Weekly Roundup, Friday 6 October, 2017

Fancy taking one of these on your next flight across the Atlantic?

Good morning

Happy birthday to the lovely and now undeniably old 747.  It was 49 years ago on 30 Sept 1968 that saw the ceremonial roll-out of the first 747.  It is interesting to see the list of 26 launch customers for the 747 – ten of them have disappeared.

Our 2017 annual fund-raising drive continues to move forward, albeit more slowly this week, with another 39 readers choosing to become supporters.  Included among these very kind Travel Insiders were another select group of seven Super Supporters (sending in three figure sums), so here’s a call out to Max L, Randy S, Maureen F, Hugh M, Linda M, Bryan G, and Janet A.  Thank you to the Magnificent Seven, and the almost as magnificent 32, too.

I’ve noted the flagging in response level, and that has motivated me to come up with two new inducements.  I’ve added a new shopper comparison chart, this time for 20 high-end cell phones to match this week’s feature article (a review of the new Google phones announced on Wednesday).  The ‘gem’ in this review is the $200 phone that is functionally identical to most of the $500 – $1000 phones, and in some respects better, while also being massively less costly.  If you’re considering buying a new phone at present, you’ve got to check that out.

I’ve also updated the public chart on cell phones too with fresh but different data, so there’s something for everyone to benefit from.

Secondly, I’ve negotiated a 20% discount with a friend’s company, Asterride.  They’re a limo/hire company, a bit like Uber but upmarket, and supporters can use their special code as often as they like for the balance of this year when calling for limo service.  That will probably save you $10 – $20 any time you arrange a ride – a single trip from home to the airport and back again might see you saving $25 or more.

I also updated the special supporter report on tablet devices again.

This means you get to enjoy seven bonuses :

  • 37 page article on internet access while traveling
  • Streaming device reviews
  • Tablet features comparison
  • A free Amazon Echo type device
  • High-end phone comparisons
  • 20% off all Asterride hires through 31 Dec
  • How to get $10 for free from Amazon

So, please do allow these inducements to help encourage you to get around to joining in this year’s fundraising drive, and get us quickly to our goal.  I can also hint there will be at least two more entries on this list next week, one of which would save you hundreds of dollars.  Indeed, I’ll add them to the supporters special page over the weekend, so if you join in the fundraising drive now, you’ll be among the first to know about these new benefits.

As a reminder, The Travel Insider relies upon and needs your support to remain independent and uncompromised.  In return, you get fearless evaluations and critiques, going places where few other journalists are willing to go.

As an example of this, look at this week’s evaluation of Google’s new phones, announced on Wednesday, and following on from today’s roundup.  Whereas a leading electronics magazine journalist says of the new phones that he “couldn’t help but get almost irrationally excited about them” I wryly observe that his excitement was indeed irrational, and tell you why the phones are an expensive disappointment and a betrayal of the founding principles of Android.  That’s a statement you’re unlikely to see anywhere else.

One of the other items Google released at the event was a very ordinary set of Bluetooth headphones.  About the only distinctive thing about them was their ridiculous cost ($160).  But journalists who should know better foamed at the mouth with outlandish claims that “Google’s New Pixel Buds Can Translate Languages in Real Time“.  My response to that?  No.  The earbuds merely connect to the phone, which in turn connects to the Google Translate service online in the internet cloud.

We had another couple choose to join our Grand Expedition of Great Britain next year, but tragically also had one lovely lady, a lady who has graced two earlier Travel Insider tours, pass away.  She’ll be with us in spirit, and I fervently hope her sorely grieving widower will still choose to come, and enjoy a couple of weeks of warm fellowship with a group of supportive old and new friends.

Just a few other items in this week’s round-up.  Not only is the article about Google’s phones and their implications huge, but I’ve been distracted this week due to wearing my volunteer hat at Anna’s Middle School.  I’ve ended up coordinating the ‘Math Club’ activities for the entire Middle School, plus running a ‘Speech & Debate Club’ too.  I don’t begrudge a second of it, of course, but getting both sets of activities up and running for the new school year is taking more time than I’d hoped.

But here are some fun pieces; the chances are they are offering you different perspectives than you’ve seen elsewhere.  Which is, of course, why you read The Travel Insider, and why in turn, I need your support to keep bringing you these alternate points of view.

  • The World’s Longest Low Cost Flight
  • Elon Musk to Bring Rocket Travel Down to Earth?
  • Who Did Tesla Lie To?
  • Australia Takes Up Musk’s Wager
  • All Inclusive Cruises?  Not Really.
  • You Sort of Know This Already.  But You Like to Pretend You Don’t.
  • And Lastly This Week….

The World’s Longest Low Cost Flight

It is a curious thing – the longer the flight, the higher the fare.  Not just the total fare for the distance traveled, but the fare per mile of distance traveled.

We see it in the US, where our various somewhat low-fare carriers tend to operate shorter routes, and we definitely see it in Europe and elsewhere, with airlines such as Ryanair focusing on relatively short point to point flights.  The occasional high-profile attempts at low-cost long distance travel – for example across the Atlantic – usually either fail spectacularly, or, even worse, slowly go up in cost to equal the regular fares, or perhaps remain an obscure niche product with little relevance to most people and most itineraries.

Norwegian, an airline which by some reports is experiencing a few financial growing pains at present, has an ambitious program of expansion so that it neither fails spectacularly nor remains as an obscure niche product, and also is broadening its routes to more and more parts of the globe.

Its latest new service is being hailed as the world’s longest low-cost flight – between London/Gatwick and Singapore (6758 miles as the crow flies; longer with detours to avoid various regional hotspots).

This is a development that will doubtless delight Singaporeans, but add further challenges to their national carrier.  Singapore Airlines is struggling to change itself to reflect the very changed patterns of air travel these days, and adding low fare competition will be another problem it will have to respond to.

Details here.

Elon Musk to Bring Rocket Travel Down to Earth?

Talking about long low-cost flights, Elon Musk is now tilting at another windmill in grand quixotic fashion.  After talking about, then abandoning, the hyperloop concept, and after having dug a few feet of tunnel to ‘prove’ the viability of tunnels as a new (?) way for cars and trains to travel, he is now talking briefly shifting focus from sending people all the way to Mars to instead sending them not quite so far away.  He is considering people flying ballistic rockets that would take off, fly to their destination somewhere else on the planet in mere minutes, and land again.

Well, the capability has been theoretically present for decades.  But to offer this as a practical form of public transportation?  That’s an ambitious concept that not even Sir Richard Branson has dared to espouse.

Musk tells us that a journey from New York to Shanghai would take about 30 minutes, and nowhere would be more than an hour away.  He didn’t comment on just exactly how much noxious toxic rocket-fuel would be burned, but he did tell us that the cost of these flights would be about the same as full-fare economy in a regular jet at present.  Full fare economy appears to be about $3750 for a one-way fare between New York and London, for example.

His concept rocket would carry about 100 passengers per flight.  Could a rocket operate profitably for $375,000 a flight?  Perhaps a clue can be seen in his charges for rocket launches at present, about $60 million for the Falcon 9 rocket.  A passenger rocket would probably have to be larger and use more fuel, because it is having to gently lower itself still fully loaded back to earth again.

Of course the $60 million figure includes a generous profit, but equally of course, Musk would want to make a profit out of flying passengers too.  About the only thing we can be sure of is that the Falcon 9 rocket launches are being sold at costs 200 or more times higher than what Musk would likely get from this new super-sized 100 passenger rocket (don’t forget the passenger bags as well, of course!).

Another benchmark.  The brief sub-orbital flights that Sir Richard hopes to start offering in the future are expected to cost about $250,000 per passenger.  Again, there’s a huge cost gap to close between $250,000 and $2,500.

So, don’t go expecting to see a Musk rocket offering you flights in time for joining your next Travel Insider tour.  And don’t hold your breath expecting the tickets on any such rockets in the future to be anywhere close to affordable.

Talking about Mr Musk and his at times optimistic statements, his poster-child venture, Tesla, has suffered some embarrassment this week.

Who Did Tesla Lie To?

I’ve been accused of being a Tesla hater.  That is not true.  I would love a Tesla car, and greatly admire and respect the revolution they’ve almost single-handedly brought to the electric vehicle industry.

But that doesn’t mean they should not be held as equally accountable to honoring their public claims and promises as any other company, and the more I see the main stream media politely looking the other way and ignoring some blatant challenges, the more I feel it necessary to compensate.  Such as with three related matters this morning.

That oh-so-muted bombshell that you probably didn’t hear going off this week was the mainstream media quietly catching up with the story I broke a month ago.  Tesla is miles behind its Model 3 production targets.  As of the end of September, it had promised to have delivered 1630 cars.  It seems that it may have only delivered 260 cars, about 1/6th the number promised.

Tesla tells us not to worry.  And a new analyst has initiated coverage of Tesla, and they are telling us to rush to buy Tesla stock, predicting it will rise 40% within 12 months.  That almost makes sense in the Tesla universe – a stunning failure to meet targets, matched by giddy optimism in the share market.  How long will this be sustainable?

And now for the lying issue – an even bigger story with even less media coverage.  In a filing with a California regulatory body, Tesla provided projected production numbers that seem to be less than half the projected production numbers it has been publicly promising to its shareholders.  Which number is correct – they are both counting the same cars, so they can’t be reconciled.  One is right, and the other is wrong by a factor of two.

Here’s the analysis that reveals this extraordinary contradiction in Tesla’s claims.  Tesla, in reply, has decided to ignore the story and hope it goes away, which makes me think the analysis is pretty much on target.

Australia Takes Up Musk’s Wager

After suffering a major power outage a year ago, Australia’s state of South Australia took up a wager extended by Elon Musk.  He offered to build them a 129 MWhr power battery storage unit to help smooth out future power surges and interruptions, and said he’d either have it installed within 100 days or give it to the state for free.

Now, call me cynical, but that offer was made last year, and since then South Australia (SA) has moved very slowly forwards and only this week signed a contract with Mr Musk.  But he has clearly known for some time prior to the contract signing this week that he was getting the deal.  The original offer, if taken up immediately, may have strained his resources.  But the 100 day promise now seems trivial, because he has had 200 days to prepare for the 100 day time frame.

This standby battery is thought to be costing in the realm of $95 million and will be the world’s largest lithium-ion battery.  But how long could SA survive on this battery alone?  It has been difficult to get an exact answer to that question – surely a relevant question and measure.  One source says it could power 4000 homes for one day.  We estimate there are about 500,000 homes in SA, so that would mean the entire state could last for about 12 minutes – assuming that the batteries have the capacity to deliver their power at that rate, which is far from clear.  Another source says it will give the state up to 15 minutes of power if it has a loss of power from other sources.

These two fairly consistent claims are contradicted – within the same claims, and for example here as well, where it is stated that the battery could only provide power at a rate that would see the batteries discharge not within 12 – 15 minutes but rather at a rate that would take about 80 minutes to discharge.  In other words, while in theory the battery could supply the entire state for 12 – 15 minutes; in practice, it could only supply about one fifth of the state, but for about five times as long – perhaps up to 80 minutes.  So four out of five households would see no benefit from this battery at all.

To be fair, the battery is not intended to replace the entire power infrastructure, but merely to provide some spare capacity and ‘headroom’ during occasional unusual peaks of demand.

We wish the project well, and the underlying concept of using rechargeable batteries as a power reservoir, particularly now that uncontrollable renewable power sources such as solar and wind are becoming more common, is very sensible.  But let’s not over-hype what SA can expect from its investment in Tesla batteries.

All Inclusive Cruises?  Not Really.

The cruise industry has been quietly walking back its earlier cornerstone product promise – an all-inclusive and affordable experience on a high quality cruise ship.

Sure, it has never been common to see drinks included in the cruise fare, other than with some very high-end cruise lines, with matching high-end fares.  But I recall, several decades ago, cruising on the QE2 and being astonished to see drink prices, in their deluxe Queens Grill, that were lower than what I’d pay in a bottle store back home.  I enjoyed fine vintage champagne that I would never have been able to afford back home.

Now, however, if you go for a cruise on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship, it might help your budgeting if you’re a teetotaler.  Their ambitiously named ‘Ultimate Beverage Package’, which certainly does not include fine vintage champagnes, is yours for an aggressive $105.02 a day.  My guess is you’re looking at well drinks, house wines by the glass, and some beers.

And if you were thinking of some, ahem, ‘strategic’ purchasing of this package, forget it.  If you’re going to take advantage of this ‘bargain’, then everyone in the cabin with you (over the age of 21) must also sign up for it, as must also everyone in the cabins of anyone else traveling with you.  The kids under 21 are also required to sign up for a related Soda Program.

And if you were thinking of, ahem, alternating between party/drinking days and recovery days, forget that too.  You have to buy the package for the entire cruise.

There’s a long list of exclusions and requirements, detailed here.

Am I the only person to recoil in horror at the nature of this drink package and its cost?

You Sort of Know This Already.  But You Like to Pretend You Don’t.

Here’s an interesting article with an even more interesting item concealed within it.

The article talks about how Whole Foods has been enjoying an upswing of shoppers since Amazon took it over and immediately slashed some of the prices there.  It is interesting to read about that, and surprising to see how many of the new shoppers are people who have been regularly shopping at Wal-Mart before.

The article was crammed full of detailed data of where Whole Foods shoppers were coming from, their past shopping habits, who they were, even how much they earn.  I found myself wondering how it was I’d not seen anyone surveying shoppers on the several trips I too had made to Whole Foods since the Amazon takeover.  Clearly, a very extensive survey had been done.

Which brings us to the even more interesting item concealed within the article.  The study was not based on interviewing shoppers on their way in and out of Whole Foods stores.  It was based on data collected from 30 million phones.  Somehow the survey company managed to get weeks or months of location data from 30 million phones, and work out from that location data not only when the phones owners’ had visited Whole Foods, but also where else they would visit as well, plus identify the phone owners to understand demographic data even including their income.

Your phone is not keeping your secrets.  It is sharing them, willy-nilly.  We already sort of knew that, didn’t we.  But it is not nice to be so directly shown how much unknown people know about us.

And Lastly This Week….

No matter what side of the ever broader political divide we might find ourselves on, I think most of us can agree that our President, whether Democrat or Republican, tends to travel internationally in a manner that is ridiculously over-the-top.  Motorcades with 30+ vehicles, hundreds of people in the entourage, and of course, the whole 747 Air Force One thing as well.

Certainly, we can point to other heads of state (Canada, Britain, Australia, and so on) who travel much more modestly, and usually limit their extravagances to simply buying a first class seat on a scheduled flight.

But we can and should also point to some heads of state who travel at a level of extravagance that even our present President would be hard-pressed to equal, in his wildest dreams.  Heads of state such as, for example, this gentleman, with a larger plane, a gold escalator rather than stairs out of the plane, a staff of 1500, and special food flown in daily from his home nation.

Here’s a fascinating bit of rail trivia, about an amazing marvel of an abandoned station in Spain that may be about to be restored.

And, here’s a money-saving tip for you.  Many modern cars specify a requirement for premium unleaded fuel.  The chances are they would run perfectly well on regular grade, or if you’re unwilling to ‘risk’ that, compromise on mid-grade fuel.  I’ve put over 150,000 miles on my ‘use only premium fuel’ Landrover and it has been 99% on regular fuel.  I’ve had no engine problems, and the fuel economy is in line with the claimed economy on the EPA label when I bought the vehicle – probably 11,000 or more gallons of fuel, and saving 20c – 30c per every gallon purchased.

Modern engines with computerized engine controls automatically adjust for the grade of fuel.  If you hear engine ‘knocking’ or ‘pinking’ then you know you need to go up to the next level fuel, but if the engine runs normally, keep your money in your pocket.

Here’s an article about the growing cost differential of premium grade fuel, and also mentions how some people put premium fuel in vehicles that don’t require it – an even greater error than the more understandable error of feeding it to vehicles that do need it.

And now, truly lastly this week, after a week in which we’ve seen some terrible things, there is still cause for hope.  Some of the Disney characters at Disney amusement parks are going to start speaking to guests.  Sort of.

Talking about cause for hope, might I hope for your kindness and decision to help with our annual fundraising drive.  It would really help.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and if you hear a sound ‘like balloons popping’, be aware that it might be something quite different.





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 6 October, 2017”

  1. American Cruise Lines serves free drinks. There is a one hour cocktail gathering from 1730 to 1830 where beer, wine, and top Shell liquor is served. Then dinner where red and white wine is served as long as people want it. Cruise rates are very reasonable and service is outstanding.

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