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Friday 26 September, 2008
What a week it has been. Phew!
But, first of all, it is time to repeat and extend my thanks to all of
you who have chosen to join this year's annual fundraising drive for The
Travel Insider. At the end of the second week, we are now at 374
supporters who have contributed. It is very easy to see the glass
as half full with such generous support, but please allow me to also
observe that after two weeks of the fundraiser last year, there had been
445 people choosing to help out.
Our target for this year is 650 readers to
support the newsletter and website. I'm hoping another 276 of you will
now please be as kind as to help keep your weekly
newsletter coming each week, the same as it has for the last almost
As longer time readers know, the weekly
contents of the newsletter and featured articles vary widely.
Sometimes there's little of interest for some readers, and sometimes
there's nothing that translates immediately into 'news you can use'.
But then, on other occasions, or perhaps some time later, you might
That happened to a reader this week, who was asking
me, semi-rhetorically perhaps, if I could explain why the cost of a
business class airfare LAX-Sydney had shot up from about $11,000 to
almost $18,000 in only two years. She'd tried just about
everything and couldn't find a lower fare.
After a couple of emails, she used a
suggestion of mine to save over $8,000 on her travels to Sydney, and she
also managed to include, for free, a trip she wanted to take to London
as well. My $8000-saving suggestion : The five part series
on Round the World airfares I wrote earlier this year, which showed her
how it was cheaper to fly around the world (almost 30,000 miles of
travel) than it was just to fly to Sydney and back (15,000 miles of
travel). She got to fly almost twice as much distance for just
about half the price, and, most importantly, saved $8,000 in the
I can't guarantee to save you $8,000 too.
But whether it is preventing you from making a mistake, or (more positively)
showing you the best way to do something or suggesting the best product
to select, or whatever else; there's a massive amount of value on this
site for all people interested in travel and travel related technology,
and that value is projected to continue and increase.
Maybe you want to be one of the first to buy
the new Google cellphone when it comes out next month, and are
frustrated by the fact that their exclusive reseller (T-mobile) is
limiting its pre-sales to existing customers upgrading their phones.
Read on below and I'll tell you the amazing way to game their system and
get a Google phone plus a second high quality brand new quadband phone
for free, too. That's got to be worth a few dollars!
Coming soon are reviews on two new state of
the art GPS units, using revolutionary new ways of avoiding traffic and
getting you the best way to where you want to go. If you're
considering buying a GPS, you need to read this before you invest in
yesterday's non-interactive technology. The unit I like best is
almost unknown in the US, and also available at an extraordinary low
price through one place only, so the chances are that here will be the
only place you'll find out about it, and if you follow my advice, you'll
save hundreds of dollars and get a much better unit than others on the
market today. Buying these two units (in addition to all the other
GPS units already purchased for earlier testing) represents a $700 or so
expenditure on my part.
Also coming soon is a review on a new
trans-Atlantic premium class airline. Unlike Maxjet, Eos and
Silverjet (all now defunct) this airline looks like it has staying
power, due to the deep pockets of its traditional airline owner.
Is it something you should consider next time you fly to Europe?
My review will save you the uncertainty of not knowing. The good
news - I'm traveling roundtrip on the airline for free. But, the
bad news - I have to fly to JFK from Seattle on my own dime, I have to
pay for a night of accommodation in Europe out of my own pocket, food,
etc, and so this article is a $500 expense (and three days out of my
life), even with the free ticket across the Atlantic.
And on (and on) it goes. Not only does the
website have to provide me a living income - it is my only source of
income - but it has to cover its costs. The webhosting, web development, and bandwidth costs, and the underlying costs of
researching the articles that are presented to you are substantial, as
you'd expect from a substantial web presence such as The Travel Insider
The strength of this entire concept is its
freedom - its freedom to you as readers, and its freedom from commercial
concerns and constraints. You'll never see a 'main stream media'
type review that is simply recycled press release, carefully written not
to offend, and many times apparently written by someone who both knows
nothing about the product and who has not actually used it.
And so, my appeal to you is simple.
Please help preserve the freedom of The Travel Insider by voluntarily
contributing, in the same manner that PBS is supported. It is a
strange thing, but genuine quality content, whether on television or the
internet, is most likely to be found through free rather than pay
You don't need to give a lot. I'd
rather get a lot of small contributions than a few large ones (but, hey,
don't let that stop you!). Simply give whatever you think this
site is worth to you. The common metaphor these days seems to be
to compare the cost of anything to the cost of a cup of coffee - would
you equate the value in a cup of coffee to the value in each week's
newsletter and feature articles? Or maybe you might also compare
this to the subscription cost of a regular newspaper or magazine.
The choice is yours, but please do choose to
set any value you wish and then participate in the fundraising. It
is simple and quick - a click from here to the
fundraising page, and then a click
from there to send a credit card contribution, or, if you prefer, a
check sent the 'old fashioned way' works just as well.
Thanks for bearing with me through the
above. I confess I get a bit frustrated during the fundraisers on
PBS; my promise to you is two-fold - I limit our fundraising to once a
year, and I stop as soon as the target is reached (or once the 'welcome
mat' is worn too thin!). We've 22,000 readers, I'm asking for only
650 supporters. But just like any other democratic process, your
participation counts no matter how large the electorate, and here too,
your personal support is invaluable. Please choose to be one of
the 650 who respond, not one of the 21,350 who sit on their hands.
And now, on to the other part of this busy
week - the unprecedented decision by Amawaterways to slice a massive
$500 per person off 13 different November and December cruises (full
list of discounted cruises here). This caused a bit of a
struggle by readers who had already signed up for this year's Christmas
Markets Cruise to feel good about paying full fare, but virtue brings
its own reward and I'm quietly confident they'll get some
recognition and compensation....
For the rest of you, it makes
this year's Christmas
Markets Cruise suddenly transition from good value to amazing value,
and I've had two couples rush to take advantage of the new special
prices already. Combined with other available discounts, the net
fare for an entry level cabin can now to drop to $999 (plus $91 port
fees plus of course airfare to Europe), and with a Euro that has dropped
almost 10% from its highs of earlier this year, I really can say there's
never been a better price, in any past year, on this marvelous cruise.
Please do see if you can fit it into your schedule.
I was thinking about this in some detail -
for me, having done four previous Christmas market cruises, I know - I
absolutely know - how wonderfully great these are. They are my
favorite of all the cruises I go on. I was wondering how to more
effectively convey the sense of magic, the wonderful spirit of these
cruises, and thought that perhaps one way to do this would be to put
together a photo journal of last year's cruise, so you can see, through
what ended up as 114 images, the overall range of experiences and sights
that you enjoy on one of these cruises.
I'm still not sure I've
adequately captured the essence and the magic of these cruises, but
maybe this will bring you closer to understanding why you would greatly
enjoy this experience too. And so :
This Week's Feature Column :
Christmas Markets Cruise Photo Journal : Spread over four web
pages is a sometimes quirky, sometimes personal, and hopefully sometimes
interesting photo journal of my 2007 Christmas Markets cruise. See
for yourself why it is I like these cruises so much, then see if you can
arrange to take advantage of the amazing deals on offer and join 20
fellow Travel Insiders on this year's cruise.
Dinosaur watching : Alitalia death watch : The investor
group that had offered to buy the airline formally withdrew its offer
earlier this week, due to its inability to reach an agreement with some
of the airline's unions about future staffing and work practices.
Alitalia is expected to run out of cash by the beginning of October -
it had between €30 million and €50 million ($44 million to $73 million)
in cash as of mid-September and burns through €2 million every day it
The airline's latest strategy was to advertise in three Italian
newspapers plus the London Financial Times, seeking offers to buy any or
all of its assets.
One possible response is coming from an unlikely source - although one
could say, with a degree of accuracy, that all the likely sources of
interest in Alitalia have long since been exhausted. Venezuelan
airline Aserca said it is intending to make an offer for all or part of
Alitalia. 'With the aid of (Venezuela's) socialist government, we
are certain that we can resolve a large part of the problems which have
beset Alitalia and its employees,' the Italian news agency cited Aserca
director-general Hugo Santoro as saying in a statement.
The mind boggles at how Venezuela's socialist government can help make
Alitalia profitable, or how it can (or even would) beat up on the unions
more aggressively and more successfully than Italy's own government, the
airline's management, and various potentially interested investor
And then, late on Thursday, news started to trickle out that one of
Alitalia's unions had backed down and that talks were on again between
the airline, its unions, and the investor group looking at merging
Alitalia with Air One.
The only thing that is certain, however, is that the airline is almost
out of money. But in the new paradigm of government bailouts of
big business, maybe Alitalia will get another tranche of funding from the
Italian government before it spends its last penny - if for no other
reason than because Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi continues to
dream of preserving Alitalia as Italy's national flag carrier.
Many industry commentators have lauded
Southwest for its fuel hedging, allowing it to lock in jet fuel prices
that have sometimes been less than half the cost paid by its
competitors, who have generally preferred to buy jet fuel on the open or
spot market at current pricing. The same people have been harsh in
their criticism of other airlines for not emulating Southwest.
Perhaps showing itself to be sensitive to
such criticism, United embarked on some fuel hedging, and even recorded
some savings as a result of its actions. But the recent
astonishing drop in oil prices caused spot prices to go so low that
United found itself locked in to paying more for its jet fuel through
its hedging that it could have paid on the open market. In an
SEC filing a
week ago, United estimated it might lose as much as $544 million
due to fuel contracts being priced over the market prices.
A lot can happen in a week, and oil has shot
back up from $94 a barrel to currently about $110, reducing the size of
United's loss. And I mention United not to single it out, but
merely because it is the most recent and prominent example of the dark
side of hedging - other airlines both have lost money in the past and
are losing money at present through their hedging too as
The thing about fuel hedging, or just about
anything else on the stock and commodities markets is that you are in
essence placing a bet - you are gambling that you know better than
the person who is accepting your bet as to what the future value of the
product you're buying/selling will be. Whether it is something
as simple as buying shares in a company today in the hope that the
shares will go up in value (or, conversely, selling them because you
think they'll go down) or something as complex as the various derivative
instruments, puts and calls, hedges, and other esoteric things, it all
boils down to the same thing, the same as a horse race or game of craps.
One person thinks one outcome is more likely, the other thinks the
opposite. And (a bit of an oversimplification here) only one
person can be right in any transaction.
My point is this : Hedging fuel is
not a guaranteed way of saving money on fuel purchases. Sure,
Southwest has demonstrably had either incredibly good luck, or great
skill, in outsmarting the people who have willingly sold its future
contracts to it. But hedging is not a guarantee, and it is unfair
to criticize an airline while looking purely at results from the past
for what it did or did not do.
Congratulations to Virgin America
(airline code VX). They were chosen by readers in Conde Naste Traveler's 2008
Business Travel Poll as being the best domestic airline for business and first
More than 26,500 business travelers took part in the
poll that rates hotels, airports and airlines. VX received a score
of 65.3 while its nearest competitor had a score of 41.1. That's a
very convincing win.
My sense, based on nothing at all, is that -
and like all new startup airlines - VX needs our support at
present. If you fly on a route operated by VX, why not give them a
try. Accordingly to Conde Naste's readers, it seems you'll enjoy
I received an excellent email from reader
Ken last week in which he challenges the new conventional wisdom that it
is right and proper that airlines should charge for everything 'the same
as everyone else'. He writes :
There was a quote in a recent article on
AOL from Dan Garton (EVP of marketing for AA) commenting that people should
understand that airlines are now charging for the cost of flying from A
to B, and the fees are for the extras that people may or may not want.
He then talked about how silly it is to
give away free food on airplanes. He compared this to hotel mini bars and the lack of free popcorn at movie theaters.
Well, the theater near me gives free refills on popcorn and drinks,
and I can usually find a coupon for free popcorn on one of the coupon
flyers that shows up in my mailbox.
What about the hotels that offer free food, such as Hampton Inn,
Springhill Suites, and the like? My wife stays at a Residence Inn near
Pittsburgh frequently. Not only does she get a free hot breakfast, but
the manager's reception is often substantial enough that she doesn't
have to go out for dinner. If the Steelers are on Monday Night Football,
the reception is a regular tailgate spread with chili, hamburgers, and
Last October, my family stayed at the Marriott Scottsdale McDowell
Mountains. We got a rate that included a free breakfast buffet. It
wasn't the kind of skimpy buffet that one gets at a Holiday Inn Express. It was
more like a Mother's Day brunch (without the lunch items). The rate with
breakfast was cheaper than the rate that had no breakfast, when I
included breakfast at IHOP or McDonald's every day.
We also stayed at a Hampton Inn in Tucson with both the free breakfast
and the manager's reception. One night it was burgers and hot dogs. Another night, it was steamed chicken and vegetables.
And here's the kicker :
There was also free wine and beer. I know enough about the restaurant
business to know the profit is in the alcohol. So free beer and wine for
anyone is somewhat extravagant.
Would Dan Garton like to reassess his argument about free food in coach?
And reader Michael points out an
excellent chart that summarizes 13 (!) different items that airlines
now commonly charge for, and shows the cost of each item from the
various major US airlines.
Talking about fees, here's a
useful article about hotel policies when it comes to charging for
internet access, listing which hotels give it for free and detailing
the daily costs at other hotels.
The latest thing to be blamed on
international air travel? The rise in bedbug infestations,
a depressing article I wish I
hadn't seen - an analysis of the true cost of the proposed high speed
rail project in California. As readers know, I'm a strong
advocate of high speed (or, indeed, of any speed) rail, but there comes
a point where one has to stop and ask 'does this really make sense'?
I can't answer if the Californian rail
project still makes sense or not, but I do object to what seems to be
gross under-estimates of the project cost, and gross over-estimates of
the ridership that the rail line will then attract.
Cell phones are bad for your health, cont :
Children who use cell phones are five times more likely to develop
brain tumors according to
And, men wishing to become fathers -
be careful where you carry your cell phone, as
this article explains.
If the preceding hasn't convinced you to
throw away your cell phone, then you're maybe as excited as I am about
the upcoming new Google based cell phone - the G1, to be sold by
T-Mobile exclusively, and going on sale from 22 October. The phone
introduces yet another operating system (named Android), developed by
Google and using the open source model that allows anyone to use it,
extend it, and develop applications to run on the operating system.
Hopes are high that the phone will duplicate
Apple's iPhone success. The first phone - the G1 - is made by an
excellent company that until now has typically designed and made high
end phones that are then branded by other companies, so you've probably
never heard of them (HTC). Here are
some details of the phone, which will sell for $179 when purchased
with a two year contract (compare this to the $199 price of the iPhone).
There seems to be a chance that the first
batch of phones may very quickly sell out, and T-Mobile is currently
only pre-selling them to existing customers who agree to
exchange/upgrade their current phone contract/service for a new G1 when
it comes out. If you're not a current T-Mobile customer, or if you
wish to keep your current T-Mobile phone and buy the G1 as an additional
phone, you're out of luck, and will probably have to stand in line at a
T-Mobile store on 22 October and hope you're able to get one before they
And now for the strategy promised above.
This was told to me by a T-Mobile sales rep when I called their toll
free number to try and work out how to get one (800 937-8997). He
said I should sign up now for any phone and service on their site that
includes a free phone, and then immediately register to upgrade the new
phone to a G1. As for the free phone - choose one of their high
quality Motorola quad-band phones and either sell it brand new unopened
in the box on eBay or Craigslist, or keep it as a spare phone.
My further suggestion would be rather than
buying the phone through their website, buy it direct from one of their
sales reps and get the sales rep's name and his agreement that this
strategy is legitimate and will work, so if there are any downstream
problems, you have a T-Mobile sales rep to help you.
One of the things I noticed was that
T-Mobile was limiting the data usage on the G1 phones to a miserly
1GB/month. After some public and private protestation, T-Mobile
has now sort of lifted that policy, and now has a vaguer less clearly
defined 'reasonable use' type concept in place. On the one hand,
they proudly talk about their new high speed 3G network as allowing you
to download and view movies on your phone, but on the other hand, if
they're going to promote such massive bandwidth consuming applications
as that, they can't limit your monthly usage to a mere 1GB.
Here's a very exciting new technology
under development that I think may actually come to fruition. The
space elevator, which has the promise of reducing the cost of shipping
things into orbit to perhaps one hundredth (or even less) of the cost it
requires with a space shuttle. Details
And here's a story for photography buffs
about an innovative and excellent technology that is sadly on its way
out. Kodak's unique Kodachrome slide film may be about to
disappear, having been displaced by digital technologies.
Those of us who were once keen amateur (or even professional)
photographers will surely have stories to tell and favorite images that
they've taken using this wonderful film stock; and it is easy to feel a
twinge of nostalgia for its passing. Details
This Week's Security Horror Story :
The TSA is crowing excitedly about new anxiety detecting machines that
will automatically detect potential terrorists, on the basis that they
will be more nervous than regular airline passengers. One might
challenge the nature of that very important underlying assumption (and
you know what they say about assumptions.....) and inevitably, if a
machine is going to be set sensitively enough to register potential
terrorists, it will give a huge number of 'false positive' alarms as
ordinary innocent people pass by.
My big worry is - how do you prove a
negative? The TSA detains you on the basis of the machine saying
you might be a terrorist - how do you prove your innocence? And -
oh my - here we go again. This machine can make us guilty until we
can prove our innocence. And try reasoning with the machine - 'why
do you think I'm guilty; in what way am I registering anxiety?' - will
the machine enter into a dialog with you? Or maybe (joke) the
highly skilled well trained TSA operator? More details
Still, playing with their shiny new
machinery is doubtless a welcome distraction for the TSA, who otherwise
chose to enliven their routines by providing a show of force at a number
of Amtrak stations in the Northeast on Tuesday morning. As
this article points out, they didn't actually do much
(reminds me of the joke - 'What does TSA stand for? Thousands
Standing Around'), but it presumably was a nice outing for officers
otherwise cooped up in airports. Let's hope the airport lines
didn't grow too long while officers were busy watching trains and their
passengers come and go.
Winning the prize for 'airline coward of
the week' is British Airways. First, some background.
Britain lived through decades of 'the troubles' when it was under
regular attack by IRA terrorists, who'd bomb all sorts of public places
in Britain, and killed many people in the process. The US was of
course famously attacked by terrorists on 9/11. Spain had its
problems with railroad bombs, as did London on its buses and underground
trains. India is having terrible problems with terrorist attacks
at present. And so on, with a long sad list of countries and
terrorist incidents, as long as you care to enumerate.
There's one thing common to all these
incidents. BA 'bravely' continued to operate its flights to the
affected country without pause. But now, after the Marriott hotel
bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan, BA has cancelled its six flights a week
to Islamabad (the only city it serves in Pakistan). In a
statement, the airline said 'In light of the security situation in
Pakistan, British Airways has cancelled its flights from Islamabad to
Heathrow indefinitely. The safety and security of our customers,
our staff and our operation is always our absolute priority.'
So how is it safe to operate flights to
London, to New York, to Madrid, to Delhi, and so on around the rest of
the world, terrorist bombings notwithstanding, but no longer safe to fly
Incendiary wheelchairs? Here's
story of a wheelchair that burst into flames seconds after being
removed from an airplane hold.
It is a while since I last saw one of
these stories, but they do occur with painful regularity. This
time it is about a passenger who confused Sydney with Sydney.
As in, of course, Australia and Nova Scotia.
I mentioned in my opening fundraising
commentary about the need to spend money buying new items to review and
report on. I've written about travel clothing before, and now find
this article about a wool suit designed to be worn (cleaned?) in the
shower. Definitely sounds like something I'll have to try.
And so, whether you wish to 'earmark' your
contribution as going towards a shower suit or not, may I close as I
opened, with a polite plea to consider
helping The Travel Insider. Thank you.
There's another item I think I might have to
test as well. I received a pr piece this week from the makers of
the Wordlock TSA approved combination
lock. Its 'gimmick' is that instead of setting a numeric
combination, you set a word as well, with the claim being that it is
easier to remember a word than a number.
What intrigued me and makes me want to test
one is their proud claim that the letters are laid out in such a pattern
that 'no bad words are possible'.
Until next week,
please enjoy safe travels