Weekly Roundup, Friday 10 July 2015

This graph is all the more astonishing when you realize it has a logarithmic scale.  See item below.
This graph is all the more astonishing when you realize it has a logarithmic scale. See item below.

Good morning

I’m writing this on Thursday afternoon, in a local park, while dog and daughter frolic around in the summer sun.  A nice time of year.

My point about this is to mention that most smartphones and their data plans these days include the ability to use your phone as a portable Wi-fi hotspot.  I simply turned on the ‘Personal Hotspot’ option on my iPhone, and then connected to it from my laptop.  The phone takes its wireless data connection and rebroadcasts it as a local Wi-fi network.  It really does enable one to work from almost anywhere, and if you’re lucky, internet speeds can sometimes be comparable to at home or work.

This is also probably true if you have a wireless data plan on your iPad.

An extension of this concept of course applies if you’re staying in hotels in the US.  If you’re stuck with bad/slow or expensive internet in your hotel, use your phone’s wireless data plan and Wi-fi hotspot and you’re connected to the internet that way instead, possibly faster and better, probably more securely, and definitely cheaper than via the hotel’s in-house service.

And now, possibly not only just in the US.  Still on the subject of phones and data, T-Mobile has come up with the latest in its on-going series of liberalizations of the former typical cell phone contract.  Astonishingly, they’re now including calling and data to, from, and within most of Mexico and Canada as part of their standard monthly contracts.  So in addition to unlimited use in the US, you now get the same in pretty much the entire North American continent.  Details here.

Just another reason why T-Mobile is clearly and by far the best of the US wireless co’s at present.  Other carriers occasionally match or partially match the always improving provisions of T-Mobile service, but T-Mobile continues to lead the way with new improved value services.  Highly recommended.

Also this week, please keep reading for :

  • The Incredible Shrinking Aeroflot
  • How Hot is Too Hot?
  • FTC :  Okay for Hotels to Hide Resort Fees
  • Hotel Dining Costs
  • Hotels Bumping Guests
  • Using Overbooking to Your Advantage
  • Mobile Phones and Watches – Losers and Losers
  • A Useful Tip for Canadians Buying Gas in the US
  • And Lastly This Week….

The Incredible Shrinking Aeroflot

Aeroflot appears to be seeking to sell off 27% of its planes.  And rather than selling off its oldest and least desirable planes, it is selling off its newest planes.

That’s not something normally encountered in a normal airline that seeks to continue to operate in an optimized manner and going concern into the future.  It is an action which suggests desperation and/or some major mistakes in its fleet make-up, and is somewhat puzzling because there’s no immediate and obvious hint as to Aeroflot being in a desperate financial or operational situation.

But, as this article points out, and as this article follows up on and further confirms, there’s no denying that Aeroflot is seeking to urgent divest itself of the best planes in its fleet.  Presumably there will be major cutbacks in routes served.

It is true Aeroflot, historically, had a bad reputation in Soviet times, but subsequently it has massively improved, and also replaced its aged Soviet planes with modern western planes, making it essentially no worse than any US carrier and with a comparable safety record.

How Hot is Too Hot?

One of the most unpleasant experiences is boarding a plane on a searing hot day, with all its air conditioning off.  Temperatures are stifling, and there’s not a whisper of air circulation.

And then, one of the most disappointing experiences is when the air is started up, only to discover that rather than cool air, it is either recirculated air or else ambient air from the hot day outside.  The air flow doesn’t make the interior any cooler.

The most annoying part of the experience is the knowledge that it is all preventable – the airline is just being too stingy to pay for landside cooling.

Apparently American Airlines has a policy that its planes can’t be hotter than 90 degrees at the start of the passenger boarding process, but the catch with that requirement is that nothing in its policy says the temperature needs to be kept below 90 during the boarding process, and when you suddenly get the better part of 200 hot bodies crowding into the plane, hot temperatures get even hotter.

This has recently become an issue as a result of the merger between AA and US Airways.  The former US policy was that its planes could be no more than 85 degrees at the start of boarding, but even though the merger was essentially a case of US taking over AA, the former AA temperature policy seems to be remaining in place, and that’s upsetting former US flight attendants.

AA says it won’t change its policy because it has very few passenger complaints.  I’ve never complained myself, because I’ve never thought there to be any likelihood of passenger complaints changing their policy, it being a deliberate decision rather than a mistake or oversight.  But perhaps, the next time I find myself flying on any hot plane, I’ll fire off a letter.

If you find yourself similarly suffering in a sweat box of a plane, you should do the same.  Details here.

FTC :  Okay for Hotels to Hide Resort Fees

In a startling bit of nonsense, the FTC has said that as long as a hotel tells you, when you check out, that it is charging you a resort fee, that is okay.  There’s no need for hotels to show all-inclusive rates on websites that include the mandatory resort fees and other obscured rip-off charges some hotels like to surprise their guests with.

This is surprising not only because it is a stupid finding by a government agency supposedly constituted with the mission of protecting consumers, but also because the FTC is neutering its own 2012 decision that required hotels to prominently disclose all such fees up front.

You and I might think that if there’s a mandatory fee levied on your hotel stay, then it should be shown in the rate you pay the hotel when you are quoted a rate and make your booking.  Indeed, the Department of Transportation requires airlines to show all mandatory fees in their advertised prices.  But the FTC has now said that as long as the fees are ‘prominently disclosed’ and included in the bill at checkout, it is all okay.

So, what constitutes prominent disclosure?  And how could a fee ever be charged and not included in the bill at checkout?  We’re not told.

You and I might think that ‘prominent disclosure’ includes doing the math and telling us the real total cost of our hotel stay when we make the booking.  The FTC doesn’t seem to be saying so – presumably an asterisk by the room rate linking to a footnote or a second webpage is now all that is required.

Details here.

Hotel Dining Costs

While we’re not suggesting the FTC should also mandate some form of full disclosure of hotel dining costs as well, it is definitely true that the total cost of a hotel stay can dwarf the basic room rate by itself.  Parking, internet, food, and all sorts of other miscellaneous fees and surcharges and taxes can double the basic room rate.

If you’re just looking for a generic hotel stay and generic ‘comfort/convenience’ food, it is interesting and helpful to understand how greedy the hotel is when it comes to selling food to its sometimes semi-captive audience (which is why breakfasts tend to be the most overpriced of all three meals each day because it is usually the meal that is most inconvenient to eat away from the hotel).

Hotels.com have just announced the latest release of what they term their ‘Club Sandwich Index’ – although they show prices as averages per city rather than as individual hotel costs.  The Club Sandwich index actually costs out a basket of several different food and beverages, at 840 hotels in 28 cities.  The most expensive city is Geneva, followed by Paris, Hong Kong, Oslo and London.  The least expensive is Bogota, followed by Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Bangkok.

Details here.

Hotels Bumping Guests

I wrote about this subject in this newsletter, but after some requests and comments, greatly expanded it and it now has a separate page.

Using Overbooking to Your Advantage

There’s a flipside to this as well.  Some hotels have relatively primitive inventory management systems, and you can use that to your advantage.  If you need a room in a particular hotel, and if when you call the hotel directly they tell you ‘I’m sorry, we’re full that night, all rooms are sold’, don’t despair.

If it is a larger hotel, and if it is sold through online travel agencies and perhaps other wholesalers too, then often what happens is they’ve given allocations of blocks of rooms to these other outlets, and while the hotel has sold all the remaining unallocated rooms, it doesn’t yet know if the companies with reserved blocks of rooms are going to sell all their rooms or not.

I’ve sometimes had hotels that were officially full, but which still showed discounted rooms available on, eg, Expedia, so I’ve happily booked on Expedia.

In other cases, hotels don’t so much block out inventory as have what are called ‘open sale’ or ‘free sale’ arrangements where they promise to accept bookings from places such as Expedia until such time as they advise Expedia they are sold out on the particular date being booked, and there’s often a day of delay between running out of rooms and officially ‘turning off the tap’ with resellers.

The net result is the same, whatever the inner machinations.  You might still be able to get a room validly confirmed at a hotel that is truly full.  Just make sure you check in early!

Mobile Phones and Watches – Losers and Losers

Speculation is growing that Apple’s much-vaunted new watch product is a bust.  Perhaps the strongest confirmation of it being a dismal failure isn’t anything factual, but rather the absence of same.  Like Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark, it is significant to observe that whereas Apple has been fast to crow about the success of other product launches, and quick to provide statistics on quantities sold, the company is refusing to disclose any information at all on the numbers of watches it is selling.

But empirical and third party data continues to encourage analysts to revise ever-downwards their projections of the numbers of watches sold.

I’m keen to buy some sort of e-watch product.  But I’m not sufficiently keen as to buy a $500+ watch from Apple that will be obsolete within a year or two, and which suffers from limited capabilities, the need to always be within range of an iPhone, and short battery life.

As soon as Android watches add connectivity to iPhones (rumored for later this year) I’ll be very tempted to pay less than half the price of an Apple watch and get something similar/equally good (or perhaps, at this early stage of the technology, better to say ‘equally bad’).  But until then, it seems that most people agree with me – the Apple watch is massively overpriced and underfeatured.  For most of us, the lack of runaway success for the Apple watch is unsurprising.

Here’s some recent commentary and speculation.

Something else that is semi-unsurprising is Microsoft’s never-ending inability to break into the cellphone marketplace.

After a succession of lackluster operating system disappointments for phones that never managed to compete with even Blackberry, let alone Apple or Android, Microsoft came out with a much improved version of Windows for phones, and then bought out Nokia to give it the ability to make world-class handsets in-house and a captive handset manufacturer to partner with.

But even the massive marketing monster that is Microsoft has failed to get anywhere with its Nokia imported know-how and its half-way decent OS.  Earlier this week, Microsoft announced it was taking a $7.6 billion impairment charge (it paid $7.2 billion for Nokia, a deal announced in Sept 2013 and completed in April 2014, so that’s a huge writedown in a short period of time), and laying off another 7,800 people.  Former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop already announced his departure from Microsoft, two weeks ago.

Does this mark the end of the line for Microsoft phones and Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS?  While the corporate doublespeak becomes thickly impenetrable on that point, the obvious answer seems to be that Microsoft has decided to cut its losses and give up.

Details here.

A Useful Tip for Canadians Buying Gas in the US

Something that we Americans never pause to think about when buying gas is the need to enter our zip code to verify our ownership of our credit card.  Of course, that is a regrettably primitive scenario forced on us by our banks’ unwillingness to give us truly secure Chip and PIN type credit cards, but it has become part of the accepted process.

But, what say you are from Canada?  How do you enter your six character mix of letters and numbers postal code?  You can’t, on the numeric keypad.  This forces Canadian visitors to go inside the gas station and pay for their gas directly with the cashier.

That’s a hassle, but a relatively minor one most of the time.  However, one Canadian was mugged on the short journey from pump to gas station cashier, and now is blaming (and suing) anyone and everyone he can, saying the experience has damaged him physically and emotionally, and he is no longer able to work full time.  This happened in Detroit (so not exactly an astonishing event) but curiously enough, the one person the Canadian isn’t blaming is the mugger or other potential muggers – indeed he is so forgiving that he has now raised a fundraising appeal from his fellow Canadians, seeking to raise $20,000 to help out Detroit’s poor and criminal classes, reasoning that if he gives them all food cards, they’ll no longer rob hapless Canadians.

Let’s see, $20,000 will make a difference to Detroit’s social problems for exactly how many milli-seconds?

But, back to the main topic here.  The useful tip.  Did you know that with almost all Canadian issued Visa and Mastercards, and most gas station pump authorization systems, you can simply key in the three digits of your Canadian postal code plus two zeros and that will get you validated at the pump with no need to leave the ‘safety’ of the pumps and go inside to see the cashier?

Here’s the story of the hapless Canadian and what smells strongly of a publicity stunt with his fundraising, and contained within it is reference to the postal code trick.  A Canadian Travel Insider confirms it works for him.  It might also work for Brits, but that’s unconfirmed.

And Lastly This Week….

Budapest (in Hungary) or Bucharest (in Romania).  What’s the difference?  Apparently, not much if you’re the Associate Minister of Sport for the tiny nation of Jersey, who booked his ticket to the wrong city and only realized it as the flight was coming in to land – in Budapest, not Bucharest.  Oooops.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and to the correct destinations






4 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 10 July 2015”

  1. Good morning, David.

    I would like to refute your comment today about T Mobile:

    “Just another reason why T-Mobile is clearly and by far the best of the US wireless co’s at present.”

    Just because it offers an ever larger inclusive geographic area for its inclusive rates does NOT mean it provides a nice strong signal in all those areas. Indeed, with one of their towers less that a mile from my house in Southern California, I get no signal at all at my house, and it’s not just me, or in this area. It is NOT the “the best” COVERAGE in MANY metropolitan areas, I understand-only their plans seems to be possibly the best. I have driven in several areas up and down the California coastline while trying out the T Mobile service recently with very poor results. Advertised service areas compared to strong networks and access are two very different things!

  2. I have now received 2 chip-included replacement credit cards. In 3 weeks, there has been only 1 place that had a chip-enabled reader (WalMart). What is the use of having the chip if the merchants are not ready for us to use them?

  3. Thanks for the info on Canadian credit cards. As an Arizona Snowbird many of my Canadian counterparts often have this exact problem. I’m passing this info onto them.

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