Package Tours in Sensible Countries

December 28, 2009

Package Tour. The words alone give the inveterate traveler a case of the heebie-jeebies: visions of overfed middle-aged pasty Americans (or Brits, or Germans) herded from their gaudy-hued tour buses into third-rate freeway-adjacent restaurants which are distinguished largely by the fact that their parking lots are of sufficient dimensions to accommodate a multitude of tour buses. After the meal, said tour drones parade through the inevitable attached gift shop, picking through souvenir clothing (“My parents went to _____________, and all I got was this *%&^* shirt!”), small “hand crafted” objets d’art (likely made with child labor in some seedy backwater far far away from the gift shop environs), and the like. It must be said that there are tours in Asia that approximate the above, albeit with a somewhat more exotic flavor, at least for the Western attendee. Where they diverge from their American counterparts is (for the most part) in the pricing. Consider: just to take the famed Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto round trip runs 25,600 yen, about $300 US, per person (so, $600 for two). Figure on a minimum of $100 per night for a traditional Kyoto inn (which might be found in a modern high-rise apartment building, oddly); so, three nights’ accommodation, $300. You can eat, not lavishly but decently well, for about $50 per day per person, so there’s another $300. Booking all this on your own will set you back about $1200 for a three-night long weekend for two (not counting taxis, admissions and incidentals). Alternatively, you could place a quick phone call to any of a dozen aggressively competitive Tokyo tour companies and get all of the above, plus all admissions to attractions, inter-attraction transport, and free half-day side trips to Nara, where the tame deer will nuzzle your fingers in pursuit of a morsel of fruit or veggie, and Arashiyama, whose fall colors give New Hampshire a good run for its money. The price: 49,800 (about $600) for two, all in. (And if by some chance you do find yourself aboard a bus, rest assured that it will be rather upscale from its US counterpart: leather seats, individual a/c controls, etc; not in any form or fashion the penalty box that pops to mind when you think of domestic “motor coach” travel. Clearly there are many things we can learn from our Far Eastern brethren, beyond martial arts and how to make reliable cars!)

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Air Travel in Sensible Countries

December 28, 2009

It sounds like the title of the next No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency instalment, but I assure you it is nothing of the sort. Rather, it is a short treatise on the sorry state of air travel nowadays in North America.

If you want to purchase the least expensive air ticket between, say, Nashville and Chicago, the best plan is to book it well in advance, basically as soon as you know that you want to make the trip (if not before). Rules vary from airline to airline, of course, but booking two to three weeks in advance is likely to secure the cheapest available fare. The one thing that you would never ever (ever) do is just show up at the airport on the desired day of departure, advance through the queue to the counter agent, and say “Excuse me, I would like to buy an inexpensive ticket to Chicago, please.” It would be enough to render the agent momentarily speechless, followed by elbow nudges and ill-restrained mirth among the airline staff. Also, a large ka-ching sound clearly audible in the long-term parking lot.

In Korea, due to the unexpected availability of a friend I hadn’t seen in over a year, I made a last-minute decision to embark on a flight between remote Jeju Island and the Korean capital, Seoul, a distance of about 300 miles. The procedure for this: walk up to the Jeju Air ticket counter, smile at the exquisitely beautiful counter agent, show her my passport, swipe my American Express card, and walk off with my confirmed window seat boarding pass, all for the princely sum of 56,000 Korean won, about $50 US as of this writing. Had I booked fourteen days in advance—$50. Twenty-one days ahead—you guessed it, $50. Note: this was a weekend fare; my return flight to Jeju was actually less, just 43,000 won (about $40), because I was doing it on a Tuesday. Of course it is possible to make advance reservations in Korea, but the reason for doing so is to ensure a seat on a particular flight (i.e., for your convenience, as opposed to the airline’s), not to lock in a cheaper price.

In fairness, I have to say that I probably got a bit lucky in terms of seat availability. I arrived at the airport at 10:25am, and had to wait until the 12:25 flight, as the 11am and 12:05 flights were booked to capacity. My flight was getting full as well, so had I arrived just a bit later, I might have had to wait until 1:25. Yikes, the inconvenience! (By the way, for my return flight, I arrived at the airport at 9:50am, and was actually in my seat on the airplane at 10:20am; remember when that used to be the norm?)

There must be some reason why this model is not workable stateside, but for the life of me, I cannot suss out what it might be.