Last week a friend asked me how I planned my recent trip to Borneo. She asked me how I decided what to do, where to stay, how to get the cheapest flights, what tours to do, etc. On our Dad and Daughter Great Adventures I like to travel around and stay at different places, so we can explore and experience as much as we can (and thankfully my daughter quite likes to do that too). I pretty much follow the same steps no matter where I’m going, but this is how I planned our Borneo trip:
Ask a friend.
If you have a friend who has been to where you plan to go do ask them for recommendations. My friend Mark had been to Borneo with his family and he gave me some great tips. He highly recommended that we stay at one particular hotel (which we did and it was fantastic) and also told me to take a local boat to an island for a day trip instead of a tour boat that not only saved us money, but got us to the island before all hordes turned up.
Read about the destination.
Because we were only going to the state of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, I purchased only that chapter (as a downloadable PDF) from Lonely Planet. It was the difference between $4.49 for the chapter I needed or buying the entire Lonely Planet Borneo book for $39.99. But, I didn’t just use the Lonely Planet to research my book. I did a bit of Googling on the Top 10/20/25 lists of things to do in Borneo. This also gave me ideas of sights to see, best islands to visit and places to eat (that aren’t in Lonely Planet).
Search up tours (if needed).
Mark had suggested that we go white water rafting, but from my research I also liked the idea of a mountain bike tour in the jungle. I checked out the bike tour companies from my Lonely Planet guide on Trip Advisor (I didn’t want anything too serious – or strenuous – because my 13 year old daughter was with me) and found one that was not only relatively easy, but the bike tour company could combine the half day ride with a half day rafting trip. Perfect.
Work out a rough itinerary.
The first itinerary that I mapped out changed quite a bit by the time we had our final itinerary, but it helped me figure out where we could go (and what we could see and do) in our ten days in Borneo. I was, for example, going to stay at a place called Turtle Island, but after doing some research found out that it was quite expensive and, from reviews, you might not actually see that many turtles. But it was also in my rambling research that I found out that you could stay on the island that the first Survivor series was shot, so decided to do that instead.
There is no sure formula for finding the cheapest flights. As with any purchase, you need to shop around to get the best deal by trying different booking sites, altering your dates and waiting until just the right time to purchase. Mind you, you can get very cheap flights if you’re willing to book way in advance. When I went to Cambodia last year I booked my flight a year in advance with a ridiculously cheap deal with Air Asia to Kuala Lumpur. I wasn’t even sure where we were going at that point, but I knew I wanted to go somewhere in South East Asia.
For our trip to Borneo I did an initial search around six months before on Skyscanner (skyscanner.com.au). I then got email reminders whenever the price went up or down. I’ve tried this technique quite a few times and it’s surprising how much the fares go up and down (and sometimes quite substantially). I also try other airfare websites including:
Momondo – momondo.com.au
Cheapoair – cheapoair.com
Zuji – zuji.com.au
Google Flights – google.com/flights
Webjet – webjet.com.au
Again, they can vary so much between sites depending on the destination and dates. I also check the airline sites because sometimes they are cheaper than the ‘cheap’ airfare sites. This happened for our flights to Borneo – I ended up getting the cheapest fare on the Royal Air Brunei site, which had a sale on.
Check planes, trains and automobiles.
When I had my rough itinerary and flights booked I then researched and booked (if necessary) all internal travel within Borneo. I decided to take the five-hour bus trip from the capital Kota Kinabalu to Sepilok and then fly back. It was pretty much the same price for a 5 hour bus trip and the 45 minute flight, but I liked the idea of actually seeing the jungle that Borneo is so famous for and the bus also skirted the base of South East Asia’s tallest mountain (Mt Kinabalu). I didn’t book the bus, but I did look up the timetable, so we didn’t have to wait around in a bus terminal. The flight was $17 each with Air Asia (plus $20 each to check in my bag!).
Compare and book accommodation.
I usually start on Trip Advisor. Using the ‘filters’ you can put in a price range, but also put in things like whether they have a swimming pool or, more importantly, whether they have an in-house karaoke bar. Okay, that’s not really a prerequisite, but it was a bonus when a hotel I liked had one! Location is, of course, important as well and I ended up booking two different hotels in Kota Kinabalu (at the start and end of the trip). That way we were closer to the port and night market at the start and then in a very different part of the town (to vary the experience) at the end. Again, I mostly use a compare website (Trivago mostly) to find the cheapest price. (Below is the view from our first hotel in Kota Kinabalu!)
Search up places to eat.
If I had to pick my favourite thing about travelling it would probably be food. I go out of my way to try and find great food, so I spend a lot of time researching places to eat. I do love Trip Advisor and have eaten at some wonderful places that I found through their website and App, but I also Google ‘best restaurant’ lists as well. There is quite the art in filtering out the rubbish on Trip Advisor. The number two ‘local’ restaurant listed for a city might be a ‘family friendly’ place with hamburgers on the menu. On our trip to Borneo we went to a couple of restaurants that I found from a local food blogger and they were actually quite down the list on Trip Advisor, but in both cases we were the only foreigners there when we ate and the food was cheap and incredibly tasty. So good (and cheap) in fact, that at one restaurant we ordered another big plate of chicken wings in oyster sauce even though we were full from our first plate.
Although I had planned a rather detailed itinerary I left it pretty open (besides the accommodation and transport that was pre-booked). I had a list of restaurants that I quite liked the sound of, so each night I’d see what food we were in the mood for and how far we wanted to travel from the hotel. I also caught a much earlier bus one day to another destination, so we could have some relax time by the pool.
All the above works not matter where I’m travelling to. Although when I travel solo I do actually like the buzz of travelling with no bookings and no idea where I’m going, it certainly is a lot less stressful with everything pre-booked and something that resembles a plan in place. And as long as the hotel has a pool my daughter is happy!