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Stretch travel dollars in Southeast Asia

Exotic locales offer bargains on hotels, tours

HANOI, Vietnam — When planning months or even a year ahead for "the next big trip," money is inevitably one of the top deciding factors. For Americans with a taste for overseas destinations, cheapie off-season flights to Europe and bargain hotels often seem like the easiest and most obvious way to go.

But what if you could go somewhere truly exotic — swaying palms, white sands, lush jungles and centuries-old ruins — during high season and stay in five-star hotels for a fraction of what you would pay for a closet with no bath in London?

It's all possible in Southeast Asia.

Sure, the airfares are a bit daunting — $800 to $1,000 for a flight from the States may be more than double what you'd pay to get to Paris or Barcelona. But let's put it into perspective: Once you land, a dollar in Asia often equals thousands of the local currency. For example, in Vietnam, $1 equals 15,700 dong. Compare that to Western Europe, where the euro trumped the dollar this summer, 1.2 to 1.

You do the math.

Southeast Asia consists of 11 countries (Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam), each with a very distinct culture and flavor. Great beaches, superb shopping and divine food abound in nearly all of these destinations. And if budget is an overriding issue, there's no better place to wheel and deal to stretch your cash.

The region once crawled mainly with backpackers toting oversized rucksacks and staying in basic hostels and guest houses cooled by fans instead of air conditioning. But now average Joe travelers arriving with luggage on rollers are discovering that for $50 or $60 a night, it's possible to bathe surrounded in marble and lounge on a private deck overlooking the ocean.

For those who like to have all the details planned out in advance, log on for limitless bargains. Sites like www.latestays.com/ are great for booking hotels in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

But if you like to see exactly what you're getting before handing over your credit card, then often the best deals can be had simply by showing up and haggling.

This may not be the best option during high season, which varies from place to place depending on the weather, and it won't likely work in more developed countries like Singapore. But in major tourist destinations like Phuket, Thailand, or Angkor Wat in Cambodia, if you're willing to run the risk that your top choice might be fully booked, and you don't mind scoping out a couple places before checking in, your efforts can often lead to a treasure and a deal.

Once you get settled, a little leg work can save a lot more. Instead of asking the hotel to book a driver or excursion for you, inquire at independent tourist agencies on the street. But even then, never book at the first place. For instance, a British traveler on a tour of Vietnam's Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island recently paid $40 for a two-day tour — while an American couple on the same trip paid $13 apiece.

The lesson learned is that it's best to shop around or try to cut the middle man out altogether by booking with the company actually running the tour.

Many booking agents, however, will insist that you take "tourist" boats, ferries, etc. True, that's often the easiest way to get from here to there, but local boats are great for short trips or crossings, and they will save you a bundle. For example, posh tourist boats from Bali, Indonesia, to neighboring Nusa Lembongan can cost up to $40 each way for an hour ride. The local boat (the only locals on board are usually the captain and crew) costs about $5 each way for about 30 minutes longer on a more basic vessel.

Since the tour companies obviously don't want you to know about this (often denying that a local boat exists), how do you find out about these deals? Easy: Think and ask.

Guidebooks like Lonely Planet are helpful, and there are tons of Web sites with prices, schedules and lots of other useful information including cheap domestic flights, trains, boats, etc. But when in a pinch, ask a local. Drivers can be very helpful — especially if they think you might be looking for a ride to the place you're seeking.

One thing is essential, though — negotiate a price upfront. Too many visitors make the mistake of hopping into taxis and expecting a metered fare only to have the driver tell them they owe $20 for a $5 ride.

Again, always ask and bargain. Hard.

The same goes with shopping. You're in Asia, so shopkeepers expect you to haggle. It can be exhausting, and some tourists flat-out refuse to do it, but it's a part of life in most markets and stalls across the region.

So, next time you start thinking about affordable vacations, add Southeast Asia to your list. You'll soon find that the real dilemma will be narrowing down where you want to go.