Weekly Roundup Friday 27 September 2013

A brilliant turnaround by the Oracle boat this week saw the US defeat challenger New Zealand and keep the Americas Cup.
A brilliant turnaround by the Oracle boat this week saw the US defeat challenger New Zealand and keep the Americas Cup.

Good morning

I’ve been unable to think about much other than New Zealand this week.

For me as a Kiwi, the drama being played out on San Francisco Bay this week was reaching unbearable levels (and you thought the build up to the final episode of Breaking Bad was tough!), climaxing on Wednesday, when Oracle Team USA triumphantly concluded a stunning catchup from being behind 8 races to 1, to winning, 9 races to 8, ensuring that the Americas Cup will stay in the US for the next some years.  The New Zealand team went from apparently invincible to doomed.

The last few races saw splendid sailing by both teams, but Larry Ellison’s team (headed, I might note, by a New Zealander!) just had the better boat, and the Kiwis simply couldn’t keep up, no matter what they did.  While some have suggested that Ellison’s deep pockets gave the US an unbeatable advantage, this article does a good job of indicating that, in the end, simple sailing skills may have been the decisive factor.

Thanks also to Emirates for their generous sponsorship of part of the enormous costs of New Zealand’s challenge.  (In other Emirates news, the ever-growing airline announced new service to Boston, making it the eighth US city it will serve.)

I’ve also been thinking about New Zealand a lot due to planning next year’s tour – now named our Epicurean Extravaganza.  Everything about this tour will be very special, and I’ve a further sneak preview/progress report attached to today’s newsletter to let you know some more of the details of what we’ll be seeing and doing next Oct/Nov.

One thing which might also be uniquely distinctive about this tour is that there’s a slight chance it may be sold out before it ever goes on sale!  We now have eleven people, representing 21 participants, already having placed their names on a waiting list for the tour.  If the tour looks like something you’d like – well, if it is only something you think you might like, please do nothing!  But if it sounds like a tour you too might love, then please let me know and I’ll put your name next in line on the list for when it is ready to accept applications.

Also this week is a review of a new Bluetooth headset.  I used to review these devices fairly regularly, and then became a bit complacent.  I assumed (shame on me!) that they’d become all universally good and there was no longer any need for ongoing reviews.

Not so!  A friend recently spent $130 on a top of the line Motorola Bluetooth headset, and it was terrible.  We were both stunned that a name brand and very expensive headset could be so bad.

Anyway, both for his benefit and now for yours too, I went out and found a $25 headset that way outperforms the $130 headset.  Check it out – the review also follows the newsletter.

What else this week?  Oh, another 60 or so items of interest, all featured on our new News site as and when they happened.  If you’ve not yet gone to have a look at the site; if you’ve not yet added yourself to its daily update newsletter (free, of course) and/or if you’ve not made it one of your regular sites to visit each day, you’re missing out on a lot of timely interesting content.  Please do take full advantage of this latest Travel Insider free service.

And now, some more items showcased below :

  • To Tip, or Not to Tip
  • Sleepy Pilots
  • More Proof, if Needed, of the Value of Travel Agents
  • Twice as Many People Take Train as Fly in China
  • Even Bus Service is Booming
  • Amazon’s New Tablets – Wonderful Devices, Great Prices, but Still Fatally Flawed
  • Did Apple’s New iPhone Sell Well Last Weekend?
  • Almost Two Thirds of Fliers Unhappy with TSA
  • And Lastly This Week….

To Tip, or Not to Tip

As a New Zealander (we don’t tip in NZ) I really don’t understand the concept of tipping, even after 28 years living in the US.  Oh, I sort of understand when it is socially obligatory to do so, but I don’t understand the tortured logic of who gets tipped, how much, and why, or the even more puzzling logic of who does not get tipped.

For example, flight attendants.  Why don’t they get tipped, the same as do servers in restaurants – especially now that they’re taking money from us for many things?

Here’s an article that discusses the concept of tipping flight attendants.  You can maybe guess my thoughts on the subject, but what I’d really like to know is your thoughts on the subject.

How about a quick reader survey to find out what you think.  Please click the link below which best describes your opinion on tipping flight attendants.  It will send me an email with your answer encoded into the subject line.

I’ll report on the results next week.

I’ll never tip flight attendants.  Ever.

I don’t want to tip flight attendants, but if it became the norm, I’d probably join in.

If I thought I’d get something extra, I might tip them something.

If I did get something extra, I might reciprocate with a tip.

I have rarely tipped flight attendants already.

I sometimes tip flight attendants at present.

Any time I’m paying for something with a flight attendant, I add a tip.

Everyone should always tip flight attendants (and, yes, I am a flight attendant).

Sleepy Pilots

Here’s an interesting hint of a story from the UK, where the names of the guilty have been obscured to protect the, ummm, guilty.

It appears that two pilots of an unnamed UK airline, flying from a undisclosed city to another undisclosed city, both fell asleep at the same time, some two hours after departing their destination.  The two pilots had decided to do turn and turn about 20 minute naps, but somehow that devolved to both asleep at the same time – we also don’t know for how long, or what the event was that caused them to subsequently wake up.

I’ve nothing against one pilot being asleep at a time, but in a perfect world, would feel much more comfortable if the other one of them stayed awake.

In all seriousness, perhaps part of their problem was a plan to do 20 minute shifts and naps.  They’d have been much better advised to do 50 minute shifts.  The natural rhythm of sleep is such that at around the 20 minute point, you’re in a deep sleep phase and harder to wake up and stay awake, whereas at the 50 minute point, you’re at a light point of sleep; easier to wake and easier to stay awake.

If you occasionally feel the need to nap yourself (whether you’re a pilot or not) you should set your alarm for 50 minutes into the future (ie five minutes to nod off and 45 minutes of sleep) or for 95 minutes if you really wanted to treat yourself.  You’ll wake easier and feel better by doing that than if you set it to some other semi-random number of minutes/hours.

More Proof, if Needed, of the Value of Travel Agents

I’ll be the first to concede that not all travel agents are great.  Some are awful, and the US is one of the few countries in the world that requires no training or qualification at all for a person to become a travel agent.

I’ll also be the first to concede that these days, some types of travel planning would seem to not need a travel agent any more.

But, don’t be blinded by the apparent allure of technology.  You might be surprised to learn that many times travel agents can still beat airfares shown by the online travel agency websites (particularly for international and premium cabin travel), and also, notwithstanding the bazillion words of review and commentary on sites such as Cruise Critic, travel agents can be invaluable when it comes to choosing which ship to take on a cruise.

I was reminded of that this week, reading this article which suggests that fully one-third of first time cruisers end up having chosen the wrong ship – ‘wrong’ in the sense of the demographic the ship is primarily targeted at, and its cruise itinerary and activity/lifestyle provided.

If you can find a good travel agent, perhaps in a good travel agency (the two don’t invariably follow one another) then your risk of being mismatched and placed on the wrong ship are massively reduced.  Definitely worth whatever fee they may or may not charge for booking a cruise, and indeed, with most cruises still paying agents ‘full’ commissions, the chances are you shouldn’t have to pay a fee at all for your cruise booking.

Twice as Many People Take Train as Fly in China

We are often told that Amtrak could never emulate the success of rail networks in Europe because of the spread out nature of the US and the vast distances involved.  Some rules of thumb have long suggested that trains are better than planes for distances of up to 400 miles, but beyond that point, air travel is superior.

Well, that’s as may be, but how to reconcile that with the statistic that in China, since the opening of their ever-growing high-speed rail network (now with over 100 cities connected to each other by fast trains), twice as many people travel by train as by air.  Distances are huge for travel between many city pairs in China, but their high-speed trains take twice as many people as do their airlines, to the point now that some city pairs have trains departing every five minutes.

The clear superiority of trains is such that Chinese airlines have almost completely given up offering flights of less than 300 miles, and have reduced service on flights of less than 470 miles.

This NY Times article has interesting additional information about the state of high-speed trains in China.

We think that the 400 mile point is short and needs to be adjusted to reflect not only the faster speeds of modern trains but also the growing gap of travel experience and comfort (favoring trains not planes of course!).

A modern fast train can average 150 mph.  If you consider just the two-hour check-in process to board a plane, the 15 minutes or more to get off the plane at the other end, and a minimum of another 20 minutes with the plane taxiing on the ground, and compare that to an almost zero minute checkin requirement and an almost immediate exit from the train at your destination, there’s clearly at least a 2 1/4 hour head start a train has over a plane.  And during that time, a fast train has traveled over 350 miles, a distance it takes a plane 40 minutes or more to cover, at which point the train has traveled another 100 miles, and so by the time you reach a ‘break even’ time point, these days you’re probably at almost 600 miles.

Now add into the equation the greater comfort and convenience of train travel; the ability to make and receive phone calls, to work on a computer the entire journey, or to spread out, relax, sleep, or whatever else; to get up and walk around, to go to a dining car and eat decent food, and all the other benefits of train travel, and the breakeven distance point is more likely to be 700 miles or more.

That would mean travel between city pairs such as Chicago and Washington DC, Philadelphia or New York is feasible by train instead of plane (600, 650 and 700 miles, respectively).  Indeed, most major city pairs in the populous eastern part of the country are within those sorts of distances of each other – even far away cities like Atlanta and New York are only 750 miles apart.

When you look at a US map from this perspective, all of a sudden, much of the country reveals itself as being feasibly close, by high-speed rail, to much else of the country.

Is this the point where I regurgitate this Administration’s pledge to make US high-speed rail the best in the world, and contrast it with the precisely zero amount of high-speed rail projects currently underway?

If China can do it, why can’t we?  And, no.  That’s not an invitation to trot out the standard apologies for our latter-day lack of excellence.  It is a challenge for us to return to the golden era of this country.

Even Bus Service is Booming

Three modes of transportation.  Three different stories.

Our airlines are cutting back on domestic services, or if not, struggling to stand still.

But Amtrak, in its present massively flawed form, regularly reports new highest ever monthly record traffic figures.

And even the benighted buses that criss-cross our country are showing significant growth.  The chances are you don’t often use a bus for intercity travel, and neither do I, but my second hand understanding is that today’s high-end premium bus services are massively better than the ‘bad old days’ of Greyhound at its worst.

Indeed, Greyhound itself has created new brands, offering high quality and amazingly low price service.  A friend rode their BoltBus service, and paid something like $2 to travel between Seattle and Portland (180 miles) on a luxury and half empty coach complete with free Wi-Fi, and a travel time closely comparable to what a private car would take (and up to an hour or more faster than Amtrak).

Another Greyhound brand – Greyhound Express – is also growing into new markets, too.  Like BoltBus, it offers free Wi-Fi, and other benefits such as reserved seating, extra legroom, and at-seat power for your electronics.

My point is simply this :  Clearly our nation’s travelers want to travel, and want to avoid planes.  There’s never been a better time to deploy high-speed rail.

Amazon’s New Tablets – Wonderful Devices, Great Prices, but Still Fatally Flawed

Amazon released its latest generation of Kindle Fire tablets this week, known as the Kindle Fire HDX.  A 7″ model is $229 and an 8.9″ model is $379.

Both are enormously impressive in terms of their processing speed, screen resolution, battery life, value, and so on.  But both still suffer from a fatal flaw – sufficiently serious as to make them poor choices for most people.

Their flaw?  For all their tablet veneer, they are still little more than glorified book readers, with a light sprinkling of other apps also allowed.  They are not full open unrestricted Android powered tablets; they will only run the programs that Amazon thinks you should be allowed to run.

Amazon is almost literally giving these devices away at cost, but only because it seeks to make up on the back-end what it doesn’t make on the front end.  In other words, Amazon locks you into their system and only their sources of books, music, video, games, and other things.

If you only want to read eBooks, you’re better advised getting one of Amazon’s standard (black and white) Kindle readers, now available for as little as $69.  If you want to read books and do some other things too, you are probably better off waiting a week or two to see what the new Google Nexus 10 full-sized tablet will look like, and then comparing that with the recently released new Google Nexus 7 ($229), and choosing between those two, giving you an open-ended opportunity to buy eBooks from any different eBook source (and to take advantage of the huge library of free eBooks), and the same for music, video, etc as well.

Amazon is bravely fighting this battle with all its marketing guns blazing, but nothing it says or does can obscure the fact that its devices are restricted and limited in functionality – even more so than Apple, and that’s truly saying something.

Did Apple’s New iPhone Sell Well Last Weekend?

Oh, talking about Apple, a couple of things of note.  First, to finish the thought in the last item, rumors now say that Apple’s latest tablet may be released in mid October – indeed, this article published yesterday is suggesting 22 October as the release date, with the units going on sale at the beginning of November.

While we feel the iPhone has peaked and is no longer state of the art, we remain guardedly positive on the iPad vs other tablets, and will have to wait and see how the new iPad and also new Nexus tablets match up against each other before deciding on the best tablet for this Christmas season.

And now, the new iPhones.  The first weekend of release of Apple’s new model 5S and 5C iphones was last weekend.  Last year, the then new model – the iPhone 5 – sold about 5 million units in its first weekend.  This year, the new 5S and 5C sold about 9 million units – a truly stunning leap up from last year’s already huge sales number.

According to Apple, that is an astonishing increase in sales numbers, and points to the continued brilliance of their superior products.

But, maybe there’s more to these statistics than Apple is disclosing.  This year saw two new models released simultaneously, last year saw only one model.  So some part of the increased sales is perhaps simply due to a wider range of choices all appearing at the same time.

More to the point, this year saw the phone released in more countries simultaneously on the first weekend, including China.

Which leads to the two questions Apple refuses to answer.  Firstly, how many of the phones sold were the slightly new 5S version, compared to how many were the 5C which is little more than a repackaged and slightly cheaper version of last year’s iPhone 5?

And, secondly, due to the greater number of stores selling the phone for this launch, please would Apple conform to the universally accepted measure of sales success and let us know about same store sales figures.  How do those compare, year to year?

So, did the iPhone sell well in its first week of launch?  Yes, it did sell 9 million units, and yes, that’s an astonishing number of sales.  But is this truly an increase on last year’s 5 million – well, that really does depend on who is counting what.

Almost Two Thirds of Fliers Unhappy with TSA

Talking about correctly counting things, here’s a poorly analyzed survey that obscures the point they should be making.  The survey asked people if they believed the TSA was competent.  A high percentage of respondents (34%) said they don’t fly.

So after discarding those answers, of the remainder, 61% said they did not believe the TSA to be competent, whereas only 39% viewed the TSA as being able to do its job.

But there’s a 61% chance you’re not surprised by this.

And Lastly This Week….

Infographic madness continues, this week in the form of this dissection of a slice of our life perhaps better left unexamined – what else we do while on the toilet.

Talking about madness, what to make of this story – an airport was forced to erect new barricades to stop drivers going across its runway, due to faulty GPS directions from Apple’s map program on its iOS devices.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top

Free Weekly Emailed Newsletter

Usually weekly, since 2001, we publish a roundup of travel and travel related technology developments, and often a feature article too.

You’ll stay up to date with the latest and greatest (and cautioned about the worst) developments.  You’ll get information to help you choose and become a better informed traveler and consumer, how to best use new technologies, and at times, will learn of things that might entertain, amuse, annoy or even outrage you.

We’re very politically incorrect and love to point out the unrebutted hypocrisies and unfairnesses out there.

This is all entirely free (but you’re welcome to voluntarily contribute!), and should you wish to, easy to cancel.

We’re not about to spam you any which way and as you can see, we don’t ask for any information except your email address and how often you want to receive our newsletters.

Newsletter Signup - Welcome!

Thanks for choosing to receive our newsletters.  We hope you’ll enjoy them and become a long-term reader, and maybe on occasion, add comments and thoughts of your own to the newsletters and articles we publish.

We’ll send you a confirmation email some time in the next few days to confirm your email address, and when you reply to that, you’ll then be on the list.

All the very best for now, and welcome to the growing “Travel Insider family”.