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Friday 12 September, 2008
Today is a very happy day. It is, to
use that over-worked phrase, 'the first day of the rest of my life'.
Yesterday saw me finally conclude the remaining details of my divorce, a
divorce that has been 2½ long years in the making, and which has
consumed an unbelievable sum in legal fees (six figures) and which now
costs me another six figure sum in settlement.
So, I'm delighted to now have that behind
me, but the immediate future, with enormous settlement costs and no cash
to cover them, is scary. The largest part of this was setting a
notional value on The Travel Insider, and while it was generally agreed
that the business could not be sold to anyone else for much or any money
at all, for divorce settlement purposes 'my' business had to be assessed
a value and then shared with my ex-wife. No-one seemed to care
that the cash to pay for that settlement doesn't exist.
Which - finally - brings me to this
year's annual fundraising drive. Normally held in April/May,
I've been waiting to conclude my divorce before launching a desperately
heart-felt plea to you this year.
As longer time readers know, we
operate on the PBS model, relying on a mix of reader contributions and
sundry income to keep the website up and the newsletter regularly being
published. Our annual fundraising
drive will hopefully be short and not too intrusive, and the sooner
we reach our target, the sooner it ends!
Personal challenges notwithstanding -
indeed, perhaps because of them; at times my only escape from the
horrors of this divorce process has been to bury myself in my work for
you - it has been another good year for The Travel
Insider, and hopefully for you too. You've received some 50 weekly newsletters and
over 60 feature
articles - in total, over 400,000 words of information,
commentary, advice and humor - more than you'd get in six
hardcover books, and more than I've written in any previous twelve month
period. The website is an increasingly valuable resource
for increasing numbers of people on an increasingly wide range of travel
and travel related technology topics - over 550,000 people visit the website
every month, and there are currently 21,929 newsletter readers each
The website and newsletter have been going -
and growing - since October 2001, and continues to gain respect and
'voice' in the community. With the passing of time, we
together - myself as spokesman and all of you as endorsers and
supporters - can continue to become more effective as advocates for
better airline customer service, improved passenger rights, and a
generally more transparent and fair travel experience.
Hopefully you've found the 400,000 words
shared with you during the last year to be
interesting, at times amusing, and often helpful. Perhaps you've
even been able to use some of the ideas, suggestions, reviews and other
items to save money or make better travel related choices.
For example, the current ongoing series on how to book hotels at best
rates might save you money on future hotel stays. Or if you chose
to buy some Southwest Airlines stock when I recommended it earlier this
year, and then sold it again when I recommended you sell it, you'd have
pocketed a tidy sum for just a few short weeks investment. And if
you benefited from the Travel Insider 50% discount sale at Pro Travel
Gear a few weeks ago, as hundreds of you did, you for sure saved a
generous amount of money in that sale.
Even with all this positive progress, the
present time sees The Travel Insider at a
critical - indeed, at a crisis - point, and more than ever before, your
support is now very much needed. Not only do I have divorce
related debts everywhere I look, but the Travel Insider's business model
is under assault at present due to tougher economic times and changing
patterns of what is 'hot' and 'not hot' on the internet in general.
My return from advertising on each page is way down, and the once
popular phone unlocking service is now largely moribund and no longer
needed by most people.
The Travel Insider could not exist as a part
time/spare time project. To write the 6000 words or more I write
each week, to maintain and update existing articles, to attend to the
administration and management of the website, servers, email membership
list, to read (and sometimes reply) to the 200 emails that come in each
day - all of this already consumes way more than 40 hours every week.
I could not continue to offer you comprehensive insight and commentary
if I was to do this merely part-time, in my spare time - at a simplistic
level, imagine what the newsletter would be like with only one quarter
the content, and that one quarter at a more superficial level, and
feature articles on the website perhaps once a month. An
unattractive thought for both you and me.
In addition to requiring my full time
venture consumes money, too. New webservers of various types need
to be purchased every year or two, monthly hosting charges (including
fees per GB served - every visitor to the website, almost none of whom
contribute, cost money for the MBs of bandwidth they consume looking
at pages), software, technical support, and so on and so on, all cost
Another appreciable cost is buying items to review - for example, I'm
working on reviews of two exciting new high end GPS units, which I had
to buy myself (my frank and hard-hitting reviews don't encourage many
suppliers to send free units in the hope of getting a meaninglessly
positive review in return).
And so I find myself at a crossroads with
three choices - continue the website, and on the same PBS voluntary
support basis as before, switch to a subscription model with reduced free
content, or close it down and seek to build a new future in some
other way (I hear the airlines are hiring - do you think I'd
make a good gate agent, explaining to you why you're being bumped off a
flight that has also been cancelled and refusing to give you a meal
My clear preference is to continue the first option, and
so I'm now asking for your help to make this possible.
Please reflect a minute on what you've
received over the last twelve months, and then
contribute what you feel
appropriate to ensure it continues for the next twelve months. How much a week is your 'Friday Fix' from
The Travel Insider worth to you? Is it worth the price of a cup of
coffee - $2? Or perhaps what you'd pay for a newspaper - $1 or so?
You're welcome to use any calculation you
like to decide how much to contribute. And you can choose between
making a single lump sum contribution, or becoming a 'subscribing
member' and having automatic monthly or quarterly contributions taken
from a credit card through Paypal (and my very special thanks to
the loyal faithful few who are already doing this, month/quarter after
month/quarter, quietly but importantly helping out on this regular
How much is fair to contribute? That
is entirely for you to decide - it is a PBS model, after all. But,
one thing I urge you - please do not give any amount more than that
which you can conveniently spare. If you're on a fixed or low
income, please continue to enjoy The Travel Insider completely free of
charge, and please feel no obligation to contribute.
It seems that most years we have about 3% of
readers choose to contribute, so I'm hoping for 650 contributions this
year. You can do the math - multiply 650 by whatever
average contribution amount you think likely, and the result, while more
than covering the operational expenses, doesn't leave much over as my
'salary'. But it does help ensure The Travel Insider continues on
for the next 12 months, same as it has for the last 83 months.
Please simply go to
this page, choose an amount to contribute, either monthly, quarterly, or
one-time, and click the appropriate button (or mail a check to the
address provided). In return, you'll receive my heartfelt
appreciation, and hopefully another year of The Travel Insider too.
And now, on with our regular newsletter -
thanks for reading the preceding, and thanks even more if you chose to
click over and contribute....
As promised above, I'm continuing the series
on how to get the best rates when booking hotel rooms, and there are
probably two more articles in the series yet to come. So, here for
this week is part two :
This Week's Feature Column :
When Should You Book a
Hotel Room : Here are some suggestions about when is the best (and worst) time to book
your hotel room, and one important thing to consider doing after you've
made your booking.
Happy Birthday this week to our
'Senior Reader', John. John turned 93 this week. Long may
you remain our 'Senior Reader', John - it is a privilege and pleasure to
share the newsletter with you, and your always interesting emails are
much appreciated and always enjoyed.
Dinosaur watching : Ooops.
An old story about United going into bankruptcy, written back in 2002,
somehow got recycled on Monday and reported again as if it were new by
the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Their story was then picked up and
repeated by other news outlets, and caused a collapse in United's
share price, dropping all the way from an opening price of $12.30
down to little more than a penny a share by lunchtime. Share
trading was briefly suspended, and when it resumed, the share price
quickly returned back up to nearly $12 again, and by Thursday after an
unrelated dip it closed at $11.12.
Some people presumably lost millions of
dollars, and others presumably made millions of dollars, in the panic
trading that happened on Monday. The company as a whole briefly
lost almost $1.5 billion in shareholder value, and one wonders what
obligation the people who made millions on their trades have to return
their profits, and what chance the people who lost millions have to get
their money back.
Some good news of a type that rarely
British Airways says its new Terminal 5 is now starting to get the kinks
ironed out and is working well. BA says it is consistently beating
targets for both ease and speed of check-in during departures and for
baggage retrieval on arrival.
After a nightmarish start to its T5
operations earlier this year, BA delayed moving the rest of its Heathrow
operations to T5. But now these problems are solved, and so rather
than wait until April next year, BA is going to transfer the rest of
its long-haul flights to T5 over the next seven weeks.
Not quite such good news. Oil prices
continue to hover in the $100 - $110/barrel range, way down from the
July high of $147. So what about the layer upon layer of fuel
surcharges imposed by the airlines? When will they start to
move down, too?
Well, the answer to that question won't
surprise you. No time soon seems to be the general response from
most airlines, as reported in
'Sorry, We're Full' - so could read the sign
that Canadian airline WestJet might need to hang on its checkin podiums.
The airline averaged an astonishing 88.4% of its seats sold on all
flights in August.
It is only a few years ago when airlines
targeted to break even at about a 60% load, and didn't ever expect to
see average loads much about 70%. But now we have airlines
routinely running at load factors in the mid/high 70s, and sometimes
breaking into the 80s.
Why can't an airline ever hope to run at
a 100% load factor? There is a complicated statistical reason
why this is somewhere between difficult and impossible; to explain it
simply, think of it this way. Think of a person making, say, a
four flight journey (two flights to go through a hub to their
destination, two flights through a hub back again). Now what
happens if one of those four flights is full. Maybe they can
rebook to a later/earlier flight, but maybe they can't, and so they go
travel with another airline, or on another day. The airline not
only lost selling the seat on the full flight, but lost out on selling
seats on the other three flights, too. One full flight interferes
with the ability to sell seats on other flights, too, even flights that
don't immediately seem related to the full flight.
So seeing an airline with a load factor
of 88.4% is truly astonishing. Well done, WestJet.
Now, as we know, full flights mean problems
of all sorts for the passengers, and with Air Canada posting an almost
as wonderful 84.4% load factor, the flights are sure full, right across
Canada. Fortunately, the Canadian government has come up with what
it terms 'Flight Rights Canada'; described by their Transport Minister
as being an 'airline passenger bill of rights'.
So, what is it? Should we, south of
the border, be copying it here, too? Alas, no, the 'Flight
Rights Canada' is a ridiculous non-event that couldn't have been made
weaker and more useless if the airlines had written it themselves.
Here are the six rights, in their inglorious entirety :
1. Airlines must make reasonable efforts to inform passengers of delays
and schedule changes and to the extent possible, the reason for the
delay or change.
2. If the plane is overbooked or cancelled, the airline must a) find the
passenger a seat on another flight operated by that airline; b) buy the
passenger a seat on another carrier with whom it has a mutual interline
traffic agreement; or c) refund the unused portion of the passenger's
3. If a flight is delayed and the delay between the scheduled departure
of the flight and the actual departure of the flight exceeds 4 hours,
the airline will provide the passenger with a meal voucher.
4. The airline will take steps to inform the passenger on the status of
the luggage and will provide the passenger with an overnight kit as
5. Nothing in Flight Rights Canada would make the airline responsible
for acts of nature or the acts of third parties. Airlines are legally
obligated to maintain the highest standards of aviation safety and
cannot be encouraged to fly when it is not safe to do so.
6. Consumers have legal rights under international treaties.
Working backwards through this list, the
sixth 'right' does nothing at all except acknowledge your already
existing rights under international treaties (which are very slim to
Right number five actually takes away
your rights in cases where the airline chooses to hide behind one of
their favorite excuses 'it is a weather delay' or indeed now allows them
to hide behind another excuse too 'it was the other guy's fault, not
ours'. It also preserves the other favorite airline fiction 'the
delay was due to a safety issue, and of course you wouldn't want us
flying an unsafe airplane, would you?'.
Calling right number five a 'right' is an
insult to our intelligence.
Right number four hardly gives you any
rights at all if your bags go missing, other than requiring the
airlines to provide you with an 'overnight kit' - what is that? A
toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste? How about requiring the
airlines to pay cash compensation for delayed baggage? How about
requiring the airlines to compensate you for any changes of clothing you
need to buy on day two and three and four while your bags are still
Right number three means you'll get a meal
voucher of unspecified value (why not at least say 'a meal voucher good
for a two course meal at any airport restaurant' or something like
that?). And what say the delay is on the last flight out at night,
and there are no remaining restaurants open in the airport?
Right number two actually gives the
airlines a massive escape clause. The airline is free to
choose which of the three 'solutions' it offers you, and is also free to
calculate what value is associated with the unused portion of your
ticket. What do you think an airline would rather do - spend $500
to put you on a competing airline, or assess the unused part of your
ticket as worth $50, give you the cash, and tell you that you're on your
own to make your own flight arrangements? This doesn't create a
new right for passengers; it lets the airlines off the hook and
diminishes their responsibility.
And, lastly, right number one is
meaningless. What is a 'reasonable effort'? What does
'to the extent possible' mean? And what if an airline doesn't do
this? What is the sanction or penalty imposed on them?
All in all, this is a shameful listing of
non-rights that if anything weakens our position as passengers, and
makes it easier for the airlines to turn their back on us.
Shame on the Canadian government for enacting such a terrible piece of
anti-consumer legislation, and double shame on them for telling us that
it is a good thing for us.
Here's an example of a
rock solid set of passenger rights.
Talking about passenger rights and lost
luggage, here's a
particularly unfortunate story of a rather sensitive piece of
luggage that got lost.
JetBlue thinks it may have found a new
way to sell tickets - auction them on eBay. In actual fact,
the idea is far from new, but every once in a while, an airline
rediscovers the concept, and
a reporter writes it up as if it was an innovative new thing, but it
isn't. Airlines have been selling tickets through eBay and other
auction sites for almost ten years now.
More good news for train lovers.
The wonderful Eurostar train that nowadays travels between London
and Paris in under 2½ hours, giving riders a comfortable quiet and
reliable travel experience, is to be joined on the route by competing
companies operating alternate train services on the same track.
Not only might competition see the fairly high cost of traveling on
Eurostar drop, but the new companies are saying their trains will be
faster, making the journey in less than two hours.
And who are these new competitors?
Airlines! Air France for sure, and possibly Virgin Atlantic, too
(which already operates trains in Britain, although not always very
Earlier this week there were 1995 different
models of digital camera for sale on Amazon - an impossibly huge number
for anyone to consider when choosing a new digital camera. So go
see how this website works,
enabling you to select the features you want, and rate each feature in
terms of how important it is to you, and then presenting selected
recommended models that best meet your prioritized preferences. It
is amazingly clever, and a good example of the new 'Web 2.0' type
technologies that are transforming the internet into an even more
essential and interactive part of our lives now than it already is.
There's only one apparent problem with the
site. Its pricing data is not always accurate - I just checked and
a camera it was offering at $160.77 was actually priced at $280.17 when
I clicked on the link to buy. Ooops! But sometimes, prices
are lower as well as higher, eg, a camera shown at $499.95 on the site,
when clicking the link to buy came up at $446.48.
So use the site to choose the cameras that
have the best features, then perhaps go check the exact pricing through
Amazon or some other online site.
This Week's Security Horror Story :
So here we are, passing the seventh anniversary of 9/11/01 and the event
which caused this section of the newsletter to come into existence.
The seventh anniversary, like the ones
before it, has come and gone without any further terrorist attacks on
American soil. Back on 9/12/01 we felt very vulnerable and
concerned about what an implacable foe with no fear of dying for their
cause could continue to do to our peaceful and free society.
Further attacks seemed inevitable and almost unavoidable.
Why have there been no further attacks on
the US? Was it a good idea to invade Afghanistan and Iraq?
Are all the security hassles we grumble about actually working?
Should we feel good about greater government scrutiny of every aspect of
our lives? Should we thank the outgoing President and his
administration for successfully defending the US and its citizens for
seven long years without fail?
I don't have answers to any of those five
questions. Perhaps there's also a sixth question - was the ongoing
danger implied in the 9/11 attacks vastly overstated, and have we
That's another question I can't easily
answer, and on this happy Friday, let's simply count our blessings and
hope for at least another seven years free of terrorist incident.
Extending this positive note, here's some
good news for a change out of the Homeland Security Department.
They are finally starting to scan all incoming cargo shipments at the
nation's airports for radiation type threats (ie, to see if they
might contain components for building a dirty or nuclear bomb).
The first detectors are being deployed this week at Dulles, and all
arriving cargo, including domestic cargo, will go through what are
called 'radiation portal monitors'.
Four more airports get the equipment by the
end of the year, and eventually 30 airports will have them. So, to
fully state the good news - all cargo at some airports will be scanned.
But no cargo at many other airports will be scanned at all. Oh -
and sea cargo? That gets ignored entirely. Hmmmm - wasn't
this supposed to be good news?
Reader Victoria (who is the daughter of our
Senior Reader John, mentioned at the top of this newsletter) confirms
what we've long suspected. Some airline employees have the power
to arbitrarily switch our status to make us go through the hassle of
'secondary screening', and some airline employees abuse this
privilege to 'punish' passengers they don't like. Here's her
interesting note in full :
Yesterday, I checked in for my American Airlines
flight at a major West Coast
airport and was told by the check-in clerk
that my reservation had to be in my first name.
I have been flying
internationally since I was 2 years old and have held a passport since
then that - like everyone else's - shows both my first and middle names. I have never booked a
flight using my first name, and all my frequent flier accounts are in my
I replied to the clerk that no, I don’t have to use my
first name; I never have, and that I fly internationally several times a
year (as well as every three weeks in the US). I added that I have checked with
the TSA and Customs, in other countries as well as the US, and all of them
have said it is fine to put my ticket in my middle name, especially
since they don’t even look at my ticket so they don’t even care!!!! The
clerk repeatedly said I have to or I could be subjected to problems. I
said I was sure it would be fine. I thought that was the end of it until
Well, well, well, do you know what happened? I was tagged for secondary
security screening. After that tedious process, by a very pleasant TSA
agent, I went to the Admiral’s Club and said I’d like to make a
complaint and explained the situation. The woman at the desk was very
sympathetic, nice, and helpful and surprised by what had happened. When
her colleague asked “can they tag someone?”, the woman helping me said
“absolutely”. She proceeded to do something in my record, then handed me
a paper with the check-in clerk’s name. (I can only assume that perhaps
the check-in clerk made notes in my record to cause further problems for
me, but I have no proof.)
A couple of additional points: my
passport that day was
brand, spanking new having been renewed just last month. Perhaps the
check-in clerk thought I was an inexperienced international traveler and
that she could push me around? (I fly internationally 1-4 times per year
and am Platinum so definitely not inexperienced (but admit that I can
learn a lot).
Also, 2 years ago, I had the same thing happen with (possibly the same
check-in clerk because it was the same airport), and I caved into her
demand I change my reservation (my husband was “nudging” my ankle to
keep me from arguing with her 2 years ago so I caved). I also was tagged
for secondary screening but didn’t put 2+2 together. However, while
flying across the pond, I mentioned the incident to the gentleman next
to me who I recognized from checking in at the same time as I had; and he
replied that he always uses his middle name, including that day, and
never has had any problems.
So, when I got to Europe I called to confirm
my return flight and because the check-in clerk changed my name on my reservation, the return flight was messed up.
I explained to the international ticket agent what happened and she
said of course I don’t have to
use my first name as long as both my first and middle name are on the
passport (they are), and she nicely fixed my booking.
I'm still wondering if I should include this
fairly aggressive tip for how to get a better hotel room in my
current series. But here it is, today, for your consideration, and
thanks to reader Trevor for passing it on; he says that he personally
uses this all the time and it never fails.
Would you use it? Have you used it?
know what you think - should I offer this in my public published
Anyway, here is the suggestion :
I am passing on a hotel room tip from Susan Jeffers, author of "Feel The
Fear And Do It Anyway" who is married to my best friend. Susan - who has
travelled the world on promotional trips for her books has a set of
golden rules which never fail.
Her golden rules are :
1. Book ahead
2. Confirm all of your preferences by e-mail
3. Get confirmation in writing before you arrive
When you check-in you start to calmly take control
1. Sign in
2. When the concierge starts to arrange for someone to take your
bags up say
3. "Hold on, I think we need to actually CHECK OUT THE ROOM FIRST BEFORE
WE MOVE EVERYTHING IN".
4. Go to the room with the check-in clerk
5. When in the room have a good look around and then say, calmly,
something along the lines of
" No, I'm sorry but this isn't quite the room-level, quality, standard
that we signed up for" - waving your original booking requirements
e-mail at them.
"I would like to see something more appropriate"
6. Repeat the whole process for the next room, regardless of how really
nice it might be.
7. Having hung out for room 3 then - and only if it really does press
the buttons - accept it and have your bags moved in.
8. When finally ensconced go back to the reception, ask to speak to the
duty manager and thank him profusely for the wonderful help and
reception from the staff, and of course the room.
As one who makes his living by writing about
things, and as one who wishes to be able to express his opinions freely
without fear of legal mischief or risk to personal safety, here's
that is a sobering and scary commentary on the dual standard that seems
to shape much of our society these days.
Lastly this week, as a somewhat proud New
Zealander, it always pleases me to see my country getting ahead of the
latest marketing trends.
article provides the bald truth on how Air NZ is heading in a new
In closing, I hope you've enjoyed the 7084
words in this week's newsletter and feature column. Please
consider honoring my once a year request for reciprocity, and give some
much needed financial support to help this
I'll share, next week, our progress towards
the 650 reader contributions goal.
Until next week,
please enjoy safe travels