Weekly Roundup, Friday 21 July, 2017

Come and join in the fun and fellowship on our 2017 Danube Christmas Markets Cruise.

Good morning

Although most of us have been focused on getting the most enjoyment out of our wonderful summer at present, I’ve been concentrating simultaneously on two very different things – the upcoming late fall, and next year’s early summer.  Could I ask you to consider these two time periods too, because we have lovely Travel Insider tours at both times (see items, below).

There are two articles attached to this week’s roundup.  One is a request for you to possibly do something – to add your comments to the ones already submitted to the Department of Transportation on a request for them to affirm our right to take photos and video on planes.  I sent in a 13 page document, but all you really need to do is send in a couple of sentences expressing your opinion and perhaps a reason why you think as you do.

The other was to be one of the items in the roundup, but it grew, and now deserves its own separate article (especially for archival purposes into the future).  The ‘law of unintended consequences’ continues to apply, and today’s internet based travel booking systems have turned out to be something very different to how travel suppliers thought they would be, 20 years ago.

One of the interesting outcomes of Expedia having probably more than a 75% market share in the US, and many operating different seemingly unrelated brands, is that its enormous marketing budget (more than Pepsi, and perhaps the 30th largest advertising budget in the country) is being spent most of the time merely shifting people from one of its brands to another of its brands.  For example, I’ve just hurried past yet another copy of a Trivago ad, but the chances are that almost three-quarters of the people who are swayed by it will be switching from another Expedia brand to Trivago.  It is really hard to make advertising cost-effective when 75c in every dollar spent is cannibalizing the market share of other companies owned by the same parent.

But imagine how the ad would look if there was a big disclaimer on it ‘Please ignore this if you currently use Expedia or Hotwire or Orbitz or Travelocity or …..’.

Last week’s article about weighing your bags caused reader Dan to send in some helpful suggestions and ideas.  As a result, I’ve updated the article I published last week with more strategies and responses for what to do if the airport scales read too high when you’re checking your bag.

Also, below, please continue reading for :

  • Christmas Markets Cruise Along the Danube this December
  • June 2018 Grand Expedition Tour of Great Britain
  • It is More than Just the $30, Delta
  • Frontier’s Growth Spurt
  • Airline Electronics Ban Revision Rumors
  • Amazon’s Echo Products – Often Frustrating
  • Britain’s $70 billion High Speed Rail Project Lurches Forward
  • Hyperloop/Tunnel on the East Coast?
  • Are You Feeling Brave?
  • Crazy Travel Advice
  • And Lastly This Week….

Christmas Markets Cruise Along the Danube this December

Our 2017 Danube Christmas Markets Cruise takes place December 11-18, with some optional land extensions both before and after the cruise.  We already have a great core of Travel Insiders coming along, and would love to welcome another few people to join our group.  If you’re considering bringing children or grandchildren, I’d be happy to volunteer my 13 yr old daughter, Anna, to help look after them/keep them company.

I can’t think of a more wonderful way to introduce Anna to so much of the unique wonder of Europe than via a Christmas Market cruise.  We have the ultimate in comfort on a traveling tour as a result of our luxurious cruise ship, the magic of the pre-Christmas season, the markets, and hopefully a touch of snow, and a contrast between the sometimes cold outside and the friendly warmth of the cruise ship, all shared with a lovely group of fellow ‘escapees’ from the tensions and stresses of ‘Christmas shopping’ back home.

Talking about Christmas shopping, you can still buy all your more distant relatives ties and pairs of socks and other such things, but now everyone can express slightly more sincere delight at receiving them, because they’ll be handcrafts from small markets along the Danube!

Indeed, it is the generally unspoken but universally acknowledged semi-guilt of avoiding all the usual commercial trappings of the ‘holiday season’ (as it is now called) that adds a wonderful unifying spirit to the group as a whole, and the festive spirit adds a lovely layer to our various activities and celebrations onboard and ashore.

How strange – but how true – that the best way to experience the friendship and fellowship of a ‘real’ Christmas season is to temporarily break away from our friends, family, and other social group members, and join a bunch of almost strangers, in a far away foreign land!

Enjoy a service-obsessed experience provided by a group of wonderful young crew-members, lavishing you with splendid food and free drinks galore, on a luxury cruise ship, and with daily touring off the ship, all included.  Best of all, this is offered to you, but only for nine more days, with a $750 discount per person (or even bigger discount for singles) and assorted other special unique inclusions as part of the Travel Insider group.

Maybe – indeed, almost certainly – you’ve visited Europe during the summer.  But there’s a very different layer of charm and experience in the still not too cold or severe weather in the first half of December.  Don’t just take our word for it.  You can see a photo-journal of an earlier cruise here.  Rereading it just now, I was astonished to observe how the experience has improved in the ten years between then and now – it seems that most things in life get cheaper and poorer, but the cruises these days are on bigger nicer ships, with more inclusions, and with appreciably better food and (free!) wine selections.  So, please do come along and try it for yourself, and find out why we have people returning back for their second and even third Christmas Markets cruises.

I sometimes have readers, particularly in warm areas like FL and AZ, tell me that they just don’t/can’t/won’t do cold.  I don’t like being cold either.  But the ship is warm, and off-ship excursions can be as long or as short as you wish.  Modern fabrics (and hand-warmers) make it easy to keep warm without having to wear enormously bulky and heavy garments.  You shouldn’t let an aversion to cooler temperatures prevent you from enjoying this wonderful experience.

June 2018 Grand Expedition Tour of Great Britain

Of course, if summer really is your thing, and if it is your only thing, then perhaps you should instead be considering next year’s June Grand Expedition from one end of Britain to the other, (also including lots of interesting bits in the middle).  There’s no river cruising, but there are large ferries to take us all the way up to the Orkney Islands, and at the other end of the country, perhaps a small launch if we can’t walk across the low tide causeway to St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.

This is, I believe, the best – and definitely the most extensive – land tour I’ve ever offered.  You can enjoy the entire 17+ day itinerary, or you can come along for any other shorter part that you wish, joining on any day and leaving on any day.  So it is also the most flexible ever offered.

We already have people signing up for this, so please do think about this and respond.

It is More than Just the $30, Delta

Controversial right-wing commentator Ann Coulter was moved from her pre-assigned premium seat on a Delta flight this last weekend.

Ann of course loves controversy – it is her lifeblood, and she eagerly set about engaging in a slanging match with Delta on Twitter and elsewhere.  Many people tend to look away when they see anything associated with her, either because of her incendiary hyperbole, or because of her razor-sharp spearing of left-wing ideologies.

But attempts to ridicule her ire – it was only a $30 fee, and it was only a minor seat reassignment – completely lose sight of the fact that, for reasons it chose not to disclose, Delta unilaterally moved her from the specific seat she had paid at extra $30 fee to sit in, to a different seat.  If you pay extra money to get a specific seat, and particularly if you’re then switched to a middle seat or whatever, you’re of course going to feel some frustration.

If Delta had acted decently and said ‘Excuse me, would you mind if we moved your seat so that we can have this other lady ….. (seated next to her newly web husband, her sick brother, whatever)’ then probably even Ann Coulter wouldn’t have objected.  But when Delta just forces you to move, refuses to tell you why, and doesn’t even offer a seat refund until after much Twitter argument, how does anyone feel?

Delta talks about the privacy of its passengers, but if Delta had said to the woman who wanted to take over Ann’s seat ‘Look, we’ve already assigned the seat to someone else who requested it before you and paid us $30 for the right to sit there, but if you like, we’re willing to explain your special circumstances to her and see if we can persuade her to give you her seat’ surely the passenger would have agreed.  And if the passenger didn’t agree, their claim to be able to bump Ann (or anyone else)’s seat assignment becomes less tenable.

It is little things such as the difference between asking politely and imperiously demanding that make all the difference to us as passengers.  It costs Delta no more to be polite and decent, but instead, they chose to adopt an instant adversarial approach.

So, love her or hate her, the underlying point at issue seems to be one that Ann has a valid reason to be upset about.  Details here.

Frontier’s Growth Spurt

Frontier plans to grow the number of cities it serves by one-third, up to 82, from 61 at present, while introducing a total of 85 new routes to its network.

Most of its growth comes in its Denver hub.  With improved connections now possible through Denver, the airline says that by next summer it will have over 1,000 routes – more than double its current total number of routes.  To serve the new flights and cities, the airline is increasing its fleet, from 63 to 76 Airbus A320 planes.

Admittedly 18 of the 21 new cities are cities the airline used to fly to/from, but it is great to see Frontier increasing its overall ‘footprint’.

Well done, Frontier.  Details here.

Airline Electronics Ban Revision Rumors

The TSA continues to restlessly experiment with how to address its concerns about potential bombs in electronic devices.

The latest twist started to be reported on Wednesday this week, but few reports have got the gist of what seems to be happening correct (such as this almost certainly wrong headline).  It is reasonably simple, as best I can see, although there are not yet any official announcements from TSA/HSD to use as a guideline.  Some airlines are starting to post new notices, and if they are to be believed, it seems likely that one of the vaguely referred to ‘increased security measures’ that were hinted at late in June will be a requirement to be able to turn your electronics on at the screening checkpoint.  This would apply to items ‘larger than a cell phone’.

If you can’t turn the device on, you won’t be allowed to fly with it.  You won’t be allowed to carry it onto the plane in your hand baggage, and neither will you be allowed to check it into a suitcase.

Our sense is that not every one will have to turn on every item.  Most of us will probably waltz on through security unimpeded, but some people will have to turn on some items and others may have to turn everything on.

It would be a problem if you had something with a dead battery, because if you can’t turn the item on, you’ll have to give it up and leave it behind.

While this sounds like a sensible new measure, in reality, it absolutely is not.  A resourceful terrorist would put a tiny battery into a laptop, with enough capacity to power the laptop for five minutes, perhaps.  That would still leave almost 99% of the battery compartment, plus all of the possibly-present CD-rom drive compartment and hard-drive space (replace the regular hard drive with a tiny solid-state hard-drive that plugs into the motherboard) for explosives, while simultaneously appearing to be a fully functional laptop.  Still more space could be created by taking out the fan and heat sink/pipe.

So, more inconvenience for us, but only useful if the terrorists are more stupid than the security screeners.  Do you want to bet your life on that?

Amazon’s Echo Products – Often Frustrating

Yes, I love new technologies, but not to the point where I’m blinded to the need for new gadgets and features/services to have some underlying user-friendliness and functionality.

I was asked by a friend if he should buy an Echo during Amazon’s recent Prime Day sale.  My answer was ‘yes, because it is cheap’, rather than ‘yes, because it is good’.  Amazon are putting an enormous effort into their Echo products, but to date, little of its promise has been realised.

I see a lot of potential in Amazon’s Echo devices and their voice commands.  Sadly, at present they are appallingly ‘unintelligent’ and only know a very few exactly phrased commands.  The requirement for us to memorize infrequent commands is frustrating, as I discovered yesterday.

My Echo Dot on my desk suddenly beeped and a series of yellowy-green lights started chasing themselves around its perimeter.  I looked at it in surprise, and waited for something further to happen.  Nothing did.

So I asked it ‘Alexa, why is your light on?’.  It couldn’t understand or answer my question.

I tried saying ‘Alexa, stop’ such as I say to turn off alarms.  It did nothing.

I tried variations of ‘Alexa, turn your light off’ but it didn’t understand that.

By this point, my frustration level was building, and I was dreading the need to sift through Amazon’s site to try and find either an answer to my problem or a well-hidden phone number to call for help.

Then I remembered – at Amazon’s recommendation, I’d added a new ‘skill’ to my Echo units, allowing them to give me updates on Amazon deliveries.  So it was presumably trying to tell me about a pending delivery, a conclusion reinforced by the appearance of a text message on my phone.  But – how could I get the device to tell me what it wanted to tell me, and then turn its annoying flashing light off?  I tried various phrases, but none worked.

Eventually, after some searching, I found the answer on Amazon’s website and the particular phrase to use.  I uttered the magic words, the Echo told me what it was so keen to share, and the light went out.

But – and here’s the thing.  Although the incident is fresh in my mind, as I write about it, mere hours later, I’ve already forgotten the key phrase to speak.

Is this service really being a help, or is it actually a hindrance?  Amazon needs to enhance its Echo units so they support natural language requests and questioning, just like Cortana, Siri and whatever the Android equivalent is called.  Until it does that, it is a serious misnomer to refer to the things an Echo can do as ‘skills’ and there is a risk the negative frustration will exceed the positive benefit.

Most of all, this experience reinforces the value of having an associated display screen on Echo units.  But whereas a regular Echo Dot costs $50 or less, the Echo Show (complete with screen) costs a ridiculous $230, even though it is little more than marrying one of Amazon’s $50 touch-screen Fire tablets to a regular Echo Dot.  If it were priced at $100 or less, it would be compelling, but at $230 it demands we wait on the sidelines until the price becomes more realistic.

Britain’s $70 billion High Speed Rail Project Lurches Forward

Britain already has what, by US standards, is an excellent rail network, although by European or Chinese standards, it is perhaps not quite so fancy and flash.

The country has been enmired in controversy after the government announced plans in 2010, built upon research and studies conducted over several preceding years, to add a new high-speed rail line from London, up the center and west of the country, connecting to Birmingham, and then forking, with one half continuing up to Manchester and perhaps Liverpool, and the other half going across the country to Sheffield and Leeds and perhaps ending in or near York.  More futuristically, Scotland would like to see the line extend all the way up to Glasgow, but there are no plans for this to yet happen.

The project is of course very expensive, and there has been substantial debate about the cost-efficiency of the development.  In addition, the new track will unavoidably travel through empty countryside (and therefore harm it) and also through towns (and require compulsory purchase of homes and commercial buildings), creating large number of NIMBY type protestors.  This is particularly difficult for ‘greenies’ – people who simultaneously advocate for protection of the countryside, restrictions on private cars, and further public transportation services, who are struggling to reconcile the opposing nature of their various desires.

But, and at the glacial speed which Britain so enthusiastically embraces, matters are proceeding, to the point that a mere seven years after the announced plans in 2010, contracts have now been awarded for a £55 billion ($70 billion) first phase, with the doubtless overly optimistic expectation that service on the first part of the route between London and Birmingham may open at the very end of 2026.  The rail line is known as HS2 (High Speed 2) – the 68 mile English end of the Eurostar line between London and Folkestone being HS1, with trains traveling at speeds of up to 186 mph (300 km/hr).

Depending on how you draw the boundaries, Birmingham is either Britain’s second or third largest city, with a population of 2.5 million, plus or minus a few hundred thousand.  The third largest (or possibly second largest) is Manchester, with a similar population, and planned to be included on a subsequent extension of the line, and the fourth largest is the Leeds region, which would also be included.  Glasgow, a dim possibility as the site of an extended northern end of the line, is the fifth largest city.

So the route is certainly strategic.  But when or if it will be completed, and at what cost, remains massively unclear.  When you think this is a country that has been arguing incessantly, but doing nothing, for decades about how/where it will increase its desperately needed air services in and out of London, it would be foolish to expect a quickly constructed rail line.

Meanwhile, in this country….. nothing at all.  Leastways, not with trains.  But keep reading.

Hyperloop/Tunnel on the East Coast?

Talking about fast trains, Elon Musk’s Hyperloop concept promises travel speeds not only faster than the fastest trains, but potentially even faster than passenger jets, too.

Add the high speeds of his Hyperloop concept to the pathways created by his tunneling idea, and you’ve a wonderful combined solution to transportation.  As an example of this, he is suggesting that traveling from New York to Washington DC (city center to city center, not outlying airport to outlying airport) could take only 29 minutes via a new Hyperloop service that he’d like to develop.  It is a 220 mile distance, so that suggests an average speed considerably below some of the potential speeds he has earlier talked about.

Air service shows scheduled flight times in the order of 75 – 90 minutes, and by the time you add to that travel time to and from airports and check-in time, you’re clearly looking at 3 hours minimum and closer to 4 hours, assuming no snafus in the air or on the ground.  Trains take minutes under 3 hours, which is competitive with the total time for a flight and explains why they have such a large share of that travel market.  But a 29 minute service?  That truly is game changing.  You could even live in one city and acceptably commute to the other city for work every day.

Musk claimed yesterday that he has been given verbal approval to build a Hyperloop tunnel between the two cities.  But no details have been forthcoming as to who or what gave the approval, and when or if he will actually start, let alone complete, such an ambitious (and expensive) project.  The sooner the better, of course.

Details – such as they are – here.  The tunnel would be the longest in the world, more than six times the length of the current longest tunnel, the Gotthard Base Tunnel through the Swiss Alps.

Oh – another Hyperloop company has already published a plan for an above ground service between NYC and WAS.  They say their service would take just 23 minutes for the journey.

Are You Feeling Brave?

In an echo of the concept of having ‘the right stuff’, Elon Musk explains what it takes to become a passenger on one of his SpaceX rockets.  Bravery.  Well, at least he isn’t beating about the bush with euphemisms.

His new Falcon Heavy rocket will have a total of 27 rocket motors that will need to fire simultaneously to achieve a smooth lift-off, and Musk said that tests of the rocket have encountered enormous stresses and are proving difficult to conduct on the ground.

Details here.

Crazy Travel Advice

There are typically five types of travel advice published online.

  •  The first is travel advice that is totally impractical.
  • The second is advice that is outdated and while once correct, is now totally obsolete.
  • The third is advice that while right, only applies in such rare cases as to make it useless knowledge for most of us.
  • The fourth is advice that is so obvious as to be trivial and unneeded.
  • The fifth is advice that is just plain totally wrong.

Only rarely does one encounter advice that is truly helpful to most of us.

A recent travel advice article on Bloomberg did an excellent job of touching most of these five categories.

Its first piece of advice – don’t eat on flights so as to avoid jetlag – is simultaneously impractical (eg on a 15 hour flight to Australia) and also unsupported by any medical concept of what causes and ameliorates jetlag.

The second piece of advice starts from a strange premise – that people need a local person on hand to ask for recommendations.  In my own experience, the worst person to ask for recommendations is invariably a local, because they see and experience their city in a very different way to how people briefly visiting as a tourist do.  And as for finding a restaurant with a communal table, well, how exactly does one do that in a strange city to start with?

The third piece of advice – to dine on a steady diet of Pepto-Bismol ‘just in case’ of an attack of food poisoning, along with the suggestion that it may prevent the food poisoning, is another new piece of medical discovery, and also ignores the advice on Pepto-Bismol packets to not take the pills for more than two days.

The fourth piece of advice – staying in a four star hotel suite instead of a standard room in a five star hotel is not entirely wrong at all, but is something that few of us often find ourselves choosing between.

The fifth piece of advice involves creating a regimented series of rotating roles and duties between family members on a vacation that sounds quite the antithesis of relaxing fun.

The sixth piece of advice sounds enticing – ‘how to get a billionaire to subsidize your vacation’ but then tries to tell us that paying $3000 – $4000 a night at a resort is a screaming bargain made possible only by a billionaire eager to lose money on a high end property he owns.  Yes, sure, right.  And even if it was, exactly how many people are going to rush to do as the writer recommends?

Lastly, her advice to get a Skyroam mobile hotspot device.  That is seriously wrong to the point of being outright deceptive and makes me wonder if the writer has ever truly used the service the way she describes.

The writer says ‘it doesn’t matter how much data you use in those 24 hours, whether your kids download three movies….’.

Sounds marvellous – all the fast internet you might need, for only $10 a day.  But, actually, it does matter how much data you use.

It takes a lot of effort to tease the truth out of Skyroam, and is nowhere disclosed on their website, but if pressed, they will admit that for a ‘small percentage of heavy users’ – ie people who exceed 500MB of data a day, they throttle the bandwidth back from an effective average of about 1 – 5 Mbps (megabits, not megabytes) to what they euphemistically term ‘lighter’ 2G/3G speeds.  Potentially 100kbps or thereabouts, in other words.  I wonder how long it would take the writer’s children to download three movies at that speed.

Let’s hope Bloomberg’s other coverage is better than their travel coverage.  Shame on the writer and shame on them.

And Lastly This Week….

We know that Congress moves slowly, and we also know that technology can move quickly, but how frustrating it is to read that Audi has a self-driving car which it can’t activate due to a lack of legal clarity.

Self-driving cars promise to be the biggest safety advance since seat belts, and maybe even more profoundly beneficial.  Every day we delay their implementation costs lives – almost 100 people in the US alone die every day in car crashes, and many more are seriously injured.  The chances are that you know, as I do too, of people who have been killed or grievously injured in car accidents, and more are impacted by such events every day.  This is an urgent matter that desperately need resolution.

Details here.

While the TSA continues to focus on electronics, perhaps it would be well advised not to lose sight of other potentially dangerous items in carry-on bags.  Like, ummm, the 30 rounds of live ammunition found in a flight attendant’s carry-on bag – found not in the US, but on his return flight back to the US from Japan.

American Airlines refused to disclose which US airport(s) their crewmember flew through with his ammunition undetected.

‘We want to keep it true to its original vision, while making it more….’.  It doesn’t really matter whatever follows in that sentence, does it, because you know it is going to entirely contradict the initial ‘keeping it true’ claim.  In this case, it is Disney talking about the changes they have in mind for Epcot, disclosed as part of an enormous array of new changes in their parks announced this week.

I still think the best flight safety videos are done by Air NZ, but British Airways has tried its hand at one which isn’t too bad, with a delightful bonus if you play it all the way through to the end.

If you want to annoy your flight attendant on your next flight, here are some suggested ‘safe’ ways to do so.

And truly lastly this week, sometimes it is better to say nothing than to deny an event in a case where the denial creates more news (and mirth) than the event itself.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels




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