SMALL GROUP TOUR PLANNING – VIETNAM
SMALL GROUP ACTIVITIES
One comment about planning a small group tour(6 or fewer people is recommended), be sure to invoke the famous TRUST and FORGIVE CLAUSE, better known as the ANTI-WHINING RULE. I have traveled the world for the last 20 years and have found that when things can go wrong they will. No matter how much planning you do – something will go wrong. This must be emphasized to your fellow travelers as soon as you agree to do the planning or help with the planning. Airline delays, full hotels (or worse: 2 rooms for 3 couples), strange items on the menu, etc. are looked upon by seasoned travelers as part of the adventure. Don’t allow your fellow travelers to take such inconveniences out on you, another traveler or worst of all – a citizen of your host country.
ON TO SMALL GROUP PLANNING
A self guided tour of Vietnam (or Vietnam mini-tour) is designed to have some built in limitations regarding size. My experience and advice is to limit group size to 4 to 6. A maximum of 8 for an experienced planner or travel group. Chances are the person who suggested a Vietnam tour will be the informal leader/planner. Freedom and flexibility are the most attractive assets of this type of tour. Just compare the flexibility of a car with 4 people in it to a commuter bus. Commuter buses only stop at designated locations, the car can stop any where the occupants agree to stop. If your initial plan calls for 3 days in Hoian and you decide to stay 1 more day there is no tour bus to leave without you. You might have to change hotels – horror of horrors.
AIR TRAVEL PLANNING
Plan your small group tour the right time of the year – the “Low Season” – late fall through the winter. Amazingly, this is the best time to travel to Vietnam – the weather is cooler. The only exception to this is “Tet” or the Vietnamese New Year. This is a high demand time for returning Viet Kieu, or overseas Vietnamese, to visit friends and family in their homeland. Christmas is also a high demand time.
Getting seats on the same flight requires advance planning. “Get’em early!” You can get seats together and pay less if you plan small group travel in advance.
One of the first considerations to be addressed is will your small group be departing from the same location or will you meet at a West Coast departure airport such as Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle?
Leaving from the same major city on the East Coast or the middle of the country may allow you to book your flight from that point to Vietnam and back. You can sometimes save money by using a low cost carrier such as Southwest to get you to the West Coast. Then catch a flight from there to Vietnam. However, if you’re delayed on your first leg and miss your Transpacific flight, you will bear the missed flight penalty ($$). To avoid this, schedule a 1 day layover ($$) or book your flight round trip from your home. Saving money involves research and planning. I look for a good deal, while trying to minimize the risk.
Another point when shopping for airfares to Vietnam is your in bound and out bound itinerary. Serious consideration should be given to arriving in Hanoi and departing from Saigon, or vice versa. This is known in the travel trade as an “open jawed” ticket. You will save a day’s travel by doing this and not spend $100.00 in domestic airfare. You will save money on international flights by arriving and departing the same airport. Compare the costs of these two alternatives for your small group tour.
Note: The Hanoi Noibai Airport is about an hour from the Old Quarter by taxi ($10.00)– a popular tourist area for hotels, shopping and jumping off point for tours. Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport is about 30 minutes ($5.00) from Pham Ngu Lao & De Tham St. – the budget tourist / backpacker gathering area in Saigon.
Checking the internet for airfares: There basically four sources of tickets online – high volume agencies such as Travelocity, Orbitz, Priceline, etc. , Airline websites, travel agencies and consolidators.
The high volume agencies are the place to start. They provide a baseline price for your tickets. Be aware that these agencies DO NOT have airfares for all airlines. The airfares of several domestic carriers and many foreign based carriers are not on these websites. Check my list of carriers that fly from North America to Vietnam (included are carriers serving other parts of the world to Vietnam).
Checking airline websites is pretty straight forward. Some have been known to run specials. Keep an eye peeled. “Open Jawed” tickets are difficult to order online and you may have to call the airline. Most have “800” numbers in the U.S. Tickets online are usually cheaper, but don’t hesitate to call if you have questions. If one person is researching airfares and is not going to purchase all of the tickets most airlines will make a reservation and provide a confirmation number so the ticket can be paid for within 24 hours. This may vary from airline to airline.
CODE SHARING: Many US airlines “Code Share” with foreign airlines. When you check for a flight on a US or foreign carrier and find the term “Code Share” mentioned be sure to check the airline sharing the code and compare the airfare. Sometimes fares are different for the same flight. Be sure to read the “fine print” before buying your tickets, sometimes your rights are different as a passenger on foreign airlines.
Many Asian airlines only serve the US west coast or major US cities. Check for airlines serving Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Chicago, Houston and Dallas.
CAUTION: If one person is paying for tickets online with his/her credit card that this person must present the credit card at time of flight check in. If your small group is not all together at check in, the people not with the credit card holder may not get on the plane. Be sure to have the credit card you bought your ticket with in your possession at all times when using the ticket. I have witnessed this situation first hand at Saigon Airport.
Check online travel agencies and/or your local travel agent. Sometimes they have good deals or will make one if you book your small group through their agency. Search “Vietnam airfares.”
Internet consolidators can be a real gold mine for budget airfares. Consolidators buy tickets in advance and hope to sell at a profit before the flight leaves. As the departure date approaches, prices are reduced to avoid a loss. Some require a membership fee. Use this option only if you’re confidant that they will honor their “low price guarantee.” Some specialize in certain areas of the world. Search “Asia airfare consolidators” or “Vietnam airfare consolidators.” Unfortunately, this segment of the travel industry has more than it’s share of consumer fraud. Always use a credit card to make purchases online. Never pay by Western Union or Money Order.
A couple of hours work online can save as much as 50% for each ticket.
GROUP “RALLY POINT” IN HANOI,
THE CLASSIC 1 HOTEL.
22 A Ta Hien St., Hoan Kiem Dist., Hanoi, Vietnam
(That’s me waving.)
SMALL GROUPS IN VIETNAM
If you are going to be traveling by air in Vietnam do not purchase the tickets outside Vietnam. This could cost twice as much as waiting until you get to Vietnam. Current airfares for Ho Chi Minh City (aka HCMC or Saigon) to Hanoi are about US$100.00, HCMC to Danang about US$50.00. I have never had a problem booking for 1 or 2 seats walk-up or as many as 5 travelers with 2 days notice. If you are going to travel around South East Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, etc.) in addition to Vietnam,the same advice applies.
If you are traveling in a small group give your in-country travel plans a cushion, by booking 2-3 days in advance. This applies to air and rail travel plans. Open-tour buses are very popular with backpackers and other seat of the pants travelers. I’ve seen travelers of all ages on these buses, they’re great for meeting people from all over the world. And they’re CHEAP – Hanoi to Saigon for about $30.00. Let them know about your group’s travel needs a day in advance.
My advice to start your small group tour in Hanoi is contingent on two very popular tours that are based in Hanoi. Sapa in the mountains northwest of Hanoi is usually accessed by railroad from Hanoi. Sapa is the base to visit the colorful mountain tribes and do some great site seeing. Halong Bay cruises are even more popular. Do not miss Halong Bay if you take a trip to Vietnam. I strongly recommend that you make reservations in advance of arriving in Hanoi if you are traveling in a small group. If you arrive without a reservation for either of these tours you could spend 2-4 days waiting for vacancies for a small group. 1 or 2 travelers aren’t a problem. I’m sure you could find some great things to do while you’re waiting, but why take a chance with your time and money. Remember that traveling as a mini-group you will be able to experience sights off the beaten path unseen by those tour buses with 30 or 40 people in them. There are many Vietnam adventure tours small groups can enjoy.
Most other tours through out Vietnam can be taken on a walk-up basis. There is always room for more tourists on just about any tour – the tour company will just order another van for your small group.
A small group should make a hotel reservation for their first night in Vietnam. Tourist style hotels are plentiful in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and the Pham Ngu Lao & De Tham St. area of Saigon if your first night’s accommodation is not satisfactory. The practice of not making hotel reservations is not so much in saving money, but in keeping your options open for site seeing and activities that may appeal to you at the last minute. You may save $5.00 per night per room by not making reservations and bargaining on the spot for your room. For some of us, bargaining is part of the charm of traveling in foreign countries. There are numerous hotels in most tourist areas and you can always walk down the block to the next hotel. Competitive capitalism is rampant in this communist county.
Try to arrive in Vietnam in the morning and stay up all day, this reduces effects of jet lag. This also allows for any transportation or hotel problems on arrival. You have time during daylight to solve them.
“Rally points” can reduce the stress of someone getting lost or separated in Vietnam. Members of the small group should agree that if someone gets separated during the day everyone should return to the hotel (rally point). If you’re “on the road”, everyone should have the name, address and phone number of the next hotel (rally point) in writing on their person – not in their luggage. If lost, head for the next hotel.
There should also be an emergency contact “back in the world” who can act as a message center for the group. Each member of the small group should have the ability to communicate with the message center.
Either an international calling card or a Skype VOIP account, and how to use it, is recommended. Skype is the state of the art in the world of internet voice communication and a favorite of international travelers. Check Skype for free international phone calls. I’ve used it for over 7 years and it’s great.
Medical emergencies while on a tour in Vietnam are possible. Knowing where the rest of your small group is or is going to be will be a great help to you in the event of a medical problem. Always know the name of the hotel where your group is staying or the likely hotel where your group is headed.
If one of your group turns up missing the address and phone number of the US consulate in Saigon are:
American Citizen Services – US Consulate, 4 Le Duan Blvd., Dist. 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Telephone: (84-8) 822-9433 ext. 2159. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and the U. S. Embassy in Hanoi are: 7 Lang Ha Street, Hanoi, Vietnam; Telephone: 84-4-831-4590 ext.133 or 134. email: email@example.com
A small group tour with a good plan can have a great time traveling in Vietnam. Because of the size of the group they’ll be able to get in to those “tight corners” larger groups will miss.
Compare the estimated costs of an organized Vietnam package tour with the estimated cost of your self-guided tour.
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