[Web Version of Newsletter]  [Newsletter Archives]  [Advertising Info]  [Website Home Page]  [Please Donate Here]

8 January, 2010

Good morning

I've very exciting and positive news for this week, and have been eagerly awaiting Friday's chance to share it with you.

One of the very best Travel Insider tours was also the very first one I ever did - way back in 2004; a tour around Scotland's Highlands.  Since that time I've been keen to repeat the success of that Scottish tour, but have yet to find a chance to put together another Scottish based itinerary.

At last, I can now offer a second Scotland tour, in June, and instead of the Highlands it will primarily be of the islands off the west coast of Scotland - the inner and outer Hebrides, and places I love to visit myself.

Visiting Scotland's islands are in like stepping back in time - you'll even encounter people who speak Gaelic rather than English, and you'll find an easier pace of life - more relaxed and more friendly, set in a range of island terrains from very beautiful vistas to starkly barren and windswept (but still beautiful, just in a different way).

Fortunately, with travel in June, we should have good warm sunny weather and lovely long days rather than anything too cold or nasty such as Britain and much of the world is currently suffering (insert your choice of sardonic references to global warming here!).

The tour takes us to seven different islands, has probably eleven different ferry rides, plus as a huge bonus, a ride on the Jacobite Steam Train (this starred in the Harry Potter movies and has been described as the most beautiful railway journey in the world).  We also squeeze in a visit to Loch Ness (monster sighting not guaranteed), and will stop at two (or possibly more - our itineraries on Travel Insider coach tours are flexible and vary based on the collective will/wishes of the group) of the unique Islay distilleries and sample some single malt Scotch.  Oh yes, there are also castles a plenty, lots of other sightseeing, and just about all the other ingredients for a wonderful travel experience.

Depending on how many choose to come on this tour (I'm limiting it to a maximum of 24 people), the price will be somewhere between $2495 and $2795 per person.  A single supplement of $595 is available.  Want to know more?  Please visit :

This Week's Feature Article :  Scotland's Islands Tour :  You'll visit seven islands, take eleven ferry rides and two steam train journeys too as part of a ten night comprehensive tour of the beautiful islands off Scotland's west coast this June.

One small request about this tour.  Please let me know as soon as possible if you wish to come on this tour.  With hotel rooms being extremely limited in some of the small towns we visit, even a small group such as ours threatens to overwhelm the town, and hoteliers therefore charge me major nonrefundable deposits to hold rooms.  So there's a limit to how much speculative space I can hold, and for how long.

I also have advance notice of a special deal that would enable you to fly business class from Chicago, New York or Boston to join the tour in Scotland for $1898 plus taxes - and that is roundtrip!  If you'd like to know about this great deal, please ask and I will share the details with you.

I may offer two other tours in 2010, but I'm still working on the details.  A Norwegian Coastal Voyage in mid August that could be combined with a Queen Mary 2 crossing from either Hamburg or Southampton back to New York on 26/28 August, and of course a Christmas Markets cruise in late November/early December.  More details on these in the weeks that follow.

Dinosaur watching :  December was a good month for AirTran, setting a new record for passenger traffic, with revenue passenger miles up 5.3% year on year.  Westjet in Canada also had a great December, with passenger numbers up 8.1%, not withstanding weather and security disruptions.  And Allegiant had a 19.2% increase in passenger numbers.

But not all airlines did as well.  American reported a drop of 1.6% in RPMs, and US Airways had a substantial 7.4% drop in passengers.

Hmmm - what do you see in common between the growing airlines on the one hand, and the shrinking airlines on the other hand?  Hint - it isn't 'the economy' and neither is it 'the price of jet fuel'.

Some good leadership by example at Continental Airlines, however.  Their new CEO, Jeffery Smisek, who just stepped into the position on 1 January, says he will not accept a salary or annual bonus until the company makes a full-year profit.

And his hard hitting advice to employees?  He told them if they want better pay and benefits, then need to make the airline profitable.  And they seem to be doing something right, because CO reported an increase of 6% in RPMs for December, helping to soften the full year figure which was a net drop of 3.8% in RPMs.

Remember those hypocritical signs in hotels - the ones that say that due to the hotel's environmental consciousness, they won't change your linen as regularly, although we all know that what really motivates them is the cost saving they also experience?  Well, Southwest has come out with a similar sort of strategy.  They say that due to concerns about the spread of H1N1 flu, they have taken all the blankets and pillows off all their flights.

H1N1 flu?  Remember that?  A scary topic for a while, a year ago, but now fears about its lethality have completely faded and it seems to be neither better nor worse than any other annual flu.

Come on, Southwest, be honest :  This is all about saving money, isn't it?  If you were really worried about flu transmission, you'd simply launder the blankets and pillow cases more.  Or you'd have taken the pillows and blankets off your flights years ago, because there's flu every year.

Indeed, Southwest is sending a rather mixed message in its announcement.  They said 'The pillows and blankets do not pose a specific health risk, [my emphasis] but removing them is one way that Southwest can be proactive in reducing the spread of swine flu. We would rather take precaution and ensure that our flight attendants and fellow employees who assist tidying the aircraft do not handle these items that have also had contact from the public'.

The best way to help such 'environmentally conscious' hotels and airlines is to stay and travel with their competitors.

Something I've sometimes thought about in my more paranoid moments, and then dismissed, is the risk of having items stolen from one's carry-on baggage on an overnight flight.  When everyone is half asleep in a darkened cabin, who really knows who it is that get up and starts going through something in the overhead bin above you, and there's a big assumption that they're not getting in to your luggage and taking your items.

But then, on the other hand, maybe it is a sensible concern after all.  Five business class passengers on an overnight Air France flight from Tokyo to Paris reported being robbed while sleeping with some €4,000 in cash missing.

French police are investigating the incident and believe it was an onboard pickpocket who did the deed while the victims were asleep.  The biggest loss was experienced by a woman who lost about €3000 in cash that was in her handbag, the other passengers had smaller amounts of cash taken.

Oh - and, needless to say, airlines claim no responsibility for the safety of your carry on items.  Which makes for a 'heads you lose, tails you don't win' scenario - the airlines disclaim responsibility for small valuables that you might check into hold baggage, but also disclaim liability if you carry them on with you.

While the press (and our government) continues to go berserk about the failed crotch bomber incident, a near total silence and barely discernable response surrounds the 757 people who died around the world in 2009, not from aviation terrorism (which claimed zero victims) but rather as a result of 30 different airplane accidents.  For those with an interest in such things, a full listing of the 30 accidents can be seen here.

I ended up not going to the annual Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas this week.  The show is seeing the usual steady stream of new product announcements (in total over 20,000 new products are being released this week) but perhaps the biggest announcements are not coming from the show itself.

Google chose not to participate in CES, and as anticipated, announced its new Nexus One cell phone earlier this week, but from Silicon Valley, not from Las Vegas.  Is it the iPhone killer that some people thought it might be, should you junk your iPhone and rush out to buy a Nexus One?  No.

The Nexus One is a perfectly good Android phone, and possibly slightly better than the Motorola Droid, and in some respects, it is indeed better than the iPhone too.

It has a slightly larger screen (3.7" rather than 3.5") with more than double the resolution (480 x 800 instead of 480 x 320) of the iPhone.  It has a better camera (5 MP and with flash, rather than the iPhone's 3MP and no flash).  Alas, it has as short, or possibly even shorter battery life (but you can get spare batteries and swap batteries if needed during the day), and has less memory space for adding extra application programs (a mere 170 MB instead of close on 32 GB with the iPhone).

By all accounts (I haven't tried one) its Android interface, while the best Android interface to date, is still a bit clutzy and clunky, even though it has a lightning fast CPU driving it.  It has some minor nice features (like a dual microphone noise cancelling system for when you're talking in a noisy environment) and all the bells and whistles that we've come to expect from the iPhone (eg GPS, accelerometer, compass, etc).

The phone is available only from Google, and lists for $529 without any service contract, or $179 with a two year service contract from T-mobile (minimum monthly contract of $80/month).  Unfortunately, due to incompatible frequency bands for fast 3G data service, this phone will only work with T-Mobile in the US, not AT&T, just like how the iPhone will work with only AT&T, not T-Mobile.  Both the iPhone and the Nexus One can roam internationally on the standard international 3G data networks.

A CDMA type phone that will work on the Verizon network (but not on either the T-mobile or AT&T networks) is expected to be released sometime soon.

Our hope is that the new generation of iPhones (probably to be announced in the June/July timeframe and available immediately thereafter) will catch up in the areas where Google (and Motorola) are currently ahead.

Almost certainly we'll see the new iPhone equal the screen size and resolution of these other two phones, and again almost certainly we'll see an improved camera too.  If only we could get some more multi-programming capabilities too, then the iPhone would again become the clear very best, but even without that weakness rectified, our feeling is that the brilliantly simple easy to use interface on the iPhone remains the biggest lead that Apple and its iPhone has and retains over its competitors, and therefore also remains the most powerful reason to choose an iPhone over any of the Android competitors.

Microsoft, in partnership with HP, announced a new tablet computer at CES, attempting to steal Apple's thunder (Apple is expected to announce a tablet computing device late in January).  But with the MS/HP device being based on the lackluster Windows Mobile 7 OS, few people are excited by it and most are waiting to see what Apple comes up with.  The fact that Microsoft did not give details on either pricing or availability reduced the excitement level still further.

Dell also announced a smaller sized tablet type device which runs on the Android OS, but it is again unclear when it will be available for sale.

Talking about Dell, I'd shared my frustrations about Dell's 'bait and switch' tactics in trying to trick me into buying an inferior laptop computer prior to Christmas.  Needless to say, I wasn't fooled, and refused to be tricked.  Dell, in turn, sat on its hands and said it was impossible to give me the machine I'd been promised, ordered, and paid for, even though their own website continued to offer it for sale with prompt delivery.

So I've continued using my old Dell for now.  Last Friday, as part of an update, it crashed and when I restarted it, I got a 'blue screen of death' type message telling me that a critical file was now missing or damaged, and advising me to recover the operating system from the original disks.  I'd long since mislaid those, and so I called Dell to order a new set.  They said they could do that and would ship them to me overnight, to arrive on the next business day, which would be Monday.

I explained that my computer was 100% dead and I urgently needed it restored to normal operation asap.  I offered to pay any reasonable price if they'd overnight the disks with delivery on Saturday rather than Monday.  To do this is very simple - you just check a box on the Fedex or UPS shipping form that says 'Deliver Saturday' instead of the box that says 'Deliver Monday'; it adds $20 or so to the shipping cost, and I was more than happy to pay that (or twice that or three times that or whatever else Dell might choose to charge me).

Dell refused to do this.  I pleaded with the support person and his supervisor, but they flat out refused to do it.  Note that I wasn't asking for something for free or arguing about the price - I said I'd pay whatever it took to get the software two days sooner, but they just simply said no.

Why???  They could have made some profit by agreeing to do this, as well as making me very much happier.

And as for getting the software on Monday as promised?  No way.  They didn't even ship the disks until Monday, and they arrived Tuesday.  Thanks again for nothing again, Dell.  It seems that not only can I not rely on them when they are trying to sell me computers, but I also can't rely on them when they're fixing computers I've bought from them in the past, either.

As for other buzz from CES, as best I can tell from Seattle there are two major themes.  One is 3D television, video and games, doubtless fueled by the success of Avatar at the theaters currently.

I'm a bit skeptical about this (most 3D I've seen has been gimmicky rather than realistic - it actually detracts from the viewing experience rather than adds to it), but it never pays to underestimate the eagerness of electronics companies to develop new technologies and push them down our throats, whether we need/want them or not.  With most current electronic product lines having reached marketplace saturation, 3D technologies represent an exciting growth opportunity for electronics companies, if not necessarily so exciting for consumers.

The other theme is the rise of eBooks and the hardware to read them on, eBook readers.  A large number of new eBook readers from a large number of new manufacturers are appearing at CES, but my feeling remains that eBook readers are a go-nowhere technology that will quickly be superseded by multi-functional tablet devices, by phones, and even by regular laptop and desktop computers.

Amazon was right to develop the Kindle and release it two and a half years ago - back then it was necessary to offer both an eBook reader as well as a comprehensive range of eBooks so as to kickstart the marketplace awareness and acceptance of the eBook concept.

But now that eBooks have clearly reached critical mass (with some reports suggesting Amazon may have, at least by some measures, sold more eBooks than regular books over the 2009 Christmas season), if Amazon has any sense, it will gracefully bow out of the hardware market - particularly because, by all accounts, it was not making much money out of the sale of its Kindle readers anyway.  By releasing its Kindle software for phones and personal computers, Amazon is already showing its willingness to share the hardware marketplace with third party solutions; it needs to continue this process and release its Kindle software to run on all the growing number of generic eBook readers out there too.

My continued strong advice is that you should not buy an eBook reader.

A smaller trend, or so the manufacturers of such devices hope, is energy consumption displays that show you, more or less realtime, how much electricity you are consuming.  Okay - so you could go outside and look at your meter, but these show it to you in a much more convenient and 'high tech' seeming way.

There's not a great deal of use for the information presented to you, but the proponents of such things are hoping you'll not think about that in your rush to be 'green'.

Here's an article that tells you a bit more about such things, and it offers the dubious explanation/justification that by making you aware of your energy consumption, you'll be driven to reduce your energy usage.

This year's Ice Hotel has opened in Quebec City.  The Hotel de Glace will remain open until 4 April, and is built entirely of snow and ice, with 36 rooms and suites, an Ice Bar, Ice Cafe, Ice Chapel, and - necessarily outside - a hot tub.

It required 15,000 tons of snow and ice and six weeks construction time to build, and is the only such hotel in North America.  More details here.

Here's an interesting article on Arizona's speed cameras.  There are two particularly interesting points in it - the first is to note that they only trigger when detecting someone driving 11 mph or more over the speed limit, and the second is the helpful information that because the tickets are sent to you in the ordinary mail, there is no proof of you having received them, so you can ignore them with impunity.

Apparently most people are doing just that, with $127 million in fines resulting in a mere $37 million in payments received.

Draw your own conclusions as to what to do if driving in Arizona and receiving a speed camera ticket in the mail.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  Oh my, where to start?  The last week has seen a never ending comedy of over-reactions to non-existent threats, resulting in massive public inconvenience but absolutely no terrorist threats being uncovered or prevented.  Perhaps the best place to start is a continuation of a theme from the previous week that I'd not felt it wise to mention in last week's newsletter.

I've spent much of the time from 25 December through 2 January at a 'secure nondisclosed location' for fear of getting a visit from TSA security agents if I were at my usual home address.  After the TSA's ill-thought out temporary security directive rushed out after the crotch-bombing attempt was published on many different websites and blogs, the TSA apparently decided to make examples out of some scape-goats, and went after two bloggers, issuing them with subpoenas requiring the two bloggers to reveal where they got the notionally secret documents from.

One of the two bloggers apparently 'cooperated' in a blue funk and as a result of bullying threats from the TSA.  The other - Chris Elliott - was made of stronger stuff and refused to reveal his sources, choosing to challenge the TSA's subpoena in open court.

The matter made national and even international news, and to my astonishment, it seems that the TSA were sufficiently embarrassed by the spotlight of public attention as to step back and withdraw their subpoenas.  Bravo.  Details here.

Two interesting things came out of this.  First, who would have thought that there's apparently an investigative branch of the TSA - plain clothes officers with guns and badges - who seem to have the authority to go off-airport and do pretty much whatever they like.

That was sure news to me, and seems like a wasteful duplication of effort and major 'mission creep' from the TSA's stated purpose.  If the TSA need to do anything more than check people as they go through security, shouldn't they pass the request over to the FBI or one of the many other already existing agencies - agencies that already have the resource, the infrastructure, and, most of all, the training and expertise to handle complete investigations?

Second, it is interesting to note that the subpoenas were unilaterally created by the TSA themselves, and never actually involved any judge or courtroom hearing.  The TSA issued 'administrative subpoenas' which are a civil rather than criminal process - but backed up these civil documents by having them served by their own armed special agents, which seems to massively blur the line (in an abusive manner) between civil and criminal proceedings.

Imagine if the regular police, FBI, etc, alternated between getting formal search warrants and issuing their own administrative subpoenas without any judicial oversight, whenever it suited them.

As it turns out, the public exposure of the ridiculous TSA ruling did us all a good service - it embarrassed the TSA sufficiently to cause them to step back from their secret and therefore unaccountable unanswerable new set of mandates that would have had us virtual prisoners of our airplane seats for the last hour of incoming flights to the US, unable to use the bathroom and not allowed to even read a book or keep warm under a blanket.

Some aspects of the security process are validly secret and should remain so, but trying to keep this set of requirements a secret was not only foolish (how can you not disclose the details when you tell a passenger what they can not do) but was again an abuse of the TSA's powers and regulatory process.

The TSA directive has now expired and has been replaced by a new semi-secret directive, and I have to note with disappointment that the many sources of the first semi-secret directive have all been silent at sharing the new longer lasting directive.  Clearly the TSA's on-again/off-again subpoena process has silenced most of these sources.

It seems that passengers traveling to the US from nations listed as 'state sponsors of terrorism' (ie Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria) as well as passengers from ten other countries (Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen) will now get more rigorous screening prior to boarding their flight to the US.

These new screening measures apply both to citizens of those 14 countries and to people who visited those countries and are now traveling to the US.

But the willingness of foreign countries to comply with these requirements is being strongly tested.  Political correctness is causing some countries (notably Canada, our largest source of inbound passengers) to be reluctant to do what they observe as profiling people based on their racial origins.  Their logic seems to be 'it is okay for terrorists to selectively choose their targets based on the racial origins of the people in the target zones, but it is not okay for us to in turn vary our security screening based on an opposite set of racial parameters to those used by terrorists'.

Similar political correctness is also slowing down the initial panicked rush to adopt new whole body imaging machines at airports, due to the ridiculous worries about screeners seeing shadowy black and white images of people's bodies, even though those same screeners don't also get to see the people whose images they've just looked at on their remote monitor.

Here's one of the most graphic examples I've seen so far - generally the computers blur out facial features.  Hardly the sort of material that you can buy at any magazine rack or readily find all over the internet, is it.

Which would you prefer?  To have some anonymous screener somewhere see an anonymous X-ray type image of yourself for a few brief seconds as part of viewing a hundred or more such images every hour, or to have a screener intimately pat you down/feel you up in front of everyone else in the security line over the course of several minutes?

Sadly, there are credible concerns that even the most accurate and graphic imaging technology may still fail to detect explosives carefully hidden in and around a terrorist's body.  German security experts say these scanners are not effective at least 70% of the time in detecting dangerous items.

We're also seeing the usual chorus of experts who say we should adopt the Israeli method of airport/airline security.  While it is true that Israeli security is both very 'in your face' and also apparently very successful, the simple fact is that the Israeli system can not and would not scale to handle the volume of passengers we have in the US.

Even a simple attempt to emulate the Israeli model would require the current 50,000 or so TSA employees balloon out to many hundreds of thousands of employees, and the current suggested two hour checkin time allowance extend unpredictably out to a much longer duration.

Here's an excellent rebuttal from a reader who is involved in these issues :

El Al has something like 39 aircraft, about half of which are required to remain on the ground at any given time since they are also part of the Israeli defense contingency plan.  El Al does not hub; they fly only point-to-point and back again.  They have only two international airports.

The entire Israeli population is in the government data base, and all airport security are current or ex-military.  They know/understand their threat, much of which is close by.  Their passenger traffic is quite small, relative to most other countries, and most certainly ours, with 460 airports and 650+ million pax/year.

They also don't have much concern for long delays at points of origin, or about downline turnaround times / connection times, and thus, throughput.

Yes, the Israelis train their security people well.  For THEIR environment.  They're not afraid of the profiling bugaboo, or delays via interview process.

Anyway, enough of the sense.  How about some of the nonsense of the last week.

Like for example, at Bakersfield Airport on Tuesday, where the entire airport was shut down and flights diverted due to a suspicious chemical found in a passenger's baggage.  The man who owned the bags, a 31 year old gardener, was held for questioning for several hours, and said the liquid was honey.

A bottle was opened and two TSA screeners sniffed the contents.  They reported a strong chemical odor, said it made them feel sick, and they had to be sent to hospital.

Some hours later the mysterious chemical was identified.  It was, ummm, honey.

Or how about the flight from Portland OR to Hawaii on Wednesday that turned around and returned to Portland airport under the escort of two F-15s that had been scrambled to shepherd the plane back.

The reason for the turnaround and fighter escort (and will someone please tell me what exactly a fighter 'escort' is for, other than to shoot down the plane)?  There was reportedly a passenger aboard with 'concerning' behavior.

The man - a 56 yr old resident of nearby Salem, was taken off the plane in handcuffs by the FBI, but released without charge after questioning, which makes one wonder exactly how concerning his behavior truly was.

And then there is the lockdown of one of the terminals in Newark for over six hours while the Keystone Cops TSA and airport police tried to locate a man who walked into the secure part of the terminal by going in the out door, rather than through formal security screening.  It seems more than 10,000 passengers were affected, with some passengers ending up waiting 2.5 days to get alternate flights to where they were going.

This article reports on some of the comedy of errors that occurred, and this article suggests that the man in question was no-one more sinister than a lovelorn person saying goodbye to his female friend.

Whoever he is/was, his identity remains a mystery.

And then there are the Slovakian officials who were conducting a live test of their baggage screening by using live explosives.  The good news - eight of the nine packs of explosive were detected.

The bad news - the ninth pack was undetected and flew on to Ireland, where the Irish police and the Slovakian authorities managed to miscommunicate sufficiently as to cause the Irish police to perceive the hapless and unaware passenger (who didn't know his bag was being used as part of the test) as a dangerous terrorist.

But perhaps the ultimate story of the week is one which, while on the face of it is as outré as any of the others, alas also has a sad but certain ring of truth to it - the TSA officer in Los Angeles who was arrested for 'behaving erratically'.  He had just finished duty at Terminal 1 in LAX and was apparently telling people 'I am god, I'm in charge'.

If he was still on duty, he'd probably have been scarily close to telling the truth.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

If this was forwarded to you by a friend, please click here and subscribe to the newsletter yourself
If you ever wish to unsubscribe, simply reply to this email and set the subject line to say 'unsubscribe'.