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The Virtual Traveler
Effective globe-hopping in a post-9/11 world calls for new ways of working the online angles  Text by Robert Young Pelton  
Illustration: Pelton in airport
Illustration by Asaf Hanuka

I had just flown out of a bloody Iraq, through a nervous Jordan, a tranquil Germany, and was headed home to Los Angeles via Washington, D.C., when boom—I was informed at the gate that, even though I had checked in, I no longer had a seat on the plane. The desk agent airily reminded me that a ticket no longer guarantees a flight. How did the free world come to this? Are the days of happy travel behind us and nothing but grim, knee-crushing box-lunch short-hops ahead?

In the five years since 9/11, travel has changed dramatically, and in ways that go far beyond padding through security checkpoints in our socks. But despite the negatives, there are some positives. To recognize them you have to shed your pre-9/11 notions and embrace today's travel reality.
 
DO THE RECON
You've heard my mantra before: "The biggest danger travelers face is ignorance." State Department warnings now have roughly the same relevance as Nostradamus predictions. You're still on your own when it comes to gauging personal safety and risk.

That's why I created Black Flag Café (www.comebackalive.com) to bank the latest on hot zones and solicit tips from people who work and travel in conflict areas. The multitude of similar sites that pop up (or old ones that get better) is continually astounding. I use NewsAlerts.com to get a fire hose of feeds about exactly the topics, places, and activities I want, and my Sunday morning coffee read is NewsDirectory.com, which gives me the scoop from the world's major media.

For professionals who work hot spots, the United Nations' ReliefWeb.int is one of the most trusted sources. Others simply get on chat sites and special-interest forums and ask dumb questions. Me? I do it all, and I've accumulated a long list of new "e-pen pals." In fact I spent most of my latest trip to Iraq catching up with old friends I'd never met in person.
 
GET IN-COUNTRY
Long before the towers came tumbling down, the airline industry was on a power dive into bankruptcy. Its high fares allowed new discount carriers to swoop in.

JetBlue Airways and Britain's Ryanair, even if spartan, seem positively god sent. Overall, security has gotten higher but prices have dropped. Flights can cost as little as $150 one-way coast-to-coast. In fact, airport taxi fares in L.A. and New York City can set you back about the same as one-way plane tickets. Time to rethink how you book air travel.

Fly foreign and independent and you can reap the benefits of government subsidies and sound business sense. Try the new generation of site aggregators such as Kayak.com, which let you troll multiple sites with one search. Or spring over to AirNinja.com, where you can surf all the name-brand sites and get plenty of route maps and fares for discount airlines, especially in Europe.

Another tip: Work the system. Sites such as Airtreks.com let you build your own around-the-world or great-circle fares. On a recent trip from California to Equatorial Guinea, I found that breaking up my booking into separate return and one-way segments (L.A. to New York City, Paris to Madrid, Madrid to Malabo, etc.) saved me over $1,200!
 
SET UP BASE
The hotel industry took a 9/11 sock in the gut and has been slow to get its wind back. Gone are the days when you can rock up to a hostel or "the cheapest place in town" and expect a primo room. Online booking and high demand for discounts have killed the bohemian lifestyle. While sites like Hotels.com and Lonely Planet's Thorntree bring real-world reviews and low prices to your keyboard, rates nowadays are relatively stratospheric. I recently stayed cheap in New York City in the room of a nice Uzbek student. My trick? I used Craigslist.com to find a deal. If you're as low maintenance as I am, you can also try CouchSurfing.com for a crash pad away from home.
 
PLAN YOUR ESCAPE
The recent war in Lebanon underscores how fragile our world can be. Glitzy beach resorts became combat zones overnight. A lot of folks nod their heads and glaze over when the topic of travel insurance comes up, but while the U.S. Marine Corps took a full week to get citizens off the beach, the well-insured were evacuated in short order. Private companies such as Hart (www.hartsecurity.com) and International SOS (www.internationalsos.com) flew their clients all the way home. One day soon we all may be required to travel nude and sedated, with ID and destination tattooed on our rear ends, but, until then, I say work the system.


Cover: Adventure magazine

Our November 2006 issue features the best new adventure travel trips; an exclusive look inside Iran; a Greenland global warming report; backcountry spas; digital cameras; travel Web sites; weekend getaways; and more.

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