Weekly Roundup, Friday 22 December, 2017

Merry Christmas – my daughter and I celebrating the pre-Christmas season on board the lovely Amacerto river cruise ship a few days ago.

Good morning

I returned back from this year’s Christmas Markets cruise Thursday afternoon, and the attendant jetlag has reduced my creativity close to zero for a day or two (perhaps I should try the Queen’s reputed jetlag remedy).  But with this being the last opportunity to pass the compliments of the season to you, it seemed appropriate to send you something, and (small confession) I did write some of this newsletter in the days preceding my flight home.  I will also be publishing a brief end of year newsletter next week.

The Christmas cruise was, of course, a wonderful success.  The ship and crew were both excellent, with nothing being too much bother.  There was seemingly even more food at more times of the day than ever before, and an expanded variety of off-ship excursions offered at every port stop – truly you have to consider doing a river cruise at least twice these days so as to get and see and do all the different tours offered (almost every one of which is available at no extra charge).  A few hardy souls even took advantage of the bicycle riding tours at some stops.

The hardest-to-anticipate elements also proved very positive.  We enjoyed a great group of Travel Insiders sharing their tour together, and a largely very nice group of passengers in total on the ship.  I think, particularly now that it is common that Travel Insider tours feature a growing core group of repeat travelers, some of whom know each other from previous shared tours, that the interactions with fellow group members are undoubtedly one of the very best elements of all our tours.

If people are one potential wild card, the weather is definitely the other.  This year the weather was considerably warmer than anticipated, with temperatures ranging up into the low 50s, no rain, but an occasional light dusting of snow that didn’t interfere with our off-ship excursions, and simply made the landscapes look lovely and ‘Christmassy’.  It couldn’t have been improved upon, and few of our group ended up using the hand-warmers I’d passed around prior to the cruise.

If there’s a better way to enjoy the build-up to Christmas, please tell me.  But for now, this continues to be my firm favorite, and I say that after having now been on, I think, nine Christmas cruises.  Whatever the number, it still felt as fresh and lovely as the first, and I’m already looking forward to another one in 2018.  Details on that in January, but for now, you might want to keep your calendar open for early December 2018, and consider joining next year’s Christmas cruise.

Although the weather was warm and snow was scarce, there were more flight disruptions this year than normal.  Three people from Chicago, due to arrive in Budapest on Sunday, had a series of flight cancellations and delays and related problems, including suffering due to the light dusting of snow at Heathrow which was enough to in large part close the entire enormous airport down for way too long.  The net result was two people gave up entirely and went back home (suffering more problems on their return flights) – fortunately, they had travel insurance which helped salve the financial wounds.  The third person, uninsured, persevered through a series of challenges and finally made it to the ship on Wednesday in Vienna.  A simple overnight flight from Chicago to Budapest ended up taking four days.

At the other end of the cruise, a mysterious rash of Lufthansa flight cancellations for no apparent reason interfered with people flying from Nuremberg to Frankfurt and ended up with some people taking trains and others taking taxis to get to Frankfurt for their ongoing flights home.

I find myself wondering whether my ‘rule of thumb’ – always arrive the previous day for important events that must not be missed – needs to be updated and now be ‘for international flights, arrive two days early’.  I’m also once again reminded of the value of trip insurance.

Some interesting security experiences.  Because I have a Nexus membership, I get TSA PRE-check privileges.  But strangely, on the outbound flight, Anna was given PRE-check status on her boarding pass and I received some strange notation on my boarding pass that did not allow me into the PRE lane.  But, as it was, the regular lane was working to PRE type rules with metal detectors set to low sensitivity and no need to remove laptops, etc.

On the return, Anna again was noted as PRE, and as for me, I was given a SSSS category for special extra security.  That thankfully involved nothing more than swabbing all my electronics with an explosive trace detector (I didn’t even have to turn any of them on), but one has to wonder about the sense of choosing PRE members for SSSS extra screening.

Interestingly, apart from my extra swabbing, security in Prague and Frankfurt was minimal, and there was no sign of any enhanced/additional security measures.  No-one even asked us the typical set of ‘where did you go/what did you do’ type questions.

And now, for your continued reading pleasure :

  • A Controversial Travel Insider Experience Next Early March
  • Kazakhstan Tour Evolving
  • DoT’s Shameful Relaxation of Airline Fee Disclosure Rules
  • Alaska Airlines Response to Amtrak Crash South of Seattle
  • Atlanta Power Outage = Always Carry a Flashlight
  • Trans-Atlantic Market Shares
  • Bad News for Hyperloop Enthusiasts
  • More Tesla Competition
  • Uber Told to Play by the Rules
  • And Lastly This Week….

A Controversial Travel Insider Experience Next Early March

Talking about next year’s Christmas Markets cruise, we’re lining up an exciting year of touring in general, including one of the more controversial ‘tours’ I occasionally offer – a defensive handgun training course at the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute, just out of Las Vegas.  It is well past time to offer this again, and I’ve put together an interesting combo experience that includes a two or four day handgun course operated by Front Sight plus a supplemental course and certification offered directly by me on the afternoon prior.  The certificates I issue (if you pass the test!) are accepted by most states that require formal training courses as a prerequisite for issuing a concealed weapons permit (I have several different nationally recognized firearms instructor qualifications).

Best of all, this package includes a free Front Sight lifetime membership (many of you already have these).

This will be from Thursday afternoon 1 March for my short course, then Friday 2 March through Saturday or Monday for the two or four days at Front Sight in Pahrump.  More details next week.

Kazakhstan Tour Evolving and Extending

I’m now calling it the “Triple K” tour.  Calling it a KKK tour might be, ahem, open to misinterpretation!  We will have a pre-tour option in Kiev and a post tour option in Kyrgyzstan, hence the Triple K.

This May tour gives you a great chance to see three different former Soviet countries and the different paths they’ve taken post independence.

I have summary details of all the planned 2018 tours on our Tour page.  There’s also an Ireland and a New Zealand tour in the works.

DoT’s Shameful Relaxation of Airline Fee Disclosure Rules

The fees we pay to an airline are becoming, in some cases, equal to, or possibly greater than, the underlying actual airfare itself.  As I wrote recently, the airlines will charge $57 billion in fees this year, which compares to a net profit of only $35 billion.

With fees increasing in both number and size, it is important, when shopping for an airfare, to know exactly the impact of the fees on the total ticket price you’ll pay.  Fees have gone from trivial and incidental, to now become central and substantial.  But, while there’s not much variation between airlines and the fees they charge, they nonetheless don’t want to make it easy for us to fairly and fully compare pricing.

So it is with great dismay we note the DoT’s decision not to proceed with a proposed regulation that would have required airlines to disclose checked and carry-on bag fees at the start of a ticket purchase.  This regulation finally reached the state of being proposed for future implementation after over five years of debate and lobbying the DoT and thousands of pages of argument – by consumer groups in favor, and of course by the airlines, opposed.

The reason for not proceeding with the rule making only makes sense when you consider the DoT regularly allows airlines to buy each other out or to merge, on the utterly laughable basis that fewer airlines make for better competition.  Only a bureaucrat who believes that fewer airlines means giving us a more competitive marketplace would now turn around and tell us that the reason they’re not requiring airlines to be open and upfront about their fees is because doing so would be “of limited public benefit”.

The item of most limited public benefit, alas, is the DoT itself.  What a shameful decision.  Details here.

Alaska Airlines Response to Amtrak Crash South of Seattle

You’ve doubtless read about the Amtrak crash, with some fatalities, on a section of track newly accessible to passenger services, on the route between Seattle and Portland.  As I write this, it appears the train took the curve at more than twice the posted speed (ie close to 80 mph for a curve rated for 30 mph), with carriages careering off the track and down onto I-5 below.

One could write, at length, of the regrettable nonsense of having 30 mph curves on an inter-city rail line that normally allows trains to proceed at a (still relatively slow) speed of 79 mph most of the way, but that’s another story.

Another interesting point is that the ‘solution’ to a train going too fast is available but its implementation has been delayed, due to Amtrak and the freight train companies complaining that it is expensive.  See this article, for example.  This solution is called ‘Positive Train Control’.  It is essentially an auto-pilot for the train that removes the need for a driver 99% of the time.  Just like with planes, train drivers are a mixed blessing and may cause as many accidents as they prevent.

There’s another point worth mentioning.  The Amtrak train consisted of 14 cars (possibly two of these were the locomotives at each end).  The train was a special inaugural train to commemorate the newly rerouted section of track.  So you’d expect more passengers that normal.  In total, it seems there were 77 passengers and 9 Amtrak staff on the train.  That is barely six passengers per carriage.  Is it any wonder that Amtrak struggles to find any way toward breakeven, with loading that abysmally low.

An interesting aside – this CNN page says there were 86 people in total on the train, but more than 100 were taken to hospital.

My point today is to note how Alaska Airlines, noting both the cessation of train service between Seattle and Portland, and the obstructions interfering with traveling by car on I-5, reacted not by increasing fares, but by slashing them by more than 50%.  A ridiculously overpriced $214 fare is now $99.

A clever move in the battle for hearts and minds in the Seattle area that Alaska is currently waging with Delta.

Atlanta Power Outage = Always Carry a Flashlight

The twelve-hour power outage at Atlanta airport on Sunday (and the rippling inconveniences for the next several days) was terrible on many levels.  In particular, scare headlines reporting how stranded people spent up to six hours in darkness reminded me again of the essential truth I wrote about just a few weeks ago – always have a mini flashlight in your pocket.

Sure, your phone can do double duty as a flashlight, but in a power outage such as at ATL, you’re probably going to be wanting to use your phone for other things than as a flashlight.  A tiny flashlight with both a high power setting and also a long-life lower power setting gives you many more than six hours of emergency light in any situation.  It is small, light, and inexpensive.  More details in the article on mini flashlights.

Trans-Atlantic Market Shares

I need to update my perception of Norwegian.  I’ve been delighted by its continued growth, and now even its presence in Seattle, but have felt their market size to be so small as to be almost irrelevant and of no impact to the major carriers.

But that is no longer the case.  Here’s a fascinating article that lists the capacity being flown across the Atlantic this winter.  BA comes first with 1.87 million seats (up 1.1% from last year), followed by Delta (1.63 million) and United (1.60 million).  Then there is LH (1.41) AA (1.39) and AC (0.94).  But next, in seventh place, is now Norwegian, with 0.86 million seats, more than double its seats last year.

Let’s hope for another more than doubling next year, which would place it in second place and very close behind BA.

But that isn’t quite the victory it would seem, and BA’s market dominance is much greater than the numbers suggest.

BA’s sister airlines AA (1.39 million), Aer Lingus (0.45 million) and Iberia (0.24 million) have to be figured in as part of the total alliance share, and their new low-cost carrier Level is starting to fly between Spain and North America, too.  So total seats flown by the BA/AA group (a subset of their Oneworld alliance) makes for a much more unbeatable 4 million seats under their coordinated control.

But give Norwegian a couple more years…..

Bad News for Hyperloop Enthusiasts

I’m a hyperloop enthusiast and see enormous potential for this futuristic technology, promising pods hurtling through vacuum tubes at the speed of sound, making for astonishingly fast and low-cost transportation.

But one of the original hyperloop development companies  – Hyperloop One – suffered an ugly breakup and loss of their main engineering ideas guy, leaving the financiers in control.  The engineering lead, Brogan Bambrogan, promptly founded his own competing venture.

And then, Hyperloop One suffered from the uncertain benefit of allying with Richard Branson – he of many futuristic visions and promises, but few achievements – and now is named Virgin Hyperloop One.  Plus the money guy, Shervin Pishevar, got entangled in accusations of sexual misconduct.

This week, it has been announced that the company had a buy-out offer it declined, and has received $50 million in additional funding.  Call me a profligate spender if you will, but it seems to me that $50 million is a mere drop in the bucket of what will be needed to develop this technology and get it to market.

In related news, the company is excitedly crowing about having achieved a new speed record.  With the conceptual promise of speeds in the order of 760 mph, what is this new speed record that is so great?  Ummm, 240 mph.  Not quite one-third the 760 mph claim of the concept, definitely slower than a plane, and comparable to modern high-speed regular trains.

It will be a while before the reality of hyperloops approaches the potential promises.  Hence our perception that $50 million in funding is unlikely to be adequate.

Details here.

More Tesla Competition

Yet another Chinese car company has released an electric vehicle.  This time the company is NIO (I’d never heard of them before, either) and their vehicle, the ES8, seems to match or exceed the specifications of Tesla’s Model X in almost every respect, while costing only half as much.

In particular, the ES8 appears to be making good on a Tesla promise that allowed them to pry massive government subsidies – that of being able to swap batteries.  NIO claim their battery can be swapped in three minutes, whereas Tesla have gone quiet on the concept of battery swaps entirely.  Even if a battery swap isn’t done, it also has very much faster regular charging than the much-vaunted Tesla fast charging.

Full details here.

At the same time, another of the ‘sleeping giant’ auto companies is bestirring itself more and more.  Toyota first announced an intriguing future partnership with Panasonic for battery development, and now has published its future plans for battery-powered cars.

In Toyota’s case, this is quite a shift in focus.  Toyota was formerly somewhat anti-battery (other than in hybrids) and fully committed to fuel cell power.  It has been slowly shifting from that earlier ideology, and is increasingly pro-battery.

Uber Told to Play by the Rules

To be blunt, Uber’s business model does not involve any amazing new efficiency.  The cost savings we enjoy as customers are due to Uber’s drivers struggling to make a living wage, and due to Uber’s operations skirting as many regulatory overheads as possible.

The basic model of taxi service was not flawed.  Sure, Uber has added a fancy new internet interface and largely eliminated the need for human despatchers, but that is much less transformative and revolutionary than what Uber has presented itself as being.  It still ultimately relies on drivers in their vehicles, picking up passengers and taking them where they want to go.

Both of Uber’s two cost-saving strategies are under attack.  Driver groups are pressuring Uber to pay them more, and regulatory bodies are now moving past their initial love affairs with the ‘non-taxi’ service and increasingly seeing that Uber actually is a taxi service, which suggests either Uber should play by similar rules or regular taxis should now be allowed to operate in the comparatively regulation-free environment that Uber seeks.

Oh yes, to add to Uber’s woes, the cost of entry for Uber type competitors is low rather than high, and Uber is being pressured not only by conventional taxi type services, but by Uber-clones such as Lyft.  In many international markets, the competition is winning and Uber is being forced to enter into joint ventures or to withdraw.

Add this all up and you have to wonder how it is that Uber has a theoretical valuation of $70 billion.  It owns no cars, and claims it employs no drivers, and double-definitely, makes no money.

The latest challenge for the company is an EU ruling deeming Uber to be a taxi company.  Uber had disingenuously tried to claim that it was not a taxi company, but rather was an information services provider.  What this ruling means for Uber in practical terms is unclear, but one is left wondering whether the Uber phenomenon of plentiful, cheap, and pleasant ‘taxis’ may be about to disappear as quickly as it appeared.

Details here.

One more comment.  For a company that lives or dies by the appeal of its user interface, I continue to hate it with a passion.  I took an Uber taxi to the airport in Seattle two weeks ago, and after the journey was invited to rate (and tip) the driver.  I clicked on five stars, but that then took me to a web page where I had to log in to have the rating accepted.  Why?  I’ve got the Uber app on the phone I was using, and have no idea what my user ID/password is, because, happily, the app never requires it.

And then a couple of days ago I tried to get an Uber taxi to travel across Nuremberg.  Only after a frustrating process of entering the address of where I wanted to go – five minutes of agony to identify the actual main train station – did Uber then tell me that it doesn’t operate in Nuremberg at all.  Couldn’t it have told me that up front, based on my present location, which was the first data element I entered?

And then there’s the vexed matter of its pricing policies.  It cost a very reasonable $32 to take a taxi from home to the airport a couple of weeks ago, but $60 for a return in the middle of the day this Thursday.  Surge pricing?  How could it be surge pricing when the driver had been waiting at the airport for half an hour for a pickup.  Plus the less expensive journey took longer (40 minutes), whereas the more expensive journey was completed in only 33 minutes.  Both journeys were almost the same exact distance, of course.

I had to walk past signs at the airport advertising fixed fares of $50 – $60 for private cars to take me home, to go to the less convenient Uber area and then wait almost ten minutes for the Uber driver to arrive from where they wait off-airport.  I only did that because I was expecting a $30 – 35 fare with Uber.  Instead, I get a Christmas surprise – a $60 fare for a less convenient travel arrangement, and one that leaves a strong odor of ‘bait and switch’ behind.

And Lastly This Week….

I’ve always thought the concept of building a battery recharging pack into a suitcase to be a ridiculously stupid notion, for many reasons.  You’re probably not likely to have your suitcase with you when you need some emergency power; on the other hand, when you do have your suitcase, you’re probably somewhere you can plug wall chargers into outlets.  Better to have a separate battery pack you can take anywhere with you.  Plus, you’re adding extra weight to your suitcase, which is always going to be weighed by the airlines, whereas a separate charger can be stuffed into a carryon or even your pocket.  It is easy to lend a charger to someone when it is the size of a pack of cards, but how do you conveniently lend your entire suitcase?

There are more reasons not to get a suitcase with a built-in charger too (ie they tend to be ridiculously overpriced), but you probably get the idea.  However, if you’re still considering a suitcase with built-in charger, here’s another point to consider – US airlines either have banned them or are about to ban them, due to concerns about the batteries catching fire in a plane cargo hold.  Details here.

There’s always a little tingle of uncertainty when walking into a new hotel and the room within it you’ve booked for the night, isn’t there.  Usually, the experience is ordinary and normal, but not always.  As is shown in this article.

Some airlines go out of their way to recruit attractive young ladies as air hostesses, now generally referred to by the much more austere term ‘flight attendants’.  But three Malaysian airlines have been criticized by two Malaysian senators for having flight crew uniforms they deemed to be too revealing and which might ‘arouse passengers’.

One of the two senators revealed that his wife is worried whenever he flies on the airlines.  Quite possibly his wife might have reason to be worried, but equally possibly, if that indeed is the case, one wonders whether the root cause of the wife’s concern lies in the flight attendant uniforms or the general nature of the man she married.  Details here.

And now, truly lastly this week, an article about an annual tradition – something some people love to excess, and others hate with a similar passion.

I hope that Santa visits and doesn’t just leave (low sulfur clean burning) coal in your stocking on Monday.  And if you, in turn, are doing any visiting, I hope the roads and air ways are all acceptably clear and unjammed.  Friday and Saturday, 22 & 23 December, and Tuesday 2 January are tipped to be the busiest travel days, and overall, more than twice as many people travel over the Xmas/New Year period than over Thanksgiving.

So, until next Friday, please enjoy safe travels





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