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5 January, 2007  

Good morning

And happy new year to you.

2006 was a good year for The Travel Insider, with newsletter readership rising from 19,757 at the beginning of the year up to 22,232 at the end of the year (the number would actually be 23,778 if calculated on the same basis as a year ago, but I'm reducing the count to allow for emails that get trapped in spam filters, etc) and website visitation is steadily increasing as well, with over half a million visitors each month.

Perhaps 2007 will be the year that sees us exceed 25,000 readers.  In any event, hopefully it will be a great year for you in all respects.

I spent the week between Christmas and New Year in Florida, and immediately upon arrival was reminded yet again that the cheapest is not always the best.  Usually I rent Hertz cars, even though they're seldom the cheapest, but this time I decided to try Alamo for the first time in many years, largely due to the appreciably lower cost.

The last time I rented Alamo involved a 30 minute wait in line to complete the rental paperwork prior to getting a car.  Upon arriving at Orlando Airport, I went to the Alamo counter, noting that every other rental car counter was almost completely empty, or with only one or two people waiting in line, and then got a strong feeling of deja vu.  Yes, a disordered shambles of impatient people waiting in line to get their paperwork completed, and, yes, yet again, a 30+ minute wait to be served.

If this wasn't enough reason to steer well clear of Alamo for another many years, a bizarre charge that was added to the charges when the vehicle was returned added extra motivation.  In addition to all the other taxes, fees, surcharges and recoveries was one for 'tire and battery allowance'.  As it was, the charge was a mere 23 cents for the seven day rental, which left me doubly confused.  What is this charge, and why even bother adding another 23 cents on a $500+ rental invoice for this bizarre thing.

What will they add to the list of charges recovered next?  Depreciation?  Light bulb replacement allowance?  Windshield washer fluid depletion?  Wiper blade wear and tear?  The possibilities are, I guess, endless, and doubtless some clever person in Alamo's marketing department is already hard at work on their next cost recovery initiative.

At least my luck with getting my rental car was better than that of fellow travel writer Bob Cowen (see www.InternetTravelTips.com), who in his latest free newsletter tells the story

I reserved a car and arrived at the airport counter late in the afternoon of Christmas eve.  However there were no cars so the agent told me that they would provide a car from a competitor but it would cost me $14 more.  They said that they were going to do this only because I was a member of their "frequent renter" program (which I always recommend joining for all rental companies).  Pulling out a copy of my reservation, I politely but firmly told him that the price would be the same as my reservation and no more.  Fortunately one of their customers returned a car a minute later so they were able to provide a car.  Don't pay more, or fall for their "upgrade pitch" when they don't have a car or the car size you reserved.

Also earning a dishonorable mention was the terrible hotel I inadvertently subjected myself to in Miami - the Doubletree Coconut Grove.  I arrived there at about 1.30pm, and the front desk clerk refused to check me in, saying that the check in time was 3pm.

I asked if they'd have any rooms sooner than 3pm, and he said no, because they'd had a full hotel the previous night and a lot of guests were checking out late that day.  I said I only wanted one room, not the entire hotel, and surely, with every passing few minutes, another room was being vacated and cleaned and made ready for someone to check in.

The clerk looked down his nose at me and said it took 35 minutes to clean a room - a ridiculous statement as anyone who's ever wandered up and down a hotel corridor, observing how quickly the maids flit in and out of rooms, knows only too well.

I asked him if what he was telling me was that there'd be no rooms available at all until 3.00pm - none available at 2.59pm, none at 2.58pm, etc, but magically at 3pm the entire hotel's inventory of vacant rooms transitioned from being unavailable to available.   He smiled and agreed this was what would happen, and I had to wait until after 3pm before being given a room.

What a rude, uncooperative clerk, who was clearly and complacently entirely unthreatened in his job security by being as uncooperative as he wished.  But he was far from the only problem.

Problems with the in-room internet, and air conditioning that mysteriously stopped working in the middle of the night were other 'highlights' of this dreadful hotel, and their extravagant claim to offering highest level guest care services, complete with a special 'hotline' number, proved to be completely lacking in any substance when I tried to use it variously to get my internet and a/c issues addressed.

But my stay could have been worse.  At least I wasn't gassed to death at that Doubletree Hotel, which is more than can be said for an unfortunate guest at the Doubletree in Key West.

Perhaps it was because of the 4.30am start to my day on the day I flew back from Miami, but I realized, after checking my bag at the airport, that my noise cancelling headphones were in the now checked suitcase rather than in my carryon, leaving me with nothing to listen to my MP3 player with for the long flight back to Seattle.

So what better excuse to buy a new pair of noise cancelling headphones; to try out on the flight back and write about now?  A Brookstone store at the airport happily sold me a set of Sony headphones, but I was unexpectedly unable to use them at all on the flight back to Seattle.  Why couldn't I use them, and what did I think of them when I finally could use them?  Read on for answers to these questions :

This Week's Feature Column :  Sony MDR-NC11A Noise Cancelling Ear Plugs :  They're tiny and light, but are they any good?  Read my review to find out if you should get a pair of these ear plugs.

Dinosaur watching :  Talking about checking bags, my favorite airline, British Airways, continues to innovatively pioneer new ways of making air travel unpleasant.

Bizarrely describing their new policy as a way 'to create the best possible airport experience before you fly', as of 13 February, BA will refuse to accept any bag that weighs more than 23kg (ie 50lb).  Whereas other airlines usually accept heavier bags and simply charge you for the extra weight, BA will flatly refuse to accept your bag at all if it weighs over 50lbs.

And if you end up with an extra bag over and above your allowance (two bags for coach class passengers traveling to/from the US, Canada, and a few other destinations, one bag for other destinations) they'll charge you massively for each extra bag - 120 (almost $240) for longer distance flights or half that for shorter international flights.

I suppose thinking that a refusal to accept my bag if it is 51 lbs and charging me $240 for an extra bag is providing the best possible airport experience is in line with some of BA's other bizarre notions of good service, such as refusing to assign seats other than through the internet, via a website interface that sometimes doesn't work.

I'd mentioned in the last newsletter about fog problems closing Heathrow, a problem that came back again between Christmas and New Year.  But much closer to home, a puzzling thing was happening in Denver, where a snow fall closed the new Denver International Airport, where more than 3,000 flights were cancelled during a 45 hour complete shutdown of the entire airport the several days prior to the Christmas weekend.  Hundreds more flights were cancelled during a second snowstorm a week later.

Am I the only person who remembers back to when DIA first opened in 1995, and the bold claims being made that the new airport would be snow proof and able to continue operations in even the severest snow storm?  A 45 hour total airport closure is 'snow proof'?  Sounds like the same person is writing DIA's press releases as is writing BA's.

And talking about snow, longer time readers may recall my problems last year getting stuck in the snow with my then Landrover.  I resolved the issue, in part, by getting a newer better Landrover, and have had only minor challenges in quite deep snow drifts since then.

I received in the mail last week a gift from Landrover marking the one year anniversary of that Landrover purchase.  In addition to a lovely carry bag, they also enclosed a transferable $1500 discount voucher off the cost of a new Landrover.  If you're about to buy a new Landrover, let me know and I'll send it to you.  This is a real genuine $1500 discount, and can be used in addition to any other wheeling and dealing you do with the dealership you're buying through.

Why we hate the airlines (continued) :  An American flight from San Francisco to Dallas last Friday was diverted to Austin and was then stuck on the tarmac for more than eight hours with the passengers inside.  The Dallas Morning News reported the plane's toilets were full and dirty, and there was no food and water, but there were plenty of very unhappy people on board.

Apparently there was no gate for the plane at Austin.  AA said it did its best to get flyers to their destinations in spite of  bad weather, but the chances are passengers on the flight would not be very accepting of an eight hour wait on the tarmac as representing the best of much at all.

I often wonder what I'd do in such a situation myself.  I'd probably - at the very least - start calling everyone I could think of on my cell phone to bring pressure to bear on the airline, including local television stations to report being trapped on the plane, and perhaps the local police and emergency services to report the airline for false imprisonment.  Maybe also call the FAA to complain that the pilot was illegally operating the airplane in excess of the maximum number of hours of duty he was permitted?  Perhaps one could also call some attorneys to see if they would like to meet the flight when it finally did get to the terminal to encourage the passengers to file a class action against the airline for an imaginative list of 'pain and suffering' type thing.  And if I went too stir crazy, well, there are always the emergency exits, aren't there....

On the other hand, how would you know when to start raising merry hell?  For sure, the pilot didn't tell the passengers 'Ah, folks, we've now landed in Austin, but there'll be an eight hour wait until we can get to our gate; sorry there's no remaining food or water on board, and please don't use the restrooms because the toilets are overflowing'.  Instead, you can bet there was the usual series of non-statements referring to short delays and updates promised in the near future, and so on; although even the most dissembling of pilots would surely be running out of excuses towards the end of eight hours.

Maybe there's something to be said for this alternate and more individual approach to air travel (video here).

And hopefully when this type of travel launches commercially, it too won't be subjected to eight hour gate delays.

Verging on the ridiculous?  Virgin America's application to operate air service in the US has been provisionally turned down by the US Department of Transportation, which found the airline was not sufficiently independent of Sir Richard Branson's UK companies to qualify as a domestic US carrier.

The airline-to-be already has 169 people on its US payroll (what do they all do every day, I wonder?) and even has a plane or two already waiting to start operations.

After promising to be flying before the end of 2005 and then subsequently revising that to before the end of 2006, the airline is now promising to quickly respond to the DoT's objections, and hopes to be flying sometime this year.  We'll see.

Have you visited www.FareCompare.com?  It is a great source of airfare data, and I particularly like the free newsletter they send out giving details of airfare changes as they happen - it is a great way to understand how airfares are increasing, and which airlines are doing what.  Bob Cowen (supra) agrees, and says :

Of all of the "monitor & notify" sites I've seen, I think FareCompare is the best.  That said, it's not an exact science.

There are many dates where the cheap seats are not offered but now it's a lot more evident than before.  Often the notice is a few hours too early but it's better than being too late (but wait and keep trying).  FareCompare is doing a much better job than any of the others trying to reverse engineer yield-management.  It is user friendly and uses technology to beat the airlines at their own game.

I remember, some years ago, meeting a person who insisted on not just turning his cell phone off, but then removing its battery, before he was willing to talk to me confidentially about some sensitive subjects.  I thought his claim that his cell phone could be remotely monitored, even when switched off, was a bit fanciful at the time.

Apparently, he was right, as this story interestingly reveals.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  A French television reporter managed to smuggle explosive material and knives onto both American and French commercial planes, revealing serious security flaws at French airports.

The reporter was helped by a security expert who used hidden cameras to show themselves carrying 'de-activated' Semtex explosive and a detonator in their hand luggage aboard an Air France flight to Nice.  The two also carried box cutters aboard a Delta flight from Paris to New York.  One of the men also drove a truck through three security checkpoints at CDG, showing only a driver's license and ended up beside a parked plane.   All the security breaches took place during the past month.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, a four day protest by screening staff in October saw about 250,000 passengers boarding aircraft without being screened or searched properly.  A report on the incident said the "security screening process was circumvented and in some cased abandoned altogether."  Screeners, who worked for a private security company, were working to rule and creating long lines so managers allowed people to pass through with minimum or no screening.

Here's an interesting new reason for why your subway train is late.

And here's a reason to involve a travel professional in your next travel arrangements.  Actually, there are many reasons if you read down to the reader comments.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels - and hopefully to your intended destination

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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