Weekly Roundup, Friday 25 December 2015

One of our group dinners, in a private dining room on the Amacerto, during our Christmas Markets cruise last week.
One of our group dinners, in a private dining room on the lovely Amacerto, during our Christmas Markets cruise last week.

Merry Christmas to you

So here I am, perhaps the only non shift-worker or retail employee, still working at midnight on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day.

I’m motivated to do so not from the usual dutiful desire to send you the best of each week’s travel related news and commentary, but rather out due to my great excitement about a very special travel opportunity I have optioned on your behalf.

First, a quick ‘trip report’ on our 2015 Christmas Market cruise, then some exciting news, and not much else this week (update – hmmm, somehow ‘not much else’ ended up as 3510 words in total!).  So I’ve adopted a slightly different format for the newsletter today with shorter clips rather than longer analyses.

2015 Christmas Markets Cruise – Trip Report

This was an absolute delight, in every respect.  We had a small but wonderful group of Travel Insiders along, most of whom were on their second or subsequent Travel Insider tour, including one lady on her sixth and another on her fifth.

The weather couldn’t have been better.  Almost no rain, and surprisingly warm for the time of year.  I’d given out copious handwarmers to everyone in the group in case of cold, and I don’t think anyone ended up using any of them.

As you too have surely experienced, many travel providers have been trying to economize and cut back on their services.  Not so Amawaterways – quite the opposite.  I’d been on the same ship two years ago, and there have been some gratifying improvements since then.  The food was appreciably better, as was the service.  The wines were greatly improved.  There were small but nice little classy touches, like special ‘detox’ water being offered, and oil and vinegar as well as various specialty butters with the bread.

And, for me, the best thing of all was a massive improvement in internet access.  Until this cruise, all ships have offered very slow internet, and for appreciable hours at a time, no internet at all.  This cruise was marked by consistent and fast internet with almost no interruptions and very few slow downs.  And all for free.  Bravo.

The off-ship touring has changed a lot since the last time I did a Rhine Christmas cruise.  We went to different and better places, and many times there was a choice of two or something even three different touring options during our time in each location.  You really need to do two Rhine cruises in order to do all the different choices provided!  (Maybe that is why Amawaterways has so greatly increased the free touring they offer!)  Another plus was fewer early morning starts.  While normally I’m a fairly early riser, I hate having to set my alarm clock when on holiday.

As for the ‘terror threat’ and “security measures” (note that while ‘terror threat’ gets single quotes to illustrate the nonsense of it, “security measures” get double quotes to illustrate the even greater nonsense of the response) there were some changes apparent.  For example, for possibly the first time ever, when arriving into Amsterdam, the immigration officer asked me not one but two questions (usually they just take my passport, stamp it, and return it without uttering a single word).  The first question – ‘Where are you going?’ and the second ‘Why?’.

I also noticed hastily erected immigration booths at Basel airport which all passengers had to go through, even for people arriving from within the EU (yes, Switzerland is not an EU state but it does belong to the Schengen open borders treaty).  I can’t remember if the immigration officer asked me any questions, though, and he didn’t stamp my passport either.

France was apparently re-establishing immigration check points on some but not all routes into the country, and also, we were told, mainly during daytime hours rather than 24/7.  Those are two crazy concepts.  If you’re going to have immigration checks, they’ll only work if at every border crossing, and 24/7; otherwise, terrorists will simply choose the unpatrolled crossings or times.  We even saw some troops on a bridge over the Rhine when driving by coach from Germany into Strasbourg, but they were just lounging by the side of the road watching the traffic stream across the border, unimpeded.

Police had ‘sealed off’ the entire inner city of Strasbourg.  By ‘sealed off’ I mean they had put lightweight barriers partially across some roads and were asking vehicle drivers what they were doing.  Our group of about 20 people walked right past the barrier without confrontation or interference.  There were lots of police and even a few soldiers in the center of Strasbourg, although most of them were comfortably inside their patrol vehicles and vans, struggling to stay awake, and the few who were reacting at all to people outside seemed to be giving their closest scrutiny to attractive young ladies rather than to swarthy males.

However, revealing their innate Inspector Clouseau capabilities, a couple of police officers did stop one of our group who was carrying a backpack and asked to see inside, although they only glanced in one of the compartments before waving her on again, with most of the backpack uninspected.  The most amusing part of this was that the ‘terrorist suspect’ they stopped is the daughter of Lee Kuan Yew and the sister of Singapore’s current Prime Minister – not quite your typical terrorist profile.

My flights were with Delta, and to complete a generally perfect travel experience, I was even pleased with them.  Great seatback in flight entertainment systems with a huge range of new and not-so-new movies, very improved food (the day flight from Amsterdam to Seattle had three different meal services, including an extraordinarily good ‘snack’ with a pack of olives and some lovely savoury spread and crackers – and this was in coach class!) and consistently on-time departures and arrivals.

It suddenly occurred to me that these days, airport security is more permissive in the US than in most other countries.  That’s a stunning change from the way it was for a while, and of course, part of that is being a Pre-check member.  The most ridiculous security I encountered on these flights was while changing from one international flight to another at Heathrow, where not only did every piece of electronics have to be removed from whatever bag it was in, but they were also insisting on removing protective sleeves or covers from tablets, too.  And, even though I was wearing less metal than when going through security in the US twelve hours earlier, the metal detector beeped at Heathrow although it was silent in Seattle.

Checking in at Amsterdam was hellish.  Perhaps it was the contrast between my own checkin and that I observed when escorting our Singaporean VIP to the Singapore Airlines section immediately prior, where a senior staff member was standing in the middle of the concourse and eagerly/anxiously watching and waiting for her arrival and then leaped to take her from me, and rather than escorting the VIP to a check-in counter, veered off with her in a totally different direction. (To put this in context, her other brother heads the Singaporean FAA equivalent and her sister in law heads the holding company that largely owns the airline.  I’ve seldom enjoyed myself as much as I did when calling their Special Services desk to tell them who was traveling with them and observing the extraordinary change in attitude when the person understood who I was talking about.)  My experience at the KLM coach class counter was rather different – being ‘The Travel Insider’ apparently doesn’t count for as much with Delta/KLM as being a true VIP did for SQ!

The latest indignity at AMS and with KLM is a new self-check baggage system.  The idea of tagging your own bags is of course nothing new, but this was a very complicated process that first required you to get a boarding pass at one set of electronic check-in pedestals, then to go to the baggage check-in area and get baggage tags separately there (which of course requires two separate sets of identifying yourself to their system, and learning two different computer screen interfaces).  After you’d tagged your bags, a machine then automatically weighed and measured it, and checked you had tagged the bag correctly.

While none of this should have been confusing or complex, somehow it seemed to overwhelm most of the people checking in bags and it was taking some people as much as five minutes to check a single bag.  Aaagh – it is never nice to be stuck in a long queue, and when the delay is due to people taking interminable amounts of time to perform seemingly simple tasks, the frustration level increases.  But what does the airline care, in terms of time and inconvenience to us, if it can save a few pennies on their own staffing costs?  Except that, I’m not even sure they were saving anything – there were lots of staffers, all very busy rushing from one check-in station and problem to the next check-in station and next problem.

The good news is that there is no longer the annoying double security screening that used to be the case at Schiphol.  I was wondering if it might have been re-introduced, but happily not.  (Until a year or so ago, passengers on flights to the US had to go through normal security screening to access the departure concourses, then a second round of screening, both for themselves and their hand luggage, prior to being allowed in to the gate area.)

To summarize – this was an excellent experience in every respect, with not a single ‘real’ complaint that I can think of.  And because it was so great, not only will we be offering a 2016 Christmas Markets cruise (I’m now in a quandary – should we do the Danube or the Rhine this year?), but I’ve come up with a July cruise, too.  Please keep reading…..

July Bordeaux Cruise

I’m very excited about this.  2016 sees Amawaterways starting new river cruises in France’s wonderful Bordeaux region – an area worshipped by oenophiles the world over as being the home of the world’s finest red and sauternes (sweet white) wines.  I’ve managed to get us an allocation of ten cabins for a cruise in late July, and at a great value – $750 per person off the brochure price.  Plus I’ve arranged for you to get the gratuities included in the fare at no extra cost as a second saving (rather than an extra you pay on board), and I’m also giving you a $100 per person shipboard credit too, which you can spend any way you wish.  There are some other value-adds and goodies also included, making it a heck of a deal on a wonderful new cruise.

So if you’re wanting to enjoy a river cruise but not wanting to go to the Christmas Markets in cold December, or if you’ve already done the Christmas Markets before, why not consider this wonderful cruise in beautiful rural/historic/summertime France.  I’m attaching a teaser to this newsletter that tells you a bit more, and if you can’t wait to see the teaser, you can go direct to the web page that has all the information about our Bordeaux cruise (and, ahem, the booking form).

Also Attached

If you feel you were ‘shorted’ on your Christmas presents this year, or perhaps if you got a new Bluetooth device as part of your gifts, here’s a review of an interesting gadget that can help you connect Bluetooth music playing devices to your car or home stereo system.

By the way, talking about gadgets, David Dillinger (the Solitude Headphones guy) tells me that we cleaned him out every set of headphones he has, and it will be another month or two until he gets more in.  Fortunately Amazon still have a few pairs remaining, and – at least as of 24 December – still at the $98 selling price, too.

Some Brief Notes

– Greedy Airlines

According to the DoT, in 2014 (yes, that’s a while ago) the average fees collected per passenger by major US airlines ranged from a high of $20.07 (thank you, United), followed by Delta at $15.49, Virgin at $15.37, Frontier at $14.52 and Hawaiian at $13.50.  Then there’s a drop to Alaska at $10.76, American at $8.76 and JetBlue at $8.43.

Wait – what about Southwest?  Oh, they averaged a mere 62c per passenger in fees.

– Amazon to Start an Airline?

Reliable rumors (if there is such a thing) suggest Amazon will be starting an airline in the new year, initially in the form of 20 Boeing 767s.

But don’t go thinking you’ll be able to hitch a ride on Amazon Airways next time you want to fly somewhere.  The airline – at least initially – will be purely for carrying freight – its own packages.

As for the future – well, let’s just say I’d be totally unsurprised if Amazon didn’t start carrying ‘self loading freight’ (the derogatory term used by some airlines to describe passengers) too.  It makes sense, the same way they evolved from selling unused computing capacity to now being the largest cloud computing service provider in the world, beating giants such as IBM, Microsoft and Google, while offering a better/broader range of features at very competitive pricing.

So it is only a small step further for Amazon to consider adding passengers, and perhaps they could become the largest passenger airline in the world, too.  With the underlying freight part of the business insulating them from the full risk of other passenger airlines playing their usual trick and trying to price a new upstart out of the market, Amazon probably has more potential to revolutionize the airline industry than any other real or potential startup I can think of.

– What Would Happen if an Airline Enacted the Same Policy, but for Muslims?

Imagine the screams of outrage if an international airline flying between London and New York refused to carry Muslims.  Or refused to carry Pakistanis, Indonesians and Iranians (ie essentially the same thing).

But have you heard much outrage being expressed about the Kuwaiti Airlines (the national airline of the country we rescued from the clutches of Iraq a couple of decades ago) policy that refuses to fly Israeli citizens on any of its flights, anywhere?  This refusal is purely because they are Israelis.

The US DoT protested the policy, so Kuwaiti Airlines has said it will simply cancel its flight between the US (New York) and London rather than comply.

And in case you think this is outrageous discrimination, a Kuwaiti Airlines spokesman explained that in ‘reality’ (don’t ask me on which planet) their policy is entirely non-discriminatory.  The spokesman said ‘the policy isn’t discriminatory because it will sell tickets to passengers regardless of race, national origin or religion, as long as they hold a passport valid in Kuwait.’

The thing is that Kuwait, embracing the restored ‘freedoms’ we gave it, refuses to allow any and all Israeli passport holders into Kuwait.  Maybe that’s where Donald Trump got the inspiration for his own restrictive immigration policies!

– Amusement Parks Making You Saferer

Disney World, Universal Orlando and Seaworld are now requiring park visitors to go through metal detectors when entering their parks.

Disneyland and Universal in California are also introducing similar measures.

– Sweden’s Trains from Denmark Too Fast

Sweden’s national train company is cancelling its services from Copenhagen to Malmo, because there is insufficient time for newly initiated on-train identity checks to be carried out on the short journey.

How long will it be before someone thinks about providing checkpoints at one station or the other, or slowing down/stopping the train somewhere while the checks are being done?

– Did You Get a Drone This Christmas?  Better Tell the FAA!

The FAA is now requiring owners of drones to register them and pay a fee for the privilege of doing so, even though credible doubt exists as to if it can legally compel owners to do so under its existing statutory authority.

The FAA’s apparently illegal requirement to do so applies to all drones weighing more than 0.55 lbs (and less than 55 lbs).  Failure to do so would render the drone owner liable for fines up to about $250,000 and potentially even up to three years imprisonment.  So most of us will decide ‘better safe than sorry’ and comply.  Details here.

– ‘Minority Report’ Concepts Used by ‘No Fly List’ Administrators

Did you know that one of the considerations for adding a person to the ‘No Fly List’ is a ‘predictive judgment’ that the person may represent some sort of future threat (as opposed to current/actual threat)?  Now overlay that impossible to argue for or against process with the lack of transparency and oversight of the entire program, and keep in mind that much of modern day society requires the ability to fly by air, and you’ve got a system in place that is exactly the sort of thing our Constitutional Framers were trying to ensure would never happen.

Here’s an interesting article on that point.

It also touches lightly on the ‘mission creep’ inherent in the system – in pretty much every system.  We already know and passively accept that the TSA do a great deal more than screen for terrorists – indeed, the only people they ever intercept and cause to be arrested are never terrorists but rather ordinary Americans with outstanding warrants for unpaid parking tickets or whatever else.

Now President Obama is suggesting that being placed on this capricious, secretive, and unaccountable list should be sufficient grounds to be denied our Second Amendment rights to own firearms too.

I don’t know a single firearm freedom supporter who wishes to make it easy for terrorists to get legal access to firearms.  But being administratively placed on a list due to the mere suspicion that someone with a similar sounding name might possibly be going to do something bad in the future should never be grounds for abridging a person’s rights and freedoms, and is completely incompatible with the concept of a free society where citizens are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

Please also don’t see this in the narrow terms of ‘sensible gun control’.  Mission creep wouldn’t stop at that point, quite the opposite.  If the ‘No Fly List’ becomes  validated by becoming the ‘No Fly and No Gun List’, how long before it also becomes the ‘No Fly, No Gun, and No —- List’ (insert whatever other freedom(s) you wish in the dashed space)?

– Some Christmas Reading

Here are two interesting but somewhat lengthy articles you might want to enjoy.

The first is about the ‘Hyperloop’ system which, the article suggests, might be closer to becoming a reality than most of us expect.  This would give us faster travel than by plane, would cost less to deploy than high speed rail, and could operate with no external energy needed.  All incredibly transformative and exciting (but would passengers be subject to ‘No Fly List’ scrutiny, I wonder!?).

The second article considers one of the tangential implications of self-driving cars.  Maybe we’ll no longer need to own our own vehicles, and instead can simply summon one when we want it, and allow it to go on somewhere else when we’re done with it.

Car ownership is one of the greatest semi-fixed costs we all incur, and the article says our cars are unused 95% of the time.  That suggests we are using our cars about an hour and a quarter each day.  If there were a convenient way to share cars such that one was always close at hand, but our total ownership costs were halved (or, quite likely, reduced even further) wouldn’t that be compellingly attractive to many people?

And let’s not forget the greater safety inherent in a self-driving car, too – particularly in, ahem, this type of scenario.

And Lastly This Week….

We all know the many reasons why we dislike and sometimes even hate airlines and their staff.  But how often do we pause to reflect on how and why they hate us right back again?  This article might cause some blushes.

And, talking about disliking airlines, one of the repeated threats that used to be use by Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary whenever he wanted some more free publicity was to start charging for using the toilets on his planes.

Could that ever happen with a US carrier?  Well, a Congressman is so concerned at the possibility this might occur that he has introduced a new bill – the ‘Comfortable and Fair Flights Act’, that would prohibit airlines from charging for toilet use.

Is this a good idea?  Is it even a necessary piece of legislation?  No, and no.  Being charged to use the toilet (assuming a reasonable sum) would hardly be the end of the world, and if the airlines saw toilets as revenue generators rather than as cost items that get in the way of adding more seats, perhaps they’d make them more comfortable and more plentiful.

Gosh – your next newsletter will be in 2016!  Better start thinking of your new year resolutions, including perhaps travel to Bordeaux in July, New Zealand/Australia in Oct/Nov, and the Christmas Markets in December!

Until next year, please enjoy safe travels






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