Category Archives: Travel Review

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon): Trip Details

I haven’t written a thing about Ho Chi Minh City yet.  And there’s a reason for that.  All all the cities we visited, I didn’t like Ho Chi Minh.  (By the way, if you never heard of Ho Chi Minh, you probably have heard its previous name:  Saigon.)

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Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad city.  But it’s more crowded than Manila but also doesn’t have reliable public transportation like Manila.  Plus the motorcycles…  Replace every jeepney in Manila by about 300 motorcycles and scooters, and you get the idea of traffic there.  It made a challenge to cross the street, even when the pedestrian light was in your favor.  I had a video of it, but all my videos mysteriously vanished from my SD card, but I can leave you with this picture for an idea…  Things were calmer during the day time because it was all closed, so at least we got to relax during the day.  But at night?  They all came out.  We didn’t even go to see the fireworks because the thought of dodging that again was tiring.  And yes, there were kids in those motorcycles, babies being held by parents, etc.

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Visa:  Most people, including Americans and Europeans need a visa to enter Vietnam.  You can go to the consulate and get one, but they don’t have consulates in every city, so you can also apply online for a “visa on arrival” to avoid having to mail your passport back and forth.  We went through vietnam-visa.org for our visa on arrival. 

So sure, it didn’t help that we had gotten an authorization for visa on arrival and had to deal with lines, a looooong wait (all while our luggage sat unattended on the carrousel), grumpy immigration officers who wouldn’t even tell us anything.  (If we already had a visa, it would have been a lot quicker, but since my parents had to go through this route, we decided to do the same.)

We gave our passports and forms, they took it and refused to tell us a word after that, not even a “just wait.”  After about an hour or so total (after we had left the plane) our name was finally called.  A lot of people in the plane after us got called before us, so it’s not even a first-come, first-serve thing.  The lines now were so huge (and non-orderly), that we had a hard time getting through people to reach the part of the window to get out passports back.  There’s not even enough seats for everyone, so count on standing for a while.  Luckily, our luggage was still there (we were the last ones of our flight to pick up our luggage), as Vietnam is known for having issues with things stolen, including from the airport, so we were very concerned the whole time. 

Taxi Scams:  When we went to get a cab, we knew about their reputation (BAD, BAD, BAD!), so we decided to pay more for one at the airport, using one of the airport counters (we used Saigon Tourist).  It was a flat fee of $8.  (Later, reading wikitravel – which for some reason doesn’t open here in Manila – I was able to confirm that it was indeed the safest route!)

As soon as we left the airport the taxi driver started demanding 100,000 Dong (about $5) for airport fee, claiming it was a per person fee to exit the terminal (yeah, right).  The fee suddenly became 80,000 Dong instead (20,000 per person).  When we questioned it, he slammed on his breaks and came to a complete stop OUTSIDE of the airport and was about to kick us out of the car.  AFTER WE HAD ALREADY PAID THE FULL FLAT RATE TO GET A TAXI!  So we said “ok” that we would pay him at the hotel. 

Once we got out of the cab, we grabbed all our things and kept on walking.  Asked the reception desk at our hotel about it and she shook her head and laughed saying there was no fee.  He followed us to the hotel, then talked to the reception and demanded only 20,000.  Since we were (originally) planning on giving that as a tip to him anyway, we gave it to him, but amazing how it went from 100,000 to 20,000, no?

So you can see that after this welcome into the country we were already not too excited about Ho Chi Minh…

To go back to the airport, we took one of the recommended taxi companies (Vinasun and Mai Linh are the two reliable ones), and we had no issues, so there’s that.

Hotel:  For $54/night (after taxes – also booked through agoda.com) we stayed at the Lan Lan 1 hotel.  I highly recommend it!  This was for sure the BEST hotel we stayed at.  Everything was nice and brand new, the location was great, the included breakfast was perfect for both western (eggs, croissant, coffee, yogurt, fruits…) and eastern (porridge, rice, spring rolls…) tastes and we also had free Wi-Fi and toiletries.  The rooms weren’t big, but perfect.  The hotel staff were all very friendly.  We were in District 1 (the best location to stay at) and were only a block from the Ben Than Market.

The one thing we had no idea was going on? 

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The Tet.  Or in other words, Vietnamese New Year (coinciding with the Chinese New Year).  So the Ben Than Market was closed.  Stores were closed.  Some museums were closed.  Some restaurants were closed.  (See a pattern there?)  So though we spent almost 2 days there, I feel like we didn’t really get to see everything…  We ended up going to the backpackers area both days, as that was the only place that had open businesses.

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Which brings me to…

To do:   There are a lot of things you can do in Ho Chi Minh, like going to see the old war tunnels outside the city, going to Ben Than Market for shopping, visiting the history museum…  But we saw none of that due to the holiday, and our very brief time there.  What I don’t recommend you visit?  The War Remnants Museum.  I don’t care what side of the war you agree with, but blaming Americans for things that happened before they showed up, it’s pretty ridiculous for a museum.  Case in point, showing a guillotine to execute prisoners followed with “the last person executed by guillotine was in 1960” (when the war was actually in between South and North Vietnam at the time, but there’s no mention of there ever being a separate government in Vietnam in any place in the museum).

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But what really really bugged Karl to the point he looked a bit green?  (And it bugged the crap out of me too.)  Souvenir shops in the museum selling dog tags of dead soldiers (both American and South Vietnamese dog tags).  If you want to display that in your museum, then by all means, but selling as souvenirs dog tags of fallen soldiers?  A bit disrespectful for the dead (regardless of what side you’re on).

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Money:  It’s worth to change it to Dong, as all prices were in Dong, but a lot of stores would unofficially accept dollars, and even give you change in dollars.

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Internet:  Facebook is blocked, and I’m sure other sites too.  So if that’s your only means of communication with friends outside the country, make sure they know you might not be reachable for a while.  Sites giving you an US IP are also blocked, if you’re thinking of just going around the rules.

So though we missed out in a LOT of things in my list to see, we did have fun seeing the Tet festivities and the whole craziness of the city.

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And we got to walk around quite a bit and see a few of the other things Ho Chi Minh had to offer…

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For those of you who have been there in recent days, did the Tet just spoil our experience (if things were open, we would have seen a whole different side to this city) and it’s worth another visit, or did we see pretty much everything there is to see?

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Siem Reap Trip: The Details

I’ll be posting details of every place we went to, but figured since I already gave a little update from Siem Reap, Cambodia, while we were still traveling might as well put the recap and the trip details here along with more pictures (which I’ll sprinkle throughout this post).

No flight costs on these reviews, since we had booked everything together: Manila> Bangkok> Chiang Mai> Siem Reap> Ho Chi Minh> Manila

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Money:  DO NOT CHANGE YOUR DOLLARS TO THE LOCAL CURRENCY!  Everything there was dealt in dollars:  the tuk-tuk rides, markets, supermarkets, hotels, restaurants, etc, so if you’re off to Siem Reap, make sure to bring dollars!  Places also barely accept credit cards, so bring enough cash with you.

Siem Reap, is still a fairly small town, and though it’s full (FULL!) of expats, it’s super-cheap.

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The only time we ever touched the Cambodian Riel was when getting change – there were no US coins, so anytime change was less than a dollar we would get a bunch of Riels (which we kept a few, because they’re pretty, and sadly not worth more than a few cents).

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Hotel:  I used agoda.com again to book our rooms.  We stayed at the Mekong Angkor Palace Hotel, after reading a ton of positive reviews.  For about $30 a night, with AC, hot shower, pool, free breakfast and wifi, it was a great deal.  The hotel was no luxury, but it was nice enough for us, and the location was unbeatable:  we were only a 5-10 minute walk to the markets and pub street (where most of the restaurants are), but in a quiet enough location that we could actually get some sleep (and we were also right next to a little supermarket, which was super-convenient!).  They also offered a free airport pick up by     tuk-tuk (you just have to email them your flight details).

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I didn’t take any pictures of the hotel room (I seem to mess them up before I think of taking pictures!) but I did take pictures of the hotel pool area, which was VERY nice:

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Getting Around:  I really really really recommend that you stay on or near the end of Sivatha Rd, making sure you’re walking distance to the Old Market area.  If you’re there, you can pretty much walk anywhere you need to go (except to see the temples, but regardless of where you stay, you won’t be walking distance to them, so it’s best to make your location convenient to everything else).

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There are a TON of brand new swanky hotels along Airport Road, but those are NOT walking distance to anything and you will need to negotiate with tuk-tuks every time you step out of your hotel, which can get tiring.

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As for getting to the ruins, we got a tour guide to show us around, and I recommend getting one too.  For $70 flat we got a van with AC and a tour guide.  It is definitely a lot cheaper taking a tuk-tuk, but on super hot days (a.k.a. everyday) it will feel really nice getting a short break from the heat, because it was brutal (I’m Brazilian and live in Manila, so you can trust me when I say the heat was brutal – when I’m not running, it takes a lot of heat to bother me).

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Food:  You can eat dinner for $3/person, or if you want something fancy, you’ll drop about $6/person.  It was definitely the cheapest place we visited.  There are many restaurants in and around pub street, and we had really great food every day.  You can even find Mexican food, if Khmer food is not your thing.  Here it was also easier finding food that was not spicy, unlike Thailand when even the non-spicy stuff is spicy.

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Keep in mind also that in the middle of the open-air night markets, there would be outdoor restaurants and bars.  Some of them had great atmosphere (definitely not what you expect in the middle of a market!), so explore a little bit before committing to a place to eat.

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Shopping:  Markets galore!  There were a bunch of different night markets, day markets and the whatnot.  A lot of things were very similar to what we saw in Thailand, but there was still a few things that were new to us.  I got a couple of paintings and t-shirts to bring back home.  Like every other market in Asia, make sure to bargain.  Just keep in mind Cambodian people are nice.  Soooooo nice.   So it makes it harder to bargain with them!

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Sightseeing:  I’m mentioning this last, but we all know you (or I!) didn’t go to Siem Reap to go shopping!  Of course, if you’re in Siem Reap, you’re here to visit Angkor Wat.   There are a ton of places to go to, which can get overwhelming, but definitely see Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.

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It’s another reason why a tour guide can be useful – not only is he telling you the background story of all the temples, but he’s also finding the best route to get you there, and what is worth seeing, what is worth skipping based on the time that you have (and no, he won’t make you skip any of the four major ones I mentioned above).

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When figuring out your budget for Siem Reap, make sure to budget money for the entrance fees as well.  The day passes are not cheap, we spent about $20 per person (if I remember it correctly), and they will ask for your pass before going in to each of these sights, so don’t think you can skip in paying (not that you should, as the money obviously goes towards conservation of the temples and the grounds).  You can also buy multiple-day or weekly passes if you don’t want to see everything in one day.

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Honestly, you can get everything done in one day, which is what we did.  It is tiring as hell, and towards the end you just don’t want to climb another set of stairs… but I’m glad we knocked it all in one day and had the next day to explore the town of Siem Reap, and relax a bit more.

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If you look at the pictures, you’ll see sometimes my shoulders are covered, others they’re bare.  It was hot as _____ (fill it in with whatever your favorite expletive is), but you do need to cover your shoulders for some of the temples.  I brought a shrug which worked perfectly for that.

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When you go sightseeing, make sure to bring sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat.  I forgot the sunglasses at the hotel because it was cloudy when we left (but not so much an hour later), but don’t make the same mistake I did.

Ah, and don’t forget that for $15 you can also get a 20 minute ride on an elephant.  We didn’t take that, since we were still spoiled after spending a day with them.

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Siem Reap is definitely a “must go” place in Southeast Asia.  It’s completely different than anything you’ve seen.

And the ride back to the airport should cost you only $5 per tuk-tuk.

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Turtle Bay Resort Review, Moalboal, Cebu

I posted way too many diving pictures and even videos of Moalboal before, so if you’re curious about the dive spots we went to, just click on the links above.

We again took Cebu Pacific, and the flight to Cebu was inexpensive, a little over $50/person for the round trip tickets.  Basically, book early, you’ll get a deal, book late, you’ll pay an arm and a leg.  We had booked about 6 weeks in advance, so we got a fairly good price.

As for where we stayed, we went to Turtle Bay Dive Resort.  It was EXPENSIVE.  But, we were served delicious meals, and the whole place was super relaxing – despite the cost, I can’t help but recommend it!  It was worth it!

And there really are turtles in Turtle Bay!  So if like me you love seeing turtles, this is the spot!

Here’s the breakdown of what each thing cost (please see note below about the low-season discount we got, so we paid slightly less):

Sea View Deluxe Room with Breakfast:  PHP 4,340/night (U$100)

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Can you do it cheaper?  Absolutely.  We splurged for the sea view room, which was also very private.  I wouldn’t recommend this room for anyone that’s elderly or have difficulty walking, as there are some steep steps to get down to the room, and back up to the restaurant, but for us, it was perfect.  The bathroom was also very spacious (per Filipino standards).  And yes, there’s both a fan and air conditioner in the room.  The construction of this whole resort was not your usual Filipino construction.  It was actually brick and concrete buildings, which we rarely see when traveling here!  The resort is 4 years old, but looks brand new.

Lunch and Dinner:  PHP 1,100/person/day (U$ 25.50)

You can do without the full-board and just order off the menu, which will be a bit cheaper.  The food is spectacular (seriously, some of the best I’ve had in the Philippines), so I do recommend eating your meals there.  You can go into town, but it’s a 20 minute ride from the resort.  Also, if you’re in the same room we were, there’s a mini-kitchen, so you can always prepare some of your own meals.  We wanted no-frills and we just wanted to relax in between dives, so the full board was perfect for us.  There was always rice, seafood, pork and chicken, so there was enough for every taste.  (And have I mentioned how the food is delicious?  I’m still dreaming about their stuffed eggplant, and Karl couldn’t have enough of their blue marlin!)

Guided Boat Dive:  PHP 1,350/person/dive (U$ 31.25)

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Guided Shore Dive:  PHP 1,100/person/dive (U$ 25.50)

The day we arrived, the water was too rough for a shore dive, so we took the resort-owned Jeepney towards the Marine Sanctuary in Moalboal, about 30 minutes away, at no additional cost.  (We also paid additional PHP 225 per dive for the BCD and regulator rental, but we had our own wetsuits/fins/masks.)

The rest of the days the water was calm as the wind had settled, and we had no issues with the shore dive or taking the boat.

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Airport Round-Trip Transfer by private car:  PHP 6,200 (U$ 143.50)

This is self-explanatory.  Not cheap, but it’s a 2.5 hour trip each way, so having someone waiting for you at the airport and delivering you where you want to be, and doing the same on your way back home, removes so much stress from the trip!

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Agoda.com had good deals for Turtle Bay, but we were interested in the full board package (not offered on Agoda), so I emailed Chris, the manager, and asked if they offered any embassy discount rates.  Being low season, he offered us 20% discount off all the rates above, as well as no VAT (we are exempt from those taxes here, even though some hotels don’t honor it, likely because they don’t pay their taxes anyway, but Turtle Bay gave us no issue, we just had to present the card), so our total prices were less than listed.  We got a great deal!  Agoda rates were very good as well.

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They have enough rooms to fit 57 people, and I have no idea how it would be if it was full (there were only a total of 7 of us there).  I would recommend going during low season, to fully enjoy the quiet and peace of the place.  It was like we had the place to ourselves!  The first night we met a French couple, who are living in Beijing, and were very nice (they left the next morning), and luckily, the 5 Americans who joined us on our second day were also a blast to be around.  You eat meals on one big communal table, which can be great (when you have great company) or bad (if the company sucks).  We really lucked out!

Customer service at the hotel was excellent.  The waiters learned our name, and our preferences in food.  The dive master was nice (but not nearly as funny as the one we had in Batangas and Coron), and the boat people were super sweet. 

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The day we arrived, both Chris as well as his wife, Faye, were there (she’s the owner) and they had their meals with us and provided great conversation (he’s Australian, she’s Filipina).  They also came to say hello when we sat for lunch right after arriving, which was a nice touch.

The one beef I had?  We ended up spending another 50% of what we had already paid upon checkout (we paid in full by bank transfer before arriving).  The 20% discount we were offered was only for the stuff we pre-paid.  If you do get a discount, if you already know you’re doing a certain number of dives, book those in advance, we had only prepaid for 4 of the 7 dives we took (and since the price is per person, we could have saved PHP 1,890 – U$ 45 – if we had scheduled those in advance).

Coffee is only included with breakfast, and no refills are included.  The price of coffee is expensive at PHP 85 for every little cup (it’s the same price of drinking a beer there!).  You do get water included (if you pay for full board), but there are no bottles, if you want to take water to your room, you need to open one of the bottles in the fridge, at a cost, and refill that.  No drinks/juices, etc, are included in the price, and even though we left early afternoon, our last lunch was not included, so we had to pay that apart as well. 

I guess my biggest complaint is for the price of coffee…  I thought it was extreme, and Karl liking his coffee and always getting a refill with breakfast, it added up to quite a bit.  (Personally, I didn’t realize coffee was not included with the other meals, since it was always offered, until we got the bill at the end.)

As for how the rest of the resort was like?  Super relaxing! 

We got a lot of reading done in between dives!  (There’s no TV in the rooms – don’t remember if there was one at all in the common area – so bring reading material!)

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There are a lot of these little tables around the place for you to sit down, relax and enjoy the view.

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This part is their “fake beach” for people who want to sit by the ocean.  At a lack of a real beach, they built this small strip with sand, and had lounge chairs you could put out and lie down.

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As you can see, even during low tide it’s not really a beachy place, so the fake beach is a nice addition.

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This little gazebo and the fake beach, were right in front of our room.

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The view from the restaurant…

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Restaurant on the left, the other rooms on the right.  We ate outside in the covered area most days and it was PERFECT.  Being so close to the shore, the weather was always a bit cool, specially at night.

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There’s also a lot of green space to relax in.

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And the water is super-clear!

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We only went to the pool on our last day, since we couldn’t dive (for you non-divers out there, you can’t dive the same day you fly).  Sadly, there was construction going on at their future spa behind the pool, so it wasn’t the most relaxing place, as there were lots of banging.  We left when the power drills started up.

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The pool was not a chlorine pool, maybe a salt water mixture?  I liked it as my skin/hair were not gross afterwards.

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And yes, on our last day we killed time by reading next to this amazing view in our favorite gazebo!

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Overall it was a really nice trip, and I highly recommend the place.  Just getting good customer service, it’s worth it.  The food was delicious and the diving spots amazing!  They also have many couches inside the covered area of the restaurant, so you have plenty of space to sit down and relax.  I even took a nap there before dinner one day!

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Cebu Pacific FAIL

Cebu Pacific, the local discount airline, has been on my shit list lately, after having every.single.one of my flights delayed.

And there’s no way to check online the flight status, nor do they tell you at check in that your plane is nowhere to be seen.  Nooooo…  Because why worry about the customer, right?  Every single time we find out that the plane has been delayed is when boarding time comes and goes, and 15 minutes later they announce how your plane to Manila from Cebu, for example, hasn’t even departed Manila yet.

And last weekend on our way to Coron, they managed to make what should have been a 1 hour easy flight, into a much bigger ordeal, when again, boarding time came and went, and only 20 minutes later they finally announced that the plane would be 2 hours delayed.  Of course, that was also a lie:  we departed 2.5 hours later than the original flight.  It annoys me the most when the total flight time is less than half of the delayed time.  Specially when I had to be out of bed at 6:30am for my 9:20am flight (you don’t want to risk being stuck in traffic on your way to the airport, plus we planned on grabbing breakfast), when I could have slept for 2.5 more hours to get my 11:50am flight instead.

Sadly, Philippines Airlines, the reliable local airline, is also at least double the price, so if we were flying Phil Air, we wouldn’t be able to afford the trip to begin with, so we’re stuck with Cebu Pacific (and so is every other sucker hearing about their plane being late.  Again…).

Today they’re running a 50% off promo of all their domestic and international flights, and since I know I need a ticket from Puerto Princesa back to Manila, for when my friend Liz is visiting, I jumped at the opportunity.

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First, I checked the prices for Thursday, Nov 24th.  No 50% off promo going on there, but the still available promo fare costs PHP 799 (click to enlarge the picture), vs the regular PHP 1,099 fare.

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So I checked to see if they have any available for Friday, and they did! Except…  They either need to get better at math, or they’re assuming their customers are stupid (again, you can click to see the full thing).

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Regular price fare is 1,099 but the discounted 50% off fare is 749?  Uh, am I the only one who sees this and goes WTF?

Shouldn’t 50% off of 1,099 be 549?  Because if you have it on the left column telling me that the regular year-round fares are 1,099, and right next to it, you give me a 50% off price of what should have been an almost 1,500 fare, you’re trying to tell me I’m stupid.  And you’re assuming that Filipinos are also stupid.  Give me a break.

And if you look back at the regular promo fares on my first screen above, you’ll see that it’s usually 799.  So with this big 50% off sale, I’m technically only saving 50 pesos (roughly a little over a dollar).

Cebu Pacific FAIL.  Again.

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