I'll put this as plainly as possible. Watch "The Amazing Race 5."
I haven't seen the newest version of the CBS reality series, premiering Tuesday at 9:30 p.m., but if it's even an eighth as good as its predecessors, it'll be worth taping, setting the TiVo for or scampering home early from bar-hopping to catch. The show is just that compelling, particularly for travel hounds.
After all, why waste time experiencing other cultures and seeing world wonders firsthand when you can sit back with a cold Bud and watch it on the tube?
"TAR" is a weekly primer on all that is good and evil about globe-trotting (emphasis on the evil). The premise is simple: Eleven teams of two (brothers and sisters, moms and dads, life partners, best friends, circus clowns) compete for $1 million, setting out from a spot in the United States before going global. The pairs get a little bit of cash for each race leg, clues on where to head next and seemingly unlimited access to planes, trains and rickshaws. To slow them down a bit, there's always a dopey challenge or two along the way that must be completed (bungee-jumping, walking through a cave full of bats and guano, etc.).
Whoever gets to the "pit stop" first wins that leg of the race; the last-place duo gets the boot. And so it goes, until the final two teams dash to the finish line back in the States.
For CBS, the show's been a middling ratings success, but among TV critics and "Race"-aholics, it's must-gawk TV, with a strong enough fan base to merit its return not only this summer but next fall as well.
Rejoice, I say. There's no better way to confirm what you already suspected about travel -- for free.
One bad flight decision can be ruinous. It's the No. 1 reason why teams fail. Contestants race to an airport and start bopping from one airline counter to the next, trying to get on what they think is the quickest flight to Bombay or Johannesburg or Los Angeles. Flights can sell out, face weather delays or be the worst possible choice for quick transit. In "TAR2," Peggy and Claire (the "Gutsy Grannies") made a stupendously awful move, opting to fly from Iguacu Falls, Brazil, to Cape Town via New York -- and arrived at the pit stop a day later than everyone else.
Cabbies can be scary, useless or treacherous -- or all three. Choose the right taxi driver (or have him thrust upon you) and you'll have no worries in a foreign land. Pick a bad one and you may end up like Andre and Damon from "TAR3." After the two jumped into a Marrakech cab, their driver promptly got them lost and, ultimately, detained by Moroccan police.
There's nothing worse than a bad travel companion . Sometimes a promising vacation can be ruined by lugging along the wrong person. It's only compounded when you're racing around the globe with cameramen chasing after you. "TAR3" featured ultra-annoying Flo, a lazy, whining, crying banshee who not only drove her teammate Zach to the brink, but had viewers scrambling for the mute button. Then again, the two walked off with a million bucks.
Travel agents can be helpful. Oddly, contestants rarely ask for professional assistance when they're making airline reservations. Danny and Oswald (a k a "Team Cha-Cha-Cha"), two fan favorites from "TAR2," did the unthinkable at the advice of a Hong Kong hotel concierge: They consulted a travel agency on the best route to Sydney, and even had it arrange car service to the airport. They arrived in the Australian city a half-hour before anyone else.
Talking to the locals pays big dividends. Yes, it can also be disastrous (we've all gotten bum directions from a native, but we've also given them, haven't we?). Still, just about every show features some good Samaritan who directs the players to the train station, the park, the one inn with a room. Reichen and Chip chatted up locals on a flight to Phoenix for the final leg of "TAR4" and received directions so good they were able to navigate morning rush-hour traffic and eventually win the race.
Knowing your limitations is a must. Sometimes, you just gotta throw your hands up and say, "I don't care how far I've come, I've had enough for today." On "TAR3," an exhausted Michael and Kathy accidentally put gasoline in their diesel car in Portugal. Instead of getting the car fixed immediately so they could stay in contention, they checked into a four-star hotel and had a leisurely breakfast the following morning.
They lost the race, but they gained a pleasant memory. Isn't that what travel is supposed to be about?
After this week's premiere, "The Amazing Race 5" airs at 10 p.m Tuesdays on Channel 9. For more info:www.cbs.com/primetime/amazing_race5.