by Joseph Fritz
all prices listed in New Taiwan Dollars (NT4:HK1 / NT30:US1 / NT40:EU1)
For many expatriates in Taiwan, leaving the country every 60-to-90 days is a normal part of life, and it can be a frustrating part of it. I handle these blasé-but-necessary overnight trips by traveling at as high a standard as possible, often spending less than $10,000 for the whole trip while staying in hotel rooms that cost $7,000. After years of experience with trips like these, I’ve discovered some of the best ways to do them.
Almost a year ago, I wrote about doing a visa run to Manila by flying out of Taoyuan, but a lot of the information there needs updating and some of it is totally outdated. The best ways to travel internationally change quite often, especially in Asia (the land of discount airlines).
It’s true that you can still do a visa run to Manila out of Taoyuan; that’s still what I’d tell you to do, from that airport. I love Manila. Fly Philippine Airlines; it’ll cost you between $5000-$8000 and fly you out at normal hours (unlike Cebu Pacific). You can spend as little as $10,000 for the whole ordeal if you are travel savvy, but I rarely spend less than $15,000.
For those of us in Taichung, another major factor in choosing whether to fly out of Taoyuan or Taichung exists: the two-hour drive to/from Taoyuan. There is nothing like landing in Taoyuan and immediately thinking, “Ugh: now I have to sit on a bus for two hours to get back to Taichung.”
And Taichung doesn’t fly to Manila.
Taichung flies to Hong Kong.
For years, flying from Taoyuan to Manila was far cheaper than any flights from Taiwan to Hong Kong. But they’ve recently evened-out and, in the case of Taichung, gotten substantially cheaper. Taichung has some outrageous deals on flights to Hong Kong, courtesy of Hong Kong Express. By “outrageous,” I mean $3000 for a same-day round-trip; fly in, fly out, never even leave the terminal, and be there-and-back in eight hours (though I don’t recommend that).
When you travel, you should be dressed “business casual,” possibly carrying a small roll-along suitcase and never carrying a backpack. You should always pass through customs in Hong Kong, even though you don’t technically have to. Really, you should prefer to get exit/entry stamps on different days, as well. All this lends itself to a desired persona.
I’ve flown in and out of Taiwan over two-dozen times on various visas and the only time I ever got harassed by customs in Taiwan was when I was exiting Taiwan a few months ago, it being the one time I decided to wear a hoodie and a backpack instead of a button-down and a roll-along. I got grilled as to why I had stayed 86 days on my 90-day landing stamp (which is perfectly legal), if I worked for a Taiwanese business (which I do not), and a few other random questions. That has otherwise never happened to me, in my six years going in/out of Taiwan wearing business attire. I’m not saying that’s the sole reason for it, but it’s certainly a coincidence that reinforces a lifelong-held theory about appearance being important.
It starts with how you look, but it ends with how you conduct yourself. My strategy when dealing with any border crossing is to act bored and mildly unhappy, but still pleasant and polite. Like I’m waiting in line at the DMV or the post office.
It’s camouflage: I want to blend in with other international businessmen. Your actual purpose of travel is irrelevant – it’s all about what you project while traveling. Play into the stereotypes you want to be associated with you and downplay the ones you don’t. And remember that, while there’s nothing illegal about a visa run, being able to quickly explain your visa activity can save you a lot of potential hassle at any border.
So Here’s How To Do Hong Kong Like a Boss
Take flight UO182 to Hong Kong and return the next day on flight UO183 or UO193 to Taichung, costing you $3000.
Do not take the Airport Express Train from the Hong Kong Airport – you’ll spend $500-$700 by the time you get to your hotel. Instead, take the S1 bus from the airport to Citygate, then hop on the Orange Line MTR at Tung Chang Station, which you ride to the end of the line, then take the Blue Line to Wan Chai; it’ll cost you $150 and take less than an hour.
Bonus style points if you stop off at Olympic Station to dine at Tim Ho Wan, the cheapest Michelin-rated restaurant in the world. Their baked barbecue pork buns (Cha siu bao – 酥皮焗叉燒包) are considered some of the best in Hong Kong and are very affordable at $80 for three dim-sum-sized buns. I would like them better if they didn’t have such a strong flavor of onion…but you can ask anyone: I am extremely intolerant of onion.
Speaking of style points, I should get to the reason I’m sending you to Wan Chai. You want to book a room at Mingle Place by the Park. True to Hong Kong Island form, their smallest rooms start at $4800 a night, but I will tell you a little secret: you can book your room though Wotif.com and reserve a Double Value Room for around $1800, as long as the booking isn’t too far in advance, as rates often plummet when the booking date is closer. If you do it at the right time, it means 70% off a very decent room on Hong Kong Island. The location is a refurbished 60s-era apartment building with a lot of history and a great deal of charm. Request a room on a lower floor (there’s no elevator) and, if possible, not street-side.
For years, Wan Chai was where US Navy boats docked, so it was exactly what you’d expect. These days, the bars are relatively less seedy, there are more cafés and restaurants, and the city is actively combating urban decay, with Mingle Place by the Park being a great example. The whole area is right up my alley: lots of history and culture, beautifully torn between the East and West. If you’re looking for harder partying, Central is 2km away (just remember that the MTR is closed from 1am-6am). You should expect to spend between $1000-$5000 on food and revelry, depending on what level of Good Times you’re looking to have (unless you want to really go crazy).
It Really Comes Down To This
When I overnight in Manila, my travel costs, alone – the flight, Manila terminal fee, taxis/busses – run me at least $8,000, these days. But I can overnight in Hong Kong, have a very decent evening in Wan Chai, eat and drink well, spend the night at one of my favorite little hotels on the island, and only spend $8,000 doing all of it. On top of that, I can fly straight back to my city instead of having to land and then get on a bus for two hours. It can even make a smart couples’ trip; two people could enjoy themselves pretty well from Friday afternoon to Sunday night for as little as $20,000.
If you’re in Taichung and are looking to do an international overnight trip, Hong Kong is back to its former ruling status. I love Manila, but the days of $2000 TPE/MNL round-trips seem to be gone. In the meantime, I’ve never seen RMQ/HKG flights this cheap. Following my suggestions, an overnight trip to Hong Kong for $10,000 will feel like it cost you twice that, and you won’t dread the experience every few months.