Almost Everything Has Changed, and Not for the Best
Let’s take a time machine back to the turn of the decade, the turn of the century, and the turn of the millennium, to the heady days of 2000. In that fine year, Americans could buy one euro for only 90 cents. The Internet was bringing travel companies out of the woodwork, all offering rock-bottom deals to consumers. The big U.S. airlines were flush with cash and some even served you meals! Our president had high approval ratings around the world, our economy was booming, and “American” had more positive than negative connotations outside our borders.
Those days are gone. As a result, many assumptions that were in place at the turn of the century don’t hold up anymore. As we hit the middle of the decade, here is a quick primer on the major changes for anyone looking to live or travel abroad in the near future.
The U.S. Dollar is in Big Trouble
If you are an American using a guidebook for Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or South Africa written before 2004, all the prices are wrong—really wrong. For a variety of Economics 101 reasons, the U.S. dollar has steadily declined against several major currencies. As I write this, it takes around $1.25 to buy one euro and nearly two dollars to buy one British pound. To put this in perspective, the worth of the U.S. dollar is now equivalent to that of the Canadian dollar against the euro in 2000. For Canadians, the falling dollar has been a boon: the U.S. is not so expensive and other parts of the world are more reasonable. For Americans, Canada is not the screaming bargain it was a few years ago and other places have become downright pricey.
It has been a very long time since anyone could “backpack across Europe on a shoestring,” though many college students living in a bubble still hold this myth dear. These days, though, traveling around Europe is akin to shopping at Tiffany’s. Apart from a few odd bargains (jugs of table wine perhaps), nearly everything in Western Europe is far more expensive than it is in the U.S. A simple taxicab ride to the airport can top $100. A neighborhood restaurant meal becomes a splurge. Two beds in a London hostel dorm room now routinely top the cost of a nice motel room in your hometown.
So what do you do? Either take a lot more money than you had planned to places where the dollar has plunged, or go someplace where it is still a bargain. Eastern Europe is not as cheap as it was before the dollar’s slide, but it’s still a far better value than Western Europe. Turkey is a better deal still. Currencies in much of Asia and Latin America are still tied to the dollar, so they remain the best bets for those on a budget.
The Big Airlines are Struggling
Most large airlines around the world are in trouble, even though passenger traffic is high. We’ve seen a dozen airlines go under or go onto life support in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Booking your flight six months in advance doesn’t make much sense anymore unless you are using mileage for a free ticket. This environment of cutbacks also means that penny-pinching airlines—especially American and European ones—are not exactly concerned about your comfort and happiness. A major newspaper study in 2004 found that smaller, lesser-known international carriers such as Air Emirates, EVA, and Lan Chile consistently delivered better prices and better service. These days, bigger isn’t better. Look beyond the obvious when buying your tickets.
The Round-the-World Options are in Flux
If you are going on a round-the-world journey, you are taking more risk than usual these days by booking it all in advance. The Star Alliance is made up of great airlines in Europe and Asia, but its two U.S. choices, United and U.S. Air, are bankrupt. The One World alliance is made up of only eight airlines, so if one of them goes under whole sections of the globe will be off limits. The new SkyTeam alliance has future promise, but for now the nine airlines include fragile Delta and Alitalia. (Three more, including Continental and Northwest, may be added in the future.) One plus for Skyteam is that you are allowed to backtrack, so this eliminates some risk and makes South American stops easier.
In many cases, travelers will save a lot of money booking tickets as they go so they can react to changing business conditions. International airfare prices in the U.S. are among the highest in the world. Local prices at the source are nearly always cheaper than those quoted stateside and you get the added bonus of being able to change your plans as you go. At the least, look into buying a round-the-world ticket in Toronto, where prices are more reasonable.
You Need a Second Opinion, And a Third, and a Fourth
The days of the general travel agent are over. That business doesn’t pay anymore. As in many other industries, most travel agents now serve a specific specialty niche. So if you’re trying to book an around-the-world trip or independent international travel, you need to either find a specialist such as STA, do it yourself on the Web, or both.
Finding deals on the Web has gotten both harder and easier in the past few years. While the process itself isn’t so hard for simple itineraries, even the most basic ticket will vary wildly in price from site to site. It saves time to use one of the “meta search engines” listed in the resources sidebar. For 1-way international routes, however, it’s still often best to do it the old-school way: pick up a phone and call a bucket shop in one of the major cities. Consolidator agencies that specialize in specific routes (such as Chicago to Eastern Europe or San Francisco to East Asia) are often going to beat the official fares listed on web sites. Spend some time at the library and look at the classified ads from major Sunday newspaper travel sections.
For hotels, prices are more stable at the budget end than at higher levels, but there are still variations based on season, demand, and who is getting a commission. If you pre-book a budget hotel room or hostel bed on the Web, you are often paying a higher rate than you would in person. If it will be your first night after flying in or it is a busy time of year where you are going, it’s possibly worth it to pay more to have a reservation. Otherwise just find rooms as you go.
Americans are Lightning Rods
When I circled the globe three times in the mid-to-late 1990s and lived overseas in Turkey and Korea, I got into plenty of debates about politics. Even in the Middle East, however, the discussions were generally civil and detached. In 2005, geo-political emotions are running much higher and America is right in the center of the storm. We are in an unpopular war and led by an extremely unpopular administration.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you need to act like a Canadian and slap a big maple leaf flag on your backpack. Avoiding discussions about politics is next to impossible for U.S. travelers these days, whether you are speaking to a Mexican bartender or a German backpacker. But you do have the power to influence stereotypes and to show that Americans are not all loud and angry warmongers. Boning up on international politics and geography will get you past the stereotype of the ignorant American. Read good magazines with international news such as The Economist or The Week. Or start reading books like What Every American Should Know About the Rest of the World.
Transitions Abroad’s articles describe how to be a good ambassador abroad. Take them to heart and you will be warmly welcomed, despite what the people you meet think about our government.
TIM LEFFEL, a regular columnist for Transitions Abroad Magazine, is the author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: The Contrarian Traveler’s Guide to Getting More for Less and The World’s Cheapest Destinations. He is also editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet.