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5 Alternative Ways To Travel Cheaply

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Budapest, Hungary, Sept 2017

(Originally written for fundMyLife, a platform that aims to empower the average Singaporean to make financial decisions confidently)

Happy 2018 everyone! In the spirit of “New Year, New Beginnings”, we here at fundMyLife would like to help you guys out with your 2018 travel plans. This shall be the year you’ll take your first (or second, or third…) step into the great unknown of international travel!

Everyone wants to see the world, but there never seemed to be enough money for it. Some people think it’s expensive to travel – it can be, depending on the type of holiday you want. This article is for people whose desire to explore the world is bigger than their desire to have a “normal” holiday. We are talking about alternative ways of travelling, after all!

Disclaimer: I’ve personally used all of these methods during my travels, so it can be done!

Only book your flights during a promotion

As any frequent traveller would tell you, the 2 biggest expenses in travelling are air tickets and accommodation. If you can save on these two things, you’re already halfway there. Most airlines run sales a couple of times a year, and signing up for their mailing lists will ensure that you get good deals on cheap flights. Also, make sure that you are on the email lists of travel agents like Flight Centre or Expedia. They usually have members-only sales or flash discounts happening regularly. I’ve heard that the best time of the week to book air tickets is on a Tuesday afternoon, as that is when airlines drop prices on their fares depending on how empty their weekend flights are. It’s been a while since I booked a full price ticket anywhere. Save your money on the fare differences and use it on something more important, like food!

Protip: If you have EXTRA time to spare, check out other ways of getting to your holiday destination, e.g., by bus or ferry or train. Sometimes they are cheaper than flying! Note: busing to Penang from Singapore takes 12 hours, while flying would only take you 1 hr 20 mins, so factor that into your plans.

Couchsurfing

I travelled for a year without paying for accommodation. I did it by relying on the kindness of friends and strangers. I’ve been a member of Couchsurfing.com for over 5 years, and it works like Airbnb, except it’s FREE. You register a profile and book the dates of your stay with Hosts, and they choose to accept your couch request (or not), based on your request and profile. Both Hosts and Guests leave reviews on each other’s profiles after their stay, so the Hosts with the most number of positive reviews are also the Hosts who are the busiest. Even though it is called “Couchsurfing”, I’ve actually had my own bedroom pretty often. The important thing to note is that this is not a free hotel service. The whole point of CS is to promote culture exchange, so most hosts would make time to hang out with you or show you around the city, depending on how busy they are. Guests can reciprocate in any way they like; by cooking your host a meal from your own country, teaching them your language or a music instrument etc. I’ve made lifelong friends through Couchsurfing, and now I have a free place to stay whenever I’m in the area next.

Protip: Use common sense. Only stay with Hosts with positive reviews, keep your friends and family updated of your whereabouts regularly, and leave the Host if you feel uncomfortable.

Eat simply

So the next big travel expense would be FOOD. Who could resist trying out new cuisines on holidays? Especially if you’re a huge foodie like me! But come on, if you had so much money to spend on food, you wouldn’t be reading this article. But don’t worry, my budget conscious friend, there are a few things we could do to get around this. We can either eat simply, like getting bread and tuna from the supermarket, or we could cook, if we were staying somewhere with a kitchen, OR, you could set aside a food budget based on the cost of living in the country you’re visiting, e.g., you need a larger food budget in New Zealand compared to Indonesia. I am too lazy to cook, even though I’m usually staying at a place with a kitchen, so I do a combination of eating simple food + having a budget. Food portions in some countries (North America) are pretty big, so you could split them up into 2 meals.

Protip: My favourite lazy budget meal is to get a pizza and have it for lunch and dinner.

Stop buying things you don’t need

This is a money-saving solution even if you’re not travelling. But seriously, most of us have wardrobes that are bursting with clothes and shoes. Do we really need to do more shopping? Do we really need that “I ❤ NY” t-shirt? Do we need to get 20x fridge magnets or other touristy souvenirs for our family and friends? Okay, maybe we do, so work out a shopping or souvenir budget and keep to it! Alternatively, DO NOT SHOP, do not spend money on anything that isn’t food, transport, or necessities. You can do this!

Protip: This has become a lifestyle change for me. The less I buy, the less I need. Go figure.

Go easy on tourist attractions

I am only referring to the ones where you have to pay to get in. Every city has museums, historic buildings, giant ferris wheels, zoos, aquariums, amusement parks etc… And every city also has amazing parks, bridges, rivers, architecture, rooftop bars etc that are free to get in. Choose a couple of attractions that you MUST visit, and save money on the ones that are “tempting but not really high up on the list”. Or get a tourist/season pass – those are usually value for money. Don’t forget some places offer cheepcheep discounts for students!

Protip: Check Groupon or Travelzoo or similar companies in the cities you’ll be visiting for good deals on city tours/packages, restaurants, concerts, etc.

After reading this, we hope that your eyes (and mind) are now opened to the myriad of cheap ways to travel the world. It IS possible to travel on a budget, if you are happy to try out alternate ways of travelling. Seeing the world provides so much benefits and opportunities for growth. With a little planning and organising beforehand, we can make any budget work for your next trip. Get out of your comfort zone and do something different this new year!

The story of a restless soul, searching for peace and her place in life

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Opononi, New Zealand, Dec 2016

(Originally written for the Bring Your Story movement started by my friend Bea)

I’ve always known that I couldn’t just live in one country my whole life. So when I was 21, I moved to Australia from Singapore, then on to New Zealand with a one way ticket when I was 22. I had no contacts or friends over there, so I built a life from nothing, and threw it all away 5 years later to embark on a journey of… what exactly? The purpose of this journey has changed several times since I took the first step out of my old life, and this ride has now turned into a much longer drive than I expected, with plenty of unexpected detours along the way! All roads lead to Rome, I guess.

So far, I’ve wandered the Earth for a year without a job and discovered how tightly entwined our identity is with our job titles. I am lost without a regular income. I gained more freedom in time, but I lost financial independence. Suddenly I had to keep track of every single expense, and where every penny was going to. Yup, I am not good with money =p

The first 6 months of being unemployed was awesome; I had all the time in the world to do whatever I wanted, especially stuff I’ve put off for ages. I felt more productive in that 6 months then I did at the last 2 years of work. Actually, I sleepwalked through the last year at my old job. It was a great job – I love my colleagues and the company I was working for, but after 4 years there I desperately needed a change that they couldn’t provide. The next 6 months of being jobless was full of crazy highs and even more crazy lows. Time flies when you’re not working. My moods oscillated; I was super motivated, super scared, super kickass, super worried, super fun, super stressed out, super excited.

I don’t know how much more I’ve got to go. Sometimes I’m tired, just so tired, of hustling and being on the move all the time. I’m tired of the uncertainty and never being able to make plans with anyone. Sometimes I’m so grateful for being able to do this – not everyone could just take a year off like that. It’s a privilege. I’m privileged. Mainly, I am beyond thankful to my family and friends, without their support my journey wouldn’t have been possible.

When I quit my job, I also sold all my things and moved out of my place. My friends took my homeless ass in. I basically spent the last year crashing with different people. I did A LOT of packing and unpacking, and A LOT of organizing and planning for a place to rest my head at night. But you know what, I chose this. I chose to live like this. It’s been a long year. But I sense that the chaos is coming to an end.

Sometimes just being, is the best present we can give to ourselves and others. I realise that “being present” in the moment literally means that you’re “being a gift” to yourself and the people around you.

Thanks for listening to my story xx

The World of User (UX/UI) Design

“Companies are trying to solve a business problem while people [or customers] are trying to solve a human problem.”

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“These spacesuits’d better be user-friendly!” NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, Feb 2017

Recently, I decided to check out the Interaction Design Specialization on Coursera by UC San Diego. It’s also where I got the above quote from.

I am typically the “Client” in the world of Design – mainly working with in-house Designers and very occasionally with outsourced ones. Now, I have a lot of friends who are graphic designers, or in the creative industry, who often complain about their clients. You know, the usual, “client doesn’t know what they want so they gave me a different brief each time, we’re on our 4th artwork proof now”, or “the budget is too small  to accomplish what the client wants”, or “client has no eye for design but likes telling me how to do my job” etc etc.

Some of it is beyond the client’s control, such as the directive from the top management changing at every meeting, inflexible budgets, or even differences in aesthetic preferences.

Well, me being the emphatic type, would take my designer friends’ comments to heart, and resolve not to be the client from hell they hate so much. Plus, it’s really not that hard, all it takes is a little diplomacy and understanding. Also, arguing with designers over work already produced is a waste of everyone’s time, and could have been avoided in the first place with proper planning and clear instructions, barring the occasional unforeseeable mishaps.

Anyway, I digress. I was originally talking about another design field – the field of interaction design, or according to Coursera, “How to design great user experiences. Design that delights users”.

I have a personal interest in this because I love consumer behavior, and finding out what makes people tick/what makes them do the things they do. Broadly, I am fascinated by human behavior in general, but because I’m in Marketing, it is now my job to dive even deeper into the world of user experiences and design.

I believe that user experience is about understanding how users actually navigate their world, and designing to that, while adding value to their lives.

“Good design melds physical, digital and social worlds. Many of the services that are exciting right now are things that combine the world of atoms with the world of bits and the world of culture.” Scott Klemmer, Associate Professor, UC San Diego.

“This can be the pop-up food truck that announces where it’s gonna be on Twitter. This can be Etsy, where we have people all around the world creating handy crafts and vintage items and then selling them through an online portal. This can be many common elements of political life that are coordinating large numbers of people through an online system.”

In the course, Scott also talked about “Laddering” – a market research interview technique to uncover consumers’ underlying motives and their decision making process before buying a product/service. Laddering makes explicit connections between an experience and the value they’ve put on it (e.g. self-esteem, accomplishment, belonging, self-fulfilment, family, security).

Which brings us to User Motivation. How do you learn more about that? By doing lots and lots of research, of course!

There’s the human way:

Through surveys, focus groups, interviews, diary studies (long-term user behavior), observing the way users actually use your product in the real world, truly listening to user feedback and then acting on it, and constantly testing new approaches/new ways of doing things. You can read up more about them here.

And the computer/data science way:

Analytics and metrics, artificial intelligence, data mining… We are in an age of big data. There are technology and software out there to help you analyse the data you have collated, by measuring and statistifying, identifying patterns, and predicting trends, among other things. Here is a great article about how data science affects user experience.

While I can see that we are heading in the direction of data science, (and why not? Data science is an amazingly cool field where we finally have the opportunity to use real numbers and figures to help us in our own decision making process and building a superior product/service), it is also vital that we maintain a balance between the human way and the data science way, using both to help us better serve our customers.

How to provide AWESOME! Customer Service and why it is important

TLDR; in this digital age, customers have Google, and choices, so it is important to show them that you care about their individual needs and wants through AWESOME! customer service.

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Bad customer service turns us all into the incredible hulk. Fiji, May 2017

The customer is always right – agree or disagree? As with many theories in life, there are many different schools of thought. My school of thought is – prevention is better than cure. Let’s not even allow ourselves to enter a situation where the customer gets to be right or wrong; by first focusing on ourselves and our way of handling customers; aka futureproofing your customer service.

What do I mean by that? Now, customers could be upset by all sorts of things, from being unhappy with the product to bad user interface to subpar customer service… We should already have solutions in place for all of these predictable issues:

Not happy with our product? I’m sorry to hear that, here is a full refund. Also, could you tell us why you are not satisfied with the product?

Bad user interface? I’m sorry that our website/app made you frustrated, we will work on providing you with a more user friendly experience. What would you like us to improve on?

Awful service? I am sorry to hear that you had an unpleasant experience with us. Please let us know how we can help you feel better about our service.

The Customer/User Experience field is a HUGE one – from consumer behavior research to user interface design to adding value to your customer’s unique experience. Today, I would like to focus specifically on Customer Service.

In my About page, I mentioned that “Globally speaking, there is a need for personalized customer interaction, and a focus on enhancing the unique user experience.”

One easy way to do this is to offer your customers an impeccable customer service. I shouldn’t have to explain why this is important. With the internet and globalization, your customer has plenty of options to choose from, so why should they choose you? Because you have shown that you actually CARE about them. That their thoughts and feedback matters. That they are not just a nameless number to boost your annual sales.

Have you ever called a company to complain about their product/service or ask for help related to their product/service, and walked away with a warm fuzzy feeling? Or did you walk away feeling unsatisfied and even more unhappy? Or worse, did you hang up the phone feeling like it was all a waste of time, and feel more frustrated than ever?

I have personally experienced all of the above, as I’m sure you have. After some thought, I realized there are a number of reasons we were unhappy with the customer service we received:

  • 1. Our issue wasn’t resolved and all we got was
      • We can’t help with that, sorry (basically means, you’re on your own there)
      • There is nothing we can do about this matter (so why did I call you then?)
  • 2. Lack of follow up to original issue
      • e.g. This is the third time I’ve called about the same problem and no one has gotten back to me
  • 3. Something we were promised by the company didn’t happen
      • e.g. We will send you a new product to make up for the faulty one you currently have (it’s been a month, where is that replacement product?)
      • e.g. Our customer service helpline is available 24/7 (rings them at 11pm on a Monday to hear that the 24/7 service is only available from Tuesday to Sunday)
  • 4. Rude or indifferent staff
  • 5. We are having a bad day and this customer support person is not helping

How to get around the above…

  • Training – product, and empathy

Make training your staff a priority. Proper training helps prepare them for the problems they may encounter when dealing with customers, and the appropriate ways to handle these situations.

Training MUST include Product training, so that staff are familiar with the product they will be helping customers with. I am usually able to tell when someone on the other end of the line isn’t knowledgeable about the product they are supposed to be selling.

Empathy training is also crucial, as it is key to show your customers that you care, and that you value their business. Show some compassion for the people who support your business! Without customers, you don’t have a business. This does not mean that customers are always wright (wrong + right), it just means that customers are important.

  • Autonomy

If your staff are well-trained, you should have no qualms about giving them a certain level of autonomy so that they can go above and beyond for the customers. A powerless employee makes me feel powerless and raises doubts about their ability to help me with the problem I have.

  • A system

Provide employees with a detailed overview of “who does what, where” within the company, so they know where to direct customers to, or at least make sure that feedback/customer issues are passed on to the correct team.

  • Company culture

Keep your staff happy. When they feel that they’re working for a company that values them and their contributions individually, it will show in their work. They will be proud to work for you, and take pride in their responsibilities at work. In turn, customers will pick up on their happiness and subconsciously associate good vibes with your business. Overworked and disgruntled employees are painfully obvious to me, which in turn makes me think twice before making a purchase with the company.


There you have it. Let’s work towards a world of AWESOME! Customer Service. Let me know your thoughts!