Weekly Roundup Friday 11 November 2011

The logo chosen by the new organization tasked with globally promoting the US as a tourist destinationGood morning

A friend of mine met his girlfriend 11 years ago today, and they are finally getting married.  Yes – you guessed it, at 11.11am, on 11/11/11.  Amazing.

As for me, I have something special of a different type underway as you read this – and perhaps fitting for Remembrance Day.  A Travel Insider Group Shoot at Front Sight in Nevada, with an interesting mix of people ranging from retired bankers to active investors, some attending for the first time but most on their second or third visit.  One of our group has already christened us “Rowell’s Raiders”.

My travels to Pahrump were relatively uneventful.  I might have sold a Front Sight lifetime membership to the TSA officer who inspected the guns I was taking with me – a very friendly encounter.  And I showed ID to both the airline and TSA agents that was neither a driver’s license nor a passport nor a Nexus type card, also with no problems and friendly responses – I wonder if anyone can guess what it was?

But upon arrival in Las Vegas, I ended up cancelling the Payless rental car I had earlier booked.  After waiting more than five minutes in line to be served at their counter, and noticing that on the one hand, no-one had finished their transactions at the counter, and on the other hand, there were more than ten people in front of me waiting to get a car, it seemed I’d be waiting in line for more than an hour to pick up my car.  The immediately adjacent rental car service counter cheekily had a big sign up saying ‘Cars Available – No Waiting’, and after watching several people behind me do the same calculation I’d done and switch to the other company, I did the same thing.

I wonder how many rentals Payless lost on Thursday afternoon due to being inadequately staffed?  The loss from my own rental would have paid for an additional staffer for an entire eight hour shift.  It sure felt good to abandon their line and take my business elsewhere.

I ran out of time before flying to NV on Thursday to analyze our Travel Innovations Survey, but the silver lining inside that cloud is an opportunity for those of you who have yet to participate to now do so.  Please go to the survey and share your thoughts on the most innovative travel products and services of the last 25 years – it is a fun and interesting survey, and the results will be fascinating to see next week when finally released.

What else do we have for you this week?  Here are the contents, or just keep reading on down.

Amazon Prime Membership Now Includes Free Book Rentals Too

Airport Transit Guide – An Essential Reference Work – Now on Special

DoT Overreaches With Inappropriate New Requirements

How Many Seats on an A380

Does a Small Difference in Seat Width Matter?

The United States of Awesome Possibilities?

Safety Pins, Duct Tape and Bandannas

Tiny Violin Award of the Week

How Could They Be That Stupid?

All In a Rush


Amazon Prime Membership Now Includes Free Book Rentals Too

Next week sees the release of the new Amazon Kindle Fire eBook reader/tablet.  I’m eagerly awaiting my unit, and will let you know how I find it next week.  Amazon have also announced another amazing service for owners of their Kindle devices – a virtual library.  You can now electronically ‘borrow’ books from their ‘library’ of thousands of book titles, all for free (if you are a member of their Prime program.

There is an interesting twist to this new service, however.  Although Amazon has released Kindle software to run on a wide range of different types of phones and computers, you can only get the free books on an actual Kindle reader.  So Amazon is applying a gentle bit of pressure to encourage you not just to buy their books but to buy their book reading hardware too – an issue that will become increasingly relevant as more and more ‘platforms’ come available to read books on.

To my delight, one of the titles is a book I’ve been eagerly awaiting to come out in eBook format (Guns, Germs and Steel), and which I’d have happily paid full price to buy ($9.15 in Kindle format), but now I can read it on a Kindle for free.  That’s a great deal, open to all Amazon Prime members.

Amazon really is revolutionizing the broader field of retailing.  Their Prime membership ($79 a year) also gets you free second day delivery on most products they sell, and discounted next day (depending on where you live, sometimes same day delivery is available too) delivery, plus access to over 10,000 movies and television shows that you can stream and watch for free on computers and televisions.

The real paradigm buster, for me, is the free second day air shipping, with no order minimum.  In the past I would defer buying something on Amazon until I had enough items to either qualify for ‘free ground shipping’ (which takes something way over a week) or to make the cost of air shipping slightly lower as a percentage of the total order cost.  But this meant I often did not buy things (not that there is anything wrong with that!) or would choose to buy them locally instead, sometimes even making special trips that cost me considerably in time and gas costs.

Now, with the no order minimum and free second day air delivery, anytime I think of anything I might want/need, I simply buy it on Amazon, and it is on my doorstep a day or two later (sometimes they ship faster than two day, at no extra cost).  If I just want a single packet of nails, or one additional SD card, or whatever, I can quickly order it and get it within a few days.  Amazing.

I also found myself returning a DVD set I’d bought from Costco a couple of weeks ago – I discovered that the movies are on Prime, for free.  That paid for almost half my annual membership there and then.  Imagine having the entire Blockbuster store in your living room, always ready to be watched at any time.  How amazing is that!

Here’s a link to offer on Amazon’s site that gives you a free one month trial of their Prime program.  Warning – it is very habit forming.

Airport Transit Guide – An Essential Reference Work – Now on Special

Still talking about travel innovations, electronic books, and bargains, I’m delighted to be able to tell you about a wonderful bargain being offered for a short time by a good friend of The Travel Insider, Ron Salk.

Ron publishes a gem of a little book called the Airport Transit Guide.  It gives you wonderfully useful information on how to travel between major airports around the world and the cities they serve.  I rely on it whenever I’m going somewhere new, and often refer back to it when going somewhere familiar, too.  Ron’s been doing this for almost 30 years now and has his book and the information inside it down to a fine art (or should that be science?).

I reviewed the print version back in 2005, and last December he enhanced it to digital format, available for any type of iOS device (iPhone, iPod, iPad).  Since then he’s updated what he is referring to as his 25th Edition several times (updates are easier for electronic reference guides than for print ones) and now he is offering the guide at half price from today through the end of the year.  A mere $4.99.

I’ve regularly saved much more than $5 from his advice – even much more than $50; – particularly in learning how to take trains between cities and airports so this has to be one of the great travel bargains of the year.  If you have an iOS device, or know a friend who does, this would be a great present to give to yourself or to them.

Here’s a link to my review of the electronic version of Ron Salk’s Airport Transit Guide to tell you more about it, and there’s a link from there to the iTunes store if you choose to buy it.  Recommended.

DoT Overreaches With Inappropriate New Requirements

Imagine you go into a clothing store.  You are looking for a pair of jeans.  The shop assistant says ‘I am required by law to tell you that this store carries the following brands of jeans, but not these other brands’ and hands you a list with two columns – one of brands of jeans they sell and the other of brands of jeans they don’t sell.

The shop assistant then says ‘I am also required by law to tell you that we make a 35% profit margin on Brand X, a 40% margin on Brand Y, and with Brand Z we make a 30% margin, plus get a 10% advertising allowance and a 10% performance incentive if we sell more than 100 pairs of their jeans every week’ and hands you a second sheet of paper.

The shop assistant is still not ready to help you buy your jeans.  Next she tells you ‘I must also tell you that we have Brand X jeans preferentially located at eye-level on endcap shelves, whereas Brand Y is on the bottom racks and Brand Z is on the top racks’.

That’s a very unlikely scenario, isn’t it.  And you can choose your pair of jeans without needing to know what most people consider to be commercially sensitive and confidential information about store markups, incentives, and such like, and you can see for yourself where the jeans are located and observe what brands may be present or missing.

But this is essentially what the DoT is proposing travel agencies should do when selling you an airline ticket.  Why?

Does it really matter to you how much commission the travel agent may (or, more commonly, may not) receive from the airline?  Or are you more focused on what your cost will be to buy the ticket?

What other retail industry is required to disclose their cost prices and other incentives?

What exactly is the benefit the DoT expects to bring by requiring travel agencies to do this, and why must sellers of travel accept government meddling of a nature unprecedented in other industries?

The benefits are unclear, but the harm is more apparent.  As a former travel agency owner, and subsequently as a former travel wholesaler owner, selling to and through travel agencies, the ‘override’ commissions and extra incentives were a key part of our business.  For travel agencies, such things can make all the difference between profit and loss on a given booking, and for airlines, such things can be a valuable way to motivate and reward travel agencies to actually sell their product, rather than passively sit back and accept customer orders.

Both airlines and travel agencies end up with a very secretive and very sensitive set of deals.  If all such transactions were needed to be disclosed, the airlines would discontinue them, or simply standardize them.  They’d lose the ability to do special one off deals – and (this is my point) these special one-off deals often end up rewarding you, the agency client, at least as much as they do the agency.

Typical deals involve allowing an agency to waive some of the airfare rules associated with a fare, so they can ‘illegally’ sell you a lower fare than you should otherwise get, or ‘illegally’ refund you a ticket you don’t use, or ‘illegally’ waive a change fee.  I passed much of any special discounts and incentives I received on to my customers, helping me win more business and making travel more affordable for them, while of course simultaneously influencing the traveler to choose the airline making the special deal.  Everyone was winning.

These commercial arrangements have massive and clear consumer benefits, but if the airlines ever had to risk having such practices made public, they’d simply stop, and instead insist on blanket unvarying contract terms, and quite justly blaming the DoT for having to do so.  Some of us will remember back to the ‘bad old days’ when it was illegal to discount airline tickets; this is a backdoor way of again preventing ticket discounting.

There are lots of things the DoT can do if it wishes to be more actively involved in consumer/passenger protection.  How about, for example, reviewing some of the approvals it has issued for airline amalgamation/code-share/whatever (just this week it has approved a Qantas/American Airlines tie-up on routes to the South Pacific for reasons which seem specious – for example, the DoT suggests that AA would never be able or interested in flying there by themselves, so therefore, by allowing them to join forces with Qantas isn’t really diminishing route competition).

The DoT has admitted to me that its approvals, often issued subject to ratification or performance targets being met, are seldom or never reviewed, and airline claims of benefits and saving to passengers if they are allowed to merge are never checked up on after the fact.

Let’s see the DoT focus on appropriate areas of policing, rather than inappropriate areas of interference.

How Many Seats on an A380

Here’s a story that brings up one obvious and one subtle point, both of interest.

The first is one I’ve been anticipating, ever since the A380 was first announced.  The plane has been certified to carry 853 people (a number based on how many people can be evacuated and how quickly – there’s no real reason why it couldn’t be recertified in the future to carry even more), but somewhat predictably, the first customers for the plane, and Airbus itself, went on and on in an almost poetic manner about how the acres of passenger space on the huge plane wouldn’t be used to cram the maximum number of people into the plane, but rather would be used to provide passengers with a more comfortable and luxurious flying experience, complete with bars, private suites with double beds, lounges, showers, shopping arcades, games rooms, basketball courts, football fields, and who knows what else (okay, so they never promised basketball courts or football fields….).

Well, such plans are far from innovative.  They’ve been previously suggested for the 747 (and even for a short while implemented) and earlier smaller planes too.  But when was the last time you saw a lounge on a 747 (apart from the tiny bars – better than nothing, of course – on Virgin Atlantic’s fleet)?  It didn’t take airlines long to decide they’d rather squeeze more seats into the spaces formerly designated for recreational areas.

The first few A380 customers did a commendable job of keeping the seat density down.  The plane has sort of evolved into a semi-standard configuration of about 500 passengers in three classes, but with little or nothing in the way of ‘fancy areas’ – well, for sure, Emirates has showers for their first class passengers and two bar/lounges.

The first airline to fly the A380 was Singapore Airlines, and their three class configuration totals 471 seats.  Emirates has 489; Qantas has 450, Lufthansa has 526, Air France has 538, while Korean Airlines has a mere 407.

How is it that different airlines can have such huge differences in seat counts?  What do they do with the extra space?  The reason for the big differences is mainly due to how the seats are split as between the different classes.  Obviously you can get many more coach class seats into the plane, per 100 square foot, than you can first class.

However, we are now starting to see airlines look avariciously at higher densities of seating.  Russian airline Transaero says it will have about 700 seats (amazingly in three classes) in four new A380s it has just ordered, and French airline Air Austral has said it will have close to the maximum 853 seats (almost certainly all coach class) in its A380s.

How long before all airlines start increasing the seat counts in their A380s?  Will 600 seats become the new 500?  700?  800?

Does a Small Difference in Seat Width Matter?

The second point in the article is more subtle.  Boeing and Airbus get into a small spat about the seat widths of the A380 vs the 747.  Airbus claims their seats are about 5cm – 2 inches – wider than comparable seats on a 747.  Boeing says that is not true, and says that its seats on the new 747-8 passenger plane (yet to enter commercial service) will be ‘comparable’ in width within about 2 cm (0.8″).  As best I can tell from Seat Guru, Boeing is more correct than Airbus.

Now you might think that a difference of 0.8 inches in seat width is nothing.  It is the difference between narrow and narrower, rather than the difference between narrow and broad.

But that is actually not so.  Certainly, if your seat is wide enough to fit in without being squeezed up against the arm rests, there’s not a lot of difference between a seat that is a little wider than needed and a seat which is a lot wider than normal.  Indeed (admittedly, many years ago when I was slimmer and trimmer than I am these days!) I used to dislike the very wide first class seats that had no contouring to them at all – they were very wide, but very flat, giving no lateral support at all.

But the difference between a seat that is almost too tight and one that is definitely too tight – that is a profound difference.  So what does 0.8″ actually mean?

First, most seats these days are about 17.0″ – 17.5″ or so wide, so this is about a 5% difference in width – appreciable.

Second, in round figures, a 0.8″ increase in width is sort of the same as a 2.5″ increase (or decrease, depending on your perspective) in waist/hip size.  Take your trouser belt, set it to comfortable, then take it in enough notches to make it 2.5″ shorter.  You really notice that, don’t you!

So Boeing might be right – its seats are ‘only’ 0.8″ narrower, but that 0.8″ is a big difference many of us will notice.

The United States of Awesome Possibilities?

A new organization, primarily funded by an extra fee levied on visitors to the US, has now started operations, with its mission being to promote the US as a tourist destination around the world.  It proudly this week unveiled its logo and its slogan.  You can see the logo at the top of this article, and the slogan is ‘The United States of Awesome Possibilities’.

The group said in a press release that the dots in the campaign’s logo create a “21st-century brand” which “symboliz[es] the boundless possibilities of the U.S.,” as well as representing America’s “diversity.”

Full marks for political correctness.  But close to zero marks for an effective destination marketing strategy.  The organization has a $200 million budget, and this is the best they can come up with?

That’s not all – there’s more.  The campaign also features a website that gives foreign travellers some ‘useful’ tips about American life and culture.

  • For instance, it warns: “Health care is superior in the US but it can be very expensive because there is no universal health care.”  Why do we need to tell potential visitors that?  If anything needs to be said about healthcare at all, why not say something like ‘The US has some of the finest healthcare services in the entire world, but like most other countries, it does not provide free healthcare for visitors, and unexpected emergency healthcare can be expensive.  We suggest you arrange travel insurance as part of your travel planning.’
  • The site also cautions that “some banking networks charge fees of $1-2 per transaction,” for ATM withdrawals. (In fact, some charge $3.)  That is true in most countries of the world – what’s with all the negatives?  Why not just say nothing.  Or perhaps say ‘The US has an abundant supply of ATMs located conveniently all around the country.  Nearly all are compatible with your bank cards from back home and so can be used as a convenient source of American cash on your travels.  The same as most other countries, a fee is usually charged each time you use an ATM’.
  • And: “Be aware that Americans are fanatics about showering and hygiene.”  Are they saying ‘You’re dirty stinking foreigners, be sure to have a bath before coming to our nice clean country’?  Do they have to use the word ‘fanatic’?  Why not say something positive such as ‘The US is blessed with plentiful supplies of clean pure tap water.  This allows both American residents and visitors alike to confidently drink the water and to enjoy regular refreshing showers and baths’?

Most of all, what is the point of spending $200 million in an already deemed to failure promotion, because even if it were to succeed and encourage the few tourists not scared away or offended by comments such as the three examples above to want to visit, as long as the US is so negative about issuing tourist visas, we continue to turn away (and turn off) millions more people than this $200 million campaign could ever attract.

What an appalling waste of money.

Safety Pins, Duct Tape and Bandannas

What do safety pins, duct tape, and a bandanna have in common?

They are three items featured in this article that lists eight things you should consider packing and taking with you on your travels.

Do you have any items you could suggest to add to the list in the article?  Please do share your suggestions too.

Tiny Violin Award of the Week

A woman experienced some turbulence on a flight.  She wasn’t injured, and neither was anyone else.  Yawn.

But now she is suing four different airlines for the single flight.  She says she now suffers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, fears flying, and because of this, chose not to apply for a job with FEMA which would have both required her to fly and would have paid her more money than she currently earns.

So she is suing for loss of earnings from a job she never had and indeed never even applied for.

That’s pretty rich, isn’t it.  I know we can all hate and blame the airlines for many things, but even the most aggressive of us seldom blame the airlines for bad weather, and even fewer of us subsequently sue four different airlines for loss of earnings from a future job we never even applied for.

But perhaps we should?  More details here.

How Could They Be That Stupid?

I’ll admit it.  I love ‘The Office’.  I have both the all too short original British series and the subsequent and happily still ongoing US series on DVD/Blu-ray, and am eagerly looking forward to the next season’s release on disc too.

Those of you who also enjoy this series will doubtless have your favorite moments.  My seven year old daughter even has favorite moments (particularly Dwight’s fire drill).  I particularly like some of the scenes around the Shrute Beet Farm and the strangeness of Mose.

On the other hand, there are also some scenes which memorably fall flat and which just don’t work.

For me, one scene that has never worked for me is where Michael is driving somewhere, with Dwight also in the car.  Michael is proud of his GPS and insists on following its directions, even when the GPS (or Michael’s mistaken interpretation of it) results in him driving, at slow speed, his car down a boat ramp and into a river.  Very funny, yes, in a slapstick sort of way.  But realistic?  Absolutely not.

Or so I thought until earlier this week, when I read this article.

All In a Rush

Lastly this week, the British and many of their former colonies enjoyed their Guy Fawkes Day celebration on 5 November, a date on which they remember and celebrate an attempt by Mr Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament back in 1605.  Are they celebrating the attempt, or its failure?  The answer to that probably varies from time to time, and from person to person!

Just as how we in the US often have coordinated displays of fireworks in our major towns and cities to celebrate 4 July, in addition to private citizens enjoying some backyard fireworks, this happens in the Commonwealth on 5 November.

People who have been on my Scottish tours will remember the lovely town of Oban.  Well, they had a civic fireworks display this 5 November.  Unfortunately, something went wrong with the computer program that was to control the timed release of the fireworks over the course of what was scheduled to be a 20 – 30 minute display (stories differ).  They all were set off in a single frenzied minute.  The result was massively more spectacular than expected, albeit somewhat shorter in duration.

Although you could convincingly argue that the resulting spectacle greatly exceeded expectations, the company that was contracted to provide the show has magnanimously agreed to repeat it – at normal speed – later this month.  You can see the one minute version here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







3 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 11 November 2011”

  1. Pingback: TRAVEL INSIDER Strongly Recommends the Airport Transit Guide « Airport Transit Guide

  2. David–I’ve come across a ridiculous situation and hope that, with your contacts in the travel industry, you can shed some light on this.

    As a US citizen, I have volunteered with a non-profit environmental organization in the UK. I pay to fly to the UK and pay for my room and board and do volunteer work. Of course, I spend $ in the UK while I’m there. The usual trip lasts about 1 week or so.

    When I looked at the non-profit’s schedule of trips for 2012, I was shocked to see the following language:

    “Unfortunately the recent immigration restrictions that have been imposed by the UK Border Agency mean that we are unable to accept volunteers from outside the EU or the EEA.”

    I have looked into other non-profit environmental organizations and they also have similar language on their websites. Some of the websites say that if I obtain a work visa, I can volunteer on their projects. I looked into work visas but they cost hundreds of pounds to obtain and who knows what the paperwork is like.

    I phoned a British consulate and all I was told is that that’s the new law.

    I do not understand why the British government is making it impossible for non-Europeans to volunteer time and spend money with British non-profits. If the British govt is so concerned about undocumented aliens working in the UK, why don’t they exempt non-profts from the new law? After all, as volunteers we’re not working—we’re volunteering our time to make the UK a better place.

    Thanks for looking into this. Please keep my identity anonymous.

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