Good deals on travel in Asia are not limited to domestic travel. Over the past year, I have indulged in a pair of international jaunts, each time opting for the ones with the greatest degree of autonomy. My first such journey was to Taiwan, the land of the perpetual party. Compared to buttoned-down Japan, Taiwan seems always in the throes of a celebration of one sort or another. Freeway ramp just got finished? Cool, let’s launch the festivities. Religious holiday? Alrighty, then; fire up the incense and start clanging the finger cymbals. My tour package included round trip airfare from Tokyo, accommodations for three nights, two full days on the ground (plus part of a third day), a half-day guided tour of the major tourist attractions and one huge lunch. For the remaining meals and sightseeing, we were left to our own to devices, as desired. The price was 29,000 yen apiece, about $350.
Second time out, I opted for Hong Kong, someplace I had wanted to visit since seeing the movie The World of Suzie Wong more years ago than I care to remember. William Holden played an expat artist infatuated with (and totally confounded by) a mischievous lady of the evening, the aforementioned Suzie Wong (superbly played by lovely Chinese ballet dancer Nancy Kwan, for goodness sake!). The movie is an epic Hollywood romance on the order of Casablanca or Roman Holiday. The scenery was amazing, and the first meeting of the Holden and Kwan characters took place on the fabled Star Ferry, which traverses the harbor between Hong Kong island and the Kowloon mainland. Happily, the Star Ferry is largely unchanged some fifty years later, and for about twenty-five cents you can make the crossing, one of the great romantic travel bargains of the world.
Ferry deals aside, however, Hong Kong has the reputation of being one of the most expensive cities on the planet. One need only look at Kowloon’s renowned Peninsula Hotel, with its fourteen emerald green Rolls-Royce Phantom courtesy cars in the forecourt, to get an idea of just how much money passes through this tiny enclave on a daily basis. That said, good buys abound if you know where to look: my package tour included round trip airfare from Tokyo (1800-odd miles, roughly the same distance as New York-Albuquerque), six days on the ground in Hong Kong, five nights hotel at Kowloon’s mid-range Panda Hotel (including breakfast each day), a day-long tour of Hong Kong island, then four days of unstructured sightseeing. Total cost: 39,000 yen (about $475 or so) per person. Consider that the posted price of the hotel room (which was, by the way, bigger and certainly more luxurious than my apartment in Tokyo) was $175 per night, and you can begin to see the value of such a package.
Downsides, sure: when you’re on the tour bus, the sights are being described in Japanese only, and in my experience, the tour guides must get paid by the word, as they never (but never) shut up. Also, you don’t know (exactly) when your flight will depart until confirmation arrives a couple of days before you leave. You know the day, of course, but not the time (which can be most inconvenient; to catch the plane for my trip to Jeju Island, Korea a couple of weeks back, I had to leave the house at 4:30am, a time I had heard tell of, like leprechauns or molecules, but had never actually seen in person).