Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Amazing Race 16, Episode 12

Pudong (China) - San Francisco, CA (USA)

This week, The Amazing Race 16 returned to the USA from Shanghai, in an episode broadcast the same week that a Shanghai-based startup company launched a very promising, although as yet unproven, new concept in accommodations for future visitors to Shanghai, elsewhere in China, and I hope eventually other parts of the world.

The race came down to which team’s taxi driver was able to get directions most quickly to an obscure site that’s neither listed in most guidebooks nor well-known to locals.

Lesson One for travellers anywhere: Even in one of the most-touristed cities in the USA, if you go to a neighborhood off the tourist map — literally off most maps designed for tourists, which in San Francisco usually don’t extend south of the Mission or west of Twin Peaks, and sometimes no further west than Van Ness or further south than Division — you’ll find few if any tourists and lots to see and do.

Lesson Two: If you want to get off the tourist map, you’ll benefit greatly from a detailed, non-tourist map. I put a higher priority on finding the best possible maps, and procuring them in advance, than on guidebooks. The best maps aren’t always available locally, easy to find, or for sale when and where you first arrive and most need them. Last month I arrived at Strasbourg’s main train station on a Sunday, when all shops and the tourist information office were closed, and would have had at least a little difficulty finding my hotel before the front desk closed for the night if I hadn’t brought a detailed map with a street index with me.

In San Francisco, the best maps are the Muni transit map and the bike map and walking guide (the printed map is much better than the PDF) available from most bike shops in the area or the SF Bicycle Coalition (but not at most hotels or tourist info centers). Streets on the bike map are color-coded, block by block, according to their steepness, so you won’t try to follow a “straight” route through the street grid without anticipating that it will take you up or down a 15% grade.

I’ve lived in San Francisco for 25 years, and I’ve explored many of its less-touristed neighborhoods. I bicycle regularly throughout the Presidio, and I’ve often been stopped by tourists asking for directions, as one team of racers did, or photographs, on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. I ride a recumbent bicycle, which gets a lot of attention and has probably been pictured in exactly that spot in hundreds of tourists’ slide shows of their visits to San Francisco. But I wouldn’t have had any idea which of the former coastal fortifications that surround the entrance to San Francisco Bay is “Battery Godfrey” where the racers found their next clue.

This episode of the race showed how much you miss when you are in too much of a hurry. From the Pudong commercial district in Shanghai, the racers all took taxis to Pudong International Airport, even though the world’s fastest public transportation is the maglev train that runs nonstop between central Pudong and Pudong Airport. It operates at more than 400 km/h (250 mph), for a one-way fare of CNY50 (less than US$8), CNY 40 if you show an air ticket for a flight the same day, and it’s one of the must-see attractions for any visitor to Shanghai.

The French TGV has been tested with modified equipment at higher speeds, as has an experimental maglev in Japan, but the Pudong Airport maglev has the fastest scheduled speeds of any line open to the public. The maglev doesn’t run all night, but the first train gets to the airport well before the earliest transoceanic flights of the day.

In San Francisco, the racers — like most tourists — were in such a hurry to get to the top of Coit Tower that they scarcely paused to glance at the extraordinary murals (PDF, 7.2 MB) inside the base of the tower, which make the site well worth a visit — and worth the climb up the hill — even if you don’t want to pay for the elevator ride to the top of the tower.

In Shanghai, the TV producers put the racers up at the Pudong Shangri-La Hotel. I’m sure it’s even more luxurious than a similarly-priced “five-star” hotel in the USA, but as I mentioned last week, you don’t have to pay nearly that much for very comfortable accommodations in modern Chinese hotels that don’t have internationally-known names.

This week I heard from one of the founders of an exciting new Shanghai-based travel service, Their idea is to provide a Web-based service to match English-speaking travellers in China with Chinese people who are willing to trade accommodations in their homes, or their services as amateur tour guides and escorts, for the chance to practice their English conversation with a native speaker for a couple of hours a day.

It’s a brilliant idea, matching huge potential markets both for home-stay accommodations and guide services (especially in China, where independent travel is certainly possible without knowing any Chinese, but many visitors are intimidated by the language barrier) and for English language learning.

I’ve volunteered as a native speaker of English in language classes, or sought out (and paid for) accommodations in private homes, on at least four continents. In Shanghai, I struck an impromptu bargain on the street to spend a day with a student of English, trading a chance for them to practice English conversation and hone their skills as a guide for my chance to be taken by a private guide to places I wouldn’t have found on my own. If has found a way to facilitate these exchanges for more people — or has identified a niche that will encourage others to do so — that’s a great thing.

Unlike many relationships between Northern visitors and Southern hosts, this one has the possibility to provide real value for both parties to the exchange. It will work and be fair, however, only if visitors are committed to provide two hours a day of conversation and/or amateur English instruction (this can be fun, but it can be hard work at the same time, and most people won’t want to do it every day for an extended trip), even when they are jet-lagged, tired, or overwhelmed by the intensity of Chinese street life, and realistic in their expectations (people who want to practice their English by definition have limited English ability and limited experience interacting with foreigners, and will be limited in their ability as amateur guides).

I’m not sure if will be the company or site to succeed in the niche they’ve been first to recognize. But if they don’t, I expect that others will, not just in China but in other countries where (1) there is a large middle or upper class able to offer a level of material comfort in their homes acceptable to typical First World travellers, (2) those same middle or upper-class locals can’t afford, or can’t get visas, to visit or study in First World English-speaking countries, (3) local standards of English ability and teaching are low, and prices of instruction by native English speakers are by local standards high, and (4) proficiency in English is highly valued.

China is obviously by far the largest and best market for such a service, but it would also work especially well in Brazil, Russia, Turkey, and some other places in Asia (South Korea, Taiwan, maybe Japan), the former USSR, and some countries in central and eastern Europe whose citizens still have difficulty getting visas to travel to western Europe or the USA. Some adaptations to local conditions would be needed. But some of those, such as the need to provide visa support for visitors to Russia, could be additional profit centers for the operators of the service. This is the best new travel business model, and potentially the best new service for world travellers, that I’ve heard about in a very long time. has been signing up Chinese members for some time, but just started offering its matchmaking service to foreign travellers this month, to coincide with the opening of the Shanghai World Expo I talked about in last week’s race column. It’s too soon to tell how well their system will work, or whether their business model (no fee for Chinese hosts, some free services and a nominal US$25 one-time fee for enhanced services for foreign visitors, and most revenues for the site projected to come eventually from advertising) will be viable.

I have my doubts about some of the initial choices has made. In particular, I think it’s a bad idea to use the same listings for romantic match-ups as for exchanges of English language practice for accommodations and guide services. I have no objection to online matchmaking for places to sleep or people to sleep with, but mixing the two up on the Web site is likely to lead to mix-ups on arrival and misunderstandings about what each party has bargained for, agreed to, or expects.

However it works out, I’m eager to hear from any readers who use the service, or who learn of similar services in China or elsewhere.

It remains to be seen whether the route of the next season of the race, to be filmed this summer or fall, will be influenced by the continuing disruption of flights to, from, and within Europe by volcanic ash from the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull. Since the initial crisis, as I predicted, airspace is being closed only over smaller areas where the ash density is greatest, so most long-haul flights to Europe are still arriving, albeit sometimes with diversions and delays. Air travel within Europe, especially northwestern Europe, continues to have more problems. See my earlier article for more on the effect of the eruption on European travel, including advice for European travel this summer.

It’s also too early to predict whether changes in travel plans away from Europe will have an impact on availability or prices of seats on flights to other international destinations. I suspect that most people from the USA who cancel summer trips to Europe will spend the time in the USA rather than planning last-minute trips to other parts of the world. But international airlines are operating with higher load factors (percentages of seats filled with paying passengers) than they have in years, so even small shifts in destination preferences could have a greater impact than usual. Flights are being added only on routes where there is enough demand and high enough average ticket prices that airlines expect to be able to fill new flights profitably, not in places where excess capacity will depress prices to bargain levels.

For example, I mentioned in the first week of this season of the race that the TV producers required the teams to take longer, slower connecting flights from Los Angeles to Santiago on US airlines, by way of their US hubs, rather than the nonstop flight from LAX on LAN Chile. This week LAN Peru announced plans for nonstop flights between SFO and Lima, starting this July, with connections in Lima to the rest of their South American network and continuing “direct” one-stop service to and from São Paulo, Brazil.

LAN’s flights to and from SFO will be the first by any South American airline in at least twenty years (when did Varig discontinue its SFO-Rio service?) and the only nonstop flights on any airline between the Bay Area and anywhere in South America. [Correction: Since writing this, I’ve remembered VASP’s slightly more recent, but thoroughly unsuccessful, experiment with SFO-São Paulo service in the 1990’s. Times and travel patterns have changed, but VASP’s failure — they had the lowest load factors of almost any long-haul flights at SFO — may be part of what has scared other airlines away from going back into that market.]

It’s unclear if the through SFO-LIM-GRU and v.v. service will be on the same plane. Even if it is — the US Department of Transportation, with typical unconcern for truth in advertising, allows airlines to call a set of connecting flights a “direct flight” even when the flights are on different planes operated by different airlines at different terminals — through passengers may have to wake up and get off the plane in the middle of the night in Lima while it’s refueled. Still, it will be the fastest and most direct route between the Bay Area and Brazil, and likely to be especially popular for people travelling in both directions to visit friends and relatives, who prefer to clear customs and immigration at SFO and who are likely to have lots of luggage that they don’t want to have to claim at some US gateway, take through inspection, and then re-check before they can get their connecting flight.

Regardless of the reasons for my trip, I’d rather change planes in Lima, even in the middle of the night, than in Miami, Los Angeles, or some other US gateway. LAN’s new San Francisco service will provide be the best available route to and from not just Lima (typically the sinkhole of inbound and outbound South American airfares on almost all airlines) and São Paulo but also Buenos Aires and Santiago.

Although “LAN” is the Spanish acronym for “national airline”, it’s actually one of the least “national” airlines in the world, describing itself as one of the most globalized companies in Latin America. From its original base in Chile, LAN has taken advantage of the bankruptcy of national carriers to win permission to operate in a growing list of countries, and now has additional fully integrated operating divisions in Peru (its second-largest hub, especially for flights to and from North America), Ecuador, and Argentina, with Colombia perhaps to follow.

So will these new flights mean lower prices for tickets between the Bay Area and South America? Probably not. LAN is undoubtedly starting these flights because they believe that, of all the routes they could possibly add, this is the most underserved market where they have the best chance to fill new flights at high average prices per passenger-mile. I think they may be right, for all the reasons suggested above. There is a large and growing South American immigrant population in the Bay Area, especially from Brazil, and growing interest by Bay Area travellers in tourism to the Southern Cone, especially to Argentina and Chile.

LAN is offering some discounted introductory fares, but they don’t appear to be any lower than the prices available on other airlines through consolidator outlets like Latin American specialists Exito Travel. (Full disclosure: Exito Travel has given me modest discounts on some of the tickets I’ve bought through them for my own past trips.) Because the LAN flights have just now been opened for sale, they now have more seats available than do those on other airlines, or on LAN’s own flights to and from other US gateways. But once the introductory sale is over, I expect that these will become the preferred, and premium, choice for Bay Area-South America travellers who are willing to pay a bit more for quicker, more convenient flights (and better service, of course, than on US-flag airlines).mentioned

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 9 May 2010, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Hi Edward -

I work for LAN. Saw your post and wanted to confirm that yes, the SFO-LIM-GRU flight is on the same plane, same flight number.

Posted by: Megan Kat, 18 May 2010, 09:40 ( 9:40 AM) is a knock-off of the immensely successful Both share the disingenuous money-making VIP "donation" backbone in which members are upgraded to "verified" for a set fee.

Posted by: sman, 23 May 2010, 10:38 (10:38 AM)

Has anyone had an experience -good or bad- with Thanks, very interested. Thanks Sman, I'll check those out as well.

Posted by: Bret, 31 October 2010, 16:32 ( 4:32 PM)
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