Weekly Roundup Friday 26 August 2011

Do you tip the housemaids when staying in a hotel?

Good morning

I was catching up with some articles on Frommers.com and came across one on the subject of tipping hotel chambermaids.  Arthur Frommer says ‘A tip of $20 seems to me a minimum for a two-night stay’.  He believes it is our obligation to ensure that hotel chambermaids earn a living wage, and laments that only apparently 30% of hotel guests in this country leave a tip for the chambermaid.

This seems like an ideal topic for a Travel Insider instant survey, with the results to be presented to you next week.  So would you please click the link which best describes your approach to hotel chambermaid tipping – it will create an email with your answer encoded into the subject line.

I never tip chambermaids
I rarely tip, and only if something special is done for me
I usually tip if the room is clean and well cared for
I always tip

I’ll let you know the results next week.

Talking about tipping hotel maids, you may have heard about how Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, and who was featured in a high profile allegation of improper behavior with a hotel maid, has now had the charges dropped against him.  That’s not the same as saying he has been exonerated, either from this charge or some of the other similar incidents that have been bubbling beneath the surface but largely kept quiet by a complicit French press.

The most horrendous part of the unfolding revelations and imploding prosecution case was the finding that the $3000/night hotel suite at the Sofitel in New York had semen stains from four other men – three in the form of carpet stains and one in the form of a wallpaper stain.  Apparently $3000/nt – a staggering sum which you think could even pay for the carpets to be replaced and the walls repapered between every guest – doesn’t get you much more of a cleaning than you’d get at a Motel 6.

Or maybe these other four men didn’t tip their housemaids sufficiently to get the suite properly cleaned?

One more thing about hotel maids.  California’s senate has introduced a bill that would make it mandatory for hotels, motels, and other types of lodging establishment to use a fitted rather than flat bottom sheet on all beds.

This is nothing to do with bedbugs or semen.  Apparently modern day house maids are not as strong as they have been for generations in the past, and some of them may suffer back or knee problems from having to lift up bed mattresses as part of tucking in flat sheets when making beds.

Does that mean that soon we might see extra little placards in our hotel rooms, right next to the ones with the increasingly complicated procedure you must follow to get clean towels ‘to save the environment’, with the new placards saying ‘for the sake of the health of our house maids, we will not change the sheets on your bed unless you take the old ones off yourself’.

What with having to work in conditions that almost require a bio-hazard suit, risking their health by strenuous lifting, and possibly also risking their virtue when randy old Frenchmen come by, one can start to see why it is that Arthur Frommer believes hotel housemaids should be given at least a $10 daily tip.

A quick update from last week’s mention of our upcoming November Front Sight firearms training course.  The amazing deal I mentioned last week – basically a life membership entitling you to unlimited courses whenever you want to take them – was extended until Monday next week (30 August).

Whether pro or anti-firearms, or just plain neutral/openminded, you’ll find this four day course tremendously extending (in the most positive sense of the term).  It won’t convert you into a ‘Rambo’ or ‘Terminator’; and indeed it is more likely to do quite the opposite and give you a new and sober appreciation for the burden of responsibility you shoulder when owning any type of firearm.

Come along with us and try it out – if you don’t like it, you can of course leave at the end of the first day and spend the remaining three days in Las Vegas.

Today (Friday) will be a very exciting day for Boeing.  It is expected (as I write this on Thursday evening) that the FAA will certify the 787 on Friday, and with the 747-8 newly certified the previous week, this seems to mark the end of the calamitous delays and massive problems that plagued both development programs.

The first 747-8 (a freighter version, the passenger version has been greeted with very little interest by the airlines) is expected to be delivered to Cargolux on 7 September, and the first 787 is thought to be winging its way to ANA on 22 September.

What is not yet known are the ultimate actual performance parameters of the 787, and how much – if any – benefit will actually accrue from the use of new composite materials in its construction.  Critics have suggested the 787 will end up with appreciable shortfalls in performance as compared to the original optimistic claims of Boeing (ie they are saying it will not be able to carry as much payload and/or fly as far as was originally promised).

During the many years of the 787 project, the benefits of using composites have turned out to be much smaller than hoped for, while ever advancing incremental improvements in aluminium alloys have helpled traditional metal construction methods to become even better than they have been.  It would be ironic if metal construction were to return back to greater prominence in future airplane designs.

It isn’t just the technical performance parameters that threaten to underwhelm 787 customers.  The traveling experience for us as passengers seems to be stepping back from the original bold promises as well.

Here’s an interesting commentary – on the one hand, it obligingly gushes, on Boeing’s behalf, about how wonderful the 787 will be for passengers.

But you’ll see that most of the claimed improvements are vague rather than specific.  Sure, the window is said to be 30% larger (not that this will make much difference if you’re in the middle section of seats and far from the window) and cabin pressurization improved to the equivalent of being at a 6,000 ft altitude (instead of about 8,000 ft as is more common in most present jets), but where are the specifics of the other claims and why are they not being offered to us?  How much bigger are the overhead bins?  How much more humid is the air?  How much quieter is the passenger cabin?  How much cleaner is the air (and, for that matter, how dirty is cabin air in present Boeing planes)?

And how, in reality, does LED lighting help us to relax and pre-adjust to the new time zone?  The claims for colored LED lighting are, in my opinion, ridiculous new-age mumbo jumbo.  The next we know, Boeing will be hanging crystals in the aisles to help our energy flows conform to the changed flows at our destination.

The article does have the courage to point out that the parameters that have perhaps the greatest impact on us are no better than on any other planes.  Seats are the same size.  Passenger/toilet ratios are unchanged.  There’s only one main entry/exit door (compared to three on the A380, which holds about twice as many passengers).  And the 787 travels no faster than other passenger jets, either.

Don’t get me wrong – any improvement, no matter how small, is to be welcomed and appreciated.  But the plane is far from the transformative design it was originally promised to be, either for Boeing (with the extraordinary losses and extra costs and liquidated damaged paid to airlines now waiting 3+ years for their planes, the profitability of the 787 project remains a distant and elusive objective); for the airlines (depending on how they negotiate compensation with Boeing for any performance shortfalls the 787 ends up experiencing) or for us as passengers, still uncomfortably scrunched up into too small a space.

In other good news for Boeing, everyone (including probably Boeing itself) reacted variously with surprise or astonishment at learning of Delta placing an order with Boeing for 100 of its current generation 737-900ER planes.

As the linked article observes, at one stage this order seemed so much a foregone conclusion as going to Airbus, that Boeing seemed unlikely to even bid on the contract.  Perhaps the only thing in Boeing’s favor is that the rush of new orders to Airbus may have ended up making it relatively easier for Boeing and harder for Airbus to deliver planes in the near future timeframe Delta is seeking.

 You may be familiar with something referred to as ‘The Southwest Effect‘.  This describes the phenomenon that often occurs when Southwest starts new flights between two cities.  There are two halves to the effect, possibly even three.

Firstly, air fares drastically drop.  Secondly, the number of people flying skyrockets up.  And the third half of the effect is that even with the massively lower airfares, it seems that the airlines that operate the route manage to make money.

So, the Southwest effect refers to how an air route which was formerly very expensive, will remain profitable or perhaps become more profitable when, for whatever reason (often due to Southwest adding service to the route) the average airfare drops and the total number of passengers increase.

Less well known is what I term ‘The Southwest Paradox‘.  What is that, you’ll probably ask?  It is simply this :  Southwest is almost universally revered for offering low fares.  But in reality, the average cents/mile they earn from their airfares are usually the same as that earned by other ‘dinosaur’ type airlines, and sometimes appreciably higher.

How can an airline that is viewed as being a low cost airline actually in truth be high cost (indeed, Southwest is high cost both in terms of airfares charged and also in terms of its labor costs; and when it isn’t high cost, it is ‘normal cost’ inasmuch as its planes cost about the same as anyone else’s similar planes to operate)?

The key to Southwest’s profitability is in its operating efficiency – in how it can turn planes around very quickly and keep them flying with a minimum of staff, fuss, or bother, for more hours a day than many of its competitors.

But the paradox of its fares being thought of as low?  Here’s an interesting case in point.  The article cites research which found

For the 140 trips on 70 random itineraries, there was a consistent pattern on 50 of the markets.  Southwest was more expensive in 40 of the 50, or 80% of the trips.  The legacy airlines were more expensive on 10 or 20% of the trips.  When Southwest was more expensive, it was, on average, a $134 higher fare— a 26.4% premium.

My only explanation is marketing sleight of hand on the one hand, and on the other hand, the fact that while Southwest’s average fares are higher than some other carriers, it never has ridiculously high fares.  Low, moderate, and somewhat expensive, yes.  But ridiculously insultingly high – so high we feel extorted and insulted?  Never.

Pull a banknote out of your wallet, and read what it says about itself.  ‘This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.’  But apparently that statement isn’t the same as saying ‘Anyone must accept this note as a form of payment for any debt, public or private’.

A traveler sued Continental, claiming that its policy of not accepting cash for onboard charges was discriminatory.  CO (like an increasing number of other airlines) will only accept debit or credit cards, not cash.

Unfortunately, it seems the traveler may have represented himself in the court case, because the judge dismissed it, not so much after giving the matter a full hearing, but more on technical grounds due to insufficient evidence being presented to make a case.

An attempt to get the matter certified as a class action was also rejected.  The passenger says he is considering appealing.  If he does, let’s hope he gets a decent attorney to help him with this claim.

What a funny old world it has become when apparently companies can lawfully refuse to accept US currency for payment of a US charge, incurred and transacted in the US.

Talking about US travel related transactions, our President mused, prior to heading off for yet another luxury vacation for ten days in Martha’s Vineyard, whether anyone still books travel through a travel agent rather than online.

Apparently, the answer is yes, some people still do book travel through a travel agent, and both US agency associations rushed to point that obvious fact out to Mr Obama.  Indeed the White House has its own inhouse travel agency (but when all your travels are either on AirForce One or a Canadian built luxury bus, I guess you can be excused for forgetting about your own travel agency).

US travel agents booked over 50% of all air travel bought in the last year, more than 78% of all cruises, and more than 79% of all tours.  The 15,000 travel agency locations employ over 120,000 staff and have an annual payroll of $6.3 billion.

You’d think that a president who has ‘pivoted’ to focusing on jobs would be more sensitive to an industry that employs 120,000 people.

On the other hand, this is the same president who, while happily enjoying luxury vacations himself on a surprisingly frequent basis, at costs of who knows how many millions of dollars (and definitely not paid for out of his own pocket), decries people who go to cheap Vegas conventions as swindling the government out of revenue (from their partially tax deductible two or three day conventions once or twice a year).

A sign of the times?  In the second quarter of this year, China overtook the US in terms of the number of personal computers sold.  Americans bought 17.7 million PCs in the second quarter (down 4.9% on the same quarter last year) while Chinese people bought 18.5 million PCs, up 14.3% from the same quarter last year.  Details here.

A surprise announcement from Hewlett Packard this week.  They are abandoning the WebOS system, the same system that just a few weeks before (and for the year before that) they were claiming to be a viable alternative to Android and Apple’s iOS systems for phones and tablets.  HP bought the WebOS system as part of its buyout of Palm in April 2010 (a $1.2 billion acquisition).

The announcement came a mere six weeks after the release of the first WebOS based tablet, HP’s TouchPad.  Apparently (and, with the benefit of this week’s actions, self evidently) it sold very poorly.  HP remaindered off its stocks of TouchPad’s this week, with people rushing to buy an orphan tablet at a bargain basement price of $99.

One of the key elements of any tablet is not just the hardware you buy, or the price you pay for it, but the vibrant ‘eco system’ of apps and developers who write them.  In buying a TouchPad at $99, people were suckered into getting a bargain basement piece of hardware but with a rapidly fading ‘eco system’ of apps and the virtual certainty of no future development of current or new apps.

Indeed, Microsoft, which remains desperate to avoid the same fate falling on its Windows Phone 7 software – software which has utterly failed to gain any relevant market share, notwithstanding Microsoft’s desperate efforts to get it market share at any price – rubbed its hands with glee and offered to give free phones and software to former WebOS developers if they’d agree to now develop apps for the WP7 OS instead.

HP is also seeking to spin-off in some form its PC business.  That’s not to say the company is going to return back to its basic roots and earlier successes; it is also spending $10 billion to buy a European software company.

I used to be a huge admirer of Hewlett Packard.  I remember their Reverse Polish Notation scientific calculators, and the awe and envy they inspired in my fellow students when revolutionary units such as the HP35 first came out, and indeed I still have a number of HP12C calculators which are the only calculators I’ll ever touch.

I remember their first ever laser printer – another extraordinary revolution, and persuading my employer to buy one for something like $4500.  Buying something other than a dot matrix printer back then was a challenging leap of faith to take, because it wouldn’t print on continuous stationery and wouldn’t print multiple copies simultaneously.  Ha!  Remember continuous stationery?  Remember multi-copy continuous stationery?  Both are distant memories, these days, for most of us!

I also remember HP’s early scanners – again the ‘gold standard’ which all competitors struggled to match and uniformly failed.  For a while in the 1970s, 1980s, and first half of the 1990s, HP was one of America’s greatest and most innovative companies.

But it is years since I last bought anything from HP.  The scanner to my left is from Epson, and the printer behind me is from Ricoh.  I chose them because in both cases they were better and less expensive than similar products from HP.

As for their PC business, I once bought an HP computer which was under-featured, over-priced, and difficult to get service on, and never bought another HP computer since.

HP is another great American company which somewhere in the last decade or so lost their way and lost their market leadership.  Alas.  Instead of their earlier culture of technological leadership and innovation, their new approach to business seems to be to spend billions of dollars on ill-thought acquisitions.

Any fool with a checkbook can buy things.  But it takes true talent to design and build something from first principles, and to innovate rather than emulate.

The Department of Transportation announced federal grants totaling $745 billion to Amtrak – errr, oooops.  Nope, that isn’t $745 billion, which is more or less the amount of money that would be needed to bring some measurable high speed rail services to the country.

It is, instead, $745 million, a mere drop in the bucket, and which does nothing much except cover some needed reliability improvements/maintenance on track between Penn Station (NY) and Trenton.  The largest part of the funding – $450 million – will allow for a 24 mile stretch of track to support upgraded train speeds of 160 mph (up from the present 135 mph).  This means that travel times will reduce by, oh, about 1.5 – 2 minutes.

Yes, almost half a billion dollars – probably more by the time the inevitable cost overruns occur – means less than a two minute saving on train journeys between New York and Washington DC.  An almost imperceptible tweak.

Is that really the best use of half a billion dollars?

We saw an interesting contrast between how two different cruise lines responded to a schedule change caused by Hurricane Irene.  Consider this example carefully when choosing who you’ll book your next cruise with.

Royal Caribbean’s ship Serenade of the Seas had to start its weekly sailing from San Juan three hours early, with the result that 145 passengers failed to join the ship before it sailed.  Carnival’s ship Victory also had to cut short its stay in San Juan and left four hours ahead of schedule, leaving 300 passengers still on shore.

Royal Caribbean say this was a weather related schedule change and so it denies any liability for leaving passengers behind.  15 of the 145 passengers had bought a combined air/sea package from Royal Caribbean, and for those 15, the cruise line put them up for two nights then flew them to join the cruise in Aruba, but the other 130 were refused any and all assistance or compensation.

Carnival put all its 300 stranded passengers up in hotels for two nights and flew them to Barbados to join the cruise, no matter where or how the people arranged their air travels.

Kudos to Carnival.  And as for Royal Caribbean, a right royal raspberry blown loudly in their direction.

An airplane was taxiing out to take-off from Boston when it turned around and returned to the gate, at which point the pilot announced ‘We have a minor issue and we will continue our departure once it’s resolved.’

About five minutes later, two state troopers and one or two TSA officials boarded the plane and marched one of the passengers off.  His crime?

He had been sighted reading a book about World War 2 aircraft.  This caused a quick thinking flight attendant to fear that he might be a terrorist, so rather than ask the gentleman about the book and why he was reading it, the plane returned back to the gate and the passenger was taken off by three or four police/TSA officers.

Happily, after being interviewed, he was allowed back and the flight then took off.  Unhappily, the flight was now late, and the affected passenger, and who knows how many others as well, missed their connections in Dulles.

More details here.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, airline staff must be made accountable for their ludicrous paranoia.

Really frightening news from the TSA (well, when is news from the TSA ever not frightening).  They (to be precise, the Orwellian sounding ‘Department of Homeland Security’) wish to create a new super-database that includes all the current flawed databases that cause thousands of passengers to experience problems anytime they fly due to having names similar to terrorists, and which even result in children being refused passage, for fear that 8 year old boys might really be 35 year old terrorists with similar names.

And they want statutory exemption from allowing us to know if our names are in their databases, and does not allow us to know what is alleged about us, and neither does it give us any opportunity to correct or change errors.  Instead, with the certainty of mission creep, we’ll have a huge new secretive database of information about us that we know nothing about, and which will influence how we are treated in who knows what new ways in the future, ranging from the obvious (if we get selected for secondary screening at airports) to the as yet unthought of (who would have thought that credit reports would end up influencing how much we pay for our insurance).

On the one hand, the DHS/TSA desperately needs to switch from a physical threat defense (ie looking for guns and knives and bombs) to an intelligence based system (ie looking for terrorists rather than their tools).  So this sort of new database capability seems logical and appropriate.  But on the other hand, the present so-called Watch and No-Fly lists are known to be replete with errors and problems, and cause thousands of people (possibly tens of thousands, no-one really knows or will tell us) massive problems every time they try to fly.

Any such system needs some sort of data ombudsman – a group of people who will cautiously allow bona fide citizens to correct errors, while not allowing real terrorists to ‘game’ the system.

More details of this proposal here.

From time to time we read about some amazing things which passengers have tried to smuggle onto planes with them.  This blogger has made a list of the top ten unusual things people have taken (illegally) onto planes with them.

Finally this week, there are many reasons for cancelling or changing a planned advertising campaign.  I’ve occasionally had airlines run advertising on The Travel Insider, and some of them are very fast to ask me to pause advertising for a few days any time the airline industry experiences any type of negative publicity.  But in terms of reasons for delaying an advertising campaign, this situation has to be one of the more amusing and unusual.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

Davidsig265 David.


2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 26 August 2011”

  1. How do you tip the chambermaid in advance so that you have a clean room the first night?!? I would imagine you would have to check in, walk straight to housekeeping, knock on the door, and then somehow explain that you want the room cleaned again and offer the first nights tip, all without insulting them and disparaging their cleaning abilities (of which you have not yet witnessed as you have not yet gone up to your room).

  2. Re Southwest prices — difficult to compare as fees are not figured in. To me, being able to change a reservation with no fee (and often to a lowered price if one checks often) is significant. I likely change reservations 20% of the time. Even if I cancel, I get a year to use the credit. Similar on bag fees. So total cost is not always the lowest published fare.

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