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Friday, 7 August, 2009

Good morning

And hello from Vancouver BC, where I'm briefly visiting for the purpose of taking my brother up here, for him to then fly on the nonstop Air New Zealand flight back to Auckland.

I'd attempted to book two hotel rooms for our time in Vancouver - Thursday and Friday nights for me, and Thursday only for him, and went to my preferred booking source for Vancouver hotels, Priceline.com.  Unfortunately, Priceline does not allow for two hotel requests with slightly different dates to be 'joined together' - I would have to bid first for my hotel room, and then secondly for Christopher's, and there was no way to link the two requests to ensure we both got rooms at the same hotel.

As you may know, when bidding for a hotel room on Priceline, you can specify what star level and perhaps which part of the city you want to stay in (as well as, of course, the price you're prepared to pay) but there's no way to specify which hotels you do or don't want, and no way to say 'I want to stay in the same hotel as my brother'.

So I did what I've done in similar situations before.  First, I booked my room, and got a room at the Hyatt Regency for a mere US$70/night.  Then I called up the hotel directly, and spoke to one of their reservationists, explaining that I'd just got a room for myself through Priceline, and asked if I could book a second room for my brother at about the same gross rate I paid to Priceline, or perhaps for slightly more.

I said to the reservationist 'I know that when I pay Priceline $70, they give you some amount less.  And clearly if you are remaindering off your rooms at less than US$70/(C$75) a night, you've got lots of unsold rooms you're keen to sell at any price.  So if I give you, for example, C$100 for my brother's room, you're making at least a third more money than you would from Priceline, and we all benefit.'

At some hotels this suggestion has been eagerly accepted, and we've all enjoyed a good deal.  But, on this occasion, the reservationist refused to consider my win-win proposition, and said the very best deal he could do was a C$190/night rate.  He couldn't explain how it was that they were selling rooms through Priceline for about one third this price, while not being able to go lower than C$190 directly.  How stupid is that.

But, no problems.  I switched to 'Plan B' and wrote a polite, positive and friendly note to the Hyatt Regency's General Manager, Steve McNally.  Although the reservations agent apparently only had the power to say no, I reasoned that the GM would be more motivated and willing to 'do a deal' to get some more revenue and to please two customers.  That was over three weeks ago, and he never had the courtesy to reply to my faxed letter, even if only to say no.

I can understand front line reservationists not having the common sense to recognize a win-win good sense deal, but I'd have expected the GM, or one of his underlings, to respond - surely that is, in part, their job.  We all knew that the hotel was dumping its rooms on Priceline for US$70 or less a night, so there was no need to play 'pretend' about the rates they would and would not accept, and offering to pay US$93 for a room that they were contemporaneously selling for less than $70 via Priceline was surely a good opportunity for them.  Shame on him and his hotel.

As for Christopher, I booked him through Priceline and he ended up staying at the lovely Renaissance Vancouver, and for much less money than I'd offered to pay to the Hyatt Regency.  Can anyone can explain to me how the Hyatt benefitted from ignoring my letter and the extra business I was offering to give them?  Or is their General Manager and staff ill serving their corporate owners?

Back to the Priceline thing - it was a silly frustration and seemed to be an unnecessary restriction on their part that it was not possible to 'link' one booking request to another.  So it is not surprising to read about how my own frustration with Priceline is part of a general trend, with people becoming increasingly disillusioned with the services offered by online travel booking services.  A report released this week by Forrester Research (and obliquely mentioned here) finds that 15% fewer travelers enjoy using the internet to help with their travel needs now than did in 2007, and only 33% of travelers feel that travel web sites do a good job presenting travel choices, down from 39% last year.

This is a surprising and completely counter-intuitive trend.  From once being a leading internet application, travel is now becoming a lagging application.  At a time when we're getting faster internet connections at work and home, and new ways to connect to the internet (eg through our phone) and new types of internet services and connectivity (instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook, etc) as well as continued developments of the capabilities of websites and browsers, you'd expect and hope that the internet would be improving and providing better travel information and booking services in an improving fashion.

But apparently the opposite is occurring.  Either our expectations are rising at a faster level than travel websites are evolving, or our original hopes are now becoming disillusionment and disappointment.  Why is there a growing gap between what travel websites provide and what we hope for?

Perhaps one answer is that there is less online competition than you'd expect.  While the internet is potentially infinitely huge, by definition there can only be a very few leading travel websites, and this article points out that the seeming diversity in the largest travel websites is less than you'd expect, because many share common ownership.  Specifically :

  • Expedia Inc owns Expedia.com, Hotels.com, Hotwire.com, Venere.com, TripAdvisor.com - plus TripAdvisor subsidiaries CruiseCritic.com, BookingBuddy.com, SmarterTravel.com, SeatGuru.com, AirfareWatchdog.com and IndependentTraveler.com.

  • Orbitz Worldwide owns Orbitz.com, CheapTickets.com and RatestoGo.com.

  • Sabre Holdings Inc 0wns Travelocity.com, IgoUgo.com, LastMinute.com and the gigantic Sabre reservations system used by the travel industry. Travelocity also powers the search on Yahoo! Travel.

  • Priceline.com Inc owns Priceline.com, Travelweb.com and Lowestfare.com.

Not only may this reduced level of competition harm innovation, but it also seems to harm price competition.  The article discovered an interesting thing - they researched the price being quoted for a hotel and found that only two different prices were on offer over eight different websites.  Is that an amazing coincidence?  Or complacent non-competition?

However, although all sites quoted one of only two different prices, there was a significant difference in the two prices.  Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity and Cheaptickets.com all quoted $149 before taxes, but Hotels.com and Lastminute.com (and the hotel's own website - Marriott) were quoting $119 before taxes, a rate 20% below the other five companies.

Even with reduced competition, it pays to shop around.

There is a bit of online innovation appearing.  Both United and JetBlue are now starting to offer very brief airfare sales through Twitter - sometimes only available for purchase for an hour or two - and American Airlines is linking its booking services through Facebook.

It also seems that the growing disillusionment with the internet based travel services presents as an opportunity for travel agents to recapture some of the business that had abandoned them - often without carefully considering the implications - during the last five or so years of the internet's explosion.  Is the wheel coming full circle, and will travel agents once more become the preferred source of travel booking for most people?  The most likely outcome is that people will return to travel agents for complicated travel needs but will continue to use the internet for 'simple' things, even if, without realizing it, they end up paying over the odds and spending too much time arranging the simple things themselves.

A resurgence in travel agency business may also lead to a resurgence in the annoying scams offered to the public at large, enticing them to spend money on programs to become travel agents, entitling them to get access to special travel deals and empowering them to make vast sums of money selling travel part time.

Which - finally - leads to this week's feature article, which is the first part of what will become an extensive series on travel related scams.  My thanks to those who wrote in comments and warnings about travel scams after my request for suggestions and ideas last week - this week's article being a direct consequence of several people who wrote in about these scams.  Please feel free to continue to let me know if you've come across any type of travel related scams, either at home or on your travels.  I've also just returned to my hotel after having a person attempt a scam on me.  And so :

This Week's Feature Article :  You (probably) Don't Want to be a Travel Agent :  The deals sound too good to be true - 'For only $500, you can become a travel agent and qualify for free travel privileges and marvelous upgrades' - and, alas, are indeed too good to be true.  Here's what to know about the reality of being a travel agent and the illusion of the promises in scams such as this.

Dinosaur watching Congratulations to another non-dinosaur airline, and the profit it has reported for its second quarter.  This time it is the Canadian airline WestJet, with a $9.2 million net profit for the quarter.

Weaker congratulations to Alitalia.  In its new form, it claims to have 'hit its targets' for the first six months of operating under its new ownership.  But 'hitting its targets' doesn't translate to breaking even, let alone making a profit.  It simply means that it has reached whatever nebulous objectives it set itself; as for profit, they're not expecting even a break even result until its third year of operations.

Some people have noticed the latest story of people injured on a flight that experienced turbulence and used it to recite the line about wearing your seatbelt all the time while seated.  On the face of it, that's a very sensible sentiment, and I do that myself all the time, just like a wear a seatbelt in the car all the time.  Whether it is a sudden accident on the freeway or an unexpected burst of turbulence in the air, you never have enough warning to fasten your seatbelt - it has to be already done up to be of any use.

This story seems even more starkly supportive of keeping your seatbelt fastened at all times because the Fasten Seatbelt sign was on when the plane hit the turbulence.  So how ridiculously stupid of the passengers who were injured not to have their seatbelts fastened, right?

Actually, wrong.  US pilots have become a classic example of 'the boy who cried wolf'.  They switch on the fasten seatbelt sign at the first possibility of turbulence - no matter how mild - perhaps occurring at some future time, and they seemingly forget to switch it off again long past the point where the plane stopped moving gently about.

Whereas most non-US airlines and their pilots restrict their use of the fasten seatbelt sign to only genuine situations with strong to severe turbulence, the US carriers abuse this warning and denigrate its meaning and its importance.  Who among us hasn't seen the fasten seatbelt sign glowing steadily for ten, twenty, even thirty minutes or more while the plane has been in perfectly still air?  And who among us hasn't seen passengers ignoring the sign without any censure from the flight attendants?  We all know that most of the time it is a nonsense sign.

For sure, we should always keep our seatbelts fastened.  But the virtual imprisonment represented by the fasten seatbelt sign is a tool that pilots should use sparingly and with some underlying common sense.  Otherwise, we all ignore the sign with the result that when there really is turbulence, there is no additional way for the pilot to tell us that this time he truly means it.

Of course, the standard excuse for the obsessive approach to keeping the seatbelt sign on is that the airlines and pilots do it to protect themselves from liability in the event of a turbulence related delay.  This is, however, merely an excuse, not a valid reason.  There's no reason why the airlines can't tell their passengers 'keep your seatbelts fastened whenever seated' and change the 'fasten seatbelt' sign to one that instead says 'remain seated'.

An interesting court decision on liability confirms this view.  As you can see from this story, a federal court ruled that a US tour operator is not liable for injuries suffered when a client fell off the stone steps at Machu Picchu.  The steps were wet and clearly dangerous when Jill Kalter, on a guided tour of the Peruvian ruins, slipped and fell.  She is now a quadriplegic as a result of the accident.

In a wonderful display of common sense, the court said it was established law that there is no duty to warn when a danger is equally obvious to everyone.  In this case, Ms Kalter not only chose to go off the designated safe trails, but should have been able to understand that the wet slippery stones were - well, wet and slippery and therefore dangerous.  More details here.

I've read through two different would-be tear-jerker stories this last week, although my own eyes remained steadfastly dry-eyed.  This BBC piece reports on pilots and mechanics who live in RVs and mobile homes in a car park at LAX, so as to save money.  And - by amazing coincidence - this Washington Post piece appeared just two days earlier, and it tells of pilots and flight attendants living in 'crash pads' at various airline hub cities.

The common theme is clearly that there is something terribly wrong with the airline industry when its staff have to endure such massively substandard living conditions in order to survive.  To spell it out more clearly, both articles hint at insufficient levels of pay forcing these situations on pilots and other airline staff.

But if you accept and believe this premise, I've some oceanfront property in AZ I'd like to sell you.  These are not the primary residences of the people featured.  These are secondary abodes.  All the people featured have chosen to take advantage of a privilege uniquely extended to airline staff - the ability to live in one city and commute, by air and for free, to the city they work in/from.  These people are not unfortunate.  They are very fortunate.

Both articles are silent on other airport/airline workers who earn very much less money but who don't have the luxury of commuting from a nice home in a low cost location; these other people have to actually live in the city they work in - just like the rest of us - another comparison overlooked.

So please don't shed a tear for the privileged few who choose to base themselves in nicer and lower cost parts of the country and commute to work in less pleasant and more expensive places.  Shame on both reporters for uncritically repeating what was probably a predigested press release without thinking through the whole story and its implications.

Talking about underpaid pilots, while it is true that most US pilots these days earn appreciably less than they formerly did, that is not true of all pilots, everywhere in the world.  Here's an interesting story about a Cathay pilot being fired after he 'buzzed the control tower' in a new 777 after taking delivery of it from Boeing.  But note, near the end, the reference to him having been earning more than 250,000/year.  That is more than $400,000.  Wow.

Here's an interesting offer from Lufthansa.  If you fly to one of their 36 different 'sun' type destinations, and if you have any rainy days, they'll refund you 20/day (US$29), up to ten days/200 maximum, for each rainy day.

And here's a very sensible idea from Portland Airport, now proposed to be repeated at O'Hare.

If you have a water bottle with water in it when you get to security, Portland allows you to empty the water bottle, and keep the bottle, go through security, then refill the water bottle from a tap on the other side.  O'Hare plans to do this too.  What a great idea.

Amtrak, eat your heart out.  Britain has announced plans to spend almost $2 billion in further enhancements to what, by Amtrak/US standards, is already an astonishingly good passenger rail network.

Britain is to spend the money electrifying rail lines between London and Swansea, Liverpool and Manchester, thereby allowing for faster and more ecologically friendly trains to operate, making for shorter journey times and better services for passengers, which in turn will reduce air passenger numbers and encourage more people off planes and onto trains.

As for us, Mr Obama's small nod to high speed rail as part of the profligate recovery spending seems to have vanished without trace or noticeable benefit at all.  <sigh>

Here's an interesting article, and while it seems to open up with dire statements about the dangers of cell phone use while driving, if you read further, you'll see that while texting is indeed very dangerous, simply talking on a cell phone is suggested to be less dangerous than some other studies have recently claimed.

Did you know that, in Western Europe, more than a quarter of all new cell phones are being purchased online rather than direct from a regular retail store?  Most of these were through eBay or Amazon, a trend which, according to speculation here, could rewrite the ground rules of cell phone retailing and branding in Europe - and by inevitable extension, soon enough in the US too.

In related telecom news, potentially terrible news for eBay - and bad news for many of us too.  eBay may be forced to shut down its Skype business - a business it purchased for the ridiculous price of $2.6 billion in 2005.

Apparently eBay did not purchase all the core technology from Skype's founders, and there are now problems with the licensing agreement between eBay and the Skype founders.  Assuming no resolution prior, the case goes to trial in June next year, and eBay acknowledges that if it loses the rights to this technology, Skype may cease to be viable and may have to close down completely.

One can only speculate as to how it was that when eBay paid this extraordinarily 'over the top' price for Skype, it didn't choose to make sure it was getting all the bits needed to allow for Skype to operate.  Noting some rumors that the founders of Skype might be interested in buying it back from eBay (but absolutely not for the $2.6 billion price they sold it for!) one wonders if this is a negotiating tactic to drive down the business value.

Meanwhile, Skype has grown to become the largest provider of cross-border voice communications in the entire world, carrying about 8% of all international voice traffic (most of it probably being two Skype users communicating for free).

You've probably heard about cell phone jammers, but did you know you can now get a GPS jammer, too, and for as little as $49.  So if you are in a vehicle with a built-in GPS tracking system (such as some rental cars, with the company using the data to either charge you more if you drive out of a pre-defined area or if you speed), just plug one of these devices into the cigarette lighter/power supply and - hey presto - instant invisibility.

Reader Mark points out, perhaps helpfully for some of us, this might also be of interest if you were concerned that a military power was about to vector a smart missile onto your location.

A taxi driver who drove me about Vancouver on Thursday evening would probably want one too.  He assured me, in total seriousness, that new driver's licenses have 'GPS chips' in them that enable the government to track where you are, all the time.  This is an amusing but nonsensical assertion - where would the battery be for the GPS chip, to start with - and is based on a misunderstanding of what the embedded RFID chip does.  I found it easier to agree with him than to attempt to correct his misperception.

Talking about government interventions, how about this - if you log in to the 'Cash for clunkers' website the US government asserts the right to essentially take over your computer and all the data on it.  Details here.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Despite having her carry-on items go through the X-ray machine three times when going through security, the TSA failed to find a pocketknife or two large bottles of liquid in the woman's items.

She thinks this is worrying.  The TSA declined to comment, but then went on to say that this might be 'the passenger's failure to understand security protocols and an element of unpredictability inserted into our mixture of people, process and technology'.

So - let me get this right - the TSA deliberately chooses to sometimes allow forbidden items onto planes, so as to be unpredictable?  Details here.

Something else that managed to sneak through airport security was a one foot long baby crocodile, on a flight from Abu Dhabi to Cairo.  It got loose on the plane - crew members captured it, but no passenger admitted to bringing it on board.  Details here.

You probably know that you can get information on cruise ship sanitation and cleanliness standards from the CDC website.  But something which, until now, has remained a carefully obscured secret is information on crime levels on board ships.  It is an ugly secret in the industry that bad things happen to passengers on ships - either at the hands of their fellow passengers, or by crew members.

Here's information about new legislation that would make such information also publicly disclosed, and add extra responsibilities on the cruise ships to provide policing services on board.

With cruise ships now having up to 6400 passengers, and thousands more crew, they are larger than some towns ashore, and it is sadly appropriate that they should provide, at sea, similar public safety services as are available to us ashore.

Bad news for passengers at LaGuardia last Saturday, when the airport's central terminal was evacuated for several hours after a homeless man carried a fake bomb into the terminal building.  The fake bomb contained wires and batteries, but no explosives, however the outcome took several hours to resolve.

A sad farewell to the writer and director of a movie many of us can identify with - Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  Writer/director John Hughes died on Thursday.  We might also identify with some of his other movies, including National Lampoon's Vacation series.

Lastly this week, my innovative fellow New Zealanders will soon be offering jetpack rides to the public.  Details here.

Until next week please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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