Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tips for those planning trips

Elias here. There are a few folks planning their trips for next year, and I've been holding onto this tip post, but I figure now is the time to share it! Hopefully Hillary will add her own tips to people planning to go.


ITA Software has some of the best searching capabilities, including their monthly or beta "Matrix 2" feature that lets you find the cheapest days to fly, if you're flexible, which we usually are. Some of the flight combinations are complicated and it's helpful to book using a travel agent, but travel agents can't book some of the airlines (like the discount Australian airlines or Air Vanuatu). I found my flights on ITA and brought them to a travel agent at STA in the University District (hi Dave!) and he managed to get me an even cheaper itinerary. It cost $50 to book the itinerary with him, which was definitely worth it, though I had to book some of my flights on my own. He also booked my tours in Australia, and I was pretty happy with that service (I emailed him from Vanuatu asking him to book me).

For internal Vanuatu flights, Air Vanuatu offers a baby doc discount, and you can search for flights on their web site. You can book those flights pretty close to when you want to leave and can walk into their office downtown. Tanna and Santo are popular internal destinations.

Where to stay:

Many baby docs stay at Coconut Palms. Booking through or FlightCentre is cheaper than booking directly (though you don't always get breakfast included). They don't advertise it, but they have a baby doc lounge with a kitchen, fridge, and free internet access. This is important because only the most expensive Coconut Palms rooms have cooking facilities. Some even have shared bathroom facilities. You can get a discount for staying an extended period of time, and some have gotten discounts for being medical students. The manager is extremely sociable and often looks after the baby docs. There's a pool, a pool table, restaurant, bar, and laundry (250 vatu to wash).

If you're not coming alone, or you don't need the social aspect of Coconut Palms, Tradewinds is closer to the hospital (marginally), can be cheaper, and even the studio apartment has en suite bathroom and full kitchen. We're paying 4500 vatu per night over the course of our extended stay ($45/night for 2 of us). This is a much smaller facility than Coconut Palms, but it still has a small saltwater swimming pool, ping pong table, gas BBQ, and kayaks available to be hauled down to the lagoon. The housekeeping staff will do your laundry for you for 1000 vatu, or you can use the machine yourself for 500. We hand wash. There's a clothesline setup alongside each apartment (which are each stand-alone).

Hillary probably has something to add on this count -- she stayed at another resort (Mangoes) and got an even better deal, but she was there during the wet season. Mangoes, Tradewinds, Coconut Palms are closest, then Poppy's on the Lagoon (where some folks stayed a few years ago) and then other resorts further out. If you're going in a big group you can rent a house.


Beware the following:

  • Your bank will probably charge you to use someone else's ATM (or if they're evil enough, like ANZ, their own ATM)
  • Your bank will probably charge you a foreign transaction fee for the currency conversion when pulling out cash
  • Your credit card will probably charge you a foreign transaction fee for the currency conversion
  • Local businesses are charged for their credit card transactions, so they charge you to use a credit card

Bank of America has a partnership with Westpac, which has ATMs easily available in town. I'm a BoA customer and have yet to pay an ATM fee (though I do pay a 3% foreign currency transaction fee, I think, although in retrospect I see no evidence of that).

Speaking of fees, almost everyone in town charges an extra fee to use your credit card. This can be as high as 5% on top of your bill, so most of us use cash most of the time. If you're going to use cash to pay your hotel bill though, you need to work around your bank's ATM daily withdrawal limit and also deal with the ATM fees (if you have them), so in our case, the hotel's 3.75% credit card surchage was close enough to the ATM foreign transaction fee, and I was sufficiently disinclined to pull out that much cash, so I just used the card. Capitol One is one of the only credit cards that doesn't charge a foreign transaction fee -- I got a Capitol One card just for this trip.

Bank of America also has a foreign currency order service. Before I left I ordered currency online, both Vatus and Australian dollars. They were delivered to the branch of my choice for a $7 delivery fee and took around 2 days. (They can deliver it to your house, too, but you have to be there to sign for it.) I got a pretty decent exchange rate, and I had the comfort of knowing I'd be set for money for a little while, and the pleasure of showing off the pretty money to folks before I left. The huge foreign currency service in the States didn't carry Vatus, so I'm pretty impressed with Bank of America.

Au Bon Marche (the big supermarket) doesn't charge extra to use a credit card. Everywhere else I use cash.

The hospital:

I had the intention of wearing scrubs. I bought good quality scrubs, knowing I'd be washing them a lot, and wanting the pockets all down the side. It's like wearing jeans in the tropics. Within a week and a half I'd switched to wearing my cargo shorts and a scrubs top. Nobody wears pants at the hospital. The midwives and nurses wear uniform dresses, the doctors wear shorts and t-shirts or island shirts. Actually, the nursing students wear white pants and tops, but they're the only ones. Nobody wears closed-toe shoes. Everyone wears sandals, closed cell polyethylene clogs (aka Crocs), or flip flops. I got closed-toe Nothinz-brand clogs (which are cushier than Crocs), but the closed-toe nature means I sweat hugely in them, so I wear them with socks, which I powder liberally in the morning. If you go into the operating theatre they have clean scrubs there to change into.

Bring a tote bag for your hospital stuff. I bring a supply of gloves (sterile and non), food, water bottle, headlamp, and reference material.

I sweat profusely, especially when I have to suture, so I've acquired a couple bandanas/headcoverings from the operating theatre. My sister also sent me a Croakies to keep my glasses on, since they just slide down my nose. Thanks, sister!

Travel insurance:

I got it through STA. It was only a few hundred bucks for my 3-month trip (it's priced based on length of trip), and covered medical and electronics, and since I got it within 2 weeks of booking my flights, covered terrorism and the airlines going out of business. You can get a rider for sports, too. Some diving outfits offer their own travel insurance.

1 comment:

Andrea said...

Hi! I'm a midwifery student in NZ and heading over to Port Villa in mid June of this year for 4 weeks, and really value all the stories and tidbits of info on this all the contributors! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences.

I wonder if you would know of anyone going over around the same time, that would be keen on sharing a studio room or something at one of the resorts.

Do you know if midwifery students might have same access as "baby docs" at coconut palms?

All the best!