Friday, December 23, 2016

Days 1 and 2: Travel to Thailand

Our adventure began early in the morning with a short flight from Seattle to San Francisco on Alaska Airline at 6:50 a.m. I can't say much about that flight, I think I slept through most of it.

Upon arriving in San Fran, we rushed to the Air China desk because we wanted to see if there were any upgrades available for our long flight from San Francisco to Beijing. When we got to the window, it was closed, with a sign that it would open about an hour later. We decided to camp out and be at the front of the line when it opened. I'm glad we did - the line grew longer and longer behind us!

When the Air China window finally opened (a little while after the time posted on the sign), we asked for an upgrade and were told that there were two seats available in economy plus (I think they may have called it "Super Economy"?).  Even better, our seats would have an empty seat between them. Sold! This upgrade was only for the San Francisco-Beijing leg of the flight, we'd be in regular economy for the Beijing-Bangkok leg of the flight.

By the time we got through the line we still had a couple of hours so we went looking for a lounge to relax in. We chose the United lounge, which I think cost about $50 per person. At least it included food, drinks, wi-fi and comfy chairs. If you have a pass, do it. If not, you may want to check out The Points Guy who has some great pointers for passing time at the SFO.

After a couple of mimosas, we were ready to rejoin the masses and head to our gate. Off to Beijing!

A few notes about the flight on Air China. First, economy plus was well worth it. We had a little more room, especially with the empty seat between us. Second, they had a decent entertainment system. For example, I watched "The Secret Life of Pets" which had just come out on iTunes a day or two before we left.

Things we worried about for the flight: power at the seat and wi-fi.  Good news: There is a USB port at the seats in super economy.  Bad news: There was no power at the seats in regular economy. And there was no wi-fi anywhere to be found.

More importantly, you were not allowed to use an iPhone on the flight! Not even in airplane mode! This was really disappointing because I had researched ahead of time how to entertain myself and had come up with the plan of listening to podcasts because it wouldn't use much battery power. Now I had a USB charging port, and wasn't allowed to use my iPhone. I ended up watching a few movies on my iPad, which, strangely, was allowed, and taking a few short naps.

For more info on the flight, I found, once again, the Points Guy to be helpful and accurate: especially when it came to reviews of the food.  My tip: skip the soup!

In Beijing, we had a fairly quick layover before our flight to Bangkok (less than 2 hours), so we zoomed through the airport. We had to go through security in Beijing, and I would note that we saw them taking away a lot of people's portable battery packs.  For more info, see this advisory: Air Travel: Power Banks without Clear Product Identification are Prohibited I also found them to be extremely picky on what they considered a "liquid," for example, I did not take my solid deodorant out of my bag but then the guard made a big deal out of taking it out and pointing to the sign about taking liquids out of your bag.

Also note that the Beijing airport was freezing. I mean, brrr.... freezing.  We had almost an hour to wait at the gate and we weren't the only ones shivering. Some people had their Air China blankets with them, others were bundled in coats. I'm not sure if it's worth bringing a coat just to be comfortable for that hour, but taking the blanket from the Air China flight seemed like a great idea.

The flight to Bangkok was a little less enjoyable because we sat in Economy like commoners: no entertainment and no room to stretch out. Thankfully, this flight was a lot shorter than the first leg (5 hours rather than 12 hours).

When you're close to landing in Bangkok, the flight attendants will hand out arrival cards for you to fill out. Definitely have a pen on hand, and definitely fill it out on the plane. When we arrived the lines were very long, and they were taking people out of line who didn't have their cards filled out.

When we landed in Bangkok, we knew we needed to get cash. We passed the first ATMs and money exchange windows because there were long times. Thankfully, as we got closer to customs and baggage claim (it was a long walk!), we found ATMs and money exchange windows without any line.

There was a long line, however, for customs. This was also where we got out first feel for the heat in Thailand, as there was no air conditioning in this part of the airport.  We made it through and picked up our luggage.  By that point, we had noticed a few other people with "Affordable Asia" pins on their shirts, so we were starting to see who would be in our tour group.

We had one weird hiccup in the Bangkok airport. The directions from Affordable Asia read:
Please go through Customs and Immigrations on your own.  After you pick up your luggage, exit the baggage claim area from exit C and look for the Affordable Asia representative holding an Affordable Asia flag or sign.  Please wear your Affordable Asia badge for easy identification.   

We picked up our luggage and then lugged it all the way to one end to go through Exit C, only to go through the Exit and find out that the meeting point was closer to where we picked up our luggage, back in the direction we had come from.

By the time we met up it was well past midnight.  We got to meet Kitty, and P.A., who would be our (excellent!) guide.  Kitty got us boarded on the bus to our hotel (the Amari Watergate Bangkok) and welcomed us with her funny jokes, keeping us entertained and awake for the ride to the hotel, which was about a half hour.

We got into the airport well after 1 a.m., and knew we would only have a few hours to sleep before meeting up with the tour in the morning.  But that didn't stop us from marveling at the beauty of our corner suite.  We were thankful that we had opted for the upgrade and would have 3 nights to enjoy this beautiful room.

Jon in the office area of our hotel suite.

Sofa for lounging, and the doorway to the dressing area.

One of the bathrooms in our suite.

The big bed and the dressing area. 
We showered to get the germs of travel off of us and then we hit the hay. The next day was a big day -- our first day in Thailand!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Thailand: Booking and Planning

Back in January, almost a full year ago, on a whim, I bought a Groupon tour of Thailand. What was I thinking? Who buys their travel on Groupon, especially on something as big as a trip to Thailand? This wasn't like booking a hotel room for a night, this was a full-fledged 12 day tour. Like I said, what was I thinking?

The tour was through Affordable Asia, and was their 12 day itinerary including Bangkok, River Kwai, Ayuthaya, Pattaya, Bangkok, and Chiang Mai.

In the months that followed, I did as much research as I could on our destinations, our itinerary, and Affordable Asia. While I found a lot of great information about the places we would visit, I couldn't find many reviews of Affordable Asia. So, here I am to add mine to the internet for the next adventure-seeker who considers an Affordable Asia vacation. 

Short version: It was fantastic. If you're on the fence, go for it. Especially if it's your first trip to Asia, I think it's a great way to get a perfect introduction.  

And below, and in the posts that I think will follow in the next few days, is a much longer version of my memories and photos and thoughts on our tour. I hope you enjoy traveling with me and I hope that this info is helpful to someone considering this or a similar tour.

First let me say that when you get to Thailand, it's not actually Affordable Asia running your tour. Our guides, for example, were through "Perfect Tours." I can't really tell you what the division is between the two companies, who was responsible for which part of the tour, etc. I'd guess that if you went on an Affordable Asia tour in another country (they have tours in Japan and China, for example), your tour would be through another company. Therefore, I can't speak to the quality of the tours in every country, but at this point I would trust that Affordable Asia is dealing with responsible and proficient tour companies.  

Throughout the process, our communication with Affordable Asia was good. For example, I knew I wanted to book our tour for trip for the week around Thanksgiving. I also figured that we wanted to leave out of San Francisco. (The other choice was Los Angeles.) When I bought the Groupon, that week was available. When I had the Groupon and took the code into Affordable Asia to book, that week was gone. I immediately had regrets. Did I just fall for a $3,000 scam? I emailed Groupon, worried. Groupon responded that I should call Affordable Asia directly to see if we could work it out before going any further. I called Affordable Asia and told the woman what happened. She said "Oh, I see what the problem is... try it now." And, instantly, the problem was fixed. And my faith in Affordable Asia was already growing.

Leading up to our vacation, I checked more often. There were a number of optional tours to choose from, but I decided I wanted to do some more research before booking any of them. As it was, our schedule was pretty full without any optional tours. 

One of the things that I did see pop up on our reservation website, in addition to the optional tours, was an optional hotel upgrade. For $189 a person, we could upgrade to a corner suite at the Amari Watergate, where we were staying for 3 nights.  At first I wasn't sure. But then we read that the suite came with access to an executive lounge which had a happy hour every night... and a 24-hour butler... and we were sold.  

Complementary drinks in the executive lounge at the Amari Watergate - Bankok.

Most of the optional tours could be booked while we were in Thailand (for a slightly higher price), but I figured booking a hotel needed a little pre-planning if we wanted our room to be guaranteed.  So, we booked that. 

The other thing that we booked was a day trip to "Chiang Rai and Golden Triangle and Don Sao Island of Laos." I read the description of that side trip, along with the fact that it came with a boat ride into Laos, and I was sold. 

What I can say, if you're unsure about whether to book the optional tours, is that there is definitely an opportunity to book each of them while you're in Thailand. And, on average, the difference is about $10 more. But it's not like any of the optional tours sold out or filled up, and our guide always asked us if we wanted to join the optional experiences as they came up. 

As far as packing, I'd say that these were the most helpful and indispensable items we picked up before we left: packing cubes, power converters, and power strips with USB outlets and converters.

I was not compensated in any way for my review of Affordable Asia, but my shopping links provide Amazon referrals for which I receive a small compensation at no extra cost to you.