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Friday 12 September, 2008  

Good morning

Today is a very happy day.  It is, to use that over-worked phrase, 'the first day of the rest of my life'.  Yesterday saw me finally conclude the remaining details of my divorce, a divorce that has been 2½ long years in the making, and which has consumed an unbelievable sum in legal fees (six figures) and which now costs me another six figure sum in settlement.

So, I'm delighted to now have that behind me, but the immediate future, with enormous settlement costs and no cash to cover them, is scary.  The largest part of this was setting a notional value on The Travel Insider, and while it was generally agreed that the business could not be sold to anyone else for much or any money at all, for divorce settlement purposes 'my' business had to be assessed a value and then shared with my ex-wife.  No-one seemed to care that the cash to pay for that settlement doesn't exist.

Which - finally - brings me to this year's annual fundraising drive.  Normally held in April/May, I've been waiting to conclude my divorce before launching a desperately heart-felt plea to you this year.

 As longer time readers know, we operate on the PBS model, relying on a mix of reader contributions and sundry income to keep the website up and the newsletter regularly being published.  Our annual fundraising drive will hopefully be short and not too intrusive, and the sooner we reach our target, the sooner it ends!

Personal challenges notwithstanding - indeed, perhaps because of them; at times my only escape from the horrors of this divorce process has been to bury myself in my work for you - it has been another good year for The Travel Insider, and hopefully for you too.  You've received some 50 weekly newsletters and over 60 feature articles - in total, over 400,000 words of information, commentary, advice and humor - more than you'd get in six hardcover books, and more than I've written in any previous twelve month period.  The website is an increasingly valuable resource for increasing numbers of people on an increasingly wide range of travel and travel related technology topics - over 550,000 people visit the website every month, and there are currently 21,929 newsletter readers each week.

The website and newsletter have been going - and growing - since October 2001, and continues to gain respect and 'voice' in the community.  With the passing of time, we together - myself as spokesman and all of you as endorsers and supporters - can continue to become more effective as advocates for better airline customer service, improved passenger rights, and a generally more transparent and fair travel experience.

Hopefully you've found the 400,000 words shared with you during the last year to be interesting, at times amusing, and often helpful.  Perhaps you've even been able to use some of the ideas, suggestions, reviews and other items to save money or make better travel related choices.  For example, the current ongoing series on how to book hotels at best rates might save you money on future hotel stays.  Or if you chose to buy some Southwest Airlines stock when I recommended it earlier this year, and then sold it again when I recommended you sell it, you'd have pocketed a tidy sum for just a few short weeks investment.  And if you benefited from the Travel Insider 50% discount sale at Pro Travel Gear a few weeks ago, as hundreds of you did, you for sure saved a generous amount of money in that sale.

Even with all this positive progress, the present time sees The Travel Insider at a critical - indeed, at a crisis - point, and more than ever before, your support is now very much needed.  Not only do I have divorce related debts everywhere I look, but the Travel Insider's business model is under assault at present due to tougher economic times and changing patterns of what is 'hot' and 'not hot' on the internet in general.  My return from advertising on each page is way down, and the once popular phone unlocking service is now largely moribund and no longer needed by most people.

The Travel Insider could not exist as a part time/spare time project.  To write the 6000 words or more I write each week, to maintain and update existing articles, to attend to the administration and management of the website, servers, email membership list, to read (and sometimes reply) to the 200 emails that come in each day - all of this already consumes way more than 40 hours every week.  I could not continue to offer you comprehensive insight and commentary if I was to do this merely part-time, in my spare time - at a simplistic level, imagine what the newsletter would be like with only one quarter the content, and that one quarter at a more superficial level, and feature articles on the website perhaps once a month.  An unattractive thought for both you and me.

In addition to requiring my full time efforts, this venture consumes money, too.  New webservers of various types need to be purchased every year or two, monthly hosting charges (including fees per GB served - every visitor to the website, almost none of whom contribute, cost money for the MBs of bandwidth they consume looking at pages), software, technical support, and so on and so on, all cost money.  Another appreciable cost is buying items to review - for example, I'm working on reviews of two exciting new high end GPS units, which I had to buy myself (my frank and hard-hitting reviews don't encourage many suppliers to send free units in the hope of getting a meaninglessly positive review in return).

And so I find myself at a crossroads with three choices - continue the website, and on the same PBS voluntary support basis as before, switch to a subscription model with reduced free content, or close it down and seek to build a new future in some other way (I hear the airlines are hiring - do you think I'd make a good gate agent, explaining to you why you're being bumped off a flight that has also been cancelled and refusing to give you a meal voucher?).

My clear preference is to continue the first option, and so I'm now asking for your help to make this possible.

Please reflect a minute on what you've received over the last twelve months, and then contribute what you feel appropriate to ensure it continues for the next twelve months.  How much a week is your 'Friday Fix' from The Travel Insider worth to you?  Is it worth the price of a cup of coffee - $2?  Or perhaps what you'd pay for a newspaper - $1 or so?

You're welcome to use any calculation you like to decide how much to contribute.  And you can choose between making a single lump sum contribution, or becoming a 'subscribing member' and having automatic monthly or quarterly contributions taken from a credit card through Paypal (and my very special thanks to the loyal faithful few who are already doing this, month/quarter after month/quarter, quietly but importantly helping out on this regular basis).

How much is fair to contribute?  That is entirely for you to decide - it is a PBS model, after all.  But, one thing I urge you - please do not give any amount more than that which you can conveniently spare.  If you're on a fixed or low income, please continue to enjoy The Travel Insider completely free of charge, and please feel no obligation to contribute.

It seems that most years we have about 3% of readers choose to contribute, so I'm hoping for 650 contributions this year.  You can do the math - multiply 650 by whatever average contribution amount you think likely, and the result, while more than covering the operational expenses, doesn't leave much over as my 'salary'.  But it does help ensure The Travel Insider continues on for the next 12 months, same as it has for the last 83 months.

Please simply go to this page, choose an amount to contribute, either monthly, quarterly, or one-time, and click the appropriate button (or mail a check to the address provided).  In return, you'll receive my heartfelt appreciation, and hopefully another year of The Travel Insider too.

And now, on with our regular newsletter - thanks for reading the preceding, and thanks even more if you chose to click over and contribute....

As promised above, I'm continuing the series on how to get the best rates when booking hotel rooms, and there are probably two more articles in the series yet to come.  So, here for this week is part two :

This Week's Feature Column :  When Should You Book a Hotel Room : Here are some suggestions about when is the best (and worst) time to book your hotel room, and one important thing to consider doing after you've made your booking.

Happy Birthday this week to our 'Senior Reader', John.  John turned 93 this week.  Long may you remain our 'Senior Reader', John - it is a privilege and pleasure to share the newsletter with you, and your always interesting emails are much appreciated and always enjoyed.

Dinosaur watching :  Ooops.  An old story about United going into bankruptcy, written back in 2002, somehow got recycled on Monday and reported again as if it were new by the South Florida Sun Sentinel.  Their story was then picked up and repeated by other news outlets, and caused a collapse in United's share price, dropping all the way from an opening price of $12.30 down to little more than a penny a share by lunchtime.  Share trading was briefly suspended, and when it resumed, the share price quickly returned back up to nearly $12 again, and by Thursday after an unrelated dip it closed at $11.12.

Some people presumably lost millions of dollars, and others presumably made millions of dollars, in the panic trading that happened on Monday.  The company as a whole briefly lost almost $1.5 billion in shareholder value, and one wonders what obligation the people who made millions on their trades have to return their profits, and what chance the people who lost millions have to get their money back.

Some good news of a type that rarely gets reported.  British Airways says its new Terminal 5 is now starting to get the kinks ironed out and is working well.  BA says it is consistently beating targets for both ease and speed of check-in during departures and for baggage retrieval on arrival.

After a nightmarish start to its T5 operations earlier this year, BA delayed moving the rest of its Heathrow operations to T5.  But now these problems are solved, and so rather than wait until April next year, BA is going to transfer the rest of its long-haul flights to T5 over the next seven weeks.

Not quite such good news.  Oil prices continue to hover in the $100 - $110/barrel range, way down from the July high of $147.  So what about the layer upon layer of fuel surcharges imposed by the airlines?  When will they start to move down, too?

Well, the answer to that question won't surprise you.  No time soon seems to be the general response from most airlines, as reported in this article.

'Sorry, We're Full' - so could read the sign that Canadian airline WestJet might need to hang on its checkin podiums.  The airline averaged an astonishing 88.4% of its seats sold on all flights in August.

It is only a few years ago when airlines targeted to break even at about a 60% load, and didn't ever expect to see average loads much about 70%.  But now we have airlines routinely running at load factors in the mid/high 70s, and sometimes breaking into the 80s.

Why can't an airline ever hope to run at a 100% load factor?  There is a complicated statistical reason why this is somewhere between difficult and impossible; to explain it simply, think of it this way.  Think of a person making, say, a four flight journey (two flights to go through a hub to their destination, two flights through a hub back again).  Now what happens if one of those four flights is full.  Maybe they can rebook to a later/earlier flight, but maybe they can't, and so they go travel with another airline, or on another day.  The airline not only lost selling the seat on the full flight, but lost out on selling seats on the other three flights, too.  One full flight interferes with the ability to sell seats on other flights, too, even flights that don't immediately seem related to the full flight.

So seeing an airline with a load factor of 88.4% is truly astonishing.  Well done, WestJet.

Now, as we know, full flights mean problems of all sorts for the passengers, and with Air Canada posting an almost as wonderful 84.4% load factor, the flights are sure full, right across Canada.  Fortunately, the Canadian government has come up with what it terms 'Flight Rights Canada'; described by their Transport Minister as being an 'airline passenger bill of rights'.

So, what is it?  Should we, south of the border, be copying it here, too?  Alas, no, the 'Flight Rights Canada' is a ridiculous non-event that couldn't have been made weaker and more useless if the airlines had written it themselves.  Here are the six rights, in their inglorious entirety :

1. Airlines must make reasonable efforts to inform passengers of delays and schedule changes and to the extent possible, the reason for the delay or change.

2. If the plane is overbooked or cancelled, the airline must a) find the passenger a seat on another flight operated by that airline; b) buy the passenger a seat on another carrier with whom it has a mutual interline traffic agreement; or c) refund the unused portion of the passenger's ticket.

3. If a flight is delayed and the delay between the scheduled departure of the flight and the actual departure of the flight exceeds 4 hours, the airline will provide the passenger with a meal voucher.

4. The airline will take steps to inform the passenger on the status of the luggage and will provide the passenger with an overnight kit as required.

5. Nothing in Flight Rights Canada would make the airline responsible for acts of nature or the acts of third parties. Airlines are legally obligated to maintain the highest standards of aviation safety and cannot be encouraged to fly when it is not safe to do so.

6. Consumers have legal rights under international treaties.

Working backwards through this list, the sixth 'right' does nothing at all except acknowledge your already existing rights under international treaties (which are very slim to start with).

Right number five actually takes away your rights in cases where the airline chooses to hide behind one of their favorite excuses 'it is a weather delay' or indeed now allows them to hide behind another excuse too 'it was the other guy's fault, not ours'.  It also preserves the other favorite airline fiction 'the delay was due to a safety issue, and of course you wouldn't want us flying an unsafe airplane, would you?'.

Calling right number five a 'right' is an insult to our intelligence.

Right number four hardly gives you any rights at all if your bags go missing, other than requiring the airlines to provide you with an 'overnight kit' - what is that?  A toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste?  How about requiring the airlines to pay cash compensation for delayed baggage?  How about requiring the airlines to compensate you for any changes of clothing you need to buy on day two and three and four while your bags are still lost?

Right number three means you'll get a meal voucher of unspecified value (why not at least say 'a meal voucher good for a two course meal at any airport restaurant' or something like that?).  And what say the delay is on the last flight out at night, and there are no remaining restaurants open in the airport?

Right number two actually gives the airlines a massive escape clause.  The airline is free to choose which of the three 'solutions' it offers you, and is also free to calculate what value is associated with the unused portion of your ticket.  What do you think an airline would rather do - spend $500 to put you on a competing airline, or assess the unused part of your ticket as worth $50, give you the cash, and tell you that you're on your own to make your own flight arrangements?  This doesn't create a new right for passengers; it lets the airlines off the hook and diminishes their responsibility.

And, lastly, right number one is meaningless.  What is a 'reasonable effort'?  What does 'to the extent possible' mean?  And what if an airline doesn't do this?  What is the sanction or penalty imposed on them?  Apparently, nothing.

All in all, this is a shameful listing of non-rights that if anything weakens our position as passengers, and makes it easier for the airlines to turn their back on us.  Shame on the Canadian government for enacting such a terrible piece of anti-consumer legislation, and double shame on them for telling us that it is a good thing for us.

Here's an example of a rock solid set of passenger rights.

Talking about passenger rights and lost luggage, here's a particularly unfortunate story of a rather sensitive piece of luggage that got lost.

JetBlue thinks it may have found a new way to sell tickets - auction them on eBay.  In actual fact, the idea is far from new, but every once in a while, an airline rediscovers the concept, and a reporter writes it up as if it was an innovative new thing, but it isn't.  Airlines have been selling tickets through eBay and other auction sites for almost ten years now.

More good news for train lovers.  The wonderful Eurostar train that nowadays travels between London and Paris in under 2½ hours, giving riders a comfortable quiet and reliable travel experience, is to be joined on the route by competing companies operating alternate train services on the same track.  Not only might competition see the fairly high cost of traveling on Eurostar drop, but the new companies are saying their trains will be faster, making the journey in less than two hours.

And who are these new competitors?  Airlines!  Air France for sure, and possibly Virgin Atlantic, too (which already operates trains in Britain, although not always very well).

More details here.

Earlier this week there were 1995 different models of digital camera for sale on Amazon - an impossibly huge number for anyone to consider when choosing a new digital camera.  So go see how this website works, enabling you to select the features you want, and rate each feature in terms of how important it is to you, and then presenting selected recommended models that best meet your prioritized preferences.  It is amazingly clever, and a good example of the new 'Web 2.0' type technologies that are transforming the internet into an even more essential and interactive part of our lives now than it already is.

There's only one apparent problem with the site.  Its pricing data is not always accurate - I just checked and a camera it was offering at $160.77 was actually priced at $280.17 when I clicked on the link to buy.  Ooops!  But sometimes, prices are lower as well as higher, eg, a camera shown at $499.95 on the site, when clicking the link to buy came up at $446.48.

So use the site to choose the cameras that have the best features, then perhaps go check the exact pricing through Amazon or some other online site.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  So here we are, passing the seventh anniversary of 9/11/01 and the event which caused this section of the newsletter to come into existence.

The seventh anniversary, like the ones before it, has come and gone without any further terrorist attacks on American soil.  Back on 9/12/01 we felt very vulnerable and concerned about what an implacable foe with no fear of dying for their cause could continue to do to our peaceful and free society.  Further attacks seemed inevitable and almost unavoidable.

Why have there been no further attacks on the US?  Was it a good idea to invade Afghanistan and Iraq?  Are all the security hassles we grumble about actually working?  Should we feel good about greater government scrutiny of every aspect of our lives?  Should we thank the outgoing President and his administration for successfully defending the US and its citizens for seven long years without fail?

I don't have answers to any of those five questions.  Perhaps there's also a sixth question - was the ongoing danger implied in the 9/11 attacks vastly overstated, and have we massively overreacted?

That's another question I can't easily answer, and on this happy Friday, let's simply count our blessings and hope for at least another seven years free of terrorist incident.

Extending this positive note, here's some good news for a change out of the Homeland Security Department.  They are finally starting to scan all incoming cargo shipments at the nation's airports for radiation type threats (ie, to see if they might contain components for building a dirty or nuclear bomb).  The first detectors are being deployed this week at Dulles, and all arriving cargo, including domestic cargo, will go through what are called 'radiation portal monitors'.

Four more airports get the equipment by the end of the year, and eventually 30 airports will have them.  So, to fully state the good news - all cargo at some airports will be scanned.  But no cargo at many other airports will be scanned at all.  Oh - and sea cargo?  That gets ignored entirely.  Hmmmm - wasn't this supposed to be good news?

Reader Victoria (who is the daughter of our Senior Reader John, mentioned at the top of this newsletter) confirms what we've long suspected.  Some airline employees have the power to arbitrarily switch our status to make us go through the hassle of 'secondary screening', and some airline employees abuse this privilege to 'punish' passengers they don't like.  Here's her interesting note in full :

Yesterday, I checked in for my American Airlines flight at a major West Coast airport and was told by the check-in clerk that my reservation had to be in my first name.

I have been flying internationally since I was 2 years old and have held a passport since then that - like everyone else's - shows both my first and middle names.  I have never booked a flight using my first name, and all my frequent flier accounts are in my middle name.

I replied to the clerk that no, I don’t have to use my first name; I never have, and that I fly internationally several times a year (as well as every three weeks in the US).  I added that I have checked with the TSA and Customs, in other countries as well as the US, and all of them have said it is fine to put my ticket in my middle name, especially since they don’t even look at my ticket so they don’t even care!!!! The clerk repeatedly said I have to or I could be subjected to problems. I said I was sure it would be fine. I thought that was the end of it until .....

Well, well, well, do you know what happened?  I was tagged for secondary security screening.  After that tedious process, by a very pleasant TSA agent, I went to the Admiral’s Club and said I’d like to make a complaint and explained the situation.  The woman at the desk was very sympathetic, nice, and helpful and surprised by what had happened.  When her colleague asked “can they tag someone?”, the woman helping me said “absolutely”.  She proceeded to do something in my record, then handed me a paper with the check-in clerk’s name. (I can only assume that perhaps the check-in clerk made notes in my record to cause further problems for me, but I have no proof.)

A couple of additional points: my passport that day was brand, spanking new having been renewed just last month. Perhaps the check-in clerk thought I was an inexperienced international traveler and that she could push me around?  (I fly internationally 1-4 times per year and am Platinum so definitely not inexperienced (but admit that I can still learn a lot).

Also, 2 years ago, I had the same thing happen with (possibly the same check-in clerk because it was the same airport), and I caved into her demand I change my reservation (my husband was “nudging” my ankle to keep me from arguing with her 2 years ago so I caved).  I also was tagged for secondary screening but didn’t put 2+2 together.  However, while flying across the pond, I mentioned the incident to the gentleman next to me who I recognized from checking in at the same time as I had; and he replied that he always uses his middle name, including that day, and never has had any problems.

So, when I got to Europe I called to confirm my return flight and because the check-in clerk changed my name on my reservation, the return flight was messed up.  I explained to the international ticket agent what happened and she said of course I don’t have to use my first name as long as both my first and middle name are on the passport (they are), and she nicely fixed my booking.

I'm still wondering if I should include this fairly aggressive tip for how to get a better hotel room in my current series.  But here it is, today, for your consideration, and thanks to reader Trevor for passing it on; he says that he personally uses this all the time and it never fails.

Would you use it?  Have you used it?  Let me know what you think - should I offer this in my public published series?

Anyway, here is the suggestion :

I am passing on a hotel room tip from Susan Jeffers, author of "Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway" who is married to my best friend.  Susan - who has travelled the world on promotional trips for her books has a set of golden rules which never fail.

Her golden rules are :

1. Book ahead
2. Confirm all of your preferences by e-mail
3. Get confirmation in writing before you arrive

When you check-in you start to calmly take control :

1. Sign in
2. When the concierge starts to arrange for someone to take your bags up say
3. "Hold on, I think we need to actually CHECK OUT THE ROOM FIRST BEFORE WE MOVE EVERYTHING IN".
4. Go to the room with the check-in clerk
5. When in the room have a good look around and then say, calmly, something along the lines of " No, I'm sorry but this isn't quite the room-level, quality, standard that we signed up for" - waving your original booking requirements e-mail at them.  "I would like to see something more appropriate"
6. Repeat the whole process for the next room, regardless of how really nice it might be.
7. Having hung out for room 3 then - and only if it really does press the buttons - accept it and have your bags moved in.
8. When finally ensconced go back to the reception, ask to speak to the duty manager and thank him profusely for the wonderful help and reception from the staff, and of course the room.

As one who makes his living by writing about things, and as one who wishes to be able to express his opinions freely without fear of legal mischief or risk to personal safety, here's an article that is a sobering and scary commentary on the dual standard that seems to shape much of our society these days.

Lastly this week, as a somewhat proud New Zealander, it always pleases me to see my country getting ahead of the latest marketing trends.  This article provides the bald truth on how Air NZ is heading in a new promotional direction....

In closing, I hope you've enjoyed the 7084 words in this week's newsletter and feature column.  Please consider honoring my once a year request for reciprocity, and give some much needed financial support to help this year's fundraising.

I'll share, next week, our progress towards the 650 reader contributions goal.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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