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Ten great tips for traveling to Asia
by David Luc Nguyen and Robert N. Kaster SGN A&E Writers

A lot of people are hesitant to travel to Asia because of the uncertainty about what the experience is like. My partner and I remember the first times we went there, myself as a teenager and he just three years ago, and wish we had Outbound to shed some light on traveling to the Orient. Since then, we've been privileged to visit many times (most recently this April together) and thought we'd share advice with you from our personal experience. Be sure to check out next week's Pride issue for SGN's first-time travel coverage of Asia when we explore all the excitement of Hong Kong! Here are ten tips to consider before booking your trip across the Pacific.

o Getting there - The Far East is closer than you might think. Seattle has direct flights on eight airlines to many Asian hub cities: Seoul, Tokyo, and Taipei. The trip is shorter than a trip to Rome or Berlin.

o Accommodations - Many Asian hotels offer online bargains. Clean rooms and attentive service can be found in two- or three-star hotels. An on-site spa is probably not necessary, as massages and treatments are easy to find in many cities, and for very competitive prices.

o Getting Around - Most large cities have well-organized mass transit, and cabs are often easy to find. Be sure you are being charged the "meter" rate, otherwise you might pay more than you bargained for.

o Language - While most large hotels have English-speaking staff, cabbies and storeowners might not understand your attempts to communicate. It's always good to learn a few commonly used phrases to help you along the way. Also, it's always good to carry a hotel card with the address in the native language just in case you get lost.

o Shopping - Asian cities offer everything from high-end shopping malls to outdoor markets. Don't expect to find great bargains at the upscale places. If you are on a budget, try the outdoor markets or custom tailors. Never pay the marked price! In many stores and markets, bargaining is common - and expected. Some sellers may actually be offended if you do not try and get a better price; they like to work for the sale! Aim to pay 40% of the listed price.

o When to visit - Plan to visit Asia between November and April. The climate should be cooler and drier. Other times of the year can be scorching hot or in the midst of the rainy season. Try visiting during Chinese/Lunar New Year (January-February). You'll get to partake in the festive atmosphere, and all of Asia will be celebrating the time of new beginnings.

o Safety/security - Asia is a dangerous place, so always be aware of your surroundings. Pickpocketing is rampant, so always keep your wallet in your front pocket and man-purse close to your body. Don't carry excessive amounts of money, and it's also a good idea to make a copy of your passport. Leave all jewelry and your original passport in your safe.

o Documents/vaccinations - When going to Asia (and anywhere abroad), check to see if you will need a visa or vaccinations. You can find all of this information at the State Department website at http://travel.state.gov/travel. It's also a good idea to register your trip with the State Department in case of emergencies. It doesn't hurt to make a scan or copy of your passport to keep on you.

o Culture - Remember that Asia is still a conservative region, so do some research on your country of destination to see how Gay-friendly the culture is.

o Food - Finally, is food safe to eat in Asia? Definitely! Don't be afraid to try local delicacies, but be wary of uncooked or raw foods. Most restaurants do confirm to accepted health standards, but stay away from street vendors; it may smell good, but it may do a number on your digestive system. You'll see many of the locals lining up on the street in front of food stands, but our sensitive American stomachs probably aren't adjusted to food that authentic. by Albert Rodriguez - SGN A&E Writer

The Seattle native in me wants to support as many local businesses as possible, from Jones Soda to Starbucks to Sub Pop Records to a hidden stash of Cougar Mountain cookies somewhere in my office. Undoubtedly, this means I've flown Alaska Airlines all along the West Coast. So, with a pinch of guilt, I recently flew its newest competitor, Virgin America to Los Angeles - and I loved it! The airline, a stateside branch of UK's mega Virgin Atlantic, launched direct flights to SFO and LAX airports from Sea-Tac International this spring and has already become a fashion statement within trendy circles. What Virgin America offers is a modern, chic method of flying for anyone tired of the blanket and pillow amenities - the signature "Red" entertainment system is unbeatable in the short-haul flight market. Plus, the airline's lack of announcements by chirpy flight attendants was a godsend for this seasoned traveler who enjoyed watching music videos and listening to good tunes uninterrupted. For your next getaway to Southern California or Bay Area, visit www.virginamerica.com and experience what being cool is like at 35,000 feet. Here's what to expect on your Virgin America flight.

CHECK-IN
Virgin America's check-in counter at Sea-Tac is next to Northwest Airlines, where you'll notice groovy white kiosks for main cabin e-ticketers and a red carpet rolled out for first-class passengers. If you're only taking carry-on luggage, you can check in online from your home or office. As with most domestic flights, you should check in at least an hour before takeoff.

BOARDING
After clearing security check points, proceed to the A gate departure area in the main terminal. Boarding starts a half-hour before takeoff, and keep an eye out for a canister of free earphones as you enter the ramp onto the plane. You'll immediately notice mood lighting when stepping foot on Virgin America, a purplish color during my flights to and from. A comical, animated safety video fits the airline's sophisticated approach to flying - even the college kids next to me were tuned in and laughing. The entertainment system works through takeoff, so you can watch Matt Costa's music video for "Mr. Pitiful" as the wheels lift off the gr0und.

IN FLIGHT
I never used my iPod during each of my flights aboard Virgin America because their complimentary Red in-flight entertainment system was loaded with TV, music and chat room options - all passengers are treated to 9-inch individual monitors. The music catalog allows you to choose tunes from a variety of artists, including Rihanna, The Beatles, Madonna, Jack Johnson, The White Stripes, Band of Horses, Brad Paisley, New Order, and Kelly Clarkson - artists are listed alphabetically and by genre. A dozen or so music videos, from Shiny Toy Guns to Linkin Park to the aforementioned Matt Costa, are available to watch. You can also listen to live radio broadcasts from California-based stations.

Dish satellite provides you with the opportunity to see real time television, such as CNN's breaking news on the California Supreme Court's Gay marriage ruling that a passenger in front of me watched intently. I opted for repeat episodes of America's Next Top Model, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Top Chef, and a decent Sundance channel movie. Premium TV selections, such as recent 30 Rock and The Office episodes, are available for 99 cents, while major films (No Country for Old Men) can be purchased for $7. The most interesting amenity is the in-flight chat room, allowing you to gab with fellow passengers by using a handheld keypad (on the backside of the remote control) - I shyly popped into a conversation and said "hello."

Another neat trick up Virgin America's sleeve is their in-flight order-when-you-want service, letting you ask for snack and beverages at the touch of a finger from your customized leather seat - I ordered my coffee with half n' half and sugar, and a flight attendant delivered it within five minutes. On short-haul flights, soft drinks are complimentary but alcoholic beverages and snacks must be purchased (credit card only). SERVICE
I have to credit Virgin America's ground and in-flight team because they're on top of their game, especially for not giving me any hassles for missing my initial outbound flight and squeezing me onto the next available departure cheerfully, instead of the usual scolding by other airlines. One flight attendant in particular deserves a huge pat on the back for settling down an unruly child on my return trip.

ARRIVAL AT LAX
At the mammoth LAX airport, Virgin America utilizes Terminal 6 - away from the crowded jumbo jets unloading foreign tourists. Baggage claim is a 5-minute walk, and you'll immediately spot curbside rental car and shared shuttle services.
 

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