Weekly Roundup Friday 25 October 2013

Is Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic likely to fulfill the aspirations of space travel so famously predicted in this movie?  Read the commentary, below.
Is Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic likely to fulfill the aspirations of space travel so famously predicted in this movie? Read the commentary, below.

Good morning

I’d hoped to start our annual fundraising this week, but there are some ambitious plans associated with it, and they are taking a while to get in place, so we’ll wait another week to hopefully then kick things off with much more excitement (for you as well as me!).

There are other things for you this week in addition to a good meaty newsletter.  The first is a review of a product that costs $12.  Do you even need a review to make a buy/don’t-buy decision on a $12 item?  Well, in this case, it is as much a case of bringing it to your attention as it is reviewing it; a two port high current charger for your car.

It is a short piece and an inexpensive item that you’ll probably realize you’ve been wanting/needing without knowing it.  Now you do know.

The second article is an analysis of Apple’s latest underwhelming product releases – its new generation of iPads.  Back in 2000, when Apple first launched the iPad, it ‘owned’ the tablet marketplace, so it is unsurprising that its market share has slipped down from 100%, but what is surprising is that in the most recent quarters, it is being outsold by Android almost two to one.

Why is that?  The key reason is that the most active part of the tablet market – for smaller tablets around the 7″ screen size – is much more price sensitive than for the larger tablets.  In this part of the market, Apple is astonishingly uncompetitive – as you’ll see in the article, Apple’s comparable new 7″ tablet costs more than twice that of a similarly featured Nexus 7.  $299 for the Nexus 7, or $529 for the Apple iPad Mini.  Which do you think most people will continue to buy?

And, below, plenty more for your Friday pleasure :

  • 60% Discount on Christmas Market Cruise
  • In Defense of Travel Insurance
  • Which is the Cheapest European Low Cost Carrier?
  • Fixing the 787
  • Will Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Replace the Concorde?
  • Another Approach to ‘Space Flight’
  • Interesting Stats on Lost Bags
  • The Death of ‘Mileage Runs’?
  • United Weakens Mileage Benefits for Star Alliance Partners
  • Letting Corporate Pride Interfere With Business Sense
  • Google Breaks a Promise
  • T-Mobile Makes a Promise
  • TSA Inadvertently Reveals its Deepest Secrets – Get Ready for Some Surprises
  • And Lastly This Week….

60% Discount on Christmas Market Cruise

Yes, you read right.  A 60% discount – that means two people can travel for less than one normally!

How is this possible?  One of the couples on our cruise need to cancel due to an unexpected medical issue, alas, and so they are contributing towards the cost of the cruise in the hope of reselling it and reducing their otherwise applicable cancellation fee.

This is for a BA cabin – a lovely spacious top deck cabin, making the net price for two people, including port taxes, reduce down to only $3172 for the cruise from Budapest to Nuremberg (normally you’d be paying $3745 each, now you’re paying $3172 for both of you!).  Airfare is extra of course, and if you want to do the very popular Prague add-on, they have a hotel room they can transfer over to you too (the city is almost full now).

You can see details of the cruise here, but if you’d like to book, please send me an email.  You’d need to be able to immediately pay this amount on your credit card, it is definitely a first come, first served deal, for this one cabin only.

In Defense of Travel Insurance

One of the things which many travel writers love to cast aspersions about is travel insurance.  ‘Don’t buy travel insurance’ they declaim.  ‘You’re a mug if you allow yourself to be ripped off by over-priced travel insurance’ others tell you.

It is true that some travel insurance is more expensive and therefore lower value than other travel insurance, but that’s true of many things in life, and is a reason to buy carefully and sensibly, not a reason to not buy at all.

The latest cancellation off this year’s Christmas cruise got me to thinking (and we’ve now had four people cancel from the cruise, in three separate occasions, subsequent to having sent in their deposits).  It seems to me that on average, my tours experience about a 5% cancellation rate.  Plus, on average, there might be another 2% – 5% of people who end up making a claim on their travel insurance while they’re on a tour with me – perhaps they have a medical issue and associated cost, perhaps they lose/break something or are delayed, and – nastiest of all – perhaps an emergency at home forces them to cancel the balance of their tour and rush back.

While that means that you could go on 10 – 20 tours without a single problem, or maybe on 20 – 40 if you’re lucky, it also means there’s a measurable chance that your very next set of travel plans may suffer some sort of disruption that leaves you out-of-pocket.

In addition to the simple dollars and sense of ‘is travel insurance worth it or not’ there’s another intangible consideration, too.  Imagine how a couple feels when their ‘trip of a lifetime’ is ruined by any type of unfortunate and unpleasant costly event.  Not only do they miss out on the experience they’d been so looking forward to, but they also suffer a financial loss – and possibly also a nasty bit of self-recrimination ‘why didn’t we buy travel insurance’.

I’ve dealt with people in tragic situations needing to claim on their travel insurance for the worst types of reasons, and it has been such an enormous weight off everyone’s shoulders to at least neutralize the financial pain of whatever is going down.

If you can afford to ‘self insure’ and if you will calmly accept the consequences, then just like any other sort of insurance, you’re probably better off without it.  But if the financial consideration is relevant, then for all reasons, you should carefully weigh up travel insurance.

My closing comment on this point.  I’ve never had anyone return from their travels and accost me, complaining ‘I’m so upset that I lost money on my travel insurance premium – I didn’t get to make a single claim’.  I’ve had people ruefully wish they had bought travel insurance, and others express relief they had, but no-one has ever complained about not having to claim on it!

I’ve a three-part series which helps you better understand the different types of travel insurance and how to best shop around for the best deal.  Something to read and consider before your next ‘big’ trip.

Which is the Cheapest European Low Cost Carrier?

Chances are, if asked this question, you’d fumble a bit, and perhaps offer up Ryanair or maybe Easyjet.  These are indeed the best known low-cost European carriers in the US, but they’re not the cheapest.

Here’s an interesting study, looking both at the basic ticket price and the truer cost including some of the more essential and unavoidable extra cost items.  It shows that, in terms of lead ticket price alone, Ryanair is cheapest, but adjust for some fees, and it slips to fourth place.  The best value carrier is one you’ve probably not even heard of – Pegasus.  It is a Turkish airline, with 42 planes currently and another 81 on order, so clearly its low fares are proving popular.

When did we last read of a US carrier with new airplane orders sufficient to double its present fleet?

Fixing the 787

Remember the 787 which had the fire earlier this year?  Oh, sorry – which one, you might ask!  The Ethiopian Airlines plane that burst into flames semi-spontaneously while peacefully parked at Heathrow – happily right next to a Fire Station, which made for the probably fastest response to a fire alarm ever.

This was an interesting event for many reasons, not the least of which was the question which arose – how to repair the hole that burned through the plane’s hull.  Some people went as far as to suggest the entire plane would be written off – something we never expected to happen, because for reasons of corporate pride if nothing else, Boeing would happily spend any amount of money to avoid the ignominy of having this fire classified as a ‘hull loss’.

Other people thought Boeing would have to cut the plane in two and glue a new unburned rear half onto the relatively unharmed front half.  As it turns out, Boeing is adopting a relatively simpler approach – simply cutting out the bad bit and sticking a new replacement piece in to fill the hole.

Here’s an article that gives a good and detailed explanation.  But what it doesn’t tell us is significant – although we know it has taken Boeing more than three months of high priority work to get to this point, we have no idea what the overall cost of this repair may be.

Will Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Replace the Concorde?

No-one could ever accuse Sir Richard Branson of setting goals too low.  But one surely could accuse the media of invariably giving him a ‘free ride’ and never holding his feet to the fire of past promises made and never delivered.

Indeed, would it be narrow-minded of me to point out that his Virgin Galactic concept, now approaching 2014, has yet to carry its first commercial passenger, and to contrast that with early predictions it would be in operation long before now.  For example, in September 2004 Sir Richard was predicting flights would start in about three years (ie 2007) and  here’s a December 2008 piece that said Virgin Galactic would be in operation in 2010 – less than two years from when it was written.  We’re now coming up to the end of 2013, and still no Virgin Galactic (we’re now told ‘next year’).

But let’s not dwell on that.  Let’s instead look at the latest breathless bit of Branson boosting, where this article starts off with the puzzling promise that Virgin Galactic could ‘save the cruise business’.  The article doesn’t explain why the enormous and booming global cruise business, handling millions of passengers and making many hundreds of millions of dollars profit each year needs saving, and neither does it choose to dwell on how these spacecraft, each holding no more than half a dozen or so passengers, and flying infrequently, could have any impact at all on the cruise business.

But that’s okay, because there’s more to come.  The article quotes the company’s Commercial Director as predicting a future where his company’s (derivative?) craft also fly to the moon and provide supersonic commercial service to earth-bound passengers, too.

How likely is that?

Beyond unlikely is my opinion.  First of all, the design of the Virgin Galactic type plane and its piggy-backing start to its flight would not scale well to provide viable commercial service (for long distance supersonic travel).  Secondly, while the good news is that – as the article points out – reduced air way up in the fringes of the upper atmosphere does reduce friction, it probably makes ‘normal’ jet engines unworkable, because there’s unlikely to be sufficient air for them to use in their engines.

Solving that problem either requires enormously different jet engine technology (to make best use of the thin air available) or requires a transition to ‘bringing your own air with you’ – ie, a rocket, with the added cost/weight/space of the oxidizer destroying anything within several zeros of resembling cost affordable travel.

Oh, there are also the fanciful projections of orbital hotels and voyages to the moon.

Shouldn’t such things be written up with as much eye-rolling and injection of real-world improbabilities as possible, rather than uncritically quoted as something that is likely to be happening sometime in the foreseeable future?

Another Approach to ‘Space Flight’

One of the ugly obscured realities of Sir Richard’s vision of selling space flight experiences is that there’s every chance your space experience will include you vomiting all around the cabin while weightless (and/or having your fellow passengers vomiting on you….).  Well, not ‘every’ chance, but the flipside to being weightless is that even many trained astronauts suffer nausea and vomiting.

Think of weightlessness not as being suspended in the ocean, but rather as being on an endless roller-coaster accelerating down the downhill part of its run, with your stomach – and its contents – quite literally in your mouth.  When you’re in the ocean, you still have gravity acting on you, but you’re balanced in the water so you neither rise nor fall; that is totally different to being truly weightless.

Here’s an interesting article that talks about this problem.  Their takeaway

For the better part of three decades, Oman has been working with NASA to understand the neurophysiology behind space adaptation syndrome, or space sickness—the malaise, disorientation, dizziness, and outright nausea that harass most astronauts during the first few days in orbit. As director of MIT’s Man Vehicle Laboratory, a group within the institute’s Center for Space Research, Oman has accumulated plenty of data that almost guarantees it: If you plan to go to space, get ready to feel crummy for a few days.

So do you really want to spend a quarter million dollars to go up into space with the only sense of wonderment you feel being that about the appalling extent of the malaise, disorientation, dizziness, and outright nausea you are suffering, or to have taken so much Dramamine you’re essentially lifeless and comatose for the entire journey?

There’s another way to create the experience – or some of it – of being sort of in space.  Go up in a balloon.  Here’s an interesting article that tells of plans to create a capsule lifted by a helium balloon, going up to about 100,000 ft.  When you get up there, you can gaze down at the view for a while, then descend back down to earth.

At that height, you’d clearly see the curvature of the earth on the horizon, and you could see below you stretching out 385 miles in all directions – 770 miles from one side to the other.  If you looked up, you’d see the dark black of space and stars twinkling in the sky.  You’d not experience any sense of weightlessness at all.

So, an interesting experience for sure, and two and a half times as high as you’re likely to get in most passenger planes.  But how much would you pay for that?

The people developing this balloon ride are hoping that people will pay $75,000 for the experience.  Would you pay that much?  Really?  Assuming the balloon recycles the helium (and it would be a criminal waste of an already terrifyingly scarce element if they didn’t) it is very hard to see how a single ride – or, worse still, each passenger on the single ride – would require that sort of money.

Or, to put it another way.  It will be a while before you see me either in Branson’s barf box or this fancy balloon.

Interesting Stats on Lost Bags

I had a fascinating email exchange with a reader this last week.  He just couldn’t comprehend how on a single flight from Point A to Point B, on a plane that took off at Point A and landed at Point B, with no other stops in the middle, no changes of plane, or other complicating factors, the airline still managed to lose his bag – well, it was quickly found again, but it wasn’t on the same flight he was.

The sad reality is that bags can get ‘mishandled’ not only when they have to change planes on their journey.  They can get delayed while going through TSA, they can fall off conveyors or drop off trolleys, they can get manually mis-sorted, they can get overlooked, and so on and so forth.  It is a very imprecise process with plenty of points where problems can and do occur.

Add into the mix baggage handlers who many times couldn’t care less about what happens to bags, and some baggage handlers and ground workers who actively set out to ‘punish’ their employer, or the airline (not always the same thing) or the passengers by deliberately exploiting weaknesses in the system, and the net result is, as we all know, lost bags.

There are ways that baggage handling could be massively improved.  And not only would it greatly improve our experience as passengers, but it would save the airlines money too.  Here’s an article which says the airlines spend $2.6 billion every year on the cost of mishandled bags.

But don’t be taken in by the heading on the article which talks about making welcome progress, because the speed at which airlines are moving to RFID type baggage tagging is stunningly glacial.  These concepts have been talked about for more than twenty years now (I remember airline executives excitedly telling me about this in the early/mid 1990s), and only now are starting to make tentative tiny limited appearances, in some airports, with some airlines.  That’s not progress at all.

$2.6 billion, guys.  No matter what the cost of deploying the systems to make this all work, you’d get your capital investment back in double-quick time, and would be profiting from that point forward at a wondrous rate.  Oh yes, and passengers would feel better at traveling and at paying you your huge unreasonable fees for checked bags, contributing still further to your profit, and reducing the current pressure on overhead bins.

The sooner ‘intelligent’ bag handling and tracking is implemented, the better it will be for everyone.  So, of course, the best the airlines can do is twenty years later, and still nothing substantial to report, except readers writing to me wondering how on earth a bag can get lost from point A to point B.

The Death of ‘Mileage Runs’?

We’re getting to a very tense time of year for some of us.  We’ve looked at the miles we’ve flown this year, and all-too-accurately estimated the miles remaining, and there’s a shortfall between total miles this year and the miles we need to gain or maintain our place in whichever elite level of whichever frequent flier program(s) we most care about.

So, what do some people do?  A ‘Mileage Run’, of course.  An attempt to find a cheap fare that allows for a very roundabout route to travel somewhere such that the underlying cost per mile flown is as low as possible, helping us to cheaply make up the shortfall in miles and get into the privileged elite tier we seek.

That might sound extreme and almost unhinged, but it can be quite sensible.  The financial value of benefits such as free preferred seating and free checked bags can more than cover the cost of the mileage run, and of course, the miles you earn from the run have value too.  And that calculation is before you start to factor in perks such as regular upgrades to first class.

But the airlines are shifting the ways their programs work, and are becoming less focused on exclusively miles flown.  Now they want to know more about dollars spent, too.  And, sadly, if you find yourself $2000 short of elite status, there’s probably no way you can bridge that gap at the end of a year for less than the $2000 or whatever needed.  There’s no way to ‘cheat/beat’ the system with a dollar based qualification requirement.

But are the airlines outsmarting themselves (yet again)?  The thing is – and we all know this for the truth it unquestionably is – frequent flier loyalists spent a huge amount more with their preferred airline than just a crazy mileage run at the end of the year.  All during the year, they would preferentially fly the airline they had elite status with, even if schedules weren’t as convenient, and even if the fare wasn’t as low as offered on another airline.

If these people no longer have a chance to make elite status, they’re going to give up trying.  They’ll choose the best flights and the best fare for their travels during the year, and the cost of that to the airlines, while hard to exactly identify, will be very real.  We all know people (possibly even ourselves) who have gone out of their way to fly on their preferred airline, spending more money than they needed to on travel, and pushing more of their travel to an airline that in many times didn’t deserve it.

Do the airlines really want to turn these travelers loose and be forced to compete on price with each other?

Here’s a piece about the possible demise of mileage runs.

United Weakens Mileage Benefits for Star Alliance Partners

Hmmm – did I just talk about one benefit of elite levels being able to check (more) bags for free?  Well, in a move that again contradicts the nonsense airlines talk up when they claim their alliances benefit passengers, United has massively deprecated the benefits it gives to elite members of other Star Alliance airlines.

Until now, United would allow Star Alliance Gold members to check up to three bags for free, each weighing up to 70lbs.  Silver members were allowed to check one for free.

But now, Gold members get to check only one bag, no more than 50lbs, for free, and those poor Silver members don’t get anything at all.

United isn’t also tightening up on the benefits to its own Mileage Plus members, just those belonging to its ‘partner’ carriers.  Some partner.

Clearly, United is getting greedy.  It is trying to brute-force people to switch their primary allegiance within Star from one of the other airlines to United.  The next time you’re on a code-share, they want to make doubly sure that you’re on the UA part of the codeshare.

Does this mark the start of the breakup of the mega-alliances?  They’ve surely been stretched to breaking point over the last few years, with some alliance partners simultaneously allying with non-alliance airlines that are direct competitors of other alliance airlines – most clearly, Qantas switching its ‘most favorite airline’ designator from alliance partner BA to Emirates, a non-alliance airline that was formerly the arch competitor of both BA and QF.  How do you think BA now feels about Qantas and the value of being fellow Oneworld members?

How do you think Lufthansa now feels about United trying to tilt the table out of balance and towards United’s side of the game?

United might end up showing itself to be penny-wise and pound-foolish, if its current partner airlines now start to reciprocate, as they surely must feel compelled to do.

Letting Corporate Pride Interfere With Business Sense

We often express amazement at some of the lunacies foisted on a gullible world by companies when they ‘rebrand’ themselves.  Companies change their logos, and – less frequently – even their names in ways that make no sense, or, at best, which make no improvement.

A recent example is Rail Europe.  Now that’s about as meaty and excellent a brand name as anyone could ever hope for.  It is probably a very popular search term on Google, and while it is a bit confusing with Eurorail and Eurail and Europe Rail and other similar variations, it is basically a great name.

So, what do you do if your company has a good, possibly even a great name, and one that has been out there for a long time?  Why, of course, you change it.

Which is what Rail Europe has done.  Its new name :  Voyages-sncf.com (SNCF is the name of the French rail company).  Only the proudest of the always-proud French would think that an improvement on the world stage.

Google Breaks a Promise

‘Promises?  Promises are like pie crusts’, or so said Mary Poppins.  ‘Easily made, and easily broken.’

Am I the only one to have noticed that the more profitable Google becomes, the more focused on profit it also becomes.  There seems to be a feedback loop here, driving Google’s shift from being slightly nerdy and truly accepting of its ‘Do no evil’ mantra, to now doing whatever is necessary to drive more and more and more profit.  Examples of the harsher Google abound, most recently with its gratuitous decision to now withhold search string information that it formerly passed on to website owners, telling the owners how visitors searched for and found their site.  It no longer wants to play nice and share.

One of Google’s celebrated early core promises and fundamental points of distinction, was its clean site presentation and speedy search result returns.  As part of that, in 2000, when Google was still very small, very short of money, and struggling, the company famously refused an offer of $3 million from Visa to put Visa display ads on its homepage, and promised never to clutter its pages with such things.

But now, when $3 million is as impossibly small and inconsequential to Google as it was impossibly huge 13 years ago, what do we see appearing on its pages?  A ‘trial’ of display advertising.

Now I really couldn’t care less if they have more advertising on their pages or not, or what they do to their home page.  Bandwidth is no longer a worry for almost any of us.  But I would like them to honestly face up to the change in their business model rather than try to talk their way out of admitting the truth, as we see here.

T-Mobile Makes a Promise

Mobile wireless companies have an at best unhappy relationship to promises, too.  How many times have we seen ‘unlimited data’ plans redefine down the concept of ‘unlimited’, for example.

T-Mobile has been quite active of late, doing things differently to the other wireless carriers in an attempt to ‘punch above its weight’ and fight the gravitational forces that have been pulling users inexorably towards the two giants – AT&T and Verizon, and also to compensate for its less desirable high-speed data network frequencies.  It has been quite clever and quite successful, and this week dropped its latest surprise onto the marketplace – free data for tablets, for the life of the tablet.  And, apparently there’s no need to sign any sort of contract or commitment.

The free data is limited to 200 MB a month, but there’s nothing wrong with that, considering what you pay for it, especially if you don’t have to commit to pay any money at all above the free data allowance.

Details here.

Talking about free, in news that is so inconsequential as not to warrant its own heading, Microsoft announced its latest generation of tablets this week too.

About the best spin that local loyalist supporter, The Seattle Times, could put on the new hardware, in an article headlined ‘Attractive Surface 2 Not As Good As it Looks’ is that Microsoft should give it away for free.

TSA Inadvertently Reveals its Deepest Secrets – Get Ready for Some Surprises

This – and in particular some of the documents included with the article – truly is a must-read if you want to truly appreciate the sham that underpins the TSA, its 55,000+ person bureaucracy and $8 billion a year budget.

The TSA has been defending itself against a quixotic lawsuit that on the face of it would seem to have no more chance of succeeding than any of the other lawsuits brought against it in the past.  No matter how well researched and well argued such cases are, they always seem to fail, even if only on a procedural point, and eventually the person bringing the case runs out of time, money, and energy.

In this case, the plaintiff is a guy who spectacularly proved the nonsense of the TSA’s high-tech X-ray body scanners by walking through TSA security checkpoints with metal cases under his clothing.  His passes through security were filmed, and the TSA’s fancy machines never detected the hidden metal containers.

In his lawsuit, the TSA was forced to respond to discovery motions and provided him with classified documents to help him make his case and rebut their defense.  His filing to the court was to be in two parts – a public filing with the sensitive information redacted out, and a private filing under seal, not for the public, but for the court procedure in private.

It seems that a clerk at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals neglected to seal the confidential, un-censored documents, and so we can now see what the TSA doesn’t want us to see.

We see the TSA admitting the huge rate of false positives and the huge rate of failures to detect from its ‘best’ scanning machines, enough to make them almost useless and easily defeated by terrorists.  We can see the TSA admitting that there has not been a single terrorist attempt on any domestic airplane flight since 9/11/2001.  And we can also see the TSA peering into the future, saying that no terrorist groups are actively planning, plotting, or preparing for future attacks on planes (as of 2011 when the documents were prepared).

So what exactly do we need the TSA for?  Why do we need the ridiculous ‘shoes off’ rules, why do we need to bother about liquids and gels, why must our laptops be out of our bags?

Remember the color code of alertness that was stuck on an elevated level for ever until it was abolished?  Have you ever been lectured by a TSA staffer about the seriousness of security?  And so on.

Or how about the TSA’s increasingly desperate attempts to justify their thousands of ‘Behavior Detection Officers’, secretly going around airports, seeking to discover terrorists based on their behavior.

Or how about their VIPR teams that aggressively hassle normal citizens at train and bus stations, or at random roadside security points?

Well, now we know the truth.  There are no terrorists for the BDOs and VIPRs to detect, and indeed, the TSA would be the most surprised of us all if it ever found one.  It doesn’t think they exist.  We’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars, and made our lives a misery, accepted potentially dangerous exposure to X-rays, and waved away our Fourth Amendment rights, all in the name of – what?

And, lastly, the saddest thing of all.  Did you read this story as headlines in your local newspaper?  Did it make the news headlines on television?  Were the talk shows all aflame with outrage?  Is anything going to change now that the TSA has revealed it ‘has no clothes’?

Nope.  Apart from a few minor websites such as this one featuring these stunning revelations, the rest of the country has ignored the story.

Lastly, a ‘don’t try this at home’ word of advice.  Don’t print out the material and the next time you go to an airport, attempt to explain to the TSA staffers there that there’s no need for you to go through security, because their own bosses admit there are no terrorist threats.

And Lastly This Week….

Ah, for the gift of being able to see us as others see us.  Or maybe it is just as well we’re usually spared such insight.  However, if you’ve wondered, here’s a fascinating and sometimes very telling series of insights into how foreigners see the US and the people who live here.

Truly lastly this week, my New Zealand tour for October next year has attracted a great deal of interest already (thank you!).  Other people have suggested some other destinations for other tours.

But the one tour which I’m almost sure no-one would agree to come with me on, even though it is full of special unique experiences, would have to be this one.  What a shame – I wonder if it pays a 10% commission?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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