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Around the World Travel

A Conversation with Budget Travel Guru Edward Hasbrouck

Edward Hasbrouck—travel guru and author of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World–practically jumped through the phone when we interviewed him this summer. His palpable enthusiasm for helping others fulfill their travel dreams makes him a perfect spokesman for www.AirTreks.com, the San Francisco-based travel agency that employs him as their resident expert. In addition to his work as a travel advocate, Hasbrouck has always been a fighter for human rights and free expression. He wrote a legal rights manual for students when he was in high school (which is still in print), and remains active in the peace movement and in support of self-determination in Kashmir. We interviewed him by phone from his office at AirTreks.com.

Transitions Abroad: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see people make when planning their around-the-world-trips?

Hasbrouck: The biggest mistake is not to do it! So many people dream about a trip around the world, but few–especially Americans–actually make that dream come true. The one thing that would most often improve people’s trips is more research in choosing destinations. People tend to pick sights they want to see, but you are likely to have a better trip–and less culture shock–if you pick destinations according to what the experience of “being there” will be like. That has more to do with the nature of daily local life than with anything in tour brochures.

TA: Which countries would you tell an around-the-world traveler not to miss?

Hasbrouck: I don’t think you can possibly get a sense of the world without experiencing the two countries that together make up one-third of it: India and China. For people from the U.S. and other Western countries the next most important country to visit is probably still Russia. Many Americans are still far too Eurocentric. Western Europe is still an interesting little corner of the world, but it’s a small one. Europe is also a much more difficult and expensive a region to visit than closer, poorer, and therefore cheaper parts of the world. From the West Coast, Asia is closer than Europe; from the East Coast, Africa is closer. From anywhere in the U.S., except Alaska, Latin America is closer than Europe. And, as the region most culturally similar to the U.S., Europe is the one from which we have the least to learn about alternative ways of life.

TA: Online research is becoming more popular than ever. What is your advice on the best way to get the online information you need?

Hasbrouck: The best overall Internet travel agencies for simple oneway and roundtrip tickets for flexible budget travelers tend to be those that specialize in consolidator tickets, such as Onetravel.com and hotwire.com. AirTreks.com, where I work, is really the only place on the Internet where you can get instant online estimates–based on discounted consolidator prices–for customized, around-the-world and other multi-stop journeys.

TA: What about Orbitz, the recently-launched airline-created mega web site?

Hasbrouck: Orbitz claims to offer access to all fares. But while true in the most literal sense, this claim is likely to mislead consumers unfamiliar with the technical distinction between “fares” and “prices.” “Fares” are ticket prices published and offered directly by airlines. The regulatory system governing airline sales permits travel agents, but not airlines themselves, to sell tickets for less than the published tariffs. So these “off tariff” or “consolidator” prices are the major reason to buy tickets from a travel agent, rather than directly from the airline. It’s rare for the lowest available price to be a published fare. Published fares are actually a small minority of the universe of available air ticket prices.

TA: Are there common mistakes you’ve seen people make in their Internet research?

Hasbrouck: Your question assumes that somehow the Internet makes it possible to be a successful do-it-yourself travel agent. On the ‘Net, as anywhere else, doing it yourself will be slower and more difficult than simply paying a professional to do it for you. (My book, The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace, is a primer for would-be do-it-yourself travel agents). When you use the ‘Net, you need to pay attention to the underlying source of information. A lot of what you find is infomercials, shills, and advertising masquerading as impartial advice. There isn’t any one site that consistently has the lowest prices, even for similar trips. Some sites look different but actually have identical offerings; others search completely different subsets of the universe of possible ticket prices.

TA: What’s your advice for someone looking for the absolute lowest price for an international destination?

Hasbrouck: No general purpose agency is likely to be able to beat the lowest prices of a no-service, bare-bones specialist agency within a particular ethnic community that sells nothing else but a massive volume of roundtrip tickets to a single destination. The lowest advertised price is usually either a loss leader and/or a bait-and-switch gambit to attract callers. Additionally, these prices are exclusive of taxes and perhaps other fees. Even in the in most expensive season, the lowest advertised prices are usually for travel in low season, whenever that is. (Shopping solely on the basis of price is likely to mean that the agency from which you eventually buy your ticket has cut its margin so thin that they can’t afford to provide an acceptable standard of service.) And even price-sensitive travelers may find it’s worth paying a bit more for reliability, service, and a modicum of advice.

TA: Finally, how do you go about choosing an around-the-world travel companion?

Hasbrouck: A compatible traveling style is more important than wanting to go to the same places. Even if you think you know them inside out, get together with your prospective companion(s) in advance. Go around the room with them, and let each describe what they imagine a few days in each place would be like: what you’ll do, what you’ll see, etc. As you listen, try to imagine yourself on their fantasy trip. How different is it from yours? Before you commit to the big trip, take a shorter “shakedown” trip together. Traveling with someone can be very different than spending time with him or her at home. Many people leave home alone and return alone but spend most of their trip in the company of impromptu companions they meet along the way. Traveling partners tend to interact mostly with each other. Traveling alone creates more incentive and opportunity for immersion in local life and interaction with locals

The Practical Traveler's List of Essentials

1. A money belt with tickets, passport, immunization records (“yellow book),” emergency cash, American Express card, ATM card, eyeglasses and other prescriptions, insurance info, and emergency contact numbers. Make several sets of photocopies of everything in your money belt. Stash a set elsewhere in your luggage and leave a set behind with someone who can fax them to you in an emergency.

2. A convertible travel pack with a full backpack suspension that can be stowed away to protect it from airline baggage mangling machinery. Try it on with weight in it and get the one that fits best regardless of price.

3. A water purifier is cheaper than buying bottled water, and you’re never at risk of running out.

4. Spare pair of eyeglasses in a crushproof case.

5. Adequate supply of any regularly taken medications in original bottles with prescription labels.

6. Tiny zipper pull or pack strap compass for urban map navigation, especially in places where you have an English language map but can’t speak or read the local language.

7. Comfortable, durable footwear. Clothes are easy to find along the way but well- fitting shoes are not.

8. Ultra-lightweight silk or synthetic long underwear has much higher warmth-to-weight ratio than any warm outerwear, can be worn under almost anything, and doubles as pajamas in cold climates or overly air conditioned hotels, trains, etc.

9. Safe sex supplies. Sexually transmitted diseases are the most common health hazards for travelers.

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