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Friday 10 October, 2008  

Good morning

Our 2008 Fundraising now has 628 readers who have responded with generous contributions.  That is 22 short of our goal of 650, but I've got 12 unopened letters here, and perhaps there is one or two more 'checks in the mail' (indeed, I know there's one currently on its way from Bangkok) or other contributions pending, so we're within a hair's breadth of reaching our target.  Thank you to everyone who helped.

Just because this marks the end of the official fund raising doesn't mean you can't still contribute - reader Fred rushed in a massive contribution on Thursday saying 'I thought I better quickly send this in before you closed off your fundraising for the year'.  The fundraising link - at the top of every newsletter and repeated here - works all year around and of course your help is appreciated, no matter when or in what form it takes.

It would be wrong to single out anyone for special thanks, because so many of you have helped, and similarly it is wrong to equate the simple measure of the money contributed with the measure of support (and sometimes even sacrifice) that it represents, but there are a couple of comments I'd like to make.  Firstly, the most generous country in the world seems to be either the UAE or Australia - I don't really know how many readers live in each different country, because an email address like yahoo or hotmail or any generic .com can end up anywhere in the world, but my sense is that, as a percentage of readers, either the UAE or Australia showed the greatest number of readers contributing.

As a New Zealander, I'm somewhat flummoxed by the generosity of the Australians, and promise in return to go easy on sheep jokes for the next twelve months.

Secondly, there is one particular group of readers who are worthy of very special note.  My first ever Travel Insider tour was a lovely tour to Scotland, in 2004.  In addition to myself, Joe Brancatelli, and his wife, there was a very small group of nine readers who bravely chose to join me for this inaugural Travel Insider tour.  I lost money on the tour, because I was hoping for a larger number of people to join me, but while I lost money on the tour, the tour members have been generously rewarding me every year since then, without fail (and coming on other tours, too).  This year saw an extraordinary effort - these nine people between them contributed 10% of the entire money raised during the fundraising drive.  Thank you so much for making the Scotland tour such a pleasant experience and for ensuring its memory lives on so happily in the years that have subsequently passed.

But - don't panic.  Just because you come on a tour with me doesn't mean you should feel obligated to subsequently make massive contributions to each year's fundraising!  There are still some spaces remaining for this year's Christmas Markets cruise, with its incredible $500 per person discounts still available too.  The Euro is now down to only $1.36, after having been grazing $1.60 only a few months earlier, and the lowest it has been in 13 months.  A great deal on the cruise and the plunging Euro (well, actually, it is a soaring dollar rather than plunging Euro) make this year's Christmas Markets cruise the best value ever.

In an effort to reward those of you who have contributed, and as a means to perhaps get those last ten contributions, I have a twist on this week's review.  As I've been hinting for the last couple of weeks, I'm very excited to be able to review a GPS unit that I view as a revolutionary game changing device that will redefine our expectations of what we expect in GPS units.  Best of all, not only is it clearly the best GPS out there for most people and most requirements, it is also one of the most affordable.

It is $299 at Amazon or various other places, but I know of the only one place that is selling it for $100 less - you can't even find this place on Google.  I know and respect the company selling the units and understand, from talking to its CEO, why and how it is doing this.  He was the person who arranged a sample unit available to me at his cost price (which is not much less than the $199 he sells them for) and will unofficially not question too closely your eligibility for this exclusive price if you buy one from his fine company.

To get this GPS for $199 rather than $299, all I ask is that you have contributed at least $10 to The Travel Insider any time in 2008.  If you have, email me and I'll tell you where and how to buy the unit at $199.  And if you haven't yet, then please contribute $10 (or more!) now and I'll be pleased to pass the information on to you, too.  A $10 contribution for a $100 saving?  That's the best deal you'll find this week!  And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  The Dash Express GPS :  This unit combines good GPS capabilities with interactive data communications and an open architecture operating system, allowing for literally hundreds of helpful and innovative extra applications to be run on the unit, and making its routing and traffic awareness 'best of breed'.  If you haven't yet got a GPS, this is your best choice, and if you already do have a GPS, perhaps this will encourage you to upgrade your older 'dumb' GPS for this new 'intelligent and interactive' unit.

Dinosaur watching :  The incredible shrinking airlines, continued :  More airlines are reporting their September domestic traffic.  American Airlines showed a 9.1% drop in revenue passenger miles, while its American Eagle subsidiary had a 17.2% drop in RPMs.  United was down 9.3%, and Northwest was down 14.1%.

By contrast, AirTran was down by only 2%, and Delta and US Airways were both more or less at the same level as last year, with mere 0.8% drops.

In all cases, load factors also dropped, making planes slightly less full than this time last year, but even so, your chance of getting an empty seat beside you remains very low on most flights.

International numbers didn't drop as much as domestic.  BA also reported September traffic, and provided data for both total traffic (a 4.8% drop) and its premium cabin traffic, which dropped a much larger 8.6%, which bodes ill for BA and other airlines.

It goes without saying that the financial collapse that is occurring around us will impact on air (and all other forms of) travel, and several readers have appraised me of their new much more restrictive travel policies hastily put in place.  I'm within an iota of feeling sorry for the airlines - just as their fuel cost crisis eases, they find themselves facing a crisis entirely not of their making.

From the point of view of those of us who do continue to travel, this is likely to result in marked improvements in our air travel experiences.  Less congested airports and airways will cut down on delays and improve system reliability.  Airplanes will become somewhat less full, but I don't think we'll ever see a return to the days when airlines were pleased (and breaking even) at 60% load factors.  And - fingers crossed - with dropping fuel prices, and massive cost cutting having taken place in all other parts of the airlines' operations, but with an easing of passenger numbers, perhaps we can look to see an increased frequency of airfare specials.

Maybe we'll even see some cuts in the fuel surcharge costs.  While many airlines are doing nothing (oil prices are currently down below $88, more than 40% down from their high of almost $150 just a couple of months ago), some are reducing their surcharges.  Thai Airways is dropping its surcharges by up to 30%.  Qantas is dropping its surcharges too, but by a miserly 7% to 9% on international flights and by 2% to 3% on domestic flights. This is particularly strange, because typically an airplane burns more fuel per mile on a short (domestic) flight than on a long (international) flight.

And while some airlines are reducing their fuel surcharges, other airlines are reporting losses due to the price of fuel going down.  To put that more sensibly, they hedged badly and locked in fuel prices that are now higher than spot market prices.  In particular Alaska Airlines said it would suffer a $220 million loss in the third quarter resulting from its fuel hedges.

And while some airlines are reducing their fuel surcharges, there's also the noted airline maverick (hmmm, seem to be hearing that word a lot lately.....) Ryanair which never added a fuel surcharge to its fares, and which is now stridently taunting other airlines, challenging them to reduce their fuel surcharges.

But don't go thinking that Ryanair is 'on your side'.  They mightn't be adding a fuel surcharge, but that's about the only thing they don't charge you extra for.  Ryanair says it will keep raising baggage fees until 75% of its passengers carry hand luggage only.  The airline currently charges £12 each way for passengers checking-in luggage - £8 for the bag and £4 for checking-in.  Mind you, an £8 charge (about $13.50) seems pretty moderate compared to the $25+ charges most US airlines are levying.

Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary said that the airline had a 20% increase in passenger numbers during September, so plainly something is working for them.  Customer relations, however, is not one of their strong points, and this next item points to a fascinating business opportunity that perhaps might be available to an entrepreneur in the US as well.

There's a Dutch company that specializes in launching actions against airlines when they lie to their passengers, claiming that flight delays were caused by weather or technical problems.

Under current EU rules, airlines must pay passengers compensation of up to about $1000 each for most flight delays and cancelations, except those caused by weather or technical problems.  The company said in most cases airlines will reject claims made by individual passengers saying extraordinary (ie weather or technical) circumstances were the cause of the delay or cancellation.  However, this company specializes in analyzing flight and weather data, and says that in most cases the airlines' claim about extraordinary circumstances is not true.

The company is now filing a type of class action against Ryanair for refusing to compensate its passengers in such cases.  In response to the suit Ryanair said 'Ryanair customer service only deals with passenger complaints made directly by passengers in writing.  We will never deal with greedy, ambulance chasing, organizations who promote a compensation culture where people claim for anything and everything.'

Amazing how an airline can attempt to seize the moral high ground even though it appears that the airline is lying to its passengers and then refusing to make good on its legal obligations.

Talking about flight delays, how nice to have a reader write in with a positive story about a flight delay.  Reader (and supporter) Richard writes

Last week I flew to Columbus from Phila. on Southwest to visit my newly moved daughter and her family.  When it was time to return to PHL the weather was quite poor on the east coast so we were ground held for almost five hours. In the waiting area the airline put out sodas and water and snacks, a gate agent served fresh brewed coffee and they turned up the volume on the HD tv's.

In contrast, US Air simply cancelled its flights.

PS :  I almost forgot, Southwest also comped the drinks on the plane.

Also about Southwest, the airline takes another step towards seeking to become more business friendly by trialing Wi-Fi on four planes during the fourth quarter of the year.  The Wi-Fi will be free during the testing period, but if it is introduced formally, Southwest will almost certainly charge for it.

New low cost airline Virgin America is trying some innovative new things.  Fully refundable fares (remember the 'good old days' when almost all fares were fully refundable?).  Transferable tickets - you can give your ticket to someone else and change the name on it.  And changes and cancellations without a fee.

They're also introducing a sort of business class called 'Main Cabin Select' with more legroom, priority check-in, and priority boarding, and free food and beverages.

This is an airline we all need to support if at all possible.  And, having apparently just secured a massive loan from the UK Virgin Group, it seems it has enough funding to stay flying for some time to come.  The airline says it should be profitable by the second half of 2009.

Another relatively new startup is the airline Openskies that flies between New York and Paris, and from 15 October, also between New York and Amsterdam.  Its claim to fame is that it operates planes with only business and premium economy type seating, but at massively lower fares than you'd usually pay for such premium service.  Being as how it is owned by BA, it has the deep pockets (and safety from killing competition) to give it a good chance of surviving.

I'll be test flying the airline next week, but wanted to quickly tell you now about a short term special it is offering - $499/$599 fares (each way) for travel in their premium economy class between New York and either Amsterdam or Paris.  Details here, and if you end up on the 15 October flight to Amsterdam, or the 17 October flight back, be sure to say hello.

Long time readers know that one of my favorite airlines is Qantas, and who doesn't know the boast, made famous in the Rainman movie, about Qantas never having lost a passenger (in a jet plane)?  But Qantas' extraordinary safety record has been taking a series of knocks recently, with embarrassing problem after problem occurring with way too much frequency.  Its most recent incident, earlier this week, was a plane that suddenly plunged down from level flight into rapid descent, injuring 70 people on board - 14 - 20 (depending on which report you read) of them seriously.

But, Qantas actually earns itself a 'well done' for the classy way it handled the problem.  As this article reports, it is refunding every passenger on board the flight, and giving them also vouchers for a free future trip between Australia and London.

There had been a brief bit of speculation that the sudden problem in the plane's autopilot might have been caused by interference by some sort of passenger electronic device, but that has now been discounted.  Qantas has always been obsessive about electronic devices potentially interfering with its planes, to the ridiculous point that on one flight in the mid 1990s, I was forbidden to play CDs on an old-fashioned portable CD player (remember them?) due to it allegedly being able to interfere with the plane's electronics.

Talking about electronics, I mentioned a couple of weeks ago about the new Google cell phone and predicted it would be sold out before even appearing in stores.  Since that time T-Mobile has tripled its initial order of phones, and has pre-sold all of them, three weeks prior to its release on 22 October.  I hope you managed to pre-order one if you want one, otherwise, you'll be waiting until who knows when to get your hands on one.

But maybe waiting is not a bad idea, either.  T-Mobile's current exclusive on the Google based cell phone (its version is made by HTC) is likely to be a very short lived thing, unlike AT&T's multi-year exclusivity with the Apple iPhone.  Motorola is rumored to be developing a Google phone too, although with Motorola's lumpy track record of new phone releases, it is hard to guess as to whether their phone will be either a massive winner (like the Razr was when it came out) or a massive loser (like so many of their other phones have been).

Other handset makers are also developing phones based on the Google Android phone software, so before too long T-Mobile's G1 phone will be competing alongside other phones and offered by other wireless companies.

For that reason, how amazingly short sighted of T-Mobile to be squandering their 'first to market' lead.  With the only Google phone in town, but with demand way exceeding their minimal quantities ordered, and by restricting the first tranche of phones only to existing subscribers, they're turning their back on the opportunity to sign up hundreds of thousands of new customers onto new two year plans.  They could have, in a single move, materially increased their market share, but instead they appear to be minimizing their new product advantage every which way.

This week's big lie can be seen in this article about the most expensive hotel room (well, actually, suite) in New York City.  The 4300 sq ft suite at the Four Seasons costs $34,000 a night, but is only rented about once a month.

The hotel says that it is pleased it doesn't rent the suite more frequently, because 'It's not the type of suite we're looking to rent with tremendous frequency because it's so perishable.  The materials, fabrics, everything are just so fine.'

Yeah, sure, right.  They'd have us believe they'd rather leave the suite empty than pocket, say, another $100,000 for one more three day rental?  News flash to the hotel :  With the sort of money you're charging, you could completely refurnish the suite every month if you felt the need.

And news flash to the website breathlessly running the article.  $34,000 a night is nothing exciting.  Think of the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi if you want to truly define the concept of expensive.  The hotel, operated by Kempinski, is offering a special one week package for $1 million that includes two first-class tickets to Abu Dhabi and the three bedroomed Palace Suite at the hotel.  You also get thrown in for good measure provisions for a private jet to visit Iran to choose a hand-woven Persian carpet, Bahrain to dive for pearls and the Dead Sea for health treatments. You would also have your own golf course, free designer perfume, a personal butler and a complimentary shotgun.

It isn't clear what the free shotgun is for (the mind boggles), but free is free after all, right?

Talking about hotels, I found an interesting statistic about the impact of the Olympics on hotels in Beijing.  Comparing occupancy levels and room rates for August this year (ie the Olympics) and August last year, the room rates soared from an average $104 a night to an outrageous $403 a night, but occupancy levels dropped from 71% to 60%.

I wish I could say that either statistic surprised me.  This seems a typical circumstance of every Olympics everywhere.  Hotels get super-greedy, but when the Olympics actually arrive, most hotels find themselves with empty rooms unsold.

I wrote about ten uses for a camera phone (or any other digital camera) last week.  Reader (and supporter) Warren writes with another good tip :

I rented a car from an off-site Dollar rental place at Oakland, which was located at a hotel. The guys seemed a little sleazy, so my flags were raised.

I decided to take pictures with my iPhone all around the car.

Two days later I returned it, and low and behold, they found a hole in the right rear light mechanism. It was right in the middle of the clear part so it did not stand out. They said it wasn’t there when I rented it.

So I went to my iPhone pictures and looked. Sure enough, it was there.

I know this is a scam. I don’t know how many people paid for that “broken” light, but I didn’t have to. I really recommend everyone take a moment and take half a dozen pictures of the car before they take off. It might just keep you from getting ripped off!

Reader (and supporter) Michael writes in with more suggestions :

Cell phones are with one more often, but when traveling (especially as a tourist) a digital camera is usually handy and takes better pictures.

Use it for all sorts of visual records and notes, like pictures of Train Schedule boards, parts of a newspaper you want to reference later (such as show schedules), bus stop routes and schedules near your hotel (on signs at bus stops), copies of important docs like passports and tickets, maps, and so on.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  It gives a feeling of déjà vu to read this story about how the Maryland State Police added the names of 53 nonviolent activists - opponents of the death penalty and the Iraqi war - onto state and federal databases of terrorists.

One of the concerns, dating back to previous abuses of such powers, has been that anti-terrorist laws would be used against people who are in no way terrorists.  Alas, here is an example of this very thing.

Two new methods of spotting terrorists - behavior detection and data mining - are of dubious scientific worth and have 'enormous potential' for infringing on law-abiding Americans' privacy, according to a consortium of scientists and reported in this article.

When viewed through the lens of the previous example of abusing new powers, and when it seems the actual techniques are of minimal benefit, should we really be doing these things?

There've been some strange goings on recently.  A passenger bound the hands of the girl seated next to him on a flight - how did he manage to do this and get away with it?  Another passenger, angry at delays, threw foot powder at his fellow passengers - should we anticipate limits on powders as well as liquids now being imposed on us.  And some naughty pilots posted video evidence of their breaches of 'sterile cockpit' procedures (nothing to do with foot powder' on YouTube.

On a lighter note, here's a passenger just asking for trouble.

Have you ever sent an email after, ahem, a few drinks and wished you hadn't the next morning?  Well, help may be at hand for you, if you use Google's gmail.

Thanks to reader (and supporter) Duncan for this news item that shows the lighter side of the worrying news that currently assails us :

Following the problems in the sub-prime lending market in America and the run on Northern Rock in the UK, uncertainty has now hit Japan.

In the past 7 days Origami Bank has folded, Sumo Bank has gone belly up and Bonsai Bank announced plans to cut some of its branches.  Yesterday, it was announced that Karaoke Bank is up for sale and will likely go for a song, whilst today shares in Kamikaze Bank were suspended after they nose-dived.

While Samurai Bank are soldiering on following sharp cutbacks, Ninja Bank are reported to have taken a hit, but they remain in the black.  Furthermore, 500 staff at Karate Bank got the chop and analysts report that there is something fishy going on at Sushi Bank, where it is feared that staff may get a raw deal.

So, here I am, it is the wrong side of 3am yet again, and I've finished my first draft of the newsletter.  Do I really feel like doing a fine proof-read and edit before sending it off to you?  And, even if I did, am I likely to spot the occasional subtle mistake that is probably present?

Perhaps it is a similar sort of 2am syndrome that has caused writers to create the following newspaper headlines?

Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says
No, really? Ya think?

Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
Now that's taking things a bit far!

Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over
What a guy!

Miners Refuse to Work after Death
No-good-for-nothing' lazy so-and-so's!

Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
See if that works any better than a fair trial!

War Dims Hope for Peace
I can see where it might have that effect!

If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile
Ya think?!

Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures
Who would have thought!

Enfield ( London ) Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide
They may be on to something!

Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges
You mean there's something stronger than duct tape?

Man Struck By Lightning: Faces Battery Charge
He probably IS the battery charge!

New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
Weren't they fat enough?!

Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft
That's what he gets for eating those beans!

Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
Do they taste like chicken?

Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
Chainsaw Massacre all over again!

Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors
Boy, are they tall!

And the winner is....

Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead
Did I read that right?

Next week the newsletter will hopefully be coming to you from Amsterdam.

I'm making a quick 24 hour trip to Amsterdam so as to review the new airline OpenSkies, with my time in Amsterdam being exclusively spent working on the newsletter - indeed, I've chosen to stay at an airport hotel and won't even go into the city itself.  The sending time might be a bit early or late, but hopefully you'll get it sort of normally on Friday morning.

And lastly, one more round of thanks to the 640 readers who have contributed.  If you'd like to help push us over the top to 650, that would be lovely.  Thank you.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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