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The 6 best beaches in Thailand

The summer months send American travelers flocking to local beaches. But if you’re in the mood for a more exotic beach getaway, where the water is a gorgeous azure, the sand is soft and powdery, and the people are incredibly friendly, why not venture to a country famed for its more than 1,800 miles of magnificent coastline — Thailand?

While the Thai military coup recently slowed tourism to the country, more travelers are returning to this hot travel destination as political turmoil settles.

Thailand’s tropical landscape and warm climate make it the perfect destination for a seaside escape, but with so many jaw-dropping beaches to visit, it’s hard to select just one. If you’re dreaming of an exotic Thai vacation, here’s my list of must-visit Thai beaches.

1. Patong Beach, Phuket

Venture south to Thailand’s largest island, Phuket, to visit the famed Patong Beach. Patong’s more than two miles of white-sand coastline make it a perfect location for long days spent sun bathing and lounging by the sea. The beach is popular with partygoers, since the nearby town of Soi Bangla is famed for vibrant nightclubs, restaurants, bars, and shops. Embrace the best of both worlds. Excitement and relaxation make for the perfect vacation!

2. Kata Beach, Phuket

Phuket island isn’t all about clubbing and nightlife. You can escape the hustle and bustle of Patong Beach by venturing just a few miles south to relax among palm trees and soft sand beaches. Visitors can choose between two beaches — Kata Yai and Kata Noi — and spend the afternoon sipping cool drinks under the hot Thai sun.

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Disability, wheelchair doesn’t stop traveler from experiencing a Taste of China

I can’t imagine a more glum situation than sustaining an injury, especially one that hinders you from walking, right before a vacation.

But that’s what happened to Dorothy Kellher from Palm Beach, Fla. right before she went on Friendly Planet Travel’s Taste of China tour.

However, two fractures in Dorothy’s hip didn’t slow her down. After weighing her options, she decided to use a wheelchair and go on the tour. And she doesn’t regret her decision for a second.

Friendly Planet Travel’s tour guides took excellent care of Dorothy and made sure she had just as great of an experience as everyone else in her group.

But enough of me telling you why Dorothy enjoyed Friendly Planet Travel’s Taste of China tour so much. I pasted the e-mail below (verbatim) she sent to me when she returned to tell you all about it herself.

“I was planning to cancel my participation in the tour, having recently sustained two fractures in my right hip. At the last minute, hoping I would not be a drag on the rest of the group, and being assured that a wheelchair would be made available, I made the trip. The accommodations, food and service at all the hotels were first-class. The optional tours were too good to miss. The guides did a fantastic job in keeping us informed as to what we were visiting, and, more importantly, in continually checking that we were enjoying every experience to the max. We were given excellent opportunities to indulge in shopping, but were never pressured to buy. All our guides made sure I was part of the group at all times, and my temporary disability proved no drawback. My use of the wheechair was discarded after I reached the top of the Great Wall with the help of my cane. You are fortunate to have Peter Pi as a national guide. Both he and Jon Wang went way beyond their duties to befriend every tour guest. For me the tour gave new meaning to ‘The Experience of a Lifetime!’ Thanks Friendly Planet.” — Dorothy Kelleher, Palm Beach, Fla.

Dorothy, I’m so happy that you had a wonderful time on your trip! I hope you recover quickly from your injuries and are able to join us on another tour in full health.

First-time Friendly Planet traveler reviews our Best of Turkey tour

It’s been almost a year since we introduced Friendly Planet Travel’s Best of Turkey tour. And every Friendly Planeteer I’ve spoken to who has taken this tour tells me how much they loved exploring the country known as the crossroads of Asia and Europe.

I wanted to share with you what Ann Ott from Cedar City, Utah had to say about her trip to Turkey. She sent me an e-mail that I’ve pasted below verbatim.

“Just returned from my first trip with Friendly Planet and was so impressed that I had to write this note. You have a lot of choices in travel and I have found my tour company at last. Everything about my trip was amazing- our guide, Ibrahim, was not only extremely knowledgeable, but also patient and very funny.

Hotels, transportation, meals, added excursions were all superb. Everything went off without a hitch- I felt safe and cared for every minute and could spend ALL of my time enjoying the trip instead of worrying about the travel details. Turkey, its people, scenery, food, monuments and parks are just wonderful. I can’t wait for my next trip. So little time, so much to see.” — Ann Ott, Cedar City, Utah

Ann, it brightens my day to find out how pleased you were with your first Friendly Planet Travel tour! Let us know which tour you pick as your second trip. And thanks again for your note!

More on how to save money on a trip to Asia

The other day I told you how to save on flights and hotels when designing your own trip to Asia.

Today I’m giving you more tips on how to save on tours, currency exchange, and restaurants once you’re in your destination. So let’s get started.

Tours
Unless you are fluent in the local language, it’s probably best to book tours through a known agency. But check carefully to determine how much touring you really need to buy. I always begin my exploration of a new destination with a simple city tour.

This is for orientation purposes. I like to get a feel for the city and to get an overall idea of what there is to see. An orientation tour also gives you a great feeling for the lay of the land, that is, how far (or near) things are. Once you’ve oriented yourself, you can quickly determine how much touring you want to do with a guide and how much you can do on your own.

In some places, signs are not translated into English, making self guiding a real problem, so check carefully before you set out on your own. In other places, signs are posted in many languages making a self-guided tour a joy.

Book tours to the places you’ve always dreamed of visiting to be sure you don’t miss any of the important facts and details. Or, prepare yourself well in advance. Use a guide book to supplement your tour, but never use it to replace a real guide.

It’s better to save money by booking only those absolutely necessary tours through a reputable agency than to hire a private guide off the street (or even through the concierge at your hotel).

When you don’t go through a reputable agency, you don’t know your guide’s experience or knowledge of the city. Again, do the research before you depart. The Internet will give you lots of information about local tour companies. Even if you book and pay on the spot, you’ll already have identified whom to contact, saving time and trouble once you get to your destination.

Currency exchange
Never change money prior to departure. Every airport I’ve ever been in has a “change” desk where you can get enough money to see you through your first day. If you’re on a guided tour, your guide will know precisely where to change money.

And if you have an ATM or credit card that allows you to take out cash, that’s going to be your best bet. Capital One is the very best credit card for this purpose. It has no foreign currency service fee associated with it, and it’s the one I carry when I travel abroad.

However, even my AMEX or ATM card does the trick. After fees and exchange rates, I’m still generally getting a better deal than at the bank. And I can put my card into the ATM machine and ask for a modest amount of money to get me through a couple of days. Because in every Asian city and town I’ve visited, there are ATM machines readily available.

Restaurants
My main consultants for restaurants have become shop owners. I love to browse and wander, and shopping is part of that experience. Shopping doesn’t even need to include buying, but those shop keepers and clerks are eager to talk to foreign tourists, and they always know their towns well enough to give great recommendations. I’ve gotten tips about incredibly inexpensive spots to enjoy a meal with locals, where the food has been awesome and the socializing spectacular.

A good tour operator will give travelers plenty of advice and suggestions on most of these issues. Friendly Planet Travel offers every traveler a comprehensive destination guide for each place we visit, complete with great tips on where to shop, what to buy, and where to dine.

I hope these tips come in handy when you travel to Asia! And remember, you can use Friendly Planet’s new travel search engine to search thousands of deals on flights, hotels, and rental cars in Asia. And better yet, if you use our search travel engine, you still get Friendly Planet’s great savings and award-winning service. Enjoy your time in Asia!

How to save money on a trip to Asia

A few weeks ago, Michelle Higgins of The New York Times called out our Taste of China tour as a great way save money on a trip to Asia. But when I was exchanging e-mails with Michelle about Friendly Planet Travel’s tour, it got me thinking of other ways travelers can save money when planning a trip to Asia.

I know a lot of ways to cut costs without cutting the experience of a trip. Being in the travel industry for over 30 years has taught me a thing or two. It’s why Friendly Planet Travel’s tours are so extraordinary.

However, I also know that some travelers like to design their own itineraries when they travel. But even if building your own trip is your travel preference, everyone loves to get advice from other travelers who’ve been to that destination before.

The Friendly Planet team, myself included, has been to Asia at least a dozen times. So I wanted to share with you ways to save on flights, hotels, tours, currency exchange, and restaurants.

But since there’s so much to tell you about, I’m splitting this post into two. Look for part two in a few days. Let’s start with ways to save on flights and hotels when booking a trip to Asia.

Flights
Asia is far away for American travelers. That means you’re going to be flying for a very long time, no matter which carrier you select. But if you do your airfare research, you’ll discover that there are wide variations in pricing. In booking flights, I typically look for the least expensive deal I can find.

Sometimes that double connection actually saves hundreds of dollars per ticket off the single connection or nonstop flight. Keep in mind that the single connection and nonstop flights still take a long time, and if you can save $300, 400, or more on your tickets by choosing the longer flight, you might want to take advantage of the savings.

Or, consider departing one day earlier, take a relatively small part of your savings to pay for an extra hotel overnight at your destination, and give yourself the gift of a day to rest and recover from the jet lag. You will need the extra rest regardless of the flight you take. But saving money on the ticket will give you the money to indulge in the luxury of sleeping off the impact on your body of the long flight. You will still enjoy the savings from your tickets, and you’ll be ready to explore the destination with plenty of energy.

Hotels
Hotels in many Asian destinations can be tricky. The price is not the sole consideration for selecting a hotel. I start with the location of the hotel. Make sure that it’s very close to, or even at, a public transportation station.

In many, many Asian cities, gridlock is what you’ll find all day and into the night. Traffic is a nightmare and getting around the city can be a horrible and time-wasting experience. Even if your hotel is practically free, if you have to spend hours getting around, the value of your entire vacation will be eroded by the inability to do the things you really want to do.

On the other hand, if you’re near a tube, light rail, or (last choice) a bus line, you’ll make much better time. The extra cost of a hotel in a location that is very close to good public transportation will be well worth it.

Also, when you do your comparison shopping for a hotel, be sure your breakfast (buffet, American style) is included in the cost, as well as taxes and other fees. Otherwise, you may think you’re paying a bargain price only to discover the real cost is 50 percent or more more than your budget. I would NOT recommend staying in anything less than superior tourist class hotels in Asia, unless you are staying in a B&B owned by a good friend.

So, if designing your own trip to Asia is more your style, try using Friendly Planet’s new travel search engine. It lets you search thousands of great deals on flights and hotels. Our travel search engine is an easy way to arrange your next vacation, while enjoying Friendly Planet’s great savings and award-winning service.

And stay tuned. I’ll talk about ways to save on tours, currency exchange, and restaurants in part two. But before I get to that, have you been to Asia recently? Please share some of your own advice on ways to save in a comment on this post.

Why we need to help Japan recover

A month has passed since the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. And as you know, Japan is being rocked with aftershocks and the nuclear crisis continues to threaten the country.

You would think that the Japanese people would be in a state of mayhem and disorder, but it’s quite the opposite. What we’re seeing in Japan is how evolved, calm, and reasoned people behave during a crisis.

There’s no looting nor protests, and everyone is trying to help one other. It is the dignity and grace of the Japanese people that make their country so wonderful.

For example, right now the cherry blossoms are in bloom in Japan. Their blossoming sparks celebration. People go outside and enjoy picnics, parties, music, and the beauty of the trees. But this is not the case this year.

In the southern part of Japan, the damage was minimal compared to the north. But the people in the south who aren’t dealing with the aftermath of the disasters feel that it’s not appropriate to celebrate while their countrymen are suffering so much.

Instead, everyone is cutting back on everything. From cherry blossom celebrations to ordinary things, such as electricity and water to conserve resources. They’re doing this to stand in solidarity with their countrymen and women, and essentially, to do whatever they can to help one other out.

There’s a strong sense of responsibility in the Japanese culture and psyche. Their consideration of one another is remarkable and worth appreciating. It’s also one of the many reasons why we want to resume tours to Japan as soon as possible. However, we won’t go back until we feel it’s safe for our travelers.

Unfortunately I don’t see us resuming our Japan Panorama tours this year. The touring season is very short in Japan, and so we’ll have to wait until 2012 to go back. But until then, we can help Japan recover through donations.

We’re always looking for ways to get money directly to those who need it the most, and right now we’re asking you to make donation to Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross. Thank you for your help. I know the people in Japan truly appreciate it.

Why Thailand owns the title ‘incredible’

We recently announced new departure dates for Friendly Planet Travel’s Incredible Thailand tour, and they’re already selling out! However, I’m not surprised. Thailand is beloved by our travelers, including Dr. Ak Schmidt, a long-time Friendly Planet traveler who just returned from our Incredible Thailand tour.

She sent me an e-mail telling me why her tour was so wonderful, and gives some excellent advice if you’re traveling to Thailand. I copied the e-mail below (verbatim).

“the trip to thailand was indeed incredible! it sounds great on the friendly planet overview but it’s so much more! i don’t know where to start. hotels were great. everyone should stay at the dusit thani. we went back there for a weekend on our own.

our guide was awesome. she made extra stops for us along the road for things like sticky rice cooked in bamboo (loved that) and always asked if everyone had their passports, etc when we went to a different place. she took us on a boat to laos and everyone got their passports stamped and of course we got to shop a little.

as far as shopping goes, i’d say watch out. thailand has everything and you’re gonna want it all. bangkok is easy to get around in and has a super mall close to the dusit thani. one thing i would say too is that the golden buddha and the white temple should be emphasized more in the advertising because they are unique and more than amazing – truly incredible!!

i’ve been to egypt, borneo, morocco, cambodia, vietnam, kenya and now thailand with fp. going to south africa this summer. guess that tells you something. ps. will send pix if any are good, but jim yancey is gonna have the best pictures. you should pick some for your website. ps2, our guide, lek, was the best i’ve ever had and y’all have some good ones. and noni, her assistant had a cooler with ICE and COLD soft drinks and water. i can’t tell you how wonderful that was. a really great practice where it’s so hot.” — Dr. Schmidt, La Grange, Texas

Thanks Dr. Schmidt for the kind words! I look forward to hearing about your trip to South Africa with us. If you’re interested in experiencing Thailand, you can still book a departure date for the 14-day Incredible Thailand tour. But hurry, space is limited!

Japan nuclear crisis prompts cancellation of Japan Panorama tours

The complex issues around Japan’s nuclear crisis are not short term. And as a result, Friendly Planet Travel is suspending our Japan Panorama tours.

We always act in the best interest of our travelers, and their safety is our number one priority. So the tour will remain suspended until we are certain our travelers can visit Japan safely.

If you are booked on one of our Japan Panorama departure dates, we’ve already contacted you with this news. You’ll be able to book any one of Friendly Planet Travel’s other tours. Even if it’s sold out, we will work with you to get a tour you want. Or if you don’t wish to do that, you can receive a full refund.

I’m saddened to see Japan suffer like this, and our thoughts go out to everyone in Japan as they deal with the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and now a nuclear crisis. Hopefully Japan will be able to get the nuclear problem under control soon and start the recovery process.

We will certainly reinstate our tours to Japan the moment it looks as though our travelers will be safe. If any news on this situation changes, watch this spot for updates. In the meantime, we are urging everyone who can to donate whatever amount is possible to Doctors without Borders or the International Red Cross. Both agencies are very much engaged in helping the people of Japan recover from the horrific disasters of the past weeks.

Vietnam: The last place on Earth you’d ever associate with luxury

When you think of Vietnam, you probably remember the war overseas and civil unrest in the United States. But the truth is, the war ended in 1975 and the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam has been mended. More recently, Vietnam has become one of the most exotic destinations on Earth to experience.

That’s why JustLuxe asked me to cover it. JustLuxe is an online magazine that focuses only on the most luxurious things in life, especially those unexpected luxuries that they can reveal to their readers. And Vietnam is, for obvious reasons, the perfect fit. Its beauty and simplicity of life, juxtaposed against its emerging economy, makes it one of my favorite countries to visit.

During my last trip to the country, I got to enjoy a luxurious overnight cruise aboard the Emeraude on Halong Bay. In my guest article, “Sail the Halong Bay and Explore Vietnam on the Emeraude,” I share every detail about my stay aboard the ship. Read what my experience was like, and if you have questions about Vietnam, leave them in a comment on this post.

Thanks again JustLuxe for featuring my article!

The New York Times calls out our Taste of China tour as a great way save money on a trip to Asia

Asia is a popular destination for savvy travelers, but it’s usually an expensive one.

But if there’s one person who can tell you how to trim your travel budget without trimming your experience, it’s Michelle Higgins of the The New York Times.

Her Practical Traveler column is widely read by travelers who want to see the world at a reasonable price.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was when she featured Friendly Planet Travel’s Taste of China tour in her article, “Saving Money on a Trip to Asia.”

She uses it as one of the ways to save when booking a trip to Asia because it combines air and hotel. I was even able to tell Michelle how travelers can experience all the wonders of Asia for hundreds of dollar less simply by going in the off season.

There’s one thing about Friendly Planet Travel that differs us from other money-saving tours. We don’t just save you money, we give you the extraordinary for the price of ordinary.

Thanks Michelle for featuring Friendly Planet Travel in your column! Head over to the article to get all of Michelle’s money-saving tips. And if you’re interested in traveling to Asia, look at the 13 tours Friendly Planet Travel offers.

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About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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