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Friday 21 December, 2007  

Good morning

Three days to go between now and Christmas - I hope your shopping is complete and gifts all neatly wrapped.  As for me, all I can say is thank goodness for online shopping and overnight delivery.

I returned back from Prague at the conclusion of this year's Christmas Markets cruise Wednesday evening, and am writing this in a jet lagged state barely 24 hours later.

Truly, every Christmas Markets cruise is slightly different to each other one, and this one had several distinctive features.  In terms of anticipated differences, our pre-cruise optional tour in Munich and Bavaria exceeded expectations, and our post-cruise tour over to Prague proved again to be the perfect way to end a cruise - so much so, in fact, that I've changed the itinerary for the 2008 Christmas Markets cruise to allow for Prague to again be at the end of the cruise.

This is not to belittle Munich, but in terms of creating a 'flow' of experiences and proper pace, it is better to end rather than begin a tour in Prague - it ends the experience on the best possible note, rather than having the best at the start and everything subsequently an anticlimax.

Prague is a magnificent city, beautifully preserved, and the enjoyment of Prague is greatly enhanced by the lovely boutique hotel we use there - the Metamorphis.  This is a small hotel in a historic building and in a brilliant location - it couldn't be closer to the center of the city.  The rooms are characterful and comfortable, the staff helpful and pleasant, and the rates very fair.  Any time you are visiting Prague, you'd be well advised to consider staying there, too.

And then there were unanticipated events as well.  Just when I think I've experienced everything that can ever happen on a tour, I'm inevitably presented with a new experience, and this time it was an out-of-control guide who started to argue with me - or, better to say, against me using the coach microphone, appealing to the tour members to support her rather than me.  I had dared to criticize her English and the quality of her guiding and commentary, and also objected to her company trying to dishonestly charge an extra 120 for something that variously should have been included (a stop in Bratislava) and which I'd already paid directly to the driver for (parking fees).

Having a guide arguing with me was bad enough, but even more surprising was the reaction of some of the tour members, who chose to weakly support her, presumably out of a combination of misplaced politeness and an aversion to conflict.  No wonder the woman has been a guide for 15 years if her tourists never complain; indeed, to my astonishment, some members of the group chose to generously tip her at the end of the tour.

Middle aged Eastern Europeans - people who have lived most of their adult life under communist rule - do not understand politeness or subtlety. They only understand directness, and they only respond to clear inputs back to them.  If you're not happy with a guide, do your fellow and future travelers a favor and variously criticize/complain to the guide, and/or to the guide's company, and don't tip.  Unless there is a feedback loop, the guide accepts and interprets your polite praise and the tips you feel obliged to give as positive reinforcement, and has no motivation to improve.

The other unexpected event was something that I half expected to happen, sooner or later, as an inevitable risk when river cruising in Europe.  At some times of year, the rivers can be variously too low or too high for boats to proceed, and while December is usually an untroubled time of year, very heavy rain meant the Danube was much higher than normal and there is one unusually low bridge which in such cases creates an impassible obstacle for the river cruise ships.

We got to the stop prior to where the bridge was blocking the river, and variously hopeful or optimistic projections that the water level might go down proved incorrect - the river level was still two feet too high for the ship to squeeze underneath.  One Uniworld boat had been stuck in Regensburg for five days, with an increasingly very unhappy group of passengers on board.

Amadeus, however, managed to work a minor miracle, with almost zero inconvenience to us.  The next day we simply toured by coach to Salzburg as planned, and then instead of returning to the Amadagio, we returned to its sister ship on the other side of the bridge, the Amalegro, swapping ships with the passengers on the Amalegro.  This was a brilliant switch that caused no interruption to our schedule, and gave us an interesting extra experience with no inconvenience.  Well done, Amadeus.  Any time you're planning a river cruise, you'd be well advised to consider choosing an Amadeus cruise - and don't forget your special 5% Travel Insider discount if you book such a cruise through me.

Overall, this was another wonderful experience, although the weather was a bit colder and wetter than has been the case in the past.  And, yet again, the 40 Travel Insiders who traveled with me on this cruise were a wonderful bunch of people, with members quickly forming strong friendships with other group members and all contributing to a lovely shared experience.  While the hardest part of a trip to control (the other people in the group), we've always been blessed with a wonderfully friendly group of reasonably like minded, but definitely diverse, travelers.

One of the things we all speculate endlessly about is how airlines choose to allocate frequent flier seats on their flights.  We sort of understand and even accept that frequent flier tickets have to take second place to full fare passengers, but we also realize that these 'free' tickets aren't really free - they have been earned by our taking many regular flights, and paying good money in the process.  Besides which, with ever increasing fees and other charges now being levied when you redeem a 'free' ticket, they aren't even free in a direct payment sense any more, either.

Most of the time, when an airline tells us 'I'm sorry, there are no seats available on that flight' and refuses to allow us to redeem an award ticket on a certain flight, we accept their comment at face value - and what alternative do we have?  How can we check the truth of what they tell us?

Well, guess what?  I had a rare chance to expose the 'no seats available' lie offered by Northwest this week.  A member of the Christmas Markets cruise was flying on a mileage award ticket with Northwest, and wished to change their return flight to the same flight I was on between Prague and Amsterdam.  Several calls to Northwest - at great cost - from Europe always resulted in the same answer - 'no seats available'.

But, when I boarded the flight, I was surprised to see just how light a passenger load it had.  The A320 had 132 coach class seats, and only 59 were taken.  Yes, there were 73 empty seats on the plane - it was more than half empty, and a fellow passenger on the flight who often flies on it told me the flight is usually very empty.  So, how is it possible that with 73 empty seats, Northwest wouldn't release a single seat to a passenger wishing to use an award ticket?

That's not fair.  That's not even close to fair.  It is disgraceful.  Shame on Northwest.

On the Northwest flight back from Amsterdam to Seattle, I noticed a terribly rude 'battle axe' of a flight attendant serving passengers on the other aisle. I could hear her complaining and insulting passengers, even though she was on the other aisle and some rows away, and I thanked my lucky stars that the flight attendant on my aisle was pleasant and personable. Indeed, most of the flight attendants were lovely - as I boarded I remarked to an attendant upon seeing champagne that I wished I was one of those so fortunate to be about to enjoy some, and she volunteered to sneak some back to me in coach class.  How unexpected.

But, back to the awful attendant.  To my surprise, a lady close to me asked 'our' flight attendant if she could speak to the Chief Flight Attendant on board - she wanted to complain about the behavior of the rude attendant, even though she wasn't being served by her.  I listened with interest, and hoped that she wouldn't be handcuffed and arrested for causing a nuisance on the flight.

To my delight, 'our' flight attendant was sympathetic and agreed with the lady who was complaining, and explained that the entire crew disliked this woman, who was due to shortly retire.  Then the CFA came along a short while later, repeated the same story, and explained the bad flight attendant had only one more flight to serve before retiring, so the crew was simply enduring her rather than doing anything about her.

While atrocious customer service is never acceptable, kudos to Northwest for handling the passenger's complaint in a sympathetic and positive manner.

A good uneventful flight that left on time and arrived early was marred by a delay in getting baggage to passengers. It took 55 minutes for my bags to arrive on the carousel at Seatac, and when I finally left with my two bags, I noticed that a good half of other passengers will still waiting for their bags. Waiting an hour or more for bags at the end of a flight is unacceptable.

A suggestion to the Department of Transportation : Instead of simply focusing on delays as a measure of when flights actually arrive at the airport, why not define the total journey time as running through when the last bag arrives on the carousel. At present baggage delays are a hidden part of the total travel time with no external pressures acting on airlines to improve their baggage handling services.

Now that I'm back, I'm already thinking of the next Travel Insider tour somewhere. In response to repeated requests, I've agreed to offer another tour to New Zealand, which I'll do at the same time of year as last time, in late October/early November 2008.

And I'm going to consider some type of China tour.  China is a country that has been underneath the radar of many of us, but it is quickly becoming the most important country in the world.  It is the third largest country in the world in terms of land area (slightly larger than the US) and has the largest population by a huge margin, with a current population of 1.32 billion and ongoing population growth.  And its economy is growing at an extraordinary rate (over 10% a year), which if it continues unabated, will soon become the world's largest economy - it is already second only to the US in terms of purchasing power parity, and number four after US, Japan and Germany in terms of exchange-rate weighted measures.

We all need to know more about this country than we do, so stay tuned for details of a Travel Insider fact finding tour to China.  I'd like to combine some of the major tourist attractions with perhaps time in some of the less touristy but fascinating cities that are the heart of China's growth.  Stay tuned for more details on this.

It has also become clear to me that Travel Insider readers book their travel way in advance, and so with that in mind, I'm also releasing some information for trips way into the future.

Here is a list of trips that are currently available :

Mar 2008 : Special value cruise from Amsterdam to Trier, optionally extend on to Paris.  All details online and bookings now possible.

May 2008 : Cruise from Arles to Lyon, optional pre-cruise time in Barcelona or the French Riviera, optional post-cruise extension on to Paris.  All details online and bookings now possible.

Oct/Nov 2008 : New Zealand tour, optional side trips to Australia, Fiji, or Tahiti.  Details not yet online, but dates will be departing US on or before 27 Oct for the first half of the tour, and on or before 4 Nov for the second half.

Dec 2008 : Christmas markets cruise from Budapest to Nuremberg, optional pre-cruise time in Budapest, and optional post-cruise extension to Prague.  Details not yet online, but dates will be departing US on or before 6 December, and ending on or after 14 December.

June 2009 : Russian river cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg, optional extra day in St Petersburg and overnight train back to Moscow.  Details not yet online, but dates will be departing US on or before 11 June, and ending on or after 25 June.

Oct 2009 : Black sea cruise from Budapest to Istanbul.  Details not yet online, but dates will be departing US on or before 9 Oct, and ending two weeks later.

Dec 2009 : Christmas markets cruise.  Details not yet online, but dates will be departing US on or before 6 Dec.

I do hope to see you on one - or more than one - of these upcoming travel opportunities.

There's no feature column this week.

Have you ever traveled to Cyprus?  And, if so, did you enter the country with no problems, or were you denied entry and deported, even though you believed your visa to be in order?  I'm chasing down a possible story on this, and if you have any information, it would be much appreciated.  Please click the following link to send in your helpful answer :

I've traveled to Cyprus once in the last five years and had no problems

I've traveled to Cyprus more than once in the last five years and had no problems

I've tried to travel to Cyprus in the last five years but was denied entry upon arrival and deported

Dinosaur watching :  Just in case we needed it confirmed, the Department of Transportation reports that US carriers enjoyed a 3.5% increase in domestic passengers and a 4.4% increase in international passengers during the first nine months of this year compared to the same time last year.

Southwest was the largest domestic carrier, again, in terms of numbers of passengers carried, and American the largest in terms of international passengers.

For the nine months, Atlanta was the busiest airport overall, and Miami boarded the most international passengers.

Unexpected generosity from United - but not to its employees or passengers.  But, if you're a United shareholder, expect a late Christmas present - the airline is making a cash payout of $2.15 per share in January.  Shares are currently worth about $35 or so.

In total, this will be a $250 million payout, and seems a curious move on United's part at a time when it has restless unions, mounting competitive pressures, expensive jetfuel, and almost $23 billion in debt.

Good news for Seattle (and for me).  Virgin America is adding Seattle to its list of cities.  It will start flying between SEA and SFO on 18 March and between SEA and LAX on 8 April; in both cases with three flights a day.  Seattle will be the seventh city served by Virgin Ameria.

The new airline has reported an operating loss of $35 million in its first quarter, but says this was only to be expected.  As for when it plans to become profitable, a spokeswoman is quoted in this article as saying 'It is not likely to be anytime soon'.

And more good news for Seattle (and for me).  Hot on the heels of Lufthansa's plans to add service between Frankfurt and Seattle is Northwest's announcement that it will add service between Heathrow and Seattle from June 08.  They'll be using their lovely A330s, making NW the better choice (compared to BA) for Seattle area residents wanting to fly nonstop to London.

Talking about Lufthansa, the German airline is buying 15% of low-cost carrier JetBlue in a deal worth about $300 million.

Because it is less than 25%, it is likely to be swiftly approved by the US government.

This is an interesting move on Lufthansa's part, and seems to be an attempt by LH to have its cake and eat it too.  It already has an alliance partnership in the Star Alliance with US carriers United and US Airways, and with Air Canada too, and codeshares with both UA and AC.

While it is unlikely that LH will change its present code-sharing, one has to wonder how LH will seek to play its ownership in JetBlue (airline code B6), and at what point it has to start making choices between UA/US on the one hand and B6 on the other hand.

Neither UA nor US has a presence at JFK comparable to JetBlue's hub there, which would presumably allow LH to develop feeds into its services from JFK via incoming B6 flights.  As for JetBlue, an airline currently with no notable international partners, it is surely a win/win deal - anything that will help it to develop feeds for international flights can only help it boost its loads which currently are somewhat lighter than many of its competitors, and a $300 million cash boost will help it through a currently tight financial time.

If at first you don't succeed; give up.  That seems to be the motto of Canadian airline, Westjet.  They have now suspended their program that formerly allowed minors to fly alone after a five-year-old girl traveling last week was able to leave her flight with a stranger.

WestJet said on Monday it will not book any new young passengers until an internal review is completed and any necessary changes are made.  The parents paid $50 each way to ensure someone from the airline would check on their daughter during the flight and then escort the little girl off the plane when she arrived at her destination, which is the airline's policy for unaccompanied minors.

But her father said no one checked on his daughter, who was wearing a large VIP tag around her neck.  Instead, the man seated next to her (a father of four who played games with the girl during the flight and who is not implicated in any wrong-doing) walked the five-year-old off the plane as crew members waved goodbye to them.

Britain's House of Lords is often unfairly castigated as being an undemocratic and antiquated group of upper class fools who add no value to Britain's parliamentary process and cause many problems.  In truth, the opposite is often the case, and the much weaker party discipline that rules in the Lords enables true debate and more careful consideration of important issues.

One such example came out this week, when their Science and Technology Committee recommended that all airlines should be forced to increase leg room on planes by at least 2 inches.  Currently regulations only require a minimum of 26 inches to at least 28.2 inches.  The Committee used as partial justification for hits recommendation the fact that failing to increase the space could prevent passengers from taking the recommended brace position during an emergency.

Britain's Civil Aviation Authority already recommends such a move, and some of Britain's airlines already comply with the regulations.  The group also called for the government to reduce the 80 tax on premium economy seats, saying they should not be taxed at the same rate as a first class seat for long-haul flights.

One of the amazing things about Europe of course is the ease of crossing borders.  For example, our coach travel from Budapest to Prague had us crossing two borders - first into Slovakia, and subsequently into the Czech Republic.  In both cases, a lazy disinterested border guard simply accepted on faith the driver's statement that there were 36 Americans on board, and neither asked to look at passports nor even count the people on the coach, and mercifully didn't ask any Customs related questions, choosing instead to just wave the coach on through.

Travel within Europe is getting even easier as of today, with the Schengen zone expanding to include nine more countries - this is the region where the countries have basically abandoned all border controls, and crossing from one Schengen country to another is an experience a bit like crossing a state line in the US - in some cases, you don't even realize you've changed countries.  Originally five countries belonged to the Schengen Agreement, and with the nine new countries, there are now 25 participating countries.  More details here.

There's a trend to easier border crossing elsewhere in the world, too.  Thailand and Cambodia have agreed to allow foreign tourists to enter on a single visa.  Tourists can obtain a visa for either country and visit the other using the same visa.  This is the first of hoped for agreements between the two countries and Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.  Officials are hoping that all five countries will eventually have only one visa.

Oh, and then there's the US, busy erecting more stupid barriers to tourism, by eliminating passport free travel between the US and Canada or Mexico or various Caribbean countries.

Our often delayed 'Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative' would require passports for all border crossings from next year, but - fearful of another passport application backlog - Congress is seeking to delay its implementation until 2009.  This is both sensible and stupid - it is sensible if it avoids the terrible delays that travelers experienced this year, but it is stupid to think that the delays will be any less severe after a further one year postponement of the implementation of the WHTI.

People aren't going to get passports in 2008 a year before they need them (if for no other reason than that passports are expensive and expire after ten years); they'll wait until the WHTI comes into effect, and so there'll be a surge in passport applications, no matter how delayed the WHTI may be.

Not pilot error, but captain error - or, to be precise, second officer error :  The National Transportation Safety Board has now reported on the sudden tilting over of Princess Cruises' Crown Princess back on 18 July 2006, which injured 227 passengers and 57 crew members, including 14 passengers who suffered 'serious' injuries.

The cause?  To put it simply, the second officer, who was on watch at the time, turned the ship's wheel the wrong way.  Ooops.  To be more specific, and quoting from the report 'When a display on an instrument panel showed a high rate of turn to port, the second officer disengaged the autopilot and took manual control of the vessel's steering system. The vessel was traveling at nearly full speed, about 20 knots. He turned the wheel to port and then to starboard and back several times, eventually causing the vessel to heel sharply to starboard. The sudden roll caused people to be thrown about or struck by unsecured objects'.  More details here.

When was the last time you were driving down the road, turning a corner, and then turned the wheel the wrong way when seeking to straighten up again?  How can someone make it to the position of second officer on a huge cruise ship and then make a blunder like this?

On Thursday (20 Dec) Boeing issued a press-release claiming the date as the 50th anniversary of 'the point in commercial aviation history when propellers gave way to the jet age and air travel became affordable and available'.

The event that Boeing is so proud of was the first flight of its 707, a flight that lasted a mere seven minutes (bad weather caused the plane to divert and land almost immediately after take-off).

It is true that the 707 was an innovative plane, and perhaps it even took to the air a few weeks before its chief competitor, the DC-8.  But - newsflash to Boeing - the de Havilland Comet enjoyed its first flight in 1949, and was offering scheduled passenger service as early as 1952, more than five years before the event Boeing chooses to claim as the landmark.

Production of commercial 707s ended in 1978 after 878 had been built.  The number rose to more than 1,000 by 1994, when limited production of military variants ended.  Most civil 707s left in service today have been converted to freighters, while a number are used as corporate transports.  Approximately 130 remain in commercial service.

As an interesting comparison, Boeing's latest plane, the 787, has already received 762 orders, even though the first plane has yet to fly.  Clearly, the worldwide aviation market today is vastly larger than it was back then.

And talking about Boeing's 787, here's an interesting revelation into Boeing's ongoing problems with this new plane.  A key difference in how Boeing plans to build this plane is that it is outsourcing vastly more of the assembly work than has ever been the case before, with the result that Boeing expects to have to assemble only 1200 sub-assemblies itself to complete each airplane.

But, this goal has not yet been achieved.  Although Boeing's factory has been designed to assemble these 1200 components, the first plane came to the factory in slightly more than 1200 pieces.  To be precise, it arrived in 30,000 pieces, throwing the entire assembly process into disarray.

Boeing currently plans to have 14 787s completed by the end of June 2008, and 56 by the end of 2008 - an ambitious schedule for a plane that has yet to take to the skies for the first time.

However, and notwithstanding its problems with this new approach to airplane manufacture, Boeing continues to eviscerate its own production capabilities, shifting more and more work offshore.  Its latest move sees it shifting more than $1 billion of work over the next ten years to India.

All of which must be dismaying to state officials in Washington state, who had offered Boeing a massively generous multi-billion dollar program of incentives to retain its 787 program in Washington.  The returns on these incentives - returns which never promised to be anywhere close to appropriate for the levels of incentive offered - are proving to be vastly lower than expected, with the only slight redeeming feature being that due to the collapsed nature of Boeing's Washington operations, and the failure to attract related companies that contract to Boeing into WA, the level of payout has also been lower.

More details here, including such painful statistics as the forecast 3,600 new jobs that have actually totaled a risible 200 new jobs, half of which are in unskilled or low paid jobs).

Meanwhile, over at Airbus, its first new A380 super-jumbo has now enjoyed more than 100 commercial flights with Singapore Airlines operating between Singapore and Sydney.  Reliability has been 100% (apart from one weather delay on the first day of service) and passenger load factors an amazing 90%.

The plane has also shown itself easy to turn around between flights, with passengers able to quickly emplane and deplane through the multiple jetways, and its fast climb rate enables it to quickly climb through congested airspace up to relatively free airspace at higher altitudes.

SQ expects to receive a second A380 in January, and when it gets a third A380 at the end of February will start daily services between London and Sydney (via Singapore).

So far, the A380 seems to be exceeding everyone's expectations and is performing excellently by all measures.

If you are in New York on January 13, you will have the opportunity to see all three Queens, who will sail past the Statue of Liberty together.

The new Queen Victoria, just now launched, will be departing on its first world cruise and the Queen Mary 2 and Queen Elizabeth 2 will be in New York although they necessarily will be docked at different places.

Here's a new form of cell phone danger - if you're caught using a cell phone while driving in the UK, you could be liable for an up to two year jail term.  Details here.

Here's an amazing article full of facts and figures about nuclear power.  Whether you think nuclear power is good or bad, the chances are you'll be astonished by the data in this article.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  When people complained to the TSA about its inconsistency - sometimes it allows certain items in carry-ons, and other times it doesn't, the TSA had a ready explanation and justification.

According to the TSA, these inconsistencies are actually deliberate.  They say it will confuse and confound terrorists by introducing and element of unpredictability into their screening procedures.

Perhaps the TSA could explain how it helps prevent terrorism to unpredictably sometimes refuse to allow perfectly safe things to be carried onto planes?  And how it helps prevent terrorism to unpredictably sometimes allow dangerous things to be taken on board?

Shame on the TSA for this ridiculous excuse - they must think we're even stupider than they are to accept it.  But, on the other hand, it was reported in this article without any comment or criticism, so perhaps they're correct in their thinking.  Details here.

A NJ man suffering from bipolar disorder got upset when his flight was delayed on the ground for an extended time after leaving the gate in Orlando.  After being refused permission to leave, he allegedly said 'What if I had a bomb' and then allegedly claimed he did have a bomb.

As a result, police were called, passengers disembarked, all luggage rechecked, and the passenger arrested.

He was sentenced this week in Orlando for the July incident, and fined $2,500 on a charge of making a bomb threat on an airplane, plus given two years probation.  Oh yes, he also was required to reimburse Spirit Airlines for its costs of delaying the flight - $36,787.98.

That's a fairly stiff claim from Spirit - I wonder if they had to produce receipts?

There's a sad irony in this next story.  Michael Chalk, a 40 year old school teacher in Melbourne, Australia was in Cairns for an education conference and went one evening to a local bar for a drink.  He took a book with him, and after reading it for a while, put it down and went to the dance floor to join in the dancing.  Other people in the bar saw the book he was reading, complained, and bouncers evicted him from the bar.

The book was called 'The Unknown Terrorist' - a title which apparently upset the other bar denizens.  It was about a person who was mistaken for a terrorist and is persecuted by paranoid people making false accusations.

A person boarded a plane to see his parents off on their trip, and the airplane closed its doors before he could get off again.  He quickly advised a flight attendant, and was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of criminal trespass.

You might be wondering how he got through security screening and onto the plane without a ticket or boarding pass?  Well, that was actually quite easy for him, because he worked at the airport himself, employed by the TSA, as a security screener.

New York City is considering a ban on horse-drawn carriage rides through Central Park after several recent traffic accidents involving the carriages.  A councilman has fought to end the practice he considers inhumane and incompatible with traffic.  The ban is supported by a number of animal rights groups.

Carriage rides have been offered in Central Park for 100 years, and are very popular.  They are also considered to be 100% humane by all licensed animal welfare groups.

Perhaps the NY councilman might also consider banning any other form of horse working, and also he should ban cars too, because for sure there are a lot more accidents with cars than with horses in his fine city.

These days there is an entire new industry devoted to creating 'viral communications' on YouTube - catchy video clips that they hope will become wildly popular and present as a free and positive form of advertising for their product.  Here's one such example, put out there by Kansas City International Airport (but note its airport code is actually MCI not KCI - KCI is used by an airport in Indonesia).

Here's a fun web game - the Travel IQ Challenge that tests your geography skills.  I scored 316,711 points on level 9 with a traveler IQ of 106 - not sure if that is good or bad!  I'll try it a few more times when time allows.

Some people and organizations like to publish spoof and satire items to celebrate 1 April.  Here's an annual publication that comes out each year at this time, Aviation Dilly (a spoof on Aviation Daily).  All I can say is 'many a true word spoken in jest'.

My very best wishes to you and yours for Christmas and the festive season in general.  Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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