My top Hong Kong travel apps

The smorgasbord of travel apps have made planning and executing travel plans so much easier. But which ones do you need for a trip to Hong Kong? Here are my tried and tested favorites:

HK eTransport
Hong Kong’s public transportation system, in my opinion, is what every other system in the world hopes to become. (Of course, this is helped by the fact that Hong Kong is smaller compared to everywhere else but that’s besides the point.) Everything runs like clockwork: the trains, the buses, the ferries, even the taxis! But navigating the entire system can be confusing to the newcomer (like me!) so this is where HK eTransport comes in.

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The HK eTransport app was created by Hong Kong’s Transport Department and gives you a complete guide on how to get from Point A to Point B. Just enter your starting location and your ending location and the app will calculate the various commuting routes available to you using the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), Light Rail Transit (LRT), franchised buses, green minibuses, ferries (the famous Star Ferry and the ferries that service the Outlying Islands), regular trams, the Peak Tram, cross-boundary coach to Huanggang (China), and the bus to Ma Wan and Discovery Bay. It will even give you a detailed breakdown of each route and you can sort through the routes according to the number of interchanges, total fare, and estimated trip time.

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Suggested routes from where we stayed to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum

Cons: Requires an active data connection to use. Also, the suggested routes only include stops that are a maximum of 400 meters away from your origin or destination, thus potentially limiting your route choices. For example, there are normally two options for getting to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum from where we stayed in Tsim Sha Tsui: 1) taking the East Rail line from East Tsim Sha Tsui to Sha Tin (no transfers) then walking for 15 minutes to the museum), and 2) taking the East Rail line from East Tsim Sha Tsui to Tai Wai, transfering to the Ma On Sha line and take it to Che Kung Temple station, and walking for 5 minutes. But because of the 400 m restriction, the first option doesn’t appear. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing, there are bound to be times when you just want to walk and see the sights.

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Download for iOS and Android

Official MTR app
This standalone application developed by the MTR gives you a detailed guide to Hong Kong’s MTR system. Enter your start and end stations and the app will give you the line you’ll take (and any line changes, if ever), estimated trip time, and total fare. It also lists the different points of interest accessible at each stop.

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If you don’t know the specific name of the station, you can search for popular landmarks instead.

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MTR map from Tsim Sha Tsui to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, with Che Kung Temple as the nearest station.

Pros: The app works even without an active data connection. However, you should have an active data connection when you first open it so it can download the latest fare guides.
Cons: The app is redundant if you already have the HK eTransport app.

Download for iOS and Android.

OpenRice Hong Kong
Hong Kong is all about the food and the OpenRice Hong Kong app is your best guide to Hong Kong’s best eats. It has an extensive list of restaurants, where they’re located, estimated cost per person, and reviews from the community. Aside from searching for a specific restaurant, OpenRice can also use your location to suggest nearby restaurants that you can sort according to cost, cuisine, and review scores.

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That blue dot was me and the Wah Kee Snack Food stall was a restaurant near me that served cheap but good food.

My friend Eric used it to bring up restaurant recommendations for me and sent the information via Facebook. You can also send the information through email, SMS, Twitter, and WhatsApp. In my case, Eric suggested that I try Honeymoon Desserts in Sha Tin (this was after our visit to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to eat there at the time as I accidentally left my wallet at home (long story). No sweat though, as I used OpenRice to find the Tsim Sha Tsui branch (it’s located inside Harbour Mall) and I was able to walk there from where I was staying.

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Directions from my apartment to the nearest branch of Honeymoon Dessert

 

Cons: Requires an active data connection to use.

Download for iOS and Android.

General travel needs:

XE Currency Converter
This app is a staple in my phone, regardless of whether I’m traveling or not. The user interface is easy to use and very pretty. Don’t forget to check the exchange rate for the day to make sure that you’re getting the most out of your money.

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Pro: the app works even without a data connection. Just remember that the exchange rate you’ll be using is the one the app got the last time it was online.

Download for iOS, Android, and Blackberry 10.

A SIM card and a data plan:

If your (unlocked) phone uses a micro or nano SIM card, you’re only in Hong Kong for 5 days or less, and don’t mind throwing the SIM card away after your trip, get the PCCW Discover Hong Kong Tourist SIM card. The HK$69 SIM card is the cheapest available, is valid for 5 days, and you get 1.5 GB of data (3G speed), unlimited local calls, unlimited csl Wi-Fi, and HK$25 of usable value. If you want to extend the validity for another 5 days, you pay an additional HK$50 and get the same benefits. There’s an 8-day SIM card for HK$96 (gives you 5 GB data and HK$35 of useable value) but you cannot extend the validity of this card. Please note that this SIM card does NOT work on Blackberry devices. BOOOO!

hong kong tourist sim

If you’re staying for more than 5 days, I suggest that you get the regular China Mobile SIM card instead. The SIM card sells for HK$80 (HK$78 consumable) and is valid for 180 days since the last time it’s used. However, be sure to subscribe to the data plan you need. If you don’t, you’ll be charged HK$0.5/MB. I went with 1.5 GB data for 5 days (same as the Tourist SIM), costing HK $48. Subscription codes are here.

china mobile sim card

 Many, many thanks to Eric who suggested all the HK apps and the China Mobile SIM card! 😀

Hong Kong journeys with Airbnb

Although Hong Kong is not really the cheapest place in the world to visit, there’s something about it that keeps me coming back. Whether it’s your first or fifth time, there’s always something new to do, somewhere new to eat. And while there are always ways to cut costs from your Hong Kong explorations, I’m a great believer in value-for-money rather straight-out cheapness. This is where Airbnb comes in.

Victoria Harbor shore

 

Airbnb allows locals to rent out portions of or even entire apartments, houses, boats, or even castles to travelers. Airbnb’s network stretches across more than 34,000 cities in 192 countries, connecting people to unique travel experiences at any price point. My travels with Airbnb have concentrated on the “more reasonable” end of the “at any price point” scale and I haven’t been disappointed yet.

Hong Kong is the perfect place for Airbnb, as the reasonable offerings nicely fill in the gap between the Peninsula (my dream place to stay in HK!) and hostels where you have to sit on the toilet to shower. Last August 2014, I was they very, very lucky winner of the My Airbnb Travel Bucket List (see the original entry here), where I won Php 30,000 worth of Airbnb credits and Php 15,000 in cash. Three guesses where I used the prize money 🙂

We traveled to Hong Kong last February 13-16, 2015 and stayed in Rosemary’s room in Tsim Sha Tsui. I initially considered staying in Cory and Carla’s place again (where we stayed in HK the last time), but it had a minimum booking of four nights so I decided on Rosemary’s place instead. And since it was cheaper compared to our previous accommodations, I used the remaining Airbnb credits for a weekend stay for my office team in Tagaytay in March.

Rosemary’s room did not disappoint. Although it was smaller than I thought it would be, it’s well-designed to make use of the limited space. Think of it as a spotless hotel room with lots of extras. She provided a coffee and tea station, a small refrigerator, cutlery, and plates. She also stocked practically everything: office supplies, bathroom supplies, even a Lonely Planet guidebook! The room is also near the Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station, a supermarket (in the K11 mall), and places to eat. It was just right for the needs of two people and was definitely worth the asking price. I would have ended up paying the same amount for a smaller hotel room.

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(Rosemary’s room is much brighter than my photos suggest it is. My apologies. Make sure to check her actual listing to see the prettier pictures she put up.)

However, there are potential cons that you need to consider with Rosemary’s room. First, the bathroom uses a shower pod that I found to be just the right size for 5’4″me. I don’t think it will be comfortable for someone particularly tall, wide, and/or claustrophobic, but I could be wrong.

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The listing also accepts up to 4 people in the room but I’d only recommend it for a maximum of 3 people. The extra bed for Person #4 goes at the foot of the main bed, leaving no space to move around once it’s there.

There were also lots of loud ongoing construction works that started at 8am. Hopefully they’ll be done soon or that you’ll be out of the room during the day.

All in all, staying in Rosemary’s place was a treat. Aside from her listing, Rosemary herself was a great host, communicating well via email and WhatsApp. She gave very clear instructions on how to find her place and how to use it (gate and door codes, etc). Very attentive to our needs too. I mentioned that I couldn’t find the cutlery and the next night, her husband Kevin shows up with new sets!

This trip marks my second stay with Airbnb so far and I wasn’t disappointed. Where are you taking your next trip? 🙂

Travel Challenge: the street markets of Tai O, Hong Kong

Today’s post comes courtesy of Ailsa and her weekly photo challenge. This week’s challenge? Street markets! These photos were taken during our anniversary trip to Hong Kong last October.

Tai O is a village in Lantau Island, an island that is also home to Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong Disneyland, and the Po Lin monastery.

I will never understand why people need these things to remember a trip to the beach 🙁 Please note the triton shell that’s really NOT supposed to be there. Be a responsible tourist: don’t buy shells and starfish as souvenirs!
And these too! Who in their right mind would want a wall hanging made from pufferfish? 🙁
The non-depressing part of our rounds through Tai O: freshly grilled oysters and prawns with cheese. Gawd they were so good but so expensive as well.

Exploring Hong Kong: the Airport Express, going home, and Cebu Pacific’s lateness

As our flight back to Manila leaves at 8:30 am, we opted to take the Airport Express to HKIA instead of the Cityflyer bus. The bus route starts at 5:30 am and would take maybe an hour to the airport, while the train starts at 5:50 am and takes less than 30 minutes. Yes there was only a slight difference in the time we’d get to HKIA but we didn’t want to chance it. The Airport Express cost HK$72 one-way compared to the bus’ HK$33.

We found a taxi after only 5 minutes of waiting (Carla advised us it might take 10-15 minutes because of the early hour) and paid HK$35 for the 2++ km trip to Kowloon Station (there’s a surcharge for luggage). We exchanged our vouchers for train tickets and sat down to wait. If you’re taking Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, or any of the other airlines that support in-town check-in, you can check your bags at the train station for an even more hassle-free ride. You can also use your Octopus card to pay for the train. The train ride was fast. Wow. Even though the trip was much longer, I’m glad we took the bus into the city as our introductory sightseeing tour as the AE train mostly goes through tunnels so there’s no view. We got to HKIA in about 25 minutes, checked our bags, then wandered around for something to eat. We easily found seats in the food court area and ate some pancakes and eggs. Unfortunately, the bane of my airport existence is also found in HKIA: expensive drinks. A bottle of water cost HK$16 🙁 Incidentally, you can use the last of your Octopus card load at the airport because you can also use it to pay for food. You can also opt to return your Octopus card to get the deposit and any remaining credit back, though there’s a surcharge if you return it within three months of buying it.

We found our gate without any trouble and waited for boarding. Unfortunately, Cebu Pacific‘s 20%++ delayed flights record reared its ugly head. Our flight was delayed by 30 minutes with no explanations as to why. We landed in Manila at 11 am and got out of immigration and baggage claim by 12 nn. The Customs guys didn’t bother me as it was obvious that I didn’t do much shopping. Aids and I parted ways at the airport. Until the next adventure 🙂

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And thus ends our awesome Hong Kong trip. To recap:

Day 1: getting there and our first meal in Hong Kong

Day 1: Hong Kong Space Museum, Avenue of Stars, Mong Kok

Day 2: Ocean Park

Day 3: Peng Chau and Tai O

Day 4: Po Lin monastery, Ngong Ping village, Central

Day 4: more Joon, Victoria Peak, Symphony of Lights, and a last walk through Tsim Sha Tsui

All in all, I’m happy with how our budget turned out 🙂 We didn’t do a lot of shopping and ate cheaper food but invested in nicer accommodations. Now, time to save up for the next big adventure! *ponders Thailand, Vietnam, or South Korea*

Exploring Hong Kong: Ocean Park

Day 2 of our Hong Kong exploration led us to Ocean Park. Why Ocean Park instead of Disneyland? Because I said so 😛 But seriously. Aids wasn’t interested in going (he’s not much for thrill rides) and I’d already been to Disneyworld twice and Disneyland California once (plus Universal StudiosIslands of Adventure, Universal Studios California, and Universal Studios Singapore :P).

Going to and from Ocean Park is a breeze. Just take the MTR to Admiralty station then take the Citybus 629 Express Bus to Ocean Park (HK$10.60 per way for the bus ride). The bus also picks up from Central station but check the schedule. The bus ride takes about 30 minutes and drops you off right in front of Ocean Park.

Ocean Park tip #1: it’s best to be there by the time the park opens at 10:00 am. We left TST late so we got there by 11:30. We’d missed the first animal shows already so that threw off our entire schedule – we were hoping to leave by 3 or 4 pm to visit the markets in Stanley.

I loved Ocean Park, although me being my ocean-lover self may have contributed to that. The animals looked well-cared for, the exhibits were both beautifully designed and functional, and the written interpretation and displays were superb. I can’t say anything about the verbal interpretation as it was mostly in Cantonese. The dolphin show had a pre-recorded narration in alternating Cantonese and English while the bird show was in Cantonese with only sprinklings of English here and there. If you’re set on watching all of the shows and seeing all of the exhibits, check out Ocean Park’s website for the show schedules on the specific date you’ll be going to better plan your day. I did this but silly me forgot to print it out.

Ocean Park tip #2: buy your tickets in advance. The lines at the gate for admission tickets can get very long and waste your time when you could be exploring the park already. See my earlier entry for where you can get discounted tickets.

While each exhibit was great, my absolute favorites were the Giant Aquarium, Amazing Asian Animals, Giant Panda Habitat, and the Sea Jelly Spectacular.

The Giant Aquarium deserves its name as you have to take an escalator up – you start from the top of the building then work your way down. Each section is themed according to the ocean depth the animals live in – intertidal, coral reefs, and deep sea. The intertidal section also had a touch pool with starfish and sea cucumbers – something sure to appeal to the kids. The section on coral reefs has several tanks full of colorful reef fish, including one chockfull of “Nemos” – false clown anemonefish (Amphiprion ocellaris). However, the giant viewing window at the end of your tour is sure to become a highlight. The window is 68 cm thick plexiglass, holding back hawksbill sea turtles, sharks, a Napoleon wrasse, groupers, tuna, and thousands of gallons of seawater.

The Amazing Asian Animals exhibit lived up to its name. They showcased giant pandas, red pandas, and goldfish. A giant panda had his ass pointed in our direction as he did his business. As expected, panda poop is green from the food that it eats. Another one was eating, easily breaking the bamboo in half before ripping it apart to get to the soft inner parts. This was my first time to see a giant panda eat and its sheer brute strength surprised me. I’d temporarily forgotten that despite its sluggish movement, it’s a bear and a hunter at heart.

The goldfish exhibit was also really interesting, something I did not expect at all 😀 They had diagrams showing the different features of each particular variety of goldfish and the proper terms to describe them. I kept wondering though if the goldfish were comfortable with the modified body parts they sported. Bubble eyes aren’t hydrodynamic after all.

The dedicated giant panda habitat (separate from the Asian Animals exhibit) was also really cool (both literally and figuratively). Giant pandas are mountain creatures so Ocean Park takes care to bump up the AC to make them comfortable. There was virtually no line to get into the exhibit, something we appreciated. Everyone was crowded against the glass and snapping photos continuously.

The Sea Jelly Spectacular was truly spectacular. Jellies are mostly translucent white and pretty enough, but Ocean Park designed the jellyfish exhibit to show them off to their best advantage and then some (basically like women wearing makeup :P). Aids and I stood in front of one jellyfish tank for about 10 minutes, just taking photos. Hopefully we didn’t disturb the other visitors who wanted to take photos as well. I also took some video of the moon jelly (Aurelia aurita) tank as the tank lights (so also the jellies) changed color from green to red. It was pretty awesome.

Ocean Park tip #3: visit on a non-holiday weekday to avoid the crowds. We went on a Friday so it was already somewhat crowded. The lines for the rides weren’t too bad, though the animal shows were definitely full.

We got to the Amazing Bird Theater with 5 minutes to spare and took seats on the left side of the performance space. The bird show itself was nice and okay but not as great as the show in the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore. The highlight for me was the scarlet macaw taking donations from the crowd for the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation (OPCF). The volunteer holds out a folded bill (preferably at least HK$20 :D) and the macaw lands on his arm, takes the donation in its beak, then flies towards the donation box and drops it in.

Coming in for a landing
Getting the goodies (photo by Aids)
Turning around
Takeoff!

I was seriously impressed with how Ocean Park gets its visitors to donate to OPCF. First, they make a great heartfelt appeal. Second, they make giving fun. Having a macaw collect donations was a genius move. And third, they make it easy. The giant panda and Chinese sturgeon exhibits had stations where you could donate via Octopus card. Just swipe your Octopus card and *ting!* you’ve donated HK$10 towards saving the planet. I donated at the Chinese sturgeon exhibit while Aids swiped his card for the pandas.

How can you resist that cuddly panda?!

Buildable space in Hong Kong is a premium and Ocean Park is no exception. It expanded up the mountainside so tip #4 is to wear your most comfortable shoes or flip-flops and be prepared for a lot of walking. You will have to go up and down several hilly areas during the day, especially if you didn’t plan your route out beforehand. On the other hand, the need to break the park up in two resulted in Ocean Park’s cable car system. There are four cable lines (two going in each direction) running continuously so the waiting time isn’t so bad. Your wait is rewarded with a 10-minute cable car ride that gives you astonishing views of Hong Kong’s mountains, coastline, and surrounding waters.

Lastly, Ocean Park is famous for its Halloween parties! The park builds special “haunted houses” and 4D theaters full of spooky stuff and is open until way past the regular 7 pm closing. This requires a separate ticket and these tickets go very fast. According to my friend Eric, tickets for Ocean Park’s Halloween extravaganza were sold out months ago.

We left the park before the 7 pm Symbio closing show to meet up with our friend Chris in TST. If you have no early evening plans, I highly recommend that you stay for Symbio. It’s a show on conservation and symbiotic relationships featuring fire, water, lights, pyrotechnics, music, and animation. Eric said it’s really good 🙂

The next day’s itinerary: an unexpected-yet-totally-worth-it stop in Peng Chau, Tai O, Po Lin monastery, Ngong Ping village, and Central 😀

Victoria Harbor after the failed meetup with Chris