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Friday, 26 June, 2009
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
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
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
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 :
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.