Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Amazing Race 19, Episode 2

Taipei, Taiwan (Republic of China) - Jakarta (Indonesia) - Yogyakarta (Indonesia)

Getting from Taipei, Taiwan, to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, presented a potentially more interesting challenge for the cast of The Amazing Race 19 than anything the teams of travellers had to do once they got to Jogja.

Yogyakarta is a substantial but secondary city of 1-2 million people near the middle of the east-west length of the island of Java, roughly equidistant from the larger metropolitan areas of Surabaya to the east (approx. 5 million people) and Jakarta to the west (about 10 million in the city proper and well over 20 million in the urban area).

As in many countries, even large ones like Indonesia with both extensive international and extensive domestic (internal) airline services, there are very few connection points between those domestic and international routes.

I'm unusual in having enjoyed my visit to Jakarta despite the vast scale, crowding, poverty, traffic, and smog. Many tourists visiting Indonesia have been warned to avoid the capital. But most visitors (except those taking direct international flights to Denpasar airport on the island of Bali) pass through Jakarta at least to change planes, trains, or buses, or to connect between them.

The typical question for anyone destined for a secondary city like Yogyakarta is whether to:

  1. Try to find and connect somehow to one of the few direct international flights that land there;
  2. Fly into the capital or main air hub (in Indonesia, that means Jakarta or sometimes Denpasar) and connect there to a domestic flight; or
  3. Fly into the capital or some other air hub that also has good long-distance surface transport service, and transfer somehow to an inter-city train or bus to your final destination.

Each option has its own pros and cons. And as in Europe -- where I've discussed these problems before and am encountering them in planning my next European trip for later this month (more on that in a future column) -- it can be much more difficult than it ought to be to get accurate information about what possibilities exist, what they cost, or how long they take.

For the racers this week, the problem was solved by their being required by their instructions from the producers of the TV show to fly to Jakarta and then make their way by train to Yogyakarta. But what if their race "clue" had left them a choice? What if you need to get to such a place? Was this the best alternative? And how would you figure that out?

Direct international flights to the provinces are sometimes a better choice than you might think, depending mainly on schedule and price. The main problem is finding and pricing them. Direct international flights to secondary, less congested, less competitive airports are just the sort of flights that are more likely to be operated by low-fare airlines that aren't shown in typical airline ticket "search" Web sites and may operate from less well-known hubs. Even with major international airlines, which one serves a particular provincial city, and from which hub, often isn't intuitively obvious.

In this week's example, the most extensive network of international flights to provincial cities in Indonesia, especially on Java (including Yogyakarta) is on Malaysia-based Air Asia. But they have no interline agreements with other airlines and don't participate in any of the major computerized reservation systems. So you'll never see through connections or prices involving them and other airlines in response to a single flight search. And you might not think to look manually for connections through their hub in Kuala Lumpur, rather than through better-known regional hubs like Singapore.

Once again as I've discussed previously in Europe, useful but inherently incomplete and unreliable (and except for AirlineRouteMaps.com, Eurocentric in emphasis) secondary-source tools for finding potentially useful "low-cost" airline routes include:

In Asia as in Europe, connecting in the capital or national air hub between an international flight and some mode of long-distance ground transport is often both the best choice and the most difficult to plan. As when I wrote about this last, it's still the case that no Web site offers through schedule or price information for connections between flights and inter-city trains or buses, except when the particular trains or buses also carry airline code-share "flight" numbers (and thus are listed in airline reservation systems).

Typically, the difficulties with the choice of inter-modal connections lie in (1) finding and pricing long-distance trains and buses from abroad, in English, and (2) figuring out how to connect between the airport and the train or bus station, if the trains or buses don't leave directly from the airport.

It's usually fairly easy to find out if there's a mainline train station at the airport (increasingly common throughout the world), but harder to tell if there are direct inter-city buses from the airport. These are sometimes more expensive buses than those that leave from other downtown bus terminals, but often well worth the price for bus ticket counters at the airport accustomed to dealing with foreigners and routes that avoid downtown traffic.

In the USA, for example, there are inter-city buses from O'Hare Airport to cities like Rockford and Milwaukee, and from Logan Airport to destinations throughout northern New England, without the need to go through the downtown bus stations in Chicago or Boston. In England, there is an extensive networks of direct buses, some of which I've taken, between provincial cities and Heathrow Airport.

Had they not been required by the TV producers to transfer to a train, the racers could have gotten direct buses from the Jakarta airport to Yogyakarta. It probably would have been faster, although less comfortable than the overnight sleeper train.

As I did when I was merely passing through Jakarta without a stopover, the racers took the air-conditioned luxury "tourist" bus from the Jakarta airport to Gambir Station downtown.

Unlike, say, Indian center-city train stations that serve everyone from those travelling in air-conditioned first-class sleeping-car compartments on the fastest expresses to those travelling third class in open cars on local trains that stop at every village, Gambir serves only the "Business" and "Executive" classes of long-distance trains.

With comfortable express trains leaving every hour, you can get at least as far from Gambir as Bandung, to spend your first night over a ridge and out of the Jakarta smog bowl, even if your flight arrives in Jakarta relatively late in the day, or spend the night in Bandung and still make it to a flight out of Jakarta the next day.

A good guidebook, or British railfan Mark Smith's Seat61.com, is usually the best source of information on what terms like this mean in a particular country, and what the onboard accommodations on a particular class of train are typically like. Unlike airliners, which almost anywhere in the world are standardized products of the same handful of manufacturers (Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, Embraer, Ilyushin, Tupolev, etc.), railroad accommodations as well as nomenclature are more varied and often more finely graded.

There is no standard setup or terminology. In Indonesia, for example, "Business" is the middle of three classes of seating and train, below "Executive" and above "Economy". In Austria, Business class is the most luxurious of three possible classes of seating, above both 1st and 2nd class and requiring payment of a supplement of 15 Euros per person in addition to a 1st-class ticket.

Enough about getting there. I'll talk more about the choice of Indonesia as a destination next week, when the race continues.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 2 October 2011, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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