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TRAVEL TECH THURSDAY: Japan pushes maglev

Japan is now testing maglev trains for passenger service. If the only train you’ve ever ridden is in North America, you are not ready for this.

The country that invented high-speed passenger rail is about to re-invent it.

When it debuted back in 1964, Japan’s Shinkansen — aka “the bullet train” — shocked the world with its cruising speed of 186 miles per hour — a speed that, 50 years later, American trains still can’t even get near.

Now, the Japanese are again raising the bar for rail travel, this time by removing the rails. They are testing a maglev train whose top speed — 311 mph — makes the old bullet train look like Amtrak.

Yeah, I know. Ouch.

The L-Zero maglev doesn’t much resemble a bullet. If anything, it looks more like an anorexic platypus on a bad acid trip. But that’s about the only thing ungainly about this machine.

Maglev is short for “magnetic levitation.” Basically, a series of powerful magnetized coils embedded in a concrete guideway repels the equally powerful magnets embedded in the train’s undercarriage, and thus propels the train.

I can hear folks in Beijing gnashing their teeth already.

Yes, China has the world’s first maglev train in commercial service, shuttling travelers between Shanghai’s ultra-modern Pudong district and Pudong International Airport.

I’ve ridden that train, and the ride is as unforgettable as it is brief. But that’s a 20-mile shuttle, with no stops. The L-Zero will be carrying passengers between six stations along a 178-mile route, the kind of distance that maglev was custom-made.

Imagine what a maglev train could do for travel in this country:

  • New York City–Washington DC in about 50 minutes.
  • New York City–Chicago in just under three hours — a little over four, if you add stops in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
  • Chicago–New Orleans in three hours. Stop in St. Louis? Make it three and a half.
  • New York City–Orlando, FL in maybe four and a quarter hours, and that includes stops in Philly, DC and Atlanta.
  • San Francisco–Los Angeles in a shade over one hour. Another three hours north from SFO and you’re in Seattle.

It’ll be more than a decade before you can buy your own ticket on the L-Zero. Until then, you’ll have to settle for the Shinkansen…which is still twice as fast as anything Amtrak owns.


Jet Lag
You’ve just crossed nine times zones in 12 hours, so you settle in to your hotel for a nice nap before you hit the streets, only to awake to an all-encompassing misery, complete with splitting headache and maybe nausea.

Say hello to my little friend, jet lag, which is going to render you null and void for the next several days.

(NOTE: Jet lag is the product of long flights east or west, especially east. If you never change times zones, no matter how long the flight, you are not jet lagged.)

There are lots of ways to stave off jet lag:

  • Get in shape before you travel.
  • Choose a flight that lands in the early evening so you can stay up until at least 10 p.m. local time.
  • Adjust your daily routine to your destination time zone several days before travel.
  • On the plane, reset your watch to the local time at your destination.
  • Avoid big, spicy meals, alcohol, caffeine, even chocolate, in flight or after landing.
  • Do drink lots of water.
  • Ask your doctor about taking melatonin, and use it if you think it will help.

There also are specific tools for fighting jet lag, one of which you already may have in your pocket. I’m talking, of course, about your smartphone.

That’s right, there’s an app for that. Quite a few, actually. They all help your body adjust its circadian rhythm to your destination with little or no physical discomfort.

Here’s a partial list:

Any of these apps can give you good advice on adjusting your body’s circadian rhythm; none can force you to take it. It’s still up to you to take care of yourself when you travel.

Keyless Hotel Rooms
Your smartphone serves many roles. It’s your mobile office, your pocket Web portal and email center, your moving map and weather forecaster, your camera and your bank.

It now may also be your hotel room key.

Starwood Hotels and Resorts — the folks who bring you the Aloft, Elements and W hotel chains — now offer a smartphone app that turns your iPhone or Android device into your room key. one touch and you;re in.

It also allows you to:

  • Check into your hotel, completely bypassing the front desk
  • Specify your preferred room location
  • Operate the hotel elevator

In the near future, company executives say you’ll be able to order room service with it.

This concept will really get a boost next spring, when Hilton Worldwide rolls out mobile room keys in four of its US-based hotel chains — Hilton Hotels and Resorts, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotels & Resorts, the Conrad Hotels & Resorts and Canopy by Hilton.

You can already check-in online and digitally select your preferred room with Hilton and Marriott, again without lining up at th front desk or talking to a reservationist.

With more of the Millennial Generation using their smartphones as minute-to-minute extensions of their daily lives, expect more major hotels to offer similar options in the near or very near future.

A form of this technology is even making its way out to sea, where Royal Caribbean plans to introduce wristbands embedded with an RFID chip to serve as the key to your cabin.

My own feelings on all this a little mixed.

On the one hand, technology has never intimidated me. And anything that removes the need for me to stand in a long line at the front desk after multi-hour flight sounds like a real improvement.

Still, I wonder sometimes if all our technology is not only cutting jobs, but reducing our amount of human interaction to unhealthy lows.

AFRICA: The high cost of flying

 © Gordon Tipene | Dreamstime.com
© Gordon Tipene | Dreamstime.com

Air travel to Africa isn’t expensive. It’s just being taxed and surcharged to death.

I know a lot of people who would love to visit Africa, but they won’t. Not because of ebola, but because of the high cost of travel there, starting with the four-figure airfares.

But that’s only fair, right? I mean, Africa’s a long way from North America. Yes, I know, Senegal is a mere seven hours or so from the East Coast, about the same time to fly from New York to Paris — and in some cases, less.

And yet that NYC-Paris flight, if you made it about two weeks from now, would cost you at the high end of $800, while the flight from JFK to Dakar, Senegal’s capital, would cost you more than $1,200.

The answer to your next question — Why? — becomes all too clear when you closely examine that JFK-DKR fare, flown in this case by Royal Air Maroc, the national airline of Morocco.

For an airfare of $1,1221, you get not only a flight from New York City to Dakar, but a layover each way in Morocco’s capital city, Casablanca — 15 hours on the trip to Dakar and a whopping 30 hours on the return, more than enough time to take in the sights in a fascinating North African capital.

Not a bad deal, right? But we haven’t started the fare breakdown yet.

Start with the base fare each way between NYC and Dakar — $236. That’s $472 round-trip. There are folks who will be paying more than that to fly from NYC to LAX. And yet the total airfare to Dakar is $1,221, for a single passenger.

So where does that other $749 come from?

It comes from 17 different taxes, fees and surcharges imposed on top of that $472 base fare. Seven of these are levied by the US government, six by Senegal and three by Morocco, for the cost of airport security, immigration, customs and agricultural inspection fees, airport improvements. Altogether, they total $258.

All of which pales in the face of the $491 fuel surcharge tacked on by Royal Air Maroc.

No need to give “the side-eye” to the Moroccan airline when it comes to that fuel surcharge. They all do it.

I’d seen international airfares burdened with a dozen or more add-on charges that added up to hundreds of dollars, but it was the first time I ever saw the add-ons add up to more than the base airfare.

I randomly checked a dozen more airfares from North America to various destinations in Africa, to see if that Royal Air Maroc fare to Dakar was some sort of aberration. It wasn’t.

The number of add-ons varied slightly — a few more on this fare, two or three fewer on that one — but the results were always the same. The base fares were spectacularly cheap, and the add-ons invariably blew up the final price.

One Emirates flight from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Addis Ababa(ADD) in Ethiopia cost $880 round-trip — a pretty reasonable fare, relatively speaking. The base fare — $50 each way. That’s not a typo, people — five zero.

It adds up to $100 in base fare and $780 from nine add-ons, of which Emirates’ fuel surcharge accounts for $688. The seven taxes imposed by Washington and the one from Ethiopia make up the remaining $92 — chump change by comparison.

I also checked airfares between Canadian gateways and African destinations, just to see if our northern neighbors were getting a break from this nonsense. They’re not.

Add to these inflated fares the cost of visas for each country you wish to visit and you begin to understand why African travel seems financially out of reach for many people.

You also begin to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way.

VOTE for I B I T !!!!!

I need your online vote to be named National Geographic Traveler of the Year. It’s easy and it’s quick!

Greg Gross, founder of IBIT

When National Geographic Traveler magazine announced earlier this month that I had been named one of its ten Travelers of the Year, I was stunned. I also thought that was the end of it.

I was wrong. The magazine is now holding an online election allowing you, the reader, to select your People’s Choice Traveler of the Year.

I’d be deeply honored if you’d vote for me.

Voting will be allowed daily through Oct. 25. The winner will be announced Oct. 29.

NatGeo Logo 2014

The voting process itself is easy:

  1. Click on this link or click on the logo, at right.
  2. Look for the pic of Greg Gross (that’s me).
  3. Click on the box with the trophy beneath the pic.
  4. Click on the green Vote button just above and to the right.

That’s it! Your vote is cast! All elections should be so painless!

You’re allowed to vote once a day, but here’s the catch: You can vote as many times per day as you like, as long you use a different device each time. Desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones — anything with Internet access will work.

So let’s put IBIT on the world travel map. And as always, thank you for reading “I’m Black and I Travel!”

INTRODUCING: IBIT’s very own travel agency

Trips by Greg biz card 2

When you’re ready to start turning your travel dreams into travel memories, we’re here for you. Right here. Right now.

Since 2009, “I’m Black and I Travel!” has been telling you about the world’s great destinations and ways to get there.

Now, we can take you to those places, through Trips by Greg LLC, an independent travel agency specializing in cultural, heritage and luxury travel worldwide. Airlines. Cruises. Hotels. Resorts. Rental cars. We do it all.

I’ve got lots of back-up, thanks to the hosting of Pat Walker Travel of Beverly Hills, not to mention Worldview Travel, the Virtuoso luxury travel network and independent, experienced tour operators around the globe.

  • Want to visit historic sites, trace human history through the ages, or your own personal ancestry? We can help you plan your journey.
  • Want to delve to African culture and heritage — in Europe and Latin America as well as Africa? We can get you there.
  • Want to get a taste of food, music, art, fashion, nightlife around the world? Yeah, we do that.
  • Want a vacation that meets your style and moves at your pace? For yourself, your family, a larger group? Five-star luxury, wilderness adventure or anything in between, we’ll design it and book it for you.
  • Want to create a special trip as a surprise gift? An anniversary present for that special someone? A graduation gift? Done!

Whatever we do for you, our goal is always the same — to help you get the maximum value for the money you spend.

While the Trips by Greg LLC Web site is under construction, you can email me with any travel questions or requests. Or you can call or text (858) 215-4248.

IBIT will still bring the travel world to you. Now, you’ve got Trips by Greg LLC to bring you to the world. Are you ready? Let’s go!

IBIT is a “Traveler of the Year”

National Geographic Traveler magazine names IBIT creator Greg Gross as one of ten “individuals who travel with passion and purpose.”

Every year since 2012, National Geographic Traveler magazine singles out ten Travelers of the Year — in their words, “individuals who travel with passion and purpose, have an exceptional story to tell, and represent a style of travel, motivation, or method that can inform and inspire us all.”

The ten NatGeo Travelers of the Year for 2014 were announced this morning — and IBIT is one of them.

NatGeo did interviews with each of us. Please read them. The only thing better than being inspired to travel is being inspired ten times over. You can read mine here.


I’m very grateful to the folks at NatGeo Traveler, and even more to whoever nominated me (I have no idea who that was). Most of all, I’m grateful to you, the readers of this blog. You keep me going. Thank you all.

Since its launch in June 2009, this blog has grown and evolved, but its purpose remains unchanged, to encourage Americans in general, and Black Americans especially, to get out and see the world.

Actually, instead of “see the world,” perhaps I should say “meet the world.” Because we live in a time when knowing our global neighbors is critical to our well-being as a nation.

Two years after 9/11, a high-powered panel of scholars put together a report on the need for American students not just to study abroad, but to take those international studies beyond the cultural comfort zone that is Western Europe:

  • “As a nation we suffer from a pervasive lack of knowledge about the world. [emphasis mine] There have been periods, indeed entire eras, in our history where Americans have relished their isolation from the world.”
  • “Some have made speaking only English a point of national pride instead of a disgrace. Never mind that the schools of most countries, rich or poor, teach at least two languages to their children.
  • “In the most prosperous nation on the planet, with the most extensive system of higher education, we are notoriously inept at imparting languages to our youth.”
  • “We strongly believe that the events of September 11, 2001, constituted a wake-up call—a warning that America’s ignorance of the world is now a national liability.” [emphasis mine]

That report came out in 2003. Eleven years later, has anything really changed?

Well, maybe one thing has. As I talk and listen to IBIT readers and others, whether in the flesh or in cyberspace, I get the sense that young Black Americans are traveling more than ever before.

I remember having breakfast a few years ago at Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington DC’s famous U Street Corridor, overhearing a young Black woman describe to a friend her working visit to Moscow. It sent my spirit soaring.

More and more of our young people are going farther and more often. Not just for learning or leisure, but to jump-start careers and even build new lives for themselves overseas. You’ve met some of those young people on this blog, and in the weeks, months and years to come, you’re going to meet more of them.

Still, for each of our young people who are stepping up, stepping out and taking their rightful place as a citizen of the world, there remain too many others whose view and understanding of that world doesn’t extend beyond the invisible boundaries of their neighborhood.

That has to change. We have to change it. Because as my friend, Shay Olivarria, likes to remind folks, “The world is bigger than your block.”

The work continues.

AFRICA: The hotels are coming

Western tourists may be staying from Africa because of ebola, but the world’s hoteliers are rushing in. That bodes well for the future of African travel.

The Africa Hotel Investment Forum is an annual two-day meetup of African governments, business leaders and hotel operators. This year’s event was held last week in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa.

This isn’t one of those conventions held mainly to give business people an excuse to party. Deals get done here. And the deals coming out of this year’s forum were major.

Nine hotel corporations signed to build 41 new hotels across Africa over the next six years, nearly a dozen in the next three years.

We’re talking Wyndham, Inter-Continental, Accor, Marriott. Also in the mix, Best Western, Starwood (the folks who own the Sheraton brand), W Hotels, Carlson Rezidor (the folks behind the Radisson Blu hotels) and Hilton Worldwide.

All of them household names among the world’s travelers. All of them heavy hitters in the hospitality industry. And all of them looking to step up their game on the Mother Continent.

Meanwhile, you now have multiple African nations all but climbing over one another in hopes of hosting this forum next year.

This is part of an ongoing hotel building boom across Africa. There were more than 200 hotel projects — to create some 40,000 new rooms — in the works even before last week’s deals became public.

If I sound excited, it’s because I am. While there’s no guarantee that all of these places will actually get built, enough of them will to perhaps change the face of African travel and tourism.

Clearly, the world’s hoteliers are looking past the current ebola outbreak and are making plans for the long-term. That in itself is a good thing.

Most of these new hotels are being built with business travelers in mind, as well as MICE tourism.

(MICE has nothing to do with rodents. It stands for Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Events.)

Business types aren’t the only ones who need nice places to stay. So do diplomats. The African Union has its headquarters (seen above) in Addis Ababa, where this year’s forum was held. And several of those hotel deals were for new hotels in Addis.

So what does any of this hotel boom have to do with you, the potential Africa visitor who’s not looking to swing business or political deals?

Potentially, a lot.

Currently, the top form of African vacation travel by far is safari travel. Has been for decades. The best safari operators have it down to a science, an art form, and it annually draws travelers from around the world.

But not everyone interested in Africa is necessarily interested in safaris. And those who aren’t often forgo Africa for other destinations.

The other reasons to visit the Mother Continent are almost too many to list — history and heritage, music, art, food, fashion, film, education, adventure, culture, religion.

But the travelers looking for those things need places to stay, preferably in the cities where they’re most likely to find what they’re looking for.

For this kind of traveler, even the most luxuriously appointed safari camp out in the bush probably won’t work.

Having more and better hotels means that African countries will be able to offer travelers more lodging in their urban centers. Keeping those rooms filled — and adding more of them — will give those nations incentive to do something they have long needed to do — diversify their attractions for the leisure traveler.

African travel and tourism will never reach their full potential until they can offer the traveler a broader range of options and attractions. Building new and better hotels could be an important first step toward achieving that.

Fall foliage: Travel in color

Mother Nature puts on a breathtakingly beautiful color show every autumn, but catching her at her best can be tricky. Location matters, but timing is everything.

About two years after he’d left the West Coast for a job in New York City, I went back east to visit best friend and IBIT guest columnist Walt Baranger. The first thing he did was take me for a drive around his heavily forested Connecticut hometown.

It was October and on every tree, the leaves were changing colors. In all directions, the rolling hills were the colors of French wine, Florida oranges, fine jewelry, colors so vibrant that they seemed to glow, to vibrate.

In some places, solid carpets of reds, oranges, golds. In others, a mixture of all of them. Add a smattering of green from trees stubbornly holding onto their spring and summer colors to the last, and you had a kaleidoscope of hues spread across the horizon.

I don’t remember anything I said during that drive, but I must have sounded like a blithering idiot. It was hard to speak, and then to breathe. Thank God that Walt was driving and not me.

Ask anyone about the first time they saw the fall colors. Odds are, they’ll remember. When all the land as far as you can see turns the colors of a Polynesian sunset, you don’t forget how that looks.

Two things make fall foliage tours a bit tricky, however. One is place. The other is time.

New England has justifiably built a whole industry around fall foliage tourism. The combination of gorgeous views, friendly people and towns whose histories sometimes predate the American Revolution, make it the country’s Number One autumn destination.

The problem: Not everyone can travel across the country to New England, especially at that time of year. Which brings us to the timing problem.

The leaves may change colors every fall, mainly in October, but they don’t do it at exactly the same time — nor to the same degree — every year.

If you want to catch them at their peak, the timing difference from one year to the next can be a matter of days, or even weeks — and timing is everything. The week that yielded spectacular colors last year could be a total bust this year.

What’s more, the leaves change and then fall during what’s known in the travel industry as “the shoulder season,” between the end of summer and the Thanksgiving holiday. That makes it hard for many travelers to get away, especially families with kids in school.

But if your schedule(s) allow for a few days’ break in the early fall, you can do it.

The first thing to realize is that while the northeastern United States may be the best region to take in autumn colors, it’s not the only one.

The Weather Channel offers an online fall foliage page that covers the entire continental US and includes an interactive map. Click on the region or the state of your choice and start checking out those nearest to you.

You’ll also find photos taken by locals and a list of the top 10 fall foliage viewing areas across North America (and one even in the Caribbean, of all places) to use as a vacation planner. There’s even an explanation for why all those leaves turn all those colors, including the influence of weather.

If you’ve already got your heart set on New England, Yankee Foliage is a good online resource for planning your autumn color tour. Lists of foliage sightseeing routes, organized by state. Peak foliage forecasts. Live foliage maps. Even a foliage app for your smartphone.

For those who’d rather leave the driving to someone else (and under the circumstances, that’s not a bad idea), there are companies offering everything from (almost) all-inclusive bus tours to fall foliage cruises — again, mostly in New England.

However you do it, you’re in for one of the great annual shows of the natural world. Your eye for color — and any camera you own — will thank you.

If you think you might be interested in a fall foliage tour, drop me an email at info@tripsbygreg.com.

Reclining airline seats:
Do (not) unto others

Rather than pricey seat-blocking gadgets or juvenile, combative behavior, try this old-school alternative when you fly: courtesy. Works every time.

The buzz in the airline industry these days is about passengers apparently losing their minds when the passenger in front of them reclines their seat.

Airline travelers of a certain age will remember when there was enough space between each row of seats for every passenger to recline in comfort. No need to worry about bruising someone’s knees or maybe breaking their laptop…or their nose.

To put it mildly, things have changed.

The airlines’ determination to squeeze every possible dollar out of every flight has seen them cram extra rows of seats into their aircraft.

That’s how it is in Economy, anyway.

The farther you go toward the front of the airplane, and the more money you pay for your seat, the more legroom you get. Which makes all this a non-issue in First or Business class.

Back in Sardine Class, unfortunately, “it’s on!” Instead of Star Wars, we now have Seat Wars.

Nowadays, when we recline our seats, or the passenger in front of us reclines theirs, it’s increasingly becoming a cue for airline drama. Passengers are defending their precious few inches of “seat pitch” as if they were the Alamo, and the entire Mexican army were occupying the seat in front of them.

Complaints to flight attendants. Foul language. Kicking the back of the offender’s seat. In some instances, fights have broken out — three in the last week or so.

Some passengers are even resorting to using expensive gadgets designed to block the seat in front of them from reclining, leading to yet more drama.

The result: Flights having to be diverted due to disturbances on board. Passengers have been kicked off airplanes, even arrested after unleashing their inner brat at 35,000 feet.

(NOTE: Some airlines prohibit the use of seat-blocking devices. In some cases, breaking them out will automatically get you in trouble.)

Seriously, people, is this the 21st century? Are we grown-ups? Air travel isn’t already miserable enough?

IBIT has a solution to stop this madness. It’s simple. It’s been around forever. Best of all, it’s free.

It’s called “courtesy.”

If you want to recline your seat, ask the passenger behind you. If they object, don’t recline.

As soon as you can, even before the plane takes off, politely ask the passenger in front of you to give you a heads-up when they want to recline their seat. Or even more politely ask them not to.

Anything beyond that, explain the situation to a flight attendant and leave it with them.

I’m reluctant to call this “common courtesy” because, frankly, it no longer seems all that common, if it ever really was. But I’m convinced it still works, especially if we all commit to using it.

And there’s no better time to break out a courtesy jihad than when encapsulated in an aluminum tube moving at not quite the speed of sound seven miles above the ground.

We paying passengers may not have created this situation, but taking our frustration and discomfort out on one another is unlikely to make any of it better.

We’re all in this misery together; we might as well cut one another some slack and make the best of it until we reach our destination, yes?

AFRICA: Ethiopian and United hook up

United logo

The new codeshare agreement between Africa’s largest airline and North America’s third largest promises smoother connections for air travelers between the United States and nearly the whole of Africa.

Little by little, the handful of Africa’s transcontinental airlines are reaching toward the US market. And America’s airlines, slowly and quietly, are reaching back.

The latest gesture came last month, when Ethiopian Airlines signed a codesharing agreement with United Airlines.

Ethiopian is the largest airline in Africa and has a solid reputation among international airlines. United is one of largest airlines in the world, one of the few remaining “legacy airlines” in the United States, and one of only two us airlines flying to Africa (Delta being the other).

Both already were members of the Star Alliance when they signed the agreement.

When two or more airlines agree to codeshare, they are agreeing to let the other airline(s) in the agreement list flights in the name(s) of the other airlines(s).

Essentially, my airline actually makes the flight in your name, under your flight number, while your airline pockets the airfare. And vice versa.

This enables United to sell tickets to African destinations without having to use its own aircraft and flight crews. Ethiopian can do the same for its customers wanting to fly to more US destinations than Ethiopian is now allowed to serve.

(As we’ve talked about before here on IBIT, our FAA allows African airlines access to extremely few US airports. As of this writing, only one of them, Los Angeles, is west of the Mississippi River.)

The new agreement means that Ethiopian will run flights on behalf of United between Washington Dulles (IAD) and a dozen African destinations, from Addis Ababa to Zanzibar.

United, in return, will operate flights for Ethiopian between IAD and 22 US cities, nearly half of which are in Midwest or western states — all the way to Honolulu.

So what’s in it for you as a traveler?

For one thing, it gives you seamless connections between your home airport and your African destinations. It also means that the frequent-flier miles you amass on either airline will be good on both, as well as many, if not all, of the other Star Alliance airlines.

And the Star Alliance just happens to be the world’s largest airline alliance, with 27 member airlines serving 192 countries.

Short form: This is a good thing.

AIRLINES: Know your alliance, Part 1
AIRLINES: Know your alliance, Part 2

AFRICA: Go North, East or South

Does the ebola virus outbreak make you nervous about visiting West Africa? That still leaves you with a whole continent to explore and treasure.

A longstanding, widespread ignorance about Africa in the United States predisposes a lot of would-be visitors to a hysterical view of events on the Mother Continent. And when it comes to Africa, mainstream media always stand ready to deliver hysteria in abundance.

The latest example is the current outbreak of the ebola virus that now affects a total of six African nations.

Five are in West AfricaLiberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and most recently, Senegal. The sixth is the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa.

As a virus that creates deadly infections and has no cure, ebola certainly is no joke, but a little perspective may be in order here.

As of this writing, ebola has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa since the outbreak was first recognized as such in February of this year.

Across the African continent, malaria will have killed more people than that by the end of the day, maybe even before you finish reading this. It’s been that way for centuries.

Yet malaria somehow has never stopped people from traveling to Africa for business, education or leisure.

A little more perspective. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed 50 million people worldwide, some say as many as 100 million, more than were killed in World War 1. Did the world stay home after that? I think not.

Ebola is scary. Terrifying, in fact. So if you’d rather wait until West Africa gets the current outbreak in hand before returning the region to your list of must-see destinations, that’s perfectly understandable. And at this point, it’s highly unlikely that the DRC was on your must-visit list, anyway.

Africa flags

Meanwhile, allow me to point out something that mainstream media will not tell you: Africa is a continent of 54 nations, 48 of which are utterly unaffected by ebola.

At least nine of those nations are in West Africa, but you’ve written off that entire region for the time being, right? So what does that leave us?

It leaves us the northern, eastern, central and southern regions of the world’s second largest continent to see, explore and treasure.

In North Africa, it leaves Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. Yes, Egypt. You remember Egypt, right? Cairo. The pharaohs, the pyramids, ancient history and culture that predate the birth of Christ.

There are no State Department travel alerts or the more dire travel warnings in effect on Egypt. None. Not on Morocco or Tunisia, either.

Most travelers associate the Nile, ones of the world’s great rivers, with Egypt…and only Egypt. In fact, the Nile is not just a river, but a river system shared by 11 African countries — Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the DRC, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt.

To see where that system begins, and what it means to life in nearly a quarter of the African continent, you’ll have to go south of Egypt and into East Africa.

The first thing you’ll find out is that the Nile has more than one source. The Blue Nile originates from Lake Tana in Ethiopia. The White Nile has as its mother the far larger Lake Victoria, whose shore is shared by three East African nations — Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

This also is where you find out that Lake Victoria is one of the Great Lakes.

That’s right: North America is not the only continent in the world with a Great Lakes region. The North American version has five lakes in all. Africa’s boasts 15.

Cross-border incursions from Somalia by the jihadi terrorists of al Shabab might make some folks a bit nervous about visiting Kenya these days, but Tanzania and Uganda have no such issues.

And no ebola, either.

So what do they have? Start with great natural beauty. Tanzania has 13 national parks, Uganda 10. Thirty percent of Uganda is covered by water, not bad for a country that is 100 percent land-locked.

Tanzania has Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa and one of the world’s Seven Summits. In the entire world, there are 700 mountain gorillas; 400 of them live and can be seen in Uganda.

Another good place to see the beauty of nature and the majesty of the mountain gorillas is Rwanda. Indeed, TripAdvisor can show you a list of 62 different things that make Rwanda worth a visit.

Kenya has worked hard to give the world the impression that all the Maasai people live within their borders, to the point where they’ve practically become a living symbol of the country, a very tall national brand.

But if you’re skittish about visiting Kenya these days, you can still get to know the Maasai in northern Tanzania, one of the 125 different ethnic groups that live in the country.

Uganda, a country no bigger than Oregon, has 56.

(NOTE: You’ll be hearing more — a lot more — about Uganda on IBIT in the coming days and weeks.)

Keep going south and there’s South Africa. Its wildlife. Its cities. Its wine country. Its coastline. Its history. A whole nation still sorting itself out, post-apartheid, post-Nelson Mandela.

But as you look south, you’ll soon realize there’s a lot more to southern Africa and just South Africa.

Angola. Zambia. Malawi. Mozambique. Botswana. Zimbabwe. Namibia. Each with its own charms, its own attractions, its own layered, complex past.

Off the eastern coast of southern Africa, a short cruise or even shorter flight from the mainland, you have the islands — the Comoros, Reunion, Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles.

Speaking of islands, there’s a lovely set of them off West Africa, untouched by ebola — the Cape Verde Islands. They even have their own airline that connect to the United States via Boston.

So as you can see from all the above, if you want to visit Africa without exposing yourself to major hazards, be they natural or man-made, it really isn’t all that hard when you’ve got most of a continent to work with.

All you have to do is turn off the hysteria of the mainstream media and do some research of your own.

Then find yourself a good, knowledgeable travel agent and start making plans for journey of a lifetime.

Some links to help jump-start your research. Let me emphasize that this is just to get you started. If you encounter a problem with any of these links, leave a comment or send me an email:

North Africa
Morocco (in French)

East Africa

Southern Africa
South Africa

African islands
Cape Verde
Comoros (in French)

In addition to guidebooks and Web sites, make a point of seeking out expats from the African countries you wish to visit. Let them know of your interest and ask questions.

AIRLINES: Anatomy of an airfare

Airbus A330 in Turkish Airlines livery.
Turkish Airlines A330. Image courtesy of Turkish Airlines.

Why does international air travel cost so much? A breakdown of a single transcontinental flight reveals just how much you pay in taxes and fees — and why.

If you’re like me, you dream of seeing the world. You read travel magazines, watch travel shows on television. The destinations are breathtaking. You want to go.

The you start pricing airline flights to some of those far-flung destinations. The airfares, it turns out, are just as breathtaking, and not in a good way.

To borrow from a rhetorical riff made famous by New York’s Jimmy MacMillan, the airfares are too damn high.

The airlines cry foul when they hear such complaints, arguing that airfares, often, are lower now than they’ve ever been, thanks in no small part to the many jumbo jets moving enormous numbers of passengers around the world every day.

So who’s right?

Welcome to Tax & Fee World, ladies and gentlemen. Wish I could tell you to enjoy the ride.

To see just how ugly it can get, let’s break down a typical international airfare.

Turkey, a living bridge of history and culture between Europe and Asia, is one of the destinations on my list of must-see countries. So let’s look at a round-trip airfare for two from Los Angeles to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines.

I also chose Premium Economy seats over Economy (or as I like to call it, Sardine Class) because LAX-IST is a 13-hour flight, I’m not a small guy and I don’t feel like suffering for 13 non-stop hours.

The fare that I found on Turkish Airlines came to $3,811.20 for two people, or $1,905.60 per person. But the base fare for that flight is $1,488 per person, or $2,976 for two. For a flight of that distance on an upscaled seating class, that’s not bad.

But what accounts for that extra $835 and change?

This Turkish Airlines fare comes with nine added taxes and fees, each charged per passenger. Seven of these are levied by the United States government:

  • An international departure tax and an international arrival tax. That’s $17.50 four times: $70.
  • A 9/11 security fee of $5.60. Multiply by two: $11.20
  • A passenger facility charge of $4.50, which goes to LAX for airport improvements. Again, multiply by two: $9.
  • A $5.50 Customs fee, twice: $11
  • A $7 Immigration inspection fee, times two: $14
  • This one’s for animal and plant health inspectors, the folks who keep destructive non-native plant and insect pests out of the US. Five dollars per passenger: $10.

Added together, that’s a hefty $125.20. That alone would be bad enough. But we’re not done. Two of those nine added taxes and fees are from the Turkish end of this trip.

There’s the international airport service charge of $15. Again, multiply by two. That’s another $30. So we’re now up to $155.20 in taxes and fees.

But I’ve saved the “best” for last, the fuel surcharge imposed by Turkish Airlines — $340. Yes, per person.

Drum roll, please: $680. And that’s before you’ve paid a dime in baggage fees.

(NOTE: Airlines have a more generous baggage allowance on international than on domestic flights, so as long as you don’t overpack, you should be able to get by without paying to check your bags.)

It all adds up to $835 in added taxes and fees. For that amount of money, you could fly round-trip between LAX and Miami. Twice. With enough cash left over to pay for a day or two’s worth of car rental.

So why should we have to pay all that?

First, note that by far the largest add-on goes to neither the US nor the Turkish government. It goes to Turkish Airlines to help cover their fuel bill.

All those who have no clue about the high cost of fuel these days, raise your hand — as you board your bus.

Two of those fees go to the airports at either end of the flight. Airports, especially international airports, cost money to run, and even more to upgrade. Should at least some of that money come from the travelers using that airport 24/7?

Four of the charges go purely to security — passenger control, customs checks, immigration checks and agricultural inspections. None of that is what you could call frivolous.

Only the arrival and departure taxes ultimately wind up in Uncle Sam’s general fund.

So the next time somebody agonizes aloud over the high cost of international air travel, you’ll be able to break it down for them. It won’t make paying it all any less painful, but at least you’ll know the reasoning behind it.

If you’ve never flown internationally before, you might wonder why I would choose a foreign national carrier like Turkish Airlines over a US-based airline to fly all the way across North America, the Atlantic Ocean and Europe.

The reasons have nothing to do with bargain fares, since all international airlines charge pretty similar rates these days.

When traveling to a different part of the world for the first time, I’ve found that using that country’s national airline can serve as a nice introduction to that country and its culture.

It’s perhaps the most comfortable way to take that first step out of your cultural comfort zone.

Pride also enters into it. National “flag carriers,” as they’re known in the airline industry, are representing their countries to the rest of the world, and they take that seriously. As such, they work hard to make the best possible impression on their passengers, especially those from abroad.

So when air passengers polled by the British airline rating site Skytrax rate Turkish not only higher than almost any US airline, but also the best in Europe, it wasn’t a total shock. The in-flight service on major foreign airlines is often better, sometimes markedly better, than that of their US counterparts.

If you’re going to spend a half-day or longer flying halfway around the world, you want to do that with people who take your comfort seriously.

TRAINS: Europe as a day trip

The speed and convenience of Europe’s high-speed passenger rail network is gradually turning the continent into a series of day trips.

Back in 1969, there was a film that poked fun at the whirlwind style of European bus tours. It was titled, “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.”

As Europe continues to develop its high-speed rail network, we’re moving closer to the day when some dazed, glassy-eyed tourist might find himself saying, “If it’s 2 p.m., this must be Belgium!”

In fact, where Belgium is concerned, we might be there already.

That’s what having high-speed passenger trains can do for you.

Since France debuted its TGV high-speed train in 1981, much of Western Europe has followed suit.

Destinations that would take a half-day or longer to reach by car are now only 2-3 hours away by high-speed train. You depart from the city center and arrive the same way. No costly, time-consuming shuttle or taxi rides out to some distant, crowded and generally miserable airport.

In recent years, European Union countries have begun to connect their HSR networks. In 2015, for instance, you might be able to travel from London to Berlin on one of Germany’s high-speed ICE trains.

Once all those high-speed lines are fully linked, it’s going to turn much, if not most, of Europe into a series of day trips. But you can get a glimpse of that future today. Consider:

  • 7:01 a.m.
    Depart London’s St. Pancras station aboard the Eurostar. Make the 20-minute run under the English Channel via the Channel Tunnel and arrive at Gare du Nord station in Paris at 10:17 a.m.

    Spend a couple of hours at the Louvre. Head for the Palais de Chaillot and the Jardins de Trocadero, the best place from which to get your obligatory postcard pic of the Eiffel Tower. Or treat yourself to an early lunch at the Café Carlu in the same vicinity, and get your souvenir shot at the same time.

  • 12:55 p.m.
    Back to Gare du Nord to catch your next high-speed train, the wine-red Thalys — basically, a Eurostar with a different paint job. Less than 90 minutes later, you’re in Brussels, Belgium.

    Design buffs will geek out over the imposing Gothic architecture of its Hotel de Ville. The restored merchant village of Bruges, which still looks much as it did in the 1500s, is less than an hour away via local trains.

    While there, grab some frites — the original “French fries” — or maybe a plate of mussels and a great Belgian beer before heading back to the Brusssels-Zuid station for the return trip to London.

  • 6:56 p.m.
    It’s on this Eurostar run that you will see one of the reasons why Paris is called “the City of Light.” The Paris skyline comes and goes all too quickly on this non-stop trains.

    It’s a few ticks before 8 p.m. when you pull into St. Pancras station, where your journey began. that leaves you more than enough time to close out your day in a good London pub.

  • /ul>

    One day. Two trains. Three countries. All in the same amount of time it currently takes the Amtrak Coast Starlight to travel from Los Angeles to Oakland.

    Bored with Amsterdam? (Highly unlikely, but humor me for a second.) A Thalys train can have you across the border in historic Cologne, Germany in a little over two and a half hours.

    How about your very own cross-border wine tasting?

    Start with a good wine bar in Cologne, which has access to some of the highest quality wines from Germany’s Rhein wine country. Then head for a Paris bistro that same evening aboard an ICE train.

    Time: Three hours, 15 minutes.

    This kind of rapid-fire, short-order style of travel isn’t always practical or even desirable. But if you need to cover a lot of ground in short span of time, Europe’s high-speed trains give you two things you can never have too much of as a traveler — options and flexibility.

    If you ask someone where to spend the night in a French-speaking town, they might suggest you try the “Hotel de Ville” — but don’t expect room service, a lobby bar or a concierge. “Hotel de Ville” is French for “City Hall.”

"Wherever you go, go with all your heart." — Confucius