My husband and I have become experts in taking 5-star vacations at 2-star prices. The only caveat is that to get these tremendous deals, we have to "chase the storm" or travel to areas that have been hit by a natural disaster.
We've been on this quest since we first met in San Francisco after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. We vacationed in the Caribbean in 1998, post-hurricane George. We traveled to France after the 2003 European heat wave. We ventured to Bali after the 2004 tsunami. And just last month we visited Thailand, which has been hit by the worst floods in 50 years.
You might be squirming in your pants as your read this. It sounds callous, even a bit twisted, to take a vacation in an area that is suffering from the effects of an earthquake, tsunami or flood.
But before you sit in judgment, I'd like to make 2 points:
First, in many of these disaster zones, the damage is confined to a small area. Case in point: although the press reported for weeks that Bangkok was "under water," what we found on the ground when we arrived was a city that was dry and open for business.
Second, for countries that rely on tourism, a natural disaster can plunge their economy into a free fall that can take years to reverse. We've found again and again that when we travel to countries hit by natural disaster, the locals are very happy to have us there.
An example of my last point: our tour guide, Nina, from B.E. Tours in Bangkok told us that we were her first clients in 3 weeks. "People read the international news and think, 'Oh, Bangkok is flooded. I can't go there.' The truth is, most of the city never even saw water. We need more tourists to come. We need the business."
Don't get me wrong. I'm not advising you to fly into the eye of a hurricane for the sake of saving a few bucks on your next vacation. But, if you are willing to do your homework and take the necessary precautions--including heeding State Department travel advisories and buying travel insurance(!)--you can get some pretty incredible deals AND do your part in helping the locals get back on their feet.
There are 3 basic steps to "chasing the storm," which, if followed carefully, may just provide you with that dream vacation that's been on your bucket list for years.
1. Choose Your Destination
2. Find the Deals
3. Prepare and Pack
In choosing your destination, be smart. Don't travel to a place like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or Haiti after the devastating 2010 quake. Both places faced conditions that were uninhabitable and dangerous even for the locals, and both places are still recovering years after the initial impact.
Do your homework before you pick your location. ReIad the news, check State Department advisories, and browse through online travel forums (Fodors and Tripadvisor.com post daily updates from travelers on the ground in affected areas) to make an educated decision about how bad things really are on the ground.
Everybody we knew advised us against traveling to Thailand last month-- our friends, family, even our doctor. The images shown on the Internet and television were ghastly--children floating on makeshift boats down the street, mothers wading through 2 feet of water with food carried on their heads. Newspapers reported that drinking water was scarce, tourist sites were closed, and water-borne illnesses like giardia and cryptosporidiosis were rampant.
Being a journalist, I was skeptical of the media hype. It takes a lot to "sell" a story, and the press has been known to exaggerate a story for the sake of sales. To find what was really going on with people on the ground, I read through online travel forums and contacted Bangkok-based travel agencies and tour operators to see if they were open and running. I also kept my eye on travel warnings issued by the government.
From what I could discern from these non-media sources, the flooding situation was confined to provinces outside of Bangkok, most of which were not tourist destinations. Central Bangkok was dry and open for business, including the international airport and all domestic flights within the country. The U.K. lifted its advisory to travel in Bangkok a few days before we were set to leave (although the U.S. government had yet to follow suit).
When we arrived in Bangkok on November 20, we were happy to find flights were running on time, roads were open, and people were back to work as usual. In fact, the only sign of flooding were the ubiquitous piles of sandbags stacked high around hotels, restaurants, piers and entryways to tourist sites.
Traveling to a country that has been hit by a natural disaster puts you, the traveler, in the driver's seat when it comes to finding deals. Oftentimes, you will need to call or email hotels ahead of time and ask about deals, since they are not always listed online.
For example, The Peninsula Hotel Bangkok, a perenially CondeNast Gold Lister and haven for jetsetters and international business travelers, was not advertising specials on their website. I knew from my research, however, that occupancy rates at the hotel had fallen to 15 to 20% because of the flooding.
The deals were mine for the asking. We booked a Deluxe river-view room, including a full breakfast buffet, for $199/night-- a significant mark-down from typical rates at this time of the year, which is the high season in Bangkok. We also took advantage of a buy-one, get-one free 90 massage in the Peninsula's award-winning spa. Although we found less expensive massages at other massage parlors throughout the city, spending time in the Zen-like tranquility of the Peninsula spa made the extra cash outlay well worth it.
As an added benefit, I was happy to hear that the Peninsula was doing its part to help victims of the flood.
"We are housing staff members and their families who have been displaced by the flooding," said Chaleenuch Visith, Director of Public Relations for the Peninsula Bangkok. "We have also given away meals and bottled water. In Thailand, people help one another."
Although areas like Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai to the north, and Phuket and Ko Samui to the south, were completely unaffected by the floods, they were still suffering from a negative post-flood perception problem.
"When you're far away and see these headlines, you may choose Indonesia or some place else to spend you holiday," said Benedikt De Bellis, General Manager at Opus One restaurant in Phuket. "People don't realize that Thailand is a big place and that these events don't affect the whole country."
In the north, we spent 2 nights at the Anantara Golden Triangle, a Zen-luxe retreat in the jungle hills of Chiang Saen. The hotel was offering an all-inclusive 2-night package which, for $856, gave us a Deluxe Room, all of our meals (not a bad idea since there are few restaurants in town to choose from), and a choice of one of the following: a 1-day elephant training, a half-day cooking class, or a 3-country tour in which you visit Burma, Laos and the local hill tribes.
Since the Anantara is home to Thailand's Elephant Conservation Center, we chose to spend a day with the elephants. I'd venture to say that our "mahout" training was the highlight of our time in Thailand. Thanks to our amazing teacher and head mahout, Seng, we were able to get up close and personal with these gentle giants. We were taught the basic commands needed to "steer" the elephants on a 1-hour trek, which ended with an unforgettable bath in the Mekong River--elephants, riders and mahouts.
Heading down to the beaches in the south of Thailand, we were surprised to find the sands relatively empty for this time of the year. Large hotel chains such as the J.W. Marriott and the Renaissance Phuket were offering big discounts to entice guests back. We chose to splurge and stay at Trisara Phuket, a small, ultra-luxe boutique property that has counted Kate Moss, Demi Moore and Hilary Clinton as guests. We were not disappointed.
According to Anthony Lark, the affable Aussie general manager of Trisara, Trisara is focused on privacy and creating a welcoming atmosphere. "Nobody at Trisara is a second-class citizen," he told me. "Everyone's room has a full-on sea view. Nobody is presented with a bill until the end of their stay."
Since the hotel was at full occupancy, I didn't expect much of a discount. Entry-level rooms--each with a full sea-view and a private plunge pool-- started at $695 per night. The American Express Platinum perks, including a cascading buffet breakfast and a free room upgrade, made the price tag a bit more palatable. The hotel was offering a few incentives, including 25% off all massages and, for guests staying 3 nights or more nights, a complimentary cruise to the limestone caves of Phang Nga Bay on the hotel's sports cruiser.
You wouldn't think that airlines would offer much in the way of deals, even in light of a natural disaster. After all, fuel is fuel, and the airlines need to cover their costs. Most of our travel within Thailand was done on Air Asia, the wonderfully thrifty discount carrier (reminded me of the old People's Express) which runs much like a train service--flights leave every hour or so from Bangkok to other cities in Thailand and around Asia. Getting from Bangkok to Phuket was a mere $50 per person when booked ahead online.
Some of the large carriers like Thai Airways were discounting fares on international routes to entice passengers back to Thailand. Last month, round-trip fares from Los Angeles to Bangkok in Economy class were advertised at $1,400. Round-trip seats in Business class were advertised at $3800, about half of what they normally charge. Many of the major carriers, including United and Thai Air were allowing passengers to change travel dates without fees or surcharges despite that fact that Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport was operating as normal.
When traveling to a remote location, it's wise to check with a doctor to see which vaccinations and other pre-trip health preparations might be necessary. You may also want to check on the health care component of your travel insurance plan, just in case you need to be hospitalized or airlifted out of the region. Better safe than sorry, I always say.
Regardless of where I go, I like to bring a first aid kit with me, which includes the following:
• Over-the-counter pain killers (Tylenol and Advil)
• Alcohol wipes
• Band-aids and antibiotic cream (Neosporin)
• Hydrocortisone cream (for insect bites)
• Immodium or anti-diarrheal medicine
• Extra prescription medications, in case of a travel delay
• Prescription antibiotics such as Cipro (for stomach problems) and Xithromax
It is also smart to check the U.S. State Department website in the weeks prior to your trip. This website provides country-specific travel information for every country of the world, including the location of the U.S. embassy and any consular offices; whether you need a visa; crime and security information; health and medical conditions; drug penalties; and localized hot spots. You can go here to check travel alerts and travel warnings for specific countries.
I also recommend bringing copies of key documents, such as your driver's license, passport, and toll-free numbers to report lost or stolen credit cards. Some people even recommend checking in with the U.S. Embassy or Consulate of the country you are visiting so they have record that you are there.
Samantha Parent Walravens is the author of TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, chosen by the New York Times as the first pick for the Motherlode Book Club.
Follow Samantha Parent Walravens on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@nosuperwoman