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Destinations on the edge: Baghdad
There used to be one way to go to Iraq. You'd go to your local recruiting office, take an oath and sign a contract. Then, you'd subject yourself to a minimum of 16 weeks' training under the most unpleasant of circumstances. Wearing your snappy new threads (and a Kevlar helmet), you'd be put on a plane. Today, things are a bit different. You don't have to be a soldier or civilian contractor to go to Baghdad. All you need to do is buy a plane ticket.
If you're looking to put the winter chill behind you, Iraq is certainly an option. Civilian flights now touch down every day at Baghdad International Airport. But, as you'd expect from airlines operating in a war zone, information's not easy to come by. Royal Jordanian Airlines operates flights to Iraq. On its website's route map, several Iraqi cities are listed, including Baghdad, Irbil (also spelled "Erbil" and sometimes "Arbil") and Basra. When you try to book a flight to these destinations from the website, though, you'll see that they aren't available. To book a flight, give them a call to get more information. You can also roll the dice with Iraqi Airways, but I'd stick to known brands.
Play it safe by taking an Austrian Airlines flight to Irbil. Jumping off from JFK (New York) or DCA (Washington, D.C.) makes the most sense, and the latter is a bit less expensive. A round trip for late January will set you back around $2,000 for the cheapest fare available, so keep in mind that this insanity is a form of luxury travel.
Hey, adventure's the new luxury. Drop the cash on a thrill.
If you really want to live life on the edge, you can be driven into the city by a "bodyguard." This service provider is pretty much a guy with a car an AK-47 sitting across his lap. He'll bring you into the country, but you'll probably be nervous the whole way. Or, maybe the notion of a stranger in a war-torn country with a rifle across his thighs makes you feel comfortable. I don't judge.
Gallery: On the ground in Iraq
According to several reports from the ground, the Baghdad airport itself is relatively safe. There are plenty guards all over the terminals, and they do take their jobs seriously. Photography is not permitted, a fact that the folks with the guns will make sure you understand (though not in a harassing manner). Once you're on the outside, the rules change. Iraq is a war zone; there's no other way to describe it. People shoot at each other. Hostages have been taken. So, you need to be smart when you make this trek. Follow the rules when you see people with weapons.
But, you don't care. So, it's time to find a hotel.
The normal means of booking a room do not apply to Baghdad. Scour the traditional travel sites, and you will be disappointed with each click of your mouse. So, dig a little. On RealTravel, you can get a bit of variety. Twelve hotels are listed, with rates varying from the Hotel Ishtar's painless $67 a night to the Palestine International Hotel's $150 room rate.
Don't expect luxury. Howard Cornell, a contractor who served in Iraq, remembers stays at both Hotel Baghdad and the al Rasheed. He recounts in an interview with TraderDaily.com that the al Rasheed was a bit beat up on the outside but wasn't so bad one you crossed the threshold. Hotel Baghdad? Well, it's only good for "reporters for civilians with a pistol under the pillow." In town, you'll be able to get around on foot or via taxi. The cab drivers are comfortable enough with the tourist economy to quote rates in U.S. dollars.
If you've become immune to the safer thrills of skydiving and cave diving, war tourism is the next logical step. There are plenty of danger zones around the world; you have choices. Unfortunately, Afghanistan gets cold. Iraq will get you the adrenaline rush you crave, and you probably won't need to pack a sweater.
Be careful when you tour Baghdad. Stay aware of your surroundings at all times, and you'll have a fulfilling experience. This is a unique opportunity, and few will make this sort of move. When your co-workers brag of their luxurious or unusual travel exploits, having been to Baghdad will equip you to end their tales ... quickly.
Gallery: Al-Faw, Saddam's Palace
[Thanks, Brian Sayler, for the galleries and photo of Sadam's palace above]