Weekly Roundup, Friday 18 August, 2017

A view of the Yarra River, running through the world’s most livable city, having just been awarded that honor for the seventh year in a row. Guess where – see article, below.

Good morning

The searing heat of midsummer seems to be softening, and the traditional end of summer – Labor Day – is just around the corner.  How quickly the summer passed, although for sure, my garden is gasping for water.

We had another two people join next year’s Grand Expedition of Great Britain this week.  We’re almost at the point where the tour price starts dropping to match the increasing group size, and the UK exchange rate is trending favorably again after a few weeks of strengthening.

The Travel Insider cognoscenti are flocking to the Grand Expedition.  The average member of next year’s group will be on their third Travel Insider tour, and we have one lady on her sixth, another on her fifth, and only one person on her first ever Travel Insider tour.  Whether this would be your first, your sixth, or any other number Travel Insider tour, please do consider joining what promises to be both a Grand Expedition and a Great Experience!  Full details here.

If you can’t wait until next June to enjoy a Travel Insider tour, there are still a very few cabins available on our lovely Danube Christmas cruise.  Two of the AB cabins and a few more of the AA cabins, AA+ cabins and suites.  Remember, no single supplement or $750 per person saving, plus a bunch of other inclusions and goodies, all on one of my all-time favorite cruises, and with a lovely group of currently 18 Travel Insiders.

I’m thinking of offering a different cruise next year.  One option would be a Portugal cruise along the Douro, with time in Lisbon and Porto before or after the cruise.  The other would be a Russian cruise – either between Moscow and St Petersburg, or possibly from Moscow down the Volga River, and perhaps with a post-cruise option on to Astana, the exotic and extravagant capital of Kazakhstan.  This would be, I think, late summer.

I’d written about Kazakhstan a few weeks back, noting

I’m always casting around for new places to offer on Travel Insider tours.  Apparently, the new ‘hot’ destination (as in popular rather than temperature) is a rather unlikely one, but perhaps that is all the more reason for it to be featured in a Travel Insider tour.  The destination – Astana, the newish capital city of Kazakhstan, a country now better known than before, albeit perhaps unfairly, as a result of the Borat movie.

Here’s an article about Astana’s new popularity, some interesting background on Kazakhstan, and a concept which would seem to be more at home in Dubai than Astana.

Do either of these tours appeal?  If either (or both!) could be something you’d like to do, please let me know (no-one would be making any commitments, I’m asking for a ‘show of hands’ now to guess at the level of interest).

What else this week?  I have been receiving a steady flow of ‘pitch’ emails from a PR agency asking me to write about a device that broadcasts white noise, to help you sleep.  Depending on your perspective (how much is a good night’s sleep worth to you!) the $40 device is either the best deal out there or ridiculously expensive.  Eventually I responded to the PR agency, and asked them why anyone would choose to spend $40 on the device they were touting, when there were plenty of free apps that anyone could simply install on their smart phone or tablet.

Not surprisingly, this question proved too much for them, but at least they’ve stopped pestering me!  However, the conjunction of their emails and a very noisy hotel room that I was recently in caused me to write an article that I hope you’ll find helpful, all about noisy hotel rooms and what to do about them.  You’ll find it after this newsletter.

What else?  The usual sorts of things :

  • Air Berlin Blames Everyone Else for Their Bankruptcy
  • BA’s Greed
  • MH370 Closer to Being Found?  Maybe, but…..
  • The World’s Most Livable City
  • Cameras – Who Needs a Big and Expensive One?
  • Not Just Fake News.  Modern Day Claques Enhance Restaurants and Other Events
  • Solar Eclipse Misery
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Berlin Blames Everyone Else for Their Bankruptcy

Air Berlin announced what seems to be the German equivalent of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy this week.  They received an emergency injection of funds from the German government so they can keep flying until after the German general elections in September, and probably lasting through November, but if I were you, I’d think twice before booking any flights on them, even in the near future.

The bankruptcy was precipitated when major investor Etihad (owning 29% of Air Berlin) apparently surprised them by saying they would not invest further money into the loss-making airline, contradicting what seemed to be an earlier commitment to do so.

Etihad has had a change of CEO, and also, it seems, is no longer as eager to maintain losing positions in other airlines.  While the obvious story is Air Berlin’s bankruptcy, there’s another story lurking here as well – Etihad is now batting two for two in terms of failed major investments in large European carriers.  Its other big failure is Alitalia, also in bankruptcy, and which Etihad has/had a 49% shareholding.

Etihad also has 24% of Indian carrier Jet Airways, 20% of Australian airline Virgin Australia, 49% of Air Serbia, 33% of Swiss carrier Darwin Airlines (now known as Etihad Regional) and 40% of Air Seychelles.

As for Air Berlin, their CEO says that the reason they went bankrupt is due to delays in the opening of the long-awaited and long-delayed new Berlin International Airport.  While it is easy to sympathize with the CEO’s excuse – he points out that the limited flights they can operate from Tegel are preventing efficient network operations – the reality is that in 2017 they are doing worse than in 2016, even though in both years they were stuck with Tegel.  If they’d improved from 2016 to 2017, it is possible Etihad might have continued to fund them, but with all the airline’s vital signs trending the wrong way – fewer flights, fewer passengers, less income, lighter loads, higher operating costs, and a soaring loss – there was little room for optimism, no matter which airports the airline was flying from.

Good analysis here.  I particularly enjoyed this comment at the end of the article, which attempts to summarize the complicated nature of the various German airlines.  And we thought the US was incestuous!

BA’s Greed

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise – we instinctively know the airlines are our enemies and are out to screw us at every turn, just because they can.  But every so often, the major carriers set new standards for disgusting policies, and here’s an example, with the added bonus of again showing up the misery inflicted semi-randomly by US visa issuing policies.

Backstory – a guy wanted his children to fly from the US to where he was in the UK.  He arranged for a family friend to escort them, due to their young age.  The family friend lives in Indonesia, so she was to fly to Los Angeles, collect the children, then fly with them to London.

Easy, right?

Now for the first beyond-stupid requirement, with the blame fully on the US visa issuing policies.  To qualify for a US visa, for the brief flash of time the friend would be collecting the children prior to taking them on to London, she had to already have an airline ticket booked for her travel on out of the US.  No worries, the father booked the ticket for her, on BA.

But then the US consulate, somewhere in Indonesia, refused to issue a visa for the woman.

Get that – you have to buy the airline ticket, first, in the hope you’ll get your visa.  That’s a great arrangement, isn’t it, when you end up with an airline ticket the US govt has insisted you buy, but then doesn’t allow you to actually use.

Which brings us now to the meat of the story.  What happens when you’ve bought a ticket on this type of basis, and then get your visa application refused?  Back when I used to sell international airline tickets, hundreds every week, all the tickets I sold had a special exception provision whereby if the passenger was refused their visa, then the ticket would be fully refundable.  This was specifically to cover such situations, although in truth I’ve never encountered such an indignity being foisted by other governments on American citizens.

The father arranged for another friend – an American, so no visa problems – to take his children over to London.  He then asked BA to simply change the name on the ticket.  That was great for BA – it wasn’t losing any money at all, it just needed someone to type in a dozen keystrokes to change the name, and everything would be perfect.

But, yes – you guessed it, BA is refusing to do that.  Which brings up the really greedy part.  That ‘refund shall be permitted in the event of visa refusal’ provision doesn’t seem to apply to BA tickets.

What does BA say about this?  It says, without a single giggle

We always do everything we can to help customers when their travel plans change.

They always do everything they can?  Their statement went on to proudly point out they can correct spelling mistakes in passenger names, and sometimes even change dates and times of flights, too.

But apparently ‘everything’ doesn’t mean much to BA.  Changing the passenger name, or refunding a person prohibited from traveling?  No, they can’t do that, because they’re too busy laughing all the way to the bank with the £1200 they took from the father, and the second £1200 he now has to pay for a second person’s second ticket, too.

Details here.

MH370 Closer to Being Found?  Maybe, but…..

The good news?  Well, according to this headline, “Explosive new report virtually pinpoints location of missing flight MH370”, we now know almost exactly where the mysteriously disappeared plane is.  The 777 disappeared on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, more than three years ago.

But the not so good news?  A ‘virtual pinpoint’ is actually an area of 5,000 sq km, or about 2,000 square miles.  Sure, that’s the equivalent of a 45 mile per side square, or 50 mile diameter circle, but it is also at the bottom of a very deep ocean, with close to zero visibility.

And the really bad news?  The Australian government, after searching 120,000 sq km already and spending A$160 million in the process, called the search off earlier this year.  They say they’ll only resume the search if they know where the plane is – logic that only a politician would fully comprehend, I think.

So don’t go expecting any revelatory finds, any time soon.  Alas.

The World’s Most Livable City

This is getting boring.  For the seventh year in a row, Melbourne has been anointed as the world’s most livable city, out of a field of 140 cities.  The award is by the Economist Magazine’s Intelligence Unit, and looks at a huge range of factors.  Vienna and Vancouver took the 2nd and 3rd places, followed by Toronto, and then Adelaide  (also Australia) and Calgary tying for fifth place.

I’ve never liked Melbourne nearly as much as Sydney, but Sydney is a more expensive place to live, so perhaps that weakens its placing.  Details here.

Cameras – Who Needs a Big and Expensive One?

I got a note from a reader in reply to my article last week.  He wrote

David   I am a retired commercial photographer.  I get people asking me about purchasing a DSLR.  I tell them to forget it.

Pocket cameras are inexpensive, of high-resolution, easy to carry, and produce most acceptable photos.   I bought an Olympus pocket camera some years ago for $140.  It does everything but take out the trash.  Why would I need anything else?  (I still have my pro cameras which I use for pro assignments.)

I don’t necessarily disagree with his comments.  My way of comparing things is that with the compact camera I have, I can do 95% of everything I want to do (maybe more depending on how ambitious and creative one wishes to be) and the other 5% is not worth paying thousands of dollars for and becoming a slave to a heavy camera bag once more.  I suspect that some ‘true enthusiasts’ see the bulging camera bag as a badge of honor rather than as something to be avoided!

On the other hand, depending on how old the reader’s Olympus is (and the same for you too if you’re in a similar situation), you might be surprised at how much better newer cameras have become, particularly if you upgrade the sensor size from the very small sensor in most compacts to something larger, such as in the Sony RX100 series such as I have.  A slightly better lens, and a much better sensor, plus a few more fancy functions (but the trash still remains untaken out); I was thrilled with the move from my older Casio to the Sony.  Much better in low light, and for that matter, much better in all light.

Having said that, I am utterly astonished at how good camera phones are becoming.  Surprisingly, one of their seeming weaknesses is actually a strength.  Optically speaking, the ideal lens is simply a tiny pinhole, so they have the benefit of that, but against that ‘benefit’, there are so many design challenges that are being successfully overcome, it is truly amazing.  How long before compact cameras become obsolete – currently they sort of bridge the gap between phone cameras and high-end cameras, but with phone cameras getting steadily better, that gap is getting smaller.

Might this also see DSLR cameras get smaller?

The reality is there’s precious little value in the single lens reflex concept with a DSLR as compared to a regular digital camera.  Most regular digital cameras are showing the same image the sensor captures anyway, and with the additional processing between analog image coming in the lens and digital image being captured, one can argue now as to whether an analog image through a prism is more or less helpful than a digital image on a screen.

The main relevant thing a DSLR offers is a better/bigger sensor and better lenses that allow more light (yes, I know I said, just above, that the best lens is a tiny pin-prick of a pinhole.  It is complicated….).  Perhaps the Sony Alpha series of cameras (big sensors and lenses, small non-DSLR body) represents the wave of the future.

Not Just Fake News.  Modern Day Claques Enhance Restaurants and Other Events

A claque is a group of people, paid to attend an event – commonly a theatrical performance – and enthusiastically applaud the performer who paid them.  More darkly, there are also claques who will boo a designated performer, perhaps because the performer refused to buy the claque’s services to applaud them.

The concept is far from new, indeed, it is timelessly old.  It was particularly common in the 19th century in Europe, but our own Metropolitan Opera in NY also had (maybe even still has) a claque.  Claques, while rarely acknowledged in public, still endure, and here’s a fascinating 2013 article about them.  Most recently, there have been articles about claques in a modern form supporting political meetings, and it is hard to know where vetting who can attend passes over into creating a claque (perhaps a defining point being that claquers – ie the people participating – get paid).

Even such an old-fashioned concept as a claque can be updated and evolve to reflect today’s times, and there’s an app – Surkus – that allows modern-day promoters to ‘rent a crowd’ of enthusiastic supporters.  The article suggests that the next time you see a crowd of people lined up outside a restaurant, you might be seeing modern-day claquers who have been hired based on their appearance conforming to the social demographics the restaurant wishes to appeal to, and who are being paid to seem excited and eager to get into the restaurant and enjoy their food.

The pay can be quite good, especially if the meal is free, too!

Solar Eclipse Misery

I’ve had the good fortune to see an almost complete solar eclipse some decades back in New Zealand.  It was interesting for all of two or three minutes, and then I went back inside the office and continued working the rest of the day.  So I’m not planning anything special for the eclipse that is about to happen, here.

But millions of other people seem to be planning to do something, and there are some scary predictions of regions being overloaded with visitors rushing in to see the eclipse, overloading roads and all other types of infrastructure and causing chaos.  Portland OR, just down the road from here, is expecting one million people to travel in to the city for the event.

One small added element of chaos is being offered up by Hertz.  Here is an utterly shameful story of how they accepted and confirmed hundreds of reservations for rental cars in affected areas, but now are calling people up to cancel the confirmed confirmations.  Even more shameful is that Hertz is apparently still accepting reservations for cars on their website, but at prices ten times higher (ie $3000 for the weekend instead of $300).

Hertz has always been my first choice among the ‘top tier’ rental car brands, but this behavior is beyond the pale.

And Lastly This Week….

I mentioned last week about the two Chinese tourists being arrested for giving Nazi style salutes in Berlin.  This week, it was the turn of an American tourist, but instead of being arrested, he was beaten up by a German who saw him.  Yes, there’s a bucket-load of irony in the situation where Germans beat up people for reminding them of their intolerant past, but because I’m off to Germany in December, and don’t want to risk also being beaten up, perhaps I’ll not ponder that further.

It is hard being a man.  We’re expected to be stoic and stolid.  But, apparently, we too sometimes cry when watching a movie, and according to a new survey by Virgin Atlantic, 41% of their male passengers admit to crying during/after watching a movie on one of their flights.  So as to avoid public shame, the most popular strategy is apparently to bury one’s head in a blanket.

I’m not sure if this reflects most on Virgin’s passengers, their movie choices, or possibly their blankets.  Another study suggests that people are more likely to cry on planes than elsewhere, and for sure, the entire flying experience, from start to stop, would reduce many a grown man to tears, movie or not.  The ever-present Sir Richard Branson, astonishingly, had no comment to offer.  Details here.

Until next week, assuming the end of the world doesn’t come along with the total eclipse, please enjoy safe travels





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 18 August, 2017”

    1. Hi Shayne

      It is a lovely picture, isn’t it.

      Looks like it might have been slightly tweaked after taking? But a lovely image. I don’t remember where I got the image from, but if you say it is yours, that is good enough for me and am happy to release your comment as belated but appreciative acknowledgement of a great photo of a lovely city (even though I still prefer Sydney, but my brother seems happy enough living in Melbourne…..).

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