Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Amazing Race 21, Episode 8

Moscow (Russia) - Amsterdam (Netherlands) - Ransdorp (Netherlands)

Before Ryan and Abbie were eliminated for coming in last in this week’s episode of The Amazing Race 21, two other teams of racers who had come to see them as friends and travel companions were shown agonizing over whether to leave them behind or “U-Turn” them back, and go on without them.

Unless racers on rival teams were developing a relationship that seemed more important than the US$1-2 million prize for winning the race around the world, that seems like a loss of perspective. The TV producers hope for romances between teams, and they have happened in other seasons of The Amazing Race. But that didn’t seem to be what was going on this week.

In real-life travel, if not in a journey that all of the participants embarked on as a competition, it’s common to face and to agonize over the choice of whether to stick with your travelling companion(s) if things go wrong for them — illness, injury, lost or stolen documents, visa delays, trouble with the law — or to go on without them. It can happen with people you left home with and intended to stay with throughout the journey, but it can also happen with people you’ve met along the way and feel you’ve made a commitment to for a portion of the trip.

Few of us would want to be left on our own to deal with any of these sorts of problems, especially in a strange (and perhaps therefore frightening-seeming) place. The difficult issue is how much the Golden Rule obligates us to give up — whether in dollars or in the achievement of our own travel goals — in the name of solidarity with our travelling companions.

In the race, both Las Vegas dancers James and Jaymes, and “green” lifestyle brand entrepreneurs Brent and Josh eventually decided that they would rather stay in the race themselves than stay with their friends Ryan and Abbie and risk being eliminated with them.

But what would you do if it were “only” the cost of an expensive cruise or tour at stake, or the vacation time you’ve been saving up for years, rather than a million dollars, and you had to choose between going on to the destination of your dreams or leaving new or old friends behind? How would you decide? And what can you do to reduce the likelihood of having to make that choice?

Sometimes, of course, travellers take on themselves, or impose on their travelling companions, risks those companions might not have chosen for themselves. It’s one thing, for example, to take a trip by yourself that you’re not sure you will be physically able to complete. But it’s another thing to join a group tour if you know about a pre-existing physical condition which has a substantial chance of forcing the entire group to have to change or abort their plans.

Most fellow travellers will forgive you, as they should, if you get unexpectedly sick or accidentally injured, or run into unexpected bureaucratic hassles, and the whole group has to stop or turn back to get you to safety. But they are likely to be much less forgiving if there was something you knew about in advance, but didn’t disclose, and that ends up causing problems for them as well as for yourself.

That’s even more true of foreseeable legal risks than of physical risks.

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, the newly-met fellow travellers I’d gotten together with to charter a vehicle across a border in a remote region turned out to be carrying contraband to finance their trip. What they were carrying was merely dutiable and undeclared, not drugs or weapons or prohibited outright. And it turned out all right in the end, as First World tourists bags’ weren’t even inspected at any of the checkpoints where local travellers were shaken down by soldiers and border guards for a percentage of whatever they were smuggling. But I resented not having been asked before we embarked, “Would you mind if we hide some _____ in the vehicle we’re going to be riding in with you?” Had they been caught, I would have wanted to go on with my trip, but might not have been able to do so if the vehicle had been seized, the driver had been detained, or I had been treated as a suspect along with my new, ad hoc companions.

Another time, I was picked up while hitchhiking by a man who turned out to be driving a stolen car. I was grateful to him for having stopped for me and another hitchhiker, and 30 years later I still wonder what happened to him. But when the police puled us over a few hours down the highway, I didn’t hesitate to walk away and leave him to his fate once the police came to a snap judgment — very luckily, I’ve since come to realize, since I could easily have been found guilty by association — that I and the other hitchhiker had nothing to do with the car theft or whatever else the driver was wanted for.

If you think you’ve never been in a similar situation, you might be wrong. In a foreign country, I don’t always know what the rules are, and even if I did I wouldn’t be able wouldn’t be able to verify whether they were being followed without knowing the local language(s).

I assume that I’ve ridden in illegal gypsy cabs driven by unlicensed drivers, paid money to unlicensed “gray market” businesses that weren’t paying taxes and/or were being used to launder the profits of other illegal businesses, and been in the presence of contraband I didn’t know about and that could have gotten me in trouble along with those who were carrying it. (In the case of the journey I’ve described above, some furtive activities by our driver suggested that my fellow tourists weren’t the only smugglers in the vehicle.) I imagine I’ve unwittingly (but culpably, under local laws) been in places I wasn’t supposed to be, taken photographs in places where that was forbidden, and violated local rules against blasphemy, fornication, disrespecting the king (queen, emir, etc.), and only the god(dess) knows or doesn’t know what else.

If one of my companions, even a casual companion on a day tour, were arrested for something unforeseeable like that, or was the victim of a crime or accidental injury that they didn’t invite by gross negligence, I’d feel some sense of responsibility, not in the sense of blame but of duty, to try to do what I could for them before trying to go on with my own trip.

The most common causes of major travel problems and delays are road crashes and lost or stolen travel documents. We’ve seen several lost or stolen passports on the “The Amazing Race”, but surprisingly few car crashes and no fatal ones — yet. But whatever the cause of the problem, there are limits to what can be expected from other travellers.

That’s where the agonizing comes in. How long do you wait for a travelling companion who has been delayed or who is unable to continue on your mutually planned itinerary? At what point do you say, “I/we are going on without you while you stay here or go home alone”?

These are personal choices, likely to be shaped by the nuances of the particular situation and your relationship to your fellow travellers. I can’t, and won’t, tell you what you should do.

I can, however, offer a few suggestions (not all or any of which are always feasible) to reduce the risk that you’ll be put in a situation where you have to make choices like this:

1. Travel more slowly.

I’ve often noted that travelling more slowly, and spending more time in each place, it is typically much less costly per day or week than trying to “accomplish” more sightseeing in less time.

It’s also a lot safer, and gives you more flexibility to take advantage of unexpected opportunities as well as to cope with unexpected setbacks, whether to yourself or to your companion(s), without their getting in the way of achieving your overall travel goals.

If you’re spending a week in one place, being incapacitated by traveller’s diarrhea for any one or two of those days won’t require any great changes to your plans. If it’s your companion who’s too sick to leave the hotel, you can probably still do some sightseeing for a day by yourself.

If you show up at the point or port of departure of a tour or cruise a couple of days in advance, you have a chance of being able to rectify any unforeseen defects in your travel documents or track down any essential item of gear you’ve forgotten, without having to miss the bus or boat, or your companion(s) having to decide whether to go on without you.

2. Don’t make non-refundable advance payments for non-changeable reservations.

If you don’t have any commitments that will cost you money to break, changing your plans will only cost you time (see item 1 above) and not money. This is one of the reasons I think of making reservations in advance as more, not less, risky than arranging things on arrival.

There are some things that you can’t do at all unless you arrange them in advance. But there are far, far fewer than most travellers imagine. It might take you more time to arrange a tour, safari, etc. with a local operator on arrival than if you had booked it in advance, but only rarely, for a few popular experiences that are strictly rationed, is it impossible.

The positive side of the tradeoff is that if you don’t arrange things in advance, you get to check out the operator in person and get local references from other travellers who have recently used their services before you choose, book, and pay. Buying from a brochure, in advance from afar, you are always taking a greater risk as to what you’ll find when you arrive.

3. Buy trip cancellation and interruption insurance if you are making large nonrefundable advance payments.

By and large, most travel insurance is a poor deal. It costs more than it’s worth. Useful coverage is often bundled with useless coverage. Most travellers (if they buy travel insurance at all) buy insurance against the things they are afraid of rather than the things that are more likely to pose a greater risk. Most people who can afford to travel can afford to self-insure for trip cancellation and interruption.

There are many types of travel insurance. Trip cancellation and interruption insurance typically covers the cancellation or refund penalties and the cost of getting home if you have to cancel your trip, or cut it short, for specified reasons. The covered reasons vary (read the fine print), but typically include injury or illness to you, a traveling companion, or a member of your immediate family. (Definitions of “immediate family member” also vary. Again, read the fine print.) Itinerary changes due to loss or theft of travel documents, or the outbreak of war or a terrorist incident in an intended destination, may or may not be included, or may be covered only at additional charge.

The point of this sort of insurance is not so much to protect you against losing money if you or a travelling companion or family member gets sick or injured or has something else happen that prevents them from travelling or requires them or you to go home early. The point of this sort of insurance is to enable you, if something like this happens, to make a decision about what to do without having it be clouded by financial concerns.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 25 November 2012, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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