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Friday 23 May, 2008  

Good morning

The South of France cruise finished earlier this week, and everyone had a wonderful time, with generally good weather, a lovely ship, good food, abundant wine, beautiful destinations, and a great group of fellow travelers and crew.

The highlight of the cruise, for me, was definitely the region we toured through.  Gorgeous little villages dating back to Roman times, and outstanding scenery with rolling countryside and very fertile heavily cultivated fields (mainly grape growing, of course) made the tour a feast for the eye from every new bend in the river.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this ends up as another Amadeus cruise that I can highly recommend.  But note, if you now decide to go enjoy this cruise yourself, most of the remaining cruises for this year are already sold out.  Some space remains only for the sailing that starts with time in Paris on 5 August; otherwise, there is plenty of space on most of the 2009 sailings.  Cruise details on the Amadeus Waterways site, and remember that if you book any Amadeus cruise through me, you get a 5% discount in addition to any other discounts (such as AARP, Past Passenger, etc).

My current travels have offered a kaleidoscope of different experiences.  Barcelona in Spain, the small towns and villages of rural Provence, Paris, London, and now today I'm writing to you from Stow-on-the-Wold in the beautiful Cotswold district in England, preparing a destination feature for the website, to be released in a week or two.

Perhaps the only downside of the river cruise was unreliable access to the internet from the ship.  Much of the time there was a problem with the connection, and when the access was available, it was terribly expensive.  So I've not been able to do as much as I'd hoped, but, on the positive side, I do have a feature article ready to be released, chronicling the disappointment of my recent trial of a spam filtering device.

Note that the review is probably of interest primarily to people with their own mail servers, I'll be offering a review on a better (free) way of controlling spam that can apply to all users in the near future :

This Week's Feature Column :  Barracuda Spam Firewall :  In theory, this is an ingenious device that attacks and destroys spam before it gets anywhere near your mail server or your inbox.  In practice, it shows itself to be flawed, expensive, and underperforming.

Dinosaur watching :  Air fares continue to increase (as does jet fuel) and the amount of value we receive in return for our increasingly expensive tickets continues to decrease.

The latest paradigm shift in what you do and don't get for your money comes courtesy of American Airlines.  You'll recall that only a few months back the airlines started charging $25 to check a second bag.  Earlier this week American announced it will now charge $15 for checking a first bag, too.  About a year ago, you could check two bags weighing up to 140 lbs total for free.  Now you will pay $40 for two bags weighing 100 lbs total.

It might seem that there is no such thing as a cost increase promulgated by the airlines that I like, but this is not so.  Some things I understand, accept, and agree with.  But I do not agree with the idea of charging for luggage.  Yes, I know some busy-bodies seek to impose their own pack-lightly ethos on the rest of us, but my objection is more operationally based.

What AA is doing is encouraging more people to abuse the carry-on rules, and with nearly full flights already, overhead space is already at a premium.  Those of us who take only a modest amount of carry-on with us may now find the overheads bulging with monster roll-aboard suitcases by the time we board and get to our seat, while various smug faced people are innocently not catching our eye (because not only did they cheat the system with the amount of carry-on they brought with them, but they also cheated the system by boarding before their row number was called).

The dinosaur's death wish continues to be starkly exhibited.  Their response to tough times is to make air travel even less pleasant than ever before, a scenario that will only result in fewer people flying, and therefore, still greater losses to the dinosaurs.

Indeed, AA is already anticipating more passengers fleeing from their flights.  They also announced a cut of almost 12% in their capacity, with effect from Q4 this year, and will be taking 75 planes out of service.

Oh, AA is also increasing all sorts of other fees, too.  It will now cost $150 to change a domestic ticket, and from $150-300 for an international ticket.  Booking by phone or through the frequent flyer program went from $15 to $20.  Using a travel agent, including online agencies like Travelocity went from $15 to $20 and buying a ticket at the airport from $20 to $30.  Taking a pet along in the cabin went from $80 to $100 each way on domestic, Mexico, Canada and Caribbean flights while travelling in cargo went from $100 to $150 each way.  Unaccompanied minors went from $75 to $100 each way.  Oversized and overweight bags will now cost $150 each way, up from $100.

The increased bag charges make it even more attractive to consider expressing your luggage by a courier service.  I wrote about this when the second bag charge first started and showed that the cheapest (and often best!) way to overnight your bags, seven days a week, is through USPS.

While most of AA's increases are 'more of the same', and while it is a shame to see them increasing, it is hard to argue against the airline's ability to charge what it chooses for what it offers.  But how about charges associated with 'free' frequent flier tickers.  What part of 'free' does AA not understand?  Frequent flyer awards will now cost from $100 to $150, and reinstating miles for unused flight awards will now cost $150.

This is grievously unfairThe cost to us of a 'free' ticket is going up and up - in terms of the cost to earn the miles in the first place, the number of miles we need for an award, and now the ancillary fees and charges associated with getting a free ticket issued and/or changed.

AA's share price dropped 24% in response to its announcement of these new measures.  Great own goal, AA!

Meanwhile, showing yet again that shrinking is not the only way to proceed, Southwest is adding two new destinations from Denver on September 2, with three daily flights to both San Francisco and Omaha.

Another week - another fare increase.  United have started a new fare increase on Thursday, with increases of $10 - $60 roundtrip, and AirTran announced a $50 increase on most of their routes.  Look for the other airlines to match over the next few days.

The last time I wrote about British Airways it was to praise their service and in particular, to comment about the lovely beef short ribs served on the flight to London, but this week it seems I'm back to my usual refrain.

British Airways will no longer serve meat in coach class - it will limit the choices to either a fish pie or chicken.  The reason for this backward step?  Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with the high price of fuel.  Instead, BA points out that some of their customers won't eat pork for religious reasons, and others won't eat beef, and so out of sensitivity to those customers, and because they can only have two choices available (why?) they are limiting the choices to chicken or fish.

Would I be the first person to point out that sensitivity to minority groups is all very well and good, but how about showing some sensitivity to the majority of customers first?  As for the people who won't eat pork or beef (what about lamb?) isn't that why special meals are offered?

A common statistic that we all look at are the Department of Transportation flight delay figures - information on flights that arrive more than 15 minutes later than scheduled.

However, these numbers do not paint the whole picture, because they only consider flights that actually take place as scheduled.  Cancelled flights are not counted as delays, and neither are diverted flights.  And 'personal' delays by way of being bumped off a flight are also not considered.

Researchers at George Mason University’s Center for Air Transportation Systems Research (CATSR) have come up with a better measure. 'Passenger trip delay' data includes trip disruptions due to delays, rebookings due to cancellations, rebookings after denied boardings, and diverted flights.

The results are, needless to say, quite a lot worse than the DoT figures. Although cancellations, rebookings, and diversions are still relatively infrequent, when they do occur the delay times per passenger are quite large.  While the average for a simple flight delay last year was 57 minutes, if your flight was diverted, your average delay was 3.75 hours, and if you had to be rebooked due to an oversold flight, your average delay was 3.0 hours.  And if you 'win the jackpot' - having a flight cancelled - your average delay was 11 hours.

Putting all this together, 26% of all passengers experienced a delay last year (compared with 23% in 2006) and the average passenger trip delay was 1 hour and 54 minutes—a 24-minute increase from the previous year.

The biggest reason for the increase was the increase in the number of cancelled flights, combined with higher load factors which meant there was less slack in the system to accommodate stranded passengers.

The airlines with the lowest average passenger trip delay were (in order) Hawaiian, Aloha, Southwest, Frontier, and Airtran.  The five worst, averaging from 24.4 to 29.5 minutes, were Colgan, JetBlue, Pinnacle, Mesa, and (in last place) American. The most improved performance was by Alaska (in 7th place) and the biggest decline was by JetBlue.

How did airports fare? Of the 35 biggest airports, the five with the lowest average passenger trip delays were Honolulu, Chicago Midway, Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Portland (OR).  The five worst were Dallas-Ft. Worth, Newark, LaGuardia, Chicago-O’Hare, and in last place, JFK.  The biggest declines in performance last year were at JFK, Minneapolis/St. Paul, DFW, and LaGuardia. Most-improved were Denver and Houston-Bush.

Here's an annual piece of non-news.  Airlines rank poorly on an annual customer satisfaction survey.  Do you think it is because the airlines are uniquely inept, or because they simply don't care?

And if you're looking for an example of such poor customer service, how about this story of a man who was told to give up his seat and instead sit in the toilet on a recent JetBlue flight?

Another example :  I'd mentioned the inevitable situation with our group and a member of it not getting their luggage upon arrival into Barcelona last week, with the web tracking site continually showing 'nothing is known' about the bags right up to the moment they arrived at the hotel.  Mark writes about this :

As for lost bags, and dinosaurs, “Come on guys, put a tag on the bag, scan it, scan it onto the plane, scan it coming off.”  Crimminy, FedEx, UPS and the USPS do it millions of times a day, and I can track my package up to the minute from a laptop anywhere on the planet.  And the dinosaurs can’t pull this off?  Sheer incompetence and lack of will.

More money for Amtrak?  Over the last few days I've traveled by high speed French TGV from Lyons to Paris, by Eurostar from Paris to London (both at speeds of up to 186mph) and by a short distance commuter type train from London to Salisbury (but still at speeds of up to 90 mph).  And while traveling by coach between Barcelona and Arles, the guide was proudly pointing out the earthworks and developments for a new high speed rail line connecting Spain and France, a multi-billion dollar project that the two countries were happily investing in and which the citizens were enthusiastically supporting.

Traveling in and out of the stations with trains busily coming and going in a successfully orchestrated series of on-time departures and arrivals, and each train holding as many as 500 passengers, showed a ground transportation reality that is beyond our US comprehension, and a transportation alternative that beats the airlines on every relevant measure, whether it be ecological carbon-neutral footprints, comfort, travel time, or anything else.

So I was delighted to see that leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from both parties have introduced legislation that would allocate more than $14 billion to expanding Amtrak and funding high-speed rail corridors to compete with airlines.  The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 was introduced May 8th.  Over the next five years, it would give Amtrak $9.7 billion in capital and operating grants, provide $2.5 billion for grants to states to develop new or improved passenger rail corridors, and another $1.75 billion for grants to states and/or Amtrak to develop 11 'authorized high-speed rail corridors'.

Amtrak's naysayers are already speaking up against this concept.  But this proposed investment is very different to the annual 'life support' grant given to Amtrak - not quite enough to keep it operating at present levels, and nothing to allow it to expand and improve service.  Amtrak's chronic poor quality and unprofitability is destined to continue and get worse unless someone is willing to invest heavily in giving it the capital-intensive infrastructure it needs to be able to offer a reliable sensible service to potential customers.

Here's an interesting example of lies, damn lies, and statistics.  In terms of net federal subsidies per thousand passenger miles, Amtrak gets the highest level of government support at present.  For the period 1990-2002, the levels of subsidy were

    Amtrak         :  $186
    Urban transit  :  $118
    Airline travel :  $  6
    Highway travel : -$  2

Amtrak's opponents are using this as a reason why we shouldn't spend more on Amtrak.

But why is this not a valid measure?  Because Amtrak has a vanishingly small number of passenger miles at present, which inflates the subsidy per passenger mile.  Some capital investment to double Amtrak's ridership would then see the subsidy level enormously deflate for two reasons - more passengers to spread the subsidy over, and more passengers would mean more revenue and less need for government subsidy.

Think of Amtrak like a plane, lumbering clumsily and awkwardly on the ground around an airport.  Until Amtrak can 'take off' it is doomed to be a failure.  $14 billion is woefully inadequate to get Amtrak airborne and profitable, but it is a good step in the right direction, and is to be commended.

Talking about planes taking off, how about planes taking off in the wrong direction?  So reads the headline to this article, although the reality, buried in the story, is not quite so frightening (but still far from reassuring).  Apparently there is some confusion at Newark about whether planes should turn left or right after taking off, with controllers sometimes telling a pilot to turn one way but he actually turns the other way.  Ooops.

I spent three nights in London at the Lancaster Gate Suites.  I'd booked this through lastminute.com and had complained about the apparent bait and switch tactics I encountered during the booking process in the last newsletter.

Lastminute described this hotel as a four star hotel, and due to the good value price initially offered, I selected it.  While generally it is fair to say 'you get what you pay for' the concept of last minute bargains upsets that analysis, and so I assumed (!) that the bargain price meant a last minute bargain, rather than a low quality hotel room.

The reality of the experience was entirely different from the promise on Lastminute's website.  Although described as a 'spacious room ensuite', the small room is no larger than an average hotel room, with no room to walk around the bed on three of the four sides, and lacks many basic amenities.  The closet is so narrow you can't fit clothes hangars in other than on an angle.  There is no phone in the unit, and the Wi-Fi access was unreliable and intermittent.  There's nowhere to put soap or shampoo in the miniature shower, and the rooms don't get daily servicings.

There is no elevator, and neither is there any porter service, and it was 68 increasingly steep and narrow steps up to my room.  The last flight of steps is so narrow that it is not easy to walk up or down them with a suitcase alongside.  One more bad thing - there is no reception desk at the hotel (even though Lastminute says there is) - you have to go a half mile away to find the reception area at an affiliated property, and - get this - there was no mention of this anywhere on the Lastminute booking confirmation.

So, I had the taxi take me to the hotel's address, only to find an anonymous locked door with no information about how to check in or even the name of the hotel visible anywhere.  Worse still, the Lastminute booking confirmation didn't have a phone number, either - neither for themselves nor for the hotel.  It was, ahem, a non-trivial problem to resolve.

Moral of the story - always ensure you have phone numbers both for the hotel you're staying at and the booking service you've booked with.  I'm going to ask Lastminute to defend their four star rating for this hotel and will let you know their reply - it is not the first time I've had a hotel from Lastminute that was clearly nowhere near the standard alleged by them.

Cell phones are dangerous to your health, continued :  Here's a study that looks at a different dimension of the danger of mobile phones - that associated with pregnant women and their children.  A study of 13,000 children showed a clear link between their mother's mobile phone use while pregnant and subsequent behavioral problems in the children.

How many more studies will it take until we finally realize that the life-changing convenience of mobile phones carries with it other life-changing consequences, of a negative medical nature?  Just like cigarette smokers, addicted to their cigarettes, can ignore the consequences of their actions, so too can all of us (me included) ignore the dangers of the phones we love so much.

One of the challenges of traveling is of course keeping connected on the internet.  On the positive side, internet access in hotels these days is very much better than it was, even only a couple of years ago, with most hotels offering either Wi-Fi or regular Ethernet connections to fast broadband internet.  But there are still quirks and inconveniences, not the least of which are the terrible desk/chair combinations that seem common in at least two out of every three hotel rooms (typically desk too high/chair too low, although today I'm at a chair too high/desk too low hotel where I can't get my legs under the desk).

However, for true stupidity, one needs to look to France, and the Scribe Hotel in Paris, where I spent a couple of days after the river cruise.  The first surprise was noticing that while the cost for Wi-Fi is €8.50 per 24hr period, the price for wired internet is more than twice as much - €19.90 per 24 hours.  In what way is Ethernet superior to Wi-Fi?  None whatsoever.

But this pricing incongruity is nothing compared to how access is granted to Wi-Fi.  When one first buys a 24 hour access pass, one gets access immediately the credit card has been charged.  Wonderful.  But if you log off and log on again later, you're then required to either buy another 24 hours, or, if your past 24 hours has not yet expired, you enter your username and password.  Which sounds simple enough, except for the fact you were never given a username and password when you first bought your 24hr access period.

Never mind.  It turns out you were sent an email that was a combination receipt and also username/password advice.  So simply open the email you received to get your username and password to access the internet.  Simple?

Not if your email is held on the internet on, eg, a Yahoo, Gmail, or Hotmail type email account.  Yes, the French require you to access the internet to get the information you need in order to access the internet.  Catch-22 is alive and well at the Scribe Hotel in Paris.

This hotel is also a close contender for 'seller of the most expensive drink' award - €22 - ie, $35 - for a simple Bacardi and Coke.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  An increasingly common theme, when I talk to people in other countries, is their sad expression of regret that they don't feel comfortable visiting the United States due to concerns at the randomness of being allowed entry to the US.  Even people from the so-called 'Visa Waiver' countries - those countries where citizens don't need to get a visa prior to traveling to the US - are not exempt from worry, because they never know what will happen upon arriving into the US and going to the Immigration booth.

Here's an appalling horrifying story of a young Italian attorney who ended up spending more than ten days in jail when he recently arrived into the US, due to the fevered imaginings of an Immigration officer who thought - well, who knows what.  Suffice it to say that the official excuse - that the man was going to seek asylum in the US - is so ridiculously a lie as not to be worthy of comment.

Surely nothing can excuse being held, without charge, and with no legal recourse, for ten days, and I understand, from sources close to the man, that he was only released after the Immigration people learned the NY Times as about to write about his problems.

What has gone wrong with our country when we happily abuse foreign visitors this way?  Read the full story here, and share my horror at the monster we have created.

But while we're security obsessed in some limited dimensions, in other respects we continue to display complete blindness.  Like, for example, this story whereby people were able to drive onto the airport runway in Seattle, without showing ID, without having their vehicle inspected, or anything.

As one who relies on written English heavily, I find the following particularly amusing.  Hopefully you may, too.

Every year, English teachers from across the USA can submit their collections of actual analogies and metaphors found in high school essays in order to have them published and sent out for the amusement of other teachers across the country. Recent winners :

1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

2. His thoughts tumbled around inside his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke with the kind of wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who goes blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like the sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

6. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

7. He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

8. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife's infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM machine.

9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't.

10. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you're on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

11. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

12. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling west at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. traveling east at a speed of 35 mph.

13. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan's teeth.

14. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

15. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East River.

16. Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

17. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

18. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

19. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

20. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

Lastly this week, what to make of this curious event in my home country of New Zealand?

All the very best for the Memorial Day weekend.  I return to Seattle on Monday and next week should see a normal newsletter and new feature article.

Until then, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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