Weekly Roundup, Friday 8 October 2021

Another way to go high up into the earth’s atmosphere. See article, below.


344 Supporters (-20 from last week)Target :  400 Please Join Here


Good afternoon

I’d been debating treating myself to a couple of hours away from the computer today, and going to watch the new James Bond movie.  Alas, that is clearly not going to be the case – technology ruled against that.  A formatting feature on some of my web pages has been working perfectly for a long time, but now that I need to use it again, it is not working any more, not on pages that formerly had it working, and not on new pages.  I discovered that on Thursday and have been at the mercy of technical support gurus who are trying to find out which of the several different programs involved in formatting WordPress pages is misbehaving, and how to correct it.

So apologies for today’s late newsletter.  Hopefully the website will be available, but if it is non-responsive due to support people working on it, don’t worry, give it a few minutes and try again.

Perhaps that’s a suitable segue into noting that 5 October marked the tenth anniversary of the passing of Steve Jobs.  Would he recognize Apple as it is today, ten years later?  What would he think of some of the changes – do you remember, when launching the iPad, he said that its 9.7″ 4:3 aspect ratio screen was the exact perfect size for a tablet.  Anything smaller would be too small, anything larger would be too large.  Now, we have iPads with screen sizes ranging from 7.9″ to 12.9″.  This article wonders if Apple has shifted from being an innovator to now focusing more cautiously on profits.

But the underlying theme of Jobs and the company he created – “My way or the highway” still remains present, even if we now have a few choices in screen sizes for our phones and tablets.  Here’s an article reporting on just one of the insidious ways that Apple seeks to interpose itself between you and the devices you’ve bought from them.

Our annual fundraising drive is underway at present.  As you can see from the status at the top of the newsletter, we actually moved backwards in the last week – an imbalance of a net twenty people who had previously been supporters but not renewed, compared to people who have either joined or renewed.

I know I’m often slow to respond to requests to renew things, even when I have every intention of doing so.  So I can understand how not everyone renews their support, even though they’re still an appreciative reader.  Please, if supporting The Travel Insider is on your list of “things to do”, why not do it right now, rather than delay and risk forgetting.  It truly is a simple and quick process.

For twenty years now, I’ve successfully based The Travel Insider’s “business model” (that sounds like an overly-grandiose phrase!) on the PBS approach – generously give you lots of free stuff, and hope it encourages you to fairly reciprocate, on a voluntary basis, and at any level you feel fairest.  People have told me I’m crazy, and have suggested all sorts of alternate ways of “monetizing” (horrible term) the millions of words of material on the website and the weekly newsletters, but I don’t want to restrict anything at all.  Of course, it costs me almost nothing to have more people reading my material, and while I’m cynical and world-weary in some respects, I still remain starry-eyed and optimistic with the potential for the internet to be a force for good in the world.

But starry-eyed optimism doesn’t pay the bills  It is a very full-time job for me to keep sourcing, researching, and writing articles for you, and overlaid on top of that is the technical administration of the website and newsletter – variously time-consuming and/or costly, too.  I need a modest living wage in return.  In past years, web page advertising and other income has been very helpful, but this year, with most travel advertising still almost non-existent, my costs remain the same as always, but my income sources have dwindled and I am more reliant on your kindness than ever before.

Please do choose to help out and send in some support.  As soon as we reach our 400 person supporter target, we can go silent for another year, please help us to reach that target.  Thank you.

And now for some exciting news.  As you can see from what follows, I’ve decided to re-offer our Christmas Markets cruise for this December – yes, almost exactly two months from today.  Because of the short notice, I must hear from you urgently quickly if you can fit this into your schedule.

It is a lovely itinerary, lovely ship, and with a $500 per person discount off normal brochure price, plus assorted exclusive Travel Insider only extras.  Our Christmas Market cruises are a perennial favorite, and this year, I think we all deserve even more of a special treat than in the past.  Please make a positive decision to come and celebrate together with fellow Travel Insiders the end of what has been an awful year – almost two awful years – and rejoice in a future that is finally starting to clear and offer us some credible hope.

I already sent out yesterday’s Covid diary entry, so won’t send it a second time, but if you missed it, here’s the link to its webpage Sunday’s diary entry can be seen here.

And what else for today?  A few items extra, of course.  Please keep reading for :

  • Air Travel Inches Upwards
  • UK/EU Travel Update
  • Reader Survey Results – Video Content
  • TSA Pre-Check Renewals Dropping in Price
  • New Internet Service Competition
  • A Different Type of “Space Flight”
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Travel Inches Upwards

Wednesday a week ago saw the seven day average of US air passenger numbers at 76.1% of the 2019 level.  This Wednesday, the number is now at 76.7%.  This is very small growth, but, for airlines, any growth is a good thing.

Our guess is there’ll continue to be slow growth, particularly with the dropping new Covid case numbers in the US at present.

As an aside, when talking about passenger numbers (currently averaging about 1.8 million in the US every day) have you ever wondered how many people fly, and how often?  That’s actually a difficult question to answer, but here’s an interesting article that at least explores the topic some.

UK/EU Travel Update

The UK has opened itself up to almost the entire world now – just seven countries remain on their “red list” of dangerous countries.  Interestingly, this seems not so much to be because the world has got safer, but because the UK feels “safer” now or has realized that allowing visitors in is not really the terrible risk it was once thought to be (or simply no longer cares – it continues to have a daily new case rate almost twice that of us in the US).

The EU member countries continue to ignore the EU’s recommendation to restrict travel from the US, and with our numbers trending steadily and delightfully down (Thursday saw, for the first time since 4 August, the average daily new case count drop below 100,000), and with the US about to open itself up to visitors from Europe (and everywhere else) there’s no reason to expect any tightening up by Europe any time soon.

But, about that concept of the US being about to allow Europeans to start visiting again?  We still don’t know when that will take effect.  All we know is “early November”, which of course starts in a mere three weeks.  It was unexpected that when the “we’ll let you come in again” announcement was made, back in September, there was no date given, and it is more surprising with each passing day that a date has still not been announced.

What’s the hold-up?

Winning the prize for the most obvious statement of the week is this article that quotes the UN World Tourism Organisation as saying that reopening borders helps to revive international tourism.  Wow – how unexpected (not).

Reader Survey Results – Video Content

I asked you last week if you would like to see some Travel Insider videos, either instead of, or as well as, the regular written content.  The problem with the survey is that the audience I was surveying – you – are clearly people who have already demonstrated an affinity to long-form written content.

Nonetheless, I was slightly surprised to see how strong the lack of interest in video proved to be.

My own reply would be the same as most other people’s, too.  I massively prefer reading.  And, as the “content originator”, I also massively prefer writing.

As I said last week, each minute of finished produced video can easily represent – for someone like me – an hour of production time, so a 12 – 15 minute video represents the better part of a two day project, and could easily grow to a third day if I was to add fancy flashy effects.  Video shooting also is much easier if a second person is helping.  As contrast, I could write an article (without a second person’s help) that covered the same material in half a day to a full day, and that would be a polished well presented article that is easier to be proud of.  So video massively increases my workload.  I’m glad there’s not a strident call for video from you!

But, here’s the challenge I find myself struggling with.  The interest in long-form content (such as I create) seems to be dropping.  In the early years of my newsletter, I was adding hundreds of new subscribers every week.  They were coming from everywhere.  But the rate of growth slowed, stopped, and for the last decade or more, each week now sees more people leaving than arriving.

I either need new ways to find new readers, or new ways to reach new audiences.  Hence my exploring the concept of video.

Bottom line – things will remain much the same as they always have been for you.  But I will experiment with video content “in my spare time”.  Thank you for confirming that, while video might help me find new readers, it isn’t something you’re eagerly asking for at present.

TSA Pre-Check Renewals Dropping in Price

If you travel domestically more than once or twice a year, you should sign up for TSA’s PreCheck “fast track” service.  It is $85 to join and includes the first five years of membership.  If you renew, online, future five year extensions have just dropped in price – they are now $70 – ie $14 per year (instead of $85 as before).  The better treatment and shorter lines at airport security makes it easy to justify joining PreCheck.

If you travel internationally as well as domestically, you should consider Global Entry (or Nexus or Sentri) membership.  Global Entry fast-tracks you through US Immigration and Customs and also includes PreCheck membership, but costs $100 for the first five years, with no reduction for renewals.  You don’t need to make many international trips to make the $15 extra cost of Global Entry money well spent.

New Internet Service Competition

We love the expanding Starlink satellite based internet service (see our three part article series about Starlink, starting here).  Sadly though, it won’t and can’t be available in the cities, where all too often, people find themselves with only one or – if they’re lucky – two potential providers of internet connectivity – typically being the cable company and the phone company.

But, as mentioned earlier in the year, we’re starting to see a new type of internet service being offered – wireless, using spare capacity on the new 5G cellular towers, which have the potential to provide high-speed internet service, similar to what you’d get from a wired connection.

This too is unlikely to be commonly available in larger cities and their high-density downtown areas, because there’s not likely to be a great deal of spare capacity on the towers in such areas.  But it provides a great middle-ground between Starlink, best in low-density areas where even cellular wireless companies struggle to justify the cost of adding more towers, and the “wired” cable, fiber or DSL type services offered in city centers.

T-Mobile, one of the early movers into this field, have announced a reduction in the monthly fee for their service, down from $60 to $50.  That’s for unlimited data, and an expected speed of 100 Mbps or more (but not always consistently achieved – it depends on total traffic going through each cell tower).  Starlink’s service is $100/month, and with 100+ Mbps speeds.

If you’re in an area where it is offered, and if you can be sure to get a decent signal and speed, and if you’re unhappy with your present provider/speed/service, perhaps it is worth looking into.  Note that Verizon and AT&T are developing similar products, too.

A Different Type of “Space Flight”

These are exciting times for people who, until now, have never dared to even dream they could experience a space flight.  Of course, it remains a very debatable point as to if a ten minute flight in a modified aeroplane, up to about 50 miles above the earth, is actually a space flight or not, but, whatever it is, it surely is a lot different to what you experience in a typical 737 flight.

And, equally for sure, the ticket price is a lot more than a regular flight – Virgin Galactic recently almost doubled the cost of a ride in their plane to $450,000.  The better, higher, longer, Blue Origin rocket rides are expected to be about a half the VG price, and would seem to offer a better experience as well as a better price.

There is another alternative evolving as well.  Instead of strapping yourself to a rocket and hoping it doesn’t explode either on the way up or down, how about a much more sedate high-altitude balloon ride?

A new company projects starting to offer these experiences, for $50,000, hopefully starting in 2024.  You’ll only go 18 miles high (100,000 ft), but you’ll get as much as a twelve hour total experience.  It would take about two hours to ascend up to 100,000 ft, then after nine hours up there, one more hour is planned for the descent.  Both the ascent and descent is promised to be smooth and gentle, with no strong g-forces to contend with.

There’s no way that 100,000 ft can be considered space, and you’re not leaving earth’s gravity behind (you don’t on the other two products either, it is only when you are in “free fall” that gravity is neutralized by the falling craft).  But it is about three times the height of a normal flight (35,000 ft, plus or minus 5,000 ft), and as I vividly remember from flying on Concorde at 55,000 – 60,000 ft, by the time you get to a Concorde type altitude, you can see the curvature of the earth below, and if you look up, you see the black of space because there’s very little atmosphere remaining.

The longer experience is definitely a plus, although I can’t help wondering if nine hours at altitude isn’t starting to get a bit much.  That is way more than enough time to savor what you’re doing and seeing, especially if the view below is only slowly changing (if at all).

Eight people plus two crew members would be in the capsule.  The company talks about doing sight-seeing while the balloon is up high, and have mentioned operating over the Egyptian pyramids and other places, but that strikes me as extremely unlikely.  How much of the pyramids would you see from 18 miles up?  Tiny little specks, probably.  And – oh yes – that assumes no cloud cover.  On average, about 67% of the planet is typically covered by clouds, and as you know from looking out of regular airplane windows, often you can go for an entire lengthy flight seeing nothing other than the tops of clouds.

I also wonder where the balloon would land.  It is relatively easy, in a regular balloon, and with a 30 – 60 minute flight, to have a moderate degree of control about where the balloon will land.  But, up to twelve hours, including potentially going through high-speed jet-stream winds as part of the ascent and descent?  Who only knows where the balloon might end up!  It seems the passenger capsule might have some simple steering capabilities on the descent with an aerofoil type steerable parachute – let’s hope that proves sufficient.  Note the company’s website gives conflicting data – on this page it shows a 12 hour flight, but the narrative talks about 3 – 5 hours at altitude plus three hours for ascent and descent, so who knows how long it would actually be!  But the company is quick to reassure potential passengers that a toilet is on board, and because it never goes into zero-g, it should work “normally” and reliably.

On a related “lighter than air” note, here’s an article about airships in general.

And, how could I end this other than by mentioning that next Tuesday sees “Captain Kirk” (William Shatner) scheduled to fly up into space on the second Blue Origin launch.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s a statement that few people would disagree with  (my emphasis)

When [the movie] The Cannonball Run was released in June 1981, few foresaw the enormous success it would have and its importance in the history of American culture.

The statement is offered as explanation/justification for how one of the featured cars in the movie, a Lamborghini Countach, has now been added to the National Historic Vehicle Register of the Library of Congress.  The car itself has been placed in a glass box on the National Mall.  Here’s the movie’s opening sequence, featuring the car.

Something’s up with Lufthansa’s flight attendants…..

Lastly, I’m sure I’m not the only one who observes the irony in Elon Musk’s latest actions.  He has decided to move his Tesla headquarters from Palo Alto, California to Austin, Texas, in part as a result of disputes with the state of California, and after having already moved there himself.

But, does he not know, that in Texas, the state doesn’t even allow his cars to be sold?  Did he really think through his decision?  Aren’t there more Tesla-friendly states than Texas?

But, if I was as wealthy as him……  which perhaps is my segue to remind you about our annual fundraising drive.  The purpose of the fundraising drive is not, I hasten to add, to give me wealth equivalent to Mr Musk, but merely to allow the site and service to continue for another year, the same as it has for the last twenty.  Please support The Travel Insider as best you feel appropriate.  Thank you.

Until next week, please stay healthy and happy







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