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The only difference between first class travellers and first class idiots is the price they pay.

Travels in War and Peace

Bombs and bugs have made a pig's breakfast of travel but the deals have never been better.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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WAR IS A TERRIBLE THING. Anywhere. Any time. Transported into your living room in eye-popping detail by 24-hour television news channels, it is not just terrible, it is terrifying. Small wonder, the sight of cruise missiles streaking across Iraq has given travellers pause. Statistically, an average episode of Baywatch would have the same effect on most males over 12. And now there are bugs to contend with as well as Hongkong, Singapore, Vietnam, China and just about any place with a noodle shop come down with a fearful cold. How do you quarantine a quarter of humanity? Or immunise the rest? Fence-sitters have opted out, preferring to quake at home in front of CNN while those whose business demands they travel are, in turn, sitting on the fence. This is both bad news and good, for different reasons.

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The bad news, according to the travel industry from Phuket to Bali, is that room occupancies are down. This means fewer warm hotel beds and aircraft seats. The good news from a consumer's perspective is that this is perhaps the best time to travel. Of course you have to pick your spots wisely. Now you can open your slinky titanium Apple laptop without having it squashed under a reclining seat. You can drink all the beer you like 30,000ft aloft and saunter in dignity to an empty toilet as the captain commences descent. On normal flights this is precisely when the biological imperative of 300 people with peas for bladders suddenly becomes evident. The people are gone along with their incontinent bladders.

Now you can open your slinky titanium Apple laptop without having it squashed under a reclining seat

Imagine empty aircrafts. You can run with stampeding wildebeest in economy (unless they got upgraded). Of course you'd have to fork out for their tickets. And you will probably be served REAL FOOD instead of those mind-boggling creations by visiting chefs who fail to realise air travellers just want simple tucker that looks like tucker and not a mishmash of salmon-with-game-hen-and-a-dollop-of-marmalade. Welcome to the GREAT DOWNGRADE, the world of real travel. If you are a savvy peripatetic, you will have already taken the first step - found yourself a smart wife. She will do all the research on cut-price travel. Alpha Males should not venture into this area. This is not a left-brain activity. Well, it might be. If you didn't like the flight you could always express your views by punching the captain and mooning the stewardesses. But don't forget to thank your partner by picking up that buy-one-get-one offer from Thai Airways. Buy a Royal Executive Class seat and get one ticket free. The offer is limited to seats though, not wives.

Declining numbers of travellers mean empty hotels. Instead of asking you whether you have just come in from a police line-up (which is what identity card mugshots appear to indicate) hotels will lop 50 percent off the price and upgrade you. If you are upgraded all the way to the roof and large men in black suits attempt to toss you off so you might better appreciate the view, perhaps it is time to get another identity card picture taken. There is a downside to all this. And it's not the disappearing toiletries. Sensible travellers know better than to use hotel shampoo unless they're the kind that bark and are called Rover. Nor is it the disappearing breakfast buffets where the only thing remotely "American" is the waiter's twang. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned artery-clogging eggs?

Sensible travellers know better than to use hotel shampoo unless they're the kind that bark and are called Rover

I'll tell you what is worrying. It's the disappearing staff. Caught in a classic bind, resorts all over Asia have cut out the one element of service cost that should never be touched. People. Hotels have downsized to an extent where if the occupancies suddenly jump to 30 percent, the system breaks down. Southeast Asian economies could fold like dominoes through one mistimed sentence like, "Waiter I'd like this egg boiled another five minutes." A waiter suffering a nervous breakdown is a terrible sight to behold. But runny eggs are worse. Just eat it. Don't put the economy at risk.

The funny thing about people is they not only make a product, they often are the product. This is particularly true of airlines and hotels where the experience is worth as much if not more than the hardware. Everyone from United to Timbuktu Airways has B-747s. Regardless of what Airbus advertising might lead one to believe, no one has ever walked up to a check-in desk and refused to fly Boeing. They may refuse to fly with their kids, or mothers-in-law. Not Boeing. So what makes the difference? People. Any perception of a travel experience is the sum total of three to four contacts with airline or hotel staff. If they smiled and went that extra mile, you'll come back for more. If they sneezed, well…

Take away the stewardesses and all you've got left is a plane, and empty seats. AND EMPTY TOILETS. Savvy hotels are taking advantage of the downturn to upgrade at low cost with minimal inconvenience to guests. Smart travellers should do the smart thing - watch CNN, quake, and then head to where the deals are. It's called the continuum of life. Travel safe.

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