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The Amazing Race 3, Episode 4 (23 October 2002)

Stonehaven, Scotland (U.K.) - Porto (Portugal) - Lisbon (Portugal)

Ian: “How do we get to Portugal?”
Teri: “We have to fly!”

Sorry to disappoint those who hoped that the order of finish of the teams on “The Amazing Race” would depend on something other than which teams took which flights: Once again in this week’s episode, the deciding factor in who was or wasn’t eliminated — even on a short leg, entirely within Europe — was the racers’ skill (or lack thereof) in choosing which flights to take from Scotland to Portugal.

On the surface, the reason Harvard Law School roommates Eve and Heather were eliminated was that, despite finishing first, they were penalized 37 minutes for disregarding the instructions the racers were given to walk from the site of the final task to the finish line for this episode. Instead, they took a taxi. Didn’t anyone at Harvard Law teach them the importance of reading the governing rules and definitions carefully, before deciding on a strategy and course of action?

But at the end of the day, as host Phil Keoghan noted while informing Heather and Eve of their penalty and elimination, 37 minutes wouldn’t be expected to make the difference between first place and last. The only reason the racers were bunched so closely together was that all the teams chose one or the other of two flight routes, with seven of the nine teams choosing the exact same flights.

Throughout “The Amazing Race”, the tasks the racers have been required to complete have been photogenic (the “race” is made for TV, after all), but actually quite brief. Rarely have any of the “road blocks” or “detours” taken more than an hour. Choices of flights, routes, and connections have several times made differences of 12 hours or more in when teams arrived at their destinations.

This week, any of the teams could have arrived at least three or four hours ahead of all the rest (far enough that a penalty like that to Eve and Heather wouldn’t have changed the order of finish), if they hadn’t all made the same mistake in choosing less than optimal flights from Aberdeen to Porto through London’s Heathrow Airport.

Yes, Heathrow is the world’s busiest international airport and pre-eminent intercontinental air hub. But that doesn’t mean that the best way to get from anywhere to anywhere is first to fly yourself to London, and then to figure out the rest from there.

Yet the racers were all so confident in their presumption that all roads lead to London, and that Heathrow is the only major London airport, that several teams ignored clear indications to the contrary, and easy opportunities to discover and correct their mistake.

When Kathy and Michael asked a local for information about getting to the airport, he not only lent them his mobile phone to call for reservations but pointed out that “Aberdeen [Airport] goes international”, i.e. has direct international flights as well as domestic flights to other cities in the U.K. They ignored him, booked a flight from Aberdeen to London Heathrow, and only from London started looking for flights to Porto.

Similarly, Jill and John Vito, who got a pub owner to let them into his apartment and use his computer to search for flights, are shown in a video clip on the CBS Web site searching for flights from Aberdeen to … London Heathrow.

Had they taken the few extra seconds, while they were on the Internet, to ask about connections from Aberdeen to Porto, even the limited options shown by would have included those via nonstop flights from Aberdeen to Amsterdam, Paris, or London’s only slightly less well-known Gatwick Airport (actually the world’s sixth busiest international airport, with more intra-European flights than Heathrow), rather than London Heathrow. Any of those routes would have gotten them to Porto three or four hours ahead of those who went through Heathrow. Even the two teams who took an alternate route did so only after staying with the rest of the pack as far as Heathrow, and thus missed all the best routes.

The bottom line for future contestants on “The Amazing Race” (applications are already being accepted through the Web site for The Amazing Race 4) is that the skill and strategy most likely to make a difference in the race for a million dollars is finding flights and air routes. That’s been true in every season, making it somewhat surprising that none of the teams this time around seems to have practiced or prepared for the one key challenge — dealing with flight arrangements — that they knew they would face throughout the race.

But what are the lessons in this for us ordinary travellers?

  1. It’s generally best to ask about flights for your entire journey, rather than making reservations separately for each portion. If you try to break up your tickets, you run a substantial risk of missing out on better possibilities via alternate connection points that you hadn’t considered. Actually flying to an intermediate point, and then trying to arrange the rest of your flights to your actual destination, is usually the worst strategy of all.
  2. The biggest air hubs aren’t always the best. All else being equal, they’re often the worst places to change planes, since they tend to be larger, often with multiple terminals, and thus with much farther to go between gates for connecting flights. Minimum connecting times specified by the airlines are almost invariably shortest for the smallest airports. And the risk that your checked baggage will be mis-routed in transit is less at a smaller airport. In general, being routed through a smaller airport or city, even one you’ve never heard of, should be seen as a positive thing.
  3. The explosion of airline capacity around the world in the last decade has included a parallel explosion in the number of direct flights between secondary cities and airports. These days it’s a relatively rare country that doesn’t have direct international flights to more than just the capital or largest city. You don’t have to go through London to get to Aberdeen any more than you have to go through Lisbon to get to Porto — or, for that matter, through New York to get to Phoenix. There are many more international gateways like Aberdeen, and direct flights between provincial cities in different countries, than most people realize. While “The Amazing Race 3” was being filmed, for example, KLM not only added a fourth daily nonstop flight in each direction between Aberdeen and Amsterdam but also added daily nonstop service between Aberdeen and Stavanger, Norway, to serve the profitable business traffic between these two centers of the North Sea oil industry. You can’t count on such frequent or direct flights — some desirable flights don’t exist at all, or only operate once a week — but if you don’t ask for what you really want, you’ll never find out if it would have been possible.

Most of us aren’t in a race, of course, and don’t need or want to go as fast as possible. Perhaps the smartest thing Eve or Heather had to say throughout the race, at least on camera, was what Heather said after they were eliminated: “I plan to do a lot more travelling, definitely. Hopefully at a much slower pace, so I can actually stop and enjoy things.”

When we slow down and take time to look, listen, and learn, there are even more advantages to arriving in a new country through smaller airports and cities. My fellow Avalon Travel Publishing author Rick Steves calls these less obvious entry points “back doors”, and highlights them as keys to a more genuine encounter with the place and the people we came to experience. Pico Iyer, coming to a similar conclusion from a different direction, devotes a large portion of his wonderfully perceptive The Global Soul to the globally homogenized culture of international airports: the sorts of places where, once we are in them, we can’t even tell what continent we’re on.

I always try to enter a country or region somewhere other than the capital or largest city or airport, if it doesn’t cost too much more. I’ve never regretted it. Far easier to enter Japan in, say, Fukuoka — a major international airport, with excellent surface transportation connections, but where an arriving American tourist is, per se, sufficiently unusual to be an object of friendly curiosity — than in Tokyo. Just as I’d recommend that a first-time visitor exploring the Northeastern USA arrive at Boston’s Logan Airport or Washington’s Dulles rather than New York City’s JFK. Don’t get me wrong: New York’s a wonderful place to visit, and far less difficult to get around than many newcomers fear. But it’s a lot easier to cope with, and to appreciate, once you have some perspective and experience of travel in “provincial” USA.

It’s not just the size of the place, but what sort of travellers go there: some huge international airports like São Paolo, Brazil, are rarely used by tourists, while some very small ones like Siem Reap, Cambodia, are almost exclusively tourist gateways. With a little luck, though, if you enter a new land through a sufficiently untouristed back door, you can avoid ever being on the tourist track, unless you want to be. Let’s hope that this season of “The Amazing Race”, and your future travels, take you through more of these back doors, into places that you didn’t know existed and where insensitive tourists haven’t yet worn out the instinctive welcome that human nature extends to the stranger.

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