Daily Archives: 23 May 2006

Saipan Impressions: Package Tours

I needed to make a quick trip abroad by the end of May in order to renew my 90-day no-visa entry permit in Japan. Mrs. Outlier is on a work visa and had to teach, so I was on my own. Fortunately, package tours had dropped in price after the end of Golden Week, and so I began shopping for the cheapest, quickest tour to either the island of Cheju in Korea or the island of Saipan in the Northern Marianas, neither of which I had visited before. (I’ve spent a bit of time in Guam, Yap, Palau, and Pohnpei.) Saipan not only proved the cheaper option, but offered better chances of breaking away from the pack. In each case, the package was cheaper than the roundtrip airfare alone.

My only previous package tours were a relatively lavish academic junket in South Korea in 1995 and a dollar-denominated official minitour of the painted monasteries in Romanian Bukovina in 1983. Both were interesting, but confining. However, during the many setbacks in our self-booked travels around China in 1987-88, we wished more than once for the comfort and predictability of a package tour.

The timing of the JTB departures and arrivals was bizarre. The tour offered barely 30 hours in Saipan: two half-nights and one day in between. The major advantage seemed to be that tourists from near Narita would only have to miss one day of work. They could leave after work one day, and return before work two days later. I wonder how many of the (apparent) OLs on that flight called in sick for the Monday they were gone. There’s only a one-hour time difference between Saipan and Japan, but this trip left me rather jet-lagged.

NW 18 left Narita about 9 p.m. and arrived in Saipan about 1:45 a.m. I had no checked baggage and breezed through customs, so I had rented a car (from Budget, the only booth manned at that moment) and navigated in the dark to the massive Fiesta Resort & Spa in Garapan well before the rest of the tour had left the airport. (I had to wake up the gatekeeper to get out of the airport parking lot.) After some consternation, the hotel front desk was able to issue me a separate room key so that I could check in before the rest of the group arrived. The lobby was awfully quiet at 2:30 a.m., but the hostess bars, massage parlors, streetwalkers, and their potential clients were still at work just across the street in the contemporary equivalent of the old 城下町 jouka-machi ‘town below the castle’.

NW 17 left Saipan around 5 a.m., so the tour bus left the hotel at 2:40 a.m. I decided to aim for 3 a.m, but wasn’t sure that I could rely on the wake-up call or would hear my wrist alarm. But I awoke shortly after 2 a.m. to the sound of doors slamming as my neighbors headed for the lobby. I checked out of the hotel about 3 a.m. and had enough time to refill the gas tank (5 gallons for $18!), grab breakfast at a 24-hour coffee-and-donut shop, wake-up the car rental agent, check in at the very friendly NW counter overflowing with student trainees (all of whom later showed up at the boarding gate), and get a 10-minute (for $10) back massage in the departure lounge. Others spent most of that time in the Duty Free Shop.

Parts of Saipan never seem to sleep: the airport, gas stations, poker casinos, and the “pleasure quarters” near the big hotels.

UPDATE: I have flown a lot of miles on Northwest Airlines (visiting in-laws via Minneapolis) and don’t have any greater animus against them than I do against most other major airlines, but they do a really shoddy job on NW 17 and NW 18. Despite the fact that 3 out of 4 passengers is Japanese on that route, they didn’t stock a single pair of chopsticks in case passengers asked for them, and they enforced (at least in economy class) a strict limit of only 1 serving of alcohol per person on a flight that was maybe 1/3 OLs (not athletes) on holiday. I learned this from overhearing the requests of Japanese passengers around me. Finally, NW relied on one poor bilingual flight attendant to translate all the English-only messages, whether routine or exceptional. No kudos on this flight, Northwest.

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