UK to the USA: I seek truth and the American way

Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

The US Ambassador to London lives in a mansion in the Outer Circle of Regent's Park. Two nights ago, it was filled with the great and the good of American tourism, plus a platoon of journalists. The event was the launch of SeeAmerica, "a campaign to promote travel to the United States". I missed out, because I was on a bus seeing America (or in PR-style, SeeingAmerica).

The US Ambassador to London lives in a mansion in the Outer Circle of Regent's Park. Two nights ago, it was filled with the great and the good of American tourism, plus a platoon of journalists. The event was the launch of SeeAmerica, "a campaign to promote travel to the United States". I missed out, because I was on a bus seeing America (or in PR-style, SeeingAmerica).

In fact, I have been on rather a lot of buses in the past week, travelling from the Mexican frontier at Tijuana to the Canadian border at Vancouver. The plan has been to test out the theory that public transport on the West Coast of the US (a) exists, and (b) is far more efficient, affordable and fun than many people - especially Americans - believe.

Reports of the death of public transportation in Los Angeles have been greatly exaggerated, though for a time this month a strike by drivers paralysed the non-driving section of society. When it works, it is efficient after a fashion. The San Diego Transit website has a sophisticated journey planner that I used last weekend for a journey from the Mexican frontier to the resort of San Onofre, about 60 miles up the coast. The nine-step instructions began by telling me to walk "0.1 mile east" and ended "get off the stop [sic] at San Onofre at approximately 3:19pm". Then it told me the journey time: five hours and nine minutes, making the average speed an unambitious 12mph. Things perked up when the fare was revealed: just $1.75, or £1.20. Affordable, then; because California regards public transport as a social service, not a business. And fun. The drivers and, on the railways, the conductors, reveal a line in irony that eludes some of their compatriots.

"If you look very carefully out of either window, you'll see that we've stopped," announced the guard of a train that previously had been running three hours late, and was about to become four hours late.

North of the Canadian border, the humour continued. A female conductor on BC Rail announced that "You can ask me any question you want apart from age and weight". And at least some of the bus drivers are relaxed about fares; when I foolishly boarded a bus in Vancouver without the correct change for a $1.75 ride, one waved me through by saying "Oh, just put whatever coins you've got in the fare box".

***

After last week's story about how far it is from Heathrow to Singapore - a question upon which a holiday in Thailand hung, but for which there were many conflicting answers - the boffin behind the Great Circle website e-mailed me. He turns out to be an agreeable chap called Karl Swartz, who says that the distance from A to B is contentious the world over:

"I first noticed this sort of thing when United and Delta couldn't agree on the distance for a Chicago O'Hare to San Francisco International flight. United, as it happens, uses the distance between the airports, whereas Delta appears to use the distance between city centres."

But he has also found that United uses the old location for Denver airport, depriving frequent fliers of 11 miles each trip. "They never changed their mileage tables [for the purposes of frequent flier miles and such] when the airport moved - they're still basing mileage on the old Stapleton International." Yet the airline's commuter subsidiary, United Express, has noticed that the airport has moved, and rewards frequent fliers accordingly.

On a long journey like Heathrow to Singapore, Mr Swartz says any calculation is an inexact science. "The Clarke 1866 ellipsoid model might give you a distance that's within a few dozen miles of the 'right' answer, but not much better. While adequate for bombing planners at the United States Air Force hoping to blunder past the neighbourhood Chinese Embassy, it's hardly good enough for someone who is seeking The Truth."

***

If there's one thing harder than seeking The Truth, it's tracking down lost luggage. But should your baggage go astray on an outward flight, it's always worth asking the airline for an upgrade on the way home to compensate for the inconvenience. Or you could wait to be bumped off your flight due to overbooking. Neville Walker found himself in just this position last December, which was "unseasonably warm and sunny", as he recalls.

"I was one of a number of passengers offered first $500, then, when there were no takers, $1,000 in travel vouchers to be bumped off the Sunday morning JFK-Heathrow flight and put on the overnight flight instead. Had my partner not loudly proclaimed our need to be back in the UK on time, I'd happily have been paid to spend a sunny afternoon in Central Park."

***

Next weekend, British Airways cuts back a number of routes to try to become profitable once more. I hope BA does not revert to the alarming xenophobia shown in the advertising of its predecessor, Imperial Airways. When its weary old biplanes were losing the battle of speed to Continental competitors, the response was a poster that scolded:

"If it isn't Imperial, it isn't British. All Imperial Airways Silver Wing liners have four engines. All are named after cities, such as City of Birmingham, etc. Don't be confused! You should travel British. Be sure that you do."

What should the hapless traveller do if he or she learns the chosen flight is full? Double-check that those fiendish foreign airlines are not double-crossing you.

"If you should be told that there are no available seats on an Imperial liner, ring up Regent 7861 and make sure."

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