Sunday, 26 October 2008

The Amazing Race 13, Episode 5

Te Puke (New Zealand) - Siem Reap (Cambodia) - Angkor Wat (Cambodia)

Should The Amazing Race 13 have gone to Cambodia? And should they have sent the racers to search the vast Angkor Wat complex for a particular temple, on foot, without giving them a landmine awareness briefing first, and requiring that they be accompanied by a guide to keep them on the paths and away from any areas not known to have been cleared of landmines?

I wouldn’t think it worth the risk to life and limb, and I don’t think it’s fair to put the racers in a situation where they had to make their decision while already on the road, with little time or information to go on and a million-dollar prize to tempt them into possible danger.

Cambodia is the most heavily-mined country in the world. Because of the marquee allure of Angkor Wat, it’s the only one of the ten or twenty most-mined countries that mainstream tourists would even think of visiting, or where they wouldn’t be aware of the risks of war. The wars in Cambodia are over, but mines can kill for decades: people in Europe die every year from unexploded ordnance left from World War I as well as World War II.

If you decide to go to Cambodia, keep two things in mind:

  1. Both the government and the tourism industry are anxious not to scare away foreign tourists and their money. Given their compelling financial interest, you can’t rely on them for an honest or impartial assessment of mine hazards, either before your trip or in the country. Before you go, check out third-party information, particularly reports from non-governmental de-mining and mine education groups. When you arrive, insist on a mine awareness briefing from the local office of such a group. While you are there, make a donation to support their work (and its continuation in agricultural areas where most mine deaths and injuries now occur, not just tourist sites) and for the families of those who have died in de-mining efforts. They have risked their lives (and lost many lives) crawling through the grass around the Angkor Wat temples (once heavily mined), poking the ground every few inches to find any mines, so as to make possible your touristic visit.

  2. Mines are not confined to well-bounded minefields. Mines were placed by many armed groups and individuals, most of whom left no maps or other records. Other mines and munitions were scattered from the air. In a country like Cambodia, it’s necessary not just to avoid known minefields but to avoid anywhere that isn’t known not to be mined — something that can really only be known if the area has been thoroughly and systematically probed for mines and other explosive hazards. If you have to pee, for example, do it in the road, not a single step beyond the tire tracks onto the verge (a common location for mines and unexploded ordnance), much less in the bushes.

It takes a bit of detective work to figure out which flights the racers took from Auckland to Angkor Wat. We saw boarding passes being printed, but stepping through a digital recording frame by frame reveals that the same footage of boarding passes being printed at LAX was spliced into the TV “reality” show for diffeerent teams in both Auckland and Singapore.

Most of the teams left Auckland in the afternoon, and arrived in Siem Reap the next morning on Jetstar Asia , a “low-fare” subsidiary of Qantas. Ty and Aja, who started two hours later than any of the other teams, got a 1 a.m. flight out of Auckland and arrived in Cambodia, still two hours behind the pack, on Singapore Airlines’ short-haul subsidiary Silkair . It’s possible that they could have made up an hour by using double connections via Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur, leaving Auckland at 7:30 p.m. and ending up on Air Asia from KUL to REP. But since they got to the finish line still two hours behind any of the other teams, that probably wouldn’t have prevented their elimination.

Most likely they didn’t know that Air Asia was even an option. In a typical pattern, the travel agency at Auckland Airport was able to tell the racers about connections between unaffiliated airlines (which they might not have been told about by an airline that would have steered them to routings favoring its marketing partners), but didn’t know or didn’t tell them about routings involving “low-fare” airlines like Air Asia that don’t participate in global reservations systems and/or prefer to sell tickets directly rather than through travel agencies. The extreme case of the latter is Ryan Air, which provides explicitly in its terms and conditions that “All bookings for Ryanair flights must be made directly on or via a Ryanair call centre. Any booking you may make via a third party website or online travel agent may be cancelled without notice or refund.” Buying a Ryan Air ticket from an agent or third party is like buying a ticket to a concert or event from an unauthorized scalper or ticket tout .

So how do you find out about airlines like these? There’s no single source of comprehensive information about local and regional “low-fare” airlines. Fortunately, most advertise heavily in the places they serve, and it rarely makes sense to use them unless you are buying tickets locally, at the last minute.

The Asia-Pacific region is one of those best served by “low-fare” airlines. Some operate mainly within a single country, such as Lion Air in Indonesia, but most of the rest focus on short to medium-distance international routes within the region, or mix domestic and international routes like Cebu Pacific and Air Asia. There’s an unusual degree of cross-investment between Asia and Oceania in this sector, with Qantas owning most of Jetstar Asia (as well as Jetstar within Australia), and Singapore-based Tiger Airways also operating a domestic Australian network with a hub in Melbourne. That wouldn’t be allowed in the USA, where protectionist rules against foreign ownership have limited Richard Branson’s role in Virgin America to that of a minority owner, and a silent partner at that.

We flew Tiger Airways from Darwin, Australia, to Singapore earlier this year, when we changed our plans in mid-trip because of the changes in China’s rules for visas . It was good value for the price, but it was also the first time I’d heard an announcement on an airplane, “Because we have food and water for sale onboard, no consumption of outside food or water is permitted on our flights.” But if you could figure out how to buy bottled water beyond the last security checkpoint, they didn’t actually try to stop you from drinking it in flight.

Once you figure out which “low-fare” airline serves a route you are interested in, you can usually get schedules and prices on their Web site. Buying tickets on their Web sites from a different country can be more of a problem: some won’t accept a credit card with a billing address in a different country (just as many e-commerce companies in the United States won’t accept foreign credit cards, to reduce the risk of fraud). Badly designed airline Web sites sometimes won’t allow you to enter a phone number or address that doesn’t match the format of addresses in the country where they operate, doesn’t have a valid postal code in their country, or the like. You can usually work something out, at the price of an international call to their reservation center. If that fails, you may have to wait until you get to a city where they fly, and buy a ticket the old-fashioned way, over the counter from their office at the airport.

The good thing about “low-fare” airlines is that they typically price tickets on a one-way basis, and require little or no advance purchase as long as seats are still available. You may get a better price further in advance, or with a round-trip purchase, but their last-minute one-way fares are still much less than the prohibitive “walk-up” fares of traditional airlines.

The bad thing about “low-fare” airlines is that you can’t count on them. Unlike national “flag carriers,” they are operated to make a profit, not for national prestige. If they don’t make money for their investors, they will be quick to shut them down. Governments are less likely to bail them out than they would be with a national airline, even a nominally privatized one. Similarly, if a particular route or flight isn’t making money, they are quick to discontinue it.

One reason there is less difference between the highest and lowest fares of “low-fare” airlines is that they operate with fewer empty seats. Traditional airlines try to charge business travelers enough that they can make money even if what they refer to derisively as “the back of the bus” is empty. Low-fare airlines only fly where, and when, they think they can get enough passengers to flill their planes. Many of their flights operate only in the busy season for the route (whenever that is). They are willing to try out odd-seeming routes where they think traditional airlines have overlooked a profitable opportunity, but they are equally willing to dump them unceremoniously if they don’t work out, or if something causes traffic on a previously profitable route to flag. The routes where they are offering the largest discounts, in order to try to fill their planes, may be the ones most in danger of imminent discontinuation of their service. Conversely, they may be entirely sold-out at short notice on a successful route, even in the off-season.

“Low-fare” airlines don’t necessarily have lower fares. Especially on routes where they compete directly, other airlines often match their prices. Airline advertisements are useless for figuring out how much you are likely to pay, or which airline is likely to have a lower price. Only a few seats are available, long in advance, at the lowest advertsied prices, and “fees” and “surcharges” — which vary greatly between airlines — typically make up more of the total ticket price than the low “fare”. Only when you get to the final stage of the booking process, and see that, “Your credit card will now be charged this total amount if you click here”, can you ascribe any meaning to an air ticket price.

The main difference between “low-fare” and “traditional” airlines is in operations, not prices. “Low-fare” airlines usually have opted out of some or all of the industry norms. Perhaps most importantly for travellers, “low-fare” airlines typically have no “interline” agreements, and can’t put you on another airline if they cancel a flight or cease service to a destination. All flights on “low-fare” airlines (or any airline without interline agreements to protect you in case of a flight cancellation) should therefore be considered to be subject to cancellation at will by the airline at any time, without prior notice or any obligation to get you to your destination. All they owe you if they cancel a flight on which you had a ticket is a refund.

What this means is that if you are planning to use a “low-fare” airline for part of your trip, you should always have a backup plan. You need to be prepared either to use surface transportation, if it’s possible, or to pay for a ticket on a competing airline. If the “low-fare” airline picked the route because it was poorly served by traditional competitors, or their fares were high enough to create what the low-fare airline thought would be a profit opportunity, a walk-up replacement ticket could cost many times what the “low-fare” airline originally charged.

“Low-fare” airlines are thus most suitable for “impulse purchases” of tickets bought while you are traveling, and least suitable for tickets planned or purchased long in advance. If you had planned to use surface transportation, and there’s a cheap flight with seats available that you’d rather take, great. Maybe you want to linger someplace longer than you had expected, or people coming in the other direction report that the bus or ferry you’d planned to take is slower or more uncomfortable or dangerous than you had realized. If you know that you will have to fly, though, don’t count on a “low-fare” airline. Know that you are taking a risk, and know the cost of your contingency plan. Keep checking with the airline at intervals, to make sure your flight is still scheduled to operate.

At some airports “low-fare” airlines are consigned to the ghetto of a separate terminal. Fly into the “low-cost carrier” terminal in Singapore, expecting the comfy chairs and other transit amenities we saw in the background in scenes from “The Amazing Race” in the main terminal, and you’re in for a rude surprise. In other cases, low-fare airlines operate from secondary airports, where their landing fees and other costs are lower. (I think of the looks I used to see on the faces of French passengers on charter flights to Tahiti, deposited unexpectedly in the terminal in Oakland — instead of San Francisco — in the middle of the night while their Paris-Papeete plane was being refueled.)

Often these “cheaper” airports are farther from city centers and tourist districts, and less well served by public transport. Before you buy a ticket to or from an airport with which you aren’t familiar, check out how easy it will be, and how much time and money it will take, to get between the airport and the place you really want to go. If you’re a foreign tourist without a car, it may be worth paying considerably more to fly into La Guardia Airport in New York City rather than MacArthur Airport in Islip, Long Island, or Heathrow Airport on the London Underground (subway train) rather than suburban/exurban Luton Airport. Transportation to and from secondary airports can be especially poor late at night. Find out what time the bus or train stops running, and how frequently it runs, not just whether it exists.

There’s more information advice on “low-fare” airlines throughout the updated chapter on air transportation in the 4th edition of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World (2007).

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 26 October 2008, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

If you're looking for budget airline options, a good website to visit is, which asks you which country you want to fly from or to, then lists airports served by budget airlines and the routes to/from them. We used this site a number of times while traveling in both Asia and Europe on our year-long RTW trip (documented in our blog, ), and got some great bargains, flying on airlines like HapagFly, Norwegian, Nok Air, Tiger Air, Jetstar, Air Asia, Ryanair and Virgin Blue.

As you warn, I probably wouldn't buy tickets more than a month in advance. But when we did buy tickets on bigger airlines (like United) well in advance, we tended to have flight times shift on them as well.

Yes, many of the airports served by budget airlines are out of the way. But the airlines themselves often have regular bus service to the city center. They'll charge you for it (just like they'll charge you for checking a bag, or for using a credit card, or for reserving by phone, or for food or drink), but the overall cost to travel between city centers is usually still lower, just not quite as much of a bargain. In the end, the only major difference we found between the budgets and the major airlines is the scrum at the gate, as everyone tries to get on the plane first to score good seats. But if you can brave that, you can get some great bargains!

Posted by: Andy Wells, 28 October 2008, 22:35 (10:35 PM)

Personally, I was very pleased that a major US media outlet put Cambodia center-stage in a primetime broadcast. The temple-city of Angkor is perhaps *THE* major Southeast Asian drawcard, and an absolute must for anyone with the slightest interest in architecture or ancient history, and (of course) a World Heritage site to boot. Moreover, given their tragic recent history, the Cambodian people are well worth going out of one's way for in their own right. I think we all know about the mine problem, and I'm sure the racers were given thorough briefings we just didn't see, since somebody's insurance would have doubtless been invalidated had they not. I was more disturbed that one of the teams got a time credit for speeding at the end of the leg, since my passport expressly informs me that I will be subject to all local laws wherever I travel. What kind of message does it send to reward a team which endangered themselves and everyone on the road with them just for a 1 in 8 shot at a million dollars?

Yes, traveling on "low fare" carriers can be the occasion for a bit of culture shock. Air Asia made me very angry a few months ago by refusing me a soda because I didn't want to give them $5 US for a 2 ringit drink; they didn't have change to offer me -- in any currency. The nickel-and-diming business model embraced by these guys takes some getting used to: if you check into the "Tune" hotels anywhere in Malaysia (decked out in Air Asia red and white) you'll have to pay seperately for every ammenity, too, from air-con (otherwise not even supplied with electricity until you pay up) to towels (bring your own and save another couple ringit). By the time you're through, you may find that competing deeply discounted major-player room (fare or whatever else priced this way) quite a bargain. The moral: be sure before you commit.

Posted by: Ben Bangs, 29 October 2008, 09:11 ( 9:11 AM)

Ben Bangs,
They didn't receive a "time credit"; they got a time "penalty" of 1/2 hour. They have to start out 1/2 hour later than their arrival time.

Posted by: Trish, 29 October 2008, 09:49 ( 9:49 AM)

Ben, the team got a 30-minute penalty for speeding, not a credit.

Posted by: John, 29 October 2008, 10:35 (10:35 AM)

I look up the AIRPORT online, find out what airlines serve it, and then start tracking the airline's routes from there.

P.s. I enjoy your stuff!
Keep up the good work.

(In February, I fly Sky Airlines from Santiago to Pta. Arenas for about half the price of LAN; in Mexico, Alma is the greatest.)

Posted by: Garrett Olney, 29 October 2008, 12:20 (12:20 PM)

Checking which airlines serve an airport can be helpful, if you already know the airport and can find its web site. These days, airports are eager to attract "low-fare" airlines, and eager to advertise their presence. Unfortunately, which airport to look for isn't always obvious: If you didn't know about Southwest or EasyJet, would you think to check for which airlines serve Islip or Luton? is one of several sites that try to index flights and routes on 'low-fare" airlines. It, too, is useful, but far from comprehensive. Aside from some odd errors (they list Newcastle as being in the USA rather than the UK, for example), they fail to mention some of the more significant "low-fare" airlines, including GOL (by far the largest and most significant in South America) and Virgin America in the USA.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 29 October 2008, 12:29 (12:29 PM)

Hi. You're tarring with kind of a broad brush here. I just came back from Germany to England on Ryanair this morning, and while it is entirely true that they and their peers like Easyjet fly odd routes sometimes from odd airports, at least the European low fare lines seem at least as reliable as some of their traditional competitors. (I'll take Ryanair over Alitalia any day.)

Also, as I hardly need tell you, research into options and connections really pays off. I was actually going from Wiesbaden to Cambridge, and the Ryanair flight was faster door to door than the LH flight I took the other way, because Stansted is much closer to Cambridge than Heathrow, more than compensating for the longer trip to Hahn.

My main complaint about Ryanair is that their bright blue and yellow decor made my eyeballs hurt. But for five euros I got to hustle on the plane first and got an exit row aisle seat. They seem to understand pretty well what the customers want and how to do a la carte pricing.

Posted by: John Levine, 29 October 2008, 16:31 ( 4:31 PM)

Any injury due to a landmine -- let alone a death -- would most likely result in the entire series being scrubbed. With so many tens of millions of dollars on the line, there can be
little doubt the racers were briefed about the hazard off-
camera. Note that so far in Cambodia, they haven't had any opportunity to pilot any conveyance on their own. (And the promise of hiring drivers, etc. probably helped grease the wheels with the Cambodian authorities.) One might argue that the viewing audience should have been informed about the landmine situation, but the show has never provided more than a bare minimum of information about any of the locations through which they travel.

Posted by: Anon Y. Mouse, 31 October 2008, 00:05 (12:05 AM)

As long as customers know the pros and cons of budget airlines, I think budget airlines are a great value. Cramped seats, restrictions and all, but the price can't be beat when you find a really low rate.

Posted by: Rahmi, 3 March 2010, 13:21 ( 1:21 PM)
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