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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

Nov 022017
 

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 ten day tour of Kazakhstan, in late May 2018.

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 (below), and necessarily/sadly must start by saying that the country is utterly not at all as depicted in the very funny Borat movie.

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 modern new capital city of Astana.  From former nuclear test sites (we’ll visit these, with protective anti-radiation gear included and all radiation levels are carefully monitored and safe) to experiencing the country’s vast plains (steppes) and unspoiled 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 cells phones, and a stable slowly growing economy based on agriculture, mining and energy.

This ten day, nine night tour will be limited to a maximum of 25 people and includes :

  • Share twin accommodation every night
  • Breakfasts every morning
  • Eight lunches
  • Four dinners
  • Two overnight train rides in four berth private compartments – we keep two of the four berths empty for your greater convenience and privacy
  • One daytime train ride
  • Internal flight from Ust-Kamenogorsk to Karaganda
  • Transfers upon arrival and for departure
  • All touring and admissions as detailed in the itinerary
  • Local guide/tour manager traveling with us all the way

It has a projected price of $2895 per person, share twin, with a single supplement of $495.  If you’re traveling with a US, UK, Canadian, Australian, or NZ passport (and many others too) you don’t need a visa.

Here’s a quick summary outline of how we’ll spend our ten days in this very different country.

The approximate route of our tour in Kazakhstan

Day 1 – Arrive in Astana (Wed 23 May)

Astana with the Presidential Palace in the background.

Today (some people might choose to arrive a day or more early and we’ll offer some pre-tour activities) we’ll arrive into Astana.  You’ll be transferred to a centrally located hotel upon arrival, and we’ll all meet up for a group welcome dinner this evening.

Included meals :  Dinner

Day 2 – Astana Touring (Thu 24 May)

The KazMunayGaz building in Astana

We’ll see the sights of this modern city, and what incredible sights they are.  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, Lunch

Day 3 – Local Touring, Overnight Train Journey (Fri 25 May)

The Arch of Sorrow on an appropriately somber day at Akhmol

We travel out of Astana to the village of Akhmol and the Museum of the Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland – 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, have lunch, then it’s all aboard for an afternoon and overnight train ride through the countryside.

Included meals :  Breakfast, Lunch

Day 4 – Kurchatov Nuclear Test Site (Sat 26 May)

Close to ground zero of the first Soviet atomic bomb explosion at Kurchatov

The train arrives early this morning into this formerly ultra-closed secret city.

We have an early morning check-in at our hotel (which is bizarrely owned by the Kazakh Institute of Atomic Energy) and time to freshen up before heading out to the Semipalatinsk Test Site, which is where the Soviets raced to catch up with the US and develop their own nuclear weapons.

We visit the museum there, then travel into the ‘Polygon’ testing zone and all the way to Ground Zero – the exact spot where the first ever Soviet nuclear bomb was detonated. Those who wish to travel all the way there will briefly don protective clothing.

We then travel to Chagan – once a very secret long-range bomber base, now abandoned, as is its adjacent garrison town, which was a bustling center for the base staff during the period 1954-1994. Nowadays it has a post-apocalyptic look to it.

Included meals :  Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 5 – Kurchatov Region (Sun 27 May)

Typical dilapidated ‘Sovet drab’ style housing in Kurchatov

Some more nuclear exploring today, going to the Atomic Lake in the Semipalatinsk Polygon area.  This lake was deliberately created by nuclear blasts, and now reaches depths of 600 ft.  Is it true that fishermen go there day and night, because of the nuclear glow it emits?  Come see for yourself.  We’ll experience a ‘roadside picnic’ (not what its name implies – here’s a fascinating explanation) and a local expert will explain some of the sights we see.

Returning back to Kurchatov, we’ll enjoy a walking tour of this city, now much smaller and less prosperous than it once was, and have a free evening.

Included meals :  Breakfast, Lunch

Day 6 – Semey (Semipalatinsk) (Mon 28 May)

A mosque in Semey

We take a short two-hour train ride across the steppe to the city of Semey, far off the typical tourist routes, but – as you’ll discover – well worth a visit.

Once a prosperous trading city and gateway between China and Russia, the city has an interesting mix of architecture, statues and monuments.

We’ll visit the Dostoyevsky Museum (he was exiled to this city), the Fine Arts Museum, and the Stronger than Death Monument in the Tatar section of the town.

Included meals :  Breakfast, Lunch

Day 7 – To Karagandy (Karaganda) (Tue 29 May)

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

Today we drive to Ust-Kamenogorsk, where we’ll then take a flight to Karagandy. The flight itself is a highlight, because it will take us over assorted test sites, abandoned gulags, coal mines, and endless gently undulating grassed countryside.

We then have a walking tour of the city center of Karagandy, and will be staying at a hotel that is distinctive in the sense of being an archetypal ugly Soviet style hotel, although inside the rooms are comfortable and updated.  One part of the hotel was built especially for the visit of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.

Included meals :  Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 8 -Touring around Karagandy, overnight train (Wed 30 May)

The pleasant city of Karaganda

Today we travel an hour out of Karagandy to the KarLag Museum, all about the gulags, and set in the former NKVD/KGB regional headquarters, with well-preserved gulag barracks making up the adjoining village.

We visit the nearby town of Shahtinsk for lunch and views of local industries – mainly coal mining but some steel production and agriculture too.

We have several choices of afternoon activities before returning back to Karaganda where we’ll take another overnight train, this time to Almaty.

Included meals :  Breakfast, Lunch

Day 9 – Almaty (Thu 31 May)

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

Almaty echoes some of the classical architecture of St Petersburg and Moscow.

If yesterday’s experiences were a bit sombre, today’s are more buoyant and light. We’ll even visit a chocolate factory, as well as some of the bazaars, pedestrian precincts, and parks, and even 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 a 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.

Included meals :  Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Day 10 – Tour Ends or Option to Charyn Canyon (Thu 1 June)

Charyn Canyon looks similar to the US Grand Canyon

Our formal tour ends today, and you’ll be transferred to the airport for your flight onwards from Almaty.

However, if time (and budget) allows, we recommend you stay one extra day so as to experience one of the scenic wonders of Kazakhstan – the Charyn Canyon.

If you choose to do so we’ll travel to the 50 – 60 mile long Charyn Canyon, more than slightly reminiscent of the US Grand Canyon.

Another option – today or tomorrow – would be to travel on to Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, and only a short distance from Almaty.

Included meals :  Breakfast

Day 11 – Option to Bishkek (Friday 2 June)

When this square (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.

Why not add another ‘stan to your itinerary and today travel from Almaty to Bishkek, capital of neighboring Kyrgyzstan (happily also a country with a no-visa policy for most visitors).  It is about a four hour journey.

Although on one of the several historic Silk Road routes (and now slated to be added to China’s new ‘Silk Road’), Bishkek is a relatively modern city, dating to 1826.  After being taken by the Russians in 1862, it was rebuilt in Russian and then Soviet style, and was known as Frunze during its time in the Soviet Union.  As a result, there’s a curious mix of Tsarist, Soviet, and modern architecture, and a cosmopolitan feel to the city of not quite one million people.

Included meals :  Breakfast

 

We hope you might choose to join us.  We’ll be accepting registration for this tour very shortly, please let us know if you’d like to be advised when the application form is available.

 

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Oct 312017
 

How much do you tip people each year, month, and week?

We are hoping to end the current annual Travel Insider Reader Fundraising Appeal this week.  At the time of writing, we have 307 people who have responded with generous support, leaving a gap of only 93 more supporters to reach our goal of 400 supporters this year.  Please help us bridge this gap.

In past weeks we’ve explained how we rely on reader support and use a ‘PBS’ type model to keep the lights on.  We’ve spoken about the value everyone receives from The Travel Insider each week, and we’ve created nine special incentives for supporters.

We’ve compared your weekly 5,000+ word free Travel Insider read to the cost of newspapers, magazines and books.  We’ve even equated your support of The Travel Insider in terms comparable to the cost of a single cup of coffee each week (I bought my daughter a Halloween themed Starbucks drink on Saturday that cost $5.65!).

As one last comparison point, may we compare supporting The Travel Insider to tipping.

How often do you tip people – not just the ones who positively add some discretionary extra element of quality to an experience involving them, but also the many who, in truth, do nothing special for you at all?  Sure, they do their job, but they don’t go at all above and beyond the call of duty to help you.  But you still generously thrust notes into their grasping hands as they briefly pass through your life, never to see them again.  If you happily tip people who do something special for you, and even many people who do nothing special for you, will you also consider tipping The Travel Insider today?

Add it all up, and every week/month/year most of us spend hundreds of dollars on voluntary/gratuitous tipping, in return for which our life’s experiences are almost completely unchanged.  So how about now giving a little something to preserve an experience that hopefully does mildly change and improve your life – The Travel Insider.

Here’s an interesting set of suggested tip levels for various types of service providers; although regrettably it doesn’t show a suggested level for The Travel Insider.

If you’re reading this, you’re clearly already a Travel Insider reader, and with the average reader having been doing so for more than seven years, the chances are you’ve been reading the newsletter for quite some time.

We don’t expect your life to have been profoundly changed by our weekly newsletters; although we do hope that some of the items you’ve read have not only entertained, interested, amused or annoyed you, but have also assisted you.  Perhaps they have helped you to travel more wisely and smartly, more aware of your rights and options.  Perhaps a review has helped you to spend your money more appropriately on electronics and assorted other things.  Surely it is appropriate to consider a ‘tip’ in return, once a year (or even once a quarter).

In a reader survey in 2011, 52% of Travel Insider readers said they tip hotel housemaids, up to as much as $20 a day.  But fewer than 4% ‘tip’ the Travel Insider.  We need only 93 more of the 10,000+ readers to send in a contribution/tip to close out the fundraising drive this year.  We need you and your help.  Please choose to be special and become one of these special people.  It only takes a few clicks and a few minutes to help make a big difference here.

Many thanks indeed.

And now lastly, I’m sometimes critical of pilots.  But did you hear the story of the clever pilot last week, who avoided the need to have a passenger dragged off a flight.  The passenger was a very blonde lady and somehow she formed the opinion she should be seated in first class, even though her boarding pass clearly had her seated in coach class.

When the passenger correctly assigned the seat boarded, the blonde refused to move, claiming she was entitled to the seat and was not leaving it until the plane reached its destination, Miami.  Discreet attempts and then more strident ones by the flight attendants all failed to budge her, while she increasingly assertively stated she wasn’t moving an inch until the plane landed in Miami – it was all the airline’s fault, and so they should fix it.

The purser went to the cockpit and conferred with the pilot about what they should do.  The pilot said ‘Leave it to me’, went back to the blonde, and spoke quietly to her for a minute, whereupon she got up, collected her things, and moved back to her middle seat in the rear of the plane.

‘What did you do?’ asked the amazed and impressed purser to the pilot.

‘I told her the front half of the plane wasn’t going to Miami.’

Until Friday, please enjoy Halloween, safe travels, and be sure to be seated in the part of the plane going to your destination

 

David.

 

 

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Oct 272017
 

A picture of the most beautiful country in the world, according to one source. See article below. (Picture from here.)

Good morning

Only a few days remaining until Halloween.  Not many people in the US appreciate how very US-centric Halloween was, but also how the rest of the world is now rushing to embrace it too.

While the celebration of Halloween dates back to the Middle Ages and Europe, the practice of ‘trick or treating’ originated in the US, and only became prevalent after World War 2 when it rapidly became popular.  These days about 90% of US children in the 5 – 13 yr age group go trick or treating each year, and about 50% of US adults will dress up or in some way celebrate Halloween, too.  Halloween has not always been so popular elsewhere – as recently as 2006, 58% of UK households said they’d turn off their lights and pretend no-one was at home, rather than answer the door and give out candy.

The trick or treating concept is now spreading to the rest of the world, but only really in the last decade or so.

Here’s an interesting article with plenty more fun facts about Halloween.

Talking about Trick or Treating (here’s the groan segue) we now have 295 people who have kindly participated in this year’s fund-raising drive.  What are the chances that, in with your candy and other purchases, you could also send a ‘treat’ this way to help our annual appeal reach its 400 person target, allowing us all to return back to ‘normal programming’ once more.  🙂

Special thanks to our Super Supporters, or as they’ll soon be called, our Platinum members, Steve K, Jeanette P, Donna P, and Dave S; and our Diamond members as they’ll soon be termed, Richard W and Pat H, and of course, to all other supporters too.

Remember that supporters are getting an increasing number of items in return – some discounts, and some additional valuable content.  Plus the pleasure of knowing you’re helping to keep independent publishing alive.  Full details here.

It is true that sometimes it is hard to define exactly what The Travel Insider is.  Last week I wrote an example of a directly travel related article – a two-part article on what your rights are and what the airline responsibilities are if your baggage is delayed or lost, together with various tips on how to maximum your claim should one become necessary.  I also gave you, last week, an example of the other main part of the material you get – a review of Amazon’s lovely new Fire HD 10 tablet.

So this week, how about an example of ‘everything else’ that sometimes arrives in your Friday morning email.  A fairly short piece on why it is that I bought an electronic accessory item from Amazon at a bargain price and why that may be a bad thing, and – if indeed it is bad – why it might be the government’s fault!  Follow the logic through, note the Chinese connection as well, and wonder why it is that articles such as this aren’t being bandied about more widely in the mainstream media.  It follows this morning’s roundup of items.

What else?  Please keep reading for :

  • Reader Comments
  • More Pilots with Radio Problems
  • Southwest to Start Overwater Flights to Hawaii
  • Airline Hired Gun ‘Expert’ Changes His Tune?
  • Hopper to Now Predict Hotel Pricing Too
  • Travel Insider Tours Go High-Tech
  • Visit the ‘Most Beautiful Country in the World’
  • How Badly Do You Want to Visit a National Park?
  • New Travel App Reads Your Mind
  • More than 3100 Applications So Far for This Job
  • Craziest TSA Story Yet?
  • When a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
  • And Lastly This Week…..

Reader Comments

My discussion about the passenger suing Sunwing Airlines for promising champagne service and drinks, but substituting generic fizzy wine for the apparently promised Champagne caused reader David to reminisce

Back in the day, Western Airlines used to fly YVR-LAX and SEA-LAX and they also used the word champagne. As best I recall, the champagne that they poured came from $2 bottles of Franzia, a California wine.

David is correct about that.  Here’s one of their posters, perhaps from the early 1960s.  And here’s an interesting poster that, while referring to their ‘famous complimentary champagne’ fails to show it in among all the other offered drinks.  I wonder why not.  Does anyone also remember their bizarre Hunt Breakfasts, with the flight attendants dressed up in mock English hunting gear, and a concealed tape recorder on the breakfast trolley playing hunting calls?

But suing them too for failing to provide real Champagne is probably not possible.  Not only is there sure to be a statute of limitations, but Western Airlines were taken over by Delta in 1987 and no longer exist.

Several readers had comments about the item last week about the dangers of relying on your phone and electronic boarding passes.  April, who describes herself as a “happy supporter”, wrote to say

Re your newsletter item on using electronic boarding passes.  I have had times when my cell service is poor and I find myself in the TSA or boarding line waiting for my phone page to load.  Now, as soon as my e-pass is available, I take a screen shot so I have a picture on my phone. When I get to the front of the line, I just open up my phone’s app and there is my pass.  It has worked great so far.

Doesn’t work if your phone is dead.  BUT, when you are low on battery, you can send your e-pass image to a friend’s phone and they can show it for you.

The article about the $5.80 Amazon item has also attracted some comments.  If you read it online, you’ll see the comments at the bottom, and, of course, you’re welcome to add your own comments too.

More Pilots with Radio Problems

Pilots never fall asleep in the cockpit while flying their plane.  Oh no, never.  But they do seem to sometimes have strange problems with their radios – problems that are all the more strange because they fix themselves, never to reappear again.

But this week saw a case where it is hard to believe the pilots were asleep.  An Air Canada flight was about to land at San Francisco earlier this week, when the air traffic controller became concerned that a plane already on the runway might not be able to clear it before the AC plane landed.  So he radioed the AC flight and asked the pilots to abort their landing and do a ‘Go Around’ maneuver.  The pilots did not respond.

The command to abort the landing was made six times, with no response.  A controller then flashed an emergency red warning light from the control tower to the plane, but that was also ignored.

Upon (safely) landing, the pilots came back on the air, and said they had a radio problem.  Maybe the radio, which was working perfectly a minute earlier, did develop a very temporary fault, and maybe the fault miraculously fixed itself upon landing.  Or?  What other explanation could possibly apply?

Did the pilots hear the command but, seeing a clear runway and wanting to finish flying, decide they could safely ignore it?

Did the pilots switch to the ground frequency prior to landing, thinking there were no more radio communications from the approach controller because they’d been cleared to land and were only a couple of minutes from touching down?

Why don’t we know the answer?  There are cockpit voice recorder tapes that would pick up what the pilots were saying to each other and presumably would also hear radio traffic.

This is something where the public have a right to know what is happening, and in a timely manner.  Why is it a secret?  Have the cockpit voice tapes been preserved?

One more point about this.  If there was a radio problem, the pilots should have realized that, almost immediately.  San Francisco is a busy airport, and there is pretty much nonstop radio traffic on the main frequencies, all the time.  If the plane’s radios (they have at least two, probably three or more) all developed simultaneous problems, the pilots would have almost immediately noticed that instead of nonstop radio messages between the tower and other planes, there was dead silence.

There is no way that there’s not be a record, on the cockpit voice recorder, of one pilot saying to the other ‘The radio has gone dead, switch to the alternate radio and see if it is working’.

Details – such as they are – here.

Southwest to Start Overwater Flights to Hawaii

Southwest has confirmed their plans to start flying to Hawaii next year.  That’s an interesting move, because it will require specially equipped planes to qualify for over-water flights and the ETOPS certification for long flights away from emergency airports, and it also marks a further deviation from Southwest’s original business model of short flights, usually 500 – 750 miles long.

Some commentators are excitedly predicting a collapse in airfares between the west coast and Hawaii.  This would not only be a good thing for us, but also of course a bad thing for airlines that operate on the route at present, and most notably Hawaiian Airlines.  However, their CEO says he isn’t worried at all – although one wonders if he could have possibly said anything other than that!

We like Hawaiian Airlines and their service, and hope that Southwest’s presence will merely encourage them to do even better, rather than cause problems.  It is definitely true that flights to Hawaii have often seemed to be priced higher than flights within the US, so maybe there will be room for some price reductions; on the other hand, it is relevant to note that Southwest is not really a low-cost airline.  Its average ticket prices are right up there with the three major airlines.

Airline Hired Gun ‘Expert’ Changes His Tune?

Here’s an interesting story of a self-proclaimed airline expert who first was writing an article supporting the US-UAE Open Skies Agreement, and then subsequently wrote additional articles saying completely the opposite.

This is part of the reason why you need to support The Travel Insider.  Keep us free of commercial constraints, and allow us to remain beholden to no-one, able to fearlessly tell you the truth without worrying about losing advertisers and consulting contracts.

Hopper to Now Predict Hotel Pricing Too

Do you know about Hopper?  It is an app available for both iPhones and Android phones, and does a great job of finding low-priced fares and also of predicting if airfares will increase or decrease between when you researched fares and when you plan to travel.  If you don’t already have it on your phone, you should add it (surprisingly and annoyingly, they don’t provide a matching website, only the phone apps).

They are now experimenting with predicting if hotel room rates will rise or fall, too.  Initially they are trialing this with New York City hotels, but if it proves popular, it will grow further.  Part of their hotel service is sending their own people to every hotel to provide a truly consistent and fair rating/review of each hotel.  More details here.

Definitely an app and company/service worth keeping an eye on.

Travel Insider tour members will get two-way walkie-talkies to better hear what guides are saying and for on coach commentary and discussions

Travel Insider Tours Go High-Tech

If you’ve been on a cruise recently, there’s a chance that on your shore excursions, your guides might have been using a Quiet-Vox system – they have a miniature radio transmitter and you all have receivers, so it is easy to hear what the guide is saying, even in a noisy place, and without needing to be right next to the guide.

They are a great concept, although I feel frustrated when they are used by a guide who hasn’t adapted their earlier and necessary approach of walking to somewhere while not talking, then stopping, gathering the group around, talking for a while, then walking to the next spot silently again.

However, these systems have two limitations.  And I’m very excited to tell you that we are addressing these limitations with a wonderful new approach.

The first limitation is that guides don’t use them when you’re sightseeing by coach.  This inevitably causes problems, because some people want to just travel quietly and perhaps snooze, others want to talk among themselves, and some people want to listen to the commentary.  I’ve always had much more commentary that I could provide, but have wanted to try and balance these differing desires among the people on the coach, and now for our Grand Expedition of Great Britain next year, I’ll be able to talk at greater length through the wireless system and you can individually choose to listen or not, however/whenever you wish.

The second limitation is that the other systems are one-way only.  You have a receiver, but not a transmitter.  I’m changing that, too.  Everyone’s unit will be able to send as well as receive.  This also will be very useful on the coach.  The people at the back of the coach are ‘disenfranchised’ – often the people in the first row or two will ask me questions and engage in discussion, but the people in the back can neither hear nor be heard.  Now, if you’re in the back of the coach and have a question or comment, you can easily simply use your transceiver to send your question/comment to the others who are tuned in.

A third feature is that the units have reasonably decent FM receivers built into them as well.  So you can listen to your choice of FM radio stations instead of or as well as listening to commentary (you can set the receiver to either automatically switch to commentary or to ignore the commentary).

We’ll trial the units on our Christmas cruise in December with the pre and post touring options, and then deploy them fully on next year’s tours.  If you like them, you can even keep them (for a very modest $30/unit cost), and we’ll program them to your choice of legal public unlicensed frequencies for the US or wherever else you wish to use them.  (Amazingly, we are still having people join us for the December cruise, now only six weeks away – another lady joined this week.)

All in all, another way in which The Travel Insider gives you a distinctively better experience.

Visit the ‘Most Beautiful Country in the World’

Talking about our Grand Expedition of Great Britain next June, reader voting on the Rough Guides website has just determined that the most beautiful country in the world is Scotland.

We like Scotland, and feature it in our Grand Expedition next year, but we are a bit surprised to see it win top billing as the most beautiful country in the world.  Here’s an article with some amazing photos to ‘prove’ the outstanding nature of Scotland’s beauty and the correctness of the Rough Guide award.  And here are some recent fall pictures, also amazing. Come see for yourself, with us, next June.

At the same time that Rough Guide announced its winners for most beautiful country, Lonely Planet came out with its Top 10 Country list.  They gave first place to Chile, then South Korea, Portugal, Djibouti and New Zealand.  They also listed the top 10 cities, with the top five being Seville, Detroit, Canberra, Hamburg and Kaohsiung.

Djibouti?  And Detroit?  Really!?  Details here.

How Badly Do You Want to Visit a National Park?

Talking about beautiful countries, undoubtedly one of the great treasures of this nation are our national parks.  All praise to Teddy Roosevelt and the other early supporters/creators of the national parks that now cover much of many of our states – 3.7% of the entire US is now national park.

Do you ever visit a national park?  If you do, you probably know that, at least for some of each year, a fee is levied on every visitor.  I remember one time briefly driving through Glacier National Park, and being a bit chagrined at having to pay $30 for what was, in total, about one hour of driving between going in one gate and out the other.  But, I told myself, it is in a good cause, although I also wondered how it was that the fee was so high, on top of the better part of a billion dollars in annual federal funding for the national parks.

The National Park Service is proposing yet another hike in its fees.  A number of the parks increased their fees in 2015, and in 2016, there was an 8% rise in total visitors, all of which would seem to be helpful.  But, notwithstanding 331 million visitors in 2016, the NPS says it is still desperately underfunded, so is suggesting a peak season increase for vehicles from the current $25 – $30 up to $70 per vehicle.

Okay, so it is still less than a Disney admission, but am I the only one to wonder if this mightn’t tip the scales for some people and cause a reduction in visits?  Isn’t the whole charter for the national parks to create a series of natural resources for the general populace to enjoy, not just a privileged few?

The NPS says there are billions of dollars needed to be spent on repairs.  Is it only me, or do you too find it curious that natural unspoiled wilderness requires more than 20,000 employees and billions of dollars to be spent on ‘repairing’ it?

Details here.

New Travel App Reads Your Mind

Is this exciting or frightening?

A new travel app being trialed by a UK/EU travel company, TUI (formerly Thomson, and also with some US brands, too) shows a person selected scenes and senses how the person reacts to them, and then creates the profile of the ideal vacation experience based on its analysis.

I won’t say ‘it will never work’ but I will express some doubts.  There’s a world of difference between the ‘ideal’ vacation experience most of us would love to have, and the actuality of the experience we could actually afford, justify, and make actually happen.

There’d probably be fewer bikini beauties in the real experience than the ‘ideal’ one which the TUI computer might recommend.  And fewer five-star hotel suites in which to entertain the aforementioned young ladies.  Inside cabins on Princess Cruise ships rather than Owner’s Suites on Silversea or Seabourn ships.

Details here.

More than 3100 Applications So Far for This Job

Talking about ideal travel experiences, the New York Times has advertised for a travel writer (apparently, no prior experience necessary) who would be willing to spend the next year working on their annual ’52 Places to Go’ travel feature.  The job ad says

We are seeking a correspondent who will go to every destination on our list and tell us the story of each place and the story of life on the road. The ideal candidate is a permanent student of life and astute documentarian of the world.

As of a few days ago, they had 3100 applications, more than 500 every day.   But there are still a few more days – applications close on 31 October – so if that sounds like the job for you, why not apply.  Someone’s got to get it, after all.

Details here.

Craziest TSA Story Yet?

Here’s an interesting article on Quora a month ago, citing a crazy TSA experience.  Apparently the writer’s daughter was stopped while going through TSA at Cleveland Airport.  She had a metal star dangling from her key chain and the TSA screener decided it was potentially a dangerous weapon and refused to allow her to travel with it, even though she had many times before.

She said ‘Okay, throw it away’, but that wasn’t enough.  More TSA staff descended upon her to grill her about the attempt to smuggle this weapon of mass destruction through their impregnable security.

And then her boss happened to come by and demanded to know what was happening.  The thing is, you see, her boss was the pilot of the plane, and she was the copilot, both in full uniform.  The pilot not only restated the now famous claim ‘You won’t let my copilot on the plane with a charm bracelet item, but when she gets on the plane, she has access to a full-sized fire axe’ but added ‘and I’m a FFDO boarding the plane with my firearm in this briefcase’.

At this, the TSA allowed the copilot to board her flight.  But do read the ‘random’ surprise that curiously happened to be waiting for her a bit later that day.

When a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Well, there are actually 37 words in this cartoon, but the overall story it tells is wonderful.

And Lastly This Week…..

Saudi Arabia is a country that is almost impossible for westerners to travel to.  Sure, if you’re from the third world and willing to work for next to no money, they’ll allow you in to exploit you, but if you’re a non-muslim tourist, forget it.  It is also a country notable for treating its women as second class citizens.

But apparently, if you’re a robot – and a female robot at that, it is easy not only to visit Saudi Arabia but also to get citizenship.  So this item tells us.  Question to Saudi Arabia – will you require the robot to wear a burqa?  Or do female robots have more rights than female humans?

The Barrow Utqiaġvik airport in Alaska was briefly closed earlier this week due to a runway obstruction.  The obstruction?  A 450lb seal lying on the middle of the runway.

Barrow changed its name to Utqiaġvik a year ago.  The decision is proving controversial, and one wonders just how many of its supporters know how to type a letter “g” with a dot above it (what a ridiculous affectation).

Here’s an interesting article about how the rise of social media and the general dumbing down of so much of the internet is imperiling more noble attempts to use the internet to collect and collate information.  The cited example is Wikipedia, but the same is true of The Travel Insider, too.  Don’t let us be swept aside by the tidal wave of Facebook likes, Twitter tweets, and fake news.

Help keep good solid news and analysis alive and well and please join in our 2017 Fundraiser.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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Oct 232017
 

Has the USPS created a pricing disaster that destroys smaller US retailers while subsidizing Amazon and Chinese competitors?

I ordered a $5.80 radio antenna from Amazon earlier this week.  It arrived two days later, with free second day shipping, courtesy of my Prime membership.  If I’d ordered another $29.20 worth of stuff, it could have been delivered the same day, also completely free.

We should all be delighted at the convenience and the value of Amazon’s service.  I certainly am, and I buy things on Amazon once or twice a week most weeks.

But, as Amazon continues to steadily gobble up market share and get ever larger, at what point do we suddenly realize that our entire retail world is now dominated by one single company?  Already, there are very few categories of goods (and increasingly services too) which can’t be purchased on Amazon, and for ordinary day-to-day household needs, one could live perfectly well never leaving one’s house and ordering everything needed through Amazon.

To date, Amazon has been very consumer-friendly, and deserves its success.  It is growing the best way possible – by providing excellent service and excellent value.  But should we trust that to remain the case into the future?  What happens when Jeff Bezos retires, and new management with new values replaces him?  When there’s no longer any remaining active competition to ‘keep them honest’?  When the mantra of ‘creating shareholder value’ becomes code for ‘price-gouging our customers’?

Back to my $5.80 antenna.  Here’s the Amazon listing.  The same antenna is available elsewhere – for example, on eBay, where it lists for anywhere between a low of $1 and a high of about $12, and also with free shipping.  So, on the face of it, the retail world – at least online – still offers viable alternatives, right?

But there’s a catch with the lower priced eBay listings.  They are shipped from China/Hong Kong, and instead of arriving two days later, they arrive semi-randomly somewhere between two and six weeks later.  That might sometimes be acceptable, but more often, is not.

The $12 antennas offer free shipping from California, and that probably would take three or four days, depending on where in the country you were.  Would you pay twice as much, and accept slower shipping, when Amazon was offering a better price and faster shipping?

So, there you are, the buyer, choosing between $1 and about a month’s wait, $5.80 and for sure delivery in two days time, or $12 and delivery in maybe three, possible four days.  That’s a fairly easy choice, isn’t it.

As buyers, we should be, and we are, delighted.  But what say you are a US seller – how easy is it to compete with Amazon?  Indeed, let’s widen that question to also consider the low-priced Chinese competition, too.

Amazon and China – The Two Impossible Competitors Threatening Regular US Businesses

Let’s work through the example of the antenna I bought, and consider the implications if you had a US business that sells antennas.

We’re going to guess you can buy antennas from somewhere, delivered to your store, at a cost of 50c each (noting the eBay selling prices).  Say you decide to match Amazon on both price and service, and so are selling them also for $5.80, two-day delivery guaranteed.  You could ship UPS or Fedex, but you’re looking at some cost so far in excess of $10 for second day service as not to be worth even researching.  Or you could ship USPS, using their priority mail service, and hope that you are lucky with their two-day delivery expectation.

For a 1.9 ounce package (the weight of the Amazon package), USPS will charge $7.15 to send it across the country in a flat rate box, or $6.65 if it will fit in a flat rate envelope (not sure about thickness restrictions).  The good news is this includes their smallest size box or envelope, but the bad news is that your cost is now 50c for the item, $7.15 for shipping, 3% to accept the credit card payment, and a small amount extra to print a label and invoice and some packaging ‘filler’ so the antenna doesn’t rattle around in the box, plus whatever else you might also spend money on.  You can probably get about a 70c discount going through Stamps.com.    That $5.80 sale will result in you losing perhaps $1.80.  To match Amazon’s service, and make a modest return, you’ll have to sell at about $8.10 – 40% more than Amazon’s price.  Good luck with that.

Perhaps you instead decide to sell at the same price as Amazon, but to save on shipping and just use regular first class mail.  The good news is the cost of regular first class package mail is a more moderate $3.00, the bad news is that you’re now looking at three-day delivery, with a higher possibility of delay, and no tracking for either you or the buyer.  You also have to provide your own packaging.  But let’s say the packaging is only 20c, and now your transaction is promising to return you a $1.90 profit, more or less.  Maybe you’ll get another 10c saving on mail costs through stamps.com.  That’s a reasonable return, if you can arrange a very efficient fulfillment operation.

But, switch back to the buyer perspective.  $5.80 from Amazon, guaranteed second day delivery, and tracking information all the way through.  Or buy from you, same price, hopefully three-day delivery, and no tracking information at all.  Which would you choose?  Of course, you’d almost certainly choose Amazon, wouldn’t you.  Only if the other seller was selling for appreciably less would you give up your fast guaranteed delivery.

So, returning to the seller perspective again.  You tried ‘same price, same service’ and that was going to lose you $2.30 per sale.  You tried ‘same service, higher price’ and the extra 40% you have to sell the product for means no-one buys from you.  You try ‘same price, poorer service’ and again, no-one buys from you.

The only thing this leaves is ‘lower price, poorer service’.  You decide you’ll have to sell for $4.80 to compete with Amazon.  This means your net profit now is something under $1.00.  Not very enticing for you, and unlikely to take a lot of business from Amazon either.

Maybe you decide that you’re going to have to concede the ‘quality’ part of the market to Amazon.  Instead you’ll change marketing strategies and, now that you’ve reconciled yourself to low profit margins, you’ll compete against the suppliers shipping from China.  You’ll sell for the same price as them, but with faster shipping.

But – what’s this?  Buyers can purchase the product from China for $1, including shipping, and your shipping cost – not from China to the US, but domestically within the US, is $3.00!  Plus you’ve got another 50c to pay for the antenna itself, and a bit more for the packing, invoicing, credit card processing, etc.  You need to sell at $4 just to break even, but you’re competing against Chinese companies who are selling at $1.  How is this even possible?

Do you notice a commonality of problem, here?

Amazon, using a mix of shipping services, but including USPS for the last part of their package’s journey, can guarantee a tracked two-day shipment anywhere in the US for less that it costs you for the shipping alone, never mind the cost of the antenna.

And Chinese suppliers, also using a mix of shipping services and also using USPS within the US, can send a slower untracked shipment, again including the antenna itself, for less than it costs you for ordinary first class mail shipping alone.

Even if someone gave you a crate of antennas for free, you’d still lose money selling them.  You’d be better advised just to donate them to the local Goodwill store and hope for a tax writeoff.

The Surprising Source of the Problem?

With a 50c antenna that is selling on Amazon for $5.80, the underlying cost of the antenna is not the issue.  Even if Amazon was only paying 25c each for them, that’s only a 25c difference in cost for an item selling for $5.80.

The huge difference in cost is not in product sourcing.  It is in shipping, where, it seems the difference in cost is not 25c but probably $2.50 or maybe even more.

One commonality of problem is the role of the US Postal Service, which not coincidentally lost $5.6 billion in 2016.  This loss is even more than the $5.1 billion it lost in 2015, about the same as the $5.5 billion lost in 2014, and worse than the $5 billion in 2013.  In total, USPS has lost $57 billion in the last ten years (almost all of these losses are attributable to the cost of their pension plan).

Sure, we all know that Amazon has enormous volumes, and so can negotiate favorable deals with shippers all the way through the process, but how much of a discount can the USPS afford to give Amazon when it is losing $5.6 billion?  Yes, we’ll anticipate that the US Postal Service might say ‘we’d have lost even more without Amazon’s business’ and that’s another topic entirely, calling for some forensic accounting and complex value judgments about how one allocates fixed and variable costs.  Suffice it to say, for this article, that even though the business they get from Amazon is growing very rapidly, their losses are also continuing to grow.  So, albeit simplistically, it is hard to see any benefit.

The top-level reality, especially for smaller shippers, is much easier to comprehend.  From their perspective, the Postal Service is selling its service too cheaply to Amazon, and/or too expensively to smaller shippers.  We all know that Amazon only uses the Postal Service because it is the lowest cost option.  How much higher could the Postal Service go with its Amazon pricing without losing Amazon’s business?  A 10% increase in fees would probably still see the Postal Service competitive and the preferred choice for Amazon, while adding $1.6 billion in profit to the Postal Service’s bottom line.

Or, for that matter, how much lower could the Postal Service go with smaller shippers without going deeper into debt?

Ultimately, how much of a pricing differential should USPS allow between smaller customers and larger ones?  We all understand and accept the concept of ‘quantity discounts’, but is it possible the USPS is currently killing off its smaller customers by giving too much of an impossible cost advantage to larger shippers?  An advantage that not only kills off smaller customers, but is not entirely commercially necessary?

And what about those Chinese shippers.  Why is it cheaper to mail a package all the way from China to somewhere in the US than it is to mail the same package domestically?  We guess it is costing 50c to ship from China, compared to $3.00 to ship domestically.  How can it be six times cheaper to ship from China than domestically!?

How can it cost about 50c to ship a 1.5 ounce packet all the way from China, when a regular first class letter, weighing under 1 ounce, costs 49c domestically!?

Yes, we know there are complicated international mail treaties, but if the mail treaty ends up so that the US Postal Service is both losing money and simultaneously enabling foreign companies to kill off our local retailers, isn’t it time to renegotiate that mail treaty, like sort of super-fast?

Has anyone stopped to consider the strange situation where the US government, via its enormously loss-making Postal Service, is in essence subsidizing both Amazon and Chinese merchants, while destroying the rich tapestry of competition and smaller businesses in our country?

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Oct 202017
 

An image of a rider about to take-off on a Russian ‘Hoversurf’ hoverbike. Can you see the appalling problem present? Answer at end of newsletter.

Good morning

A nostalgic farewell wave to AOL’s Instant Messenger – another technology and company that started off on the leading edge of something that had yet to be given the name of ‘social media’, but which failed to keep moving forward, and instead fell further and further back into the oblivion of irrelevance.  December 15 sees its closure.  These days, you have so many choices of instant messaging, ranging from plain vanilla text messaging, through to full featured programs such as Skype.  Whatsapp and Viber are also very popular phone apps, and I’ve lost track of how many other similar services my daughter seems to use from time to time.

I can certainly understand the temptation to stay as you are rather than to keep moving forward.  I’m in the throes of coming up with the latest iteration of The Travel Insider, which is proving to be replete with plenty of challenges, including all Travel Insider sites dying on Thursday/Friday last week for a while.  We’re back up again now, but I’m a captive of the support people for the new service I’m hoping to implement, and until they do their stuff, the new features will remain frustratingly absent.

Happily, not so absent were another 40 very kind readers who have become Travel Insider supporters to help push this year’s fundraising drive closer to completion.  Special mention should be made of course to the latest group of very special Super Supporters (as a hint about things to come, soon to be known as ‘Platinum Members’) – readers who have very kindly sent in $100 or more.  This is a lovely long list this week, featuring Bill W, Jerry E, Steven B, Frank G, Steve M, Einar S, Nathan F, Earl P, Nelson A, Jane F, Terry C, Greg A, Karen P, L H, Deepak M, Ian B, Martin F and Jeff R.

Yes, I’ll be successively announcing some interesting new enhancements to more generously reward Travel Insider supporters, and already the mix of benefits and their values can see you get all the money you contributed back, possibly even several times over.  (Current supporters – I again updated the streaming devices review this week.)  So why not join 277 of your fellow readers and please help support The Travel Insider.

An example of how and where your help is needed can be seen in the article that follows the newsletter this morning.  It is a review of Amazon’s new 10.1″ screened tablet, the Fire HD 10.  This is a great unit, and I not only explain why it is good, but also compare it to Amazon’s smaller but still good 8″ Fire HD 8 and to Apple iPads too.  To write this review, I had to buy one of the tablets myself (almost everything I review I buy and pay for out of my own pocket).  Sure, you might say ‘ah yes, you now have the tablet to keep’, but I already have three iPads, two Nexus tablets, and three other Amazon tablets (all of which I bought and paid for, too).  I’ve spent my money so you can now know whether you should spend your money on this or a different tablet.  So whether it is to keep the site going, the reviews going, or starkly and essentially, to keep me going, please do consider becoming a supporter, too.

In addition to the article that follows, I also wanted to showcase one of the other sides of The Travel Insider, so I’ve rewritten a two-part article on the website, adding changes to the associated legislation and practice, and the latest interpretative issues and airline attitudes.  This two-part series is about what to do if (when!) you experience delayed, damaged, or totally lost luggage.

Do you really know what your rights are in all three cases?  The airlines count on you not being well-informed, and may try to bluff and bully you into accepting a lesser settlement for your loss and inconvenience than that which the US Department of Transport regularly insists you are entitled to.

This double article could help you improve the settlement you reach with the airlines by thousands of dollars, and gives you confidence and peace of mind, going into a distressing scenario such as that, because at least you know what your rights are and what to do.  We even add a couple of tips about how to reduce the risk of losing your bag in the first place, plus a tip on how to potentially double the settlement maximum the airlines will be obliged to agree to with you, while halving the inconvenience of a luggage loss too.

How much are articles such as this worth?  Sure, there are other generic articles on this topic, but I’ll wager you’ve never seen one with so much detailed information and practical usable tips and strategies.  Check it out, then please respond fairly by joining our annual fundraising drive.

And wait, on the passenger rights front, there’s more good news in our weekly roundup, immediately below.  And a less drastic bit of passenger rights action is also reported on, further below.

We had another couple join our Christmas Markets Cruise last week.  While it is now excitingly less than two months away, we still have a couple of AA cabins and an AB cabin, and there are some reasonably decent airfares we can find for you too.  So if you’ve been, perhaps, enjoying the heady heights of the stock market and feel you deserve a little end of year treat, why not come join us in early December on the Danube.  (Our next June on our Grand Expedition of Great Britain).

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Boost to Passenger Rights in the EU
  • Boeing’s Enormous Own Goal With Bombardier
  • MH370 – As One Door Closes, Another Opens?
  • Branson in the Headlines
  • Testflight of New Commercial Supersonic Passenger Jet?  Not Really.
  • More Unthinking Praise
  • Maybe Apple’s iPhone Disaster Isn’t as Bad as it Seems?
  • The Champagne Service that Fell Flat
  • The Problem with Electronic Boarding Passes
  • And Lastly This Week….

Boost to Passenger Rights in the EU

The EU has been at the forefront of enshrining passenger rights in EU legislation, but even the ‘letter of the law’ doesn’t necessarily stop airlines, who have been mercilessly exploiting every potential loophole within the EU legislation (famously known as EU 261/2004).

The airlines suffered a broad loss a couple of years ago when the courts found that many of the reasons airlines were offering as reasons why they could delay or cancel flights and not be required to pay penalties were invalid.  The airlines had been trying to hide behind claims of ‘operational/safety/maintenance needs’.  The courts said that such needs were foreseeable and could/should be planned for, and were not sufficient justification to avoid liability.

International airlines unilaterally decided on another interpretation of the law.  They said that when they have passengers flying in to the EU on a two flight itinerary via a hub located outside the EU, they are not responsible for any delays in the flight that was fully operated outside the EU.

On the face of it, that seems fair.  But the thing is that passengers were finding they had booked a flight from somewhere to Europe, and then a delay in the first flight meant they missed their second connecting flight and so arrived late at their European destination, only to be told that there was no obligation on the airline’s part to compensate for their late arrival, because the flight at fault was not a European flight.

An EU court has now found that just as a passenger’s itinerary is linked via connecting flights, so too is the airline’s liability.  The excuse of ‘that was on the connecting flight’ is no longer acceptable.  It is believed as many as 1.2 million passengers will instantly be able to recover compensation of as much as €600 per delayed flight in the recent past.

Note this might include you.  If you flew from somewhere in North America to a hub somewhere else, then from the hub on to the EU, then delays in your first flight that resulted in you missing your connecting flight are now covered by this legislation too.

Details here.

Boeing’s Enormous Own Goal With Bombardier

Boeing’s beef with Bombardier is a bit like Mac Trucks complaining that Ford is selling panel vans too cheaply, suggesting that a lower priced panel van upsets the pricing relativity of its enormous semi-trucks.  Does Mac really care what a Ford panel van sells for?

It is similar with Boeing and its big planes compared to Bombardier with its small planes.  Most industry commentators have struggled to see any validity at all with any part of Boeing’s complaint about Bombardier’s low prices on its CSeries small passenger jets, but the alacrity with which the US government has taken over the issue and indicated its eagerness to impose duties on Bombardier jets such as to make it beyond impossible for Bombardier to sell any jets, at any price into the US has been stunning.  How is it the US government sees this so clearly when industry commentators don’t?

So, there was struggling Bombardier, with what continues to be regarded as a great pair of aircraft – the CS100 and the CS300, struggling to survive.  There is the US, Canada and the UK, all risking the loss of thousands of jobs if Bombardier fails to sell planes to Delta and other US carriers.  There is bully Boeing, enjoying Bombardier’s discomfort.

And – oh yes, there also, now, is Airbus.  Apparently they picked up on the concept of Bombardier being a company that Boeing felt to be a threat, but which was struggling to survive, and so what do they do?  Perhaps on the basis of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ they buy 50.01% of the CSeries program from Bombardier.

The purchase price? $1.

Those US import duties?  No problems now, say Airbus.  We’ll avoid duty by assembling the planes in our own Mobile, AL assembly plant.

The struggling underfunded company without much global footprint for either marketing/sales or ongoing technical support?  Overnight transformed into one of the two aircraft manufacturing giants, now with plenty of resources.

The wistfully talked about but impossible to fund plans to extend the product line into a larger CS500 and possibly even larger planes, that would indeed compete head-one with the aged 737?  Now, all of a sudden, appearing to be practical and promising.

If Boeing really was correct and the CSeries planes pose a competitive threat, then guess what.  It will be ten times, maybe 100 times the threat now, compared to a month before.

I’ve never clearly understood why Boeing has steadily increased the minimum size of its Boeing 737s.  The first 737-100 held 103-118 seats in a one class configuration.  The next version, the 737-200, held 115-130.  The next generation small plane held 122-132, the next held 123-130, then was withdrawn in favor of the 737-700 (140-148) and the latest generation 737MAX7 will be able to squeeze in up to 172 seats.

Sure, add larger planes, but Boeing has allowed an entire market segment grow in the ‘smaller than a 737’ part of the market, which unsurprisingly is where companies such as Bombardier as well as Embraer and various others, including Chinese and Russian companies too, are being most active.

Boeing might be correct if it actually said ‘Bombardier is not a threat to us now, but if we let it grow, then it will do the same thing we ourselves did, and start making bigger and bigger planes and eventually cause us problems’.  Noting that the ‘smaller than a 737, but still holding 100+ passengers’ market sector is estimated as needing some 6,000 planes over the next 20 years, why has Boeing exposed a valuable part of the overall market, rather than continue with a smaller jet of its own?  Although the US government seems distressingly eager to assist Boeing on ‘its own patch’ (ie the US market), that’s not going to protect Boeing in other parts of the world.

Anyway, the bottom line is that Airbus is now promising to revivify the CSeries planes, and there’s no way that’s going to be a good outcome for Boeing.  An interesting side-point is that while the CSeries planes fit nicely into the Airbus lineup, they would have been an even better fit in the Boeing lineup.  Perhaps, instead of trying to bully Bombardier into oblivion, Boeing should have been romancing it and offering more than the $1 which Bombardier ended up accepting from Airbus for 50.01% of its CSeries program.

Whether it be the opportunity cost of not buying Bombardier itself, or the direct cost of now facing a strengthened competitor with US manufacturing facilities and therefore apparent immunity from any further threats of prohibitive import duties, there seems to be nothing good about this for Boeing.

Finally, there is something good for all of us.  By all accounts, the CSeries planes – a design that is 20 years newer than the A320 family and 40 years newer than the 737 family – is a comfortable and relatively spacious plane, with wider seats and plenty of overhead space.  The more of them in our skies, the better it will be for us as passengers.

Here’s some additional commentary about the deal.

MH370 – As One Door Closes, Another Opens?

The Australian government suspended its search activities for the remains of the MH 370 flight that went missing on 8 March 2014, in January this year.  This was an unfortunate decision as it seemed that a maturing understanding of where the plane may have crashed was emerging and resulting in a more clearly identified area of probable impact – an area that had largely been overlooked in the fruitless searching to date.

Australia’s equivalent of the NTSB has just released its final report into the incident, with some excellent analysis here.

But at the same time, it seems the Malaysian government may be about to commission its own search, and possibly on the basis of ‘if you don’t find it, we don’t pay you’ – an arrangement which suggests a high degree of confidence by the to-be-contracted searching company (and perhaps a much lower degree of confidence on the part of the Malaysian government).

On the face of it, this is good.  But noting the murky and less than transparent role of the Malaysian government in the proceedings to date, one has to wonder if having the Malaysians in charge of the search is an ideal arrangement.  Details here and here.

Branson in the Headlines

Sir Richard Branson has been more active than normal in his headline seeking activities over the last week or so.  He is probably feeling a bit upstaged by the latest generation of media stars who don’t have to prance around quite so desperately to convey an air of ‘hipness’, younger men who don’t need quite as many pretty ladies surrounding them at media photo-calls.

So he has been rushing into print as best he can.  With other companies stealing the limelight and threatening to beat his Virgin Galactic ‘taking ordinary people sort of briefly into space’ companies – one headed by Elon Musk and the other by Jeff Bezos, he is hoping people don’t forget his company too, and making even bolder claims than normal.

According to this article, he is now promising his Virgin Galactic space-plane/rocket will be operational in about three months, and that it will be maybe six months before he, himself, is in space.  Sure, words such as “about” and “maybe” are far from firm commitments, but with timelines now measured in single digit numbers of months, it seems barely possible, based on his undertakings, that we’ll see the service testing early in 2018 and Sir Richard looking down on us from somewhere ‘up there’ by the start of summer.  (Note that another article, perhaps quoting another presentation at about the same time, says Sir Richard used the even vaguer expression ‘very disappointed’ if those times weren’t met.)

He is also doing a typical thing by investing a small amount of money in a high-profile concept, perhaps as much for the PR value as for anything else.  He did that with a very conditional undertaking to buy new supersonic planes when they are for sale, and now he is doing that with Hyperloop One as well, boasting that he has invested an undisclosed amount into this exciting new technology.

The other classic Sir Richard act is to play the part of the put-upon underdog.  Certainly there was a lot of fairness in his revelations about the dirty tricks BA undertook to try and force Virgin Atlantic out of business many decades ago, but there are only so many times that a billionaire (estimated net worth $5.1 billion) can continue to claim to be the underdog.

His most recent ‘poor me’ commentary was in expressing how sad he was to see the Virgin American airline sold to Alaska Airlines.  He had this bon mot to offer

It’s strange that people buy companies – and they buy them because they’re so good – and then they start making changes

But just exactly how good was Virgin America?  A tiny airline that never grew to a viable size, and while having a small following of loyal passengers, never grew to the necessary large following of passengers.  Indeed, as Branson himself concedes, the airline found itself confronted by an offer from Alaska Airlines that they couldn’t refuse.  Only Sir Richard believes that Alaska’s interest in Virgin America was because they were ‘so good’.

Oh, Sir Richard also has a suggestion for US companies.  Allow your employees to take fully paid two month holidays; don’t question such requests, and instead say “That’s great.  We’ll pay you.”

One question to Sir Richard.  Did he put that policy in place at Virgin America?  How many of the companies he owns have that policy in place now?

Details here.

Testflight of New Commercial Supersonic Passenger Jet?  Not Really.

Talking about Sir Richard and his interest in supersonic planes (he has invested in the strangely named Boom company’s plans), one of the many companies making bold promises about future planes has ben written up gushingly in a number of publications this week as having performed the first test flight of a demonstrator model of its new commercial supersonic passenger jet.

Wow.  That’s wonderful, isn’t it, and perhaps gives an element of credence to their projections of having the first planes delivered to commercial customers in 2023.

But, if you read beyond the headline, this test flight was actually a small-scale model of the plane, operated as a pilotless remote-controlled drone that never few anywhere near supersonic speeds.  This article provides a little more detail.

So – commercial flights in less than six years?  Even Sir Richard isn’t buying in to that claim.  Yet.

More Unthinking Praise

It isn’t just stories such as the ones cited above the supersonic jet’s alleged test flight, or the general adulation the press show to people such as Sir Richard Branson.  The lack of critical thinking can be seen abundantly elsewhere, too.  That’s what The Travel Insider does for you – it shows you the other side of such issues and stories.

For example, here’s a fascinating article written to celebrate the upcoming new Qantas nonstop flights between Australia and the UK.  I love reading about how flying used to be, and the article has some lovely information about how the flight originally involved up to 31 stops along the way.

But the entire concept of nonstop flights between Australia and the UK is 93% a marketing myth.  7% of the Australian population will be able to fly nonstop.  The other 93% will still need to have at least one stop on the way, exactly the same as is the case at present.

This is because the flights go from only Perth, a city on Australia’s far west coast, and not from the major centers such as Sydney or Melbourne.  Perth has a population of 1.7 million people, Australia as a whole has 24.2 million people.

It is just over 9,000 miles from London to Perth; currently the planes don’t have the range to stretch the extra 1500 miles to either Sydney or Melbourne.  For most of the 93% of Australians not living in Perth, it will be as convenient or more convenient to continue to fly via Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, or some other point, on the same one-stop itineraries that have been in place for decades, as it would be to now fly first to Perth and then from there to London.

And here’s a wonderful example of the ‘reality distortion lens’ that surrounds anything to do with Tesla.  The writer reports how he needed to get his Tesla serviced, and Tesla broke their promise and did not provide the free top-of-the-line loaner Tesla they have promised to always provide, while his own car was being repaired.  Instead, Tesla loaned him a Chrysler 300.

But, rather than being annoyed or outraged, the writer is excited and delighted.  He interprets this as meaning that Tesla is enjoying such unprecedented demand for its cars that it is unable to keep up with orders and so is being ‘forced’ to even sell its loaner cars.

The writer doesn’t wonder why it is that Tesla can’t keep up with demand, or why a company with a distinctive policy of requiring new purchasers to order and wait rather than buy from inventory is now plundering its loaners and allowing its service standards to current owners to drop while in an all-consuming rush to sell anything and everything they can.  Neither does he seem to remember that Tesla chants the same mantra of ‘sales would have been higher, but we just couldn’t produce cars fast enough’ for almost as many years as they have been in business.  He just urges us all to race out and buy Tesla stock.

You deserve better than such stories as these.  You have better – you have The Travel Insider.

Maybe Apple’s iPhone Disaster Isn’t as Bad as it Seems?

While it might seem that The Travel Insider is quick to take the negative and pessimistic side of any story, that’s not invariably the case.  For example, how about Apple’s latest iPhones.  By all accounts, sales of the new iPhone 8 and 8+ are seriously lagging behind expectations.  Even the annual tradition of people lining up outside Apple stores to be both one of the first to get a new phone and to be sure to get one due to the threat of stocks disappearing quickly due to runaway demand failed to happen this year.

Most recently, an astonishing item suggests the new iPhones are being outsold by last year’s iPhone 7 series.  To be clear, this is not a case of ‘iPhone 8 sales this year are lower than iPhone 7 sales last year’.  It is a case of ‘at present, Apple is selling more iPhone 7s than iPhone 8s.

This would seem to confirm two criticisms of the iPhone 8 – it is little different to last year’s model, and is overpriced (the iPhone 7 phones are now $150 less expensive than the 8 series phones).

But there’s an elephant in the corner of this room.  The iPhone X.  Strangely, it isn’t yet even possible to pre-order this phone, but it will become available for pre-order next Friday and will become available the following Friday, 3 November.  No-one has a clue – not even Apple – what the demand for this phone will be like, but it seems very likely that when it eventually does start selling, the cumulative count of both the ridiculously expensive iPhone X ($1000+) combined with the still very expensive iPhone 8 phones ($700/800+) will come to numbers that will put a smile on Apple investors’ faces.

But will the smile will be broad enough to wipe off the current puzzled expression, as we all try to understand Apple’s logic in announcing two very different styles of phone, both allegedly ‘the best there is’, and with shipping dates six weeks apart?

Meantime, I heard from an appreciative reader just a couple of days ago, expressing their thanks for my article and recommendation to buy a $100 Motorola Android phone.  A long time iPhone user, they’ve decided they prefer Android to iOS, and definitely prefer a $100 priced phone to an $800 priced phone.    If you’re considering a new phone, you should be sure to check out this article too.

The Champagne Service that Fell Flat

Canadian airline Sunwing advertised champagne service and champagne vacations, and referred to including a complimentary on-board champagne toast as part of its vacation packages.

A Canadian man discovered, to his disappointment, that the repeated references to champagne did not actually result in a glass of French Champagne being pressed into his hand.  Instead, he was given a glass of some generic sparkling wine of uncertain provenance, and absolutely utterly not Champagne.  Even worse, on the return trip back home, there was no complimentary wine of any description at all.

So he is suing Sunwing for misleading advertising, and is seeking damages equal to the price differential of a glass or two of Champagne compared to a glass or two of generic fizzy white wine, plus whatever punitive damages might be in the offing as well.

Sunwing concedes having used the terms ‘champagne service’ and ‘champagne vacations’ but says these terms do not imply that Champagne would be served, but merely ‘denote a level of service in reference to the entire hospitality package’.

The claimant is hoping to get it certified as a class action.  Apparently he has already found about 1600 additional prospective claimants in Quebec, eager to join the action.  Details here.

But the really big litigant could be and should be the French Champagne Industry and indeed, the French wine industry as a whole.  It is already illegal in almost every country in the world (except for a few countries that includes Russia, North Korea, and, at least until not very long ago, the US) for any wine to be sold as Champagne that doesn’t come from the Champagne region of France (and similarly for an increasing number of other wine names such as Bordeaux, Sauternes, and so on).

You’d think they’d be desperate to do everything they can to protect their brand name, because if they don’t, it will go the same way that other brandnames and now generic terms ended up, such as Bubble Wrap, Crock-Pot, Breathalyzer, Kleenex, Ping Pong, Realtor, Dumpster, Styrofoam, Windbreaker, Aspirin, Escalator, Jetway, Videotape, even Popsicle (and even Heroin, originally trademarked by Friedrich Bayer & Co in 1898).

The Problem with Electronic Boarding Passes

Save a tree.  Use an electronic boarding pass – an image on your phone – rather than an old-fashioned printed document when taking your next flight.  Or so it is suggested.  I’ve even done this myself.

But, has anyone ever wondered about two issues.

First, what happens if your phone battery dies just as you’re about to proudly show your pass on your phone screen?

Second, what happens if you can’t get wireless data service at the location you need to show your boarding pass image?

That latter issue is unlikely in most US airports, of course, but if you’re in some out-of-the-way airport in some out-of-the-way place, are you sure there’ll be wireless data for you to access when you need it?

And Lastly This Week….

One of the big lies in the airline industry is that the flight attendants are primarily there for passenger safety, not for passenger service.  This is used as an excuse whenever people dare to complain about surly unhelpful flight attendants – ‘Well, you have to remember, their main job is to be there for your safety’.  One of course never asks the follow-up question ‘Yes, but while things are perfectly safe, couldn’t they possibly spare a minute to help me’.

But what happens when there is a flight safety issue?  We’ve seen, before, examples of these ‘safety professionals’ rushing to be first out of the plane as soon as the emergency exits are popped open, and now this week, we learn of how the flight attendants on an Air Asia flight started screaming and running up and down the aisles in terror after the plane’s oxygen masks deployed and the pilots rapidly descended.

One wonders exactly how that behavior contributes to the flight’s safety.

One of the primary reasons tourists – particularly international tourists – travel to San Francisco is to go ride on a cable car.  The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Cable Cars – these are the iconic experiences visitors seek out in San Francisco.

For years now I’ve found it harder and harder to enjoy a cable car ride.  There are so few of them, and whenever one goes past, it is full.  The concept of ‘hop on and hop off’ that used to be a part of local life seems almost impractical now.  So I’ve pretty much given up on them.

Apparently I’m not the only one.  But the ‘huge hit in popularity’ (see article link below) isn’t so much due to the now $7 fare.  People who have paid thousands of dollars to travel to San Francisco won’t think anything of $7 to ride the cable car.  The real problem is lightly mentioned in the article – one to two hour waits to get on a cable car, while seven empty cars sit unmoving at the terminus.

Showing a total tone deafness, a Muni spokesman saw nothing wrong with that, and said that when everything is running ‘as it should’, passengers can expect to get on a car in about an hour.  An hour?  While seven cars sit idle??

Come on guys.  It isn’t rocket science.  If you’ve a line of people, get more of your cars running.  You’ve got plenty of cars, and either have or can quickly get plenty of gripmen.  And at $7/rider, there’s no way this won’t do anything but make you more money.

Details here.

Ah yes.  The picture up at the top of the newsletter of the rider about to fly on a Hoversurf hoverbike.  The terrifying problem?  Look at the four rotors.  Uncaged.  If anything happens and the rider comes into contact with those open blades, he’ll become instant chopped dogfood.

This article describes it as ideal for aspiring amputees.

I mention in my review of the new Amazon Fire HD 10 how much I dislike IKEA style instructions – pictures but no words.  But sometimes pictures are helpful – especially when in a foreign country and one doesn’t really know if the sign saying Qadınlar on the door, for example, means that it leads to the ladies or gents restrooms (in Azerbaijan, this will take you to the ladies).  But what to make of signs like this one?

So, another 5200 words in the weekly newsletter, the Fire review that follows, and a two-part rewritten website article on your rights if an airline damages, delays, or loses your luggage.  Is this week’s material worth a dollar or two in return?  Please decide to become an active Travel Insider Supporter, and help ensure that your Friday mornings continue to be filled with such wide-ranging, insightful, and helpful commentaries.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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Oct 132017
 

Amazon’s new 10.1″ large screened tablet, available at a wonderful value price of $150.

As promised, deliveries of Amazon’s astoundingly affordable $150 10.1″ Fire HD 10 tablet started arriving on Wednesday – in my case, in a ridiculously large-sized box 50 times larger (yes, I was so curious, I measured) than the tablet buried at the bottom and smothered in plastic filler material.

As an aside, the package was shipped via UPS.  UPS charges shippers by volume as well as weight, and this ridiculously outsized box not only will have cost more in the first place (due to all the extra cardboard and then all the filler that had to be placed inside it) but then must have surely cost appreciably/unnecessarily extra to ship.  It is stunning that Amazon – a company which is so dependent on efficient shipping – should send out items in such unnecessarily enormous boxes and at such avoidable extra cost.  Plus I’ve now got an unwanted big cardboard box to throw away.

After persevering through a disappointing initial experience getting the unit operational, the HD 10 quickly showed its value when placed alongside an iPad Air (costing 3 – 4 times as much) and a Fire HD 8 (costing half as much).

The HD 10 is fast and responsive.  It has a clear 1080×1920 screen, and allows you to plug Micro-SD cards into the unit to massively expand its capacity.  With convenient integration into the Amazon ecosystem, it also supports the Alexa voice assistant feature, either in an always-on mode like an Echo unit, or activated only when you press and hold the home key on the unit.

If you’re considering a(nother) tablet, then the Fire HD 10 has to be on your short list of possibilities.

First Impressions – Not Good Impressions

Companies these days generally obsess about the ‘opening the box’ experience that customers get when first opening their purchased item.  Customers obsess about this too, with bazillions of YouTube videos showing in elaborate detail someone opening up whatever they have bought.

To be sure, there is a new wave of minimalism used to excuse a rejection of some of the most extreme of the one-time excesses in packaging where quite literally the cost of the packaging – something you quickly open up and then usually discard, never to be used again – can match or exceed the cost of the item within.  The trend to selling more products online has also reduced the need for store-based ‘eye appeal’ packaging.

But there are some universal considerations, ranging from the trivial but often ignored (the packaging should be easy to open without requiring knives or scissors), to essential (the item should include all items necessary for it to work such as batteries and cables), and common sense (it should be protectively packed, and it should have enough instructions to make it easy and obvious and quick to get the item working).

In the case of Amazon’s Fire HD 10, it seems they’ve hired someone from IKEA to design the out-of-the-box experience.  There is a multi-folded ‘instruction sheet’ but without a single word on it, same as you get with IKEA flat-pack furniture.  Just little cartoon style illustrations.  Really, Amazon – are you selling to people who you don’t think can read?  (To be fully fair, the other side of this sheet was full of legal fine print and warnings, of which it could be said Amazon hopes you won’t read.)

The lack of clear instructions was to become an immediate problem.  I couldn’t turn the device on.  There was absolutely nothing anywhere in the wordless instructions to answer the question ‘why won’t the unit turn on’ and a similar silence when it comes to ‘what is the number for contacting customer support’.   Amazon has some type of direct on-device support service which I’ve never clearly understood, but the enormous Catch-22 with whatever that does is a requirement for the device to be on and operating and connected to the internet.

I wondered if perhaps the battery had failed.  I connected the tablet to a charging outlet on my Qicent hub, but that didn’t solve the problem, and actually hinted at a new (?) problem – a message appeared on my computer advising that a new USB device had been connected (correct) but had malfunctioned (oops!).

So I found myself forced to play the ‘find the phone number’ game on Amazon’s site.  Eventually I found it and soon enough was speaking to a foreign gentleman, presumably in a far away land, and he told me not to worry, I just needed to charge the battery for half an hour or so.

I pointed out to him that every other device I’d received from Amazon or other suppliers always came with the battery somewhere between fully and partially charged, and there was no way that a brand new freshly released product could have had its battery discharge completely in the week or so between manufacture and my receipt of it.  I also asked about the error message on the computer, but he said to just wait half an hour and see what happens.

I tried to get him to tell me if this was normal or not.  Was this now Amazon policy to ship devices with dead batteries?  If so, why, and if so, why not include a note – in English – advising people to charge the unit for 30 minutes before turning it on?  Alas, neither these questions nor any responses to them were on his script, so I got nowhere.

As it turned out, he was correct.  Half an hour of charging later, and the unit burst into life, revealing that it now had a 1% level of charge.

If this is the new Amazon policy – perhaps a response to valid concerns over shipping large numbers of tablets by air, all with fully charged Li-ion batteries in them, then wouldn’t it be nice to include a little note, with words rather than pictures, advising people of that?

So, my ‘fresh out of the box’ experience scored close to max for unnecessary negativity.  A unit that wouldn’t turn on and which gave error messages when connected to a charging cable from my computer, no instructions or advice about this, no information about how to contact support, and then the support experience itself.

A 1/2 cent piece of printed paper included in the kit would have resolved all those problems.  If they’d packed it in a smaller box, they could have reallocated some of the unnecessary extra shipping cost and spent it on improving the user experience.

The extraordinarily long list of permissions required by Alexa.

Activating the Amazon Fire HD 10

Once the device came to life, it was relatively easy to activate.  Cleverly, Amazon had already configured the device in anticipation of me being its owner/primary user (it is possible to have multiple user accounts on the device, just like on a computer).  It offered to auto-restore itself from the most recent backup from my Fire HD 8, which I allowed it to do, but it was not clear exactly what it restored.  Most of the third-party programs did not download, indeed, it didn’t even load the books I’d purchased into the Kindle reader program, either.

The typical updates to operating system and other programs then followed, and after refusing its wish to connect to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, and reading through a series of guided tour elements, the device was pretty much good to go.

There was one major decision point to consider.  Did I want its Alexa function to be ‘always on’ and waiting/listening for its activation word, or did I want to only activate it selectively by a long press on the home key.  This choice was accompanied by a staggeringly long list of permissions Alexa would require in order to work (see image).  There are pro’s and con’s to both Alexa settings – I was concerned that having it in an always-on setting might drain the battery more quickly, and there’s the privacy concern as well, but on the other hand, the  but a few days of experimentation has shown surprisingly little battery drain from having the Alexa capability on standby and always listening.  It does get interesting when I have two or more Alexa devices near me, in terms of which one – or which ones – respond.

A nice aspect of using Alexa on a Kindle, instead of on an Echo, is that sometimes it displays some of the information you ask for.  This is true if you’re asking for a weather forecast, but if you’re asking for a recipe, something that clearly benefits from displaying information, there’s no way to do so.  Another example of how the Alexa service is being rushed to market with great missing gaps in its feature set.

A couple of things to be aware of.  The default name of the device is not necessarily very helpful.  It defaulted to the name “David’s Fifth Fire Device”, which did little to identify it from, obviously, four other devices.  But it was quick and easy in Settings – Device Options to rename it to “David’s Fire HD 10”.

It didn’t default to having a screen/password lock when you turn the device on.  Unless you’re careful not to store any personal information or account details, you probably should add a password/lock to the unit.  It was surprising because one would have thought that as part of copying the backup settings from the Fire HD 8 backup it accessed, it would have also taken its password/lock settings.

A quick visit to the Settings – Security page soon fixed that.

I chose the option to get the HD 10 for slightly less money in return for allowing it to show advertisements on the lock screen.  This is totally non-intrusive and sometimes interesting.  For example, I now see on one such featured promotion, to my astonishment, that there is a these days a Starbucks sponsored television series – Upstanders.  The link between coffee and tv programs seems a bit weak, to put it mildly.

The tablet was very snappy and responsive.  It was fast to power up, and fast to change programs and screens.

The HD 10 at top is visibly larger than an iPad (middle) and HD 8 (bottom)

Comparing the HD 10 to Other Tablets

From a visual and tactile perspective, I prefer my iPad Air.  The metal on the iPad, rather than high gloss polished plastic on the HD 10, feels and looks nicer, and there’s a greater abstract feeling of ‘quality’ in some elusive form surrounding the iPad.

But an iPad costs two to five times what a Fire HD 10 costs.  Do I really want to spend $500 extra for a device that I primarily use to read books and watch video on?  So, yes, the iPad is – at least in my opinion – nicer to look at and hold, but the cost issue eclipses the minor degree of extra ‘niceness’.

In terms of performance and actual features and functions, the Fire with its 10.1″ diagonal has a slightly larger screen than a regular iPad with its 9.7″ diagonal, even after adjusting for the different aspect ratios (1.6:1 compared to 1.33:1).  The 10.5″ diagonal on the iPad Pro gives it a larger total screen area, but when viewing regular HD video at normal 16:9 aspect ratio, the Fire HD 10 actually displays a larger video image than both the 9.7″ and the 10.5″ iPads.

This is an important plus.  You can see the picture here which shows the Fire HD 10 compared to both a 9.7″ iPad and a Fire HD 8.

We also noted that when playing Amazon video, the Fire HD 10 reported it was playing video at full HD 1080 quality, but the iPad only reported HD, which we guess means 720×1280 rather than 1080×1920 resolution.  Both images looked good, but the 1080 resolution has more than twice as many pixels of data and image quality on the screen as the lower 720 resolution.

Compared to the Fire HD 8, which was also showing video both in much smaller size and also in the 720 format, the difference was quite clear, as can be seen in the picture.  The HD 10 has 60% more screen area.

We noticed the two Amazon tablets had similar Wi-Fi receivers inside them.  The HD 10 was slightly better – maybe 3dB – 5dB more sensitive on weaker signals, and (equally useful) it reduced the strength of strong signals (so as not to swamp weaker signals).  (Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t allow apps to directly measure Wi-Fi signal strengths, so we couldn’t compare the HD 10 to an iPad.)

The two Fire tablets both take Micro-SD cards to give them massively expandable capacity to store and play back video and music, whereas the iPads do not.  But the iPads do have some things the Fire tablets don’t have – they offer Bluetooth connectivity, fingerprint readers, and much better front and rear cameras.

We understand and admire Amazon’s hard-headed approach to features.  Their promise seems to be to provide a tablet at an unbeatable price with a great set of core features, but without the ‘feature creep’ elements added that would inevitably compromise the amazing value they can offer their tablets at.

Do you really need Bluetooth?  No, almost certainly not.  Is a fingerprint reader worth paying $500 more for?  Again, almost certainly not.  Do you want to use your tablet rather than phone or camera to take pictures and video with?  Again, no.

But if any of these are ‘must have’ features, then you’ll probably choose your tablet based on that feature.

Note also, in our special exclusive Supporters Special report, we also identify another tablet that offers Micro-SD card capability, high quality cameras, plus Bluetooth and a fingerprint reader too.  It also includes a GPS unit – not available on the Fire tablets and a $130 option on the iPads.  With a price of about $290, this is perhaps the ideal sweet spot between features and price.

If your prime uses are email, social media, web browsing, games, watching video and reading books, get a Fire HD tablet.  That’s the absolutely and clearly best value best solution.

Should you get an 8″ or 10″ Fire tablet?  For that matter, what about, also, the Fire 7″ tablet?

With the small price difference between the 7″ and 8″ tablets, it is easy to ignore the 7″ tablet.  Sure, it is the lowest price, but for only $30 more, you get a massively better and bigger screen on the 8″ tablet.

As between the 8″ and 10″ tablets, both work acceptably well. There is only about 5 ounces extra weight in the larger 10″ tablet, which is almost 2″ longer and 1.3″ wider.  As long as you can readily fit the 10.3″ x 6.3″ x 0.4″ dimensions of the larger tablet in your carry-on bag, probably it is the better choice.  But if size and weight are both ultra-critical, and price also an issue, you’ll be happy with the 8″ tablet too.

Case/Cover for the HD 10

I’ve not bothered with buying protective covers for my 7″ and 8″ tablets, because the cost of the cover can almost match the cost of the tablet (in the cost of the $50 7″ tablet, particularly when it is discounted down to $40 or lower).  But for my expensive iPads, I do have protective covers and on several occasions have dropped them and been grateful of the cover’s protection.

So I think I’ll get a cover for the HD 10, too.  At present, there are not many covers to choose from.  There are ridiculously expensive $40 covers that Amazon offers, or less expensive covers by Ztotop and Moko.  Just be sure that you’re getting a case for a ‘7th Generation/2017 release’ HD 10, not any of the earlier 10″ Fire tablets sold by Amazon.

Summary

Amazon now has two great choices if you’re looking for a tablet.  The Fire HD 8, priced from $80 and with an 8″ screen, or the Fire HD 10, priced from $150 and with a 10.1″ screen.

The only appreciable difference between them is the larger screen and better resolution on the HD 10 (and necessarily larger overall size), and the difference in price.  We’ve always thought the bigger the screen the better, but if you’re seeking a compact unit or trying to keep your spend to the absolute minimum, the HD 8 is a perfectly good choice as well.

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Oct 062017
 

Fancy taking one of these on your next flight across the Atlantic?

Good morning

Happy birthday to the lovely and now undeniably old 747.  It was 49 years ago on 30 Sept 1968 that saw the ceremonial roll-out of the first 747.  It is interesting to see the list of 26 launch customers for the 747 – ten of them have disappeared.

Our 2017 annual fund-raising drive continues to move forward, albeit more slowly this week, with another 39 readers choosing to become supporters.  Included among these very kind Travel Insiders were another select group of seven Super Supporters (sending in three figure sums), so here’s a call out to Max L, Randy S, Maureen F, Hugh M, Linda M, Bryan G, and Janet A.  Thank you to the Magnificent Seven, and the almost as magnificent 32, too.

I’ve noted the flagging in response level, and that has motivated me to come up with two new inducements.  I’ve added a new shopper comparison chart, this time for 20 high-end cell phones to match this week’s feature article (a review of the new Google phones announced on Wednesday).  The ‘gem’ in this review is the $200 phone that is functionally identical to most of the $500 – $1000 phones, and in some respects better, while also being massively less costly.  If you’re considering buying a new phone at present, you’ve got to check that out.

I’ve also updated the public chart on cell phones too with fresh but different data, so there’s something for everyone to benefit from.

Secondly, I’ve negotiated a 20% discount with a friend’s company, Asterride.  They’re a limo/hire company, a bit like Uber but upmarket, and supporters can use their special code as often as they like for the balance of this year when calling for limo service.  That will probably save you $10 – $20 any time you arrange a ride – a single trip from home to the airport and back again might see you saving $25 or more.

I also updated the special supporter report on tablet devices again.

This means you get to enjoy seven bonuses :

  • 37 page article on internet access while traveling
  • Streaming device reviews
  • Tablet features comparison
  • A free Amazon Echo type device
  • High-end phone comparisons
  • 20% off all Asterride hires through 31 Dec
  • How to get $10 for free from Amazon

So, please do allow these inducements to help encourage you to get around to joining in this year’s fundraising drive, and get us quickly to our goal.  I can also hint there will be at least two more entries on this list next week, one of which would save you hundreds of dollars.  Indeed, I’ll add them to the supporters special page over the weekend, so if you join in the fundraising drive now, you’ll be among the first to know about these new benefits.

As a reminder, The Travel Insider relies upon and needs your support to remain independent and uncompromised.  In return, you get fearless evaluations and critiques, going places where few other journalists are willing to go.

As an example of this, look at this week’s evaluation of Google’s new phones, announced on Wednesday, and following on from today’s roundup.  Whereas a leading electronics magazine journalist says of the new phones that he “couldn’t help but get almost irrationally excited about them” I wryly observe that his excitement was indeed irrational, and tell you why the phones are an expensive disappointment and a betrayal of the founding principles of Android.  That’s a statement you’re unlikely to see anywhere else.

One of the other items Google released at the event was a very ordinary set of Bluetooth headphones.  About the only distinctive thing about them was their ridiculous cost ($160).  But journalists who should know better foamed at the mouth with outlandish claims that “Google’s New Pixel Buds Can Translate Languages in Real Time“.  My response to that?  No.  The earbuds merely connect to the phone, which in turn connects to the Google Translate service online in the internet cloud.

We had another couple choose to join our Grand Expedition of Great Britain next year, but tragically also had one lovely lady, a lady who has graced two earlier Travel Insider tours, pass away.  She’ll be with us in spirit, and I fervently hope her sorely grieving widower will still choose to come, and enjoy a couple of weeks of warm fellowship with a group of supportive old and new friends.

Just a few other items in this week’s round-up.  Not only is the article about Google’s phones and their implications huge, but I’ve been distracted this week due to wearing my volunteer hat at Anna’s Middle School.  I’ve ended up coordinating the ‘Math Club’ activities for the entire Middle School, plus running a ‘Speech & Debate Club’ too.  I don’t begrudge a second of it, of course, but getting both sets of activities up and running for the new school year is taking more time than I’d hoped.

But here are some fun pieces; the chances are they are offering you different perspectives than you’ve seen elsewhere.  Which is, of course, why you read The Travel Insider, and why in turn, I need your support to keep bringing you these alternate points of view.

  • The World’s Longest Low Cost Flight
  • Elon Musk to Bring Rocket Travel Down to Earth?
  • Who Did Tesla Lie To?
  • Australia Takes Up Musk’s Wager
  • All Inclusive Cruises?  Not Really.
  • You Sort of Know This Already.  But You Like to Pretend You Don’t.
  • And Lastly This Week….

The World’s Longest Low Cost Flight

It is a curious thing – the longer the flight, the higher the fare.  Not just the total fare for the distance traveled, but the fare per mile of distance traveled.

We see it in the US, where our various somewhat low-fare carriers tend to operate shorter routes, and we definitely see it in Europe and elsewhere, with airlines such as Ryanair focusing on relatively short point to point flights.  The occasional high-profile attempts at low-cost long distance travel – for example across the Atlantic – usually either fail spectacularly, or, even worse, slowly go up in cost to equal the regular fares, or perhaps remain an obscure niche product with little relevance to most people and most itineraries.

Norwegian, an airline which by some reports is experiencing a few financial growing pains at present, has an ambitious program of expansion so that it neither fails spectacularly nor remains as an obscure niche product, and also is broadening its routes to more and more parts of the globe.

Its latest new service is being hailed as the world’s longest low-cost flight – between London/Gatwick and Singapore (6758 miles as the crow flies; longer with detours to avoid various regional hotspots).

This is a development that will doubtless delight Singaporeans, but add further challenges to their national carrier.  Singapore Airlines is struggling to change itself to reflect the very changed patterns of air travel these days, and adding low fare competition will be another problem it will have to respond to.

Details here.

Elon Musk to Bring Rocket Travel Down to Earth?

Talking about long low-cost flights, Elon Musk is now tilting at another windmill in grand quixotic fashion.  After talking about, then abandoning, the hyperloop concept, and after having dug a few feet of tunnel to ‘prove’ the viability of tunnels as a new (?) way for cars and trains to travel, he is now talking briefly shifting focus from sending people all the way to Mars to instead sending them not quite so far away.  He is considering people flying ballistic rockets that would take off, fly to their destination somewhere else on the planet in mere minutes, and land again.

Well, the capability has been theoretically present for decades.  But to offer this as a practical form of public transportation?  That’s an ambitious concept that not even Sir Richard Branson has dared to espouse.

Musk tells us that a journey from New York to Shanghai would take about 30 minutes, and nowhere would be more than an hour away.  He didn’t comment on just exactly how much noxious toxic rocket-fuel would be burned, but he did tell us that the cost of these flights would be about the same as full-fare economy in a regular jet at present.  Full fare economy appears to be about $3750 for a one-way fare between New York and London, for example.

His concept rocket would carry about 100 passengers per flight.  Could a rocket operate profitably for $375,000 a flight?  Perhaps a clue can be seen in his charges for rocket launches at present, about $60 million for the Falcon 9 rocket.  A passenger rocket would probably have to be larger and use more fuel, because it is having to gently lower itself still fully loaded back to earth again.

Of course the $60 million figure includes a generous profit, but equally of course, Musk would want to make a profit out of flying passengers too.  About the only thing we can be sure of is that the Falcon 9 rocket launches are being sold at costs 200 or more times higher than what Musk would likely get from this new super-sized 100 passenger rocket (don’t forget the passenger bags as well, of course!).

Another benchmark.  The brief sub-orbital flights that Sir Richard hopes to start offering in the future are expected to cost about $250,000 per passenger.  Again, there’s a huge cost gap to close between $250,000 and $2,500.

So, don’t go expecting to see a Musk rocket offering you flights in time for joining your next Travel Insider tour.  And don’t hold your breath expecting the tickets on any such rockets in the future to be anywhere close to affordable.

Talking about Mr Musk and his at times optimistic statements, his poster-child venture, Tesla, has suffered some embarrassment this week.

Who Did Tesla Lie To?

I’ve been accused of being a Tesla hater.  That is not true.  I would love a Tesla car, and greatly admire and respect the revolution they’ve almost single-handedly brought to the electric vehicle industry.

But that doesn’t mean they should not be held as equally accountable to honoring their public claims and promises as any other company, and the more I see the main stream media politely looking the other way and ignoring some blatant challenges, the more I feel it necessary to compensate.  Such as with three related matters this morning.

That oh-so-muted bombshell that you probably didn’t hear going off this week was the mainstream media quietly catching up with the story I broke a month ago.  Tesla is miles behind its Model 3 production targets.  As of the end of September, it had promised to have delivered 1630 cars.  It seems that it may have only delivered 260 cars, about 1/6th the number promised.

Tesla tells us not to worry.  And a new analyst has initiated coverage of Tesla, and they are telling us to rush to buy Tesla stock, predicting it will rise 40% within 12 months.  That almost makes sense in the Tesla universe – a stunning failure to meet targets, matched by giddy optimism in the share market.  How long will this be sustainable?

And now for the lying issue – an even bigger story with even less media coverage.  In a filing with a California regulatory body, Tesla provided projected production numbers that seem to be less than half the projected production numbers it has been publicly promising to its shareholders.  Which number is correct – they are both counting the same cars, so they can’t be reconciled.  One is right, and the other is wrong by a factor of two.

Here’s the analysis that reveals this extraordinary contradiction in Tesla’s claims.  Tesla, in reply, has decided to ignore the story and hope it goes away, which makes me think the analysis is pretty much on target.

Australia Takes Up Musk’s Wager

After suffering a major power outage a year ago, Australia’s state of South Australia took up a wager extended by Elon Musk.  He offered to build them a 129 MWhr power battery storage unit to help smooth out future power surges and interruptions, and said he’d either have it installed within 100 days or give it to the state for free.

Now, call me cynical, but that offer was made last year, and since then South Australia (SA) has moved very slowly forwards and only this week signed a contract with Mr Musk.  But he has clearly known for some time prior to the contract signing this week that he was getting the deal.  The original offer, if taken up immediately, may have strained his resources.  But the 100 day promise now seems trivial, because he has had 200 days to prepare for the 100 day time frame.

This standby battery is thought to be costing in the realm of $95 million and will be the world’s largest lithium-ion battery.  But how long could SA survive on this battery alone?  It has been difficult to get an exact answer to that question – surely a relevant question and measure.  One source says it could power 4000 homes for one day.  We estimate there are about 500,000 homes in SA, so that would mean the entire state could last for about 12 minutes – assuming that the batteries have the capacity to deliver their power at that rate, which is far from clear.  Another source says it will give the state up to 15 minutes of power if it has a loss of power from other sources.

These two fairly consistent claims are contradicted – within the same claims, and for example here as well, where it is stated that the battery could only provide power at a rate that would see the batteries discharge not within 12 – 15 minutes but rather at a rate that would take about 80 minutes to discharge.  In other words, while in theory the battery could supply the entire state for 12 – 15 minutes; in practice, it could only supply about one fifth of the state, but for about five times as long – perhaps up to 80 minutes.  So four out of five households would see no benefit from this battery at all.

To be fair, the battery is not intended to replace the entire power infrastructure, but merely to provide some spare capacity and ‘headroom’ during occasional unusual peaks of demand.

We wish the project well, and the underlying concept of using rechargeable batteries as a power reservoir, particularly now that uncontrollable renewable power sources such as solar and wind are becoming more common, is very sensible.  But let’s not over-hype what SA can expect from its investment in Tesla batteries.

All Inclusive Cruises?  Not Really.

The cruise industry has been quietly walking back its earlier cornerstone product promise – an all-inclusive and affordable experience on a high quality cruise ship.

Sure, it has never been common to see drinks included in the cruise fare, other than with some very high-end cruise lines, with matching high-end fares.  But I recall, several decades ago, cruising on the QE2 and being astonished to see drink prices, in their deluxe Queens Grill, that were lower than what I’d pay in a bottle store back home.  I enjoyed fine vintage champagne that I would never have been able to afford back home.

Now, however, if you go for a cruise on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship, it might help your budgeting if you’re a teetotaler.  Their ambitiously named ‘Ultimate Beverage Package’, which certainly does not include fine vintage champagnes, is yours for an aggressive $105.02 a day.  My guess is you’re looking at well drinks, house wines by the glass, and some beers.

And if you were thinking of some, ahem, ‘strategic’ purchasing of this package, forget it.  If you’re going to take advantage of this ‘bargain’, then everyone in the cabin with you (over the age of 21) must also sign up for it, as must also everyone in the cabins of anyone else traveling with you.  The kids under 21 are also required to sign up for a related Soda Program.

And if you were thinking of, ahem, alternating between party/drinking days and recovery days, forget that too.  You have to buy the package for the entire cruise.

There’s a long list of exclusions and requirements, detailed here.

Am I the only person to recoil in horror at the nature of this drink package and its cost?

You Sort of Know This Already.  But You Like to Pretend You Don’t.

Here’s an interesting article with an even more interesting item concealed within it.

The article talks about how Whole Foods has been enjoying an upswing of shoppers since Amazon took it over and immediately slashed some of the prices there.  It is interesting to read about that, and surprising to see how many of the new shoppers are people who have been regularly shopping at Wal-Mart before.

The article was crammed full of detailed data of where Whole Foods shoppers were coming from, their past shopping habits, who they were, even how much they earn.  I found myself wondering how it was I’d not seen anyone surveying shoppers on the several trips I too had made to Whole Foods since the Amazon takeover.  Clearly, a very extensive survey had been done.

Which brings us to the even more interesting item concealed within the article.  The study was not based on interviewing shoppers on their way in and out of Whole Foods stores.  It was based on data collected from 30 million phones.  Somehow the survey company managed to get weeks or months of location data from 30 million phones, and work out from that location data not only when the phones owners’ had visited Whole Foods, but also where else they would visit as well, plus identify the phone owners to understand demographic data even including their income.

Your phone is not keeping your secrets.  It is sharing them, willy-nilly.  We already sort of knew that, didn’t we.  But it is not nice to be so directly shown how much unknown people know about us.

And Lastly This Week….

No matter what side of the ever broader political divide we might find ourselves on, I think most of us can agree that our President, whether Democrat or Republican, tends to travel internationally in a manner that is ridiculously over-the-top.  Motorcades with 30+ vehicles, hundreds of people in the entourage, and of course, the whole 747 Air Force One thing as well.

Certainly, we can point to other heads of state (Canada, Britain, Australia, and so on) who travel much more modestly, and usually limit their extravagances to simply buying a first class seat on a scheduled flight.

But we can and should also point to some heads of state who travel at a level of extravagance that even our present President would be hard-pressed to equal, in his wildest dreams.  Heads of state such as, for example, this gentleman, with a larger plane, a gold escalator rather than stairs out of the plane, a staff of 1500, and special food flown in daily from his home nation.

Here’s a fascinating bit of rail trivia, about an amazing marvel of an abandoned station in Spain that may be about to be restored.

And, here’s a money-saving tip for you.  Many modern cars specify a requirement for premium unleaded fuel.  The chances are they would run perfectly well on regular grade, or if you’re unwilling to ‘risk’ that, compromise on mid-grade fuel.  I’ve put over 150,000 miles on my ‘use only premium fuel’ Landrover and it has been 99% on regular fuel.  I’ve had no engine problems, and the fuel economy is in line with the claimed economy on the EPA label when I bought the vehicle – probably 11,000 or more gallons of fuel, and saving 20c – 30c per every gallon purchased.

Modern engines with computerized engine controls automatically adjust for the grade of fuel.  If you hear engine ‘knocking’ or ‘pinking’ then you know you need to go up to the next level fuel, but if the engine runs normally, keep your money in your pocket.

Here’s an article about the growing cost differential of premium grade fuel, and also mentions how some people put premium fuel in vehicles that don’t require it – an even greater error than the more understandable error of feeding it to vehicles that do need it.

And now, truly lastly this week, after a week in which we’ve seen some terrible things, there is still cause for hope.  Some of the Disney characters at Disney amusement parks are going to start speaking to guests.  Sort of.

Talking about cause for hope, might I hope for your kindness and decision to help with our annual fundraising drive.  It would really help.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and if you hear a sound ‘like balloons popping’, be aware that it might be something quite different.

 

David.

 

 

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Oct 052017
 

Google’s new Pixel 2 phones look identical to the earlier Pixel phones, except for the colored power button on the side.

Google’s own phones (albeit made by a varying range of third-party manufacturers) – in the past sold under the Nexus brand and more recently under the Pixel brand – have a tiny market share (about 0.7% according to this article), but a disproportionate – and possibly undeserved degree of impact on the market.

This is not only because of the Google imprimatur (particularly valuable because Google develops the Android OS) but also because Google claims to make their phones aspirational examples of the best device capabilities, combining the most up to date version of Android and high-end phone hardware.

The general ‘heft’ of the Google brand, and the desperate way we all are searching for an alternative to what is starkly becoming an Apple/Samsung duopoly (75% of all US phones are from these two companies alone, with LG trailing as a distant third) provides more reasons to encourage Google in their efforts.  On the other hand, it is interesting to contrast how commentators (including me!) have derided Microsoft for their various failed ventures into the phone hardware marketplace, but have been quick to praise Google for activities that are really similarly disastrous as those of Microsoft (with one of the last nails in the Windows phone coffin being hammered home today).

Google’s phones feature a ‘pure’ version of Android without any extra ‘bloatware’ or unnecessary customization that many other Android based phone manufacturers add to their phones in a desperate attempt to distinguish their Android phone from the hundreds (thousands?) of other models of otherwise almost identical Android phones out there.  Usually such enhancements detract from rather than add to the user experience, which is unsurprising because the other reason for manufacturers customizing Android is to try and defeat the underlying purpose of Android.

Android was designed to be a generic common interface shared by multiple devices; the customizations inevitably interfere with this, while gently coaxing you into the confines of a manufacturer’s own branded rendition of Android.

Another appealing factor of Google phones is Google’s commitment to quickly push new Android updates to their phones.  A side-effect of manufacturers customizing Android into their own version is that when a new version of Android comes out, there can be a long wait until manufacturers get around to adding their customizations and releasing it onto their phones.  That is definitely an advantage for the iPhone – updates are available instantly for pretty much every iPhone that is eligible for any updates to their iOS software (after a few years of upgrades, it seems that iPhones stop getting updates – as do Android phones too).

So, for all these reasons, there was a degree of positivism in the air as Google prepared for its traditional early October reveal of its latest release of smartphones.

On the other hand, now that Android (and iOS too) are mature well-developed operating systems, and now that the manufacturers seem to be running out of new hardware features to add, there’s no longer much excitement when either new phones or new OS updates are released (although the latest iOS 11 was more impactful than has been the case for a few years).  I’ve several Android devices with various different versions of Android on them and none of them show or lack any ‘must have’ features – hardware or software based – that other devices with earlier or later versions of Android feature or lack.

The lack of eye-opening new features mean that the launch events of all new smartphones are becoming increasingly inane and trivial.  For example, a talked-up feature of the new Pixel 2 phones Google released on 4 October was a brightly colored on/off button on their sides.  I kid you not.  You buy your almost $1000 phone, and get given a device with a colored button on the side that looks more like it belongs on a child’s toy, not an adult’s phone.  The power button is now brightly colored – is this really the best that Google has to boast about?

Skip the next section if not relevant, but you might find it interesting to understand Google’s evolving lineup of phones.

The History of Google’s Phones

The first Nexus phone didn’t appear until January 2010, almost three years after the first iPhone, and was made for Google by HTC.  That was followed by the Nexus S in December 2010, made by Samsung.

The next model, the Galaxy Nexus, was unveiled in October 2011, and was also made by Samsung.  This set a timing pattern – annual releases in October – that has been followed ever since.  The Galaxy Nexus had to be withdrawn from sale for a week in 2012 due to a patent dispute with Apple.

A year later saw the Nexus 4, in October 2012, this time made for Google by LG.  This phone showed Google’s willingness to aggressively price, and although initially released at $299 or $349 for versions with 8GB or 16GB, in August 2013, the prices dropped to a stunning $199 and $249 – amazing for a phone with a then large 4.7″ screen and 768×1280 pixels.

Yes, the next phone, also by LG, was the Nexus 5, and when released in October 2013, it was also very competitively priced, with a huge 5″ 1080×1920 screen (an appreciable increase in both screen size and screen resolution from the Nexus 4), for $349/399 (16GB or 32GB).  As a comparison, this was within a week or two of Apple’s release of the iPhone 5S, offering a puny 4″ screen with 640×1136 pixels.

But so much for aggressive pricing.  October of 2014 saw the Nexus 6, this time from Motorola, now priced at $649 or $699 for 32GB and 64GB models.  This was a huge leap in pricing from the previous year’s model, although with a further increase in screen size (to 6″ and 1440×2560 pixels).

(Note – the Nexus 7, released in 2012, was not a phone but rather a 7″ tablet.)

For their 2015 announcement Google announced two phones – a Nexus 5X and 6P (5.2″ and 5.7″ respectively).  The numbers hinted at their respective screen sizes, with the 5X being made by LG and the 6P by Huawei.

But in October 2016, rather than releasing another pair of Nexus phones, Google renamed them and called them the Pixel and the Pixel XL.  Prices remained high – starting at $649 and $769 respectively.  Although sales were low, Google had surprising problems keeping them in stock, and so possibly sales could have been higher if Google had done a better job of inventory control.

Which brings us to, yes, October 2017, and Google’s announcement yesterday (4 October) of its new generation of phones, the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL.

Google Concedes All Phones are Increasingly the Same

It was interesting that Google started off its presentation by conceding that these days smartphones are ‘reaching parity on their specs’.

We’ve been making that point for some time – the speed of new and enhanced feature releases at the high-end has slowed, while ‘low end’ phones are moving closer and closer to the same specifications as higher end phones costing four times as much.

Google went on to try and make the point that while the hardware was becoming indistinguishable from one phone to the next, it was the software that was integrated with the hardware that was and would increasingly become the differentiator.  That’s a slightly difficult claim to make, because of course, a very large part of everyone’s phone experience is built upon either the Android or iOS operating systems, and all Android phones have very similar experiences, and even the differences between Android and iOS are more stylistic than basic functional essentials.

To be fair to Google, what they probably mean is the way their phones connect in with their additional external cloud based services is what gives them distinctive extra capabilities.  Some of these capabilities might possibly be restricted only to their own Pixel phones, but we think Google would rather share the new capabilities with as many other Android phones as possible.  Google is primarily seeking to gather data from people, not to sell phones, so it would be a needless restriction to limit its newest and most sophisticated features only to its own phones and their trivial 0.7% market share.

Are we getting to a point where phones are becoming generic?  Google, Samsung and Apple of course hope not, because their strategy is to price at a high price point, and if they can no longer credibly point to anything other than their brand name as reasons for paying twice as much as other similarly featured and similarly functional phones, that becomes a much more difficult marketing proposition.

Our point to you is, and increasingly so, that before you countenance paying $650 – $1000+ for a phone, give at least equal consideration to phones half that price and below.  While the hardware is becoming more and more identical, and the commonality of software based features are also tending to merge and blur, the one most obvious remaining difference is the variation in cost.

This is clearly exemplified in our related article and attached table that contrasts a range of high-end, mid-level, and low-end phones.  Can you really see why you should be paying $1000 for a phone when there are credible alternatives priced as low as $100?  Don’t be tricked into chasing after vanishing returns – who needs all the extra pixels on a screen if they are too small for your eyes to individually distinguish.  Anything with a pixel density over 400 ppi is just wasted pixels and not worth paying for.  Try not to go much below 300 ppi, but don’t pay extra to go over 400 ppi.

The New Pixel 2 Phones

There had been quite a lot of leaking about what Google’s new Pixel phones would offer, and it turned out most of the leaks were correct.

The two phones are very little different from last year’s phones, and similarly, very little different from other high and mid level phones.  This meant that the usual chorus of fanboys struggled to come up with the usual unquestioning excitement, but they duly did the best they can.  For example, how about this :

I spent a few moments playing with both of the new devices and couldn’t help but get almost irrationally excited about them

Is this a confession that rational people wouldn’t get excited by the phones?

Or how about this :

both are almost shockingly light

Does anyone care about weight these days?  The truly shocking thing would be a heavy phone – aren’t all modern phones uniformly lightweight, plus or minus some fractions of an ounce?  But, if there is still an interest in phone weight, does the reviewer not know that the new ‘shockingly light’ Pixel 2 phone weighs exactly the same as last year’s Pixel phone, and indeed the new Pixel 2 XL is slightly heavier (0.25 oz) than last year’s Pixel XL?

(I’ll not embarrass the commentators other than to hint they were writing in an enGadget article.)

About the only positive difference of note between last year’s phones and these new models (other than a nasty price increase in the larger XL phone, up from $769 last year to $849 this year – surprising in view of the smaller model remaining at the same $649 price as last year) is a new ‘feature’ that seems as much like a gimmick as a useful feature – you can squeeze the sides of the phone to active the Google Assistant feature.  Not exactly a feature that we were all desperate for, and not even a unique innovation – it was introduced by HTC on one of their phones earlier this year.

It also seems like something that could be prone for accidental activation, much like how a slightly too long button push on an iPhone annoyingly results in Siri popping up onto the screen.  Google tells us that machine learning will identify the difference between intentional and incidental squeezes.  Let’s hope so.  Interestingly, some early review feedback says that reviewers found it too hard rather than too easy to activate the squeeze command.

Like last year, the phones come in two different screen sizes – 5″ and 6″, and with slightly different aspect ratios – the 6″ screen is proportionally narrower than the 5″ screen.  To be technical, the 5″ screen has a common 16:9 aspect ratio, the 6″ screen has a less common 2:1 (or 18:9) ratio.

The screens now have an always-on display that shows the time, date, and assorted other notification icons (we think this is probably more a function of the software than their hardware – in other words, it may become common on all Android phones, rather than be a reason for uniquely choosing a Pixel phone).  It seems, based on pictured examples, this information might either be sparsely shown on a black screen, or possibly on your choice of various backgrounds of always on screensaver images.

One imagines now going into a movie theater and seeing dimly glowing shapes in everyone’s shirt pockets, and wonders if this will further feed our phone addictions, when the phone is slightly more always in our face and calling for attention.  Will it be possible to dim the device at night – screen light is a known factor in insomnia and poor sleep quality.  Hopefully part of the ‘Do Not Disturb’ or Mute function will not only be muting incoming calls but also switching the screen off too.

While the screens are different, just about everything else on the phones was the same in both models.  You might say ‘well, of course it is’, but that’s not the case with Apple, where their iPhones have different quality cameras, for example, on the different versions of their latest generation phones.

Some of the usual things were also announced.  A better camera, for example.  Meh.  While it may well be, based on one third-party test measure, that the Pixel camera might be better than the cameras on the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Apple iPhones, does anyone care?  And, of course, there is also the almost universally announced, by every phone manufacturer, every year, upgrade in processor power.  Again – does anyone really care?

No Headphone Jack

There was one change we feel very negatively about.  Google is slavishly following Apple’s lead by eliminating the ‘headphone’ jack.

It is worth noting that this jack is not only for headphones.  Other devices rely on this jack too, because it is possible to use this not just for microphone inputs and speaker outputs, but for any other type of analog input and output too.  You may have noticed people at market stalls with miniature credit card readers connected to their phones – those readers use this feature.  You may have also noticed some of the more esoteric devices such as oscilloscopes and other types of probes and test instruments connecting through this interface as well.

It was not shocking to see Apple eliminate their headphone jack, because Apple hates allowing any third-party device to attach to their phones.  That’s a core part of Apple’s values, and enforced on all their hardware.  But the entire concept of Android was that it was an open-ended system and service, and was deliberately designed to be the opposite of Apple’s closed operating system and environment.

One wonders if the engineers in Google who decided that because Apple has eliminated their headphone jack, they can do the same, ever thought beyond the ‘let’s do what Apple does’ concept and considered the broader functionality and the reversal of system design philosophy they were embracing.  Almost certainly, they did not.

It is sad to see our world increasingly being designed and constrained by arrogant 20-something-year-olds, abundantly endowed with all the technical know-how, but sadly with none of the equally essential life-experience, wisdom and maturity to ensure they use their technical skills correctly.

So now, instead of having a nice neat headphone jack, you have a separate short cable that ‘converts’ from the USB connection to a headphone connector.  How quickly will you lose that, and how ridiculously overpriced will replacements be?  Plus, if you’re using this converter cable, how will you be able to charge your phone at the same time?  Or, as just one more of dozens of examples, how will you be able to have an audio device connected to the USB port to input music or other audio material, and listen to it through headphones at the same time (I’ve a miniature ‘SDR’ radio I connect to my USB port then listen to through headphones).

Sure, Google will say, as has Apple already, ‘go buy a set of Bluetooth headphones’.  I was an early advocate of Bluetooth headphones, but eventually, try as hard as I would to ignore the realities confronting me, I gave up on them.  It was another device to keep charged (and often another charger to keep at hand, too).  It was a hassle waiting for the headphones to turn on.  Pairing the headphones to the phone was always a suspenseful event, because every so often, the connection would fail to be established, and maybe you’d need to re-pair them, and chances are you’ve forgotten the pairing password.

The sound quality was never as good as a wired headset, and the controls were impossible to understand – so much so that I could never be certain ‘Did I just turn the device on, or did I turn it off?’.  How crazy is that?  The concept of a simple slide on/off control, and/or a power on light, being of course too simple for the brilliant fools who design such things to implement.

So, no, I’m far from delighted at being forced into either taping the connector cord to the side of the phone or struggling with another Bluetooth headset.  Give me back my headphone jack.

More Comments and Details

While the lack of headphone jacks is a sad loss from previous models, they also don’t have Micro SD card slots – an omission that Google has consistently followed, because it wants to force you to use its cloud services, while never thinking that we might sometimes be somewhere where the internet ‘cloud’ can not be accessed quickly, conveniently, or cheaply.  Really, Google’s designers need to live a little and get out of their labs sometime and discover the rest of the world, without having expense accounts to absorb the sometimes outrageous costs of sometimes terribly slow wireless data in other countries.

One more thing that was a mild disappointment – the phones don’t support wireless charging.  This was the ‘new big thing’ of Apple’s latest iPhones, announced a few weeks earlier; Google says that it hasn’t yet found a suitable wireless charging system that allows for convenient fast charging of their phones, and choose instead to boast that a quick 15 minute charge will power the phone for ‘up to seven hours of go’.  What does ‘up to’ mean, and what exactly is ‘go’?  Only uncool people would dare to ask such questions.

Of course, the ‘we can’t find one good enough’ is a well-worn excuse by tech companies who in truth are merely slow to implement new features.  We’re unexcited by wireless charging, but it is clear that offering wireless charging is becoming a more common and expected feature in high-end phones, so it is surprising to see its omission.

High Tech Clones

As always, when watching these presentations, I’m struck by how interchangeable the people presenting them have become.  They all dress the same in their elaborately casual dark-colored garb, they all use the same sound-bites and phrases and quote the same concepts and aspirations.  They look similar, they’re in similar age groups, they generally vote the same, and if you were to take off their shirts, you’d probably even find matching tattoos.

Do any of them have an ounce of the personality or uniqueness that was the hallmark of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, or for that matter, love him or hate him, of Steve Ballmer, too?  At least these were people with personality and personal presence, but can you cite the name of anyone in Google, and point to something distinctive about them, now that Sergey Brin and Larry Page have both stepped back from the limelight?  For that matter, to be an equal opportunity hater, while we probably know the name of Steve Jobs’ replacement (Tim Cook), do we know of Tim because of what he is, or because of who he is?  Without meaning any additional disrespect, is it not true that Mr Cook is another vanilla ordinary person who, if stripped of his office, would not stand out in a crowd in any way at all?

eSIM Feature and Fi

An interesting new feature is that Google is supporting the new “eSIM” standard.

You are probably familiar with how most modern phones are linked to your wireless account via a SIM card – a tiny little thing similar to a Micro-SD card.  You get the SIM from your choice of wireless carrier and plug it into your phone, so the phone then ‘knows’ which service to use, and so the service can identify you and your phone.

Increasingly, the best phones now have slots for two SIMs.

SIM sizes have steadily reduced – originally they were the same size as a credit card, now they are almost identical to a Micro-SD card – about 0.3″ x 0.5″.  The next logical step is to make them ‘virtual’, and that is what an eSIM is.  Instead of relying on a physical chip from a wireless carrier, an eSIM can simply accept a downloaded data file and assume a new identity.  An eSIM could also conceivably store two or many more than two different identities, allowing you to select between them, or, like current dual SIM phones, to have two or more simultaneously active.

This is great for us as consumers, and simplifies things for phone manufacturers, who can save more space and have a simpler design without the need for the physical slot and carrier to place the SIM into.  But the wireless companies are proving very slow to embrace the concept of eSIMs, because it would make it ‘too easy’ for us to change services.  So Google is being forward-looking in providing an eSIM feature, even though you’ll struggle to find any wireless services that will agree to support it.

One other special thing about both the original and new Pixel phones.  They are four of the only five phones that can be used in conjunction with Google’s wireless phone and data service, what it terms Project Fi.  This is an interesting approach to how wireless voice/data service is provided, and in particular, charges no more for data internationally than domestically.

We like Fi, and if it would work on other phones, would seriously consider switching to Fi as our primary service.  But with a requirement to buy a very expensive Google Pixel phone, or a still expensive Motorola phone, the ‘cost of entry’ is too high.  For a while, Fi had been also offering heavily discounted earlier model Nexus phones as an inducement for people to join, but they no longer do this.

Pricing and Availability

The Pixel 2 lists for $649, same as the original Pixel.  The Pixel 2 XL lists for $849, an increase on the $769 price of the Pixel XL.  It seems Google is running a promotion for an uncertain amount of time where you get a free Google Home Mini (explained below) included with each new Pixel phone you buy.

At the same time, Google dropped the prices of the original Pixel and Pixel XL by $100 each, to $549 and $669.  If you want a Google Pixel phone (although we’ve uncovered no clear reason why you would), it might make sense to get last year’s model, so as to simultaneously save $100 or $180, and also to get a phone with a headphone jack.

The new phones are already available for preorder.  But there was no mention of when they would start shipping – an intriguing omission, and a suggestion that Google felt compelled to follow its annual release timing, even when the products themselves were still an indefinite distance away from being shippable.

But, can we suggest, for most of us, the availability of the phones is irrelevant, because there is no reason to choose to buy one.  If you’re considering buying a new smart phone, have a look at our article and associated table comparing a range of smartphones showing their respective features and pricing.  If you’re one of our supporters, we also have a supplemental report that compares all the leading high-end phones and includes some additional feature comparisons.

Other Announcements at the Google Release Event

A line up of Google’s new products, including the two phones, various Google Home devices, the Google Clip camera and the new Chromebook computer.

Google is rushing to catch up with Amazon by further developing its equivalent to Amazon’s Echo device – what they call Google Home.  The two product ranges even look similar, and we’re surprised that Amazon in particular has yet to adopt a more aggressive pricing policy, the same as it has done with its range of astonishingly high-value Fire HD tablets (7″ for $49, 8″ for $79, and 10″ for $149).  We’d be unsurprised to see the price of Echo devices drop in time for Christmas.

Our sense is that Amazon has more to win (or lose) in this game than Google.  Sure, Google wants to be in our lives and in our faces, knowing everything we do, 24/7; but Amazon’s ability to monetize its own growing omnipresence seems more direct – it wants to sell us everything we buy, no matter what we want, and then get it to us more quickly than anyone else.

Amazon brought out their Echo Dot in March 2016, and now Google is bringing out a very similar product, the Google Home Mini.  It looks much the same in terms of size and shape, but has a fabric top cover rather than all plastic.  It is priced the same – $49, and will be available in stores on 19 October.

Google also announced a Home Max device, with a larger and better speaker set within it.  This device is interesting because it points to what is increasingly an approach to maximizing sound fidelity.  In the past, speakers in particular were passive units that were designed to be as ‘sound neutral’ as possible, and if a person thought at all about the impact of the room acoustics on the sound, this was generally ignored or viewed as an unavoidable part of the sound reproduction process.

With the latest in digital sound manipulation, the new trend is to make poorer quality speakers and then adjust the sound that is fed to the speakers to compensate for speaker inadequacies and also for the coloration caused by the room itself, so that in theory you end up closer to experiencing the same acoustic as the studio or hall where the original recording was made.  (Interestingly, this same design concept is being used for cameras – tiny lenses and their flaws are being compensated for by software which balances out the lens anomalies to improve the resulting image.)

This is a great concept, albeit with limitations on just how aggressively the room and speaker issues can be compensated for – a speaker with a frequency range of 150 Hz – 5 kHz can never be made to play 20 Hz or 20 kHz tones.  Many modern amplifiers come with a calibration microphone that will do this compensation, and now the Google Home Max will do it too.  Typically the system plays a few tones and ‘listens’ to hear how they are impacted by the speakers and room and adjusts accordingly – like a super ‘graphic octave equalizer’ if you remember back to those products.

The Home Max boasts as being 20 times louder than the regular Home speaker.  But that’s not actually a huge difference, because we hear sound logarithmically rather than linearly.  It is 13 dB louder, in case that helps understand the difference in volume.

The Home Max is not only much louder, it is also much more expensive, and is priced at a beyond-ridiculous $400 per unit.  I’m not yet clear if it is possible to get a pair and have them play stereo music, but of course, if that is possible, you’re looking at a total spend of $800.  And if you wanted to get a surround system with five speakers, well, you can do the math yourself.

This price is beyond high.  We’re talking about a small unit with some tiny cheap speakers in it, plus a microphone or two (even less expensive) and probably a single chip to do the digital sound processing.  How they can charge $350 more for this than their Home Mini is a question with no answer.

Oh, the grossly inflated price includes a year of free YouTube music without commercials, an inclusion few of us were seeking.  A more appropriate name for this device would be the Google Home Max Price.  It will be available in December (they didn’t say exactly when in December, which is not a good sign).

Although it is clear that Amazon is making a major push to advance its Echo range of products, and although Amazon has also managed to get its Echo/Alexa service installed on other products made by other companies, the fact remains that it is a frustratingly limited service that only responds to a limited number of commands and queries, quite unlike the Google Assistant or Siri.  So we see this as an area where Google with its much greater prowess and history of providing voice operated services could quickly catch up and maybe even displace Amazon.

Google also somewhat speciously tried to promote its assorted Google Home and Google Assistant services by saying it would free children from spending too much screen time with other devices.  But really, having a story read to a child by a device is no better and probably worse than having the child read a story themselves, either on a device or via a book.

Chromebook

Google announced a new Chromebook laptop – a type of device using its Chrome operating system rather than Windows, and where most of its storage is on the internet rather than in the computer.  Originally these were being sold as the lowest cost way of getting a semi-working computer, which of course become completely useless without a fast internet connection and unlimited data, making them inappropriate for people traveling away from their home or office.

Now the Chromebooks do have some onboard intelligence and capabilities, but they still occupy an awkward middle ground, somewhere between high-end tablets and low-end computers.  The new Google Pixelbook weighs 2.2 lbs – twice what a 10.5″ Apple iPad Pro tablet weighs and 50% more than the weight of the 12.9″ iPad Pro.  The Pixelbook has a 12.3″ screen, but unlike the tablets, comes with an integral keyboard.  And the ‘limited’ onboard capabilities – they will be available with up to 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage – one might almost say that is ‘too much’ onboard storage for a system designed to rely on network connections.  Pricing starts at $999, and it will be available on 31 October.

There is also a $99 stylus available to use with the device, and the screen is touchscreen.

So, you could buy a regular laptop computer, running Windows 10, with similar specs, and about half the price, or you could buy this odd-ball Chrome OS device, costing almost twice as much.  Is that a difficult decision for you?

Google Clips

Lastly, Google closed with a little ‘bon bon’.  A tiny little device, a small camera called ‘Google Clips’.  This is designed as something you might clip onto yourself somewhere/somehow, and the camera will use ‘machine learning’ to automatically take photos of what it thinks to be interesting things.

Is that a fun new device?  Or is it a spooky scary step closer to total lack of privacy, everywhere we go.  Because, of course, the challenge here isn’t so much what your device captures, but what the devices being worn by everyone else might also be capturing, and how that same ‘machine learning’ then stitches it all together to have an all-encompassing view of your life and everything you do and everywhere you go (well, Google already knows everywhere you go simply via its records of where your phone is).

Happily, the device is also ridiculously over-priced, at $249, so let’s hope few people will buy them.

Summary

The big part of Google’s event was the release of two new Pixel phones.  Yes, they have the de rigeur ever-faster processors, the latest 5.0 version of Bluetooth, and a new feature no-one was asking for (squeeze the phone’s sides to invoke the Google Assistant).  They have essentially the same form factors and screens as their predecessor phones, but now omit headphone jacks.

Should you buy one?  Probably not.  Check out our article on good Android phones for as little as $50 before deciding to pay $850 for a Pixel phone.

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Sep 292017
 

What’s wrong with this sign, found at NZ’s notionally southern-most point? The answer is at the end of the newsletter.

Good morning

Thank you this week to the very kind additional 61 readers who joined this year’s annual fund-raising drive during the last week, bringing us to 186 kind souls to date.

And, of course, very special thanks to our very special supporters, those sending in three figure sums.  This week, mention must happily be made of Jeff K, Hilda W, Pat M, Barbara K, Clayton H, Jim J, Bob G, Clifford L, Andrew C, Robert T, Michael L, Len G, Steve N, Ruth Ann M, Bill M, and Phil S.

We’re ahead of 2016 (172 supporters to this point) but 2015 has us beat with 199 supporters in three weeks.  Our target – our desperate need – is to get all the way to 400 supporters, and our current rate of progress threatens to clutter up many more newsletters with weekly appeals before we can all return back to ‘business as normal’.  Can I ask those of you who have been meaning to help out to perhaps do so, immediately right now, rather than to continue to delay.  If you’re like me, delayed things quickly become forgotten things.  It truly only does take a minute or two, especially if sending in support via credit card, so please think about clicking over to the supporter’s page and joining this worthy cause.

Talking about worthy causes, what are the two aggravations most of us wrestle with on our web browsing journeys these days?  Perhaps they are paywalled sites that demand you pay a fee to access their content, and sites that attack you with impossible-to-stop video and ads that take over your screen.  With a third aggravation being sites with minimal content, but spread over half a dozen pages so as to expose you to even more ads.  And how about the video ‘pre-roll’ ads that force you to watch an impossible-to-skip 30 second ad before you actually watch the feature video, only to discover that the feature video is only 15 seconds long and totally uninteresting, anyway!  Here’s a great article decrying the way the internet is destroying itself with its ever more intrusive advertising.

Now, how many ads do you get in your Travel Insider newsletters?  When have you ever had a video ad assault your senses on a Travel Insider web page?  When have we every split a short article over a dozen pages?  None, not at all, and never!

But there’s a reason why these new types of intrusive advertisements are becoming close to universal.  Ordinary ads no longer work well or pay well.  My Google advertising income has steadily dropped all the way from $6,000 a month (almost ten years ago) down now to a mere $350 a month.  This is also a measure on how much I value protecting your experience and keeping it friendly and positive for you.  But is this valuable to you?  If you value the clean uninterrupted experience, please help keep your Travel Insider reading free of offensive advertising – please become a supporter and send in whatever you feel to be a fair level of assistance.

One of our super supporters wrote in with a helpful suggestion.  John said

David, I entirely agree with everything you say about the value of The Travel Insider, which is why I’m happy to be sending in my support again this year.  Of course it is fair to consider your weekly newsletter as being of much greater value than a taxi tip or a cup of coffee.

But, for many of your readers, the problem might be that while no-one notices a dollar or two a week, when that becomes single lump sums of $50, $100 and more, once a year, it is harder to justify.  Why not suggest they join your monthly or quarterly supporter program?

John has a point, doesn’t he.  I’ve myself chosen to do things like support the local free classical radio station by way of monthly payments, because for sure, it is easier to ‘not notice’ a small sum each month than to digest a three figure sum once a year.

Did you know that instead of a single lump sum, you can choose to have a Paypal/Credit Card automatic transfer of your chosen amount of support – from as little as $5, and up to a still not-too-impactful $25, sent in every month or quarter?  There’s a single button to click to cancel payments at any time too, so you’re not trapped into one of those nightmarish arrangements that are impossible to stop.  Maybe this would be helpful to you (and therefore to me!) too.

Full details of this, and of course, the other ways you can send in your support too, here.

Supporters received an updated version of one of their special reports this week – if you’re a current supporter, you can go back to your special supporter page to get a new version of the Streaming Video Player review.  It has now grown to eight pages and includes more Roku tips and a discussion on the new Apple TV 4K units.

There is a 98% chance that, as you read this, you’ve not yet become a supporter.  Of course, if you have, feel deservedly smug and pat yourself on the back, but if you’ve not yet done so, may I ask you to now please consider doing so.  Whether you choose $5/month, or any other amount, or whether you send in a single payment, also in any amount at all, your help is truly needed and very much appreciated.

———-

I’m hoping we have another couple about to join us on our Danube River Christmas Cruise in December, and there are some more people in the planning stages of expecting to join next year’s Grand Expedition of Great Britain too.

There’s still room for you, on both tours, although with us now only just over two months before the Christmas Cruise, it is probably getting fairly close to being a good time to now decide to come join us on that one!

———-

What else this week?  Two articles, showcasing the two different sides of The Travel Insider, both of which you hopefully enjoy and appreciate.  Although more generic tech than travel tech, the first article shares the surprising discovery I made, and a simple cure to what I’d thought was an incurable limitation of USB connected devices.

And, the other side of my focus is a piece that struggles to politely contain my astonishment at the Dept of Commerce’s decision this week that Bombardier’s CS100 planes should be subjected to a 220% import duty.  From my perspective, there’s not a single good thing about this, and just a slew of losers, all around the world, starting with the US itself, all likely to suffer negative outcomes from the impact of this astonishing decision.

So, another week offering you a valuable tip to improve your experience with your electronics, and another week of fearlessly telling it like it is, plus the assortment of other items below.  Does that have any value to you?  If so, please provide your needed support to that of your fellow Travel Insiders, hurry us to our goal, and keep your Friday newsletters flowing.

And now, hopefully with you feeling particularly pleased with yourself for having become a supporter, please continue reading for :

  • It is Time to Give the 787 a Passing Grade
  • United’s Understatement of the Week
  • Airline Boom?  Or Airline Bust?
  • Airline Wi-Fi, Delta Texting
  • What We’ve Always Suspected – Pilots Leave Us in a Hot Cabin to Save Money
  • A Trio of Supersonic Stories
  • Air Travel Taxes – Shooting at Sitting Ducks
  • The Lie of ‘We’re Helping You to Go Through Immigration Faster’
  • The US Navy Fires Another of Its Admirals
  • Twitter’s Pending Present to President Trump?
  • And Lastly This Week….

It is Time to Give the 787 a Passing Grade

Boeing’s 787 development program is a classic case of a big company doing almost everything possible wrong, of missing every deadline and breaking every promise, with an explosion in costs and delays such as to make it unclear if the company will ever get to the right side of that financial eight-ball (some analysts estimate that even with the 1,278 orders the plane has received to date, the program is still showing an overall loss with development costs not yet recovered).

Of course, the battery fire problems were a terrible example of short-sightedness, and when you added the innovative nature of the materials used for some of the plane’s construction, and the rush to give it the maximum ETOPS certification, I felt it prudent to avoid the plane, something I’ve successfully done for the almost exactly six years since its first flight on 26 October, 2011.

But after the early problems, even I have to accept the plane has flown regularly, reliably, and safely, and Boeing this week announced a new milestone achieved – one million flights, and 2.5 billion miles flown.  They made a jazzy short video to celebrate this achievement.

And – you know what?  Not only is it getting harder to avoid the plane, but I’m no longer going to do so.  I’ll now be pleased to fly a 787.

United’s Understatement of the Week

United is cutting back on where it sells its Basic Economy fares.  These were the lowest fares with the least inclusions.  They didn’t include seat preassignments, you boarded last, and you had actual enforced limits on your cabin baggage.

The only thing worse than airlines ‘sticking it to us’ are the passengers with enormous senses of entitlement who think they can ignore the rules of fares and do whatever they wish, and who think that if confronted, the best response is to bluster and bludgeon rather than to apologize and comply.  It seems United has at least its fair share of such passengers, and when suddenly told at the gate that they can no longer take ridiculous amounts of items on as free carry-ons, things become a bit fraught.  Indeed, this article quotes a United source as describing the boarding process by saying “It’s become a circus”.

The implications of no preassigned seating are, unsurprisingly, that people traveling together quite likely will not be seated together.  Instead, one person gets a middle seat somewhere, and the other person gets another middle seat, somewhere a long way away.

However, it seems that families traveling together, particularly with younger children, feel that as of right they are entitled to be granted an exception to United’s rules.  Yes, they are expecting an airline with compassion.  They have been disappointed.  Which brings me to the understatement :

Couples and families with small children flying Basic Economy are another big problem.  They have not always responded well to the news they may not be able to be seated together….  [my emphasis]

Airline Boom?  Or Airline Bust?

Last week there was a spate of articles talking about the latest airfare war and the negative impacts it would have (was having) on airline earnings, in particular, American Airlines.

This week, we’re being told that American Airlines ‘could be a first-class investment’.

So what changed in a week?  How is it that often extremely highly paid airline industry analysts have such enormously divergent opinions of the exact same airline?

Airline Wi-Fi, Delta Texting

Here’s a short but moderately helpful article giving summaries of the major US carriers’ policies and charges for in-flight Wi-Fi.

And good news for Delta passengers.  As of 1 October, it seems you’ll be able to send free text messages, from anywhere in the world, on Delta flights.

What We’ve Always Suspected – Pilots Leave Us in a Hot Cabin to Save Money

How often have you found yourself in an appallingly hot and stuffy airplane cabin, sometimes for half an hour or more.  If you’re very lucky, there might be a trickle of air coming out of the overhead vents, but it is ambient temperature air, changing neither the temperature nor humidity.

Maybe you even ask to have some air conditioning turned on, and maybe you’ll be given a story about how it is not possible due to <insert any made up reason at random here>.

But the truth of the matter?  The airline and its pilots are probably just choosing to save money.  It costs money to have an a/c tender truck brought to the plane, and it costs money to run the plane’s Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) to generate the power to operate the plane’s own a/c units.

The airlines don’t like to admit this, but as part of the ugly arguments between Ryanair and its pilots, a pilot deliberately leaked the part of their flight manual that tells them not to run the a/c unless temperatures become very hot indeed.

Actually, it seems Ryanair is more merciful than many US carriers.  I’ve guessed temperatures to be the wrong side of 90° at times in US planes, with nothing being done to start the a/c, just more lies about why it can’t be done, or fragile promises that it will be started really soon now, just as soon as the door closes.

A Trio of Supersonic Stories

For some people, the glory days of travel were back in the 1950s or 1960s.  We wore suits, enjoyed spacious seating, great food and friendly service.

For others, the glory days of travel were from 1976 – 2003, this being the 27 years during which the Concordes flew.  While the planes were cramped inside, and the windows tiny, no amount of spacious ‘first class suite’ in an A380 can compensate for shooting through the sky at just over twice the speed of sound, Mach 2.02/1340 mph, and at 55,000 ft – so high up you can see the curvature of the earth below, and the dark of space above.

Ever since the tragic and unnecessary withdrawal of the highly profitable planes in 2003, there have been a steady stream of stories of new supersonic planes under development, but almost 15 years later, none of them have come anywhere close to reality.  Naysayers claim it is impossible to ever return to supersonic travel, because the planes are impractically expensive and unavoidably noisy.  They’re wrong on both points.

There have been tantalizing glimpses of new plane designs with amazing reductions in sonic booms, and of new planes promising enormous improvements in fuel economy.  But, nothing yet you can go to your local airport and catch a ride on.

At the same time, the US Air Force’s amazing SR-71 plane, which entered service in 1966, also was retired, back in 1999.  It is believed to have been the fastest plane, ever, with an officially stated maximum speed of 2200 mph, but many of us believe its true maximum speed was appreciably faster.  (As an aside, the well-known U-2 ‘spy plane’, introduced in 1957 and still in service today, is a relatively slow-moving plane, incapable of even exceeding 500 mph, slower than most passenger jets.)

Rumors have long existed of a replacement to the SR-71, but nothing has ever been officially acknowledged.

So, with that as background, three supersonic themed articles :

A look at the Soviet equivalent of the Concorde, the TU-144 :  Stories persist that the reason for the very close similarity between the TU-144 and the Concorde is due to the Soviets stealing the Concorde plans.  And more stories suggest that the British and French knew about the espionage, and arranged for deliberately faulty plans to be stolen, therefore ensuring the TU-144 would not be a success, and leading to at least one of its two crashes.  (There are more rumors about other factors that may have contributed to the Paris crash, too….)  Never mind the rumors, this article is a fascinating look at the TU-144, including some details I never knew before – in particular, a suggestion that the airplane interior was so noisy passengers had to communicate by writing notes on paper to each other!

Progress on a Mini-Concorde Successor :  The original Concorde was small and only seated 100 passengers, in rows of seats two either side of a single aisle, and with a fairly tight seat pitch (38″).  One of the many potential successors to Concorde promises to be even smaller, with seating for only 22 passengers.  Yes, there’s sure to be quite a premium attached to the cost of tickets on that plane!  This story simply reports that the company developing the ‘Spike’ plane is planning to start tests of scale models of their proposed plane, which will fly at subsonic speeds.  I’ve no idea how testing a scale model at subsonic speeds is actually an achievement or step closer to a full-sized supersonic jet, but the company itself seems pleased and proud with its ‘progress’.  Deliveries of the final plane are expected from 2023.  Anyone care to take a wager with me on that – I’ve a dollar that says ‘no way’!

Some SR-71 Replacement Rumors :  For a long time, there were rumors of an SR-71 successor called the Aurora.  Now there are rumors of a successor called the SR-72.  To me, the most interesting part of this article, which is necessarily light on facts, is the apparent acknowledgement that if such a plane is in some stage of development or deployment, it is probably a type of plane in which pilots are optional rather than essential.  It is suggested the new plane would be ‘hypersonic’ which requires a different type of jet engine technology, and would travel very much faster than even the SR-71 – perhaps 3500 mph, ie more than Mach 5.

We also regularly read ridiculous articles about hypersonic speed passenger jets, but there’s only one use for that type of technology, and that’s getting bombs very quickly from Point A to far-away Point B.

Air Travel Taxes – Shooting at Sitting Ducks

Much as we might find the airlines generally unsympathetic and ill-deserving of sympathy, and much as they feel exactly the same of us, there are times when our purposes are conjoined.  Like, for example, the rapacious nature of governments the world over to charge more and more and more to people for the simple act of traveling.

One example is the appalling greed of the British government.  Their Air Passenger Duty (APD) fee started off seemingly acceptably with a £5 charge on shorter flights and £10 on longer ones, back in 1994.  Interesting, air fares have more or less stayed the same between then and now, but not so the APD fee.  Now, on flights over 2,000 miles, you can find yourself paying £73 if you’re in coach class and a staggering £146 if you’re in business or first class ($98.50 or $197).  What do passengers get in return for that fee?  Ummm, nothing at all.

So, think of this.  Air fares have stayed more or less the same, passenger numbers, in round figures have doubled, and this gratuitous government fee has increased 7.3 times.  With the doubling of passenger numbers too, the British government is collecting about 15 times more in fees than it did in 1994, while still providing exactly the same services in return to travelers – utterly absolutely nothing.

Or, think of this.  An airline might charge $500 – 750 for a coach fare to/from Britain that is over 2,000 miles of travel.  The airline probably makes a net profit of perhaps 5% on that fare – say somewhere in the $20 – 40 range.  But the British government makes a net profit of $98.50 – two to five times as much as the airline.

The airline has to do all the ‘heavy lifting’ of arranging the flights and everything that goes on with that, and has to accept the risk of a loss as well as hope for the possibility of a profit.  The British government does nothing (the airlines even do the fee collecting/remitting for them), risks nothing, and only ever profits.  Is that fair?

Or, yet another thought.  Airlines hate the fee.  Airports hate the fee.  Passengers hate the fee.  But the only change that happens is the fee continues to soar, ever higher.  Details here.

This is not to suggest that other governments are not also guilty of extorting money from people who wish to fly in, out, or around their countries.  Looking more broadly at Europe in general, and for the ten-year period 2006 – 2016, the portion of an airline ticket that goes to passenger taxes has doubled, and airport fees have also increased, both as a portion of the average ticket price and in absolute terms.  Details here.

The perplexing truth is that governments seem to have identified airline passengers as a never-ending source of new revenue; a source of revenue that often comes from non-voters, and which entails no matching obligations to provide associated services or benefits.

Politicians love to campaign on the promise of lowering taxes for whichever group it is they’re speaking to.  But when have you ever heard any politician offer to lower air travel taxes?  Isn’t it about time that we ask our politicians to stop charging us fees when there are not fairly matching services alongside those fees.

The Lie of ‘We’re Helping You to Go Through Immigration Faster’

Talking about fees we get no benefit from, the same people who regularly tell us they’re from the government and here to help us, have been boasting of a new phone app that will ‘streamline’ our arrival process when we return to the US.  It will reduce wait times without compromising border security, we are told.

Well, that’s all wonderful.  It is perhaps also true.  But it obscures other issues and realities.

First, why are there shameful delays to go through US Immigration and Customs in the first place?  We – as American citizens or permanent residents – never get to experience the extended delays which other visitors are subjected to upon arriving in the US, and noting also this phone app is only available to US and Canadian citizens, we’re actually not the people who will benefit the most from it.

The reason there are shameful delays is two-fold.  First, and obviously apparent to every arriving passenger who faces a sea of empty unmanned booths in the immigration hall, because there are insufficient Customs & Border Patrol officers on duty to provide decent service to arriving visitors.  Keep in mind that every US arriving passenger pays dearly for the privilege of their ‘inspection’ upon arrival, with fees added to their airline ticket.  There’s a regularly increased ‘international arrival tax’ currently of $18 (and a twin international departure tax, also of $18, even though you’ll probably not see a single CBP person when you leave).  There’s a federal security segment tax of  $5.60 per sector flown, including flights departing the US.  There’s a $5.50 Customs fee, a $7 immigration fee, and a $5 Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service fee.

So the government is directly collecting $35 and up from every arriving passenger, and another $23.60 and up from every departing passenger.  Shouldn’t that buy us, in return, a decent experience and minimal wait times?  The government admits it makes a profit from these fees, which is surely not what government fees are expected to do.  How about simply spending the money they collect from us on the things for which it is claimed to be collected for.

The second reason for the delays?  Because the entry process into the US is more complicated than most other countries.  Most countries in the world don’t require us to fill out a landing/arrival card, and most won’t ask us any questions and simply wave us through (this includes countries such as China, Russia and even North Korea); many European countries don’t even bother to stamp our passports.

It should be demonstrably obvious to all that the US is no more under threat from muslim terrorism these days than many other countries.  And similarly, the ‘interview’ given to arriving visitors coming into the US seems more designed just to make people feel unwanted and unwelcome rather than to effectively root out any terrorists.

Why do we have to be the rudest and most unwelcoming country of all?

But, back to the ‘benefit’ of this new phone app.  All it does is shift more of the work from them to us.  It requires us to key in an-impossible-to-understand set of duplicate data that seems to serve no purpose at all.  They already know our name, address, date of birth, travel itinerary, and more other details than we’d ever suspect, from the information the airlines have given them, the information from our passports and our passport applications, other ‘shared’ information from other government services, and possibly also ‘data mining’ through external commercial data collection agencies.

We’re supposed to be appreciative that we now have to tap away at our phone screens to provide the CBP people with information they already have from multiple sources?  Apparently, yes we are.  Just keep reminding yourself – they’re from the government and they’re here to help us.

The US Navy Fires Another of Its Admirals

Okay, so four ship collisions in a short period of time – in any period of time – is a bad thing.  But just how much ritual debasement must the US Navy engage in before enough is enough?

I’d half joked last week that the people doing the firing better be careful, or else the firing might creep up to their own levels too.  Many a true word spoken in jest, and now this week we learn of a four star Admiral who has decided to take retirement after being advised that his expected promotion will not now be forthcoming.

It is commendable to see accountability and consequences.  But ‘the buck stops here’ concept seems to be totally misunderstood.  The buck isn’t stopping anywhere, merely briefly pausing before bouncing on and on.  Who will be next to go?

How can so many senior commanders all be deemed so culpable as to be either summarily fired or gently let go?  Is the US Navy confessing that rather than some isolated ship-level shortcomings, there is a massive problem throughout their entire Pacific Fleet?  Does it really need to continue this gratuitous ritual embarrassment in public?  Details here.

Twitter’s Pending Present to President Trump?

One of Twitter’s distinctive features has been its 140 character limit on how much text can be sent as a ‘tweet’.  There’s never been any underlying genuine reason for its existence, and similarly it has always been a limit that could be changed at any time if the company chose to do so.

It has already made various changes to how it ‘counts’ the 140 characters to liberalize the amount of text, but the traditionalists in particular have vociferously objected to suggestions the 140 character limit should be greatly increased.

I’ve always suspected that some of the most hyper-active users of Twitter secretly like the 140 character limit.  While it is impossible to say anything profound, moving, or particularly sensible in 140 characters, it is also difficult, although, as is sometimes vividly demonstrated, not impossible to say anything too stupid either.  Ideal for politicians – they can have an annoying presence without having to actually say anything.

Twitter has now announced it is trialing an extension of the size limit from 140 characters to 280 characters.  It will allow a selected group of users to make use of the new feature before deciding if it should be more broadly enabled or not.

No word on whether our President will be one of the favored early test users.  Details here.

And to put those limits into perspective, this newsletter is right around 28,000 characters.

And Lastly This Week….

The problem with the sign depicted at the top of the newsletter?  The sign, well-known in New Zealand, is to be found just south of Bluff, at the foot of New Zealand’s South Island, and has been there for decades, occasionally being updated/replaced.  But only recently has an observant tourist noticed that some of the indicator boards are pointing in the wrong directions – for example, the wide variation in angle between the signs to Cape Reinga (on the left) and Wellington (on the right) should actually be very narrow.  Some of the distances are wrong, too.  Ooops.  Details here.

Here’s an example of an article that takes 24 web pages to tell you what could be contained in one.  But, in truth, the UK Daily Telegraph website is far from the worst site out there, and it is an interesting topic – “24 fascinating things you didn’t know about your passport“.

So, have you enjoyed the newsletter again this week – and keep in mind there are still two more feature articles to follow.

If you feel you’ve received some pleasure, some amusement, some knowledge, and/or some value, please would you too ‘put your money where your mouth is’ and join the current 186 of your fellow Travel Insiders and help support us in our efforts to give you some Friday morning enlightenment, information, advice, and amusement.

And truly lastly this week, as a final desperate attempt to curry favor with you and to encourage you to help out in this year’s fundraising drive, here’s a slightly strange story of how owls like me.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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