Weekly Roundup, Friday 14 September, 2018

The world’s most underwhelming tourist trap? So says a new report. See last item, below.

Good morning

It has been another busy week here at the Travel Insider Galactic Headquarters.

To my amazement, I found myself actually liking the latest release of new iPhones, so much so that I’m staring at my now four year old iPhone 6+, complete with cracked screen, and wondering if it is getting close to an appropriate time to replace it.  But that’s a two part issue, because while I do believe the new iPhone range (XS, XS Max and XR) are a tangible step forward from the last several years of little-changing phones, the bigger question remains “Why pay up to $1449 (plus tax, etc) for a new iPhone when there are almost-as-good Android phones for one tenth that price”?

I’ll write more on that question next week, but for now, please find after today’s roundup an article describing the important aspects of the new iPhones, and, should you decide to get one, helping you to sort out the maze of now seven different iPhone models and 17 different configurations/prices all being sold by Apple.

We had another couple sign up for the Northern France Christmas Markets “Land Cruise” this December, further reinforcing our lovely group of experienced European travelers.  There’s still room for you, too – and don’t forget its new lower price!  Please do consider coming along on this non-traditional way of exploring and experiencing a delightful and traditional European pre-Christmas celebration.

What else this week?  Keep reading please, and in particular, for the first item, which while following the traditional annual theme is being implemented in a very new form this year.

  • Annual Fundraising Drive
  • Reader Survey Results
  • Naughty Boeing?
  • Nuts on Planes
  • More on Flying Taxis
  • Uber’s Political Correctness
  • Massively One-Upped by a Reader
  • And Lastly This Week….

Annual Fundraising Drive

As most of you know, we increasingly rely on you for our continued existence, and use a public broadcasting type approach, whereby we give you almost everything, entirely for free, each year, while hoping for a small gratuity in return during our once a year fundraising drive.

These last 12 months have seen another flood of content delivered to you – I estimate close on a third of a million words of material, about the same as a hard-covered book every couple of months.  I hope there have been items that have educated and entertained you, and helped give you a better understanding of some of the obscured truths in the travel and technology spheres.  Maybe there have been some tips and advice and items that have saved you money or helped you travel better (my favorite travel pillow, perhaps)?

We’ve been sending out weekly newsletters almost every week since about this time in 2001.  The world has changed a great deal, and so too has the internet and our business model.  There was a time, about ten years back, when we were getting around $6000 every month from advertising on our website.  Five years ago, it was about $600 a month.  And now, it is more like $60.  Yes, we could claw our way back to perhaps $600, but that would entail annoying video ads that play and can’t be stopped, and which randomly restart, pop-up or pop-under pages, and all the other ways advertisers try to ensure their messages can’t be missed, but we don’t want that, and neither, we think, do you.

We could start accepting some of the regular requests we get to run ‘guest articles’ which are nothing other than thinly disguised advertisements for nonsense products that neither you nor we would like.  But again, we don’t want that, and we’re sure you don’t, either.

We could even do it ourselves, filling pages with gushy frothy nonsense about how wonderful assorted overpriced resorts are around the world.  Maybe we could even hire a ‘beautiful young couple’ to travel around, filming video clips on beaches, because that seems to be what so much of the traditional travel type publishing is becoming.  You guessed it – not only are we about as far from being a ‘beautiful young couple’ ourselves, but we very much doubt that would be something you’d welcome any more than we do.

So, here we are, cap in hand, turning to you again, and asking you to please consider responding to help keep the site in operation and to maintain its high standard of editorial independence.

Now for the two slightly interesting elements to this.  First, I’ve completely redone the process for how you can support The Travel Insider.  I think/hope I’ve made it very much more convenient, and have managed to free us all from reliance on Paypal (although it is still an option).  Check it out and see how you like it.

Secondly, I plan to focus a bit more on extra bonus content for people who generously support The Travel Insider.  There are already six ‘Special Reports’ for supporters, and a seventh one will come out in the next week.  I’m going to be freshening up the current reports, and hope to add more to that in a steady release of supporter bonuses during the months that follow.  The new system makes it really easy to do this, ranging from including extra paragraphs in regular articles, to extra items in the weekly newsletter, to complete additional articles and reports.

So, a small re-invention at this end, and I hope it will help encourage you to continue your kind support, or to now become a supporter.

Lastly, two final points.  First, every time the fundraising drive comes along, a bunch of people unsubscribe.  Please don’t feel that if you don’t support, you’re not welcome here.  Most people don’t contribute, and if it isn’t convenient for you, please continue to enjoy the material I send out.  Maybe next year you’ll be in a better position to respond.

Which leads to the related question – how much should you give?  That’s very much like asking how high is up.  I can tell you that last year, the largest amount of money came from people who contributed in three figures, and the largest number of people contributed between $50-$100.  But whether you send in $10 or $10,000, the important thing is that you’re helping, and that’s the greatest thing of all.  Sometimes I’ve had people “apologize” for sending in a modest sum, but, as I rush to tell them, even $10 is very much more than most people send in, and is greatly appreciated.

Our target for this year is 400 supporters.  The sooner we reach it, the sooner we can stop these messages!  May we ask you to be one of them?  Details here.

Oh – a ps to the above.  Behind the scenes, this is quite a complex new system to configure.  If something unexpected occurs, please let me know so I can troubleshoot and correct it.

Reader Survey Results

Last week I asked your opinion as to whether passengers should be subjected to some type of health screening prior to flying.  The response option logic felt clumsy when I designed it, and now that I’m having to analyze the responses, I see some logic bugs in it.

Perhaps the complexity of the options and the hard-to-follow logic also caused some people not to reply, meaning there were not as many responses as normal with other surveys, and with 20 different response options, few felt like they were getting significant levels of response.

However, a couple of clear points did emerge.

The first was that people who advocated doing nothing felt more passionately about that than people who were in favor of some type of screening.  Quite a few of the “Do Nothing” people added comments, including the following (slightly paraphrased to reflect a mix of similar opinions) :

The events this week are more likely mass hysteria than a real illness caused by a traveler

This is part of the normal risks of life

Chaos would surely result

Folk who may be unwell should be allowed to board but supplied with/required to wear a mask

None of the people responding who supported some type of screening supplemented their response with comments.

The second point was that while no-one suggested a ‘quick medical test’ for flights up to 8 hours, it was mentioned by 24% of people in their responses for flights 8 – 12 hours, and 60% of responses from people addressing what should be done on flights longer than 12 hours.

In total, 34% of people advocated doing nothing, no matter how long the flight.  The most popular type of screening was a combination of a quick self-answered questionnaire and an IR scan.

Another common point of feedback received was what would the cancellation/change penalties/policies be?  Would airlines waive all penalties if a passenger was denied boarding on medical grounds?  Would they allow the passenger priority waitlisting for a future flight?

To conclude, there was a surprising degree of support for some type of screening, although considerable concern as to how it would work and what the impacts and implications may be.

Naughty Boeing?

There’s a small problem with Boeing’s business plan.  Sure, lots of airlines would love to buy its planes, but sadly, not all of them can afford to pay for them.

The best solution to that has been the US Export-Import Bank, which would finance the sale of planes to international airlines.  But after Congress cut off funding, Boeing had to find another solution, with the key part of the problem being, fairly obviously, that most of the airlines that needed financing were poor credit risks.  Sound airlines had access to other forms of credit.  Sure, if financially stable airlines could get credit on favorable terms through the Export-Import Bank or anywhere else, of course they be interested, but they had access to other financing in the alternative.

So a critical part of building a private sector alternate to the Ex-Im Bank was being able to judge the risk of default on the money being loaned.  A company formed by various high-powered financiers and former Ex-Im Bank executives – Xavian – came up with some very useful formulas which included considering factors not normally evaluated by traditional lenders, and which enabled a startling improvement in assessing overall risk.

Boeing was interested in this, of course, and after signing a non-disclosure agreement, was allowed to see ‘under the hood’ of Xavian and how it operated.  But while Boeing seemed very interested in joining forces with Xavian before signing the NDA and getting access to Xavian’s know-how and trade secrets, after it gained that access, it ‘ghosted’ Xavian (to use a modern term) and ceased to move forward with any sort of alliance.

Instead, all of a sudden, it announced its own financing venture, and apparently making use of similar methodology to that developed by Xavian.

Hmmmm.  It is possible Boeing may have profited to the tune of many hundreds of millions of dollars, thus far, from the financing it has arranged without Xavian’s participation, and Xavian are now suing in federal court.

While no-one really has a read on how the case might evolve, and for sure it will take some time to resolve, it seems that time is not on Boeing’s side, because the uncertainty of the outcome, and the potential for triple and punitive damages, is rather raining on Boeing’s parade.

Details here and here.

Nuts on Planes

In this case, we don’t mean aggressive or belligerent passengers, or just confused and unstable ones, either.  We actually do mean nuts; in this case cashews.

You may remember back in December 2014 there was an incident prior to take-off at JFK with a Korean Air flight when a senior airline executive took offense to being served macadamia nuts in a little bag rather than in a bowl.  The executive ended up being given a term of imprisonment – more for the crime of being very rich and influential, one thinks, than for the argument over the nuts.

In a surprisingly similar scenario, Sri Lanka’s President has made the headlines for complaining about cashew nuts served to him on his country’s national airline, Sri Lankan Airlines.  The phrases “not even suitable for dogs” and “not fit for human consumption” were heard to be uttered by him.  Details here.

It seems unlikely he’ll be sent to prison, which is perhaps more than can be said for some of the airline’s employees, due to long-standing allegations of corruption and a long-running commission of enquiry into the airline and its practices.  The airline is 95% government-owned, with the other 5% being held by airline employees.

More on Flying Taxis

We consider personal flying vehicles about as fanciful as new supersonic aircraft.  We expect to see both appear in about the same timeframe, and while we’ll not say what that time-frame is, suffice it to say we think it to be much further into the future than proponents of both are proclaiming.

We also feel they are both afflicted with a similar problem – affordability.  The suggestions of supersonic flights costing somewhere between current Premium Economy and Business Class fares has us totally skeptical.  On the other hand, few people have even thought the issue far enough through as to speculate on what the costs of ownership and operation of a personal flying vehicle might be, but we suspect they will be substantial.

This seems to be unavoidably so, because most of these craft are designed to provide vertical take-off and landing capabilities.  As anyone who has ever priced out a helicopter hire and compared it to a regular plane knows, being able to do that adds enormously to the cost per hour and mile of flight, because it is a less efficient mode of flight, particularly at slower speeds, where there is very little passive lift and almost totally engine-generated lift from the rotor blades.

So it was with a degree of surprise that I read the claims in this article that a company developing yet another new flying taxi/personal aircraft concept claims they are motivated by a desire to save the planet and will come up with an environmentally friendly concept.  Even more astonishing is their claim that they hope to use their vehicles not just for short travel within a city, but for journeys of some hundreds of miles between cities – the sort of journey that trains already do so well and efficiently.

Will these type of airplanes ever be more efficient than trains or regular planes?  Well, loathe as I am to say ‘never’, I think it is time to say so here!

But one thing is for sure.  Claiming to be saving the planet and layering your company’s goals with lots of high-minded but empty statements is a great way to get support for any type of new creation, even if it actually is doing quite the opposite.

Uber’s Political Correctness

In the past, I’ve occasionally complained about muslim taxi-drivers refusing to transport passengers because the passengers had alcohol with them (in sealed containers, not open and being consumed on the journey).  My feeling, more or less supported by the general obligations of common carriers to provide services to everyone and every lawful thing, is that taxis and their drivers are obliged to transport all passengers and their belongings, as long as all laws are being followed.

We know, for sure, that if fundamentalist Christian taxi drivers refused to transport gay couples, there’d be shrieks of outrage echoing all the way to the Supreme Court.  Because of the common carrier concept, whereas cake makers may possibly be able to refuse to bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples, it seems fairly clear that taxi drivers can’t refuse to transport people of any type of sexual orientation.  The muslims refusing to transport passengers with alcohol, while as clear a violation of common carrier principles, has met a more muted and uncertain response, and we all know why that is.

I’m reminded of that by a recent mention of Uber’s pandering to the politically correct ethos that is sweeping aside common sense at present.  They refuse to transport passengers who have firearms with them – no doubt for the convenience and safety of the passengers, of course.

Indeed, you can’t even bring a firing pin by itself – a thin piece of metal rod no more than a couple of inches long and a tenth of an inch in diameter – into an Uber vehicle with you.  The rationale for this prohibition is as puzzling as is how they’d ever know if you had one (or even 100) firing pins in your pocket when getting into the car.

Uber will allow such items in the trunk, only if they’re in a hard sided locked container.  Details here.

I’d suggest switching to Lyft, but their policy is even more draconian, banning not only guns, but vaguely defined weapons of any and every kind and say that it is up to them to decide (without telling us in advance) what may or may not be permitted.  They helpfully add that the ban applies whether or not it is lawful to own and have such devices in the passenger’s possession.

There’s another interesting thing, too.  Both Uber and Lyft refuse to allow people under the age of 18 to travel in their vehicles, unless accompanied by someone older.  I’d been planning on giving my 14 yr old daughter an account with either or both companies, so if things get a bit unpleasant, anywhere at any time, she can quickly call an Uber/Lyft car and be safely brought home again.

Concerned parents should be worried by that; and we should all be worried at how near-monopolistic public-service companies that we increasingly rely on can refuse to allow us the liberties that the general law of the land does.

Massively One-Upped by a Reader

I was talking about being the proud owner of a piece of coal allegedly from the Titanic’s bunkers, as well as a piece of Berlin Wall and a piece of meteorite last week.  This was not to boast, indeed, I reflected on the at-best uncertain provenance of all three items.

But then I received a note from a reader claiming to have an object that rather left my three so far in the distance as to be imperceptible.  He says he has a piece of Mars rock.  This puzzled me – while of all the people who read the Travel Insider, this guy is the most likely to have such things, I was unaware of any spacecraft that had landed on the Martian surface, collected some samples, and flown back to Earth.  But the reader had great ‘provenance’ for his object in terms of where he obtained it from.

I checked, there have been no roundtrips to Mars.  But there are Mars rocks here.  No, not gifts from little green men in flying saucers.  The explanation is almost more astonishing than that.  The first article on this page is particularly helpful in explaining their origin.

And Lastly This Week….

Oktoberfest starts next weekend and runs through 7 October in Munich.  Unfortunately, the killjoys have found something to complain about the last few Oktoberfests and what they fear may happen again this year.  More details, and pictures (which you might wish to see so as to, ahem, form your own opinion) here.

Oktoberfest is certainly very popular with tourists, and happily doesn’t feature on this interesting list of “The World’s Most Underwhelming Tourist Traps“.  How many on the list have you been to (almost all, in my case!)?

And talking about places popular with tourists, it is Japan’s turn now to politely regret that their country is hosting so many tourists, and not all of whom are polite, quiet and well-mannered.  Over-touristing is becoming an international phenomenon.

I’m sure you can think of places you have visited which were formerly only sparsely populated and now which are uncomfortably crowded.  I can even remember when one could go for weeks at a time in New Zealand and not hear an American accent.

As we inexorably transition from a lovely summer to the depressing beauty of fall, there’s one bright ray of hope to seize.  Apparently we’re most mentally alert at this time of year.

Truly lastly this week, while enjoying the 6,350 words of content this week, please do – with all your powers of mental alertness – consider joining this year’s Travel Insider fundraising drive.  Your help is needed and will be greatly appreciated.  Thank you.

Until next week





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