Weekly Roundup, Friday 4 May, 2018

An interesting way to make it easier to take your shoes on and off when going through airport security – see article below.

Good morning

A couple of articles for you this week after tonight’s newsletter, one serious and one not quite so serious.

The serious article was a struggle to write.  For some time now I’ve been trying to make sense of electric vehicle sales.  They are probably the most talked about new automotive technology ever, and they promise a raft of new features and benefits to people owning them.  But they just aren’t selling.  Even California can’t reach 1% battery electric vehicle sales, and the few countries elsewhere in the world with measurable electric vehicle sales have done so only as a result of government incentives.

Add to that another record-breaking quarter by Tesla – but not the sort of record you really want to boast about (the worst quarter ever for free cash flow loss), and puzzling reductions in sales of just about every EV except the Tesla Model 3, and you begin to wonder what’s up.  I don’t promise the answers, but I do raise the questions and cite the facts and figures, below.

A mystery of a different kind is the subject of the second piece.  As you may know, a highlight of our Quad-K Travel Insider Tour in October is to visit a country that doesn’t exist – a feat very few people can equal.  But did you know that what, by many measures, is the best country in the world also has a struggle getting the rest of the world to acknowledge it exists?  What is this country, and why does it have such a problem being recognized?  See below.

Whether it be to visit the country that doesn’t exist, or to enjoy the rest of the places we visit on our Quad-K tour, please do consider coming along.  I think I’m most looking forward to Odessa and – well, really, so much of it is so good.  As I hope you may find out for yourself.

And talking about Travel Insider tours, the other big tour we have for you at present is our Christmas “cruise” through France and adjoining countries in December.  We’ve taken a perennial favorite and made it even better, by removing the ship and replacing it with a lovely hotel, in Lille, France.  We spend a week based in Lille while traveling to places nearby, as varied as Reims (the center of the Champagne region), Dunkirk (think WW2) and Ypres, across the border and into Belgium (think WW1).

A cruise without a ship – that’s even stranger than a country that doesn’t exist!  But both will hopefully prove to be enjoyable.

What else this week?  The usual wide-ranging miscellany of hopefully interesting things :

  • Another Reason to Use a Travel Agent
  • Customs Pre-clearance in Dublin – A Plus or a Minus?
  • Secret Airfares
  • The Continuing Strange Tale of MH 370
  • A Multi-Million Pound Scottish Castle Could be Yours for Only £5
  • International Airport Security About to Become More Bothersome?
  • An Ingenious Way of Removing/Replacing Your Shoes at Airport Security
  • Seeking Citizenship?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Another Reason to Use a Travel Agent

I wrote last week about the difficulty in getting seats preassigned on Aer Lingus flights, causing me to instead book on Norwegian.

Travel agent Jackie from one of the generally excellent Virtuoso travel agencies (Protravel Intl in Beverly Hills) wrote in to gently point out that with some airlines, some travel agencies have negotiated access to seat assignments that are not available to ordinary travelers.  Even better, that access can sometimes be free for the travel agency, which goes a long way towards covering their booking fee.

It used to be that for a while, there was a rush of people away from using travel agencies, excited at the thought of becoming ‘their own travel agent’ and being able to do it all themselves, directly on the internet.  But that rush has stopped and if anything, there now is a steady flow of people back to travel agencies.  You might want to consider it too, especially for international travel, and itineraries with multiple stops, when there are many more variables and extra ways for a skilled travel agent to write a ticket to give you the best flexibility and fare.

Customs Pre-clearance in Dublin – A Plus or a Minus?

Also in the context of my comments about Aer Lingus last week, reader LuAnn wrote to say

Be grateful the Aer Lingus reservations didn’t work out… going through US immigration in Dublin takes HOURS of standing and miles of walking.

They have only THREE U.S. agents, and hundreds of passengers – most of whom did NOT know they had to present both their papers, passport, and their boarding pass.  I had a 2 1/2 hour layover and finished customs/immigration line just as they announced boarding.

Certainly, for American citizens and green card holders, there is almost no benefit to pre-clearance in Dublin (or other out of the country airports).  The little time it takes us to go through Immigration when we return home means we still get to baggage claim well before our bags do, so where’s the benefit of pre-clearing in Dublin rather than in the US, especially if we don’t have to worry about missing the flight, as LuAnn did in Dublin.

For foreign visitors, it might be a different story.

Secret Airfares

At times, one can almost feel sorry for the airlines.  They have created a nightmarish marketplace, albeit entirely of their own volition and design.  Airfares and air travel has become almost an indistinguishable commodity item, where the only remaining points of differentiation are the fare you pay and the schedule timings.

The last two points of differentiation between airlines have been largely debased – the ‘added value’ comforts and courtesies and inclusions, and the value of frequent flier miles.  But these days, there is almost nothing included for free, and frequent flier miles have gone down and down in value to the point where, for most travelers, it is best to ignore them entirely and just choose the lowest fare.

The next part of the airlines’ nightmare is that this pricing strategy is difficult, because anything one airline does, another can quickly match.  I remember the good old days when airlines would release special fare promotions on Fridays, too late in the day for other airlines to respond, and thereby winning themselves a weekend of pricing advantage.  Now the monitoring computers never sleep, and are ever-vigilantly scouring each other’s websites for any indication of any new fares.

So, here is the airlines’ problem.  How to use price based promotions to sell more tickets, and to get that information out to potential passengers, without having any other airlines know what they are doing?

This was the role that Priceline and other “opaque” pricing sites initially adopted, but they fell out of favor with the airlines and don’t seem to be as extensively available as they once promised to become.  Perhaps their weakness was that even if Airline A didn’t know if it was Airline B, C or D that was discounting fares on a specific route, they did know that one of their very few competitors was indeed discounting, and so Airline A could quickly move to respond.

However, a new approach is being trialed by a Canadian company and half a dozen participating international airlines, with the promise of many more carriers joining the program too.  The Canadian company, Hopper, already has a great mobile-based app for finding and monitoring airfares – I use it myself sometimes, and now have come up with a way of opaquely offering low-priced fares in a manner that is currently hard for other airlines to monitor, short of having real people playing on their phones using the Hopper app to monitor city pairs – a huge undertaking because Hopper’s first release of this service involves 60,000 different city pairs.

You should check it out and add the app to your phone.  The app is free.  Details here.

As a comment on this, we know of mobile phone emulators that enable computers to act like a person using a mobile phone, so we’re not sure how sustainable, or for how long, the Hopper concept may allow airlines to do this, but for now, anything that gets a discounted fare into our hands has to be a good thing.

The Continuing Strange Tale of MH 370

Talking about secrets, you probably remember the mysterious disappearance of the 777 being operated as MH 370, now just over four years ago.  The flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing stopped communicating 38 minutes after departing KUL, radar traces intermittently picked it up flying a roundabout route more or less back the way it came, and then a clever analysis of its satellite comms auto-responses enabled a path to be plotted down into the South Indian Ocean.  Guesses as to how far the plane could fly before running out of fuel, and the eventual silence of the satellite comms unit, resulted in a targeted area where the plane probably eventually crashed into the sea.  Occasionally since that time, pieces of airplane, purporting to be from the missing 777, have washed up on beaches, thousands of miles away, and using guesses for ocean currents, their discoveries are consistent, in very broad terms, with the plane crashing in the area separately calculated.

On the other hand, there have been many conspiracy theories suggesting all sorts of other very fanciful outcomes of the flight, and reasons for why whatever happened did happen.  But a problem with all the theories is the lack of hard evidence, and in particular, a lack of the hardest evidence of all – the crashed plane.

The calculated crash region is an area of deep and stormy water. An Australian coordinated effort searched wide swathes of ocean floor and found nothing, and eventually the search was called off early last year.

Then a private company contracted with the Malaysian government to restart the search, and has been doing so since 22 January.  The curious thing about this is the private company will only be paid if it finds the plane – well, that’s not too curious, perhaps.  But what does seem strange, and hardly a motivation to quickly find the plane on day one, is that the amount it would be paid increases, the more area it searches before finding the plane.

So it is perhaps not a surprise, for any reason, that the company didn’t quickly find the plane, despite their public posturing that they were sure they would, indeed, experts claimed there was an 85% chance the plane would be found in the first priority area to be searched.  The ‘experts’ were wrong.  Now, the company is running out of area to search, having exhausted the priority area and quickly moving through three areas of lesser likelihood, and it seems the search will be called off again.

It is very surprising that a plane was able to totally vanish from every form of monitoring and detection, and even more surprising that its crash into the sea and subsequent tumble to the ocean floor was not detected.  Submarine sonars are so sensitive these days that their operators boast about hearing whales fart thousands of miles away.  Whale sounds, apparently yes.  But planes crashing, apparently no.  (Part of the reason for this is that these days sonar operators don’t do like in the WW2 submarine movies and listen with headphones to the ‘sounds of the sea’.  Instead, the sounds are digitally filtered, and any sound that the computer deems unlikely to be significant (ie not an enemy sub/ship/plane/helo or weapon) is discarded, and only the significant sounds are reported on.)

Many of us believe it is almost certain that at least one of the major military powers must have tracked at least some of the plane’s progress, but is choosing not to share that information because it doesn’t want to reveal its abilities to do so.  And some people ascribe this silence as proof of some sort of arcane conspiracy.

Details here.

A Multi-Million Pound Scottish Castle Could be Yours for Only £5

There can be few things more deceptive than old Scottish castles.  They occasionally appear for sale, and sometimes at remarkably low prices, and it is easy to start dreaming about what you could do with one.  Often, the reason for the low price is that you’re buying a nightmarish assortment of deferred and desperately needed maintenance issues – a new roof, new plumbing, new wiring, and new just about everything else, too.  Even worse are situations when the castle has some degree of historic protection status, thereby limiting how you can repair and restore the structure, requiring you to do so in genuine ways that accurately reflect the construction methods at the time the castle was constructed.  So no plastic/vinyl/aluminium window joinery for you, just plenty more drafts and problems.

But here’s a 45 room castle set on five acres of lovely grounds with a gorgeous view, that is relatively modern to start with, and in which the present owner has spent over £500,000 in recent repairs and renovations.  The roof is in good order, and the inside looks lovely.  But the owner has struggled to sell it, and so is turning to a way of selling “special” properties that is sometimes used in Britain.  She is offering it as first prize in a raffle, and you can buy tickets in the raffle for £5 each.

The drawing is in less than two weeks, so you don’t have to wait forever to see if you’ve become a Scottish Laird or not.

Participating is a bit complicated if you’re not in Britain, but works to your advantage.  The seller is also an author, and if you simply buy, on Amazon, a copy of her book (Deadlanders, costing $9.99 for a Kindle edition) she will give you two entries in the raffle.  So you get a book and two entries in the raffle for $10, instead of two entries by themselves for £10.  Quite a deal indeed.

If by some chance you have second thoughts after winning, you could either (a) give the castle to me, or (b) accept a cash prize instead of the castle.

Here are the full details of the castle and the raffle/lottery process.  To skirt the anti-gambling regulations in Britain, it is presented as a game of skill, and you have to answer a question on your entry.  May I hint that the answer is an integer somewhere between 6 and 8.

International Airport Security About to Become More Bothersome?

It is interesting how we view security differently to how we view travel insurance.  I’ve never had a person complain about not getting value from a travel insurance policy, but we all regularly lambast security as being either unnecessary or ineffective.  At the same time, when was the last time terrorists succeeded in taking over or remotely crashing a plane?  However, does this mean security is unnecessary?  Or that it is actually astonishingly effective?

So when one learns of moves to strengthen security still further, it is sometimes hard to second guess them.  But, that doesn’t mean to say we have to enjoy security procedures, any more than we do dental procedures.  And we do know that invariably additional security, sometimes also transparently ineffective, also equates to more inconvenience.

The reason for these comments is news that the US is asking that international airports, from which flights inbound to the US depart from, to strengthen their security screening and pay more attention to individually screening electronic items.  There’s surely no better way to smuggle a bomb onto a plane these days than disguised as electronic equipment and the batteries within such things, so one understands the concern.

According to the article, there are 280 airports in 105 countries affected by this new ‘request’.  I guess that isn’t only the airport from which nonstop flights depart from, but also feeder airports with flights going to the main airports and on to the US.

Just in time for this year’s summer busy season.  Great sense of timing, guys.

An Ingenious Way of Removing/Replacing Your Shoes at Airport Security

Talking about going through airport security, don’t you hate having to remove your shoes as part of the process.  The hassle of untying laces, then of loosening them, getting your feet back in and tying the laces again afterwards is another pinprick of nuisance.

I’ve taken to wearing slip-off/on shoes whenever possible.  But there’s another solution as well, which is hinted at in the illustration at the top of this week’s newsletter.  Shoes that have a zipper running around the side of the upper.  Great for children, of course, and equally good for adults, too.

The guy who developed these has a special and inspiring life story, as well as this convenient approach to shoes and security.  Billy Footwear.

Seeking Citizenship?

Did you know that many countries have a quiet provision in their immigration legislation that allows people to effectively buy instant citizenship.  Sure, some of the countries that allow this aren’t exactly the types of countries you might wish to live in, but that is often beside the point.

Once you have a second citizenship, you don’t need to live in the other country, but you can use its passport for travel purposes, its company and banking and tax laws for personal advantage, and you have the comfort of knowing you can always move there at short notice if things change in your home country.

The US has this provision, the EB-5 visa being the best known but not only manifestation of it, although President Trump is trying to dismantle that visa.  Many other countries do as well, and here’s a fascinating article that tabulates some of the requirements to buy either permanent residency or citizenship.

Note that citizenship is very much better than permanent residency.  Unlike what the phrase implies, maintaining permanent residency usually requires spending a minimum number of days in the country every year, but citizenship does not.  The most desirable second citizenship is probably with any EU country, ideally one within the Schengen zone.  But New Zealand (and Australia) are somewhat popular too, with notables such as Peter Thiel buying NZ citizenship a few years back.

And Lastly This Week….

IMHO, it is never a good idea to combine multiple different functions into a single item or object.  Okay, so a modern-day phone has successfully combined a bunch of different functions, eliminating the need for a separate calculator, organizer, GPS, MP3 player, and video player, but this is a case of simply adding extra electronic functionality to an electronic device.

Adding a battery charger to a suitcase has never made any sense to me, but for a while, it was the latest greatest thing, with a rush of suitcase manufacturers eager to add to the weight (and cost) of their suitcases by adding built-in chargers.  The big question – why – was never clearly answered, particularly because, for most of us, our suitcase doesn’t travel with us.  We check it in when arriving at an airport, and don’t see it again for many hours.

There were many other reasons not to like the concept, too, such as the steadily evolving nature of portable battery charger power supplies being ill-suited to a suitcase with a hopefully long life of many years.  Recognizing this, some luggage manufacturers wised up and instead created a space for a swappable/removable power supply in their suitcase, but no longer built it in as a ‘must have whether you want/need it or not’.

And then the whole ‘exploding battery’ thing caused the FAA to introduce ever more restrictive rules about placing Li-ion batteries in airplane cargo holds.  Expensive suitcases with their silly built-in batteries became a liability, and are now no longer allowed to be checked.

Which meant that one of the original pioneers of this concept – self-styled as “smart luggage” but in my opinion quite the opposite – has now had to file bankruptcy.

What happens when you cross Disney with a Chinese airline….

IMHO, the Qantas planes with aboriginal art on their exteriors set a high water mark for airplane art that has never been matched or exceeded.  Their original “Wunala Dreaming” plane – originally planned to carry the artwork for at most a year or two – ended up permanently covered in the art, and when the plane was retired, Qantas nominated a newer 747 to be painted in the same art to perpetuate its very popular plane art.  Here’s a beautiful set of pictures of it and some of its stablemates.

But this was all about the outside only.  Nothing was different inside the planes.

Unlike, ahem, the Toy Story themed plane depicted just above, operated by China Eastern Airlines, and developed in conjunction with Disney to promote their Shanghai Disneyland (that opened in June 2016).  The picture doesn’t do the plane justice, because the imagery is much more extensive – even the tray tables are covered in vivid imagery.  Children might love it; you and me, perhaps not quite so much.  Details here.

Talking about IMHO, one of the side effects of sending text messages on phone keyboards is the rise of “txt spk” – abbreviations that save on typing.  Teenagers in particular have created an extensive array of such abbreviations, as well as emoticons galore.  IDK, for example, means “I don’t know”, and the famous POS doesn’t mean what a few of you might think, instead it means “careful, my parents are watching me” – ie “Parents Over Shoulder”.

But abbreviations predate texting.  One such abbreviation is IMHO, in use well before texting ever appeared (for example on chat and bulletin boards back in the early/mid 1980s) and it has become so widely known/used as to never be expanded in full or explained.

However, this has created a curious outcome.  People who just guessed what it meant have taken over the expression, and now believe it to mean something different to what it actually does mean.  Can the ignorance of the masses subvert the accuracy of the few?  IMHO, alas, yes.  It is called ‘democracy’.  Or, perhaps ‘mob rules’.

What do you think IMHO stands for?  The answer is here A survey with over 150,000 responses so far shows more people are wrong than right – so does that mean the people who are wrong are actually right?

Truly lastly this week, here’s a sign of the times we live in, and an idea I wish I’d been first to develop.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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