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Friday 27 February, 2009  

Good morning

Our June/July river cruise along Germany's Mosel and Rhine rivers is continuing to prove as popular as it deservedly should be.

We now have a wonderful mix of people signed up for the cruise, ranging from first time participants to people who'll be taking their fourth Travel Insider tour.  This gives the tour a feeling of 'community' with some people meeting friends from previous tours again, while the balance between new tour members and previous tour returnees means the group dynamic is open, inclusionary and welcoming.

The positive nature of the group dynamic is one of the best parts of a Travel Insider tour, and tour participant Billie Jo says

The only thing holding me back was that I did this Rhine Cruise last Spring.  But it will of course be much more fun with a “Travel Insider” group.

I'm doubly pleased that Billie Jo is joining us again, because when I mentioned that to another potential tour member, this made her decide, on the spot, to confirm her own participation in the group.

So, why not consider joining us on this lovely cruise through a beautiful part of Europe, at a great time of year, and at a wonderful price/value.  This is an all-inclusive cruise, with so much included for free (my favorite four letter word beginning with 'f'!), including such things as :

  • Free internet access and computer terminal in your cabin

  • Free cycle hire to go off ship and cycle around the places we visit

  • Free gourmet espresso type coffee

  • Free wine and beer (and in unlimited/generous quantity) with every dinner

  • Free bottled water in your cabin, replenished daily

  • Free shore touring along the cruise

  • Free shipboard entertainment and activities and exercise room/equipment

  • Free Travel Insider exclusive cocktail parties on board

You'll save up to $900 off Amawaterways' regular brochure prices on this lovely cruise.  Plus with a strong dollar at present, and airfare deals now starting to pop up too (like this one from Continental) it all adds up to a wonderful experience and a tremendous value.

There are already 13 of us who will be enjoying this wonderful cruise.  Why not come too, and help us move from an 'unlucky 13' to a lucky 14 or 15 (or more) people!

Talking about flying long distances, those of us who are stuck in coach class know all too well how difficult it is to get comfortable and to sleep well.  Some years ago I reviewed an excellent product that makes a coach class seat about as comfortable as it ever can be (the First Class Sleeper) but my quest for making a silk purse out of a sow's ear (or, in this case, trying to get comfortable in a too small coach class seat) continues unabated.

I believe I've found another interesting and effective product, and a couple of readers have already tried this new item and reported back positively on it as well.  So, for this week :

This Week's Feature Column :  TravelRest Travel Pillow :  It is strangely shaped and very different to a typical around-the-neck cushion.  But its truly innovative design adds to the comfort and efficaciousness of this new way of trying to sleep comfortably in coach class.  It costs less than $30, packs down to a small size, and is light weight.  Recommended.

A few years ago I started a series of carry-on luggage reviews, and a very helpful/interesting part of the series was a page of comments from you about your own experiences with carry-on luggage.

I'm now repeating the process, this time for the larger, checked bags - ie mainly wheeled suitcases, but also anything/everything else - and I wonder if I can again ask you for any comments, opinions, experiences, etc, that you might have about checked luggage - what to look for, what to buy, good and bad experiences, problems, and so on, that you may have encountered over the years.

Have you chosen to go 'up market' and get long lasting high quality bags, or down-market and get low priced suitcases that you simply replace every year or two?

Any and all thoughts you have will help improve our collective understanding and wisdom on this important travel essential.  Please send me any comments/suggestions you might have.  Thank you.

Dinosaur watching :  A bridge too far?  US Airways has backed down from charging for beverages on its domestic flights.  This was a rare example of where the other dinosaurs didn't immediately copy US Airways' decision to charge for any type of drink at all, and the airline now unabashedly admits that their policy placed them at a competitive disadvantage.  However, it adds that it remains committed to its 'a la carte' pricing strategy (ie nothing included in the price of the ticket), while conceding that this is a work in progress.

In related US Airways news, it has announced further cuts in its services to/from Las Vegas, a destination that relies on airlines to bring it business, and which is suffering major drops in visitor numbers.  It will be operating only about half the flights to/from Vegas this summer that it did last year.

But, say one thing for Vegas.  When times get tough, Vegas hotels don't hesitate to drop their rates to try and bring in more guests.  Some hotels in some cities like to pretend that they aren't desperate, and talk in fancy marketing-nonsense terms about the need to preserve their rate structure, apparently believing it better to be charging high rates but selling no room nights, instead of offering low rates and filling their hotel.

I'm off to Vegas for two nights on Monday, and so was looking at hotel rates.  The lowest rate I found in a quick scan was $12/night, which is less than it costs the hotel to service the room.  Clearly they're hoping for some extra income from food, drinks, and - of course - gambling.

I chose to stay at the Sahara, where I'm paying $22/night - oh, plus a $6/night 'resort fee' that allows me to make free phone calls, but only to local numbers and (800) numbers.  How wonderful is that!

Another interesting twist - although non-smoking rooms are cheaper for a hotel to offer than smoking rooms (less cleaning costs and longer life of room furnishings), the Sahara charges extra for a non-smoking room.

I chose the Sahara not only because it is very cheap and I'm only there for two nights, but also because it is right on the monorail line, making it easy and quick to travel between the hotel and the Convention Center.  That's a great extra plus, and if you're going to Vegas to attend an event at the Convention Center, you'd be well advised to consider hotels close to the monorail stops too.  Monorail details and route map here.

There's probably not been a better time to visit Vegas in a long time, and if you can find a sweet airfare deal to make the getting there easier, I'm sure the hotels and casinos would love to see you.

Southwest Airlines isn't really planning on adding to its overall capacity this year - it actually says it will reduce capacity by 4%, but at the same time, it is adding another major airport to its route system - Boston.  Southwest plans to start service later this year, initially with two gates, which would be enough to operate as many as 20 flights if it chose to.

The extra flight to/from Boston will be compensated for by reductions in other flights elsewhere on Southwest's network, or, to use the politely ambiguous phrase adopted by their CEO,. by 'optimizing its current flight schedule'.

While there's probably no-one who is sad to see Boston added to Southwest's network (except for dinosaurs with service in/out of Boston), this marks yet another step back from the airlines' earlier business model of concentrating its flights on secondary airports, and leaving the major airports alone.  As a residual memory of that earlier concept, Southwest currently offers service to nearby airports in Manchester and Providence.

Congratulations to Hawaiian Airlines, for being one of the few airlines to report a profit in 2008, with the airline managing to scrape together a $7.1 million profit for 2008.

There's been much public hysteria at the thought of allowing in-flight cell phone use, with the most recent example being a fear stated by flight attendants that simply allowing in-flight Wi-fi would enable would-be terrorists to coordinate attacks among themselves on a plane and with accomplices on other planes or on the ground.

Other people more mundanely lament the loss of peace and quiet on a plane - a peculiar thing to bemoan, because planes are anything but peaceful and quiet due to the noise of the engines and airflow, with such noise effectively drowning out the speech of passengers more than a row or two away already.

While the debate about cell phone use has been continuing in the US, low-cost European carrier Ryanair has simply pressed ahead and implemented the service, and now has plastered its cabins with posters encouraging people to use their phones on flights.  When asked about this, the airline's very straight-shooting CEO, Michael O'Leary said :

You don't take a flight to contemplate your life in silence.  Our services are not cathedral-like sanctuaries.  We will be encouraging our passengers to make as many calls as possible because that will lower our costs and boost our revenues.

Whether you agree with or are appalled at the thought of being surrounded by fellow passengers babbling nonsense into their cell phones, you have to admire O'Leary's very direct and honest statement.

Ryanair continues to explore the limits of how little service it can offer its passengers.  The latest development is a decision to close all its airport check-in desks, requiring all passengers to check-in online.  Apparently 75% of their passengers check-in online already.

These days the difference between Ryanair and the 'full service' carriers is getting smaller and smaller, but there is one remaining critical difference.  Ryanair provides as few service inclusions as possible, but balances that with rock bottom fares.

Our dinosaur airlines are adopting the first part of the Ryanair business model (no service) but forgot about matching it with the second part.

There are many reasons to refer to what were formerly termed 'full service' carriers and now 'legacy carriers' (as they're more politely termed) as 'dinosaurs', and one is because of the incredibly slow rate at which they negotiate their labor contracts.  The best current example of this is American Airlines and its pilots.

Negotiations on a new contract started 29 months ago, and the pilots claim AA hasn't negotiated at all.  The pilots' union says they've presented a proposal but claim the airline has not made a counter proposal.  As a result, the pilots are theatrically talking about preparing to disrupt operations, while saying this would not be a strike as such.  And, removing any last sting that might be in their threat, they also say they won't do anything until after federal mediators declare that negotiations are at an impasse, and this could take months yet to be decided.

So in actual fact, the reality is the pilots are doing nothing at present, and have no plans to do anything for many more months, other than to bring their battle into the public spotlight.

I wrote a several part series a few weeks ago on how to survive an airplane crash; information which I pointed out most of us will hopefully never need to put into practice.  But there's a piece of much more immediately useful advice that we all should know, but which apparently way too many of us ignore, at their proven peril.

I'm talking about the common sense of keeping your seat belt fastened throughout the flight.  You never know when clear air turbulence or something else may not unexpectedly occur, tossing the plane about violently.

The most recent example of this was a Northwest 747 flight from Manila to Tokyo last week.  Four passengers were hospitalized, including one with a serious neck injury, and 39 other passengers received more minor injuries (plus seven crew members) when the plane encountered severe turbulence not far from Narita.

So, do remember - keep your seat belt fastened when in your seat, even in the calmest of flying conditions.

While most airlines continue to report shrinking passenger numbers, especially among business travelers, we can probably learn more by looking at the exceptions - carriers with growing passenger numbers and study the reasons why they are growing.

One such example is not an airline at all, but a railroad - and I'm not talking Amtrak, even though its 2008 numbers were strongly up on 2007.  I'm thinking of Eurostar's service between Britain and Europe.  They have now resumed full service, five months after a fire in the Channel tunnels that forced a reduction in trains.  Now that the tunnel repairs are all complete, Eurostar has increased their daily services above the levels prior to the fire, and now operate 19 trains to Paris and up to 10 to Brussels every day from London (and the same number in the opposite direction, too, of course).

In total, a million extra seats will be available between now and the end of the year, and Eurostar says it will need them, pointing in particular to a growth in business travelers - quite the opposite of what airlines are encountering.  I wonder why - and note that Eurostar business class fares are far from inexpensive.

There's an interesting article in USA Today about Virgin America trying to raise more funding, amid speculation that some of its current investors may be about to bail out.

It is interesting to see, in the second part of the article, a consensus that Virgin America needs to grow in order to prosper.  I don't disagree with that at all, but am intrigued with how this airline is felt to need to grow in order to prosper, while larger airlines are accepting as conventional wisdom that their only chance of surviving is to shrink.

And while the airline might need to grow, it won't be getting any more planes until 2011.

While most of the focus has been on airline losses of late, other parts of the travel industry have also been hit hard, including the rental car industry.  Hertz has just reported a loss of $1.21 billion for its fourth quarter of 2008 (compared to a $80.7 million profit in 2007).  Their loss was a more moderate $73 million, but perhaps applying the adage 'if you're going to have a bad quarter, make it a really bad one' the added a bunch of one-off charges to bring it to that massive loss.

And showing that internet based businesses are as susceptible to tough trading times as any other businesses, Expedia announced a $2.6 billion loss in its fourth quarter last year.  But their loss includes a $3 billion one time charge.  Without that charge, they'd have made a decent profit.

Now - is it just me, or are companies almost universally eager to make enormous losses at present - perhaps in the hope of getting a place at the begging bowl and benefitting from our government's eagerness to throw money every which where (except to you and me).

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Mule drivers who walk mules that tow a passenger boat at the Hugh Moore Historical Park in Easton, PA have been told by the TSA that they must be subjected to background checks and apply for Transport Worker Identification Credentials.

The two mules never exceed a walking pace, and the in-park canal does not go anywhere near any 'sensitive' facilities.  The terrorist threat potential would seem to be zero.  But the TSA clearly knows best, and we can all feel safer once the mule drivers have complied.

Details here.

Whenever I find myself stuck in line waiting to cross the border between the US and Canada, I find myself wishing that we could emulate Europe's borderless travel, where no more than a signpost on the side of the road tells you about moving from one country to another - sometimes more subtle even than crossing a state line in the US.  Instead, the US is spending I've no idea how many millions or billions to strengthen the border with Canada (personally I'd rather see the money spent on our southern border) and delays going from one country to the other (especially returning from Canada to the US) seem to get steadily longer.

There are another two countries that seem to be simplifying the border crossing arrangements, showing, in a different part of the world, how feasible this can be.  New Zealand and Australia are preparing to drop customs checks on flights between the two countries and treat such flights as domestic flights - a move which, among other things, would reduce the government taxes and fees on tickets by about $65.

Joe writes with an interesting experience that makes him question the wisdom of airlines discouraging passengers from checking luggage :

Last night an unusual thing happened before my regional jet flight from Greensboro to Philadelphia took off.  Apparently responding to the baggage fees, many passengers did not check any bags.  An announcement was made that because of the small number of bags checked, we would be delayed a few minutes while 500 pounds of sandbags were loaded to balance the plane's center of gravity.

Just maybe, if there were no baggage fees, more passengers would have checked bags, and the sand (which, of course, required fuel to be expended to carry it) would not have been needed.

Lastly, please do consider our lovely June/July European river cruise.  I'm putting the Christmas Markets tour on hold while I attempt to renegotiate some things with cruise lines, so there's a chance this upcoming cruise may be the only Travel Insider tour offered this year.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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