If you might be in the Seattle area on Saturday 24 February, or if you’d like to visit the city for a weekend, I’ll be giving a one hour presentation to close the first day of a two-day seminar/conference by the ‘Frequent Traveler University’, at the Crowne Plaza close to the airport.
The two-day event is $249, but the organizers have allowed me to invite a few friends (ie you!) to attend my Saturday presentation, between 5pm and 6pm, completely free of charge.
I’ll be presenting on the topic “The Future of Travel – Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies”. It would be lovely to sprinkle the audience with a few Travel Insiders; let me know if you’d like to come and we can sort through the paperwork to make it happen.
And perhaps this is a good point to segue into other Travel Insider events, with some notable changes to the line-up from last week, and for the first time ever, I’m now scheduling tours more than a year in advance, meaning I’ve an impressive list of six tours below, four of which you can already choose to join.
In date order, we have :
March 2018 : Frontsight Firearms Course, Nevada
I hold multiple national certifications as a firearms, defense, and safety trainer. So I know good firearms and safety training when I see it, and Frontsight is clearly the best general training resource in the country, offering excellent and also approachable training. Their courses are good for people of all degrees of existing knowledge/skill/interest in firearms. Frontsight also make it very easy to experience one of their classes – they’ll rent you everything you need so you can simply turn up at their front door if you don’t already have the necessary gear.
I’m coordinating and adding value to one of their two or four day defensive handgun courses at the beginning of March. The cost to participate is very moderate. Whether you own handguns or not, why not come and join a select group of fellow Travel Insiders on this interesting activity. Details here.
May 2018 : Triple K Tour of Kiev, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan
Most of us are fortunate to have traveled to much of the world already. So if you’re starting to look at the less well-known destinations, why not consider this tour and experience the extraordinary country of many contrasts that is Kazakhstan. They splurged with their oil money to create a fairy-tale futuristic sparkling new capital city in the middle of what was otherwise empty arid land, but they still have their former capital flourishing in the south of the country too.
We visit both cities, plus other places that until recently were off-limits to foreigners because of their national security sensitivity to the former Soviet Union. This is probably not a tour I’ll be repeating regularly, so try to move your schedule around and come this year. Details here.
Oct/Nov 2018 : New Zealand Epicurean Extravaganza
A lovely time of year, and one of the loveliest countries and peoples in the world. Okay, as a Kiwi myself, I’m biased, but why not allow me to show you my country, my way, this October/November.
I take you to my favorite parts of New Zealand, and by (non)coincidence, we’ll be in lovely Hawke’s Bay while their annual Food and Wine Classic event is being held, giving us a weekend full of world-class eating and drinking experiences, all with a distinctively antipodean flair.
We spend time in New Zealand’s North and South Island, and optionally, fly over to the ‘West Island’ too (aka Australia). Details here.
Dec 2018 : European Christmas Markets ‘Land-cruise’
As hinted last week, because I couldn’t negotiate a great deal on a river cruise this December, I’ve gone one better, and am putting the finishing touches on what I’m terming a ‘land cruise’.
Just like the river cruise, we unpack once, and stay seven nights, but at a lovely hotel rather than in a cramped ship cabin. Just like a river cruise, we have lots of easy touring included to beautiful towns and villages, most with lovely Christmas markets.
Indeed, many of these are even nicer that the ones we see on the river cruises, because they are off the well-beaten tourist track, so are not crowded full of tourists from the cruise ships. We’ll be based in Lille, France. Lille is the major intermediary stop on the Eurostar line so you can simply fly to London or Paris or Brussels and take a train to Lille (or fly directly there, of course), and we visit French and Belgian towns in the vicinity of Lille, and after our week’s “cruise”, we have an optional extension that takes us to Luxembourg, Switzerland, and even Lichtenstein too.
Sounds good? Sounds great! Details to come, hopefully next week. The one week package is probably going to be about $2695 per person, and it will be between about 8 – 18 December.
May 2019 : Ireland
This is a change in dates. I had been hoping to schedule Ireland for Aug/Sep this year, but after over a month of planning and emailing with suppliers, I’ve concluded that the country in Aug/Sep is already too full for us to be able to get a good experience, good hotels, and a good price.
So we’ll push it out to mid May next year – mid Spring; a lovely time of year, and which gives us a bit more time to plan and optimize things. Stay tuned for details.
June 2019 : Grand Expedition of Great Britain
This is an exciting addition. I have now closed off our June 2018 inaugural Grand Expedition, with 26 Travel Insiders coming along to do the ‘Bucket List’ activity of touring from one corner to the far opposite corner of Britain, going through England, Wales and Scotland in the process. This is an ultimate ‘road trip’ where you don’t have to do the driving, and can just relax and enjoy the scenery and the stops.
But, ‘as one door closes, another opens’ and so we now have a 2019 version of the tour available for you to join. You might think that with over a year between now and June 2019, there’s no hurry to sign up. That is understandable, but it really helps me plan hotel allocations if I get people joining early rather than late, so to add a little encouragement, there’s a $50 early-registration discount for people who join and get their deposit in by the end of February.
What else for the week? Well, how about a slew of articles about airline costs, and the usual miscellany of other stuff too :
- United Looks After the Cents, the Dollars Will Look After Themselves
- American’s New Bathrooms – the Same Width as a Business Class Seat
- Airlines Say They’re Removing Seatback Video Screens Because We Don’t Want Them
- The Special Airline Where Cost is No Object
- The Low Cost of Bribing a TSA Officer
- The Complexities of Bribing a Reviewer
- It is the Best Restaurant in London – But it Doesn’t Exist
- Apple Stock Projected to Rise – or Maybe Not
- Other Tech Tidbits
- And Lastly This Week….
United Looks After the Cents, the Dollars Will Look After Themselves
Airlines are well-known for their penny-pinching antics. Do you remember the infamous decision by American Airlines back in the days of Bob Crandall as their CEO; they removed one olive per first class salad, and said it would save them $40,000 a year by having done so (some sources suggest as much as $100,000 in savings). It is true that even a penny or two saved per passenger, when you’re flying millions every year, can quickly add up, but did they ever look at it from the perspective of ‘this passenger is paying us $1000, compared to coach class passengers who pay us $200, to fly on the same plane at the same time, to breathe the same air, and all so as to have a better flight experience and a bigger seat’? Is saving a penny or two on a product they are charging a $500+ premium for, really a good idea?
Northwest had a similar cost-saving inspiration and started slicing its limes into sixteenths rather than tenths, and claimed that was saving them $500,000 a year. (See here for a discussion on both points.)
This is a bit like the largely apocryphal story of cooking the frog, isn’t it. You drop the frog into a pot of water, then start heating it, and by the time the frog notices it is getting hot, it is too late. It is unlikely any of us notice the loss of an olive (or a leaf of lettuce, another famous example of airline cost cutting), and probably the difference between a small slice of lime and an even smaller one goes largely unnoticed too. But sooner or later, we suddenly realize with a start ‘it used to be better than it is’, and the only way the airlines can continue to justify the premiums they charge for first class is, alas, by reducing the value/quality of the coach class experience. Which makes it a double lose-lose for us.
With that as lengthy preamble, United’s latest brainwave is to print their inflight magazine on thinner paper. This will reduce the weight on each flight by about 11 lbs. So, a 737 that weighs about 175,000 lbs at take-off has its weight reduced by 11lbs, which is about one 20,000th of its total weight. That is less than a rounding error in most calculations. It is little more than one extra gallon of water in its tanks, or I’m not quite sure how many olives or lime slices.
But this weight saving, United says, will save them 170,000 gallons of fuel a year, which comes to $290,000 (yes, it seems United pays only $1.71/gallon for jet fuel). Details here.
No-one can deny the substantive nature of a quarter million dollars. But, to put that into perspective, how much are they saving per flight? Not quite 18 cents.
That is actually a terrifying thought. If United can trim 18c off every flight, they add $290,000 a year to their profit. No wonder they’re so motivated to slice every possible courtesy and amenity and comfort out of the equation. Which leads to the next article.
American’s New Bathrooms – the Same Width as a Business Class Seat
Now that we understand how much airlines can save by trimming every possible penny out of the passenger/flight experience, is it any surprise to observe the phenomenon of the shrinking bathrooms on planes.
Never spacious to start with, of course, American’s new 737s feature bathrooms that are 24.5″ wide. How wide is that? Well, it is 10″ narrower – almost one-third narrower – than their earlier bathrooms. On some of their 777s, their business class seats are up to 26″ wide (and their first class seats are 30″ wide). Passengers have reported that the bathrooms are so miniaturized they can only wash one of their hands at a time in the sink.
But, hey. The space saved by miniaturizing the bathrooms has helped AA to add two more rows – 12 more seats – to the planes.
Here’s a fascinating article that includes a video illustrating the size of the bathroom.
Airlines Say They’re Removing Seatback Video Screens Because We Don’t Want Them
Now we know how much airlines value weight and space. So is it a shock to learn that airlines hate seatback video systems, and for three reasons.
First, they add extra weight. Much much much more extra weight than shaving an ounce per seat off the inflight magazine. Probably a pound or two per seat.
Second, video screen equipped seatbacks are thicker, which might cause an airline to lose the ability to have an extra row of seats on the plane (and on a wide body, that might be ten lost seats).
And third, they cost money. Everything on a plane is stupid-expensive, and the seat back video systems are no exception.
So there is a slow by certain move by airlines – American and United in particular – to remove these. But do they admit they do this to save money and space and weight? No, they tell us, because they think we’re stupid, that they are doing this because it is what we want. We’d prefer to watch video on our own devices rather than on theirs. Or so they say.
The idea is that we should log into their Wi-Fi powered inflight entertainment system on our tablet or phone or laptop, and watch programming on that screen rather than on their screen.
Is that what you really want? As poor as the airline systems sometimes are, they are usually better than a phone screen, and for those of us in the back of the plane, trying to deploy a laptop ranges from awkward to impossible. As for our tablets, that is okay (if we have one) but how do we charge them when they run flat halfway through the flight? The USB charging port on the seatback, alongside the screen that is there at present, will probably disappear when the screen does. And even if it is located elsewhere, as it sometimes is, invariably it doesn’t provide enough power to charge a tablet.
The 110V power plug between seats is usually present on the basis of two per group of three, which provides another opportunity for arguments with the passenger next to us.
And whereas we can continue to watch a movie while eating at present, how are we going to do that when the tray table is filled with an airline food tray? Where do we put our tablet?
Plus, have you ever tried an airline’s inflight system on your tablet? You’ve got to learn a whole new interface, sometimes download another app, potentially compromise the security of your device, and probably create a nuisance new login identity too.
But the airlines tell us they are removing their video screens because we don’t want them. Details here.
The Special Airline Where Cost is No Object
And now, after this trifecta of parsimonious misery, some heartwarming news of an airline that spares no expense to cosset its passengers in unadulterated luxury. So much so that after discovering the refrigeration for cooling passenger meals was becoming unreliable on two of its planes, and even though the planes would only have about five years of remaining life after replacing the cooling systems before being retired (and probably scrapped), they have decided to spend $23.7 million dollars to replace the fridges.
There’s only one airline in the world with a budget such as that, surely. The US Air Force, with the two old planes in question being the two 747-200s that serve as Air Force One.
Okay, so we understand that the Air Force pays $640 for plastic toilet seats, and we understand that other items variously for the Air Force, Navy or Army include a $37 screw, a $387 flat washer, and a ‘plain round nut’ for $2,043; to say nothing of $7,622 coffee makers and $74,165 ladders (see this page for plenty of examples), but how do you spend $23.7 million on some refrigeration system repairs?
There’s more to the strangeness of this. We’re told that it is a big fridge, because it has to store up to 3,000 meals in case of a national emergency when the plane has to be airborne for an extended period. We’re not going to ask why the senior leadership can’t eat MREs, but think about those 3,000 chilled meals. Let’s say that is two per person per day. It is not clear how many people would be likely to be on AF1 in a national emergency, but it seems the plane can cater for up to 100 people per meal.
Let’s say that the VIP personnel on AF1 in such times would be the President, half the joint chiefs of staff (ie 3 or 4 people), maybe ten members of cabinet and senior political leaders, and 20 support staff. Yes, there’ll also be flight crew, secret service, and other lower ranks, but perhaps they can be given the MREs. (The other half of the national leadership would be sent elsewhere so a single event didn’t remove the entire national leadership). Let’s say 50 people who get the VIP meals.
So 3,000 meals is enough to feed these 50 people for a full month, and perhaps that is even the logic behind carrying 3,000 meals, although would you like to eat a chilled meal that has been in a cooler for 30 days?
Sure, you say, the plane will run out of fuel long before then, but don’t forget the plane has air to air refueling. However, what about regular maintenance requirements? Aircraft go through maintenance events known as “A”, “B” and so on checks. The simplest “A” check usually occurs every 300 – 600 hours of flying time, and the massive “C” checks every 3,600 – 6,000 hours. There’s nothing inherently dangerous in extending the time between checks on an occasional basis (a bit like extending the time for scheduled servicings of your car) but is a plan for 30 days minimum of continual flight realistic? Have there been check flights to confirm this?
And what happens if the AF1 plane is nearing the end of a maintenance cycle when it is then deployed in an emergency?
My point, over and above wondering about the extraordinary cost of changing over the freon and dusting the compressor or whatever it is they do to the refrigeration units, is whether or not they really need 30 days aloft, and if they do, do they need to keep 3,000 meals fresh? How about some cans of spam and beans stored at room temperature, too?
The Low Cost of Bribing an Airport Security Officer
One of the mission-creep aspects of the TSA and airport security in general is that their baggage and passenger screening will sometimes detect non-terror and non-flight-safety type violations. For example, ‘anxious looking passengers’ have been detained by TSA agents only to discover that the reason for their anxiety was due to an outstanding arrest warrant or something like that, and of course (?) in such cases the TSA then ‘co-operates’ with local law enforcement. (I’ve no idea what happens when the TSA detects illegal aliens, I suspect they have a blanket ‘get out of jail free’ card such as regular US citizens can never hope for.)
Another classic scenario where the TSA stumbles across something unrelated to its mission is when it finds drugs or ‘suspicious amounts of money’ in passenger luggage.
So what does an astute drug smuggler do when wishing to ship 20 lbs of crystal meth (street value probably over $500,000) in their carry-on when flying from SFO to HNL? Easy. Bribe an airport security officer and make sure they go through their accomplice’s screening lane.
This last part – being sure to be in the right security lane, at the right time, when the right person is on duty – actually seems very difficult to arrange, and one suspects perhaps the workaround is to bribe multiple members of the same shift.
But the bribing part, that’s alas apparently quite easy. As this article tells, as little as $250 was enough to get a security officer at SFO to look the other way, and of course, as part of their ‘looking the other way’ they had no idea whether it was drugs or an airplane destroying bomb or anything else they were waving on through.
Note that San Francisco Airport has a private security company doing their screening, not the TSA.
The Complexities of Bribing a Reviewer
One of the open secrets in the travel and technology industries is that suppliers will generously give reviewers freebies in return for positive reviews.
If you don’t think that is true, ask yourself when did you last read a scathing review of anything in any travel or technology publication? When has any buyer’s guide or roundup of printers or screens or anything at all shown any products scoring less than three out of five stars, with most scoring 3.5 – 4.5 out of 5? How is it reviewers never have the same problems installing and understanding how to use equipment that we do? Are we just stupid, or is there some other reason?
This has actually improved a bit over the last decade, after a rise of alternate publications (even, in some small way, The Travel Insider) that have delighted in providing detailed reviews rather than just recycling supplier press releases, and more evenhandedly pointing out limitations and problems.
(Just for the sake of completeness, yes, some publications proudly boast they pay full price for their review equipment, or return it after evaluation, and that’s probably true. But they may also have advertising relationships with the companies who make the products they review, and that’s another pressure point that may encourage positive reviews.)
At the same time, there has also been a rise of a more shameless type of ‘hired gun’ reviewer – those who threaten negative reviews if they don’t receive freebies, and now that anyone can become a self-appointed reviewer, this has changed from holding service providers accountable (a good thing) to making them vulnerable to threats (a bad thing).
The fundamental quid pro quo however remains in place, and there are sophisticated unofficial networks that connects malleable reviewers with generous product providers. So it was totally unsurprising when a vlogger (vloggers are generally vapid but physically attractive 20-something-year-old nobodies who generate astonishingly large followings of similarly empty-headed nobodies who like to watch their rubbish video clips via Youtube or Instagram or Snapchat, etc) of unknown provenance approached a hotel, also of unknown provenance, and offered to write a positive review in return for free accommodation.
Astonishingly, the hotel owner didn’t just say no, but went public with his strange outrage at being approached. That was uncalled for; it seems to have been a totally normal approach such as surely he gets several times every week from other sources.
But, as Mark Twain once said, never pick a fight with a person who buys printer’s ink by the gallon (or whatever the modern-day equivalent of printer’s ink is), and now the vlogger and the hotelier are engaged in a very public argument over a non-event.
It is the Best Restaurant in London – But it Doesn’t Exist
In the previous piece, I touched on how we are all potentially reviewers now, able to publish our reviews on Google Local or Yelp or TripAdvisor, or any of dozens of other review type sites.
All the various review sites have occasionally suffered controversy. Yelp for a while was notorious for pressuring companies to buy advertising packages and offering to boost their review ratings if they did so (which, mind you, is a time-honored tradition that the BBB has been indulging in for decades – the only way to go from a neutral to a positive review on the BBB website is to be a member of the BBB). TripAdvisor, because it is the most widely known, lurches from embarrassment to scandal and back to embarrassment again.
A techie type in London with too much time on his hands decided to have some fun with TripAdvisor, and so created a fictitious restaurant and gave it a TripAdvisor profile. He then proceeded to game the TripAdvisor reviews, and presumably got all his friends to join in a slow but steady process of posting glowing positive reviews of his fake restaurant.
TripAdvisor lists over 18,000 restaurants in London. The fake restaurant of course started at the bottom, but then, month by month, started to climb the rankings. It got into the top half, the top thousand, even the top hundred, and then the top ten.
London – a city replete with extraordinary restaurants and holding coveted Michelin stars – would seem a very hard place to push one’s restaurant up the rankings. But the guy continued, and ended up with his non-existent restaurant, yes, gaining the very top listing out of all 18,000+ restaurants in London on TripAdvisor.
This was not without some inconvenience, because, starting from early on, he started getting phone calls on the phone number he’d created for his restaurant profile from people eager to eat at his restaurant, and as it became more prominent, the calls became more frequent and the callers more insistent.
This is a fascinating story, and it is very well told in an amazing video feature on what happened. Well worth watching.
And the bottom line? Those review rankings, on any/all sites? They have a wholly undeserved appearance of being scientific and accurate, but they are neither. Don’t make decisions based only on such reviews.
Apple Stock Projected to Rise – or Maybe Not
On 17 January, Bank of America Merrill Lynch said you should buy more Apple shares, with one of the most bullish forecasts yet for Apple. The other side of the weekend saw Atlantic Equities lowering its rating to neutral, as did Longbow Research.
The next day, JP Morgan said that iPhone X orders from suppliers are being reduced (the phrase ‘by half’ was mentioned), and while it is not unusual for the second quarter of a new phone’s production to be down on the first quarter, it increasingly seems that we might be reaching ‘Peak Apple’.
At least none of the analysts have gone as far as to say sell. Yet.
Other Tech Tidbits
When will it end? By some accounts, we are nearing the end of our ability to miniaturize computer components much further, due to impossible to avoid constraints such as how big/small individual molecules are, but until we hit those hard limits, we continue to see amazing improvements in technology.
Case in point, the highest capacity Micro-SD card (something no bigger than a finger nail or SIM card) has increased again. Last September saw an increase from 256GB cards to 400 GB cards, and now a new 512GB card is due to be released shortly. No news on its price, but 400GB cards cost about $235, 256GB cards are $126, and 200 GB cards are currently the ‘sweet spot’ for large memory capacities, costing a mere $69 (all pricing as per Amazon).
Whether you’re astonished by the low prices, the tiny sizes, or the enormous capacities; every which way, these are just amazing.
You probably sense I love technology. Indeed, I do, but I also clearly see when too much technology becomes counter-productive and interferes with the user-experience. A case in point is headphones.
It used to be you could go as financially wild and crazy as you wished with high-end headphones costing thousands of dollars, and low-end headphones, sounding not really much worse than the high-end units, available for $20 – $40. But, whether the most ultra deluxe or the most throwaway unit, all headphones were essentially universally compatible with all music players. They either had a 1/4″ or a 1/8″ plug, and you just simply plugged them into the socket on the sound source you were planning to listen to.
But technology is threatening to destroy this. Apple and increasingly other phone manufacturers have decided that the public no longer want to be able to plug headphones into their units, so, to give us what they want, they are abandoning their headphone jacks. (Yes, that does sound a bit like the airlines ‘giving us what we want’ by taking out seatback video players, doesn’t it.)
Instead, they are requiring us either to spend more money on an adapter to connect our headphones through the Lightning or mini USB or USB-C connector on the phone, or, even worse, to connect via Bluetooth.
The essential problem with Bluetooth (and it has many) is that it was never designed as a high quality audio pathway. Taking a high-end set of headphones and then forcing them through a Bluetooth connection is only slightly better than connecting them via two cans and a piece of string.
So, to solve a gratuitous tech problem (poor Bluetooth audio quality) companies are now coming out with a tech solution, rather than returning to regular headphone jacks. They are coming out with better quality wireless connections, but there is no single standard agreed to, and the once simple and straightforward concept of connecting any set of headphones to any player is being destroyed more and more.
All for our convenience, of course. Details here.
One other item. Don’t you hate it when you jump through a dozen unnecessary steps to simply connect to a free Wi-Fi service somewhere, only to discover, at the end of it all, that the speed of the Wi-Fi connection is dismal and that you’d have ten times faster service just using your phone’s regular wireless data connection.
And, recognizing the unreliability of such free services, if you should find yourself with a choice between two or three different services, which one do you connect to? There’s one place I often go for coffee type meetings that has four – a Starbucks connection, the Mall’s connection, another from a local Library outlet in the mall, and the city-wide free connection too. None of them are reliable, and so these days I usually simply stick to my phone’s data connection.
Android is bringing out a really useful feature in its latest software release that will show you an estimate of the effective speed of the various available Wi-Fi connections – before you connect to them. That’s the best new feature in either Android or iOS upgrades that I’ve seen in years, and another reason to get an Android rather than Apple phone Details here.
And Lastly This Week….
The surprising thing about this list of countries ranked by their global innovation status isn’t so much that the US has slipped to 11th place, but that China is even further behind, in 19th place. The top five countries were first South Korea, then Sweden, Singapore, Germany and Switzerland. There’s something very funny with how those rankings were established.
Here’s yet another but nicely done valedictory piece as the 747 gently disappears from our airports and skies.
Another drunk pilot.
Delta tries to do something to stem the menagerie of beasts and creatures being brought onboard planes under the pretense of being ‘service animals’. Ponies, pigs, turkeys, snakes and spiders are just some of the wildlife that entitlement-empowered people are demanding they be allowed to take on planes with them.
The paperwork certifying an animal as an essential and bona fide service animal can be purchased online for as little as $25, from dozens of companies that have desktop published fancy looking certificates for sale, and airlines have largely done nothing but mutely accept all such creatures without question, even though the negative effect on other passengers can sometimes be appreciable.
Why is it we’re asked not to eat peanuts just in case someone, somewhere on the plane, might be allergic to them, but a person allergic to, say, cats, has no choice but to meekly sit next to a cat should they find themselves so situated? Why is it a person with a snake-phobia has no choice to watch the cold-blooded reptile slithering around immediately next to them for hours at a time?
So Delta has reinforced their paperwork requirements. Probable outcome – appropriate-seeming new paperwork will cost $50 online rather than $25.
We wish Delta luck, but their first steps towards imposing some controls on this situation seem inadequate and insufficient.
Truly lastly this week, this is not a unique occurrence. But it is also, for sure, not a pleasant one. Although it is a great way to lighten a plane (see articles above). And, you know, seriously, if United can make an extra $270,000 profit a year by shaving an ounce off the seatback magazines, how much could it save by requiring all passengers to go to the bathroom and ‘lighten up’ before boarding the plane?
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels