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Friday 20 February, 2009  

Good morning

'As one door closes, another opens' is the thought I'll seize for this week.  I did not get enough interest for the Russian Rail tour this year, so that is not proceeding.

But, when faced with the possibility of no Travel Insider touring all the way through until December and this year's Christmas Markets cruise, I went looking for something good to tempt me, and you too.  I hope you'll agree I've managed to 'pull a rabbit out of a hat' and created a compelling travel opportunity for us all.

Although financial worries are unavoidably at the back of all our minds at present, we also should be sensitive to the fact that we're currently enjoying what I call the 'perfect storm' of travel values.  Air fare bargains keep on appearing, the dollar is incredibly strong, making international travel better value than it has been for many years, and there are some amazing bargains that can be secured if you're the right person in the right place at the right time.

I've found one such bargain, and we've an opportunity to be in the right place at the right time, and to benefit massively from this.  A large group cancelled off one of Amawaterways cruises, leaving them with an unexpected hole in their bookings, and so I've offered to help them fill that hole.

I should tell you that I found this only while looking for a summer cruise for myself.  I found a cruise I wanted, then noticed that it was showing as unusually wide open with only a few cabins sold, even though other cruises on the same itinerary, shortly before and after this one, have already been completely sold out.  This anomaly was due to the big group cancellation.

My point is that this isn't a bad cruise at a bad time of year.  It is a great cruise at a great time of year; indeed, it is a cruise I'm going to go and do myself, even if I go alone, because it is one I've long wanted to experience and enjoy.  Happily, someone else's misfortune now translates to our opportunity, and we're able to take this cruise at an incredible deal.

This is a one week cruise along the Mosel and Rhine rivers, from Trier to Nuremberg in Germany.  A Paris option before the cruise and a Prague option after the cruise are offered by Amawaterways, and you can of course add anything else you might wish, that you arrange on your own as well.  I expect to make my own arrangements prior to the cruise, and then to use the Amawaterways tour/transfer from Paris to Trier as an easy/convenient way to join the boat from a major convenient city to get to.

The cruise is in late June/early July, giving the best combination of warm weather and long hours of daylight, after schools are out for you teachers, but before the crippling crushes of travelers later in July and August.  I've done a lot of European river cruising, but usually in late fall or winter; it will be a nice change to be cruising in June/July, and to have the floor to ceiling door/windows wide open and the warm fresh air flooding in to the cabin.

Oh - the special deal!  How about a chance to save $800 (or more) off the published cruise price?  Is that special enough for you?  The published brochure rate on this cruise starts at $2299 per person.  Your price - $1499 per person, and only/exclusively available through The Travel Insider.  This is for an E category cabin, and port taxes, as always, are extra ($98).  Bigger savings are offered on cabin upgrades, and if you've traveled with Amadeus/Amawaterways before, you'll get a further $100 per person discount for being a return passenger.

And so :

This Week's Feature Column :  Europe's Heartland Cruise :  Please join me on a special Travel Insider group cruise/tour along the beautiful Mosel and Rhine rivers in Germany, this June/July.

If you've already cruised this part of Europe's waterways, check out the 68 other cruises that currently (until 15 March) have special $500 discounts offered.  There's a cruise for everyone on such a long list of deals!  And, of course, please don't forget our most popular of all cruises, the wonderful Christmas Markets cruise.

Dinosaur watching :  Here's another reason why airlines should be profitable.  They continue to let go staff, making them more efficient.  In the 12 months between December 07 and December 08, the US airlines gave up 28,000 jobs, reducing 6.6% from 420,000 jobs to 392,000 jobs.

But although airlines in general have been laying off staff - and so too have many other companies - apparently this is not the case for Sir Richard Branson's airlines.  In this article (and many others) he was quoted as boasting in his usual manner about how his companies were looking to hire more staff.  Apparently he said in a blog post 'We have roles in offices, on shop floors, in call centres, gyms, on trains and planes, in resorts and across different geographies.  From customer service to finance to product development to sales ... and much more.'

So how to reconcile that statement with the news, only two days later, that his flagship airline, Virgin Atlantic, will be laying off 600 people, about 6% of the company's total workforce?

In related Virgin news, here in the US one of Virgin America's (VX) major competitors is Alaska Airlines (AS).  The new low fares between Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle - AS's major market - must be terribly hurting AS.  And so AS has decided to play the 'They're not really a US carrier and shouldn't be allowed to operate' card yet again.

This strategy, which seemed at the time to have a measure of underlying truth to it, had earlier delayed VX's launch, and required a rejig of its management structure.  But the issues were addressed, resolved, and accepted by the DoT.

Does AS really have a bona fide reason to complain, or is it desperately clutching at straws?  My hope is the latter, because the new presence of VX has done great things for the cost of travel up and down the west coast.

Talking about losing jobs, Jetblue has come up with an interesting twist.  If you buy a Jetblue ticket prior to June 1, and lose your job between buying the ticket and traveling, you can request a refund, even on non-refundable tickets.

Quick question - so you're in a plane that is about to depart.  Should you turn your cell phone off, or leave it on?

The right answer is you should turn it off.  But apparently not all pilots understand this.  Apparently an FAA inspector was on a flight when the pilot's phone started ringing during take-off, and so the FAA has sent an advisory to pilots reminding them of the need to turn their phones off prior to departure.

I know pilots who have confessed to making calls from the cockpit during the later parts of a flight when the plane is low enough for cell phones to work.  I wonder if this FAA advisory will change their habits?

This Week's Security Horror Story :  In a cartoon, you know when there's a bomb in the scene, because it likely has a label attached to it that reads 'Bomb'.  Apparently the US authorities assume a similar logic applies to terrorists - ie, helpfully labeling their bombs prominently.

Before continuing this story, you should be aware that there is some sort of punk/rock/folk music band in Florida with surely one of the most ridiculous names ever given a pop group - 'This Bike is a Pipe Bomb'.  And, as an act of self promotion, they give away stickers with their band name on them, and hope people will place the stickers in prominent visible places.

Do you see where this is leading?  Earlier this week, a cyclist in Memphis TN cycled out to the airport, leaving his bike parked by the Terminal C building.  He had one such sticker on this bike.

This was spotted by an airport policeman, and caused the ticketing and baggage claim areas of the building to be evacuated, and traffic to be rerouted away from the terminal until the bike was deemed to not be a threat.

The bike's owner was - of course - taken into custody, and threatened with being charged for committing various federal offences.  But it now appears the cyclist has been released from custody with no charges being filed.

Interestingly, there have been at least four similar situations around the country in the last eight years.

It is hard to know how to respond when finding an unattended bike complete with a sticker that seems to say the bike is a bomb (bikes do have pipes, of course, so in theory could be bombs).  But, once the bike was found not to be a bomb, and after all of five seconds to type 'This Bike is a Pipe Bomb' into Google to confirm that it is the name of a 13 year old band from Pensacola, FL, was it really necessary to keep the cyclist in custody and threaten him with life-changing federal offenses?

There's a possible picture of the sticker here.

Meanwhile, this isn't the only vehicle-mounted sign that is getting the vehicle's owner in trouble.  I'm not sure I've heard of any of the many people with anti-Bush/Cheney signs on their vehicles ever getting into trouble the last eight years, but in Oklahoma City on Thursday, police pulled over a driver who had an anti-Obama bumper sticker on his vehicle.  The Secret Service subsequently visited the man and 'walked through' his house.  Details here.

You might think it almost seven years overdue, but the TSA has decided to train its staff in how to be polite.  I'm sure the 80 year old grandmother will appreciate the politeness of the TSA people who crowd around her while at the same time, and also politely, waving on through Arab males in their 20s.

Some people don't like them, but they really are the most useful advance in security screening since the initial deployment of metal detectors, decades ago.  The new body scanning machines that are being slowly deployed around the US have an enormous advantage over metal detectors - they sort of see through clothing and detect anything and everything, including non-metallic threats such as plastic explosives.  They also make one's body outlines and, ahem, protrudences, somewhat obvious.

But, don't worry, the image will only be viewed by a highly trained and polite professional.

Welcome to Britain?  Visitors to Britain all like to photograph the same things.  A red phone box.  A black cab.  Big Ben.  And a British bobby, preferably with the traditional helmet.  As of Monday this week, you might be breaking the law if you now take a picture of a policeman in Britain.  A new anti-terrorism law effectively bans people from taking pictures of police and military personnel.

What's next?  Policemen in masks?  Oh, wait....

One of the world's truly greatest ever planes is the humble unassuming Douglas DC3.  First flown in 1935, more than 12,700 were built by the end of WW2.  At least 400 are still flying.

The plane was - almost literally - close to bullet proof.  During WW2, a DC3 was peppered with 3,000 bullets in the wings and fuselage by Japanese fighters.  It made it back to base, was repaired with nothing more than canvas patches and glue and sent back into the air without further ado.

The plane was easy to fly, and very survivable, being the first plane designed to operate safely on only one engine.  It has carried more passengers than any other plane, ever - indeed, for a while, over 90% of all air traffic in the world was using DC3 planes.

But now, after 73 years, it appears we've all been mistaken in our love for and veneration of this wonderful airplane.  New Health and Safety rules in the EU have deemed the DC3, as it currently is, to be unsafe.  These new rules require all remaining DC3s to be retrofitted with emergency escape slides and weather radar systems - expensive devices that are forcing most European DC3 operators to simply give up flying them.

DC3s have been flying perfectly well without state of the art weather radar systems; indeed for much of their lives, they're relied on nothing more sophisticated than the 'Mark 1 Eyeball'.  And as for emergency escape slides, what sort of plane do the regulators think the DC3 is?  If a DC3 needs to be urgently evacuated, that's no big deal.  Open the doors and simply jump out.  No slide needed.

Does this selective over-regulation really make us any safer?

Twitter followers also got commentary this week ranging from a long overdue move to give all cell phones the same universally compatible recharger sockets to an amazing example of how airport runways used to be planned, in massive contrast to the decades of time and legions of attorneys it requires these days, and various other items hopefully also of interest.  And, of course, the video of the woman who missed her flight.

Lastly this week, an assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University has found that buying 'experiences', such as vacations, give people more happiness than buying material things.

He studied 154 people ages 19 to 50 and found that experiences increased happiness because they are often social in nature and tend to make people feel more alive and they are left with positive memories, a sort of return on their investment. The study came up with this conclusion 'For whatever you can afford, you'll maximize your happiness, and the happiness of others around you, if you spend it on a life experience. It doesn't matter how much money you spend either. Whether you spend a little or a lot on the life experience, you still have the same level of happiness.'

The study was presented at an annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and will be published later this year in the Journal of Positive Psychology.  So, you've heard the professor.  Choose to come with some fellow Travel Insiders on our June/July Europe's Heartland cruise - it will be good for you.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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