Premise: If anyone can tell you how to travel outside your comfort zone, embrace risk, and come back alive, it's the creators, host, and winners of TV's The Amazing Race
"Above all, know that the world is really a very safe place."
—The Amazing Race cocreator Bertram van Munster
Read the 12 Travel Tips >>
Out of the gate it looked as if The Amazing Race, the adventure-travel reality-TV show that made its debut September 5, 2001, on CBS, might end up a one-season wonder. "When I saw the billboards [advertising the series] in lower Manhattan coated in ash from the World Trade Center, I really thought we were in trouble," recalls the program's cocreator Bertram van Munster. "I mean, who would want to watch a show with all these airplanes?"
Instead of packing it in, The Amazing Race has taken flight and managed over seven subsequent seasons to sustain a word-of-mouth rep as "the thinking person's reality-TV show," even though that sounds oxymoronic to some thinking persons. During each 13-episode run, 11 duos vied for a cool million in cash. (The show's fall format has ten teams of four extended family members.) By the time it's over, the racers have completed up to 30 scavenger hunts, physical or phobia-related challenges, and culturally specific rituals—all while circumnavigating the globe in 29 to 30 days.
It's easy to see why the show has enjoyed a warm critical response: It keeps its reality quotient high, putting everyone, from the contestants to producers to the show's host, Phil Keoghan, out in the chaos of the world. Because it's a race, there's often no chance for a second or third take; the camera crews either get the shot, or they don't. And the clock is ticking for all involved.
"People ask me, 'What do you do when you're not talking?'" says Keoghan, 37, an avid snowboarder and career adventurer. "And they ask as if I've got time on my hands! But the only difference between me and the teams is I know where I'm going next and they don't."
The finish times for the racers can be as far apart as 12 hours, in which case Keoghan has to cool his jets, wait for the last stragglers to check in, and then hustle to keep pace with the front-runners. Often, he'll fall behind the leaders but leapfrog them while they are distracted by a preset "detour." At least half a dozen times, and most notably in Botswana, Keoghan has been running flat out to reach the finish line (a logo'd reception mat) just ahead of the contestants. "For the teams, it's a series of 13 sprints, while for those of us working on the show it's a month-long marathon," Keoghan says.
"It boils down to a show about relationships," says van Munster, who immigrated to the United States from the Netherlands. "Everyone can relate to the bickering that happens because that's what happens when you travel with somebody." Once a cameraman for National Geographic television, van Munster is best known for his work on Cops; Wild Things, a short-lived, but influential nature series; and Profiles From the Front Line. The idea for The Amazing Race, he says, came from his wife and coexecutive producer Elise Doganieri. "After college, Elise went on a trip, backpacking for a year with her best friend. They got in a huge fight," he laughs. "But of course she remembers it as the time of her life."
Perhaps the most exceptional thing about The Amazing Race is its inviting worldview. "It seems like all we ever see of the rest of the world is the aftermath of a natural disaster, war, or someone who hates us, burning an American flag," says the expat New Zealander Keoghan, who resides with his wife and daughter in Santa Monica, California. He adds, "Our President is constantly warning people about all the 'evildoers' out there. It's no wonder some Americans think they'll be safer staying home."
Say what you like about The Amazing Race: that its appealing images of exotic locales act as an antidote to war-on-terror hysteria, or that what the show really delivers is a spot-on satire of the breakneck speed at which Americans travel. Either way, the folks responsible for staging the race indisputably know their way around. Doganieri and van Munster typically travel the 35,000-mile (56,327-kilometer) itinerary of the race twice, and sometimes three times, before each contest gets under way. In all, they've visited more than 70 countries, ironing out all the logistics of the show. Their travel savvy, along with advice from Keoghan and season-seven winners Joyce and Uchenna Robinson-Agu, follows. You needn't be racing to put it to good use.
12 Travel Tips From The Amazing Race
By Phil Keoghan
1. Face your fear. At 19, Keoghan nearly died when he was trapped inside a shipwreck off the coast of New Zealand during a deepwater dive. Once rescued, he wrote out a "life list" of adventures he wanted to have before he really did cross over and then got paid to do many of them as the go-anywhere, try-anything host of TV magazines Phil Keoghan's Adventure Crazy and Keoghan's Heroes (Keoghan rhymes with Hogan). "A recurring theme when people make their lists," he says, "is that they almost always put down things they've been afraid to try." Keoghan encourages everyone to make these a priority. "I can't tell you the number of times someone has done something they feared and then found themselves able to make other major life decisions," he says. It's corny, he admits, but it works. (For the record, Keoghan is claustrophobic, but he adds, "I've managed to push the fear back. It doesn't inhibit me." His therapy? Diving to one of the world's longest known underwater tunnels, Nohoch Nah Chich, under the Yucatán jungle.)
2. Don't panic. "When you're trying something you've never done before, most people find themselves really hyper about being in a situation that's out of control," says Joyce, who watched the show prior to appearing on it. "We learned not to get so excited about everything because there are going to be a lot of new things coming at you all the time."
3. Pack for one week. "Whether I'm going out for a week or several months, I only ever pack for a week," says Keoghan. "Because you don't want to be weighed down, and you can always wash up."
4. Have a plan before you clear customs. If you aren't sure where you're going, ask for information in the airport before you pass through security into the public waiting areas. And get the map.
5. Stick to backpacks, not messenger bags. "If you're going for anything longer than a weekend, make sure your bag has two shoulder straps," says Keoghan.
"I find the [single-strap] shoulder bags just bugger your back."
6. Avoid checking bags. Or, if you can't get yourself down to one carry-on, keep your total number of bags to an absolute minimum. The more items you have, the more you have to keep track of, and the more you stand to lose. "It's in the belly of the plane that things can start to go bad," van Munster warns.
7. Never share a taxi with a stranger (especially at the airport). In all his travels, van Munster has only been abducted once, in Calcutta, India, when, against his own better judgment, he got in a cab with a driver and "the owner" of the cab, who refused to surrender the backseat when asked. Turns out, "the owner" had told the driver that he was with van Munster's crew and moments later hijacked the ride. Fortunately, a journalist friend had been looking out the back of his taxi, which was ahead of van Munster's, and he noticed when the trailing cab disappeared. Van Munster was found by his team in a Calcutta slum two hours later, stripped to his briefs, but otherwise fine. (Corollary to #7: Don't have someone meet you at the airport with a sign bearing your name, van Munster says. You'll be a target for hustlers.)
8. There is no simple, over-the-counter solution for jet lag.
9. Never wear shorts. At least, not if you're male and not if you leave the grounds of a resort, the trail, or the beach. "I recommend lightweight long pants," says van Munster. "They're protection against mosquitoes, fleas, dog bites, snakebites.... Many people take malaria drugs, but I don't. I just keep covered, and I blend in, because in most places adult men wear long pants." Also, avoid matching outfits. This verily screams "tourist."
10. Schedules are subject to interpretation. Go with the flow. In Zermatt, Switzerland, your train will depart at exactly 8:42 a.m. as noted, but in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, an 8 a.m. bus might, or might not, leave anytime before dinner. Adjust your outlook accordingly.
11. If you must, panhandle from fellow travelers. "Being far from home, [other travelers] can commiserate," says Joyce, who, along with Uchenna, was stranded without a dollar in Montego Bay, Jamaica, as a consequence of losing a leg of the race. The departures terminal or lounge may be your best bet: "If they're coming in to the country," Uchenna says, "they'll have a little more money, but they're more apt to hold on because it's got to last their whole trip. If they're on their way home, chances are they'll be a bit looser with it because they know they're not going to need it as much."
12. Always act the guest. If you're respectful of your foreign hosts and try to see things through their eyes, you'll most likely find that you'll be treated hospitably. "People may not like our foreign policy, but people everywhere like Americans," says van Munster. "There really is something of an American spirit, and people are drawn to it. You've got to have confidence in that, and, above all, know that the world is really a very safe place."
Photograph by Phil Keoghan/CBS
Read more in the pages of Adventure magazine.