Weekly Roundup, Friday 19 December

A possible new network of 'Hyperloop' routes offering travel times faster than flying.
A possible new network of ‘Hyperloop’ routes offering travel times faster than flying.

Good morning

We’ve had another couple choose to join our Poseidon Arctic Expedition next May and a single gent has added his name to the list of people coming on the Scotland’s Islands and Highlands tour immediately thereafter.

I’m probably going to fly to Warsaw, to arrive on 15 or 16 May, so as to have a day or two in Warsaw, then travel to Hamburg by nice fast train on 17 May to join the ship and enjoy the three day free ‘pre-cruise’ that Poseidon is offering exclusively to Travel Insiders.

So if you’d like to add another day or too, and another country too, you’re of course welcome to join me in Warsaw – that would then have your total cruise experience going to potentially seven different countries (you might wonder how I get to seven countries, but there’s another surprise ‘bonus’ country that I’m working on including during our port time in Holland).

In other exciting travel news, there’s a hint that our anomalous foreign policy that has seen Cuba as the only country in the world Americans can’t conveniently travel to is about to be corrected.  Yes, some countries make it almost impossible for us to go there, like our ‘ally’, Saudi Arabia.  Others have difficult paperwork to work through, although there’s the promise of an almost certain to be granted visa at the end of the process – Brazil, China, India and Russia, for example.  Some countries which might seem difficult to get visas to are actually very easy, such as North Korea, as long as you’re not Seth Rogen or James Franco.  But it is only Cuba which our own government forbids us to travel to, a piece of nonsense that is surely decades past its ‘use by’ date.

News on Wednesday suggests moves to restore diplomatic relations and hopefully not long after to dismantle not just the trade but also the travel/tourism restrictions – restrictions that have become more and more peppered with loopholes over the years, to the point of them being little more than sham.  A friend who has visited Cuba several times tells me that while there is no official US Embassy in Havana, the ‘US Interests’ section of the Swiss Embassy is actually located in the former US Embassy building and is staffed by Americans, making it essentially indistinguishable from an embassy in everything but name.

According to this article, the moves currently afoot don’t extend to tourism.  Why on earth not?

I’ve been planning on offering a Travel Insider tour to Cuba in Jan/Feb 2016 anyway (that seems to be the best time of year to visit from a weather perspective), albeit with some complicated compliance requirements, and maybe now the tour will become simpler to arrange and less expensive to enjoy.  US carriers are visibly drooling at the chance of resuming flights to Cuba, and already operate ‘regular charter’ service (yes, that is an oxymoron and another loophole), so little is required to switch from ‘unscheduled but regular’ charters to scheduled regular operations, and it seems likely that scheduled service would see fares drop to more reasonable levels.

Stay tuned for more on this.

I think the attached article, at the end of this week’s newsletter, which suggests some alternatives to hotel internet service when traveling out of the country will conclude my new series on wireless data.  It has been wide-ranging, and hopefully will help you save money when traveling and wishing to remain connected to the internet, whether you’re within your home country or anywhere else in the world.

Actually, I probably need to revise part of the series already.  Earlier this week T-mobile announced the eighth round of what they call their ‘Uncarrier’ initiatives – new policies and prices that are very different to the standard/traditional policies/pricing in the market.  An earlier round saw them give free international data, and this time, they are now allowing unused domestic data to carry forward from one month to the next.  Remember back when rollover minutes was a big deal?  Now most of us enjoy unlimited minutes per month of calling and who cares about any carry forward, but carrying forward data is now as big a deal as carrying forward minutes once was, too.

A recent survey made the somewhat unbelievable claim that the average US wireless customer leaves 3 GB of data unused at the end of each month’s billing period, although for sure most of us buy a larger data plan than we really need just to err on the side of being ‘safe’ and avoiding any draconian overages on our monthly bill.  Clearly if we could reduce our monthly data purchase, and carry forward unused data from some months and use that in other months, it could save us from having to buy a larger monthly data plan than we really need.  So, T-mobile’s latest relaxation of traditional policies is of real benefit to most of us.

It is an idea well past due, and kudos to T-mobile for introducing it.  If there aren’t already an overwhelming panoply of reasons encouraging you to switch to T-mobile, maybe this will motivate you to at last consider doing so.  More details here.

Please continue reading for :

  • More on My New Internet Service Idea
  • Why Boeing’s Future Plans are So Important
  • Best and Worst Airlines for Losing Bags
  • Oil Prices Still Low, Air Fares Still High
  • EU Airports – Aren’t You Pleased to (Probably) Not Live There
  • Beware of Airport ATMs
  • This Week’s Amtrak Envy
  • An Amtrak Puzzle – and Solution
  • Was it Really the Fare-Dodger’s Fault?
  • No Liquids, Gels, or – Nutella?
  • The Newspaper Headline that Could Never be Rewritten for other Socio-economic Groups
  • And Lastly This Week….

More on My New Internet Service Idea

Maybe you remember, back in September, I had a survey about issues to do with death and all the hassle with managing everything to do with such unfortunate events.  I discussed the survey results in the introduction to my 12 September newsletter.

At the time, I hinted about developing a new type of service to assist with some of these challenges.  With the help of an industry ‘heavy hitter’ (you’re sure to recognize his name) and a group of other very experienced leaders, we’re getting much closer to going public and we now have a name (LifeLink) which makes it all feel much more ‘real’.

The guidance we received from all of you who kindly took the September survey has been tremendously helpful – thank you again for this.  Could I now ask you to please help me to ‘get it right’ by taking another survey (whether or not you took the first survey, please now take this survey).

The survey explains more about the product and then asks your opinion about some of its features and the pricing it could adopt.  You don’t need any special knowledge about anything, I am simply seeking the normal thoughts and responses from people such as yourself, and in return for your help with this survey, you’ll get a discount code which will give you 50% off the new service when it launches, next year.

As always, all responses are completely anonymous, and your views are as helpful if this concept does not interest you as they are if they do.

Please let me know if you can spare a few minutes of time to share your thoughts through this survey.  We’re still not ready to fully ‘go public’ so rather than explain more in this semi-public forum and have it end up in Google’s index, if you click the link to send me an empty email, I’ll send you a reply back explaining more about the product and a link to the survey page.  It really would be very helpful.

Why Boeing’s Future Plans are So Important

The low jetfuel prices are concerning some industry commentators, who wonder if lower jetfuel costs will remove the pressure on airlines to upgrade their older less efficient planes, and therefore slow down their new plane ordering from Boeing and Airbus; worse still, maybe they might cancel or delay/defer some existing orders.

These concerns became so loudly stated that Boeing felt obliged to issue a note this week explaining why it is relatively unthreatened, at least in the short term, by lower oil and jetfuel prices.  It is sad and surprising that Boeing had to so gently explain to industry commentators – alleged experts – why the sky was not falling.

But with that as merely introduction, there continues to be much angst and speculation about Boeing’s plans for new airplane models to replace its oh-so-long-in-the-tooth 737 and its already retired-without-replacement 757 – with much of the angst coming from within Boeing itself.  Here’s a great article pointing out some of the challenges and issues.

I suddenly realized, earlier this week, why it is the stakes are so high for Boeing at present.  It is because the glacial pace of airplane model evolution means that whatever Boeing next does will shape its future for possibly the next 50 years.

To put this in another perspective, Boeing’s first plane entered service in about 1919 or thereabouts, depending on what event and date you select.  For over half the 95 years since then, Boeing’s main plane has remained the same – the 737, and it is expected to remain a current model for at least another ten years.  The rapid pace of innovation in the first half of Boeing’s life has atrophied to almost nothing in its second half, and shows no signs of recovering in the next 50 years.

So, when you’re planning new planes that can take close on a decade from first concept to first commercial flight (slower than ever before – and costlier, too), and which will then be a core product for 50 years subsequently, a mistake could obviously be disastrous.

Could it be a fear of making a mistake that has Boeing gripped in a paralysis of non-action currently – and does Boeing not realize (most recent costly example its slow-to-market 737MAX derivative) that no action is as bad as the wrong action?

Best and Worst Airlines for Losing Bags

Did you know the worst US airline ‘mishandles’ bags nine times more often than the ‘best’ US airline?  With such a huge discrepancy, it pays to know which airlines to fly and which to flee.

American Eagle (now Envoy Air) has problems with about 9 out of every 1,000 bags.  At the other extreme, Virgin America gets it right all but once for every 1,000 bags.  Nearly as good as Virgin America are Frontier, JetBlue and Hawaiian.

Perhaps surprisingly, the worst of the major airlines is Southwest, but there’s little between it, American and United. Delta is appreciably better.

Full data here.

Oil Prices Still Low, Air Fares Still High

The airlines are hoping you won’t notice the dropping price of gas at the pumps, or, if you do, that you won’t join the dots and wonder why the cost of your next airfare is up rather than down.

To put things in stark perspective, Thanksgiving airfares were 10% to 15% higher than they were last year, but the CPI was only up 1.3% year on year, and the airlines – those few that remain – were spending 17% less than a year ago for their jet fuel.

Yes, there is something wrong with that picture.

But the airlines tell us it is normal that their fuel surcharges remain unchanged, even when fuel prices go down.  Airline lobbying group spokeswoman Jean Medina said

When the price of coffee beans falls, you don’t expect your latte to cost you less.  You expect Starbucks to reinvest in its product and that’s what the airlines are doing.

I’m not sure I’ve seen the airlines compared to Starbucks before, but I am sure that Starbucks has dropped its prices in the past, and I’m even more sure that Starbucks doesn’t have a separate ‘coffee bean surcharge’.

Applying the airline model to Starbucks would also see Starbucks charging for its free Wi-Fi, and having a complex policy for who gets to sit in which seats.  Plus, there’d be a surcharge for cups, and if you wanted to add milk or sugar, that would be extra, too.  But if you were in a hurry to order, you could pay a premium and jump ahead in line.

Oh, if you were not delighted with every aspect of your experience, instead of having a manager apologize and give you a voucher for a free coffee next time, mall security would be called and you’d be arrested for being disorderly!

So, yes please, airlines, do follow the Starbucks business model, but not vice versa!

Meanwhile, British Airways says it has no plans to drop its fuel surcharges, because while fuel prices might be dropping, other costs (not specified) are increasing.  Oh, did we mention that the airline industry is expected to make an extra $12 billion in profit next year due to lower jetfuel prices – so those are very dry tears I’m shedding for poor old BA.

But – our airlines can consider themselves now on notice.  The redoubtable Senator Schumer has called on the departments of Justice and Transportation to investigate airfares, which he feels are rising too fast.

But does even a naïf like Schumer expect the two departments entirely responsible for allowing the airline monopoly that is now creating these pricing anomalies to ‘fess up and tell him ‘Yes, you’re right, there’s a big problem and its all our fault’?

Like so much else, this is meaningless political grandstanding and will bring no change or relief.

EU Airports – Aren’t You Pleased to (Probably) Not Live There

With apologies to the readers who are in Europe, and with an uncertain awkwardness to the British readers, who can’t quite decide if they are in Europe and/or if they wish to be/remain there; when I sometimes feel despair at our own spendthrift government and its appalling eagerness to pass enormous spending bills without reading what they contain, I find it helpful to see examples that reassure me that, bad as we are, we’re no worse than other jurisdictions and a lot better than many.

Case in point :  Read this article about some airports in the EU and the government spending invested into them.  There’s the Spanish airport that promised 179,000 passengers if funding was given for development, but now the development is complete, is getting a mere 7,000 passengers.  And the Greek airport that loses €275 per passenger that transits through it – something that shouldn’t come as a surprise because there’s a major airport with better services a mere two hours drive away.  As an audit report comments, it would be cheaper to pay for limo transfers and to close the smaller airport.

A quarter of all the airports audited spent money on facilities that didn’t need to be built.

Oh – and this audit was careful not to take even the briefest of peeks at the disgrace that is the new Berlin (Brandenburg) airport – an airport that planning started for in 1993, and which was scheduled to be open in 2010, but which at the last moment canceled its eventual expected opening in 2014, and now is not thought to open until perhaps 2017.

This almost makes me feel good about our own gentle boondoggle – the Essential Air Service and its subsidies of up to (but now no longer any more than) $1000 per passenger.  Almost.

Beware of Airport ATMs

Talking of rip-off airports, how about rip-offs in airports, too.

I noticed in my last visit to New Zealand that the international terminals at airports increasingly had ‘bad/expensive’ ATMs inside the luggage/customs halls, and ‘good’ ATMs in obscure parts of the public airport areas, almost right by the exit doors, and well past the ‘bad’ ATMs.

What do I mean by ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ATMs?  A good ATM is operated by a bank and charges a close-to-wholesale rate on foreign exchange.  It might also charge you a fee for withdrawing cash, but that fee – likely less than $5 – is insignificant when you are sensible and make only a few but large cash withdrawals.

A ‘bad’ ATM is one which is probably not operated by a regular bank, but instead by some other commercial entity; perhaps Travelex or some other money changing service, or maybe an entirely unknown entity.  Such ATMs might boast things such as ‘free withdrawals’ but surely you know there’s no such thing as free, particularly when it comes to money.

They make their profit by charging you ridiculously high exchange rates – sometimes 10% worse than you’d get from a regular ATM.  So, on a $500 withdrawal, you might save a $5 fee, but you might pay a $50 exchange rate penalty instead.

They’ll often attempt to obscure the exchange rate they use by quoting it the opposite way to what you’re used to.  For example, if you’re going to Europe and are expecting to pay an exchange of, say, 1.28 dollars per Euro, they’ll quote the reciprocal – €0.78 per dollar, making it harder to understand the rate.

How can you tell if an ATM is a good or bad one?  Well, the obvious answer is to check the exchange rate before proceeding with the transaction, and to use a calculator (perhaps an app on your phone) to convert exchange rates back to the ones you are familiar with.  Secondarily, our sense is that ATMs that belong to the major international associations such as Cirrus and Plus are more likely to be bona fide.  Thirdly, major bank ATMs are probably better than unknown entity banks.

Here’s an interesting story on this point.

This Week’s Amtrak Envy

The Trans-Siberian train runs from Moscow to Vladivostok, or optionally to Beijing.  The journey takes 6.5 days from Moscow to either Beijing or Vladivostok, at an average speed of a bit less than 40 mph.  That’s the sort of travel that Amtrak could relate to.

New plans will see the Beijing-Moscow journey collapse down to 33 hours, at an average speed of 132 mph.  That’s not only an average speed beyond Amtrak’s comprehension, but also a route length of similar enormity.

We continue to struggle, and probably ultimately unsuccessfully, to get some hundreds of miles of high speed rail constructed in California, while Russia and China are embarked on building a 4735 mile route between their capitals.  The cost has been variously estimated as around $150 billion or around £145 billion – we tend to instinctively feel the higher estimate is more likely.  This article has more interesting information on the route.

An Amtrak Puzzle – and Solution

I first wrote about an Elon Musk (the founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX) project, ‘Hyperloop’, back when it was unveiled in August last year and was reminded of it again now when seeing this article, treating the project as if it were only now newly announced.

Back when it was first announced last August, it seemed very much ‘vaporware’ with nothing much behind it except Elon Musk, although some of his fans might suggest that’s more than enough for many futuristic things.  It was suggested that a Hyperloop system between San Francisco could be built for $6 billion, a fraction of the probably $100 billion cost of the southern California high speed rail project, and providing service with five to six times faster journey times (just over 30 minutes instead of just under 3 hours).  Hyperloop pods would travel through tubes at speeds appreciably faster than jets fly through the skies.

Now, a year later, it seems a Hyperloop system might cost $16 billion rather than $6 billion, but the speed promises are holding firm, and the firm that is shepherding its development process says a system could be operational within ten years.  Here’s a more in-depth update on what is happening to Hyperloop.

My question posed last year remains unanswered.  Even at $16 billion rather than $6 billion, why is California pressing on (sort of) with what may be yesteryear’s technology, rather than embracing the exciting new technology being developed within California?  The state could become a showcase to the world for a new transportation system, much as it was for freeways, way-back-when.

If the state’s political leaders have enough vision for a $100 million semi-high speed rail line, why not a bit more vision for a much superior product at a much lower cost?

Indeed, why stop with only California.  Our nation, our connectivity and our productivity was transformed by the Federal Interstate Highway building project, mainly constructed during the 1950s, and we created a road network that remains the envy of most of the rest of the world.  Why not now create a hyperloop network that would obsolete the dinosaur airlines (hyperloop pods travel much faster than planes) and bring a new era of faster, more comfortable and more convenient transportation to the entire country.

Was it Really the Fare-Dodger’s Fault?

I remember, many years ago when regularly riding on suburban trains in Russia, a curious situation prevailed.  The country had suffered a period of hyperinflation, and while the train fares were regularly adjusted to reflect this, the statutory penalties for fare evasion were seldom updated.

So this meant that whereas the fare to travel between two points on the system might be, for example, $2, the fine for being discovered traveling without a ticket might have been only 5c.  As a result, not a lot of people chose to buy tickets, preferring instead to pay occasional fines and the rest of the time, ride for free.  A crazy situation, but in a crazy country.  Not the sort of thing that would ever happen in our more sedate and sane world, right?

Now let’s look at London, where the region’s transportation system has a clever stored-value payment card, Oyster, that allows you to quickly pay for your travel.  It has a built-in RFID chip, so you just quickly touch it on a pad as you go into a station, and then do the same again when you leave at the end of your journey.  The system computes the cost of your journey, which it can do because it knows when and where you boarded, and when and where you got off.  So in addition to computing a single journey fare, it can also consider time of day discounts, and roundtrip or multitrip discounts.  Best of all, if you use an Oyster card, you pay less than if you buy tickets one at a time.

Most of the central London Tube stations have gates that only open once you’ve tapped your Oyster card at the gate or fed a ticket into the turnstile.  But as you travel out of the central area, increasingly the stations don’t have these, and rely upon you remembering to voluntarily go up to reader points on the platform to ‘tap in’ and ‘tap out’ at the start and end of your journey.

Of course, some people forget to do this.  If you forget to both tap in and tap out, well, you’ve just scored a free ride, although that is of course illegal, and if a ticket inspector finds you riding without your Oyster card having been registered at the start of your journey, you’re up for a fine.

But what about if you tap out at the end of your journey, but forget to tap in at the beginning of the journey (or vice versa)?  In that case, you’re charged a default fare that is set very high, so as to penalize and discourage such people.

But if you’re traveling a very long distance from somewhere out of the city, this default fare (£7.20 – massively more than a typical £2 – £3 single sector fare within the city) actually becomes less than the cost of a regular fare.  Ooops.

A gentleman who commuted from Stonegate, two thirds of the way to the seaside town of Hastings (a la Foyles War) and in to London every day noted this, and compared that to the regular ticket fare of £21.50.  The gentleman was a professional in the art of making money, and so with a keen eye for a bargain, stopped ‘tapping in’ on his journey each day and merely tapped out when he had no choice while arriving/departing London.

Apparently he did this for five years.  It is claimed he avoided paying some £43,500 in fares by doing so, but in truth that’s a totally spurious claim (a full year season ticket costs £4548 or about £20 per roundtrip journey, so he was only saving about £5.60, which over five years comes to more like £6,500).

He was eventually caught after computer monitoring noticed an unusual usage pattern on his Oyster card (yes, Big Brother is watching your card very closely).

He promptly paid £43,000 rather than face prosecution, but his actions came to the notice of the Financial Conduct Authority.  The gentleman was a former Managing Director of the BlackRock Mutual Fund in London, and regulated by the FCA.  Rather than commending this gentleman for his ‘outside the box’ thinking, and the care with which he spent his money (all the more remarkable for him being on apparently a £1 million plus annual salary) he has now been barred from working in the financial services industry in the future.

Ooops.  More details here.

No Liquids, Gels, or – Nutella?

Every so often, we read boasts about how the TSA and other security screening organizations around the world are about to deploy new ‘magic’ screening machines that will eliminate the restrictions on taking liquids onto planes.  But, somehow, it has never actually happened, has it.

If anything, we seem to be moving backwards rather than forwards, as is reported this week with the story of a lady trying unsuccessfully to fly between London and Edinburgh with two jars of Nutella spread, which were seized as being potentially explosive.

Nutella and chocolate have similar densities to that of plastic explosive, so there is actually some method in the apparent madness of banning it from carry-on items, but it is another small reminder about how we are all now captive to the worst fears and imaginings of those who are there to ‘protect’ us.

Details here.

Meanwhile, poor old Joan Collins got treated as a common criminal upon arriving in the US recently.  Apparently the moisturizer on her fingers blurred the fingerprints that foreigners must provide when entering the country, and rather than giving her a tissue to wipe them dry so she could try again, the border guard decided to treat her as a highly suspicious person.

The Newspaper Headline that Could Never be Rewritten for other Socio-economic Groups

Here’s an interesting headline :

Proved at last :  Men are idiots

When one considers the career destroying actions suffered by scientists who have dared to show differences between certain races and their IQ scores (they do exist, but it is career suicide to acknowledge this), and the sheer terror all newspaper editors have of inadvertently writing anything that could be decried as sexist or prejudiced, one has to shed a small, and politically correct, tear for that largest but apparently least deserving of all minorities – men.

By coincidence I stumbled across “Bad Grandpa” on Amazon Prime Instant Video earlier this week.  What can I say.  I’m a man.  I enjoyed it.

And Lastly This Week….

It is time to start making New Year resolutions, and of course, travel is on many of our lists.  While you should of course include our Poseidon Arctic Expedition and/or our Scotland’s Islands and Highlands Tour on your 2015 list, if you’re thinking about other places as well, you might find this a useful list of cities to include and avoid.

Have you ever noticed, when first boarding a plane, it is often either stiflingly hot or freezingly cold?  The airlines can save money by not heating/cooling the cabin until after they start the engines, and what’s 150 miserably uncomfortable sweating or shivering passengers suffering for 30 minutes compared to a $10 saving?

Well, in an emergency, there’s a very (im)practical solution to that problem, as a Chinese gentleman demonstrated to his fellow passengers recently.

I hope your Christmas will be filled with family, fun, and presents.

As for me, I’ve noted the lack of any very large packages under the tree, so will be writing an article for next week to persuade myself why I shouldn’t feel disappointed at not being given a Tesla.  In case you also don’t get one, I hope you’ll find the article takes away the sting of your disappointment, too!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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