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Friday, 26 June, 2009

Good morning

And hello from England, where I'm currently to be found in the tiny little village of Swinbrook, nestled in the beautiful Cotswolds district, not far by road from London, but a world away in terms of lifestyle and environment.  I am putting together an article series on this lovely part of the UK, and hope to have that to offer you in a few weeks time, after I've returned back home after the cruise.

Meantime, this is a short newsletter, and next week we'll have Joe Brancatelli sending you some material from his own newsletter on my behalf, while I'm cruising.

I flew from Seattle to Amsterdam on Northwest on Tuesday, then after a brief layover, flew the rest of the way to Heathrow on a KLM (NW codeshare) flight.  The flight from Seattle was on an A330, and as has always been the case on other international A330 flights with Northwest, was lovely in all respects.  The individual in-flight entertainment systems make a huge difference to helping the time pass easily, and a friendly crew made up for the plane being absolutely totally full.  Both flights left on time and arrived on time, making the experience as close to faultless as an airline can ever get.

But what a shock upon landing at Heathrow.  NW/KL now fly in to Terminal 4, and it was in a disgraceful condition.  Dilapidated, dirty, and decaying.  It was more like a third world country's secondary airport, rather than Britain's flagship airport and gateway to the world.

The rude shock of arriving into Heathrow magnified still further when getting to the Immigration area.  It took over 45 minutes of waiting in line to get my passport stamped.  That is an appalling situation - while it made me feel better at the thought of the downright hostile experience visitors to the US get, the fact remains that waiting almost a full hour just to go through Immigration is totally unacceptable.

Britain and the British should be appalled both at the state of their main airport and at the disgraceful service offered to the country's visitors.

I made a tactical blunder at Hertz, and allowed myself to be talked into accepting a Mini Cooper S as a rental car.  I know a couple of friends with these cars in the US, and they both speak highly of them.  But in reality, it is appallingly cramped - the trunk struggles to fit my one suitcase; my traveling companion's suitcase has to be wedged into the back seat (which is a difficult maneuver due to the car only having two doors.  And - oh, did I say 'back seat'?  Forget trying to have anyone sitting there - there is maybe an inch or two of leg room, even my 4 year old daughter couldn't fit in the back.  The Mini is, in truth, only a two seater.

It is noisy on the road, and gets disappointing fuel mileage (about 27 miles per US gallon), and at nearly $6.50/gallon for gas in the UK, fuel economy is definitely a relevant consideration.  On the other hand, its small size helps on the narrow roads and even narrower car park spaces.

I had booked a nice looking hotel (based on its website) and when I phoned the hotel to make the booking, stressed the need for in-room internet.  I was assured this was available, but upon checking in, discovered that neither the Wi-fi nor the regular wired internet worked.  The hotel manager/owner was less than helpful, and when I explained that the promise of working internet was made when I booked, his response was to telephone to the off-duty receptionist who had made that promise and ask her to come in and resolve the issue herself.  Being as how she was not an internet/computer technician, I had no idea what she would do to assist, and in truth neither did the manager.

So we checked out of the hotel and moved to a new hotel not far away.  Well, it is 'new' in the sense of a historic old building adjoining an existing pub now being converted into six nice hotel rooms.  They too promised internet connectivity, and the internet there also didn't work.  Fortunately their response was more positive, and before too long I was happily wired into the world once more.

I was amused at one thing.  We were told that the hotel was being officially opened on Thursday by the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, and were asked to make ourselves scarce for the 30 minutes of opening ceremony, and not to be in our room either while the Duchess toured the new development.

It struck me as slightly odd that a hotel would exclude its guests from such a function, particularly when it is such a small hotel (and we were the only guests that had yet to stay there), but I laughed at the dysfunctional British snobbishness at work.  A paying hotel guest is of course way down on the social scale, and not suitable to be introduced to nobility.  But I would have thought that an international travel writer - or in this case, two international journalists - might have been people the hotel would have preferred to welcome to participate in the ceremony rather than rudely tell to go away!

As it was, we met the Duchess at breakfast the next morning and had a pleasant chat with her then.

I'm being helped this week by my brother Christopher, who has written the feature article.  Drawing on his own experience of the destination, he has prepared a four part series on Atlantic City.  I was surprised to read it and to learn some of the area's history and of the other things that can be done there in addition to simply gambling, and hopefully you'll find it of interest too.  And so, with full thanks to my brother for helping out :

This Week's Feature Article :  All About Atlantic City :  Many consider it to be nothing other than an inferior imitation of Las Vegas.  But, while it does offer casinos and 'gaming' (the new politically correct term for gambling) there's a lot more to Atlantic City than this.

Dinosaur watching :  There have always been several 'untouchable' things that airlines have been expected to never change in terms of how they do business with their customers, and what they do and don't include in the price of their tickets.

But, over the years, each and every one of these untouchable issues have been touched, and have suffered from the airlines' heavy hand.  We've seen the airlines zero out travel agency commissions - saving them money, but adding to our net cost.  We've seen them eliminate free meals.  No more free baggage.  And so on and so on.

Apart from free use of the toilets on board, there's really only one remaining item which has been free (in the US, airlines in other parts of the world have varied from this) - being able to pay for a booking with a credit card; indeed, with the requirement that we must book tickets online or through a travel agency to avoid paying the airline a booking fee, there's no easy other way to pay for an airline ticket.

And now our ability to use a credit card is being threatened.  United Airlines, in a very curious manner which clearly implies they are 'testing the waters' prior to potentially a wider more general implementation, has told a limited number of travel agencies that, effective 20 July, the agencies will no longer be allowed to accept client credit cards on United's behalf.  Instead, they'll have to charge your credit card directly, then remit the airfare to United via direct bank transfer.

In the past, if you were buying say a $300 airfare on credit card, the travel agency simply passed your credit card details to the airline, and the airline charged your credit card.  The travel agency never charged your credit card themselves.

This also meant, because it was the airline charging your credit card, that it was the airline that absorbed the small cost of using your credit card.  I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing most airlines pay a fee of below 2% to the credit card companies - in other words, the $300 ticket example would see them net about $294 after the credit card company's fee.

But this new arrangement, soon to be introduced by United, would require the travel agency to establish their own independent merchant account with the credit card companies, and also would require the travel agency to somehow absorb the credit card company's fee (which, due to a travel agency's smaller size, is likely to be more than that negotiated by an airline).  In the $300 example, the fee might increase to $9 (ie about 3%), but the airline now expects to get the entire $300 from the travel agency.

Now, let's think about this carefully.  If the travel agency earns no commission from issuing you a ticket, how can they pay for the credit card fee?  Clearly, they can't.  So, guess who will now pay for this?  Yes, you.  So instead of paying $300 and the airline getting $294, now you'll pay $309 (or more) and the airline will get $300.

So United seeks to become a business that not only does not pay other companies to sell/distribute its product, but also seeks to not have to pay the credit card fees associated with selling its products either.  Lucky United.

There's actually more significance to this move than the obvious shift of a $9 cost to you (as part of which the earlier $6 cost now becomes $9).  There is also a massive shift in liability, from the airline to the travel agency, and a major boost to United's cash flow.

What would happen if you bought a United ticket through a travel agency now and United then went bankrupt?  The credit card transaction wasn't with the airline; it was with the travel agency, so you couldn't just ask your credit card issuer to reverse the charge.  Instead, you'd have to ask the travel agency to refund you the money you paid them - but they've already sent the money on to United, within a day or two of receiving it from your original credit card charge.  Where does the travel agency get the money to refund all these tickets?  This new system would see a bankrupt airline in turn bankrupting countless travel agencies too.

Or, say you have a dispute with United about something, or say United is slow to refund a ticket, or anything like that.  At present, you have some limited degree of recourse via disputing the charge with your credit card company.  Now you will have no financial lever at all.

And there's one more subtle implication.  Most airlines do not get immediate access to all their credit card income.  The credit card companies - concerned at their potential exposure if the airline should default - hold back a varying amount of the proceeds, for varying amounts of time - these amounts can quickly exceed hundreds of millions of dollars, which of course is money that the currently cash strapped airlines would much rather immediately receive.  This new arrangement will allow United to immediately get the full cash proceeds of each ticket sale from the travel agency; as for the travel agency, there's a slight chance it might find itself now facing a 'hold back' from the credit card company, and one can only guess at how a travel agency could do business if it has to pay the full proceeds of a ticket sale to the airline, while not getting the full remittance from the credit card company until perhaps 90 days after the credit card charge was made.

All in all, this tentative move by United threatens to completely change how we can buy airline tickets (other than directly through an airline's website), and in the process, these changes will also restrict our options and will necessarily shift these costs and burdens from the airlines to ourselves.

Note also the strange way that United is giving advance notice of a shift in its payment procedures to some but not all travel agencies.  What is that about?  A cynic would suggest this is United 'signaling' to the other airlines, showing them what they plan to do, and encouraging the other airlines to follow.  If the other airlines act similarly, then almost certainly we'll see a complete shift so that all airlines will no longer allow any agencies to accept credit cards on their behalf.  But if the other airlines don't slavishly follow, chances are that United will retreat back into its corner, with its tail tucked tightly between its legs.

This is a harmful development.  If you currently are a premier level United Mileage Plus member and buy tickets through a travel agency, you should call the Premier help desk and tell them you'll refuse to travel with United in the future if United changes its terms of trade so that you can't have them directly charge your credit card, and without a fee.

Talking about fees, Southwest Airlines used to boast how it didn't charge fees, unlike its dinosaur competitors.  This claim has become increasingly tenuous, and now is being eroded still further.  Southwest has now announced that its internet access trials, which earlier were seeing free internet access being offered on four of its planes, will now proceed further but with a fee of $2 - $12 (depending on flight length) being charged for access to the service.

I don't object to an airline charging a fee for something that is clearly a 'value-add' item and not part of the core travel experience, but in this case, Southwest continues to erode the former differentiation between itself and its dinosaur competitors.

While British Airways continues to do all it can to pare its costs down as low as possible (in addition to asking its UK staff to work for free - a request that has met with only limited acceptance, most of its US staff have voluntarily accepted pay cuts) it is still moving ahead with selected expansionary plans.  In particular, BA has now confirmed the specifics of its interesting new service between London's City Airport (click the link for my article about this airport) (LCY) and JFK.

This service uses a small A318, outfitted with merely 32 business class lie-flat sleeper bed seats.  The A318 is the largest airplane that can fly in/out of LCY and even so, it can't take-off from the short runway with a full load of fuel, so on the flights to New York the plane makes a brief stop in Shannon, where the plane is refueled and passengers are pre-cleared through US Immigration and Customs.  So although there's sort of a delay, the time is used productively and means less time is needed to emerge from the airport at JFK.

The flights from JFK to LCY have no fuel restriction and are nonstop.  Showing BA's depth of commitment to this new service, and the degree of prestige they're choosing to associate with it, the airline has recycled their former Concorde flight numbers - 001 and 002 - for the first two flights (and 003/4 for the second pair).

BA starts service on 29 September, and after starting as a daily flight, will increase to twice daily in mid-October.  Tickets are on sale now.

If you're traveling to/from London's financial 'City' district, or the Docklands, or the Excel convention center, and starting your travels in New York, this promises to be a brilliantly convenient flight.

There are some interesting undercurrents in the European river cruise industry.  After some years of spectacular growth in passenger numbers - growth which has been matched by aggressive building of new ships - this year has seen much tougher times.

One of the largest operators, Viking River Cruises, has recently been giving some mixed financial signals - earlier in the year it announced the securing of some substantial extra funding, but now it appears this funding deal has collapsed, with uncertain implications for Viking, although - and unsurprisingly - Viking claims this loss of funding will not be a problem.

And another of the 'old' established operators, Peter Deilmann Cruises, has announced it is closing down its river cruise operations at the end of this year and its eight ships will be taken out of service, pending unknown plans for their sale or disposal.

Bottom line - be careful who you might choose to book a river cruise with (and remember that if booking Amawaterways cruises through me, you get an extra 5% discount).

Talking about closures, the ill-fated venture that sought to provide VIP priority access to and through TSA airport screening, Clear, announced its immediately closure earlier this week.

The venture was always a challenging one.  On the one hand, many potential customers for its service already have priority access to security by way of their airline frequent flier status.  On the other hand, the TSA itself, while in theory approving the concept, in practice has been less than fully helpful, making it difficult for Clear to offer any clear benefit to its members.  So the collapse of Clear is unsurprising.

Airlines, river cruise operators, and Clear may be having a tough time of it, but that's not the case with all travel operators.  In Europe, the Eurostar train service between England and the continent continues to score increased ridership, with increases of 34% in passengers traveling from Amsterdam to the UK and 38% more from Germany.  These increases are due to reductions in total travel time by train, making it more competitive time-wise to travel by train rather than air.  Interestingly, there's not necessarily any saving in cost to travel by train these days, and I ended up paying more to travel by train than I would have by plane from London to Paris this coming Sunday.

But the greater degree of comfort and convenience and the shorter journey time both proved compelling, to me as well as to increasing numbers of other people.

Closer to home, Carnival Cruise Lines exceeded the profit expectations both of itself and most analysts by posting a $264 million net profit.  And that is the profit for merely one quarter, not a full year.  Although this profit is down on the second quarter 2008, it is still a large sum, and was achieved despite a 9.8% reduction in yields (ie cruise prices).  However, and in response to lower cruise fares, passenger numbers were sharply up.  Biggest price drops were for Alaskan cruises.

What this should teach the airlines (who are currently in the middle of introducing yet another air fare increase) is that people will travel if the price is right, and if the experience is positive and pleasant.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  People on the various anti-terror watch lists are not allowed to fly on a plane, but they can legally buy guns, ammunition and explosives.  Depending on if your glass is half full or half empty, you can interpret this one of two very different ways.

People who support civil liberties will point to the ridiculousness of a situation where unsubstantiated vague suspicion can prevent a person from flying, and where simply having a similar name to a possible terrorist will cause you no end of problems.  These people will point to the extraordinary growth of these lists up to now containing millions of names, and say that it is unrealistic paranoia, unchecked and uncontrolled.  These people would also say that the fact of FBI checking such people's actual criminal records when they apply for permission to purchase a firearm, and failing to show any real crimes that would disbar these people from purchasing/owning firearms, is further proof of the nonsense nature of the anti-terror watch lists.

But if you're a gun hating authoritarian who accepts the validity of every name on the watch lists without question, you instead are outraged that people who have been secretly suspected but never proved of any crime at all are still lawfully allowed to purchase weapons.  Rather than insisting on higher standards for allowing names to be added to the terror watchlists, you'll gleefully proclaim that every person on an anti-terror watchlist should also be refused the right to own firearms (what next, people on anti-terror watchlists won't be allowed drivers licenses too, perhaps?).

It is bad enough that vague suspicion and no due process prevents people from flying.  But to extend that problem still further - to find people guilty of a nonspecified crime, with no proof and no process, and to use mere suspicion as a basis to further restrict people's rights in other directions takes an initially troubling precedent and extends it way too much further.

The concept of 'innocent until proven guilty' is apparently no longer fashionable.  More details here.

I wrote back on 10 April about the person detained by the TSA due to carrying a larger than usual - but perfectly legal - amount of cash with him.  Here now is news of a follow-up lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the TSA.

The lawsuit isn't seeking a cash settlement, but instead asks the court to declare the TSA's actions unconstitutional and to prohibit the agency from similar searches when there is no evidence aircraft are endangered.  The ACLU claims that the TSA's powers are limited to searching and detaining people suspected of taking weapons, explosives or other dangerous objects onto planes, but that beyond that, the TSA is not empowered to carry out open-ended searches and investigations into other non-threatening behaviors which may or may not imply other unrelated criminal activity.

Here's an amusing listing of what are claimed to be the world's funniest airport names and codes.

Lastly this week, I regularly get emails from public relations companies seeking to interest me in their clients' new products.  Sometimes they have interesting and relevant materials that I will look at, possibly review, and tell you about.  Sometimes they are of such little interest and of no newsworthy value at all as to make me wonder how the PR agency can have agreed, in good faith, to generate publicity for their client.

And then there's a third category - products that are so extraordinarily different from mainstream as to almost be interesting.  Here's an email I got this week which I'll simply copy here in its entirety, and without comment, other than to say that I have no plans to accept a sample and to test/review it.

Hi David,

I thought your readers would be interested in this new product from OhMiBod that travelers can appreciate: The LOVEBUCKLE. This new fashion ‘accsexory’ is a super-slick brushed metal rectangular belt buckle with a circular window that displays the artistic designs of One® brand condoms. Perfect for any kind of travel, the LOVEBUCKLE ensures that readers will be ready no matter who they meet on vacation. I’d be happy to send samples. If you’re not the best contact can you let me know who is?

The high-quality, unisex LOVEBUCKLE is available in pink or black and makes the idea of safe sex fun, hip, and fashionable. The LOVEBUCKLE allows travel without the embarrassment of packing condoms (it comes with three) in a carry-on or purse that may be embarrassingly searched, and light packers will love the versatile buckle, which can also be easily removed and worn with other belts.

The LOVEBUCKLE is an inconspicuous way to always be prepared for sex on the go. More information and high-res images you can download are available at: www.UltimatePressPicks.com. ;

Be sure to let me know if you’d like samples!

All the best,


Until next week, please enjoy safe travels (with or without the added protection of a Lovebuckle), and remember, next week's newsletter will be in altered form from Joe Brancatelli on my behalf, due to my traveling on the river cruise.

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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