Weekly Roundup, Friday 29 June, 2018

Our group at the start of our Grand Expedition of Great Britain, posing at Land’s End.

Good morning

I returned from my lovely three weeks in Britain on Wednesday, only to discover that while I was flying home, somewhere over the Arctic, my main server had crashed.  This changed my plans for Wednesday afternoon and most of Thursday from one of calmly unpacking suitcases and recovering from jet lag to one of panicked rushing about the place, to and from the server co-location facility, computer stores, and so on, and about the only good thing about it was that, when I woke sleeplessly on Thursday morning at 4.30am I could immediately get back to trying to recover from a very nasty hardware failure and associated data corruption.

The main Travel Insider website remains down, but email is working again and the Blog site is now up again, with most of the lost data restored/recovered.  I hope the main TI website will be back up later today.  Alas, the outage was not only inconvenient but also, inevitably, costly, but it is the first major hardware failure in five years, so I feel that overall things aren’t too bad.

The rest of this week’s newsletter is more in narrative form than the usual form, although still hopefully plenty long enough.  So please continue reading for :

  • Grand Expedition of Great Britain Report
  • Plans for British Touring in 2019
  • Returning Back to Seattle Experiences
  • The Future of Hotels?  Let’s Hope Not!
  • Another Virgin Failure
  • The Worst Problem We Had in Britain
  • Online Travel Agencies – Did You Think They Were There to Help You?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Grand Expedition of Great Britain Report

So, how was our inaugural Grand Expedition of Great Britain?  In general, it was wonderful, although I plan to make some tweaks to the itinerary before we do it again.

The core part of the expedition was to do the “Bucket List” aspirational journey between Land’s End in the South-west corner of England up to John O’Groats in the North-east corner of Scotland.  This is sort of like the “Route 66” concept in the US, and something many British people hope to do at some point in their lives.

Notionally and historically it is considered an 874 mile journey, but new roads and choices mean it is possible to cover the distance in as short as 850 miles.  We went a more roundabout way, and ended up taking 2145 miles, to say nothing of about 500 miles of additional travel before and after the main expedition!

The fastest time to travel, by car, between the two points was set last year, when a person did the journey in 9 hours 36 minutes.  Yes, the driver did break the speed limit (he averaged 87.6 mph!).  We took a more sedate pace, with a total elapsed time between having our pictures taken at each end of 9 days 21 hours 51 minutes.

We generally had excellent weather for the entire time we were on our expedition, with one notable exception – we went up into the Orkney Islands to the north above Scotland, where the wind was howling with a strong gale, low temperatures, and occasional rain.  But that was one day only, and the next day it was back to calm and sunny warm weather again, and the general feeling was that it added to the experience to visit the Orkneys – a place that holds the feeling of being windswept at the best of times – in such distinctive weather.

We saw some amazing places on our extended expedition, and took detours to places off the traditional tour routes, sometimes on an unplanned basis as a result of tour member requests.  This sometimes added a wonderful element of serendipity and surprise, but once was a surprise disappointment when we detoured to see the Ironbridge Gorge, only to find the Iron Bridge itself was totally covered in plastic sheeting due to current restoration work.

Happily, we had another great group of Travel Insiders participating, particularly because nearly everyone was returning for a second (or third, fourth, fifth, and in one case sixth tour).  Twenty people did the entire tour, earning themselves a formal Certificate of Journey, and another five did part but not all.  Our coach driver Jim, on his third Travel Insider tour, was another highlight and he helped ensure we all had a wonderful time and a comfortable safe journey.

I hope everyone enjoyed the tour as much as I did.

Next time I’ll lengthen the journey time and reduce the time spent before and after the main Land’s End/John O’Groats section, so we can travel at a more leisurely pace, and with two night stays at all places with one exception (Glasgow), making it more a case of experiencing the different aspects of England and Scotland (and Wales which this time we spent one night in) rather than simply passing through them.

Plans for British Touring in 2019

The Grand Expedition may be offered again next year, indeed, you can express your preference.  I’m trying to choose between that or another of our Scotland Island tours, or maybe something entirely different.  Do you have a preference?  If so, let me know which you’d prefer.  In all three cases, it would be start in early/mid June.

(a)  Another Grand Expedition like this year, about 16 days, starting in Penzance and ending in Edinburgh or Glasgow, optional extension before the tour in Salisbury.

(b)  Our Scotland’s Islands and Highlands tour, about 12 days, starting in Glasgow and ending in Edinburgh or Glasgow, traveling through five of Scotland’s islands and some of the Scottish highlands, optional extension in Scotland before the tour.

(c)  A meandering tour between Edinburgh and Glasgow, about 10 days, including travel south to the “Borders” area, perhaps briefly crossing into England (Berwick, possibly Newcastle), and of course, a Scottish island (Arran) and a visit to the Ayrshire coast.  Would include a stay at New Lanark and at a Scottish castle.

I will also offer at the end of whichever tour we choose, a “land cruise” in York, England.  This will follow the model of this year’s Christmas Markets Land Cruise, in which we settle for a week in a comfortable hotel, and enjoy daily optional touring around the region.

In the case of York, the touring will be to places varying from astonishingly beautiful abbey ruins (Fountains and Rievaulx) to seaside towns (Scarborough) to Victorian era spa and market towns (Harrogate and Pickering) as well as to places of outstanding natural beauty (the North York Moors National Park and Yorkshire Dales National Park), a stately home or two (Castle Howard in Particular) and some unusual but interesting other attractions (Eden Camp, maybe a historic brewery, and possibly some other things too), as well as plenty of time to enjoy amazing York itself.

This could be taken as a separate stand-alone vacation, or added on to all or some of our immediately preceding Scotland tour.  It will operate in later June/early July.

Please let me know if any of this sounds interesting to you so I can get a better feeling for what to offer.

Returning Back to Seattle Experiences

My return journey back to Seattle was interesting.  Let me start off by boasting a little bit, if I may.  I decided I wanted to check in for my flight at 7.50am.  Can you guess what time I left my hotel room in order to get to the airport and check-in counter by 7.50am?

Well, the chances are you wouldn’t have guessed the correct answer, because I treated myself to an ‘at airport’ hotel at Gatwick.  Now there are plenty of hotels that claim to be at their associated airports, but this one – a Bloc hotel – was actually in the terminal building.  So after electronically checking out in my room, I left it at 7.45am, walked the short distance (but through four closed fire doors – ugh!) to the elevators, rode them from the eighth floor down to the second floor, walked a hundred feet, and there I was, at the Norwegian check-in counter.

What a wonderful start to the day that was.  Sure, the hotel room itself was almost claustrophobically small, and it had a ‘wet’ bathroom – ie, a shower head that sprayed water, uncontained, all over and around the bathroom, but for a brief overnight stay, and allowing no hassle or delay and an easy relaxing “nothing can go wrong” journey to the check-in counter, I was perfectly happy.  Recommended.

I was curious as to what form the ‘extra security on flights to the US’ might take.  On occasion in the past, in London and elsewhere in Europe, the extra security has taken the form of an interview about the reason for one’s visit to the US and the reason for one’s visit to UK/Europe, sometimes in quite clever detail.  So I wondered what the augmented security might be.  As it turned out, it was nothing more than a rushed “Did you pack your bags yourself/do you know everything inside them/were the bags ever outside your control” questions of yesteryear.  No questions about anything else at all!

And as for restrictions on electronics, neither the 30 radios I had in my checked bags nor the many electronic items I was carrying on were given a second look at all.

But then, a nasty surprise at the Norwegian check-in counter.  They weighed my carry-on – both my backpack and shoulder bag, leaving nothing unweighed.  This has only ever happened to me once before (on an Aeroflot flight).  Fortunately, the agent chose not to make an issue of my 25.1 lb weight (the limit is 22.4 lbs for carry-on), but I did note other passengers were not being as fortunate, and were having to either transfer items to their checked luggage or check their carry-on.

If you like to travel with heavy carry-on bags, or if Norwegian’s miserly 44 lb per checked bag limit forces you to load up your carry-on, consider yourself warned.  Fill your clothing pockets before checking in (perhaps consider a capacious Scottevest product) and then transfer items to your carry-on after the check-in and weighing has been done.

The flight back home was made nicer by the exceedingly rare luxury of an empty seat beside me.  But I did not like Norwegian’s policy of charging $3 for a bottle of water.  One should drink more not less water on a long flight, but at $3 for a 12 oz sized bottle of water, there’s a tendency to ‘save money’ and not do so.

As for the $45 meal I prepaid, it comprised an amorphous lump of beef and gristle (mainly gristle) making it simultaneously the most expensive meal of my entire three weeks away and also the nastiest.

Don’t get the wrong idea – as airlines go, Norwegian is definitely one of the better ones in terms of overall value for money and travel experience, but $45 for an airline meal?

We arrived back to Seattle more or less on time and then sat on the ground for a while before being allowed off the plane.  The reason for this ground delay became apparent when entering the terminal building.  Immigration was backed up, almost all the way from the main hall with all the Immigration booths, back through the lengthy corridors to get there, and much of the way back to where we entered the terminal building.  The backup wasn’t only for foreigners, it was for US citizens too.

Fortunately, my Global Entry/Nexus card allowed me to struggle through and in front of everyone else, but then upon arrival in the Baggage Hall there was a fresh scene of appalling crowding and chaos.  There was almost not a single square foot of unoccupied space, either by people or by bags offloaded off carousels (I guess the delays, probably of an hour or more, to get through Immigration, meant that bags were way ahead of their owners).

It took a stunning 80 minutes from when the plane stopped and turned off its engines until my two bags arrived on a carousel.  That is appallingly beyond any measure of a reasonable time for bags to arrive.  Please don’t think that it was only my bags that were delayed – probably half the people on the flight were still waiting for their bags when I finally got to leave with mine.

There was one more ‘treat’ in store for me.  I had committed a tactical blunder.  I engaged a roving Customs officer in conversation, rather than trying to stay anonymous and blend into the crowds.  I did this because I wanted to know if the nightmare crowds were normal or a special one-off event.  She told me that it was, alas, an all-too normal experience this summer, and they were expecting the crowds to get bigger as we moved into the main summer period.  Ugh!  After some more polite conversation, she then asked to see my Customs declaration.  I showed her my Global Entry form, whereupon she wrote “R/A” on it and politely told me “That means you’ll have to go through Agricultural screening, perhaps they’ll find some food in your bags or something” and moved on.

She didn’t ask me if I had any food, or anything like that.  We had simply conversed about the crowded baggage area and her plans for her pending retirement, and the farm property she already owns in Graham, WA.  The whole idea of the Global Entry program is that the people accepted into it are spared the need for additional or random screening unless something specific causes an officer to have a direct concern.

But I was wise enough not to argue that with any of the officials in the airport, because one of the sad elements of the police state we’re becoming is that anything, no matter how trivial or ordinary, can be deemed suspicious, by the people we are permitting to become the unquestioned and unquestionable rulers of our lives and destinies.  Doing anything other than complying could have escalated the consequences negatively (even though I had neither food nor anything else illegal) and massively added to the delays.

Suffice it to say the entire experience at Seattle airport was worse than in most third world countries.

The Future of Hotels?  Let’s Hope Not!

During the three weeks I was away, I of course stayed at a number of different hotels, including a series of hotels all belonging to the Premier Inn group in the UK.  This chain, totaling some 750 hotels and 65,000 rooms, is the UK’s largest hotel brand, and is notable for having a fairly consistent experience, air conditioning, some reasonably good locations, and being fairly priced.  I chose them so we could have a balance of ‘characterful old’ hotels (but with no elevators or air conditioning and sometimes quirky facilities) and modern/efficient hotels that while bland, had modern facilities and conveniences.

The Premier Inns are a curious blend of excellence and awfulness.  The overall effect is similar to what might happen if an experienced hotelier started to design ‘the perfect mid-price hotel’ and then, half-way through, was replaced by an accountant who completed the plans on the basis of ‘the least cost to operate hotel’.

So the rooms are reasonably spacious and the beds very comfortable, with a great desk/work area and multi-input large television.  But go into the bathroom, and instead of a regular roll of toilet paper, you have a metal can on the wall that dispenses single sheets of toilet paper.  When you check in, you’re greeted by a computer screen with no staff to be found.  But the computer interface is stunningly badly designed, and requires 95% of everyone checking in to ask for help, once a staff member can be found.

Finding a staff member is difficult.  The same people seem to be simultaneously answering the phone, helping at reception, serving in the bar, taking things up to hotel rooms, and helping in the restaurant.  And there is never enough of them.

You can’t charge items in the bar or restaurant to your room, instead you have to pay for everything, every time you order.  That slows down service – one morning there was a long line of people waiting to be admitted to the breakfast room because the one person on duty was having to take payments for breakfasts from people as well as check room numbers and show people to tables.

But perhaps the most infuriating thing of all is their decision to eliminate phones from the hotel rooms.  Yes, I know that these days 99% of everyone travels with a cell phone.  But, that overlooks two use cases.  The first being international travelers, who now have to make a potentially very expensive/international call on their phone simply to call reception for a trivial issue.  The second is for internal calls in general – for example, you might not know someone’s phone number but you know their hotel room number.  How do you now contact them?  You can no longer call on an internal phone direct to housekeeping.  And so on.

This problem also manifested itself in an unexpected manner.  I needed to speak to another person in the group, and didn’t know their room number.  The hotel staff refused to give it to me, due to ‘data privacy laws’.  Normally, the workaround for that is to ask them to connect you via a house/internal phone to the person’s room, but there was no way they could do that.

Talking about data privacy laws, one Premier Inn also insisted on recording our passport details, and even wanted to know where we would be traveling to next.  This was something they said by law they had to do.  I asked about this at the next (privately owned) hotel and the owner laughed at the notion and said there was no need for that information to be obtained.  One couple had left their passports with friends in another part of the UK while traveling around for safety.  But the simple solution to this requirement was to lie to the (usually foreign) employee or to the computer screen and just say you were British, in which case, no passport details were required, making a mockery of the whole process.

I do hope other hotels won’t follow suit and cut back on staff to a similarly dysfunctional level, eliminate room phones, treat us to institutional toilet paper dispensers, and so on.  But I fear Premier Inns are showing us what will increasingly become the norm for all hotels.

Another Virgin Failure

I took the train from Edinburgh to London, traveling down what was once Britain’s best rail line, the East Coast Main Line.  For the last few years since March 2015, the trains have been operated by Virgin Trains East Coast (a company that, notwithstanding the prominent Virgin branding, was actually majority owned by Stagecoach).

But just a couple of weeks ago, VTEC prematurely cancelled their operating franchise (it was supposed to run for eight years with assumed renewals to follow) due to having lost money on the operation.  Only a few years earlier, Sir Richard Branson had been complaining about the short period of the franchise, asking for a 20 or even better 30 year award of the operating rights, but it turned out, after three short years and large losses, that even eight years was too much for him to manage.

Never mind the business issues surrounding another Virgin failure (this being their second rail failure).  I was again amazed at the inadequacy of their carriages, with space for barely five bags in the luggage racks in a carriage that could hold up to 76 people.  Call me paranoid if you will, but the idea of leaving suitcases in the semi-private obscured vestibule between carriages does not seem prudent, and I always worry not just at having my suitcases pilfered or stolen while on the journey, but at simply having someone take one with them when getting off the train at an intermediate station.

I was also surprised at what I perceived to be a deterioration in track and ride quality, with the ride seeming to be considerably rougher than I remembered it from the previous year and years past, and journey times starting to lengthen once more (albeit obscured by having fewer stops in about the same total travel time).  This is not a Virgin-created problem (they just operate the trains, another company owns/maintains the track) but it is disappointing to experience such poor ride quality.  Sure, it is amazingly faster and better than Amtrak, but it is also very inferior to that on Europe’s better high-speed lines.

As an aside, Britain’s rail privatization in 1995 has attracted a lot of criticism in the 23 years since that time.  But please have a look at this chart to see privatization’s astonishing impact on passenger numbers.  After reaching a peak in the 1910s, passenger numbers steadily declined from 1.5 billion a year to half that number immediately prior to privatization, but since then, passenger numbers have skyrocketed up and now are at the all-time highest ever numbers, almost 1.75 billion a year – a level of ridership which is straining all aspects of the rail network.

The chart seems to make it unavoidably obvious that this astonishing turn-around in rail patronage is the result of privatization.

The Worst Problem We Had in Britain

At first I thought the headline was one of these ‘silly season’ scare stories that help to sell newspapers during the slow season each summer, but which actually mean nothing to normal people leading their normal lives.  This related to Britain and Europe suffering from a regional shortage of CO2 gas – not something one often thinks about, but an essential ingredient in carbonated beverages and also used in a number of other food processes, as well as in hospitals and elsewhere too.

And then, on one of the last evenings in Scotland, several of our group went to a local bar in Aberdeen, only to be told that there was no beer on tap, due to the CO2 shortage.  The adjacent microbrewery had closed down entirely because it couldn’t get any CO2 at all.

And now it seems the problem is spreading still further, even affecting the creation of that quintessentially British breakfast pastry/bread, the crumpet.

Happily, it seems that perhaps next week will see some of the CO2 factories restarting their production.  But it might be a difficult weekend for some.

Online Travel Agencies – Did You Think They Were There to Help You?

I still remember the naive eagerness that was shown by so many travelers as they turned their back on regular travel agents and rushed to embrace the impersonal internet booking services in the early 2000s.

But, really, did such people truly think the internet services were there to help them?  To provide a fairer and more impartial honest service?  To give them lower prices?  Sadly and surprisingly, that is exactly what many people thought.

At the same time, travel suppliers switched allegiances and started to give better rates and preferential treatment to the ‘new’ online companies, in the belief that by ‘going direct’ (in truth, by switching their choice of middlemen) they’d save money.  The same hotels that thought this never paused to question “If these companies are going to save us money, how is it that we’re giving them bigger discounts and commissions than we used to give to regular travel companies?”

In unhappy reality, the internet travel companies have shown themselves to be far more venal than anyone ever anticipated.  Not only have they increased the commission costs to hotels, but rather than passing any of that saving on, they’ve simply kept it all for themselves and have acted to, in many cases, preferentially promote the hotels they make the biggest profits on to travelers.

Rather than increasing competition and choice, they’ve reduced it, and they are using their market strength to dictate terms to hotels.

At last, some people are starting to appreciate the monster that has silently and stealthily grown, and the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority has recently sent warning letters to a number of major sites requiring them to review their policies.  This article is interesting because it lists the types of deceptive behavior at issue.  Need I add that such activities are likely to be as common on US sites as they are on their UK counterparts.

And Lastly This Week…..

The TSA predicts that today (Friday) will be its busiest day ever as people travel for the 4 July long weekend; indeed their stats seem to be suggesting a succession of record-breaking days.  I wasn’t sure whether the 4 July ‘weekend’ would be this or next weekend, due to it being on a Wednesday – maybe some people are taking the entire nine days off?

But, whether they are busy or not, alas, they still have time to closely search 96 year old women.

Whether you take this weekend, next weekend, both, or neither, I do hope you have a great 4 July and remember that, as flawed as our country can be at times, it still truly remains one of the very greatest.

Until next week, please enjoy safe and uncongested travels (and heed the TSA’s anxious reminder not to pack fireworks into your luggage!)

 

David.

 

 

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