A Macau Travel Tip Bonanza
So you want to go to Macau? Here's a bunch of infonuggets that I wish I had known before I left. Hopefully this, in tandem with all the other crapola I've discussed on this blog, will help make your Macaudventure absolutely killer. If not, well, that's your fault. :)
An entry Visa is not required for trips to Hong Kong and Macau for residents of the U.S. and Canada but a valid passport is. Make sure your passport is valid for two years following your trip just in case. Check with your local consulate or immigration for countries other than these. You will pass through immigration when entering and exiting Hong Kong and Macau (and a baggage search in Japan if you have a layover). Customs agents didn't search anyone when I was there, but keep in mind that transporting illegal substances or unmarked prescriptions will land you in the pokey for a long long time in Macau. If you gotta bring some vicodin or other doodads, put it in another prescription bottle that has your name on it. Customs isn't going to do tests on your scrips unless you've got other goodies you shouldn't. Leave the ganja at home, it will mean that much more to you when you make it back to your den of sin.
Hong Kong uses the Hong Kong Dollar - HK$ or HKD is the abbreviation. Currently, exchange rates are approximately 8HKD to 1USD. To do conversions, simply divide the HK$ amount by 8 and you've got an approximate US$ equivalent. More often than not it will be just a little less than US prices. For the overly cautious, divide by 7.
Before your trip, watch the Forex rates for trends in the exchange rate. Locate a large bank near you that does currency exchange and get yourself about HK$2000 of walking around money (US$180) and 2000YEN (US$20) for incidentals if your plane has a layover in Japan. When you exchange for HK$, be sure you get plenty of smaller bills (10s, 20s 50s) for tips and taxi trips. The Travelex in the Hong Kong Airport had an exchange rate of HK$7.17:US$1 - very suckful and there was a line too. Casinos in Macau have pretty lousy exchange rates as well, your best rate will be found at the Bank of China branch right next to the Grand Lisboa, they have ATM's on the side that faces the Emperor Hotel.
Lots of travel guides say that tipping isn't a big deal over there - they're wrong. Every person who provided any kind of service eyeballed me up and down for tips, including the guy at the Venetian who came to take the room service cart away 7 hours after they said they would and nearly 90 minutes after I had phoned in a reminder. The rule of thumb I use is, if I get good service or a quick taxi ride without white knuckling it I'm more than happy to give tips. Also if you make it known that you're going to give good tips, the service providers will bend over backwards to do anything you want. I generally gave out HK$100 for nearly every service and the tipees all were psyched - bell hops, room service, cabbies etc.
In Macau, they use two currencies - the Hong Kong Dollar is used in the casino and the Macanese Pataca for everything else. If you don't have any Patacas, the folks in the store will do the conversion for you on the spot... its a little less than a HK$1:MOP$1 exchange, you get more Patacas for the HKD. Patacas are essentially worthless outside of Macau so don't convert for them and don't keep a wad in your wallet when you leave unless you collect random bills.
Chances are your phone does not work internationally, if it does, you'll pay up the yin-yang in roaming charges from Macau. Your best bet is to save it for emergencies only and, if you're bringing a laptop, use Skype to connect with your peoples back home. This is the internet age... go get a laptop. Mrs. Mo and I had dinner together via Skype one evening and it was just what a homesick traveller needed. Skype is video conferencing software that is free if you are connected from one Skype user to another. You can also use it to make Skype->Phone calls that are much less expensive than roaming charges.
Most, if not all, hotels will have internet access. Use it. Use instant messenger, email, Skype and Flickr to keep contact with your posse back home. My peeps loved the constant photo uploads to Flickr and when I returned they felt that they had gone on the trip with me. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a hundred pictures is worth...
The plaza outside of the Grand Lisboa is a giant WiFi hotspot and a great place to video conference from. Your posse get a kick out of being in downtown Macau with you and hearing and seeing the surroundings. You will need a video camera to do it, they're stock issue in all Apple laptops.
Macau and Hong Kong use 220v power outlets (the same as in the UK). If you're from the US and are bringing assorted pieces of technological crap, make sure you get a 220v -> 115v power converter. You can use an adapter, but they don't buffer the power overload, just reconfigure the jacks. The adapter I acquired shorted out and sent large blue sparks every time I plugged it in. If you use a Mac laptop, Apple's worldwide adapter will work just fine.
For shutterbugs and other folks who use devices that eat a lot of AA or AAA batteries, you should be using rechargeable batteries. Rechargeable batteries last 4x longer, save money and are much better for the environment. Get yourself a NI-MH battery recharger that is native to 220v outlets. My 115v recharger with 115->220 adapter blew up the third day I was in Macau. Endless trips to the gift shops to buy batteries at all hours just plain sucks and is incredibly expensive. If you have to buy batteries - get the KODAK batteries at the Wynn Signature shop... they last much longer than the Duracells and Energizers I got at Hotel Lisboa and the 7Eleven (yes they have 7Eleven there). Another tip for photographers, bring a tripod and make sure that when disassembled it is shorter than 40 inches otherwise the customs guys in japan will dismantle it until it fits. They whipped out tape measure and disassembled my tripod both ways!
Smokes and Booze
If you smoke standard issue cigs, you'll find em everywhere in Macau. If you smoke oddball cigs, you should either stock up before hand or hit the duty free on the way. Lighters must be checked in your bags or they will be taken by airport security. Unlike Vegas, Macau's casinos do not give out gratis matchbooks everywhere. If you don't have a lighter and come across a matchbook somewhere - snag it.
if you can do non-stop to hong kong go for it, its not worth saving the extra hundred bucks... and swinging business class will give you a helluva lot more comfort and enable you to use your laptop (plus the power adapter!) both ways for movies, writing, programming or whatever. i flew northwest which was an old 747 with no power and super cramped seats.
Safety and Security
Whenever traveling abroad, make photocopies of all of your pertinent documents - passport, credit cards, drivers license, hotel reservation confirmations and keep them in a safe place. If the shit hits the fan and you end up losing your passport or credit cards, having copies will make fixing the difficulties much easier. I also make pdf copies of these and emailed them to my Yahoo! email address in case the paper copies got lost as well.
Some travel guides suggest that you do not bring your passport with you when traipsing around the country after arrival. In Macau, some casinos require you to show your passport to enter, and all will require a passport for players club sign ups. You also may need one if you happen to hit the jackpot, so you should bring it with you.
Areas of Hong Kong can be a bit dangerous at night, so don't stray too far from your hotel room if you aren't comfortable. Macau on the other hand is completely safe. I never felt compromised of fearful when I was out and about there. Still, you should scan your pockets for important valuables everytime you move from one location to another - passport, wallet, cash, hotel key, camera bag, smokes, lighter. Unlike Vegas and most other gambling destinations, Macau has virtually no homeless population or panhandlers. I was never approached, nor did I see any people begging or gangsters. The only place where I was approached during the trip was by a religious nut in the Central Ferry Terminal in HK and a Taxi wrangler at the Macau Ferry Terminal arrival floor. I said "no thanks" to both and they left me alone.
If you are planning on taking a trip to Macau and still have some questions, feel free to contact me (use the link at the bottom of the page) and I'll do my best to answer your questions here.