Web Tools and Web Sites I Use for Planning Trips

February 20, 2013

Web Tools and Web Sites I Use for Planning Trips

With the dawning of the internet, planning trips are made easier for a number of people who are tech savvy and are very adapt at searching through the internet. But for those who are not very patient or knowledgeable at sifting through the wealth of information provided in the internet, they may get lost and find it harder to plan their trips. To help people plan their trips on their own, I'm sharing with you the web tools and web sites I use. My blog focuses on travel with kids, but this is equally useful for planning any trip, with or without kids.

On Finding flights:

To find International Flights, I use the following:


I like expedia.com because it's so user friendly. You can filter flights and see the cheapest ones. You can compare the time of arrival and departure and the length of travel with the rate. So you can make choices whether having a longer travel time or inconvenient departure and arrival is worth choosing a particular fare. You see all the possible airlines flying the route. 

I like expedia.com because it accepts international credit cards. After browsing expedia, I normally go direct to the airline website to book the flight because it will be easier to talk to the airline personnel directly when a problem with the flight occurs. But some airlines do not accept international credit cards. Some accept only US issued credit cards. So when this happened, I booked through expedia. With expedia, all flight information is centralized, from seats chosen to what miles program to credit the miles to be flown. I never had a problem with expedia when booking international flights.

The limitation of expedia is that it does not show budget airlines flying the route. In which case I go to:

Cheap Flights from Philippines with Skyscanner


I use skyscanner to inform myself which budget airline is flying the route so i can book directly with the airline website. Unlike expedia, skycanner shows budget airlines flying the route.

Local Philippine Flights:

Cheap Flights from Philippines with Skyscanner


I discovered that skyscanner also shows domestic flights. So I use these flights to find out which airlines are flying the domestic route I'm taking. And then I go directly to the airline website to book. Sometimes, Skyscanner forwards you directly to the airline website so you can book direct with the airline.

I "like" the local airline facebook website so I'm informed about the latest sale or the new routes they open.

On Maps:

Google Maps
Google Maps is very good at showing directions from point to point; what public transportation you can use, how to get there using a car, how to walk to your destination. It shows the distance and estimated amount of time it takes for you to arrive at your destination. The landmarks and buildings are also shown. 

I've tried google maps using my android app in the US and in Singapore and found it very reliable.

In the Philippines, it's fairly accurate in Metro Manila, but shows general directions only in the provinces. For Philippine provincial trips, I usually use:

I find that wikimapia is more useful in the provinces than google maps. The landmarks indicated are more accurate and more detailed.

On Accommodations:


Tripadvisor forum

The discussion in the tripadvisor forum helps me to shortlist the accommodations my family will prefer based on the recommendations by the forum participants.

Tripadvisor reviews and traveler photos
Tripadvisor hotel reviews informs me of the latest condition of the hotel I'm looking at. They also give me tips on what room to request. 

As I've said before, I prefer traveler photos than hotel photos to show me the rooms and the hotel facilities because they are more accurate than hotel photos.

I go to expedia to find out the rates for the particular period I'm interested in booking because expedia shows the calendar and the rates per day based on the calendar. Expedia also filters the hotel by location. Most important of all for me, Expedia shows the maximum capacity of the room. It filters out the rooms that cannot accommodate 6 people like us.

Direct to the Hotel website
If I cannot book the hotel directly using my Philippine issued credit card, I book through expedia.

The advantage of booking direct at the hotel website is that most hotels do not require a downpayment. They accept a credit card guarantee and cancellation of booking without charge even 24-48 hours before your intended date arrival. Also, since we're usually six (6) in a group when travelling, I can get direct reassurance that we will all fit in one room and have exactly the room that we want. Online travel booking agents usually have by default rooms for 2 and they can only give reassurance based on hotel photos given them.

For information on Philippine accommodations, especially provincial accommodations, I look for advice from this forum. The disadvantage of this forum is that most people write in Tagalog so only Filipinos can understand and use this forum.

On Weather,  Temperature, Time:


I use Accuweather to determine the temperature and weather of the place we're visiting. I especially like the real feel feature. For temperature and weather, what it really feels like is the more useful information for us laymen and trave


Time and date.com 

I use timeanddate.com because it has the most comprehensive information on time. They have time zone calculations, sunrise and sunset times for any month you wish to search, dst information, weather during a particular time period.

I like to be informed about the weather in the place we visit so I can plan when to go and what clothes to bring. Sunrise and sunset times are important to me so I'd know how much daylight we have during the day so we can plan if the time to arrive at the hotel is still too early or late. For instance, if sunset is at 8:00 PM then taking the bus to the hotel at 7:00 PM is still early because there's still sunlight.

On Safety:

US Travel Advisory on International Travel
I use Travel.State.Gov, which is where you can find the travel advisory on all countries issued by the United States to its citizens. It is the most comprehensive and current information about the public order situation in a country. This site informs you about the current scams and crimes and what to avoid so you can stay safe.

On Must See Places:

If I don't have a lot of time to research on the place, I go to Frommers.com. They hav a comprehensive overview on destinations. I like that they have articles like 'Best Hotel Bets", "Best Dining Bets", "Best Free Things to Do", " Best Family Experiences", and so many more.

Viator | Travel with an insider

If you don't have time to book the tours individually, you can check out viator.com. In one website, you can see all tours that are being offered in your destination so you get an overview at once of what you can see. It's a very good website to book the tours. They are very reliable and gives great customer service.

Where to ask your US Tourist Visa Questions

VISAtisfied Voyager

Where to ask your US Tourist Visa Questions 

I'm often asked US visa questions by relatives, friends and lately, by readers of my blog. I caution them that I'm not an expert and that my comments are simply personal opinions. They are based on my experiences and my observations of the experiences of others. For lack of people to ask, people resort to my blog or the pinoyexchange forum to shed some light on their personal US visa questions. People want to assess their chances especially since the tourist visa fee is so expensive at $160, or around P6,400.

Since I have experienced going through the tourist visa process and have successfully acquired one (having been a holder of a US visa for at least 30 years), people think I have information that may be able to help them. I share my opinion and my experience but still caution them that I'm not an expert. 

You can ask me US tourist visa questions anytime and I'll still answer them. But there is a much more reliable source that I can share with you.

In August 2011, the  US Embassy in Manila launched a new visa blog where you can pose visa questions direct to the Embassy experts. Below is the official announcement of the US Embassy in Manila: 

U.S. Embassy Launches New Visa Blog:  VISAtisfied Voyager 
The U.S. Embassy in Manila is pleased to announce the launching of its official visa blog, VISAtisified Voyager.  Our blog aims to provide timely and relevant information to members of the public interested in learning about the Nonimmigrant and Immigrant visa processes.  
Each week, blog posts will examine topics relevant to visa applicants.  Readers are welcome to post comments and questions about applying for U.S. visas.  The blog is also a venue for visa applicants to provide feedback and share their experiences when they have applied for a U.S. visa.    
The blog will be moderated by a team of visa experts from the U.S. Embassy’s Nonimmigrant and Immigrant Visa units, and inquirers can expect a quick response to their visa questions.  

With the launch of VISAtisfied Voyager, US Embassy Manila hopes to start a dialogue with applicants and provide them with up-to-date news and information.  Please note, however, that U.S. Embassy Manila will not be able to respond to queries about individual visa applications on VISAtisfied Voyager.   

Questions about individual nonimmigrant visa applications should be directed to consmanilaniv@state.gov.  

Questions about individual immigrant visa applications should be directed to ivmanilareplies@state.gov.    

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently noted that the Internet has become the public space of the 21st century, and as the percentage of Filipino internet users increases, we want to be available to them in all forms of media.  The launching of the VISAtisfied Voyager visa blog is part of the U.S. Embassy’s commitment to providing excellent customer service to the thousands of Filipinos who will apply for visas to travel to the United States.  

We invite you to visit VISAtisfied Voyager at http://blogs.usembassy.gov/philippines/.

Where to ask your US tourist visa questions?

Primary Source:
1. By email to consmanilaniv@state.gov
The US embassy cautions that personal queries about individual visa applications cannot be answered by the blog VISAtisfied voyager and directs them to this email address.
The advantage of emailing them direct is you retain confidentiality of your question. Unlike in forums and blogs where other people can see your question.

2. By commenting on a blog post or asking a question related to a blog post at VISAtisfied Voyager at http://blogs.usembassy.gov/philippines/.
First, do a search within the ViSAtisfied Voyager site on the topic of your query. 
Second, after finding the blog post relevant to your query, browse all the questions asked and the answers to the questions.
Third, if you are not satisfied with the answers given to other people commenting in the site, you can pose your own question at the comments section  below the relevant post.
The advantage of using the blog to pose questions is that you can see if the question you're about to ask has been asked already. The disadvantage of using this blog is that questions are not answered immediately.

Secondary source
1. Ask a blog owner with a current post or topic on "How to get a US visa".
The advantage of this is that you get information about the blog owner's personal experience. Depending on how active the blog owner is in updating the blog or answering reader's comments, you may get answers to some of your questions immediately or even faster than the official US embassy site.
The disadvantage of this is that you only see one personal experience. You don't know how current the personal experience is, unless the blog post is dated.
Check out my post How to get a US Tourist Visa

2. Ask a forum
Before I made my most recent trip to the US Embassy to renew my visa, I found the pinoyexchange US visa forum very helpful because it has the most current narration of personal experiences of a great number of people. By knowing about their personal experience, you actually benefit from them. You can ask questions and will immediately get an answer. However, be cautious about this because their statements or answers to your questions are just personal opinions gathered through their personal experience and limited by their own situation. You can rely on it only with respect to what they experienced during the interview and going through the visa process. Their experiences will help prepare you as as to what to expect when you go through the visa process and the interview.

My Tips for Planning a Trip with Kids

February 18, 2013

My Tips for Planning a Trip with Kids

To enjoy your vacation with your kids, make an itinerary that will not be hectic. There is always a tendency to want to see everything to maximize the opportunity of visiting a place. But with kids in tow, you need to pace them properly so they have enough rest,  to keep their energies high and temperament in check. When kids get too tired or start getting hungry, they tend to lose their patience and cause conflict among each other.

1.  On making an itinerary

These are what I usually do after we decide on our destination:

First. I gather all the information I can about the place to discover what I want to see and what the kids may be interested in seeing. 

Second. I show my kids the information I gathered and then ask them what activities they're interested in doing and what places they want to see.

I immediately tell them we may not see everything they want to see because of lack of time. So I request each of them to rank the most important ones they want to see so we can see those places first. 

If you have kids with you, you tend to go together to sightsee. In order to accommodate each one's desired place, we discuss the itinerary. By discussing the itinerary, the kids cooperate with the daily schedule even if it's their sibling who want to visit the place.   When you discuss the itinerary, they know when their turn will come to visit the place they want to visit or do the activity they want to do. There will be less conflict during the trip.

Third. When making your daily itinerary, I suggest you find out the opening and closing times of each venue and the distances from each other. That way, you plan to visit only what's possible in a given day. I even have times inputted in my itinerary to include travel time to the sites, which people usually take for granted. Walking time, public transportation schedule and public transportation travel time with and without traffic should also be taken into account.

Fourth. Walk through the itinerary using your imagination. At some point, I even used Google Earth to actually walk the streets in Kissimmee, Orlando from our Disneyworld hotel to the bus stop to find out if it's possible for the kids to walk that distance. Planning your itinerary and walking through your itinerary in your mind, saves a lot of energy. It's hard to just do a "hit and miss" while you have kids in tow with you. It's a very bad idea to risk even getting lost with tired and impatient kids in tow.

Fifth. Know that the purpose of making an itinerary is simply to inform yourselves of what is available for you to explore in any given day. It is not meant to be followed strictly. When the day of the trip comes, I play things by ear and let the kids set the pace. If they don't wake up early enough, I skip some of the sights we're visiting. This is a vacation. It's meant to be enjoyed and not cause stress among the parties involved.

2. Suggested number of days per major city or location
For any major city or location, I usually allot five (5) days to explore it. The pace will be less hectic for the kids. 

For a beach vacation with island hopping, I usually schedule island hopping every other day, while in between those days, we bum around the beach. When we sightsee in a major city, I usually allot a day off in the middle of the week where we can just have a free day to rest and stay in the hotel, watch tv or swim in the hotel pool. That way, the kids will have the opportunity to rest. Some would say that giving up a day to just rest is a  big loss in terms of opportunity to sightsee. I don't think so. The day you give up is worth it because this means your kids will be rested, more patient, and will less likely cause a tantrum.

3. Time of flights to book
I prefer flights that depart 10:00 AM onwards. For a 10:00 AM international flight, you need to be at the airport 7:00 AM. This means that the kids need to wake up at 5:00 A.M. It will be so difficult to wake up kids earlier than 5:00 A.M. and get them ready in time. So it's better to get a flight at 10:00 AM or later. 

For the return flight, I chose flights that depart 5:00 PM onwards, so we still have a another morning on the day of our departure to enjoy one last swim at the beach, or one last visit to a museum or a park, or even just to wake up late at the hotel until checkout time. Most hotels have checkout times at 12 noon.

My take on red eye flights:
Don't even consider bringing your kids on a red eye flight. These flights depart late at night and usually arrive at midnight at your destination. The return flight usually departs at midnight and arrives at dawn at your home airport. It will ruin the kids sleep schedule and make them prone to tantrums. 

The intention of red eye flights is for adults to avoid having to take leaves of absence from work to make a weekend trip. You arrive midnight on a Friday at your destination, so you don't miss work on a Friday. Then you return home at dawn on a Monday so you don't miss work on a Monday. With kids in tow, it will be difficult to wake them up on a Saturday morning because of your late arrival so you lose half of that day already. Hopefully the schedule has not disrupted their sleep patterns. But if it did, your weekend schedule may also be disrupted.

4. Schedule on the day of arrival
My kids requested me not to schedule any sightseeing on the day of our arrival at the place we visit. Since the flight and the transfers to and from the airport will be tiring already, they look forward to resting when they arrive. The same is true even if you're doing a road trip. Upon arrival at our destination, my kids prefer to rest or merely to have nothing scheduled upon arrival. 

5. Sightseeing schedule
  • I scheduled all sightseeing later than 8:00 AM. Kids do not want to wake up early since they do that all the time when they are in school. 
  • I scheduled the sightseeing every other day, meaning in between sightseeing days are free days when you don't have to leave the resort/hotel  and can just swim or do anything you want.
6. Age of kids to bring to a major trip
At the toddler age, we brought our kids to short trips to Baguio, and other provinces. We have yayas or nannies in tow so we don't have a hard time organizing the kids' things as well as taking care of their basic needs like eating and potty time.

But on trips that you cannot bring yayas to because of the expense, I suggest you travel to those places when your youngest child is at least 7 years old. At 7 years old, the child can already take some responsibility for taking care of himself. They will be potty trained and can take a bath by themselves and take care of their things already. 

My tip on packing: As I've mentioned above, it's best to take trips when your youngest child is at least 7 years old. This means they can pack their things by themselves. If your kids packed their things, they will know what's in their luggage and can get it themselves when they need it instead of asking you all the time where their things are. They need to know what's in their bag.

Packing by themselves does not mean I let them have full control of what to bring. What I do is give them a list with number of pieces indicated in each item. They have control only on the choice of clothes to bring. 

Since I have four kids and I want to make sure that they placed all the things indicated in my packing list, I ask them to gather the things first. Then we bring all the bags inside my room. We call out each item and then they simultaneously put them inside their bag while I watched them. That way, I get to check all four kids at the same time. I did that when my kids' age range was  7-12 years old. It saved us a lot of time.

My tips for fast passport processing at SM Megamall (DFA NCR East)

February 9, 2013

My tips for fast passport processing at SM Megamall 
(DFA NCR East)

1. Take the first slot, which is the 10:00 AM slot
At the first hour, there will be no backlog yet in processing of applications. If the personnel slows down in their work or encounters many people with incomplete or troublesome documents, the 10:00 AM appointments will not be affected by it.

As you can see, before 10:00 AM, there are already 10 waiting customers.

2. Get a Thursday slot. 

In my experience, Thursday is usually a slow day. There are less lines during Thursdays, whether in a bank, government offices or shops.

Take note that the fee for weekend passport appointments is more expensive than weekday slots.

3. Know where to go

This tip is basic because knowing where to go saves time. This especially holds true in this case because the SM Megamall building where the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) holds office is relatively new. It will be confusing to find for those who do not frequent this mall or is not at all familiar with SM Megamall. So I'm making a special post here.

The DFA Satellite Office for passport processing is located at the 7th floor of SM Megamall Carpark Building C. Carpark Building C is located in front of SM Megamall Building A.

How to go to Carpark Building C:

If you're using public transportation: get off at the Megamall bus bay terminal beneath Bldg C, and take the elevator to the 7th floor.

If you're using private transportation: enter carpark building C and park at the 7th level parking lot. To get to the carpark C entrance, enter Julia Vargas Ave. as shown by the blue arrows below, turn right at bank drive, turn left at the dead end, turn left again to go to carpark C.

Photo courtesy of SM Megamall facebook page
Blue arrows on the left are mine to indicate a one-way street
Red dots are car park entrances

Where is to park:
7th level carpark building C
5th level carpark of building A

For more details about the exact location of the passport center, check out my post "Where to Find the SM Megamall Passport Processing Center."

4. Park at the 7th level parking lot of Megamall Car Park Building C

Make sure to park at the 7th level parking lot of building C, especially if you have children and senior citizens with you. The pedestrian exit of the 7th level goes directly to the entrance of the DFA. There's no need to climb stairs or walk far.

This is the 7th level of Car Park  Building C
A short walk going to the left side of the photo leads to the entrance of the DFA.
If you park at the 5th level car park of SM Megamall Building A, you need to walk far and climb the stairs shown above to reach the DFA.
The left corridor at the same level of the DFA entrance leads to the 7th level of Car Park Building C. There will be no stairs to climb to reach the entrance.

For more details about where to find Megamall Carpark Building C, check out my post "Where to Find the SM Megamall Passport Processing Center."

5. Get your queue number first

When you enter the door of the passport center, the guard will immediately direct you to the right side after you enter the door towards the verification desk. You fall in line at the verification desk while the clerk checks your passport application form and attached documents. After the clerk at the verification desk finishes checking your application form and documents, he will direct you to the Smarto system pictured below to get your queue number.

My tip is for you to get your queue number first because this will determine the order when you will be served, instead of getting it after coming from the verification desk.

This is the touch screen machine where you get your queue number.
The ticketing machine is located near the entrance

6. Get both regular and priority numbers if you have senior citizens, minors, pregnant women, persons with disabilities and or overseas Filipino workers in your group.

If you're renewing your passport together with your kids and your parent like I did, your passports will be processed as a group. In this case, you can get both the regular and priority numbers in the queue, as shown above in the ticketing machine.

But take note note that it doesn't mean that when you get the priority queue ticket, you'll be served first. In our case, the regular service ticket was served ahead of the priority ticket. I presume it's because the regular service ticket had at least 5 counters assigned to it while the priority service ticket only had one.

"Priority services" is a misnomer for this service. It's actually the queue ticket for walk-in applicants. Check out my post "When is walk-in passport application allowed?"

7. Have complete xerox copies of documents before arriving at the site.

As you can see below, if you fail to xerox copies of some of your documents, there is a copier service inside the waiting area. However, I strongly advise that you complete the xerox copies of your documents in order to avoid delay in receiving your documents.

In our case, a person ahead of us failed to xerox some of his documents, so he fell in line at the xerox machine (1st delay) then he fell in line again after us (2nd delay). We were 6 in our group so it's like falling in line behind 6 people.

Inside DFA Megamall waiting area

My review: The DFA did a very good job in streamlining passporting services at their SM Megamall site. We finished the whole process in 50 minutes. We were 6 people who applied for renewal of passports. 

For step-by-step account of how the whole process went, see my post" My experience renewing my passport at SM Megamall".

Manila to Batanes Flights (Airlines, Schedules, Fares) (as of February 2013)

Manila to Batanes Flights (Airlines, Schedules, Fares)
(as of February 2013)



Flight Schedule:

Mon, Wed, Fri: 5:30 AM departure, 6:30 AM arrival

Mon, Wed, Fri: 7:10 AM departure, 8:30 AM arrival

around P16,965.00

Departure Airport: 
NAIA Domestic Terminal 4

94-seater British Aerospace airline

How to book:
1. Online
2. Call by phone
+632- 823 3087+632-635-4810
3. By email

Airphil Express - Pasay City, Philippines

Air Philippines Express

Flight Schedule:
* They will start flying May 2013.

Mon, Wed, Fri: 6:00 AM departure, 7:45 AM arrival

Mon, Wed, Fri: 8:10 AM departure, 9:50 AM arrival

around P8630.00

Departure Airport: 
NAIA Terminal 3

To be announced

How to book:


This airline is supposed to be currently flying Manila-Batanes but I have not been able to book online as well as contact them by phone so I don't know if they're still flying Manila-Batanes or not

Where to Find the SM Megamall Passport Processing Center (DFA-NCR East)

February 5, 2013

Where to Find the SM Megamall Passport Processing Center (DFA-NCR East)

The DFA Satellite Office for passport processing is located at the 7th floor of SM Megamall Carpark Building C. Carpark Building C is located in front of SM Megamall Building A.

How to go to Carpark Building C:

If you're using public transportation: get off at the Megamall bus bay terminal beneath Bldg C, and take the elevator to the 7th floor.

If you're using private transportation: enter carpark building C and park at the 7th level parking lot. To get to the carpark C entrance, enter Julia Vargas Ave. as shown by the blue arrows below, turn right at bank drive, turn left at the dead end, turn left again to go to carpark C.

Photo courtesy of SM Megamall facebook page
Blue arrows on the left are mine to indicate a one-way street
Red dots are car park entrances

Best parking options:
First Option: 7th level carpark building C

Car Park Building C is at the right
We arrived 9:30 AM but it's still closed so we lined up like all the other cars

SM Megamall Building A is at the left

The Car Park Building C entrance opened at 9:40 AM

This is the 7th level of Car Park  Building C
A short walk going to the left side of the photo leads to the entrance of the DFA.

Second Option: 5th level carpark of building A

After parking at the 5th level of SM Megamall Building A, proceed to Bruno's Barbers.
The exit that leads to the entrance of the DFA office is the one beside Bruno's.

After exiting the door beside Bruno's Barbers, you go up these steps to go to the DFA.
When you reach the top of the steps, you turn left to reach the entrance of the DFA.
The corridor to the left also leads to the 7th level of Car Park Building C.

This is the view from the top of the steps.
This is the bridgeway between Megamall Building A and Megamall Car Park Building C.
The door you see leads to Megamall Building A.