Thursday 31 July 2008

Fly the Low-Cost Skies (While You Can)

Some interesting rumbles emanating from the UK this week, as budget airline Ryanair faces its first loss in quite a while, according to this report in The Guardian.

For those who aren't familiar with the dizzy world of el cheapo flights across Europe, Ryanair is in the vanguard of a slew of low-cost carriers who grab headlines by advertising flights for as little as one shiny British penny (yes, you read that correctly). The devil, of course, is in the detail: to get those fares, you have to book way ahead.

The carriers then load you up with as many extra charges as they can: a fee for priority boarding, a fee to check a bag into the hold, charges for all food and drink on board.

Sky Europe, a Slovak-owned carrier I travelled on from Poprad to London (Luton) this year, even charges you to select a specific seat, with the amount depending on how desirable it is. And of course, government taxes and charges have to go on top of all that.

I'm not complaining about any of this, mind you; it's easy enough to avoid most of these extras if you plan ahead and travel light. And I can confirm that the absurdly cheap fares do exist. Last year I flew from London (Stansted) to Szczecin, Poland for a 50 pence base fare; and I topped that this year by scoring a £0.01 fare from London (Stansted) to Kraków, Poland. To put things into perspective, by the time the various fees were added, the latter trip cost around $50 Australian. Still very cheap for a 2.5 hour flight.

But the unreality of all this makes you wonder if it isn't just a fevered dream that's finally coming to an end. In a 1960s Batman-esque series of blows, the likes of Ryanair are being hammered by high fuel prices (BAM!); inflation (POW!); falling consumer confidence (WHACK!); and environmental concerns (KAZOW!).

Add the fact that those exotic Eastern European countries aren't as cheap as they once were (I can testify to this re Poland), and the future might look bleak for airlines that rely on leisure travellers making casual, discretionary decisions to spend a weekend in somewhere like Bratislava.

And the "discretionary" part of that has me thinking. Many people might see, say, a late-model car as an essential item, and travel as a luxury. I think the opposite. I like my material comforts, sure, but I'd rather have less stuff and more travel any day.

So even if the days of the super-cheapie fare are numbered, I hope people keep travelling. If nothing else, it's good for our mental health to realise that it is possible to exist for a while without all the consumer goods we seem to "need" in the 21st century.

(And yes, I know there are environmental factors to consider; I'll talk more about these another day.)

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Do Travel Writers Go to Heck?

I'm in the middle of reading Thomas Kohnstamm's controversial book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?.

Kohnstamm, you may remember, was the former Lonely Planet author who 'fessed up a few months ago to accepting freebies on assignment against LP rules, and partaking of a lot of sex and drugs while updating a chapter on northeastern Brazil.

As I'm currently spending most of my workdays updating the Poland chapters of LP's Eastern Europe and Europe on a Shoestring, I was keen to read Kohnstamm's account. Halfway through, my main impression is of a somewhat wooden writing style.

The stories of sex and drugs lack credibility, as well: they seem at least tacky, at most wildly exaggerated. And the sense of veritas also isn't helped by the use of present tense - the story is unbelievable enough without making it seem even more like fiction.

The most interesting part for me is Kohnstamm's descriptions of his Lonely Planet work, and the mental and physical exhaustion that sets in after a few weeks on the road.

Maybe it's the difference between Brazil and Poland, but I don't seem to stumble across plentiful offers of sex and drugs while in Central Europe. Complimentary lard dips before a meal, yes; quickies in the back of a restauracja, no. But I do agree that being on a research assignment for a guidebook publisher is exhausting work; and that no-one, not even the LP staff back in the office, realises how exhausting.

So I thought it might be interesting to outline my average Lonely Planet research day in Poland:
  • 6am: Alarm on PDA wakes me up. Get ready for the day, organise notes, clipboard, map and camera while torturing myself with the only English-language cable news channel ("No more CNN! Nooooo!").
  • 7am: Hotel breakfast. If lucky, a nice buffet spread. If unlucky, a set menu involving cold meat and cheese, and a boiled egg.
  • 8am: Out of the door, following the map from the previous edition to check out the previously reviewed hotels, restaurants, museums etc. It's too early for most eateries to be open, but hotels usually have 24 hour reception. I'll check almost everything in the book anonymously, but sometimes the production of an LP business card is necessary at a hotel ("Just why do you want to see three rooms of different sizes?")
  • 1pm: After hours of trudging around town, and up and down the staircases of hotels (budget lodgings rarely have lifts), I'll grab lunch, either at one of the restaurants in the book or a possible new contender. I also make notes from the menu. Unfortunately it's not possible to eat at every eatery in the book (there aren't enough mealtimes), but I can at least check out the decor, menus, clientele and other people's meals by walking through a place.
  • 5pm: If I'm lucky, I've covered enough places for the day. If not, and I've been delayed by dodgy directions, roadworks, bad weather, numerous closures from the previous edition, or an insufficient spread of restaurants or hotels, there might be a few more hours of trudging.
  • 7pm: Dinner at another place either in the book, or aspiring to be. More notes.
  • 8.30pm: Either a session of typing the day's data into my laptop at the hotel, or research on the city's nightlife. Bars are fine, but nothing is more tragic than sitting alone in a nightclub at 9pm with a cheap drink, taking more notes.
  • 11pm: Snatch a tiny bit of downtime, reading a book before bed. Having no TV entertainment is a blessing, as I get a lot of reading done. My literature this trip included Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, Bill Elton's Chart Throb, and Marina Lewycka's rather entertaining novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.
As I've been writing this, I've realised that there actually is no typical day. Sometimes I'm later than this, sometimes up earlier, sometimes a day is blown on travelling to a new city. On another day in Warsaw I might have a meeting at the Australian Embassy, to ask them about dangers and annoyances reported to them by travellers.

The conclusion, in any case, is that guidebook research is not fun. People often respond to me mentioning my Lonely Planet gig by saying "That must be fun."

To which I say "That's the wrong adjective." Stimulating, yes, fascinating, yes, memorable, yes, but not fun. Fun involves travelling less intensely.

But I always add: every so often on an LP job, I walk around a corner and something unexpected just happens - something amazing or uplifting, that reminds me why I love to travel. And then the hard work seems all worthwhile.

Tuesday 15 July 2008

Transports of Delight

On Sunday I took my first ever helicopter flight, from Illawarra Regional Airport near Shellharbour, south of Wollongong in New South Wales. I was excited about the prospect, but also worried that the experience would be unnerving, with visions of the puny craft being tossed around by high winds once aloft.

I needn't have worried. As we slowly lifted off it felt as if a giant hand was lifting the helicopter up on a piece of taut string, but after that the journey above Lake Illawarra, Shellharbour, Kiama and the Illawarra Escarpment was superbly smooth.

For some reason I'm always overly pleased with travelling on a new form of transport, as if ticking it off a mental list. Here are five other forms of unconventional transport that made me smile:
  • Camel. AKA the ship of the desert, while I was living in Egypt. Some people don't like the rocking motion, but I really appreciated the breadth and sturdiness of the camel compared to the few horses I'd been on.
  • Funicular railway. There's something rather fun about zipping up the side of a mountain at a decidedly unconventional angle. I've been on funiculars in Budapest, Hungary; Zakopane, Poland; Wellington, New Zealand; Santiago, Chile; Vilnius, Lithuania; and in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia.
  • Unmanned train. Nothng says "the future has arrived" more than travelling on a train with no driver. Aside from the occasional short unmanned rail journey between airport terminals, I've enjoyed driverless travel on the Docklands Light Railway in London.
  • Cable car. I've been on two types of these. The type with multiple small cars hauled along by a moving cable, jangling alarmingly as they pass over the supports; and the larger car that hauls itself up a support-less cable to the peak of a very high mountain. Have been on the first type to Mount Kasprowy Wierch on the Polish side of the Tatras, and to Skalnaté Pleso on the Slovak side. And from there, on the second type all the way up to Lomnický Štít at 2634 metres above sea level. Great view!
  • Glass-bottom boat. The classic craft of gentle seaside tourism, allowing a view at the fish, coral and other attractive marine items below. However, the first time I set forth in one of these, on the Red Sea off Hurghada, Egypt, the swell made me ever-so-slightly seasick.
Which brings me to this very morning, when Narrelle and I walked across Princes Bridge in Melbourne, crossing the Yarra River on our morning walk to work. We looked up about 7.45am and saw the forms of several hot-air balloons on the horizon, passing over the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground, and the nearby ferris wheel and Circus Oz tent.

Now there's a form of transport I haven't yet been on! Hmm...

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Shellharbour.

Friday 4 July 2008

UK: London Calling

I'm home now, a bit jetlagged, but I spent the last four days of my trip in the UK. More specifically, in London.

I've just been doing a rough count and I figure this was my seventh visit to the British capital (if you count a visit at each end of an overseas trip as effectively one).

They've been varied as to length, ranging from two months to 24 hours. Sometimes I've been there specifically to visit the city, sometimes in transit on my way to somewhere else. But those visits have always been memorable.

Here are some of my London highlights:
  • 1990: The first international trip my wife Narrelle Harris and I had taken together. One of the high points was seeing Charles Dance in Coriolanus for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Theatre.
  • 1992: On my way to my first posting as a teacher of English as a foreign language, I cooled my heels with friends in Purley before leaving for Egypt. A memorable outing was to a horse race at Lingfield.
  • 1993: On a one-week break during our Egyptian posting, I learned that you really can lose your tolerance for alcohol when living in a low-alcohol country. We got hangovers from a single glass of red wine.
  • 1995: A 24 hour stopover on our way back home from teaching jobs in Poland. A fascinating journey on the Underground from Heathrow, listening to the complex saga of a guy whose family had sent him to Morocco amidst a family feud. Fascinating stuff, wanted to hand him my address to write and let me know how it worked out.
  • 2001: Just a few weeks after September 11, coincidentally, and the last time I would ever fly to Europe on a plane that wasn't completely full. I stayed with my brother John in 'edgy' Brixton, and finally realised 'edgy' meant 'cool but just a bit dangerous'.
  • 2007: After all these visits, I was finally in London in summer and could see a production at the reconstructed Globe Theatre. It was Othello, and at interval I gave up my gallery seat to stand up in the yard, leaning on the stage. Magic.
  • 2008: This year's highlight was going on a James Bond walk through Mayfair and St James, tracing elements of author Ian Fleming's life. It concluded with a visit to Dukes Hotel, and my joining the guide in a Vesper, the cocktail Fleming invented in Casino Royale. Expensive but superb.
All proof of Dr Johnston's dictum; so I've a feeling I'll be back.