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Pelton's World
Just the Ticket
Low, low airfares aren't always on the Web. By Robert Young Pelton

Illustration: traveler at customs counter
The man with gold teeth, a fur hat, and high-octane breath assured me "no problem" as he led me behind a row of parked trucks in Uzbekistan, "no problem" as he began to strip off his grimy overcoat and sweater, and "no problem" when he pulled out a stack of tattered Uzbek sums from a sheet wrapped around his belly. What, you might ask, was I doing trading BO-laced currency with a half-naked man in an alley? It wasn't for guns or drugs, nor was it part of a furtive terrorist rendezvous. It was for an airline ticket.

Turns out, my flight from Tashkent to Bangkok was going to cost $700 (U.S.). But if I used local currency exchanged at black-market rates, the fare worked out to roughly half that. I honestly don't know why.

Such is the bizarre world of airfares: Pakistani natives pay about one-third of what foreigners do; dirt-cheap and spotless Gulf state airlines can't fill seats, while grimy and expensive Asian carriers are packed to the gunnels. At a million air miles and counting, I'm still trying to learn new tricks to save cash. Here are a few cost-cutters that I've picked up so far.

Unless you're Amish, you probably buy airline tickets online. That's great—for flights that begin or end in the United States. Try to buy something else—a hop from London to Kabul, say—and you're going to pay a lot more than you should. Online that flight will run you at least $1,500, but in person, you'd be hard-pressed to pay more than $450. The problem is that many carriers—often the cheapest ones—don't have ticket offices here. To save money, the best bet is to buy your overseas tickets en route, to use an agent on the ground to get you a deal, or (even better) both.

In the Third World, a good travel agent can work anything, from employee discounts to bereavement fares. To snag a $250 hop from Frankfurt to L.A., I had a brief but satisfying career with a small New Zealand carrier. Agents are also clued in to the outrageous promotions run by many national carriers. Just recently, I caught wind of this deal from Qantas: New York City to Sydney round-trip, plus three additional flights within Australia, for a total of $1,300.

Advance planning is great if you're going on your honeymoon, but if you're flexible and willing to take a risk, hop a cheap flight to a hub city and find your way from there. In places like Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Dubai, Istanbul, Athens, Bangkok, and Sydney, consolidators who deal in bulk tickets (called "bucket shops") gather in the backpacker-frequented sections of the city. They have saved me staggering amounts: Moscow to Bangkok cost $400; Athens to Sydney, a mere $440, which included two exotic stopovers, a hotel room, ground transportation, and a bogus doctorate in medicine to boot.

The mythical free flight does exist. Russian pilots in the 'Stans love company on overnight hauls. So do "yanqui" freight pilots on runs across the pond. The tip is to hang around cargo terminals and hotels where crews are billeted. I still have a standing offer from three very drunk Peruvian pilots. Anyone want to swap a first-class to Paris for an all-nighter in the cargo hold to Cuzco?


WORST ANTIQUATED AIRLINE: Afghanistan's Ariana Airlines. Called "Scariana" by many, it's the only airline with more planes crashed on the ground than flying in the air. Be prepared for ancient 727s with half the seats missing. Upside: legroom.

WORST AIRLINE, PERIOD: Pakistani International Airlines. A true Third World experience. Runaway snack carts; passengers eating spaghetti with their hands; and the crew gathering in back to smoke cigarettes as the plane comes in for landing.

WORST AIRPORT: Bamako Mali's central airport is a crowded, smelly shack next to a potholed runway; only slightly worse than Karachi International.

WORST STOPOVER DIVERSION: Kampala, Uganda. Grab a snack in dictator Idi Amin's old jet and then admire the site of the 1976 Entebbe hijacking.

WORST AIRLINE FOOD: Uzbekistan Airways. You know it's bad when the president of the country, Islam Karimov, complains about the food. I was sitting next to him.

WORST BAGGAGE HANDLERS: Conakry, Guinea. Baggage handlers throughout sub-Saharan Africa will rifle through your bags, but the guys in Conakry lifted a shoulder-mounted video camera right off the tarmac next to me.

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, December 2004/January 2005

Pelton's World: How to get real deals on international airfare

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Go Ahead and
Ask Me


RYP: No. "Kill or be killed" is a Hollywood concept, not a wartime one. In combat, even when you're ambushed, there's usually leeway for escape (especially if, like me, you travel with groups of men who carry plenty of weapons). I was in sieges in Chechnya and Liberia, and both times we were completely surrounded but able to escape or repel our attackers.

Got a baffling travel question for RYP? We want to know, so e-mail us >>

More from writer Robert Young Pelton

Afghanistan's Shadowlands
Pelton's photographs of Afghanistan reveal the dangers facing coalition forces and the hopes of a battered nation.

Q&A: Grabbed in the Gap
Robert Young Pelton literally wrote the book on traveling in dangerous places. Good thing: All that hard-won experience came in handy when he was abducted while hiking Panama's Darié Gap.

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December 2004/January 2005

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