Weekly Roundup Friday 9 November 2012

Your Help is Needed, Please, to Keep the Travel Insider Afloat and Operational.

Good morning

Well, that’s it; another Presidential election has come and gone, along with possibly $6.5 billion in campaigning activities – most of which we’d probably have preferred not to have been exposed to.  While sometimes one can feel overlooked by the campaigns due to not being in a swing state, I’m also grateful not to have had the wall to wall barrage of increasingly strident advertising and increasingly desperate calls to support the campaigns.

With that as segue, it would be lovely to say that this also marks the end of this year’s Annual Fundraising Drive.  Happily, we are nearly there.  We end our fourth week with an encouraging total of 357 supporters who have responded and helped out.

Our target this year is simply to match last year’s total of 545 supporters, so we are exactly two-thirds of the way there.  Can we please get the rest of the way there – with your help – in this week starting now?

Special thanks of course to still more Super Supporters – the most generous people who send in three figure sums, with this week’s Honor Roll ranging far and wide from Australia to Ireland, and comprising

Jerry K, Al K, Peter N, Andrew C, Jeff K, Steve M, Tim L, Nathan F, Steve N, Terry C, Jamie McG, and Billie Jo R.

Thanks again, to everyone.

Now that there are fewer other distractions on your attention – and pocket-book – and now that we are moving into the Thanksgiving and what is sometimes delicately referred to as ‘The Gift Giving Season’ (aka Christmas) can you help and close out the fundraising drive by choosing to join in and send in some support.  Please help us reach this year’s modest target so we can close the annual Fund raising distraction.

We rely on your support to continue presenting our weekly newsletters and feature articles, completely for free.

Whether it be slightly tongue in cheek articles such as this week’s story on how many toilets should be on an airplane, or invaluable reviews and analysis of the best gadgets and road warrior resources, or exposing perfidy wherever we find it (there’s a growing story we’re developing and hope to release next week about a major review site), we’ve ‘got your back’ in a way that commercial sites can never hope to do for fear of upsetting their advertisers.

And now, for the one time each year, we ask for your help in return.  It only takes a minute to click over to the How to Support page, and to send off a credit card payment our way.

Oh, and don’t forget we also have a great incentive to encourage you to respond, courtesy of Usingmiles.com.

UsingMiles.com Supporter Offer Gets Better

I was checking on my UsingMiles.com account yesterday and I see they’ve now released a redesign of their air fare search screen.  This makes it easier to find the best fares, and to match them with their suggested strategies for using or accumulating miles the best possible way.  There is also a new front end to their main ‘dashboard’ page that I’ve seen pre-releases of that looks great too.

This is clearly a forward moving company and service, and you’ll remember that if you contribute $15 or more to The Travel Insider, you get one of their premium memberships (normally $30 a year, every year) completely free – for life!

So whether you simply want to get the UsingMiles.com deal for pennies on the dollar, or whether you want to ensure we’ll be around to bring you other occasional fabulous deals, or just because you think it right and proper to fairly reciprocate, please do now support us and all we do for you.

What else for the week?  As hinted at above, there’s an article that grew to become surprisingly lengthy about how many toilets should be on planes, and other items below on :

  • Air New Zealand to End Its Around the World Service
  • Delta to Work to (its own invented) Rule
  • Travel Search Site Wins Awards
  • Airplane Seatbelts Are Pointless?  So Says Ryanair.
  • The 200 Million Frequent Flier Mile Dispute
  • China Extends its Interest in Building its Own Planes
  • Not Allowed to Fly as a Passenger, But Can Fly as a Pilot
  • Technology Outpaces ‘Security’
  • And Lastly This Week…..

Air New Zealand to End Its Around the World Service

Little Air New Zealand, way downunder in New Zealand, has – to the best of my knowledge (please let me know if you know of other airlines) for some years now been the only airline to fly its own planes all around the world.  Sure, codeshares and other things can allow you to fly on one airline’s flight numbers around the world, but only Air NZ has actually operated its own planes.

Historically, the reason for this was simple.  Auckland in NZ is close to exactly opposite London, and so Air NZ ended up offering services both west and east between Auckland and its ‘furtherest away point’, ie London.  You could travel Auckland to Los Angeles to London, and then from London, to Hong Kong, and to Auckland, or vice versa.

Unfortunately, this distinction is about to be lost when Air NZ ends its London-Hong Kong service on 4 March 2013.  Instead it will now code-share with former competitor, Cathay Pacific.

There is more to this than simply the loss of the last remaining airline operating around the world service.  This is another strange case whereby a member of one alliance (in this case Air NZ belongs to the Star Alliance) now allies itself closely with a member of a notionally competing alliance (in this case CX’s membership in Oneworld).

It was bad enough when the airlines stopped competing directly, and instead lumped themselves into three alliance groupings.  But now the alliance groupings themselves are starting to become fuzzy and amorphous, with airlines in one alliance selectively joining not only with their alliance partners but with other alliance competitors, too.

How long before we arrive at airline-nirvana – one huge big codeshared/alliance/combined everything, where all airlines cooperate with all other airlines, and no airlines compete with any airlines?

Delta to Work to (its own invented) Rule

So, there I was, worrying in the preceding article about the airlines eventually all merging and melding into one amorphous super carrier.  But then again, maybe not.

An unusual development from Delta this last week shows an opposing trend.  Does Delta think it can now start to ‘go it alone’ and is it trying to force its passengers to give Delta all their business?

One of the wonderful developments over the last 15 years or so has been the ability to check bags seamlessly on to one’s final destination, even if traveling on different airlines on different sectors of the journey, and even if the different sectors were ticketed on separate tickets.

There’s nothing very new about having a bag automatically transfer from one airline to another when the two flights are both on the one ticket, but many times it is cheaper to buy two separate fares for the two separate parts of the journey.  For example, if you want to fly from (say) Seattle to Budapest, you could buy one ticket that includes a leg from Seattle to a major hub in the US on a US domestic airline, then a flight to a major hub in Europe on a second international airline, then a flight within Europe to Budapest on a third regional airline.  This might all be part of the one ticket and fare, or it might be two tickets/fares, or it might even be three tickets/fares.  A good travel agent knows how to check out the different combinations of tickets, even on the same flights, to break it down to the best possible cost to you.

Over the last 15 years the different airline reservation systems have become sufficiently clever as to be able to automatically talk to each other, and to confirm the existence of valid ongoing tickets for subsequent sectors of a journey, allowing the airline you first check in with to tag your bag to go all the way to its final destination with no need for you to collect and recheck it at any of the intermediate stops.

But Delta has now said it will refuse to offer this service, any more, to passengers when they are traveling on a mix of different tickets.  Delta is demanding that you ticket all your flights on a Delta ticket, otherwise it won’t check your bags all the way to your destination.  The appalling hassle of having to go out of security at a stopover airport, collect your bag, then recheck it and return back in to security, and possibly go in and out of immigration and customs too, would surely dissuade most people from doing this, so it is an effective threat on Delta’s part.

Big bully Delta doesn’t even try to hide behind a convenient fiction such as ‘for security reasons….’.  It just says it won’t do it any more – see this item here.

So much for Delta’s membership in its Sky Team alliance.  So much for the claims that by belonging to these alliances, the participating airlines will make air travel more convenient and more turnkey to us, their passengers.  Instead, Delta’s churlish refusal to continue an accepted practice shows it for the venal airline that it is.  It is all about maximizing their profit, not about maximizing our customer experience at all.  And, alas, it is only gullible fools – and the DoT employees who enthusiastically grant each successive application for airline alliances – who believe to the contrary.

Travel Search Site Wins Awards

I was reading through this interesting list of ten essential mobile productivity apps for tablets and smartphones, and noted the entry for the best travel app, given to the Momondo travel search site.

Momondo?  Yes, a strange name, and an appallingly ugly site.  But if you can close your eyes to the home page, you may be delighted with the results it returns when doing a search for flights and fares.

Because the site is increasingly well thought of (it also recently won a Danish travel award for the second year in a row) I persevered and tried some test flight searches.  In all cases, Momondo came up with fare constructions that were at least as good as Kayak, and sometimes appreciably better.  This is the unsurprising outcome of it apparently researching fares from over 700 different sources – they say they believe Kayak ‘only’ checks about half as many sources.

In addition, the garishness of its home page was replaced by a functional and valuable clean look on its result pages, and offered some interesting additional derived data, like a ‘Price/Time score’.

So, if you’re not yet familiar with Momondo, maybe give it a try for your next travel planning.

Airplane Seatbelts Are Pointless?  So Says Ryanair.

Ryanair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, sure knows how to generate massive amounts of publicity for his airline.  His usual shtick is either to say something outrageous and extreme, including liberal uses of four letter words in his statement, or else to threaten to either remove the toilets from his planes or to charge for their use.

He has now come up with another great ruse to get plenty of headline space (including, of course, here too!) – he is reviving an earlier fantasy of adding ‘stand up seats’ to allow him to pack more passengers into his planes.  The earlier ‘stand up seats’ had you sort of leaning your butt against an angled pad, but otherwise largely being upright rather than seated, which would allow for a much tighter seat pitch and more rows of seats on a plane.

This time, he is proposing no seats at all.  A ‘standing only’ space at the back of the planes – oh, perhaps with hanging straps from the ceiling to hold on to during take-off and landing.

He claims that seat belts wouldn’t protect a plane’s passengers in the event of a crash, because if the plane crashes, everyone dies.

The great news is he is totally wrong in that assertion.  If you’re at all a nervous passenger, you should read my four part series on How to Survive a Plane Crash.  The happy reality is that even in major serious crashes, 75% of passengers survive, and new tougher seats – and seat belts – are expected to continue boosting the survival rates still further.

But even if O’Leary was sort of right, he is never going to put a standing room section on his planes, for one simple and unavoidable reason.  The Boeing 737’s he flies are currently fitted with the maximum number of seats they are allowed to hold.  All airplanes are certified to a maximum passenger capacity (no matter if standing, sitting, in the shower, or lying down in a luxury suite).  This number is based on how many people can quickly evacuate the plane in a loosely simulated crash situation, and so no matter what O’Leary fantasizes over, he can’t increase the number of passengers on his planes.

You’ll note also how he makes use of his free publicity to talk up his airline in general.  Here’s a great example of the latest storm of free publicity he has created for his airline – it is tremendous fun to read of his verbal antics, of course.  But, don’t worry; even on Ryanair, there’ll still be a seat and a toilet for you.

The 200 Million Frequent Flier Mile Dispute

From time to time, stories run around the internet about ways to get vast numbers of frequent flier miles at very low cost; indeed, twice over the last several years I have advised Travel Insider Supporters of ways to get tens or even hundreds of thousands of miles, at times totally for free (just one of the many occasional benefits and bonuses of being a Travel Insider Supporter!).

These opportunities come about when companies offer bonus miles in return for some type of transaction on your part, and sometimes these bonuses can be layered on top of each other with rapidly multiplying benefits.  The companies designing the promotions sometimes fail to account for the enthusiasm with which some people approach such opportunities (one famous example involved a person collecting a garage full of some type of breakfast cereal, if I remember correctly), or perhaps they simply decide that if a very small percentage of people exploit the system, that is a small cost in return for all the normal people who respond normally but positively.  Plus, a la Michael O’Leary, the extreme lengths some people will go to provides more positive free publicity.

Here’s an interesting story and sensible analysis of a promotion which resulted in 26 people amassing, between them, 200 million miles.  Miles could be accumulated at a cost of as little as $1,000 per million miles, and with frequent flier miles being worth anywhere from 1c – 8c a mile, a $1,000 investment would get you between $10,000 and $80,000 in return.

More to the point, the company giving away the miles probably had to pay between 1.5c and 2.5c a mile to get the miles it was then giving away, meaning that the $1,000 transaction (from which it maybe got a $300 net profit) was costing it $15,000 – $25,000 to provide the associated miles promised.  Oooops.

So in the story linked to above, the coordinating company simply refused to pay out the miles.  It doesn’t appear to be alleging any wrong-doing or fraud or cheating.  It just decided it didn’t want to honor its promise.

So, and quite fairly, a lawsuit has already been filed.  We wish the 26 claimants the best of good fortune in their proceedings – the 200 million miles have a value anywhere between about $2 million and $16 million.  Clearly worth quite a lot of legal action to obtain.  Companies can’t just annul their promises because it suits them.

China Extends its Interest in Building its Own Planes

This headline shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.  But what is interesting is that while China has been making great progress in developing and manufacturing its own airframe designs, it has been stymied at developing the appropriate technology to enable it to build its own jet engines to hang off its new planes’ wings.

After attempts to copy engines from other countries and manufacturers has failed (as this article wryly notes), it seems China is now preparing to invest massively in an R&D program to get up to speed with jet engine technologies.

That sound you hear?  It is the distant hammering, over in China, of another nail into the coffin of the west’s engineering and manufacturing prowess.

Not Allowed to Fly as a Passenger, But Can Fly as a Pilot

One of the stupider outcomes of 9/11 was a closer scrutiny on who was allowed to learn to fly in the US.

This is stupid because terrorists can learn to fly anywhere in the world, but lawful international students who used to choose to learn to fly in the US due to the presence of good quality and surprisingly good value tuition, and favorable flying conditions, now go elsewhere in the world instead (even to my home country of New Zealand).  We’ve not made ourselves any safer, we’ve just forced terrorists-in-training to do so more subtly in other countries, and we’ve interfered in the huge preponderance of legitimate flight training that used to be sold to international students.

However, even the new close scrutiny seems to apply mainly at the point where intending foreign students seek a visa to come learn to fly in the US.  This article points out the ridiculous anomaly that a person on the ‘No Fly’ list might be banned from flying as a passenger on any flight within the US, but can still walk up to a flying school and start buying lessons, with no background check or anything being required.

So, we are safer exactly how?

Technology Outpaces ‘Security’

You’re probably vaguely aware that most countries in the world these days require you to sign a declaration if you are carrying more than a certain amount of cash and cash-equivalent in or out of the country (for the US, the amount is US$10,000).  There is – usually – no restriction and no fee involved, but you have to ‘fess up to taking that amount of cash with you, and if it is unusually high, you just know that the IRS and various other authorities will be very interested to know more about where it came from and where it is going to.

It used to be a simple concept.  Count out your cash.  If it is more than $10,000, fill out the form.  If it is less, smile and continue on.

But the devil is in the details, and in particular, while we all know what cash is, what about cash equivalents?  For the US, the regulation says

 “Money” means monetary instruments and includes U.S. or foreign coins currently in circulation, currency, travelers’ checks in any form, money orders, and negotiable instruments or investment securities in bearer form.

This definition is about to be significantly extended to include such things as (prepaid) debit cards, and Customs guards will be equipped with portable card readers they can use to swipe all the cards in your wallet and determine what balances may be on them.  Maybe it is no big deal, but it slows down the process for both leaving and entering the country, gives you more paperwork to possibly fill out, creates a high risk thing that you must get right (or risk forfeiture and fines), and may unnecessarily cause your name to get flagged on IRS and other watch lists.

If this was all for a good purpose, maybe we could accept it.  But the problem is that for someone determined to smuggle cash from one country to another, these new steps do nothing to stop them.

For example, take your debit card with you to whatever country you are traveling to, and only once you get into the country, have an accomplice back in the US then transfer huge sums of money onto your card, which you then withdraw in the foreign country.  When you left the US, and when you entered the foreign country, you could truthfully say that your debit card had no significant balance at all, but once you got in-country, fill it up and then empty it out again, as many times as you choose, and not need to report a single penny of the money shipped off-shore electronically.

Another depressing scenario where the authorities are reacting to yesterday’s problem while ignoring today’s enhanced version of the issue.  More details here.

So, we are safer exactly how?

And Lastly This Week…..

When does a hotel transition from notably distinctive to abjectly ugly?  Here’s one person’s suggestion of the 15 ugliest hotels in the world.  You’ll possibly not agree with all 15, but you’ll probably agree with at least a few of them.

May I close again this week, as I have for the last several weeks, with a heartfelt plea to choose to become a Travel Insider Supporter.  You’ve again received some 7,000 words of material this week – add that up, and you’re getting more than a quarter million words every year; about the same as you’d find in four full-sized books.  How much is that worth to you?

One reader sent in a contribution and said he gets more than 100 times that value out of The Travel Insider each year.  I don’t begrudge his calculation and his sending in ‘only’ 1/100th of the value he receives.  By sending in anything, he is doing much more than most other readers.  Indeed, by all means do the same calculation yourself.  But whether you’re choosing to send in $10, $100 or even $1000, please do send in something.

Your fellow readers, your fellow Supporters, and, of course, The Travel Insider and I as your humble writer all thank you.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






1 thought on “Weekly Roundup Friday 9 November 2012”

  1. I have been enjoying your weekly newsletters. You really tell it like it is!! Thank you! Just sent in a contribution via Paypal. Not much, but wanted to say thank you in these tight times.

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