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The Amazing Race 1, Episode 12 (5 December 2001)

Beijing (China) - Juyong Pass (China) - Anchorage, AK (USA) - Trapper Creek, AK (USA) - Matanuska Glacier, AK (USA) - Denali State Park, AK(USA)

“We gotta get to Alaska!”

The unsung hero of this week’s episode of “The Amazing Race” was the airline none of the contestants chose to take: Korean Air.

The around-the-world reality-TV show has spent an awful lot of time on airplanes and in airports. That’s reality: if you want to go around the world in 30 days, like the racers, you’ll probably lose about half of those days to travel, even if you make relatively few stops. If you’re not in a race, and don’t want to spend every second or third day on a plane, I recommend a minimum of two months or so for an enjoyable trip around the world. If you only have a month, stick to at most one region or large country.

Much of the drama in the race — including a shoving match at the boarding gate that the participants are still arguing about weeks later — has come in trying to arrange flights.

Flight schedules, more than anything else, have also been the bottlenecks that enable trailing teams to catch up while the leaders are forced to wait. That too is typical of reality: long-haul international flight schedules are much less frequent than travellers are used to within, say, North America or Western Europe.

In most of the world, only the more popular transcontinental and transoceanic flights operate as often as daily. Many flights, and on some significant routes the only flights, operate as infrequently as once a week. “What day(s) of the week does this airline fly between these cities?” is usually a more appropriate question than, “What times are your flights on such-and-such a day?”

Given the amount of time that it would have meant, and where it fell in the race, the choice of flights from Beijing to Anchorage will prove to have been the most important decision — and blunder — in the entire race, for all three of the teams that are left.

At least twice before in the race, alternate flights have offered substantially different total journey times. In the first episode, the teams that didn’t get on the nonstop flight from New York to Africa spent an extra 12 hours or so connecting through Europe. From Italy to India, all the teams overlooked a chance to gain several hours on the pack by connecting through West Asia instead of Northern Europe.

In this leg, all three teams chose to take the same flights (Joe and Bill a full day behind) from Beijing to Anchorage via San Francisco and Seattle. They all arrived in Trapper Creek, two hours drive from Anchorage, too late for their next required activity.

I’ve been on Air China between San Francisco and China. The flight is nonstop to the USA, and passes over Alaska on the great circle route — and then continues on for another six hours to San Francisco. None of the racers seemed to think about how far beyond their destination this route would take them, or whether there might be a faster way to go.

Korean Air flies nonstop from Seoul to Anchorage. Appropriately for the racers, it’s a stop en route to New York City. Many flights between Asia and the East Coast of North America used to stop in Anchorage for refueling, just as many flights to the West Coast used to stop in Honolulu. Longer range planes have eliminated most of these flights, and these days it can be fairly costly to add a stopover in Alaska or Hawaii. But Korean Air has kept the Anchorage stop, with the right to carry passengers to and from Asia, on a few of its New York flights.

Any of the racers who figured out this option could have left Beijing within minutes of the San Francisco nonstop, connected in Seoul, and (after crossing the International Date Line) arrived in Anchorage the same morning, twelve hours ahead of those who continued on to San Francisco and then had to double back north to Alaska. Since they wouldn’t have had to spend the night before being able to start their tasks in Alaska, they would effectively have gained almost 24 hours on the other teams.

Realizing that getting on an earlier trans-Pacific flight might be decisive in the race, Brennan and Rob spent the equivalent of US$80 on a cab straight to Beijing airport from the Great Wall. But an hour’s detour to a cybercafe, where they could research airline schedules, might have saved them 12 hours of unnecessary flying time. And they might have been better off spending their money on a consultation with a travel agent independent of any airline, even if they couldn’t find one in Beijing and had to make an international call to the USA.

For Rob and Brennan, or for Margarita and Frank, connecting via Seoul instead of via San Francisco would have meant a full day’s lead on everyone else going into the final leg. Unless they blundered on the homestretch, that would almost certainly have clinched them the million dollar grand prize.

Bill and Joe (“Team Guido”) started this leg of the race almost exactly 24 hours behind the other two remaining teams. Getting on the Korean Air flights was probably their last chance to get back in the race: it would have gotten them within about two hours of the other teams. They’ll have to hope for a similar opportunity in the final leg, though that seems unlikely with the greater frequency of flights within the USA.

So why, with so much at stake, didn’t any of these three remaining teams — presumably the savviest travellers of the original cast of the show — figure this out?

Each of the teams made the same typical mistakes. Let these be your lessons for the week in finding the flights that best suit your needs:

  1. Don’t assume you know every possible way to get from A to B.

    Even to the professionals, neither the optimum airline nor the optimum routing is always obvious. Travel agents who book flights between A and B every day still rely on computerized tools and printed maps and timetables to supplement their mental maps of airline routes.
  2. Don’t believe the airlines.

    They are not impartial, and they are not your friends. Asking the airlines how much they want for a ticket is like asking the IRS how much tax they want you to pay: You’ll get an answer, but it’s unlikely to be the answer that’s in your best interest. When the racers asked Air China, “Is this the fastest way to Alaska?”, did you expect the clerk to say, “You’ll get where you’re going half a day sooner, for half the price, if you take your business over there to our competitor instead of to us”? Of course not. Such is the progress of capitalism in China that they said without hesitation, “This is the fastest way,” and tried to talk the racers into paying for business class. Even business class via Seoul would have been cheaper than full coach via San Francisco, although the racers didn’t really care since the producers were willing to pay the full coach fare.
  3. Don’t assume that the first option you are offered is the only possibility. Shop around.

    Airline alliances advertise that their “partners” can get you anywhere in the world. (Eventually, on some route or other, by way of their partners’ hubs.) Every Internet travel service advertises that it is “the only travel site you’ll ever need.” (If you don’t care about the price or advice.) Don’t believe it. No single source — online or offline — has access to the entire universe of flights and fares. As I discuss in “The Practical Nomad Guide to the Internet Travel Marketplace”, the Internet makes comparison shopping easier, but it also makes it more essential. The alternatives may be more expensive, or less convenient, or nor fit your schedule — but there are always alternatives. If someone tries to tell you, “This is the only way,” take it as sign that you should go elsewhere.
  4. Patience pays. Panic has a high price.

    Making plans more slowly and carefully often enables you — as it could have enabled the racers in this episode — to get to your destination sooner and cheaper than rushing around throwing money at the problem. When you need to do things in a hurry, the first thing to remind yourself is, “Slow down.”

One way or another, “The Amazing Race” will make its way from Alaska back to New York City in next week’s episode. Check your local listings for the day and time. The finale of “The Amazing Race” is currently scheduled for Thursday (immediately after “Survivor”), instead of Wednesday, but TV networks reserve the right to change schedules at any time.

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"Don't believe anything just because you read it on the Internet. Anyone can say anything on the Internet, and they do. The Internet is the most effective medium in history for the rapid global propagation of rumor, myth, and false information." (From The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace, 2001)

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