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26 January, 2007  

Good morning

Thanks to the many readers who sent in answers to our two surveys last week.

Excitingly, there is sufficient interest to justify an official Travel Insider group for a Black Sea Discovery Expedition in October.  This offers a wonderful itinerary through six countries, including several which most of us have probably never visited, and going places that realistically can't be conveniently reached other than by river cruiser.  Starting in Budapest (Hungary) we travel through parts of Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria before ending in Istanbul (Turkey).

We already have four people who have sent in deposits for this cruise.  Please come join us for what promises to be a fascinating, interesting, and educational cruise through a part of the world that has yet to be overrun by touristsDetails here.

The other survey asked your opinion on hotel bedding.  Do you prefer duvets or traditional sheets and blankets, or don't you mind?  We had a great response, with 8.2% of readers sending in their thoughts.

My guess had been that women tended to prefer duvets while men would prefer sheets and blankets.  Confirming my general lack of knowledge about the fairer sex, it seems that women, as well as men, generally prefer sheets and blankets, although not by as large a margin.

Plainly duvets are not a popular choice for either men or women.  In total, 52% of readers actively dislike duvets, compared to only 31% who do (the balance being people who don't mind either bedding choice).  Although duvets seems to be accepted bedding in Europe, why are US hotels increasingly attempting to force us to accept them?

Fortunately, there is something you can do.  You probably should conform to local custom in Europe, but every time you check into a US hotel with duvet bedding, ring down to the front desk and demand they replace the duvet with sheets and blankets.

And when in Europe, you can do what I do.  I take the duvet out of its holder thingy, then put the holder thingy on a diagonal so as to give it the needed extra length and tuck a corner of it into the bottom of the bed.  I then have the illusion of a tucked in sheet, and it is also long enough to come up and cover my shoulders.  The duvet itself can be optionally on top, loose, as one requires.

You can probably guess what this week's feature column is all about.  Seriously, this does promise to be a quite out of the ordinary itinerary, and even for the more experienced travelers, chances are there'll be a lot of new things you've never seen before on :

This Week's Feature Column :  Black Sea Discovery Expedition : Join me and a small group of fellow Travel Insider readers for a river cruise through Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, starting in Budapest and ending in Istanbul this October.

Dinosaur watching :  Like biblical times, the airlines cycle through years of feast and years of famine.  They are currently well into a feast part of the cycle, and latest proof of this comes from the quarterly Bureau of Transportation Statistics Air Travel Price Index.  This shows that for the third quarter of 2006, air fares were at the highest level ever recorded for a third quarter in the eleven years of the survey, and a massive 7.5% up on the same quarter last year.

You might say 'but they needed to increase their fares to compensate for higher fuel costs and inflation in general'.  That is partially true, but the airlines are also flying more fuel efficient planes, and are packing more people into each plane they fly.  Add to that the industry wide 'cost savings' in the form of paying less to their employees and employing fewer people overall, and it is clear that the industry's profitability is sharply trending upwards.

The latest confirmation of this came out a couple of days ago when United reported a profit of $25 million for the 11 months of 2006 it was trading subsequent to emerging from Chapter 11 in February.  This is an improvement of $423 million (excluding reorganizational costs) over the same 11 months of 2005.

Most of the US dinosaur carriers have been cutting back on their domestic services while attempting to grow on international routes where competitors used to have a more difficult time getting established.

But this is encouraging domestic low cost carriers to eat into what was formerly the heart of the dinosaurs (for example, just this week, Frontier Airlines transitioned to being now considered a major domestic carrier, based on its steadily growing volumes), and at the same time, the international routes are increasingly under attack as well.

The trans-Atlantic routes in particular are under growing pressure - not from other dinosaurs, and not from their complacent international rivals, but rather from new startups that are springing up.  For example, in addition to existing routes between Canada and the UK and France, new Canadian carrier Zoom is now seeking rights to fly between London and JFK, with daily 767 service.

Another example - reader Judy is flying from Boston, nonstop to Glasgow.  She's not flying any carrier either of us had heard of before.  Instead, she is on a UK low cost carrier that serves the route, FlyGlobespan.com (apparently its name includes the dot com).  The airline also operates from JFK to Liverpool and from Orlando to Glasgow and Belfast.

Another example - another new all business class carrier - SilverJet - started service this week, flying between London's Luton Airport and Newark.  The carrier says that advance bookings are higher than expected, so it will be increasing to two flights a day from July, and plans to add a third daily flight later in the year.

Another example - L'Avion is yet another all business class carrier, and this time it operates between Paris (Orly) and Newark.  If you'd like to fly business class to Paris, you can now do it nonstop for only $999 (plus taxes, fees, etc).

Over in Asia there's an evolving churning mix of discount airlines redefining the marketplace, and the number of remaining 'gold paved' routes around the world are steadily dwindling.

What would happen to our US dinosaurs if they decide their international routes are no longer as easy to profit on as they'd hoped, only to discover that while they'd had their eye off the ball, their domestic routes have been lost to the new generation of airlines here in the US?

A hypothetical question today, but if it ever becomes a reality, one commentator is predicting that one extra worry the dinosaurs won't have to struggle with is the airline-long-in-waiting, Virgin America.  In a massively hard hitting article, Joe Brancatelli tells the inside story of Virgin America more bluntly than anyone else to date.  Compelling reading.

What is happening with Delta?  The sweetened offer from US Airways is apparently tempting some of their creditors, and it is the creditors who ultimately get to decide what Delta's future should be.  Delta's management still rejects the offer, and while continuing to assert their plans to take the airline out of Chapter 11 as an independent airline, rumors continue, and more strongly, about Delta and Northwest being in detailed merger talks.

Delta's CEO flatly denies these rumors, and I'm sure he's a man of honor telling us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

A fourth airport for the New York region?  Possibly so, according to this article.

And talking about airports, I commented a couple of weeks ago at the discrepancy between the original claims made when the new Denver International Airport opened about it being an all-weather snow-proof airport and the reality of it closing completely for 45 hours prior to Christmas due to bad weather.

Several people criticized me for unrealistically expecting the airport to be open in impossible conditions.  They misunderstood my point.  My point was simply that the airport itself promised the world that it would be open in any and all conditions, and now was reneging on that promise.

There's an interesting postscript to this story.  Quite a few people made the same comment I did about the discrepancy between what DIA promised in 1992 and what it was delivering in 2006.  This moved the airport's spokesman, Chuck Cannon, to say 'he would like to choke the person who came up with that term [being an all-weather airport]'.

Who exactly was the airport's spokesman in 1992?  A reporter at Denver's Rocky Mountain News did some research to find out that it was, ummmm, a certain Chuck Cannon.

I've written a couple of times about an innovative new website, Farecast.  This site predicts whether an airfare is likely to increase or decrease, helping you decide if you should buy a ticket now or wait until (if!) the fare drops.

They've added a new feature.  You can buy a guarantee from them to protect against a fare increasing.  Currently costing only $3, the guarantee protects you for one week and locks you into the fare you are protecting, if the fare rises.  This guarantee feature is, of course, only available on fares that are projected to drop in price or stay steady.

This is a great way to cover your bets for only a small sum, giving you a week during which you 'can't lose' with the airfare you are protecting, and an amazingly innovative idea.

And now to switch from clever ideas to stupid ideas.  Possibly the stupidest thing a person can do these days is take travelers' checks with them when traveling internationally.  With the growth of credit card ownership and acceptance, and the almost ubiquitous presence of ATMs for dispensing cash, there's little or no need for travelers' checks, and there are, in addition, two major downsides to having them.

The first is that, contrary to what you might expect, many stores refuse to accept travelers' checks, and the less mainstream the country and smaller the city or town, the harder it will be to find anyone who'll take your travelers' checks.  Never mind about the elaborate procedure and alleged protection of countersigning them and showing your passport, or anything else.  Many stores simply refuse to accept them.

The surprising second reason to avoid travelers' checks is because travelers' checks may not give you any added protection if you lose them.  Read this horror story about American Express' perfidy when it came to helping a man who had $9500 of travelers checks destroyed in a fire.

If you can't rely on stores accepting your travelers' checks, and you can't rely on the issuer replacing them if they are lost/stolen/destroyed, why would you ever choose to get any?  As I said, one of the stupidest things you can do these days is to buy travelers' checks.

There was an interesting situation earlier this week when AirTran removed a screaming three year old and her parents from a flight the family was delaying.  The child refused to sit in her seat, and her parents were apparently uncooperative in ensuring she did.  The flight was already 15 minutes late, and so the crew simply deplaned the three of them.

The parents said they just needed 'a little more time to calm' their daughter.  Yeah, sure, right.  The family flew home the next day - I guess it took quite a lot more time to calm their daughter.

AirTran - in my opinion - did the right thing to deplane the family (and I say this as the father of a sometimes willful two year old), and it then bent over backwards by fully refunding them their airfares, and giving them three roundtrip tickets anywhere they fly as an apology.  Wait - the airline is apologizing to the family?  Not vice versa?

And what did the gracious parents say?  The father said they would never fly AirTran again.

Interestingly, public opinion for once sided with the airline, as the different opinion polls on this website and this other website both clearly show.

I wrote last week about a man being severely burned after the battery in his cell phone apparently exploded and caught fire.  Thanks to Craig for this update - it seems his cell phone battery did no such thing.

But here's a more genuine story about cell phone radiation dangers to your brain, and in this article there is reference to 'a hint of a link' between cell phones and health problems.

As a related story says, and as I've been saying for a long time, this really is the cigarettes and lung cancer story of the 21st century.

For now, the best thing to do is use a headset whenever possible.  Don't hold your phone close to your head.

Winning this week's prize for the most ridiculous hype is this statement from Klaus Brauer, Boeing's director of passenger satisfaction and revenue (hmmm - surely two conflicting tasks!).  He said, in talking about the interiors for the new stretched 747-8

We discovered that today people in many cases just like to numb themselves to the experience (of flying).  We are trying to get deeper than things people can articulate.

And what are these deep things being offered in this new plane?  Upward facing blue side lights in the cabin, and larger overhead bins.  Everything else is necessarily the same, as you'd expect of a plane that has largely the same passenger compartment (ie same diameter and same cramped seating) as its predecessor, other than for being extended in length slightly.

Boeing says the aim of these new interiors is to reconnect passengers with the sense of flying.  An unnamed other Boeing official, at the same event, referred to flying as 'mankind's oldest metaphor for freedom' - apparently he has never been through an airport security line.

Blue side lights and larger overhead bins will reconnect me with the sense of flying and make me feel free at a level deeper than I can articulate?  Wow.  How precious.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Among other things, our new xenophobic obsession with rude security is costing the United States $94 billion in foreign exchange, $15.6 billion in extra tax receipts, and 194,000 jobs.  A new study by the tourism action group, Discover America Partnership, made these claims this week, based on an analysis of the drop in inbound tourism to the Unitd States.  Visitors to the US since 9/11 have dropped both in terms of absolute numbers and also as a percentage of world tourism, with the US share of world tourism dropping 20% (from 7.5% to 6%).

The US now scores as the most unfriendly country/region in the world to visit, according to a recent survey of 2,011 non US resident travelers.  39% of these people awarded this epithet to the US, with the next most unpopular region, the Middle East and sub-Asia getting only a 16% thumbs down.

Although we're making life miserable for honest ordinary tourists wishing to come here on vacation, our southern border is as porous as ever making it easy for any type of illegal or terrorist to enter the country from Mexico.

The unnecessary harm we are doing to ourselves vastly eclipses anything that international terrorists could ever hope to do.

The fashion police were apparently on duty for this Qantas flight.  Hopefully we can all fly a bit safer as a result of their actions.

I've commented before about how the TSA seems to be doing all it can to make the registered traveler security programs as unappealing as possible.  This week saw a particularly amusing gem.  In justifying their decision to defer the implementation of any registered traveler program at LAX, the airport director said he was concerned that the value of such a program would not apply to LAX because security lines tend to be shorter at his airport compared with some other airports.

I guess he's never seen the security lines stretching out the building and snaking along the sidewalks at his airport.

Here's an interesting website that shows what the pilots see and do in a 777 cockpit (thanks Carl).

Winning a prize for most specious justification for terrible overcrowding on trains is this claim.

Thanks to Paul for suggesting what not to have displaying on your laptop if security asks you to turn it on to prove it works.

My home town of Seattle is famous for being where Starbucks is based and originated.  We're very proud of our coffee culture, and continue to watch it evolve and improve.  Here today, coming to your neighborhood soon?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels - and, talking about travels, please consider our Black Sea Discovery Expedition.  I promise this is not a part of our tour (thank you, Mark).

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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