version of this newsletter] [Newsletter
Archives] [Website Home Page]
[Please Donate Here]
Friday 10 October, 2008
Fundraising now has 628 readers who have responded with generous
contributions. That is 22 short of our goal of 650, but I've got
12 unopened letters here, and perhaps there is one or two more 'checks
in the mail' (indeed, I know there's one currently on its way from
Bangkok) or other contributions pending, so we're within a hair's
breadth of reaching our target. Thank you to everyone who helped.
Just because this marks the end of the
official fund raising doesn't mean you can't still contribute - reader
Fred rushed in a massive contribution on Thursday saying 'I thought I
better quickly send this in before you closed off your fundraising for
the year'. The fundraising link - at the top of every newsletter
and repeated here - works all year
around and of course your help is appreciated, no matter when or in what
form it takes.
It would be wrong to single out anyone for
special thanks, because so many of you have helped, and similarly it is
wrong to equate the simple measure of the money contributed with the
measure of support (and sometimes even sacrifice) that it represents,
but there are a couple of comments I'd like to make. Firstly,
the most generous country in the world seems to be either the UAE or
Australia - I don't really know how many readers live in each different
country, because an email address like yahoo or hotmail or any generic
.com can end up anywhere in the world, but my sense is that, as a
percentage of readers, either the UAE or Australia showed the greatest
number of readers contributing.
As a New Zealander, I'm somewhat flummoxed
by the generosity of the Australians, and promise in return to go easy
on sheep jokes for the next twelve months.
Secondly, there is one particular group
of readers who are worthy of very special note. My first ever
Travel Insider tour was a lovely tour to Scotland, in 2004. In
addition to myself, Joe Brancatelli, and his wife, there was a very
small group of nine readers who bravely chose to join me for this
inaugural Travel Insider tour. I lost money on the tour, because I
was hoping for a larger number of people to join me, but while I lost
money on the tour, the tour members have been generously rewarding me
every year since then, without fail (and coming on other tours, too).
This year saw an extraordinary effort - these nine people between
them contributed 10% of the entire money raised during the fundraising
drive. Thank you so much for making the Scotland tour such a
pleasant experience and for ensuring its memory lives on so happily in
the years that have subsequently passed.
But - don't panic. Just because you
come on a tour with me doesn't mean you should feel obligated to
subsequently make massive contributions to each year's fundraising!
There are still some spaces remaining for this year's
Christmas Markets cruise,
with its incredible $500 per person discounts still available too.
The Euro is now down to only $1.36, after having been grazing $1.60 only
a few months earlier, and the lowest it has been in 13 months. A
great deal on the cruise and the plunging Euro (well, actually, it is a
soaring dollar rather than plunging Euro) make this year's Christmas
Markets cruise the best value ever.
In an effort to reward those of you who
have contributed, and as a means to perhaps get those last ten
contributions, I have a twist on this week's review. As I've been
hinting for the last couple of weeks, I'm very excited to be able to
review a GPS unit that I view as a revolutionary game changing device
that will redefine our expectations of what we expect in GPS units.
Best of all, not only is it clearly the best GPS out there for most
people and most requirements, it is also one of the most affordable.
It is $299 at Amazon or various other
places, but I know of the only one place that is selling it for $100
less - you can't even find this place on Google. I know and
respect the company selling the units and understand, from talking to
its CEO, why and how it is doing this. He was the person who
arranged a sample unit available to me at his cost price (which is not
much less than the $199 he sells them for) and will unofficially not
question too closely your eligibility for this exclusive price if you
buy one from his fine company.
To get this GPS for $199 rather than $299,
all I ask is that you have contributed at least $10 to The Travel
Insider any time in 2008. If you have,
me and I'll tell you where and how to buy the unit at $199.
And if you haven't yet, then please contribute $10 (or more!)
now and I'll be pleased to pass the
information on to you, too. A $10 contribution for a $100 saving?
That's the best deal you'll find this week! And so :
This Week's Feature Column :
The Dash Express GPS :
This unit combines good GPS capabilities with interactive data
communications and an open architecture operating system, allowing for
literally hundreds of helpful and innovative extra applications to be
run on the unit, and making its routing and traffic awareness 'best of
breed'. If you haven't yet got a GPS, this is your best choice,
and if you already do have a GPS, perhaps this will encourage you to
upgrade your older 'dumb' GPS for this new 'intelligent and interactive'
Dinosaur watching : The incredible
shrinking airlines, continued : More airlines are reporting
their September domestic traffic. American Airlines showed a 9.1%
drop in revenue passenger miles, while its American Eagle subsidiary had
a 17.2% drop in RPMs. United was down 9.3%, and Northwest was down
By contrast, AirTran was down by only 2%,
and Delta and US Airways were both more or less at the same level as
last year, with mere 0.8% drops.
In all cases, load factors also dropped,
making planes slightly less full than this time last year, but even so,
your chance of getting an empty seat beside you remains very low on most
International numbers didn't drop as much as
domestic. BA also reported September traffic, and provided
data for both total traffic (a 4.8% drop) and its premium cabin traffic,
which dropped a much larger 8.6%, which bodes ill for BA and other
It goes without saying that the financial
collapse that is occurring around us will impact on air (and all other
forms of) travel, and several readers have appraised me of their new
much more restrictive travel policies hastily put in place. I'm
within an iota of feeling sorry for the airlines - just as their
fuel cost crisis eases, they find themselves facing a crisis entirely
not of their making.
From the point of view of those of us who do
continue to travel, this is likely to result in marked improvements
in our air travel experiences. Less congested airports and
airways will cut down on delays and improve system reliability.
Airplanes will become somewhat less full, but I don't think we'll ever
see a return to the days when airlines were pleased (and breaking even)
at 60% load factors. And - fingers crossed - with dropping fuel
prices, and massive cost cutting having taken place in all other parts
of the airlines' operations, but with an easing of passenger numbers,
perhaps we can look to see an increased frequency of airfare specials.
Maybe we'll even see some cuts in the
fuel surcharge costs. While many airlines are doing nothing
(oil prices are currently down below $88, more than 40% down from their
high of almost $150 just a couple of months ago), some are reducing
their surcharges. Thai Airways is dropping its surcharges by up to
30%. Qantas is dropping its surcharges too, but by a miserly 7% to
9% on international flights and by 2% to 3% on domestic flights. This is
particularly strange, because typically an airplane burns more fuel per
mile on a short (domestic) flight than on a long (international) flight.
And while some airlines are reducing their
fuel surcharges, other airlines are reporting losses due to the price
of fuel going down. To put that more sensibly, they hedged
badly and locked in fuel prices that are now higher than spot market
prices. In particular Alaska Airlines said it would suffer a $220
million loss in the third quarter resulting from its fuel hedges.
And while some airlines are reducing their
fuel surcharges, there's also the noted airline maverick (hmmm, seem to
be hearing that word a lot lately.....) Ryanair which never added a
fuel surcharge to its fares, and which is now stridently taunting
other airlines, challenging them to reduce their fuel surcharges.
But don't go thinking that Ryanair
is 'on your side'. They mightn't be adding a fuel surcharge,
but that's about the only thing they don't charge you extra for.
Ryanair says it will keep raising baggage fees until 75% of its
passengers carry hand luggage only. The airline currently charges
£12 each way for passengers checking-in luggage - £8 for the bag and £4
for checking-in. Mind you, an £8 charge (about $13.50) seems
pretty moderate compared to the $25+ charges most US airlines are
Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary said that the
airline had a 20% increase in passenger numbers during September, so
plainly something is working for them. Customer relations,
however, is not one of their strong points, and this next item points to
a fascinating business opportunity that perhaps might be available to
an entrepreneur in the US as well.
There's a Dutch company that specializes in
launching actions against airlines when they lie to their passengers,
claiming that flight delays were caused by weather or technical
Under current EU rules, airlines must pay
passengers compensation of up to about $1000 each for most flight delays
and cancelations, except those caused by weather or technical problems.
The company said in most cases airlines will reject claims made by
individual passengers saying extraordinary (ie weather or technical)
circumstances were the cause of the delay or cancellation.
However, this company specializes in analyzing flight and weather data,
and says that in most cases the airlines' claim about extraordinary
circumstances is not true.
The company is now filing a type of class
action against Ryanair for refusing to compensate its passengers in such
cases. In response to the suit Ryanair said 'Ryanair customer
service only deals with passenger complaints made directly by passengers
in writing. We will never deal with greedy, ambulance chasing,
organizations who promote a compensation culture where people claim for
anything and everything.'
Amazing how an airline can attempt to
seize the moral high ground even though it appears that the airline
is lying to its passengers and then refusing to make good on its legal
Talking about flight delays, how nice to
have a reader write in with a positive story about a flight delay.
Reader (and supporter) Richard writes
Last week I flew to Columbus from Phila.
on Southwest to visit my newly moved daughter and her family.
When it was time to return to PHL the weather was quite poor on the
east coast so we were ground held for almost five hours. In the
waiting area the airline put out sodas and water and snacks, a gate
agent served fresh brewed coffee and they turned up the volume on
the HD tv's.
In contrast, US Air simply cancelled its
PS : I almost forgot, Southwest
also comped the drinks on the plane.
Also about Southwest, the airline takes
another step towards seeking to become more business friendly by
trialing Wi-Fi on four planes during the fourth quarter of the year.
The Wi-Fi will be free during the testing period, but if it is
introduced formally, Southwest will almost certainly charge for it.
New low cost airline Virgin America is
trying some innovative new things. Fully refundable fares
(remember the 'good old days' when almost all fares were fully
refundable?). Transferable tickets - you can give your ticket to
someone else and change the name on it. And changes and
cancellations without a fee.
They're also introducing a sort of business
class called 'Main Cabin Select' with more legroom, priority check-in,
and priority boarding, and free food and beverages.
This is an airline we all need to support
if at all possible. And, having apparently just secured a massive
loan from the UK Virgin Group, it seems it has enough funding to stay
flying for some time to come. The airline says it should be
profitable by the second half of 2009.
Another relatively new startup is the
airline Openskies that flies between New York and Paris, and from 15
October, also between New York and Amsterdam. Its claim to
fame is that it operates planes with only business and premium economy
type seating, but at massively lower fares than you'd usually pay
for such premium service. Being as how it is owned by BA, it has
the deep pockets (and safety from killing competition) to give it a good
chance of surviving.
I'll be test flying the airline next week,
but wanted to quickly tell you now about a short term special it is
offering - $499/$599 fares (each way) for travel in their premium
economy class between New York and either Amsterdam or Paris.
and if you end up on the 15 October flight to Amsterdam, or the 17
October flight back, be sure to say hello.
Long time readers know that one of my
favorite airlines is Qantas, and who doesn't know the boast, made famous
in the Rainman movie, about Qantas never having lost a passenger
(in a jet plane)? But Qantas' extraordinary safety record has
been taking a series of knocks recently, with embarrassing problem
after problem occurring with way too much frequency. Its most
recent incident, earlier this week, was a plane that suddenly plunged
down from level flight into rapid descent, injuring 70 people on board -
14 - 20 (depending on which report you read) of them seriously.
But, Qantas actually earns itself a 'well
done' for the classy way it handled the problem. As
this article reports, it is refunding every passenger on board the
flight, and giving them also vouchers for a free future trip between
Australia and London.
There had been a brief bit of speculation
that the sudden problem in the plane's autopilot might have been caused
by interference by some sort of passenger electronic device, but
that has now been
discounted. Qantas has always been obsessive about electronic
devices potentially interfering with its planes, to the ridiculous point
that on one flight in the mid 1990s, I was forbidden to play CDs on an
old-fashioned portable CD player (remember them?) due to it allegedly
being able to interfere with the plane's electronics.
Talking about electronics, I mentioned a
couple of weeks ago about the new Google cell phone and predicted it
would be sold out before even appearing in stores. Since that
time T-Mobile has tripled its initial order of phones, and has pre-sold
all of them, three weeks prior to its release on 22 October. I
hope you managed to pre-order one if you want one, otherwise, you'll be
waiting until who knows when to get your hands on one.
But maybe waiting is not a bad idea,
either. T-Mobile's current exclusive on the Google based cell
phone (its version is made by HTC) is likely to be a very short lived
thing, unlike AT&T's multi-year exclusivity with the Apple iPhone.
Motorola is rumored to be developing a Google phone too, although with
Motorola's lumpy track record of new phone releases, it is hard to guess
as to whether their phone will be either a massive winner (like the Razr
was when it came out) or a massive loser (like so many of their other
phones have been).
Other handset makers are also developing
phones based on the Google Android phone software, so before too long
T-Mobile's G1 phone will be competing alongside other phones and offered
by other wireless companies.
For that reason, how amazingly short
sighted of T-Mobile to be squandering their 'first to market' lead.
With the only Google phone in town, but with demand way exceeding their
minimal quantities ordered, and by restricting the first tranche of
phones only to existing subscribers, they're turning their back on the
opportunity to sign up hundreds of thousands of new customers onto new
two year plans. They could have, in a single move, materially
increased their market share, but instead they appear to be minimizing
their new product advantage every which way.
This week's big lie can be seen in
this article about the most expensive hotel room (well, actually,
suite) in New York City. The 4300 sq ft suite at the Four Seasons
costs $34,000 a night, but is only rented about once a month.
The hotel says that it is pleased it
doesn't rent the suite more frequently, because 'It's not the type
of suite we're looking to rent with tremendous frequency because it's so
perishable. The materials, fabrics, everything are just so fine.'
Yeah, sure, right. They'd have us
believe they'd rather leave the suite empty than pocket, say, another
$100,000 for one more three day rental? News flash to the hotel :
With the sort of money you're charging, you could completely refurnish
the suite every month if you felt the need.
And news flash to the website breathlessly
running the article. $34,000 a night is nothing exciting.
Think of the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi if you want to
truly define the concept of expensive. The hotel, operated by
Kempinski, is offering a special one week package for $1 million
that includes two first-class tickets to Abu Dhabi and the three
bedroomed Palace Suite at the hotel. You also get thrown in for
good measure provisions for a private jet to visit Iran to choose a
hand-woven Persian carpet, Bahrain to dive for pearls and the Dead Sea
for health treatments. You would also have your own golf course, free
designer perfume, a personal butler and a complimentary shotgun.
It isn't clear what the free shotgun is for
(the mind boggles), but free is free after all, right?
Talking about hotels, I found an interesting
statistic about the impact of the Olympics on hotels in Beijing.
Comparing occupancy levels and room rates for August this year (ie the
Olympics) and August last year, the room rates soared from an average
$104 a night to an outrageous $403 a night, but occupancy levels dropped
from 71% to 60%.
I wish I could say that either statistic
surprised me. This seems a typical circumstance of every
Olympics everywhere. Hotels get super-greedy, but when the
Olympics actually arrive, most hotels find themselves with empty rooms
I wrote about ten uses for a camera phone
(or any other digital camera) last week.
Reader (and supporter) Warren writes with another good tip :
I rented a car from an off-site Dollar
rental place at Oakland, which was located at a hotel. The guys
seemed a little sleazy, so my flags were raised.
I decided to take pictures with my
iPhone all around the car.
Two days later I returned it, and low
and behold, they found a hole in the right rear light mechanism. It
was right in the middle of the clear part so it did not stand out.
They said it wasn’t there when I rented it.
So I went to my iPhone pictures and
looked. Sure enough, it was there.
I know this is a scam. I don’t know how
many people paid for that “broken” light, but I didn’t have to. I
really recommend everyone take a moment and take half a dozen
pictures of the car before they take off. It might just keep you
from getting ripped off!
Reader (and supporter) Michael writes in
with more suggestions :
Cell phones are with one more often, but
when traveling (especially as a tourist) a digital camera is usually
handy and takes better pictures.
Use it for all sorts of visual records
and notes, like pictures of Train Schedule boards, parts of a
newspaper you want to reference later (such as show schedules), bus
stop routes and schedules near your hotel (on signs at bus stops),
copies of important docs like passports and tickets, maps, and so
This Week's Security Horror Story :
It gives a feeling of déjà vu to read
this story about how the Maryland State Police added the names of 53
nonviolent activists - opponents of the death penalty and the Iraqi war
- onto state and federal databases of terrorists.
One of the concerns, dating back to previous
abuses of such powers, has been that anti-terrorist laws would be used
against people who are in no way terrorists. Alas, here is an
example of this very thing.
Two new methods of spotting terrorists -
behavior detection and data mining - are of dubious scientific worth
and have 'enormous potential' for infringing on law-abiding Americans'
privacy, according to a consortium of scientists and reported in
When viewed through the lens of the previous
example of abusing new powers, and when it seems the actual techniques
are of minimal benefit, should we really be doing these things?
There've been some strange goings on
recently. A passenger
the hands of the girl seated next to him on a flight - how did he
manage to do this and get away with it? Another passenger, angry
threw foot powder at his fellow passengers - should we anticipate
limits on powders as well as liquids now being imposed on us. And
naughty pilots posted video evidence of their breaches of 'sterile
cockpit' procedures (nothing to do with foot powder' on YouTube.
On a lighter note,
passenger just asking for trouble.
Have you ever sent an email after, ahem, a
few drinks and wished you hadn't the next morning? Well,
help may be at hand for you, if you use Google's gmail.
Thanks to reader (and supporter) Duncan for
this news item that shows the lighter side of the worrying news that
currently assails us :
Following the problems in the sub-prime
lending market in America and the run on Northern Rock in the UK,
uncertainty has now hit Japan.
In the past 7 days Origami Bank has
folded, Sumo Bank has gone belly up and Bonsai Bank announced plans
to cut some of its branches. Yesterday, it was announced that
Karaoke Bank is up for sale and will likely go for a song, whilst
today shares in Kamikaze Bank were suspended after they nose-dived.
While Samurai Bank are soldiering on
following sharp cutbacks, Ninja Bank are reported to have taken a
hit, but they remain in the black. Furthermore, 500 staff at
Karate Bank got the chop and analysts report that there is something
fishy going on at Sushi Bank, where it is feared that staff may get
a raw deal.
So, here I am, it is the wrong side of 3am
yet again, and I've finished my first draft of the newsletter. Do
I really feel like doing a fine proof-read and edit before sending it
off to you? And, even if I did, am I likely to spot the occasional
subtle mistake that is probably present?
Perhaps it is a similar sort of 2am syndrome
that has caused writers to create the following newspaper headlines?
Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash,
No, really? Ya think?
Police Begin Campaign to Run Down
Now that's taking things a bit far!
Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes
What a guy!
Miners Refuse to Work after Death
No-good-for-nothing' lazy so-and-so's!
Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
See if that works any better than a fair trial!
War Dims Hope for Peace
I can see where it might have that effect!
If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May
Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures
Who would have thought!
Enfield ( London ) Couple Slain; Police
They may be on to something!
Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges
You mean there's something stronger than duct tape?
Man Struck By Lightning: Faces Battery
He probably IS the battery charge!
New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger
Weren't they fat enough?!
Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in
That's what he gets for eating those beans!
Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
Do they taste like chicken?
Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
Chainsaw Massacre all over again!
Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors
Boy, are they tall!
And the winner is....
Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds
Did I read that right?
Next week the newsletter will hopefully be
coming to you from Amsterdam.
I'm making a quick 24 hour trip to Amsterdam
so as to review the new airline OpenSkies, with my time in Amsterdam
being exclusively spent working on the newsletter - indeed, I've chosen
to stay at an airport hotel and won't even go into the city itself.
The sending time might be a bit early or late, but hopefully you'll get
it sort of normally on Friday morning.
And lastly, one more round of thanks to
the 640 readers who have contributed. If you'd like to help
push us over the top to 650, that would be
lovely. Thank you.
Until next week,
please enjoy safe travels