Monday, 24 March 2008

Singapore, Day 2 and 3

On Saturday we decided to check out a cool bazaar that I'd found on my last visit, problem was I didn't know exactly how I'd gotten there. I guessed it was around the Little India area, so we headed up there on the tube. After walking around in the heat for an hour we finally found it - nowhere near where we thought (it was the Bugis St markets for future reference - and metres from a train stop, d'oh). Across the road is the Bugis Junction mall which was worth visiting just to cool down. There's nothing like walking past a shopping centre in stifling heat and having a blast of super chilled air wash over you.

After an hour there we jumped in a taxi to the world renowned Singapore Zoo. Apart from the road to the airport, it was the first time I'd seen outside the city. Residential areas turned surprisingly quickly into dense jungle, which was parted by the clean, modern highway.

The zoo is built on a peninsula, and houses animals from all over the world, including polar bears! Highlights were the amazing rare white tigers and the dozens of crazy red-arsed baboons (possibly not the scientific name). Check out the rest of the photos for more.

Just as the three-thirty elephant show began, it started to rain. It steadily got heavier, until it was a full-on tropical downpour, and they had to call off the show. We were stuck at the elephant enclosure for an hour, although the elephants themselves didn't seem bothered as they played in the mud. As soon as we'd resigned to getting soaked, some guy came around selling plastic ponchos for two dollars. Genius.

We wandered around for another hour in the storm but most of the animals had been moved under shelter (as if cheetahs can't handle a little rain). The only ones left out were the hippos, giraffes and the polar bear, who was probably enjoying the relief from the heat. For those wondering, they keep him in a deep chilled pool and he has an air-conditioned cave, although he was actually born at the zoo. It was a bit of a disappointing end to the afternoon, since we missed a lot of animals like the big cats.

After catching a bus and train home, we spent a few hours in the hotel business club, and then walked over to Chinatown later that night for food. The Smith St food market was just closing up but we got a meal of fried rice inside a hollowed out pineapple plus a few cheap beers. I would have liked to explore more if we'd had time.

The next day was Easter Sunday and we only had a half-day before our flight home at 6pm. After a quick shopping expedition to Orchard Road, we headed back into the city to the famous Long Bar at Raffles Hotel, where the Singapore Sling was invented. Claire had the cocktail while I had a Tiger, which came to $45 (!) but I guess you've got to do it once.

On returning to the hotel just after lunch time, we packed and checked out in record time, took a quick taxi to the airport. Again, we didn't get much shuteye on the trip back, but the 8am arrival was timed well so that we had all of Monday to catch up on sleep.

It was such a short holiday it's still hard to believe it all happened, although I'm sure it was slightly more memorable than the original weekend in Newcastle would have been (sorry Novocastrians).

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Singapore, Day 1

Well, despite thinking it was too good to be true, we actually made it here. Tiger wasn't half as bad as I expected either, they're pretty close to Jetstar service-wise. They even gave us exit row seats for the Melbourne-Darwin leg without us asking. We weren't so lucky on the second leg, so I got very little sleep.

We got into Changi at 4am local time, with no real plan, although we had at least booked a hotel from Darwin (free wireless is great). However check-in wasn't until 2pm, and the first train into town was at 5:30am. The train system here is really cheap, clean and efficient - miles ahead of the Tube in London. For 6am on a public holiday, it was surprisingly busy.

At 6:30 we were wandering around a completely empty CBD with our bags, and took a few dawn photos:

After completely miscalculating how far it was to walk to the hotel, we arrived hot and tired. Even before 8am it's humid here. We were hoping they possibly had a shower we could use, and then wander around until we could come back later that afternoon and check in. The guy on the desk asked if we'd like to upgrade our room for an extra $100 a night, which we initially declined, but he explained we'd get breakfast included, free internet, and access to their business club that meant free beer all day. It didn't take too much convincing to take him up on it. He even said we could check in straight away (at 8am!) for that much needed shower, and could get breakfast today too. It was better than we could have hoped.

This room was apparently one of the best they had, and I never really appreciated what that meant at a 5-star hotel until we saw it. We were on the top floor (29th) and the room was incredible. Two bathrooms, big plasma TV embedded in the wall, full Bose sound system with an iPod dock, jacuzzi in the bathroom, a universal remote that even operated the curtains, and a shower with more controls than the space shuttle.

We explored the rest of the hotel and it was just as amazing. On level 11 there was an outdoor pool, gym, massage rooms, plus a rock climbing wall. The business club was just like the Qantas lounge - wireless, snacks and beer all day, as well as wine, spirits and cocktails after 6 - all free. Couldn't believe the deal the guy had given us; it was pretty expensive at over SGD300 a night, but we looked up the normal rate for suite online... $900 to $1650!

Once we'd gotten unpacked and cleaned up, we caught the train over to Orchard Road, the central shopping district of Singapore. It rained later, but we didn't notice at first, because all the shopping centres are linked with underground tunnels so you can avoid the heat.

At 5 we headed back to Boat Quay and took a bumboat tour along the river, which I'd enjoyed last time I was in Singapore. To find dinner we walked down the many restaurants along the waterside, only to get hassled at every single one by touts determined to show us their identical menus. It got very irritating, but you can play them off against each other, and haggle at least a free round of drinks and a big discount off the bill.

Back at the hotel we had a few quiet drinks at the "M Club" lounge and turned in for an early one, but considering we'd been awake almost two days straight I think we lasted surprisingly well.

The rest of the photos

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

$40 to Singapore?

I think I may have just scored two return tickets to Singapore for forty bucks...

Back at the start of the year we booked flights to Newcastle for a weekend in April, for our parents' birthdays. Usually we go with Virgin or Jetstar because Qantas don't fly direct to Newcastle, but this time we decided to check out the new Tiger Airways. Got a pretty good deal too - $40 each way.

In mid-February, Tiger sent me an email saying the flight times had changed, from Saturday morning / Sunday evening to Sat afternoon / Sun lunchtime. All their route schedules seem to be still tentative since they just started flying. Anyway, the change cut 5 hours off an already rushed visit, which was no good for us.

After they sent another reminder email and SMS asking me to accept the new times, I finally called them last Wednesday to cancel our flights. They don't usually allow cancellations, but it was their fault we couldn't make it, so I assumed they'd make an exception.

So I finally get through to an operator, who sounds like she's in Singapore. I tell her we can't make the new flight times and would like to cancel. She says "Tiger doesn't allow cancellations, but we can change the date or destination of your tickets, no charge". I said I'd have to get back to her when I'd checked out which other weekend we could go to Newcastle.

The next day I called back with new travel dates, and double check we wouldn't get charged any difference in fare. Again she said (and I'm sure it was the same girl) "yes, because we moved the schedule, you can change the date or destination for nothing". It started to sink in this time.

"Hang on, you mean we can change the destination?"
"For free?"
"Yes, free"
"To anywhere?"
"Yes, anywhere"
"Anywhere, like... Singapore?"

She was started to get a little irritated at this point, like this was some standard practice I was unaware of, and I was an idiot for not getting it. I said, OK, I'll have to get back to you.

Singapore is the furthest that Tiger flies from Melbourne. I looked up prices on their website - a single return trip was over a grand with taxes! Surely there was no way they'd change an $80 ticket into a $1000 one for nothing. Still, it couldn't hurt to try.

I called back later that day, and got the same girl again. Told her the same story (schedule changed, we couldn't make the new flights), and again she asked if I'd like to change the dates or destination. Hoping that the previous call hadn't all been in my imagination, I asked "can we change them to Singapore?". Yes, that was fine, when did I want to go? How about the Easter weekend? I must have checked about a dozen times that there was no change fee, and they wouldn't charge me the difference in fare, which she adamantly confirmed each time.

She put me on hold while she amended the dates, and seemed to take a long time doing so. I could imagine her checking with a supervisor who would then tell her she was mad, and of course they wouldn't give away free international flights.

But a few minutes later she was back, confirmed the new times, and said she'd email an updated itinerary. It was about this point the phone line started to break up (how convenient) when she said something like "Now you'll see a charge on there for $1000-something...". I didn't get the rest but it sounded like she was saying "but we'll waive that". I hoped that's what she said anyway, because she had never mentioned a price before now. So I said I'd check the emailed itinerary and call her back if there was a problem.

Here's what it said on the email:

Payment via credit card
Form of payment: Visa
Payment status: CONFIRMED
Payment amount: 162.80 AUD

Payments via credit account
Payment amount: 1,341.54 AUD
Payment amount: 819.00 AUD

I'm not sure what that "credit account" is about, but at least it doesn't say Visa. It's been a few days now and nothing has appeared on my statement yet so it looks like they really weren't kidding.

It probably won't be the most comfortable flight (Tiger's seat pitch is about the shortest around) but for nearly-free tickets, who can complain. Plus we have a stopover in Darwin which is almost exactly halfway, so that should help.

I kind of feel guilty about accepting over $2100 in flights, but they had plenty of chances to notice their error and back out. But if they kept insisting it was fine, who wouldn't take it?

Will post an update after we get back - assuming we don't get stranded at an airport somewhere...