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Free-wheeling holidays

ST ILLUSTRATION: LUIS MISTADES

Publication Date : 04-01-2013

 

Big groups of travellers are renting coaches or mini vans to take them to Malaysia for their getaways

 

Singaporeans travelling in big groups to Malaysia are opting to hire entire buses for themselves as the way to go - never mind the expense.

They are hitting the road to places such as Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Genting Highlands and Ipoh for leisure activities by privately chartering their own mini bus, van or luxury coach.

This is despite the fact that it can cost up to 40 per cent more - depending on factors such as type of vehicle and level of service required - than just buying a seat on a regular bus service or flying up on a budget airline.

Some even book a first-class coach, which includes cabin crew to serve food and drinks, that can set them back about S$5,000 (US$4,0900) for a return trip to KL for 18 people, for example.

Those going the private charter route say they do it for the convenience of choosing their departure times and their drop-off points, and for a more fun and intimate experience travelling with a big group of friends and family.

Just last week, corporate finance executive Lim Li Lynn, 29, along with 10 other friends, hired a 16-seater double decker bus to take the group to KL for a friend's wedding and for New Year celebrations.

Lim and her friends decided to charter their own bus, that included a staff member to serve them food and drinks, for about S$900 one way because their group was big enough and they thought it would be fun rather than to fly to KL.

In this case, it worked out cheaper for them - they would have paid about S$120 each to fly one way to KL on a budget airline.

Lim said: "We all sat upstairs, and each chair was a massage chair. There was a lounge area downstairs and a space to microwave food on the bus.

"We were served a meal of chicken chop, baked beans and fries, which was not great, but no one was complaining. Overall, the ride was kind of quick and comfortable."

She added: "It's fun because you get to hang out together and you could probably dance in the bus too if you wanted to because there were no strangers around."

The cost of chartering a bus or mini van varies depending on the size of the vehicle, destination, whether it is the peak or off-peak season and, in some cases, the duration of the booking.

For example, a two-way trip to Malacca in a 28- or 31-seat Super VIP coach with meals included can cost between S$1,300 and S$1,500 during the off-peak season and between S$1,400 and S$1,600 during the peak.

Day trips to places closer to home, such as Johor Baru, can cost several hundred dollarsfor a 10-seat mini bus.

In some instances, bus drivers double as guides, taking you to shopping or food haunts. Some operators also team up with hotels or travel agencies, offering package deals for customers who want a private chartered bus for resort stays in places such as Genting or Cameron Highlands.

Bus operators and booking agents tell Life! that they can get up to 20 inquiries a week and during a peak season such as the school holidays, they can receive between 15 and 25 bookings a month.

Sophie Tang, 33, a customer service executive with BusOnlineTicket.com, a booking portal for several bus companies in Singapore and Malaysia, noted that booking 10-seat buses were popular, with many Singaporeans heading up to Malacca, Penang or Berjaya Hills.

She said: "The good thing about a private coach is that it offers point to point transfers, you are taken directly to the hotel or the places you want to go."

Graphic designer Fishy Toh, 23, who booked a coach for a group of 20 to travel to Malacca two months ago, said: "For a two-day trip inclusive of hotel stay, it worked out to be S$200 a person. It was really convenient - the bus stops you wherever you want, and you don't have to follow a fixed itinerary. It's good for short trips."

Bob Lim, operation director for online booking portal easibook, which taps a network of up to 30 bus firms in Singapore and Malaysia, gets an average of up to 20 inquiries each week from customers keen on chartering a bus to Malaysia.

Lim, who has managed his booking portal for eight years, said: "Sometimes it's not cheap - it can cost 40 per cent more than booking individual tickets depending on whether it is a first-class coach or a super VIP 28-seater. But it's very convenient because you get to pick the time you want to leave and your drop-off point in Malaysia."

He added that destinations such as the shopping centres of KL and cultural trails of Malacca have been the most popular desinations for big groups of 11 to more than 30 people.

Increased leisure activities across the Causeway, including the recent opening of the Legoland theme park in the Iskandar region, go-karting in JB and fishing in KL, are extra reasons to make a trip north these days.

At transport and travel firm Transtar, its senior sales manager Molly Chittick, 62, said that in the high season, her company gets as many as 25 bookings for private-charter buses to Malaysia in a month.

She added: "A lot of our customers are regulars who really like the privacy."

She also quipped: "Our single seats are big enough to accommodate big-sized people too, such as Moses Lim", referring to the popular plus-sized TV comedian.

Business development executive Huang Shi Hui, 34, who has travelled to KL with friends to eat, shop and go clubbing by hiring a 16-seat bus, said: "It's definitely more fun than flying. There's an initial excitement, and after a while, everyone goes to sleep or watches the in-coach entertainment. But I like that it is a relaxing trip with no tight itinerary."

 

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