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Friday 26 September, 2008  

Good morning

What a week it has been.  Phew!  But, first of all, it is time to repeat and extend my thanks to all of you who have chosen to join this year's annual fundraising drive for The Travel Insider.  At the end of the second week, we are now at 374 supporters who have contributed.  It is very easy to see the glass as half full with such generous support, but please allow me to also observe that after two weeks of the fundraiser last year, there had been 445 people choosing to help out.

Our target for this year is 650 readers to support the newsletter and website.  I'm hoping another 276 of you will now please be as kind as to help keep your weekly newsletter coming each week, the same as it has for the last almost seven years.

As longer time readers know, the weekly contents of the newsletter and featured articles vary widely.  Sometimes there's little of interest for some readers, and sometimes there's nothing that translates immediately into 'news you can use'.  But then, on other occasions, or perhaps some time later, you might strike gold.

That happened to a reader this week, who was asking me, semi-rhetorically perhaps, if I could explain why the cost of a business class airfare LAX-Sydney had shot up from about $11,000 to almost $18,000 in only two years.  She'd tried just about everything and couldn't find a lower fare.

After a couple of emails, she used a suggestion of mine to save over $8,000 on her travels to Sydney, and she also managed to include, for free, a trip she wanted to take to London as well.  My $8000-saving suggestion :  The five part series on Round the World airfares I wrote earlier this year, which showed her how it was cheaper to fly around the world (almost 30,000 miles of travel) than it was just to fly to Sydney and back (15,000 miles of travel).  She got to fly almost twice as much distance for just about half the price, and, most importantly, saved $8,000 in the process.

I can't guarantee to save you $8,000 too.  But whether it is preventing you from making a mistake, or (more positively) showing you the best way to do something or suggesting the best product to select, or whatever else; there's a massive amount of value on this site for all people interested in travel and travel related technology, and that value is projected to continue and increase.

Maybe you want to be one of the first to buy the new Google cellphone when it comes out next month, and are frustrated by the fact that their exclusive reseller (T-mobile) is limiting its pre-sales to existing customers upgrading their phones.  Read on below and I'll tell you the amazing way to game their system and get a Google phone plus a second high quality brand new quadband phone for free, too.  That's got to be worth a few dollars!

Coming soon are reviews on two new state of the art GPS units, using revolutionary new ways of avoiding traffic and getting you the best way to where you want to go.  If you're considering buying a GPS, you need to read this before you invest in yesterday's non-interactive technology.  The unit I like best is almost unknown in the US, and also available at an extraordinary low price through one place only, so the chances are that here will be the only place you'll find out about it, and if you follow my advice, you'll save hundreds of dollars and get a much better unit than others on the market today.  Buying these two units (in addition to all the other GPS units already purchased for earlier testing) represents a $700 or so expenditure on my part.

Also coming soon is a review on a new trans-Atlantic premium class airline.  Unlike Maxjet, Eos and Silverjet (all now defunct) this airline looks like it has staying power, due to the deep pockets of its traditional airline owner.  Is it something you should consider next time you fly to Europe?  My review will save you the uncertainty of not knowing.  The good news - I'm traveling roundtrip on the airline for free.  But, the bad news - I have to fly to JFK from Seattle on my own dime, I have to pay for a night of accommodation in Europe out of my own pocket, food, etc, and so this article is a $500 expense (and three days out of my life), even with the free ticket across the Atlantic.

And on (and on) it goes.  Not only does the website have to provide me a living income - it is my only source of income - but it has to cover its costs.  The webhosting, web development, and bandwidth costs, and the underlying costs of researching the articles that are presented to you are substantial, as you'd expect from a substantial web presence such as The Travel Insider now commands.

The strength of this entire concept is its freedom - its freedom to you as readers, and its freedom from commercial concerns and constraints.  You'll never see a 'main stream media' type review that is simply recycled press release, carefully written not to offend, and many times apparently written by someone who both knows nothing about the product and who has not actually used it.

And so, my appeal to you is simple.  Please help preserve the freedom of The Travel Insider by voluntarily contributing, in the same manner that PBS is supported.  It is a strange thing, but genuine quality content, whether on television or the internet, is most likely to be found through free rather than pay channels.

You don't need to give a lot.  I'd rather get a lot of small contributions than a few large ones (but, hey, don't let that stop you!).  Simply give whatever you think this site is worth to you.  The common metaphor these days seems to be to compare the cost of anything to the cost of a cup of coffee - would you equate the value in a cup of coffee to the value in each week's newsletter and feature articles?  Or maybe you might also compare this to the subscription cost of a regular newspaper or magazine.

The choice is yours, but please do choose to set any value you wish and then participate in the fundraising.  It is simple and quick - a click from here to the fundraising page, and then a click from there to send a credit card contribution, or, if you prefer, a check sent the 'old fashioned way' works just as well.

Thanks for bearing with me through the above.  I confess I get a bit frustrated during the fundraisers on PBS; my promise to you is two-fold - I limit our fundraising to once a year, and I stop as soon as the target is reached (or once the 'welcome mat' is worn too thin!).  We've 22,000 readers, I'm asking for only 650 supporters.  But just like any other democratic process, your participation counts no matter how large the electorate, and here too, your personal support is invaluable.  Please choose to be one of the 650 who respond, not one of the 21,350 who sit on their hands.

And now, on to the other part of this busy week - the unprecedented decision by Amawaterways to slice a massive $500 per person off 13 different November and December cruises (full list of discounted cruises here).  This caused a bit of a struggle by readers who had already signed up for this year's Christmas Markets Cruise to feel good about paying full fare, but virtue brings its own reward and I'm quietly confident they'll get some recognition and compensation....

For the rest of you, it makes this year's Christmas Markets Cruise suddenly transition from good value to amazing value, and I've had two couples rush to take advantage of the new special prices already.  Combined with other available discounts, the net fare for an entry level cabin can now to drop to $999 (plus $91 port fees plus of course airfare to Europe), and with a Euro that has dropped almost 10% from its highs of earlier this year, I really can say there's never been a better price, in any past year, on this marvelous cruise.  Please do see if you can fit it into your schedule.

I was thinking about this in some detail - for me, having done four previous Christmas market cruises, I know - I absolutely know - how wonderfully great these are.  They are my favorite of all the cruises I go on.  I was wondering how to more effectively convey the sense of magic, the wonderful spirit of these cruises, and thought that perhaps one way to do this would be to put together a photo journal of last year's cruise, so you can see, through what ended up as 114 images, the overall range of experiences and sights that you enjoy on one of these cruises.

I'm still not sure I've adequately captured the essence and the magic of these cruises, but maybe this will bring you closer to understanding why you would greatly enjoy this experience too.  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  Danube River Christmas Markets Cruise Photo Journal :  Spread over four web pages is a sometimes quirky, sometimes personal, and hopefully sometimes interesting photo journal of my 2007 Christmas Markets cruise.  See for yourself why it is I like these cruises so much, then see if you can arrange to take advantage of the amazing deals on offer and join 20 fellow Travel Insiders on this year's cruise.

Dinosaur watching :  Alitalia death watch :  The investor group that had offered to buy the airline formally withdrew its offer earlier this week, due to its inability to reach an agreement with some of the airline's unions about future staffing and work practices.  Alitalia is expected to run out of cash by the beginning of October - it had between 30 million and 50 million ($44 million to $73 million) in cash as of mid-September and burns through 2 million every day it operates.

The airline's latest strategy was to advertise in three Italian newspapers plus the London Financial Times, seeking offers to buy any or all of its assets.  One possible response is coming from an unlikely source - although one could say, with a degree of accuracy, that all the likely sources of interest in Alitalia have long since been exhausted.  Venezuelan airline Aserca said it is intending to make an offer for all or part of Alitalia.  'With the aid of (Venezuela's) socialist government, we are certain that we can resolve a large part of the problems which have beset Alitalia and its employees,' the Italian news agency cited Aserca director-general Hugo Santoro as saying in a statement.

The mind boggles at how Venezuela's socialist government can help make Alitalia profitable, or how it can (or even would) beat up on the unions more aggressively and more successfully than Italy's own government, the airline's management, and various potentially interested investor groups.

And then, late on Thursday, news started to trickle out that one of Alitalia's unions had backed down and that talks were on again between the airline, its unions, and the investor group looking at merging Alitalia with Air One.

The only thing that is certain, however, is that the airline is almost out of money.  But in the new paradigm of government bailouts of big business, maybe Alitalia will get another tranche of funding from the Italian government before it spends its last penny - if for no other reason than because Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi continues to dream of preserving Alitalia as Italy's national flag carrier.

Many industry commentators have lauded Southwest for its fuel hedging, allowing it to lock in jet fuel prices that have sometimes been less than half the cost paid by its competitors, who have generally preferred to buy jet fuel on the open or spot market at current pricing.  The same people have been harsh in their criticism of other airlines for not emulating Southwest.

Perhaps showing itself to be sensitive to such criticism, United embarked on some fuel hedging, and even recorded some savings as a result of its actions.  But the recent astonishing drop in oil prices caused spot prices to go so low that United found itself locked in to paying more for its jet fuel through its hedging that it could have paid on the open market.  In an SEC filing a week ago, United estimated it might lose as much as $544 million due to fuel contracts being priced over the market prices.

A lot can happen in a week, and oil has shot back up from $94 a barrel to currently about $110, reducing the size of United's loss.  And I mention United not to single it out, but merely because it is the most recent and prominent example of the dark side of hedging - other airlines both have lost money in the past and are losing money at present through their hedging too as this article reports.

The thing about fuel hedging, or just about anything else on the stock and commodities markets is that you are in essence placing a bet - you are gambling that you know better than the person who is accepting your bet as to what the future value of the product you're buying/selling will be.  Whether it is something as simple as buying shares in a company today in the hope that the shares will go up in value (or, conversely, selling them because you think they'll go down) or something as complex as the various derivative instruments, puts and calls, hedges, and other esoteric things, it all boils down to the same thing, the same as a horse race or game of craps.  One person thinks one outcome is more likely, the other thinks the opposite.  And (a bit of an oversimplification here) only one person can be right in any transaction.

My point is this :  Hedging fuel is not a guaranteed way of saving money on fuel purchases.  Sure, Southwest has demonstrably had either incredibly good luck, or great skill, in outsmarting the people who have willingly sold its future contracts to it.  But hedging is not a guarantee, and it is unfair to criticize an airline while looking purely at results from the past for what it did or did not do.

Congratulations to Virgin America (airline code VX).  They were chosen by readers in Conde Naste Traveler's 2008 Business Travel Poll as being the best domestic airline for business and first class travelers.

More than 26,500 business travelers took part in the poll that rates hotels, airports and airlines.  VX received a score of 65.3 while its nearest competitor had a score of 41.1.  That's a very convincing win.

My sense, based on nothing at all, is that - and like all new startup airlines - VX needs our support at present.  If you fly on a route operated by VX, why not give them a try.  Accordingly to Conde Naste's readers, it seems you'll enjoy the experience.

I received an excellent email from reader Ken last week in which he challenges the new conventional wisdom that it is right and proper that airlines should charge for everything 'the same as everyone else'.  He writes :

There was a quote in a recent article on AOL from Dan Garton (EVP of marketing for AA) commenting that people should understand that airlines are now charging for the cost of flying from A to B, and the fees are for the extras that people may or may not want.

He then talked about how silly it is to give away free food on airplanes.  He compared this to hotel mini bars and the lack of free popcorn at movie theaters.

Well, the theater near me gives free refills on popcorn and drinks, and I can usually find a coupon for free popcorn on one of the coupon flyers that shows up in my mailbox.

What about the hotels that offer free food, such as Hampton Inn, Springhill Suites, and the like?  My wife stays at a Residence Inn near Pittsburgh frequently.  Not only does she get a free hot breakfast, but the manager's reception is often substantial enough that she doesn't have to go out for dinner.  If the Steelers are on Monday Night Football, the reception is a regular tailgate spread with chili, hamburgers, and hot dogs.

Last October, my family stayed at the Marriott Scottsdale McDowell Mountains.  We got a rate that included a free breakfast buffet.  It wasn't the kind of skimpy buffet that one gets at a Holiday Inn Express.  It was more like a Mother's Day brunch (without the lunch items).  The rate with breakfast was cheaper than the rate that had no breakfast, when I included breakfast at IHOP or McDonald's every day.

We also stayed at a Hampton Inn in Tucson with both the free breakfast and the manager's reception.  One night it was burgers and hot dogs.  Another night, it was steamed chicken and vegetables.  And here's the kicker :  There was also free wine and beer.  I know enough about the restaurant business to know the profit is in the alcohol.  So free beer and wine for anyone is somewhat extravagant.

Would Dan Garton like to reassess his argument about free food in coach?

And reader Michael points out an excellent chart that summarizes 13 (!) different items that airlines now commonly charge for, and shows the cost of each item from the various major US airlines.

Talking about fees, here's a useful article about hotel policies when it comes to charging for internet access, listing which hotels give it for free and detailing the daily costs at other hotels.

The latest thing to be blamed on international air travel?  The rise in bedbug infestations, according to this article.

Here's a depressing article I wish I hadn't seen - an analysis of the true cost of the proposed high speed rail project in California.  As readers know, I'm a strong advocate of high speed (or, indeed, of any speed) rail, but there comes a point where one has to stop and ask 'does this really make sense'?

I can't answer if the Californian rail project still makes sense or not, but I do object to what seems to be gross under-estimates of the project cost, and gross over-estimates of the ridership that the rail line will then attract.

Cell phones are bad for your health, cont :  Children who use cell phones are five times more likely to develop brain tumors according to this article.

And, men wishing to become fathers - be careful where you carry your cell phone, as this article explains.

If the preceding hasn't convinced you to throw away your cell phone, then you're maybe as excited as I am about the upcoming new Google based cell phone - the G1, to be sold by T-Mobile exclusively, and going on sale from 22 October.  The phone introduces yet another operating system (named Android), developed by Google and using the open source model that allows anyone to use it, extend it, and develop applications to run on the operating system.

Hopes are high that the phone will duplicate Apple's iPhone success.  The first phone - the G1 - is made by an excellent company that until now has typically designed and made high end phones that are then branded by other companies, so you've probably never heard of them (HTC).  Here are some details of the phone, which will sell for $179 when purchased with a two year contract (compare this to the $199 price of the iPhone).

There seems to be a chance that the first batch of phones may very quickly sell out, and T-Mobile is currently only pre-selling them to existing customers who agree to exchange/upgrade their current phone contract/service for a new G1 when it comes out.  If you're not a current T-Mobile customer, or if you wish to keep your current T-Mobile phone and buy the G1 as an additional phone, you're out of luck, and will probably have to stand in line at a T-Mobile store on 22 October and hope you're able to get one before they sell out.

And now for the strategy promised above.  This was told to me by a T-Mobile sales rep when I called their toll free number to try and work out how to get one (800 937-8997).  He said I should sign up now for any phone and service on their site that includes a free phone, and then immediately register to upgrade the new phone to a G1.  As for the free phone - choose one of their high quality Motorola quad-band phones and either sell it brand new unopened in the box on eBay or Craigslist, or keep it as a spare phone.

My further suggestion would be rather than buying the phone through their website, buy it direct from one of their sales reps and get the sales rep's name and his agreement that this strategy is legitimate and will work, so if there are any downstream problems, you have a T-Mobile sales rep to help you.

One of the things I noticed was that T-Mobile was limiting the data usage on the G1 phones to a miserly 1GB/month.  After some public and private protestation, T-Mobile has now sort of lifted that policy, and now has a vaguer less clearly defined 'reasonable use' type concept in place.  On the one hand, they proudly talk about their new high speed 3G network as allowing you to download and view movies on your phone, but on the other hand, if they're going to promote such massive bandwidth consuming applications as that, they can't limit your monthly usage to a mere 1GB.

Here's a very exciting new technology under development that I think may actually come to fruition.  The space elevator, which has the promise of reducing the cost of shipping things into orbit to perhaps one hundredth (or even less) of the cost it requires with a space shuttle.  Details here.

And here's a story for photography buffs about an innovative and excellent technology that is sadly on its way out.  Kodak's unique Kodachrome slide film may be about to disappear, having been displaced by digital technologies.  Those of us who were once keen amateur (or even professional) photographers will surely have stories to tell and favorite images that they've taken using this wonderful film stock; and it is easy to feel a twinge of nostalgia for its passing.  Details here.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  The TSA is crowing excitedly about new anxiety detecting machines that will automatically detect potential terrorists, on the basis that they will be more nervous than regular airline passengers.  One might challenge the nature of that very important underlying assumption (and you know what they say about assumptions.....) and inevitably, if a machine is going to be set sensitively enough to register potential terrorists, it will give a huge number of 'false positive' alarms as ordinary innocent people pass by.

My big worry is - how do you prove a negative?  The TSA detains you on the basis of the machine saying you might be a terrorist - how do you prove your innocence?  And - oh my - here we go again.  This machine can make us guilty until we can prove our innocence.  And try reasoning with the machine - 'why do you think I'm guilty; in what way am I registering anxiety?' - will the machine enter into a dialog with you?  Or maybe (joke) the highly skilled well trained TSA operator?  More details here.

Still, playing with their shiny new machinery is doubtless a welcome distraction for the TSA, who otherwise chose to enliven their routines by providing a show of force at a number of Amtrak stations in the Northeast on Tuesday morning.  As this article points out, they didn't actually do much (reminds me of the joke - 'What does TSA stand for?  Thousands Standing Around'), but it presumably was a nice outing for officers otherwise cooped up in airports.  Let's hope the airport lines didn't grow too long while officers were busy watching trains and their passengers come and go.

Winning the prize for 'airline coward of the week' is British Airways.  First, some background.  Britain lived through decades of 'the troubles' when it was under regular attack by IRA terrorists, who'd bomb all sorts of public places in Britain, and killed many people in the process.  The US was of course famously attacked by terrorists on 9/11.  Spain had its problems with railroad bombs, as did London on its buses and underground trains.  India is having terrible problems with terrorist attacks at present.  And so on, with a long sad list of countries and terrorist incidents, as long as you care to enumerate.

There's one thing common to all these incidents.  BA 'bravely' continued to operate its flights to the affected country without pause.  But now, after the Marriott hotel bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan, BA has cancelled its six flights a week to Islamabad (the only city it serves in Pakistan).  In a statement, the airline said 'In light of the security situation in Pakistan, British Airways has cancelled its flights from Islamabad to Heathrow indefinitely.  The safety and security of our customers, our staff and our operation is always our absolute priority.'

So how is it safe to operate flights to London, to New York, to Madrid, to Delhi, and so on around the rest of the world, terrorist bombings notwithstanding, but no longer safe to fly to Pakistan?

Incendiary wheelchairs?  Here's a story of a wheelchair that burst into flames seconds after being removed from an airplane hold.

It is a while since I last saw one of these stories, but they do occur with painful regularity.  This time it is about a passenger who confused Sydney with Sydney.  As in, of course, Australia and Nova Scotia.

I mentioned in my opening fundraising commentary about the need to spend money buying new items to review and report on.  I've written about travel clothing before, and now find this article about a wool suit designed to be worn (cleaned?) in the shower.  Definitely sounds like something I'll have to try.

And so, whether you wish to 'earmark' your contribution as going towards a shower suit or not, may I close as I opened, with a polite plea to consider helping The Travel Insider.  Thank you.

There's another item I think I might have to test as well.  I received a pr piece this week from the makers of the Wordlock TSA approved combination lock.  Its 'gimmick' is that instead of setting a numeric combination, you set a word as well, with the claim being that it is easier to remember a word than a number.

What intrigued me and makes me want to test one is their proud claim that the letters are laid out in such a pattern that 'no bad words are possible'.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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