6 tips on booking high-season trips for less, plus 5 Christmas beach get-aways for Hongkongers
It’s time to plan your holidays, but high demand and steep prices can make booking a headache. Insiders tell us when to go for less and where to avoid the crowds
Soft sand between the toes, warm turquoise water gently lapping at the feet and the sun beating down from a clear blue sky is a tempting way to see in the festive break. And with an abundance of top beach destinations all sitting a stone’s throw from Hong Kong, Christmas holidays are on the cards for many.
However, choosing to travel during this so-called premium peak season can bring with it a whole host of headaches. “Traditionally speaking, this is the most popular time to travel so many of the sites can get quite busy, and hotel prices can increase,” says Jack Bartholomew, Khiri Travel’s regional director.
Japanese capital Tokyo is the favourite Christmas season holiday destination for Hongkongers, followed by Osaka, Seoul and Taipei, according to Fang Fang, marketing manager at flight-finding website Skyscanner (skyscanner.com.hk).
Even if you’re travelling to a less popular spot, make sure you book soon, or you may not get the flights you want.
“To get the best deals on flights to Asia, book at least one and a half months ahead,” advises Debby Soo, Asia Pacific vice-president of kayak.com.hk.
Visiting the archipelago of Langkawi, with its duty-free status, won’t burn a hole in your pockets. But its offering of bargain booze does attract hoards of locals desperate to enjoy the significantly cheaper luxuries in life. At 478.5 sq km, rugged Langkawi is the largest of Malaysia’s 99 tiny tropical islands, and despite being home to a plethora of restaurants, hotels, bars and shops, remains relatively undeveloped. While Christmas is busy, the many quiet pockets of the island offer escape. Inland, traditional villages are tucked away in thick rainforest and skirt the many paddy fields, while waterfalls crash into expansive lakes, all set against the island’s mountainous backdrop. It's fringed with white beaches, of which Pantai Cenang and Pantai Kok are the most popular; their long stretches of sand mean a short walk to find a secluded spot.
Ngapali Beach, Myanmar
Not renowned as a beach destination, Myanmar is home to a host of untouched islands that are waiting to be explored. With white sands set against the deep blue Bay of Bengal, Ngapali looks set to become the country’s exclusive getaway. Even during peak season, the 20km of coast stays sleepy, with little more than a dozen bungalow resorts. While development looms, authenticity is here for now and visitors can soak up the sun while watching fishermen land their catch in rickety wooden boats and ox-drawn carts make their way along the beach.
Koh Kong Island, Cambodia
To really experience isolated idyllic island life during Christmas, add Cambodia’s largest island to the list. A diamond in the rough, Koh Rong Island has seven coconut palm-fringed beaches on its west coast, interspersed by hidden lagoons. The interior of the island, which is controlled by the military and forbidden to visitors, is full of rolling hills. On the east of the island sits the only inhabited spot, the fishing village of Alatang. For those wanting to explore this raw terrain, there is one bungalow resort on the island, as well as a handful of homestays and camping, which is recommended with a guide.
Phu Quoc, Vietnam
This Vietnamese island is fast becoming the country’s beach destination. Now home to an international airport and with the government recently scrapping the US$60 tourist visa charge for several countries, Phu Quoc is the perfect place to celebrate Christmas. Development on the once-deserted island is rapidly picking up pace, but for now, visitors can still escape the crowds while indulging in some prime beach-hopping.
Bai Sao in the southwest is postcard perfect and pretty much people-free, with swaying palm trees, white sands and warm shallow waters to wade through. The north of the island is ideal to escape the development, which is sweeping across the south. Here, a stunning national park hugs the island with several small villages waiting to be explored.
Bantayan Island, Philippines
For the ultimate lazy beach experience, Bantayan Island, to the north of Cebu, ticks all the boxes. There are no diving, canoeing or boat trips available, just white sands and calm crystal clear waters. Despite the lack of activities, the beach remains relatively lively, with fantastic food shacks and drinking spots. The chilled out town of Santa Fe, on the southern tip, is where the majority of low-key resorts are based. It is also home to a stretch of beach. Getting there can be tricky, with no commercial airline flying to the island, making Mactan Cebu International Airport the closest, but it is well worth the plane, bus and boat trek, with fishing villages dotting the coast, and peace and tranquillity available by the bucket load.
Top tips for bagging a bargain
1. Fly early: data from flight-finding website, Skyscanner, reveals by departing on December 18 or 21, travellers can save up to 25 per cent. “Avoid departure dates on December 19, 20 or 22, where flights can be up to 35 per cent more expensive than on December 24 and 25,” says Skyscanner marketing manager Fang Fang.
2. Even during peak season, prices in developing countries, such as Myanmar and Cambodia, remain low, making these affordable destinations for those with tight budgets.
3. Popular hotels and guest houses will fill up quickly but it’s always worth dropping the hotel an email directly if a booking website says it’s full. Often hotels hold a few spaces back.
4. Research conducted by kayak.com.hk says the best day to book flights to Asia from Hong Kong is a Thursday; for a hotel room, Friday.
5. If a multicountry trip is on the agenda, good deals can be secured if travellers stay in accommodation in one country that has a sister property in another.
6. Even in the most secluded of places, any resorts with walk-in spaces available will charge extortionate prices. Book in advance, and don’t leave it to chance.