Weekly Roundup Friday 20 August

Waitomocavesb  Good morning

I've now spent almost a week in New Zealand (the picture shows me with my daughter – in pink – in the Waitomo Caves).  I arrived into Auckland on Saturday morning, traveled on to Rotorua on Monday, and to Hawkes Bay on Thursday.

I think it may be almost five years since I last visited, and of course there have been changes over that time.

Auckland now has world-class traffic problems to equal those of most major cities elsewhere in the world.  As I was leaving the city on Monday morning, the appalling state of the freeway for traffic coming in to the city was a nasty surprise, and speaking with Aucklanders, I gather that this has become the typical morning commute.

Happily, morning commutes are not something that impact on us as tourists quite so much.  So let me turn now to the other change that has hit me massively between the eyes – or perhaps I should say, squarely in my wallet.  Everything is so expensive in New Zealand these days.

US$30 admission to the Te Puia thermal area in Rotorua, and the same price to visit the Waitomo Caves.  I'm sorry, but $30 for a not quite 45 minute tour through some caves, where there is no sign of any money having been spent on anything other than a new building for an expanded gift shop in the last five years, and where the labor cost of the tour is the provision of one guide for a group of 20+ people – that is nothing other than a ridiculous ripoff.  A similar analysis could be applied to Te Puia, although they also offer a kitchy maori concert of dubious merit as part of their tour.

Other places I've visited are only slightly less expensive – prices in the low – mid US$20's seems commonplace for even the most ordinary of attractions.

And then there is the cost of food and drink.  That too is much higher than I'd expected, and higher than I'd pay back in the US.  A small can or bottle of soft drink can cost up to US$3 to buy at a '7-11' type store in NZ.

I've been looking at clothing, and it too is massively overpriced.  Indeed, my brother asked me to bring some Levi jeans down for him – I bought them for $33 a pair in the US, and he says they cost about US$100/pair in NZ.   In New Zealand transitioning to some sort of quasi-third world country in which Levi jeans become the unofficial currency?

Of course, there's no real reason why New Zealand should be a 'cheap' destination, but it has transitioned from being a comparatively lower cost destination to now being no less expensive than most other destinations, and more expensive than some.

But even in this new expensive environment, there are a few highlights that stick out.  One such was undoubtedly the finest ever Brazilian 'churrascaria' restaurant (the type where they bring food on skewers to your table and carve off pieces to give to you) I've ever experienced.  This was Wildfire in Auckland.  I've eaten there before and enjoyed it, but this time the food was completely over the top and beyond outstanding.

Not only was there an extraordinary variety of food items presented (even spit roasted pineapple!) but the quality of the cooking was out of this world.  I had some barbequed mildly smoked salmon that was the most moist and tender – but still fully cooked – salmon that I've ever had, anywhere.  The same for served on the bone prime rib – this was evenly cooked right through, but still astonishingly moist and tender.  Best of all, the price was right, too.  US$30 per person for an all you can eat dinner.  Here's a tip for when you go eat there yourself :  Go there during the early bird special pricing, then eat slowly and linger, because they seem to bring out new items on an occasional semi-random basis.  It was only after almost two hours there that the spit roasted pineapple first appeared, for example.

As for another highlight, can I offer you the Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park.  This was a wonderful place where not only were there kiwis conveniently on display (I note that in NZ the plural of kiwi, which was once 'kiwis', is now shifting to being also 'kiwi' – I wonder why that might be – an indicator of their growing rarity perhaps?), but also a panoply of other native birds too.

Perhaps one gets more pleasure out of seeing these extraordinarily beautiful creatures as a New Zealander, because they are part of our culture and our lives, but for everyone, foreigners as well as NZers, this place gives you a great place to conveniently see almost all of New Zealand's notable birdlife.

Otorohanga is conveniently located on the road you'd most likely take when traveling between Rotorua and the Waitomo Caves.  Admission is more reasonable than most other places, too – US$12.50 per adult (and only $3.75 for children).

I'm off to Wellington on Saturday, then to Christchurch on Sunday, before returning home to Seattle on Tuesday.  I had been going to take the ferry that operates between Wellington at the bottom of the North Island and Picton at the top of the South Island, but found I could fly all the way from Wellington to Christchurch for less money than taking the ferry, let alone considering the additional cost of getting from Picton to Christchurch by rental car or train (gas is almost US$5/gallon).

My brother is also flying from Auckland to meet up with me and the rest of our family in Christchurch.  He got a no advance purchase roundtrip ticket for this journey (about 750 mile
s each way) for US$100.

So have I uncovered the one outstanding bargain in New Zealand?  Domestic airfares?  Alas, no.  What he and I found instead was the tail end of some bitter competition between three airlines fighting for market share over the last three years.  To put the $100 roundtrip into perspective, the price for an advance purchase roundtrip for a journey of comparable length to AKL-CHC, but which is non-competitive, Rotorua to Queenstown, comes to US$560!  Wow.  $100 roundtrip is ridiculously low, but $560 for an advance purchase for a flight comparable in length to, eg, Chicago to New York (advance purchase fares currently running upwards from $203) is another outrageous New Zealand ripoff.

Unfortunately, the three airline competitive struggle ended this week, with one of the three airlines (Pacific Blue, an outspring of Virgin Blue in Australia) capitulating after losing some tens of millions of dollars, and ending its domestic NZ services in October.  While Air New Zealand and Jetstar (a Qantas subsidiary) are uttering the usual homilies that airfares won't rise with the loss of Pacific Blue as a competitor, a quick search on kayak.com reveals this claim for the total lie that it of course is.  The cheapest roundtrip fare AKL-CHC in mid November (after Pacific Blue has disappeared) becomes US$356 on Air New Zealand, and a mere one flight a week on Jetstar priced at $120.  And my US$35 flight from Wellington to Christchurch is now showing at US$135.

It seems that airlines play the same games the world over.  Strangely, none of the local NZ press have bothered to check airfares the same way I did just now and call the airlines on their lie.

Lastly on the subject of New Zealand, although I ended up taking a plane rather than the ferry to get from one island to the other in New Zealand, the cost advantage of air travel seems to be short lived, and so I've prepared a page telling you all about the ferries that travel between the two islands.  This was a fun project for me, because I used to work on these ferries myself, way back in the mid 1970s.

There have been massive changes in the 35 years since I worked on the ferries, particularly from a crewing point of view, but for passengers, the journey is almost unchanged (albeit on slightly more modern ships).  It was then a wonderfully beautiful journey, and it still is.  But it could be, on occasion, one of the roughest sea passages of anywhere in the world, and that too is also still the case – just last week sailings across Cook Strait had to be cancelled due to bad weather.

Anyway, what with some personal reminiscences, some history, and lots of current information and advice, this simple article on a single topic grew to 4000 words and three pages.  In truth, there's not a lot of compelling reason to rush to read the entire article now, but do keep it in mind as a reference for when (if) you ever find yourself planning a trip to New Zealand.  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  The Interisland Ferry Service in New Zealand :  Learn all about this service, the various ships that operate, how to find the best fares, when and whether you should book in advance, what to expect on the journey, and how to know in advance if you'll be enjoying calm weather or not.

Talking about travel to New Zealand, may I remind you of the two currently scheduled upcoming Travel Insider tours.

Rhine Christmas Markets Cruise :  Our most popular tour is always the Christmas Markets Cruise, and this year (3-10 December) we're doing it along the Rhine rather than the Danube.  It is a different river, and some different countries (Switzerland, France, Germany and Holland) but the same charming experience with wonderful Christmas Markets at the ports of call; incredibly beautiful scenery, and charming towns and cities along the way, all enjoyed from the comfort of a nearly new luxury river cruise ship, and shared with a group of like minded fellow Travel Insiders.

Scotland's Islands and Highlands :  After the outstanding success of this tour this year, I'm offering it again for 2011 (13-23 June).  This takes you to seven different islands off Scotland's west coast, plus spends time in the Highlands of Scotland too, including a visit to Loch Ness and a ride on a wonderful steam train (featured in Harry Potter).  With a maximum group size of 24 and eight people already signed up, it seems the tour may end up selling out again for 2011, so please do think about this some more as you plan your 2011 travels.

I am also aware of the continued level of interest in another tour to New Zealand, and am considering offering this for October 2011.  I'll have more details on that in the next little while, but if this is something of interest, please keep your mid/late October 2011 free.

I mentioned last week that Qantas weighed my carry-on bag at check-in, and the woman told me the maximum allowable weight was 8kg/17.5lbs.  Fortunately she 'looked the other way' and didn't make an issue of my bag's 20lb weight.

But upon arriving at the gate area, announcements were frequently being made advising that the carry-on limit was 7kg/15lbs - had it changed 2.5lbs from check-in to gate? Alas, the 15lb limit is the correct one – the woman at the check-in counter was wrong.

Now, Qantas says in its Terms and Conditions of Carriage that one must not include certain items in checked baggage, including computers, personal electronics, cameras, fragile, delicate, and expensive items.  When you add up the weight of my computer(s) and other electronic items, camera and camcorder, and other incidental bits and pieces, and add to that the weight of a reasonable carry-on bag as well, and I'm already well over 15 lbs.

So - my question to Qantas is (and I'll be formally asking this of them upon my return and will share their reply with you) – If we can not check these items, and if they exceed the allowed weight of cabin baggage, what are we to do?

And – supplemental question – if you intercept them at the gate as you threaten to do and check the carry-on item, do you then accept liability for the items contained therein, even though you exclude yourself from liability for carrying such things in checked baggage to start with?

To add insult to injury, a whiny voiced male was regularly announcing in the boarding area 'All carry on bags must weigh less than 7kg/15lbs and fit within the sizing template.  We will be watching you when you board and if you have an oversize bag, we will take it from you and it will probably not travel on the same flight as you, so come up now and check any oversize/overweight bags while you still have time for them to make the same flight.'

Needless to say, no-one voluntarily offered up their carry-on bag to be checked in.

But what a nasty mean minded threat.  In interesting contrast, Qantas' close code-share partner, American Airlines, had a flight departing from the next gate, and their announcements could also be heard.  They were saying 'We've a full flight tonight, so if you've a larger carry-on, you might want to gate check it.  There's no charge for gate checking, and we guarantee that all gate checked bags will travel with you to Boston.'

So, Qantas says 'your bags probably won't travel on the same flight' and American says 'your bags are guaranteed to travel with you'. When did Qantas change from being one of the truly good guys to being mean minded and nasty?

Fortunately, a good crew on the flight made up for their company's policies and ground handlers.  There was a moment of worry when they announced a delay due to one of the cabin crew leaving the plane suddenly sick, but then they said they had checked procedures and would fly the plane to Auckland short handed.  Phew!

One of the things about airports is they almost always take a percentage of sales from all the stores in their terminals.  Clearly this has motivated Auckland Airport much more than most airports, because to get to the plane you have to walk, not simply past an arrivals duty free store, but right through the middle of the store, on a pathway that twists and turns in its maximum efforts to divert you from getting through the store and instead attempts to get you to stop and buy something on the way.  A poor selection of expensive whisky meant I was not diverted.

My last hope for someone checking if I was lawfully traveling with my daughter or unlawfully abducting her was at Auckland Immigration.  You'll recall that no-one at Alaska Airlines or Qantas asked for proof of my ex-wife consenting for me to travel with my almost six year old daughter as I left the US, and I wondered if perhaps the point of control had shifted to being when one arrives in a foreign country.  I doubted very much that would be the case, and sure enough, by the time I got to Auckland I guess the immigration people there assumed that I'd already been thoroughly checked out before being allowed to fly out of the US with Anna.

No-one, nowhere, ever checked to see if I had my ex-wife's consent to travel with Anna.

American Airlines has come up with a new fee, sort of.  There's actually nothing at all innovative about airlines charging extra for better seat locations in coach class (eg aisle seats near the front and emergency exit rows) and American is now doing this too, charging a varying amount depending on the length of the flight ($19 – $39) for seats in the first few rows of coach, combined with the privilege of being in the first group to board the plane.

I'd pay extra for an emergency exit row seat, but not for merely being nearer the front.

Talking about American Airlines, they are edging closer in the bed to their new best friend, Jetblue.  First they started interlining each other's flights, then they added the ability for fliers to credit miles on connecting flights to either airline's frequent flier account.  Now they've announced plans to add codeshares, effective some time in Q1 2011.

Are we better or worse off with the evolving ever closer relationship between these two airlines?  Definitely worse off, although perhaps not immediately and tangibly so.  American Airlines has clearly taken the advice 'Keep your friends close and your enemies closer' to heart, and by becoming best friends with Jetblue, it would seem there's very little likelihood that Jetblue will now turn around and mouont a determined competitive assault on a key AA route or hub.

At this rate, it won't be long before AA gobbles up Jetblue entirely.  And perhaps that would not be a big surprise, because there can be little doubt that AA is feeling left out of the airline merger game, even though it had earlier disdainfully said it didn't want to play that game.

Using the excuse of 'the rising cost of jetfuel' Airtran has increased the amount it charges for tickets.  No, not tickets.  They stay the same.  Not even a fuel surcharge.  But the fee Airtran charges for the first bag you might wish to check is going up from $15 to $20.  The fee for the second bag stays the same, and if you're checking no bags, you don't pay any more.

What a ridiculous excuse - the rising cost of jet fuel.  Why can't the airline have the cojones to simply say 'We were charging less than the going rate for the first checked bag and so increased our fee'?  Do you too hate the dishonesty and the disdain implicit inAir
tran lying to us so transparently as if we are gullible idiots
, much more than the fee itself?

Reader Martin has done some research on the cost of flights from Baltimore to St Louis and has come to a startling finding.  He writes :

I was just pricing a November ticket on SouthWest from Baltimore to Seattle.  The cheapest ticket is a daily morning flight (1640/104) via St. Louis for $99.

If you just want to take flight 104 from St. Louis to Seattle the cost is $149.

This makes the cost of flight 1640 from Baltimore to St. Louis minus $50.  I didn't realize that St. Louis was such an unattractive destination.

Mixed messages from the Department of Transportation about seats and seatbelts.  The National Transportation Safety Board is again recommending that all children should have their own seats in planes, ending the current practice whereby children under the age of two have been allowed to travel in their parent's lap either for free or perhaps 10% of an adult fare.  The NTSB says having their own seat would be safer.

The DoT's FAA has rejected the NTSB recommendation (again).  It says this would make flying unaffordable for parents with infants, and would force the people to drive rather than fly, resulting in more highway fatalities.

When you think there's probably been no infants killed in plane crashes in more years than you care to count, this almost seems reasonable, although clearly few people at the DoT are parents who have attempted a 1,000+ mile roadtrip with an under two year old infant in the car.

Interestingly, the DoT has a thing about road safety currently, because it is now proposing that all buses and coaches should be fitted with combination lap and shoulder harness type seat belts.  If memory serves me correctly, this is expected to save between 1 – 8 lives a year.

Is there nothing more important that the DoT could be doing, and no more valuable way to spend money, than to fit seat belts to motor coaches?

Guess which metro area in the US is top-ranked for aerospace and defence manufacturing?

Alas, it is not Seattle (which struggled to come third).  Neither is it Charleston SC or Fort Worth (4th and 5th).  Huntsville AL placed second.  For top place, we need to look to Wichita, KS.  Details here.

Amtrak, eat your heart out.  According to this article, China will have a high speed train capable of 1000 km/hr (625 mph – faster than commercial jets fly) within the next two – three years.  The cost of deploying the technology is surprisingly moderate – about $4.5 million per mile of track more than the cost of conventional high speed track.

In another Chinese transport innovation, they are developing a 'bus' that straddles a lane (or possibly two lanes) on the road, allowing for regular car traffic to continue beneath and 'through' the bus (there's an illustration in the article that explains it clearly).  A great idea until the 'bus' comes to a tunnel or has to go underneath a bridge….

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A man who has been on Canada's 'Most Wanted' list for some years following a sexual assault case in 2000 has now been found and arrested.  So what's the big security deal with this?  Well, he was working as the manager of the hair salon on Carnival's Splendor cruise ship.

You see, in order to get a job working for Steiner Leisure, the company that supplies staff such as this to Carnival, a person has to undergo background checks.  Carnival issued a statement saying they also conduct background checks on all shipboard and shoreside personnel, and require a certified criminal history document from the employee's home country.  Steiner Leisure said they require every job applicant to provide an original police record and background check, complete with official seals, and says they can tell when the documents are faked.

Okay, so somehow both Steiner Leisure and Carnival messed up in this case.  But wait, there's more.  so too did the US government.

Foreign crew on ships that sail in and out of US ports are given special seaman's visas by the US State Department.  The US Embassy in Canada was required to conduct yet another background check on the applicant prior to approving the visa.

And – still more to come.  Not only did the US Embassy in Canada and the US State Department mess up, but so too did the US Customs and Border Patrol, which runs checks on all crew on the ship's manifest each time a ship enters and leaves a US port.

Add all this up, and the question remains massively unanswered – how did a man on Canada's 'Most Wanted' list remain undetected for some years?

Good job he was 'only' a sex offender, not a terrorist….

Here's a must read that hopefully you can read – I can't open the url at present, due to the entire CNS news site being unreachable from NZ at present, so am summarizing it from memory.  It tells how 481 &#
39;high priority' illegal immigrants from high risk nations have been simply 'caught and released' the same way a fisherman plays pretend fishing.  In this case, it is the Customs and Border Patrol who are playing pretend enforcement of the laws they are tasked with enforcing, and these 481 potential terrorists have all simply disappeared back into the urban jungles of the US.

We spend how many billions of dollars a year doing lunatic ineffective things (like the secondary search of my almost six year old daughter at LAX last week) to inconvenience ordinary 'normal' US citizens, and preventing law abiding people from other nations coming to visit the US and spend their money in our economy, all in the name of security, but when the CBP people stumble across a high risk illegal immigrant, they catch and release them as if they were a harmless protected fish in a stream.

Lastly before the other articles, here's a fun list of misleading airport names – airports that imply they serve a certain city, but which in truth may be as many as 75 miles away from the city in question (and with better airports being much closer).

I'll be back home next week so look for a more normal newsletter next Friday

Until then, please enjoy safe travels


3 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 20 August”

  1. Re: Here’s a must read that hopefully you can read – I can’t open the url at present, due to the entire CNS news site being unreachable from NZ at present, so am summarizing it from memory.
    Good letter this week. But this bit caught my eye. There may be a reason you were unable to open that URL: NZ’s web filtering, which came live earlier this year. See: http://www.stuff.co.nz/technology/digital-living/3434754/New-Zealands-internet-filter-goes-live
    Work associates in NZ tell me it has had serious effects on net access. Have you noticed this?

  2. As Kiwi for past 12+ years but currently back to US
    I totally agree with observations that good/fair
    value is often hard to find now in New Zealand. The
    word ‘expensive’ appears in most travel-related articles. Of course ‘the scenery’ is ‘free’! We
    have stayed in some extremely mediocre lodging that
    would be largely unacceptable in US. And yes, the
    domestic airfares are outrageous unless you can plan
    weeks or months in advance. Dining out food is often
    quite overpriced unless steered to good value, often
    ethnic, place such as Brazilian restaurant in AKL.

  3. Interesting comments about the cost of activity/attractions etc. in New Zealand.
    As an Auckland tour operator (serving 99% international market), we hear this feedback repeatedly…I’m sorry to report!
    I’m not going to make any excuses as to reasons “why”…the increasing cost of fuel?, our Gst (which is due to increase from 12.5% to 15% from 1 Oct)?, vehicle re-licencing costs?, and the list might go on.
    Are we also just panning the way for the Rugby World Cup?…which is down-right unfair!
    I know high prices are a turn-off to tourists taking tours (which reflects the down-turn in our tourism industry), and with much more competition between tourism providers it’s a vicious circle.
    Tourists should do homework beforehand; (review websites have good information), and be looking at *value for money*, rather than looking at just the price. I don’t see prices going down in the short term or near future, but sourcing a fair price for your excursion would make it more appealing?

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