Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Amazing Race 30, Episode 8

Chiang Mai (Thailand) - Hong Kong SAR (China) - San Francisco, CA (USA)

Comments to the U.S. DOT on airline deregulation

I was on an overnight flight to Europe on an airline that doesn't have live TV available as part of its in-flight entertainment when this episode of The Amazing Race 30 was first broadcast. CBS tries to block streaming from its Web site to IP addresses outside the U.S. So I won't be able to watch this episode until I get back to the USA.

But there are more important things for world travellers to think about this week. As this season of "reality" television travel makes its way to the finish line with a final series of long-haul flights, it's a good time for travellers to turn their attention to real-world developments in U.S. government policy that could significantly affect air travel in the future.

As I've noted before, deregulation of private businesses, including airlines, is a high priority for President Trump as a business person and the former owner of a (failed and bankrupt) airline. So is repeal or nonenforcement of antitrust laws.

Whatever you think of deregulation in general, the combination of deregulation, government-tolerated oligopoly, and government subsidies and grants of special privileges is a recipe for windfall profits to the owners of major airlines, and higher air travel costs to taxpayers and consumers alike.

Businesses that accept government subsidies and special privileges must accept the obligation to serve the public, enforced by government oversight. For an airline, like any other transportation company, those obligations take the form of the legal duty to operate as a "common carrier". This is one of the conditions for the issuance of an operating permit.

The Trump Administration signaled its attitude toward airline consumer protection when it aborted its review of airline truth-in-advertsing rules in late 2017. According to a report by Scott McCartney in the Wall Street Journal, "The agency has also signaled to airlines [that] enforcement is changing by inviting suggestions on rules to quash."

Airlines got the message, and seized their next chance to propose a sweeping rollback of Federal regulations protecting air travellers. When the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a routine request for comments on its regulatory agenda, airlines and their U.S. and international trade associations responded with an astonishingly brazen "wish list" of consumer protection rules they want repealed, including some of the most basic elements of what it means to be licensed as a common carrier: non-discriminatory adherence to a published tariff of fares offered equally to all would-be passengers:

Numerous individual airlines endorsed these calls for deregulation, and added their own pet peeves at having even minimal obligations to treat consumers and air travellers fairly.

I've joined a coalition of leading airline consumer advocacy oerganizationas and individuals led by Travelers United who submitted a response to the DOT.

Given the length and breadth of the airlines' wish list for "freedom" to defraud, discriminate against, and mistreat travellers, it was impossible for consumer advocates to respond immediately or in detail to all of their proposals. But our submission to the DOT provides an overview of why continued and enhanced Federal regulations, and enforcement of those regulations, are essential to protect consumers and travellers and ensure that airlines continue to justify their use of public resources by serving the public as common carriers.

Some of the airlines' proposals, such as their long-standing desire to replace publicly-disclosed tariffs of ticket prices with personalized pricing, go beyond the DOT's regulatory authority and would require changes by Congress to Federal laws.

As of now, this is all just preliminary jockeying for position. The DOT has not (yet) agreed to include any of the airlines' requests in its regulatory agenda. The real battles will be have to be fought rule by rule in the months and years to come, if and when the DOT opens "rulemaking" proceedings for piecemeal or wholesale repeal of its current, already inadequate and largely unenforced, framework of consumer protection rules. And if the DOT sells out to the airlines, we'll have to take this fight to Congress.

Airline passengers are a relatively wealthy and privileged class of consumers, not the most needy. This isn't, in itself, the most important of current consumer issues. But common carrier laws are some of the oldest and most basic consumer protection laws. Whether they survive the Trump Administration is likely to set an important precedent for the future of consumer protection regulations in other industries.

Link | Posted by Edward, 21 February 2018, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, 16 February 2018

Public hearing and written comments on draft registration

Podcast (35 min.): The Future of Draft Registration in the U.S.

For the first time in decades, a Federal commission is holding open-mike public hearings throughout the USA (starting next Friday, 23 February 2018, in Harrisburg, PA) and taking written testimony (through 19 April 2018, Patriots' Day) on whether draft registration should be ended or extended to women as well as men; whether there should be a draft of people with medical or other special skills regardless of age or gender; whether a draft would be "feasible" (it wouldn't, because so many people haven't registered with the Selective Service System, have moved without notifying the SSS, and/or would resist if drafted); and related issues.

Despite some problems, this is by far your best and most open opportunity in decades to tell the Federal government to end draft registration.

Continue reading "Public hearing and written comments on draft registration"
Link | Posted by Edward, 16 February 2018, 20:26 ( 8:26 PM) | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The Amazing Race 30, Episode 7

Harare (Zimbabwe) - Manama (Bahrain) - Chiang Mai (Thailand)

This week The Amazing Race passed through Bahrain. Bahrain is a small desert island city-state, but the teams of travellers faced unexpected difficulties finding their way around, both driving and on foot. I've had some of these same problems finding my way around in places like this, and have written about them when previous seasons of The Amazing Race have passed through similar nearby countries.

What was new, as the voiceover narration pointed out, was that this was the first time The Amazing Race had visited Bahrain, despite multiple previous visits to other countries of the Arabian peninsula and the Arabian/Persian Gulf: the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait.

That's typical, as is the fact that the racers flew in and out of Bahrain via Dubai even though there are direct flights from Addis Ababa (the foremost African air hub) to Bahrain, and Bahrain to Bangkok, which would have spared the racers a change of planes on each leg. Today, Bahrain is both less visited by tourists from outside the region and less well-known as an air transport hub than several of its neighbors. Despite the glitzy technopolitan skyline that provided the backdrop to this TV episode, the reality is that Bahrain is playing catchup to its neighbors for airline transit traffic and destination or stopover tourism.

It hasn't always been that way.

Bahrain was the first international airport in the region and an important refueling stop between Europe and India as early as the 1930s, and grew in facilities and importance as a military transport hub during World War II.

The story of post-World War II civil avation in the Gult and the founding in Bahrain in 1950 of the airline that eventually became Gulf Air is told in fictionalized form (and with an overlay of pure fantasy) in Nevil Shute's best-selling 1951 novel, Round the Bend. Nevil Shute is best known as the author of On the Beach and other novels, but his first career was an an aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer, as chronicled in his non-fiction memoir, Slide Rule: The Autobiography of an Engineer. Many of his novels were set in the milieu of aviation and engineering.

Gulf Air was the first, and for decades remained by far the largest, passenger airline in the region. By the 1980s, it was the jointly-owned national "flag carrier" of the U.A.E., Muscat and Oman, and Qatar. While the headquarters remained in Bahrain (BAH), it was also the dominant airline for both regional and long-haul services to and from Dubai (DXB), Abu Dhabi (AUH), Muscat (MCT), Doha (DOH), and Sharjah (SHJ).

The consortium of hereditary monarchs and ruling families that owned Gulf Air began to break up when the emir of Dubai decided to start his own airline in 1985, and sold back his share of Gulf Air. Emirates was followed by Oman Air and Qatar Airways in 1993, and Etihad (based in Abu Dhabi) and Air Arabia (based in Sharjah, where the airport is primarily a cargo rather than a passenger hub) in 2003. That left the government of Bahrain holding the bag as the sole owner of Gulf Air, saddled with an older and less-efficient fleet than any of its newer competitors.

Unlike Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways, Gulf Air never extended its route system to the Americas, although it has flights to places in Australia as far from Bahrain as the US West Coast would be. Not trying to compete on trans-Atlantic routes may be a sound business decision, but it has left Gulf Air and Bahrain even further behind in American mindshare than airlines and cities promoting direct flights to and from the US, Canada, and Latin America.

Bahrain's efforts to attract a larger share of tourism from outside the region isn't helped by its geography. Bahrain is a small cluster of connected islands -- the smallest of the Gulf micro-states -- linked to Saudi Arabia by a 25 kilometer (16 mile) chain of bridges and causeways. Saudia Arabia is of course the big visitor draw in the region, but mostly for Hajj and Umrah pilgrimmages to Mecca and Medina. It's difficult for non-Muslims to get visas to enter Saudi Arabia as tourists, so most non-Muslim visitors to Bahrain aren't allowed across the causeway.

As in Saudi Arabia, the ruling family of Bahrain professes Wahabbi fundamentalism. But the enforcement of religious law is significantly less draconian in Bahrain than in Saudi Arabia or some of the other Gulf states, making Bahrain attractive as a recreational and shopping getaway destination for visitors from elsewhere in the region. But Bahrain has never developed much, if any, global image.

Of all the around-the-world travellers to whom I sold tickets on Gulf Air with connections in Bahrain, I can't remember any who chose to stop over any longer than necessary to catch the next onward flight. They were more likely to complain about long connections in Bahrain (Gulf Air flights tend to be scheduled for the convenience of locals, not to optimize connections between other places) rather than welcome them as a chance for a stopover tour of the city of Manama and other parts of the island of Bahrain.

Places that are cosmopolitan by regional terms, but have few US or "Western" visitors, can be quite interesting. I wouldn't go out of my way to make Bahrain a destination on its own, but I wouldn't pass up a chance to stop over for a few days if I found myself changing planes there.

Have any of you been to Bahrain? What was it like?

Link | Posted by Edward, 14 February 2018, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

The Amazing Race 30, Episode 6

Prague (Czech Republic) - Harare (Zimbabwe) - Marondera (Zimbabwe) - Harare (Zimbabwe)

There was a new twist on this week's episode of the The Amazing Race. For part of the episode, the teams had to swap partners, so that each of the racers had to complete one of their assigned tasks with someone other than their regular travelling companion.

That led to complications for some of the racers who had counted on one member of the pair being able to handle certain tasks, such as driving a stick-shift car, for which their partner didn't have the knowledge, skill, and/or confidence.

In a race, or in a real-world travel situation where accomplishing some task quickly or getting it right the first time is of the essence, it's important to have an accurate shared understanding of which travel companion is better at, or will take the lead at, which tasks.

Even when you aren't in a hurry, dividing up tasks makes sense, and can make preparing for a trip with a companion or a group a lot easier. Perhaps one of you has been studying maps and planning transportation, while the other has been studying the local language(s) of your destination(s).

While there are times to double-check your travelling companion, there are also times to trust their judgment in areas where you know they have more expertise. Sometimes you have to go along, even if you are uncertain about the best course, recognizing that uncertainty is inherent in travel decision-making and trusting that mistakes are more likely to lead to annoyances or adventures than to catastrophes.

But there's a catch, as the racers found out in this episode. Your partner may not always be available to do things for you both.

I've arrived in the middle of the night in a country where I didn't speak the language, expecting to be met by someone who had been studying that language, and discovered that my companion had been hospitalized and couldn't meet me. I've had to come back to the U.S. unexpectedly in the middle of a trip, leaving my travelling companion by themself on another continent. Medical and family emergencies at home and on the road make this sort of unplanned separation more common than most travellers predict. I've gotten separated in a crowd without a cellphone.

And that's without even considering the relationships between travelling companions that break up on the road (not always a bad thing), or the times that you and your travelling companion(s) want to do different things for a day, or one of you wants to take an overnight side trip.

There's a tricky balance between trusting and being willing to rely on your partner's ability (good), and being dependent on someone else to the point where you can't cope, or don't have the self-confidence to try to cope, on your own (bad).

How can you prepare for the possibility that you might get split up, one of you might get sick or hit by a car or break a leg, or you might want to separate for some reason?

Here are some things you can do before you find yourself travelling on your own or with a stranger or strangers rather than your expected companion:

  • Take turns. Practice when the stakes are low. Let the partner who is less fluent in the language do the talking for both of you some of the time. They will learn a little more of the language, and -- perhaps more importantly -- they will gain confidence that they can manage on their own if they have to. Let the person with no sense of direction lead sometimes, when you can afford to enjoy getting lost.
  • Split up sometimes, for an hour or a day. Get some practice doing things on your own. It might be scary at first, but if you are like most people, a little experience by yourself will do wonders for your self-confidence. Getting to spend more time with your travelling companion can be one of the joys of travel, if you don't get enough time together at home. It's easy to take that too far, though, if one (or both) of you lacks the confidence to go out alone. You don't have to spend every minute together. On an extended trip, there can be many benefits to planning some occasional time apart.
  • Be prepared. Think about, "What if...?" List the travel tasks that you mostly leave to your companion, and consider how you would deal with each of them yourself. If you have to split up, do you each have your own stash of emergency money, and your own ATM card? The details of your itinerary and key contacts (and not just in your phone, which could get lost or stolen)? A map? The address of where you are staying? Are there passwords you both would need, that only one of you has? What if they are unconscious? Do you have a plan (not involving cellphones or e-mail, which could both get hacked and erased) for how you would reconnect if you get separated in transit, or if one of you is delayed or diverted or has to stay behind? It can be as simple as agreement on which friend or family member you will both call, but talk about it and have a plan before you set out on a trip together.
Link | Posted by Edward, 7 February 2018, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Amazing Race 30, Episode 5

Les Baux (France) - Marseille (France) - Prague (Czech Republic)

Product placements on The Amazing Race are usually just extra advertisements for whichever brand of car the racers have been provided to drive from Point A to Point B, or the prize for the pair of racers that finishes first in the episode.

However, one of this week's product placements on The Amazing Race 30 might give real-world travellers a bad idea: the racers were required to use the Travelocity app to choose and reserve flights from Marseille to Prague.

Marseille is one of the places on the short list of favorites from my most recent trip around the world. One reason it remains underappreciated and under-visited by foreign tourists, despite its many attractions and despite being a hub for surface transportation and flights across the Mediterranean to and from the Maghreb, is a paucity of long-haul flights (none to or from the USA, although Air Canada and Air Transat have seasonal summer services to and from Montréal) or even short-haul flights to or from many places in Europe.

Most of the racers ended up making connections through Brussels, one of the small number of major European hubs served from Marseille. The venerable Belgian national airline Sabena was one of those that went bankrupt after 11 September 2001. Brussels Airlines, which inherited Sabena's "SN" code, has only a handful of long-haul flights. But Brussels' role as the de facto capital of the European Union supports flights between Brussels and more other cities in Europe than one might expect for a city its size.

Travelocity won't find the cheapest or any of the direct flights from Marseille to Prague. If you rely exclusively on Travelocity, you won't know they exist, and you will pay more for less convenient connecting flights than you could have paid for a nonstop flight. The same thing is true for many city pairs within Europe.

Travelocity is an online travel agency that is based in the USA and was founded by the Sabre computerized reservation system (CRS). Travelocity is now a division of Expedia (it's generally a waste of time to "comparison shop" between Expedia, Travelocity, or other brands owned by the same parent company, although for marketing reasons they sometimes offer different prices on their different Web sites), no longer part of Sabre, and has built direct connections to some airlines that bypass the CRSs. But Travelocity still relies primarily on CRSs as information intermediaries between it and airlines. Travelocity's priority for negotiating direct connections or agency appointments to sell tickets for flights on airlines that don't participate in the major CRSs like Sabre is Travelocity's customer base in the USA.

Online travel agencies and Web sites with more customers in Europe have more of an interest than do their U.S. competitors in finding ways to include information about airlines that operate only within Europe and not to the USA. Almost anywhere in the world, you are better off starting with whatever Web site, app, online travel agency, or aggregator of travel information has the largest local user base and scope of information, rather than relying on U.S.-based sources. For flights within Europe, you'd be better off starting with the Europe-centric Skyscanner Web site or app than with U.S.-centric sites or apps like Travelocity or Kayak.

No online travel agency offers tickets on every European airline, however. Many new airlines, including many within Europe, only sell tickets directly and not through any third parties.

For the cast of The Amazing Race, price is no object when it comes to airline tickets. The TV producers pay for their tickets at any coach fare. For real-world travellers, self-described "low-fare" airlines aren't necessarily any cheaper than "legacy" airlines. But within Europe, as with Southwest in the USA, they offer direct point-to-point flights on many routes between secondary cities and airports where "legacy" airlines with hub-and-spoke route systems only offer connecting flights.

Volotea, which operates the only direct flights between Marseille and Prague is typical of this new crop of European airlines. You've probably never heard of Volotea or many other new airlines like it, and you won't learn about them from the likes of Travelocity or Kayak.

How can you find these airlines and routes? offers one of the more comprehensive directories of intra-European airlines and flight routes. Once you choose a departure or arrival country, you can pick airports from a map -- a helpful feature if you don't have a mental map of the locations of obscure and provincial airports.

If you have a specific airport in mind, Wikipedia's crowd-sourced lists of airlines and routes, like this example for Marseille (MRS), are often more comprehensive than any other single source. Don't count on the existence of a flight listed on Wikipedia, though. Some flights are seasonal but not labeled as such, some services were announced but never materialized, and others have been discontinued. Wikipedia is generally much more quickly updated when a new route is announced than when plans for a new route are abandoned or service is temporarily or permanently suspended.

Do your homework before you buy airline tickets to or from an unfamiliar provincial airport. Public transit and intermodal connections (trains, buses, rental car offices, etc.) to and from smaller European airports vary from excellent to abysmal, and may not operate frequently or at all hours of the day and night.

Link | Posted by Edward, 31 January 2018, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

The Amazing Race 30, Episode 4

Tangiers (Morocco) - Nice (France) - St. Tropez (France) - Les Baux (France) - Arles (France) - Les Baux (France)

[Looking back toward the Mediterranean coast from the Isles du Frioul, near Marseilles, Provence.]

The Amazing Race 30 spent this double episode exploring Provence, in the south of France. The racers saw some of the expensive glitz of the Côte d'Azure ("Blue Coast"), the part of this area best known to tourists. But Provence isn't entirely taken over by the beautiful people and the jet set, even in the summer. The racers also saw (although not the extremes) of its geographic and economic diversity and down-home diversions including pétanque, a lawn game similar to its better-known (in the USA) Italian cousin "bocce" or to English lawn bowling, and more distantly but conceptually related to shuffleboard and curling.

What we see on "reality" television is entertainment, but sometimes it's more "real" than what we read in the New York Times.

I spent much of this week writing letters to the editor and requests for corrections in response to the latest disinformation campaign by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security about the REAL-ID Act of 2005 (which is real, although it doesn't mean what the DHS says it means) and supposed new requirements for drivers licenses and ID to fly (which are fake news made up by the DHS). Some of you may have seen a sound-bite from me about this on ABC7 News in San Francisco.

If you just want to know whether you need to get a new drivers licesne or ID if you want to continue to travel by air (you don't), or which of the things you may have seen in the news about this to believe, I have some debunkinhg of the fake news and answers to frequently-asked questions about the REAl-ID Act on the Identity Project Web site. If you want more of the political and journalistic back story, and its implications, read on.

Continue reading "The Amazing Race 30, Episode 4"
Link | Posted by Edward, 24 January 2018, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

"A demonstration's been announced... Against the draft, war taxes, the rise in food prices..."

"It was good to be outside, after the rooms with locked doors, the hiding places. It was good to be walking, swinging his arms, breathing in the clear air.... To be among so many people, so immense a crowd, thousands marching together, filling all the side streets as well as the broad thoroughfare down which they marched, was frightening, but it was exhilarating too.... The singing at the front of the march, far away up the street, and of the endless crowds coming on behind, was put out of phase by the distance the sound must travel, so that the melody always seemed to be lagging and catching up with itself, like a canon, and all the parts of the song were being sung at one time, in the same moment, though each singer sang the tune as a line from beginning to end....

"There might have been a hundred thousand human beings in Capitol Square, or twice that many. The individuals, like the particles of atomic physics, could not be counted, nor their positions ascertained, nor their behavior predicted. And yet, as a mass, that enormous mass did what it had been expected to do by the organizers of the strike: it gathered, marched in order, sang, filled Capitol Square and all the streets around, stood in its numberlessness restless yet patient in the bright noon listening to the speakers, whose single voices, erratically amplified, clapped and echoed off the sunlit façades..., rattled and hissed over the continuous, soft, vast murmur of the crowd itself....

"When he spoke, speaking was little different from listening. No conscious will of his own moved him, no self-consciousness was in him. The multiple echoes of his voice from distant loudspeakers and the stone fronts of the massive buildings, however, distracted him a little, making him hesitate at times and speak very slowly. But he never hesitated for words. He spoke their mind, their being, in their language...

It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood..... We know that there is no help for us but one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All that you have is what you are, and what you give...

We have nothing but our freedom. We have nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners. We are not prosperous. None of us is rich. None of us is powerful. If it is [this] you want, if it is the future you seek, then I tell you that you must come to it with empty hands.... You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.

"As he finished speaking the clattering racket of police helicopters drawing near began to drown out his voice...."

-- from The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin, 21 October 1929 - 22 January 2018

Link | Posted by Edward, 23 January 2018, 19:35 ( 7:35 PM) | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The Amazing Race 30, Episode 3

Antwerp (Belgium) - Amsterdam (Netherlands) - Tangiers (Morocco)

This week's episode of The Amazing Race 30 gave the contestants on the reality-TV show a test of their dead reckoning ability in a souk in Tangiers. After having a destination pointed out to them from one rooftop to another, how quickly could they find their way there on the ground down below, without a smartphone or GPS?

Completing the task required mentally integrating how far they had gone, in which twisting and turning directions, to keep track of their position and orientation (which way am I facing now, and which way am I trying to go?) relative to their starting point and destination.

Some people have more natural aptitude than others at dead reckoning, but it's a skill that can be improved by practice. In "The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World", I recommend taking a day trip to a city or town you don't know well, preferably one with a dense and complicated network of streets, alleys, and paths, and ideally one with streets that aren't in a grid. Pick a destination, or have an accomplice pick one for you and tell you its position relative to yours: "You are facing east, and your destination looks like [visual description not name, so you can't rely on signs] and is six-tenths of a mile north and three-tenths of a mile west from here." Try to find your way to the specified landmark without using a smartphone, GPS, or map, or asking for directions, and while trying to avoid reading any street signs.

Different people use different mental methods for dead reckoning. I visualize my position as a point, moving as I move, on a mental map of my course that I can visualize in my mind's eye. If I close my eyes, it's as though I were looking down from above in an out-of-body experience. My partner, who grew up near the seacoast, has a subconscious compass that keeps track of "Which direction is the water?" and "Which direction is the North Pole?" That can break down when there is no large body of water nearby, or when crossing between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Hotels in Muslim-majority places often have a more or less discreet arrow or pointer on the ceiling of each room to indicate the (great circle) direction of Mecca, so that you can tell which way to face when you pray. That doesn't help when you are on the street, but checking the "Qibla" (Mecca-pointer) in your room before you go out may help you start out oriented with respect to the cardinal directions.

Practice this sort of navigation before you go to a place where you don't speak the language and there are few street signs or they aren't in a writing system that you can read.

If you'd like to Rock The Casbah yourself in Tangiers, Nick Andriani, who's spent more time wandering further off the beaten path in North Africa and the Middle East than most people I know, has an introduction to Tangiers in his blog. Nick's "Insiders Tip" on getting lost in Tangiers? "Street signs are often missing, street names often don't match your map and very often are misleading.... Tangier is a safe city, and a small city, so getting lost is actually part of the fun" -- if you're not in a race. I met Nick at the TBEX travel bloggers' conference in Cancún in 2014, and I look forward to seeing one of his novels make it into print.

Morocco is not a monolingual country. It was a lesson for the racers -- and for real-world travellers -- that wherever you are, it's worth trying any language(s) you know. In Morocco, French serves as a language of education and government and as a link language between native speakers of several varieties of Arabic and of Berber languages. Despite scapegoating of immigrants from the Maghreb (North Africa) for problems in Europe, many Moroccans have worked or have family ties and have lived in Europe, especially in Francophone Europe and in Spain, just across the Straits of Gibraltar, where many Moroccans work in agriculture. Some of the racers were able to get help with directions in French, others in Spanish.

Surprisingly, two of the racers knew some Arabic: One had been in the US military in Iraq, while Evan (one of the Yale University debate team partners in the cast) had lived in Morocco for a year as a high-school exchange student.

Study abroad for a year in high school? In Morocco? How do you do that? Isn't a year of study abroad something you do in college, and more likely in Europe or Latin America than in Africa?

More people study abroad in college than in high school, and most of them go on group programs from the USA to "First World" countries. But there are a surprising number of high school study abroad programs that provide opportunities for (structured and supported) immersion in a surprisingly diverse range of countries around the world. Here are some of those I know of that are available to high school students from the USA:

  • Rotary Youth Exchanges: Rotary International is a service club with thousands of chapters in communities around the world. The Rotary youth exchange program is by far the least expensive major high school study abroad program for students from the USA. Rotary exchanges also offer opportunities in by far the largest number of countries of any study-abroad program. Most are full-year commitments, with portions of the year spent with three different families and in three schools in different locations within one country. You apply through the Rotary chapter in your community. The application process can be more or less competitive, depending on how eager your local Rotary chapter is to sponsor an exchange student, and how many other people from your community are applying that year. If your local Rotary club decides to sponsor you, they will arrange for you to be hosted by a Rotary chapter in a destination country. I have heard consistently favorable feedback on Rotary youth exchanges from participants and their parents.

  • AFS (American Field Service): School year, semester, and summer programs. Homestays with local families and enrollment in local schools, as well as other activities.

  • Youth For Understanding: School year, semester, and summer programs. Homestays with local families and enrollment in local schools, as well as other activities.

  • The Experiment In International Living: 3-6 week summer programs only. Participants stay with local families but travel and are involved in their own educational program with their own group, rather than being enrolled in local schools.

All of the programs above have been in operation for years and have generally good reputations. But they are all different, as is each participant's experience. No program is perfect or best for everyone. A totally structured and "protective" study-abroad program would be self-defeating. Living and studying abroad and with temporary host families inevitably presents adjustment and culture-shock challenges. That's part of the learning and personal growth opportunity, and you shouldn't sign up if you don't want to take that on.

If you have experience with these or other high school study-abroad programs, please share your feedback in the comments.

Link | Posted by Edward, 17 January 2018, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Amazing Race 30, Episode 2

Reykjavik (Iceland) - Amsterdam (Netherlands) - Antwerp (Belgium)

This episode of The Amazing Race, like the previous one, featured helicopter shots of spectacular Icelandic scenery. They helped show why Icelandic tourism marketers have been so successful in recent years in changing perceptions of the country as an aviation hub. Flying between America and Europe via Iceland has changed from a perceived drawback to an asset: from an unwanted interruption of the journey and change of planes to a desirable stopover opportunity.

Foreigners visiting Iceland as a stopover en route to or from somewhere else still far outnumber those for whom Iceland is the primary destination, but that is changing. I know some people who've gone to Iceland and back recently from the U.S., without continuing on to Europe.

Despite these changes, Iceland's its role as a transatlantic budget airline hub remains an interesting case study in the history of discounted airline ticket pricing and routes and the ways it has been controlled by politics and oligopoly rather than competition.

Why was it that Icelandic airlines offered lower prices between North America and Europe than any other airlines to a generation of backpackers?

Continue reading "The Amazing Race 30, Episode 2"
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Wednesday, 3 January 2018

The Amazing Race 30, Episode 1

New York, NY (USA) - Reykjavik (Iceland)

Stopovers in Iceland and other stopover possibilities on flights to and from the USA

Season 30 of The Amazing Race started with the cast members having to fly from New York City to Reykjavik, Iceland.

The teams of cometitors in The Amazing Race around the world all took the same flight on Icelandair, one of two Iceland-based airlines that flies to and from the USA. So the winner of this leg of the race was decided by what happened after they arrived at Keflavik Airport near Reykjavík. The key task for the racers required them to arrange letters spelling out the name of a plaza in Reykjavík, Ingólfstorg. Several of the racers were slow to realize that "Ingolfstórg" is not the same as "Ingólfstorg".

English is written without diacritical marks. Diacritical marks aren't even listed in the index of my copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and "accents" get only a passing mention at the end of the essay on alphabets and writing systems. In English, "accent marks" are used, if at all, as optional aids to pronunciation that help indicate the sound of the underlying letters.

In many other languages, diacritical marks aren't optional. They are not regarded as "modifiers" but as symbols used to distinguish between what are thought of as different letters. In Icelandic, "ó" is not considered to be the same letter as "o". As a rule, you should assume that if a word is written with diacritical marks, you need to include them when you write the word, or it might not be understood.

I'll have more to say about flights on Icelandair next week when the racers continue on to Europe.

But while the racers are stopping over in Iceland, let's talk a little about stopovers in general.

Along with Dubai and Singapore, Reykjavík is one of the quintessential "stopover" destinations: a place that most visitors probably wouldn't have gone to at all except that it was "on the way" to their "real" destination. If you have to change planes there anyway, why not stop over for a few days and check it out?

That doesn't mean that you might not find Reykjavík, Dubai, or Singapore worth the trip as a destination in their own right. (Or you might not. But that's a matter of taste, not of intrinsic touristic value, the concept about which I'm extremely doubtful.) Increasing numbers and a growing percentage of visitors to each of these places are visiting them as their destination rather than merely as a stopover en route to somewhere else.

For government ministries of tourism, and sometimes for airlines, promoting stopovers is a problem of making lemons out of lemonade. How do you turn, "To get a cheap ticket on Icelandair, you have to change planes in Reykjavík, instead of taking a direct flight from the USA to Europe," into, "On an Icelandair ticket to Europe, you can stop over for a few days in this really cool place that would otherwise be expensive to get to, Iceland, for no extra charge"?

Many fares requires a change of planes but forbid stopovers longer than 24 hours or longer than until the next flight to your final destination (which might be more or less than 24 hours). For an airline, it's a tricky judgment call whether potential ticket buyers' perceptions of its hub (this is all about perception, which may have nothing to do with reality) are such that offering free stopovers is a way to sweeten an otherwise unattractive-seeming routing, or whether its hub is perceived as a desirable and valuable additional destination worth paying extra for.

That makes it almost axiomatic that the places where free stopovers are offered are not the first places you would think of as places you would expect to transit and/or want to stop over. The interesting stopover possibilities are in places where there is a disjunction between perceived attractiveness as a destination and your particular tastes and interests, as well as in the hub cities of airlines that are less well-known, or offer a better combination of price and routes than their reputation for quality of service (which reputation may also have little relationship to reality).

Unless I'm in a hurry, I generally welcome opportunities for stopovers, especially in places that I haven't been before, that I wouldn't otherwise be likely to get to, and that are inexpensive.

In 2008, I spent a week in Yemen on an unplanned stopover. We were scheduled to change planes in Sana'a and continue to Asmara, Eritrea, on the same day. But because of complications with our visas for Eritrea, we ended up staying in Sana'a for a week. We wouldn't have chosen to go there, but I'm very glad we had a chance to see what it was like, and meet some people there, before the start of a war in which the US government, acting in our name, has been an active participant.

How can you find out what stopovers might be possible, where, on which airlines?

The simple answer is to ask an expert travel agent. That's not a useful answer any more, however, since there are so few remaining travel agents with this kind of expertise. Too few travellers recognize the value of their expertise and are willing to pay enough to keep them in business.

Finding stopovers on your own requires luck, guesswork, or learning some of the skills and paying for some of the tools of a do-it-yourself travel agent. There's no easy way around this. Don't say I didn't warn you! But if you think it might be worth the effort, here's some guidance:

Continue reading "The Amazing Race 30, Episode 1"
Link | Posted by Edward, 3 January 2018, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)