A recent trip with my wife and daughter to Yunnan Province, China, found us staying in Dali, a place that used to attract free spirit backpackers who liked to hang out in Old Dali between the beautiful Ehai Lake and the impressive 50 km. long Cangshan Mountain.  The bloom is off that rose now, with formerly laid-back Old Dali having become a detestable tourist trap, its fakery ripe for vilification in a future post.  That said, there’s nothing phony about the areas south of Dali over the mountains where thrive the hard-working, fascinating Yi, Hui, and Bai ethnic minorities of China.

Jim’s Tibetan Hotel was our unique and wonderful residence in Dali, Jim, the owner and a Tibetan himself, specializes in Chinese ethnic minority travel experiences. He took us one morning to a Yi village about 75 minutes south of Dali via the new road that the Chinese government has built to Laos. It’s now 18 hours by car or truck to Laos versus 7 days on the ancient road in use before for thousands of years. We also saw a new railway being constructed to Laos. The Chinese are smart to strengthen commercial ties with Southeast Asian neighbors, and this is reportedly part of their trillion dollar strategy to dominate world trade.

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Yi village south over the mountains from Dali showing terrace farming

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Same Yi village showing typical construction, not much different from the rest of China’s rural areas, regardless of ethnicity.

The Yi ethnic group maintain their rural agrarian lifestyle, but with modern accouterments, such as motor vehicles, electricity, mobile phones, and satellite TV. The old ladies dress in traditional Yi garb (see photo just below), whereas a 12 year old Yi girl and a 14 year old Yi girl we met were dressed like our fourteen year old daughter. Both Yi girls could have passed for Americans.

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Older Yi woman dressed in traditional garb tending her pigs

Below picture is of Jim standing in a Yi courtyard in the village. Jim looks like a fascinating character, and he was.  Jim’s guided ethnic experiences were expert, although he chain-smokes (but never in vehicles).

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Jim of the eponymous Jim’s Tibetan Hotel

On that day trip South over the mountains to several Yi, Dai, and Hui villages and towns, we passed through the center of New Dali, a city of 500,000, renamed because nobody in China had ever heard of its original name. But they all knew Old Dali, so the large city adopted the name.

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High-rises like these dot the landscape of New Dali

Passing an endless cityscape of buildings built along the road between Old and New Dali, Jim lamented how the rice paddies that had been there ten years ago have all been replaced by such construction.

The development continues still, but I couldn’t get a clear idea what is driving the growth other than tourism. Jim mentioned that 10,000 tourists per day trek to Old Dali, and that it is busiest in July and August. That’s nearly four million per year, less than half the number that seek out Lijiang Old Town (northwest of Dali), where we stayed 2 nights earlier that week. Still doesn’t account for the astonishing growth of New Dali.

The new road to Laos that we drove peaks at an impressive 2400 meters (7800 ft) before dropping again into the valley where we stopped in several small towns, including at Huimingcun to visit a 600 year old Buddhist temple (pictured below). The dramatic carvings of Buddhist and Indian gods inside look original, but are actually recreations made from photos in 1980. Like most religious antiquities, the temple’s original carvings were destroyed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution to assure the primacy of communism.

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600 year old Buddhist temple in Huimingcun

Few Chinese choose to stay at Jim’s Tibetan Hotel because that beautiful and quiet place “scares them,” so Jim related. Young people complain his hotel is “like a temple.” Jim said young Chinese tourists want flash, bright lights, blaring TVs, and lots of noise. Jim explained that his clientele is mostly European, with some Americans, who appreciate the serenity of his property.

That certainly jives with our experience in Lijiang Old Town a few nights before. There I had to ask the other guests, all young Chinese, to keep it down after midnight so that we could sleep.

Speaking of which, it is my observation after this recent trip that Chinese young people have two vocal volumes: far too loud and deafening.

Jim also told us that he’s had trouble keeping young Chinese employees at his hotel because “all they want to do is play on their phones, not work.”

Driving in New Dali I was reminded that city traffic in China moves through intersections via roundabouts, traffic lights (all with countdown timers), or catch-as-catch-can. In the latter case, which account for half or more of major intersections, cars move slowly left, right, or center to weave around other vehicles. Somehow it works without signals or traffic cops. I liked it!

On major Chinese streets and roads, lanes can be approximate. Vehicles somehow find their way around each other without too many collisions. Speed bumps are everywhere, which tend to keep down speeds, as intended.

Jim said China is moving so fast to electric vehicles that it is depressing the cost of internal combustion cars. We saw many three-wheel motorcycle utility vehicles (the pickup trucks of China) that were electric in Dali. In fact, the majority of cars, trucks, and buses on Old Dali streets were electric.

We lunched in a small town known for its Hui ethnic minority, who are all Muslim. The meal of two kinds of beef, rice, snowpeas, egg and greens, and “Old Lady Potatoes” (because they are cooked soft) was one of many memorable culinary experiences on this trip. See below photos.

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We also visited the town’s market, as rich in variety of everything imaginable (and some unidentifiable) as the one in Lijiang. Lots of marijuana seeds for sale. MJ grows wild here, and the Yi and Hui people eat the seeds and the leaves. Sounds like fun! But we didn’t try it. Also walked through the animal trading area (below photo) where cattle, water buffalo, donkeys (for eating), and white Brahma bulls from Burma and Laos are bought and sold. Frankly, it put the NC State Fair animal pavilions to shame.

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Here’s another shot of two Yi women buying greens at that market (below), dressed in traditional clothing.  They also make their own shoes in the same exquisite designs and colors.  Note the Hui woman standing with them reaching for her money.  As I said, Hui are Muslims, peacefully coexisting with the communist (atheist) Chinese government as well as with all the other ethnic groups living in the region.  All the ethnic groups get along with each other well.

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Though not depicted, the third major ethnic group in this region are the Bai people.  Because they are not Muslim and do not dress in distinctive clothing, they blend in to the eyes of Westerners.  However subtle the facial feature differences are to us, I am told the Bai are recognizable to other Chinese.

Dali was outstanding because of this visit south over the mountains to the long valley where these small towns of Chinese ethnic minorities prosper.

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Twenty years ago B.C. (before children), on a trip to the Philippines with my wife Ruth, I described being in and getting around that nutty country as “like Dr. Seuss on acid.” Everything was topsy-turvy; nothing worked according to the logical rules one could expect when traveling elsewhere.

China still has the occasional echo of that unreality, as we experienced today taking buses about 100 kilometers from Lijiang to Shaxi (pronounced Sha-shee) in Yunnan Province.

All our guidebooks and Internet sources promised that we had to take one bus 90 minutes to the town of Jianshuan and then grab an on-demand “minibus” just outside the bus station for the 45-minute ride to Shaxi. We were further assured that we’d be deposited downtown, adjacent to the old town of Shaxi, a close walk to the well-known Horsepen46 hostel.

Just to be sure, we had our English-fluent hostel manager in Lijiang check the bus schedules. He showed us the official bus service website that listed departures for Jianshuan at 10:00am, 10:40am, and so on at 40-minute intervals.

Thus reassured, we set off early to the Lijiang bus station to buy tickets for the 10:00am bus. Once there, the ticket agent told us the bus left at 9:10am, not 10:00am, and said we had to hurry to get it. She pointed out that it was then 9:04am, so we had a mere six minutes.

Good thing we got there early, I thought. How come the online official bus schedule was wrong, as were our guidebooks and other references?

But not so fast! The agent needed our full passport details because we are foreigners. She typed in each passport data set of three as fast as she could. All this for crummy bus tickets, I thought.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. We had just three minutes by the time the tickets were printed.

We ran from the ticket office to the main waiting area entrance. It wasn’t well marked, but we found it. Not so fast! Armed security there made us go through a perfunctory body scan and luggage X-ray and hand scanner, delaying us further. In a bus station? Why?

No matter, let’s run to the platform and find our particular bus. Not so fast! At the door we ran into an airport-style gate where tickets were scanned. It was now 9:09am and counting. The “gate agent” was very nice, though, and ran us over to the correct bus, which was just buttoning up to leave.

The bus itself, however, was not as advertised. It was just a small bus, not a large intercity motorcoach, another anomaly that didn’t jive with anything we had been told or had read in our research.

We found it full and jammed with the usual bags and boxes that come with bus travel in China. We stumbled over stuff and managed to find seats, though separated, and the bus left immediately at 9:10am.

It was a rough and uncomfortable ride, but a fast one. Expecting a 90-minute trip, as all sources indicated, we were very surprised when the little bus arrived in Jianshuan Station (below) at 10:18am.20180401_221900_resizedFollowing our carefully researched instructions, we expected to walk out of the station and look around for a minibus to Shaxi. That didn’t happen. Instead, a woman met our incoming bus asking if we were going to Shaxi. When we affirmed, she showed us to a nearby bus nearly identical to the one on which we had arrived. It was already mostly full and it filled up completely en route.

The young man sitting next to me was wearing a face mask. Many Chinese wear them every day, presumably to guard against catching germs from others. But he was also smoking. The irony apparently escaped him.

The bus trip to Shaxi was long and as uncomfortable as the one to Jianshuan. Supposedly 45 minutes, the ride actually took more than an hour. Then we were dropped way out on the edge of the town, nowhere near downtown. That required us to walk a long distance with our luggage since Shaxi is too small to have taxis.

I was pitted out by the time we reached our hostel. Like Lijiang Old Town, the streets of old Shaxi are paved with cutesy, fake “cobblestones” that make it impossible to pull rolling bags without ruining the wheels. It was not fun carrying the heavy bags from outside town, but we finally made it to the charming Horsepen46.

Stray observation: Our passports were checked repeatedly at the Lijiang bus station. Once we bought tickets, both the security personnel and the bus “gate agent” had to check our passports carefully against our lousy bus tickets. When we got to Jianshuan, nobody operating the second bus cared about passports. In fact, I had to remind them to charge us for the ride to Shaxi.

Bottom line: Nothing went according to Hoyle–or the Chinese equivalent of Hoyle–though we got here fine. It’s an example of how sometimes in China you just have to go with whatever happens and not obsess when the experience doesn’t correlate to expectations.

Last week I extolled the value of my travel agent after Delta left me hanging on a Delta itinerary booked with their partner, China Eastern, to Kunming which begins soon.  My agent’s careful oversight when checking my record 10 days before departure brought to light a serious misconnect that the Delta system had failed to detect.

Dealing with the uncertainty of rebooking on a different flight to correct the error so close in time to the itinerary dates was stressful and time-consuming, but when it was done, I breathed a sigh of relief because I thought that was the end of it.

It wasn’t. Delta has since screwed up yet again.

China Eastern called me directly six days prior to my flight to Kunming (via DTW and PEK) to inform me that the PEK connection time between the arriving Delta flight from DTW and the CE flight to KMG violates the two hour minimum required between connecting flights at Beijing Airport.

The CE agent politely but firmly let me know that Delta should have caught this, and that DL had to fix it because it’s their ticket, not CE’s.

I mused to the China Eastern agent that I still had about an hour and 45 minutes to connect, and the onward flight departs from PEK’s Terminal 2, same terminal my Delta flight from Detroit arrives to, and thus I wondered if it was really a big deal.

The problem, she explained, is that arriving U.S. passengers to PEK Terminal 2 must clear an inbound security screen, then clear customs and immigration at Beijing Airport, and then go back through another security screen before eventually locating the Terminal 2 gate for the China Eastern domestic flight, in my case PEK/KMG.

The agent suggested an alternative CE flight scheduled almost four hours after my arrival that arrived Kunming at about 10:20 PM.  That didn’t look like a great plan since I am on another flight (different airline) early the following morning Kunming to Lijiang.  It wouldn’t give me much time to get to an airport hotel, get some rest, and get back again to the airport the following morning.

Taking the later connection would also add to the time en route from Raleigh, making it almost 27 hours before arriving so late to Kunming, It sounded tiring and stressful, especially since the CE flight is in ordinary coach and will be very uncomfortable.  I booked Delta’s new premium economy cabin, which the airline has dubbed Premium Select, to Beijing, but China Eastern has no such thing as Comfort+ or Premium Select on its internal China flights.

I was also worried about getting a seat as far forward as possible, and on an aisle.  Usually aisle seats near the front are long gone on U.S. domestic flights a week before departure.  I had been able to snag a good seat on the original (early) connection, but that was now void.  I even considered paying to upgrade to business class on the PEK/KMG leg, but was told segment pricing wasn’t allowed by Delta for my itinerary.

Thus, I hung up with China Eastern and called the Delta Elite desk.  Speaking with an agent there, we together considered my options, with me leading the conversation:

Option one: Take an earlier Delta flight to PEK?  But nothing with Premium Select (PE) seating was flying from any DL hub other than Detroit —the A350 plane I had booked was the only choice in the RDU/(connection)/PEK market.

Option two: Go the night before on later flights and spend the night in Beijing before connecting?  Nope, didn’t work, either, for the same reason as above.

Option three: Change itinerary to fly Delta RDU/JFK, then China Southern JFK/CAN/KMG in either premium economy or business class?  Did appear to work, but the idea was a non-starter with Delta because of what they determined was the more cost-effective (for them) later connection on China Eastern PEK/KMG that the China Eastern agent had suggested.

Option four: Cancel and get a full refund?  Yes, Delta would have done that, but then no trip and 100% loss of money prepaid for air, train, and accommodation in China.

Option five: Eventually, I ran out of time—and steam—and I caved to Delta’s pushing me to take the later PEK/KMG flight on China Eastern.  When I asked the Delta Elite Line agent why their systems had failed me yet again, he admitted to ignorance, but said my experience was not unusual.  He clammed up after that.

These systemic connection problems with a big established partner like China Eastern don’t inspire confidence in Delta.  My itinerary is hardly exotic or complicated.  Kunming is well-known, busy, and a popular destination in China.  It has a long collaborative history with the USA, too, since it was at the end of the Burma Road supply line during World War II, and Claire Chennault and his famous Flying Tigers used Kunming as their base in China before December 7, 1941.  There’s even a museum in Kunming which honors the Flying Tigers who gave their lives for China.

Yet Delta’s system couldn’t get the routine connections in either direction with long-time partner China Eastern coordinated.  This despite Delta buying 3.55% of China Eastern for $450 million in 2015 and bragging in the press release about how the two carriers “wish, through excellent operation and international cooperation, to optimize customer experience… .”

Delta dropped the ball not once, but twice, on this trip, the first time detected by my travel agent, and the second time discovered by China Eastern itself, rather than by Delta.  That isn’t acceptable by any standards.  Not to mention the three hours I wasted getting Delta’s mistake fixed in my itinerary.  It makes me think Delta isn’t really committed to “optimize customer experience” as quoted above.

Instead, it seems likely that Delta and China Eastern are more firmly devoted to the final words in that same statement quoted above, namely, that their strategic agreement “promotes the revenue growth of both parties.”

Starting in the 1970s I used a travel agent for decades traveling on business every week.  Competent agencies were then indispensable to ferret out the lowest fares and to make last minute changes in the pre-Internet days of paper tickets. A single number to call saved me a lot of time, too, as agents juggled flights, hotels, and car rental bookings with ease.

As online travel booking improved, fares and schedules and rates became transparent and easy to book on my own, and of course they are fee-free.  But for some complex travel I persisted in an ongoing, if infrequent, relationship with an expert agency based in Jacksonville, Florida, Discount Travel, owned by Steve Crandell, that I have come to know and trust over many years.

Today’s incessant scheming versus inconstant execution by airlines has me depending more on my professional travel agent.  Air carriers have devised clever marketing “products” to vacuum more money from my wallet, but are the airline IT and human systems behind the curtain realizing the promises inherent in those schemes?  Lately, my personal experience points to no.

First came code-sharing, a practice that began in 1989 when American Airlines and QANTAS began putting their own flight numbers on each other’s flights in the US and Australia.  Soon everybody was doing it worldwide.  You would think by now, nearly thirty years on, that code-sharing would have been perfected, especially the backroom IT work of coordinating flight changes made by the foreign airline that impact the home airline’s customer itineraries.

And yet this past week my travel agent was checking an upcoming itinerary (late March) for me RDU to Kunming, Yunnan Province, China (airport code KMG) and found a serious misconnect had crept into the reservations and gone undetected by the air carrier partners.  I am booked on Delta in their new version of premium economy RDU/DTW and DTW/PEK.  In Beijing I switch to China Eastern, a Delta partner, on code-share flights to and from Kunming.

My agent noticed that, coming home on the reverse routing, China Eastern had made a schedule change KMG/PEK (but the same flight number) that would put me in Beijing some four hours after my Delta connection had departed.  Yet neither China Eastern nor Delta had alerted me or my agent, let alone rebooked me on an earlier flight that would properly connect to my Delta flight PEK/DTW.

Steve contacted Delta ticketing and pointed out the problem.  No one at Delta could tell him or me why the two airline IT systems had failed to see the glaring misconnect.  Luckily, there were seats still available on a much earlier China Eastern flight KMG/PEK that would arrive Beijing Airport’s Terminal 2 in plenty of time to make my Delta A-359 flight to Detroit, and DL reissued my ticket.  But had Steve not checked my itinerary, I would have been stranded in Beijing for at least an extra day.

An added bonus to Steve’s monitoring of my itinerary:  He also caught that my seat assignment on the Delta flight from Raleigh to Detroit was not in Comfort+.  When he called Delta, he discovered that the aircraft type had been changed from an RJ without Comfort+ seats to a 717 that did have the roomier seats.  But Delta ticketing argued that their international premium economy fare rules did not allow me a Comfort+ seat on domestic flights.  Steve had to point the Delta ticketing “experts” to their own fare rules that specifically allow customers buying international PE tickets to sit in domestic Comfort+ seats.  He also noted that I was already in Comfort+ DTW/RDU on the return leg.  So now I am in row 11 RDU to DTW.

I might have caught those errors, of course.  But I was glad that Steve at Discount Travel had my back.  He knew what to look for and who to call to fix it, and I didn’t have to waste my time doing it.  Both these cock-ups reinforced my commitment to professional travel agents.

Why did the IT and human systems fail me?  Who knows? But of course it isn’t just at Delta, as yesterday’s dog snafu on United proves (a pooch going to Kansas ended up in Tokyo, and vice versa).

And what about the complicated fare parsing now spreading from domestic to international flights?  Virgin Atlantic’s new coach fares come in three versions plus premium economy, but the airline won’t say yet what a checked bag costs in its cheapest category, called Economy Lite.

Could it be worse than on United and American overseas flights?  On UA and AA the cheapest economy fares make passengers subject to $50 for carry-on, but a fare that allows carry-on bags is just $25 more. Sometimes it pays to have a travel agent figure out which is best rather than expending time and frustration doing that research on my own.

Another example: Delta’s international Basic Economy charges $60 for a checked bag and no seat assignments, but my agent, Steve, was able to book the same Delta flights with KLM code-share flight numbers and got seat assignments just fine (and at no extra cost). The code-share issue makes it a bigger mess to figure out, once again demonstrating the value of an educated travel agent who does this all the time for business travelers.

When I was first planning my upcoming trip to Kunming, China—the itinerary explained at the top—I spent considerable time comparing itineraries on China Southern, another Delta partner, through Guangzhou with ones on China Eastern through Beijing.  When the schedules and fares seemed not to add up, I phoned Steve, and he instantly advised me which was the best value, most comfortable flights, and quickest time en route.  I should have called him first.  He has more than earned the $30 ticket issuance fee.  In fact I owe Steve dinner and a fine bottle of wine.

A lot of ink has been spilled in the last few years by travel writers heralding the precipitous decline in the worth of frequent flyer programs.  I read about it in the abstract, and I wonder how reported plummeting program values might impact me.  As I researched two upcoming trips which I hoped to make on award tickets, I found that the answer is thorny: It depends.

First, come basic observations:

  • Since award trip mileage is tied directly to the same capacity management algorithms that determine hard currency fares, the variables in mileage costs are moved by actual and forecast demand.
  • For instance, high award travel demand correlates to the calendar: school holidays, vacation periods, special events, seasons, and so on—just like paid fares.
  • In turn, those date-related variables are tied to other variables, such as city-pairs, competition in the market, aircraft size (number of seats available), and time of day.
  • Days of the week used to make a difference in fares (generally, midweek and Saturday travel was cheaper), but not so much anymore.
  • Another variable can be how far in advance you buy fares or book award seats; the closer to the travel date, the more likely the fare or mileage will be higher than 330 days out when flights are often first opened for booking.

For all those reasons and more that I don’t understand, award fares expressed in miles fluctuate a great deal.   They can and do change daily.  There have been times that I shopped for award seats for the same city-pair and date range over the course of a week and suddenly saw a drop in mileage required.  Tenacious perseverance sometimes pays off when shopping for award seats—if you have the time and the patience.

But I digress.  What about the value of frequent flyer programs normalized for those variables?

First, a look at the U.S. $ Inflation rate for goods and services over four years:

2015   0.12%

2016   1.28%

2017   2.65%

2018   2.38%  (projected)

Thus, goods and services that cost $1.00 on January 1, 2015 would cost $1.07 on December 31, 2018 (projected).  That’s an overall 7% rise in price over 4 years.

How does that compare to costs we can relate to the real world?  College tuition at prestige universities tend to rise at a higher rate than inflation.  For instance, Duke just announced its annual tuition increase would be 3.2%, almost a percentage point above expected 2018 inflation, but still less than similar rises at Harvard and elsewhere.

What about airfare inflation in the same period?  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fares on average have gone down between 2015 and 2017:

“According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, prices for airline fares were 4.98% lower in 2017 versus 2015.

 “Between 2015 and 2017: Airfare experienced an average inflation rate of -2.52% per year. This rate of change indicates significant deflation. In other words, airfare costing $100 in the year 2015 would cost $95.02 in 2017 for an equivalent purchase. Compared to the overall inflation rate of 1.67% during this same period, inflation for airfare was significantly lower.

 “In the year 2015: Pricing changed by -5.03%, below the average yearly change for airfare during the 2015-2017 time period. Compared to inflation for all items in 2015 (0.12%), price inflation for airfare was much lower.”

With airfare averages dropping, what about the mileage costs for frequent flyer awards?

Again, my experience is that it depends, though award seat costs are not dropping.  I shopped for two weeks for Delta or American economy class awards between Raleigh (RDU) and Billings (BIL) in July, admittedly a peak summer period for western state travel.  American awards were above 50,000 miles, and that was for coach!  Delta’s were also pretty high until one day I found dates and flights for 32,500 miles RDU/BIL/RDU.  I grabbed it.  Thirty thou for an award ticket in the summer between two popular and busy places is pretty good value these days and not much different from the past.

That’s for domestic travel.  For international award travel, the trend looks like business class award travel costs on Delta have shot through the roof; American’s not so much. My personal baselines derive from two 2016 trips to Africa on business class frequent flyer awards, one on AA and a partner airline, and one on Delta and its partners.

In 2016 I used AAdvantage miles on American and Qatar Airways via PHL and Doha (Qatar) in business class Raleigh to Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) for 165,000 miles.  The itinerary came with good connections, too.  I checked flights at the same time to Johannesburg in business class on Qatar, and I was quoted the same mileage.

At American you must phone an elite desk to book partner awards because the AA.com website is limited to showing international award seats only on AA mainline flights, British Airways, and sometimes Iberia. Trying to get to Johannesburg again in business class for early fall 2018 travel, I phoned recently and managed to book RDU/JNB using AA and Qatar Airways for 180,000 miles.  I took it, though the connections are many hours.  Guess I’ll be napping in the glorious Qatar business class lounge in Doha during the long layovers in both directions.

Even with crappy connections, 180,000 miles in 2018 versus 165,000 miles in 2016 for business class is just a 9% rise in mileage cost—not enough to make me shriek with fury and curse the airline, especially since that tracks well with the 7% average inflation rate for roughly the same period.

The Delta international award travel costs for business class in 2018, on the other hand, proved to be exorbitant compared to 2016.  Two years ago I paid 160,000 miles for business class on Delta through DTW to AMS, then KLM to JNB.  Returning was on Virgin via LHR to JFK, then Delta again to Raleigh.

When I recently tried booking the same or a similar Delta SkyMiles itinerary RDU/JNB for early fall 2018 travel, I found a dizzying array of mileage award business class costs offered:

  • 750,000 miles + about $60 if using Delta via its direct ATL/JNB flight (same costs whether booking online or by phone to an elite desk)
  • 441,000 miles + $170 if using Delta, Air France, and Virgin on a convoluted RDU/DTW/CDG/LHR/JNB routing going and an easy JNB/CDG/RDU route returning (booking by phone via an elite desk)
  • 302,000 miles + an absurd $489-551 using Delta, Air France, and Virgin on the same convoluted RDU/DTW/CDG/LHR/JNB routing going and easy JNB/CDG/RDU route returning (booking online)

I checked a number of dates, and 302,000 miles was the rock bottom price on Delta, and the connections weren’t that great, with long layovers in Paris and/or London.

So take your pick: 302,000 (plus $500), 441,000, or 750,000 miles.  302,000 looks good only by comparison, but it is still a whopping 88.75% increase over 2016 and comes with Virgin’s hateful $500 surcharge. At the other end of the cost spectrum, 750,000 miles means my lifetime Delta mileage of 5.35 million miles would buy only 7 of those tickets.

It’s easy to think, What’s the point of staying in the Delta SkyMiles program?  And frankly, sometimes I am tempted to ditch it.  But then I remember that I just booked an award ticket RDU/BIL on the same program in high summer for 32,000 miles—okay, in coach, but that can cost 117,000 miles on some Delta award trip itineraries.

My conclusion is that frequent flyer award mileage costs vacillate wildly at the whim of each airline and are less subject to dollar-based supply and demand pressures that govern hard currency fares. Tighter management control of the award seat inventory means that award seat mileage levels don’t necessarily track with the global economy’s inflation rates.

Which is a fancy way of saying that I expect to pay more and get less and to have to work harder to get awards from frequent flyer programs.

Rudy Maxa, one of America’s premier consumer travel experts, is host and executive producer of “Rudy Maxa’s World,” the Emmy Award winning, public television travel series featuring destinations as diverse as Korea, Argentina, South Africa, Tuscany, and Thailand.

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Two brothers, a photo I took in the Kruger National Park near Skukuza Camp

After seeing my post this week, The cost of a lion, Rudy invited me to be a guest on rmworldtravel radio show (broadcast on over 300 radio stations) to help listeners understand why the cost of a safari to Africa can vary so widely.

My segment on the radio show was too short to detail the cost differences or to explain how to book your own safari to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, by far the best bargain.  This post provides a more thorough guide than possible in 4 minutes on the radio.

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White rhino often browse right up to your stopped vehicle in the Kruger if you are quiet.. This was taken near Berg-en-Dal Camp in the Kruger

To learn how to plan your own trip to the Kruger, see this post.

Go here to see what I learned from 25 years of trips to the Kruger National Park.

Here are tips on how to survive 16 hours in coach to get to South Africa.

This post explains the difference between the very costly luxury lodges versus the Kruger’s very reasonable prices.

Here’s another along the same lines,;that is, comparing luxury lodge safaris and the Kruger.

To read my analysis on how the Kruger Park is functioning in the context of contemporary political, social, and economic challenges, click here.

In this post I muse about why the Kruger never gets old to me.

In this post I talk more about why I keep returning to the Kruger.

Some key extracts from the latter post:

  • Kruger is the largest self-drive national park in Africa, and there are only two more national parks anything like it.  One is Etosha in Namibia, which is quite small, and the other is Hwange in Zimbabwe, which is closed.  I’ve visited all three and love them, but the Kruger is the largest and most diverse.  At 7,523 sq mi (same as NJ), 220 miles north-to-south and 40+ miles wide, it is huge.  In other parts of Africa visitors must hire a guide and often go in groups to wherever their guides take them.  In the Kruger you rent a car from Avis or Hertz and drive yourself on hundreds of miles of paved and well-kept gravel roads.  You are the boss and decide where you want to go on game drives, when you want to go, how long you want to stay out, and how long you want to stop and watch anything that catches your interest.  This is a great freedom to customize the experience however you want.  Sometimes, for instance, it’s fun to just sit for awhile observing a dung beetle navigating his huge ball of elephant poop across the road.
  • Speeds limits in the park at 50 KPH (about 30 MPH) on tarred roads and 40 KPH (about 25 MPH) on unpaved roads.  This is strictly enforced, so speeders are rare. Driving in he Kruger is therefore stress-free and relaxing.  The slow speeds protect the wildlife and the visitors alike, and you soon get into the rhythm of life in the very slow lane. I find it’s hard to adjust to he normal pace of traffic each time I leave.
  • The 12 full-service “restcamps” in the Kruger are self-contained villages surrounded by electrified barb wire fences to keep the animals from eating the guests.  Each one is a beautiful marvel fitted carefully into the natural landscape and often on a river, with its own gas station, curio shop, grocery store, restaurant and snack bar, and a wide variety of individual thatched-roof  circular accommodation called “rondavels”.  Each rondavel is air-conditioned, most with private toilets and showers.  Of course they have electric lights, and they come with linens, soap, and towels.  The experience is hotel-like and very comfortable.  Most rondavels have a spacious roofed outside porch equipped with table and chairs, fridge, hot plate, and utensils.  Rondavels usually are equipped with an outside “braai” (African word for small charcoal grill) if you prefer to cook your own dinner rather than go to the restaurant.  Most camps are large enough to enjoy long walks when not out on a game drive, and many have swimming pools.
  • Kruger has famously varied terrain and eco-systems.  Map books available in all the park shops detail the interesting differences in geology, elevation, rainfall, and vegetation, all of which impact wildlife distribution.  Because of this topographical and environmental diversity, the Kruger landscape changes constantly as you move through it.  Some places are hilly, with large rocky outcrops called kopjes.  Other places are open, reminiscent of the Serengeti plains.  Still others are wooded, or scrubby grasslands, or large river valleys.  The many changes in scenery make for a stimulating experience.
  • South African food in the Kruger is tasty, a mix of the commonplace (chicken salad; cheese and tomato sandwiches; steak) and the unfamiliar (pap, a finely ground corn; biltong, which is like jerky; game pie, such as impala; kudu steaks, which is similar to elk).  While the S.A. wines available in the Park shops are not the top quality selections from the Cape Province, they are nonetheless quite good, as are the upmarket S.A. beers.  Even the local peanuts taste different, somehow better.
  • Late afternoons enjoying a “sundowner” on the wide, open-air veranda of a camp restaurant situated on a river embankment are hard to beat, especially just before tucking into a delicious cut of Cape Buffalo seared to perfection.  After dinner, savoring the twilight with my last glass of deep red wine as the hippos grunt loudly to one another in the river fills me with pleasure. It’s relaxes my soul.
  • Spending time with loved ones driving slowly through the Park on game drives is just as relaxing, and a great deal of fun, too.  Everyone is on high alert scanning the countryside for animals.  Kruger brags that it is home to 148 species of large mammals, more than any other African game park, including the so-called “Big Five” (Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Cape Buffalo, and Leopard), and I have seen most of them at one time or another.
  • Then there are the 114 reptile species to look out for in the park like the baby black mamba I once found on my doorstep at Letaba Camp.
  • The birds are reason enough to visit Kruger.  505 bird species are found in the park, and many are magnificent.  Look up Lilac-breasted Roller, Carmine Bee-eater, Saddle-billed Stork, African Fish Eagle, Secretarybird, African Hoopoe, and Malachite Kingfisher for some stellar examples.  I never tire of the birds in the Kruger, and they are everywhere, including in all the camps.

And there is more in my earlier blog if you want to look back over the years:

https://allenontravel.wordpress.com/my-earlier-blog/

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Comfortable “rondavels” in the Kruger National Park camps

Adequate planning is everything for such a trip.  Because things book up pretty quickly, the best Kruger accommodation and the least expensive flights to and from South Africa usually require at least six months advance planning.

By the way, if you’d rather splurge and go in Business Class, there are sometimes deals for around $4000 round trip from the East Coast.  Your choice.  As I mention in several of the posts referenced above, safari costs are net of airfares.

Just remember that the longer lead time, the better for booking the Kruger.  I usually tie down my reservations 8-9 months in advance.

How much is seeing a lion in the African wilderness going to set me back in 2018?  It depends on where I go.  Current figures indicate that seeing a lion in the Serengeti National Park (Tanzania) is likely to cost three times what it would to see a lion in the Kruger National Park (South Africa).

I documented the big cost differential between the Kruger and other African safari options four years ago (see here  and this link). As I plan another trip to the Kruger in a few months, I wondered if those numbers have changed.

The answer is no.  Despite rising costs all over Africa, going to the Kruger remains a relative bargain.

 

Two other self-drive parks of note are Etosha in Namibia and Hwange in Zimbabwe, but the Kruger is far larger and far better designed for the DIY safari tourist.  Unlike the big game parks of Equatorial Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), visiting the Kruger never required a guide since it opened in the early twentieth century.

Serengeti Lion dark-skinned male (2)

Which lion is in the Serengeti, and which is in the Kruger?

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Hint: There are are no paved roads in the Serengeti.  The Serengeti lion (top) costs $693/day to see while seeing this Kruger lion costs a mere $239/day.

Regular readers know I am enamored with sub-Saharan Africa. I love the people and the game parks of Africa. This all started in 1991 when I lived and worked in South Africa, and I have been going back ever since. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have visited the Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa, a wilderness area of 7.523 square miles, which is about the size of New Jersey.

Comparing late September/early October, 2018 costs for a ten day safari to the Kruger versus ten days during the same period to the Serengeti in Tanzania, I first looked at airfares.  Air in economy from Raleigh (RDU Airport) is about a wash:  Flying to Johannesburg and then 50 minutes more to the beautiful gem of an airport at Skukuza (SZK) in the Kruger National Park runs about $1753.  Fares to Kilimanjaro (JRO) airport, which is the gateway to the northern Tanzanian safari town of Arusha, are about $1775.

No real variance there.

The big difference comes in the per person costs once in Africa, to wit:

KRUGER = $2387 OR $239/ DAY NET OF AIRFARE

(Accommodation, rental car and fuel, food and drink)  

SERENGETI = $6928 OR $693/DAY NET OF AIRFARE

(Safari package @45% discount, car to/from airport, tips & drinks)

The Serengeti is 2.9 times more expensive than the Kruger using these numbers.

And this is based on single occupancy in the Kruger (average $113/night) versus double occupancy on the Serengeti safari.  Kruger accommodation per person per night cost would drop from $113 to about $65-70 if two shared the spacious rondavels in the Park, making the South African trip even cheaper.

Furthermore, government fees in Tanzania to safari companies taking clients to the Serengeti and nearby Ngorongoro Crater, always steep, have risen dramatically recently. Because the additional government tourist fees are difficult to pin down on a per person basis, I was not able to calculate those into these comparisons. Thus, the actual gulf in prices is higher than what I depicted.

The wildlife in both places can’t be beat, and the Serengeti can boast of its annual migration of two million wildebeests and zebras unlike anywhere else on earth.  Just the same, the Kruger can be plenty interesting, as, for instance, this recent news story about lions in the vicinity who devoured a poacher, leaving only his head.

I am excited to be going back to the Kruger again!

Ngorongoro Lioness (1)

Hmm, poachers taste good!

After deciding this week to avoid flying American whenever I can, it was logical, I thought, to utilize my remaining 184,684 AAdvantage miles for award travel on an upcoming trip to South Africa. Surely, I mused, that would be sufficient for business class on American and one of its partner airlines to Johannesburg.

180,000 AAdvantage miles was indeed enough for the international segments in business class on Qatar (an AA partner), but not enough for American to put me in first class on the three domestic legs of my itinerary.  AA is making me fly in the back of the bus—and on RJs at that—to connect to the international premium cabins to and from South Africa.

Gee, thanks, American.

I should have expected it. The ever-eroding AA experience is why I am leaving the airline to begin with.  The reasons have accumulated, starting with raising fares while simultaneously cutting service.

Trying to be funny a few years back, I penned a blog post called Extreme Fare Class Parsing.  But now it’s no joke.  Airline pricing guys woke up one day and said, “Hey! Why compete with LCCs like Southwest when we can compete with ourselves?  Why, we can carve up the back of the plane into three fare classes on our own planes, and all we need to do it is to tweak our software!”

And so was invented the now-ubiquitous “basic economy” no-frills fare category that distributes flying misery in the coach section with slightly better “main cabin” and, on AA, “Main Cabin Extra” fare classes.  Overnight, the cheapest fares were called basic economy (or something like it) with no seat assignments or free checked bags allowed even for the highest level elite flyer.  Suddenly, only main cabin and above fares let flyer get a seat assignment and free check bags, and those fares went way up.

That was one nail in the American Airlines loyalty coffin.  Another has been the drastic value diminution of American’s AAdvantage frequent flyer program, in which I was a 1981 charter member.  I don’t need to repeat the litany of cuts to the loyalty programs, such as higher mileage award levels; fewer, if any, award seats at the lowest award levels; inventing new, ever-higher elite levels for upgrades that makes it nearly impossible to get into the front cabin, and measuring loyalty based on dollars spent rather than miles flown.  American has done all that.

At one time in the mid-eighties I flew so much that I enjoyed top tier recognition at United, Continental, TWA, Eastern, Delta, Pan Am, and American.  I could expect good service and reasonable comfort for a decent fare on most any domestic flight.

By the time that carriers spiraled into death throes and compacted into the remaining Big Three, I had abandoned United for good after years of being pummeled even as a 1K flyer (then United’s top elite category).  But at least I had American, where I had flown 1.2 million miles and held Lifetime Gold credentials, and I had Delta, with my Lifetime Platinum privileges after flying 5.3 million miles.

Then AA croaked, and it was bought by America West and slammed crudely together with US Airways.  When the dust settled, I found my 34 AAdvantage 500-mile upgrades to be stranded in a state of everlasting uselessness.  So many top tier US Airways and former American Airlines flyers were vying for upgrades that only a purchased first class ticket got me into the front cabin.

I also began to notice that “early boarding” as a Gold wasn’t that early.  These days it is usually middle of the pack, after military and those in need of assistance, families with small children, First Class, and Executive Platinum/Platinum.  Increasingly, overhead space is limited by the time I board, and that’s after I pay a higher fare just to get a seat assignment.

So, why, I asked myself, am I still flying on American?  Surely it isn’t for the miles.  Since the merger, as I said above, the AAdvantage program has become ever stingier, case in point my 34 upgrades in purgatory.

Thus, sitting with 184,684 AAdvantage miles in declining value, I sought to cash in 180,000 miles for a business class round trip to Johannesburg before things got worse.

The online international award requests show mostly American and British Airways connections, with a smattering of Iberia flights, but almost no business class award seats on any carrier’s flights.  And no flights visible on other partners, like Qatar Airways.

The sole option to book international award seats is to call an AA agent, and so I did.  The AA agents I spoke with over a three day period were all super-helpful.  I’d hire any of them.

But not even nice professional people armed with the right company-provided software tools can help you find something that isn’t there.  Their patient searches (one call lasted 34 minutes) came up with zero business class award seats on AA, BA, or Iberia on any dates in the Plan Ahead category for the four-month period of July, August, September, and November.  I am extremely flexible for this particular trip, but flexibility doesn’t work if there are no seats.

I was told “Any Time” award seats were available for some flights (though this doesn’t show up online for international award requests), but even with 184,684 miles, I didn’t have enough for a one way in business, let alone round trip.

After three days of expert searching by senior AA agents, only one option came up: a convoluted itinerary using American and Qatar Raleigh-Philladelphia-Doha-Johannesburg-Doha-Boston-LaGuardia-Raleigh.  But even for 180,000 miles, no first class was available on the AA domestic flights.  It was take-it-or-leave-it, so I took it, and thus I will be flying in coach RDU/PHL, BOS/LGA, and LGA/RDU.

For 180,000 miles, American still denies me a seat in the front cabin on an RJ.  Sheesh.  This experience underscores why I won’t miss flying on American.  Meanwhile, my 34 AAdvantage 500-mile upgrade certificates, some purchased and some earned, sit frozen and unusable in my account, a shrine to my foolhardiness in trusting the contemptible people who run American Airlines.

A recent one-night stopover in Los Angeles at a humdrum LAX hotel and without a rental car taught me two valuable lessons:  I don’t need a gaudy Hollywoodland palace in which to lay my head at night, and there are times when I can eschew driving myself around L.A.

A week before my trip I glanced at my hotel reservation and suddenly thought that $199 for one night at the LAX Hilton (plus tax and parking, and breakfast extra) was more than I cared to pay. Online, I soon found the Hampton Inn LAX El Segundo at just $89 per night, including continental breakfast, so I booked it and cancelled the fancy Hilton.

At the same time, I noticed that I had a Hertz car reserved for 24 hours at LAX.  The sheer rental car logistics, which I have experienced a hundred times at LAX over the decades, made me tired just thinking about it:

Wait for the Hertz bus on the curb with my luggage after locating where it stops by my airline’s terminal.

Stuff into the always-crowded bus and carefully watch my luggage on the rack.

Wait for the bus to stop at every LAX airline terminal.

Endure the bus as it lurches over to the big Hertz rental facility north of the airport.

Find my car—never quite what I want—and check it out for damage before accepting it.

Drive to the Hertz gate bottleneck and wait in a long queue to get out because there are never enough gate staff.

Crawl through LAX north-to-south traffic to the hotel in El Segundo.

Later, undergo the stressful drive to my meeting in Long Beach on always-maddening and slow  I-405.

Find a parking place.

Drive back to my hotel and find parking again.

Next morning leave extra early to find a gas station and fill up.

Creep through LAX traffic back to the Hertz lot.

Get a receipt and wince that the forgettable plain-Jane car cost $139 for one day after all the local and state taxes and special airport fees are lumped into the basic cost

Run for the Hertz courtesy bus back to the airport (the bus doors invariably close as I walk up).

Stuff onto the crowded bus again.

Crawl through traffic back to LAX, watching my luggage like a hawk as people get off.

Stop at every airline until my stop.

No, I thought, not this time, not for just one day.  I would use Uber or Lyft and avoid the tiresomeness and cost of the rental car process. It would also be easier and, according to my calculations, cheaper than renting a car.

When my plane touched down, I called the Hampton for a shuttle bus.  The hotel staffer was polite and crisp in directing me to a certain curb and said it would be there in “about 12 minutes.”

Hotel shuttles are always later than advertised, but I didn’t argue. So I was bug-eyed when the bus arrived in 11 minutes and even more surprised when the driver rushed off the bus smiling and efficiently stowed my bags before leaping back into the driver’s seat.

In no time we had reached the modern but modest Hampton Inn LAX El Segundo, which hardly looked like a hotel at all from the street.  The property is nestled between  a nondescript commercial building and  the “105 Parking” garage (long-term, off-airport parking) with which it shares the shuttle services.

Smiling front desk staff let me check in early at noon. The room was sunny, comfortable, quiet, and with all the usual stuff: free Wi-Fi, big-screen TV, etc.  The Hampton breakfast the next morning was the same old boring continental offering of every inexpensive hotel in America, but for $89, it was a great deal. The only glitch was having my sleep interrupted at 12:30 AM by a woman talking loudly on phone next door. I eventually had to shout at her through the connecting doors to keep it down. She did.

My experience using Lyft to and from Long Beach was excellent. Somehow, I had earned a discount of 50% each way, which brought the one-way price to $15. I had competent drivers and quick 30-minute trips. Even tipping each driver $5, my total fares came to $40—a bargain anywhere!  Even had I not qualified for the half-off discount, the total would have been $70, which is half what I would have paid to Hertz—and totally stress-free. I will positively be using Lyft (and Uber) on future Los Angeles trips to avoid LAX rental cars whenever possible.

Returning to the airport after checking out—I will definitely go back to that Hampton—the “105 Parking” shuttle driver was just as upbeat and efficient as the driver the day before.  He briskly helped everyone with luggage, and he was dead on time, which I always appreciate.

LAX is usually a zoo just because it’s LAX. Even granting that reality, Delta’s Terminal 3 (originally TWA) is cramped and worn out. The security screen was a rat’s maze with no room to move even in the hard-to-find TSA Pre line. Everything felt totally makeshift.

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No place to sit while waiting at Delta’s LAX Terminal 3

Terminal 3 gates in the ancient circular rotunda offered no seats or room to breathe.   I like standing before boarding, true especially that morning as I was on the nonstop to RDU, a long flight, but the lack of seating was inexcusable.  A long line for the sole women’s toilet never seem to shorten. Delta promises a multi-billion dollar makeover of terminals 2 and 3 to commence this year (2018).  It’s desperately needed.

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The long line for the women’s toilet snaked out into the rotunda at Delta’s LAX Terminal 3

All in, I think I spent $172 for the day and night, including lodging, Lyft, tips, and meals.  Even better, I didn’t have to rent a car, find parking, or drive it through L.A. congestion.  All good and a blueprint for future trips.

The world has some surprises left even for a blasé traveler like me.  My wife and I booked a bargain fare on Air New Zealand to Rarotonga (Cook Islands) in the South Pacific having never heard of the place and without knowing where it is or what to expect when we got there, as I wrote about it here.

So, Rarotonga was a mystery to me.  I wondered: Would I like it?  I did, very much.  In fact I was delighted with its charms.

THE JOLTING JUXTAPOSITION OF RAR AIRPORT AFTER LAX

Rarotonga: Just 10,572 souls on a bucolic and peaceful tropical rock, one of the Cook Islands. It’s the most jolting juxtaposition imaginable to land there on a huge 777 from the teeming millions and madness of Los Angeles and step into the itty-bitty shed of an airport and be greeted by just three friendly immigration officials.

It must be the smallest nonstop international destination of any plane departing LAX.

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This photo of the Rarotonga airport terminal makes it seem more grand than it is

In fact the island’s enticements began with that airport experience: landing between the mountains and sea on Rarotonga’s one runway, old-fashioned air-stairs to put us on the tarmac and then a short walk to the modest terminal building, a musician performing soothing tropical songs on a ukulele as we entered the building, the efficient Immigration and Customs officers, the warm breezes wafting through the open terminal, the 15 second stroll to the exit and then palm trees and coral reefs. Suddenly stress was left behind.

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Our Air NZ 777 from LAX

I picked up an Avis rental car from a friendly lady in the small office.  She didn’t have my reservation, but gave me a car anyway and took my booking confirmation document saying, “No worries! We’ll get it straight for you.”  When has that ever happened at a rental car counter?

And off we drove with the windows down in our Toyota Corolla.  It was just 17 minutes at slow speed (max on Rarotonga is 50 KPH, about 33 MPH) to our Airbnb villa directly on the beach of the coral reef lagoon which surrounds the island.  The owner had left the key under a clam shell, and soon we were unpacked and going for our first snorkeling experience.

WHERE IS RAROTONGA?

West of Tahiti 711 miles, but no harder to get to because both are so far south. Nonstop 9.5 hr flight from LAX on Air New Zealand.

Less than 2,000 miles (about 4.5 hours by air) to Auckland.

Directly south of Hawai’i and exactly as far south of the Equator as Hawai’i is north of it, so very similar weather both places.

Lies east of the International Date Line and, like Hawai’i, is 5 hours earlier than ET.

THE MARVELOUS BEACH & CORAL REEF FRONTING OUR AIRBNB RENTAL

The Rarotonga beaches are mostly white sand, and the lagoon no more than six feet deep with crystal clear water.  The reef’s steep and dangerous drop-off to the open sea is about a quarter mile out.  Swimmers inexperienced with the strong currents regularly drown there.  We decided not to die and snorkeled inside the extensive lagoon, which was filled with healthy branch, brain, and fan corals and a variety of small tropical reef fish.

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The view never got old from our front deck of the coral reef lagoon and white sandy beach.  You can see the breakers at the drop-off in the distance.

No big man-eating sharks cruise the lagoon, but Stonefish are reputed to live there. I didn’t find any, luckily, as their poisonous dorsal spines jammed into a foot can be lethal.  We always wore tough reef shoes or flippers, too.

The myriad of coral heads are visible in the clear water, especially at low tide, which made for a gorgeous view from our deck.  The view from our deck of the lagoon and the distant breakers at the reef drop-off was spectacular and never got old.

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Paddleboarding on the coral reef lagoon in front our Airbnb villa near Vaima-ana. Note the breakers out at the drop-off in the distance.

GENERAL IMPRESSIONS

Many thousands of chickens run free on Rarotonga, as do hundreds, if not thousands, of dogs. Dogs often followed us home, even though they have homes.

The surviving chickens are expert flyers in a classic Darwinian battle to escape the dogs that chase and try to kill them. Successive generations of chickens have become high flyers indeed, as we witnessed many times. I’ve never seen chickens that fly that well.

Goats abound on Rarotonga, with fewer hogs and cows.

Because all dining is al fresco, it is a bounty for mosquitos (the island boasts small day and night mosquitos).

Very small and speedy ants excelled at finding food left out in our beautiful and modern Airbnb beach house.

Our Airbnb villa came with bicycles, paddleboards, and kayaks.  We availed ourselves of them all, but we found that walking was safer and more pleasant than biking.  Traffic on the main road (about the ONLY road) around the island is not heavy, but the road is narrow and has few shoulders for cyclists to move out of the way.

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Our Airbnb villa looking back from the coral reef lagoon

Intermittent rain fell during our six days on Rarotonga in mid-December, including a torrential downpour one day, but skies soon cleared, and we snorkeled twice daily even in the rain.

Perfectly ripe, to-die-for papayas are widely available on Rarotonga at 10 for NZ$6, which is about US 43 cents each.  Locals call them paw-paws.  Lots of other tropical fruit, too.

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Ah, the papayas!  I doused them with lime juice.

There isn’t much to do on Rarotonga, which is in large part its appeal. It’s characterized by good food, nice people, a slow pace, and the wonderful coral reef lagoon.  It’s heavenly if you just want to relax, catch rays, swim and snorkel, read, and enjoy the friendly people.

Crime is not (yet?) a big problem on Rarotonga as it is on Fiji and in Tahiti, although we were coached not to leave anything of value outside and to lock windows and doors whenever we left, including closing curtains and blinds, as some people cruise the beach looking for opportunities, especially when they see tourists way out on the reef snorkeling.

Lots of Photo Voltaic panels are installed on the island, particularly in new construction, because of the abundance of tropical sunlight and the very high cost of electricity (all island power is diesel-generated and expensive). Our place had enough PV to provide all our power plus a surplus sold back to the grid each month. Without it, the electric bill for our one bedroom place was said to be over NZ$1000 per month (about US$714).

Some restaurants were disappointments despite being highly rated. At the waterfront and well-known Trader Jack’s in Avarua (the biggest “town” on Rarotonga), the best part of the meal was the Diet Cokes. If you go there, DON’T get the smoked fish cakes, and DON’T get the NZ mussels.

That said, we enjoyed two delicious and memorable lunches in the local Avarua market at no-name booths of prawn curry and garlic prawn. Best meals we had in the island.

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Scrumptious prawn curry from a local food stand in Avarua

A TRIP TO THE DOCTOR ON RAROTONGA

My wife came down with bronchitis on the second day, and I succumbed a day later.   Hacking and coughing, I made an appointment with a local doctor.  Nothing is very far from anything else on Rarotonga, so we set off about 15 minutes early to see Doctor Uka (pronounced YOU-KA) in Muri Beach.

I didn’t expect it to be like a Raleigh clinic, and I was right. Dr. Uka’s “surgery” (the Brit term for clinic) was open both front (on the street) and back (to a dirt alley and field). The good doctor was attired in a well-worn Hawaiian shirt and shorts, and he was barefoot and very fat in the Maori-Samoan way (takes one to know one, except I don’t have the excuse of Samoan physiology). He had no sink to wash his hands between patients.

We sat by his desk, which was placed by the open back door, no doubt the better for cooling breezes. Numerous chickens wandered by and looked in (as I said above, chickens by the thousands wander everywhere on Rarotonga).  Dr. Uka might as well have been practicing medicine outside. He only listened to our lungs before writing prescriptions, did not take our temps or ask questions. The doc was extremely good-natured and friendly.  Frankly, I wished my physician back home operated the same way.

Dr. Uka charged NZ$50 each in cash (US$35). No receipt or record was given. It was a bargain.

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Dr Uka’s waiting room by the street at Muri Beach, Rarotonga

The pharmacy was a kilometer away and supposed to open at 10:00 AM, but the very nice proprietress didn’t arrive until 10:25 AM. Our Augmentin (antibiotic) was NZ$15 each and the Prednisone (steroid) was NZ$2 for a total of NZ$32, or US$22.50, another bargain.

While waiting for the pharmacy to open, we grabbed delicious and filling, perfectly cooked pineapple pancakes with bananas and bacon and maple syrup at the adjacent Aussie-run Deli-Licious Muri Beach Cafe for NZ$13.50 (US$9.50). I enjoyed watching a chicken wander into the café, and nobody cared. I fed the local Mynah Birds a scrap or two.

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Pineapple pancakes with bananas & bacon at Muri Beach, breakfast fit for a king!

Bronchitis notwithstanding, we continued to snorkel on the coral reef lagoon in front of our beach house twice a day religiously.

RAROTONGA FISH IN THE WATER & ON THE TABLE

The lagoon’s reef fish are, like a great many place we snorkel nowadays, in decline and obviously so. We’ve seen this all over the Caribbean (many islands, especially including our favorite snorkeling place, St. John), Tahiti, Hawaii, Fiji, The Maldives, Barbados, The Caymans, remote islands in the Philippines, Belize, Costa Rica, Bali, Mexico’s Isla Mujeres, remote Thai islands, even some places on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Climate change and over-fishing are dramatically diminishing fish stocks and killing reefs.

That said, the Rarotonga reef is healthy by comparison, and the water is as clear as anywhere we’ve ever been. But the fish on the reef are small and lack great species diversity because most adult fish have been caught and eaten. We saw few parrot fish, for instance, because it’s a delicacy. Lots of trigger fish, though, because they are not too big and not considered good to eat. Many varieties of beautiful aquarium size fish abound, especially among the branch coral heads (as opposed to the solid brain coral which lack crevices to hide in), which are beautiful and fun to watch.

Truth is, unless you spend a ton of money to go to hard-to-reach dive spots, the Eden-like places are gone. However, we greatly enjoyed our snorkeling every day on Rarotonga.

Fish for eating on Rarotonga are also in decline. Mahi-mahi (dolphin) was very expensive because almost fished out. Ditto for most other fin fish species. The main meat fish there now is Striped Marlin and White Marlin, which are also in decline from overfishing. Hard to get oysters, shrimp (prawns), and scallops, too, and zero crabs. All overfished.  Except for the fresh-caught Marlin, the majority of seafood, in fact most food, on Rarotonga is imported from New Zealand.

With so many people on the planet, resource management is not working in places like the Cook Islands, nor throughout the entire South Pacific. Even though those island nations are small in population and have legal fishing rights going out 200 miles, factory boats from China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, and Europe plunder the sea without legal sanction. Small nations like the Cook Islands struggle even to keep their telecom/Internet functioning and certainly lack the enforcement resources to protect their own fishing rights. Not a pretty picture.

RAROTONGA INTERNET & WIFI

BlueSky has the monopoly on all landline telephone, mobile and Internet service in the Cook Islands. Its unreliability is legendary, the source of the local nickname for the company: GraySky. It’s a perennial joke due to one bungle after another.

Following an October fire that melted down the entire BlueSky network in one small building with zero redundancy, phones and Internet reportedly just came back—well, mostly—in mid-December. We experienced intermittent failures of Internet and phone service, including one that knocked out everything overnight.

Imagine an entire country’s population without any landline telephone, mobile, or Internet service. No way to contact anyone. No way to call the police, ambulance, or firefighting services.  Credit card machines in restaurants and businesses down. At the airport, no Internet means no way to print boarding passes or to dispatch airplanes with weight and balance documents. Customs and Immigration computers are offline, stranding passengers outbound and not allowing entry of inbound.

When working, BlueSky sells Internet short subscriptions in MB/GB increments and for so many days which work wherever Wi-Fi is available. While many places broadcast Wi-Fi signals, signing on to the Internet is impossible without a BlueSky subscription. Even then, however, service is intermittent and sloooow.  Being sole-source in a tiny market, though, BlueSky does as it wishes.

ISLANDER HOTEL: DON’T BOTHER

On the last day we decided to rent a day room because the Airbnb checkout time was noon, and our flight didn’t leave until nearly midnight.  Several sources recommended the Islander Hotel, which is directly across the street from the airport.

The Islander was a big disappointment.  Thank God we didn’t stay there overnight.  Where to start in the litany of things wrong with the place?  Security was a problem because the antiquated infrastructure featured louvered windows over the door and over the shower in the bathroom, too, both with glass easy to remove should someone want to break in.

The glass louvers also meant zero noise protection from the long, dark hallway. You could hear everything said as if passersby were in our room.

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The long, loud hall outside our room at the despicable Islander Hotel on Rarotonga

We were told that our room looked out on the coral reef, but the large “Hula Bar” just outside our window blocked the view completely, and the band there started playing early.

So stereo noise from within and without. The hotel thoughtfully provides ear plugs and a warning sign in our room about the loud, nearly incessant noise.

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Earplugs couldn’t dampen the noise from the hallway and the Hula Bar outside our window

The lumpy, hard beds were uncomfortable even to read on, let alone when trying to nap.

Bathrobes were provided. We guessed they were for privacy since anyone walking outside by the Hula Bar could look directly into our room if the drapes were open.

The outside window opened easily with one lock ajar and the other loose, another security worry.

I guess the place would be okay if you were 19 or 20 years old and wanted to party hard all night. But for us, we were grateful to be staying there only for a few hours and then never again.

On the plus side, the Islander had a very nice staff.  Rarotongans are just naturally pleasant people.

But the Islander Hotel is very depressing, a huge letdown after our gorgeous Airbnb villa. And extremely expensive for a day room (US$149), especially considering the state of the property. Don’t go there.

SUMMARIZING THE TRIP

It was hard to leave Rarotonga. No place is perfect, of course, but we loved the slow traffic and not much of it, and no news about Trump or Congress. We de-stressed in the tropical sun and warm temps, lush vegetation, among genuinely nice people, enjoying delicious local food in the markets (not the tourist restaurants), and the coral reef lagoon with crystal clear visibility.  Ah, heaven!