing procedures relaxing in Korea, although travel restrictions are still ongoing in China, where quarantine has just been reduced from 14 to seven days.
If you’re dreaming of a winter vacation in Asia – whether that means a beach holiday bursting with sunshine, exploring ancient temples and tropical islands, or Christmas spent in a snowy winter wonderland – now is the time to start planning it.
Asia Travel Checklist – Things to Organise Before an Asia Trip
Here’s our Asia travel checklist so you can tick off these 10 things to organise before your Asia trip. As we’ve lived in Asia for 12 years, we’re happy to help. Leave any questions you have in the Comments at the end of the post and we’ll answer them.
Research Visas and If Needed Apply Well in Advance
Topping our Asia travel checklist are visas. Along with travel insurance, arranging visas is often over-looked and left until the last minute by many travellers planning Asia trips. Fortunately, visas for Asian countries are nowhere near as difficult to obtain as they once were and are more affordable. Some countries offer e-visas, some visas on arrival, while others offer visa-free travel to some nationalities.
If you know where you want to travel in Asia this winter – whether it’s a single destination or a multi-country trip, whether you’re considering Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, or you’re dreaming of Japan, Korea or China, research visas before you do anything else and if necessary apply in advance.
Many Asian visas can be obtained at the airport on arrival, some countries offer e-visas that you apply for online before you leave home. On our last trip to Myanmar some years ago we bought our e-visas online the day before travelling and approval came back within an hour.
Friends who recently visited Cambodia applied for e-visas the week before they travelled, one friend received approval the next day, another a few days later. One benefit of e-visas is that you can save time by avoiding queues at the Visa counters and can go straight to Immigration.
There are exceptions, and Vietnam and China are two such countries where you’ll save considerable time by using a visa agent, especially if you come from a country not on the lists of eligibility for a Vietnam e-visa, while China hasn’t yet opened to everyone and the visa process is complicated.
While Vietnam has offered e-visas for some nationalities since before the pandemic, there’s still a great deal of waiting around at the airport, whereas a visa agent can do the waiting for you and whisk you through Immigration.
For Vietnam, we recommend Discovery Travel who we’ve used for years for Vietnam visas. For a visa for China, Visa Express has been recommended, but we’ve not yet had the chance to try them. Yunnan in Southern China is on our list so we’ll report back when we do.
Check Covid Travel Restrictions
Next on our Asia travel checklist is Covid restrictions because while some countries may be acting like the pandemic is over (looking at you, Australia), it isn’t, and Covid restrictions are changing all the time. Once you know where you’re heading to for your winter holiday and are confident you’ll be able to obtain a visa, head to the embassy website(s) to check current Covid restrictions.
Japan recently announced an easing of Covid restrictions, which means you no longer have to do a group tour to visit Japan. You will still need to do a ‘self-guided tour’, however, and book a flight and hotel package through an authorised travel agent. Insiders predict China could follow suit when it opens up.
Small group tours and packages aren’t necessary for mainland Southeast Asia where Covid travel restrictions have been relaxed, however, they represent great value during high season when prices of flights and hotels increase to their highest of the year.
Why are they more affordable when booked as a package? Because of the buying power of big online travel agents. Luxury Escapes, which we love, which specialises in ‘luxury for less’, has brilliant packages for beach holidays and city breaks including hotels, flights, breakfasts, welcome drinks, and so on.
Note that not every Covid vaccination is recognised. For instance, the Chinese vaccinations Sinopharm and Sinovac aren’t accepted everywhere, so you’ll have to get a new vaccination. Some countries require three or four vaccinations within a certain period before travelling, generally four months before travel, but sometimes within weeks.
You’ll need to organise evidence of Covid vaccinations – some countries require print-outs, others will be satisfied with digital proof. Some destinations still require pre-departure Covid tests, such as Hong Kong, which currently requires that you register these within 24 hours of arrival, although note that requirements change all the time.
Check Covid restrictions before deciding on your holiday destination, do what you need to do to meet those requirements, then monitor the situation in the months, weeks and days leading to your departure to make sure you’re following any rules.
And don’t forget to pack some N95 respirator masks. In Asian countries, even before the pandemic, people wore face masks if they got sick out of respect for others, so they don’t make them sick. It’s also good protection for yourself, whether you’re vaccinated or not. See this post for a long list of reasons to wear masks in some situations.
Book Your Asia Flights for Winter Travel Now
The best time to buy flights to get the best price is three months in advance of your trip, which means if you’re planning a winter trip to Asia you really need to book your flights now.
While we don’t recommend buying flights from a travel agent for Europe, unless you’ve been using the same agent for years and know from first-hand experience they’ll answer their phone in the middle of the night to help after a flight cancellation, however, Asian airports haven’t experienced the same level of airport chaos that there’s been in Australia, Europe and the USA, so you should be right.
Buying a package from a travel agent that includes flights, hotels and transfers is super convenient, saves you the hassle of booking each component separately, and can often be cheaper than had you purchased each element yourself.
Having said that, if your home airport is in Australia, Europe or the USA, there’s still the kind of chaos we saw during the European summer with flights continually being cancelled, baggage left off planes, and luggage lost, then we recommend buying your flights direct from the airline for reasons explained in this post.
Buy Travel Insurance After You Buy Flights
Purchasing travel insurance is next on our Asia travel checklist, because it’s the last thing that many travellers do before travelling, when it should be one of the first. Even we’ve been known to buy travel insurance from an airport lounge shortly before boarding. But there’s no way I’d do that now; not since the pandemic.
With cancelled flights, delayed flights, missed connections, and lost luggage increasingly becoming the norm, it’s absolutely essential to buy travel insurance as soon as you buy your flights and to make sure you’re purchasing travel insurance that covers these sorts of travel disruptions.
There’s a mind-boggling number of travel insurers around and you should do your own research on travel insurance and compare coverage offered and prices. We recommend Safety Wing’s Nomad Insurance as it covers travel delays, lost checked luggage, emergencies, natural disasters, and personal liability. And we’ve used most of the major travel insurance providers during our 22 years living abroad and travelling the world for holidays and work.
Travel insurance that includes travel health insurance and Covid coverage is essential these days and I’ve noticed that many of the big insurers don’t include Covid or do but what’s included and what’s not is almost impossible to determine by the convoluted language used in their policies.
Safety Wing’s Nomad Insurance includes global travel medical insurance, which covers accidents and illnesses abroad, including Covid-19 coverage, and in plain text is very clear about what’s covered and what’s not.
Unlike many travel insurers, who require that you purchase travel insurance before you leave your home country, you can purchase Nomad Insurance online if you’re already abroad. But don’t wait until then! Buy travel insurance as soon as you buy your airfares, so any cancellations, delays, missed connections, and lost baggage are covered.
Book Domestic Transport Next
After you book your flights to Asia, before any domestic transport within your destination that you’re planning to use – whether it’s internal flights, long distance trains and buses, cruises and ferries, rental cars, or private vehicles with drivers.
While I’m all for slow travel and spontaneity and being flexible, and I often recommend waiting until you arrive in a place to see how much you enjoy it and decide whether you want to linger longer, that’s not going to work in high season.
In low season, when flights, trains and buses are empty, you can afford to be more relaxed when it comes to your Asia travel planning and decide where you want to go and how you want to get there after you arrive.
But in high season, when flights, trains and buses are full, and hotels are fully booked, you might not have much of a choice as to where and how you travel, so make your domestic transport bookings once you’ve finalised your itinerary and be prepared to adjust that itinerary depending on availability of seats.
Book Hotels and Other Accommodation
Once you’ve locked in any local travel you plan to do in Asia, then book your hotels. There’s no point in booking hotels before you’ve booked domestic flights, as you might then need to change hotel bookings, which can be a hassle.
If you’re planning on spending any length of time in one place, I recommend Luxury Escapes, which seems to have better deals the longer you stay, with often up to 50% off luxury and boutique hotels, beach resorts, villas, and apartments.
If you’re only staying in hotels for one or two nights per destination then I recommend you book accommodation through hotel booking sites such as Booking.com, where you can book hotels with no deposits and free cancellations, and the more you book you bigger your Genius discounts.
Though keep in mind that the most in-demand hotels won’t offer deposit-free stays and free cancellations during the busiest periods unless they themselves experience cancellations.
Book Tours and Activities
Even if you’re not a ‘tour person’, there are probably some organised activities you want to do on your Asian holiday, such as a sushi tasting experience in Tokyo, a noodle making course in Beijing or an architecture tour in Phnom Penh that you would hate to miss out on.
Booking tours and activities is next on your Asia travel checklist because the best tours and activities get booked up well in advance during high season, when activities such as street food tours and cooking classes have limits on how many people can join, which means you will simply miss out.
While there probably won’t be issues getting spots on free city walks or guided museum visits, any small group tours with specialised guides, such as chef-led market tours or artist-guided gallery tours, are unlikely to be able to squeeze you in if they’re fully booked, you’ll simply miss out.
Book Airport Transfers
Some Asian airports are some of the world’s best, with excellent airport train services and organised airport taxi systems, with set prices and professional drivers. Others are the absolute pits when it comes to transport and Bangkok’s airports fit into that category.
The Bangkok airport train stations aren’t so convenient for tourists and are better located for residents, while some only have stairs down to the road rather than elevators, and once you get down to ground level finding a taxi can be a challenge.
Lugging bags down long flights of stairs and struggling to hail cabs late at night is the last thing you want after a long flight, when you’re exhausted and just want to be at your hotel. The alternative of taking a taxi isn’t much better.
While the airport taxi services might appear to be organised in that you line up at a desk and drivers take a ticket, you then have to contend with drivers who won’t assist with luggage, who stop just outside the airport to say the metre doesn’t work and haggle over the fare, or who have a dodgy meter that suddenly doesn’t work.
Of course, not all airport taxis are bad in Asia. Singapore taxis are brilliant, Kuala Lumpur’s are very good, Siem Reap’s drivers are lovely, and as long as you use the green and gold taxis in Saigon you won’t have any issues.
I still recommend saving yourself the hassle and booking an airport transfer online with Klook before you leave home so you won’t have to worry and can enjoy the ride from the airport to your destination and all the delightful anticipation it can bring.
Buy a Local Phone Card Online or a SIM Card When You Arrive
A local phone card or SIM card is next on your Asia travel checklist and don’t even think about not doing this. Forget phone plans and the exorbitant costs you could rack up if you don’t get the right plan before you leave home and instead buy a local phone card online or a SIM card from the airport when you arrive.
Having a local number is not only super handy, you’ll save a fortune using local data and you’ll need it to access the internet for Google maps, as well as look up things like museum opening times and restaurant websites and reservation numbers when you’re out and about.
If you’re not concerned about the cost of using your home phone number, think about the locals who might need to call you and the costs they’ll incur by dialling an international number.
Websites such as Klook (link above) sells phone cards online and you can buy local SIM cards from airports, where prices are competitive and staff are generally faster at registering visitors than at shops in town. You’ll need an unlocked phone and somewhere to keep your home SIM card safe.
Pack Apple Air Tags or Similar Tracking Devices
Pre-pandemic, I would never have thought to include tracking devices on an Asia travel checklist, but here we are. If you’re travelling with more than carry-on and are intending to check your luggage under the plane, before you zip up your suitcase, pack an Apple Air Tag or a similar tracking device, such as the Dynotag Smart Luggage ID Tags or Amcrest GPS Tracker.
Travellers have reported having great success tracking lost luggage use Air Tags when airlines and baggage handling services have had no idea where their baggage was. Apple Air Tags have been the most popular, but we’ve read good review of Dynotag tags and the Amcrest tracker.
Airlines and airports in Asia have had nowhere near the level of chaos – cancelled flights, planes leaving without baggage, lost luggage, and so on – that passengers have experienced in Australia, the USA and Europe this year. However, it’s better to be safe than sorry and who knows what Asia’s first busy high season could bring.
This post has been sponsored by Visa Express but all our advice and opinions are our own obviously.
Image courtesy of Luxury Escapes
What have we left off our Asia travel checklist? If you’re a regular traveller to the region, we’d love to share your tips and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments below.