7 Free (Or Nearly Free) Things To Do In Hong Kong

By many measures, Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world.

But for every five-star hotel, luxury boutique and gourmet restaurant, there’s a budget room, quaint flea market and cheap dimsum stand waiting in the wings. In fact, apart from high accommodation costs, Hong Kong is a great destination for budget travelers, with its cheap public transport, vibrant street food scene and plentiful sights and attractions. Even if you’re low on cash, there is never a shortage of things to do. Here are seven of the best free (or nearly free) ways to experience Hong Kong on the cheap.

Take the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour.

Some call it a commute; others call it a bargain way to cross one of the world’s most scenic harbors. The Star Ferry has been shuttling people across Victoria Harbour for more than a century, with its most popular route connecting Central Terminal on Hong Kong Island to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon. The view from either side is breathtaking.

Fares run between HK$2 (US$0.25) and HK$3.40 ($0.44), depending on what day you’re traveling and whether you’re sitting on the upper or lower deck. Drink medicinal tea with healing properties.

Locals line up around the block for a cup of the famed ya sai mei at Good Spring Company Limited, one of Hong Kong’s oldest herbal pharmacies. The bitter tea is said to have immunity-boosting powers, and Good Spring’s formulation is a result of years of experimentation by the pharmacy’s original proprietor, whose grandson now runs the shop. A cup of the cure-all will cost you HK$7 (US$0.90).

8 Cochrane Street, Central

Ride the world’s longest covered escalator.

The Central Mid-Levels escalator system is the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world, extending 800 meters and connecting the hilltop districts of Hong Kong with the rest of the city. The system, made up of 20 escalators and three moving walkways, acts as free public transportation for Hong Kong’s working classes. Tourists can hop on the escalator at any time, but be advised of its schedule: service runs downhill from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and uphill from 10:30 a.m. to midnight.

Starts at Cochrane Street and Queen’s Road Central and ends at Shelley Street and Conduit Road, with multiple stops in between.

Take a tour of Hong Kong history.

Learn about Hong Kong’s fascinating past through a magnificently curated exhibition called “The Hong Kong Story” at the Hong Kong Museum of History. For just HK$10 ($1.30) you can journey from prehistoric times, to the Opium Wars, to 1960s pop culture, straight through to the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. It’s the perfect indoor respite from Hong Kong’s suffocating heat.

100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui

Eat at the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant.

Tim Ho Wan might be the only place on earth where you can eat a Michelin-starred meal for under US$10. Chef Mak Pui Gor, formerly of the Four Seasons, opened this non-descript dim sum joint on a back street of the Mong Kok district to bring high quality dim sum to the masses. The waits are legendary, lasting two, sometimes three hours. But if you don’t mind getting squeezed into a table with a family of five, try venturing there solo between the off-peak hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. I did and managed to get in immediately.

2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok

Hit up happy hour in SoHo.

Short for “South of Hollywood Road,” this up-and-coming neighborhood has a more quaint, intimate feel than other parts of Central Hong Kong. But don’t be misled – SoHo comes alive in the evenings, when its trendy bars and restaurants fill with young professionals taking advantage of Western-style happy hour specials. The deals usually kick off at 5 p.m.

The best way to arrive in SoHo is via the Central Mid-Levels Escalator; get off at Staunton Road.

Watch the world’s largest sound and light show.

Hong Kong’s “Symphony of Lights” isn’t just one of the best tickets in town; it’s also free! The nightly spectacle, run by the Hong Kong Tourism Commission, features sound, lights and lasers from 40 buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbour. Stake out a spot on the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade for the best view, and toast to the fact that the best travel experiences can still (sometimes) be free.

The “Symphony of Lights” runs nightly at 8 p.m.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

Ten cruise tips for better vacation value that everyone can use

Travelers booking cruise vacations go about it a number of ways. Some click-to-book with a third-party website, others book directly with the cruise line. Some seek the help of a general travel agent while others use a Cruise Travel Expert. At one time or another, all of them get booked. Almost immediately after booking, without fail, most look back and wonder if they got the best value. Here are some good tips to insure you have the best value.

1. Concentrate on value, not price. Too many people focus on simply the lowest price without regard to what comes along with it. One of the most common mistakes made is to pick a ship, sailing date and category of cabin then go shopping online. There are way more variables in the equation that need to be considered to get the best value.

2. Use a Cruise Travel Expert You can start with a standard travel agent, one who books any sort of travel. But as soon as possible, that person needs to be identified as an expert on cruise vacations. There are a lot of them out there and with the major changes happening right now in what makes a cruise vacation, you need someone singly focused on cruise vacations.

3. Book a value-oriented fare. The exact same cruise you click-to-book online probably has a number of different fare codes, much like an airline ticket. The problem with booking online is that consumers can’t see these codes, only travel agents can. If travel agents know what to do with them or not depends much on if they have reached the Cruise Travel Expert level or fall short in their everyday working knowledge.

Carnival Cruise Line’s Early Saver Fare, guaranteed to be the lowest published fare by the cruise line, is probably the best example of guaranteed value down the line. Much like a restricted-fare airline ticket, the Early Saver fare booking can not be modified, changed, canceled or re booked without paying a penalty. What scares too many people off of this fare is the “non-refundable” deposit which is not nearly as restrictive as it appears. True, if you cancel, even before final payment is due, you’re not going to get that deposit back. But Carnival allows you to use it toward a future cruise booked within two years, minus an administration fee.

4. Ask for the choice: Upgrade or price reduction Travel professionals booking your cruise vacation are often in a quandary when lower prices come along on a sailing they have booked for a client. Most often, the client does not even know the price went down.

Regular travel agents, paid by commission from the cruise line, are sometimes hesitant to lower prices which lowers their commission. They are not required to do so.

Cruise Travel Experts are also paid commission by the cruise line. One of the qualities that defines an agent as an expert is that they know the name of the game is value and what that might mean to you is important. Often, cruise lines will grant a complementary upgrade instead of a price reduction. The choice should be yours, not the agents.

5. Keep monitoring pricing and special promotions. When the booking is made is actually the beginning, not the end, of the pricing game. Watching for special promotions, discounts or offers that come along after booking and can be applied to your sailing is a good first step to insuring maximum value. Click-to-book website reservations will not consider added value offers down the line. Your Cruise Travel Expert will and so should you.

6. Get on the ship early That may seem a no-brainer but arriving at the port early for embarkation, being one of the first on the ship, can add great value to your overall cruise experience. The cruise is a limited-time vacation and getting on board as soon as possible allows you to learn your way around the ship before it fills with other passengers. Later, while others are bumping into walls, trying to figure out where everything is, you will have toured the ship, had lunch and settled in to have a fabulous vacation.

7. Research, Research, Research A lot of effort is done deciding on a ship and sailing date but often, cruise travelers fail to keep that research momentum going. As soon as the booking is made, attention should be focused on ports of call, memorizing the ship’s deck plans and learning as much as possible about how the cruise line operates. This mistake is most often made by people who have cruised before. Those new to cruise vacations most often do their homework but not in an organized manner. On most itineraries, you will be in any given port for one day and one day only. Some itineraries have overnight stays, but most are a matter of mere hours. Make the most of them by studying up on where you will be going and what you might be doing. AOLTravel guides are a no-brainer on this hunt.

8. Grease some palms You paid at least hundreds if not thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for this vacation. A $20 right up front slipped to your cabin steward will almost guarantee that they perform at peak efficiency. The same for the dining room’s Maitre ‘d or others who you will see frequently throughout the voyage. An understated green hand shake with the simple words “Take good care of us and we’ll take good care of you” sets the tone right up front. You seriously do not have time to go through the mediocre service/complaint/resolution process like you might on land. Cheap fares often bring cheap people to the ships and tips that make up the bulk of the crews pay suffer. They will appreciate your effort.

9. Say hello to the Captain A kind word to the master of the vessel never hurts anything. If you happen to see the Captain walking about the ship, walk right up to him and introduce yourself. Tell him “Thank you for this wonderful ship, the great crew and for all you do to keep us safe at sea” If that sounds corny, it is. But it has a world of impact on the number one person on the ship. Most people see the Captain walk by and think he is too busy to talk. He’s not. If he were too busy he would not be walking around the ship. He would be on the bridge, preparing to launch the Photon torpedos.

10. Go early to everything Like getting on the ship early gives you an advantage over those who come later, you will have many other opportunities to either stand in a line and wait or be one of the first to experience whatever it is you’re doing. While it’s not necessary or maybe even possible to do everything offered on a cruise vacation, the activities, shows or events you choose to attend should be looked at individual experiences and made the most of. Going early gives you the best seating for shows, best pick from buffets or sales and allows you to interact with crew members at their peak time of performance.

How much are you really paying for your plane ticket?

We’ve heard airline employees gripe ad nauseam about how flying just isn’t what it used to be … because it’s so much cheaper than it was back in the glory days. True, we’re looking at a much different world post-regulation, but that was so long ago that it isn’t relevant any more.

So, what about today? Are airlines still getting hammered in the deal (as they contend), or are consumers giving ’til it hurts? The answer, of course, is somewhere in the middle.

You probably saw my story this week that puts plane tickets up 13.1 percent year over year for the second quarter, though it really just offsets a 13 percent decline last year. Nonetheless, the $341 average domestic fare is close to the 2008 peak of $346 and the third-highest average domestic fare attained since 1995 (2006 came in second at $342). It really does feel like we’re getting screwed.

Think again. Airline employees have a point, but only narrowly.

Adjusted to 1995-equivalent dollars, the average domestic fare this year is only $238. That’s a 20 percent drop from the $297 average fare in 1995. Over the past 15 years, the airline industry has lost a lot of ground. The peak, in 1995-equivalent dollars, was reached in 1999 ($302) and maintained in 2000 ($300) before the slide began. Even in this analysis, however, 2010 shows a marked improvement from the 2009 level of $213 (in 1995-equivalent dollars).

So, in pure cash, the airlines have been getting shafted. The industry’s position falls apart, however, when you consider the inclusion of ancillary fees, which are expected to be good for $8.9 billion in airline profits this year, according to IATA. The inflation-adjusted fare we’re paying doesn’t include the amenities we used to receive … and the airlines are generating extra income from what they used to include in the price of a ticket.

There’s no doubt that airfare is cheaper than it’s been in at least a decade and a half, but you’re not getting the value you used to.

[photo by Mr. T in DC]

Cheap tickets still exist, despite airfare inflation

Is it really getting more expensive to fly? Earlier this week, the Department of Transportation revealed that ticket prices were up 13.1 percent year over year for the second quarter of 2010, a stunning increase – though tempered by the fact that fares actually fell 13 percent year over year from the second quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of 2009. If nothing else, this does raise concerns about whether we won’t have access to cheap tickets for a while.

With some strength coming back to the travel market, it’s easy to speculate that rates will continue to rise, especially if business travelers come back into airports in force. And when you look at the history of airfares over the past decade and a half, it’s easy to see why. Despite grumblings in the industry that flying is getting cheaper, average fares have climbed 14.8 percent cumulatively from 1995 to 2010, with 2010’s average domestic fare of $341 approaching the 2008 peak for this period of $346.

But, there’s a silver lining. There’s still enough market inefficiency to make deals possible, and the rising strength of intermediaries (i.e., online travel agencies) means that you should be able to score some great fares next year. As the battle for brand recognition as a way to access consumer wallets heats up, look for competition to put some pressure on the economic drivers that push fares higher.

I’ve heard from Bill Miller, Sr. VP of Strategic Partnerships at CheapOair that average ticket price (base fare only) fell 0.3 percent year over year for domestic flights and climbed 0.2 percent year over year for international flights. Effectively, this translates to no change while the underlying carriers are pushing fares higher.

Miller tells me, “At CheapoAir we work hard to keep airfare prices low for our customers. Year-over-year, airline ticket prices that customers buy from us have actually decreased very slightly. And, our international airfare prices have gone up very slightly. We will continue to focus on finding low airfares for our customers as that is what is important to them.”

So, while fares are still at close to their highest levels since 1995, it doesn’t mean there’s reason to give up hope. Combine the fact that you can still find bargains with the increase in purchasing power that accompanies an economic recovery, and you’re in better shape than you think.

Time to get out on the road!

[photo by AMagill via Flickr]

The death of cheap tickets? Four factors to watch!

Are the days of bargain pricing over? There’s a lot of pessimism around this issue. After getting smacked around in 2008 and 2009, this year has been a good one for air carriers, and USA Today reports: “Airfares are on the rise again and unlikely to fall again anytime soon.” Yet, a travel industry recovery comes with advantages, as more people want to fly, and they tend to be willing to stomach higher prices. So, what’s the deal? Are we going to pay more (happily), or will 2011 means continued a continued prowl for cheap tickets, particularly online?

There’s no doubt that the airlines are getting more of our wallets. The U.S. Department of Transportation says that the average domestic ticket surged 13 percent – from $301 to $341 – from the second quarter of 2009 to the second quarter of 2010. That’s the fourth quarter in a row domestic fares rose.

Now, airlines are price-takers, not price-setters. What does this mean? They respond to what consumers are willing to pay … they don’t set the tone for the market (e.g., the way a luxury goods manufacturer would). So, if fares are shooting up year over year, a consumer willingness to pay is certainly implied.

Individual airline fare increases are pretty interesting, with United Airlines up 25 percent on average for is period and discounter Southwest adding 15 percent, on average, to every ticket.

According to USA Today, airfares are climbing for three reasons:1. Tension between capacity and demand: during the recession, airlines cut capacity in an effort to lower operating expenses and keep their margins from getting throttled. Available seat miles plunged more than 12 percent from the fourth quarter of 2007 through the end of 2009, according to the Air Transport Association. But, travelers are coming back. Demand is up, and there isn’t as much supply on hand. That pushes prices higher, even as airlines scramble to add capacity. Yet, available seat miles are up only 1.5 percent over the past year.


Airlines have been burned by market forces before when adding capacity too quickly. USA Today explains:

Having learned a bitter lesson by adding back too much capacity, airlines are exercising greater caution and restraint this time around. Additionally, bankruptcies and consolidations during the past few years helped contain capacity. Brands like Aloha, EOS, MAXjet, Midwest, Northwest, Skybus and ATA Airlines have disappeared as a result of consolidation or financial calamity and AirTran and Continental Airlines will soon follow suit.

2. Oil won’t go down: oil has been on the rise for a decade, moving from below $20 a barrel to above $90 a barrel, some of which came from the 2008 market shock. Someone has to pay for this of course … and it isn’t necessarily you. That’s the problem with being a price-taker: you can’t pass along all your expected or unexpected price increases to consumers. Now that market pressures are being eased, airlines can start to recapture some of these expenses.

3. The business is changing: according to USA Today, “so called ‘low-cost’ airlines look more like network airlines every day” – as a result of carrier merger activity. And, the increase in maturity comes with higher expenses. For example, these airlines are “rapidly expanding into larger hub airports or building their own”: that cost cash. It has to come from somewhere. It can also come with long-term costs that aren’t always easy to forecast:

Hub airports are often plagued with congestion, resulting in increased flight delays which can wreak havoc on aircraft turnaround times and utilization schedules, further raising operating costs. In recent years, Southwest has expanded into some of the most congested airports in the country, like Boston Logan, New York LaGuardia and Washington Reagan National.

4. There’s more to spend: the fact that there are expense pressures on airlines doesn’t mean that you’re going to have to foot the bill. The oil price factor, for example, has been around for a while, and it wasn’t enough to protect carriers from price declines. The fact that you probably have more discretionary income – or at least less perceived employment risk – means that you aren’t going to wince when you see a higher price. You’ll book with less lead time. It’s easier for you to spend.

What will be interesting to see is the extent to which consumers will be more willing to open their wallets. Even though having more cash comes with a bit of comfort in using it, memories may not be as short following this recession as they were in previous economic downturns. The recession kicked off by the global financial crisis in 2008 hurt. A lot. Unemployment was severe – and continues to be. People may not be as willing to pay big fares as they were in the past. Does this leave more market opportunities for online discounts – such as those offered by online travel agencies? That remains to be seen.

What do you think? Leave a comment to let us know! There’s no crystal ball on this one, and I’d love to get your thoughts.

[photo by atomic taco via Flickr]