Monday, June 21, 2010

Why I Travel Around the World

I've always been keen to explore the world. About 5 years back I heard a frightening statistic about the travel habits of Americans. I don't have the reference, so I'm just going on my memory, though I'll try to find updated facts. Basically, I read that most Americans die within 50 miles of their birthplace. Something like only 1 in 4 Americans had passports and of those 25% that did, only about 1 in 6 went anywhere beyond Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean. Of those 4% of Americans that did travel somewhere beyond the above choices, most went on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to western Europe (usually London or Paris).

I'm sure that the statistics have changed as international travel becomes more common. Also, many would say that the US is a very large and diverse country with many geographical features. I think this is true and keeps some people from "needing" to travel beyond the borders of the US. However, I think that Americans are generally xenophobic (afraid of the unknown and foreign cultures). Nevertheless, Americans are becoming more adventurous, which can be seen in the surge in "ethnic" restaurants over the last decade.

I've been living mostly overseas since 1996 so I've definitely noticed (since arriving back in the continental US in May 2010) that there are more Asian food choices available. Also, the "animosity" I've generally felt towards vegetarianism has really subsided, though vegans will still find difficulty eating out. I remember an old episode of Growing Pains, where Amanda Peet had a minor role as the vegetarian girlfriend of Kirk Cameron. The mother brought out grass on a plate to the table, which was funny to a lot of people but also exemplified the resentment to the strange that I believe is a hallmark of American culture. Americans have always been resistant to outside immigrants and those that assimilate quickest often have to deal with a variety of idiotic remarks.

I grew up in the Midwest USA just north of the greater Chicagoland area. When I visited my family with my long-time Chinese American partner at the time, I remember an uncle remarking: "I can speak a little Asian" as if Asian were a language and that all Asian countries were like different states in the US and everyone could communicate with different accents. He then proceeded to count to ten in Japanese, to which my partner just replied "that's nice, good for you!" For anyone who'd like to learn more about contemporary Asian-American culture so you can respond to comments like that with clever anecdotes, I highly recommend Giant Robot Magazine, which deals with Asian American pop culture and art.

I've made my own share of stupid remarks, I'm sure, but I've tried to approach cultures with an open mind and believe in learning through first-hand experience rather than just the assimilated versions of immigrant communities and 2nd generation (and beyond) children of immigrants. Hence my obsession with travel.

My first round-the-world (RTW) ticket was in 2004. I traveled on a Star Alliance RTW ticket booked through United Airlines, plus added regional flights using Air Asia (I think it is the greatest and safest low-cost airline in Asia) and Continental Micronesia. My flight route looked like this:

In code, the above trip looked like this: MKE-ORD-IAD-PWM-iad-BOS-iad-CHS-iad-FLL-iad-CAE-iad-SAV-iad-LGA-iad-FLL-iad-ORD-IAD-LAX-hnl-LIH-HNL-LAX-IAD-EWR-iad-ORD-IAD-ORD-IAD-ORD-den-lax-HNL-NRT-icn-SPN-GUM-KIX-HKG-SIN-KUL-MES-CGK-DPS...Nusa Lembonggan...DPS-GUM-NRT-SIN...KUL-BKK...REP, BKK, USM...BKK-khi-MCT-DXB-fra-CAI...ALY, LXR...CAI-VIE-CDG-LHR...CWL, PME...lhr-man-ORD-HNL-GUM.

Key to the above:
Capital letters = Airport Codes of stopover cities
Lowercase letters = Layovers but not stopovers
Bold letters = Stopovers greater than 2 weeks
Dashes (-) = Flights between locations
Elipses (...) = Overland travel between locations

For those who don't know airport codes, I travelled the following route: Milwaukee WI USA - Chicago IL USA - Washington DC USA - Portland ME USA - (layover DC) - Boston MA USA - (layover DC) - Charleston SC USA - (layover DC) - Fort Lauderdale FL USA - (layover DC) - Columbia SC USA - (layover DC) - Savannah GA USA - (layover DC) - New York NY USA - (layover DC) - Fort Lauderdale FL USA - (layover DC) - Chicago IL USA - Washington DC USA - Los Angeles CA USA - (layover Honolulu HI USA) - Lihue Kauai HI USA - Honolulu HI USA - Los Angeles CA USA - Washington DC - Newark NJ USA - (layover DC) - Chicago IL USA - Washington DC USA - Chicago IL USA - Washington DC USA - Chicago IL USA - (layover Denver CO USA) - (layover Los Angeles CA USA) - Honolulu HI USA - Tokyo JAPAN - (layover Incheon S KOREA) - Saipan MARIANA ISLANDS - Guam GUAM - Osaka JAPAN - Hong Kong CHINA - Singapore SINGAPORE - Kuala Lumpur MALAYSIA - Medan Sumatra INDONESIA - Jakarta Java INDONESIA - Bali INDONESIA ... Nusa Lembonggan INDONESIA ... Bali INDONESIA - Guam GUAM - Tokyo JAPAN - Singapore SINGAPORE ... Kuala Lumpur MALAYSIA - Bangkok THAILAND ... Siem Reap & Angkor Wat CAMBODIA, Bangkok THAILAND, Koh Samui THAILAND ... Bangkok THAILAND - (layover Karachi PAKISTAN) - Muscat OMAN - Dubai UAE - (layover Frankfurt GERMANY) - Cairo EGYPT ... Alexandria EGYPT, Luxor EGYPT ... Cairo EGYPT - Vienna AUSTRIA - Paris FRANCE - London England UK ... Cardiff Wales UK, Portsmouth England UK ... (layover London England UK) - (layover Manchester England UK) - Chicago IL USA - Honolulu HI USA - Guam GUAM.

Obviously a very complicated first RTW trip with multiple tickets used to maximize miles, bonuses, cheap airfares (in-and-out of Washington DC USA at the time), and diverse interests. With such a complicated ticket it must have been really expensive, right? No... actually through multiple bonuses the total cost of all tickets used for the above itinerary was just over US$2800, taxes included. Total mileage gained? Over 80,000 miles after bonuses, enough for multiple free tickets later. And in fact, I did about 1.5 times around the world, since I started in Chicago IL USA and ended in Guam.

Over the coming months I'll share some of the tips I've used for constructing such itineraries. I'll post some pictures as well and BRIEF travelogues for each of the countries visited. I'll give plenty of resources, though a great place to start would be the FlyerTalk forum and the nifty online RTW ticket builder that the One World airline alliance puts out, even if you choose you'd rather use another alliance for your tickets.

I'll also discuss my upcoming plans for another RTW trip that I'm planning for late 2010 or early 2011, which I'll be taking to visit all my friends around the world (21 stops in I think 18 countries at last count). If anyone wants to know more specifics (though I think I've provided a lot), let me know by email.

Thanks for reading!



  1. Sometimes I wonder if people are getting closer….I met some guys from East Europe who were on a RTW trip. We became friends breaking a lot of barriers including language and culture in a very short time.

  2. There's a lot to be said about how relative ease of access around the world is bringing people closer together. Of course a lot of people travel and do not integrate themselves with the culture they visit. A lot of people are uncomfortable traveling and eating foreign foods. However, I think those traveling on small budgets, alone, overland, or on RTW tickets are different in mentality than casual travelers. I think such travelers have to be more open-minded. What always surprises me is how good most people are. Just think about it: someone who doesn't know your land travels to your country and theoretically it would be very easy to mug them, take all their luggage on a taxi ride, or even kill them... but it doesn't happen proportionately a lot. I feel bad for those it does happen to (and the trafficking of women by such means does occur), but so far I've been lucky. I've had disagreements and even rocks thrown at me while wandering around Alexandria (but just by some children acting out because I wouldn't give them candy or money), I've missed protests and violence in a city by mere days, and I've been lost a bit (poor spatial memory) but I still can't stop my urge to travel.

    Thanks for commenting and I hope you remain friends with those Eastern Europeans. If more people bridged different cultures it would go a long way towards helping everyone in the world understand each other, which would help prevent all sorts of problems. Understanding and outreach are key!

    Cheers, Robert