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The Amazing Race 2, Episode 9 (1 May 2002)

Breakaways National Park (Australia) - Glendambo (Australia) - Coober Pedy (Australia) - Adelaide (Australia) - Queenstown (New Zealand) - Inverary Station (New Zealand)

“Can I please have a new travel partner?”

As is so often the case on real trips, a lot of things that seemed important when they happened on this week’s episode of “The Amazing Race 2” ended up being quite insignificant at the end of the day, when the racers got to the finish line on a sheep “station” (ranch) near Christchurch — and not just because no one was eliminated this week.

Tara’s outburst notwithstanding, separated couple Tara and Wil didn’t come to blows on this week’s episode of “The Amazing Race 2” on CBS-TV. Nor did Wil quit the race, although he threatened to. But that shouldn’t be such a surprise: in the first season of “The Amazing Race” a separated, sometimes feuding, couple finished second. What’s truly amazing is how often traveling companions are able make up, and how often travellers who feel unable to go on are revived, after the briefest rest or bit of distraction. Nothing like New Zealand’s highest bungee jump (more than 400 feet high, starting from a platform suspended from a cable over the middle of a gorge) to take your mind off whatever else you were worried about! And nothing like an arm-in-arm tandem jump, I suppose, for a partnership bonding experience.

Not much actually happened to separate the racers this week: it was a complicated, but relatively straightforward, journey to the other side of the Tasman Sea by “road train” (tractor and multiple trailers), jeep, plane, and jeep again. Most of the teams made the same choices, unsurprisingly: you’re in a race for a million dollars, and you can either hike down into a canyon or bungee-jump down. What would you do? Is there really a choice, with a carrot that large?

All the racers took the minimum number of flights — four — to get from Coober Pedy to Queenstown, and most of the teams ended up on exactly the same connecting flights. There are relatively few flights each day from New Zealand back to North America, so it’s highly likely that the final three teams will all be on the same flight, and the race will be decided on the sprint (in paid-product-placement Ford “Explorer” SUV’s) to the start/finish line in the Nevada desert.

Other than the possibility that Wil would give up on Tara and the race (most viewers would probably be happy if he did, judging from Wil and Tara’s spectacularly low standing in the viewer popularity poll on the CBS Web site), the incident on this leg that appeared to have the most potential to separate the teams was Paige and Blake’s successful attempt to sneak their luggage onto one of the flights, while the rest of the racers were required by the airline to check their bags.

There’s good reason, I think, for limits on carry-on baggage. Bags falling from the overhead bins are the leading cause of in-flight injury to passengers and flight crews alike. No wonder flight attendants get mad at people who try to squeeze things that are too big or too easy in the overhead bins: they spend their every working hour with the suitcases of Damocles poised to fall on their heads.

Not everyone agrees. For as long as I’ve been flying, there have been those travellers who try to check as much of their luggage as possible, and those who try to carry it all on. The gulf between these factions has only widened since 11 September 2001.

From my perspective as a partisan in the checked-baggage camp, Blake and Paige got what they deserved: they had to lie to get their bags on the plane when they exceeded the carry-on limit, they angered the rest of the passengers (and the flight attendants) by doing so, and even if the other teams hadn’t united (with the cooperation of the flight attendants) to blockade the door to the plane and keep them from getting off until the checked baggage was unloaded, they would only have gained a few minutes.

Even before September 11th, the time lost in having your bag inspected in order to carry it on was often greater than the time gained in not having to claim it on arrival. And I’m much more likely to be in a hurry when I arrive at the airport, and not have time to wait for my carry-on bag to be inspected (I rarely seem to get there as early as I intend) than to be in a such a hurry to get out of the airport that I can’t afford to wait to claim a checked bag. And in most of the world, the limits for checked and carry-on baggage are substantially smaller than in the USA — sometimes as little as 5 kg (11 lbs.) of carry-on baggage per person.

Since September 11th, of course, it’s not even a choice for most people on flights within the USA: if you want to bring nail clippers, a pocket knife, knitting needles, or any of a long list of common items with you, you have to plan on checking luggage. And if you’re going to have to claim luggage anyway when you arrive, why not check as much of your stuff as possible? That minimizes the amount you have to carry around during your hours in the airport, and the amount you risk having fall on the heads of your fellow travellers.

Don’t you risk losing your belongings if you entrust them to the airline? That depends on what’s in your luggage, and on what happens to it. Most “lost” bags are merely misplaced, and turn up within a few days. I think professional baggage handlers are less likely to lose my luggage than I am to lose it (or let it be stolen). But some checked luggage really does get lost, usually because it wasn’t adequately tagged and labeled, and the tags got torn off. I wouldn’t put anything irreplaceable in my checked luggage, but I wouldn’t bring anything irreplaceable on a trip if I could help it. I can’t recommend having your bags misplaced as shock treatment for overpacking, but my compnaion who had to make do without her pack for four days recently says she found it a useful experience, and not nearly as difficult as she thought it would be. On the other hand, my artist friend who recently lost several months of work when his checked luggage disappeared on the way home from a printmaking workshop has decided, wisely I think, that in the future he’ll ship his artwork separately — insured.

May your bungee cords not be too long, your bags not be too heavy, and the bins above your head stay closed!

P.S. I’ll be a guest on Working Assets Radio today (Thursday, 2 May 2002), discussing “Travel since September 11th, 2001”. Tune in from 10-11 a.m. PDT, 1-2 p.m. EDT, 18:00-19:00 GMT, on the air in San Francisco on KALW public radio, 91.7 FM, or with streaming audio from wherever you are in the world. If you have questions, you can call them in during the broadcast at 866-798-TALK (toll free in the USA) or +1-415-841-4134.

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