Stephen M. Walt

Random thoughts from the road

No profound thoughts to offer today; instead, ten rapid-fire, shoot-from-the-hip impressions — some of them snarky — from my current road trip. Readers who want to discount what follows can chalk it up to some serious jet lag. 1. British Airways has mastered the art of predatory pricing. First, they canceled my initial flight to ...

MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images

No profound thoughts to offer today; instead, ten rapid-fire, shoot-from-the-hip impressions — some of them snarky — from my current road trip. Readers who want to discount what follows can chalk it up to some serious jet lag.

1. British Airways has mastered the art of predatory pricing. First, they canceled my initial flight to London, which meant I couldn’t make my connection to Paris in time for my first commitment. So I had to buy a separate one way ticket on Air France to preserve my schedule. But did BA offer to refund the unused portion of my itinerary (which was unused because they canceled the flight)? But nooooooooo! If I wanted a refund, I had to cancel my entire itinerary (which involved four more flights) and then rebook all four of the remaining legs under a new reservation number, but at a new, higher price that cost more than the original ticket. Heads they win, tails you lose. Resolved: avoid BA whenever possible in the future.

2. Alas, Air France is not an appealing alternative; it’s no longer a great airline but instead is merely adequate. I still have vivid and glowing memories of flying first class to Paris on my honeymoon (a gift from my mother-in-law, who had a gazillion frequent flyer miles back then). I wasn’t in first class this time, but even taking that into account, it was a pretty mediocre experience. And the "tournedos" they served for dinner would have made Escoffier tear his hair. Some poor vache died for no good reason.

3. Public transportation. On the other hand, there were a few experience on the road that put les États-Unis to shame. In Paris, there’s a direct train from the airport into Paris, or you can take an Air France bus that leaves frequently, is cheap, and gets you to one of several convenient Metro stops. In London, the "Heathrow Express" rail line is equally convenient, and a virtually seamless way to get from the airport to central London. As you leave customs, there’s a guy standing there with a credit card swiper. Thirty seconds later, you have your ticket, the trains leave every 15 mins., and they get you to Paddington in about 20 mins.. Consider that you can’t take a train to Dulles or JFK and it reminds how bad most public transport and infrastructure is in the Land of the Free(way).

4. London Taxis. Wow. They’re ubiquitous. They have enormous passenger space. The drivers all speak English (it is England, after all). They have a turning radius of about 4 feet. And they’re pretty cheap too.

5. The oysters in France are excellent. This is not a news flash. But can somebody arrange a blind taste test between the Old and New World oyster beds? And invite me?

6. I never noticed it before, but there are a huge number of bicyclists on the streets of London, even though the weather is unusually cold. As someone who bikes to work year-round, it’s nice to know that the tribe of all-weather, damn-the-traffic cyclists is spread world-wide.

7. The modern world has many wonderful features — googlemaps, email, cell phones, etc. — and all of them have proven to be invaluable on this trip. (I’ll spare you the details). But they also make us unusually dependent. One of my colleagues on this visit has a malfunctioning ATM card, which makes it nearly impossible for him to get a hold of cash easily and conveniently. In the old days we all carried around wads of "traveler’s cheques" (remember those?), now we all tend to assume that if you’re in a major city, there’s a cash machine within two blocks of anywhere you might be. Not really true, of course, but our reliance on handy little tools like this can leave us totally at sea when the system breaks down. (At this point I pause to knock wood and utter several ancient gypsy incantations against evil spirits).

8. Have you noticed that the more you pay for a hotel, the less likely you are to get free internet service? At first glance this makes no sense: once you’ve installed Wifi, it doesn’t cost the hotel any additional expense if everyone can just use it for free, so why not just make it available to everyone and generate some good will among consumers? The explanation, of course, is that bargain hotels (e.g., Red Roof Inn, Holiday Express, etc.) are competing for the bargain consumer and they offer these perks as way of luring business. By contrast, high end hotels like the Hilton or Four Season assume that customers who can afford to stay there can also afford to shell out another 15 or 20 (!) bucks (or its Euro equivalents) if they want check their email or catch up on what Lynch, Ricks, and Drezner are saying on the FP website. I promise to fix this problem by fiat just as soon as I take over.

9. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if all countries had the same electrical systems, and you didn’t have to carry around a lot of converters (or even one of those so-called "universal" ones, which seem to work in every country except the one I currently (no pun intended) in.

10. Lastly, a thought experiment: I wonder what Americans would think if every single one of them could travel to Paris or London, go through the airport and ride the public transportation system, and spend a week seeing how well some public institutions (though of course not all) actually work. I somehow suspect a lot of them would come home and ask themselves why Americans don’t have the same thing. This effect would be compounded if they all re-entered the United States at Logan Airport or La Guardia. I won’t beat my dead horse on crumbling infrastructure again (well, at least not today), but I’ve been thinking about it a lot on this trip.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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