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David Rowell

David Rowell

You can see an extensive mini-bio about me here http://www.thetravelinsider.info/info/about.htm And here's a Google Plus link : Google

Jul 202017
 

Come and join in the fun and fellowship on our 2017 Danube Christmas Markets Cruise.

Good morning

Although most of us have been focused on getting the most enjoyment out of our wonderful summer at present, I’ve been concentrating simultaneously on two very different things – the upcoming late fall, and next year’s early summer.  Could I ask you to consider these two time periods too, because we have lovely Travel Insider tours at both times (see items, below).

There are two articles attached to this week’s roundup.  One is a request for you to possibly do something – to add your comments to the ones already submitted to the Department of Transportation on a request for them to affirm our right to take photos and video on planes.  I sent in a 13 page document, but all you really need to do is send in a couple of sentences expressing your opinion and perhaps a reason why you think as you do.

The other was to be one of the items in the roundup, but it grew, and now deserves its own separate article (especially for archival purposes into the future).  The ‘law of unintended consequences’ continues to apply, and today’s internet based travel booking systems have turned out to be something very different to how travel suppliers thought they would be, 20 years ago.

One of the interesting outcomes of Expedia having probably more than a 75% market share in the US, and many operating different seemingly unrelated brands, is that its enormous marketing budget (more than Pepsi, and perhaps the 30th largest advertising budget in the country) is being spent most of the time merely shifting people from one of its brands to another of its brands.  For example, I’ve just hurried past yet another copy of a Trivago ad, but the chances are that almost three-quarters of the people who are swayed by it will be switching from another Expedia brand to Trivago.  It is really hard to make advertising cost-effective when 75c in every dollar spent is cannibalizing the market share of other companies owned by the same parent.

But imagine how the ad would look if there was a big disclaimer on it ‘Please ignore this if you currently use Expedia or Hotwire or Orbitz or Travelocity or …..’.

Last week’s article about weighing your bags caused reader Dan to send in some helpful suggestions and ideas.  As a result, I’ve updated the article I published last week with more strategies and responses for what to do if the airport scales read too high when you’re checking your bag.

Also, below, please continue reading for :

  • Christmas Markets Cruise Along the Danube this December
  • June 2018 Grand Expedition Tour of Great Britain
  • It is More than Just the $30, Delta
  • Frontier’s Growth Spurt
  • Airline Electronics Ban Revision Rumors
  • Amazon’s Echo Products – Often Frustrating
  • Britain’s $70 billion High Speed Rail Project Lurches Forward
  • Hyperloop/Tunnel on the East Coast?
  • Are You Feeling Brave?
  • Crazy Travel Advice
  • And Lastly This Week….

Christmas Markets Cruise Along the Danube this December

Our 2017 Danube Christmas Markets Cruise takes place December 11-18, with some optional land extensions both before and after the cruise.  We already have a great core of Travel Insiders coming along, and would love to welcome another few people to join our group.  If you’re considering bringing children or grandchildren, I’d be happy to volunteer my 13 yr old daughter, Anna, to help look after them/keep them company.

I can’t think of a more wonderful way to introduce Anna to so much of the unique wonder of Europe than via a Christmas Market cruise.  We have the ultimate in comfort on a traveling tour as a result of our luxurious cruise ship, the magic of the pre-Christmas season, the markets, and hopefully a touch of snow, and a contrast between the sometimes cold outside and the friendly warmth of the cruise ship, all shared with a lovely group of fellow ‘escapees’ from the tensions and stresses of ‘Christmas shopping’ back home.

Talking about Christmas shopping, you can still buy all your more distant relatives ties and pairs of socks and other such things, but now everyone can express slightly more sincere delight at receiving them, because they’ll be handcrafts from small markets along the Danube!

Indeed, it is the generally unspoken but universally acknowledged semi-guilt of avoiding all the usual commercial trappings of the ‘holiday season’ (as it is now called) that adds a wonderful unifying spirit to the group as a whole, and the festive spirit adds a lovely layer to our various activities and celebrations onboard and ashore.

How strange – but how true – that the best way to experience the friendship and fellowship of a ‘real’ Christmas season is to temporarily break away from our friends, family, and other social group members, and join a bunch of almost strangers, in a far away foreign land!

Enjoy a service-obsessed experience provided by a group of wonderful young crew-members, lavishing you with splendid food and free drinks galore, on a luxury cruise ship, and with daily touring off the ship, all included.  Best of all, this is offered to you, but only for nine more days, with a $750 discount per person (or even bigger discount for singles) and assorted other special unique inclusions as part of the Travel Insider group.

Maybe – indeed, almost certainly – you’ve visited Europe during the summer.  But there’s a very different layer of charm and experience in the still not too cold or severe weather in the first half of December.  Don’t just take our word for it.  You can see a photo-journal of an earlier cruise here.  Rereading it just now, I was astonished to observe how the experience has improved in the ten years between then and now – it seems that most things in life get cheaper and poorer, but the cruises these days are on bigger nicer ships, with more inclusions, and with appreciably better food and (free!) wine selections.  So, please do come along and try it for yourself, and find out why we have people returning back for their second and even third Christmas Markets cruises.

I sometimes have readers, particularly in warm areas like FL and AZ, tell me that they just don’t/can’t/won’t do cold.  I don’t like being cold either.  But the ship is warm, and off-ship excursions can be as long or as short as you wish.  Modern fabrics (and hand-warmers) make it easy to keep warm without having to wear enormously bulky and heavy garments.  You shouldn’t let an aversion to cooler temperatures prevent you from enjoying this wonderful experience.

June 2018 Grand Expedition Tour of Great Britain

Of course, if summer really is your thing, and if it is your only thing, then perhaps you should instead be considering next year’s June Grand Expedition from one end of Britain to the other, (also including lots of interesting bits in the middle).  There’s no river cruising, but there are large ferries to take us all the way up to the Orkney Islands, and at the other end of the country, perhaps a small launch if we can’t walk across the low tide causeway to St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.

This is, I believe, the best – and definitely the most extensive – land tour I’ve ever offered.  You can enjoy the entire 17+ day itinerary, or you can come along for any other shorter part that you wish, joining on any day and leaving on any day.  So it is also the most flexible ever offered.

We already have people signing up for this, so please do think about this and respond.

It is More than Just the $30, Delta

Controversial right-wing commentator Ann Coulter was moved from her pre-assigned premium seat on a Delta flight this last weekend.

Ann of course loves controversy – it is her lifeblood, and she eagerly set about engaging in a slanging match with Delta on Twitter and elsewhere.  Many people tend to look away when they see anything associated with her, either because of her incendiary hyperbole, or because of her razor-sharp spearing of left-wing ideologies.

But attempts to ridicule her ire – it was only a $30 fee, and it was only a minor seat reassignment – completely lose sight of the fact that, for reasons it chose not to disclose, Delta unilaterally moved her from the specific seat she had paid at extra $30 fee to sit in, to a different seat.  If you pay extra money to get a specific seat, and particularly if you’re then switched to a middle seat or whatever, you’re of course going to feel some frustration.

If Delta had acted decently and said ‘Excuse me, would you mind if we moved your seat so that we can have this other lady ….. (seated next to her newly web husband, her sick brother, whatever)’ then probably even Ann Coulter wouldn’t have objected.  But when Delta just forces you to move, refuses to tell you why, and doesn’t even offer a seat refund until after much Twitter argument, how does anyone feel?

Delta talks about the privacy of its passengers, but if Delta had said to the woman who wanted to take over Ann’s seat ‘Look, we’ve already assigned the seat to someone else who requested it before you and paid us $30 for the right to sit there, but if you like, we’re willing to explain your special circumstances to her and see if we can persuade her to give you her seat’ surely the passenger would have agreed.  And if the passenger didn’t agree, their claim to be able to bump Ann (or anyone else)’s seat assignment becomes less tenable.

It is little things such as the difference between asking politely and imperiously demanding that make all the difference to us as passengers.  It costs Delta no more to be polite and decent, but instead, they chose to adopt an instant adversarial approach.

So, love her or hate her, the underlying point at issue seems to be one that Ann has a valid reason to be upset about.  Details here.

Frontier’s Growth Spurt

Frontier plans to grow the number of cities it serves by one-third, up to 82, from 61 at present, while introducing a total of 85 new routes to its network.

Most of its growth comes in its Denver hub.  With improved connections now possible through Denver, the airline says that by next summer it will have over 1,000 routes – more than double its current total number of routes.  To serve the new flights and cities, the airline is increasing its fleet, from 63 to 76 Airbus A320 planes.

Admittedly 18 of the 21 new cities are cities the airline used to fly to/from, but it is great to see Frontier increasing its overall ‘footprint’.

Well done, Frontier.  Details here.

Airline Electronics Ban Revision Rumors

The TSA continues to restlessly experiment with how to address its concerns about potential bombs in electronic devices.

The latest twist started to be reported on Wednesday this week, but few reports have got the gist of what seems to be happening correct (such as this almost certainly wrong headline).  It is reasonably simple, as best I can see, although there are not yet any official announcements from TSA/HSD to use as a guideline.  Some airlines are starting to post new notices, and if they are to be believed, it seems likely that one of the vaguely referred to ‘increased security measures’ that were hinted at late in June will be a requirement to be able to turn your electronics on at the screening checkpoint.  This would apply to items ‘larger than a cell phone’.

If you can’t turn the device on, you won’t be allowed to fly with it.  You won’t be allowed to carry it onto the plane in your hand baggage, and neither will you be allowed to check it into a suitcase.

Our sense is that not every one will have to turn on every item.  Most of us will probably waltz on through security unimpeded, but some people will have to turn on some items and others may have to turn everything on.

It would be a problem if you had something with a dead battery, because if you can’t turn the item on, you’ll have to give it up and leave it behind.

While this sounds like a sensible new measure, in reality, it absolutely is not.  A resourceful terrorist would put a tiny battery into a laptop, with enough capacity to power the laptop for five minutes, perhaps.  That would still leave almost 99% of the battery compartment, plus all of the possibly-present CD-rom drive compartment and hard-drive space (replace the regular hard drive with a tiny solid-state hard-drive that plugs into the motherboard) for explosives, while simultaneously appearing to be a fully functional laptop.  Still more space could be created by taking out the fan and heat sink/pipe.

So, more inconvenience for us, but only useful if the terrorists are more stupid than the security screeners.  Do you want to bet your life on that?

Amazon’s Echo Products – Often Frustrating

Yes, I love new technologies, but not to the point where I’m blinded to the need for new gadgets and features/services to have some underlying user-friendliness and functionality.

I was asked by a friend if he should buy an Echo during Amazon’s recent Prime Day sale.  My answer was ‘yes, because it is cheap’, rather than ‘yes, because it is good’.  Amazon are putting an enormous effort into their Echo products, but to date, little of its promise has been realised.

I see a lot of potential in Amazon’s Echo devices and their voice commands.  Sadly, at present they are appallingly ‘unintelligent’ and only know a very few exactly phrased commands.  The requirement for us to memorize infrequent commands is frustrating, as I discovered yesterday.

My Echo Dot on my desk suddenly beeped and a series of yellowy-green lights started chasing themselves around its perimeter.  I looked at it in surprise, and waited for something further to happen.  Nothing did.

So I asked it ‘Alexa, why is your light on?’.  It couldn’t understand or answer my question.

I tried saying ‘Alexa, stop’ such as I say to turn off alarms.  It did nothing.

I tried variations of ‘Alexa, turn your light off’ but it didn’t understand that.

By this point, my frustration level was building, and I was dreading the need to sift through Amazon’s site to try and find either an answer to my problem or a well-hidden phone number to call for help.

Then I remembered – at Amazon’s recommendation, I’d added a new ‘skill’ to my Echo units, allowing them to give me updates on Amazon deliveries.  So it was presumably trying to tell me about a pending delivery, a conclusion reinforced by the appearance of a text message on my phone.  But – how could I get the device to tell me what it wanted to tell me, and then turn its annoying flashing light off?  I tried various phrases, but none worked.

Eventually, after some searching, I found the answer on Amazon’s website and the particular phrase to use.  I uttered the magic words, the Echo told me what it was so keen to share, and the light went out.

But – and here’s the thing.  Although the incident is fresh in my mind, as I write about it, mere hours later, I’ve already forgotten the key phrase to speak.

Is this service really being a help, or is it actually a hindrance?  Amazon needs to enhance its Echo units so they support natural language requests and questioning, just like Cortana, Siri and whatever the Android equivalent is called.  Until it does that, it is a serious misnomer to refer to the things an Echo can do as ‘skills’ and there is a risk the negative frustration will exceed the positive benefit.

Most of all, this experience reinforces the value of having an associated display screen on Echo units.  But whereas a regular Echo Dot costs $50 or less, the Echo Show (complete with screen) costs a ridiculous $230, even though it is little more than marrying one of Amazon’s $50 touch-screen Fire tablets to a regular Echo Dot.  If it were priced at $100 or less, it would be compelling, but at $230 it demands we wait on the sidelines until the price becomes more realistic.

Britain’s $70 billion High Speed Rail Project Lurches Forward

Britain already has what, by US standards, is an excellent rail network, although by European or Chinese standards, it is perhaps not quite so fancy and flash.

The country has been enmired in controversy after the government announced plans in 2010, built upon research and studies conducted over several preceding years, to add a new high-speed rail line from London, up the center and west of the country, connecting to Birmingham, and then forking, with one half continuing up to Manchester and perhaps Liverpool, and the other half going across the country to Sheffield and Leeds and perhaps ending in or near York.  More futuristically, Scotland would like to see the line extend all the way up to Glasgow, but there are no plans for this to yet happen.

The project is of course very expensive, and there has been substantial debate about the cost-efficiency of the development.  In addition, the new track will unavoidably travel through empty countryside (and therefore harm it) and also through towns (and require compulsory purchase of homes and commercial buildings), creating large number of NIMBY type protestors.  This is particularly difficult for ‘greenies’ – people who simultaneously advocate for protection of the countryside, restrictions on private cars, and further public transportation services, who are struggling to reconcile the opposing nature of their various desires.

But, and at the glacial speed which Britain so enthusiastically embraces, matters are proceeding, to the point that a mere seven years after the announced plans in 2010, contracts have now been awarded for a £55 billion ($70 billion) first phase, with the doubtless overly optimistic expectation that service on the first part of the route between London and Birmingham may open at the very end of 2026.  The rail line is known as HS2 (High Speed 2) – the 68 mile English end of the Eurostar line between London and Folkestone being HS1, with trains traveling at speeds of up to 186 mph (300 km/hr).

Depending on how you draw the boundaries, Birmingham is either Britain’s second or third largest city, with a population of 2.5 million, plus or minus a few hundred thousand.  The third largest (or possibly second largest) is Manchester, with a similar population, and planned to be included on a subsequent extension of the line, and the fourth largest is the Leeds region, which would also be included.  Glasgow, a dim possibility as the site of an extended northern end of the line, is the fifth largest city.

So the route is certainly strategic.  But when or if it will be completed, and at what cost, remains massively unclear.  When you think this is a country that has been arguing incessantly, but doing nothing, for decades about how/where it will increase its desperately needed air services in and out of London, it would be foolish to expect a quickly constructed rail line.

Meanwhile, in this country….. nothing at all.  Leastways, not with trains.  But keep reading.

Hyperloop/Tunnel on the East Coast?

Talking about fast trains, Elon Musk’s Hyperloop concept promises travel speeds not only faster than the fastest trains, but potentially even faster than passenger jets, too.

Add the high speeds of his Hyperloop concept to the pathways created by his tunneling idea, and you’ve a wonderful combined solution to transportation.  As an example of this, he is suggesting that traveling from New York to Washington DC (city center to city center, not outlying airport to outlying airport) could take only 29 minutes via a new Hyperloop service that he’d like to develop.  It is a 220 mile distance, so that suggests an average speed considerably below some of the potential speeds he has earlier talked about.

Air service shows scheduled flight times in the order of 75 – 90 minutes, and by the time you add to that travel time to and from airports and check-in time, you’re clearly looking at 3 hours minimum and closer to 4 hours, assuming no snafus in the air or on the ground.  Trains take minutes under 3 hours, which is competitive with the total time for a flight and explains why they have such a large share of that travel market.  But a 29 minute service?  That truly is game changing.  You could even live in one city and acceptably commute to the other city for work every day.

Musk claimed yesterday that he has been given verbal approval to build a Hyperloop tunnel between the two cities.  But no details have been forthcoming as to who or what gave the approval, and when or if he will actually start, let alone complete, such an ambitious (and expensive) project.  The sooner the better, of course.

Details – such as they are – here.  The tunnel would be the longest in the world, more than six times the length of the current longest tunnel, the Gotthard Base Tunnel through the Swiss Alps.

Oh – another Hyperloop company has already published a plan for an above ground service between NYC and WAS.  They say their service would take just 23 minutes for the journey.

Are You Feeling Brave?

In an echo of the concept of having ‘the right stuff’, Elon Musk explains what it takes to become a passenger on one of his SpaceX rockets.  Bravery.  Well, at least he isn’t beating about the bush with euphemisms.

His new Falcon Heavy rocket will have a total of 27 rocket motors that will need to fire simultaneously to achieve a smooth lift-off, and Musk said that tests of the rocket have encountered enormous stresses and are proving difficult to conduct on the ground.

Details here.

Crazy Travel Advice

There are typically five types of travel advice published online.

  •  The first is travel advice that is totally impractical.
  • The second is advice that is outdated and while once correct, is now totally obsolete.
  • The third is advice that while right, only applies in such rare cases as to make it useless knowledge for most of us.
  • The fourth is advice that is so obvious as to be trivial and unneeded.
  • The fifth is advice that is just plain totally wrong.

Only rarely does one encounter advice that is truly helpful to most of us.

A recent travel advice article on Bloomberg did an excellent job of touching most of these five categories.

Its first piece of advice – don’t eat on flights so as to avoid jetlag – is simultaneously impractical (eg on a 15 hour flight to Australia) and also unsupported by any medical concept of what causes and ameliorates jetlag.

The second piece of advice starts from a strange premise – that people need a local person on hand to ask for recommendations.  In my own experience, the worst person to ask for recommendations is invariably a local, because they see and experience their city in a very different way to how people briefly visiting as a tourist do.  And as for finding a restaurant with a communal table, well, how exactly does one do that in a strange city to start with?

The third piece of advice – to dine on a steady diet of Pepto-Bismol ‘just in case’ of an attack of food poisoning, along with the suggestion that it may prevent the food poisoning, is another new piece of medical discovery, and also ignores the advice on Pepto-Bismol packets to not take the pills for more than two days.

The fourth piece of advice – staying in a four star hotel suite instead of a standard room in a five star hotel is not entirely wrong at all, but is something that few of us often find ourselves choosing between.

The fifth piece of advice involves creating a regimented series of rotating roles and duties between family members on a vacation that sounds quite the antithesis of relaxing fun.

The sixth piece of advice sounds enticing – ‘how to get a billionaire to subsidize your vacation’ but then tries to tell us that paying $3000 – $4000 a night at a resort is a screaming bargain made possible only by a billionaire eager to lose money on a high end property he owns.  Yes, sure, right.  And even if it was, exactly how many people are going to rush to do as the writer recommends?

Lastly, her advice to get a Skyroam mobile hotspot device.  That is seriously wrong to the point of being outright deceptive and makes me wonder if the writer has ever truly used the service the way she describes.

The writer says ‘it doesn’t matter how much data you use in those 24 hours, whether your kids download three movies….’.

Sounds marvellous – all the fast internet you might need, for only $10 a day.  But, actually, it does matter how much data you use.

It takes a lot of effort to tease the truth out of Skyroam, and is nowhere disclosed on their website, but if pressed, they will admit that for a ‘small percentage of heavy users’ – ie people who exceed 500MB of data a day, they throttle the bandwidth back from an effective average of about 1 – 5 Mbps (megabits, not megabytes) to what they euphemistically term ‘lighter’ 2G/3G speeds.  Potentially 100kbps or thereabouts, in other words.  I wonder how long it would take the writer’s children to download three movies at that speed.

Let’s hope Bloomberg’s other coverage is better than their travel coverage.  Shame on the writer and shame on them.

And Lastly This Week….

We know that Congress moves slowly, and we also know that technology can move quickly, but how frustrating it is to read that Audi has a self-driving car which it can’t activate due to a lack of legal clarity.

Self-driving cars promise to be the biggest safety advance since seat belts, and maybe even more profoundly beneficial.  Every day we delay their implementation costs lives – almost 100 people in the US alone die every day in car crashes, and many more are seriously injured.  The chances are that you know, as I do too, of people who have been killed or grievously injured in car accidents, and more are impacted by such events every day.  This is an urgent matter that desperately need resolution.

Details here.

While the TSA continues to focus on electronics, perhaps it would be well advised not to lose sight of other potentially dangerous items in carry-on bags.  Like, ummm, the 30 rounds of live ammunition found in a flight attendant’s carry-on bag – found not in the US, but on his return flight back to the US from Japan.

American Airlines refused to disclose which US airport(s) their crewmember flew through with his ammunition undetected.

‘We want to keep it true to its original vision, while making it more….’.  It doesn’t really matter whatever follows in that sentence, does it, because you know it is going to entirely contradict the initial ‘keeping it true’ claim.  In this case, it is Disney talking about the changes they have in mind for Epcot, disclosed as part of an enormous array of new changes in their parks announced this week.

I still think the best flight safety videos are done by Air NZ, but British Airways has tried its hand at one which isn’t too bad, with a delightful bonus if you play it all the way through to the end.

If you want to annoy your flight attendant on your next flight, here are some suggested ‘safe’ ways to do so.

And truly lastly this week, sometimes it is better to say nothing than to deny an event in a case where the denial creates more news (and mirth) than the event itself.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

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Jul 202017
 

Has the internet made it easier or harder for hotels?

I remember the ill-concealed delight with which hoteliers and other travel suppliers greeted the fledgling internet when it first started appearing in the mid 1990s; indeed, it was my concern at how the internet would interfere with my ‘old fashioned’ travel company that had me accelerate plans to sell it in 2000.

Travel suppliers saw the internet as replacing ‘costly’ middlemen with a new free way for them to reach out to potential customers, everywhere in the world.  No longer would they have to reluctantly pay travel agents 10% commissions for referring guests/customers to them; instead, they could simply build a website and the world would beat a path to their doorstep.

The slightly more far-sighted suppliers understood that there would still be intermediaries, but with an internet rather than a bricks and mortar type presence, and thereby, having lower costs of doing business and not needing as much commission.  And, of course, the concept of ‘free’ was unrealistic and ignored the costs of creating and maintaining a website.

So there was no downside and an awful lot of perceived upside to the internet, and formerly loyal travel ‘partners’ rushed to severe their relationships with long time travel distributors, wholesalers and retailers, sneering at them as being so ‘last-century’ as they rushed to create new arrangements with new types of travel companies.

So, what has actually happened over the last 20 years?

The Many Become the Few

Sure, we initially saw an explosion of new internet type travel companies, and indeed, there’s now a three-letter acronym to describe such companies – OTA, meaning an online travel agency.  But the initial explosion and profusion of OTAs has been followed by an implosion and a paucity of such companies.

Which internet site did you last research or book a hotel room through?  Sure, you might perceive there to still be an abundance of choices, and plenty of competition, but if that is your perception, you’re sadly and utterly wrong.  I laugh when I hear people arguing the merits of Brand A and Brand B, when both are owned by the same company and probably selling from the same inventory.

Here’s an interesting table listing most of the major OTAs and showing how they all belong to one of just two different corporate blocs.

Expedia Owned Brands   Priceline Owned Brands
Expedia
Carrentals
Classic Vacations
HomeAway
Hotels(.com)
Hotwire
Orbitz
Travelocity
Traveldoo
Trivago
Venere
Wotif
Agoda
Booking(.com)
Cheapflights
Ctrip
Kayak
Momondo
Opentable
Priceline
Rentalcars
Rocketmiles

 

You probably don’t even notice the many other names that have now disappeared and been subsumed into these remaining names.

For example, VRBO.com, the original leading vacation home rental site, is now a part of Expedia (under the HomeAway brand).  Lastminute.com, another pioneer in a different type of new travel product (discounted sales of hotel rooms by hotels with too many empty rooms, in the last three weeks before each night’s stay) was bought by Expedia (then under the Sabre/Travelocity brand), subsumed into their product, then the remains of the brand name sold on to another company.  Or Travelweb, now disappeared without trace into Priceline.

There are other smaller groups too, of course.  For example, TripAdvisor (which for a while was part of the Expedia group), which has 25 different brands, including ‘stealth’ sellers of travel such as Cruise Critic, Seat Guru and Airfarewatchdog as well as more obvious ones like BookingBuddy and SmarterTravel.

So what, you might say.  Who cares if there are few or many middlemen.

The Shift in Market Forces

Well, we all should care about this more than we do.  Although simplistic, it is somewhat fair to say that if hotels lower their costs of securing reservations, then they can trade more profitably and either sell their rooms at lower nightly rates or alternatively, the high profits in the industry will attract new hotel development, which again will lead to lower nightly rates as well as more hotel choices.  So an efficient distribution system benefits us as travelers.

The dream of lower distribution costs has unfortunately turned out to be just that – an illusory dream.  Instead of grudgingly paying 10% to travel agents, hotels are now finding they are having to pay two or even three times that much to the OTAs.  Yes, instead of 10% to a full service travel agency, they are now paying sometimes 25% or even 30% to an OTA.

And instead of a market typified by many travelers, many travel agencies, and many hotels, which means great competition and reasonable equality of bargaining power, we now have a market with two major players.  Expedia alone is thought to have a 75% market share in the US for online travel bookings, and, yes, that does give it enormous bargaining power (some would unkindly say that rather than ‘bargaining’ power, it has dictatorial power).

This also creates an interesting marketing challenge.  When Expedia advertises one of its brands (and Expedia has an enormous advertising budget, larger than Pepsico, and the 30th largest in the US), this means that almost 75% of the business that the advertisement creates for the advertised brand is coming from other Expedia brands.  It is only creating a thin sliver of new business, most of the response is just shifting from one Expedia brand to the other.

One can’t start to comprehend how it is possible for advertising to be cost effective on such a basis.  But what is the alternative – to have a large asterisk and disclaimer on such ads ‘Please ignore this Trivago ad if you are already a customer of Hotels.com, Hotwire, Orbitz or Travelocity’!?

The power wielded by the near duopoly of the Expedia and Priceline companies is clearly seen by their ability to command commissions of up to perhaps 30%, and in other not so obvious forms such as how they dictate terms limiting the ability of hotels to offer favorable or better deals through other travel channels.

What Happened to Price Competition?

Have you ever noticed or paused to wonder at how it is that if you’re comparing hotel rates on several different websites, the same rate magically appears on every different website?  You know that if all websites are selling the hotel at the same price, then by fundamental definition, there is clearly no competition at work at all.

Many of us may have even forgotten what now perhaps can be looked at as ‘the good old days’ when travel agents would have selective access to some hotels at which they had negotiated special low rates, better than anyone else would have.  That was a cornerstone of my business – competing on price as well as service.  We’d negotiate great rates with hotels, keep our margins slim, and pass the savings on to our customers.

But now, while companies will still negotiate the best rate they can get, the hotels insist that the public rates the rooms are sold for are the same as everyone else is selling the same room for.

Here’s an interesting article analyzing the marketplace at present.

The strangest part of this, and it is a part that is entirely of the hotels’ own making, is the number of times that you’ll find cheaper rates through an OTA than direct from a hotel.  I’ve lost count of how often I’ve been told by a hotel reservation staff member ‘You should book through (Brand X) because they have better rates than we can offer you ourselves’.

Where is the sense of that.  Imagine a situation where a hotel is offering a room at $250 a night, and an OTA is offering the same room for $230 a night.  If we say that the OTA is getting a $50 commission, that means the hotel is netting $180 a night when selling its room through the OTA.  Why would any hotels with any measure of rational sense prefer to have a guest buy a room through the OTA, for which it receives $180, when the same guest is offering to pay $230 to book it directly?

Using OTA ‘Recommendations’ to Your Advantage

The key point in the article cited above is for us as bookers of travel is to change from an OTA’s default display order of ‘recommended’ hotels first, and instead to choose a sort order that makes sense for us (try price order, for example).

The article points out that ‘recommended’ is usually a synonym for ‘these are the hotels we get the biggest commissions from’.  On the other hand, the recommended hotels are also the hotels who are paying most dearly to be featured prominently on the OTA site, so may also be more amenable to negotiating a deal directly with you, particularly if you are offering them a block of room nights or a corporate contract.  You know, by seeing their recommended status, that they are probably paying 25% – 30% to the OTA, and so should be keen to create direct relationships with guests (and their companies) at comparable or lower costs.

The Hotels Got What They Wished For.  We Didn’t.

I’m not blaming the OTA’s for desiring to make as much money as possible for themselves and their shareholders.  That’s as much a cornerstone of the free market as is competition.

It is the hotels who have created a rod for their own backs, and are now suffering the consequences.  They should have been more careful what they wished for.  None of us have benefited from the outcome.

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Jul 202017
 

Some airlines seek to restrict the right of passengers to film on board their flights. Here I am on an airline which is demonstrably sensitive to personal freedoms and doesn’t restrict filming – Air Koryo, the national carrier of North Korea.

These days, everyone has a camera, and most people have a video camera.

Our phones have high-quality cameras that can take pictures and video footage, and with our phones seldom far from our sides, it seems there’s not a single incident of any type, anywhere, that isn’t accompanied by a rush of people keen to film it.

Not only do we all have cameras, but it has become extremely simple to share our video with the entire world.  The long-standing YouTube service has been supplemented by Facebook video, which even allows for dramatic events to be streamed real-time to the world as it happens.  A growing number of other video sharing sites and social media networks also allow and encourage the sharing of video clips, and even more sites provide similar services for still photograph images too.

In addition to us all now being empowered to be our own ‘news reporters’, the convenience of video recording has created an expectation, in many situations, that our interactions with public officials will be recorded, and an awareness that such recording benefits both us and the officials by creating an accurate and fair record of any contentious issues that may arise.  Even local council permit inspectors sometimes now have ‘body cams’, and on occasions where police officers do not have their body cams switched on, there are concerns as to why they turned them off.

Turning now from the general to the specific, most of the time these days, our travels are being silently being monitored.  In some cities the taxis have cameras in them recording everything we do.  Buses, trains, and ferries are all likely to have cameras installed.  Cameras record the progress of our cars on the nation’s highways.

If you travel through an airport, then the same as if you’re on the street or in many other buildings, every step of your progress is being monitored by multiple cameras.  You can’t even buy a burger at McDonald’s without perhaps half a dozen cameras filming every part of the transaction.

In addition to the cameras being operated by other people, we can film much of our interactions, ourselves.  We can even film the TSA, as they affirm themselves on their website.

But something mysterious happens as we walk down the jetway.  Our right to film as we wish becomes challenged by airlines and their employees.  They will various cite FAA regulations (none exist) or other laws (again, none exist) that forbid such actions, or they’ll turn to vague references to ‘security’ (insert eye-roll here), or, believe it or not, they’ll say that they have internal secret regulations forbidding it (JetBlue and possibly American Airlines).  They can’t tell us the details of such regulations, because that would ‘violate their security and secrecy’, and they’re not included in the Contract of Carriage that sets out the rights and obligations of us and the airline when we buy a ticket and travel; but in the finest tradition of the Soviet Union, we’re expected to comply with these secret provisions.

We can film, but if we attempt to do what we are lawfully allowed, we risk having our flight reservation cancelled, or being offloaded from the plane.  What use is a lawful right if it is unlawfully infringed by airlines and their staff?

There are abundant reasons why we’d want to be able to film on a plane, and not just for pleasure.  Contentious interactions with airline staff – both at the gate and on the plane – invariably result in negative outcomes for the hapless passengers so involved, ranging from, at best, being offloaded, to having police or security swarm onto the plane, arrest the passenger, and file federal charges against them (even though often such charges are subsequently withdrawn, an outcome of cold comfort while you’re in a police cell and urgently engaging a high-priced criminal attorney to help solve a problem that should never have arisen).  More often than not, such disagreements are hard to resolve, because they boil down to a ‘he said/she said’ dispute about what actually happened, and in such cases, almost always, it is the airline staff who are given the benefit of the doubt, not the passenger.

On some occasions, it appears abundantly plain the passenger is in the right, but the airline still mindlessly supports their staff member, and causes enormous cost (quite literally) to the passenger.

We have seen many examples where passenger video footage has helped clarify the truth of a contentious matter.  For example, the celebrated case earlier this year of Dr Dao, who was dragged off his United/Republic flight after refusing to give up his seat, was first justified by United’s CEO, no less, as being in response to his aggressive actions.  Video footage, filmed by several different passengers from different points of view, seemed to contradict that statement and show that CEO Munoz’ description was somewhere between not completely accurate and wildly delusional.

On the other hand, video footage has also helped establish the validity of other complaints about passengers and their inappropriate behavior on board planes.  The unbiased eye of the video camera is enormously helpful in identifying the rights and wrongs of any situation.

A cynic might wonder why it is that airlines and their staff are so hostile to the notion of passengers filming their interactions with us.  What have they got to fear or hide?  Surely a video record will help substantiate their claims, assuming they are honest and fair to start with?

In addition to helping establish the truth of contested situations, passenger video footage has also been helpful in uncovering the causes of flight safety incidents.

Recently two tireless air passenger rights crusaders filed a petition with the Department of Transportation, asking them to affirmatively rule that passengers can film on planes.  This would not be creating a new right, it would merely be enshrining an existing right that is under constant attack by airlines and their staff.  You can see their original petition here.  It is a lengthy and highly persuasive document.

I submitted a 13 page commentary in support of the petition.

And you can add your own comments too.  It doesn’t need to be a formal document, you can simply type in one or two lines of opinion, which is what most of the other people submitting comments have done to date.  Here’s the link to the main docket page, and as long as the ‘Comment Now’ button is visible, your comments are welcomed.

 

Please add your voice and comments to this important buttressing of our rights as airline passengers.

Without your support, there’s a credible danger that we’ll end up in the extraordinary situation where we are more free to film on a North Korean plane than a US plane (see the picture above).

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Jul 142017
 

Your friendly tour leader and coach captain (ie me and Jim) invite you to join us on our Great Britain Grand Expedition next June.

Good morning

I hope you had a nice long break for July 4 last week.  I did, although in truth I spent most of it working on what I’m now terming our Grand Expedition of Great Britain next June.  You can decide whether it is grand or not – there’s an article telling you more about it after the roundup today, and of course, a full set of web pages telling you all about it, too.

One thing is for sure, it certainly is extensive.  We travel over 2,000 miles from one end of Britain to the other, although with that travel spread out over 17 days, it means you’re not going to be spending endless hours, all day every day, in a coach.  Instead, we have a lovely schedule with free time and the ability to mix and match to suit.  You can even join the tour on any day, and leave on any day, if the full 17 days is too much.

I’ve never seen a British tour experience like this offered anywhere else.  But, that’s not surprising – Travel Insider experiences do tend to be quite out of the ordinary!

Although today marks the official release of the tour, we already have four people signed up to participate, three of whom have traveled in Scotland with me before (and the fourth is also an alum, having been on our North Korean tour, back in 2013, when such things were not quite so alarming to undertake!).

So we’ve already got a great start on what promises to be another lovely group of Travel Insiders, and a wonderful tour to share.  Please do consider coming along and being part of it.

I should mention there is a single lady considering coming on the tour, and she is keen to find someone to share with to avoid the single supplement – she has traveled with me before and so I know her to be a sensible and easy to get on with retiree; I’m sure if you are similar, the two of you would get on very well indeed.  Let me know if you’d like to be introduced.

Our December Christmas Markets cruise has also seen some more signups.  And, talking about singles, did I mention that Amawaterways are temporarily waiving the single supplement on this cruise?  That makes for an enormous saving for people traveling alone.  There are still some cabins remaining, although the ship is now starting to fill; and both the $750 discount for people traveling together and the no single supplement for singles are only on offer for two more weeks.

Please do quickly let me know if you’d like to join this; and if you’ve been before, you’d be in good company by coming again (three of our present group are repeating this wonderful experience).

There are two other articles offered this week, too.  One is designed to help you avoid nasty surprises at the airport when a check-in agent announces your bag is slightly overweight and charges you up to $200 as a penalty fee.  Learn how to avoid this, and what to do if it happens.

The other is a story of how I was nearly taken for a fool, and the surprising role that LinkedIn had in validating the would-be con-job.

Plus more of the ‘same old, same old’, as part of a traditional Friday roundup, below :

  • What Are Those Lights On Our Runway?
  • Norwegian’s Continued Expansion
  • Don’t Drink the Water
  • A Cheaper Way to Travel from Newcastle to London
  • The Latest Crazy Gyrations in Airport/Airplane ‘Security’
  • Chicago’s Rose by Any Other Name
  • American Tourists Tear Gassed and Robbed
  • Therapy Animals
  • Another Uber Failure
  • Best Idea Ever for Charging Electric Vehicles
  • And Lastly This Week….

What Are Those Lights On Our Runway?

Almost in the category of famous last words was a query by an Air Canada pilot about some lights he could see on the runway he was cleared to land onto, in the dark late one recent evening.

Air Traffic Control assured him that the runway was empty and safe, and so the Air Canada pilot proceeded happily to – oooops – almost land on the taxiway parallel to the runway, which had four planes lined up on it, waiting their turns to take off.  The AC flight was waved off seconds before crashing into one, two, three, or possibly all four of the planes, an event which would have probably resulted in the world’s largest loss of life in a single airplane accident, ever.

This is yet another reminder of the human factor that interferes with the smooth and safe operation of our airways.  And yet another reason to hasten the promulgation of more fully automatic airplanes.  Details here.

Norwegian’s Continued Expansion

Tiny airline Norwegian has announced its latest anticipated expansion in the US for the first half of next year.  It will add flights between Newark and Paris on 28 Feb, between O’Hare and London on 25 March, flights between Austin and London on 27 March, Oakland to Paris on 10 April and on 2 May, Boston to Paris.

With those new flights, the airline will be operating between 15 US cities and 13 European cities, which it says is more routes than any other carrier.

That is probably correct, but unfortunately while the routes are numerous, the flights are not.  For example, the Austin/London service is only three times a week.  In total, the few Norwegian flights, spread over many airports and routes, are still only a very small percentage of total flights across the Atlantic and not yet at a point where they are having much impact on the traditional carriers and their flights and fares.

But each added flight is still another victory for choice, and to be eagerly welcomed.

In other Norwegian news, although the airline is a budget carrier, they have announced plans to make Wi-Fi free on all their flights (currently it is available on some planes and routes, but not the long flights across the Atlantic).  That would be nice, although one wonders how well the bandwidth would manage if Wi-Fi was free for everyone on board.

Don’t Drink the Water

I wrote in the last newsletter about enjoying the food on my recent Delta international flights.  This caused a reader who prefers to remain anonymous to enter into this email exchange with me (his notes in burnt orange, my note in olive).  Consider yourself duly warned.

Dear David,

The fact that all 3 meals were delicious is certainly a good trend. One thing you might mention in future newsletters is about inflight beverages.  Please warn your readers to only drink items that they have opened themselves or seen poured out a bottle, such as water, cola, etc.

Never, ever, drink anything that has been brewed on-board such as coffee or tea.  Many airline potable water systems are contaminated beyond belief with a devil’s brew of microbes and organisms.

If you write anything on this, please don’t use my name as I still consult for the airlines.

Hi

Thanks for your note.

I’ve written about potable water systems, many years before.  I had understood that there are now formal inspections of them and their quality greatly improved?  I’d also hoped that the hot water might have neutralized the nasty things in them – I’d certainly not drink cold water from them, but ‘almost boiled’ water for coffee and tea might be safer?

Cheers

Sadly Dave, the answer is no.  Yes, it is true that the FAA and the EPA have both gotten into the picture, promulgated new rules and do occasionally conduct inspections, but the sad truth is that the same ramp Bubba continues to service both the water and lav systems.

This leads to cross contamination.   The once every 3 year cleaning of the aircraft potable water system is simply not enough.

A Cheaper Way to Travel from Newcastle to London

A student wanted to travel from Newcastle to London – something that normally takes about three hours by train, and can cost as little as £30 ($40) for a one way ticket.  But because he was buying a train ticket the night before he needed to travel, the trains were close to full and the only remaining tickets were £78.50.

So, what did he do?  He took the cheaper option.  Nope, not a bus.  He flew from Newcastle to the Spanish Mediterranean resort island of Menorca, about 1,000 miles away, for half a day, and then after a lovely break on a sunny beach, continued on from there to London, all for only £27.  Even after renting a car, the cost was less than half the price of the train journey.

Details here.

The Latest Crazy Gyrations in Airport/Airplane ‘Security’

The earlier ban on electronics, introduced a few months back, is now fading away, as airports and airlines upgrade their security procedures to conform with new US requirements.  That’s the good news.

But the bad news?  A leak from an international carrier suggests the TSA is about to start requiring for international flights in to the US, that the traditional three questions be asked, in person, to every passenger.  No more electronic check-ins and answering the questions on the screen; instead, you’ll have to be directly asked ‘did you pack your own bag, has it been out of your possession at any time, has anyone asked you to carry something with you’.

While there is a temptation to sneer at these three questions, urban legend (and possibly it is true) says that some years back, a passenger actually responded by saying ‘Why yes, as a matter of fact, a polite nice young man asked if I wouldn’t mind taking a package for him’ and the package turned out to be a bomb.  The point of the questions isn’t so much to trick/trap terrorists into confessing their guilt, but rather to encourage passengers to think about the security of their bags and possibly to advise about something they thought was okay but which requires further follow-up.

Oh, talking about the further followup, the leak suggests that if the answers aren’t satisfactory, the passenger will be separated from anyone else they are traveling with (even children or elderly family members needing assistance) for ‘high-intensity screening’ and won’t be allowed to rejoin or communicate with their travel companions until after boarding the plane.  Ugh.

Another new treat in store – all carry-on bags will now be swabbed and tested for explosive residue.  Currently only a very small number of randomly selected bags are tested, now all of them may be.

While answering the three questions won’t add much time to a check-in (but needing to transition from electronic check-in to manual check-in might add a delay), the need to swab every bag will definitely require many more people, many more of the trace detector machines, and some more patience on our part.

None of this is official yet, and may well change some more before implementation.  But here’s the source of the news received this far.

Chicago’s Rose by Any Other Name

Do you remember Dr Dao – the man who refused to leave a Republic Airways flight and so was dragged off the plane at O’Hare?  He certainly enjoyed his moment of fame, and may also now be enjoying a confidential settlement that United rushed to offer him (the flight was being operated by Republic for United).

In a rush to blame everyone but the good (?) doctor, the people who dragged him off the flight certainly attracted a lot of ire, and four involved officers were ‘placed on leave’ (administrative leave, which I believe means they are paid – oh my gosh, throw me into that briar patch – punish me and force me to take a paid vacation).

One criticism that is truly valid was how the security officers wore uniform jackets prominently emblazoned with the word ‘Police’ on them, even though they were apparently only ‘rent-a-cops’ rather than sworn police officers.  In most states it is a serious crime to pass yourself off as a police officer if you’re not a duly sworn member of an official police department.  But because the rent-a-cops were actually employed by the City of Chicago, it was unlikely there’d be any prosecution lodged; however now, three months later, the City has decided that it will no longer refer to its rent-a-cops as police officers and will remove the ‘P’ word from their clothing and their cars and other items.

One can imagine the city is somewhat disappointed that it can’t now assign real police duties to lower cost security guards.  Details here.

American Tourists Tear Gassed and Robbed

Twenty tourists were standing outside their airport hotel, close to the major airport for the capital city of a certain country, when a group of masked attackers drove up, sprayed tear gas on the tourists, and robbed them of their luggage and personal belongings.

Apparently, robberies of tourists at hotels around this airport happen quite regularly.

Now, the question for you.  Can you guess where in the world this happened?  Somewhere in Africa, you might think?  Or maybe Eastern Europe.  Or, or, or…..  Definitely sounds like a place to avoid, doesn’t it!

Chances are you’ll not guess which country/city/airport it was.  Here’s a hint.  The city has the third largest number of international overnight visitors of anywhere in the world.  (In case you’re wondering, this report shows, in 2016, that Bangkok is first, London is second, and New York is fifth.)  As for the dangerous lawless destination – the answer is here.

Can I have this Eurasian Eagle Owl as my therapy animal? (Picture taken in Edinburgh last month.)

Therapy Animals

I’m an animal lover, and have had many pets.  But I also cringe at the misplaced sense of entitlement some people adopt, while strutting around with a so-called therapy animal to assist them with a quite-likely imaginary illness.  It is possible to order the necessary documentation to ‘prove’ your entitlement to a therapy animal and the animal’s validity through a number of online websites that care for nothing more than the correct functioning of your credit card.

Missing from the discussion about whether or not an animal is appropriately trained or not, and whether or not a person truly needs that animal, has been much discussion about the inherent value of such therapy animals in the rare bona fide cases of actual apparent need.  Indeed, as an animal lover, and one who greatly enjoys my relationship with my German Shepherd, I’ve always assumed that therapy animals truly are beneficial.

I might be wrong (and many other people, too).  Here’s an interesting article that debunks some of these assumptions, and points to recent research that suggests quite the opposite – having therapy dogs might actually increase the level of stress in some people (to say nothing of the people in adjacent seats on the flight!).

Another Uber Failure

Uber recently had its CEO resign after broad board pressure to do so.  Not long before that, it gave up on its ambitions to operate in China, after having battled unsuccessfully for market share against local company (and Lyft investor), Didi.

And now history is repeating itself, this time in Russia.  After struggling against the local Russian product operated by Yandex, Uber has again decided ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, investing into a joint venture with Yandex, where Yandex will hold 59% of the shares and Uber will have about 37%.  Details here.

Part of Uber’s appeal has been the perception by investors that its formula could be extended from the US to other major markets, in particular of course, China and Asia, and also to Europe, Russia, South America, and elsewhere.  The success of this remains unclear; as indeed also is the success of its US strategy where it continues to bleed cash at a truly impressive rate.

As observed before, the core part of Uber’s business plan seems to be to arrange so that its drivers earn at levels that are below what most people would consider fair.  Is it possible that the whole Uber ‘thing’ – using the internet as a more efficient way (compared to traditional taxi services) of matching people who want to be driven somewhere with people who are willing to drive them – is invalid due to its reliance on paying below normal wages to its drivers?

We do see the value in the Airbnb model – ordinary people renting out spare rooms in their house to people who’d otherwise stay in hotels – but that’s very different in concept to Uber.  If Uber were to operate the way ‘gypsy cabs’ do in Russia, where people will drive people who just happen to be going the same way, doing this not for a living, but as a happy adjunct to needing to drive somewhere anyway, then it could work; but when the drivers switch from being ‘enthusiastic amateurs’ to ‘true professionals’ who need to earn a living wage, the need for the full-time drivers to earn fair full-time wages starts to diminish the saving inherent in the Uber model.

For example, if I were driving the 15 miles into downtown Seattle anyway, and could add a passenger by driving only another mile or two, and collect $20 for having done so, I’d be delighted.  But if I was not already driving 15 miles to Seattle, having to wait for the fare, then drive the person to Seattle, and then who knows what/where/when next, all for only $20, that takes on a very different perspective.

And while an old-fashioned taxi company might be uninspiring, it is also fair to observe that an old-fashioned taxi company, while possibly paying its owners generously, doesn’t have a staff of thousands in San Francisco, earning the high side of $200,000 each.  Instead it has a few grumpy dispatchers on little more than minimum wage.  Could it be that rather than being a lower-cost more efficient way of connecting drivers and riders, Uber is actually more expensive than regular taxis?

I’ve also noticed, as Uber’s reach grows, a steady deterioration in the quality of Uber drivers.  A year or two or three ago, the cars were pristine, and the drivers were almost painfully eager to provide a stunningly excellent service, and all were excited at being part of a transport revolution.  Now I’m finding the drivers are increasingly the same people who used to drive taxis, the standard of driving palpably worse, and the cars no longer amazingly clean and nearly new.

Best Idea Ever for Charging Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles continue their steady march forward, becoming more and more commonplace.  Tesla has started making its Model 3 (although I remain doubtful if it will get to the levels of production that Elon Musk is promising by the end of the year), and Volvo has announced that as of 2019, it will make no new models of internal combustion vehicles.

Mind you, Volvo’s announcement is not nearly as sweeping as it seems.  All its current models will continue, and new model cars won’t necessarily be 100% battery-powered – they might be hybrids like the Prius, with a regular engine plus a battery too.

In the UK, the famous black London (and until now, diesel-powered) cab is being re-released as a hybrid – a battery/electric vehicle with a weak petrol powered ‘range extender’.

But one continued weakness of electric cars – particularly for apartment dwellers – is being able to conveniently charge them.  If you have a garage, you can arrange charging at home, after incurring some cost to install up a charger, but if you don’t have this as an option, it becomes awkward to charge your vehicle, and if you’re traveling further away than the range of your battery, you’re going to need to recharge on the road as well as at home.

One brilliant idea, mentioned here, is to build a charging point into every street light lamp-post.  There is usually already three-phase power running to the street light; all you need to do is add a converter/box on the post, and you’ve got a very low-cost charging station that could become as ubiquitous as street lights.

And Lastly This Week….

One of the most interesting airports in the world is on St Maarten, due to one end of the runway being adjacent to a public beach.  It is a popular thing to stand on the beach and be blown about by the jet engine wash when planes take off, and to see how close some planes get to the people and the water while coming in for landing.  For example, this video shows some astonishingly low plane approaches.

But the warning signs about the dangers of the jet blasts when jets are taking off aren’t just there for fun.  This week a New Zealand lady was blown away from where she was holding on to the perimeter fence, struck her head on a concrete barrier, and died.  Details here.

I hate the website Quora.com.  I hate it because whenever I visit it, I end up losing an hour or more of time, due to it being so ‘more-ish’ and causing me to read on and on and on.  Just yesterday I stumbled across a page, which has some amusing ideas along with some quotidian ones.  https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-good-hotel-room-pranks

What is the smallest item you’ve ever sent as checked luggage?  For me, it is a Swiss Army Knife which was intercepted at security, although helpful check-in staff placed it in a huge box so it could be managed by the luggage handling systems.

How about a single can of beer?  Amazingly – all the more so for it being Australia – the can made it safely to its destination, and even unopened.

It is a while since we’ve shone a light on toilet issues.  Here’s an item to compensate.

Truly lastly this week, there are two types of people in this world.  Those with tidy desks, and those with messy ones.  I’m in the latter category, and have always felt vaguely guilty about it, even going as far as to tidy my desk prior to important meetings with people I wished to impress.  Well, no longer.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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Jul 132017
 

Convenient small and lightweight devices can help you avoid hefty overweight bag fees.

We all know the sad truth of jokes about gaining weight while on a vacation.  That is never a good thing, but there’s one sort of weight gain you want to be particularly careful to avoid – the risk of having your suitcase grow in weight and exceed the 50lb maximum imposed by most airlines when you come to fly home again.  You could be up for a greedy $100 per bag per flight if it breaks the weight limit on domestic flights, and an outrageous $200 on international flights.

In the past, with a standard 70lb per bag allowance, plus two or three suitcases allowed for free, and no-one too worried about charging for moderate amounts overweight, weight was never a problem.  Now, with zero or one suitcase free, a 50lb per bag limit, and the airlines eager to charge three figure sums as soon as your bags go overweight, managing your baggage and its weight has become a big challenge.

It is much worse that it seems.  Subtract 10 – 15 pounds as being the weight of the suitcase, and that leaves with you with under 40lbs of effective carrying capacity.  And when you allow for the necessary essentials of any journey – clothes, shoes, toiletries – your available weight for discretionary items shrinks still further.  Many of us end up needing most of the 50lb allowance, even though we are only using a very few pounds for ‘luxury’ items.  And now allow a few more pounds to buy a gift or souvenir or two while traveling, and it becomes even harder to keep within the 50lb limit.

There are two ways to manage your suitcase’s weight, quite apart from a draconian refusal to buy any souvenirs at all while traveling.

The first is to simply travel with a portable suitcase scale.  This is good, but commits you to the space and weight of the scale being added to your bag – fortunately these considerations are minor with modern lightweight scales.

The second is to know your weight when starting your journey and to guesstimate its changes while traveling.

Using Regular/Bathroom Scales

Some people use bathroom scales to weigh their suitcase before traveling.  If your bathroom scales are accurate, and/or if you’re not planning on packing close to the limit, that is a reasonable strategy to adopt.

Bathroom scales are only likely to be accurate if they are placed on a hard floor surface to start with and correctly zeroed.  Don’t be mislead into thinking that a scale is accurate just because it displays a weight in tenths of a pound on a digital display.  That is a bit like thinking ‘my car has a speedometer that reads up to 180 mph, therefore it can go at speeds up to 180 mph’, and also thinking ‘your car’s speedo will only read up to 160 mph, so therefore, your car is slower than mine’.

Here, for example, is a scale for sale on Amazon that displays weights to an apparent exactness of 0.2 lbs and refers to having high precision German sensors.  What’s not to love about that?  Well, read the reviews, which reveal the scale to be close to useless, with weights varying by 3 – 7 lbs each time!

Clearly, there is no relationship between the precision of the readout on a scale and the accuracy of the number.  On the other hand, there possibly is a relationship between accuracy and price, and it is fair to say that the $11 price pretty much guarantees that the scale won’t be sufficiently accurate for your suitcase weighing purposes.

Note also the ‘auto-calibration’ it refers to is only an automatic setting of the zero weight point.  It is not a calibration that, for example, a 50 lb object will display correctly as 50lbs.

The Essential Need for Accuracy

Why is it so important to be certain your scale is very accurate?  Because if you’re the sort of person who fills their suitcase close to the weight limit, you need to be certain that your weight is half a pound or so under the limit, not half a pound or so over the limit.  A one pound variation on a 50lb weight – a variation that might cost you up to $200 in excess baggage fees, is only a very small 2% variation, and that’s a high degree of accuracy that many scales can’t provide.

How can you tell if a scale is accurate or not?  Certainly, reading reviews can be very helpful.  But only by weighing something of known weight, and ideally, around the weight that you are most focused on, can you fairly establish the reliability of the scale.  Just because a scale is accurate at 10 lbs, or at 300 lbs, doesn’t mean it is also accurate at 50lbs, which is the region that you’ll be most focused on.

We suggest you create a ‘standard weight’ for calibration purposes.  Perhaps it is a suitcase that you’ve filled with cans or bottles of drink or something else – something you can recreate from time to time if you need to check the calibration of your scale.  Another good way of doing this is to get a 6 or 7 gallon water container (such as these) and fill it.  Water weighs 8.34 lbs/US gallon, so you’re going to be close to almost exactly the 50lb test point, and this is something you can easily recreate simply by filling the container with water to the same level in the future.

You could also use a water container to measure other weights, simply by adding or removing a known amount of water.  Each pint is going to adjust the weight by 1.045lbs (ie 1 lb 0.75 oz).

Go to your doctor’s office (or your vet’s office) and ask if you can weigh it on their scale.  Make sure your test object is about 50lbs for the test (it doesn’t really matter if it is 45lbs or 55lbs, and it surely is easier to handle if it is 45 lbs), then place your standard weight on and off the scale several times to see if the weight is always the same.  Maybe one time, get on the scale yourself, see your weight, then add the standard weight to the scale too and see if it changes by the appropriate amount, then get off, and quickly put the standard weight back on and confirm that after a much heavier weight (ie you) it still shows the same reading when the lighter standard weight is placed on it.

Once you’re confident you have a known standard weight, you can then check the accuracy of your suitcase measuring scale.  Does it show the correct weight, and does it always consistently show the same weight?

It would be acceptable if your suitcase measuring scale always reported the same wrong weight because you can then simply adjust, saying, perhaps, ‘when the scale reads 52.4 lbs I know I actually have 49.6 lbs’ or whatever.  But it is not acceptable if sometimes the scale shows 48 lbs and sometimes 53 lbs for something that is always the same weight.  That is something you can’t adjust for.

Dedicated Luggage Scales

We like using bathroom type scales, because most designs make it easy to just place your suitcase on the scale, then read the weight that is displayed.  But their accuracy can be problematic.  Portable luggage scales are more awkward to use, but in theory are designed to be more accurate.

With a portable scale, you need to lift up the suitcase using the scale, and read the weight off the scale.  Sometimes the scale will ‘lock’ at what it determines to be the weight, but if it doesn’t do that, it can be very difficult to see the weight simultaneously while lifting a possibly heavy suitcase.

We quite like Amazon’s own private label scale.  Sure, it is a bit flimsy, but if you’re careful with it, you shouldn’t have any problems, and while we preferred a scale that takes AA or AAA batteries (which we always have at home or can buy on the road) the CR2032 battery it uses has a very long life and is not impossible to replace at short notice if needed.  The scale is small and light, making it practical to take with you, because it doesn’t use up too much of your weight allowance.

It is reasonably easy to use, and will lock the weight on the display once it has settled and decided what the weight is.  Best of all, it is a mere $8.99.

If you prefer an analog dial, and like the thought of no batteries, this is another alternative.

How Heavy to Fill Your Suitcase

You not only need to be sure that your scale is not going to trip you up by registering too light, but you also don’t want to have a problem if the airport scale registers too heavy.

For that reason, to avoid airport arguments, we generally recommend you keep your weight down to 49.5 lbs maximum, because if you get into a weight argument at the airport, you know who will win and who will lose that argument, don’t you.  Or, at the very least, you’re doing to delay your checking in process considerably, and still might lose the argument.

Tracking Your Suitcase Weight for the Return Journey

If you’re not going to travel with your scale, then it helps to keep a record of what your suitcase probably weighs during your travels.  This is easier than it seems.

Note the suitcase weight at the start of the journey, and then simply keep a tally of everything that you either take out of the suitcase or add to it.  If you have gifts or other items you know you’ll be leaving behind, weigh them before you travel so you know exactly how much weight will be removed.

In terms of adding items, sometimes you’ll have to guess at their weights.  If you’re going to be getting bottles of wine, as a quite rule of thumb, a 750ml bottle of wine weighs probably an ounce or so over 2 1/2 lbs depending on the weight of the bottle; champagne would be closer to 3 lbs/bottle.  A paperback book weighs about 1/2 lb.

But with a portable scale weighing less than half a pound, and even being something you could stuff into a carry-on that the airlines won’t weigh, we think that although the scale might add to the weight, it also means you can fill your suitcase closer to the maximum with confidence, therefore more than compensating for the weight of the scale.

What About Suitcases with Built-in Scales

We think these are a gimmick, and usually are found on massively overpriced bags.

A built-in scale is no more accurate than an external scale, and probably, if anything, less accurate.  It is also less generally useful, because you can’t conveniently use it for weighing other things.  And whereas a portable scale can be used to weigh every suitcase you are traveling with, a built-in scale only works for the one suitcase it is contained within.

Plus, if it ever should break, then it becomes useless and dead weight, making your suitcase heavier than needed.

Save your money, and don’t pay a hefty premium for this unwanted non-feature.

What to do if the Airline Scale is Wrong

As far as we are aware, not all airports require their airline tenants to calibrate their check-in scales, and similarly, there are no FAA regulations specifying how accurate such scales may be.  Although most states have departments that enforce the accuracy of the weights and measures of some sorts of things in some businesses (petrol pumps, for example), airlines are generally subject to federal not state scrutiny.  Some states/cities/airports do check the scales – for example, Los Angeles County checks all the scales at all the airports within its jurisdiction each year.  In my state of WA, the airport scales are only checked (by the WA Dept of Agriculture) once every 36 months.  With the amount of use – and abuse – that airport scales get, and with sometimes significant numbers of scales being found to be inaccurate when checked (some reports tell of 35% or more of a terminal’s scales being out of tolerance), even annual checks are not necessarily sufficient to guarantee their accuracy.

The problem is at least as prevalent in other countries as it is in the US, as this UK report notes.  In particular, it is not unheard of for the check-in staff to be paid bonuses based on the amount of luggage fees they collect, which is all the more reason not to automatically accept an alleged overweight situation.

So there’s no guarantee that the airport’s scale is accurate, and occasional stories highlight ones that definitely are not.  Indeed, it may even be an unclear situation about who owns the scale that is measuring your bag, and who is responsible for keeping it correct.  Maybe the airport owns it, maybe the airline owns it, maybe a third-party airport services company owns it.

Who also knows how old and accurate the airport scales are.  In some cases, they might be decades old, and may have never been accurate, right from day one, and never been checked.  But just like how there is an automatic assumption that a high-tech scale with digital display is as exactly correct as its display allows, there is a similar assumption, by the check-in agent, that the weight on ‘their’ scale is correct, combined with an automatic assumption that if you dispute that weight, you are simply trying to cause trouble and cheat the system.

If you disagree with the airport scale’s weight, there are some simple things you could do, though, and the best strategy of all is to try and prevent the conflict from occurring.  Before you place a bag on the scale, check it is reading zero.  If it is, then place your bag on the scale and if the weight is over 50lbs, immediately try moving the bag on the scale to one edge or the other.  The scale might read higher or lower on one side or the other.  You can do this before the agent even looks at the weight.

If the scale is not reading zero, say nothing if it then shows a weight under 50 lbs, but if it shows a weight over 50 lbs, ask for the scale to be zeroed first and recalibrated.  Don’t just agree that the amount over 0.0 lbs that it is reading be subtracted from the displayed weight (unless of course that reduction is all you need to get under 50 lbs!).  Instead, say ‘If your scale is reading x.x lbs instead of zero, it is clearly broken, and who only knows what the actual weight is now that it is displaying xx.x lbs’.  That’s a reasonable concern to express.

Assuming that the airport scale is merely a pound or two over your own weight, you could simply and calmly (stay calm and cooperative, whatever you do, so as to encourage the check-in agent to want to help you out) advise that you weighed your suitcase on a calibrated scale at home and that its weight then was (refer to a piece of paper) however much – give it in an accurate form such as ‘49.65 lbs’ or whatever.  And if you brought a portable scale with you, you can demonstrate its weight in front of the agent.

Demonstrating in front of the agent sets them up for what follows.  They’ll probably sneer at your tiny little plastic thing, compared to the huge monstrous digital scale built in to their check-in station.  That’s okay.  Ask if you could see the calibration certificate for the scale.  Of course, there is a good chance they’ll have any such thing.  Don’t just accept their assurance that their scales are tested.  You need to know when the scale was last tested, and also if it passed its test or not.

If there is no certificate forthcoming, ask them to calibrate it right now, with their ‘check weight’.  This is an officially stamped, marked, object of officially checked weight, and should be 50lb or very close to it.  There is almost no chance they’ll have such a thing, but by asking for it in a spirit of positive friendliness and expectation that they’ll pull it out from underneath the counter helps to give you more of the moral high ground.  You can then express a sense of surprise – ‘You’re asking me to pay $100 (or $200!) based on an uncorroborated and disputed measurement from an uncalibrated scale that you’re refusing to check now?  That doesn’t strike me as very fair, don’t you agree?’

You could also ask how old their scales are.  Chances are they either don’t know, or the answer will be some number of years.

At that point, as non-confrontationally as possible, ask if you could be given the benefit of the doubt, seeing as how it is only the slightest bit over maximum weight.  Or, if the numbers will work in your favor, suggest you ‘split the difference’ between your scale and their scale.  So if your scale says 49.2 and theirs says 50.6, the average is 49.9, which means no fee.

You could also helpfully say ‘this is only a x% discrepancy, and that’s probably simply within the scale’s tolerance’.  You don’t want to make this into a ‘pissing competition’ between you and the check-in agent.

There’s also an interesting thing with some airline tariffs that might help you.  They say that a bag weighing under 50 lbs is free, and a bag weighing over 51 lbs is charged.  But what about the range between 50.0 and 51.0 lbs – that one pound in the middle?  Isn’t that their way of saying ‘we give you a 1 lb benefit of the doubt?

This – from Delta’s website – clearly suggests that fees only apply for bags over 51lbs, not for bags over 50lbs.

If there is a larger discrepancy, or if your first approach doesn’t work, ask if you could weigh the suitcase on the next check-in agent’s scale just to confirm the weight.  That’s a totally reasonable request that only takes a minute or so to carry out, and remember that if you’re about to be charged an excess baggage charge, you could be looking at a $100+ fee.

If the check-in agent can’t show you a credible and recent (within the last 12 months) calibration certificate, refuses to give you and your scale the benefit of the doubt, can’t product a check weight to calibrate the scale on the spot, and refuses to allow you to weigh it on another of their own scales (ie another scale at another of their positions), then that isn’t reasonable and you’d well be within your rights to ask if you could speak to the ‘Duty Airport Manager’ at that point.  They’ll try to avoid that – you might be allowed to speak to a so-called supervisor, who as likely as not is just another regular agent, but they really don’t want to get the Duty Airport Manager involved.  This is probably the point at which you also want to start video taping your conversation.  Here’s an account of an agent who refused to reweigh the bag unless the passenger went to the end of the check-in line to get a second turn only after another long wait.

If that still doesn’t get you anywhere, give in politely, pay the fee, then subsequently complain to the airline’s customer service people about the fee (and the probable refusal to allow you to appeal to the airport duty manager – this gives you more moral high ground which is why you asked for that person) and ask for a refund and compensation, and if that gets you nowhere, complain to your local paper’s consumer advocate, to your local congressman and senator, to the DOT, and file a small claim court action to get the fee you paid back again.

We’ve never had to do this (yet), and the chances are you won’t, either.

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Jul 112017
 

Just how well do we know the people in our social networks?

One of my LinkedIn contacts approached me recently with an interesting business proposition that he promised would be very positive for me.  What’s not to like about that!

Eager as I was to accept his offer, I did some due diligence.  I noted his impressive resume, and saw that he and I shared a number of mutual contacts.  That was reassuring.  I didn’t actually remember where or how it was the guy and I got connected, but I did know our mutual friends, and that tended to confirm what I was hoping to have confirmed – that he was a bona fide business leader, exactly as he said he was.  Of course, turning to me for advice and assistance, and offering  lucrative compensation in return, clearly validated his business good sense!

Can you see where this is going?  Well, I surely didn’t, not for quite a while, and although I was made myopic by optimism and hope (and, like all the best scams, by greed too), I was also encouraged in that perception by the LinkedIn footprint of the person in question.

But, let’s start at the beginning, or possibly on a tangent, before coming back to my particular situation.

How many LinkedIn contacts do you have?  If you’re like me, you’ve already attained the point where your profile page simply says ‘500+’ – one source suggests half of LinkedIn users have over 500 contacts.  I have 985 contacts, which is close to what is suggested to be a site average of 930.

There are some surprising truths obscured within that seemingly self-affirming and happy-making number.

Do you remember, in the ‘good old days’, when LinkedIn would report fascinating statistics, showing not only your number of contacts, but the number of one-step-removed contacts (ie all the contacts of your contacts) and the number of two- and three-step-removed contacts too.  By the time you’d reached down to the contacts of contacts of contacts, chances are you know many millions of people, making you feel omniscient and extraordinarily popular.

Using the average of 930 contacts, then reducing this to allow half of the second level contacts to be duplicates and three-quarters of the third level contacts to be duplicates, then 930 x 465 x 232 = 100 million people within your friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends network.  The next step – say multiply by another 116, brings us to a number larger than the total world population of 7.4 billion (and massively larger than LinkedIn’s total network of slightly more than 500 million members).

We are all now living the truth of the oft cited aphorism that everyone is only six steps removed from anyone else on the entire planet.

The original six degrees of separation concept, proposed in 1929, has long fascinated people.  One has to wonder how accurate it was in the very unconnected world of the 1920s, but it has subsequently been formally studied many times and more or less validated.  More recent studies suggest that, at least for people on the internet (which these days is half the people on the planet) there are now as few as four degrees of separation between randomly selected people, a result similar to my very rough calculation above.

It has become tremendously easy to build out one’s ‘social networks’ – on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the growing clamor of other networks too (even my own LifeLinker.com).  Many people feel that the size of their social networks – usually prominently displayed by the sites – is a public validation of their social value and likeability, and feel obliged to accept friend requests to grow their numbers.

But, as we grow our networks, we are simultaneously trying to quieten the small voice that whispers to us ‘You don’t really know this person’ and ‘That person isn’t even an acquaintance, let alone a friend’.

On LinkedIn, people are likely to accept contact requests if the person seems semi-interesting, or potentially a useful contact in the future, or if the person is known by a mutual friend or two, whether they actually know the person directly or not.

Which leads to another interesting field of study – how many people can one truly be friends with, and be able to interact comfortably with?  The number, sometimes termed ‘Dunbar’s number‘ after one of the original researchers, seems to hover around 150.

This has been validated, to a fairly consistently close count, by a number of different studies and measures of what is of course very much a subjective process.

So, here’s an interesting divergence.  For most of us, we can only keep some type of relationship with about 150 people.  But we have social networks stretching to many times that.  The average number of friends on Facebook is 338, and younger users have many more.

LinkedIn members have considerably larger networks, with some sources suggesting an average of about 930.

Dunbar’s number tells us we probably can’t keep up with more than 150 people, and most of us have about twice that number of friends on Facebook, six times that number of contacts on LinkedIn, and who knows how many people we follow on Twitter and other social network services.  I’ll concede, with almost no guilt, that probably indeed 5/6 or more of my LinkedIn contacts are people who in truth I don’t know at all and never interact with.

And, returning to the point of this story, would you too be willing to concede that probably most of your LinkedIn contacts are people you do not know well?  Most of all, they are not people you’d be able to credibly vouch for – even though you might well have clicked to endorse some of their skills.  Quite likely you endorsed them because they first endorsed you, and you felt obliged to reciprocate, because it seemed like a harmless and courteous thing to do.

Chances are you’ve had people who you don’t know, and who presumably don’t know you either, endorse you for skills that maybe you never even knew you had.  For example, 34 people have endorsed me for public speaking.  I don’t disagree with their positive ratings, but I’ll wager that not more than five or ten of those people have ever heard me speak in public.

This is a well-known ploy by people eager to build any social network ‘footprint’.  For example, the quickest way to build a large number of followers on Twitter is simply to follow hundreds or even thousands of people, yourself.  Many of those people will automatically follow you in turn.  Then, a couple of days later, delete the people you are following, and the chances are those people won’t realize you deleted them, and if they followed you, they’ll still continue to follow you.  Repeat the process a few times and you’ll end up with an impressive number of people following you, and a great ratio between your followers and the few remaining people you still follow, yourself.

Back to my story.  So, there I was, thanking my lucky stars that this ‘mutual friend of friends’ was approaching me with his bounteous offers.  The guy had plenty of featured skills and endorsements, as well as plenty of contacts.

But before I started to commit to what he was asking of me, I called one of our mutual contacts.  That person was much like me – he couldn’t remember where or how he had met the guy, or even when he had added him as a contact.  I called another mutual contact.  The same thing.  I called a third, and again, the same story – ‘Well, I don’t really remember, but I think he knew some people I knew and seemed like a potentially useful person to know, so I added him’.

One of the mutual contacts in turn called some of his mutual contacts, and not a single person had any direct personal knowledge of the guy.

Things started to unravel, particularly when the guy named-dropped an alleged close VVIP business associate of his who I did know and approached, finding out that rather than a close business relationship, there was totally no relationship at all.

So I narrowly dodged a bullet.

My point in all of this is that while LinkedIn is a great service and networking tool, one needs to be very cautious and not accept profiles at face value.  Our shared eagerness to build our networks, and to fairly reciprocate endorsements with mutual endorsements has unavoidably created a monster.  Don’t let it devour you, as it almost did me.

But feel welcome to connect with me and add to my endorsement count!

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Jul 102017
 

Traveling between Land’s End and John O’Groats is a ‘bucket list’ activity for the British, and a wonderful expedition/experience for us.

Tintagel Castle, reputed birthplace of King Arthur, looks best in the mist.

Driver Jim on the left, and yours truly on the right.

Previous tour members at the windiest place in all of Britain, and the northern most part of the Hebrides.

Chances are you’ve been to Britain before.  Perhaps several or even many times.  But there’s probably plenty you’ve not yet seen, and would enjoy a chance of experiencing.

For example, have you spent two days of quality time touring around Cornwall?  Or the Cotswolds?  How about the Orkney Islands (many people don’t even know where they are!).

Similarly, maybe you’ve been to Stonehenge, although possibly not since the latest round of visitor center improvements and the road closure.   But have you been to the largest stone circle in Europe, just a short distance away from Stonehenge?  Or to some of the many other stone circles and other ancient things, elsewhere in the country?

And while you might have traveled extensively through England, Wales and Scotland, have you ever done the famed ‘bucket list’ journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats?

Our Travel Insider Grand Expedition (over 2000 miles of touring, but comfortably spread over 17+ days) offers all these things, and is akin to a post-graduate degree course.  You’ve probably already ‘graduated’ from London stays and now are looking for more involving and more special experiences.  Our tour is designed to appeal to well-traveled people who now seek out the less well-known and more unique elements of the countries they visit.

We leave London out of the itinerary entirely.  You certainly can add it before or after the Grand Expedition, but what we primarily offer are places you’ve probably not seen much of before.  Maybe you’ve stayed in Bath – we feature Bristol.  Maybe you’ve stayed in the midlands – we give you Chester.  Maybe you’ve stayed in Glasgow or Edinburgh – we offer you a 700 yr old castle outside of Glasgow.

What you end up with is an extraordinary set of experiences across the length and breadth of Britain.  I’m of course going to be leading the tour myself, and expect to be joined by a wonderful driver (‘coach captain’) who has proved his worth on the last two Scotland tours.  Best of all will be the group of fellow like-minded Travel Insiders you’ll be sharing the tour with – this is something that consistently adds to everyone’s enjoyment annd experience.

The tour is in mid June next year, and to make it really easy for you, you can join and leave the tour on any day.  Full details of the tour, and two additional pages outlining the places we visit and things we’ll do and see, can be found here

http://thetravelinsider.info/travel/grandgreatbritaintour.htm

It would be lovely to welcome you onto what promises to be our best ever tour.

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Jun 292017
 

Happy 10th birthday to the iPhone. This is a picture of the original iPhone, still looking reasonably modern a decade later.

Good morning

As much as I enjoy traveling, it is always good to be home again.  Perhaps that’s the true concept of ‘home’ – the place you’re always most happy to return to.

My return from London on Delta was surprisingly good.  Things got off to a rocky start with the plane that was supposed to fly us to Salt Lake City having a maintenance issue that didn’t allow for a fast fix, but Delta quickly ‘found’ another plane, and moved our bags and everything over, causing us to leave London just over an hour late.  We picked up over half an hour on the way across the Atlantic, getting to SLC only 25 minutes late.

Stupid quote from the pilot – ‘We’ll get you to SLC as quickly as we can, while still being safe’.  Unlike driving a car along the road, flying a plane faster is no more dangerous than flying it slower.  There are no speed limits in the sky (above 10,000 ft), and so as long as the plane isn’t flying faster than it is designed for, and as long as the engines aren’t being redlined, adding extra speed has no increase in risk at all.  The main difference is that the plane’s fuel efficiency slightly drops, and engine wear slightly increases.

Perhaps what the pilot meant to say was ‘We’ll get you to SLC as quickly as we can without costing more money’.

I was astonished at the quality of the food Delta provided – and the quantity of it, too.  There were three meal services during the nine or so hour flight (this is in coach class), and whereas I usually struggle to find anything I can force myself to eat, I liked all three meals.  Add to that an enormous variety of movies played in good quality on lovely seat back monitors, and it was a very pleasant flight.

Security Experiences

Going through security at Heathrow involved a longer line than previously, but the line was moving quickly and the total time to get through the process wasn’t really appreciably longer.  And while it seems that there are continuing increases in the scrutiny of electronics (now with new tougher rules applying to flights to the US from 280 airports in 105 countries), none of that was apparent to me, even though I flew with a large laptop with extended battery, four tablets, two phones, and two external battery packs, plus other smaller items like a music player.

Note these newly promulgated rules include a four-month period for airlines and airports to implement them – but will the terrorists agree to wait four months before exploiting the security loopholes?  Additionally, if the current ten airports that have a total ban on larger electronics being carried into airplane cabins comply with the new security processes, they can have the ban lifted.

A question to all the conspiracy theorists who decided the first iteration of the new security measures on electronics was either a way of giving the Big Three Gulf carriers a hard time and or a way to make travel more difficult for muslims – how’s that theory working for you now?

A security enhancement that was noticeable at Heathrow was a moderately good security interview.  Instead of being asked a limited number of rote questions by someone who wasn’t really listening to my answers or observing me, an intelligent young man engaged me in what seemed to be a friendly and reasonably extended, unscripted conversation, but with well phrased open-ended questions such as ‘what did you enjoy most about Scotland’ and ‘what was the weather like’.  If I’d not actually been in Scotland, it would have been harder to quickly answer those questions correctly.  That was very encouraging, but it would have been interesting to see what happened when he interacts with a person who speaks little English or who only spent a day or so in England, more or less just transiting from somewhere else.

What was also noticeable was a strange security loophole.  When I flew out from Seattle, my passport was of course automatically scanned/read, and I’d also input the passport data at home.  As a third level of passport checking, a checkin agent also viewed my passport and I think keyed in some data.

So, when I went to self-checkin online for the return flight, all my passport information was prepopulated.  Great – nothing wrong with that, right?

Well, actually, there was something very wrong with that.  My passport has three zeroes in its number.  But two of the three zeroes in the passport number where showing as upper case letter O’s.  So instead of, eg, 1200034 as my passport number, it was showing as 12OO034.  The difference is subtle when viewed on a screen, but for a computer, there’s a world of difference between a 0 and an O.

Two points of puzzlement.  How did my passport number get mangled?  And secondly, because out of curiosity, I didn’t correct the passport number, how did I get to travel without problems with an impossible passport number totally out of the sequence of numbers issued by the US for passports and not matching my name or other details?  We are told that TSA/Homeland Security prescreens all passengers based on the information loaded into their passenger name records.  How did my wrong information pass through the system?

Christmas Cruise Missing Link?

Several people asked about last week’s newsletter, saying I left out a link to the Danube Christmas Markets cruise we’re offering this December, from Budapest to Nuremberg.  There actually was a link, but it was unhelpfully the same color as the rest of the text.  Ooops.

We’ve heard from Amawaterways that the special $750 per person promotion is soon due to expire, so please do think about your Christmas plans and choose to join us for this, the most popular of all our Travel Insider tour experiences.

What else this week?  The usual smorgasbord of items, including :

  • 2018 Travel Insider UK Expedition Almost Finalized
  • In Any Other Country, This Would be Decried as Corruption
  • Another Airline Joint Venture
  • Supersonic Planes, again, again
  • Unhealthy Flying
  • Former Northwest & Delta CEO to Head Amtrak
  • Greedy NIMBYs Seek to Limit California Cell Phone Service
  • Interesting Article on New Satellites
  • Do Your Ears Deceive You?  Often, Yes.
  • And Lastly This Week….

Traveling between Land’s End and John O’Groats is a ‘bucket list’ activity for the British, and a wonderful experience of England, Wales and Scotland for us.

2018 Travel Insider UK Expedition Almost Finalized

I’ve spent most of this week developing next year’s UK Expedition from Land’s End in England to John O’Groats in Scotland (and, yes, we even include a bit of Wales on our journey, too).  I keep finding more things to add into our days, and it is becoming a wonderful tour, crammed full of experiences.

The dates are now reasonably firm, with the main tour starting on Sunday 10 June in Salisbury or Exeter and ending on Tuesday 26 June in Edinburgh or Glasgow.  Because of the panoramic nature of this tour, and because I love to make tours as flexible as possible, not only do we have pre and post tour options, but you are free to join and leave the tour on pretty much any day that works for you.

Although we hope you will, if you don’t want to do the entire 17 days (or more with the options), you can do any shorter portion that works for you.  Have you ever seen such flexibility in any other tour?

The approximate route our main tour will take.

If the tour gets reasonably full, and if exchange rates don’t change adversely, it seems the tour price could drop below $3995 per person, which would be great value for such an extensive tour.

Whether it be going down into an old tin mine in Cornwall, or visiting mysterious stone circles in the lovely Lake District and remote Orkney Islands; photographing quaint village scenes in the beautiful Cotswolds or mixing with the locals in places that seldom see tourists; visiting the ruins of ancient castles possibly associated with King Arthur or (optionally) staying in a 700+ year old castle in fine condition in the Scottish highlands, there’s a lot here you’re sure to love.

Perhaps best of all is something that is happily a constant on most Travel Insider tours – sharing your experiences with a group of friendly and like-minded Travel Insiders.

This is an aspirational tour that enables you to comfortably and conveniently achieve a ‘bucket list’ experience that few British people even do – traveling the length and breadth of Britain from Land’s End in the southwest corner of Cornwall to John O’Groats in the northeast corner of Scotland.

I hope to have the tour available for booking next week.  Stay tuned, and meantime, please keep the dates open.

In Any Other Country, This Would be Decried as Corruption

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee agreed by voice vote earlier this week to add a new restriction on the ability of foreign airlines to fly into the US.  The measure will allow the Secretary of Transportation to deny requests by any foreign carrier to fly to the US if the Secretary believes doing so would ‘erode labor standards’ due to the airline being established in a country other than that in which its majority owners reside in, so as to avoid regulations of the country where the owners reside.

No, this isn’t valid legislation to protect either us as fliers or other Americans as aviation related workers.  ‘Erode labor standards’ is code for ‘sell airfares at lower costs than the US carriers do’.

This legislation is about one thing and one thing only – making it harder for airlines such as Norwegian Air to bring lower cost higher quality flights to the US.  The only thing being protected here are the dysfunctional US carriers that have no notion of how to compete with new quality airlines, and so resort to lobbying and deal making to erect specious new levels of protection against new quality carriers offering better service, better quality, and better value.

The legislation would also seem to fly in the face of the open skies treaty agreement between the US and EU.  What Norwegian Air is doing is nothing unique.  These days it is far from uncommon for an airline to operate from bases removed from where the majority of its shareholders live.  For example, British Airways, based in London, is owned by International Airlines Group, a company that is registered in Madrid, Spain.  KLM is owned by Air France.  Or how about any airline which has a hub in a country other than that which it is registered in, such as Delta with its hub in Amsterdam?

The US airlines already managed to delay for no valid reason at all Norwegian’s expanded presence into the US for three years, and now seek further ‘legislative clubs’ with which to bludgeon other low-priced carriers and to keep them away from us.

We love to ridicule corruption in other countries, while choosing not to see it in our own country.  How can this legislation be described as anything other than a corrupt piece of unneeded law that does not protect us, only the three major US carriers.  The legislation is anti-competition, and the complete opposite of the American values of free markets and competition which our country supposedly embraces and which we proudly claim made us the greatest economic power in the world.

Details here.

Another Airline Joint Venture

Long time frenemies and Skyteam members Delta and Korean Air have announced plans to establish a joint venture across the Pacific that seems designed to dilute and dissolve the differences between the two carriers even more than at present, and to minimize any potential for competition between them.

Sure, this is explained as an enhanced and expanded network, with industry-leading products and service and a seamless customer experience, but so too has every other airline ‘joint venture’ made the same claims to date.  Cut out the hype and meaningless adjectives, and the main thing it means is that the two airlines are joining at the hip and making sure that you can’t play one of them off against the other when it comes to lower fares, better service, or more convenient schedules.

The arrangement is subject to regulatory approval, but what are the chances of that being denied?  Slim to none, alas.  First the airlines say ‘you should approve this because there are so many other airlines also out there’.  Then, when that becomes demonstrably no longer true, they say ‘you should approve this because you’ve already approved it for the few remaining other airlines and we’d be unfairly disadvantaged if you didn’t allow us the same approval’.  Heads, the airlines win; tails, they don’t lose.

Details here.

Supersonic Planes, again, again

The week before July 4 is often a slow news week, and so it is unsurprising to see yet another SST plane story bubbling to the surface.  It isn’t new – NASA have been talking about developing a quieter SST for some years already, and neither is it promising a commercially viable passenger plane anytime soon, either.

Instead, NASA and an as yet unselected contractor hope to begin flight tests of concept planes perhaps ‘as early as 2021’.  The single engine concept plane is nothing like what subsequent passenger planes might become, which suggests we’d be lucky to see any operational passenger planes this side of 2030.  Details here.

To put this into a timeline, it was 1973 when the US banned supersonic flight over land due to concerns about the sonic boom.  Yes, it has taken 44 years to get us to the point we’re at currently.  It took almost exactly 44 years from the Wright Brothers to the X-1 and its first supersonic flight (1903 – 1947); and now, another 44 years further ahead, and notwithstanding computers, new materials, and everything else, we’re still dragging our heels with something that self-evidently is solvable – mitigating the sonic boom.

Progress is a funny old thing, isn’t it.

Meantime, more optimism from Boom – the strangely named company hoping to get supersonic flight launched within the next six years, or so it is now claiming.  Don’t hold your breath….

Unhealthy Flying

Talking about holding your breath, it might be a good thing if you didn’t breathe at all during your next flight.  Here’s a distressing article that raises some of the little talked about issues of ‘dirty air’ on planes – air that may have been contaminated with engine oil and other fluids while being heated and compressed prior to being piped into your airplane’s cabin.  The air – so-called ‘bleed air’ comes from the jet engines, albeit of course prior to the point where the fuel is mixed in and burned.  But there seems to still be potential for contaminants within the engine to enter into the air that is being tapped from the flow through the jet engine.

If that’s not bad enough, the article also cites a statistic suggesting you’re 100 times more likely to catch a cold when flying.  I’ve certainly often come down with a cold within a few days of flying, although – touch wood – the last few flights have been the exception, perhaps due to an assiduous focus on hygiene and avoiding any contamination between food/drink, possibly dirty/infected surfaces, and me.

The problem isn’t just with someone coughing onto you, or breathing air that someone coughed into.  It is with someone coughing onto a surface that you touch some time later (maybe even on the next flight), then you touch your food, then you eat your food, and – voila – instant infection.

The airlines, while accurately boasting about the effectiveness of their air filters to cut down on airborne transmission of infection, are being careful not to talk about the more common path of infection – via a ‘fomite’ – a surface on which germs can gather and then be passed on to you.  Air filters can’t help with that at all.

These days I sometimes get a headache for no apparent reason while flying.  I formerly thought, on long international flights, that it was maybe some sort of hangover as a result of having a drink or two in the lower air pressure cabin environment, but after having regularly flown without any alcohol consumed either on the plane or at any reasonable time prior to the flight on the ground either, I still get headaches, and know other people who experience the same thing.  The article suggests such headaches may be a response to contaminated air.

It would be possible to take ‘fresh’ air from outside, compress and heat it, rather than taking bleed air from the engines, but that may be more costly in terms of fuel consumption, so the airlines take the easy way out.  And we suffer the consequences.  (Note that the new 787 may be using a different approach for sourcing air that bypasses the engines and any possible chemical contaminants from the engines.)

Former Northwest & Delta CEO to Head Amtrak

Richard Anderson is bravely seizing what is increasingly looking like a poisoned chalice.  Formerly the CEO of Northwest Airlines (2001 – 2004) and subsequently of Delta Airlines (2007 – 2016), Anderson has been appointed President and CEO of Amtrak, with effect from 12 July.

Apparently he will encounter some surprises.  He was quoted as saying ‘Amtrak is a great company today’ and also said that ‘passenger rail service is growing in importance in America’.

He might want to look at these ridership statistics – while, as a former head of two dinosaur airlines, he’s doubtless very experienced at dealing with moribund travel services and enormous losses, it is hard to see much evidence of any growing importance of passenger rail.  Even Amtrak’s much boasted about Acela service in the Northeastern Corridor struggled to match passenger numbers in 2016 with the same numbers the year before, and with 2014 besting both subsequent years.  In total, Amtrak grew its passenger numbers a mere 1% in 2016 compared to 2015, and announced an operating loss of $227 million.  Its actual total loss was $1.1 billion in 2016 – sure, an improvement on $1.2 billion the year before, about the same as 2014’s $1.1 billion loss and better than 2013 and 2012, both with $1.3 billion losses.  But that is five years and $6 billion in losses, with no overt indication of any turnaround on the horizon.

Most people I talk about Amtrak with have way too many nightmare stories of cancelled or delayed trains, broken equipment on trains, and poor/bad/no service.  And, as has been reported here and everywhere else, President Trump’s administration is seeking to massively reduce Amtrak’s operating subsidies for the future to the point where its entire long-distance train network outside the Northeastern corridor may be abandoned.  A proud Democrat, one wonders how well Anderson will succeed at endearing himself with the Trump administration and persuading them to give Amtrak the capital infusion it so desperately needs as well as the annual top-ups to cover its ongoing losses.

What Anderson should have said is ‘Amtrak is struggling to remain relevant in the modern age, is chronically unprofitable, and suffers from major service shortcomings’.  Sure, he could have added the usual empty platitudes about looking forward to the challenge of leading Amtrak to future greatness, but pretending the business is great and growing is, alas, total nonsense.

Greedy NIMBYs Seek to Limit California Cell Phone Service

The explosion of cell phones and all the other devices we have that use cellular data services must necessarily be matched by adding more, smaller, cells for our phones to connect to.  Simplistically, if we have ten times as much cell phone traffic, we need close to ten times as many towers.  Without a corresponding increase in towers, wireless data rates will slow and phone calls will not always go through.  Those that do go through might be of poorer quality due to needing to be handed off to a further away cell tower.

It is true there are concerns – quite probably valid concerns – about the safety of cell phone signals, both those originating from handsets and those originating from the towers.  But who among us has chosen to abandon their cell phones due to these concerns?  All the rest of us – those who are using our phones all the time – need to understand the unavoidable swings and roundabouts of the service.  The more we use it, and the more everyone else around us also uses it (including when they communicate with us), the more we need to accept a continued proliferation of cell phone towers.

The good news is that with more and more towers, the transmitters in each tower can be weaker and weaker, because we actually want them to have increasingly limited range so they don’t interfere with other nearby towers on the same frequencies.  So growing the number of towers ten-fold doesn’t necessarily multiply the amount of radio waves around us also ten-fold.

With this as background, it is interesting to also consider one more statistic.  In California, the use of smart devices and other mobile internet services has increased 23-fold since 2010.  This of course invariably results in a need to add more towers, and the latest generation of even faster/better data services, to be known as ‘5G’, also require new transmitting antennas for the new frequencies they operate at.

As a result, there is a need and a plan to add between 30,000 and 50,000 additional cell antennas in California over the next five years.  That sounds like a lot, but when you consider that California has an area of 164,000 sq miles, that is an average of one extra antenna per every 3 – 5 square miles.  Or, to express in other terms, with a population of 39.2 million, that is only one antenna for every 785 – 1305 people.

The thought of more cell phone antennas – an unavoidable essential if the state is to continue to have moderately functional cell phone service – has some in California up in arms, and in particular, some of the city governments.

But, in truth, it is unclear whether their opposition is based on aesthetic, scientific, or financial grounds, because part of the new regulations expediting new antenna additions is a reduction in fees that would be payable to cities down from $1250 per antenna to $250 per antenna.

Details here.

In not altogether unrelated news, a recent survey of about 80 countries shows that more than 55 other countries have faster wireless data speeds than the US.  The US is in the bottom 20 of the countries surveyed.

Interesting Article on New Satellites

Here’s a fascinating article that you might like to read later next week if you’re taking time off work for the July 4 holiday.  It looks at some of the quiet revolution that is occurring with orbiting satellites, starting from a launch of a rocket earlier this year that deployed 104 satellites once it reached its target orbit.

A dizzying combination of lower costs per pound of material sent into orbit and massively lighter weights per satellite are combining to encourage a veritable explosion of satellites being sent into orbit.  Note the article has a slightly out of context table of rocket launches halfway through, but this is a table of rocket launches, not of satellite deployments.  With the average rocket launch now deploying very many more satellites than was previously the case, the table massively understates the revolution underway.

Well worth reading.

Do Your Ears Deceive You?  Often, Yes.

It is a physiological (and also somewhat psychological) fact that one’s perception of what one thinks one is hearing can be influenced greatly by one’s expectations.

Sadly, this has encouraged the growth of an industry that lives on snake oil and similar artifices – the ‘high end audio’ industry, epitomized by expensive cables that some people are convinced sound better than cables costing 1/20th as much, but which the same people can never tell apart in true double-blind testing.  It sees people paying way over the odds for differences in sound quality they insist they can clearly hear, but can’t differentiate between in double-blind tests.  It has people advocating for meaningless and indeed dangerous ‘improvements’ in dynamic range which if adopted could cause close to instant deafness,  It sees a $2000 external amplifier selling well but producing no better sound than a $2 chip that nearly all modern computers have within them.

But it also sees other people lamenting the loss of massively inferior sound reproduction – that offered by lp records.  The same people who rushed to CDs when they first came out are now rushing back to vinyl records, describing them as having a ‘warmer’ sound than CDs.  There is a revival of interest and an astonishing growth in lp record sales.

If by ‘warmer’ they mean less dynamic range, more hiss and background noise, greater distortion, poorer frequency response, sidetalk from one stereo channel to the other, and finite life and deteriorating audio quality every time the record is played, then they are definitely correct.  But is any of this something to wish to start suffering from again?

The ‘warmth’ (whatever that actually means) is a claim that is impossible to test, because the difference between a record and a CD is so instantly obvious.  One is almost totally silent, distortion free, and without any background noise, the other is always accompanied by noise, and soon enough by scratches and other physical damage, too.

Don’t be fooled.  And if you’re thinking of returning back to inferior lp records, you might like to first read this article I wrote a few years back – “You Can’t Trust Your Ears – Or Anyone Else’s” and then perhaps browse through other articles in my collection of High End Audio articles.

And Lastly This Week….

I’m always casting around for new places to offer on Travel Insider tours.  Apparently, the new ‘hot’ destination (as in popular rather than temperature) is a rather unlikely one, but perhaps that is all the more reason for it to be featured in a Travel Insider tour.  The destination – Astana, the newish capital city of Kazakhstan, a country now better known than before, albeit perhaps unfairly, as a result of the Borat movie.

Here’s an article about Astana’s new popularity, some interesting background on Kazakhstan, and a concept which would seem to be more at home in Dubai than Astana.

Like many parents and their children, bringing presents home from international trips is something my daughter, Anna, generally expects of me.  This time she wanted Irn Bru soda drink and various Cadbury chocolate candy items.  But she was strangely insistent that I should not buy her any Haribo sugar-free Gummi Bears.  So I went to Amazon and read the reviews to understand her aversion to this product.

Strangely, Amazon has inhibited linking to the product, but if you have ever considered buying some of these, please go to Amazon and search for “Haribo Gold-Bears Gummi Candy, 5-Pound Bag” and open the obvious result that appears.  Do read some of the reviews.  Warning – don’t have anything in your mouth while reading, because you’ll for sure either choke on it or spit it out while laughing.

May I wish you the very best for the US national holiday this coming Tuesday, and for those readers not in the US, perhaps it is a good time to remember and appreciate that the independence and strength of the US has almost certainly changed their part of the world for the better, no matter where it is they live.  We have all benefitted from the US’ prominent role in world affairs over the last 100 years.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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Jun 232017
 

Looking for all the world like my own Dell laptop, this is the type of x-ray image a security screener sees of a laptop. You can see the six cell battery at the top, the CPU in the middle with a copper heat sink wicking away the heat to the fan on the right, a CD player in the bottom left, a hard drive in the bottom right, and the memory in the bottom middle. At the top you can see the two hinges for the screen, and connectors on the top left and right, plus probably the radio unit on the top right.

Good morning

And very best wishes from Scotland.

I wanted to send you a couple of items as a ‘little something’; not a full newsletter, but hopefully a happy surprise for your Friday.  Next week we’ll be back to regular newsletters (I return home on Tuesday).

I also wanted to update you on our Christmas Markets cruise along the Danube this December.  This is still available, and we’ve a great group of people already choosing to come and enjoy this lovely experience, as well as – special bonus for me and hopefully for you too – my 13 yr old daughter.

When traveling from Seattle a couple of weeks ago, Delta sent an email anxiously recommending, as a special alert, that due to increased security, I should check in three hours in advance of the flight from Seattle to Amsterdam.  The actual time it took, for a coach class check-in, from walking into the terminal’s front door to sitting in the gate?  30 minutes.  So why the suggestion to check in 3 hours in advance – an irresponsible wasting of two hours of my time.

Of course, you too probably know this is a ridiculous suggestion by Delta, but the thing is – less experienced passengers consider this as the gospel truth.  The number of times I’ve had arguments with people who demand to be at an airport three hours prior to departure because of some vague perception (or specific airline recommendation) that they should do this is amazing.  I doubt they enjoy their ‘bonus’ hour or two of contemplation while waiting to board the flight, and rethink their policy for next time.

Delta had nicely redesigned its check-in kiosks and surrounding counters.  But, with a level of detached idiocy that is truly impressive, the counter-tops are sloped.  Place your phone or ticket or anything on the counter-top (there’s nowhere else to put them), and watch them slip and slide off.

My Uber ride to the airport was quite scary.  The driver seemed to think that if he drove hard and fast, his earnings might increase, but in reality, the only things that increased were my blood pressure and his fuel consumption.

I wanted to give feedback on his quite dangerous driving (following too close, braking too hard, and speeding way more than I liked in residential areas), but the only thing I could do was give him a number of stars, I couldn’t add a comment.  Sure, after giving him a reduced rating, I was invited to go and provide more information on the Uber site, but the link just took me to a generic Uber page, it didn’t take me to a page to enter specific information about that specific Uber experience.  Totally (and totally unnecessarily) unhelpful.

With his own direct Uber connection and GPS, Uber should be clever enough as to know when a driver is speeding, although of course the following too close and braking too hard issues are harder to detect through a GPS.  Why don’t they do this?

Another perennial frustration.  As soon as I got to the airport and logged in to my Gmail, Gmail panicked because I had traveled 15 miles from home and locked most of my Gmail accounts ‘for my convenience’.  It repeated the process in Amsterdam, and again in Glasgow, and so on throughout the itinerary.  Thanks for nothing, Google.

I am also puzzled at Google’s partial intelligence.  It ‘reads my emails’ and works out my flights and hotel bookings with spooky accuracy.  As I travel around, it is guessing at what I’m seeing and even where I’m eating.  If it is clever enough to know almost every detail of my travels, why isn’t it clever enough to accept that I’m traveling and not block my email accounts?

The big mystery though is why it locks some of my email accounts but not others.

As for our tour, we had an interesting and diverse group of 28 Travel Insiders, and while I can take no credit for this at all, everyone felt that their fellow travelers were yet again one of the highlights of the tour.  It is lovely to be able to share one’s travels with other people, and all the more so when they are pleasant like-minded travelers.  Indeed, two couples were traveling again on this tour after having met on an earlier Travel Insider tour and becoming firm friends to the point of now traveling together again.

Something else I can’t take credit (or blame) for is the weather, and this year it was a bit patchy, with light rain through much of the first part of the tour, but transforming to glorious sun for some of the rest of the tour, and never too cold or too wet.  Our visit to the windiest place in the entire UK was disappointing inasmuch as it wasn’t very windy at all!

Driver Jim on the left, and yours truly on the right.

It was wonderful to be traveling with the same driver who has been with us before (Jim Morrison – here’s a picture of the two of us somewhere).  He enormously added to the shared experience we all enjoyed, so much so that I’ve been already persuaded to offer another tour with Jim next year, and this time it will be a new tour never before offered.

Our new tour for next June in two halves.  The first half has us in England, primarily in Devon and Cornwall, and ending in the Cotswolds, including a visit to Land’s End at the southwest point in Britain.

It is a common tradition in Britain to travel between Land’s End in England all the way to the northeast tip in Scotland, at John O’Groats, and that will be the second part of our tour, going up to John O’Groats and then taking a ferry into the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland, including visits to Scapa Flow and Skara Brae.  This Scotland tour will go to places that we’ve not included in our ‘Islands and Highlands’ itinerary, including places such as Beauly, Thurso and Aberdeen, as well as over to the Orkney Islands.

At both ends, the traditional start and end of the journey are nowhere special, but the actual accomplishment of traveling the entire country is something people love to do.

You can do one half or the other half, and if doing both halves, we also have two days of experiential touring to get from Oxford to Glasgow, including overnights in Chester and the Lake District that you’d surely enjoy as well.

This will all take place next June.  Exact dates and prices aren’t yet known, but it should start in the second week of June and end in time for you to be home for 4 July.  Each half of the tour will be about a week or so, the total tour with touring in-between will be a bit over two weeks, and there’ll of course be plenty of opportunities for you to add additional activities and touring before and after the main tour elements.  I’m hoping the total tour (both halves plus touring in the middle) will be available for $3800 – $4100 per person, depending on exchange rates and group size, and each smaller portion will be more or less proportionately reduced.

More details either next week or the week after.

More on Security Questions

In the last two newsletters, I’ve been complaining about the challenge with answering the ‘security’ questions surrounding an account profile – questions like ‘what was your first car’ and ‘what was the first beach you ever visited’ and so on.

Last newsletter I reported that the technique of providing the same generic answer to all such questions doesn’t always work.  Some services detect you’re providing the same answer to every question and refuse to accept that.

Reader Chuck writes :

Here is how to resolve the duplicate answer problem.

As you state, first pick a common root answer, in your example ‘Nosemi34!’. Then add to that a seed variable derived from the specific question you are being asked. It could be a single character or an entire word. (Since many of the questions are of the Who, What, When, Where variety, I would skip the first word of the question; the second and subsequent words are more variable.)

To eliminate duplicate answers, pick questions that do not have the same character/word at your seed location. As long as you are consistent as to where you select your seed, and keep your root phrase secret, you have a viable solution. Whenever you are asked a security question, you always know the answer: Your root phrase plus your seed, which is provided to you in the security question. (This of course depends upon the provider presenting the security question in exactly the same format as when originally asked.)

When asked ‘What was the color of your mother’s favorite canary?’, and since you are always (possibly) using the fourth word as your seed, you know the answer to this question: ‘Nosemi34!color’.  Easy to remember. Problem solved.

So, my suggestion, built on Chuck’s helpful advice, is to have a seed word that includes an upper and lower case letter and a digit, and then, as he says, perhaps choose the fourth word in each question and add that word – all in lower case – to your seed phrase.

More BA Meltdown Perfidy

BA tried to get out of paying some compensation by bluffing passengers with the assertion that the airline will only pay the amount of claims that the passenger’s insurance policies won’t cover.

But that is plain wrong, and the airline is now diffidently making ambiguous noises supposedly walking that claim back.  The EU legislation doesn’t say ‘airlines will compensate only when there isn’t travel insurance available’.  The EU makes the airlines the prime source of compensation, and that expectation is built into the premium rates assessed by trip insurers.  Their cover only applies to any element of loss that the airline does not make good on, and they expect and require you to file claims with the airlines first.

Details here.

This raises an interesting point about many types of ‘free’ or extra insurance covers.  Often they are secondary rather than primary covers.  For example, if you have free rental car insurance through your credit card, and if you think that means you can happily have an accident and get fully reimbursed by your credit card company and not need to claim on your regular insurance policy and risk having your premiums go up, think again.

Although, decades ago, such insurance often was ‘primary’, now it is invariably ‘secondary’ and they require you to file a claim with your home auto insurer and offer only to pay any additional amounts (like a deductible) that aren’t paid to you by your primary auto insurer.

Meanwhile, people have been fast to blame BA’s outsourcing of IT functions for the problems – and not just for the original problem, but for the woefully extended time it took to restore service.

BA’s New Airline – Any Better than the Old One?

You might have heard, back in March, of BA’s plans to start a new low-cost airline, under the name of Level.

BA hopes to be the exception that proves the rule – the rule that legacy/dinosaur airlines invariably fail when trying to create ‘an airline within the airline’ as a low-cost off-shoot of the main airline.

The jury is still out on this, but the airline has now started flying.  Rather strangely, it has decided to base itself in Barcelona – and you might remember this is the city that has decided it will freeze all new hotel construction/conversion, because it is already ‘too full’ of tourists.

A key part of any airline’s success is to have a central hub that can also serve as a destination (and point of origination, too) in its own right.  The choice of Barcelona would seem to threaten the success of this new airline right from its inception.

Boeing Studies Pilotless Planes

As Boeing’s VP of Product Development rightly observes in this article, you can get a self-flying drone for under $1000.  So, if a drone can fly itself for $1000, why can’t a full size passenger jet?

The answer, somewhat obscured by layers of pilot union interference, is that planes already can and – more to the point – do fly themselves.  But unofficially, and of course with two overpaid pilots in their fancy uniforms struggling to stay awake in the cockpit and officially doing all the flying.

Predictably, lip-service is paid to the role of pilots by referring to the very lucky landing in the Hudson River a few years back after an A320 lost both engines when taking off from La Guardia.  Would a self-flying plane have been able to similarly save the day?  That’s unknown, but even if a self-flying plane would have crashed the plane ignominiously with the loss of all passengers on board, that’s not a reason not to proceed with automating airplanes and getting rid of the pilots.

The thing that is seldom expressed is that for every time the pilots do truly ‘save the day’ (and the plane and the passengers) there are probably ten or even one hundred times when they actually make things worse and change a survivable situation into a fatal one.  So the less we have pilots and the more we have self-flying planes, the safer we become.

The airlines quietly know this, and also are very aware of the cost of their pilots and the growing need for more and more pilots.  While they’ll not admit this in public, they’re as keen as any other group to get rid of pilots.  The main reason they’re not pressing more aggressively for this?  Be prepared to be astonished.  It is a concern about what we, the traveling public, would think.

Due to an insufficiently complete explanation of the issues surrounding self-piloting planes, and of course, due to the fact that the technology is still evolving and improving, the general level of public perception is that a piloted plane is safer than an unpiloted one.  But, just as a self-driving car is thought to be ten times safer than a car that you or I drive, we’re almost at the point where a self-flying plane will be similarly many times safer than one relying on imperfect pilots.

Boeing Had a Good Week

It was the Paris Air Show this week, and Boeing announced yet another new version of its venerable 737, this time called the 737 MAX 10.  It was greeted with an apparently impressive rush of initial launch orders, but two-thirds of the launch orders were actually conversions by airlines who had already ordered other model 737 planes and simply switched to this slightly larger/longer range model instead.  The actual net count of new orders was less impressive and less clearly determined.

Airbus contented itself with some tweaks to make its A380 super-jumbo more efficient and cost effective.  The A380 program remains very much at risk of being cancelled, and if the current weakness in the Gulf airlines – in particular Emirates, which has single-handedly ordered almost half the entire number of A380s sold or on backlog – should translate to some A380 deferments or cancellations, we’d not be surprised to see the A380 cancelled entirely.

It seems, without saying so, that Boeing has now cancelled its 747-8I passenger plane, while still offering the freighter version for sale, marking the quiet end of its glorious 747 line of planes.  One would have hoped for slightly more fanfare about the end of such a transformative plane.

Boeing also announced plans to jump on the hypersonic passenger plane bandwagon.  As with all other similar announcements, I’ll believe it when I see it.

The Laptop Ban Isn’t Going Away

There continues to be a lot of ‘noise’ in the press about extensions to the laptop ban, which currently is limited to incoming flights from about ten middle eastern airports.

After the proposal to ban laptops on all flights to and from Europe was rejected by the European authorities, several other ‘trial balloons’ have appeared in the media.  One was that the ban would extend to domestic flights as well as international flights – something I’ve long said would be essential, because, as we all know, security is the same to go through an airport for a domestic flight as it is for an international flight.  If there’s a risk for international flights, surely the same risk is present for domestic flights, and with common checkpoints serving both international and domestic flights, how could you limit the extra security for only one type of flight.

Another credible sounding ‘leak’ is in this article, where the US may be slightly backtracking, and now saying that it might extend the ban to another 71 international airports, unless the airports improve their security.

There is no information on the timeframe for when this might occur, or which the airports might be, or what they have to do to avoid being subject to the ban.

Radiation Risks of Frequent Flying

Some good news for people who fly a lot.  If you work your way through the numbers in this article, it seems that the increased radiation that people experience in the higher altitudes while flying doesn’t significantly increase your radiation exposure.

Sure, the exposure goes up, but not by enough to doom you to a certain and premature death from radiation poisoning or radiation induced cancer.

But it would be a different story if you decided to go to Mars.  This is one of the several unresolved issues that interfere with Elon Musk’s fanciful vision of traveling to Mars.

And Lastly This Week….

A secret button that gives you more seating space on a plane?  Well, actually, not at all, but here’s the piece that teasingly raises the possibility.

One of the amusing but puzzling elements of a trip to China is the common appalling translations of Chinese words and menus and signs to English.  I’ve no idea why the Chinese in particular do such a bad job of translating, but it definitely is commonly found, and is often referred to as ‘Chinglish’ (examples here).

News this week suggests that the Chinese government is about to embark on a campaign to improve its translations.  That is almost a shame, and will make a Chinese tour much less amusing.

Until next week

 

David.

 

 

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