You didn’t know it was high season and now you can’t find a hotel room. You arrived at the airport without a visa and they won’t let you board. You didn’t realise only crisp dollar notes were accepted and credit cards aren’t used. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Other travellers make the same mistakes. Here are our last minute travel tips so you don’t have to.
Forget about local travel, experiential travel and social travel, the fastest growing trend appears to be bad travel. There’s no doubt last minute travel is on the rise, particularly here in Asia where it’s getting easier to bounce over to Bangkok or pop up down to Phnom Penh. People are increasingly jetting off on the spur of the moment for a weekend away.
However, people are leaving it so late to go that they’re allowing little or no time to make travel plans. And it doesn’t need to take long to organise a short jaunt. Terence is in Vietnam shooting a magazine story. Three days before he was due to leave, we created his 12-day itinerary, booked seven flights, organized a visa, reserved five hotels, and arranged transfers.
OUR LAST MINUTE TRAVEL TIPS FOR SPONTANEOUS TRAVELLERS
Consider a last-minute holiday package
Packages don’t sound cool, do they? They don’t fit the image of the spontaneous traveller rocking up to an airport, looking at the flight board and deciding where to go. Think packages and you probably think families and old people. But packages make planning short spontaneous trips a breeze. When we lived in the Middle East we used to get lots of time off for annual leave, religious and national holidays, and occasionally days of mourning following the deaths of regional leaders. That last category meant lots of spur-of-the-moment long weekends. Often not announced until the day before, we would wait for the promotional emails from the local travel agencies to arrive in our in box, get online to see what airlines and travel companies were offering special packages, or simply searched ‘last-minute holidays’.
Packages are popular because they can include flights, accommodation, transfers, and even short tours, so you don’t need to organise a thing, and many can be bought online. Some travel companies offer last minute holiday packages that include a ticket delivery service to the airport if you really leave things until the last minute. (And, yes, some countries still require you to travel with proper printed tickets; e-tickets aren’t always enough.) Packages can sometimes work out to be the same price as an air ticket, so even if you don’t intend to do the tours, it can be worth getting a package for the flight, transfers and accommodation, even if you skip the big red bus tour. The only thing you might have to arrange is your visa, although these days many travel agencies can organise those. (See below).
Search for last minute flight deals and promotional fares
If you can’t bring yourself to book a package, you could decide where to go based on special promotional fares. Scan the sites of airlines that leave your city, sign up to airline sites to receive notifications of promotional fares and to flight booking sites to watch fares and receive notifications when they drop. Search for ‘last minute flights’ or ‘last minute flight deals’ to the destination you’re dreaming of going or contact your favourite travel agent to find out where the bargain flights are. Don’t dismiss the skill of a good travel agent. Our Siem Reap travel agent always manages to beat airline fares and online deals (and can also organise visas).
When you find an offer that’s too good to be true, there’s a reason. Perhaps it’s low season and most of the place is shut down or it’s peak monsoon period when it rains every day. When you find a flight which appeals, before you book, check the embassy site for that destination to see if you need a visa, how long it will take to process, and how much it will cost before clicking ‘purchase’. Don’t get your heart set on any one destination before researching visas or you could be disappointed. (More on visas below).
Consider flying with a low cost airline
Budget airlines, no-frills carriers or peanut airlines, whatever you want to call them, are fantastic. The media may like to call the millennials or Gen Y ‘generation last-minute’, but the baby-boomers and Gen X have been travelling spontaneously for decades, thanks to the advent of low-cost airlines in 1971 with Southwest Airlines in the USA – although they didn’t really take off around the world until the re-launch of Ryanair as a low-cost in the early 1990s and easyJet soon after.
When we lived in the Middle East we used low-cost carriers a lot during our two-month summer holidays. We would plan our arrival and departure cities and then I would check the budget airline sites for deals and just buy whatever looked good, leaving the rest to figure out later. With two months to play with, we could go anywhere. Two of the best bargains were 99p tickets to Brussels from London and from Brussels to Venice. Those deals are harder to find these days of course, but I’m researching Myanmar at the moment and seeing absolute bargain flights for their low-cost carrier.
Find out if you need visas
As soon as you’ve found a fantastic last minute package or flight, check that country’s embassy site to see if you need a visa. To the complete amazement of many travellers I meet, visas are required for many nationalities for a lot of countries. Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked someone who was about to travel if they had their visa and they looked at me dumbfounded, chin on their chest, astonished that they would need one. “But I’m American (or Australian, or British, or Canadian),” they’d say. Because citizens of these lucky countries – unlike our friends from Asia, the Middle East and Africa – don’t need visas for a lot of countries, but they still need them for many.
Some visas are easy to obtain. Many can be organised by travel agencies or online. These are usually called e-visas. However, some visas still have to be obtained the old-fashioned way – by physically going to an embassy, filling out an application form, handing over some passport photos, your passport, and some money, and returning a few days later to collect it. Some visas can take a week or longer, others can be obtained in a few days. Some can be done within 24 hours if you pay a higher price. People are often astounded when I tell them they need a visa for Cambodia. Fortunately they are easy to get and can be obtained upon arrival at the airport or border – although people do need to know to bring two passport photos and the fee in US$ bills.
Check if you need vaccinations or medication
If you need to get vaccinations for the destination you’re considering travelling to, then you probably won’t be getting there this trip and better save it for another break when you have much more time to plan, because some vaccinations have to be given six weeks before you leave. When doing research, do use authoritative sources of information, however, such as the World Health Organisation site, because many are overly cautious and a lot of private specialist traveller medical clinics recommend shots because that’s how they make money. I have met a lot of people in Siem Reap who have had a handful of vaccinations and have been taking antimalarials on the recommendation of their doctor yet its simply not necessary unless you’re visiting very remote places in Cambodia, and the same goes for much of Southeast Asia.
Having said that, it’s always a good idea to keep your routine childhood vaccinations up to date, including MMR (measles-mumps-rubella), diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, varicella (chicken pox) and polio. If you’re an adventurous eater and like to sample street food, then Hepatitis A and typhoid shots are a good idea for countries like Cambodia, no matter where you’re going, as they can be transferred through contaminated food and water. If you preferred souvenir is a tattoo or piercing then a Hepatitis B shot is probably a good idea too. Rabies is another shot worth getting if you’re going to be spending a lot of time in the countryside and villages.
Research money and currency
Money and currency is another factor to consider if you’re travelling at the last minute. Keep in mind there are some places that don’t have ATMs on every corner nor widely accept credit cards. Myanmar is one example, and when we went to Cuba many years ago it was the same. So you may have to take cash and you may have to take a lot of it. However, you might also have to take cash in a specific currency that you might not be able to purchase in your home city or even at the airport, and if you’re flying in late on a Friday night, say, there might not be any money-changers open. Again, do some quick research online before you buy those flights if you’re leaving very close to your departure date.
Book hotels and holiday rentals before you go
I usually leave our hotel and holiday rental bookings until the last minute. I have also been known to book the day of travel or late the night before. But I always book accommodation in advance and will never leave it until we arrive in a place. However, I can’t tell you how many people still wing it. Day after day, from our apartment balcony, we see travellers dragging suitcases and lugging backpacks up our dusty street, going from one guesthouse to another, asking prices and looking at rooms. Young Asian hipsters in elephant pants and designer glasses, dreadlocked backpackers with one-litre water bottles and fake Lonely Planets in their hands, late middle-aged couples in khakis and Birkenstocks, they all do it and I don’t get it.
These days, there are countless accommodation sites with loads of photos and more than enough reviews that they could be researching from the comfort of an air-conditioned café. Don’t waste time or exhaust yourself trudging along a dusty Siem Reap street in the searing heat. Even if you’re travelling at the last minute, most accommodation sites will still allow you to book a hotel the night before, on the day of departure or from the airport, so just do it.
Don’t go anywhere without travel insurance
Travel insurance is a must, even for a short last minute trip, and it can easily be bought with your air tickets for a little extra or bought online in a few steps from one of the many online travel insurance sites out there. See this post on why you need travel insurance. However, if you’re a last minute traveller then I’m guessing you’re not the kind of person who turns up to airports hours before departure, so a missed flight is one good reason!
Do you have any last minute travel tips? We’d love to hear from you. Feel free to share them in the comments below.