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Edward Hasbrouck on "The Amazing Race 3"

Episode 7: Wednesday, 20 November 2002

Marrakech (Morocco) - Munich (Germany) - Innsbruck (Austria) - Füssen (Germany)


European Rail and Air Travel

The tasks for the cast of "The Amazing Race 3" this week were, for most of them, frightening: riding as passengers behind professional bobsledders on the run in Innsbruck, Austria used for the Olympics in 1964 and 1976, and being lowered 70 meters (230 feet) on a steel cable from the Seegrube station at the top of the Nordkette alpine gondola. But the "road block" and "detour" were straightforward, quickly completed, and passive, requiring no skill.

What separated the racers was their ability to figure out the best way to travel across Europe by plane (and/or train, bus, taxi, or possibly ferry) from Marrakech to Munich and on to Innsbruck.

"What's the best way to get from place to place within Europe", is a question frequently asked by first-time visitors to the region. And there are useful lessons for other travellers in the multiple mistakes that led to the elimination of Damon and Andre ("Team 911"),

Some of you no doubt have your hands raised by now to point out that Morocco is not in Europe. That's true in some ways, but not in others: most of North Africa, especially western North Africa, has much closer trade and travel links across the Mediterranean to Europe than across the Sahara to the rest of Africa. "IATA Europe", as defined by International Air Transport Association, includes not only the islands of the Mediterranean (Malta, Cyprus, etc.) but Morocco, Tunisia, and -- although no almost no tourists go there now -- Algeria. Many airfares and air passes valid "throughout Europe" actually include flights to these North African and Mediterranean destinations within IATA Europe.

(Most maps describe Europe as a "continent", but in terms of physical geography it would be much more accurate to call it a subcontinent of Eurasia. South Asia -- the so-called "Indian subcontinent" -- has a much stronger claim, geologically and otherwise, to be a separate continent from Eurasia than does Europe. But I digress.)

Damon and Andre are both from Southern California (Long Beach and Los Angeles respectively), so perhaps it's understandable that they did poorly at dealing with mass transportation. On the other hand, perhaps that's no longer an excuse: there are now subway lines serving both Long Beach and Los Angeles.

The day the Angelenos were eliminated, I was in L.A. giving travel talks and reporting on a conference of Internet travel executives. I was probably the only attendee to arrive by subway, but I made it from my hotel on Wilshire Boulevard near downtown to the conference site in Hollywood on a clean, comfortable train, with frequent service, in about half the time it would have taken me to drive in rush-hour traffic. There's free shuttle bus service from L.A. International Airport (LAX) to one of the subway lines, and another line runs to Long Beach, although unfortunately not (yet) to the new West Coast hub for JetBlue Airlines that I flew in and out of at Long Beach Municipal Airport (LGB).

So where (to return to the travel lessons of the race) did Andre and Damon go wrong? In they end, they slept through the stop in Innsbruck where they should have gotten off the train from Munich. By that time, however, their fate was already sealed by their errors and omissions in arranging the longer trip from Marrakech to Munich.

First, they waited until the last minute to make their airline reservations. True, the racers didn't know where they would be going next, or when. But Morocco is the end of a spoke, not a hub, in most airline route systems. To fly from Morocco to almost anywhere else you have to connect through somewhere in Western Europe. You don't have to buy a ticket to make reservations (except on a few of the newer low-cost airlines like JetBlue). In such a situation, the racers had nothing to lose by making reservations from each "pit stop" in Morocco to be sure they'd be able to fly out to somewhere in Europe the next day.

Most travelers can't afford to buy full fare tickets at the last minute, but many cheap consolidator tickets (unlike most discounted tickets purchased directly from the airlines) are issued at full-fare face value, and allow date changes at no charge if space is available. The lesson for travelers who aren't in a race is that you have a better chance of getting a flight on the date that you want if you make reservations as far in advance is possible.

It's better to have some reservations (as long as you can change them at no charge), than to have "open" tickets with no reservations and no guarantee that any seats will be available when you want to fly. On many routes, even if (like the racers) you are able to pay any price, all flights can be booked for days or even weeks at a time. At that's becoming true for more and more routes as money-losing airlines reduce their schedules and capacity. With freely changeable tickets and confirmed reservations, you have the best of both worlds.

Second, Damon and Andre (like all the other teams) went directly to the airlines, instead of going to a travel agency, to find out which airlines had flights and seats available. The computerized reservations systems (CRS's) used by travel agencies worldwide (even in third-world countries like Moroccco) don't necessarily list the lowest prices -- they only show the official fares published by the airlines, and for lower prices travel agents need to consult separate sources of discounted consolidator prices. But the racers are more like business travellers, for whom schedule and speed, not price, are the critical factors. And CRS's are optimized for schedule rather than price prioritization. In the hands of a skilled travel agent, a CRS is by far the best tool for quickly searching for schedules and availability on multiple airlines (some of the best connections would have involved flights on multiple airlines, which individual airlines will rarely point out to customers), especially if you don't know which airlines to start with.

By the time the other teams of racers could make the rounds of ticket counters at the airport, any of the teams that had chosen to go to a travel agency would have already reserved the last seats on the first available flights to Munich. And even for the later teams, or if more than one team had gone to a travel agency, an agency can generally do more than an unaided passenger to get them confirmed from a waiting list, as was necessary for some of the teams when coach seats couldn't immediately be confirmed.

Third, it appears (we can't be sure from the editing of the TV show, of course) that Team 911 only asked about availability of seats in the coach/economy cabin, not availability of seats at any coach fare. The rules of the race, however, are that the producers will pay for airline tickets, over and above the cash the racers receive at the start of each leg, at any coach fare -- including coach fares that qualify for business-class travel.

It's usually a waste of time, for all concerned, for anyone except a very frequent flyer to ask for a free upgrade from a heavily discounted fare. But the racers were paying the full one-way fare of US$663 (at the current exchange rate), plus tax, from Casablanca to Munich. Already this season, some teams have travelled in business class on "pay full coach fare, travel in business class" upgrade promotions. This week, once again, some of the teams were upgraded when airline ticket agents suggested it as a possibility. None of them, have yet figured out, apparently, the distinction between the fare and the cabin, or made it standard practice to ask about upgrades. This proved decisive in this episode, when no coach seats were available on most of the (few) flights from Morocco to Munich that day, but business class seats were available.

As it happens, there is no one-way coach fare on most routes within IATA Europe. There are discounted round-trip fares, but the lowest one-way fare is usually the business class fare. So any of the teams that thought to ask could have travelled in any available business class seat on any of the flights they took, or any other airlines between those cities. (If they didn't realize this, a travel agent would have been more likely to point this out than would an airline ticket agent.)

Fourth, they spent the night in the airport in Paris when they couldn't get a connecting flight on to Munich the same night their flight arrived from Casablanca.

What else could they have done? They could have taken an overnight train, and they would probably have gotten to the next route marker in downtown Munich sooner than they did by taking the first flight from Paris to Munich the next morning.

Sometimes the racers have been required to use a particular mode of transport, but Team 911 had already taken a taxi for the first part of the journey, from Marrakech to Morocco's main international airport in Casablanca. So obviously they didn't think they were restricted to flights. And they had received US$500 on the previous leg, with little opportunity to spend it. So they should have been able to afford the train fare of approximately US$119 per person second class (plus reservation charges). No, it would seem that it just didn't occur to them to consider a train for a journey of 428 air miles (576 km) or 576 rail miles (927 km).

The bottom line is that -- with few discounted one-way fares, sometimes no coach one-way fare at all, and frequent fast train service -- it's generally easier, cheaper, and sometimes (as in this case) faster, especially from downtown to downtown, to take trains rather than fly on most routes within Europe. The exceptions are those routes served by low-cost intra-European airlines like easyJet, Ryanair, and Virgin Express, or the other less-known airlines marketed outside Europe by EuropeByAir.com. These are growing as rapidly, and profitably, as their counterparts like American Trans Air (ATA), JetBlue, and Southwest in the USA. But none of them yet serves Morocco, so far as I know.

If they stop in Europe, around-the-world travellers generally fly into one end of the continent, and out of the other, and travel in between by surface transportation, mostly by train.

How would they know what's possible? What routes do the trains follow? How often do they run? How long do they take to get there? Maplink's "Rail Map of Europe" (Maplink code "ML EUR RAIL", ISBN 0929591704), which belongs in the luggage of every team in "The Amazing Race", shows all of this on a single information-dense sheet: main and secondary rail lines, summer and winter train and ferry frequencies, approximate departure times, and trip durations. If I were in the race, or travelling by rail around Europe, I'd also carry the Reise und Verkehrverlag "Europe Railway Map" (also distributed by Maplink, code "RV EUR RAIL", ISBN 0841608326). It lacks any of the train frequency or travel time information, but gives much more detail and extends substantially further east and south to the former USSR, Asian Turkey, and the entire coast of the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. If you are planning from home, or in a cybercafe, Rail Europe has an online database of point-to-point timetables (for direct trains only; you have to figure out possible connection points on your own from a map) and prices (especially useful in comparing the prices of Eurail passes with point-to-point ticket). Finally, my fellow Avalon Travel Publishing author (and PBS television European travel show host) Rick Steves has an excellent online guide to choosing and using European rail passes and other aspects of European rail travel.

Enjoy the ride!

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