Sunday, July 29, 2007

My Letter To The Practical Nomad, Or Things I Learned In a Year of Traveling

Sherman Oaks, California

Dear Edward Hasbrouck,

I see that you and your partner Ruth are taking a year to travel around the world. Big congratulations!

I also see that you have prepared for September release a Fourth Edition of your book The Practical Nomad, one of the two books that every traveler should read. (The other is Vagabonding by Rolf Potts.) Awesome! The Practical Nomad is the most useful, detailed and accurate D.I.Y. travel book on the market.

In my capacity as unpaid advisor to the world – what better description is there of a blogger? – I have taken it upon myself to give you some unsolicited feedback about long-term travel based on my recently concluded one-year trip to East Asia. You can thank me later!

Social Studies

 If a solo traveler is naturally gregarious and outgoing, he or she will make friends on the road. If a solo traveler is naturally solitary and introverted, he or she won’t and won’t care.

 Both men and women should learn about the more popular teams and stars of English soccer (Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Rooney, Crouch). The ups and downs of the English Premier League and “England” are the lingua franca of Anglophone travelers, including many women. No, Americans, knowing that David Beckham is signed to a team in L.A. and is married to a Spice Girl does not qualify as “knowing something about football.”

 For many people, the paradigmatic “one year off” is too long. Three months, six months or nine months is a better period of time, especially for a person’s first attempt at extended travel.

 While I generally agree with you that it is the traveler’s responsibility to speak the local language and not the locals’ responsibility to speak English, there are exceptions. Businesses that market themselves in English to English-speaking travelers should hire employees who speak English, at least for the positions that deal directly with travelers. Nothing infuriated me more than the occasions when I was hungry (read: cranky) and the waiter did not comprehend the names of the items on the establishment’s own English-language menu. If the hotel is an American chain charging American prices, there is no excuse.

 Similarly, there is a point where “cultural differences” become a smokescreen for anti-social behavior. When a Thai sales clerk stands four inches away from a browsing customer, that’s a cultural difference. When half a dozen bellowing peddlers surround the taxi of a new arrival to the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker district in Saigon, that’s intimidation and aggression masquerading as a cultural difference.

Money

 Long-term travel is affordable! Your advice about starting in a low-cost region like Southeast Asia is excellent, because it allows first-time travelers to learn that a $20-a-night guesthouse room with a ceiling fan and a serviceable bathroom is usually adequate. After a while, the $200-a-night room in an international hotel seems ludicrously overpriced. It’s better, but it’s not 10 times better.

 Home country carrying costs are often more of a burden than the costs of the trip itself. A traveler with no ongoing financial obligations can hop on a plane. For a traveler with a mortgage, it’s more complicated. Unless a traveler has owned the home for a while, rent will probably not cover the entire mortgage, and then there’s property taxes, insurance, HOA dues, routine repairs, etc. Plus there’s personal expenses like health insurance, professional memberships, student loans, etc. These are the costs that ultimately control the length of the trip. The travel part is relatively cheap.

 Cash is readily available. Most major cities have ATMs which allow a traveler to withdraw from his or her checking account in local currency. Using in-network ATMs reduces needless fees.

 Travelers should cancel all old credit cards and obtain new ones for the road. It’s amazing the number of subscriptions and auto-renewing services a person has, and, if the old cards are left active, a few will keep billing and billing. I don’t think it’s an accident that one or two companies keep billing despite repeated requests to stop.

 Travelers should get everything sorted before hitting the road, because many companies only disclose toll-free 800 numbers – which do not work from outside the United States.

Let me get on my soapbox for a moment. For one particularly nettlesome charge, I had to request that a friend of mine call the company and impersonate me to get the damn thing to stop billing. If he had called and explained that he had my power of attorney and was taking care of my State-side business, the company would have refused to act, citing “privacy.” I have come to agree with you that “privacy” policies keep information away from the people who might legitimately need it (family, close friends, representatives), while allowing the same information to be purchased by airlines, financial services companies, direct marketers, etc. End of (this) soapbox.

 Avoid credit cards that charge a “foreign exchange” fee of more than 1%. Most American credit cards charge 1% to convert a transaction from a foreign currency to U.S. dollars; this is understandable (if annoying), since the card company is offering the conversion service. However, some issuing banks then charge an additional 1% or 2% for which they do nothing. Worse, some issuing banks charge these fees for any transaction which originates outside the United States, even if the transaction is denominated in U.S. dollars. That’s outrageous, and I hope the Federal Trade Commission or California Attorney General Jerry Brown challenges this blatant padding.

 As you wrote, a traveler will spend more than budgeted, especially on the first long trip. A budget of 6 months will last about 4, and upward or downward in that rough proportion.

Gear

 Travelers should not bring a sleeping bag unless they plan for certain to camp. I bought one in Thailand, never used it and literally could not give it away in Vietnam, the market being saturated with cast-off sleeping bags.

 The traditional backpack may not be necessary unless a traveler plans to trek. My backpack converts into a duffel bag, and I never used it in its backpack form. It spent all its time in a cargo hold, in a taxi or in a room. It was never on my back.

 You may want to revise your warning against laptops. True, if a person’s only computing interest is e-mail, internet cafes will cheaply satisfy that need. But laptops are now so light, small and inexpensive that a person who wants to blog or write seriously or work with photographs shouldn’t be deterred. In addition, more and more budget lodgings offer wi-fi, either in the rooms or in the lobby. What I’m trying to say is: Don’t get between me and my laptop, man, it’s love!

Guidebooks

 There are two types of guidebooks: practical guides and “pretty” guides. Insight and D-K are “pretty” guides; they look great but don’t provide much nuts-and-bolts information.

 If a traveler wants to use a practical guidebook other than Lonely Planet, I strongly recommend that it be purchased before the trip starts. I am awed by Lonely Planet’s distribution within Asia. LPs are in every bookstore, and they are often the only guidebooks available. Sometimes, LPs are the only English-language books in a store! I enjoy the eclectic sensibility of the Footprint guides, but they are nearly impossible to find on the road.

 Not all Lonely Planets are created equal. LP is lord and master of Southeast Asia, but its China guide is erratic and its Central Asia guide is rubbish. I dislike the way some of the LP country guides give short shrift to the major cities; I assume that’s to push sales of the LP city guides. For example, the LP China has only a few pages of hotel listings for Shanghai, one of the world’s most populous cities.

 You are correct that the signal-to-noise ratio on lonelyplanet.com’s Thorn Tree bulletin board is off the charts. Anyone can post anything, no matter how inaccurate, and they do. In particular, readers should never trust a TT post related to law or legal matters.

Lodging

 As hard as this is for many Americans to believe, lodging is not an issue. Before I left, the single most common question I was asked was “How will you find a place to stay?” The answer is I walk up to a decent-looking guesthouse and ask if they have a room. Unless it’s a holiday or festival, they do. Lodging is not a problem.

Trains, Planes and Automobiles

 Travel routes are a problem. The wisest sentence in The Practical Nomad is your observation that travel routes follow trade routes. This simple statement helps makes sense of many seemingly illogical travel situations.

 A traveler has to constantly be aware of how travel routes fit together. A person can travel from A (usually the capital) to B (the destination) but has to return to A in order to travel to C (the next destination). Alternatively, travel from B to C can only occur via D. To me, stitching together travel routes is part of the fun, but travelers short on time won’t appreciate learning that they have to leg it backward 500 kilometers in order to visit the adjoining valley.

 Many famous destinations are travel bottlenecks, especially tourist destinations without a lot of business travel. I was surprised to arrive in Bali -- as world-renowned as a destination can be -- and learn that direct international links were sparse. Ditto Chiang Mai, Thailand.

 Searching for direct air routes between Asia and South America is a minor hobby. I have found exactly one (and it requires a generous definition of “Asia”).

 The routes into and out of a developing country are often flown by the flag carrier of the former colonial power. Air France, for example, is a good bet for routes in and out of former French colonies in Africa.

 The web page Air Line Route Maps is an invaluable planning resource. The maps with lines connecting cities are priceless; the maps with only dots are nearly useless. Some airlines do not have a route map on their web site and thus are not listed.

 Here’s one I learned the hard way: The fact that an airline flies into and out of an airport regularly does not mean that the airline sells tickets at that airport. Gulf Air, for example, has several flights a day through Suvarnabhumi Airport in Thailand but a traveler can only purchase Gulf Air tickets online or at the ticket office in central Bangkok – not at the airport.

 Since the previous edition of The Practical Nomad, the biggest change in global air travel is arguably the emergence of low cost carriers (LCCs) throughout Asia and Europe. These airlines follow the Southwest Airlines model of point-to-point transportation with no freebies, no assigned seating, nothing but a cheap ticket.

And wow are some of the tickets cheap. A one-hour Tiger Airways flight from Padang, Indonesia, to Singapore can run US$42.21 one-way, while AirAsia’s three-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Manila-Clark in the Philippines can cost US$78.58 one-way.

Two LCC flights and a night at the airport hotel can cost less than a direct flight on a full-service carrier. My travel decisions were heavily influenced by the LCC routes.

 Throughout Asia, one-way tickets tended to cost half the price of round-trip tickets. What a concept! The American carriers should look into that.

Oasis Hong Kong Airlines is attempting to bring LCC travel to the long-haul market (which was unsuccessfully attempted across the Atlantic by Laker Airways in the 1970s). One-way flights from Hong Kong to London-Gatwick can be purchased for as little as US$325. The airline plans to add a Hong Kong-Oakland route, which would make Asia that much more accessible for people who live in the American West Coast (like you and I).

 Please retain the Practical Nomad chapter about airline pricing. It is the heart of the book. An understanding of the price structure and the consolidator system is a powerful tool for consumers. And it explains why it’s so hard to find a cheap ticket in Japan!

 I disagree with your advice that travelers should always have a return ticket if the destination country has an onward ticket requirement. If there is any doubt as to whether Passport Control will demand to see the onward ticket, the traveler should have one. But there are certain common destinations – e.g., China, Indonesia, the Philippines – which have a formal onward ticket requirement but do not enforce it, at least not for white travelers from Western nations.

I have come to despise the onward ticket requirement. Airlines and travel agencies use it as a revenue-enhancement tool, forcing travelers to buy a ticket they do not want and, as a matter of on-the-ground law enforcement, often do not need.

National carriers are a traveler’s ally in avoiding un-enforced onward ticket requirements. While an American carrier flying to Bangkok may demand to see an onward ticket before letting a passenger board, Thai Airways International never asked me. The national carrier knew the law was not being enforced. (Thailand began to enforce the requirement late this spring.)

 I have also come to the conclusion that, with the exception of specialists such as yourself, travel agents are generally ill-informed, self-serving and useless. On repeated occasions, travel agents have informed me that a certain ticket was the lowest price on a route, yet I found a less expensive ticket online. Once, for grins, I planned a trip to Iceland and gave the broad parameters to a travel agent; she came up with exactly the same itinerary I did but, using her secret travel agent powers, saved me US$6.

 That being said, the one time when a traveler desperately needs a travel agent is when something goes wrong at the airport, and plans have to be reworked on the spot. Yet airports rarely have a travel agency on site, and I wonder if you know why. I assume that the airport operator could print money by auctioning the right to be the only travel agency in an airport. I also assume this doesn’t happen because the airlines do not want a semi-independent person advising travelers who, the airlines believe, would otherwise blindly purchase a last-minute full-fare ticket. Is that also why airport cyber cafes tend to be airside, so you can’t use them to research a new outbound ticket . . . .

 I don’t have a problem with code sharing as long as the identity of the airline operating the plane is disclosed prior to purchase – which is not always the case outside the United States. I would be fuming if I bought a Singapore Airlines ticket and learned at the gate that the flight was operated by Garuda Indonesia (not likely).

Final Word

Despite its challenges, traveling is fun!

Very truly yours,


Knife Tricks

Labels: , , ,

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an excellent list. Even though I don't plan any long-term travel soon (much as I'd like to), it's fun to think about -- and a post like this provides lots of food for thought.

5:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Travel agents can be an excellent resource for a lot of things, but not for finding airfare. Most travel agents can not make any commission money from airfare and - as such - will never get you the best deal. However, they can be very handy with knowledge of some locales....

The problem is finding a Travel Agent who's going to give you the information once they realize there's not a lot of money to be made from it.

6:21 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home