7 Foods You Need to Try in Antigua
Saltfish and Fungi
Popeshead St, St John's, Antigua and Barbuda
Saltfish and fungi (pronounced foon-ji) is the Antiguan national dish. Fungi is an Antiguan version of polenta or grits, made by forming a cornmeal and okra paste into balls. A staple in the Antiguan diet, fungi is frequently served with stews and meats. Saltfish, a salt-cured and flaked white fish, is one of the favored pairings for fungi.
This is stick-to-your-ribs, homestyle Antiguan cuisine and, if you want to try it, head to Suga Beez in St. John’s. Owner Abena Straker serves up traditional Antiguan dishes with a short, simple menu that changes daily. Locals enjoy the meals they grew up eating, like black-eyed pea rice, chop-up (chopped and stewed spinach, okra, and eggplant), conch water (salty broth with conch meat), and the all-important saltfish and fungi. The restaurant even offers vegetarian options for the local Rastafarian population, making it a great spot for vegetarian travelers to eat a tasty, locally-loved meal.
Isla Nena Café: The Vieques Bar With Its Own Airport
With long waits, unexplained delays and increasingly strict travel restrictions, most people avoid airports at all costs when they’re not flying. But on the tiny Caribbean paradise of Vieques, Puerto Rico, the airport is home to one of the most popular gathering spots on the island.
Isla Nena Café is an open-air bar and restaurant located in the commuter airport's parking lot. It’s the kind of place where locals meet at the end of the day for a cold beer and friendly conversation. Where the owner has his regulars’ orders waiting for them when they reach the bar. Where residents are quick to offer insiders’ recommendations to visitors fresh off the plane. And where cans of Medalla beer are served in mismatched koozies that patrons can take home as souvenirs.
At the heart of Isla Nena Café is Lyman Tarkowski. Originally from Green Bay, WI, Lyman has lived on Vieques for twenty years. He first arrived as a tourist in and fell in love with the sleepy pace, breathtaking scenery and relaxed island vibes. He soon relocated and, having owned a series of bars and cafes in Wisconsin, he drew upon his expertise and opened The Crabwalk Café on the Malecon, a main drag of bars and eateries across the street from the Caribbean Sea. He sold the business in 2002.
Isla Nena Café went through four owners before Lyman bought it in 2012. “Everyone said ‘you’re not going to make it’,” he recalls, but he was determined to build a viable business. He had tons of friends on the island and he knew food — two elements essential to success. Lyman added a bar and a TV, spruced up the menu, and a new iteration of Isla Nena Café was born.
Lyman credits the café’s success in part to a combination of consistent food and consistent hours. The thatched-roof spot is open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., seven days a week. In addition to burgers, sandwiches, wraps and salads, customers can order breakfast all day, an alluring option on an island packed with late-night service industry workers who wake at lunchtime ready to enjoy some greasy goodness.
One of the most popular items on the menu is not what one would expect at a remote bar in the Caribbean: authentic Chinese dumplings. Lyman’s wife, Shulian, moved from China to Vieques in 2013. As Asian flavors are a rarity on the island, locals flock to Isla Nena Café to enjoy her food. When there’s nothing good to watch on the bar’s big-screen TV, the repartee between Lyman and Shulian provides endless entertainment. Sometimes their cockatoo, Bobbin, chimes in as well.
Much more than just a place to eat and drink, Isla Nena Café offers the comfort and familiarity that the island’s transplants, many of whom come from the mainland United States, crave. Most Americans are at least two plane rides away from their families, and being greeted by name and welcomed with a warm smile is invaluable. If you find yourself nearby, be sure to stop in for a beer, a bite and some island-style banter. And don’t forget to grab your souvenir koozie.
Where to See Sea Turtles in the Caribbean
Sea turtles are among the most magnificent residents of the Caribbean, but they’re also among the most endangered. Overfishing, pollution, and degradation of nesting areas have made life more difficult on the region’s green, loggerhead, leatherback, and hawksbill sea turtles. On the bright side, there are a number of major initiatives underway designed to preserve and protect the sea turtles, and many a Caribbean resort now includes sea turtle oriented activities and education among its guest offerings — particularly in the summer and fall, which is sea turtle nesting season in the Caribbean.
Bequia, a charming island in the Grenadines, is home to a major sea-turtle rescue and breeding program, the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary. Booming St. Kitts is also building a Sea Turtle Interpretive Center on Key Beach; the facility will serve as a hub for tours and educational activities by the St. Kitts Sea Turtle Monitoring Network.
See Turtle Eggs and Hatchlings
Some resorts, like the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort and Spa in Puerto Rico, simply arrange for guests to witness sea turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs on nearby beaches, or to view the exciting moment when turtle hatchlings leave their nests and make their way back to the sea, where only one in 1,000 will survive to adulthood. (The Wyndham partners with the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources to ensure the safety of both guests and turtles.)
At The Club resort in Barbados, an inexpensive and quick excursion just down the west coast of the island gives guests an opportunity to swim with leatherback turtles in their natural environment, lured by bread and fish scraps tossed in the water. The Bolongo Bay Beach Resort in St. Thomas runs a similar trip on its catamaran Heavenly Days to Turtle Cove on Buck Island.
The GoldenEye Hotel and Resort in Jamaica guarantees guests who stay for five nights or more in the month of September the chance to see sea turtles hatch on Golden Sea Beach, where more than 10,000 turtles emerge from the sand between May and September each year. For a small fee, hotel guests are led on a hatching excursion by a local sea-turtle expert.
Others, like the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort in Puerto Rico, give guests the option of taking part in conservation efforts. The resort’s leatherback turtle program is led by an on-site marine biologist, helping the property become the Caribbean’s first Audubon International Gold Signature Sanctuary resort.
Even some of the most bustling beaches in Aruba have nesting sea turtle populations; fortunately, the island also is home to one of the most environmentally conscious hotels in the Caribbean, the Bucuti & Tara Beach Resorts. The resort supports the local sea turtle foundation, Turtugaruba, and runs two educational seminars each year on sea turtle conservation — one on Earth Day, the other on the first day of turtle nesting season.
Dominica's Rosalie Bay Resort is fortunate enough to have nesting populations of three types of sea turtles (green, hawksbill, and leatherback); the resort founded the island’s sea-turtle conservation program and enlists guests to patrol beaches to protect nesting turtles, help researchers collect data or aid in relocating nests that are too close to the ocean from the shoreline to the resort’s turtle hatchery.
One of the most comprehensive sea turtle programs in the Caribbean is at the Four Seasons Resort Nevis, whose Pinney’s Beach is a major nesting ground for the critically endangered hawksbill turtle as well as other species. The resort has had a longstanding partnership with the Nevis Turtle Group and the Sea Turtle Conservancy to protect these turtles and involve guests in a variety of related initiatives, including:
- Educational programs
- Turtle adoptions
- Beach patrols
- A weekly Sea Turtle Camp for kids that includes “turtle tales,” turtle watch beach walks, arts and crafts, postcard drawing contests, interactive games, puzzles, and videos. During turtle nesting season, which runs from June through October, children ages three to nine participating in the Kids for All Seasons turtle education program receive a sea turtle adoption certificate and Sea Turtle Conservancy membership.
In Mexico’s Riviera Maya, the Xcaret eco-park also has a turtle sanctuary that periodically releases hatchlings back to the sea and invites visitors to enjoy the spectacle. The nearby Barcelo Maya Beach Resort also protects its resident sea turtles and invites guests to observe them hatch each year.
Want to do more to help sea turtles in the Caribbean and worldwide? Donate to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, or SEE Turtles' Billion Baby Turtles campaign.
Review: Club Med Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic
More than 30 years ago, the eastern coast of the Dominican Republic was mostly thick jungle with very few roads. Club Med, the original all-inclusive resort company, saw the tourism potential of the Caribbean gem’s sugar-sand beaches and turquoise waters and snapped up 75 acres of prime beachfront. Other resorts followed suit, transforming the region, and today more than two million tourists a year flock to the area now known as Punta Cana. A sign of Club Med’s commitment to the area is a recent investment of $40 million to renovate and relaunch its resort.
On average, families make up about 70 percent of the guests at Club Med Punta Cana, and that informs the feel of the entire resort. It’s relaxed, with plenty of kids, so there’s no stuffy vibe (plus, it’s a beach resort, which takes things down a notch anyway). With so much space to roam, and so many things to do, kids are on cloud nine. Since the resort is all-inclusive, there’s no need to carry money—and there’s no nickel-and-diming. Food can be had at just about any time of day at one of three buffet-style restaurants, and there are plenty of self-serve beverage stations throughout the beach and pool area.
Club Med’s legendary kids’ clubs welcome children with age-designated groups from newborn to age 17, in dedicated areas in the center of the village. There is Baby Club Med for babies and toddlers ages 4 to 23 months; Petit Club Med for preschoolers ages 2 to 3; Mini Club Med for ages 4 to 10. Tweens and teens ages 11 to 17 can attend Passworld, with contemporary spaces specially designed for them.
Club Med is known for its enthusiastic and hands-on “GOs” (Gentils Organisateurs), integral to every Club Med village, are especially valuable in the kids’ clubs. The hours of the programs—from early morning through late evening—mean parents can take advantage of timing that works best for their family’s schedule. (In need of a little pampering? Check out the new L’Occitane Spa.) The club has its own pool, mini-water park, and ample indoor space for when little ones need to spend some time in the shade.
Programming is age-specific, so teens won’t be rolling their eyes at finger painting.
The resort’s main pool has plenty of room, and plenty of seating along the length of it. The 5 Trident/Tiara section has its own infinity pool, and the new adults-only enclave, Zen Oasis, has a pool that’s open to all resort guests 18 years and older. Dotted with palm tress and stretching nearly a half-mile, the resort’s stunning beach is popular with sunbathers and swimmers alike. Younger kids tend to stick to the pool, though, as the beach can be a bit uneven and the water sometimes rough.
It’s nearly impossible to be bored at the resort, with activities ranging from bocce ball and horseshoes to a fully-outfitted nautical center offering snorkeling, kayaking, sailing, kite-surfing and more. Resort staff lead fitness classes, dance competitions, tennis lessons and serve as social directors at the resort’s evening functions. One of Club Med’s signature activities, circus school, has been re-launched here as CREACTIVE, an interactive playground experience (think acrobatic bungee jumping, trampolines and flying trapeze) that’s led by Cirque du Soleil-trained instructors.
Best rooms: Club Med Punta Cana boasts more than 500 rooms, ranging from standard club rooms and suites, to the super-swank 5 Trident/Tiara lodging option, a “resort within a resort” concept with 32 oceanfront family suites. There’s an option for just about every family type, and the best part is that no matter which room category you’re in, resort amenities are available to all guests.
Rates at the resort range from around $4,500 for a seven-night stay in high season (January-March) for a family of two adults and two children in a standard 365-square-foot club room. That same stay can cost roughly $1,000 less in July. (Rates for 5 Trident are about double those of a club room.)
As an all-inclusive resort, the price includes accommodations, food and beverages, most activities (including kids’ clubs and CREACTIVE), use of the fitness center and fitness classes; golf and tennis lessons. It’s important to note that the rate does not include a Club Med Membership fee of $90 per person, nor a fee for Wi-Fi. Be sure to check the resort's web site for special offers, which are run just about year-round and can shave a substantial amount off the price.
Best season: The best time to visit Punta Cana is from March to May, after winter's peak season crowds have faded away. The Dominican Republic's temperate climate means that the weather is fairly consistent year-round, with daytime high temperatures generally in the mid 80s, though the summer months can see highs in the 90s.
Keep in mind, though, that, the Dominican Republic can experience some of the effects of the Atlantic hurricane season, which lasts from June through November. (Concerned? Read our essential tips for traveling during hurricane season.)
Getting there: A valid passport is required for entry to the Dominican Republic, and you’ll also need to purchase a tourist card for US$10 per person. (Tip: save time at customs and buy it online before your trip.) Fly into privately-owned Punta Cana International Airport and you’re just a five-minute car ride from Club Med.
Visited: December 2015
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Disclaimer: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.
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Getting Around Jamaica on Public Transport
Jamaica is the largest English speaking country in the Caribbean, and along with its wonderful beaches and great resorts, the language and the ease of travel on the island is one of the reasons that it has become such a popular destination. Many people who will visit Jamaica will be happy to relax at their resort and wander on foot into the nearby town, without really wanting to get too far from the beach or the great restaurants on the island. However, for those who do get the urge to try and explore a little more of this beautiful and diverse island, the public transport network in Jamaica is very affordable and has routes connecting the cities, towns, and villages there.
The Bus Network
The most common and convenient way to explore Jamaica on public transport is by using the extensive bus network in the country, and this is made up of a relatively small number of inter-city buses and many smaller buses serving local routes. The most popular of the major bus routes is the Knutsford Express, a route which serves many of the main destinations on the island, with Kingston to Ocho Rios usually taking around three hours, and the connection from Kingston to Montego Bay taking five hours.
These buses are fairly large and are air-conditioned, making the journey a little more comfortable.
The bus routes in the country are inexpensive, and you will usually see the bus stops at most road junctions, but as they are so inexpensive, you can expect most buses to be quite full, particularly around rush hour. If you are struggling to find the bus stop, most buses will also stop if you hail it from the roadside, and you can also ask the locals who will usually be happy to point you in the direction of the nearest stop.
Route Taxis And Minibuses
While buses make up the majority of the public transport options, another option that will usually be a little more expensive, but also a lot more comfortable will be to take one of the route taxis and minibuses. Those with red number plates starting PPV are licensed public transport, while those with the JUTA initials are just for tourists, and these will usually cover shorter routes to nearby towns. Most towns will have several such routes operating from a station in the center, and unlike buses that try to run to a timetable, these route taxis and minibuses will only run once they have enough people taking the journey.
The largest city in Jamaica by some distance is Kingston, and it is also the city which has the most modern and developed metro system in the country. There are plenty of buses, many of which have air conditioning, while the prices for these buses are also very competitive. You will also find a selection of route taxis connecting different parts of the city and offering a little more comfort for your journey. The only other city in the country with any kind of metro system is Montego Bay, with three municipal bus routes connecting different suburbs and areas with the city center.
There is a small ferry route in Jamaica that isn't really as efficient or as cheap as traveling by bus, but taking the journey by sea is a little more scenic and can also be more pleasant too. The ferry generally caters to tourists visiting the country and connects the resorts of Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, and Negril.
Are There Trains In Jamaica?
There is actually a railway network of over two hundred miles of track in Jamaica, but over recent decades there has been a significant deterioration in the condition of the track, and just over fifty miles of that track is currently in use. This is mainly used for transporting bauxite, and the last running passenger service operated in 2012, although there are regular discussions about relaunching services on the railway lines of the country. As of 2016, there are still plans and discussions in government about reintroducing passenger services, but there have been no concrete announcements with regards to this so far.
Taking a Ferry From Florida to Cuba
The easing of travel restrictions for Americans heading to Cuba has not only opened up new air links between the U.S. and its near Caribbean neighbor but sea routes, as well. In 2015, the U.S. State Department gave several ferry companies permission to begin sailing between South Florida and Cuba, pending approval from Cuban authorities.
When service does launch, expect service to Havana from at least two Florida destinations: Port Everglades (Fort Lauderdale) and Key West. Miami, Port Manatee, Tampa and St. Petersburg are other departure points being considered by ferry companies. U.S. ferry service is being eyed for the historic, south coast port city of Santiago de Cuba as well as Havana.
“I can hardly imagine anything more exciting than uniting two countries that are so close, and yet have been cut off from each other for more than 55 years,” says Matt Davies, managing director of Direct Ferries, a global booking site for ferry service that will offer Cuba reservations at http://www.cubaferries.com. “We expect Cuba to sign the bilateral agreement very soon, and we will be ready with the widest selection of ferry routes to Cuba.”
Spanish Ferry Company Baleària Expected to Lead
The ferry operators, which include the leading Spanish company Baleària as well as smaller operators, are still waiting for Cuba's OK, which means that ferry service is unlikely to commence any sooner than late 2016, and probably later than that. Other companies that have secured U.S. approval to run ferries to Cuba include Havana Ferry Partners, Baja Ferries, United Caribbean Lines, America Cruise Ferries, and Airline Brokers Co. Baja Ferries, which currently serves Pacific ports in Mexico and California, plans to offer Miami-Havana service.
America Cruise Ferries, which operates ferries between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, wants to offer passenger and vehicle transportation between Miami and Havana.
Where you depart from will make a big difference in your travel time to Cuba: a traditional ferry from Port Everglades to Havana would take about 10 hours one way, according to Direct Ferries. However, Baleària plans to operate a high-speed ferry between Key West and Havana that would make the crossing of the Florida Strait in just three hours. Baleària already operates high-speed ferries between Port Everglades and Grand Bahama Island (billed as the Bahamas Express) and has proposed building a $35-million ferry terminal in Havana — again, pending approval of the Cuban government.
Cost, Convenience Among the Advantages of Ferry Travel to Cuba
Taking a flight may be faster than a ferry, but there are a number of advantages to traveling to Cuba by sea, particularly lower fares (roundtrip fares could start at around $300) and no weight limits on baggage. And of course, you can't take your car onto a plane (although it's still unknown what restrictions the Cuban government will put on Americans driving their private vehicles on the island).
Ferry service from the U.S. to Cuba is not new: several ferries made daily runs between South Florida and Havana into the early 1960s, with Miami being a popular place for Cuban families to come and do their shopping. The approval of new ferry routes between the two countries is a step behind other transportation links: for example, the cruise ship Adonia, part of Carnival Cruise Lines' Fathom Travel fleet, docked in Havana in May 2016 on an excursion from Miami — the first such landing in nearly 40 years.
Carnival and the French cruise line Ponant are the first to receive permission to cruise from the U.S. to Cuba.
Meanwhile, U.S. airlines are rapidly moving forward with plans to launch service between multiple destinations in the U.S. and Cuba, with the first flights expected to begin by the end of 2016. To date, 10 U.S. airlines have won approval to fly from 13 U.S. cities to 10 Cuban destinations, including Havana, Camagüey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Manzanillo, Matanzas, Santa Clara, and Santiago de Cuba. No matter how Americans travel to Cuba, however, they remain subject to certain unique travel restrictions, including the requirement that all travel itineraries focus on cultural exchanges between Cuban and American citizens.
The Top 10 Things to Do in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
Dine Out on Fortaleza Street
Calle Fortaleza, San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico
Dining in Puerto Rico is usually a rewarding experience, whether you're after local classics, gourmet international cuisine, or a delightfully inventive fusion of the Caribbean and global flavors. In Old San Juan, Fortaleza Street has carved out a reputation as a Restaurant Row that includes some of the best restaurants in town. In fact, South Fortaleza, or “SoFo,” as it's known, even has its own biannual culinary festival.
Of course, you don't need to restrict yourself to Fortaleza Street to enjoy good food in the old city. But the variety and quality found here make it a good bet for a great meal.
Where to Park Your Car During Your Trip
There is nothing quite like picking up a rental car, navigating unfamiliar roads, finding your hotel and being confronted by a forest of “No Parking” signs in a language you can't read. Throw in a case of jet lag and you have a recipe for true travel frustration.
To avoid this annoyance, take a look at vacation parking options.
When you book your hotel room, take a moment to find out about parking. Suburban hotels often have free parking lots. You park at your own risk, but you do not have to worry about looking for a place to put your car. (Tip: Suburban hotels near major tourist attractions, such as Disneyland, usually charge for parking.)
Downtown hotels may or may not have parking available. If they do, expect to pay big-city rates. Security can be a concern, too. The cost of your hotel room may have nothing to do with the security of the hotel parking area.
Be sure you know how to contact police in case your car is broken into or stolen. Take everything out of your car each night so that would-be thieves have no reason to break a window.
In some cases, particularly in Europe, your hotel may not offer parking at all. Ask the desk clerk where to park and what to do about loading and unloading your luggage before you arrive. In some cities, you may end up parking in a municipal metered lot; this option may require you to “feed” your meter every few hours during the business day. If you cannot find anywhere else to leave your car and you are staying in a large city, consider parking at a downtown train station, which will probably offer long-term parking.
Ask anyone who has visited New York City – a big city is no place to bring a car. If you have no choice, check with your hotel or do some online research to determine the best place to park your car. If the train station offers parking, you may be able to leave your car there. Municipal lots and parking garages are also good options. Check out the parking situation before your trip begins; looking for parking at the last minute is not a good idea.
If you need to park on the street or in a garage, find out how payment works before you leave your vehicle. In many European countries and large US cities, you will need to pay at a kiosk, get a receipt and place it on your dashboard to prove you have paid. (This can backfire if the local meter maid gets to your car before you make it back with the receipt, but such cases are fairly rare.) Washington, DC, and some other cities allow you to pay for parking with your smartphone or credit card. In Germany, you will need to display a Parkscheibe (parking disc) on your dashboard if you park in an area that requires one.
You can buy one at a gas station or order one online.
Airports, Train Stations and Cruise Ports
You can find information about parking options at airports, train stations and cruise ports on their websites. If the website is in another language, read it using a translation tool. If you are not facing a language barrier, you can call the general information number for your train station, airport or cruise port to ask about parking availability.
Airports offer many parking options, including hourly, daily and long-term parking. Private, off-airport parking services exist in many cities. Plan ahead if you are traveling during a holiday period; airport parking lots fill quickly during the holiday season.
Train stations in small towns generally do not have many parking spots available, even if the station's website says there is ample parking. Train stations in major cities, on the other hand, usually have plenty of pay parking.
Cruise ports typically offer long-term parking for cruise passengers. You may need to show your cruise tickets in order to park.
In all of these situations, clean the passenger compartment of your car thoroughly. Never leave anything visible that might inspire a thief to break a window. If you keep a GPS unit in your car, bring window cleaner and clean the inside of your windshield before you park. Take everything out of your car, even pencils, or hide it in the trunk.
Parking Information and Parking Apps
If you are looking for city- or hotel-specific parking information, start by visiting that city's or hotel's website. You can also call your hotel or the city's tourist information office to ask about parking options.
Most travel guidebooks offer only limited parking information because the writers tend to assume that most visitors use public transportation.
Visitors to many large cities can take advantage of parking websites. Some of these websites allow you to reserve and pay for your parking space before you leave home.
If you own a smartphone, take advantage of the many parking-related apps that are available, including ParkWhiz, ParkingPanda and Parker. Try any app you download in your local area before you decide to rely on it during your trip.
Renting a Motorbike in Southeast Asia
Renting a motorbike in Southeast Asia is a fun, cheap, and memorable way to get around. But there are some challenges for staying safe, both on the road and in the rental shop.
Chrome and leather jackets are optional: The term “motorbike” is synonymous in Southeast Asia with small or medium-sized scooters, often no bigger than 125cc. The roads are usually clogged with them. Renting a scooter for the day is a great way to see local sights and provides more freedom than relying on public transportation. You can stop when and where you like, plus driving can be a thrilling, if not hair-raising, experience! A small scooter can usually be hired in Southeast Asia for as little as USD $5-10 per day.
Motorbike Rental Basics
Many countries in Southeast Asia will allow you to rent motorbikes without an international license, however, not having one may give the police a reason to hassle you later. Sometimes a driver's license from your home country will do. Sometimes having an international permit doesn't matter if you're stopped — the local police will still ask you to pay cash on the spot!
International driver's license or not, you will be required to leave your passport or a sizable cash deposit at the rental office. They need some guarantee that you aren't going to drive their scooter into the sea and skip town. You'll be asked to sign a rental agreement that makes you responsible for scratches and damage.
Why You Shouldn’t Crash Your Scooter
Lots of people learn to drive a scooter in Southeast Asia for the first time. Unfortunately, lots of those same travelers also crash their first scooter — most often in Thailand. Thailand ranks among the top countries in the world for drunk driving crashes and fatalities.
Even if a crash isn't serious, road-rash wounds become easily infected in Southeast Asia's humidity. Also, paying for damages — which are often greatly exaggerated by the rental shop — will put a real damper on your fun. Injuries that happen while on a motorbike are rarely covered by budget travel insurance policies.
Begin by renting an automatic scooter rather than one with gears, and start out slowly on side roads with little traffic where you can get the hang of driving in Asia before proceeding to busier areas.
Pai in Thailand is a very popular place to learn to drive a scooter; many travelers opt to drive the scenic route there from Chiang Mai. You'll find fliers advertising half-day lessons, or ask an experienced driver to show you the ropes.
Important Tips for Renting a Motorbike in Asia
- First and foremost, avoid a lot of potential problems by renting from established, reputable shops and agencies rather than from individuals who hustle tourists on the streets.
- Check the motorbike for existing damage; you could be held liable for scratches and dings later. Point out existing damage, and snap pictures with your phone before you drive away.
- Read the rental contract carefully. Some contain range restrictions or limit the maximum number of kilometers.
- Ensure that you have contact information for the shop in case you experience a problem later. You may be responsible for small fixes, such as flat tires, on your own. Fortunately, tire repair is cheap and easy to find.
- Make sure that your helmet fits well and won't shift around once you begin moving. If it proves to be awkward or uncomfortable, don't be shy about returning to the shop to swap it out.
- Get a chain for locking up your motorbike. You should run the chain through one of the tires when parking overnight or leaving the motorbike out of sight.
- If your scooter has a basket, ask for a bungee cord to keep items inside. Even a water bottle bouncing out of the front basket on rough roads could cause an accident.
- If you are inexperienced, opt for an automatic scooter rather than a manual one.
Driving an Automatic Scooter
Driving a scooter is easy to learn, but you'll have to leave the rental office with a little confidence to avoid stressing the staff. To start an automatic scooter, put the kickstand up, hold the brake in with your right hand (a sensor prevents the starter from working unless you hold the brake), and press the start button (usually a button accessible with your left thumb). Pressing the button on the right (the horn) while trying to start is a dead giveaway that you're a newbie!
The throttle is far more sensitive than most beginners expect, so give it a slow, tentative twist until you get a feel for the torque. Test the brakes softly until you know how touchy they are; most wrecks happen because new drivers over correct or squeeze the brakes too quickly to avoid something in the road. Use the rear brake (left hand) more than the front brake (right hand).
Unlike when driving a car, you'll need to train your eyes to watch the road ahead as well as what is approaching your front tire. What would ordinarily be a small bump in the pavement for a car may be enough to bounce you into the air!
Driving in Southeast Asia can be chaotic; potholes, animals, sidewalk drivers, street-food carts, and everything else imaginable can get in the way — go slowly!
No matter how hot the day is or how much it messes up your hair, always wear your helmet! Even a low-speed, comical turnover could produce a head injury.
Most Southeast Asian countries have mandatory helmet laws, and wearing one may save your life. The helmet law may not always be enforced for locals, however, the police in some countries stop tourists without helmets to pay on-the-spot fines. Even if locals opt not to do so, wear your helmet.
Some other easy ways to stay safe:
- Adjust your mirrors while sitting in the driving position before you begin moving.
- If your helmet doesn't have a front shield, you'll want sunglasses to keep dust and insects out of your eyes.
- Be aware that items in the front basket have an uncanny habit of bouncing out into spinning tires.
- Rain can turn driving conditions from enjoyable to perilous. Know if bad weather is coming before driving too far.
- Overreaction can be as bad or worse than no reaction in sketchy situations. Always use gentle motions when turning or applying the brakes.
- Sitting on a scooter with arms and legs stretched out is a very easy way to get a nasty sunburn!
The Right of Way in Southeast Asia
Driving in Southeast Asia can seem chaotic at times, but there is a method to the madness. Traffic follows an informal hierarchy, and so should you.
The rules of the road are simple: The biggest vehicle always gets the right of way. Motorbikes fall near the bottom of the pecking order, just one notch above bicycles and pedestrians. Always yield to buses, trucks, cars, and larger motorbikes. Don't be angry or surprised when that truck pulls out in front of you — the driver is expecting you to go around or yield!
The safest place to drive is always on the far edge of the slowest lane. If driving in a country that drives on the left side (e.g., Thailand), stay as far to the left as possible so that larger vehicles and more experienced drivers can pass you easily. Unfortunately, the far edge of the road is also where animals, rubbish, loose bricks, and other road hazards exist; keep your eyes on what is directly in front of you!
Do as the local drivers do: use your horn liberally. Yes, it contributes to the chaos, but it's a vital part of the system. Tap your horn courteously a couple of times before passing people and when coming around sharp turns so that there are no surprises.
Remember: Scooters are smaller and harder to see than cars. Other drivers may not notice your approach until you sound the horn.
Many rental agencies in Southeast Asia siphon gas from returned rentals; it's a part of their fee. You may have to proceed directly for fuel.
While petrol is commonly sold from glass bottles at roadside stalls, you'll pay far more per liter and may receive low-quality fuel. Always try to fill up at gas stations when they are available. Most gas stations in Southeast Asia are full service,but you won't be expected to tip. Choose a pump, park, and open the scooter for the attendant. You will pay and receive change directly from the attendant.
Scooters have a limited range, and tourists frequently run out of fuel between fill-up opportunities in rural places. Locals may have fuel in large containers they bring from the city on supply runs. Plan ahead, and top up fuel as often as possible.
Motorbike Rental Scams
Sadly, some agencies rent scooters until they literally fall apart; breaking down or experiencing a flat tire on the road is a common occurrence. Shops renew their motorbike fleets through tourists who crash or become victims of theft and are forced to pay for a new bike.
- Never rent from an individual offering you their personal motorbike. This is a common hustle in Bali, Laos, and Vietnam. Some nefarious scams include the same individual following you to steal back the bike with a spare key. They may blame you for small scratches that merit big repair bills. Occasionally, renting from an individual is the only way to get a scooter; this is often the case on islands in the Philippines.
- Always lock up your motorbike at night, and try to park in high-profile places. Don't leave your helmet hanging on the bike.
- Motorbike seats can be easily popped open with a flathead screwdriver. Don't leave valuables in the compartment.
- Check a motorbike carefully before driving away. Return to the agency immediately if you experience a problem with the tires, brakes, or motor. If you are forced to make emergency repairs somewhere, you probably won't be compensated later for fixing their motorbike!
8 Common Car Rental Mistakes
01 of 09
Common Car Rental Mistakes
Transportation is going to be one of the biggest expenses for any traveler, and making mistakes while renting a car can easily blow a budget traveler's budget. Read on to learn more about the most common mistakes travelers make when renting cars.Continue to 2 of 9 below.
02 of 09
Common Mistakes: Renting a Car at the Airport
Perhaps the most common car rental mistake involves making arrangements in an airport.
It's the most convenient place for many travelers to arrange a car rental, and there are times when trying to rent elsewhere is more trouble than it's worth. But many travelers fail to realize that airport car rentals are usually more expensive than other places.
Why is this so?
Let's start with taxes. Some airports charge up to 30 percent on your rental, whereas such taxes elsewhere will probably run about half that rate.
Renting and operating business space at airports is expensive, and that cost must be passed on to customers. That's why airport food appears overpriced, and why many airport buys are unwise.
It pays to check rates at nearby rental offices, or at a downtown location. Weigh the cost of ground transportation from the airport and your inconvenience before making a decision.Continue to 3 of 9 below.
03 of 09
Common Mistakes: Failing to Work Pricing Structures
Car rental companies tend to reward longer keeps. Many have a weekly rate that works out to be cheaper on a per diem basis.
So your three-day rental could cost $56/day, but a weekly contract might be $28/day. Many companies define a week as at least five days. It sounds crazy, but a five-day rental might be the same price or even cheaper than the three-day keep.
Always check the available rates to determine the best rental period. Don't simply look at your need for a car and then book for that time frame.
Fuel costs go hand-in-hand with this approach. Some companies will give you a full tank, and expect the same upon return, but others will give you a car with a half-tank of gas and ask you to bring it back at the same level. Failing to do so could cost money. You'll either pay a steep refueling penalty or you'll donate gasoline to the company. And sometimes there's a plan that requires you to pay for gasoline in advance at a lower price.
Companies know the odds are in their favor with these plans. You'll rarely hit the estimates correctly, and they'll usually benefit financially from your miscalculation.
Make sure you understand the pricing options before you sign and initial the contract.Continue to 4 of 9 below.
04 of 09
Common Mistakes: Buying Overpriced Insurance
Most budget travelers know they should check with their auto insurers to be certain they are covered when renting a car. Many times, basic coverage will be provided.
Credit card companies sometimes provide coverage on car rentals, too. It pays to know the specifics.
But car rental clerks frequently warn that your insurance might not cover everything. They urge you to purchase the company's additional policies that will leave you without a worry.
Those added insurance costs can double your expense, so be absolutely certain they are necessary before agreeing to make the purchase.
Once in a while, they do make sense.
When renting overseas, for example, your auto policy might not cover an accident. Credit cards sometimes do, but frequently exempt certain countries.
Basic Travel insurance often covers damages but not liability or medical expenses.
Find out what is required and protect yourself, but don't simply buy whatever the rental company is offering without some homework.Continue to 5 of 9 below.
05 of 09
Common Mistakes: Assuming Immediate Service at Small Offices
High volume rental locations usually have cars. You might be upgraded if they don't have the model you reserved, but chances are good you'll get into a vehicle quickly.
In a smaller city, their fleet size is limited. You might spend several hours waiting for the next return, which then has to be cleaned prior to delivery.
If you'll be flying into a smaller airport or renting in a small city, build some wait time into your itinerary.Continue to 6 of 9 below.
06 of 09
Common Mistakes: Failing to Make Pre-Rental Inspection
If you don't notice scratches, cracks in light covers, mirrors or windshields, body dents, chipped paint, stains on the upholstery and other seemingly minor problems if a car when you rent it, you might have to pay for it.
If possible, do a walk-around with the agent, making note of any such issues. The next-best option is to do the inspection alone and let the company know on the way off the property that you found some items for which you do not want to be charged upon return.
The same holds true for any mechanical problems. If the car is not in optimum working order, return it.Continue to 7 of 9 below.
07 of 09
Common Mistakes: Reserving Large Rather than Small
There are times when a larger car is about the same price as a compact. In those cases, many budget travelers see the extra money as well-spent.
But when that pricing does not exist, it always pays to reserve a smaller car, especially during busy holiday travel periods.
The companies frequently run out of smaller cars, and if they don't have the small car you reserved at the time of arrival, you'll get a free upgrade.
In the U.S. and Canada, this free upgrade happens more frequently than many might imagine, because the companies tend to stock larger cars.
So if you can live with getting a small car, go ahead and reserve it. If it happens, at least you'll save money on fuel costs.Continue to 8 of 9 below.
08 of 09
Common Mistakes: Paying for Expensive Accessories
Frequently overheard at the rental counter: “Wouldn't you like a navigation system? Many of the roads here are hard to follow.”
This is a common sales tactic, and it works less often now than it did a few years ago. Many budget travelers now carry smartphones equipped with navigation apps.
But there are plenty of other offers that will be made. The aforementioned insurance, fuel package purchases, and satellite radio upgrades all add up. The GPS option, for example, frequently exceeds $10/day.
Are you comfortable with a manual transmission? If so, it will save money in many countries. Cars are stocked based on the population's preferences. Outside of North America, most drivers are comfortable with a manual shift.Continue to 9 of 9 below.
09 of 09
Common Mistakes: Inaccurate Return Time Estimates
Some companies will give you an hour or so of grace time, but there are others with policies that hold you to the hour and minute you said you'd bring back the car. In a few extreme cases, you'll be charged for another day, even if that “day” was 20 minutes.
Be sure to ask the clerk about the company's policy.
Better yet, try to give yourself a time cushion. Estimate a time an hour or so later than you actually expect to return.