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Friday 27 February, 2009
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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