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David Rowell

David Rowell

You can see an extensive mini-bio about me here http://www.thetravelinsider.info/info/about.htm And here's a Google Plus link : Google

Apr 132018
 

Just when you thought Astana couldn’t get any stranger – voila!  Part of its 2017 Expo building complex.  See Astana in all its weird glory as part of our October “Quad K Tour”.  Details below.

Good morning

Have you done your taxes yet?  Or at least filed for an extension.  If the former, I hope you’ve a nice big refund coming your way, and indeed, if you are so fortunate, why not, ummm, “invest” it in forming some rich memories you’ll treasure for years to come.

This week I can now tell you about our latest tour.  Drum roll, please!  But, can I first shout over the sound of the excited drummer to update you on our Christmas Market “Landcruise” through Northern France and Belgium (and potentially elsewhere, too) this December.  We’ve had another person join, and this is shaping up to be a lovely group of people enjoying a lovely and definitely different approach to touring and experiencing part of Europe comfortably, conveniently, and memorably.

Please do choose to become part of our small group and share this pre-Yuletide experience with a select group of your fellow Travel Insiders.  Details here.

And now, our next tour.  I’ve rejigged and totally reworked what had been earlier called the “Triple K” tour of Kiev, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  I’ve made it a bit shorter, have included more things, and now it has become, yes, the “Quad K” tour.  We not only visit another “K” – this time, Kishinev, or as it is more commonly known, Chisinau (in Moldova) and also go to one of the treasures of the former Russian Empire, Odessa; but we also do something that I’ll wager you’ve not done before.

We visit a country that doesn’t exist.

Yes, that’s right.  A country that isn’t there.  Best of all, it isn’t in some terrible war-torn part of the world.  It has peaceful relations and uncontested borders with its neighbors, and the country it broke away from simply pretends it doesn’t exist, referring to it as an “autonomous territorial unit with special legal status”.  Perhaps that could be a helpful model for the people wishing to break away from California?

What is this country?  Does it even have a name?  And what is so wonderful about our glorious Quad-K tour, to be held in October?  Ah, well, glad you asked those questions; the answers to which you’ll see on this and subsequent pages (and also below tonight’s roundup).

There’s one other exciting change to the tour, too.  I’m going to be sharing the limelight with a long-time friend and fellow travel writer, a guy who encouraged me to put pen to paper way back in 2001 and start The Travel Insider.  This is none other than the illustrious Joe Brancatelli of JoeSentMe.com, coming on this tour, too.  As you know, I delight in tweaking the airlines’ tails and pointing out some of their inanities, but Joe does it so much better than I can (he has a lovely piece on the TSA this week).

We’ve traveled together a couple of times before, and while he – like me – tends to be a bit gruff and declamatory in his articles, he (and perhaps like me too?) is charming and approachable in person.  A great guy to tour the four K’s with.  I’m limiting this to a small group; please come and be part of it.

Also this week there’s a piece about an increasingly annoying and utterly unnecessary ‘trick’ on the part of the airlines.  A couple of decades ago, one of the artificial excuses they’d cheerfully use whenever they could to take more money from you was if you’d lost your paper ticket – even though every detail of the paper ticket was staring at them on their computer screen.  They were very slow to shift to e-ticketing, because it meant giving up on all their lost ticket fees.

Now, their latest gratuitous trick, also largely unnecessary and self-imposed, is insisting that your ticket name exactly match, letter for letter, the name on your ID.  Think about it – there you are with your driving license, but your ticket says Rob Smith and your driving license says Robert Smith (or vice versa).  Your driving license has your photo, your age, your height, weight, eye color, and address, and all those data points match with your appearance at the airline checkin counter.  What are the chances of you having an identical twin with an almost identical name, living at the same address?  And, even if you do indeed have such a twin, why should the airlines even care?  But, care they eagerly do, and they care so much that it will cost you dearly to change your name on your ticket.

What else this week?  Please continue on for :

  • Naughty Qantas?  Or Stupid US Regulation?
  • More about Cargo-Deck Beds on Planes
  • The TSA Frantically Scurries in Orlando
  • Hyperloop?  Or Just Hype?
  • Is Homeland Security Now Reading The Travel Insider
  • The (One?) Thing Elon and I Agree Upon
  • And Lastly This Week….

Naughty Qantas?  Or Stupid US Regulation?

Codesharing continues to be a strange thing – a concept promised by airlines to give their passengers seamless service, no matter who the actual airline is that pretends to be the airline promised by the ticket’s two-letter airline code, but there is plenty of ‘fine print’ and messy detail contained within these ‘seamless services’ that have given us all challenges from time to time.  “Sorry, we can’t do that because this isn’t our flight/our ticket”.  “Yes, you could do it if you were actually flying on XYZ airlines, but our computers can’t access theirs so we can’t do this for you”.  And so on, and when you tell them “but you’re in a joint operating agree with XYZ airlines, and you belong to the same airline group, and you’re code-sharing” the staff member just looks at you blankly.

The latest example of a code-share trap threatens to cost Qantas $125,000, in the unlikely event the DoT follows through with its threat of a fine.

The fine relates to a Qantas flight that travels between New York and Los Angeles.  It is the extension of a flight between Los Angeles and Australia, and is actually a clever idea on Qantas’ part.  Normally, the plane would arrive into Los Angeles in the morning, then sit at the airport all day before flying back to Australia in the evening.  Meantime, passengers who wanted to go not just to/from Los Angeles, but to/from New York, would then be flying on other airlines for that part of their total journey.

So Qantas decided, rather than park the plane on the ground for twelve hours or so, why not have it fly on to New York and back to Los Angeles.  This is a very clever way to get better utilization of their plane, and how nice it is to see a Qantas plane at JFK.  Great brand exposure for Qantas.

In 2015, Qantas started flying people to/from New York, and connecting in Los Angeles onto other “Qantas” flights that were actually code-share flights with Air Tahiti Nui (to Tahiti) or American Airlines (to New Zealand).  Sure, the passengers had Qantas tickets, and the flights had pretend Qantas flight numbers as well as assorted other flight numbers too, but the Department of Transportation decided that this was cheating.

The thing is Qantas is only allowed to fly its own passengers between JFK and LAX.  It can’t fly other airline passengers, because that would be “unfairly competing” with American carriers – you know, airlines like, ummm, American Airlines; the very airline that Qantas was bringing passengers from New York to Los Angeles to then fly on with AA to NZ.  (Don’t get me started on why it makes sense for AA to fly to New Zealand but not for Qantas to do so…..).

And so the DoT, while loving code-share concepts when they can be used as thin excuses for airline mergers and competition-killing joint operating agreements, all of a sudden saw the insidious evil of codesharing and the great harm to the American public airlines that Qantas was causing, and with its usual responsiveness, rushed to protect the American public airlines from such perfidy.  We’re sure AA in particular appreciates the DoT’s “help”.

The real lesson in this true story is that it is well past time that we dismantle all these archaic restrictions on what airlines can and can’t do.  The only winners in the present system are the US airlines, while the clear losers are the American flying public.

Why should we be allowed our choice of car, foreign or domestic, and our choice of electronics (now of course almost all exclusively foreign) but not be allowed our choice of airline next time we fly from anywhere in the US to anywhere else in the US?  “Protecting the US airline industry” has seen it collapse down to three major carriers (AA DL UA) plus Southwest, so clearly the present regulatory regime is an abject failure.

More about Cargo-Deck Beds on Planes

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about airlines and airplane manufacturers talking up the concept of placing bunk beds in the under-floor cargo holds on passenger planes.  I expressed doubt this would ever come to pass, suspecting that when the time came to actually outfit planes with bed in the cargo holds, airlines would instead choose to add seating or just continue to carry commercial freight.

But the story is continuing to reverberate, and this week Airbus claims to have partnered with one of the major seat manufacturers to develop bunks for its A330 cargo holds.  It says they’ll be available in a couple of years, and the way the story is written, it seems that passengers will still get regular seats on the passenger deck, but you’ll also be able to reserve a bunk if you want that, too.

Unlike apparently many people, I’ve never liked sleeper seats on planes.  They are invariably too short and too narrow, and I don’t understand why people my size or larger pretend otherwise.  Getting on and off them is awkward, plus they are usually pitched either slightly forward or slightly back – enough to make it feel slightly wrong.  I prefer the older style of first class recliner chairs – tons of space, and a generous amount of recline, like a Lazyboy at home, and who can’t sleep well in one of those!

But possibly custom designed bunks, rather than multi-purpose devices trying to work as both airline seats and miniature airline beds – might work well.  Here’s an article that tells more, but it gives way to utter fantasy when the video at the top of the article starts to show not just cramped crowded high density bunks, but also meeting areas, conference rooms, large open family play rooms, and all sorts of things that will never ever appear.

The reality remains that the best way to make the most money is to stack us into planes like sardines into a can.  As long as that holds true – and why would it ever change – then every square inch of space will always be at a premium and utilized to the max.

The TSA Frantically Scurries in Orlando

I’d written, a month or two back, about how Orlando Airport had decided to take the next step towards replacing the TSA with private contractors.  Prior to then, the TSA had said that any problems at the airport were not its fault, but the airport’s fault.  The TSA said they had insufficient space to process passengers through screening, and their comments sounded fair.

But, guess what.  Now that Orlando Airport has called their bluff, the TSA has now announced that it can and will do better.  They’ve found a way to add three more screening lanes, and they’ve agreed to hire 75 more officers.  They’re also bringing in new better screening equipment, and adding extra dog teams too.

You probably expect that this will happen slowly, if at all.  But the TSA is undertaking to do this within little more than a month.

While this is a good thing, it also reveals an unfortunate truth – the TSA could have done any and all of these things at any earlier time, but only chose to do so when it risked losing Orlando’s “business”.  So, really, it is shameful that the TSA can indeed do all these things, and so quickly, now, when earlier it said it couldn’t and wouldn’t.

One also wonders which airports are now going to be shortchanged with the TSA taking staff and equipment away from other airports and relocating them in Orlando.

Let’s hope other airports are watching – both for delays in any promised enhancements, and also to learn the lesson that if you want to get something from the TSA, you have to threaten to end their contract.

Hyperloop?  Or Just Hype?

When you get Elon Musk and Richard Branson both promoting a product, you need to turn your BS meter onto its highest setting, and sadly that’s the case with hyperloops.  This article, inbetween reporting of board shakeups and directors being arrested, sums up the situation at Virgin Hyperloop One brilliantly when it says

One dose Branson, another dose Musk, and another a hyped transportation concept with dreams of federal funding. Really, this seems like par for the course.

Of course, I shouldn’t really criticize Sir Richard.  It seems the guy can no longer even afford to buy a suit (or maybe his airline lost his bags) – indeed, what a curious photo in this article, showing poor Sir Richard, reduced to jeans and an open necked shirt, and a bunch of Arabs, all in really ill-fitting suits and looking quite uncomfortable.

The event was Sir Richard and others touting hyperloop technology to Saudi Arabia.  The company said that the visit and talks “kick off the next phase that will make [Virgin Hyperloop One] a reality in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.  In other words, nothing at all was decided or agreed upon.

Maybe Sir Richard might make more progress if he shows enough respect to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia as to actually don a suit and tie next time he meets him.  But – give the guy his due.  He did at least respect the abhorrence that Muslims place on seeing attractively dressed women in public and so was present without any of his usual coterie of lovelies.

In other Hyperloop news, Mr Musk has announced that one of the many different companies developing the technology is planning on a new test which will push a hyperloop pod up to half the speed of sound.  That’s pretty impressive, isn’t it.

Well, sort of.  The concept of “the speed of sound” is a fairly malleable concept, unfortunately, in Muskland.  While generally understood to be 741 mph, Mr Musk defines half the speed of sound as being 311 mph, not 370.5 mph.

But let’s not get bogged down in minutiae.  Let’s talk about this exciting test.  For how long, and how far, will the pod will be travelling at that speed?  Oh, probably a tenth of a second, maybe two tenths.  The entire testing track is only 3/4 of a mile long, which at 311 mph would take about 8.5 seconds to travel.  But, and here’s the thing – the pod doesn’t magically suddenly start at that speed, and neither does it instantly stop at the other end.  Ideally, not only does it start at 0 mph but it ends up back at 0 mph before running out of track at the far end.

So by the time it has accelerated up to 311 mph, and leaving distance to slow down again rather than spectacularly crash at the far end, the actual distance traveled at 311 mph will have to be extremely short.  If we assume the hyperloop can accelerate at about the same rate as one of his fast cars – let’s say 1G, ie 22 mph/sec, this means it will take 15 1/2 seconds to get up to 311 mph, and that will require a distance of 3844 ft, which is, ooops, almost the entire length of the track – and it still has to slow down again on the very little track remaining.  (Perhaps this is part of the reason Musk prefers 311 mph to 371 mph – building up speed to 371 mph would require another 700 ft of track, and another 40% energy transfer to get the pod to that greater speed.)

We don’t know what the actual accelerating force will be, but clearly it is going to be a lot, and equally clearly, when traveling at 311 mph and consuming almost 1/10th of a mile of track every second, the pod will urgently have to slam on the brakes and slow down/stop almost as soon as it has reached that speed.

So the actual value of the test?  Publicity-wise, it is great – they’re still boasting about the last test that got a pod to 240 mph.  But scientifically speaking, it is a diversion.

No-one is interested in if a pod can rush up to 311 mph and equally quickly stop again, all within an impossibly short 3/4 of a mile.  People are interested if a pod can sustain 700+ mph for hundreds of miles, and if the tube tolerances can be maintained such that the pod isn’t violently being swung from side to side such as to quickly pulverize anything and everything within it.  They should be extending their test track so they can do more meaningful testing.

Is Homeland Security Now Reading The Travel Insider

I always feel a bit awkward when I’m asked by an airport security or immigration/customs official “What is the nature of your business”?  I usually describe myself as a travel agent, a nice harmless appellation that doesn’t lead to difficult questions such as “What is the name of your newsletter”.

But perhaps they’ll stop asking me that question in the future, because maybe they’ll already know the answer.  This article reports how the Homeland Security Department plans to create a database of “journalists, editors, correspondents, social media influencers, bloggers etc” who report/cover/comment on Homeland Security related events and matters.

Is it too much to hope they’ll choose to join in this year’s annual fundraiser in a few months time?

The (One?) Thing Elon and I Agree Upon

As you know, I look askance at much that Elon Musk asserts, but there’s one thing I wholeheartedly agree on.  The dead-end technology that is hydrogen fuel-cell type vehicles.  They exist only because of government subsidies – California has recently spent $100 million on building fueling stations (it would almost be cheaper to just give every owner of a fuel-cell vehicle a free Tesla – as of 1 April this year, there are only 4428 fuel cell cars sold or leased in the entire state), and whereas battery technology continues to steadily improve, fuel-cell technology has apparently impossible-to-circumvent chemical and physical limits that will always restrict their efficiency and effectiveness.

Greenies love the concept of fuel cells because they stopped thinking after hearing the soundbite “silently uses natural hydrogen and emits only pure water and harmless CO2”.  They never considered “where does the hydrogen come from” or “what does it cost”.

The hydrogen usually comes from oil or natural gas, so it is just an overly complicated way of running a regular fossil-fuel based car, and the energy used to make the hydrogen and transport it could be better used powering battery-electric vehicles, for greater distances, and with less complicated infrastructure.

Plus battery-electric cars have a unique capability that has yet to be properly harnessed.  They can be charged – at home, at work, in car parks – at times when the electrical grid is enjoying light loads, which makes for more efficient use of generating capacity and the electrical grid.  And, wait, there’s more – at times of grid stress, connected electric cars can ‘give back’ some of their stored power, saving utility companies from either having to buy in spot/peak-priced power, and/or needing to build more power stations.

This load-shifting and power-banking ability of electric cars makes it really practical to combine them with wind and solar power generation – power sources that are unpredictable and hard to manage/match with normal power demands and loads.

Already, today, battery-electric cars are a better choice than hydrogen/fuel-cell cars, and with each passing month and the steady flow of battery improvements, that advantage grows bigger and better.

Here’s an article that starts off well, but ends up capitulating to the fuel-cell cheerleaders.

What a stunning movie 2001 was, and it still appears fresh today, although it got Pan Am’s longevity very wrong.  Happy 50th birthday.

And Lastly This Week

So, it was rough at sea, which meant that one of the passengers on the Pacific Dawn cruise ship, apparently with a balcony cabin, leant over the railing to be sick.  But, as I said – it was rough at sea.  So rough that the woman was washed overboard by a freak wave, and lost at sea.  Ooops.  Details here.

If I were to say “Atlanta, Beijing, Dubai, Tokyo and Los Angeles”, what would I be listing?  Yes, the world’s five largest airports, in terms of passenger numbers in 2017.  The list continues on with Chicago, Heathrow, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Charles de Gaulle in places 6 – 10.  DFW and DEN are the only other US airports, appearing in 12th and 20th positions.

Now for the follow-up question.  What US airports aren’t in that list, but which you’d sort have expected to see there?  JFK no longer appears in the top 20 (it was #16 in the list the previous year), and although this article fairly points out that JFK is just one of the New York area’s airports, that is also true of Beijing, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Heathrow, Shanghai, and, oh heck, many of the other cities/airports too that did make it to the top 20 list.

Only one of the top 20 airports had a decline in passengers last year.  Atlanta.  And the most rapidly growing airport in the list was not in China, but in India, with New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport in 16th place this year, and likely to climb another couple of places during 2018.

Talking about air traffic, there’s been some controversy about the US apparently suffering a decline in international visitor arrivals, something some people have rushed to blame on Mr Trump.  It turns out that maybe the reason is more mundane – a miscoding of the source data.  Details here.

Two items looking back into the future.  It is the 50th anniversary of that genre-shattering movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey this month.  I remember the barely contained excitement I felt eagerly awaiting the book’s publication in New Zealand – I think it was the first time I ever purchased an adult hardback book.  Sadly, the movie took quite a lot longer to appear in New Zealand, but when it finally appeared it was well worth the wait.  Here’s a nice tribute.

And, did you know, there have been earlier self-driving vehicles on our streets, many years ago.  They were much more reliable than the current types of automated technology.  What were these, and why don’t we still have them?  Guess first, then answer here.

Truly lastly this week, I think being banned for life was a bit severe for the poor gentleman who got involved in this fracas.  I’m glad that, 17 years later, the hotel relented and has allowed him back again.  I mean to say, it could have happened to anyone.  Couldn’t it?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.  And if staying at the lovely Empress Hotel in Victoria, be careful with your pepperoni.

 

David.

 

 

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Apr 122018
 

Our driving licenses identify us not only by our name but also by our picture, our age, our height, weight, address, possibly even eye color too. Why do airlines pretend that the slightest difference in name invalidates all the other identifiers?

The news over the last few weeks has been all about Facebook – how much it knows about us, how it knows things about us that we’ve not told it, how it finds out things about us that we’ve not agreed for it to uncover, and how it shares that information, for a fee, with advertisers and others.

Like a simmering pot, always about to boil over, there’s been a steady flow of similar stories about Google and the information it keeps about us, including everywhere we go and every search we make.  It even keeps the stuff we delete!  This points to an interesting dualism on Google’s part – it limits the amount of free storage we can get from their services, and that’s fair enough.  But at the same time it is limiting our storage (and hoping to sell us more at a profit) it has no apparent limit to the amount of storage it dedicates to each and every one of us, itself.

Now add to that the credit reporting bureaus, who know all about everything we buy and how much we earn, and other information clearing services who know all our answers to the strange questions we’re often asked when completing warranty forms, and so is it ever any surprise that we sometimes see advertisements on web pages for things that we’ve been going to look for, but haven’t got around to doing so, yet?  Put together the information from these various private sources (all of whom gleefully sell the data any time they can, because that is, after all, why they collect it), and our lives are laid bare, with no surprises nor secrets.

There’s been another thing happening at the same time.  The growing richness of this data means that it is easier and easier for these services to identify us, and to no longer confuse John Smith who lives in the town of Nebraska, Texas with John Smith who lives in the town of Texas, Nebraska.  They know that the first John Smith is an old guy who votes Republican, with three children and seven grandchildren, and an old Buick in the driveway of his rented apartment, whereas the other John Smith is a 20-something-year-old, college graduate, currently in an intense relationship with Suzie Robinson, and driving a Lexus.

These databases no longer require a complex set of identifiers to uniquely differentiate two people with similar names and addresses from each other.  Most of a name, and one or two other generic descriptors, like approximate age, maybe city (but not complete address) and perhaps voter registration is all they need with their ‘big data’ and ‘fuzzy logic’ to come up with a highly reliable match.

But, as we all know, and as we all risk every time we travel, this is not so much the case with Homeland Security, nor the airlines they work with.  We might hope that is because they wish to be 110% certain not to confuse two people with each other, but we know that’s not at all the case. The two John Smiths cited above are always at risk of being denied boarding when they head to the airport because a Jumal Abdullah Smith is on a terrorist watch list and somehow the names got cross-linked.  US Senators are confused with convicted criminals.  And so on.

This is part of the reason, we are told, that airlines require us to have our full complete names, exactly as they are shown on our passports or other identification, on our tickets.  This is to allow the TSA and the dozens of other vague three-letter agencies to match us against their databases and decide if it is safe to let us on board the plane or not.

That sounds fair enough.  But, surely you know by now, that little the airlines say should be taken at face value.

The Inconsistencies in the Airlines’ Pretenses

For example, consider this recent item about a lady who was turned away when she tried to take her flight on Wow Air from Toronto to Iceland – because her ticket didn’t include her middle name.  Okay, big deal, you might think.  A few keystrokes in the computer, change her name, maybe pay a fee, and off she goes.  Nope, not so.  Wow told her they couldn’t allow her on the flight at all.  Instead, she had to buy a new ticket to travel the next day, and – talk about adding insult to injury – pay an additional $23 to change the name on her return flight on the original ticket, too.  The new one-way ticket cost more than the earlier roundtrip ticket did.

Wow said they couldn’t change the names of passengers in the last four hours before a flight departs.  Permit me to call BS on that claim.

We all know how long it takes a computer to look up a name or to do just about any other action.  I’d accept a claim that name changes maybe couldn’t be done in the last four seconds, but four hours?  Why so long?

We also all know that the answer to this question is ‘for security reasons’.  But that is only believable if Wow also refuses to sell tickets to new passengers in the last four hours before departure, and as far as I’m aware, they’ll gleefully accept money from anyone at any time, just so long as you can get to the gate before the door closes.

For that matter, what about waitlisted passengers, or passengers changing their flight from one flight to another one.  There’s not an airline in the world that refuses to clear waitlists and standby passengers within the last four hours prior to a flight departing.

In the case of international travel, the final passenger manifest is necessarily only shared with the country the flight is traveling to after the flight has pushed back, because until then, no-one knows for sure who will be boarding, who will be no-showing and not traveling, and who mightn’t get their standby waitlist cleared at the last minute.

This woman’s experience is far from unusual, indeed the article says that Wow admitted to refusing 11 people off its flight the previous day for the same reason.  They’re clearly making big money from their little game.

The Airlines Make it Difficult to Comply

So here’s a suggestion to Wow.  If you’re going to insist on middle names, how about adding another name field for middle names, instead of just having two name fields and expecting us to know where to show our middle name?  After all, if you’re a stupid computer (or an airline desk agent) there’s a difference between a guy who is called Billy Bob Jones, with ‘Billy Bob’ being his first name and no middle name, and a person who is called Billy Bob Jones, with Bob being his middle name.

Some airlines don’t even require middle names on tickets at all.

This is a problem which the airlines have largely created themselves and which they definitely refuse to solve.  If there truly is a problem, why not add another field into the computer record for entering the identification number of the ID being used.  Your passport number or your driver’s license number or whatever.  Indeed, that is already done any time you fly internationally, your passport number is entered into your flight record.  That is the key identifier that Homeland Security would use to identify you and look you up in their records.  Not your name, but your passport number.

And really, so you show up at the airport with your ticket in the name of Bill Johnson and your driver’s license in the name of William Patrick Johnson.  A single glance at the license is enough to show the counter clerk that you are the same person, because you’re the same general age, the same general appearance, height, weight, and eye color as is shown on your license.  You even live at the same address. Does anyone care that your ticket name and license name are slightly different, when it is clear as day you’re the same person?

History Repeating Itself?

This whole problem, which not uncoincidentally is one the airlines profit from every time they refuse to carry us and demand we buy another ticket costing more than the ticket we already have and now can’t use, is eerily similar to the bad old days before e-ticketing.

Back when airlines knew all about you, your flights, and the paper ticket that you’d paid for and been issued, they would nonetheless obdurately refuse to allow you onto your flight unless you could show them the actual paper ticket that you’d paid for.  If you didn’t have it, if you were lucky, they’d charge you a huge fee to print another one, and if you were unlucky, you’d have to buy a second brand-new ticket at full last-minute fare.  For many years the airlines succeeded in delaying a transition to ticketless travel, while at the same time, reveling in the extra fees they could generate when hapless passengers turned up at airports without their tickets.

Isn’t it time the airlines stop hiding behind invented rules and “security”.  If Google knows everywhere we travel, and Facebook knows everyone we know, why can’t the airlines access that data and stop pretending that Bill Johnson, who looks identical to the driving license he is carrying that refers to William P Johnson, is a different person.

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Apr 112018
 

Odessa’s much photographed Opera House and other stately buildings show its past prominence and prosperity.

Why not add another four days to your 12 day Quad-K experience and add time in another country – Moldova, in its capital of Chisinau, and also visiting Tiraspol which does double duty as Moldova’s largest regional city and also the capital of a country that doesn’t exist!  We then cross into Ukraine and enjoy two nights in beautiful Odessa on the shores of the Black Sea.

Chisinau was called Kishinev in Soviet times, and so we deem that to be the “fourth K” in the Quad K tour – Kishinev, Kiev, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

To enjoy this extension, we recommend you plan to arrive in Chisinau on Sunday 14 October.  If you’re coming from North America, that probably has you leaving on Saturday 13 October and taking an overnight flight.

You could of course arrive earlier, or even a day later if you wished.  At the end of our tour extension, you should then arrange a flight from Odessa to Kiev, on Thursday 18 October.  There are nonstop flights at 7am and 4.55pm, so you can decide which city you’d prefer more time in.  It is an easy quick one hour flight.

Here’s how we will spend our time on this extension.

Pre-tour Option Day 1 – Arrive Chisinau (Sunday 14 October or earlier)

A broad main street in Chisinau flanked by ‘book-end’ apartment blocks.

Welcome to Moldova!  In order to arrive into Chisinau today, you should fly out of the US the previous day, ie, Saturday 13 October.  You’ll probably arrive late morning or early afternoon today.

The rest of your day  is at leisure for you to relax after your flights and enjoy Chisinau as you wish.

Pre-tour Option Day 2 – Chisinau local touring (Monday 15 October)

Grand train station exteriors seem to be a universal element of former Soviet cities.  Here’s the one in Chisinau (or Kishinev as the Russians call the city).

There are over 100 miles of underground wine cellars in the Chisinau region, so huge you can drive a truck through them. They house 2 million bottles of wine.

This morning we’ll enjoy a half day city-sights tour around the Chisinau area.  Moldova, like the other countries we visit, was formerly one of the Republics within the Soviet Union.  It was an independent nation – the Principality of Moldavia for about 500 years prior to being handed over to Russia in 1812, and then changed hands several times between then and its current independence in 1991.  The balance of former Moldavia is now part of Romania, and Moldova’s official language is Romanian, although Russian is also common.

Moldova is now a small independent nation of 3.6 million people, with Chisinau (more properly spelled as Chișinău) as its capital and largest city, having a population of almost 700,000 people. 

Moldova is the least visited country in Europe in terms of tourist numbers, although the LonelyPlanet guide says it is finally being discovered and becoming more popular.  Only 11,000 people visit every year.  Grape growing and wine making is a large part of the country’s economy, and it has the largest cellar in the world, some 135 miles long (not all is currently in use) and holding almost 2 million bottles of wine, with the cellars at an average depth of 200-260 ft.

We’ll visit these cellars as part of our tour around Chisinau today.

Included meals :  Breakfast

Pre-tour Option Day 3 – Travel to Tiraspol then on to Odessa (Tuesday 16 October)

It is only the date on the Soviet-style billboard that tells us this picture in Tiraspol isn’t from 50 years earlier.

The sacred and the profane juxtaposed in Tiraspol.

Statues of Lenin are almost never seen in Russia these days. But here he is, looking like nothing has changed, in front of Tiraspol’s parliament building.

This morning we’ll leave Chisinau and head south-east, first to Tiraspol, about 50 miles and just over an hour away.

Tiraspol is described by Lonely Planet as “one of the strangest places you’ll ever visit”.  Although officially Moldova’s second largest city, with a population of 134,000, it is unofficially also the capital of the largely unrecognized breakaway nation of Transnistria (sometimes also spelled as Transdniestr and it seems the locals call their country Pridnestrovie).  Transnistria coexists in a strange relationship with the rest of Moldova, which describes it as “the Transnistria autonomous territorial unit with special legal status”.

Only three other “places” recognize Transnistria as a nation, and the quotes are because these three places are themselves unrecognized breakaway regions – Abkhazia, Artsakh, and South Ossetia.  Crossing the ‘border’ to enter this region is easy, and fortunately they don’t require visas, because no other countries recognize them.  They will however give us a ‘migration card’ that allows us to stay for up to 10 hours without further formalities, and in our case, that will be more than plenty for a quick look-see.

So this will be a very interesting experience – visiting a country that only exists in its own mind!

Tiraspol itself is a fascinating leftover from Soviet times, sort of stuck in a timewarp and perhaps wishing for a time now long since passed.  Plenty of Soviet style statues and posters, and they remain as the only ‘country’ to still feature a hammer and sickle on their flag.  Definitely an experience to tell your friends about.  Here’s more about this really fascinating city/(non)state.

After experiencing Tiraspol, we continue on and cross the border – a real border, this time – into Ukraine.  Our destination is the lovely coastal city of Odessa, which is just under 70 miles away.  Depending on how long the border takes to cross, this is probably two hours.

We will spend two nights in Odessa.

Included meals :  Breakfast

Pre-tour Option Day 4 – Enjoy Odessa (Wednesday 17 October)

One of Odessa’s many amazing buildings and palaces.

A 115 yr old cable car is a fun way to ride down to Odessa’s Black Sea port.

Odessa is a lovely city with a varied history.

Between 1819 – 1858 its status as a free port saw it boom and grow to become the Russian Empire’s fourth largest city (after Moscow, St Petersburg and Warsaw).  Traces of its earlier grandeur and wealth are everywhere to be found.

These days it is Ukraine’s third largest city, a major transportation hub and seaport, and a popular tourist destination.

We include a half-day city sights tour of Odessa (these days increasingly spelled with only one “s”) this morning to show you the major sights and attractions.

You then have the afternoon free to tour around as you wish.

Included meals :  Breakfast

Pre-tour Option Day 5/Main Tour Day 1 – Travel to Kiev  (Thursday 18 October)

There are two easy one hour nonstop flights connecting Odessa to Kiev.

 

At some time today you should travel from Odessa up to Kiev.  There are two easy and quick one-hour non-stop flights; one leaves at 7am and the other at 4.55pm.  You can arrange whichever you prefer, or travel any other way (the train journey, while pleasant, is indirect and so takes more time than the 300 mile distance would suggest – just over seven hours; we don’t recommend it unless you love trains).

Today is the day that most of our other tour members also arrive into Kiev (although some might choose to arrive a day or so early).

Please now click on to our main tour itinerary for information about our time in Kiev, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, or go to the Main Quad K Tour Page for more general information and to register your interest in joining the tour.

Included Meals :  Breakfast

 

Please also visit our master tours listing page for a complete listing of all currently scheduled
Travel Insider Tour opportunities.

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Apr 112018
 

Described as the world’s ‘weirdest capital city‘, the futuristic and utopian new capital of Astana was created from nothing and nowhere in the mid 1990s.

This is one of the most exciting tours we’ve yet offered – a twelve-day tour starting in Kiev, Ukraine, then traveling through Kazakhstan, and ending in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan.  The tour is in mid October 2018, with an optional pre-tour adding Chisinau (formerly Kishinev) in Moldova, Tiraspol in ‘a country that doesn’t exist’ and lovely Odesssa in Ukraine beforehand, giving you a total experience in four of the former Soviet Republics plus the non-existent country too.

This page gives you the day by day information about how we’ll spend our time on the main tour in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  The main page explaining the tour is here.

The approximate path of our tour. Royal blue is by coach, green by air, and brown by train.  Numbers show the number of nights at each stop.

Day 1 – Arrive in Kiev (Thursday 18 October)

Independence Square, where crowds formed for the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004 and the more recent revolution in 2014.

The main tour starts today.  Hopefully you’ve been able to add our pre-tour option too, in which case you’ll fly from Odessa up to Kiev at some point today.

If however you’re starting the tour today, welcome to Ukraine!  You’ll probably have taken an overnight flight from North America (if that’s where you’re coming from) and will arrive into Kiev sometime late morning.

After making your way to the hotel, we leave the rest of today free for you either to wander around and get a feeling for the city or to relax after the long flight.

Note :  If not doing the pre-tour, we recommend you consider arriving a day early so as to give you some extra ‘just in case’ time and a chance to be more refreshed for when the tour commences tomorrow morning.

Day 2 – Chernobyl (Friday 19 October)

A now and then contrast of a street in Pripyat

 

Also at Chernobyl, a mysterious huge radio antenna array, possibly part of an ‘over the horizon’ radar network.

 

Today’s an interesting day.  We travel out to Chernobyl, site of the (in)famous nuclear power plant at Pripyat, best known for its meltdown  disaster in April 1986.

As a result of the release of considerable radiation, the entire town of 50,000 people was evacuated at short notice.  Many people further afield, including children even back in Kiev, were also evacuated, and radiation spread in measurable and sometimes substantial quantities across Russia, Belarus, and even up into the Scandinavian countries, too.

These days the radiation levels have subsided, and the area is safe for short visits, but still not considered suitable to permanently resettle there.  We can visit the abandoned town, frozen in time forever as it was 32 years ago, and see the site of the former (now decommissioned) reactor.

If this is of no interest, or if you’re concerned about the remaining background levels of radiation, we can suggest other interesting things to do in and around Kiev instead, of course.  But the chances are you’ll find this a fascinating experience.

This evening we’ll have a welcome dinner back in Kiev where we can all get to know each other better.

Included meals :  Breakfast, Dinner

Day 3 – Kiev City tour, Overnight to Astana (Saturday 20 October)

A mixture of old and new buildings in Kiev.

Kiev’s Golden Gate, originally built in 1017, and reconstructed in 1982 to commemorate Kiev’s 1500th anniversary.

 This morning we’ll enjoy a city tour of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.  Kiev is a city of almost 3 million people, and the seventh largest in Europe.

Kiev is old, and celebrated its 1500th anniversary in 1982.  It has a fascinating mix of architectural styles – some old buildings, some from the time of Imperial Russia’s grandest glory, Soviet styles (it is fascinating to get your eye in so you can see the difference between Lenin-style, Stalin-style, and Brezhnev-style, as the three main styles are sometimes termed), and now of course, modern style skyscrapers subsequent to Ukraine’s independence in 1991.

We’ll have free time this afternoon for a while, then we’ll be transferred to the airport for our flight to Astana this evening.

Included meals :  Breakfast

Day 4 – Astana Touring (Sunday 21 October)

Part of the buildings for Astana’s World Expo in 2017.

The KazMunayGaz building in Astana

Astana is as amazing at night as it is during the day.

We get into Astana at 4am this morning.  By the time we’ve gone through Customs and Immigration, got our bags, and traveled in to the city it will probably be closer to 6am, and you can decide what you would like to do at that hour – have an early breakfast and a full active day, or enjoy the fact we’ve arranged for early checkin to our hotel rooms and catch up on any sleep you missed on the overnight flight.

We’ll meet up again in the early afternoon, and see the sights of this modern city.  And what incredible sights they are.  Astana is possibly the most modern city in the world, with stunning architecture, open spaces, and uncrowded streets and parks.

We’ll admire the Khan Shatur Entertainment Center (a Norman Foster design), the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, the Bayterek Tower (we’ll go up to the viewing platform to see the city from its vantage point), the enormous Hazret Sultan Mosque, as well as, in pleasant contrast to the modernity, enjoy a peaceful stroll along the banks of the River Ishim.

You can choose from an abundance of excellent restaurants for dinner this evening.

Included meals :  Breakfast

Day 5 – Out of Astana Touring (Monday 22 October)

The Arch of Sorrow on an appropriately somber day at Akhmol

After breakfast this morning, we travel out of Astana to the village of Akhmol and the Museum of the Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland in Alzhir – a place that tells an interesting story of how women were sent to a gulag here when their husbands were persecuted.

We’ll travel around the settlement and village and remains of the former gulag, and then return back to Astana this afternoon.

Included meals :  Breakfast

Day 6 – Free Morning, Afternoon by Train to Karaganda (Tuesday 23 October)

Another view of Astana.

A typical view of the steppes from the road or rail line

We’ve a free morning in Astana this morning.  There are so many amazing buildings and places to visit, to say nothing of high-end shopping too.  But scratch the surface of this new city, and you’ll also find hints of traditional Kazakh culture.  Maybe search out a new restaurant choice for lunch, and even consider eating some horse meat!

This afternoon we’ll transfer to the train station and take a fast comfortable train for an approx three-hour journey south to Karagandy/Karaganda (both spellings are common).

Karaganda is the country’s fourth largest city (after Almaty, Astana, and Shymkent) and with an interesting history and cultural mix.  One cultural ingredient is probably a surprise – after WW2 Stalin relocated many of the captured German soldiers there such that as much as 70% of the population were native Germans; pressed into service in the region’s coal mines.

Many of these people returned back to Germany after the fall of the Soviet Union.

No coal mines for us!  We’ll transfer to our hotel for the evening after our train arrives.

Included meals :  Breakfast

Day 7 – Karaganda touring, then Overnight Train to Almaty (Wednesday 24 October)

The pleasant city of Karaganda

No, not the porter showing us to our hotel room! An exhibit at the Karlag museum.

Maybe a nightcap in the train’s bar carriage before enjoying your sleep on our train this evening.

This morning we’ll have a walking tour of the city center of Karaganda.  Although considered as a possible alternative to Astana to become the new nation’s capital in the 1990s, the city is totally different to Astana, without the ostentatious gaudiness and self-conscious modernity.

We expect to include a visit to the KarLag Museum, all about the Soviet gulags (where most of the Germans lived – no wonder they rushed to return back to Germany as soon as they could!), and set in the former NKVD/KGB regional headquarters, with well-preserved gulag barracks making up the adjoining village.

We have time to explore more of the city on our own in the afternoon, then after dinner we’ll transfer to the train station and enjoy a special experience – an overnight train journey in modern sleeper compartments on a fast (125 mph) train.

Included meals :  Breakfast

Day 8 – Almaty (Thursday 25 October)

The classic Russian Orthodox Ascension Cathedral in Almaty, built with no nails.

Weather permitting, we’ll take the recently modernized cable car to the 3600 ft summit of Kok Tobe mountain for dinner this evening.

We arrive into Almaty this morning.  Almaty echoes some of the classical Russian architecture of St Petersburg and Moscow, and we’ll enjoy a sightseeing tour around the city.

We’ll even visit a chocolate factory, as well as some of the bazaars, pedestrian precincts, and parks, and a ride on their metro – one of only two metros in central Asia (the other in Tashkent).

To further diversify our travel experiences, we’ll also ride a cable-car up to the top of the Kok Tobe mountain overlooking the city, where we’ll see a statue of the Beatles.  Of course – what else would you expect!  Other activities and amusements are also provided.

We’ll have a group farewell dinner up on the mountainside overlooking the city.  Yes, we know it isn’t the last day, but it seems like a nice spot to have a second shared dinner.

Included meals :  Dinner

Day 9 – Charyn Canyon (Friday 26 October)

Charyn Canyon looks similar to the US Grand Canyon.

Another dramatic landscape in Charyn Canyon.

Yesterday was a fairly urban day, so to compensate, today we go into the beautiful countryside and travel to Charyn Canyon, sometimes called Asia’s answer to the US Grand Canyon, the most notable part of the canyon being 56 miles long and part of Charyn National Park.

Charyn Canyon is a bit over two hours drive from Almaty, and get you very close to the Chinese border.  Like the Grand Canyon, it has been formed by river-caused erosion, in this case, the Charyn River.

This is an interesting tour into the countryside and then through the national park, and we include lunch as part of the day.

Included meals :  Breakfast, Lunch

Day 10 – To Bishkek, Local Touring

When this square in central Bishkek (Ala Too Square) was constructed in 1984, there was a statue of Lenin as its centerpiece.  It has now been replaced with a statue of the Kyrgyz folk hero, Manas.

After breakfast this morning it is time to leave Kazakhstan and go on to Kyrgyzstan.

We’ll make this journey by coach.  It isn’t a great distance, and depending on how long the border crossing takes, we should be in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, in the early afternoon.

That gives us time for an interesting tour around the city, and to contrast it with what we’ve just seen in Almaty.

Included meals :  Breakfast

Day 11 – To Ala Archa National Park and a Birthday (Sunday 28 October)

A scene in the beautiful Ala Archa National Park.

We travel not far out of Bishkek today to visit the beautiful Ala Archa National Park.

We have some time to explore and enjoy the beautiful trails and ambience of this beautiful alpine park, but of course won’t have time to see the entire 75 sq mile expanse, and neither will we ascend to the highest peak (the Korona summit, 16,000 ft high).

It is amazing to realize that this beautiful natural wilderness is less than one hour from Bishkek.

This evening is both our last evening on the tour together and also, coincidentally, a certain someone’s birthday.  You can probably guess who when I indicate that I’d be delighted to buy you a libation this evening to jointly celebrate what I hope was a joyous day for my parents, ummm, ‘many’ years ago.

Included meals :  Breakfast

Day 12 – Tour Ends in Bishkek (Monday 29 October)

When this square in central Bishkek (Ala Too Square) was constructed in 1984, there was a statue of Lenin as its centerpiece.  It has now been replaced with a statue of the Kyrgyz folk hero, Manas.

Our formal tour ends this morning, and you’re now free to either extend your stay any way you wish or to return home again.

Included meals :  Breakfast

We hope you might choose to join us on this varied and memorable experience, this October.  Please click here to return to the Main Quad K Tour Page and to register to participate.

Please also visit our master tours listing page for a complete listing of all currently scheduled
Travel Insider Tour opportunities.

 

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Apr 112018
 

Astana – the astonishing new capital of Kazakhstan.

Here’s a tour quite unlike any other we’ve offered.  It gives you time in three different former Soviet republics and an option to include a fourth country – and a fifth “non-country” too (it doesn’t officially exist but try telling that to the people who live there).  Chances are that you’ve visited many countries, but never before a ‘non-country’!

The tour optionally starts in Moldova and travels through the non-country of Transnistria and on to Odessa then joins the main tour in Kiev.

The main itinerary starts in Ukraine, continues on to Kazakhstan, and concludes in Kyrgyzstan.

We’ve timed it for fall weather – neither too hot nor too cold – and beating the summer crowds (such as they ever are in these places!).  There is a great mix of varied experiences, with local travel usually by coach, supplemented by two train journeys (including a lovely overnight train in private compartments).

You’ll get to see three or possibly four of the former Soviet Republics (and of course you could add more on your own before/after the main tour and optional extensions), and will appreciate and experience the very different cultures and countries they each are.  Happily, none of the countries we visit require visas for US (and most other western country) citizens.

Experience a mix of old and new, of manmade architecture and outstanding natural beauty.

Why Kazakhstan?

You’re probably thinking ‘Why would I want to go to Kazakhstan’?  The answer to that question is long and full of great reasons, as you can see from the itinerary we’ve developed, and we should start by saying that the country is utterly not at all as briefly depicted/parodied in the very funny “Borat” movie.  (Kazakhstan’s people are well-educated and the nation is reasonably prosperous.)

Kazakhstan isn’t just a place you go to because no-one goes there, and because you’re trying to grow your list of countries visited.  It is an under-appreciated gem that is sure to become much more popular as word gets out about its beauty and the variety of experiences it offers.  A visit to Kazakhstan is a place you’ll enjoy for all the right and good reasons, and not at all a place you go to purely to cross another country off your list.

To summarize Kazakhstan – it is the ninth largest country in the world, but with a population of only 18 million people.  Within its large area you will find an extraordinary and almost unknown country of contrasts and unique experiences.

Our tour will take you from decaying remnants of its Soviet Union past to the glittering futuristic new capital city of Astana.  We will also experience the country’s vast plains (steppes) and unspoiled natural beauty.

You’ll get to travel widely through a country where the 70% Muslim population coexists peacefully with the 26% Christian population, where the 63% native Kazakhs live calmly alongside the 24% Russians (and the 13% of everyone else from everywhere else).  You’ll enjoy a country with 99.8% literacy, where every man, woman, and child owns 1.4 cell phones, and a stable slowly growing economy based on agriculture, mining and energy.

Truly, totally unlike Borat!  And, equally truly, brimming with interesting sights, sites, and experiences.

With a history dating back to the 5th century, Kiev is one of the oldest and most fascinating cities of Eastern Europe, and the birthplace of modern Russia (and Ukraine).

We spend the most time in Kazakhstan, but the main tour also includes time around Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and a fascinating day tour up to the Chernobyl area before traveling on to Astana to start our time in Kazakhstan.

The Kiev area, although now independent from Russia and the Soviet Union, is the historical region where “Kievan Rus” was first formed, the antecedent to modern Russia and Ukraine, so it is filled with fascinating history.

After the main tour’s time in Kazakhstan, and when we cross the border into Kyrgyzstan, we’ll quickly see a huge difference.  Whereas Kazakhstan has been buoyed by its oil and other natural resources, Kyrgyzstan has not been so fortunate.  We visit its national capital of Bishkek and tour also to the beautiful Ala Archa National Park, allowing us to see a good cross-section of the country.

Odessa is a lovely abundantly leafy green city and on the shores of the beautiful Black Sea. This view is of their renowned Potemkin Stairs.

Optional Pre-Tour :  Moldova, Odessa (and a ‘country’ that doesn’t officially exist, too)

If you choose the pre-tour option, that adds two nights in Chisinau in Moldova, and then touring through Tiraspol in the breakaway region of Transnistria – a self-proclaimed country, complete with its own currency and borders, but a nation that no real countries recognize.

What a fascinating experience to add – who else do you know who has visited a non-country!  After our visit to Transnistria (the visa they issue us at their ‘border’ limits us to 10 hours maximum), we continue the short remaining distance to then enjoy two nights in lovely Odessa, Ukraine.

More information on these destinations are on the daily itinerary pages (see links below).

Tour Dates

If you choose the pre-tour option in Moldova and Odessa, this commences on Sunday 14 October (plus or minus a day or two depending on when you wish to join).  You’d probably fly to Chisinau in Moldova the previous day and take an overnight flight.

The main tour commences in Kiev (Ukraine) any time on Thursday 18 October and ends in Bishkek on the morning of Monday 29 October.  If not on the pre-tour, you’d probably fly to Kiev the day prior and take an overnight flight; better would be to fly a couple of days before so as to give you a day up your sleeve and to relax after the flights.

The approximate path of our tour. Royal blue is by coach, green by air, and brown by train

Itinerary and Options

We have detailed day by day itinerary details for both the optional pre-tour and for the main tour as well.  These itinerary details can be seen here :

Pre-tour in Moldova, Transnistria and Odessa

Main tour in Kiev, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan

Tour Inclusions

As always, we’ve designed this tour to include all the essentials and none of the things you don’t need, so as to keep the value high.

Of course you’ve got accommodation, breakfasts, and touring included.  We add a lunch and two dinners as well, while leaving others out for times when you can readily go and choose your own dining options, and while there’s a lot of touring included, you have some free time to see and do as you wish, too.

This 12 day, 11 night tour will be limited to a maximum of 24 people and includes :

  • Share twin accommodation every night in good quality hotels
  • Breakfasts every morning
  • Two dinners
  • An overnight train ride in private compartments
  • One daytime train ride
  • Transfers upon arrival and for departure
  • All touring and admissions as detailed in the itinerary
  • David Rowell as tour leader accompanying the group

We should also point out items which are not included.  These include ‘anything not specifically listed as being included’, and in particular, the international flights to/from the tour, and the domestic flights between Odessa and Kiev (at the end of the pre-tour) and between Kiev and Astana (on the main tour).

The almost brand new Hilton in Astana, opened in 2017 for their World Expo, and designed in a style similar to the rest of this futuristic city.

About Our Hotel Choices

We know you want to be able to comfortably relax when you get to your hotel each day, and so choose good quality and fairly priced four star hotels that score well on TripAdvisor and other review sites.  This helps assure you of an international quality standard of experience, everywhere in the world.

Karaganda and Bishkek have fewer hotels in the upper quality range but the hotels in Astana and Kiev are on the high-end of four stars, and those in Chisinau and Almaty more or less in the middle of the range.

If you wish to enjoy a superior category of stay, we can upgrade you to either better quality rooms in the hotels we feature or to nearby hotels with a higher rating, and on the overnight train, can probably secure you not just your own private compartment but one with an ensuite facility, too.

This adds about $395 per person to the tour price.

An easy way to get to Astana is via Ukraine International Airlines from Kiev.

How to Travel To and From the Tour

It is fairly easy to fly via a reasonable range of airlines to Kiev if you’re joining there.  Chisinau in Moldova is reasonable well-connected, too.

If you are on the pre-tour, we suggest you book either the 7am or 4.55pm nonstop flight to transfer between Odessa and Kiev at the pre-tour’s end on 18 October, depending on which city you’d prefer to spend more time in.  It is an easy quick one hour flight (a longer train journey is also an option if you prefer).

For the flight from Kiev to Astana we suggest the redeye Ukraine International Airlines flight from Kiev to Astana that leaves Kiev on the evening of Saturday 20 October and gets to Astana early in the morning of Sunday 21 October in time for the start of the main tour.  We include early morning arrival/checkin at our Astana hotel.

The flight connections are poorest from Bishkek.  So to return home again (or to fly on elsewhere) your strategy might be to take any flight from Bishkek to a more major gateway city, and then to use your international to/from US ticket to get back home again from there.

Any travel agent can probably help you with this, and/or we’d be delighted to advise further on the specifics of your flight needs and recommend exact flights and connections for you.

Kazakhstan is a curious combination of east and west; of ancient Islam and more recent Orthodox traditions.

Tour Cost

All of this is yours for $2995 per person, share twin, with a single supplement of $895 (we can also try to match you with a fellow Travel Insider if you prefer).  This assumes payment by cash/check.  If you wish to pay by credit card, we ask you to accept the 3% processing fee imposed by the credit card companies.

A $500 non-refundable deposit is required to confirm your place on this tour; the balance is due three months prior to departure, ie, by 20 July 2018.

If you’re traveling with a US, UK, Canadian, Australian, or NZ passport (and many others too) you don’t need any visas.

Our pre-tour option in Moldova, Transnistria and Odessa is for four nights (you could add or subtract a night from this if you wished), and pricing will vary depending on the number of people joining us for this pre-tour.  However, we generally expect pricing to be in the order of $200 per person per day for accommodation, breakfast, and touring, possibly a bit less.

Travel Insurance

As always, we urge you to consider travel insurance.  We’ve never had anyone complain about not ‘getting value’ from a premium they paid and never had claims against, but we’re sure seen plenty of people boxed into nasty corners when they have problems and no travel insurance to help.  Rather than attempt to sell you a policy ourselves that may or may not suit your needs, we recommend you go to this insurance shopping site, which offers comparisons between something like 100 different policies offered by 18 different insurers, giving you all the options you need.

Please visit our three-part series giving much more information about travel insurance than you probably ever thought you’d want to know, if you’d like to know more about travel insurance.

Note that most insurance policies require you to pay their premium within a week or two of making your tour deposit, if you want maximum coverage.

Need More Information?

If you’ve a question or need more clarification, go ahead and ask.  That’s what we’re here for.  Feel free to send us an email, or call us at (206)337-2317.

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  •   2 Twin Beds
      1 Double Bed
  •   Yes please $395
      No Thank You
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  •   Yes Please, arrive before 13 Oct
      Yes Please, arrive early 13 Oct
      Yes Please, arrive on 14 Oct
      Yes Please, arrive later 15 Oct
      No Thank You
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As soon as your application is accepted, you will be asked to send in your $500 deposit within seven days.

Tour Terms and Conditions

Our standard terms and conditions apply to this tour.

In addition, please note these extra terms :

1.   Deposit is required within seven days of your participation being confirmed.  Full payment is due on or before Friday 20 July, 2018.

2.   US, Canadian, and many other citizens require a current passport that will not expire until after the date of their planned return in order to be admitted to Moldova, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, but do not require a visa.  Citizens of other countries should check with the airline that will transport them to the UK to determine what passport and visa requirements may apply.  Because you might be traveling through the EU, we suggest you ensure your passport won’t expire until at least three months after the planned end of your travels.

3.   We recommend you limit your luggage to one major suitcase and a carry on per person.

4.  Tour price is reasonably stable but may change if unexpected major alterations in international exchange rates occur.  If such an event happens, and prior to full payment having been received from you, we will adjust the price up or down to reflect the change in underlying tour costs.  If the tour price increases by more than 10%, you may cancel without penalty and receive a full refund of your deposit.  Tour price is locked in place once full payment has been received.

Please also visit our master tours listing page for a complete listing of all currently scheduled
Travel Insider Tour opportunities.

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Mar 302018
 

Lille, our Christmas Tour base in northern France, is on the Eurostar and other high-speed train lines, so is very easy to get to. It is only 40 minutes from Brussels, 70 minutes from Paris and 90 minutes from London.

Good morning

Our Christmas Markets “cruise” had another four people choose to participate last week.  It is great to see Travel Insiders responding so positively to this new approach to enjoying a European pre-Christmas experience, and in a part of Europe that is all the much nicer for being slightly off the well-worn tourist trails.

From our base in Lille in Northern France we enjoy daily excursions around the region to some of France’s nicest towns and cathedral cities, to one of its major wine cities (Reims, of Champagne fame), to channel ports such as Dunkirk, and even north into Belgium too, visiting Ypres, Bruges and Ghent.

Not only is Lille brilliantly located as a base for a week of touring, it is also a wonderful city to get to and from.  In addition to its own airport, you can also fly into Paris or London (or Brussels, Amsterdam, even Frankfurt and many other cities) and then enjoy a lovely high-speed train to get you to Lille and our charming hotel, a restored former convent.

Please do look over this tour and consider joining our small group (we’re limiting it to a maximum of 24 Travel Insiders).

I’ve also got another very exciting tour opportunity to offer you for mid/late October.  I’ll tell you about that next week, but for now, please keep your schedule as clear as possible, ideally (for the full tour and optional extension) from about 13 – 29 October.

Many of us are celebrating a holiday weekend this weekend, whether it be Passover or Easter.  I’ve never known whether such events mean you have more or less time for Travel Insider things, so settled on a 4600 word newsletter this week.

So please enjoy :

  • Should Airlines Compensate Fliers for Semi-Weather Related Delays?
  • United Passenger Gets $10,000 For Being Bumped
  • The Writer’s Revenge
  • Strange New Idea from Qantas
  • Some Reader Comments
  • What Does a Self-Driving Car Do When Pulled Over by the Police?
  • A Robot Lawyer to Help You
  • Making it More Difficult for People to Visit the US – Why it Matters
  • Apple Renews its Push into Schools, sort of
  • Does Reading The Travel Insider Cause Cancer?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Should Airlines Compensate Fliers for Semi-Weather Related Delays?

We should be forever ashamed that we’ve allowed, with neither question nor quibble, a claim of inclement weather, somewhere in the world, to be used by airlines as a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card whenever they are cancelling or delaying flights, anywhere.

The classic statement is ‘due to thunderstorms in the midwest’ or something similar, but offered in relation to a flight between say Los Angeles and San Francisco.  When one gently points out the beautiful weather along the Pacific coast, the airline then says ‘Ah, yes, but due to the disruptions to our total system caused by the weather in the mid-west….’ and then looks at us triumphantly, having played its Get Out of Jail Free card.  We’re expected to then apologize to the airline, rather than vice versa, and happily accept whatever torments are about to occur to us and our travel plans, because it isn’t the airlines’ fault for having such a fragile system, it is the due to weather.

I’ve seldom if ever met a weather problem that couldn’t be solved by the application of sufficient money to create a more resilient system and infrastructure, but the airlines have allowed us to believe that the mere mention of the “w” word is enough to absolve them of any liability for anything.

Maybe it is time to re-examine that.  Here’s a good article by a journalist, who had his flight cancelled due to weather.  Except that it was due to bad weather a day or so earlier, not at the time he wanted to fly.  He reasons that what in effect happened was akin to being involuntarily bumped off the flight he’d been ticketed to fly on, and therefore, the bumping penalties should apply, and he notes that in his case, that would be $1350.

He concludes by saying he expects a check from Delta.  Good luck to him, but I doubt he’ll see it.

United Passenger Gets $10,000 For Being Bumped

Talking about compensation for being bumped off a flight, a curious incident occurred last week, when United paid a passenger $10,000 (in the form of a voucher for future flights, not in cash) to agree to be bumped off a flight between Dulles and Austin.  Apparently she took a flight later in the day, and United also gave her a couple of $10 meal vouchers for while she was waiting at the airport.

It seems United’s first offer was $1000, then $2000, then when the woman asked for cash rather than flight credits, it dropped to $650 cash, then suddenly became $10,000 in flight credits.  She didn’t hold out for any more!

Another strange thing is that first United tried to tell her she was being denied boarding because her seat was broken, but apparently that may have just been an excuse.

Details here.

The Writer’s Revenge

Obsessive frequent fliers might occasionally be persuaded to concede that there’s nothing more important in their lives than getting upgrades, and nothing more galling than seeing other people get upgrades but missing out, themselves.

The airlines have done a good job of making the upgrade process more apparently automated and therefore more apparently fair, but back a decade or two, when a lot of subjectivity seemed to apply to who got upgraded, it was a really big deal for many people (and, yes, I’ll include myself in that group too, back when such things mattered to me more than they do now).

However, if you think that behavior was/is obsessive, you’ve not seen anything until you see how travel writers and travel agents treat their occasional flying perks.  There’s nothing better/worse than being in a group of travel writers and either being part of the group who turns left when boarding the plane, or being part of the group who turns right.  This is even more extreme an experience when the majority of the group turns in one direction and you go the other.

With that as background, Qantas launched a new flight last week, a nonstop flight between Perth and London.  It seems to have filled up most of its business class cabin on the inaugural flight with travel writers, who all then loyally reciprocated by writing breathless pieces about this revolutionary amazing new long-distance flight that is clearly going to transform international travel everywhere.  Here’s an example of such a piece.

Never mind that the flight is far from the longest flight currently operating, and never mind that for most Australians (ie those who don’t live in Perth) flying first to Perth then to London is no better than flying first to Singapore or Dubai or somewhere else and then to London.  Qantas was generous with the free tickets, and the press were dutifully generous with their rapturous praise of the flight.

But what about journalists who were consigned to coach class?  They wrote articles such as this one.  (Note that although the person writing it claims to have been the only journalist in coach class, I know of at least one other.)

Strange New Idea from Qantas

When the 747 first came out, the airlines were full of plans for bars, lounges, and clubs to help them fill all the enormous space inside the planes.  But not long after the 747 started being delivered, such concepts were quietly abandoned.  Instead, the airlines switched from nine abreast to ten abreast seating in coach class, and squashed the seats every closer together, with no room for any such fanciful things remaining.

When the A380 first came out, there were even more unrealistic plans offered up for onboard shopping malls like on cruise ships, gyms, spas, as well as all the other things – bars, restaurants, lounges, etc – that had been promised and abandoned on the 747.  Never one to be upstaged by flights of fancy, Sir Richard Branson offered casinos and double beds, but ended up not even taking a single one of the A380s he’d signed up to buy.

For the airlines that have accepted their A380 orders (ie just about every other airline), we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of seats, and apart from some extraordinary comforts in first class on a few airlines, the experience for most passengers in coach, premium economy and even business class has remained the same old, same old.

So now a new idea comes from Qantas.  The airline is keen to establish nonstop Sydney-London flights, something that would take over 20 hours.  That might sound like a lot, but 15 hour flights are commonplace, and there are longer flights at 16, 17, and even 18 hours.  So 20 hours is not really a huge shift from the current 15+ hours, but their CEO, Alan Joyce, says that 20 hour flights would require a redesign of planes and a need to re-imagine the whole travel experience.

Joyce appears to be considering using part of the cargo hold for additional passenger amenities and comforts.  He says Qantas might fill up part of the cargo hold with sleeping pods, and use other parts of it as an exercise area/gym.

How likely is that?  And how desirable would it be?

There is only one reason why an airline might start converting cargo space into passenger space, and that is if the flight was weight restricted such that they were not able to fill up every cubic inch with revenue-earning passengers or cargo.  If a flight is weight/load restricted, it risks becoming only marginally commercial and is more a vanity flight than a sensible commercial flight.

It is possible that one way to achieve the extra range needed for nonstops between London and Sydney would be to more lightly load the planes, and in such a case, Qantas would want to compensate for carrying fewer passengers by charging them more, and if they were charging them more, maybe it makes sense to then turn a negative into a positive and use the empty space for passenger comfort and services.

But no airline wants to operate planes at restricted capacity, and my current sense is that airlines are seeking commercially viable ways of flying this route with every seat full, rather than expensive inefficient ways.

And also a thought for Mr Joyce.  If you end up with spare space, here’s a truly distinctive way for you to ‘re-imagine the whole travel experience’.  Never mind the gyms and sleeping pods.  Restore some comfort to coach class.  Give us some more shoulder space by taking out one seat per row.  Give us some more leg-room by pushing the rows further apart.

Some Reader Comments

Reader Alan writes in to add to my comments last week about credit cards being needlessly declined ‘for our protection’.

Here’s one in the same vein as your gas station problem:  I pulled my car up to a pump, got out, swiped my card and entered my zip code before realizing that I had not popped the gas cover open with the lever under the driver’s seat.  I set the pump nozzle down and went around the car to pup the gas cover, and when I returned the pump would not start.  Instead, it displayed a message, “time expired, transaction cancelled.”

Well, OK, I put the nozzle back to reset the pump and tried swiping my card again to start a new transaction.  This time, after asking for (and receiving the same) zip code, it claimed “invalid zip code”.

So I tried again, same result.

My supposition is that the computer code used is programmed to reject any zip code after it detects any irregularity.  Rather than just saying “you might be a crook”, it pretends another excuse to decline the transaction.

But it got worse.

Apparently the automatic system shut down the account for the entire chain of gas stations.  I went in to the station and attempted to manually enter the card, and got the same rejection.  I had to contact the card issuer to clear the account and get it back opened, all on account of a “time out” — absolutely no evidence of fraud or anything else — all for “my protection”, of course.

And reader Peter added his perspective on the dangers and requirement for protecting ourselves against self-driving cars.

Great comments on the self-driving car.  At the end of the 1800s when automobiles were first clattering and puffing along, the law in some states required a man to walk in front of the vehicle with a lantern to warn folk.

And there was a fear that if the human body were to travel in excess of 20mph, it would suck their breath out of their lungs.

What Does a Self-Driving Car Do When Pulled Over by the Police?

Talking about self driving cars, they’ve been in an unfortunate spotlight for the last week or two due to the fatal accident between an Uber self-driving car and a pedestrian in Tempe.  Perhaps because of this current sensitivity, a police officer in San Francisco pulled over a self-driving car and wrote it a ticket for driving too close to a pedestrian.

I’m trying to imagine how that happened, starting with how a police vehicle pulls over a self-driving car to start with.

But clearly the motorbike riding policeman succeeded in pulling the vehicle over.  But what happens next?

So there’s the officer, approaching the car cautiously, and tapping on the driver’s window.  “Would you roll down your window, please.”

Okay, if he gets past that point, his next statement might be “Do you know why I pulled you over?”  How does the car respond to that, one wonders.

And then, his request is “Driver’s License, insurance, and registration, please.”

Hopefully matters don’t escalate to “Driver, please step out of the car”.

And lastly, of course, “Please sign here”.

Noting also that most traffic offenses are driver offenses, not vehicle offenses, who gets cited in such cases?

There’s another side to this interaction too, which is hinted at in this report.  The police officer is citing the car for driving too close to a pedestrian.  But the car’s sensor data shows it to have been 10.8 ft away from the pedestrian.

It seems likely that, absent other calibrated measurements, the car’s sensor data might beat the policeman’s visual assessment in any court review.

A Robot Lawyer to Help You

We’re not at all sure how a traffic stop between a self-driving car and a policeman works, but apparently, automation is set to help our lives in another part of our travel experiences.

A new service, DoNotPay.com, says that its ‘robot lawyers’ will automatically monitor the prices you pay for flights and hotels and if the price drops between when you booked/paid and when you travel, the robot lawyers will “find a legal loophole to negotiate a cheaper price or rebook you”.

They say that the average traveler saves $415.  The service currently works only for flights within or departing from the US, not for flights in other countries/jurisdictions, and only with five hotel chains (Hilton, Intercontinental, Hyatt, Marriott and Best Western) but has plans to expand.

Sounds great in theory.  Whether it works in practice or not is happily not a huge concern, because the service is completely free.  Heads you win, tails you don’t lose.

Try it out, tell me how it works for you.

Making it More Difficult for People to Visit the US – Why it Matters

News came out on Thursday that the State Department is considering new rules to require most visitors and immigrants to disclose considerably more information on their visa applications.

They’d be asked for all their phone numbers, email addresses, and every other country they’ve visited during the last five years, plus be asked to divulge their recent social media histories, reveal any potential immigration problems they have had anywhere, and disclose any family connections to terrorism.

The requirements are to be published today (Friday) in a discussion paper, allowing for a period during which comments can be sent in prior to being finalized and put in place later this year.

It sure makes us feel grateful that we don’t have to do the same thing when we travel internationally, doesn’t it.  If nothing else, the hassle of trying to remember all the email addresses and phone numbers one has or reasonably recently had is troubling, and opens one up to problems if you forget one.

How does one even define phone number ownership these days.  Does one have to show one’s company phone number?  What if one has a direct inward number as well as a regular company number?  What about one’s home landline number – is that a number to be disclosed by everyone at the residence?  What about one’s spouse’s number – does that also have to be disclosed?

As for email addresses, some of us have so many, and change some of them often, to keep spam at bay, as to make it a total pain.

And so on.

The reason it matters to us is two-fold.  First, you can be certain this will discourage a measurable number of people from coming; people who just find it too much bother and hassle.  Fewer visitors to the US harms us all, because it weakens our economy and upsets still further our balance of payments.  Our share of international visitors has been dropping since about 9/11, and this would only accelerate the continued loss of valuable tourism earnings.

Second, there’s the concept of reciprocity.  We see it at present, without realizing it, when we occasionally need to get a visa ourselves to go visit some other country.  If you’ve ever wondered why a visa is so expensive, and blamed the foreign country for being exploitive and greedy, thinking “they should pay me to come and visit, not make me pay them for the privilege”, well, guess what.

The chances are the reason for the expensive visa fee, and also, the reason for the sometimes ridiculously detailed forms you have to fill out, is due to reciprocity.  The foreign country asks us all those questions, and charges us such a high fee, because that is what the US does to their citizens.  (We should be grateful that we’re also not required to fly across the US for an in-person interview at their Washington DC Embassy, and that the visa fee is the same amount, but massively less as a proportion of our annual income than it probably is for the people in the other country.)

So if we start asking other people to reveal all this additional information, how long before we have to start doing it ourselves, too?  And do you really want to find yourself having to justify chance comments you made in a Facebook thread, or a Twitter reply – comments that when read out of context and by someone with limited English fluency, makes it look like you are trashing their country/religion/race or anything else.

You might say ‘Well, that’s okay, I never go anywhere that I need to get a visa to go to’.  That is fine, but there are increasingly persuasive calls, for example, in the EU, to make Americans go through the same visa application process to get an ‘electronic travel authority’ that the US makes Europeans go through prior to traveling here.  Those electronic travel authorities are neither trivial nor free, and if we’re going to make them still more onerous, it increases the possibility we’ll find more and more countries in turn requiring us to do the same.

Remember also we’re no longer the most desirable group of people that all countries fall over themselves in a rush to plead with us to go visit, although the good side of this is that the stereotype of the omnipresent ‘loud American tourist’ is now being replaced by new stereotypes of other races.

Jessica Vaughan, the Policy Studies Director at the Center for Immigration Studies, is quoted in the linked articles as saying

This upgrade to visa vetting is long-overdue, and it’s appropriate to apply it to everyone seeking entry, because terrorism is a worldwide problem. The aim is to try to weed out people with radical or dangerous views.

But I say these new moves will be useless at weeding out real terrorists intending harm to the US, while giving new levels of subjective/discretionary authority to people who don’t have a good record of using such authority in the past.  The process will further discourage tourism to the US, and risks increasing the burden and hassle for us applying for visas in turn when we travel outside the US.

Lastly, with the extraordinary amount of information about all of us already stored in commercial databases and available to anyone who pays to buy it, as well as held by Google and Facebook, there’s no need to ask us for any of this data, because it can be electronically sucked up instantly by the authorities anyway.

What do you think?

Apple Renews its Push into Schools, sort of

As you may already know, I’ve always thought Apple products to be surrounded by a rich layer of ill-deserved hype, and have risked being accused of schadenfreude while noticing the steady erosion of all the claims people earlier advanced in favor of Macs.  Less buggy, better graphics, smaller/lighter, freedom from viruses, first with leading edge software releases; all of these claims have quietly faded over time.

But ‘better marketed’ has for long proven a very resilient claim, and one of Apple’s clever ploys was to push their products into the school system – first as computers, and more recently as tablets.  The company sensibly perceived that if they can make a student into an Apple user, they have a chance of keeping them as such for life.

But even with educational incentive programs, Apple has been steadily losing market share in the educational market, and also have been losing market share in the tablet market everywhere, not just in schools.  One of the main reasons for this has been cost – Chrome and Windows based laptops and tablets have been plunging in price, while Apple has maintained its aggressive price premiums, even though its products have been less and less able to credibly claim any degree of feature superiority.

So this week, Apple rallied itself and introduced a new iPad for schools.  The new iPad seems to be indistinguishable from older iPads, except for two things.  First, there is an educational discount on the new iPad.  A not very enormous 9% discount, which on a $329 list price means that the educational price drops a whole $30, down to $299.  Except that, this is not a new initiative, this is the same pricing policy as previously.  (A Dell Chromebook costs $189.)

Secondly, it can now support Apple’s ‘Pencil’ stylus.  But before you fall over in rapture at this new feature, be aware of the sting in the tail of this new ability.  Sure, the iPad will now work with a Pencil.  But the Pencil, notwithstanding its quotidian name, is not free.  Nor is it inexpensive.  It costs $99.  So in effect, Apple is now trying to encourage you to spend an extra $99, while expecting us to thank them for this encouragement.

One thing that has not changed though is Apple’s love of ridiculous hyperbole.  Apple’s Vice President of Product Marketing Greg Joswiak went so far as to claim that the new iPad is “the greatest device ever created for students in the classroom”.

The list of other products contending for that title is very long, starting with pencils, erasers, paper (instead of slates) and textbooks.  How about photocopiers and duplicators?  And so on.

Anointing an almost unchanged version of an unpopular tablet as the greatest device ever is also quite something to say about a device powered by a chip that first appeared in the iPhone 7, over two years ago.

Does Reading The Travel Insider Cause Cancer?

I often imagine you, reading this on Friday mornings, and perhaps with a cup of coffee in hand.  It is true that coffee is a slightly controversial beverage, with a mixed set of claimed benefits but possibly some negative consequences from drinking it in greater quantities, too.

But notwithstanding the Mayo Clinic’s finding that there is no link between coffee and any increased risk of cancer, and the World Health Organization moving coffee off its “possible carcinogen” list in 2016, a judge in California knows better and has deemed that it requires a health warning.

As a result of a lawsuit brought by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, the court ruled that coffee sellers in California must provide a cancer warning on their products.  The organization gives every impression of being little more than a front for an attorney seeking lucrative lawsuit opportunities under California’s Proposition 65 requirement.  In 2017, lawsuits brought under that proposition generated $30.2 million in settlements, of which $21.6 million went to the attorneys bringing them.

So, to avoid a lawsuit myself, perhaps I need to now note that, at least according to the California Superior Court in Los Angeles County, please be warned that in addition to an assortment of generally accepted life-extending benefits, The Travel Insider may cause cancer if it encourages you to drink more coffee.

Maybe better to drink ‘raw water’ instead?  Or, apparently, maybe not.

And, for the attorney behind the “Council for Education and Research on Toxics”, now that you’ve won yet another case, you’re probably wondering who to go and sue next.  How about every restaurant in California?  Because, and happily for attorneys, it seems this madness knows no limits.

And Lastly This Week….

You probably already know my views on the reality-distortion field surrounding Tesla and Elon Musk.  So you might be expecting some gleeful commentary on its share price plunge this week (and soaring bond yield too).  But I’ll hold off on that until next week, so as to be able to put them in the context of their March Model 3 delivery numbers – another promise it seems they have spectacularly broken.

But if you can’t wait, here’s a fun piece.  I don’t agree that the company will be bankrupt within four months, but it is interesting to see this and other not-quite-so-extremely-negative predictions starting to flow over and into the mainstream financial media.

I came across an interesting old article earlier this week.  Dated September 2015 – now almost three years back – it was writing about plans by a group to bring a Concorde back into service by 2019.  At the time, I suspected it was nonsense, and so it was interesting to come across the article again now.  I corresponded with the group about a month ago, at which point their plans had progressed no further and the entire concept was now being gently de-emphasized.  A shame, but not a surprise.

May I close by wishing you all the best for Easter/Passover, and of course, also hope that the coffee drinking that reading this newsletter may encourage results in positive outcomes to your health and wellbeing.  Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.  Oh yes, and keep a watchful eye on the sky.  Just in case….

 

David.

 

 

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Mar 222018
 

We visit beautiful Bruges, and almost as beautiful Ghent, during our Dec 2018 Christmas Markets “Land Cruise”.

Good morning

You may have seen the story of the woman killed by a self-driving car in Tempe, AZ on Sunday.  Any unnecessary death is of course regrettable, but the biggest tragedy of this unfortunate incident may be that this accident slows down and delays the continued development and deployment of self-driving vehicle capabilities.

With 40,000 traffic fatalities every year in the US (and another 4.6 million reported injuries) there are few things more urgent and more potentially beneficial than improving the safety of our roads and the vehicles on them, and there is no more promising way of doing this than by replacing us – the flawed human drivers – with technology.

I discuss this in a lengthy feature article this week, appended to the newsletter.

On a very much happier note, and as I’d hoped, our December 2018 Christmas ‘Land Cruise’, formally released last week, is already proving popular.  We had three people sign up this week, and what a wonderful collection of people they are – one person on her seventh Travel Insider tour, and the other two on their sixth and fifth tours.

Clearly, people who know are choosing to come on this tour, and hopefully you’ll join us too.

I’ve had a bunch more people write and even phone to discuss the tour further; one point of clarification is that I’m limiting the tour to 24 participants, so as to preserve its boutique nature.

I’ve also had some people calling about the Triple K tour, too.  Yes, we’ll still accept more people for this tour, even though it is now a mere two months out.

Also, the usual pot pourri of other things, so please keep reading for :

  • United’s Inconsistent Approach to Firing Flight Attendants
  • United Gives Up on Dogs
  • Kayak Does Something the Airlines Say is Impossible
  • Talking About Consumer Protection
  • The Risk of Catching an Infection on a Flight
  • Why You Don’t Want the Government as an Airline Owner
  • A Strange Thing about Delta’s In-Flight Entertainment
  • The Annoying Tyranny of Credit Card Fraud Controls
  • Sonarworks True-Fi 30% Spring Discount
  • Essential Travel Skill – Sleeping
  • And Lastly This Week….

United’s Inconsistent Approach to Firing Flight Attendants

One of the most frustrating things when interacting with flight attendants is the knowledge that no matter what happens, we – the passengers – will be the losers, while the flight attendants will experience no negative consequence whatsoever.  In any case where there is a disagreement about what happened, the flight attendants will unite as one, the captain will unquestioningly support them, and invariably, we the passenger will be the loser.

Take the case last week of the UA flight attendant who insisted on a dog being placed in an overhead compartment, and then the entire planeload of flight attendants managed to not hear the dog barking for two hours, before it then died.  United rushed to make excuses that strain our credibility beyond breaking point for their flight attendant – ‘she must have misunderstood’.

But, that’s not to say that UA’s flight attendants are unfireable.  It seems that while customer-facing failures are not deemed at all important, other things are indeed important and can be career threatening.  And it was perhaps this inconsistency that contributed to United being slapped with $800,000 in damages as a result of a claim by two former flight attendants who said the airline was unfair to fire them.

The two senior flight attendants were fired back in 2013.  Their sin was watching a video on an iPad for 15 minutes during the quiet part of a flight.  Not only that, but they also – steady yourselves for the shock of this – neglected to wear aprons while serving passengers on a flight between Denver and San Francisco.  So, notwithstanding a combined 70 years of excellent service between the two of them, free of any earlier disciplinary actions or customer complaints, United decided to summarily fire them both.

When asked at trial as to exactly how severe a transgression it was to watch an iPad when there was nothing else needing to be done, a United supervisor was asked if he considered watching an iPad for a few minutes to be as extreme an action as ‘lighting a campfire in the bathroom’.  His answer was to agree, yes, the two actions were similarly extreme.

The court clearly disagreed, and found for the two flight attendants.  While I didn’t expect to be cheering the non-firing of flight attendants, this is clearly a case where we all should.

United is considering appealing.  If they do, can I suggest that an even better question to ask the supervisor would be to rank three things in severity – setting a fire in a toilet, watching an iPad for a few minutes, and causing a dog to die of suffocation after demanding it be placed in an overhead locker.

Details here.

United Gives Up on Dogs

We wrote about United’s several problems conveying dogs last week.

This week they continued to have problems, but showed a degree of sensitivity to the issue.  After realizing they’d loaded a dog onto the wrong plane going to the wrong destination, the plane diverted and made an unscheduled landing to drop the dog off, allowing it to be more speedily redirected to where it should have been going.

There is now a possibility that the airline might face criminal charges in two different states due to the dog it doomed to die in an overhead bin last week.  USA Today published an Op-Ed piece that suggested the appropriate response to United’s inability to care for pets would be to allow foreign airlines to operate within the US – an idea that while extremely unlikely to be adopted, is certainly one which would give us as passengers an enormous boost in choices for fares, carriers, service levels and values.

And, sensing a ‘safe’ vote-winning issue, a couple of senators introduced a bill to create new regulations relating to the carriage of animals on planes, specifically prohibiting the carriage of pets in overhead compartments.  They gleefully pointed out that 18 of the most recent pet deaths on planes were on United flights.

So, what does an airline do when confronted with controversy about its inability to do a simple thing right?  You might think that the rational appropriate American response to that is to fix the problem and start offering an excellent service that complies with all best practices and expectations.

But if you think that, you’re clearly not destined to high office at United.  United has instead decided to ‘indefinitely suspend’ its transportation of animals in its cargo holds.

That is an interesting strategy.  We wonder how long it will be before United decided to indefinitely suspend its transportation of passengers as well, due to recurring service problems it seems to suffer with passengers.  And/or, due to, perhaps, the weather problems that seem to throw it for a loop, maybe United will simply suspend all flights indefinitely, too.

Kayak Does Something the Airlines Say is Impossible

The airlines told the Department of Transportation and anyone else gullible enough to listen that it was either impossible or prohibitively expensive to conveniently show airfare costs including the cost of the bags that a passenger might want to either check or carry on to the plane.

And, a bit like a double flush, the airlines also said, with a perfectly straight face, that customers aren’t interested in knowing about things such as fees, surcharges, etc, so there’s no point in doing so.

These unsupported statements were of course enough to convince the Department of Transportation, which is why you don’t see such things prominently displayed when trying to work out how much it costs to fly somewhere.

But kayak.com (the site I usually go to first whenever researching or booking flights) apparently disagrees.  Now when you ask it to find fares for a given itinerary, it gives you the option to also specify how many bags you want to carry on and/or check.  It adjusts the displayed fares to show the total amount you’ll end up paying.

Well done, Kayak.  Thank you.

Talking About Consumer Protection

The airlines think (hope) that the current Washington administration might be supportive of their tireless efforts to roll back the scant little consumer protection that exists.

It is certainly true that their friends at the DoT are never fast to do anything that threatens the airlines, and last year the DoT happily announced a freeze on pending airline regulations under the guise of conforming to the new administration’s desire to cut back on obsessive and unnecessary regulation.  (Can you actually cite any consumer protection regulations imposed on the airlines that are obsessive or unnecessary?)

The DoT has also asked for public and industry comment on present regulations that could be removed.  Needless to say, the airlines have rushed to recommend the rescission of most of the regulations that have impacted on them – for example, the landmark requirement that was hard-fought and which remains seldom deployed to limit how long airlines can allow passengers to be trapped on planes.

Another target is the rule that requires airlines to actually show, in their promotional material, the true full fare you pay for a ticket, including all the surcharges, fees, taxes, and other creatively described additional cost items.  Delta even had the gall to suggest to the DoT that requiring the airlines to show the full amount payable would distort the public view of what they pay for air travel and cause consumer confusion.

They also wish to no longer be required to promptly provide wheelchairs to passengers who need them, because they say it is too confusing due to not knowing what ‘promptly’ means.

This would all be funny if it weren’t for the dismaying tendency of the DoT to be hypersensitive to airline submissions and dismissive of consumer petitions.

Some more details here.

The Risk of Catching an Infection on a Flight

A study released this week finds that you have a reassuringly very low chance of catching any sort of bug from other people on the same flight as you.

This study is remarkably upbeat, unlike some others I’ve read (and also at odds with my own personal experiences).  It suggests that only one person out of 150 might catch a bug from a hypothetical infectious passenger sitting in the middle of a plane.

It also says the safest place on a plane is a window seat, so as to avoid possible contamination from people walking up and down the aisle.

Oh – the remarkably upbeat nature of this study and the equally remarkably low risk it finds as being present?  We are assured that this has nothing to do with the study being initiated and funding by Boeing.  Neither, we are assured, does it have anything to do with Boeing participating in writing up the results of the study.  That is reassuring, isn’t it.

A few more details, here.

Why You Don’t Want the Government as an Airline Owner

I wrote last week about the struggles South African Airways is suffering and its perennial losses, and pointed out the problems airlines have when they are partially or wholly owned by their country’s government.

A clear example of this was shown in my own home country of New Zealand, where the government was forced to bail out Air New Zealand some years ago and still owns 51% of the airlines shares.  Air NZ operates both domestic services within NZ and international services around the world.

Within New Zealand, the subject of having flights to/from small towns and the major cities of Auckland and Wellington is a matter of intense regional pride.  In years past, with Air New Zealand (or as it formerly was, NAC) as the only domestic airline and entirely government operated, it operated a lot of regional flights and one can only guess at the size of the losses such flights suffered each year.  But now it is a for profit corporation, and now that airline competition is reasonably open and unhindered, even to the extent of allowing Australian airlines to operate domestically in NZ, Air NZ is less willing to operate routes that are chronically unprofitable.

But if it cuts such a route, it then risks being vilified in the press and by politicians who should know better.  As, for example, happened last week, when a government minister accused Air NZ of treating a region worse than a second hand car dealer.

Having the government as a major shareholder creates an impossible-to-win scenario for an airline.

A Strange Thing about Delta’s In-Flight Entertainment

I was on a Delta flight this week, in the exit row, and after browsing through their selection of free movies, decided I’d watch one, using my own tablet rather than their seat-back screen which was quite a long way in front of me.

So I connected to their in-flight free Wi-Fi/movie service, and scrolled through the list of movies to find the movie I had already selected from the seatback screen.  This was difficult, not only because there were lots of movies to choose from, but also because they were not in alphabetical order.

But – here’s the thing.  The movie that was offered on the seat-back screen was not also offered on their Wi-Fi service!  As best I could tell, most of all the other movies were available to view both ways, but not this movie.  Why not?

I ended up watching it on the seat back screen.  “The Foreigner” starring Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan – a surprisingly thoughtful and very well acted movie.  Recommended.

I watched another movie on an earlier Delta flight too.  It included a quick shot of an airplane landing at an airport to convey the sense of one of the characters traveling to another location.  Clearly the plane being shown wasn’t a Delta plane, but I can’t tell you which airline it was that was blessed with the two second ‘establishing scene’.  Because the airline logo on the plane was specifically blurred out for the Delta version of the movie.

Apparently Delta thinks that none of us realize there are other airlines in the world, and if we were to discover the presence of another carrier through a movie, we’d all rush to leave Delta and fly the other carrier instead.

Well, they might not be entirely wrong about the last part of that, but really – blurring out another airline’s logo in a two second shot?  Isn’t that a bit obsessive?

The Annoying Tyranny of Credit Card Fraud Controls

One of the most common and most objectionable lies that we’re dished out is the one “For your security/safety/convenience/protection” followed by a description of something that is none of any such thing.

I’ve been encountering it too much recently in the context of my Bank of America Visa card.  On a flight a few weeks ago, my excess baggage fee charge at the airport was declined (a mere $60).  Even though the actual ticket had been charged to the same Visa card a few weeks prior, and my ride from home to the airport in an Uber car had also just been charged, the artificial (un)intelligence was worried that maybe someone else was now using my card (it was of course a card-present transaction) to charge a $60 baggage fee at my home Seatac airport.  That was both embarrassing and inconvenient.

The representative of course explained this was for my protection, but equally of course couldn’t tell me what the risk was I was being protected from, because in truth, if my card was being fraudulently used, the only person at risk was the bank, not me.  I did express that point to him, forcefully, and so he became super ‘polite’, said I seemed upset, and offered to call back when I was calmer – translation, he threatened to refuse to turn my card back on because I dared to call out his insulting lie that declining a legitimate charge was for my protection.

That was however a pinprick of annoyance compared to the most recent decline – when I was hoping to fill my rental car’s tank with gas on the way back to the airport.  This was particularly puzzling, because I’d charged the rental car to my credit card, the airline tickets to the destination, the hotel, and assorted local charges at restaurants and other retailers.  And I’d been at the exact same gas station a week earlier too, and when I swiped my card for this latest transaction, correctly entered my zip code.

No part of that transaction was unusual.  Other than of course ‘being for my protection’, I’ve no idea why the charge was declined.

Such experiences are why you should always have at least two credit cards, from two different banks, and not both Visa or Mastercard.  That way either card might end up blocking your account for any ridiculous reason, and you’ve a second card at the ready to deploy in its place.

I’m almost tempted to revive my Amex, which I let lapse after Costco stopped only taking Amex cards. Almost.  But – for most people – I really don’t see any need or value to have an Amex at all these days.

Sonarworks True-Fi 30% Spring Discount

We wrote about and reviewed the interesting True-Fi program a couple of months ago.  It is an interesting way of custom-tuning your computer’s sound card to reflect the individual characteristics of various different types of headphones, resulting in a much clearer and superior sound quality.

We stumbled a bit on the $79 cost, but were encouraged by the promise of upcoming apps to be released for Android and iOS devices too, all to be included in the same $79 fee.  Most of the time, the music (or movie soundtracks) we listen to comes from a portable Android or iOS device rather than from our computer, and so adding the True-Fi service to these devices will greatly add to the value of the product.

This is expected some time probably late spring or early summer.

We’ve also been encouraged to note two new releases of the software since early February, each adding more headphone makes and models that the software will work with.  Clearly the product continues to be actively developed.

The reason for writing about this today is due to their spring promotion, lasting only through Saturday, with a 30% discount.  That drops the $80 price down to $56.  We’d suggest downloading a free trial copy of the software now, and if you like it, almost immediately purchasing it while the 30% offer remains open.

On a related topic, I noticed that the top of the line Bose QC25 headphones are currently priced at $199 rather than $299 on Amazon.  This probably hints at the future discontinuance, just as happened when the QC15 headphones were replaced by the QC25.  But the latest QC35 headphones are not appreciably better, just appreciably more expensive, and offer Bluetooth connectivity, a ‘feature’ that is anathema to anyone who prefers high quality sound.  The QC25 headphones are supported by the True-Fi software.  (I reviewed the QC25 headphones here.)

Essential Travel Skill – Sleeping

One of the seemingly unavoidable parts of frequent travel is sleep deprivation.  A few of us are blessed with the ability to fall asleep anywhere at any time, but for most of us, that is not the case.

Many thanks to reader Bill for sending in this fascinating article that reports on a WW2 study that developed a method for enabling pilots to fall asleep within two minutes.  While the first part of the process – getting comfortable – might not completely apply to those of us in the back of the plane, the article is helpful and gives a simple approach to falling asleep in unfamiliar hotel beds and other places as well as on planes.

However, a cautionary note.  The article suggests that even a five-minute nap can be refreshing.  That may be so, but for most of us, the best results come if we can complete an entire sleep cycle, which is about 90 minutes.

And Lastly This Week….

I wrote about the latest cost overruns and delays to the California High Speed Rail project a couple of weeks ago, and pondered the inevitability and venality of how public works projects invariably go enormously over budget and behind schedule.

I’m not the only one to have noticed and bemoaned this.  Here’s a good article about some of the similar shortfalls in Washington state, all the more topical for us in Wash, because there are currently calls to build a high speed rail line through Washington, running from Portland on our southern border to Vancouver on the northern side.  There’s no point in even mentioning the cost projection for this unrealistic project (hint – about $100 – 150 million per mile) because who would ever trust it.

Once again, I find myself, although a lover of fast rail transportation, being forced to call BS on this project.

The most overrated travel attraction in every state?  A fairly sensible list.  Or, if you prefer, the world’s best airports, also a fairly sensible list.  And, for lovers of lists, one more – the world’s best and worst cities in terms of quality of life.

One of the advantages of our Christmas land cruise is that it avoids the increasingly congested rivers, something that is even starting to become noticeable at Christmastime.  This article reports that Viking are planning on adding another 24 ships to their fleet over the next few years.  It already has 65 river cruise boats.

Winning a prize for most improbable answer to whatever happened to the disappeared flight MH370 is the guy who claims to have found it on Google Earth, riddled with bullet holes.

Never mind the fact that Google Earth, as amazing as it is, lacks the resolution to show details of anything to include such tiny details as bullet holes.  A more major objection is that the image in question was apparently photographed in 2009.  MH370 disappeared in 2014.   Details here.

And truly lastly this week, I wondered, above, what it takes to get a flight attendant fired.  How about this?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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Mar 222018
 

In the briefest of instants, this woman, illegally walking across a four lane highway, went from invisible to visible, appearing directly in front of the vehicle. A tragic collision was inevitable.

On Sunday the first known case of a self-driving car being involved in a fatal accident occurred.

Yes, there was an earlier fatality when a Tesla crashed while in autopilot mode, back in 2016, and its ‘driver’ was killed; but that case was deemed to only very partially be Tesla’s fault.  The driver had ignored seven warnings immediately prior to the crash, asking him to reassert control over the car.  Unlike the Tesla situation, this case involved a fully self-driving car, although it also had a human ‘safety driver’ in the vehicle too.

Let’s first carefully state the facts then ponder their meaning and the broader issues.

What Happened

It seems the vehicle was proceeding north up a road that had two lanes of traffic going north, a wide median strip, and on the other side, a matching two lanes of traffic going south.  The accident occurred at 10pm, when it was fully dark.

The vehicle was apparently driving at 38 mph, and the speed limit was 45 mph.  Traffic was light, and the road ahead was clear.  The vehicle was in the right hand of the two lanes of northbound traffic and seemed to be proceeding in a proper and lawful manner in every respect.

Just past a cut in the median, as the car was proceeding, a woman in dark clothing appeared in the headlights, very close, walking across the road while pushing a bicycle.  She had already crossed from the other side, gone over the median strip, through the left lane of traffic, and suddenly appeared in the middle of the right lane, directly in front of the vehicle, on her way to the other side of the road.  It was not a crosswalk, although there was one approximately 400 ft away.  There were occasional streetlights, but the woman chose a spot between streetlights that was poorly lit.

Neither the vehicle itself nor the safety driver had time to react/respond.  She died shortly thereafter from the injuries suffered.

Video from the vehicle’s video camera has now been released.  You can see what the car saw, yourself, here.  Please keep in mind, while doing so, that you are staring intently at the video and straining to see the hidden pedestrian that you know is somewhere out there.  Try and guess at how you would have reacted, when just driving along normally, with what appears to be an ordinary empty road stretching out in front of you.

There is also a second video clip taken from the vehicle’s dash, recording the ‘safety driver’.  It shows the safety driver to have been inattentive, but by coincidence, looking up and out at the road just a second or so prior to the accident, and then a classic look of horror and surprise appears on the driver’s face.  That can be seen here.

Interpretation

Two things happen at night, as we all know.  The first is that cars become easier to see, because they have bright headlights standing out from the darkness that is otherwise all around them.  It actually becomes easier for pedestrians to see cars at night rather than during the day.

The second is that there is no reciprocity in this visual phenomenon – it becomes harder for drivers to see pedestrians, because they generally tend to fade into the half-light or total darkness outside of the main headlight beams.  A person in dark clothing in particular can be very hard to see.  The ‘invisible’ nature of the woman and the way she suddenly appeared as if from nowhere can be clearly seen in the video.

One is left with the uncomfortable realization that this woman was crossing four lanes of traffic, at night, in dark clothing, not at a cross-walk, and walked directly into the path of an oncoming vehicle that she surely must have clearly seen from some distance back.  Perhaps she mistakenly thought she would be clearly seen, and perhaps she expected the vehicle to brake and give way to her.  But she wasn’t seen, the vehicle didn’t stop, and neither did she appear to take any desperate last-minute avoidance, either.

The Tempe police chief has been quoted as saying that the accident would have been difficult to avoid, whether a person was driving or not, and that Uber’s self-driving vehicle is likely not at fault.

The Duty to Give Way

Most states make it plain that no matter who has right of way, all parties sharing the road have an overriding obligation to avoid accidents with other parties.  The duty to avoid accidents is an overriding and shared duty.

But it seems clear that the underlying cause of this accident was the result of a deliberate decision on the part of this woman to walk across four lanes of traffic at a dangerous location.

No-one will be surprised to learn that the woman’s friends are now beatifying her and calling for a total end to all self-driving testing.  A cynic would wonder why tragedies apparently only ever occur to wonderful people, but that’s perhaps a topic for another time.  The friends haven’t offered any explanations for her actions, preferring instead to anoint her with praise and heap ordure on all self-driving vehicle programs.

Some pedestrians and cyclists become very aggressive at not giving way and passively aggressively challenging vehicles to either hit them or yield.  We’ve all seen pedestrians like her, haven’t we – people who deliberately pretend they don’t see our car, forcing us to give way to them.  But such passive aggressiveness usually occurs at slow speed in parking lots where they know they are visible, not at night on a dual carriageway with a posted 45 mph speed limit.

I have neighbors who view the public road as a children’s playground, and demand that their children have priority to play on the street, overriding the right of cars to proceed normally along the road (even though they live in single family dwellings with reasonable sized lots).  In their opinion, placing a traffic cone on the street unilaterally changes it from a street to a children’s playground.  And while that claim is totally wrong, the overriding duty to avoid accidents means I have to slow to a crawl or even stop while waiting for their children to grudgingly clear a space for me to then drive through.

Who Was at Fault?

In this case, it seems impossible to avoid the same conclusion the police have reached – the woman’s actions were the primary cause of this accident.  She broke the law by not crossing at a cross-walk, and then earned a Darwin award when she voluntarily walked in front of an oncoming car.

But what about the duty of the car to avoid her, even in cases where she is acting irresponsibly?  It is possible a human driver would have better night vision, seeing more detail in the dark than what the camera shows, but balancing that is it is also probable that unless the driver was extraordinarily alert and anticipating such an event, the first faint hints of a person on the road would have been overlooked and by the time the woman’s presence had been registered and responded to, it would have been too late to prevent the tragedy that followed.

It is more puzzling why the vehicle’s LIDAR sensors don’t seem to have detected the woman (they work as well in the dark as in the daytime and can see very small things – even a pedestrian’s outstretched arm and hand).  (Here’s a brief but interesting example of what cars ‘see’ when driving by themselves.)

More likely, the LIDAR did detect the woman, but perhaps due to her slow movement, improbable location, and lack of confirmation from other sensor systems, they decided to ignore her as a vision ‘artifact’ rather than as a real genuine hazard.  Self-driving cars can have problems with stationary objects; they may sometimes ignore them as being ‘noise’ and ‘errors’ rather than as being true objects to be responded to.

A perfect self-driving car would have done a better job of detecting and avoiding the woman, but before we start to demand perfection in our cars, isn’t it fair to first seek slightly more rational behavior on the part of pedestrians?  What part of ‘don’t step out in front of a car, away from a cross-walk, away from street lights, in dark clothing, and on a multi-lane 45 mph highway, at night’ is hard to understand or comply with?

Would a full-time human driver in a car with no automation have done a better job of detecting and avoiding the woman?  You might wish to think so, and perhaps if it was you at the wheel, fully alert and anxiously scanning the darkness for wayward pedestrians, that might have been the case.  But in 2016, 5,997 pedestrians were killed by cars in the US (including many in daylight and even many on crosswalks) so the odds are clearly still very much against pedestrians in general.  We are all taught to be defensive drivers, pedestrians need to be doubly schooled in the art of being defensive pedestrians.

Some Risk Statistics

To put this one accident in context, on the same day, probably 110 or more other people also died in traffic accidents on US roads, and another 12,600 were injured (2016 statistics).  There are about 16,000 vehicle accident events every day, some involving only one vehicle, most involving two or more.  This accident count is of course a rather conjectural number because many are unreported, and many are subjective – at what point does a trivial ‘fender bender’ become an ‘accident’?

This data needs to be viewed through two additional filters.  First, it is fair to note that while the one death from a self-driving vehicle is less than 1% of that day’s total, the number of self-driving cars on the roads is way less than 1% of all vehicles.  So that makes it a significant event in the annals of self-driving cars.  Google’s Waymo self-driving car project claims to have amassed more than 5 million miles of self-driving experience, as well as billions of miles of less useful computer simulations, but even 5 million miles is a trivial distance on which to base any findings.

But that leads to the second point.  In the entire history of self-driving vehicles – limited as it is, the total fatality count sits at one, whereas the 110 ‘ordinary’ fatalities is a daily count, increasing every day.  In total, about 40,000 people are killed every year on US roads, a number which after steadily declining (probably due to safety innovations) has now started to climb again (perhaps reflecting no recent additional safety innovations and overall increases in cars on the roads and total miles driven).

To put this in further context, as deadly as motor vehicles are in total, the fatality rate is very low.  Currently there are about 1.25 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (2016 statistic).  Most of us will go our entire lives without even driving 1 million miles, and so while we all know people who have had accidents or suffered deaths in their families from traffic accidents, the chances of it happening to us directly is clearly deemed by society to be acceptably low.

It is interesting to compare that to the safety of flying.  For every person who is scared of driving (or of being a passenger) there are probably 100 or 1000 people who are afflicted with a much greater fear of flying.  But the comparative fatality rate for commercial passenger jets, per 100 million passenger miles in 2017 was zero, and the total fatality count was also zero (compared to about 40,000 on the roads).  Longer term, accounting for years when there are plane crashes with fatalities, the risk still remains as nearly zero, and too small a number to be very statistically significant.  Ask yourself – how many people do you know of who died or were injured in car crashes?  Now, how many do you know who died or were injured in plane crashes?

Perhaps it is simplest just to say that air travel is clearly more than ten times as safe as road travel, and probably substantially more than 100 times as safe.

The Safety Implications of Self-Driving Technologies

Almost all vehicular accidents can trace their cause back to an unoptimized action on the part of their driver.  Maybe sometimes there are other factors present as well, but almost without exception, most accidents evolve through a process and at one point in that process, a bad decision on the part of the driver ends up causing the accident to occur rather than be avoided.  If we can improve that decision-making process, we can reduce accidents.

Society seems to have reached a balancing point where it tolerates the annual road carnage as an acceptable price to pay in return for everyone having convenient access to driving licenses and the right to drive, even though requiring higher standards of driving competency would clearly lower the rate of accidents and deaths.

To illustrate that point, it is interesting to compare the chances of dying in a motor vehicle accident in ‘dangerous’ countries and in ‘safe’ countries.  A commonly cited and several times updated study compares accident rates to population numbers, this is an imperfect measure because risk is more a function of miles driven, but with a 20-fold difference between safe and dangerous countries, clearly there are significant differences in accident rates that point to human factor variations and the different degrees of anarchy or compliance with road traffic laws in different countries.  Countries in Scandinavia and Western Europe are rated as very safe,  third-world countries are rated as very dangerous, according to this article.

Vehicular accidents can be categorized several different ways, and that can help us guess as to the degrees of improvement we might experience with self-driving vehicles.  As stated above, most accidents that are caused by an inadequacy on the part of the driver.  Call it an error, a mistake, inattention, impairment due to drugs or drinking, driving too fast, or whatever you like, but still something directly attributable to the driver and something which a better driver could have avoided.

Some of these are classic ‘single vehicle accidents’ in which the car simply leaves the road, or collides with a stationary object.  It seems that slightly more than 50% of all accidents are single-vehicle accidents, and most of those are clearly driver error.

Impaired driving seems to be a factor in 61% of driver fatalities (same source) and that’s obviously another way of saying driver error.  Speed is considered the main reason in 27% of fatal crashes and that also involves a driver error in judging the safe speed to proceed at.

Note that it is possible for one fatality to be simultaneously due to speed, impaired driving, and a single vehicle accident, so these three numbers sum to more than 100%.

We can fairly say that in many/most of the single vehicle accidents, self-driving cars might reduce the risk of such accidents.  Similarly, in almost every impaired driving fatality, a self-driving car would eliminate that as a risk factor.  And self-driving cars are unlikely to drive at unsafe speeds.

Other accidents point to a second category – accidents caused by another driver.  You are driving perfectly in your car, but the actions of someone else create a situation where a reasonably skilled driver is unable to respond and prevent an accident from occurring.  A self-driving car generally has better situational awareness, all around it, and so might detect an accident about to happen sooner than a human driver, and might then have the computer-speed reflexes to defensively maneuver and avoid or reduce the severity of the collision.

And, of course, if the other vehicle was a self-driving vehicle too, then the chances of it being driven unsafely would be reduced, and short-range vehicle-to-vehicle communication would help coordinate evasive action (sort of like “I’ll swerve to the right and slow down; you swerve to the left and accelerate to avoid me”).

A third category of accident would be true accidental events.  This might be the failure of something in the car – the brakes fail, the steering wheel falls off, the accelerator jams, or whatever.  A large animal runs onto the road.  A boulder from high up on a cliff falls down and lands on a car roof, or in the road directly ahead.  Self-driving cars would probably be no worse than human drivers at responding to such emergencies, and probably would be better.  It takes an alert attentive driver a minimum of 0.75 seconds to react to an unexpected event, and at 50 mph, that means they’ve traveled 75 ft before even deciding to take their foot off the gas pedal and shift to the brake pedal.  It seems realistic to expect a computer to detect, analyse, decide how to respond and actually do so in perhaps one tenth the time.  That saves almost 70 ft of travel at 50 mph, which many times will give a situation the edge it needs to resolve to a more minor outcome without fatalities.

Most experts believe that self-driving cars will be substantially safer than cars we drive ourselves.  There is no agreement on an exact number for how much safer, but clearly, just looking at the 61% of fatalities from impaired driving alone (and assuming that self-driving cars don’t create new risks) the improvement could be profound.

We’ve seen predictions of between 10 and 100 times improvements, and these of course depend on what the ‘base case’ that is being compared to might be, and also the degree of technological advancement assumed in the self driving vehicle.  This sort of leads to our final point.

How Much Safer Should Self-Driving Cars Be?

Actually, this heading embodies an assumption right from the start.  Why should a self-driving car be required to be any safer than a regular car?  There are massive benefits already flowing through to society by freeing us from the chains of being unproductively stuck behind the wheels of our cars – wouldn’t simply maintaining the status quo be sufficient, in view of all the other benefits to self-driving cars?

Perhaps though, recognizing that there is a wide range of driving competencies and risks, it would be fair to require self-driving cars to be as safe as a skilled/experienced driver rather than as safe as an average or less skilled/experienced driver.  We’re not quite certain as to the range of accident rates as between better and worse drivers, but would making self-driving cars twice as safe as average drivers be sufficient?  That could see 20,000 fewer deaths each year, and 2.3 million fewer injuries.  Surely that is an enormous improvement that we should be urgently rushing to implement.

Maybe you hold out for a higher level.  How about four times safer that average?  That is probably better than 95% of drivers currently on the roads, and would save 30,000 lives a year.  With a four-fold reduction in accidents, we could also hope for a similar level of reduction in insurance premiums too.

Think also about the social improvements.  Chances are that you know someone who has been affected (negatively) by an auto-accident, either directly or to a close family member.  We know people who now have semi-permanent back/neck injuries, and of course, people who have been killed.  The impacts of such things flow through our social structures.  Eliminating or greatly reducing them would make many seemingly unrelated parts of our lives much better.

At a more trivial but still beneficial level, self-driving cars would brilliantly help with ‘fender bender’ type incidents that never even appear in formal accident statistics.  Chances are you’ve been in many more fender benders that didn’t involve police and official accident reporting, and maybe sometimes didn’t even involve an insurance claim, but which did involve recriminations, regret, and hassles.

Self-driving cars can also help with congestion.  Because they can react more quickly, they can safely follow more closely, and won’t irrationally slow down to look at ‘interesting things’, making freeways capable of handling more cars an hour.  Fewer accidents also means fewer freeway blockages, making commuting and travel in general more predictable.

It is probably possible to make self-driving cars even safer still, but can we afford to wait for self-driving cars to be five or six times safer than average drivers before allowing their deployment?  Shouldn’t we be ultra-urgently scrambling to release systems that are two, three, four times safer than current average drivers, and then phase in further improvements as technology allows.

The US government has just unveiled a plan to spend $100 million on developing self-driving car technology.  But this is a paltry sum, a drop in the bucket compared to the billions currently being spent by the private sector, and all around the world.  To measure that by another standard, it is estimated that each and every vehicular fatality represents an overall cost and loss of income of several million dollars.  So the $100 million represents the savings from perhaps only a couple of dozen averted fatalities.  Shouldn’t we be adding another zero or two or three to this sum, to accelerate the R&D, testing, and implementation of new technologies?

We can’t afford to wait until self-driving cars are ten or one hundred times safer.  We need to deploy this technology sequentially, and urgently.  The lives that will undoubtedly be saved may reach directly into your family and friends.

Summary

This specific accident seems to clearly be the result of the woman’s puzzling decision to act irrationally and walk out in front of the vehicle.  Whether the vehicle was driving itself or had a normal driver, it probably would have happened either which way.  While better self-driving technologies might protect against such things in the future, the current degree of self-driving capability does not seem to have contributed at all to this accident and so provides no reason to pause or restrict ongoing self-driving development.

We need to understand and accept that no matter how good they already are, and how much better they become, self-driving cars will at best only reduce rather than eliminate accidents.

But the promise of reducing the 40,000 road deaths and the 4.6 million reported injuries every year (these numbers apply to the US only) by any amount is so extraordinarily beneficial that we need to see the accidents that will happen in the context of all the other accidents that didn’t happen.

Self-driving cars will revolutionise our society in many beneficial ways.  We need to press forward with their development and urgent implementation.

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Mar 152018
 

Not your typical hotel corridors. Our featured hotel in Lille on our Christmas Markets tour is a former convent; these are the restored cloisters.

Good morning

As mentioned, I’ve been traveling for most of this week and will be continuing into next week too.  But I’ve had time to finally get all the details of our first ever ‘Christmas Land Cruise’ written down – and what a lot of details there are, due to so many inclusions and places we visit.

I am really excited about this concept – spending a week in one hotel while radiating out to different parts of the region each day for touring.  It works well in dense parts of Europe where there are so many lovely places, all very close to each other, but of course wouldn’t work so well in the US, China, or Australia, where travel distances are necessarily much greater.

I think you too will love the flexibility and freedom this tour allows.  Because we never check in and out of hotels for the entire week, there are no ‘traveling days’ where you have to get on the coach, even if you don’t want to, because the tour is moving to another city.  Every activity on every day is optional, and you can mix and match and modify what you do to suit your wishes.  This also means that you never have to worry about being back on board the ship before it sails, because our lovely Lille hotel isn’t going anywhere.  The worst that could happen is you simply take a train or bus back to Lille after extending a stop at one of the towns we visit.

More details in the article after the roundup, and full details on the website (see links in the article).

There’s another article that I could barely contain my mirth while writing it.  One of the airlines I increasingly dislike, primarily due to the dishonesty/unfairness of their frequent flier awards program and the ridiculous fees they charge for supposedly free tickets, is British Airways.  Except that the name British Airways is no longer accurate, because the airline is no longer majority owned in Britain; indeed its largest shareholder is Qatar Airways, with a 20% holding in the Spanish company IAG that now owns BA.

This means that when the UK and US negotiate a new openskies agreement after Britain leaves the EU next year, it is very likely, according to leaked details of the proposed agreement, that BA will not be allowed to fly between Britain and the US, due to being neither a British nor an American airline!

I’ve also written a third piece, but this time sadly rather than with mirth, about the now acknowledged latest round of delays to and cost overruns for California’s High Speed Rail plans.  I must repeat that I love trains and especially fast trains.  But perhaps that is one of the problems – people who love trains run the risk of being blinded to ugly practicalities and realities that detract from their commercial viability, and argue for trains more on emotion than in business terms, while trying to create a veneer of business justification for their passion.

Whatever the reason, California’s project is shaping up to be a disaster and a disgrace, as my article details.

A few more items to fill your Friday morning read, too :

  • United’s Several Dog Problems
  • How Much Would You Pay for Slightly Earlier Boarding?
  • Is South African Airways About to Collapse?
  • More on the Future of Air Fares
  • Researching Room Rates and Ripoffs
  • Lyft Penalizes Riders If They Don’t Rate Their Drivers Highly
  • Elon Musk’s Good and Bad News
  • And Lastly This Week….

United’s Several Dog Problems

It wasn’t even a ‘comfort’ dog.  It was a ‘regular’ dog, a French bulldog puppy, and traveling with its owners, on a United flight.  It was in an officially approved carrier, and per United’s stated policies, was placed, in its carrier, on the floor underneath the seat in front of the mother and young daughter who were traveling with the puppy.

For reasons that are unclear, a flight attendant demanded that the dog, in its carrier, be placed in the overhead.  The owner tried to dissuade the flight attendant, but to no avail, so up the dog went.

The dog barked for two hours, then went quiet for the rest of the flight from Houston to LaGuardia.  Alas, upon arriving at LGA, the reason for the dog’s silence became apparent.  It had died (French bulldogs are known to have breathing problems).

To give United credit, it first abjectly apologized.  But, after having time to think about it some more, the airline then tried to claim that the flight attendant did not know there was a dog in the bag.  Apparently the flight attendant somehow failed to comprehend the agitated passengers had a dog in the dog carrier – and by some of the commentaries, it seems it was the flight attendant herself who placed the bag in the overhead.  How can you not realize that the bag you’re lifting up contains a live dog inside it?

And equally apparently, it seems none of the flight attendants thought it unusual to hear barking coming from the overhead compartments.

It would seem that United’s excuse is even stranger than the flight attendant’s demand in the first place.

United says that it will change its procedures so that all pet carriers with pets inside will be given a brightly colored tag to indicate the presence of a pet inside.  One has to wonder that if a flight attendant can be so dead to the world as to not realize that there is a barking dog in the bag she just placed in the overhead; will the flight attendant even notice the bag tag?  The answer to this outrage is not fancy colored tags, it is common sense and awareness to what passengers are trying to say and share.

Details here, and United’s subsequent shameful excuse, here.

Unfortunately for United – or, perhaps better to say, unfortunately for another dog and its owners, no sooner had this story come out than another United dog story broke..  The dog’s owners were flying with the dog (who was in the cargo hold) to Kansas, but when they were reunited with their dog in Kansas, instead of the family German Shepherd pet, they were presented with a Great Dane!

United then determined that the correct dog had been misrouted and sent to Japan rather than to Kansas.  Did someone really think that the family would accept a Great Dane instead?  Details here.

The LA Times also blew the dust off an older story about United’s past problems with pets and attempts to avoid accepting responsibility for pet deaths while in the airline’s care.  It also seems that United has many more pet deaths each year than the other airlines, although if we are to believe United, this is just a coincidence and absolutely not the airline’s fault.

How Much Would You Pay for Slightly Earlier Boarding?

So, how much would you pay to board the plane a bit sooner than you’re otherwise entitled to?

United hopes you’d pay $9 to be moved up to what they term their second boarding group (but, like so much else, United gets this wrong – their second boarding group is actually the third group of passengers they allow onto the plane).

The implied benefit associated with the $9 fee is of course that you’re somewhat more likely to find space in an overhead if you get earlier boarding, and that leads to a concept that you don’t want to think about too much – United is therefore motivated to make overhead space insufficient for everyone so as to encourage people to pay $9 to be able to get some overhead space before it is all used up.

That is one of the problems of course – a carry-on policy that still remains largely unenforced and willfully abused by shameless passengers dragging multiple enormous bags on board with them.  If United (and other airlines) would actually enforce their “one carryon and one small personal item” policies, and also enforce the size limits on both items, there’s be much more overhead space for everyone.

The other problem is that, as best I can tell, zone/group boarding is largely unenforced.  I see it every time I wait for a flight.  Whenever a zone is called, there is a rush of people crowding to get on board as part of that zone, and then, when the line gets smaller, there is a steady trickle of people who look around guiltily, stare at the dwindling line for a while, then move up to join the tail end of the line.  Many of such people show no sign at all of being elite level frequent fliers, but I’ve never, ever, seen anyone turned away from boarding at any time (have you?).

Why don’t the airlines program their boarding pass scanners to refuse to accept ‘cheaters’ – people presenting out of sequence boarding passes, trying to get ahead of their priority?  Why don’t airline staff enforce the clear and obvious boarding policies of their airline employers?

The interesting thing about this $9 charge is that the more people who buy it, the less valuable it becomes.  I often find myself boarding in zone/group two on flights, with who only knows how many more zones behind me (I guess another two or more) and when I get on board, I find the zone one and zone ‘unnumbered’ passengers have already filled almost half the plane.  The overheads are already getting perilously full.

And while $9 to board a bit early, on a plane that is going to depart at the same time, no matter when you board, might seem like a lot, in reality it isn’t.  ‘Low cost’ airline Southwest charges $50 for people wishing to be one of the first 15 to board its planes.  $50!

More details here.  And, a further observation.  United is describing this fee as being ‘from $9′.  Might it increase still further?

Lastly, I was reminded of United valuing early boarding at $9 (or more) when hearing a Delta gate announcement earlier this week, imploring passengers not to crowd the gate area, because everyone would get on the plane, and everyone would arrive at the same time.

Delta apparently thinks there is no value to early boarding at all.

Is South African Airways About to Collapse?

Six years in a row of losses, a net worth a year ago of minus $1.5 billion, accounting irregularities, and banks not extending their loans.

No part of that sounds good for South African Airways.  The good news, from the airline’s perspective, is that it is owned by the South African government, and as a national ‘flag carrier’ clearly the airline is hoping that national pride will prove more important than fiscal success.

But, really, the last six years included some of the best and most profitable years ever in the airline industry.  How can an airline lose money even during the boom years?

The answer seems to be persistent management ineptness and sometimes even outright corruption, combined with poor choices of routes and planes.

This brief article wonders if the airline is in danger of being closed.  I doubt that will happen, because the South African government doubtless considers keeping the airline flying to be a matter of national pride.

But I can’t clearly see an easy way forward for the airline as it currently is, and the downside to being owned by a government is that it is necessary to compromise between hard and unpopular business decisions on the one hand, and pandering to the government and country as a whole on the other hand.

More on the Future of Air Fares

Currently, as ‘common carriers’, airlines are required to offer the same fares to everyone, equally.

For the longest time, this ‘restriction’ was actually one the airlines wanted.  It kept things simple, and reassured them that no clever groups of travelers might be out-negotiating them.

Of course, the ‘everyone pays the same’ requirement is shot full of loopholes, as is evidenced by any company with a corporate rate contract, or any passenger who has been given a ‘waiver or favor’ allowing them access to a fare that in theory they don’t qualify for.

But these current exceptions are vaguely positive in the market – they are discounts off the published prices, given for commercial or compassionate reasons.

However, as the airlines find out more and more about us (last week’s newsletter discussed this) the airlines are getting increasingly keen to use the extra information they know about us so as to start offering us individually tailored fares.  The airfare you are quoted might be different to the fare your partner or child or parent is quoted for the exact same flights on the exact same day.

Why are the airlines so keen to be able to do this?  Well, if you ask an airline executive, they’ll probably tell you it is so they can stimulate growth by encouraging more people to fly more often – you know, a ‘good’ thing that is to our advantage.  But the more likely real reason is so they can increase fares to people who they believe will pay more, rather than decrease fares to people who are more price sensitive.  With most flights currently departing as close to full as is possible, the airlines don’t need to and don’t want to discount anything – they want to maximize the yield they get from their now full planes.

This is not something we should eagerly look forward to.  Here’s a rather lightweight article on the topic.

Researching Room Rates and Ripoffs

Inexplicable, Google has lowered the ranking it gives to lower priced sellers of hotel rooms.  When you search for a hotel on Google, it will often helpfully include a box on the page of search results that lists a number of websites selling the hotel, and showing the rates they charge.

That is a moderately interesting feature, particularly for (mainly foreign) hotels that don’t aggressively enforce a requirement that everyone sell their hotel at the same rate.  But Google has changed the ranking priority for the websites it shows in that search box – perhaps based on the willingness of websites to pay to be listed.  Now, instead of giving extra priority to low-priced sources, Google generally shows highest priced sources in the box, and merely includes a subtle mention that you can click to get more listings at lower prices.  Details here.

And a note for all you consumer activists.  Only a very few New York hotels charge a ‘resort fee’ at present, but more are considering it, and it seems there is very little consumer resistance to the move.  This is the point where you need to make your voice heard.  Next time you book a NYC hotel, ask if there’s a resort fee.  If there isn’t, thank them and tell them you are refusing to pay resort fees, and ask for the reservationist to pass your thanks on to the hotel’s Sales & Marketing Director.  If there is a fee, refuse to pay it and tell the hotel you’ll cancel your booking unless the fee is waived, and ask for that to be passed to the S&M Director too.

Lyft Penalizes Riders If They Don’t Rate Their Drivers Highly

I was upset when my Lyft driver earlier this week took a lengthy detour that extended the distance, time, and cost of my journey to the airport.  Indeed, I was a bit out of sorts before he even arrived.  After being told to expect a car in three minutes, I was then told that a car was due to arrive in seven minutes, but after several minutes, that car disappeared and then a new car was substituted, with a fresh eight minute wait for it to arrive.

Of course, those problems were not the fault of the driver who did turn up, and I was pleased to see him.  After getting in the car, I buried my head in my phone, and so didn’t immediately realize that he had driven past the usual turn to the nearest freeway onramp.

When I realized we’d not taken the correct turning, I asked where he was going, and he said he was detouring to avoid traffic problems.  I was unaware of any road works, and am intimately familiar with traffic flow patterns, none of which posed potential problems, and checking on Waze confirmed no slowdowns on the regular route.  So I disagreed with him about that, although to no avail as each passing minute of debate saw us heading obstinately north, with the airport directly to the south.

When we finally got to the airport, and I got Lyft’s cheery message inviting me to tip and rate the driver, I didn’t tip and decided rather than giving him the usual four or five (out of five) stars, I’d drop it down to two.  There were some other issues to do with his driving that I didn’t much like either, so I felt two out of five was somewhere between a fair and generous rating.

Lyft thanked me and then told me that because I didn’t give the driver four or five stars, I’d never be matched with him again.  That’s an interesting concept.

While, for sure, I’d prefer not to ride with him again in the future, if I had a choice as between waiting an additional five or ten minutes for a different driver, or taking him again, I’d almost surely choose to accept a ride with him in the interests of expediency.

Lyft’s cheery advice that I’ll never be matched with that driver again is as much a way of stilling complaint as it is a gracious way of accepting user feedback.

And my attempts to now communicate my concern about the route have not been very successful, either.  There’s no phone number to be found on their site, nor even a direct email address.  Instead, one is forced to follow a series of steps to describe one’s problem, with no easy way of doing so.  I persevered and after sending in a detailed explanation of why I felt the route was wrong, quickly got a response back.  The response :

We reviewed your ride cost and found that the cost was correctly calculated. No change was made to your final total. If you have questions, please contact us.

But I wasn’t complaining about the cost of the ride, other than as an outcome of the ride being indirect and longer than it should have been.  I’m sure the charge calculation was correct, it was the route which was wrong.  How can their customer service people be so inattentive to the simple story I sent them?

I sent them another note, and now over a day later and they’ve not replied any further.

Increasingly it seems there’s a lot to be said for good old-fashioned taxis.

Elon Musk’s Good and Bad News

The good news?  At the SXSW conference this week, he announced that he expects ‘short flights’ of his Mars rocket to commence next year (no, I’ve no idea what a ‘short flight’ is).

The bad news?  He also warned that the first people flying to Mars will likely die (and not happily at home, of old age).

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s another of the perennial daylight saving type stories that appear at the start and end of every daylight saving season.  But this one is better than most, with some interesting history and examples.

And here’s another of the ‘top ten’ (or any other) travel lists that some websites like offering up as clickbait.  This one offers you the twenty best places to visit this year in terms of offering the best experiences and at the best values; ten in the US and ten internationally.

At least this article avoids some of the really strange destination suggestions that often appear in such articles, but on the other hand, while Chicago or Tokyo are absolutely not strange, are they really must-visit and great-value destinations?

And well done for it not offering Cancun as one of its recommendations.  Here’s why that might be a bad choice.

And truly lastly this week, an interesting article about why NASA still operates three airplanes that were developed for the RAF in the mid/late 1940s.  Compared to these Canberra bombers, our B-52s are veritable spring chickens!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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