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Friday 10 December, 2004 

Good morning

The Christmas Markets Cruise was a marvelous experience.  The cabin on board was larger than expected, the itinerary was full of interesting stops and sights, and the weather, although very cold, was otherwise fine with the only complaint being a lack of snow.  I've always been an advocate for avoiding peak seasons when touring, and while you might think that the start of winter is an extreme way to avoid the midsummer tourist crush, the added attraction of the lovely Christmas markets plus the wonderful lack of too many other tourists all made the shorter colder days a minimal tradeoff.

I am now a total convert to the concept of river boat cruising through Europe.  It is the ultimate in convenient and comfortable ways of traveling.  The massive luxury of not needing to pack and unpack every day, plus having all transportation taken care of, and having a reliable high quality environment for eating, relaxing and sleeping in, all combine to make river cruising the ultimate way to see much of Europe.

With that in mind, I'll be offering three small group river cruises in 2005.  I'm still clarifying some of the details - if you look hard, you might find some preliminary material on the website, but nothing will be official until perhaps next week.  However, the three cruises will be :

  • Tulip Time Spring River Cruise in Holland and Belgium in mid/late April

  • Black Sea Discovery Cruise from Bucharest to Budapest in late August/early September

  • Christmas Markets Cruise from Vienna to Nuremburg at the beginning of December

The Black Sea Discovery Cruise in particular is very exciting - how else could you comfortably and conveniently travel through Romania, Serbia and Yugoslavia (as well as Hungary)?  My feeling is that these countries are ripe to become the new European hotspots now that countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic have moved into the mainstream of tourism, and this cruise will definitely go places most westerners have yet to visit.

In the last almost two months, I've been torture testing the Briggs & Riley U-21NX wheelaboard suitcase I reviewed in September.  Rather than just carefully carry it on planes, I've checked it and entrusted it to baggage handlers and machines, and in total this bag has been on 14 flights, 32 car rides, in and out of 17 hotels, 2 trains and 1 ship in the course of 47,000+ miles of travel.  Plus it was lost once (by Alitalia) so who knows what else happened to it.  I've overloaded it with as much as 60lbs of packing, I've hung a 20+lb bag off the top of it, I've bumped it up and down hundreds of steps and curbs, rolled it over all sorts of uneven surfaces and generally done all I can to destroy it.

The net result?  Apart from some scratches on the skid pads from dragging it up rough concrete steps, the bag looks like new. There is no sign of wear, and everything works perfectly.  I'm astonished.  To make a positive story even better, even if I had destroyed the bag, it wouldn't matter, because Briggs & Riley's lifetime no-questions asked warranty would repair/replace it for free.  These truly are bags you can buy with confidence.

And talking about buying with confidence, what better introduction to :

This Week's Column :  2004 Christmas Gadget Gift Giving Guide :  Here are a dozen suggestions for stocking stuffers, featuring items that are generally low in price but high in usefulness, and not likely to be things people already own.

Dinosaur watching :  This week saw the quiet passing of the second anniversary of United going into bankruptcy.  Originally UA promised it would be out of bankruptcy within 18 months; but it now seems like it won't emerge until perhaps some time late next year.  In October, United managed to lose another $114 million.  Isn't it time to pull the plug?

US Airways is planning for a relatively speedy exit from its second bankruptcy.  It entered Chapter 11 on 12 September this year and now says it needs to exit from Chapter 11 by 30 June 2005 in order to comply with the terms of a proposed new financing deal.

Sounds good?  Well, maybe.  This nine month bankruptcy might mirror its 2002-3 nine month bankruptcy, where almost as soon as it emerged from bankruptcy, it started talking about how the market had changed and how it needed to restructure still more.  In this new case, bankruptcy or not, their former CFO Dave Davis told the bankruptcy court that - even if it gets all the pay cuts it is demanding from its employees - US Airways doesn't expect to return to profit until 2007!  US is projecting a $200 million loss next year and a $25 million loss in 2006, followed by a $35 million profit in 2007.

Who in their right mind would provide finance to a two-time loser airline that, even with all the cards unfairly stacked in their favor, can only manage a weak promise of a possible profit in 2007?

US Airways has come up with one bold initiative to hasten its return to profit.  It has terminated its past practice of allowing former executives and former board members to fly - for free - in first class, so as to make more seats available for paying customers.  Current executives and board members can continue to enjoy first class travel, however.

Bravo - a Boston based group of fed up passengers have filed a class action lawsuit against the airlines for pocketing the fees and taxes on non-refundable tickets.

Unlike a regular sales tax which is due on the payments you make, many of the 'taxes' on an airline ticket are only payable if you actually fly.  And so when an airline keeps a non-refundable fare, it keeps, for itself, the taxes that it otherwise would have had to remit to the various taxing authorities.

Airlines named in the lawsuit are Delta, American, Alaska, ATA, Continental, China Eastern, Lufthansa, Swiss, British Airways and Alitalia.

Good news on the legislative front.  The law giving passengers some rights if an airline ceases flying, which expired a couple of weeks ago, has now been formally extended through November 2005.  Details of this law are here.

However, in Europe, no law is required, and airlines voluntarily respond more generously than happens here.  For example, on Sunday Air Polonia suddenly ceased operation, stranding passengers.  A competing Polish discount carrier, Wizz Air, offered to give free tickets to all passengers holding unusable Air Polonia reservations.

Drunk Pilots part 1 :  A 54 yr old pilot who was about to fly a 767 from Heathrow to Dubai has been jailed for six months after being found to have a blood alcohol level of 0.125%.  The legal limit for driving (in the UK) is 0.08% and for flying is 0.02%.

Drunk Pilots part 2 :  Not so simple was the case of a pilot who buzzed his single-engine plane near a nuclear power plant and disrupted the flight paths of six passenger planes in Pennsylvania.  He had a blood alcohol level of 0.15%, but there is no law in PA against flying while drunk!  An attempt to convict the pilot of drunken driving failed, and so he was eventually convicted of risking a catastrophe and reckless endangerment.  Pilot John V Salamone was sentenced to 6 - 23 months in prison.

Four years ago a Concorde spectacularly crashed on takeoff in Paris.  Although the proximate cause was a piece of debris on the runway puncturing a tire on the plane, with tire strips then being flung into the wing and puncturing a fuel tank which caught fire, insiders have quietly observed that the fire was a survivable event and - if the plane had been properly loaded and properly piloted, it should not have crashed but could have been flown back to land safely.

French pride, perhaps, has not allowed that line of investigation to be closely pursued, and instead the investigating judge is now interrogating some Continental Airlines staff members and reportedly plans to place them, and CO, under formal investigation.  The judge is heading a manslaughter probe into the accident, and because the piece of metal debris fell off a CO DC-10 that had taken off from the same runway shortly before the Concorde, there seems to be an attempt to make CO corporately, and some CO employees personally, shoulder some of the liability for the death of the 109 people on the Concorde flight.

In other French news, an airport training program in Paris for bomb sniffing dogs went wrong when dogs failed to detect a 5 ounce piece of plastic explosive stuck at random into the side pocket of a blue bag.  The bag and the explosives went all the way through the system, onto an unknown flight (it could have been any one of 90 flights departing CDG airport that night), and has never been seen again, and neither has the plastic explosive (enough to blow up a passenger plane).

Meanwhile, it seems some airline executives must now be heading up wine growing companies in France.  Thousands of wine makers protested through the streets of Avignon this week, marching behind large farm machinery and tractors, demanding government compensation for falling wine exports abroad and reduced consumption domestically.

Why is it the French government's fault if people, both in France and everywhere else, are discovering there is no need to pay inflated prices for what are nothing more than very ordinary wines, when Australia and other countries are offering similar or sometimes superior wine at vastly lower prices?

Rather to my disappointment, Wednesday saw the successful launch of Virgin Atlantic's new service from London, via Hong Kong, to Sydney.  I'd been hoping to see Sir Richard Branson dressed up as a Qantas stewardess, as he famously offered to do in this letter to Qantas, if his airline wasn't flying the route prior to 24 January 2005.  However, although his letter contained a challenge/dare to the Qantas CEO to in turn dress up as a VS flight attendant (see the lovely photoshopped picture....) if VS did start service, it is exceedingly unlikely we'll now see QF's CEO so attired.

Sir Richard has said that now he is flying the London-Sydney route, he will undercut BA and QF fares by 30%.  I continue to hope he'll stick a plane on the Seattle-London route and do the same thing here, too, but alas, this remains an elusive dream.

Even although VS has no announced plans for service to Seattle, Sir Richard's airline is expanding every other which way at present.  In addition to announcing plans for a new airline in Nigeria, and of course let's not forget about the new US airline to start in 2005, and the futuristic Virgin Galactic space flights, he has also been awarded the rights to operate ten weekly roundtrips between Britain and India, and he says he'd like to invest into a low cost Indian airline as well.

India is a market with a massive potential for increased air services.  At present 15 million people take flights within India each year - the same number of people who ride the trains in India every day!  The number of air passengers is expected to more than treble (to 50 million) within the next five years.

J.D. Power and Associates have released their 2004 Global Airport Satisfaction Index Study.  It reveals that 59% of passengers still check in at the main counter, which takes an average of 19 minutes. 18% use a self check-in kiosk, which averages 8 minutes while 10% check in at curbside, which averages 13 minutes.  5% of passengers obtain their boarding pass through the Internet.

Wait times at security checkpoints have increased 15% to 15 minutes. The average wait time at large airports is 16 minutes, 15 minutes at medium airports and 13 minutes at small airports. Washington-Dulles, Denver and Los Angeles have the longest security waits while Singapore, London-Gatwick and Sydney have the shortest waits.

More than 54% of passengers purchase food at the airport, while 37% shop at retail stores. Hong Kong ranked highest in customer satisfaction among large airports, followed by Orlando, Denver and Dallas. Singapore's airport ranked highest in medium airports and received the highest overall passenger satisfaction score in the study by a significant margin, followed by Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Portland, OR. Calgary and San Antonio ranked highest among small airports followed by Austin, Boise and Indianapolis.

Talking about shopping at airports, don't you often wonder where the cheapest duty free can be purchased?  Here's an interesting factoid :  Cost of a bottle of Laphroig whisky at Seattle Airport Duty Free - $28.  Cost of the identical bottle of whisky at Heathrow - $51.

In more general terms, and excluding the special case of alcohol and tobacco, I seldom see items for sale in any duty free store, anywhere in the world, that are cheaper than buying through local stores back home.

And talking about expensive drinks, the Algonquin Hotel in New York is offering a drink called the 'The Martini on the Rock', which comes with an actual diamond.  The only beverage on the menu to require a 72-hour advance reservation, this cool cocktail includes a private meeting with the hotel’s preferred jeweler to select the perfect diamond for you or your intended. Once your stone has been selected, purchased and appraised, your martini will be poured and the “rock” dropped in on the date and time of your choice. Actual price varies by stone selected, but consider $10,000 as a rough guide.

Construction for this year's five star Igloo Hotel will start in about a week at a site about 20 minutes west of Quebec City. It will be the only hotel in North America made entirely of ice and snow.

It will be open January 7 through the first week of April (depending on weather conditions). The hotel walls average four feet in thickness to guard against the northerly winds and the inside temperature averages about 25F. There are activities such as dog sledding, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, sliding, skating and ice fishing available as well as a movie theatre, two art galleries, an indoor skating rink, spa, Jacuzzis, wedding chapel, a bar and regular toilet facilities (how do they stop the 'stuff' from freezing, I wonder?).

The hotel offers overnight stays, public visits and special events. There is a limited number of rooms and the hotel takes reservations up to a year in advance. 60% of guests come from the U.S. It will cost adults $14 to visit the hotel and children, seniors and students over 15 pay $12. Weekend rates are $302 per person and other nights are $40 less. More information on their website.

I almost feel sorry for Travelocity.  I'm sure they wish I didn't occasionally try and use their service; because so often I have problems, and then write about it!

This week's Travelocity problem :  I booked a couple of flights - Seattle to Las Vegas and back, with Travelocity suggesting an Alaska Airlines flight down and an America West flight back, with a total cost of $302 plus a $5 Travelocity fee (in addition to the airline commissions they receive).  But when I went to pay for the ticket, the website tells me that it will cost another $19.95 to have a paper ticket issued and couriered second day air to me (even though I'm not flying for almost a month).

I simply want the $302 ticket, same as they quoted, but which actually appears to be impossible to obtain.  If they know they can't issue an electronic ticket for this itinerary, and if they know they'll be adding a mandatory extra $19.95 to the price, they should adjust their pricing to reflect the truth of the situation up front.  Whether this is bait and switch, or just stupidity; the bottom line, and ill-will generated, is the same.

I then used Sidestep to find a Vegas hotel.  It reported an average nightly rate of $59.99/nt at Harrahs through Lodging.com.  I clicked to book and was taken to the Lodging.com site, which confirmed that, for the four nights I'd be staying at Harrahs, the average nightly rate would be $59.99.  I clicked to confirm my reservation, and was told the total cost of the four night stay came to $1315.72, not the $239.96 I was expecting.

As a former travel agent, I know there's no way in the world a client would let me get away with telling them 'yes, your hotel will be $59.99 a night' in one breath and then saying 'which makes a total of $1315.72 for the four night stay' in the next breath.  So why should an internet site be allowed to get away with something that would be unacceptable if we were dealing with a 'real person'?  Shame on Lodging.com for such an appalling website.

What do you use your cell phone for (apart from phone calls, that is)?  USA Today featured a Snapshot in their Life section earlier this week that shows how many Americans use non-voice features on their mobile phones.

27% of people use their phone for text messaging.  14% have downloaded customized ringtones.  11% use their phone for email, and 9% access the internet through their phone.  Built-in cameras are used by 9%.

Next time USA Today do that survey, they'll need to add an extra category.  T-Mobile have launched a new service, 'CallerTunes', which plays a customized tune to the person calling your mobile phone, instead of the regular ringing tone.  The service costs $1.49 a month, and, yes, I've already added one to my phone!

There is a new solution to the problem of what to do with the growing number of junked cell phones.  Scientists have come up with a cell-phone cover that will grow into a sunflower when thrown away. Materials company Pvaxx Research & Development, at the request of U.S.- based mobile phone maker Motorola, has come up with a polymer that looks like any other plastic, but which degrades into soil when discarded.  Researchers at the University of Warwick in Britain then helped to develop a phone cover that contains a sunflower seed, which will feed on the nitrates that are formed when the PVA polymer cover turns to waste.

Here's a neat service.  TouchTaxi have updated cabs in Australia with headrest-mounted touchscreen computers that are connected to the Internet and with a built in GPS receiver.  This can show you a map of where you are and where you're going, so you'll know if you're being driven the most direct way.  The service also has Wi-Fi so you can connect your laptop to the internet while in the taxi, too.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  More lies from the TSA.  Yolanda Clark, an official with the TSA says 'Travelers are not required to remove their shoes at security checkpoints'.  Their website says 'You are not required to remove your shoes before you enter the walk-through metal detector.'

Still more lies from the TSA.  When it was suggested to her that in fact, many airports insist you remove your shoes, Clark said all airports follow the same guidelines.  'The notion that this system is random is incorrect. It's a standard procedure we implement across all airports.'

It is very hard to respect the TSA when they persist in such ridiculous lies which are contradicted by the reality experienced almost every time you go through an airport.  Full details in this Washington Post story.

A TSA screener is accused of opening a sealed box and spilling the cremated remains of a San Diego woman's relative all over her suitcase. Lisa Miller, who found her cousin's remains scattered among her belongings, is understandably upset, and after failing to get an apology, she's suing the TSA for damages. When Charles Mason died last year, Miller went to Seattle to transport his cremated remains. She put his ashes in a sealed box, with what she said was proper identification, including the name and address of the funeral home, a description that it is the cremated remains of Charles Mason, and a serial number, inside a backpack.

Why couldn't someone at the TSA simply have said 'I'm sorry, we shouldn't have done this'?

North of the border, Canada's CBC reports that more than 1,000 uniforms and security badges for airport workers have gone missing in the first nine months this year.  Some of the lost items were located on eBay.

But who needs ID or a uniform.  Recently, at London's Heathrow Airport, a journalist posing as a cleaner penetrated the security cordon. He had no ID, only a broom.

Fortunately, Canada is good for something.  According to a report in The Times newspaper, an American company is selling a 'disguise package' that includes a Canadian flag festooned T-shirt and lapel pin bearing the Canadian maple leaf motif - and a reference guide entitled 'How to Speak Canadian, Eh?'  More details on their website.

Here's an unexpected outcome of airport delays.  A Saudi man was so frustrated with his wife after she refused to return home after spending 14 hours waiting for a flight at an airport in Saudi Arabia that he divorced her right at the airport. The Kingdom allows men to receive an instant divorce on request.

The luxurious new Queen Mary 2 is having problems with chairs in bar and restaurant areas collapsing.  The French company that provided the seating blames it on American passengers who they claim are too heavy.  An unnamed former member of the ship's crew said 'We do have many large passengers on the QM2. Most of the passengers are American.  And we do have 10 restaurants on the ship, so if they are big when they get on, they tend to be bigger when they get off.'

Here's some good news for the beer lovers among us, including myself.

And some bad news for the laptop toters among us, alas, again including myself.

Until the next newsletter, please enjoy safe travels; don't work too hard with your laptop, but do have another beer.  Perhaps the latter compensates for the former.

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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