Friday 2 November, 2007
As is always the case, as much as I enjoy traveling, I always enjoy returning home the most, and once again count my blessings for being so fortunate to live in what truly is one of the very best places in the entire world - the beautiful friendly Pacific Northwest.
Our Black Sea Discovery Expedition was a very interesting experience, and it has provided more to think about than is usually the case when traveling internationally, and so forgive me if I write about it in more length than I otherwise might (you can skip down to the text color change if this is not of interest).
Starting off in Budapest, Hungary, our group of 21 Travel Insiders traveled through Serbia, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria before ending in Istanbul, Turkey - here's the itinerary.
What an amazing range of impressions we had over the two weeks of this cruise/tour. It was surprising and sad to see how terribly depressed many of these former communist states are, with our tours driving by ruined buildings and empty rusting shells of factories, and going through decaying towns and depressing cities.
Even more stark was a stop in Vukovar, Croatia - a town just starting to discover the concept of tourism (this is a polite way of putting it - but on the positive side, it was refreshing to visit a place almost untouched by hordes of tourists - there were no souvenir stores or other tourist trap type shops). Damage from their war in the mid 1990s with Serbia was still omnipresent; ruined and half ruined buildings alternated with buildings variously spared bomb damage or repaired. Vukovar and Croatia was on one side of the Danube, while Serbia was on the other side, and we went directly from Vukovar to Novi Sad in Serbia, to learn the other side's rather different perspective.
Perhaps the most embarrassing moment was in Belgrade, the former capital of Yugoslavia and now capital of Serbia. On our city tour, the friendly guide pointed out several impressively destroyed buildings in the heart of their downtown and explained that these buildings had been bombed in 1999. Nothing embarrassing about that, but then he revealed that the aggressor nation was - ooops - us. The US and NATO. He subsequently expressed sad puzzlement to me privately - 'we have always supported the US, and then you turn around and attack us'. What could I say, particularly about our role in a conflict I didn't start to comprehend, either then or now.
Even after two weeks going through these countries, I still have no understanding who the good guys and who the bad guys are; indeed, I don't even clearly understand what the issues and conflicts are or why. But, most of all, I don't understand what NATO was doing taking a gratuitous involvement in a conflict that seemed to pose no clear threat to any NATO interests at all.
Another interesting thing also occurred in Belgrade. It had always been my dim perception that Marshall Tito, the former ruler of Yugoslavia, was a 'bad guy' - a dictator and vaguely communist. But the locals in what is now independent Serbia seem to respect and even revere him. From their perspective, he was a good and strong leader who kept Yugoslavia united, and who did an excellent job of standing up against Stalin, of playing the west against the east, and getting both sides to attempt to buy favors and friendship from Yugoslavia.
We visited some memorable and wonderful places. Several places in particular stand out - Novi Sad in Serbia; Belogradchik and Veliko Turnovo in Bulgaria. My favorite city along the way was probably Belgrade, but this ignores where we started and ended - Budapest and Istanbul.
It seems gloriously impossible to get bad food in Budapest. I ate at three restaurants - two chosen by chance and one recommended by the hotel. All three were excellent - wonderful food and great entertainment by gypsy musicians, and at good prices. Budapest was probably the most western of the cities we visited.
Ending the tour in Istanbul brought a whole new kaleidoscope of color and impressions to what had started to become a fascinating but similar series of experiences in former communist countries. The first big surprise was to discover how generally prosperous Turkey seemed compared to the countries previously visited - a particularly surprising contrast because Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are now all EU member countries whereas Turkey is not. Alas, with prosperity comes traffic. Traffic in Istanbul was terrible, and I'd rank Istanbul as one of the worst cities to drive around I've yet had the misfortune to visit.
Istanbul - which I understand to be the part of Turkey most aligned with western values - was also clearly the least western of the places we visited. Perhaps it was because we ended our tour in Turkey, and prior to that, just about every place we visited had the local guides telling of their historical struggles against the Ottoman Empire, and many of the guides seemed more than a little fearful of modern day Turkey too, or perhaps it was the mosques with their occasional eruptions of calls to prayer broadcast over loudspeaker systems on their minarets, but Istanbul really did feel very foreign and different with (excuse me for saying so) a very different life style and value system compared to the rest of the places we stopped in.
One day I found myself in the middle of a somewhat heated demonstration. I felt increasingly uncomfortable, with variously curious and hostile glances at me from protestors, as the demonstration enveloped me in their midst, and so decided the best thing to do was to join in.
I bought a Turkish flag and started waving it and enthusiastically calling out 'Turkey! Turkey!'. This caused the crowd to smile widely, and I was able to continue safely on my way.
The demonstration was probably a state sponsored demonstration (a curious concept to us in the west, but quite common in less free societies), with youths demonstrating against 'Kurdish terrorists' and demanding the government do something about the Kurdish problem.
Istanbul is one of the most expensive cities I've stayed in, even if it doesn't feature prominently on traditional lists of expensive cities. Amadeus had us staying at the very nice (but poorly located) Ritz Carlton. This is a square shaped modern high-rise, and one of the four sides offers wonderful views over the Bosphorus Strait. My room was a standard room with no view of this, so I asked, when checking in, how much it would cost to upgrade to a room with a view. I'd already done a similar thing in Budapest, paying €35 a night extra for a view over the river and to the castle at the Sofitel, and expected a similar cost in Istanbul.
Guess the cost? It sure surprised me. The extra cost to upgrade to another standard room (not a suite, just another standard room) on the hotel side with the best views was to be €285 + 18% tax a night. That comes to an additional $485/night (in addition to the already paid cost of a regular standard room).
This was dishonest extortion on the part of the hotel. Travelocity shows the price of regular rooms to be $361 plus tax and the price of a view room to be $505 plus tax - a difference of US$144 or almost exactly €100. This is confirmed on Ritz-Carlton's own website, which shows rack rates for regular and view rooms of €250 and €350, again a difference of €100.
Shame on the Ritz-Carlton for trying to charge nearly three times the fair upgrade price. This was a crude bit of bait and switch at their front desk that is inappropriate at an international five star hotel. Needless to say, I didn't upgrade, so they got no extra revenue and instead now have a former guest who will never return.
But wait - that's not all. I'd written, back in July, about the outrageous cost of buying a drink at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow. However, even that expensive experience left me unprepared for the cost of drinks at the Ritz-Carlton in Istanbul. One lady in our group was drinking 'dirty Martinis', and almost had to remortgage her house when she saw the cost. These dirty martinis - a regular martini with a bit of extra olive juice in it - were US$41.50 each. As for me, I stuck to the cheapest local beer they sold, and that was still costing me US$17/glass (the same beer at a moderately nice downtown restaurant was US$7, and of course, if you bought it in a bottle store, it would be massively less).
It wasn't only alcoholic beverages that were expensive. At breakfast, I noticed they had a table with small 8oz bottles of Coca Cola on it, in addition to the regular (and free) fresh fruit juices and tea/coffee/etc. I thought the Cokes were free as well, but a discreet placard alongside the bottles advised that these tiny bottles of Coke were US$12 each. Another group member reported that a bottle of Perrier water was being sold for US$20.
Food was also expensive, but I chose to never eat there. Needless to say, if you're going to Istanbul, don't stay at the overpriced and inconveniently located Ritz-Carlton.
All in all, this was a very different type of travel experience. I'd expected as much, which is why I'd labeled it a 'Discovery Expedition'. Some people go on vacation to relax and do nothing - this would not have been a good experience for such people. But if you go on vacation to broaden your knowledge, to learn, and to experience things outside your normal range of activities, this is an excellent way to comfortably and conveniently see parts of the world that are otherwise just confusing names in the news and points on a map. I think all 21 of us were very pleased to have had a chance to see this part of the world.
Normally I'd follow up this successful experience with another similar group tour next year, but even though Amadeus have doubled the number of sailings of this cruise for 2008, they have already nearly sold out all of them, and none of the sailings have sufficient cabins remaining to allow for a Travel Insider sized group. But, I've still got a great deal to offer you instead.
The Travel Insider can now offer you a 5% discount on any and all of the Amadeus Waterways cruises in 2008.
So by all means quickly grab one of the remaining cabins on any of the Black Sea cruises, or choose any of Amadeus' many other cruises, then make your booking through me and get a 5% discount off the regular cruise price (this discount does not apply to optional extensions, airfares, insurance or port fees).
I can also tell you about some specific Travel Insider touring opportunities for the year ahead.
My flights back from Istanbul, via Amsterdam, on KLM and Northwest were delightfully normal and free of problems, but I almost did not make the flight from Amsterdam to Seattle. Every passenger was being individually questioned at the gate about their travels and such like, in a manner similar to that used by El Al.
But whereas El Al uses trained professionals for this screening process - people who can ask clever questions and form valid opinions about the traveler based on their responses, the process at AMS used low-grade 'rent a cop' security staff. In my case, I was first asked to show my ticket - I explained I couldn't do this because I was using an electronic ticket. The concept of a paperless ticket seemed strangely new to the rent-a-cop, and he took on an alert serious expression. Clearly I'd just failed the first step of the 'are you a terrorist or an innocent passenger' questioning.
He then asked to see a copy of my itinerary. I told him I didn't have one. Well, I probably did, but because I was returning home, all such no longer necessary paperwork was in my checked luggage, and my notes for the return journey were in my Blackberry. This was clearly a second strike against me.
He then asked me where I'd been, and when I recited the list of six countries above, all of which I'd visited in 'only' 14 days, it became clear to him I was up to no good. I tried to explain to him about being on a cruise, but he couldn't seem to grasp that concept, and then he seemed to realize that the concept of 'cruise' could take him along a known line of questioning. He asked if I had to put my suitcases outside my cabin the night before departure, and I said yes. He asked if only security personnel had access to my bags subsequently, and I said no, regular ship's crew handled them. I pointed out that this was two countries and three nights ago, but he wasn't interested in that. A couple more questions to me about the cruise, and why I was on it, all of which indicated he didn't have the slightest notion of what a river cruise might be, or what my role variously as a passenger and group leader was, and then he asked me to wait while he went over to a supervisor, showed him my passport, talked urgently, with lots of pointing in my direction.
Fortunately the supervisor didn't even see a need to come over and interview me himself. Crestfallen, the rent-a-cop shuffled back to me, and, while avoiding eye contact, handed me back my passport and allowed me to travel. In total, this took between 5 and 10 minutes, including several minutes of a supervisor's time as well, all for no good purpose.
I recount this experience in detail because it gave me a feeling of prescience as to what we might come to expect in the US if the TSA continues the trend it proudly talks about - the trend of investigating the passenger, rather than their baggage.
I don't dispute the underlying good sense of the concept, but - imperfectly executed, as was the case in Amsterdam and as would almost inevitably be the case in the US, too - it stands to become a nightmare with innocent passengers being hassled for no sensible reason, while terrorists, who've taken the trouble to study the methodology of the questioning, will pass through low grade screening with no problems at all.
Do you really want TSA officers (such as the ones complained about here) to be able to decide, based on their ignorance rather than their knowledge, if you are a potential threat to a flight or not and to ban you from flying (or at least delay and inconvenience you enough to cause you to miss the flight anyway)?
And think of the manpower required. Let's say the TSA spends *only* 3 minutes per passenger to interview them (any less is probably too cursory an interview). There will be just over 750 million people flying in the US this year. That would require over 20,000 extra security officers added to the TSA staff, and would also, of course, add appreciably to the time it takes to get through security.
Let's hope this idea stays on the back-burner.
And now, am I the only person to notice the Christmas decorations starting to appear in stores. Yup, pretty soon now we'll be desperately wondering what to buy for everyone on our gift lists. Here's something that might make a good gift for someone on your list :
This Week's Feature Column : SuddenStop License Plate Frame : Here's an easily mounted and affordable gadget to put on your rear license plate, and which might help prevent you being rear ended.
Dinosaur watching : Believe it or not, flying improved in September. The percent of on-time arrivals rose to 81%, compared to 72% in August, and 76% in September last year. But don't consider this as evidence that things are getting better - until the system is radically reworked, things will continue to be precariously balanced and susceptible to collapse anytime anything stresses it.
Naughty Mesa : Hawaiian Airlines was awarded $80 million in damages by its (former) bankruptcy court this week, with Mesa also being ordered to pay Hawaiian's costs of litigation and reasonable attorney fees. This was over Mesa's actions during Hawaiian's bankruptcy and subsequently - Mesa was found to have kept rather than destroyed confidential information it had obtained from Hawaiian Airlines and then used the data to help set up its own airline (Go) to compete against Hawaiian.
Naughty Delta : Delta has been accused of cheating creditors of Comair by five Wall Street investment firms. They have filed a lawsuit alleging Delta deliberately inflated estimates of payments the Comair creditors would receive in the airlines bankruptcy reorganization.
When the airline exited bankruptcy it reduced the estimate by about 25%. Comair's reorganization plan called for creditors getting 6.8% of new Delta stock but the exact amount depended on the amount of bankruptcy claims allowed against Delta and Comair. Initially the creditors were to recover about 91 cents on the dollar but ended up with 69 cents. Details here.
Greedy pilots? Last week American Airlines pilots asked for pay raises of nearly 49%, saying the increase would make up for inflation since 1992. The former pilots union had asked for 30.5%.
The union wants upfront pay raises that, compounded annually since 1992, would total 48.7% so far and 6% per year after that. They also asked for additional compensation tied to company performance. They also want Super Bowl Sunday to be a paid holiday.
And there's lots more to their wish list. In addition, the pilots want a $140 monthly stipend for computers, more frequent crew meals, crew rest facilities, the right to choose all crew hotels, long-term disability, moving expenses, paid union leave, satellite crew bases, staff pass travel, an increased terrorism benefit and more company provided uniforms.
Does anyone else have a feeling of deja vu? First the airlines have a crisis, then they cut staff costs, then they become profitable, then their unions demand hefty pay raises (and get them). Then, the airlines have a crisis, and so it goes. How can they break out of this cycle?
The incredible shrinking airline : US Airways, in the 'good old days' (not too long ago), flew 542 flights a day from Pittsburgh and employed more than 12,000 workers at the airport. In January 2008, its latest round of cuts will take effect, leaving it with a mere 68 flights and 1800 employees.
The most preferred airport in the world, according to a poll of TripAdvisor travelers, is Amsterdam. Las Vegas and Orlando tied for second favorite. And the least favorite airport? A tie between O'Hare and Heathrow. Which means I'll take the routing through Amsterdam on KLM and NW again when I head back to Europe in December, instead of an offered routing on American through both Chicago and Heathrow, or BA through Heathrow.
Sensible international travelers now consider the airports they fly through as an important factor in the route and airline they choose.
The poll asked respondents to rate 36 airports around the world as to how easy they were to navigate, cleanliness of their lavatories and the quality of parking facilities. Which probably made for some imperfect responses - although I've flown through Amsterdam many times, I've never parked there, and the closest I've come to parking at the other airports mentioned above has been picking up and dropping off rental cars. How many of us ever park at an airport other than our own home airport?
More information about the TripAdvisor survey here.
I'm almost year late, but it seems my prediction last year about oil topping $100 a barrel - unthinkable when it was made, with oil just breaking through $50 - is, alas, now coming true. December deliveries hit $96.24 in overnight trading on Wednesday/Thursday this week, which - depending on the inflation adjustment factor you use - makes it close to or slightly over the previous inflation adjusted highest price ever for oil, which was reached back in 1980 (in present day terms, it was in the realm of $96 - $101 a barrel back then).
Meanwhile, the airlines continue to raise fares as much as they can, with the seventh attempted round of airfare increases since Labor Day starting Wednesday evening with American attempting to get a $20 roundtrip fare increase accepted.
A couple of important events for Airbus have recently occurred. In a desperately needed development, its new A350 has finally received the blessing it has long been waiting for, with the announcement that airline leasing giant ILFC has revised its original order for 16 of the earlier concept A350 to a new order for 20 of the newer version A350.
ILFC and its CEO, Steven Udvar-Hazy, are perhaps the most influential forces in the airplane buying world today, and Airbus' changes to its initial A350 concept can be seen as being largely reaction to his public criticisms. Now that he has signaled his acceptance of the new A350 design, this is likely to encourage many other airlines to choose the A350 as well.
Currently, and including this order, Airbus has 196 of the planes on order - a very low total compared to over 700 orders received by Boeing for its 787.
And the A380 has now commenced commercial service with Singapore Airlines - details here. But don't go getting the wrong idea when you see the picture and caption 'Australians Tony and Julie Elwood share a romantic moment on their double bed in an exclusive suite aboard the Airbus 380.'
As this article delights in pointing out, Singapore Airlines is banning what it refers to as 'inappropriate behavior' in the private double bed suites.
Is there an A380 in your airport's future? Probably not, as this article explains. Unfortunately, although a generally good article, it persists in perpetuating the nonsense that 500 passengers going on to or coming off an A380 will overload airport services such as Immigration and Customs, baggage handling, etc. Not only does the SQ cabin configuration only have 471 seats (only 50 or so more passengers than a 747), but I've never been in any large international airport that doesn't have many different flights all arriving at about the same time, all with their passengers going into Customs, Immigration, etc areas simultaneously.
The extra 50 or so passengers on an A380 arrival won't make any difference, and with most airports planning to have two jetways servicing each A380, you'll probably get on and off the A380 faster than with a much smaller plane such as a 777 (which in some configurations holds as many or more passengers than a 747) or even 767. I'm keenly looking forward to a chance to fly an A380, and you should be too.
Talking about planes, it isn't clear whether the continued problems SAS is having with the Bombardier Q400 Dash-8 should be an embarrassment to Bombardier or to SAS. SAS has now announced it is retiring its entire Q400 fleet, other airlines such as local Seattle regional carrier Horizon continue to fly the plane (and have little choice, it being a mainstay of their fleet).
And talking about plane safety, our airlines have figured out another way to save money. They believe they can do this by keeping older planes longer, as this article reports.
Special mention, when it comes to old planes, must be made of Northwest and its fleet of 109 aging DC-9s, now with an average age of 35 years. Northwest has no current plans to replace these planes, so they could continue in service for another five years or more.
But an old plane is somewhat reminiscent of an old axe - you know, the axe that has been in your family for generations - sure, you've replaced its handle half a dozen times and its head once or twice, but it is still the same old axe, right? Most of the parts that wear are maintained and replaced as needed, with only the basic fuselage and wing structures dating back to the plane's original manufacture. But even unmoving fuselages suffer from stresses, strains, wear and tear, and can fail, so most of us would probably prefer to be on a plane much newer than 35+ years old.
It takes a lot of courage to say 'we made a mistake'; and sometimes it is easier to find that courage after being booted out of your job. Maybe this was the case when the former head of Boeing's 787 program commented on problems with the company's innovative approach to distributed design and build of the 787, predicting that perhaps for the next plane, Boeing would centralize everything once more.
Showing that Boeing continues to be an absolute master of playing Washington (and other states) for all the incentive funding they can possibly get, he went on to comment about the huge benefits of a new centralized facility for Boeing's next new plane (a successor to the 737) and indicated that Boeing would locate this plant wherever it was most advantageous to - in other words, time for the states to start another bidding war to become Boeing's chosen location. Washington paid way over the odds to keep Boeing in-state for the 787 program, and probably will endeavor to do so again for any new program. Details here.
At the same time, Boeing is vociferously complaining about government aid to Airbus.
Some counter-currents in the cell phone business. On the one hand, Sprint/Nextel are settling a class action lawsuit about their restrictive business practices. But on the other hand, Apple has announced concerns at people buying too many iPhones, for purpose of unauthorized resale, and is limiting sales to no more than two per person.
To enforce this limit, Apple is requiring purchases be made by credit or debit card rather than cash.
Is it lawful to refuse to accept cash for a purchase? The money in my pocket says 'This note is legal tender for all debts public and private'. Do we need to add the words 'except for Apple iPhone purchases' to this sentence?
More drunk pilots.
This Week's Security Horror Story : Six years and many billions of dollars in security investment since 9/11, and our screeners still can't do what they're paid to do. 75% of test fake bombs were not detected by screeners at LAX, and 60% were missed at ORD. Yes, three out of every four fake bombs were missed at LAX.
Interestingly, one of the best airports - SFO with only a 20% failure rate - is staffed not by TSA but by private contractors. Wasn't the whole rationale for the TSA due to private contractors supposedly being no good and unreliable?
More details here.
But there are some things the TSA has proven excellent at doing. Such as, well, breaking a laptop and then threatening the owner with arrest when he asked how he could file a damage claim (details here) or detailing a British Minister of the Crown for 40 minutes after he had visited the US and was on his way back home to Britain.
His purpose in visiting the US? To meet with the Homeland Security Department to talk about terrorism. Details here.
Memo to the TSA : Britain is our closest ally, and ministers in their government are probably safe to allow on planes without the need for 40 minutes of hassling first.
Another particularly well developed ability on the TSA's part is to massively over-react and close airports down after accidentally messing up themselves. The latest example occurred at JFK this week.
So do you really feel we're safer, and getting a good return on the billions spent on the TSA?
While I have a great deal of respect for the FBI, here's a very unsettling story that doesn't seem to be excusable in any respect, but - most unsettling of all - appears to reflect accepted FBI policy and procedure.
Forced false confessions? In the US? We're losing sight of our founding principles.
When you travel, there are some distances that are sufficiently short as to make it a no brainer to drive, and some distances that are so long as to make it a no brainer to fly. And then there's a grey area of uncertainty where you're never quite sure if it is better to fly or drive. Depending on the situation, this is usually somewhere in the 150 - 250 mile range, with the increasing inconvenience associated with air travel making the distance people are prepared to drive longer than previously.
One such grey area is between Portland OR and Seattle WA - about a 180 mile distance along a moderately congested freeway. Horizon Air operates a shuttle between the two cities, and has come up with an amusing new website to encourage people to choose to fly rather than drive. Although jokingly presented, much of what it depicts is close to the truth.
However little they paid, it was too much. Miami's downtown district hopes to attract people to move into the area with a new slogan: DWNTWN MIAMI.
'Not having the O's makes it more creative,' claims Oscar Rodriguez, a Downtown Development Authority board member. 'It took some getting used to, but it's a smart logo,' said Mauricio Giammattei of Cre8tiv Juice Brand Design. 'You're not asking a 70-year-old to move to downtown. You're asking a 24-year-old to move to downtown.'
It is the end of daylight saving this weekend. Due to the new date for ending daylight saving, not all computers will automatically change their time, so be sure to check your computers and other time devices manually on Sunday, when you'll move your time back one hour.
Hopefully you'll have more success at this simple exercise than did Gatwick airport last weekend (when the Brits changed back to standard time). Hundreds of arrivals and departures were advertised an hour late after computers ignored the return to Greenwich mean time. Flight times were also published incorrectly on the Gatwick web site.
Apparently Gatwick told its computers to change time not last weekend but some other time (perhaps this weekend), but the UK is no longer in synch with the US for changes to daylight saving and back again.
Lastly this week, happy birthday to The Travel Insider. We turned six years old two weeks ago. It has been an interesting six years - always different, although some things are always the same (bad airlines, stupid security, etc). Thank you very much for helping make this possible, and let's hope we're both here, writing and reading, in another six years too.
And so, with that in mind, may I propose a toast to The Travel Insider. But hopefully not quite as extravagant an act of drinking as the ones mentioned here.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels
David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider
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