Southeast Asia is a great region to get the most value out of your points and travel on a budget. The countries of this region are full of beautiful landscapes and activities for all tastes. Luxury is also much more affordable, especially with Reward Points. I’m sharing my month-long trip to Southeast Asia and how I used my points for a half-luxury, half-backpack stay.
The Southeast Asian traveler’s route is so popular and well established that it has a nickname: the Banana Pancake Trail. The classic itinerary is a loop that starts in Bangkok, crosses northern Thailand, passes through Laos, travels through Vietnam from north to south, ends in Cambodia and then returns to Bangkok. This trip can be done entirely by bus and train, without ever taking a plane.
It is also popular to start in Singapore, cross Malaysia, visit the southern islands of Thailand and then reach Bangkok. For itineraries of several months, some also add some islands in Indonesia (Java, Bali, Borneo) or even the Philippines.
Since I only had a month, I couldn’t cover the whole region. I limited myself to three countries and elaborated an itinerary that offers a good combination of large urban centers, historical monuments, some rural landscapes and white sandy beaches. I also opted for regional flights over buses to reduce travel time and maximize the time allocated to activities.
I chose to visit Singapore for a week, a modern city that has long fascinated me. I then headed to Cambodia for two weeks for the Angkor temples in Siem Reap, the tranquility in Kampot and the island life on Koh Rong Samloem. During my last week, I travelled through the south and center of Vietnam, where I was able to visit my spouse’s family. We visited the paradise island of Phu Quoc, Da Lat (a very popular city for local tourism), and Hoi An, a small city that has retained its traditional charm.
Bonus: the city of Seoul! Thanks to a long stopover on my return flight, I visited the South Korean capital for a day.
The plane and points
From Montreal, there are many flight options to Southeast Asia. The largest airports in the region are Singapore (SIN) and Bangkok (BKK). Ho Chi Minh (SGN), Kuala Lumpur (KUL) and Jakarta (CGK) are also air transport hubs.
All these airports are served by a multitude of airlines such as Air Canada, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines, Air France-KLM, British Airways and more. As a result, it’s fairly easy to book flights with points in three popular programs: Aeroplan, Avios and Flying Blue.
Personally, I chose the Aeroplan program for my outbound ticket (YUL-CDG-SIN) and the Avios program for the return (SGN-DOH-YUL). I wanted to try out two airlines with an excellent reputation: Singapore Airlines (member of Star Alliance) and Qatar Airways (member of Oneworld).
Since my Aeroplan award ticket is half on Air Canada and half with a partner, the pricing is partially dynamic. I still got a great price: 48,300 Aeroplan points and $100 in taxes. Please note that there is an additional fee of $39 for reservations with a partner.
Other choices are available with stopovers in different European cities. All prices are around 49,000 Aeroplan points + $150 one-way in economy class.
Qatar Airways is also a good option to Singapore. A flat rate of 47,500 Avios points gives you an excellent value for your points, as Qatar Airways flights are expensive when paid in cash.
Choices with Star Alliance are slightly more limited for flights to Bangkok. You may be able to take advantage of the new Vancouver-Bangkok route with Air Canada, but you’ll need to get a head start because availabilities are going fast. Otherwise partner flights are offered with Thai Airways or EVA Air.
Air France also serves Bangkok from Paris. You could book a one-way ticket Montreal-Paris-Bangkok for 53,000 Flying Blue miles. Since this program is a transfer partner of an American Express Privilege Points, it’s easy to earn points with your everyday purchases. Also keep an eye for FlyingBlue promotions as destinations are offered at a discounted price each month!
Qatar Airways also serves most destinations inSoutheast Asia from Montreal. If you wish to travel in business class, flights are 95,000 or 100,000 Avios points depending on the destination. There is also the possibility of First Class on the Doha-Bangkok segment. Since there are limited availabilities for these premium cabin tickets and they are very popular, you need to book almost a year in advance.
Here is a summary of Avios points for one-way fares from Montreal toSoutheast Asia:
|Singapore (SIN)||47,500 points||95,000 points|
|Bangkok (BKK)||47,500 points||95,000 points|
|Ho Chi Minh City (SGN)||47,500 points||95,000 points|
|Kuala Lumpur (KUL)||47,500 points||95,000 points|
|Jakarta (CGK)||50,000 points||100,000 points|
|Bali (DPS)||50,000 points||100,000 points|
At the beginning, I had booked my return ticket from Ho Chi Minh to Montreal with Qatar Airways for 47 500 Avios points + 171$. Since I changed my plans at the last minute and had to return on a specific date, there were no award tickets left with Qatar Airways. Fortunately, I was able to cancel my reservation without charge and get all my points back. I then purchased a return ticket with Delta Air Lines in cash for $1371.
Once there, it is easy to take regional flights to move from one country to another or within the same country. Many ultra low cost airlines are present in Southeast Asia and they offer tickets at extremely low prices (I’m talking about $15 one way!). Air Asia and Scoot are particularly popular because of their huge choices of destinations.
On my end, I saved a lot of money on my regional flights thanks to points. Singapore Airlines operates the Singapore-Siem Reap route daily. I bought this ticket from Air Canada for 8000 Aeroplan points and $100.
The distance between Phnom Penh in Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam is only 250 km. On the other hand, the trip by bus is long (more than 7 hours) due to the state of the roads and the wait at the land border. I opted for more comfort with the short one-hour Vietnam Airlines flight between these two cities. I booked through the American Express Travel website and used my annual travel credit and privilege points.
My domestic flights in Vietnam were almost all with Vietnam Airlines. Although low cost airlines offer much lower fares, I decided to pay a little more for an established airline and get a better customer service in case of problems or delays. I paid for these flights with my HSBC World Elite® Mastercard®Mastercard, then applied my HSBC Rewards points as a credit to the account.
In addition, Vietnam Airlines is a member of SkyTeam: flights can be booked with Flying Blue or Delta SkyMiles points. In practice, I found very little availability with Flying Blue and a little more with Delta. Domestic flights are available for 12,500 SkyMiles and $5 in taxes.
In total, I used:
- 56 300 Aeroplan points
- 8000 American Express Membership Rewards points
- 57 000 HSBC Rewards points
- My $100 American Express Annual Travel Credit
- $1573 in cash
At the time of my booking, all of these flights combined had a value of $3236. So I saved almost 50% by using a variety of points! I could have done much better by keeping my return flight with Qatar Airways paid in Avios points but I am still satisfied with my strategy.
Here is a summary table of my reservations:
|Montreal-Paris-Singapore||Air Canada and Singapore Airlines||48,300 Aeroplan points + $100|
|Singapore-Siem Reap||Singapore Airlines||8000 Aeroplan points + $50|
|Phnom Penh-Ho Chi Minh||Vietnam Airlines||$100 Amex credit + 8000 Membership Rewards points + $52|
|Hô Chi Minh-Phu Quoc||Vietnam Airlines||18,200 HSBC points|
|Phu Quoc-Hô Chi Minh-Da Lat||Vietnam Airlines||26,400 HSBC points|
|Da Lat-Da Nang||Bamboo Airways||12,400 HSBC points|
|Da Nang-Seoul-Minneapolis-Montreal||Vietnam Airlines and Delta||1 371 $|
In addition, my Platinum Card® from American Express provides unlimited access to a vast collection of airport lounges. I was able to access lounges in Montreal, Singapore, Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh, Da Nang, Seoul and Minneapolis.
Accommodation and points
Southeast Asia is an unparalleled region to use your Marriott Bonvoy® points to your advantage. Rates in points are low for high-end hotels like the W, JW Marriott or Westin. The Marriott Bonvoy® program has 126 hotels in the region, with the largest selection in Thailand and Malaysia.
Since I was traveling solo and I like to meet other travelers, I opted for hostels for my other nights in Singapore and Cambodia. I used my HSBC World Elite® Mastercard® card for these purchases: I saved the conversion fees and was able to apply my premium points against an account credit afterwards.
Once in Vietnam, the solo part ended and I continued my trip as a couple. My partner and I booked three nights at the Sheraton Phu Quoc Long Beach Resort to relax on the beach and enjoy the spa. I used 43,200 Marriott Bonvoy® points for two nights plus my spouse’s annual certificate for the third night.
Before Marriott Bonvoy®’s hotel categories disappeared, the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa was an outstanding sweetspot. Jean-Maximilien and his family stayed there for 5 nights in 2018 for 100,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points! As of now, it takes between 45,000 and 56,000 points per night. The Sheraton Phu Quoc Long Beach Resort is another great budget option in points.
Our other nights in Da Lat and Hoi An were in small independent hotels, booked with Booking.com.
In Da Nang, the Sheraton Grand Danang Resort is another great place to use its annual certificate. It is a 5-star beachfront resort where you can stay for less than 30,000 points a night.
Here are in brief the visa requirements for Canadian passport holders. Electronic visas (eVisa) must be requested on the web prior to departure, then printed to show the authorities upon arrival. It is also possible to obtain a visa on arrival at the airport, but this increases the waiting time and the formalities at customs.
- Cambodia: visa required, US$36, maximum visit 30 days
- Indonesia: visa required, US$35, maximum visit 30 days
- Malaysia: no visa required, maximum visit 90 days
- Singapore: no visa required, maximum visit of 30 days
- Thailand: no visa required, maximum visit of 30 days
- Vietnam: visa required, US$25, maximum visit of 30 days
It’s often not worth buying currency at the exchange office before leaving so I always withdraw my money locally. After using my Wise Visa Debit card in the U.S., Guatemala and Ecuador, I am now a fan of it and it follows me everywhere! It allows me to withdraw at low cost from international ATMs.
For now, the Wise app allows you to open accounts in Singapore dollars, Thai baht, Vietnamese dong, Malaysian ringgit and Indonesian rupiah. After adding funds to a local currency account, the ATM will automatically withdraw to that account and you will save even more on conversion fees. For Cambodian riel and Laotian kip, the card will also work but the funds will be withdrawn from the Canadian dollar account.
With the arrival of electronic SIMs (eSIMs) on the market, it is now much easier to obtain SIM cards abroad. I use the Airalo app which offers very affordable data plans. I paid US$20 for a regional eSIM that covers 14 countries in Asia. The package is 5 GB and it works for 30 days. To use less data, I got into the habit of downloading my maps from Google Maps to my phone before I would leave.
Southeast Asia is an endemic area for several tropical diseases. It is important to take good precautionary measures to avoid insect bites and be careful not to consume contaminated water or food. It is also a good idea to consult a professional at a travel health clinic or your pharmacist before you leave. They will be able to give you all the information you need and advise you on vaccinations and medication.
You now have all the information needed to start planning your dream trip to Southeast Asia. Other articles will soon be published about my experiences in Singapore, Cambodia and Vietnam.