Tuesday, 28 March 2006

The Amazing Race 9, Episode 4

Munich (Germany) - Palermo (Italy) - Castellammare del Golfo (Italy) - Segesta (Italy)

Could you find the flights that would get you from Munich to Palermo arriving as soon as possible, and make reservations for yourself and a travelling companion, on a German-language Web site?

That’s what made the difference this week on The Amazing Race 9 .

When they arrived at the airport in the middle of the night, Tyler and B.J. went to a cybercafe, bought the last available tickets on the flights to Palermo arriving earliest in the morning, and finished this leg of the race in first place.

Other teams couldn’t figure out how to find and book flights online in German, or didn’t try. They waited until the ticket counters opened, and all of them ended up arriving in Sicily on later flights.

The “reality” television travellers don’t care about price: The television production company will pay any coach/economy class price for their tickets, and it doesn’t come out of their limited allotment of cash. In real life, you generally get a substantially better price on airline tickets by planning ahead.

It’s as least as common to find a better deal on an English-language Web site for services in some other country as to find better prices on local Web sites while you’re abroad. In South Africa last year, I got much better prices renting cars through Web sites in the USA than through the same companies’ local South African offices or Web sites. The same is often true for car rentals in Europe. (Although in my case it also led to double billing that took me months to straighten out with my credit card issuer and the car rental company.)

Still, there are times when you will find yourself trying to make reservations or pay for something —a hotel room; a rental car; tickets on a local airline, train, bus, or ferry — on a Web site that’s “foreign” to you in some way.

Here are some the potential problems to be prepared for in such circumstances:

The language of the Web site. If the page is all Greek to you (or some other alphabet or writing system) , look for the word “English” somewhere on the home page (if the page is really complex, use the “find in page” feature of your browser to search the page) or an icon of the Stars and Stripes or the Union Jack. The entire site may not be translated, but even a summary English-language version of the home page or site map may give you enough clues to enable you to accomplish a specific task. Reservation sites have a fairly standard format, and with a little practice you can usually recognize basic things like departure and arrival time, flight (bus, train, ferry) number, and so forth. As long as the place names are written in the Latin alphabet, they’ll probably be recognizable even if slightly different from the standard Anglicizations (e.g. München instead of Munich). If there’s some key word or phrase that you can’t figure out, try feeding it through a machine translator like Babelfish, Systran , or Freetranslations.com . Any of these services can translate either a snippet of text you cut and paste into the translation box, or (less reliably) and entire Web page if you paste in the URL. They cover different languages, so check the others if the first one you try can’t handle the language you want to translate from or to.

The language of the operating system. Microsoft and Apple are multinational companies, and distribute their software in many languages. In a cybercafe, expect all the menus and commands like “file”, “print”, and “settings” to be in the local language. You may need to ask for help just to find and launch a Web browser. The good thing is that English is the global language of computing, and the resident geek at a cybercafe almost anywhere in the world usually can read and write basic computer instructions in English.

The Web browser and other software. Don’t count on finding the same software you are used to. Maybe you’ll find Microsoft Internet Explorer on a Macintosh, when you are used to Windows. Or maybe the OS will be Windows, but the browser will be Opera or Firefox. All these browsers are basically similar, but it’s easier if you familiarize yourself with them in English before you try to deal with them in another language.

The language of the keyboard. If you haven’t encountered this before, try to imagine typing on a keyboard on which some of the letters have been rearranged, and/or replaced with special characters that don’t occur in English, accent marks, etc. They may or may not be labeled: People who type regularly in a particular language get used to the standard keyboard layout for that language, touch typists don’t care at all about the keycap labels, and English-language keyboards may be cheaper than ones labeled in an obscure character set. There’s usually a command (not usually intuitive) to switch between the other language and English… but that can be equally confusing if you aren’t a touch typist in English, and the keyboard is labeled in some other language. I’ve sent and received lots of e-mail messages from cybercafes that are full of un-English diacriticals and character transpositions, and which typically begin, “I can’t figure out how to switch this keyboard to English.”

The country where the ticketed journey originates. Many Web sites (especially those in the USA, but in other countries as well), are designed to serve customers in a specific country or countries, and won’t allow you to make reservations or purchase tickets for a journey originating anywhere else. It’s not that they aren’t allowed to sell such tickets (international airline ticketing systems are designed specifically to enable any airlines or travel agent to issue tickets for travel originating anywhere in the world), but they don’t choose to do so for their own business reasons. Airtreks.com where I work, for example, accepts payments and issues and ships tickets for customers and flights anywhere in the world except Cuba (embargoed to us, in the name of freedom, by the government of the USA).

The country of the credit card billing address. Many Web sites (again, especially in the USA), won’t accept a credit card for payment unless the billing address for the card is in their country. Some credit cards are only valid in a specific country, but usually it’s just a business decision that foreign credit cards are more likely to be stolen or fraudulent. The most annoying thing is that few such Web sites bother to warn away foreign customers. You only find out they won’t accept your business after you have completed a booking and entered your credit card details to try to pay.

The country of the ticket delivery address. Some Web sites refuse to sell a ticket if you specify a delivery address in another country. Sometime’s that’s because of potential difficulty, delay, or additional cost in shipping tickets internationally, especially for paper tickets. In other cases it’s just a business decision, or merely bad Web design that assumes a certain address format such as a 6 character postal code when yours is 5 digits. As with the credit card billing address, you probably won’t find out until your nearly-complete purchase is rejected.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 28 March 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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