TRAVELOGUE: The Mysteries of Travel

Globe-trotting contributor Michael Webb muses about the downside of travel and some of his pet peeves.

Whenever I fly abroad I’m fascinated by the recurring mysteries of travel, starting, of course, in the airport. Why do tourists who seem to go everywhere in tank tops and shorts feel compelled to tote huge suitcases, stand in line, and pay to check them? Have they packed their entire wardrobe? Too often, these bags are misdirected, damaged or pilfered. At best you wait half an hour to retrieve them; at worst you waste hours making claims and I once lost a day in Rome chasing a lost bag that was finally delivered to my hotel, much the worse for wear. Toting them from one destination to the next is no fun, either.

Having learned the hard way, I limit myself to a spare pair of black microfiber pants and six black cotton Ts which can be washed and dried overnight, plus a pre-creased Issey Miyake shirt-jacket that weighs nothing and—accompanied by a knotted silk scarf –provides the illusion of dressiness. Add underwear, pjs, toiletries, and an iPad and I can travel indefinitely with a roll-on, plus a zipped canvas camera bag with no insignia to tempt thieves. Some European airlines prescribe and occasionally enforce idiotically low weight limits for carry-on (around 15lbs) as though they had miniaturized their planes, and you can meet those by substituting a super-tough nylon hold-all for the roll-on.

Terminals have become shopping malls, but why is it so hard to find anything useful?  Whenever I fly abroad, I want a SIM card that allows me to make cheap local calls on an unlocked phone rather than racking up exorbitant roaming charges on a US model.  All I find in the arrivals hall are fast-talking salesmen trying to sign me up for an international calling plan. In Santiago de Chile I bought a Nokia preloaded with 100 minutes of calls for only $19, but I had to waste hours searching for a downtown store and standing in line. At the airport it would have been as quick and easy as withdrawing cash from the ATM.

The mysteries deepen once you board. Why has no airline (I must have flown a hundred over the years) commissioned the best design talents to create a comfortable coach seat? In steerage, one expects to be packed like a sardine but at least the seat could provide decent support. Even the recliners up front can give you a back ache after a few hours of lying prone. And why do international airlines insist on serving a three-course, meat and veg meal, usually horrid, and often in the middle of the night when most passengers would settle for a decent salad in exchange for a few hours of undisturbed sleep? And for those of us who don’t want the relentless assault of “audio-visual entertainment” three inches from our faces, why won’t the screens turn off? (I tear pages out of the duty-free catalog and wrap them round the monitor). 

Car rental is another minefield. It’s crazy to drive a large, glossy car that is easily scarred in narrow streets, costs a fortune to tank up, and invites theft or vandalism. I always request, but rarely get, a compact that’s easy to park, frugal on gas, and not worth stealing. In Andalusia, I was given a jumbo SUV to navigate medieval lanes and tiny parking garages. Another time, in Barcelona, it was a new Mercedes—which should have been tagged “steal me”.

New car bodies are as vulnerable as egg shells. It’s hard enough to keep my Prius pristine; for overseas rentals I would like to wrap a thick strip of tire rubber around the base to protect it from scrapes. In Chile I drove on roads that would be used as a torture test in Detroit, and navigated rush hour traffic unscathed. I thought I had emerged intact. When I returned the car, two mechanics crawled all over it searching for a nick and wanted to charge me for a scrape on the underside of the rear fender! I told them this wasn’t a concours d’elegance and refused to pay a peso. The same thing happened in Croatia, though there they forgave a gouge, supposing it to be the near-invisible blemish that they had already registered. Triumph!

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