[PS. Our new correspondent is a poor writer. No one has quite written
Frugal Travel like Susan Spano -- I'll miss her]
FRUGAL TRAVELER / By DAISANN McLANE
Chronicle of a Circumspect Circumnavigator
In 1889, the celebrated and flamboyant New York journalist Nelly Bly
set out to travel -- by ship, ox cart, camel, elephant and rickshaw
-- around the world in less than 80 days, just topping the fictional
record set in Jules Verne's novel. Nowadays, such globe-trotting is
much less arduous; with enough money, and a good travel agent, you
can do it in less than 48 hours on commercial flights. Yet,
curiously, the "round the world" idea still retains its air of
adventure and romance.
The thought of a round-the-world journey excited me even though,
after several trips back and forth to Asia, I'd probably covered more
total distance last year than in two circumnavigations of the planet.
It was the idea of going onward without turning back that appealed,
as well as the neatness of always having a goal in sight: home.
Unlike Bly, I wasn't racing the clock against a fictional character;
I was competing against my work schedule. I had only 60 days to make
the journey. Since I didn't have to rely on hired elephants, I
figured this was a reasonable amount of time to complete the circle
-- mainly by jet, with a bit of overland travel thrown in for variety.
With unlimited months ahead of me, I might have tried to buy my
airline tickets one after another, along the way, from discount
travel agents (bucket shops) in cities like London, Bangkok or New
Delhi. This is the method favored by the kind of hard-core backpacker
I'd met on the road in Bali.
While this certainly might be the most frugal method of getting
around the world, it's also one fraught with potential delays and
snags. I wanted, at least, to know that I had reservations between
the major cities on my route before I set off. And so I began to
investigate travel agencies that specialize in discounted
These agencies, based in the United States, have affiliates in the
bucket-shop centers of the world. For a commission, they'll use their
network to create an itinerary, so you'll have all tickets in hand
before you go.
I narrowed my search to three such agencies that advertise widely and
have Web sites: Air Brokers (www.airbrokers.com), High Adventure
Travel (www.highadv.com) and Ticket Planet (Web site:
www.ticketplanet.com). Each had attractive round-the-world specials,
some as low as $1,595.
But as I clicked through each company's Web site (each allows you to
design your own route and get a fare estimate), I soon found that
$1,595 was a lowball figure, designed for travel to only three or
four of the most popular world destinations -- for example, London,
New Delhi, Bangkok and Honolulu. These cities, along with Hong Kong,
Frankfurt, Singapore, Tokyo, Los Angeles and New York, form the
backbone of any round-the-world ticket because they have
international airports with many possible connections. I learned that
the closer I stuck to routing my ticket through these hub cities, the
cheaper it would be.
The problem was that I wanted to travel to some places that were off
the trail, like Cairo, Madras and Vietnam. I put together a wish list
of cities, anchored by a few of the major hubs, and began to make
The fellow at Ticket Planet, upon hearing that I wanted to fly to
somewhere in the Middle East and then to Bombay, put me off with an
abrupt, "Well, you can't go to India from the Middle East." Since I
knew that a half-dozen airlines make such a connection, I quickly
ended our conversation.
At High Adventure I spoke for about 20 minutes to a helpful agent
named Dan, who quickly figured out how I could get from New York to
Cairo to Bombay (on Egypt Air), and promised to E-mail me an
itinerary and estimate the following day. I had equal luck with
Kristina Ketelsen, an agent at Air Brokers, who gave me a ball park
estimate of $1,900 for my ideal itinerary (Cairo, Bombay, Trivandrum
in southern India, overland to Madras, Bangkok, Vietnam, Hong Kong,
New York), and promised to get back to me with a confirmed estimate
and booking availability within a day or two.
As promised, I heard from both High Adventure and Air Brokers the
next day. Each had good and bad news. The bad news, from High
Adventure: my ideal trip was going to cost around $2,100 -- slightly
more than the $2,000 top I had in mind.
From Air Brokers I learned that while my trip package would come in
around the $1,900 estimate, it had some scheduling problems. There
was only one flight a week on Egypt Air from Cairo to Bombay, so I'd
have to cut my Egypt trip a bit short. And there was only one flight
a week from Madras to Bangkok, so I'd have to be careful about
planning that leg as well. Vietnam also was a problem: To fly to Ho
Chi Minh City would require me to stop over one night, in each
direction, in Bangkok.
I told both Dan and Kristina to hold my itineraries on file, and I
mulled over the situation for a night. I decided to forget Vietnam
for this trip -- the Bangkok layovers took up precious time. And
Vietnam involved other costs. I would need to get a visa in New York,
and take an expensive six-week course of the malarial drug Lariam.
I also decided to complete my plans with Air Brokers, partly because
Kristina's estimates had been lower, but mostly because of the amount
of useful information she took the time to give me. Finally, I
decided to ask about an extension of my trip. Returning home on a
long-haul direct flight from Asia seemed to be out of the spirit of
such a journey. I felt I needed to stop somewhere in the Pacific, and
the next day I asked Kristina to outline my options.
She told me that if I dropped Vietnam but added some South Pacific
destinations my ticket would come in only about $650 higher. That
seemed like a very good deal for a lot of extra flying -- the South
Pacific is 2,000 miles off the direct route from Asia to California.
The next day she had exact figures. A trip from New York stopping in
Cairo; Bombay; Trivandrum; Madras; Bangkok; Auckland, New Zealand;
Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, and Los Angeles would cost $2,780
paying by credit card, or $2,695 (about 3 percent less) by cashier's
The best part was that Air Brokers' tickets allowed some flexibility.
I had to leave on my selected departure date, but I could change my
itinerary on all but the last leg (Los Angeles to New York) without
But Kristina warned me that since I wanted to leave in slightly less
than three weeks, I needed to make the transaction right away,
because it might take that long to get some of the tickets from Air
Brokers' foreign affiliates. I got the cashier's check and sent it
off by Federal Express that evening.
With my ticket and itinerary settled -- and in only three days -- I
moved to the next stage. It's not very exciting to start an adventure
by anticipating everything that might go wrong, but I'm pretty
cautious about my health when traveling alone and far from home. I
had been immunized against tetanus, polio, typhoid and diphtheria,
but my hepatitis A needed a booster. It was $90 at the International
Health Care Service at the Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. I
already had an insurance policy that would arrange and pay for my
evacuation from anywhere in the world in the event of illness or
From health concerns, I moved on to political formalities. Egypt no
longer requires Americans to get a visa in advance (they are sold at
the airport in Cairo for about $10). Thailand, New Zealand and the
Cook Islands also don't require pre-arranged visas. But for India, I
had to apply at the consulate in Manhattan -- which requires $50 and
two trips to the office in the same day.
Money was next: Based on guidebook research and personal experience,
I figured I'd need about $50 a day in Egypt, $20 to $40 in India and
Bangkok, $80 to $100 in Auckland and $50 in the Cooks. Allowing for
occasional splurges, and for the tempting shopping bargains I knew
I'd find in India and Thailand, I budgeted $3,000 for the 60 days. I
decided to carry $1,000 in traveler's checks, $1,000 in in cash, two
major credit cards and my Citibank cash card, allowing access to
Cirrus A.T.M.'s worldwide. (I would carry the money, cards, passport
and airline tickets in a waist pouch that fits under my clothing.)
Although I spent lots of time on these preparations, I kept hotel
arrangements to a minimum. For Cairo, I chose a few hotels in my
price range from guidebooks and faxed off reservation requests. I
booked two days at $42 a night at the first hotel that responded, the
Cosmopolitan, and figured I'd find others when I arrived. I reserved
a budget room at the Hotel Metro Palace for my one-night layover in
pricey Bombay and sent E-mail to friends in Auckland, seeking advice
on guesthouses and B & B's (I could pick up their replies on the road
and book from there).
So involved was I with various checklists that I nearly forgot about
my tickets. Five days before my departure, Kristina called to tell me
that all had arrived.
The next morning, by Federal Express, I received a thick packet of
plane tickets and a detailed itinerary printout that included (to my
delight) not only my flights, but also their duration and the length
The Fed Ex package from Air Brokers also included something that made
me chuckle when it fell out of the envelope: a copy of the
Travelsmith catalogue. In preparation for The Trip, the floor of my
living room happened to be strewn with clothing, although not the
type of superfunctional high-tech wardrobe found in the pages of
Travelsmith. I have always avoided buying "travel clothing" -- no
drip-dry safari jackets or skirts with hidden money pouches, thank
That doesn't mean I am not as obsessed with my clothing as any other
frequent flier -- only that I obsess in a different way. Wherever I
am, I've discovered, I'm most comfortable (and have more traveler's
luck) when I feel as if I blend in. For Tokyo or London this means
more or less the same black separates I wear in Manhattan. But in
other parts of the world, my template changes, for climate and
I see the world as divided into three major women's clothing zones:
the Western-style, the Sarong, and the Salwar Kameez (the long
three-piece suit worn by women from the Middle East through India).
For this trip, to keep my luggage light, I wanted to avoid cold
climates and Western wear as much as possible (to be fashionable in a
major city takes up precious inches of suitcase space). Happily, most
of my trip was concentrated in the Salwar and Sarong Zones, places
where tissue-light, quick-dry, no-iron cottons ruled.
I discovered the salwar kameez, the airy combo of long A-line tunic
over baggy drawstring pants topped with a feathery light matching (or
contrasting) scarf, last year in India. It was the only garment that
stood up to the blistering sun and pounding heat of Madras with any
style and comfort. The scarf, flowing backward as I walked through
the dusty streets, gave me panache, in spite of my sweaty face and
drooping hair. It served two other functions: Riding in an open
auto-rickshaw through smog-choked streets, I could wrap it around my
mouth. And it could be pulled around the head and shoulders for
warmth or modesty when visiting mosques in the Middle East.
The Sarong Zone, stretching from Southeast Asia through the South
Pacific, is perhaps the best region of all for space-pinching
travelers. Paired with a neat short-sleeve shirt or T-shirt, the
sarong is formal enough to wear to offices in Indonesia or Malaysia;
it also works as everything from beach wrap to yoga mat.
So: three salwar kameez (I'd wear one on the plane to Cairo), two
sarongs (leaving room to buy a half dozen more in Thailand), a couple
of linen blouses and a pair of washable linen pants (there was
Auckland to think about, too) -- done. That left room for things I
felt I couldn't do without, like my snorkel and mask (for the South
Pacific), a lightweight collapsible-frame mosquito net and Naguib
Mahfouz's complete "Cairo Trilogy." I decided against using a
backpack, because they are usually consigned to check-on luggage.
Instead, I bought what I hoped would be the perfect round-the-world
piece of luggage: Patagonia's Maximum Legal Carry-On, sold at its
store in SoHo. Rectangular, of tough blue ballistic fabric, it has
two compartments, along with straps that allowed it to be carried
from either side or as a backpack.
I made all my gear fit in, and crossed my fingers that I'd be able to
avoid checking the bag for most, if not all, of my trip.
There were household details to be handled, too -- so many nagging
loose ends of a New York life that by the Friday evening I was to
leave for Cairo from Kennedy, I was a wreck. Was this the way that
Nelly Bly had felt?
Standing at the door of my building, waiting for the car service to
the airport, I pulled on my backpack (careful not to rip the scarf of
my salwar kameez) and took a deep breath. The car arrived shortly, a
large older-model Lincoln with furry upholstery and the usual dents
and scrapes of a typical Brooklyn chariot-for-hire. Not exactly a
rickshaw, but I believe that Nelly Bly would have approved.
The bottom line
I bought my round-the-world ticket for $2,695 from Air Brokers
International, 150 Post Street, Suite 620, San Francisco, Calif.
94108; (800) 883-3273.
Other round-the-world brokers I consulted included Ticket Planet,
(800) 799-8888, and High Adventure, (800) 350-0636.
My Maximum Legal Carry-On costs $165 at Patagonia, 101 Wooster
Street, Manhattan; (212) 343-1776.
You can buy a simple cotton salwar kameez from Shingar, 37-11 74th
Street in Queens, (718) 779-8706, for around $50.
The International Health Care Service at the Cornell Medical Center,
440 East 69th Street, Manhattan, (212) 746-1601, is open by