Weekly Roundup, Friday 7 November 2014

Some of the group at our opening night's dinner in Auckland, NZ
Some of the group at our opening night’s dinner in Auckland, NZ

Good morning

Our marvelous New Zealand tour ended earlier this week; I’m writing this quick note in Christchurch and will be flying home on Saturday.

Although all Travel Insider tours are generally wonderful, it was the consensus of everyone on the tour that this was our best tour ever.

The weather cooperated, we had some lovely hotels, saw some wonderful sights, and the Food and Wine Festival featured some utterly brilliant food and wine experiences.

Indeed, let me quote from Janice, who was on her fifth Travel Insider tour and wrote to me earlier today to say

Well, you’ve done it again – organized and led a wonderful tour, this time of your home country.  I sincerely loved being in NZ, and found the people to be so gracious, and the land so beautiful.

Many thanks for all that you have done to make the tour a great one.

Best of all perhaps were the Travel Insiders who made up the group – everyone got on very well with everyone else, and that, more than anything else, made it a wonderful shared experience.

And so with that as clumsy introduction, and in response to popular demand by people in the NZ group, may I now proudly tell you we will be offering a Scotland tour again this coming June, to the islands off the west coast and through the highlands ashore, and with some wonderful pre and post tour options, too.

There’s an introduction to this after this shorter than normal newsletter, and more in the linked pages.

These are very difficult tours to arrange, because the hotels we stay in are tiny and never have many rooms available.  So if you’d like to come, can I please ask you to decide to do so as soon as possible, so as to be sure of getting accommodation for you.

What else this week?  Quite a lot, including an election that doubtless has created as polarized a range of emotions as are the parties themselves at opposite ends of the table too.

I’m just now starting to pick up the traces of the travel industry again after the ‘full on’ nature of the tour these last two weeks and internet that varied between slow and very slow, but here are a few interesting items :

  • Four of the World’s Five Worst Airlines are American (and One of the Best)
  • A (sort of) New Way to Europe
  • Still Waiting for the Fuel Surcharge Reductions
  • ‘Free’ Wi-Fi on Emirates
  • ‘Free’ Wi-Fi at Marriott
  • Amtrak Results – Good or Bad?
  • This Week’s Ebola Update
  • And Lastly This Week….

Four of the World’s Five Worst Airlines are American (and One of the Best)

Congratulations (sort of) to Spirit Airlines for topping this list of the worst airlines.  It was closely followed by United, then Ryanair, Delta and Frontier.

On the other side of the coin, the Conde Nast Travel Readers’ Choice Awards named Singapore Airlines the world’s best airline, followed by Emirates and then Virgin America in third place.

Talking about Ryanair, for a long time it has reveled in being ‘the airline most people love to hate’ and its CEO has deliberately attracted as much ire as possible, perhaps on the basis of ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’.  Using a lure of rock-bottom fares (and sometimes the airline will give away tickets totally for free) but twinned with high fees for everything, the airline has grown and grown, and has usually been very profitable.

In the last year, CEO Michael O’Leary has been toning down his rhetoric  and the airline has been trying to become a bit ‘kinder and gentler’, while still absolutely not becoming a generic bland airline.

Has this been successful?  Reducing their fees and charges, and becoming more polite and pleasant?  Well, the airline has just posted record profits for its first six months of the current fiscal year (net profit of almost $1 billion), so quite possibly, it might be a winning formula.

Can we hope other airlines choose to copy this approach?

A (sort of) New Way to Europe

Well, actually, Icelandair has been offering seasonal and sometimes year-round service from the US for many years, but it is growing and adding new cities it serves in both North America and Europe.  Portland, OR will become the airline’s 14th North American city in May next year (10 in the US, four in Canada), and with the addition of Birmingham, it will serve 25 cities in the UK and Europe.

Not only is Reykjavik a fascinating place to stop and stay in for a while, Icelandair allows you a stop of up to a week there for free on most fares.  It is a generally good carrier that represents a refreshing alternative to the mega-airlines.

And, wait, that’s not all.  Wow Air is a recently founded low-cost carrier (started operations in May 2012) also based in Iceland, and now offers service to 17 destinations, rising to 20 next summer, including Boston (from 26 March) and Baltimore (3 June).  They have some excitingly low fares and are well worth considering for next summer’s travel if you’re fortunate enough to live in Boston or Baltimore.

Still Waiting for the Fuel Surcharge Reductions

Crude oil prices are tumbling and jet fuel prices have dropped more than 20% so far this year.  But airline fuel surcharges still remain ridiculously high, and often greater than the base ticket price.

When will airlines start reducing their fuel surcharges?  The international airline cartel group IATA said, ten days ago

You’ll see the fuel surcharge very quickly come down.

I say ‘Don’t hold your breath’.

‘Free’ Wi-Fi on Emirates

Good news, sort of.  Emirates plans to start offering ‘free’ Wi-Fi on its flights.

That is, to be specific, the first 10 MB of data will be free.  That’s scarcely enough to download a single email with a couple of photos attached – some of the hotels in New Zealand charge for data by the MB and I’ve been noticing a typical overnight stay seems to involve me using 500+ MB.  While you mightn’t use that much, for sure 10 MB will barely get you started.

And that’s probably why Emirates is doing this.  Airlines the world over are frustrated that, after spending considerable sums and adding extra weight to their planes to equip them with Wi-Fi, they are getting very few passengers paying to use the service.  Maybe this is a good way to entice more people to sign up.

‘Free’ Wi-Fi at Marriott

Marriott has said it will offer free standard Wi-Fi at its hotels to members of its Marriott Rewards program, but only if the members book their stay either directly through the Marriott website (or Marriott’s mobile app) or through their (800) number.  A notable omission – if you book through a travel agency, you won’t qualify for the free Wi-Fi.  So I guess the travel agent’s small commission is being repurposed.

Marriott also has a better faster Wi-Fi – its enhanced Wi-Fi, which elite Rewards members get free and others can buy for a fee.

Care to bet if the ‘standard’ Wi-Fi will become slower and less reliable?  Is this a sort of ‘bait and switch’ to get you to buy the enhanced service, similar but different to Emirates’ approach?

Amtrak Results – Good News or Bad?

Clearly good news was the announcement that for the fiscal year ended 30 September, Amtrak’s ridership increased 0.2% year over year to 30.9 million, and ticket revenues increased 4% to $2.19 billion.  Of course, a 0.2% increase is probably less than the natural increase in US population, but any increase is better than a decrease, and a 4% growth in revenue is edging slightly ahead of inflation.

But when you scratch the surface, there’s little to feel so good about.  As has increasingly been the case, Amtrak is shrinking in on itself.  Its ‘core’ Northeastern Corridor routes increased ridership by 3.3%, hitting a new record of 11.6 million passengers, but its regular long-distance routes shrunk their passenger count by 4.5% and shorter regional services, operated in partnership with the states they operate within, also shrunk by 0.6%.  More details here.

Amtrak sees only trouble in its future, with deteriorating track, owned by freight railroads and increasingly inappropriate for faster passenger trains.  Its chronic underfunding shows no sign of turning around, and we doubt the new Republican controlled legislative will be wanting to gift much more money to Amtrak.

Is it time to admit that long distance trains have failed in the US and stop pouring more money into what, on the current methodology, is nothing more than a bottomless pit?  On some routes it would be cheaper to give passengers a free airline ticket than to continue to operate trains.

Amtrak either needs massive investment or else to be closed down.  It is time to confront this reality and take positive action, one way or the other.

This Week’s Ebola Update

As of 5 November, the CDC was reporting 4818 deaths.  Our last report was the CDC figure as of 15 October, with a total of 4493.  So in three weeks, total deaths increased by 325 people, compared to the increase in the single week prior to 15 October of 639 – more than the total who died in the last three weeks.

Does this mean Ebola is on the decline again?  We’re not going to say that, but we will again observe that the Ebola hysteria is, ummm, still mercifully very premature.

And Lastly This Week….

What not to wear on a plane?  The list is already quite long, and now it appears that speedo swim briefs need to be added to the list.  To say nothing of inflatable beach turtles.  If you’re confused, there’s an explanatory video here.

We stayed in an interesting range of hotel rooms in New Zealand, including some extraordinarily spacious and luxurious suites.  But none quite like this.  Mercifully.

And lastly this week, after a tour filled with drinking, the thought of more free drinks has less appeal than normal to me, but probably is of interest to you.  Here are some suggestions for how to get free drinks while traveling.

I’ll be back next week with a more normally sized newsletter.  Until then, please enjoy safe travels, and don’t forget the Scotland Tour next June.







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