Dateline: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Airfares are on sale right now in Southeast Asia and I’m pleasantly reminded the Kuala Lumpur has to be one of the best cities on earth to fly from.
For example, I just booked a flight to Paris next month for $588 return. I’m looking at a $631 return to Dublin next spring and an $837 return in business class to India.
These are the kinds of fares my friends in the United States can only dream about. Last weekend, I led a small mastermind made up entirely of US persons, each of whom paid a fortune to fly from the US to Asia.
It’s no secret that flying in or even through the United States isn’t very pleasant. For years, I lived in the United States while making frequent trips overseas. In one year, I flew 53 flight segments in and out of the US, gritting my teeth at having to deal with the TSA every time.
As much as I enjoyed leaving the country for greener pastures, the actual process of leaving wasn’t very pleasant.
If you live in the United States, there is obviously no way to escape the fact that the country is highly bureaucratic when it comes to traveling. Whatever the reasons for that, it costs time and patience.
If you are a US citizen or a foreigner living overseas, however, there are several reasons you might want to avoid flying through the United States:
1. For those from Visa Waiver program countries, security, customs, and immigration are both time-consuming and can often be difficult.
2. For citizens from countries that require a visa to enter the United States, the process can be difficult. Unlike other countries, you can not merely transit the US without a visa, and the process to obtain a transit visa is just as expensive, time-consuming, and fraught with potential challenges as applying for any other visa.
The United States is one of the few countries that doesn’t allow “sterile transit”. You’ve likely noticed that you are required to collect your checked luggage and pass through immigration and customs at your port of entry in the United States.
Then, you must re-check your bags and proceed to the security checkpoint to be wanded by TSA agents who aren’t too happy to do their jobs.
For those reasons, I personally avoid flying through the United States. Last year, I flew to our Passport to Freedom conference in Cancun by way of Bangkok, Shanghai, and Vancouver, where I was the first person in the immigration line and the entire entry process took less than 60 seconds.
Compare that with the time I spent four hours transiting through Newark airport.
On top of that, living outside of the United States has spoiled me with airlines like Emirates, Qatar, and Singapore. Even some of the low-cost airlines here in Asia serve full meals on short flights, and the idea of flying on a 40-year old aircraft with grumpy flight attendants no longer appeals to me.
If you are like me and want to avoid flights to and through the United States, here’s a short guide.
How to avoid flying through the US
US airlines have a virtual stranglehold on air travel to many smaller countries in Central America and especially the Caribbean. Trying getting a flight to a Caribbean island that doesn’t involve American Airlines or a stop in Miami or Ft. Lauderdale.
One of the easiest ways to access Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and even Cuba is through Canada. Air Canada offers great non-stop service from Vancouver, Toronto, and occasionally Montreal, and is perhaps my favorite North American airline, even if that’s similar to choosing my favorite skin eating virus.
Vancouver is North America’s closest port of call to Asia, which is why I suspect that many US airlines have increased the number of trans-Pacific flights into nearby Seattle as well. Air Canada offers flights from Vancouver to Mexico City, Cancun, and several other Mexican tourist destinations.
Toronto is Air Canada’s main hub for southbound travel, offering service to Central America countries like Costa and Panama, Caribbean islands like Grenada and Cuba, and even flights to Bogota, Colombia. Flights to and from Montreal serve Mexico and the Caribbean.
Canada’s accessibility to Asia, Europe, and the southern Americas makes it a useful transit point for flights halfway around the world. The biggest problem is that layovers in Toronto are often painstakingly long; I was able to jam two meetings and a night of sleep into my last layover in Toronto.
However, if you’re flying from Asia to Mexico, your options are limited and Canada may be your best – if not particularly bargain-priced – choice.
The biggest problem with Canada is that it now requires transit passengers to have a valid Canadian visa. If you don’t need a visa to enter Canada and merely want to enjoy the better treatment there, then you’ll be fine. If you renounce your citizenship to become Dominican, you’ll need a Canadian visa even to fly through the place, and it’s not easy to get one.
With so many developed countries in Europe with their own flag carrier and a growing number of low-cost carriers operating international flights, Europe is the best country to avoid the United States through transit.
I once said that, outside of a month or two each year in Mexico or South America, I’d be content to stay between Dublin and Hong Kong. Flying between Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia obviously bypasses the United States, so there’s nothing to worry about there.
If you live here in Asia or in Africa or the Middle East, Europe is the most attractive and most affordable stopover point. With so many airlines, there are plenty of non-stops from Europe to anywhere you want to go.
Mexico enjoys a number of non-stop flights from all over Europe, including as far as Russia. Cancun, as well as several Caribbean resort cities, enjoys non-stop, low-cost service from cities like Munich and Frankfurt.
I’m a big fan of Colombia, and Bogota is a great connection point, with flights to Panama City and the rest of Central America on airlines like Avianca and Copa.
Further afield destinations like Sao Paolo, Rio, Santiago, and Buenos Airlines are served from London, Paris, Frankfurt, Madrid, and Lisbon. Lima and Caracas have non-stop flights from Europe, too.
Through Oceania and Asia
Most Asian travelers I know have no idea that there are trans-Pacific flights that don’t transit the United States or Canada. Aeromexico offers infrequent Mexico City to Tokyo service, as well as Tijuana to Tokyo service; it also offers service from Shanghai to Tijuana, where you can easily fly a regional carrier like Interjet to anywhere in Mexico.
Asian travelers can transit through Australia or New Zealand to reach South American and even Caribbean destinations in case traveling through Europe is impractical. There are flights from Australia to Santiago and Buenos Aires via Auckland, although they are quite expensive. Air Canada also offers one flight from Vancouver to Sydney.
As a perpetual traveler, I am quite content to fly from Bogota to Hong Kong via London and stay a few days in Europe before continuing on. If you have similar wanderlust and mobility, I strongly recommend you avoid flying through the United States.
The hassles and money you can save are well-worth slightly longer overall flight times.