Weekly Roundup Friday 10 June 2011

Good morning

And hello to you this morning from York, where I’m spending a couple of days prior to traveling on up to Scotland on Sunday to join this year’s Scotland tour.  This will be a short newsletter accordingly.

I’m staying at the Best Western York Pavilion Hotel.  Its website says “The Best Western York Pavilion Hotel enjoys a prime position just a mile from the centre of York, 25 minutes walk along the river into town”.  Sounds lovely, doesn’t it.

Now, I’ll readily concede that when hotels claim to be a certain distance from ‘the center’ of the town they serve, the definition of city center can sometimes be debatable, and the hotels of course interpret it in their favor.  But the BW website goes on to say that the hotel is also 1 mile from both York Minster (pictured above) and from the National Railway Museum, and these are exact locations with no ambiguity.

So, now for the reality. A mile from the center of the city, York Minster and the railway museum?  A mile doesn’t even get you to the city walls that mark the outside limits of the central city area.  Google maps says it is a 2.0 mile walk to the Minster and a 2.4 mile walk to the railway museum.  So the claim of 1 mile?  Not even close.  A total lie, alas, and readily verifiable as such through Google Maps.

The ‘walk along the river’ is in fact a walk along a busy main road with the river occasionally visible at the end of side streets.  Sure, after some distance along the main road, you could detour down to the river and walk along it, but that would make the distances even greater than if you take the direct routes measured by Google above.

I think we all expect hotels to given themselves the benefit of the doubt, but claiming to be one mile from specific locations when the true distance is more than two miles is unacceptable.

The hotel also offered free parking in the city itself – a tacit acknowledgement perhaps that it was too far away to walk.  This more central location was still outside the city walls, but was 1.2 miles closer to the city and had extraordinary security.

To get in and out of the car park, you needed not just one or two but three different electronic key devices – a bar coded key card, an RFID tag, and a transponder.  Amazing, and a sad reflection on the paranoia caused by the prevalence of petty crime and car breakins that are so commonplace in Britain.

I’ve also been having an interesting discussion with the hotel.  They recently removed the security on their in-hotel Wi-Fi network, causing it now to be an insecure open public Wi-Fi network that anyone can access if they are within range of it, including from the street the hotel fronts onto.

I asked them to restore the basic security that had formerly been in place (requiring a password to log in – I’m not sure what type of Wi-Fi security it used) and they have been delaying a response, blaming it on ‘the IT guy’ and variously telling me my concern about having my data flow exposed to anyone with a modicum of technical knowledge to tap into as being something I shouldn’t worry about, and telling me that the Wi-Fi network did not extend outside the hotel so there was no need to worry.

 After rebutting these erroneous statements, I was then told ‘Well, don’t worry, no-one could access anything on your computer, even if they can see what data is being sent over the Wi-Fi’ and they seemed to think this meant there was no risk to me at all.  Very wrong.  The data being sent over the Wi-Fi network includes my user names and passwords to access the various online services I use, including those to access The Travel Insider website and blog.

This introduces an important issue that we all need to be increasingly aware of.  Many hotels these days only provide Wi-Fi internet connections, and even the best Wi-Fi connection is never as secure as an Ethernet/wired connection.  At least basic encryption/security on a Wi-Fi network provides a level of technological barrier making it slightly harder for people to snoop on your communications; whereas an open network is just that – open to anyone with even a little bit of technical knowledge to access and intercept the communications going over the Wi-Fi network.

If you are on a network that uses WEP type Wi-Fi security, then anyone who knows the password to access the network can grab your data.  If you are on a W-Fi network that uses WPA type security, if it has been configured correctly, you might be safer.

In case you think that you’ll be careful not to do anything too sensitive, think carefully about what you are doing that seems ‘safe’.  Are you logging in to your email?  Does that mean your user name and password are being sent unencrypted over the Wi-Fi?  If so, then armed with that data, a person can explore through your email and who knows what other personal detail they’ll find – if you’ve ever been sent your user name and password by email to any internet service, then they can find that.  If you’ve ever been sent an update from some internet service where you can click a link in the email to be automatically logged in to your account at the service, then they can find that, too.

If you’re like many people, the chances are you use the same one or two passwords in most places you go, so when someone finds your password, they can then start trying it at other places you might also have an account – maybe Paypal or Facebook, for example.

If you want to see how easy it is to spy on an open Wi-Fi network, Google for ‘Firesheep’, an extension to your Mozilla browser that will do this for you automatically.  There is also a newer product, Faceniff, that runs on Android devices, allowing you the ultimate in portable snooping, enabling you to snoop on Wi-Fi networks from your cell phone.  Both are free.

Of course, your risk isn’t just in a hotel.  It can be anywhere you’re using an open public network – how about the next time you’re in an airport and enjoying their free Wi-Fi?  That bored looking person in the next gate seating area over from you – guess what he is doing on his computer?  Or the person playing with his cell phone on the other side of the walkway?  Or anyone else – maybe several different people are letting Firesheep and Faceniff pick up usernames and passwords.  Maybe you’re at a coffee store and enjoying their free Wi-Fi access.  While you’re using their free Wi-Fi access to the internet, the person sipping coffee next to you might be enjoying free access to your data stream at the same time.

With the ability to intercept and identify user data now being so simple that anyone who uses the free Mozilla browser and the free Firesheep add-on can do it with no need for any special programming knowledge, you can no longer afford to be complacent about how and where you use your computer on Wi-Fi networks.

Remember also that it isn’t only your computer that accesses the internet over Wi-Fi.  Perhaps your phone does as well, and maybe also a tablet/iPad?  All these devices might be exposing your data to snoopers.

So – what to do?  Three solutions, of varying degrees of security and convenience.

The first is never to use any Wi-Fi network – a highly safe strategy, but also highly unrealistic in this day and age.  Use a wired internet connection if possible, or nothing at all if not possible.

The second is to only use WPA-2 encrypted networks with individual user account ID’s and passwords.  Maybe this is something you can configure your work and home networks to accept, but you’re out of luck using third party networks in such cases.

 There is another type of solution – creating a mobile or SSL type ‘Virtual Private Network’ or VPN.  This requires you either to pay for the service through a third party VPN provider, or to configure a VPN host on your work or home network that you can then connect to and through from wherever in the world you are.  I’m not sure, but I think it requires you to have a fixed IP address as part of the VPN server requirements, which would rule it out for most home networks.

For now, if you are staying at a hotel and it only offers an open Wi-Fi connection, or if it uses a WEP type ‘security’ with one common password for all users, complain and ask them to upgrade their network security.

I found myself in a nightmarish situation with my UK SIM for my cell phone.  To my puzzlement, upon turning the phone on after landing at Heathrow, it wasn’t working.  After some frustration and troubleshooting, I eventually ascertained the problem was that there was no money in the account, so the phone company (Talk Mobile, a division of Car Phone Warehouse) had just turned my service off without telling me in any way at all.

There was supposed to be about £35 of credit on the SIM, so I wondered what the problem was.  I tried to call their Customer Service people, but I couldn’t do that because I had no money in my account and calling to their Customer Service Department was a chargeable call.  Ouch – there’s a vicious Catch-22 if ever I saw one.

Eventually I managed to find a way to call into their Customer Service for free, and spoke to a gentleman at great length (ie more than 30 minutes) only to be told that there were lots of data charges that had used up the whole balance on the account, but he refused to give details.

The only way I could find out would be if I sent in a formal letter in writing (not email and certainly not a verbal request over the phone) and gave them a UK address to mail a statement to me.  Not living in the UK, and wishing a fast resolution to the problem, this was less than satisfactory, and I wondered if I’d suddenly gone back in time twenty years.  Why did they insist on a request in writing?  Why could they not accept my oral request, and why could they not email the details to me?  For that matter, why couldn’t I log in to my account and see the stuff online?

I’d have thrown the SIM away and refused to deal with them ever again, but for the fact that the phone number was the official emergency contact number for the Scotland Tour, so I needed to keep it.  So, on to the next challenge, putting more money onto the account.

I went to a Car Phone Warehouse store, and they told me their credit card processing machine was down, and suggested I come back later, or go to a W H Smith bookstore just down the road and get the payment processed there.  I went to W H Smiths, where the staff said ‘We can’t process their payments, and never have been able to, and wish they’d stop sending people to us’.  Hmmm.  Car Phone Warehouse gave a list of other places that would be able to process a payment, and I traipsed around the town visiting them, but none of them could.

I called Talk Mobile’s customer service, and after about 10 minutes on the phone, got them to run a credit card charge onto my Visa card, only to be told ‘Our computer is down, when it goes down it is usually down for 30 minutes, it has already been down for 10 minutes so call back in 20 minutes’.  When I next called them, it took 30 minutes (I exaggerate not) to reach the same point and the same explanation that their computer was down.

I went back to Car Phone Warehouse, now late in the day.  Their computer system remained down and they still couldn’t process a charge.  Recognizing defeat (albeit after wasting much of a precious day prior to accepting this defeat) I pulled out a £20 bill and paid cash for an account top up.

What an appalling run-around in an attempt to do what is surely an extraordinarily simple thing – to top up the balance on my phone’s account.

Anyway, enough of the frustrations of travel.  Let’s talk instead about – oh, the airlines.  My flights to London (Delta to Amsterdam then KLM to London) were happily mainly normal and free of problems, although I did have to wonder at the good sense of the air traffic control system in Europe.  From memory, the air time to fly from AMS to LHR is something like 45 minutes, and we spent another almost 30 minutes in delays getting sequenced in to our turn to land at Heathrow upon arrival into the London area.

With the growing sensitivity, particular in Europe, to ‘carbon emissions’ caused by airplanes in particular, to say nothing to the airlines themselves being keen to control their costs as much as possible, one has to wonder why the flight wasn’t held on the ground in Amsterdam until 45 minutes prior to an assigned landing time, rather than have it fly to London with their fingers crossed, and only get a (delayed) landing time assigned upon arrival into the London airspace.

I can maybe understand, on a 10 hour flight, how you head off into the wild blue yonder and no-one necessarily knows what things will be like upon getting close to the destination airport, but when there’s less than an hour’s flying time involved, surely the air traffic control people can assign a somewhat guaranteed landing slot time before the plane even departs Amsterdam?  And if for some reason this is not currently possible, shouldn’t the great minds of the industry work out a way to make it possible as a high priority item?

Kudos to Delta for closing down another off-shore call center.  They will no longer route calls from the US to a call center in South Africa, having them instead be handled by their 4,000 call center employees within the US.  The SA call center will continue to accept calls for Delta from other countries, however, and DL also has an ongoing call center in Jamaica.

Not quite such kudos though to Delta for mismanaging a matter that exposed its greed when it comes to excess baggage charges.

Back in August 2008 Delta proudly issued a press release advising how, as part of the honor they feel at flying members of our armed forces, they would allow military personnel flying on duty travel to take as many bags as they liked, waiving all excess baggage charges.  Wow – what a great thing for Delta to do.

Well, some time between then and now, Delta quietly reversed its earlier decision, and instituted a new policy whereby they would allow three bags free of charge, but beyond that, extra bags would be each charged a stiff $200 excess bag fee.  And their press release about the unlimited free bags – it mysteriously disappeared off their website a couple of days ago after the controversy detailed below blew up in DL’s face.

That is a feature of the internet – being able to rewrite history.  Except that other features of the internet may prevent you from doing so, and in this case, if you scroll to near the bottom of this blog entry you can see a copy of Delta’s original press release.

This change of policy was discovered by a group of army personnel who between them had to pay an unexpected $3400 in extra baggage fees.  Two of the men shot a video and put it on YouTube, and an embarrassed Delta backed down, revising its policy to now allow four bags free of charge for active duty military personnel traveling on orders.

I actually am far from shocked at military personnel being charged for a fourth bag.  Why should they, unique among all types of passengers, be allowed an unlimited number of bags for free – especially when the individual soldiers can claim the cost back from the government?  I feel the outrage being directed at Delta for not sufficiently kissing the ground on which our soldiers walk is misdirected.

Don’t get me wrong – there are few people who are more supportive of and appreciative of our military than me.  But I can respect the military and their service without losing perspective, and in this case, I think the bigger issue is the $200 charge, rather than the fact there was any charge at all.

How can any airline justify a $200 per extra bag charge?  That is, many times, as much as the ticket itself costs, and you just know the bag in the hold doesn’t get frequent flier miles, a free packet of peanuts, or any other amenities.

Here’s some more about the issue.

Boeing has some helpful advice for airlines and government agencies around the world that might be thinking about buying new single aisle type jets in the next decade or two.  It is suggesting they should hurry up and buy 737s while they are still available (prior to the plane’s discontinuation and replacement by something that will be very much more fuel efficient and operationally less expensive to maintain.

While one can understand Boeing’s desire to continue selling its increasingly obsolete 737, its logic in saying ‘we’re about to discontinue the 737, and so hurry to buy a plane that will be soon obsolete, rather than buy in your planned timeframe and get the new replacement plane’ is a difficult concept for them to sell, even to the most short-sighted of procurement officials.

Imagine if a car dealership tried a similar line – ‘this is your last chance to buy a lovely 2011 model car, hurry to buy one now before they disappear forever, to be replaced by the 2012 models’.

On the other hand, Boeing’s essentially obsolete and discontinued/replaced 767 was successfully sold to the US Air Force as a tanker, so maybe Boeing is on to a good thing in terms of getting end-of-life sales from obsolete airframes.

Details here.

Reader Alan offers another gem of TSA nonsense :

Coming back home from LGA this week, my wife inadvertently left about 1/2 ounce of water in her plastic bottle, a bottle she was to fill up with water from the gate area.

TSA stopped her as it went through the x-ray belt along with her carry-ons.  She could either discard the bottle or drink the contents.  But she was not allowed to drink the contents in front of the TSA officer on the gate side of the checkpoint.  No.  She had to be escorted out – yes, escorted out by a TSA officer so that she could drink the water on the incoming area of the checkpoint in front of him, and then again go though security with her and her carry-on items already cleared.

Idiots.  You have to wonder if their existence is to make our lives safer or more inconvenient and annoying.

Without checking their website for rules, I have a sneaking suspicion that the TSA officer made this rule up himself.  And whether it is a rule or he just was difficult is besides the point.  It was pure idiocy and completely useless.  What was the risk?  That she’d drink the water on the gate side and blow herself up right there, or drink the water 15 feet back on the entry side and blow herself up.

But at least Alan’s wife suffered only a small bit of pettiness, foisted on her by one idiotic TSA staffer.  Now, how about a situation where a gang of petulant TSA workers had a sulking fit and penalize 2,000 elderly British tourists who dared to point out the nonsense they were being forced to endure, and so worked a ‘go slow’ causing the tourists to wait up to seven hours to be admitted into the US.

These were passengers on a luxury cruise, and they were making a series of port stops around the US as part of their two and a half month cruise.  They all had been given advance clearance for multiple entries into the US, and this was their tenth US port stop.

The TSA shouldn’t have even got up from their desks to do anything at all, but instead of standing respectfully to one side and welcoming these people and their money to the US, they subjected them to almost a full day of unnecessary bureaucratic delay.

I’ve traveled to many corrupt and inefficient countries on cruises, and have never, never had the immigration people treat the ship’s passengers with the idiocy, rudeness and contempt that the US officials treated these people.

Indeed, as a passenger, I’ve not even had to interact personally with any officials – the ship’s crew have done that all for their passengers, and I know from discussions with the ships’ captains that most of the time, they get the visas processed without even any need for bribery (other than a good meal and a drink or two for the officials while they are on board).  Some countries even have a special ‘cruise ship passenger’ type visa for passengers who are just making a day stop in a port, recognizing such people as highly desirable (everyone knows cruise ship passengers spend lots of money in the ports they stop at, right?) and very low risk visitors.

But not the US.  It is no exaggeration to say that illegal aliens (sorry, ‘undocumented immigrants’) from Mexico get better treatment from our immigration service than did these elderly British tourists.

Or perhaps it is equally accurate to say that young Muslim men get better treatment than elderly English tourists.  Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is quoted in this article as saying there is no logic in profiling Muslim men under 35.

Is it too much to hope that as well as defending the ‘See no Evil’ approach to young Muslim men, she could also comment affirmatively on the logic of subjecting 2000 elderly English tourists, who had already made nine previous US port stops during their cruise, to a full-on intensive immigration screening process?

Who will lose their jobs over this?  You might answer, with a sigh, ‘No-one’.  But you’d be both right and wrong at the same time.  For sure, none of the TSA fools will lose their jobs; we all know that, don’t we.

But ordinary Americans – some of them will lose jobs, because these 2,000 people will go home and tell all their friends and neighbors ‘Don’t go to the US; they treated us like something you find on the sole of your shoe after stepping in a dog turd’.  They don’t even have to tell their friends, because the story is getting prominent exposure in Britain – a country currently smarting under the hurt of our President choosing to back a policy supported by ‘our good friend and ally’, Hugo Chavez, instead of supporting Britain (to do with the Falkland Islands).

The world is full of friendlier countries to visit than the US, and as I’ve written about just a few weeks ago, our share of international tourism is dropping, and with it is a cost of billions of dollars a year in tourism income, and a million or more lost jobs.

And, actually, yes, there will be some TSA job losses, too. With fewer travelers, there will be less need for TSA employees.  Of course, the ones who do get laid off (or, more probably, just not hired) will not be the dolts in Los Angeles who so severely mistreated these English visitors.

Details here – you really must read this, so as to be appalled at the treatment these elderly Brits were subjected to.  Some passed out after being made to stand for hours, and a woman who wanted to go to the bathroom was told to ‘go over the side’.

As a contrast, when I was going through UK immigration this week, I mentioned I was taking a group on a tour of Scotland.  The lady paused in stamping my passport and asked if the other group members were with me.  I explained we were all making our own way to Glasgow, and asked her why she asked me that.  She said that if we were all together, I could have simply given her everyone’s passports en masse, and she’d stamp them all without needing to interview anyone, so as to make our entry into the UK quicker and easier.  What a lovely and helpful offer.

I also remember when flying on the BA special flight to London City Airport, the immigration officer there rushed us through immigration without doing anything other than rapidly stamping each person’s passport without pausing, because he/they wished to help encourage business travelers to come to London on this exciting new flight.

It isn’t just the UK that can be friendly and helpful.  Even Russia scores better – in the past, I’ve taken groups to Russia and have run interference for the group members, and got friendly immigration and customs officials to speed my groups through processing, even in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport which has perhaps the worst reputation of all Russian points of entry.

Wake up, folks.  This is serious.  Ask any person from any other country who travels occasionally internationally, and you’ll be surprised at the response you get.  The US is increasingly being viewed as being rude and unwelcoming, and little by little, all the people we most want to visit are staying away and going elsewhere, while the other countries in the world we compete against are taking away the tourists that should be coming to the US and spending their money with us.

None of us want to spend time in countries where we’re not welcomed, and with over 200 countries to choose from, most of which are actively seeking our tourist dollars, of course we choose ‘nice’ countries preferentially over ‘nasty’ ones – both personally for our leisure travels, and professionally when deciding what countries to use for international conferences and conventions.

I’m not rude and unwelcoming.  Neither are you.  So why are we allowing our country to get this sadly deserved reputation everywhere in the world?  How can we change this counter-productive policy?

 Lastly this week, a certain Congressman with the unfortunate name of Weiner (which bizarrely he prefers to mis-pronounce as if it were spelled ‘wiener’) has been the latest person to join a long list of people with names that are closely linked to their occupation (or, in his case, pre-occupation).

The situation has of course become the butt of many jokes, and Spirit Airlines chose to build an airfare sale around the matter, while a dating site extended a most hilarious offer for Cong. Weiner to become their spokesman.  With his political career now looking far from assured, maybe he should think carefully about their offer.

There’s unlikely to be a newsletter next week or the week after, while I’m traipsing around the wilds of Scotland.  So until whenever, please be sure to enjoy safe travels

Davidsig265 David.


4 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 10 June 2011”

  1. David,
    I have a vpn solution that is free. It’s a bit techie so some readers may not be able to set it up. You need Logmein Hamachi (free version – logmein.com) and FreeProxy (download.com). Basically you are setting up a VPN between your laptop and your home computer. The FreeProxy sits on your home computer and provides an HTTP proxy. In your browser set your internet options to use the proxy and IP and port number. I use this solution all the time when using an open wifi.

  2. As a U.S. Government employee myself I feel I should apologize for the treatment of the 2000 British tourists. (I do not work for TSA, thank God, but another agency. Please don’t use my name or there will be retaliation). They probably don’t treat us any better if that’s any consolation. Mostly, it’s just security-for-show and does little good. We laugh about it but still have to go through the motions. I will probably move to another country when I retire as will a lot of my co-workers. Thanks for a great news letter each week! Kind regards,

  3. Pingback: Weekly Roundup Friday 8 July 2011 » The Travel Insider

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