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Friday, 21 August, 2009

Good morning

It is that time of year again - time for our annual fundraising drive.

As longer time readers already know, we operate on a 'PBS model' - our funding comes in large part from voluntary contributions and support from readers.  Once each year we ask you to reflect on the value, information, amusement and pleasure received during the past year and anticipated for the next year, and to make whatever level of personal support you are comfortable with to help The Travel Insider continue into the future.  Details of how to support The Travel Insider here.

Writing this weekly newsletter, publishing weekly articles, keeping past articles up to date, and general maintenance of the website is my full time job, and I'm the only one who does anything/everything here.  It takes way more than 40 hours a week to do everything, and there's no way the quality and quantity of content could be preserved if I was to reduce my focus and time spent here.  Alas, this leaves me no opportunities to boost my income by working a shift at McDonalds (or perhaps at an airline!).

I have to completely rely on income variously from you and the advertising on the web pages, and I'm sure I'm not surprising anyone when I observe that the advertising is sharply down this year (presumably due to the weaker economic environment, but also I think in part by the requirement of advertisers for more intrusive types of advertising that interfere with a visitor's experience and which I'm hoping to avoid introducing).

Extending that thought, there are other income opportunities I've also chosen to turn down.  I refuse to write inaccurate nonsense or to uncritically recycle press releases, and so the 'perks' (such as they are) of writing about travel and technology are largely closed to me.  For example, in this amusing story of Heathrow Airport commissioning a 'writer in residence' - it is clear they'd never want me to be writing that story!

Editorial independence and thorough reporting has a definite cost for me, but it also has a definite value for you.  For example, in a review shortly to be published I will tell you of an external battery unit that it's manufacturer concedes provides no more than 4000 mAh of capacity even though their advertising shamelessly claims it provides 5300 mAh.  No-one else, in the many reviews of this product, has ever uncovered this fact, preferring merely to recycle the press release unquestioningly.

The Travel Insider is popular and clearly provides an informational need.  Close on half a million people visit the website every month, and almost 21,000 people read the newsletter every week.  Over the last year, you have received more than 52 weekly newsletters (a few special newsletters boosted us over the 52) and a massive outpouring of new feature articles, many weeks sprawling over multiple web pages.  In total, I'm guesstimating 400,000 words of content have been given to you, completely for free, in the last year alone.  That's about the same as you'd get in six hardcover books.  Add to that the unrestricted access to all the existing content that has accumulated over the last eight years, and there's more than two million words of information and advice available.

How much is all this worth to you?

Just think about, for example, last week's four page article on how to save big money by booking hotels through Priceline.  The information given to you there is close to guaranteed to save you appreciable money next time you're staying at a hotel - depending on where and when, you could be saving $100+ for each night of your stay.  Or, a couple of weeks before, the eight page article series on what to do if possibly being bumped off a flight could get you an extra $100 or more by negotiating more generous compensation, and/or could save you the inconvenience of missing a flight.  Any one of my occasional product reviews might bring you benefits - or save you from a costly mistake.  And so on and so on.

Perhaps you'd prefer to value all of this another way.  Many of you tell me your Friday morning routine involves sitting down with a cup of coffee to read through the newsletter and possibly the feature article too.  How much (on an annual basis) do you pay for a Friday morning cup of coffee?  How much would you have paid if you bought a newspaper or magazine to read over your coffee instead of The Travel Insider?

So, please, do help continue to preserve the reader-supported phenomenon that is The Travel Insider.  You're welcome to support at any level you wish.  Even $5 or $10 helps.  You can simply make an immediate and secure online credit card payment, or if you prefer, mail in a check instead.  All details are on this page.

In past years we've typically had 3% of readers choose to contribute.  4% would be better, but let's set a 3% goal for this year - 630 people.  Please choose to become a member of this elite group of 3% of all readers.  Your help is truly needed and definitely appreciated.

Lastly, a special word of thanks to the readers who have in previous years contributed, and in particular, to those very kind and loyal souls who have become 'voluntary subscribers' by choosing the option on the contribution page to make automatic monthly or quarterly contributions.  Thank you, one and all.

And now, with that lengthy but very vital introduction, I feel the pressure to offer you a really great article this week to further underscore the value and worth of The Travel Insider.  You can decide how great this article is, but - great or not - you'll probably agree that it is definitely different (another ongoing objective of mine).

In the often serendipitous manner through which articles suggest themselves, earlier this week I was volunteering as 'Quiz Master' at a local English style pub's weekly quiz night.  As part of the questions I prepared, I put together a list of company/product slogans and a jumbled list of the companies and products who originated the slogans, requiring contestants to match the two together.

Although I ended up not featuring any airlines, I realized there was an interesting story lurking beneath the surface - airline slogans, and what they reveal of airline thinking and their change over time.

So I've haunted the internet's back-roads for a very long time, seeking out and collecting as many airline slogans and catch-phrases as I could, and have collated them into what I proudly believe to be the largest collection of such things online anywhere.  In total, there are currently 190+ airlines featured, and something over 500 slogans; a number that continues to slowly creep up as I occasionally stumble across another reference source.

There are five parts to this new article series.  The first two parts offer some introductory commentary on the slogans, and then there are three pages of slogans, sorted by airline.

If you want to know how often 'safety' has been promised as part of an airline slogan, look no further.  If you'd like to wonder at the similarities in slogans from seemingly unrelated airlines, this is the place to go.  And if you'd like to laugh long and loud at the oft repeated sin of hubris - at airlines boasting of their solidity mere months before closing down for good, or an airline that proudly promoted itself as being 'big enough' for 747s then having to reverse itself when it replaced the 747s with smaller L1011s as also being 'small enough', you'll enjoy these lists greatly.

Then there is the airline with the slogan 'Trust us to fly' - the only problem being, the EU doesn't trust them to fly - they are banned from flying to/from the EU.  Or the airline that switched from boasting it was the fastest airline to saying meekly 'we're not faster, it just seems that way'.

There's lots to enjoy - you might even need to make this week's read a two cup of coffee session.  And, best of all, with your ongoing support, the article series will be archived online, together with the other two million plus words of helpful information, for as long as your support continues, for you to refer back to any time you choose.

This Week's Feature Article :  All the Airline Slogans fit to Print (and a few that aren't) :  Is it any surprise that airline slogans are sometimes as banal or obtuse as the airlines creating them?  But what about airline slogans that contradict earlier slogans from the same airline?  Or slogans that are clearly copies from other carriers?  And the slogans that poke fun at competitor airlines? Here is a huge compendium of airline slogans for your amusement and enjoyment.

One last comment about these slogans.  If you know of any more airline slogans, please let me know so I can add them to the list.  It helps to know the airline, the slogan, and, if possible, when the slogan was in use and if you have any visual confirmation of the exactness of the slogan, that is better still.

Dinosaur watching :  If at first you don't succeed, try again?  Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said they may look to buy another airline, observing  'Even Tiger Woods doesn't win every tournament'.  He added the airline would concentrate on other airlines in bankruptcy, and that it wants to keep an all-737 fleet (which, curiously, was notably not the case with its failed bid for Frontier last week).

I continue to be puzzled why Southwest would rather buy a bankrupt airline than simply grow its own operation.  While it may be possible to get a bankrupt airline for less than full value, there will be inefficiencies and costly adjustments to be made when trying to integrate another airline and its route system into Southwest's existing operations that likely more than compensate for a possible up-front saving.

Successful airline buyouts/mergers are more the exception than the rule - aviation history is littered with high-profile examples of buyouts/mergers that were failures, with very few obvious successes to counterbalance the failures.

Their wish to buy up other airlines is all the more puzzling when you consider that Southwest has trimmed its growth plans for this year, and could presumably simply switch its shelved growth plans back on again if it wished to return to growth mode.  Why not spend the $170 million that it did not use to buy Frontier and buy/lease some more planes and set up some more cities in a controlled manner, just the same as Southwest has consistently done in the past?

Maybe Southwest should consider some 'can't lose' opportunities for expansion - situations where airports and the cities they serve are paying airlines to fly there; guaranteeing the airline that it won't lose money, and potentially sharing in any profit from the route if it does well.  This interesting article explains more about how this is being done by a number of cities and airports currently.

In addition to paying airlines to fly places, some destinations are considering offering free benefits to tourists who visit.  One example is Mexico City, which is currently offering free medical insurance and assistance to visitors.

In addition to medical assistance, they will also provide emergency dental care, hotel accommodation during a recovery period, transportation, and even legal assistance in the case of robbery or document loss.

But then there are always counter-currents.  The government of BC, Canada, has just shutdown its Tourism BC operation, firing its CEO and offering the other 146 employees government employment.  Amazingly, it says this will make for more efficient management of BC's marketing strategy with the approach of the 2010 Winter Olympics, which will be held there.

I'll try not to get involved in any debate about whether a government operation is likely to be more efficient than private enterprise or not (you can probably guess my thoughts, anyway!), but I will point out to the BC government that the 2010 Winter Olympics are unlikely to be the tourist bonanza for the entire province of BC that the government obviously is expecting.  Most modern Olympic venues - and their tourism operators - have been massively disappointed at the outcome of hosting the Olympics, but surprisingly the baseless optimism continues with the projections for each subsequent Olympic event.

Visitors to the Olympics typically go only to the place where the Olympic events are being held.  'Normal' tourists stay well away, from some months before the Olympics until some months after, and the people visiting the Olympic site seem to cause reductions in visitors to other regional tourist attractions.

Rather than thinking it needs less help at this time, the BC Government would be better advised to seek out additional help for what will be a difficult not easy time.  Their decision was met with disappointment and concern by Canada's Council of Tourism Associations, who pointed out that Canadian tourism is facing challenges on many fronts at present - the generally depressed level of travel due to the hard economic times, the impacts of H1N1, new visa requirements for Mexican visitors and passport requirements for Americans, and a proposed increase in sales tax that would make BC more expensive overall.  Add to that my observation last week about Canada now feeling more expensive than ever before to visit, and it is clear the BC Government is not thinking this issue all the way through.

On the other hand, one does have to note with astonishment that Tourism BC was employing 147 people.  I remember doing an analysis of the budget and expenditures of a tourism organization 'downunder' and reaching the surprising conclusion that things would be a lot easier - and perhaps more successful - if all the staff were fired, all the marketing dollars curtailed, and the budget merely spent to buy down the cost of air travel to the destination (this applies to 'long haul' destinations, not so much to Canada).

As I'd feared right from the start of the search, the black boxes from the Air France crashed A330 have not been found and the search for the black boxes has now been abandoned, leaving the cause of the crash, which killed all 228 on board, a puzzling mystery.

With a mysterious unresolved crash of a popular airplane that killed everyone sitting uncomfortably in front of safety regulators all around the world, what initiatives have been announced by airplane manufacturers, black box designers, airlines, and national aviation safety organizations to make black boxes more readily locatable?  Ummm - none.

Congratulations to the world's busiest airport - Atlanta - which set a new record in July.  It had 88,408 take-offs and landings during the month, more than ever before, and also set a daily record of 3,125 flights on Monday 13 July.

Here's an interesting case of being bumped off flights.  A homebirth rally scheduled to be held in Australia's capital city, Canberra, on 7 September, caused unusual concentrations of mothers with infants to book air travel to/from Canberra to attend the rally.  On some Qantas flights, as many as 20 infants were being booked - without seats, but instead to travel on their mother's laps.

But - problem.  The planes typically only have eight extra oxygen masks - some of the rows of three seats have four masks - and so by law there can be no more than eight infants transported per flight.

Somehow Qantas found itself accepting all the extra reservations, and only subsequently realized this was illegally loading their planes, so the airline has been cancelling the extra infant bookings above eight per flight.

He's back.  Dave Carroll, the Canadian who suffered a broken guitar at the hands of United, and who made a video singing about his woes that became a viral hit on YouTube is now back, as promised (threatened!) with a second video.

Unsurprisingly, after the runaway interest in the first video, this one is made to a higher production standard, and has a nice twist at the very end after the closing credits.

Perhaps someone needs to make a video about Ryanair, who distinguished themselves with a new low in customer service this week when they charged a parent 10 ($14.50) to return a child's wallet which was lost when she flew Ryanair.

Sure, it costs an airline money to operate a lost property service, but some things - like helping with lost items - are reasonably expected to be included as part of the airfare one pays.

Amtrak can't win for losing :  The good news - Amtrak has started operating a second daily train between Portland/Seattle and Vancouver BC.  But, why oh why does the train leave Vancouver at 6.40am?  Who wants to get up and to the train station in time for a 6.40am train?  Wouldn't a 7.40am timing be vastly more appealing (and 8.40am even better still)?

Actually, there is an answer to that question.  Amtrak is trying too hard to do too much with too few trains.  It has essentially allocated one 'consist' of rolling stock which is used to shuttle up and down between Portland and Vancouver.  The problem is that a later departure from Vancouver in the morning would mean a later return to Vancouver that night, and with a current arrival time of 10.45pm, it is already set later than most people would wish to arrive into Vancouver.

So, for most people - this new train arrives too late into Vancouver, and leaves too early out of Vancouver.  Care to guess how successful it will be?

Suggestion - why not use the train to do two roundtrips between only Vancouver and Seattle, at better times of day, than to make one roundtrip all the way to Portland at bad times of day.  A four hour each way journey between Vancouver and Seattle is comparable to traveling by car, and is acceptable compared to flying when you consider the extra travel time to and from the airports, etc, but the eight hours between Vancouver and Portland tends to make the route marginal for most travelers, even if the times were better.  Amtrak needs to play to its strengths, not expose its weaknesses.

Talking about traveling to/from Canada, there's a happy ending to my story last week about waiting 90 minutes to cross the border returning back to the US from Canada.  I've now been approved for a Nexus card, which is a 'fast track' type way to cross the border at selected crossings.  An easy online application, then a quick interview locally, and an instant approval after the interview; in a week or two I'll get my Nexus card which is valid for five years.

Unfortunately, as good as this program is, it specifically forbids people traveling between Canada and the US in either direction for any type of business purpose, and the only business materials one can have with one are a laptop and business card.

Why can't business travelers also be allowed to travel between the two countries quickly and conveniently?  Aren't they important, too?

Talking about traveling quickly, travel between Australia and New Zealand is expected to become faster - and, amazingly, less expensive too.

The two countries are moving closer to a 'common border' type arrangement same as in Europe, allowing people to pass between the countries more quickly and conveniently.  There is also a proposal to waive the A$47 (US$39) passenger movement charge currently levied on passengers.

Here's a great example of a Crowne Plaza near Venice (Italy) doing the right thing after mistakenly releasing a very low room rate on its website.  Well done.

Not quite so well done, however, to Radisson, who is warning customers that their credit card information may have been breached during some computer breakins between November 2008 and May 2009.  Radisson has set up a dedicated toll-free number, 866-584-9255 for additional information.

Talking about hotels and travel arrangements in general, some of you may have become familiar with Tripit.  A new competitor has now launched - it is still in Beta, but in a fairly mature form, and they are accepting new Beta members.  The new service - Traxo - seems to have most of the same features when it comes to automatically combining travel bookings you might have made across a range of websites into an integrated single itinerary - and better social/networking/sharing controls.

One of the interesting features of Traxo is an ability to tell all or selected contents of your upcoming travels, with a view to possibly getting together during the journey.  Worth a look.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  As much a joke as a horror story is this incident, which seems to be completely true.

Note also the clever joke that is comment #12.

Less amusing is this story of a French businessman who was fined C$40,000 plus a seven day prison sentence.  Who did he murder, you might ask?  No-one.

He is developing a new type of GPS unit and was experimenting with it on a flight from Paris to Boston.  Using a bit of sticky putty-like substance, he put the receiver's antenna on the side of the plane, an act which terrified passengers and crew, fearing it to be a bomb.  He did not want to give up his prototype unit, and says he didn't realize there was an ongoing problem, because nothing further was said or done on the flight - until he realized it had diverted and made an emergency landing in Gandar where he was arrested.

Mr Minot is about as unlikely a terrorist as they come, and his actions apparently were mild and inoffensive.  Is it his fault that the crew and passengers panicked and - without giving him a chance to explain further - caused the plane to make a completely unnecessary emergency landing?

Happy 95th birthday to the Panama Canal, which welcomed the first ship to transit its canal, the steamship Acon, on August 15, 1914.  Since that time, almost one million ships have transitted the canal, with the one millionth transit expected next year.  The canal is currently being expanded to reflect the continuing increase in ship size and traffic needs.

In closing, I hope you've enjoyed the over 10,000 words in this week's newsletter and five page feature article.  Please consider honoring my once a year request for reciprocity, and give some much needed financial support to help this year's fundraising.

Lastly this week, with the very many cheap airfares to Australia (one of my favorite countries in the entire world) at present, you might find this map of help if planning a journey downunder....

Until next week please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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