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Friday, 14 August, 2009

Good morning

It has been a sad week.  I had to bid farewell to my most faithful companion of the last twelve years, my German Shepherd dog, Katia.  Her steady decline suddenly accelerated with an astonishingly fast tumor growth, and after the inevitable outcome earlier this week, I'm once again pondering the bitter-sweet nature of one's perforce all too transient relationship with one's pets.  Suffice it to say that this dog truly was this man's best friend.

I'm of course back from my two night stay at the Hyatt Regency in Vancouver.  My comments last week about problems booking two rooms there through Priceline triggered a truly gracious and appropriate reply from the hotel's Sales Manager, Lana Miller, although the graciousness of her reply was somewhat diminished by her non-response to my follow-up note back to her.

I liked the hotel's generously sized room and in-room fridge, but was saddened by some of the ways they have cheapened the overall guest experience.  For example, the earlier little notices in the bathroom about only changing towels if you leave them on the floor have been replaced by a new sterner notice, saying they won't change towels at all, unless one calls the front desk and specifically requests them.  The hotel insults our intelligence by claiming they are doing this to protect the environment.  The fact that not changing towels saves the hotel considerable money is somehow never mentioned.

Other money saving non-features were also apparent.  The ice bucket had an obsequious little note attached to it 'To assist in a quiet and peaceful stay while you are here, our ice machines are located on the 4th floor'.  Personally I'd prefer a quiet ice machine on the same floor I'm on - it is one thing to make a quick barefoot dressing-gowned dash down the corridor to an ice machine, but another thing entirely to have two long waits for rides in elevators to an ice machine potentially 30 floors away while probably not dressed to the standard of fellow elevator companions.

If one wanted a cup of coffee, then hopefully you've got the room to yourself, because their coffee maker comes with only one sachet of regular coffee and one sachet of decaf.  Okay, so this is a trivial point, but it is one of a growing number of pinpricks of disappointment and/or annoyance.

Continuing the drink theme, they don't restock the mini bar each day.  But this isn't described as a cost cutting measure, of course.  Oh, no.  The reason offered is 'In the interest of your privacy'.  I guess it was in the interest of my privacy that there was no nightly turndown service (or chocolates on the pillow) either.  What with no towel changing, no turn downs, and no mini-bar restocking, how long will it be before 'in the interest of your privacy' extends to no room cleaning or servicing at all during one's stay?

One more frustration.  Like so many other hotels, the desk is the wrong height.  It is too high to comfortably/ergonomically type on a laptop's keyboard when it is placed on the desk.  Yes, the desk is a good height to handwrite notes on, but surely most people spend their time at a business hotel's desk working on their laptop, not handwriting notes.

Adding insult to injury is their choice of desk surface material.  It looks nice, but its flecks of reflective material create havoc with an optical mouse, making it completely unsuitable.

So, not a bad hotel, but not a great one, either.  Excellent value at $70/night, but I'd be disappointed if I had to pay their standard rates.

Overall, Vancouver felt very much more expensive this visit than ever before.  Prices were high to start with, and with the weak US dollar, there was little benefit from the exchange rate.

I was delighted to retreat back across the border on Saturday - but what a shame about the 90 minute delay caused by insufficient US immigration staff at both border crossings.

What is wrong with this country when it mistreats its citizens so egregiously?  There is no possible definition of 'acceptable service levels' that covers requiring your citizens to wait 90 minutes to cross the border.  Oh - the wait to get into Canada on Friday?  There wasn't one - several lanes were open with no cars in front of them, while on the other side of the border, I noticed a long line of cars waiting to cross into the US then, too.

I'd thought my brother's 45 minute wait to check in for his Air NZ flight back to New Zealand was appalling, but it is nothing compared to 90 minutes at the border, crawling forward a car length every minute or so.

My comment about paying US$70 per night for a room at the Hyatt Regency in Vancouver prompted a couple of people, including a travel agent, to suggest this must have been a computer error or mistake.  They said it was impossible to get such low rates, and continued to claim that even after I explained it was actually very easy and quite commonplace.  I've stayed at the Hyatt before at a similar type of nightly rate, so it absolutely was not a mistake, and I know many other people do the same.

So what is the secret?  Well, there is no secret - I told everyone how I did it in last week's newsletter - by booking the room through Priceline.  But there is skill involved, and so I've decided to share some tips and tricks that can enable you too to get rooms at bargain prices through Priceline.

My thanks to the several people who wrote in with their own suggestions and experiences using Priceline, and in particular, special thanks to Gary Leff (writer of the excellent 'View from the Wing' travel blog) for his lengthy series of exchanges with me on the topic.  Notably, however, almost all the many hotelier readers remained silent, but perhaps they'll be encouraged to comment after reading the material I've now created, totaling a massive and very complete treatment of 7,000 words over four pages.  And so :

This Week's Feature Article :  How to Book Hotels for the Lowest Rate through Priceline.com : Priceline deliberately cloaks itself in mystery to make it more difficult to know how low you can buy hotel rooms for.  I remove the mystery and tell you the what and how of getting amazing bargains for hotel stays through Priceline in this new four part series.

Dinosaur watching :  There's been renewed activity recently on the possibility of creating some airline passenger rights legislation, with particular focus on requiring airlines to allow passengers to deplane rather than trapping them on a plane for hours and hours and hours.  The most recent example of the airlines' total and complete disregard for the comfort of their passengers occurred last Friday, when passengers were trapped on a small regional jet for nine hours.

This situation was so bad it roused Transportation Secretary Ray Hood to ask, in public, what went wrong.  Don't hold your breath waiting for a sensible honest answer.

Here is an interesting table showing the propensity to have mega-delayed flights by airline.  As you can see, some airlines (Alaska and Hawaiian) are completely blameless, whereas others (Expressjet, Comair and Continental in particular) trail way behind the rest of the industry.

Of course, the airlines offer plenty of excuses why they shouldn't be required to treat us well, and they have no shortage of apologists to fire their bullets for them.  Here's an appallingly bad example of people who should know better coming up with ridiculously nonsensical 'reasons' why the airlines should be free to trap us on planes for as long as they like.

The excuses offered have been put forward by a number of other airline apologists, and so I'll refute them, one by one - and even if each of these unlikely scenarios does indeed stop airlines from letting passengers off the plane, what about all the other much more common situations?

  • Not safe for ground crew to guide a plane back to the gate in a thunderstorm :  Ummm, when were you last in a nine hour thunderstorm? Or even a three hour thunderstorm?  And couldn't pilots coordinate their movements with the control tower and, most of the time, use the visual lining-up aids at the gate to get the plane to the gate themselves?

  • No gates in a snowstorm for the plane to return to :  How about rotating planes on and off gates?

  • International flights can't deplane passengers at a domestic airport if diverted :  Nonsense.  Keep all the passengers in a secure area rather than letting them roam free and/or leave the airport.

  • Flights that turn back to the terminal after a three hour delay would then be cancelled :  Not so.  What is the difference, operationally, between having a delayed flight on the tarmac and at the gate?  Why would you cancel the flight just because it has returned to the gate to wait.

  • A flight that gets out of the take-off queue would lose its place and be massively further delayed :  Tell that to the people who waited nine hours - not to take off, but to get off a landed plane!  And how about a simple rewrite of the queuing procedures so that you get to keep your place in the take-off queue even if you return to the gate.  Wouldn't that be an easy solution?  Besides which, if all the other planes in queue are also returning to the terminal, wouldn't the queuing order more or less stay the same?

  • A whole lot of other stuff which basically says 'it isn't the airlines' fault' :  Maybe the root causes of delays aren't the fault of the airlines, but a refusal to return to the gate and allow passengers off is usually about 95% an airline caused problem.  Let's fix this largest part of the problem first, then continue to fix remaining parts of the problem too.

Shame on Forbes for so uncritically offering this airline propaganda to its readers.

When the airlines aren't trapping us on planes, they're - well, many things, but prominent among them is losing our bags.  Here's an interesting - but also unquestioning - article that recounts some of the reasons why and how airlines lose our bags at present.

But what is missing from the article?  Any suggestion that things could or will get better.  Instead, the article laughs at the irony of the man in charge of improving baggage handling suffering from his own baggage getting mishandled, but then falls silent and doesn't consider how things could be improved, and passes on the ridiculous suggestion that passengers should buy travel insurance so they can 'make baggage problems financially rewarding'.

This is nonsense because most travel insurance policies offer very minimal amounts of coverage for baggage loss and damage.

And it is a shame that the article didn't touch on how airlines can and should improve their baggage handling.  There's been a solution available for more than ten years - adding RFID tags to bags.  Some studies have even suggested that if the airlines did this, the cost of the RFID tags would be more than made up by the saving in costs incurred when bags go missing at present.

So why aren't the airlines rushing to install RFID baggage handling/tracking systems?  Two possible reasons - firstly, the airlines themselves are unwilling to front up the capital investments to get such a system operating, and secondly, they are dependent also on airports installing matching equipment in their baggage handling systems too.

So don't be fooled by this article - baggage handling could be tremendously more reliable than it is today.  The technology exists and is affordable.

What with the outrageous fees charged to take luggage with you, and the uncertainty of it safely reaching your destination at more or less the same time as you, it is no wonder that there is a continued growth in companies providing luggage shipping services.

However, here now is an even more innovative approach to the traveling with luggage dilemma This woman proposes to launch a new service where you can hire clothing at your destination rather than travel with your own.  I wish her luck, and she'll need it if she's to succeed with such a far-out concept.

I wrote two weeks ago about Southwest making a $113.6 million bid to buy Frontier Airlines.  Earlier this week it upped its bid to $170 million, but is now facing challenges with the two pilot unions as to how it would merge the pilots and their respective seniorities.  This threatens to derail Southwest's bid, and the 13 August deadline for bids has now been extended to 17 August in the hope that Southwest can quickly reach agreement with its pilots.

Update :  Wow.  The truth has just now (Thursday evening) changed, as per this story.  Southwest's offer was lodged as a conditional rather than unconditional offer, contingent upon reaching agreement with the pilots.  Agreement was not reached by the time the bids were closed on Thursday, and the bankruptcy court has chosen not to give Southwest a few more days, and instead has opted to accept the lower offer from Republic Airways (which apparently was somewhat improved from its original $109 million).

Does that sound sensible to you?  If you were selling something, and one guy said 'I'll give you $109 million' and the other guy said 'I think I can stretch to $170 million, but I need a few more days to sort things out to be sure', would you turn your back on potentially $61 million extra?  Or would you wait a couple of days?  Or would you, at the very least, see if the first guy could be talked up to fully match the  $170 million.

I'm not sure that Southwest's failure to buy Frontier will be a bad thing for Southwest, indeed it might well be a blessing in disguise for Southwest.  But is the bankruptcy court's failure to get the full $61 million extra that Southwest was offering the fairest and best outcome for Frontier's creditors and especially their shareholders (who are expected to lose everything)?

An amazing coincidence?  You decide :  Virgin America announced this week that it would start flying between LAX and SFO and Fort Lauderdale on 18 November.  Almost immediately thereafter, JetBlue announced it would start flying from SFO to FLL, effective 17 November....

One of the continuing constraints with all the mobile/portable devices that are increasingly a vital part of our lives is their batteries.  Yes, battery technology is slowly evolving, but the demands for more and more battery power, by devices that have faster processors, bigger screens, and more radio bands, are at least keeping up with the battery life extensions.

Occasionally, we get a hint of some wonderful new technology, but they are always some time out into the future.  For example, one such concept is the fascinating idea of replacing the battery with a 'super capacitor' - this has the benefit of being a device that can be charged extremely quickly.  Here's an article that predicts perhaps 20% of portable devices might have super capacitor power in the next five years.

This would definitely be a good thing, but clearly its widespread adoption remains in the distant future.

However, here is better news of a new battery technology that seems to have erupted all of a sudden, and which is now being already deployed.  A new type of Lithium-ion battery with four times the capacity of current batteries, faster charging time, and able to be recharged many more times than current batteries.  Wow.  This really would make a difference.

But, until such time as this migrates into our cell phones, those of us with state of the art cell phones will continue to wrestle with inadequate battery life and various compromise type approaches to extending the battery life that we need.  Some of these compromises are clutzy, but some can be very elegant and effective.

An example of the latter - an elegant and effective solution -  is the Mophie range of external battery extenders for iPhones and iPods.  I'd expressed delight with a Mophie battery pack for the original iPhone back in December 2008, and now I have a new Mophie pack that works with the newer iPhone 3G and 3GS.

This product - their 'Juice Pack Air' - is a wonderfully clever dual function product that acts both as a protective sleeve for the phone and also as a standby battery pack.  It doubles the phone's battery life, and cleverly works to allow the phone to use either its internal battery or the Mophie external battery.  If your phone has a low battery, it can also recharge from the Mophie sleeve.

I like it as a protective sleeve, and I love it for the essential extra battery life it provides.  At a suggested retail of $80, it is a great price for a dual purpose device.  See www.mophie.com for more details.  Recommended for all iPhone 3G and 3GS owners.

Amtrak - eat your heart out (again) :  China, which already has 50,000 miles of rail network, will extend this by a further 20,000 miles by 2012.  As part of its development, it will then have an impressive 10,000 miles of high speed track - the most of any country in the world.

Oh, China is also adding to its urban transportation; by the end of 2007 it had 450 miles of metro lines in ten cities, and by 2015 this will have grown to 1530 miles in 15 cities.

So, while China adds both urban mass transport and inter-city high speed rail, the US adds - ummm, exactly what?  One of the excuses for not developing rail in the US has been the long distances between major cities.  But clearly China isn't deterred by long distances - maybe we shouldn't be so defeatist about this either?

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Britain has introduced a mandatory ID card for some times of foreign nationals living and working in the UK, and plans to extend the card into a universal ID card for all people.  It contains within it, as seems to be increasingly the case with all types of 'official' documents, an RFID chip that stores information about the owner of the ID card.

The British Home Office assures the country that the information on the RFID chip is securely stored and is tamper-proof.  Does that reassure you?

The correct answer to that rhetorical question should be 'No!' and for reason why this is so, here's an amazing story of how a computer hacker managed to copy and then change the information on one of these cards in a mere 12 minutes, and using nothing more than a mobile phone and a laptop.  He succeeded in altering the person's name, their physical description and even their fingerprints as well as switching the “not entitled to benefits” option to “entitled to benefits".

For good measure, he also added a message on the card asking the police to shoot the card holder on sight because he is a terrorist.

So what did the Home Office say when confronted with this ringing rebuttal of their claim that the data was secure and safe?  They refused to believe the report (carried in major UK newspaper The Daily Mail) and would not allow the hacker to show them what he had done and how.

In other British news, it has emerged that in 2008 police, councils and the intelligence services made more than 500,000 requests to access private emails and telephone records, according to an annual surveillance report.  This means that on average one in every 78 Britons were snooped on.

Although the powers to do this were largely created to help combat terrorism, it beggars belief to suggest that one in every 78 Britons is suspected of being a terrorist.  According to the report, some of the surveillance was conducted by council officials investigating dog fouling, which certainly seems to be far from a terrorist type act.

Ah - dogs.  As I mentioned at the opening of this newsletter, it was a sad week for me this week with the passing of my dog.  And so I can better understand today than I could at the beginning of the week the actions of this woman.  Understand - maybe.  Emulate - definitely not!

Until next week please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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