Malaysia 2007 – Bang for Buck!

When we decided to spend some time in SE Asia, we never set out to score the bargain trip of the century, but by necessity we had one eye on the budget as we researched the possibilities.

Initially, we went looking for travel agents that could offer us the best value package to Singapore, Phuket, Krabi and Hua Hin – all tried to talk us out of that combo, some even claiming that it was not possible to arrange such an itinerary. It soon became apparent that we would have to customise existing deals, which would add on expenses that would blow our budget.

To cut a long story short, we ended up binning our Thai travel plans in favour of Malaysia, partly out of budgetary concerns, partly because we began to sense that we were not a good fit for the packages the travel agents were pushing at us, but mainly because we found the prospect most appealing of following our food compasses to a place of culinary repute we had not visited before and that was not on the Aussie tourist radar screen.

Eventually, sick of being told “you can’t do this” and “we don’t arrange that”, we decided to dispense with travel agents altogether and arrange our own itinerary, booking hotel accomodation over the Net.

We went through Qantas Holidays for our flight and KL hotel booking (they had a deal on the Federal Hotel in KL that was better than anything we found on the Net); otherwise, all our booking was done online – we booked hotels ahead for our first three destinations only, Singapore, Melaka and KL. That was as far as we planned. We were still after a holiday in the sun, but figured the odds were good on picking up a short package deal from a travel agency in KL to, say, Sabah, Langkawi or even Phuket that would be better value than anything available in advance from local Perth agents or over the Net – and if not… well, we were confident that things would work out.

As it transpired, we were enjoying Malaysia so much that we changed our holiday-in-the-sun plans in KL and decided to stay on in the Malaysian Peninsula: we selected Penang as our next stop. After 6 yumazing days, we decided to move on to Pangkor Island to laze about on a sun-drenched beach (at last!) for the few days remaining of our time away, but it was low season and all but deserted, and the beaches were nothing special, so we ended up bussing straight on to the Cameron Highlands – a good move!

Thus, our decision to depart from the usual travel agent package tour deal and go it alone gave us the flexibility to change our plans as we progressed through Malaysia. The excellent Malaysian national bus service coverage made spur-of-the-moment travel decisions easy. The downside was some uncertainty about where to go and where to stay, but we needn’t have worried – booking a couple of days ahead on the Net worked out very well. We used and found them excellent. The small commission you pay for their service is more than compensated for by the discounts you can get with a bit of timing luck and the convenience of booking over the Net.

And the bottom line? Before I outline our costs, it is useful to consider a package price as a basis for comparison.

We have friends who are regular visitors to Phuket. They know where to track down the best deals for the type of trip they prefer, which is a couple of care-free weeks staying at their favourite five star hotel. Their recent package comprising airfares, hotel and breakfast was about $1700AUD each for 13 nights.

We were away 22 nights, our itinerary included Singapore, Melaka, KL, Penang, Pangkor Island and the Cameron Highlands, and we stayed at good to very good hotels in deluxe rooms with great views (see below), excellent breakfasts included. We paid $ 1967.00 each.

Averaging our costs down to 13 nights – the length of our friends’ Phuket stay – our self-customised “package” works out at $1217AUD each, or nearly 30% less than their very well-priced Phuket package.

Factor in the extraordinary value of the food in Malaysia and the inexpensive but top quality trans-national bus services, and you have a very cheap trip. All-up our 21 nights away cost us $ 2476.00 AUD each. That’s everything: airfare, accomodation, buses, taxis, food, drinks. Pretty hard to beat.

AND, we could have done it much cheaper. We might have been lumping backpacks around and in genuine travelling mode, but we were “flashpackers”: no self-respecting backpacker would look at the hotels we stayed at in KL and Penang.

View from Sunway Hotel room, Penang
Late afternoon over Penang from our room at the terrific Sunway Hotel

The panoramic spread of KL from our room at the Federal Hotel was spectacular (especially at night), but our pics don’t do it justice, so are not posted here.

Much cheaper, very respectable accomodation is available, and we will probably go less up-market next time we’re in KL (although in Penang, it would be hard to go past the Sunway Hotel, which is brilliantly located, includes a helluva breakfast spread and has charming management and staff). We wouldn’t stay anywhere else but the Puri Hotel in Melaka (around $55 per night twin share). The Hillview Inn in Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands, was also very comfortable and spotlessly clean, and bargain priced at 85RM per night (less than $30AUD, or $15 each).

Conclusion: Our style of trip won’t suit everyone. If you’re after a couple of weeks sunbaking by the pool of a lux hotel and confining your explorations to day trips, or are not interested in exploring at all, local travel agent one-locale packages are still the easiest option. If, like us, you prefer to move around and experience as much of the culture (and specifically, the FOOD) as you can, seriously consider giving travel agents a miss and DIY on the Net. Certainly, DIYing can offer better value than even the best travel agent package deals. And from our experience, you won’t get a much louder bang for your buck than in Malaysia.

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