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Oct 072016
 
There's something strange about these public toilets - an emphasis on the word public. See last item, below.

There’s something strange about these public toilets – an emphasis on the word public. See last item, below.

Good morning

My green ink theory didn’t robustly withstand another week.  After switching to green ink, there was a welcome lift in people kindly joining in this year’s Travel Insider Annual fundraising drive.  We had 42 people join in the first week, then 80 people after the green ink appeared in the second week.  But a third green appearance last week only saw another 50 people responding, making 172 in total now.  Last year, we had 199 people supporting us at the same point in the fundraising drive.

Many thanks of course to the latest 50 joiners, including 9 more ‘super supporters’ (those sending in three figure sums) – Michael L, Larry W, Steve M, Randy S, Andrew C, Justine K, Bob D, Pete R and Joel W.  Your help – all 50 of you – really is making a difference.

So, after a green suggestive of bank notes, should we try red this week, to echo my fear of red ink on the bank statement?

This is a once a year fundraising event, and it finishes as soon as we’ve reached our target, which we’ve set at a modest 300 – three more than last year, and only one third of our best ever year when we got tantalizingly close to 1000.  So we’re already over half way to this modest goal and the chances are, as you read this, you’ve not yet joined in.  Why not do so now, and perhaps next week, after a great response, we can abandon the colored inks and focus back on the main thing – travel and travel related technology.

This is another week which I hope demonstrates the tangible value offered to you.  Our feature article might save you $500.  More on that below.  We’ve another extensive newsletter and the two additional articles – probably an hour of reading in total.  If you went to a two hour movie, you’d pay $16 – $20 at the theater.  So what is an hour of The Travel Insider worth to you?  We’re not expecting you to say ‘$8, and I read it 50 times a year so I’ll send you $400’.

But we’d truly treasure your response if you at least decided to send in some fair fraction of that amount.  As you may have noticed, we don’t surround our articles with appallingly annoying video ads that you can’t stop, we rely primarily on you to support us in what is our sole income generating source and definitely a full time job.

Please help keep The Travel Insider strong and independent.  We’re exactly the same as (but also very different to) PBS and NPR.  We rely on your support, and the more generous your support, the better our ‘programming’ can become.  Empower us to be able to buy and continue reviewing products you might be interested in, and keep us out of the clutches of advertisers who would be keen to tilt our coverage their way.

You can simply and speedily contribute by credit card from this link, and you can send in a one time contribution, or you can authorize ongoing monthly or quarterly support to be charged automatically until you eventually decide to cancel.  We make it quick and easy to help out – so please now find out for yourself just how quick and easy it is.  Thank you.

And now, back to our normal (black) programming……

I was planning on a table analyzing different airlines and their premium economy offerings as this week’s feature article.  But ‘life happened’ and we’ll defer that a week; this week I’ve something else I felt couldn’t wait a week to share with you instead.

Earlier in the week, Google announced two new phones it now sells, the Pixel and Pixel XL, priced at $650 and $770 in their lowest price versions – coincidentally, the same price as the new iPhones released a couple of weeks earlier.  The iPhones were, as they always are, very expensive, and I was astonished to see Google being as greedy as Apple.  Sometimes in the past, Google has sold earlier models of phones at extremely high value price points.  A reader supplied a possible reason for Google’s high prices – it wanted to show the world that not only are its new phones as good as Apple’s, but that it too can sell them at the same inflated prices Apple does with its phones.  The actual success of Google’s latest foray into phones remains to be seen, and in the past, the company has had varying outcomes, not always unalloyed successes.

You can read my preview/review of the two Google phones in an article following today’s roundup.  But that’s a bonus article, it isn’t the week’s main feature article.

I’m keen to get a new phone myself, and had bought my daughter an excellent Motorola phone that cost only $100 a couple of weeks ago.  This puzzled me – how was a good Motorola phone being sold for $100 alongside other phones costing $650+?  What was Anna’s phone lacking that a new iPhone or Pixel phone would have, instead?  The more I looked, the harder that question became to answer, and indeed, I started to see things that Anna’s phone had which the high-end phones lacked (removable battery and Micro-SD card in particular)!  By several measures, her phone was better than the so-called ‘high end’ iPhones.

Clearly, there was an important story in all of this, and I kept digging, eventually analysing some 260 different data points over 20 different models of current smartphones, and considering plenty more issues and plenty more phones, too.  The results surprised even me, and I knew I had to rush them to you in case you were about to make a potentially big mistake and buy an overpriced Apple or Google (or Samsung) phone.

So, the feature article, after this long-winded intro, shows you how to get a phone that is perhaps even better than the Apple/Google/Samsung phones, and saving perhaps $500 (or more!) at the same time.  If you do take advantage of this, please consider how The Travel Insider has just saved you $500+, and allow that to influence your decision about how generously you support us during our fundraising at present!

Also this week :

  • Air Berlin to Halve its Fleet
  • United’s Club With No Beer
  • The Airports With the Longest Walks to Planes
  • Hawaiian Airlines to Start Weighing Some Passengers
  • JetBlue’s ‘Solution’ to the Possible Pilot Shortage
  • Beating Auto-Phone Systems and Getting Fast to a Human
  • Amtrak Developments – Good News and Bad
  • Eurasian Trains – Fanciful News
  • More Benefits for Amazon Prime Members
  • How’s Your Privacy?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Berlin to Halve its Fleet

The headline is correct.  Unlike many airlines that are aggressively growing at present, with a brilliant combination of high fares, low fuel prices, and extraordinarily full flights making this the most profitable period in airline history ever, Air Berlin is showing that while it truly requires a special type of stupid not to succeed in the current market conditions, it is equal to the task, and has lost more than €1 billion over the last three years.

Intriguingly, although halving its fleet, the carrier is only reducing staff by 15%.  What remains of the airline is in talks with TUI Travel about possibly being folded into the TUI airline fleet.

Well, the headline does have an error in it.  The airline prefers to call itself airberlin, and Australian travel writer Ben Sandilands claims that the airline’s spectacular failing is proof of his theory that airlines with strange spellings or upper/lower case usage are doomed to failure.

One thing is for sure.  Passing over half your fleet to a major competitor is a strange way to improve your position in the market.  Details here.

United’s Club With No Beer

(I thought this was a clever headline, then realized that perhaps not everyone reading it would be familiar with the Australian folksong that tells of a tragedy that sends shivers down the spine of every Aussie – ‘the pub with no beer’.)

Last week, for two days (Wed and Thurs), the two United Club lounges in Newark’s Terminal C were unable to serve beer, or alcohol of any kind.  Not because they didn’t have any, but because someone forgot to renew their liquor license!  The license expired not in late September, but actually on 30 June, but it took a while before anyone even noticed.

The paperwork was urgently filed and drinks started flowing again on Friday.  Phew!

The Airports With the Longest Walks to Planes

Sometimes you strike it lucky.  Your gate is right by the airport entrance or exit.  If you’re on a connecting flight, it departs from the gate next to the one you fly in on.

But sometimes, it seems like literally miles between one gate and the next – and all the much longer if you have a heavy carry-on to lug with you, and a tight connection to make.

Well, it not only seems like miles, but it actually can be a mile or more.  Here’s an interesting article about airports with longest walks.  The longest known distance at the 17 US airports measured was 1.67 miles in Atlanta, followed by both PHL and DFW at 1.5 miles.

The article also points out that some airports are taking out their moving walkways, reclaiming the space for bars and restaurants, which they say are needed.  The fact that operating and maintaining walkways costs the airport money, while renting space to bars and restaurants and getting a generous slice of their takings makes the airport money, presumably had nothing to do with such decisions.

It is also perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy – after a 1.5 mile walk, you’ll probably want a drink and maybe some sustenance too.

Hawaiian Airlines to Start Weighing Some Passengers

Talking about exercise, sort of, American Samoa’s most distinctive claim to fame is being the nation with the highest level of adult obesity in the world.

In possibly related news, Hawaiian Airlines has said that passengers flying between American Samoa and Honolulu will no longer be able to pre-select seats.  Instead, it will weigh them and assign them seats at checkin so as to best manage the load and balancing on the plane.

This is not uncommon for tiny airlines and their tiny planes, but it is very unusual for a 767 such as HA operates on the route.  The 767-300ER that it uses weighs 198,000 lbs empty and has a maximum takeoff weight of 412,000 lbs.  It carries up to 264 passengers, and if we say each passenger averages 200 lbs, the passengers in total weigh perhaps only 53,000 lbs, making it surprising that the airline feels the need to individually assign passengers to strategic positions on the plane.

Maybe this is the precursor to something else, but if it is, I’m not quite sure what it might be.  Details here.

JetBlue’s ‘Solution’ to the Possible Pilot Shortage

The airlines are very good at some things – charging us outrageous fees, for example.  One of the other things they excel at is getting free publicity pretty much any time they feel like it, by trotting out one or the other of several well-worn themes that journalists and the publications they work for have an endless appetite for.

An example of that is the endless recycling of the RyanAir threat to either remove toilets from their planes entirely, or, if allowing one or two to remain, charging a fee per use.  Another example is the regular appearance of gushingly glowing accounts of airlines ‘investigating’ and ‘trialing’ new ‘eco-fuels’.

These investigations and trials, much loved by self-professed ‘green’ airlines of course never go anywhere at all, because at their end of their trialing and evaluating, the airlines are simply stunned to discover that alternate fuels are more expensive than regular jet fuel.  But that’s the part of the story that never gets told, although there’d be poetic justice if for every laudatory headline about an airline dabbling with alternative fuels, there was subsequently an equal headline damning the airline for putting profits before ‘saving the planet’ with the eco-fuel which was proven feasible to use but more expensive to buy.

I could continue – airlines that introduce new ‘service initiatives’ (that invariably mean less service).  Airlines that introduce new ‘improved’ menus designed by a celebrity chef, featuring typical regional dishes from the destinations they serve, for their flights (but the food tastes the same as always).  And so on.

This week saw JetBlue win itself some outsized headlines about its plan to train its own pilots.  In actual fact, the program isn’t something JetBlue has just now started, and in further fact, it is a concept espoused by airlines all around the world already.

JetBlue currently has about 3,350 pilots (and 220 planes – why so many pilots, one wonders).  If we assume a 5% – 10% turnover in pilots each year, and with another 10 or so planes being added each year, that suggests JetBlue needs to be hiring about 350 pilots a year.

Guess how many pilots in its inaugural pilot training program?  350, to fully cover their recruiting needs?  175, for half their needs?  Maybe only 100?  Umm, no, you’re still too high.  The first class had an intake of six students going in to the start of a four year program.  So maybe four will graduate and go on to work at JetBlue?  That is barely 1% of their annual pilot needs.  And that isn’t worth even a paragraph of press, let alone a full article.

To be fair, their next intake, slated for 2018, is expected to be larger.  No-one knows exactly how large, but it could be between 24 and 48 students.  Another hardly impactful activity.

Beating Auto-Phone Systems and Getting Fast to a Human

There are many ‘helpful’ things in this world that I find to actually be extremely unhelpful.  Sure, I can see how they are ‘helpful’ (ie labor-saving) to the companies that institute them, but I can’t see any part of help they extend to the company’s customers.  Whether it is ‘self checkin’ at an airport or anything else, it just adds more burden to us, while we are told it is for our convenience.

But of all the things I despise, voice-recognition type interactive phone menus are surely the worst.  Even though these systems only have to recognize a few key words, they still have a high incidence of getting things wrong, and I can’t for the life of me understand why an error prone system that you have to talk to is preferable to the good old fashioned ‘press 1 for sales, 2 for service, or stay on the line for the next available operator’ system, or – better still – having the phone answered by a real person.

I’m sure we’ve all ended up stuck in one of these hellish voice-activated phone systems, never knowing if we are making the right choices, and desperate even to speak to a heavily accented Indian or Filipino, rather than continue to talk to a computer.

Worst of all are the phone systems that don’t allow you any way out – the good old standby of pressing 0 or saying/doing nothing no longer works in many cases – if you try that now, you get an inappropriately bright cheerful voice saying ‘thank you, good bye!’.

But it turns out there’s a solution.  Swear angrily at the system.  Use the ‘f-word’.

As this article reports, some/many/most voice controlled systems listen for that word, or for agitated speech in general, and in such cases they’ll shoot you to the front of the queue and drop you to a real person faster than normal, and probably with the real person being given a heads-up that they have an anxious/angry customer to placate.

Amtrak Developments – Good News and Bad

There is bad news for Amtrak, deceptively wrapped up in what seems to be good news.  Amtrak is to spend $2.45 billion on track improvements, and for new faster trains and better stations in its ‘Northeast Corridor’ that runs from DC, up through New York, and on to Boston.

This service is Amtrak’s one bright star in its universe, made all the brighter because, unlike the rest of its network, Amtrak owns the track and has the ability to therefore quality control every aspect of the experience – the track quality, speed, and scheduling – as well as the trains themselves.  The investments seems to be appropriate and will help Amtrak grow ridership – and to put its passenger numbers into perspective, last year Amtrak carried three times as many people between New York and Washington DC as did the airlines.

Trains can take under three hours from city center to city center.  Flights take an hour, plus travel to and from airports, plus time for checkin and security, etc etc, meaning that for many people, the travel times are a wash, and the travel experience of course massively better on the train.

The bad news about this?  The Department of Transportation has loaned Amtrak the $2.45 billion.  So Amtrak’s fixed costs and leverage have both just worsened.  Pretend as much as we might wish to, but Amtrak is not a commercial undertaking and it is ridiculous to treat it as if it were.

Details here.

Eurasian Trains – Fanciful News

Much more fanciful than Amtrak’s plans is the latest publicity about the potential for trains to operate between London and Tokyo.  Sure, there is a nice fast route between London and Brussels/Paris these days, and similarly fast into Germany, but as the trains then travel into Poland and Belarus and on into Russia, train speeds nosedive, and the enormous Trans-Siberian 6,152 mile train route between Moscow and Vladivostok is a seven day and six night experience at present (ie an average speed of not much more than 40 mph).

The proposed route would detour a bit from the current Trans-Siberian line, and then turn off entirely at Khabarovsk, with a proposed new four mile bridge or tunnel between the mainland and Russia’s Sakhalin island, and another 26 miles (almost certainly a tunnel) from there to Japan’s Hokkaido island.  This sounds very long for an undersea tunnel, but is 5 miles shorter than the Chunnel between England and France, which was built in only four years, over 20 years ago.

It has been reported that Japanese commercial enterprises and the Japanese government are considering shouldering pretty much the entire cost of track upgrades, the extra track, and new carriages and signaling systems.

This is an enormously ‘ambitious’ project and also likely to be extremely expensive.  Most of all, how to politely observe that Russia is a country with a sometimes challenged approach towards respecting foreign investments and foreign businesses, and to invest in something that is as totally unportable and could not be withdrawn as a rail network suggests, hmmm, a very high degree of confidence by the Japanese in the future.  Noting the long-standing territorial disputes (over the Kuril Islands) between the two countries at present, it is indeed an unusually high degree of confidence.  Details here.

On the other hand, nothing has been formally agreed upon, and we suspect nothing is likely to happen in any of our lifetimes.  But, if the Chinese were to be involved, they could probably bang out a new high speed line in a year or two!

While the linked article above talks about passenger trains, the best case scenario would see it taking 40 – 50 hours for a train to travel between London and Tokyo, and that’s not going to be of much appeal to many people (a nonstop flight is 12 hours).  The main application of the route would be to convey freight, sparing Japanese shippers the time and money costs of going through the Suez Canal.

Russia is also keen to create a new seaport in its far east, and would like Japan (or anyone) to invest in that almost $7 billion scheme, too.  The new port would be capable of handling 80 million tons of cargo a year, and would require another 250 miles of rail to connect it to Russia’s current rail network, and might also extend to a new city of 50,000 people.  And to, ahem, put that number into perspective, Russia’s main eastern port of Vladivostok handled only 5 million tons of cargo in 2015.  A very ambitious scheme, which Russia expects to be completed by 2025.  And that’s what we’d call a definite maybe.

More Benefits for Amazon Prime Members

It is hard for me to know which I like more – my Costco membership, or my Amazon Prime membership.  Between the two of them, they’ve surely revolutionized the shopping habits of many of us.

Prime is about more than free fast shipping, of course.  You get free music and movies, even an occasional free e-book, and sometimes some slightly artificial discounts on products.

This week Amazon have added another nice benefit to their Prime memberships.  A library of free e-books you can check out and read at your leisure.  Details are sparse in terms of the maximum books you can ‘check out’ and have on your Kindle device (or Kindle app on any tablet/phone at all) but I quickly found three that I liked on Thursday and was able to download them.  They say that currently there are over 1000 titles of books and magazines and other print publications participating in this, and of course, 1,000 titles is very few indeed.  But it may continue to grow in size, and even 1,000 probably includes a few titles you’d like.

If you don’t yet belong to Prime, you should consider joining.  This link gives you a free 30 day trial.  It is $99 a year to belong.  You can also buy it by the month for $10.99 which might be useful if you only anticipate ever using it in the month or so prior to Christmas.

How’s Your Privacy?

The most rapidly growing type of theft these days is identity theft.  The latest mega-site to fall prey to a successful hacking attack (that we know of) was Yahoo, and the actual risk factor this exposes is subtle but severe.

Sure, the hackers stole the user names of many Yahoo users, and their encrypted passwords, which probably made them safe and uncompromised.  Even so, Yahoo is recommending you change your password, ‘just in case’.

But what is severe, and – more to the point – what can’t be so easily changed, no matter how much we might wish, are the security questions and answers that Yahoo would use to determine who we really are if we call them with problems and unable to access our account.  You know, questions like ‘What is your mother’s maiden name’, ‘What was your first car’ and those sorts of questions – questions which are asked on other sites too.

The danger now is that a hacker could take those security questions and answers to leverage their way into our account on a different site.  How do we change the answer to the question ‘what is your mother’s maiden name’?

We travelers are particularly at risk, due to sometimes potentially exposing additional details about ourselves and our accounts on insecure Wi-Fi and other types of uncontrolled network connections.

Here’s an interesting checklist of some quick easy things you can do to protect your privacy, and here’s a much more detailed discussion on privacy issues in general.

As is sadly always the case, not all their suggestions are practical or possible, but at least it helps you better think about such things when facing potentially compromising actions in the future.

And Lastly This Week….

Every election year, there’s always a vocal few who declaim that if their preferred candidate doesn’t win, they’ll leave the country.  While I feel as passionately about this (and most other) elections as others, I’m not going to abandon my adopted country if it ‘gets it wrong’ and the other person wins in November.  I also wryly note that the louder people threaten to leave, the less likely they are to follow through on their ‘threat’.

But if you are indeed, either publicly or privately, worried about what the heck might happen to our country when the next President assumes office on 20 January 2017, here’s a list of countries to consider as alternates.  The US comes in as the 11th best (at least on the methodology used in this particular review) out of the 142 countries reviewed.  At one end of the scale was the Central African Republic, and then Afghanistan, Haiti, Chad and Burundi.  And the other end of the scale came Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, New Zealand and Sweden.

Do you remember the story about the animal researchers who placed some monkeys in a cage then left the room?  The researchers then tiptoed to the door and peered through the key-hole to see what the monkeys were doing in their new environment, only to see, in turn, a monkey eye peering through the keyhole at them.

This ambiguity as between the observers and the observed has been taken to an entirely new level in a nature park in China.  So as to allow visitors a chance to enjoy the beautiful surroundings at all times during their park visit, the park management constructed lovely new toilets, with glass walls.

In theory the walls will be half mirrored, so the occupants of the toilet block can look out but others can’t look in.  In practice, the half mirror coating has yet to be applied.  One wonders who is more interested in the views – those inside or outside.

Details (and pictures) here.

And so, we bring another wide-ranging round up to its close, although there are still two more articles to follow.  Ask yourself – where else would you be treated to items about glass-sided toilets, using swear-words to short-circuit phone ‘auto attendant’ systems, alongside business analysis of airline related issues and a buyer’s guide to cell phones that should save you $500 the next time you buy a phone?

Yes, quite an eclectic mixture!  And all yours free to savor and sample as you wish.  But along with freedom always comes responsibility, and we ask you to now freely shoulder a tiny smidgen of responsibility and choose to become a Travel Insider Supporter as part of our annual fundraising drive.  It is quick and easy and simple, and it is also important to me and the continued survival of this example of ‘citizen journalism’.  Thank you.

And now, truly lastly this week, we hope – as always – that at least something in this newsletter will put a smile on your face.  But not if you’re about to get a passport photo taken in France, because in that case, you could be in trouble.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels (and keep smiling)

Davidsigblue285

 

David.

 

 

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