Travel Tips

Travel Agencies – to get or not to get

A cousin of mine is preparing for their first trip to Hong Kong and has been asking for my help in preparing for the trip. First, she wanted to get a travel agency and pass the planning and all the little details of traveling to a third party. Then after doing a bit of computation, she decided to ditch the agency and do the trip on her own. So which is better? Get an agency? Or do it on your own?

First, a disclosure. I never bothered getting an agency in all my travels and I have a feeling that it’s someone whose services I won’t be needing for a long time.

Yes, I toyed with the idea of getting a travel agency way back 2008 when the siblings and I decided to go to Hong Kong on a last hurrah prior to me tying the knot. But after repeated negotiations, the initial small amount ballooned to a few more thousand bucks. Fed up, I terminated the agreement and decided to do the planning on my own.


Personally, I think getting a travel agency is a case-to-case basis.

If you plan on going to a country who doesn’t require much arrangement and is just a skip, a hop or a jump away from this great country of ours, do yourself a favor and dispense with the agency. You might be surprised of the things you’ll learn researching about the country and the trip itself. If you are going to Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia or even Bangkok — countries that are very easy to navigate (provided you have enough info and good research in your hands), surprise yourself and plan the trip yourself.

If the trip is not complicated, you have access to the internet and a keen sense of adventure, just do the itinerary and location-hunting on your own. Personally, it’s one of the best things when it comes to traveling. Getting lost, discovering hole-in-the-wall eatery and bonding with family and friends just getting a lost and having fun. I am a believer that while it’s fun to do research and plan a trip ahead — it should also be a balance of enjoying the sights at a leisurely pace. You wouldn’t want to feel like you are a contestant of The Amazing Race right? Shuffling from one place to another, barely enjoying the sights.

If you’re like me who’s perpetually on a budget, then better do away with the agency. Getting a travel agency does not come cheap and services usually come with a lot of caveat/exclusions save for the hotel, transfers and compulsory city tours that will bring you to jewelry centres, floating markets and other factories. Also note that you will have to pay for your travel guide’s gratuity, which is usually exempted from the usual fees you pay from the agency.

However, note that getting a travel agency has a lot of perks.

First, if your itinerary involves a cross-country crossing, or multiple countries in one trip, then get an agency. You will need the expertise and advice of a travel agent who will help you negotiate rates, find hotels and ensure that your crossing from one country to another is as seamless as possible.

Second, having an agency means that there’s someone who will look out for you – this includes having your insurance in order, having someone to take care of cancellations and changed dates and basically deal with all the nitty-gritty of travel.

Third, obviously having an agency saves you time. Time not spent researching for one place to another, or having transportation arranged for you as you try to navigate a country.

Which ever way you go, getting a travel agency really depends according to your comfort level, and of course, the money you have in the bank. If you’d rather not break a sweat and you have the moolah to burn, then go with having professional help as you travel.

Well, as for my cousin, she ended up DIYing the trip — with the big probability that I’ll be coaching her and one of her kids prior to their trip (same date as our Taipei trip). She already booked City Econo Guesthouse, the same hostel where my family and I stayed last October. When I brought her along during the Travel Expo, she almost signed with an agency but changed her mind (again) after the computation was presented to her.

Considering that she’s bringing six adult kids with her (yes, my cousin procreates really good), I think they can wing it in Hong Kong, a place known for organized transportation system and where all attractions are labeled accordingly. Presence of mind and a good sense of adventure is all the she needs to make it work and to make their trip memorable.

Travel Tips

BPI ePrepaid Express Card: A Convenient Booking Tool (without the dreaded credit card bill!)

After marrying the hubby, one of the first things to go were my credit cards. Aware that budgeting is not one of my greatest skills, the hubby decided to cut-off and discontinue all my cards.

To quote, “I should learn to live according to my means.”

Unfortunately, a credit card is a very important tool for travel fiends like me — yes, even if I am pretty much always after a very good deal.

A few posts back, I insinuated about getting an ePrepaid card in order to fund my online purchases like plane tickets and hotel reservations. After a while, it gets pretty tiring asking people to book your tickets for you. After choosing between two banks, I figured that it’s better to get BPI since my savings and payroll account are both from the same bank. This lessens the hassle of transferring from one bank to another. I just log in using my Express Online account and voila! It’s locked and loaded and ready to use for online booking!

Booking to the CityInn Hotel Plus Ximending using my BPI ePrepaid

Booking to the CityInn Hotel Plus Ximending using my BPI ePrepaid

Applying for an express card is easy. In my case, I applied online by filling out the form available at the BPI Express website. . You will need to indicate the BPI branch nearest you where they will send the prepaid card after 5 days.

You will need to pay PHP500 while claiming the card — then if you have express online, apply it to said feature so that you can transfer money from your savings account to the debit card. This is what I did especially with the pressing need to find and book a hotel for the upcoming Taipei trip.

I already got the chance to use my ePrepaid Card when I chanced upon CityInn Hotel Plus on TripAdvisor. While I mentioned in one of my earlier post that I am partial to getting Keyman’s Hotel due to its proximity to Taipei Main Train station and to its marvelous Japanese rooms, I decided to go with CityInn due to its amazing room designs, its sleek interiors and the fact that it’s new. It also doesn’t help that it consistently rated high at Trip Advisor.

I was actually supposed to book the CityInn Hotel III which was nearest the Taipei Main Station but a quick check on their very efficient reservations system revealed an almost filled up hotel, the same goes for its CityInn Hotel II branch. In the end, I decided to go with City Inn Hotel Plus is Ximending, the so-called Harajuku of Taipei.

Cliche as they may sound — booking is as easy as 1-2-3. To confirm my reservations and in order to pay the 30% deposit, I entered my card details similar to how you do it with a credit card. Booking was immediately confirmed. After just an hour, I already had CityInn Hotel Plus calling my mobile phone long distance to confirm the reservations and arrange the transfers from airport to the city (we are arriving at 12:40 and after immigration and all that, might be able to go out the airport by 1:30AM).

So, if you are the type to trawl the various websites of airlines looking for cheap deals and still wouldn’t want to get buried in credit card debt, perhaps you might be interested in getting a prepaid card. This way, we can still satiate our wanderlust yet still be responsible with out finances.

Travel Tips

Debit card for online airline purchase?

With the possibility of a financial windfall looming in the horizon (Christmas Bonus, represennnnnt!!!), I have already decided that I am already way past buying new clothes and the silly little things that depreciate with time. I am setting my sights on moving to a new home, building a savings account and a travel fund.

The travel fund, I intend to keep in a savings account which I plan to link in a prepaid/debit card which I can use for purchasing plane tickets. You see, if I have my way, I’d rather not use a credit card. In most of my travels, I always managed to pay in cash. And except for purchasing plane tickets, I’d rather pay in cash. Maybe, it’s my thing now: “I will not spend money I haven’t earned yet.”

But of course, just because I am trying to be financially intelligent means I will forego my love of travel. Oh no. In fact, I consider the opportunity to get away as a reward as I set myself on the right path to financial freedom.

Anyway, after a few hours searching the net, I whittled my choice to two possibilities:

BPI My ePrepaid Mastercard

BPI My ePrepaid Mastercard (from BPI website)

My ePrepaid is the first reloadable MasterCard® prepaid card in the Philippines offered by BPI. This allows cardholders to securely and conveniently shop in any Matercard-affiliated stores in the Philippines and abroad. The card has a validity of two years and can be loaded to as high as PHP50,000 through over the counter deposits. (Read more here)

This definitely will work to my advantage since I have a BPI savings account that I am currently maintaining. I can easily link one of my accounts and transfer money to put funds in the prepaid card. So far, the only drawback for me is that whatever money placed inside the prepaid card remains inside since the card has no withdrawal function.

Unionbank EON Visa Debit Card

Unionbank EON Visa

The EON is an internet-based deposit account from Unionbank that allows online banking transactions. The card also accepts electronic fund transfers to any bank in the Philippines. EON also allows Paypal withdrawals, along with online purchase. (Read more here)

While I have a Paypal account, I am still wary of getting the EON Card. Firstly, this will require me to open a new bank account in a different bank, aside from the one that I currently maintain. As much as I would love to do this, maintaining one bank account is already a challenge for me and having to open another one would be too much I think for my brain to process (my brain automatically shuts down for anything that concerns numbers).

Hopefully, I’ll have something figured out by the end of the month. I am really raring to start my travel fund and figured that the earnings I have from my freelance job can serve as a good seed money.

I plan to use the debit card solely for purchasing tickets online. Obviously, many of the country’s budget airlines have been releasing a lot of online promos and I always get frustrated when I have to see ticket sale announcements and I have no means to purchase tickets. Paying over the counter is really much of a hassle, especially since I will have to drag myself to the airline’s partner merchants.

I have never really gotten over the fact that I passed up on the chance to go to Japan last September. What made me more desperate is that I’ve found not a few people who tried their luck and was able to secure a visa, because they dared book a ticket. After seeing some of their pictures and hearing their stories, I became more determined to see my dream country next year.

Who knows? This maybe a good start. What about you? How do you book your tickets?

Asia, South Korea, Travel Tips

Step by step visa application for South Korea

the South Korean Embassy – Manila (from the embassy’s FB page)

After a successful and memorable Busan and Seoul trip last March, I posted a step-by-step South Korean tourist visa application in my other blog. Following the trip, many of my friends have sent me text messages or even asked me personally about getting a tourist visa for South Korea. I am reposting my experience as well as the tips that worked best for me so that other people might use it as they start planning for their own Seoul Searching trip.

First, my trip was completely, right off the bat, unexpected. Only my sister was supposed to go but her travel buddy had an unexpected family tragedy. Prior to the trip, I have been researching her Korea trip for the last four months, realizing that it won’t cost me anything to apply for a 59D visa (single entry). After finding that I have enough in my bank account to risk getting a bank certificate, I decided that I won’t lose anything should I take a chance an apply for a 59D.

First, allow me to address a misconception. No one knows how much money you should have in your bank in order to get approved. To be honest with you, I have less than PHP50,000 in the bank (more on the lower five figures). There are other factors that the consul consider other than your bank account. It can either be your tenure at your current job, your stability or connection in the Philippines or maybe even the money in your bank account. So for those with less money in the bank but is willing to risk it…I say go for it. Applying for a visa is free. No one really knows if you’ll get approved or not.

“Winging it” and “risking it” turned out positive for me. Valentine’s Day 2011 was made extra memorable not because of any undying declarations of love, but because I realized that I am indeed going to Seoul in three weeks time.

As my way of giving back to the unnamed faces whose post in the internet who helped me get through the visa application process, I am sharing what I knew based from my experience and the many researches that I did early this year.

Process explained below is for TOURIST VISA (59D), SINGLE ENTRY.

Here’s the step-by-step process:

1. Make sure all your documents are complete. This includes the following:
– Application form (downloaded file from the South Korean embassy) which you print using A4 paper. On the application form, attach your most recent passport-sized photo (white background). Please have your photo taken on a really good photography shop.

– Photocopy of the first page (the information page) of your passport.

– Certificate of employment from your current employer indicating your tenure in the company, salary and position. It’s important that in your company letterhead, the company’s complete address and telephone number is indicated. For the love of God, do not even ATTEMPT to submit a fake employment certificate. I heard that someone from the embassy really calls our employers to verify. Please do not do anything stupid which will affect the reputation of other Filipino travelers.

– Bank certificate. The certificate usually indicates how much you have in the bank as of date of request. This is easy to request. In BPI for example, you can get your bank certificate for as less than an hour. You will just have to pay PHP100 (USD2) to facilitate your request. For BDO account holders, my friend told me that you will get your bank certificate the next day.

– Income Tax Return (ITR) Form 2306 – this is a non-negotiable requirement. If you don’t have your current ITR, try submitting your old ITR either from the year before. In fact, I used an ITR issued to me by my former company. I stayed for less than six months in that company hence my contribution rate was minuscule. I was most worried about this document, but apparently the one I submitted qualified.

2. As soon as you have all your documents in order, you are ready to take the next step! Go directly to the South Korean Embassy located in McKinley Hill in Taguig. If you are based in Manila and can spare a few hours of your time, you do not need to have your applications coursed through a travel agency. Coursing your visa application through a travel agency will just cost you money. If you don’t have anything else to do, do it yourself. The application process is easy and very fool-proof. The embassy accepts visa applications from 9AM to 12NN from Monday to Friday. Please bring valid ID so that you can go past the kind guards manning the gate.

3. Submit all your documents. As soon as you enter the Visa Application area, you will see a receptionist stationed near the door. She will ask you if you have a visa in any of the OECD countries (like Japan, USA, Australia, Shengen, etc) — she will ask you this in order to identify which window will accept your application. If you are a first time traveler or don’t have visa from any of the countries indicated in the list, you will be referred to Window 1. She will give you a stub indicating your number.

My sister and I was assigned to Window 1 — while waiting for our number to be called, we arranged our documents and made sure they are neat and presentable. We also arranged them based on the order indicated in the embassy website. Make sure that your documents are neat and presentable. It never hurts to give a good impression to the consul.

When your number is called, approach the assigned window and give your papers to the Consul. He may or he may not ask you questions about your trip. Don’t get nervous and answer him as truthfully as possible. Tell him you are going to Seoul so that you can make Lee MinHo realize that he is meant to be your better half. Or that you are there on a mission to stalk Super Junior. RULE OF THUMB: Please do not lie.

4. After submitting your documents, the consul will hand you a piece of paper which will indicate when you can pick-up your passport. Whatever happens, do not lose that paper. Guard it with your life.

Indicated is the date and time when you can come back to get your passport. Do not lose the paper since that is the only requirement in getting your passport.

After you have the paper, you can now go home and hyperventilate in the safety of your room. You have done your share, let the universe (and fate) take over.

First, a word of caution –just because you submitted the documents does not mean that you are automatically granted a visa. No one knows what will get you approved or denied, except the Consul. You can pick-up your passport on the date indicated on the piece of paper (2PM to 4PM ONLY).

Leave your ID at the guard, pass by the receptionist and get a number and wait for your number to be called. The consul will hand you your passport, and you may check if you have been granted a visa before leaving the embassy grounds.

If your passport does not contain anything but a stamp indicating “APPLICATION RECEIVED” and you are handed a piece of paper with procedures for reapplication printed, it means your application was denied. You will have to wait another six months before you can plot your KPOP staking campaign once again.

REMEMBER — These are based on my personal experience only, and should not be taken as hard facts. For a more comprehensive process, go to the embassy website.

So what did I learn?
1.It pays to do your research.
2. Always be nice to people. You will never know when you will be left wanting for their help and assistance.
3. Do not lie. Be honest always.
4. If in doubt, do not be afraid to ask for directions.

getting a SK tourist visa

Our 59D Visa last March 2012

I hope this post will be of help to you. It may look daunting at first, but I am the perfect example that it is not impossible.