- Do you prefer to plan every detail of your holiday, or just let it unfold?
- Discover the pros and cons of each method.
- Pick up some tips about which credit cards are best for overseas travel, and how to book airfares with frequent flyer points.
Some people have a bucket list, while others would rather drown in a bucket than lose the buzz of just going with the flow.
If you’re a list-maker, a pack-well-in-advance and get-to-the-airport-early kind of person, it’s quite likely that you won’t be able to relax and enjoy the prospect of your holiday or gap year travel until you’ve made a detailed plan of your movements and destinations, and then booked every flight, every place you’re going to lay your head at night, and even some tours and activities. That’s okay. It’s your call, and you know what’s best for you, even if it does leave you little room to experiment.
On the other hand, you may prefer to play it by ear and throw things together at the last minute. After all, can there be anything wrong with seeing how you feel a couple of days before your leave begins, to decide whether you want to start in Bali or Bangkok, and where to move on to? You’ll certainly avoid planner’s regret (since you didn’t have a plan) but you could risk having fewer choices and bigger costs.
But if you’re lucky (and an experienced traveller), your eleventh-hour approach will not only be an exciting wild ride, it could actually be great value for money.
We take a look at both techniques, so that you can decide which one is best for you. Meet Tom, an accountant from Brisbane, and Ellie, a retail sales manager who lives in Melbourne. They both want to spend part of next month travelling in South East Asia.
Tom started planning 12 months ago and locked in his mate, Nick, to share his travels. They get on well together, and shared accommodation is cheaper. No single supplements for them.
Credit card search
At this early stage, Tom looked for a rewards credit card he could switch to with lots of bonus points. He intended to use the points to cover at least one leg of his flights cost, as well as relying on the card to provide complimentary overseas travel insurance. This was the shopping list of ideal card features he was looking for:
- Lots of bonus points for meeting early spending target
- Complimentary overseas travel insurance
- Airport lounge passes
- Higher points earning rate for overseas spending
- Complimentary concierge service for local advice and bookings at his destination
- No overseas transaction or currency conversion fees
- No overseas emergency card replacement fees
- Free Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide
Tom is a pragmatist. He knows that his ideal card, combining all of these features, does not exist. But he does his research at Credit Card Compare and discovers that the 28 Degrees Platinum Mastercard will cover the last four points in his list, as well as having no annual fee. The free Wi-Fi is particularly appealing because he wants to avoid being slugged with a massive phone bill to take the gloss off his trip.
But in the end he decides that the bonus points and complimentary travel insurance are at the top of his list for a good reason, and he settles on the St. George Amplify Platinum Credit Card (Qantas), which will pay his Qantas Frequent Flyer joining fee, give him 50,000 bonus Qantas points for spending $2,000 in the first three months, cover him with international travel insurance, and give him access to a concierge service. Airport lounge passes and higher rates for overseas spending would also be nice to have, but not as useful as the perks he has secured.
Booking the award flights
Tom and Nick have decided to head to Bali for their holiday. Tom has heard that Qantas releases award flights well ahead of time, and that there may not be too many of them up for grabs, and he’s absolutely right. While Qantas does make some award flights available to Gold and Platinum frequent flyers 353 days in advance of the flight date, Tom is only a Bronze member (having just joined) and he will have to wait until 297 days before departure, and hope that there are some Brisbane-Denpasar award flights still left.
He met his credit card spending for his bonus points, waited a few weeks for them to arrive in his Qantas Frequent Flyer account, and was able to book his Brisbane-Denpasar return economy flights 270 days ahead of his departure, for 40,000 QFF points plus taxes. Many award flights had already disappeared, so his choice was limited (he ended up having to travel a day later than he intended) but luckily Nick (who is paying cash for his airfares) was able to book seats on the same flights.
As usual, Tom’s approach to booking accommodation was thorough. He started researching accommodation options in Kuta and Ubud online, as soon as they had their flights locked in. His first port of call was Wego, which searches for the best deals on a number of other booking sites. After selecting some likely hotels, he also compared prices at Bookings.com and then contacted the hotels directly to see if they would match the prices. Some would, some wouldn’t.
Then a friend recommended a travel agent they had used for their own Bali trip. Tom was surprised to find the agent could better his best prices on two of the hotels. He used the agent to book seven nights in Kuta and four nights in Ubud.
Local currency planning
Tom plans to use his credit card as much as possible while in Bali, appreciating the convenience and planning to redeem the Qantas points he earns for seat upgrades in future, thus more than recouping the card’s overseas transaction fees. But he knows that Bali is a place where he’ll still need to pay cash for some of his purchases, especially smaller items from street vendors. Having estimated how much he’s likely to need in Indonesian Rupiah each day, he applies for a travel money card that allows him to upload rupiah, keeps an eye on the exchange rate and adds enough rupiah to his card when a favourable rate turns up, about a month before he is due to leave.
Nick misses out
Nick is a keen diver and snorkeller, and a couple of weeks before their holiday he reads about the great diving to be had around Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida. It would have been ideal to spend a few days there, but they can’t get out of their pre-booked accommodation and their pre-arranged activities (courtesy of Tom’s credit card concierge service) without losing money. Maybe next time.
Ellie couldn’t decide whether she wanted to go to Bali or Lombok, Bangkok or Koh Samui, Vietnam or Cambodia (or all of them). So she decided to wait and see how she felt a couple of weeks before leaving.
Three weeks to go, and she asked her friend Jess to share her holiday. Jess was keen but couldn’t get leave at short notice. So Ellie will be a solo traveller, which could be more expensive.
Credit card search
Ellie already has quite a lot of Qantas frequent flyer points, so doesn’t need to apply for a bonus points card. She has a NAB Qantas Rewards Premium Card, and knows that she will be able to activate the complimentary overseas travel insurance by paying at least $500 for her pre-booked accommodation, even though she will be paying for her airfares with points.
She does, however, decide to apply for a 28 Degrees Platinum Mastercard to use once she arrives overseas, to take advantage of the fee-free overseas transactions and Wi-Fi hotspots. Since there’s no annual fee, it costs her nothing to keep it in her wallet for international use only.
Booking the award flights
With two weeks left before the start of her holiday, Ellie starts to look at award flights to Cambodia, keen to see Angkor Wat. But all the award flights were snapped up long ago. Ellie is undaunted. She’s done this before and knows that, if she’s lucky, more award seats may be released closer to her departure date, and she can also check seat availability on non-direct routes with Qantas partner airlines.
It’s fairly stressful, but it pays off. Just two days before her leave is due to begin, Ellie logs in to Qantas at midnight, and is able to book a flight to Siem Reap (near Angkor Wat) via Hong Kong and Shanghai. Her flying time is longer, and she’ll part with a few more points than she would for a direct flight, but for her it’s all part of the adventure.
She wants to leave her options open, so doesn’t book a return flight at this stage, having heard that it’s possible to enter Cambodia without an onward flight booked.
Ellie couldn’t book her accommodation until she had her outward flight secured, so she’s left it pretty late, with only one day left before she leaves. So it’s Airbnb to the rescue, which suits her fine. There are lots of low-cost, five-star options for staying with highly-recommended ‘Superhosts’, and she looks forward to the opportunity of living in the home of a Khmer family in a typical residential area.
She decides to book six nights, then leave the rest open and book accommodation as she goes, relying on the internet (courtesy of those Wi-Fi hotspots) to find the best value accommodation once she arrives.
As it happens, she makes friends with two Kiwi girls staying next door to her in Siem Reap. Their next destination is Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam, and because she has no onward flights or accommodation booked, she can choose to continue her travels with them. This time she’s not so lucky with award flights, but at Wotif.com there are plenty of cheap flights to Ho Chi Minh City on offer, with South East Asian airlines.
While she’s in Vietnam, she’s able to book a flight home for about the same number of points as a new toaster and kettle. She won’t have many points left when she returns, but she’d rather have great memories than a new toaster.
Local currency planning
With no time to plan her currency needs, Ellie has to pick up Cambodian Riel at Tullamarine. She doesn’t get a great exchange rate so doesn’t buy many riel, but she will keep her cash spending to a minimum by using her 28 Degrees Platinum Mastercard wherever she can. This also means that, when she changes course and heads to Vietnam, she doesn’t have a pocketful of riel and suffer a second exchange rate loss.
Ellie misses nothing
By leaving everything until the last minute, Ellie may have caused herself some unnecessary stress, but she’s a bit of an adrenaline junkie anyway. She fell in love with Vietnam, which she may never have discovered if she’d planned way ahead.
Who did it best?
Both of them.
They each did what was best for their temperament, and what they wanted from their holiday.
Tom locked everything in and relaxed, free to contemplate lazy days on the beach followed by white water rafting in the mountains. (Pity about the diving.) He’ll have plenty of frequent flyer points for the next holiday in his account when he returns, but maybe a bigger phone bill than he’d hoped for.
Ellie flew by the seat of her pants and enjoyed every minute of the wild ride. She still saved money on airfares, her phone bill and overseas transaction fees, and extracted the best value she could from her frequent flyer points. Plus, she made some like-minded new friends, so she won’t need to travel solo next time.
Disclaimer: The case studies described in this post are meant to represent possible situations only and are not accounts from real people.