Tuesday, 9 August 2022

T-Mobile and Deutsche Telekom lie to customers

With more than a hundred million subscribers in the USA, T-Mobile USA — the largest subsidiary of the German company Deutsche Telekom — collects more personal information about more people in the USA than any other U.S. subsidiary of a parent corporation based in the European Union. T-Mobile USA is thus the single most important test of the applicability to EU-based companies’ U.S. subsidiaries of European data protection rules and the privacy and data protection promises made by European multinational companies on behalf of their worldwide subsidiaries.

This matters because European laws and the stated policies of European companies like Deutsche Telekom typically claim to provide much better privacy protection than U.S. laws. People in the U.S. like me who care about privacy often chose to give our business to European companies, which often operate in the U.S. through subsidiary corporations they control, in order to obtain greater protection for our personal information than if we dealt with U.S.-based companies. But do these European companies practice what they preach?

This issue is spotlighted by my latest discovery, as discussed below: Just as T-Mobile USA and lawyers for some of its customers have proposed a settlement of multiple class-action lawsuits growing out of a massive breach a year ago of poorly-secured personal data about current and past T-Mobile customers, I’ve uncovered what may be an even more significant pattern of fraudulent privacy claims and breach of privacy promises by both T-Mobile USA and its German corporate parent, Deutsche Telekom.

For many years, both Deutsche Telekom AG and its U.S. subsidiary T-Mobile USA, Inc. have been lying to customers about their privacy and data protection policies and practices.

I’ve relied on those promises, and assumed that — if I ever needed or wanted to do so — I would be able to exercise my access rights as a data subject in accordance with those policies. But now that I have a reason — because of T-Mobile’s own failure to secure my data — to seek access to the data about me held by T-Mobile (and obtained from them by hackers), T-Mobile has refused to comply with the policies advertised as applicable to it as a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, or to allow me to inspect most of the data it holds about me.

Let that sink in: T-Mobile allowed unknown and unauthorized third parties to obtain personal information about me, but now refuses to allow me to see or get a copy of the information about me that it allowed those third parties to have.

Deutsche Telekom claims that it isn’t “able” to compel its own U.S. subsidiary, T-Mobile, to adopt or comply with Deutsche Telekom’s purportedly “binding corporate rules” on privacy. This makes a mockery of the whole idea of “binding” corporate rules or contracts as a basis for compliance with privacy principles or for transfers of personal data between companies or across borders.

What’s going on?

Almost exactly a year ago, T-Mobile confirmed reports that hackers had obtained personal information about tens of millions (the exact number remains unclear) of T-Mobile’s more than a hundred million current and former cellular phone, messaging, and Internet access customers.

I’m one of those T-Mobile customers, although I received no notice from T-Mobile until more than two months after t-Mobile learned that my data had been obtained from T-Mobile by unknown and unauthorized third parties.

In the past, I have recommended T-Mobile repeatedly to my readers in the USA, primarily on the basis of its relatively favorable tariffs for international travelers, but significantly, although secondarily, on the basis of its superior privacy and data protection policies and promises compared to those of its major competitors among U.S. cellular service providers.

As I’ve pointed out in explaining my (unpaid) endorsements of T-Mobile’s services for U.S.-based international travelers, T-Mobile’s more consumer-protective privacy and data protection policies, compared to its U.S. competitors, are related to the status of T-Mobile USA, Inc. (TMUS) as a subsidiary of the German multinational company Deutsche Telekom AG (DTAG). Deutsche Telekom is one of the two main privatized successors to the former German government post and telecommunications service. The telecom portion of that government agency became what is today Deutsche Telekom, while the postal portion became what is today DHL.

Privacy and data protection should give European (and Canadian) companies a competitive advantage over US-based companies, since these companies are required by the laws in their home countries to observe higher standards in their worldwide operations, including in the USA, than are required by U.S. privacy law (or the lack thereof). But few companies based in the EU or Canada advertise privacy as a competitive advantage in the U.S. market. And it’s not yet entirely clear when and to what extent EU or Canadian data protection law applies to U.S. subsidiaries of European or Canadian parent companies.

When I first signed up for cellphone service with T-Mobile in the U.S. in 2004, the U.S. division of T-Mobile was wholly owned by its German parent. Several restructurings later, Deutsche Telekom and T-Mobile USA have provided conflicting statements to me recently as to the percentage of T-Mobile USA stock owned or controlled by Deutsche Telekom. But both Deutsche Telekom and T-Mobile USA continue to claim publicly, as they have throughout the time that I have been a T-Mobile USA customer, that Deutsche Telekom owns or has voting control of the majority of T-Mobile USA stock and thus has a “controlling” interest in T-Mobile USA.

But in the course of trying (unsuccessfully) to find out what data about me was obtained from T-Mobile, in order to assess the threat and mitigate the damage from their data breach, I have discovered that T-Mobile USA refuses to comply with the policies that Deutsche Telekom claims apply to all members of the Telekom Group of companies worldwide, to the extent that Deutsche Telekom can require those companies to do so. And Deutsche Telekom refuses to compel T-Mobile USA to comply with the “binding” Telekom Group privacy policy, claiming inexplicably (and almost certainly falsely) that Deutsche Telekom is unable to use its ownership and/or voting control of the majority of T-Mobile USA stock to compel its U.S. subsidiary to comply with Telekom Group policies and promises.

These actions appear to violate both U.S. and German laws against breach of contract, truth in advertising, and fraud. As discussed further below, they also raise significant questions as to the framework of “binding” contractual commitments which many other European companies have claimed as the legal basis for transfers of personal data not only to foreign subsidiaries but also to unrelated companies abroad.

If, as Deutsche Telekom now claims (as detailed below), it is unable to compel even its own U.S. subsidiary, in which it holds a majority or at least controlling ownership interest, to comply with its “binding” promises and contractual commitments, the entire edifice of contracts and “binding corporate rules” as a basis for “adequate” privacy and data protection is a complete sham. I think Deutsche Telekom is simply lying. But if it is telling the truth, and it is really unable (perhaps due to some overriding non-public agreement) to compel compliance by T-Mobile USA, than any finding of “adequacy” for the protection of data transferred from the EU to a U.S. company on the basis of such unenforceable “commitments” must be reconsidered and rescinded. If Deutshce Telekom can’t make its own subsidiaries
enforce its “binding” contractual commitments on its own subsidiaries, how can it be expected to enforce them on unrelated companies?

For Deutsche Telekom, this isn’t a secondary or minor issue. T-Mobile USA has more than a hundred million subscribers. That’s more than Deutsche Telekom has in Germany, and more than any other Deutsche Telekom subsidiary. The single most important test of Deutsche Telekom’s “Binding Corporate Rules Privacy” is whether they are applied to, and observed by, T-Mobile USA. And the single most important task for Deutsche Telekom’s privacy team is to make sure that the “Binding Corporate Rules Privacy” are adopted and complied with by T-Mobile USA.

With respect to personal privacy, the relationship between Deutsche Telekom and T-Mobile USA is the single most important relationship between an EU-based corporation and a subsidiary in the USA. It is rivalled, although probably not equalled, only by the relationships between the largest European automobile conglomerates and their U.S. subsidiaries. This could be the most serious case exposed to date of failure to comply with, and/or to be able to obtain compliance with, “binding corporate rules” with respect to privacy and data protection. As such, it poses a profound challenge to the claims (fictions?) that have propped up continued transfers of personal data from the EU to the USA, despite the lack of any specific privacy or data protection law in the USA applicable to most commercial data.

My investigation is continuing, with or without cooperation from Deutsche Telekom.

The last message I got from Deutsche Telekom is, “We kindly ask you to refrain from further inquiries regarding this matter…. [W]e won’t answer further emails from you.” It’s not entirely clear whether this is intended to foreclose or discourage appeals to their internal compliance and oversight bodies, although on its face it appears to do so. If you can help with legal advice, whistle-blowing, tips, or contacts for internal or external oversight or enforcement bodies with jurisdiction over these matters, please get in touch.

I have not only relied on promises by Deutsche Telekom and T-Mobile USA but have also recommended that others do so. Both companies have now given me their purportedly “final answer” that they will not act in accordance with these promises and policies. Deutsche Telekom says it won’t even discuss the issue with me any further. In these circumstances, I feel obligated to warn my readers now without further delay that they cannot and should not expect these companies to honor their privacy and data protection promises and policies.

I would still welcome a chance to meet with whomever is responsible for these decisions, or for oversight of compliance with U.S. and German law, at Deutsche Telekom and/or T-Mobile USA. I would especially welcome a chance to talk to any of the members of the Supervisory Board of Deutsche Telekom, including the members of the Supervisory Board representing the Deutsche Telekom “works councils”. Pursuant to German law, each member of the Supervisory Board has a personal responsibility to assure that the company complies with the law, and to take action to bring it into compliance if it does not.

I began this project as a personal attempt to protect my own data. Normally, at this point I would seek to interview a spokesperson for Deutsche Telekom. Since the company has told me they won’t talk to me any more , I’ve included extensive excerpts from my correspondence with T-Mobile and Deutsche Telekom to avoid any accusation of quoting out of context or denying them a chance to state their positions. I remain eager to interview their corporate decision-makers and their corporate officers responsible for legal compliance.

As of now, here’s what I know about what happened, what I’ve been told by by both companies, and what this means for consumers:

Continue reading "T-Mobile and Deutsche Telekom lie to customers"
Link | Posted by Edward, 9 August 2022, 06:46 ( 6:46 AM) | Comments (3)

Sunday, 10 July 2022

Congress is again considering proposals to end, or to expand, Selective Service

Once again in 2022, sooner than we expected, Congress is considering proposals either to finally end the widely disregarded, unenforced, and unenforceable requirement for men ages 18-26 to register and report changes of address to the Selective Service System for use in a future military draft — or to try to expand draft registration to young women as well as young men.

Continue reading "Congress is again considering proposals to end, or to expand, Selective Service"
Link | Posted by Edward, 10 July 2022, 19:50 ( 7:50 PM) | Comments (2)

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Using an old 2G or 3G smartphone as a secondary device for travel

In part 1 of this 2-part series, I answered some of the Frequently Asked Questions about the 2G and 3G cellphone “sunset”.

In part 2, below, I look at what travellers can do with some of the “obsolete” older cellphones and smartphones that will no longer be usable, after the 2G and 3G sunset, for voice calls using VoLTE over 4G and 5G networks.

  1. What can I do with my old smartphone, or with a second-hand 2G or 3G smartphone?
  2. Why would I want to carry a second smartphone when I travel, especially one that can’t be used for phone calls or cellular data?
  3. What can a traveller use a ‘phone’ for if it doesn’t have a SIM card, cellular service, or any personal information?
  4. Which ‘obsolete’ phones are the best value as secondary devices for world travellers?
  5. Which operating system is best for an ‘obsolete’ smartphone?
  6. How can I install apps? Which apps should I install or uninstall?

1. What can I do with my old smartphone, or with a second-hand 2G or 3G smartphone?

As I discussed in part 1 of this series, cellphones and smartphones that don’t support the right 4G LTE frequency bands won’t work for voice calls or cellular data after the (already ongoing) worldwide shutdown of older 2G and 3G wireless networks. This planned obsolescence affects almost all mobile device models introduced before around 2014, some devices introduced in 2015-2017, and a few more recent devices depending on where you want to use them.

Flip phones and “candy bar” phones that can’t be used for cellular phone calls will become e-waste. But while a smartphone that can’t make calls or connect to the Internet except over wi-fi will be much less valuable and cheaper to buy second-hand than it was when it was new and could connect to 2G and/or 3G cellular networks around the world, it won’t be useless.

There are more or less elaborate do-it-yourself hacks to turn a smartphone into a special-purpose gadget such as a wi-fi remote control for “smart devices” such as Internet-enabled lightbulbs or sex toys, if you have such things. But you can use an old smartphone for a lot of other purposes with little or no modification or additional software: As a baby monitor. As a doorbell camera. As a video intercom. As an e-reader, music and video player, and wi-fi Web browsing device to keep in the kitchen, on your workbench, by the pool, or anywhere else you might not want to have a larger, more fragile, more valuable device. As a bedside e-reader, alarm clock, and emergency flashlight — next to your bed, or as a courtesy amenity next to a guest bed. As a camera, music and video player, and e-reader to give to a child who isn’t old enough for you to want to give them a smartphone that is valuable, can make or receive calls, or can access the Internet.

As discussed in the rest of this article, there’s a particularly good value proposition for repurposing one of these older devices as a “disposable” low-value secondary device that you can use in crowded and public places while travelling — for offline navigation, as a music player, as an e-reader, for Web browsing where there’s wi-fi, and with sightseeing, museum, and audio tour apps downloaded over wi-fi — without risking the loss or theft of a valuable device or even more valuable personal information.

2. Why would I want to carry a second smartphone when I travel, especially one that can’t be used for phone calls or cellular data?

Because of the way they are used, smartphones are highly vulnerable to loss, breakage, and theft. Drop your phone in the street, and there’s a good chance it will be run over and crushed before you can retrieve it. Smartphones and tablets are the number-one targets of thieves around the world. They are valuable, easy to fence, and easy to snatch and grab because their owners are often holding them in their hands while (a) in public and (b) focusing their attention on the device, or on the subject of the photo they are composing, and not on their surroundings. A mugger will demand both your wallet and your phone, or maybe just your phone, and won’t believe that you don’t have a phone.

If you have stored passwords or other sensitive information on your smartphone, using it in public can be as risky as getting out your wallet in an equally crowded and public place. If your phone is snatched out of your hands while you are using it, a thief may be able to access sensitive data before the device locks itself or you can lock or disable it remotely.

There are thus many of the same reasons to carry a second cheap, expendable wi-fi only smartphone, without a SIM card and on which you store no personal data, for use in public and/or crowded places, as there are for carrying a second wallet with only enough local cash to get you through the day, and maybe something that looks like a credit card (an expired prepaid debit card with a Visa or MasterCard logo serves the purpose well) to satisfy a mugger that they’ve gotten your “real” wallet.

Leave your good smartphone packed away, like your passport and bank cards, in a more secure pocket or in your purse. Don’t use your good smartphone or get out your passport or credit cards any place you don’t feel safe.

A cheap secondary smartphone like this can also be more convenient to use on the run: If it doesn’t have any personal data stored on it, you can set it up to go directly to the home screen or your current app (most likely a map) without your having to enter a password or PIN.

3. What can a traveller use a ‘phone’ for if it doesn’t have a SIM card, cellular service, or any personal information?

Many of the reasons for a traveller to to get out a smartphone in a public place don’t depend on a cellular connection. You can use all of the following apps and functions of a smart “phone” offline, or in a few cases over public wi-fi:

  • Map reading and GPS navigation
  • Still and video camera and audio recorder
  • Music and podcast player
  • E-reader
  • Museum, sightseeing, and audio tour apps (downloaded over wi-fi)
  • Web browser (over public wi-fi)

4. Which “obsolete” smartphones are the best value as secondary devices for world travellers?

The 2G and 3G sunset will make billions of smartphones useless for cellular phone calling. As of this writing in early 2022, that isn’t yet fully reflected in the prices of second-hand smartphones. Many smartphone owners haven’t yet realized that their current cellular carries are about to shut off service on the frequencies and using the protocols on which their devices depend.

The best secondary device for travel may be one you already own, but have replaced with a newer one, perhaps because of the 2G and 3G sunset even though its still working except for cellular wireless connectivity.

For example, I’m setting up my old Motorola “Moto G 3rd Generation” (Android device codename “osprey”) to use when I’m travelling. It was a basic low-end device — but solidly built and with pretty good battery life — when it was introduced in 2015. It does work for 4G cellular data, but only on a few LTE bands, and it doesn’t support VoLTE, so the 2G and 3G sunset is making it obsolete for cellular voice calls. It was originally released with Android 5, and later officially upgraded by Motorola to Android 6, but I’m running a variant of LineageOS based on Android 10.

As of early 2022, you can buy a used device of this or any of a variety of other comparable models, in good condition, for less than US$50.

It’s the best handheld travel GPS and map reader you can buy for $50. With a 5” color touchscreen and enough space on a micro-SD memory card to store a whole world of street-level offline maps, it beats out more expensive dedicated GPS devices in almost all respects except battery life, ruggedness, and water resistance. While the camera on this particular model isn’t great, even for its time, it’s at least as good as any standalone digital snapshot camera you are likely to find for $50. But wait, there’s more: You can also use this device to view and listen to museum and sightseeing audio tours and interpretive and tourist information apps (downloaded over public wi-fi), which have become increasingly ubiquitous during the COVID-19 pandemic as a touch-free way to distribute information to visitors. (Tip: Audio tours and museum and sightseeing apps can also be an enjoyable form of armchair travel to museums and sites you may never visit.)

I don’t expect that the bottom end of prices for used smartphones in good condition with working wi-fi will get much lower. But several billion more working smartphones from around this time, just before all new smartphones began to be built to support 4G and VoLTE, will be rendered “obsolete” by the 2G and 3G sunset. As these billions of devices, including some that were considered “flagship” smartphones as recently as 2013-2016, are dumped into secondary used-phone markets, what you can get for US$50-100 is likely to improve greatly.

The biggest differences between non-VoLTE smartphones are likely to be in their cameras. I invite readers to suggest, in the comments, which smartphones that won’t work for voice calls after the 2G and 3G sunset have the best cameras. These will be the best models for budget travellers to seek out, once their second-hand prices have crashed, to use as secondary devices.

5. Which operating system is best for an ‘obsolete’ smartphone?

The best operating system for an older smartphone, if you are able and willing to take the risk of installing an alternative to the “stock” OS supplied with the phone, is some flavor of LineageOS.

LineageOS is the most popular alternative to the Android versions installed on smartphones by their manufacturers. Installing LineageOS instead of stock Android is sort of like installing Linux on a desktop or laptop computer instead of Windows, although LineageOS is much more like stock Android than Linux is like Windows.

What about an iPhone? With an iPhone, you generally have no alternative to the version of iOS provided by Apple. No iOS updates are available once Apple ends its support for a particular model of iPhone. This planned software obsolescence serves Apple’s interests by motivating iPhone customers to buy new rather than used iPhones, and to trade-in their iPhones for newer ones. But it makes older iPhones less suitable for continued use and repurposing than Android devices of similar vintage.

A typical “Android” phone is running multiple layers of system software including open-source Android, proprietary Google apps, a proprietary user-interface “skin” from the device manufacturer, and proprietary apps from your cellular network operator. All that phoning home to Google (or Apple, if you have an iPhone) wastes some of your cellular data allotment. Even if you don’t have a cellular data connection, all of that bloatware running all the time in the background uses storage space you could use for more offline maps, photos, videos, etc.; occupies RAM and slows down your device; and, perhaps most significantly, drains your battery more quickly.

LineageOS consists of the open-source components of Android, plus some additional open-source software to make the system usable without most or all of the Google-ware.

The battery of a device running any of the variants of LineageOS below typically lasts substantially longer than the battery of the same device running “stock” Android with the usual array of factory and carrier-installed bloatware.

Installing LineageOS or another alternative OS on a smartphone is a bit like installing Linux on a Windows computer, but it’s more intimidating. You are very unlikely to “brick” your desktop or laptop (render it irrevocably unbootable) by trying to install Linux. There’s more of a possibility, although small, that if you make a mistake you could brick your smartphone by trying to install LineageOS. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! This is a reason to try it first on a cheap old smartphone, as an experiment and for practice. If all goes well, you might then decide to install an alternate Android version on your (more valuable) primary smartphone.

Some device manufacturers make it relatively easy to replace the stock version of Android with LineageOS or the OS of your choice. Others go to greater or lesser lengths to make it more difficult, in some cases all but impossible. Different versions of LineageOS and various forks and derivatives of it are available for different devices. Check what’s available before you buy a used device:

Any of these these LineageOS versions and forks are much better — especially in improved battery life — than bloated “stock” Android. Use whichever one is available for your device.

If more than one variant is available for your device, use the one that still is, or that most recently was, maintained, so that you get the most recent possible Android bug fixes, security patches, and feature updates.

Many of the differences between these variants are beyond the scope of this article. The choice is partly just a matter of taste.

6. How can I install apps? Which apps should I install or uninstall?

There are differences in how apps are installed, and what apps are installed by default.

One major division between LineageOS versions and forks is in how they handle apps available from the Google Play Store.

By default, the “basic” version of LineageOS (the first version listed above) includes neither any of Google’s apps nor any way to obtain apps from other sources that are distributed through the Google Play Store. The problems is that many other Android apps that have no other connection to Google, including almost all Android museum, sightseeing, and audio tour apps, are distributed only through the Google Play Store. Museums and tourist information centers could make these apps available for direct download, but they don’t.

Even if you don’t want Google’s own apps wasting your device memory and running down your battery, you probably will want to use at least some apps distributed only through the Google Play Store.

How is that possible?

Developers of different LineageOS versions have taken different approaches.

If you install the “basic” version of LineageOS, you can choose to also flash “Open Gapps” with it. Despite the “open” name, this is actually just a stripped-down version of the proprietary Google Play Services client. It will slow your device down less than the full suite of Google apps, but it’s more Google — and more drain on your battery — than most people need or want for a device like this.

With “Open Gapps”, you still have to create or sign in with a Google account to download any apps from the Google Play Store. Once you have linked your device to a Google account, you risk unintentionally syncing data to the device from other Google services or linked devices. So you could discover, after your device has been lost or stolen, that it had sensitive personal information on it — defeating the purpose of having a device you don’t have to worry about losing or having stolen.

I think the better approach is the one used by LineageOS for microG, /e/OS, CalyxOS, and GrapheneOS (apologies for their weird orthography). Each of these four Android distributions bundles LineageOS with something called microG.

microG allows you to download apps that are normally available only from the Google Play Store without setting up a Google account at all. That makes it simpler to set up and use, and reduces the risk of accidentally your personal data to a Google account or any of these apps. All of these four variations on a theme use the Aurora Store as, in effect, an anonymizing proxy repository from which you can download any app that you could have found in the Google Play Store. It’s easier than it sounds!

Of these four, I would pick /e/OS if you want the simplest possible setup, CalyxOS or GrapheneOS if you want more configuration options and one of these variants is available for a device that meets your needs, and LineageOS for microG if you want more configuration options and neither CalyxOS nor GrapheneOS is available for your device.

(As of now, CalyxOS and GrapheneOS are available mostly just for Google Pixel devices, none of which have memory card slots. That may limit your ability to fit offline maps of as large regions as you might like on a Google Pixel device. Google wants users to store their data on Google’s servers “in the cloud”, not on their own devices, so Google devices tend not to have a lot of on-device data storage capacity.)

I assume you will be using this device more for maps and navigation than anything else. /e/OS makes this easiest by including Magic Earth as part of its bundle of basic pre-installed apps.

Magic Earth is a mapping and navigation program that relies on Open Street Maps data. OSMand uses the same map data and has many more features, but is harder to configure and learn to use than Magic Earth, and makes downloading offline maps more complicated and confusing.

You can flash /e/OS on your device, skip all the first-time start-up options to create any kind of account, pick the states or countries you want to download for offline map reading and navigation in Magic Earth, and start using your device as a GPS and map reader. Other than installing Aurora Store (from the default /e/OS app store) for access to any other apps you want, you may never need to look at or change any of the other configuration options.

If want to install mapping and navigation apps yourself for offline use, either OSMand or HERE WeGo (originally developed by Nokia as “Nokia Maps”) still offer, as when I reviewed them ten years ago, better info than Google Maps in many places. OSMand in particular is optimized for offline use, while Google Maps is optimized for online use. I usually use OSMand when I’m offline, and HERE maps for online searches for businesses by name.

To minimize the likelihood of forgetting which device you are using and inadvertently storing sensitive information on a secondary device that you want to be able to use freely in public, I strongly recommend that you uninstall or disable the apps you don’t want to use on this device:

  • Phone dialer
  • SMS messenger
  • Contacts
  • E-mail

Do you carry a secondary smartphone or similar device when you travel? Please share your experiences in the comments.

[This article has been edited to add GrapheneOS to the list of LineageOS variants.]

Link | Posted by Edward, 23 March 2022, 07:05 ( 7:05 AM) | Comments (2)

FAQ for international travellers about the 2G and 3G cellphone "sunset"

Cellphone and mobile data network operators around the world are discontinuing service on the frequencies and using the protocols they have been using for the last twenty years. Ten billion or more cellphones and other devices, on which consumers have spent perhaps a trillion U.S. dollars, won’t work for voice calls any more. Most of these devices will no longer work for cellular data either.

Whether this is a good deal or a bad deal, it’s a done deal.

The so-called “sunset” of 2G and 3G cellular voice and data service renders much of my previous advice about cellphones and smartphones for world travel obsolete.

Here’s an update about what you need to know.

In this article — part 1 of a 2-part series — I’ll answer questions about the 2G and 3G sunset:

  1. What is the ‘2G and 3G sunset’?
  2. Do I need to pay any attention to the 2G and 3G sunset, or can I ignore all of this?
  3. What’s the status and timeline for the 2G and 3G sunset?
  4. What does this mean for world travellers?
  5. Do I need a new cellphone or smartphone? Will I need one if I travel internationally?
  6. If I’m checking the specifications of my current cellphone or smartphone, or shopping for a new phone, what should I look for to be sure that it will still work, worldwide, after the 2G and 3G sunset?
  7. What if I like my simple flip phone or ‘candy bar’ phone? Do I have to get a smartphone?
  8. How much will I have to spend for a new 4G VoLTE phone?
  9. Do I need a 5G phone? Will I need one soon?

In part 2 of this series, I’ll look at what travellers can do with some of the ‘obsolete’ cellphones and smartphones that will no longer be usable for voice calls over 4G and 5G networks.

1. What is the 2G and 3G sunset?

Cellular carriers in the USA and around the world are shutting down their 2G (“second generation”) and 3G (“third generation”) digital wireless voice and data networks. New 4G and 5G services are being offered on different frequencies and using different transmission and connection protocols. Older cellphones and smartphones won’t work on the new frequencies or with the new protocols.

Cellular wireless network operators have no reason to care if they wipe out much of the value of cellphones, smartphones, and other devices that have already been sold and that consumers, not the network operators, have invested in and now own. Because all of the “competing” network operators are making the change at more or less the same time, you can’t just switch to a competing operator that still provides 2G and/or 3G service. The U.S. government (specifically, the FCC), like other governments around the world, has gone along with this change by approving reallocations of frequency spectrum and transfers of licenses to use that spectrum.

The best historical analogy to this that I can think of is the transition from analog to digital television broadcasting in the USA in 2008-2009. TV stations stopped broadcasting on the frequencies and using the protocols they had used for more than fifty years, rendering all existing broadcast television receivers useless unless they were connected to a cable or satellite TV service or a new digital TV receiver and converter box. But with cellphones and smartphones, there’s no converter box option — even if you would be willing to pay for it — as there was for analog televisions.

2. Do I need to pay any attention to the 2G and 3G sunset, or can I ignore all of this?

If you have a smartphone made in around 2019 or more recently, and maybe if you have a phone slightly older than that, and if that’s the only mobile device you ever use, you might be able to ignore all of this and keep using your current smartphone, worldwide, for another ten years or until you replace your phone. But even if you have a new smartphone you can keep using, you might want to pick up one of the slightly older ones that have now been rendered “obsolete”, to use as a secondary device for travel.

Note that all of the references in this FAQ to ages and dates of manufacture of devices are approximate. Not all devices made in the same year have the same features or support the same frequencies or protocols. Some older devices may still work, and some newer devices may not.

If you have an older cellphone, smartphone, or other device (maybe a device embedded in your car’s navigation and infotainment system, or in a wearable medical alert device that an elderly relative uses), that device may stop working entirely at any time, possibly without warning and at an inconvenient moment, or may start having (or may already have started having) unexplained problems.

The 2G and 3G sunset is already here. Unless you bought a new cellphone in 2020 or after, you ignore the 2G and 3G sunset at your peril — especially if you travel internationally.

3. What’s the status and timeline for the 2G and 3G sunset?

It’s already happening. In some places, it’s already happened.

In the USA, the 2G and 3G sunset began in 2021 but will mostly happen during 2022. There may be delays for various reasons, especially to allow time to replace medical alert devices and other alarm systems that have embedded cellular transceivers. But it’s a matter of exactly when and where, not whether, 2G and 3G service will be ended.

As of now, all major wireless network operators in the USA plan to shut down all of their remaining 2G and 3G cell sites by the end of 2022. 2G and 3G service has already been shut down by some carriers and in some countries, and is planned in more countries in the next few years.

Because 2G networks are used by some critical embedded devices such as wearable medical alarms, some countries may keep (some) older 2G services active even after phasing out newer 3G networks. But both 2G and 3G are eventually going away.

4. What does this mean for world travellers?

You can no longer count on finding 2G or 3G service everywhere you travel. 2G and 3G service may be available for a few more years in parts of the global South where network operators fear that they would lose too many customers if they had to buy new cellphones. In the global North, however, I expect that within a few years — and in some countries already today — the only cellphone or wireless data service available to ordinary consumers or travellers will be 4G or 5G.

An older device that continues to work with your carrier in the USA or your home country, and that used to work in other countries, may no longer work abroad. It may be difficult or impossible to say for sure, until you arrive, whether or where an older device will still work — and where it won’t. And if anything happens to your phone, and you need to replace it while travelling, you’ll need to know what to look for. A phone that you buy locally, that still works just fine in a country where 2G and/or 3G service is still available, may not work when you get home, or in other places where there is no more 2G or 3G service.

All of this is equally true regardless of whether you are travelling from the USA to other countries, to the USA from other countries, or between other countries.

5. Do I need a new cellphone or smartphone? Will I need one if I travel internationally?

Yes, if your current phone doesn’t support VoLTE and the right 4G LTE bands.

6. If I’m checking the specifications of my current cellphone or smartphone, or shopping for a new phone, what should I look for to be sure that it will still work, worldwide, after the 2G and 3G sunset?

Check the specifications of your phone or the one you are thinking of buying, paying close attention to the exact version number. Phones sold under the same brand name and model number by different carriers or in different countries may support different protocols and bands, and may even user different processor chips! Some may keep working after the 2G and 3G sunset, while others won’t.

Especially if you plan to travel internationally, you should make sure that you have a cellphone or smartphone that:

  • Supports 4G LTE (“Long Term Evolution”), which is a category of frequency bands and transmission protocols.
  • Supports VoLTE (“Voice over LTE”). VoLTE will be essential for voice calling in places where 2G and 3G service have been discontinued. You won’t be able to make voice calls at all after the 2G and 3G sunset without VoLTE. Some phones, especially those introduced during the transition to LTE in, very roughly, around 2013-2015, may support LTE data but not VoLTE. Calls might be routed to these devices, and they might ring, but you will have no voice connection when you answer. (This was happening to me for a while in 2021, on T-Mobile in the USA, before I figured out why.) Frequency band support has to be provided by hardware, and can’t be changed. If your phone, as manufactured, didn’t support the 4G LTE bands you want to use in the countries to which you travel, it never will. But VoLTE is a software function. So some phone manufacturers have released firmware updates to add VoLTE support to phones originally released without VoLTE.
  • Supports as many of the 4G LTE bands as possible, including whichever LTE bands are most used in whichever countries you think you are most likely to travel to. The newer the phone, the more LTE bands it is likely to support. There are many LTE bands, with different ones being used in different countries, or by different carriers in the same country. In the USA, for example, T-Mobile got permission to use some frequencies formerly used for UHF television broadcasts (before the analog-to-digital TV transition mentioned above) for 4G LTE service. But these frequencies, referred to as LTE Band 71, are used for LTE service in few countries other than the USA. Many phones sold in other countries don’t support LTE Band 71. Unlike a quad-band GSM (2G) phone that would work anywhere in the world, no readily-available consumer device works on all of the LTE bands in use in different countries around the world. Changes or additions to which LTE bands are used in which places could limit the use of any mobile device you buy today in ways that are impossible to predict. This is one of the strongest reasons not to invest a lot of money in a smartphone. Get the cheapest device that will meet your needs.
  • Is unlocked. You might want to change carriers someday, or use a local SIM card while travelling. 4G VoLTE international roaming agreements are not yet as extensive as 2G and 3G roaming agreements had become, so it’s more likely than it used to be that you will need to get a local SIM card in order to have cellular service outside your home country. The price difference to get an unlocked rather than a carrier-locked smartphone is typically small compared to the potential benefits, especially if you travel internationally.

Additional smartphone features to look for that are especially valuable for world travellers, but that aren’t essential, include the following:

  • The ability to install LineageOS or one of its variants in place of the “stock” version of Android that’s bundled with always-on bloatware from Google and the device manufacturer. On the same device, a version of Android without all of this bloatware running all the time will have much better battery life, more memory available for your own uses (offline maps, photos, videos, e-books, etc.), and use up less of your high-speed cellular data allocation phoning home to Google (or to Apple, in the case of an iPhone). In addition, more recent versions of Android than those available from device manufacturers are available for many older devices as builds of one or another variant of LineageOS. Smartphone manufacturers have little reason to provide operating system updates for older devices. The older the Android device, the more likely it is that the most up-to-date and best-performing OS version available for that device is some version of LineageOS. (No updates for iPhones are typically available from any source once Apple stops providing them.)
  • An expansion memory card slot. Offline maps are the killer smartphone app for travellers, but can take up a lot of storage space. You are more likely to be able to fit maps of large regions on your device, and have space for everything else you want to store on your device, if it has a memory card card slot than if you are limited to internal memory. You’ll have enough space in internal memory be able to fit maps of a substantial area on almost any late-model smartphone. But if you often have to delete one map to make room for another when you travel, rather than having space on your device for offline maps of e.g. all of the USA and Canada, or all of Europe, sooner or later you will arrive someplace without having downloaded the right maps in advance.
  • As large a battery as possible. Battery life is likely to be more important when you are travelling in unfamiliar places and using your device more than usual for navigation.

7. What if I like my simple flip phone or “candy bar” phone? Do I have to get a smartphone?

No. There are 4G VoLTE flip phones and “candy bar” phones that look almost identical to the 2G and 3G phones they replace (but that have better voice call quality).

8. How much will I have to spend for a new 4G VoLTE phone?

Maybe nothing: Some cellular carriers in the USA including AT&T and Tracfone are giving current customers free replacement phones — not because the law in the USA requires carriers to do so, but to discourage customers from thinking about switching carriers, as they might do if they had to get new phones. AT&T has been offering a free low-end Android smartphone. Tracfone has been offering a choice of a bottom-end Android phone or a pretty good flip phone. These offers haven’t always been well advertised or easy to find on carriers’ Web sites. If you can’t find an offer like this on your cellular carrier’s Web site, call them and probe carefully. You may be offered a free replacement phone as a “customer accommodation” gesture only if you threaten to switch to another carrier.

If you have to buy a replacement phone, second-hand smartphones offer dramatically better value than new ones. Many people trade in or replace their cellphones every year or two — even more frequently than their cars! There are literally billions of functional smartphones in the world that are new enough to support VoLTE on many 4G LTE bands, but old enough to be available second-hand for a fraction of the price of new smartphones with comparable features and specifications.

You have many choices, and the best deals, both for new and used cellphones and smartphones, will change over time.

In early 2022, for example, I bought a Samsung S10e, which was introduced almost exactly three years ago in 2019 as a smaller-sized (which I like) but almost full-featured variant of Samsung’s “flagship” smartphone at that time. Three years later, it still has features and specifications that match or exceed all but the most expensive new smartphones. It was originally released with Android 9, but it’s still supported by Samsung. In early 2022 it received an official upgrade to the latest version of Android, Android 12. It sold for US$600 when new. At the upper end of prices for used smartphones in guaranteed top condition, I got a “refurbished” unlocked S10e with no visible cracks, scratches, damage, or defects for about $250 including a 1-year warranty from Backmarket.com. Other marketplaces for used smartphones include eBay.com (which offers its own warranty on some but not all “refurbished” phones) and Mercari.com. A used smartphone can have hidden defects, so look for at least a 7-day free return policy from the seller or platform. I could have paid about the same amount for a reliable but quite basic new smartphone. Either would support VoLTE and many 4G LTE bands, but I think I got the better deal.

You probably won’t find a smartphone with good coverage of 4G LTE bands, new or in decent used condition, for much less than US$150.

If you don’t want a smartphone, you can get an unlocked 4G VoLTE flip phone (such as a Nokia 2720 or Alcatel GO) or “candy bar” phone (such as a Nokia 6300) for less than US$50.

9. Do I need a 5G phone? Will I need one soon?

No. Not now, not soon, probably not until at least 2030, and maybe never.

5G networks are being used in conjunction with 4G networks to provide greater data transmission capacity with lower latency (less lag) — not to provide service in places that don’t also have 4G coverage.

Right now, any 5G connection is initiated over 4G and and controlled by a parallel 4G connection. So a 5G phone won’t give you a signal anywhere that you don’t also have 4G service. “Standalone” 5G services that don’t depend on a 4G signal might be offered eventually, but haven’t been launched yet in the USA or anywhere else, so far as I can tell. Even the most ambitious wireless network operators don’t expect to introduce and switch enough users and devices to “standalone” 5G to shut down 4G service for many years.

In part 2 of this series, I’ll look at what travellers can do with some of the “obsolete” cellphones and smartphones that will no longer be usable, after the 2G and 3G sunset, for voice calls over 4G and 5G networks. There’s a particularly good case for repurposing one of these older devices as a cheap, expendable secondary device that you can use in crowded and public places while travelling — for navigation, as a music player, as an e-reader, and with sightseeing, museum, and audio tour apps downloaded over wi-fi — without risking the loss or theft of a valuable device or even more valuable personal information. Read more.

Link | Posted by Edward, 23 March 2022, 07:04 ( 7:04 AM) | Comments (4)

Wednesday, 2 March 2022

The Amazing Race 33, Episode 9

Thessaloniki, Macedonia (Greece) - Lisbon (Portugal) - Almada (Portugal) - Setúbal (Portugal) - Sesimbra (Portugal) - Lisbon (Portugal) - Portsmouth, NH (USA) - Los Angeles, CA (USA) - Carson, CA (USA)

[Lisbon city center and port, as seen beyond the Ponte 25 de Abril from the Belem-Porto Brandão ferry. So far as I can tell the white arched structure under the end of the bridge is just a folly, but I would welcome any further info or corrections.]

After another flight on their chartered Boeing 757 from Greece to Portugal, the cast of The Amazing Race 33 was driven across the Ponte 25 de Abril from Lisbon (on the north bank of the Targus River estuary) to Almada (on the south bank) to resume racing at the foot of the monumental statue of Christ the King.

That made for some good TV images. But I think a more interesting and enjoyable excursion across the river from Lisbon to Almada would be to take one of the ferries from Belem (the area of Lisbon just west of the bridge, and the site of several episodes of previous seasons of The Amazing Race) to lunch or dinner in either Porto Brandão or Trafaria. These two neighborhoods within Almada are chock-a-block with seafood restaurants. But they have managed to remain, at least as of my visit in 2008, both affordable and faithful to their past as fishing villages, without being converted to the sort of overpriced tourist ghetto that locals know to avoid. The location scouts for The Amazing Race missed a chance for a scene that could have been made for TV, but wouldn’t have needed to be staged or faked. At intervals as we ate, men in high rubber boots lugged buckets of fish through the dining room from boats tied up along the wharf in front of us to the kitchen in the back of the restaurant, quickly followed by updates to the chalkboard of daily specials.

The ferry ride also gives some of the best views of the city, the estuary, and the bridge. The “25th of April” bridge is named for the date of the so-called Carnation Revolution in 1974. Although this began with a coup by which one group of military officers displaced another, it marked the beginning of the transition to democracy and the beginning of the end for both fascist rule in Portugal and Portuguese colonial rule of an empire in Africa that until 1975 remained much larger and more populous than Portugal itself.

The history of the Iberian peninsula is a reminder, if one is needed, that World War II didn’t free Europe from fascism. There is argument as to whether Portugal’s “corporatist” and authoritarian government truly deserves to be called fascist, but I think it does. In neighboring Spain, Francisco Franco’s indubitably fascist regime lasted until his death in 1975. If the more recent saga of he-who-must-not-be-named in the USA and his contemporary populist counterparts in Europe have renewed your interest in post-World War II fascism, Portugal is a good place to learn about how it rose, how it endured, and how, in at least one country, it finally fell.

Despite a substantial increase in tourism from the USA, Portugal — especially outside Lisbon and the Mediterranean beach resorts of the Algarve region — remains on my short list of under-appreciated destinations for value-conscious independent travellers. It’s worth a stopover (Air Portugal has resumed a surprising number of its flights to and from the USA) or a trip of its own.

Air Portugal flies nonstop between Lisbon and San Francisco, but the racers’ plane landed in Portsmouth, NH, before continuing to Los Angeles. Given that a Boeing 757 doesn’t have the range to make it nonstop from Europe to the West Coast, Portsmouth isn’t as strange a choice of stopover as one might think.

In normal times, private jets often refuel in Gander, Newfoundland, which is closer than any US airport to the half-way point of trans-Atlantic routes to and from the US. But these aren’t normal times. Like every other country, Canada has its own COVID-19 pandemic rules for travellers. In some cases these rules apply even to passengers merely changing planes in transit between third countries, or on aircraft making a “technical stop” to refuel. So it’s understandable why the producers of “The Amazing Race” may have wanted to fly directly from Portugal to the USA, avoiding touching down in any more countries than necessary.

The closest US airport to Europe with scheduled trans-Atlantic flights is Logan Airport (BOS) in Boston. But there’s no need for a plane that isn’t headed for Boston to navigate crowded big-city airspace or pay big-city prices for ground services. Northeast of Boston, two former Strategic Air Command bomber bases are the closest US airports to Europe that have runways long enough to handle the largest jets. Both Bangor International Airport (BGR, the former Dow Air Force Base in northern Maine), and Portsmouth International Airport (PSM, the former Pease Air Force Base in southern New Hampshire) offer the full range of general aviation services including US customs and immigration processing. BGR is the standard US technical stop or diversion airport for trans-Atlantic flights, especially by scheduled airlines. Less-used PSM has less passenger terminal space than BGR to accommodate all the passengers from a diverted Boeing 777 or Airbus 380, but competes with lower fees than BGR (or BOS) for landing, parking, and refueling.

Neither the “technical stop” in Portsmouth nor any of the changes and requirements occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic — aside from the use of a chartered jet rather than scheduled airline flights — were shown on the The Amazing Race 33 as it was edited for broadcast, although some have been discussed in “behind the scenes” interviews with the participants. That’s probably what most viewers looking to armchair travel TV for an escape from the reality of the pandemic, and TV producers anxious to avoid alienating travel advertisers desperate for viewers to stop worrying about the pandemic and go back to travel (and travel spending) as usual, both wanted. The Amazing Race may call itself “reality” TV, but it’s an entertainment show, not a news or how-to program.

We did finally get a glimpse in this episode of something else that has previously been kept off-camera, or edited out: the crew that produces The Amazing Race:

[Some of the video, audio, and other production crew members at work at the finish line of The Amazing Race 33 inside the L.A Galaxy soccer stadium in Carson, CA (USA).]

At the finish line, one of the winners of the race called out the workers who produce the reality-TV show for doing a more difficult job than the cast of racers. This was the first time in 33 seasons that any of the racers have acknowledged the crew, or that the crew has been shown on camera (other than fleetingly when they couldn’t be edited out of the background of a key shot).

Camera and sound crews covering many sports can set up more or less comfortably in fixed positions. Filming The Amazing Race is another story: The crews “on location” have to be athletes themselves, keeping up with the racers on the run over all sorts of terrain while carrying heavy high-def video cameras, boom microphones on long poles, and other encumbrances. Some are hired locally, while others travel around the world with the on-camera talent. During the pandemic, members of the crew took at least as much of a risk to their health as members of the the cast. Props to Penn for giving credit where credit is due!

CBS is already advertising for applicants for the cast of the next season of The Amazing Race. We’ll have to wait and see whether the next season begins to acknowledge that travel A.C. (“After Coronavirus”) isn’t going to be the same as it was in the era B.C. (“Before Coronavirus”). If travel isn’t going to return to what used to be “normal”, what will the “new normal” of world travel be like? Stay tuned for the next season!

Link | Posted by Edward, 2 March 2022, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0)

Wednesday, 23 February 2022

The Amazing Race 33, Episode 8

Thessaloniki, Macedonia (Greece)

[Skateboarders at the base of the White Tower in Thessaloniki, which was the finish line of this leg of The Amazing Race 33.]

I watched this episode of The Amazing Race 33 with my stepfather, whose Greek-speaking and Greek-identified parents came to the USA as refugees from the city across the Aegean Sea from Thessaloniki in “Asia Minor” then known in Greek as Smyrna, and today in Turkish as Izmir.

We were both pleased to see the reality-TV show call attention to Thessaloniki, but disappointed that it highlighted so little of what makes this under-appreciated city so interesting and enjoyable to visit.

[Even in mid-winter, and even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Thessaloniki has been a city of cafe culture and outdoor dining.]

Part of the problem is that tourism promotion and city branding is being carried out by a municipal government which is trying to position Thessaloniki within the context of the public image of “Greece”. But while Thessaloniki is today Greece’s second-largest city, its modern Greek identity coexists with its Roman, Jewish, Byzantine, and Ottoman history, monuments, and legacies of influence. Wandering the city, you never know when the modern balcony-fronted apartment blocks will be interrupted by a Roman amphitheater or a mosque converted to a church.

[The most difficult task in this leg of The Amazing Race 33 involved searching for a clue hidden in a field of stones. Stones like these from the former Jewish cemetery — the site of which is now the downtown Thessaloniki campus of the largest university in Greece — are now scattered throughout the city.]

The best-known literary allusions to Thessaloniki are in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. But I suspect that few readers of the Bible today associate the two (brief) epistles of the apostle Paul to the “Thessalonians” with a modern city they might want to visit. Anyway, Paul’s focus in these letters — written after he had been driven out of Thessaloniki — is on the religious beliefs and practices of the missionaries and their converts who remained in the city, not on anything about the place or its culture.

[Peace marchers carrying the banner of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament confront police with raised clubs in this bronze bas-relief near the site of the assassination of Dr. Grigoris Lambrakis.]

The best-known allusion to Thessaloniki in modern popular culture is equally uninformative as to the city’s contemporary attractions — unless. of course, one finds a civic culture and tradition of resistance to war and fascism to be an attraction.

The award-winning 1969 film Z is based on a real incident, the public assassination of the anti-fascist and anti-war activist Dr. Grigoris Lambrakis by a rightist death squad in the central square of Thessaloniki on 22 May 1963. The director of “Z”, Costa-Gavras, was born and raised in Greece and may be the most famous contemporary “Greek” film director. Some of his films are extremely evocative of place, such as Music Box (1989), which was filmed on location in Chicago and Budapest.

But Costa-Gavras directed Z during his exile from Greece during its rule by a right-wing military junta. Z was produced in French, with a mostly-French cast, and filmed in Algiers. Z isn’t the only one of Costa-Gavras’ films based on real events that for political reasons had to be filmed in a different country. State of Siege (1972) is based on an incident in 1970 in Montevideo, Uruguay, but was filmed in Santiago, Chile, shortly before the U.S.-backed military coup in Chile in 1973. Costa-Gavras’ later film Missing (1982), based on events during that coup, was filmed in Mexico rather than Chile.

Algiers serves about as well as a visual double for Thessaloniki as Toronto does for New York City, but it’s not the same place.

[One of the small streets of shops near the central market in Thessaloniki.]

We tend to visit places of which we have already seen pictures or formed images in our minds. Sometimes, however, the fact that you don’t know much about a place, or don’t know what it will be like to visit, is precisely the reason to go there and see for yourself. Thessaloniki is its own place, not not quite like anywhere else, and places like that are among my favorites. As I’ve noted previously, Thessaloniki is worth a stopover if you’re passing through, or a detour if you’re nearby.

Link | Posted by Edward, 23 February 2022, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0)

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

The Amazing Race 33, Episode 7

Bonifacio, Corsica (France) - Thessaloniki, Macedonia (Greece)

[The original tree-sitter: St. David the Dendrite (tree-dweller), patron saint of Thessaloniki for Orthodox Christians. Note the spelling of “David of Thessaloniki” in Greek in the upper right corner of the fresco. This episode of The Amazing Race 33 included a lecture and quiz on the lives, legends, and iconography of Greek Orthodox saints.]

This episode of The Amazing Race 33 takes place in the environs of the city known today as Thessaloniki, on the north-eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the portion of Macedonia that is now part of Greece.

In the USA, popular images of “Greece” and “the Balkans” barely if at all intersect. Few people in the USA think of Greece as a Balkan country. But while borders within the Balkans are, of course, contested, Macedonia is actually quite central to Balkan history and to many maps of the Balkans as a region.

Once upon a time, Macedonia was the center of the empire of Alexander the Great. For those of you who haven’t been keeping score on the latest Balkan wars and changes in names and borders, a substantial part of Macedonia is now in Greece, another large part (formerly part of Yugoslavia) is now the independent country of North Macedonia (extra credit if you can name its capital city, and double points if you can pronounce it!) , and still another sizable part is in Bulgaria. Advocates for a greater Macedonia also include smaller portions of Serbia, Albania, and Kosovo in their claims.

Each of these countries has their own perspective on this paradigmatically Balkanized region and city. If you’re in Thessaloniki and want the dominant local narrative of the most recent century or two of the region’s history, as told by its current inhabitants, a good place to start is the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle in central Thessaloniki. For a longer-term historical view by an outsider, see Mark Mazower’s Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, just as the racers jetted ahead of any ordinary travellers. Between legs of The Amazing Race 33, another chartered jet ferried the cast and crew of the reality-TV show to Thessaloniki from the island of Corsica in the Western Mediterranean. If you don’t have a private jet, how do you get to Thessaloniki in the first place?

Perhaps unintentionally, TV advertisements can lead us to an answer, although not the only one.

The first commercial break in the broadcast of this episode of The Amazing Race 33 that I saw on the CBS station in San Francisco was a re-run of an ad for Expedia first shown last Sunday during the Super Bowl, with the tag line, “Do you think any of us will look back at our lives and regret the things we didn’t buy — or the places we didn’t go?”

This was just one of three ads for travel companies during this year’s Super Bowl, with a fourth during the pregame show. That’s a sign that travel companies think they finally have a chance of convincing viewers to travel again after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, even if patterns of travel have changed since the years B.C. (Before Coronavirus). VRBO’s pregame ad, for example, played to those changes by promoting the idea of renting a mansion for a family gathering or a party of friends. That might be an attractive idea for a pandemic getaway from working from home, homeschooling, and staying home all the time. But I’m not sure the absentee homeowner’s neighbors would be too pleased at having the house next door rented out for some of the noisy partying shown in the ad.

Long-haul air travel seems likely to be the last major category of travel services to “recover” from the pandemic, if it ever will it all (and maybe it shouldn’t). So it’s especially surprising that not only an airline but an international airline targetting long-haul travellers, Turkish Airlines, advertised on the Super Bowl this year.

This isn’t the first time that Turkish Airlines — still largely unknown in the USA — has tried to buy mindshare with a Super Bowl ad. The timing of its most recent two previous Super Bowl ads has been unlucky. Will the third time be the charm?

For the 2019 Super Bowl, Turkish Airlines commissioned a six-minute promotional mini-drama that highlighted the airline’s in-flight service, the attractions of stopovers in Istanbul between long flights, and its worldwide route network. Part of the dramatic tension in the video was not knowing where in the world the protagonists might be going next. On Turkish Airlines, it could be anywhere. Turkish Airlines has earned the distinction once held by Aeroflot Soviet Airlines of flying to more countries than any other airline in the world. Its 2019 Super Bowl ad was a 30-second trailer for the longer video.

Ambitious, but so is Turkish Airlines, and so is the new Istanbul Airport — by some measures the world’s largest — that was scheduled to open shortly before the 2019 Super Bowl. (Bigger isn’t necessarily better. It can be a long walk between gates at the new Istanbul airport.) The opening of the new Istanbul airport was delayed, however. When I made reservations for flights from the USA to Greece and back on Turkish Airlines in November 2018, I thought I would be travelling by way of the spacious new Istanbul Airport. But in the event, I once again changed planes at the overcrowded old Atatürk Airport. “Istanbul New Airport” didn’t fully open and take over the “IST” airport code until April 2019. The new airport had to be described as “coming soon” in the 2019 Super Bowl ad. Viewers may not have noticed or cared, but that fell short of the airline’s hopes for a grand-opening Super Bowl splash.

In 2020, with its new hub airport belatedly in full operation, Turkish Airlines was back on the Super Bowl broadcast with an ad targetting the more than 100 million people in the USA (nobody actually has an accurate count) who have never been out of the country. If you want to set foot abroad for the first time and “Widen Your World”, the ad suggests, Turkish Airlines can take you to more countries than any other airline. Not a bad pitch for globetrotting, except that it aired just as the COVID-19 outbreak was becoming a worldwide pandemic that largely ruled out all but the most essential international travel for the next two years.

This year’s Turkish Airlines Super Bowl ad is, in line with the continuing pandemic, more about the concept of travel than the currently unpleasant experience of air travel, and more about “connecting those divided by distance” — an implicit nod to travel to visit friends and relatives — than about sightseeing.

“Salonika” was once part of the Ottoman Empire, just as its sister city across the Aegean Sea, “Smynra” in Asia Minor (today’s Izmir, Turkey) was at other past times part of greater Greece. But all that was a hundred years ago. Here and now, what does a Turkish airline have to do with getting to Greece?

One might as well ask what an airline based in the United Arab Emirates has to do with getting to India. Most of the people on Turkish Airlines flights from the USA aren’t going to Turkey, and the whole point of the Turkish Airlines ads is to get people to think of it as an airline that can connect them via Turkey to other places. Turkish Airlines sees its competitors not as European or USA-based airlines but as Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways.

Why should you care?

For budget travellers, the big advantage of Turkish Airlines over its better-known “big three” competitors is that because it doesn’t have as fancified a reputation, it has to sell tickets at lower prices and/or with fewer restrictions and extra fees (for checked bags, stopovers, changes, etc.) to fill its flights. Air travellers pay a huge premium to fly on more prestigious or better-known airlines, even when they are flying on the same models of Boeing or Airbus planes, distinguishable only by the colors of the paint outside and the upholstery on the seats inside. For what it’s worth, having flown long distance in coach/economy class on both Emirates and Turkish, I’d choose Turkish, without hesitation, for quality of customer service on the ground and in the air.

The advantages of Turkish Airlines for all travellers, regardless of price sensitivity, are that Istanbul is a far more enjoyable stopover than Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Doha, especially on a budget, and that Turkish Airlines flies to far more places in Europe than its major competitors or any other airline not based in Europe (and, in fact, more than most European airlines). That makes Turkish Airlines especially likely to offer the best long-haul connections, even if price is no object, to and from secondary and tertiary European cities with little or no direct long-haul service — like Thessaloniki, which has no year-round direct flights to anywhere further away than London.

The routes and schedules of a government-owned airline such as Turkish Airlines reflect political as much as, and sometimes more than, economic decisions. Almost all airlines, certainly including those based in the USA, receive direct and indirect government subsidies. Spending by Turkey’s government on a new airport designed primarily to serve as a hub for Turkish Airlines is obviously a subsidy to the airline, but doesn’t appear as such in the government’s budget or on the airline’s balance sheet. The same goes for government contributions to the construction of the new Berlin airport. But European Union rules theoretically designed to ensure fair competition between airlines based in different EU members countries bar most direct government subsidies to EU-based airlines. As the airline not based in the EU and not subject to these rules with the most extensive network of European flights, Turkish Airlines is free to use subsidies from the Turkish government to poach long-haul passengers from EU-based airlines. I might not like this if I were a Turkish taxpayer (or maybe I would, if it helps support cheaper, more frequent flights between Istanbul and the EU for visits to friends and family in the Turkish-European diaspora), but I’m the beneficiary of these government policies when I get cheap tickets to and from Europe on Turkish Airlines.

You might assume that the way to get to Thessaloniki, the second city of Greece, would be via the largest city and capital of Greece, Athens. Athens is an aviation backwater, however, and may have less long-haul air service than any other city its size in Europe except Berlin, which has had its own problems and its own new airport fiasco. The new Berlin Brandenburg Airport finally opened in October 2020 with greatly reduced pandemic traffic — years late, billions of dollars over budget, and still with hardly any long-haul flights.

The formerly government-owned Greek national airline, Olympic Air, used to fly to New York, Boston, and Montréal to serve Greek immigrant communities in the Americas. It went out of business in 2009 after the Greek government, facing its own financial crisis, could no longer afford to subsidize it enough to keep it flying. There are only a few direct flights between Athens and the USA, most of them seasonal. European airlines have more flights to Greek beach destinations and the Greek islands — many of them seasonal and package-holiday charter flights — than to Athens.

Connecting by air through Athens to Thessaloniki can be expensive and inconvenient. You have to claim your bags to clear customs in Athens, then re-check them. Relatively few airlines offer through interline fares or “add-ons” to Thessaloniki, so you may have to pay a separate fare for the flights between Athens and Thessaloniki on any of the Greek domestic airlines.

You can fly to Athens and take a train or bus to Thessaloniki, but that adds the cost of a separate ticket and at least 4 hours on the fastest train, longer by bus, plus the time and nuisance of a transfer between the Athens airport and the train or long-distance bus station downtown. The distance from Istanbul isn’t very much greater than from Athens, but buses from Istanbul are scheduled to take much longer due to the possibility of major delays at the hostile, fortified Greece-Turkey border. There is no longer any passenger train between Istanbul and Thessaloniki. The overnight sleeping-car service I took from Istanbul through Thrace to Thessaloniki and back in 2008 (with two long halts in the middle of the night for customs and immigration checks on both sides of the border), the last vestigial piece of the classic “Orient Express” route, has been discontinued. The European Union is working to restore and improve both freight and passenger rail connections between Europe and Turkey, which had been operating until the pandemic, but on routes further north via Bucharest or Sofia, not Thessaloniki.

Flying to Thessaloniki via Istanbul is easier and typically cheaper than flying via Athens. If you aren’t stopping over (but why would anyone pass up a free stopover in Istanbul, if you aren’t in too much of a hurry?) you can transit Istanbul between other countries without having to claim your bags or go through any customs or immigration checks. Turkish Airlines typically charges the same price for through connections via Istanbul to Thessaloniki as to Athens. Thessaloniki is the closest city in Europe to Istanbul, so flying via Istanbul doesn’t take you much out of your way, and the connecting flight is very short.

Link | Posted by Edward, 16 February 2022, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0)

Wednesday, 9 February 2022

The Amazing Race 33, Episode 6

Corte, Corsica (France) - Zonza, Corsica (France) - Bonifacio, Corsica (France)

I talked last week about the complications of getting to and from Corsica during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This week, with The Amazing Race 33 still exploring this island in the Western Mediterranean, we got to see more of what you might do once you get to Corsica — or at least what the Tourism Agency of Corsica, which co-sponsored this episode of the reality-TV show, thought would attract the most (and highest-spending) visitors.

This episode of The Amazing Race featured the scenic drive along the east coast of Corsica and a variety of other coastal and harbor sites: viewpoints on the rocky cliffs, sandy pocket beaches, picturesque fishing villages and small-boat harbors. Activities for the racers included mending fishing nets, a ride in a glass-bottomed boat, and paddling kayaks in the harbor. There were lots of background shots of small and large sailing and motor yachts at anchor and under way. All this is consistent with the goal of promoting the segment of tourism to Corsica that has been most successful in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: boating.

Multiple companies are each now claiming (or at least aspiring) to be “the AirBNB of boats”. But the one thing one which they all agree is that boat rental has boomed during the COVID-19 pandemic as a form of accommodations and mode of travel that offers at least the illusion of isolation from infection by strangers.

Whether on a private boat or a cruise ship, you could be exposed (but not yet test positive) before the start of your cruise, en route to the port of embarkation, or while in port for food or fuel. There’s no space on a small boat to isolate yourself from your fellow travellers if one of you test positive or develops symptoms. As with any trip during the pandemic, you should have a plan B for how, where, how long (before you are allowed to fly home), and at whose expense (will your health or travel insurance cover the cost of a quarantine hotel?) you will isolate yourself if that becomes necessary or advisable at any place or time on your journey.

Murphy’s law: You will learn about a fellow traveller’s positive test while at some inconvenient time and place during your trip. Perhaps you’ll be on the train or on a shuttle bus to the airport to catch your flight home, for which you will be required to declare under penalty that you have not recently been exposed to anyone infected. What will you do then? Where will you go? But boat renters probably aren’t thinking this through ahead of time, any more than most other travellers are. Boat rental is booming.

Bookings in Corsica through one of these boat rental marketplaces were almost twice as high for the peak-season month of July 2021 as they had been in 2019 (before the pandemic) or 2020 (before the COVID-19 vaccines, when most people weren’t doing any discretionary travel due to COVID-19):

Pour la plateforme Click&Boat, qui propose près d’un millier de bateaux à louer en Corse, le trafic est «historique» avec des réservations en juillet «en hausse de 94% par rapport à 2019 et de 90% par rapport à 2020». «La location de bateaux incarne la plus grande tendance voyage 2021 en répondant au fort besoin des Français de s’évader loin de la foule, dans un cadre sanitaire sécurisant», assure la compagnie.

Large cruise ships remain a different story. Two weeks ago, I noted that one major cruise line, Crystal Cruises, had diverted one of its ships to the Bahamas to avoid having it seized for unpaid fuel bills if it returned to its home port in Florida. But both that ship and another Crystal Cruises vessel have now been seized and are being held in port by Bahamian authorities.

There were reports from frightened crew members that a third Crystal Cruises vessel had been seized in port in Ushuaia, Argentina, where the passengers from an Antarctic cruise disembarked. A disputed bill for refueling in Argentina was eventually settled and that ship was able to leave for its next scheduled port of call in Montevideo. Uruguayan authorities are reportedly prepared to seize it on arrival, however, so it may divert, anchor at sea, and/or delay putting into any port. You’ll have to check ship tracking Web sites and apps (yes, those are a thing, like flight tracking sites and apps) to find out where the fugitive Crystal Endeavor has gone to try to avoid the repo men.

Renting a boat for coastal cruising isn’t as simple or affordable as renting a self-drive RV or motorhome for a land cruise. For the right size group, a houseboat on a quiet lake — if you can operate it yourself without open-water skill or experience, and don’t go far enough to burn much fuel — may not be too much more expensive than a stay at a resort on land. Sea-going yachts, even small ones, are another story. Even if you have enough powerboat skill to hire a “bare” boat without a captain or crew, the fuel consumption of a sleep-aboard motor yacht is more likely to be measured in gallons per mile than miles per gallon. A sea-going sailing yacht requires more skill and is more likely to require you to charter a boat with a professional skipper and perhaps additional paid crew.

If you can’t afford a yachting holiday cruising the coast of Corsica, what options do you have for accommodations on land? That depends on what you are doing where on the island, and how you are getting around.

Corsica is known as a destination for outdoor activities. That’s one of the reasons for its relative attractiveness to tourists during the pandemic. Walking on the beach or in the mountains, or exploring empty roads by bicycle (or e-bike or car), you don’t need to wear a mask all the time or worry about crowds. The “must-see” in Corsica is actually a “must-do”: walking all or part of the GR20 (Grande Randonnée) hiking trail that winds along the spine of the mountains from one end of Corsica to the other. It’s one of the world’s best-known long-distance walking routes, and there are special maps and guidebooks devoted entirely to the GR20.

In normal times, most people hike the GR20 from hut to hut, staying in dormitory-style refuges run by the regional park service. That’s undoubtedly what my father-in-law, who had been attracted to the GR20 after enjoying a similar style of village-to-village trekking in Nepal, did when he hiked the GR20 some few years ago. As of now, the park service is planning to open the refuges on the GR20 for the 2022 summer hiking season from May 21st to October 2nd. But due to the pandemic, fewer guests are being allowed to stay in each hut, and advance reservations are required. You can no longer walk up and count on a bunk or at least a place to spread your sleeping bag on the floor but under a roof.

If there isn’t room in the refuge, there are some places along the GR20 where you can camp, although “wild” camping outside designated areas is generally not permitted. Camping, of course, means hiking with the extra weight of a tent. There are also gîtes, although not as many or as well spaced along the GR20 route as the refuges. The French term gîte has no exact English translation, but the range of possible meanings of “cottage” perhaps comes closest. A “gîte” can be anything from a hostel with dormitory accommodations and a communal kitchen to a small self-contained private holiday cabin in the mountains, on the coast, or in rural countryside. If you need to ask for a place to stay, the most general French term for “lodging” or “accommodations” is “hébergements”. (The initial “H” and the final “S” are silent.)

What if you don’t want to walk, or don’t feel up to such a strenuous hike? The racers were provided with cars rented by the TV producers (or possibly provided as a product placement by the car company). In the real world, renting a car on a (French) island is expensive, and you might not want to deal with driving on narrow mountain roads. An increasingly popular alternative is to tour Corsica by bicycle or e-bike.

Corsica is, by all accounts I’ve found, an excellent bicycle touring destination, especially in shoulder season (May and September-October) when the French summer vacation crowds have left, accommodations are much more readily available without long-in-advance reservations, and traffic on the roads is light. The narrow roads keep motorists slow, and the narrow, twisty roads are better suited for bicycles or motorcycles than for cars anyway. You can bring a bike to Corsica on the ferry, rent one locally, or — an option exploding in popularity — rent an e-bike.

The Tour de France visited Corsica for the first time for three day-long stages at the start of the 2013 race. Partly to capitalize on an expected post-Tour boom in cycle tourism on Corsica (which has yet to materialize, although e-bikes and COVID-19 may make a difference), and partly to emulate the success of the GR20 hiking route in attracting visitors, the government and the cycle tourism industry have developed and marked the GT20 (“Grande Traversée”) multi-day cycling route along the spine of the island from end to end.

(Somewhat ironically and confusingly, on Corsica the “Randonnée” is the hiking route, not the cycling route, although normally in both French and English a randonnée is a long-distance bicycle ride or route, such as Paris-Brest-Paris or Boston-Montréal-Boston.)

If the GT20 looks too mountainous, consider cycling all or part of the perimeter of Corsica. Some ridges and headlands are unavoidable, but the daily doses of climbing on this route are much more manageable than on the GT20. There are substantial stretches of relatively level but winding road along the shore below the coastal cliffs, or along the tops of the bluffs. The views are spectacular, as we saw on this episode of “The Amazing Race”.

Unlike in parts of the interior of the island, if you stick to the coast as much as possible small towns and villages are close enough together that you can probably circle the island with little if any necessity to camp. As along the Danube, although not to the same extent, there are also “supported” bicycle tours and services that will transport your luggage between each pre-arranged overnight stop, so you only have to carry whatever you need during the day with you on your bike. Charging points are close enough together for an e-bike, although that too may require planning. I’d welcome any feedback from readers.

Link | Posted by Edward, 9 February 2022, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0)

Wednesday, 2 February 2022

The Amazing Race 33, Episode 5

Lugano (Switzerland) - Milan (Italy) - Bastia, Corsica (France) - Altiani, Corsica (France) - Corte, Corsica (France)

If you are travelling around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, what places will you choose to visit? What health measures and related red tape will travel require? What will travel across international borders be like?

We got our first look at how the producers of The Amazing Race addressed these questions in this week’s episode, filmed in September 2021 after the planned route of the race around the world had been revised to make it possible to resume the race, on a much-modified route, despite the continued pandemic and continued restrictions on international (and in some cases domestic) travel.

The cast and crew of The Amazing Race 33 were bussed to Malpensa Airport (MXP) in Milan, the nearest major airport to where the previous leg of the race ended in Italian-speaking southern Switzerland, to board a chartered jet to “an unknown destination”. That was a twist that wouldn’t be possible with scheduled airline flights whose destinations are made known at check-in and announced before boarding.

In the previous seasons, the racers have usually had a chance to search for maps and guidebooks to their next destination in airport shops or by bartering with other travellers while waiting for flights. Perhaps more importantly, the racers, like real world travellers, can normally learn a lot by chatting up fellow travellers at the departure gate. There are always some people waiting for a flight who are returning to the place that you are going. If you ask politely, and express interest in their insights, they are often happy to help translate your personal “cheat sheet” of key phrases (e.g., “I don’t eat meat”) and offer, first-hand, often recent, advice about things like what to expect on arrival and how best to get from the airport to your first destination.

The racers’ “unknown destination” was revealed when they landed at Bastia airport (BIA) on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. It’s noteworthy that the TV producers chose Corsica as their first choice of a safe, feasible destination after Switzerland. It’s even more noteworthy that the Tourism Agency of Corsica (ATC) thought there was enough of a chance of attracting visitors from the USA to pay to co-sponsor a TV show about travel to Corsica during the pandemic.

The status of “neutral” Switzerland as a financial and political safe haven shouldn’t cause it to be perceived — as it was represented on The Amazing Race 33 — as a “safe haven” from COVID-19 or any other epidemic. But that fallacious thinking is indicative of the confusion of international borders with barriers to the spread of infectious disease.

Corsica is an island, and the moat of the Mediterranean Sea might seem to provide more protection against infection than a land border — a mere line on a map. Islands from Hoffman and Swinburne Islands in New York Harbor and Long Island Hospital in Boston Harbor to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay have historically been used as medical quarantine sites. But if you can visit an island, then by definition it won’t be the case that, as in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, “nobody ever goes in… and nobody ever comes out”. An island open to visitors, like a cruise ship even if an island is typically much less crowded than a ship, can as easily be a closed incubator for infection as a partially (but not entirely) closed refuge for its residents.

Whatever the logic or illogic of regarding islands as relatively “safe” from COVID-19, islands have been relatively popular destinations for those who are still travelling as tourists during the pandemic. That’s been especially true for islands like Corsica that are part of larger, primarily-mainland countries.

Some independent island countries such as New Zealand have chosen to impose extreme restrictions on entry during the pandemic, hoping to protecting their residents at the expense of almost all international tourism. But when an island is part of a mostly-mainland country, there is generally free movement for citizens between the island and the rest of the country. Subjecting travel between the island and the mainland to special restrictions would be taken as treating islanders as second-class citizens, undermine claims that the island is “an integral part” of the country, and tend to revive what are often barely-suppressed or dormant island separatist or nationalist sentiments and movements.

No country includes such far-flung exclaves and islands as France. For perhaps no other country are the consequences of privileging national borders over geographic proximity so perverse, in a time of pandemic or otherwise.

“Metropolitan” (European) France includes mainland France and various more-or-less nearby Atlantic and Mediterranean islands, of which the largest is Corsica. But France also includes, among other discontiguous territories, the islands and archipelagos of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, Tahiti and New Caledonia in the South Pacific, and — less than 20 km (12 miles) from Newfoundland — St. Pierre and Miquelon. That’s not to mention French Guiana, the site of the equatorial rocket launching base at Kourou that’s the counterpart for France and the European Union of Cape Canaveral for the USA, on the mainland of South America.

Corsica and all of these overseas territories are as much a part of France as Hawaii is a part of the USA.

Some special COVID-19 restrictions have been imposed on travel between mainland and metropolitan France and the overseas territories, just as some restrictions have been imposed on travel between Hawaii and the US mainland. But these trips are still treated as domestic journeys. Just as it’s easier to travel between Hawaii and the US mainland than between Hawaii and Japan or other Pacific islands, it’s easier to travel “within France” than between France and foreign countries.

During the pandemic, travel and tourism are down overall. But relative to other competing destinations, tourist travel from metropolitan France to some of the overseas territories has benefited from their French status. Tourists from metropolitan France who want a tropical holiday but don’t want the new hassles of visiting their usual foreign beach vacation destinations, or aren’t allowed to go to those countries at all, are again filling flights to Tahiti and Réunion, despite the distance and expense. (The flight between Paris and Papeete is the longest domestic flight in the world, and the only one that normally requires a refueling stop.) The government tourism promotion board, Tahiti Tourisme, is refocusing its marketing on domestic visitors, i.e. visitors from metropolitan France, rather than from closer places in Australia, Asia, or the Americas.

The consequences for some other fragments of French territory that don’t have the advantage of tropical beaches have been more perverse and problematic. Although the runway on St. Pierre was extended to enable flights to Paris, that formerly-weekly flight has been suspended during the pandemic, leaving the only flight or ferry access to St. Pierre and Miquelon via Canada. But travel between metropolitan France and St. Pierre is subject to (lesser) restrictions as domestic travel, while travel on the ferries to and from Canada is subject to more stringent restrictions and burdensome procedures applicable to international travel. Last month the representative of St. Pierre and Michelon, the least populous constituency in the French National Assembly, was pelted with globs of seaweed by a mob on the front steps of his house protesting his support for the Macron government’s COVID-19 vaccine rules which restrict travel back and forth to Newfoundland.

How does all this play out with respect to Corsica?

The producers of The Amazing Race aren’t the only people to have thought of Corsica, a relatively spacious and lightly-populated island almost half of the land area of which is a national park, as a relatively safe destination for a pandemic vacation. In a rare exception to global patterns, passenger traffic at Corsica’s busiest airport in Ajiacco (AJA) was up almost 50% from what it was two years earlier in December 2019, just before the pandemic.

Some metropolitan French visitors undoubtedly changed their plans to visit Corsica instead of holiday destinations in other Mediterranean countries or further abroad. And some visitors from elsewhere in Europe chose to go to Corsica because they could get there without having to fly.

Corsica is separated from Sardinia, a somewhat-larger island that is part of Italy, by a strait less than 15 km (10 miles) across, with several smaller islands in between. Corsica is twice as far from mainland France as from mainland Italy. But because of restrictions on international travel during the pandemic, even within the European Union, the percentage of “foreign” visitors to Corsica (the largest share of which are from Italy, including mainland Italy and Sardinia) was down in 2021. The increase in visitors from mainland France made up the difference, so that total visitorship from outside Corsica in high season equalled or matched that in 2019 before the pandemic.

This means that, aside from concerns about coronavirus, you shouldn’t expect Corsica to be a bargain-basement destination or one to visit in high season. It’s one of the cheaper parts of provincial France, but it’s still France. Lodging is at a premium in July and August, which are months to avoid any French holiday destination. The Amazing Race 33 made a good choice to go to Corsica in September. The best combination of weather, (lack of) crowding, and prices and availability of lodging on Corsica is in shoulder season in the spring and fall.

Assuming you’ve picked out Corsica as a pandemic travel destination, what logistical and bureaucratic hoops do you have to jump through to get there from the USA during the current phase of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The USA is currently on the French government’s Red List of countries “posing a higher risk” of COVID-19. Before you can board any flight from the USA to France, you’ll need to show the airline (which has been deputized to enforce these rules) your “certificate of vaccination” (WHO Yellow Book or white CDC card), a sworn declaration that you haven’t knowingly been exposed to anyone infected with COVID-19 within 14 days, and documentation of a negative COVID-19 test taken less than 48 hours before departure. Scheduling that test and getting the result in time might be problematic.

There are no intercontinental flights to Corsica, no year-round flights to Corsica from anywhere outside France, and no year-round flights (at present) from the USA to anywhere in metropolitan France except Paris. In Paris, almost all flights from the USA go to Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), while almost all flights from Paris to Corsica, like most flights to other provincial French airports, go from Orly Airport (ORY).

So to get to Corsica from the USA, you typically have to fly to fly to Paris, go through customs and immigration at CDG, then transfer (by RER commuter train) to Orly to get a flight to Corsica. Alternatively, you can take a train from Paris to one of the ferry ports in the south of France (Marseille, Toulon, or Nice).

There are overnight trains (“Intercités de Nuit”) from Paris to Toulon and Nice, but they leave from the https://www.seat61.com/stations/paris-austerlitz.htm”> Gare d’Austerlitz, not from either of the Paris airport train stations. The easiest if not fastest connections probably involve a TGV (high-speed train) from the CDG Airport train station direct to Marseille, and then an overnight ferry from Marseille to Corsica. (This isn’t unusual: Even if you are neither arriving nor departing by air, you can often avoid transfers between train stations in central Paris by changing trains or taking a through train by way of the CDG Airport station.) TGV tickets can be surprisingly cheap if you book a couple of months in advance. Fares on regular TGV trains are as low as EUR19 (USD22) one-way between Paris/CDG and Marseilles, or EUR10 (USD12) on equally fast but fewer-frills OUIGO trains on the same route.

Don’t try to cut the connection in Paris too close, because you’ll need take your paper vaccination record to an authorized French pharmacy to get a vaccination pass with a QR code scanned into a special app on your smartphone before you can board any French domestic flight, high-speed or long-distance train, ferry, or long-distance bus. This “pass vaccinal” is also required to enter any French restaurant, museum, or theater.

Two pharmacies at CDG airport, one in Terminal 2E and one in Terminal 2F, are currently accredited to perform this service, for a fee capped by the government at EUR 36 (USD42). The pass vaccinal is a brand-new scheme effective 24 January 2022, but I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has gone through this how the process went, and how long the wait was, at either of these locations. It’s unclear whether there is any alternative if you don’t have a smartphone or your phone is out of juice or doesn’t have service when you arrive in France. I’d welcome readers’ recent experiences on this as well.

The ferries and flights between Corsica and mainland France have their own requirements including a “pass vaccinal” (installed on your smartphone by a certified French pharmacy, as above) and a sworn statement that you haven’t “been in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19” within 14 days.

You have to go through a different set of procedures, including another test, to satisfy US requirements to board a flight back to the USA. And you need a plan for where and how (and at what expense) you will quarantine yourself if you are exposed at any point along the way.

Whether the trip is worth these hassles, or whether they should be a warning sign that maybe you shouldn’t be travelling between continents just yet, will be left as an exercise for the reader.

Link | Posted by Edward, 2 February 2022, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0)

Wednesday, 26 January 2022

The Amazing Race 33, Episode 4

Altstätten (Switzerland) - Ticino (Switzerland) - Lugano (Switzerland)

[Algérie Ferries trans-Mediterranean overnight ocean liner from Algiers steams past the Château d’If toward the entrance to the harbor at Marseille, France. There are surprisingly few direct flights between Marseilles and the Maghreb, and I think there’s a viable market for more passenger ferry service if suitable ships were available on the cheap — as they now are.]

[Cruising the Inside Passage in the summer of 2002 on an 18-hour journey from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert on B.C. Ferries’ “Queen of the North”. I travelled “deck class”, but there were also cabins available. The Queen of the North sank in 2006 and has been replaced, but there’s demand for additional walk-on passenger service on this route for which a small expedition cruising ship would be well suited. Photo by Ruth Radetsky.]

This week’s episode of The Amazing Race 33 took the reality-TV racers through the Gotthard Road Tunnel under the Alps from north to south. There are actually three “Gotthard Tunnels”: the original rail tunnel, the newer road tunnel (only two lanes and a bottleneck prone to massive traffic jams on what is otherwise a limited-access divided highway, with blasting of a second parallel bore only begun in late 2021), and the newest lower-altitude “Gotthard Base” high-speed rail tunnel, the longest (yes, longer than the Chunnel) and deepest rail tunnel in the world.

It looked like even the teams that said they had taken “the scenic route” — a mistake in a race if not in real life — went through the tunnel. But the real scenic route is the seasonal road over the Gotthard Pass that all the tunnels were built to avoid. The old road is paved with miles of rough-cut but well-maintained stone pavés. But the tight, narrow switchbacks over the pass are perhaps best left for the bicyclists who aren’t allowed in the road tunnel.

The broadcast of this episode that I watched featured an ad for Norwegian [sic] Cruise Lines. Notwithstanding its name, NCL is based in the USA and incorporated in Bermuda, while its ships fly the flag of convenience of the Bahamas. Other cruise lines including Carnival Cruise Lines are also still advertising heavily (through not yet on this season of “The Amazing Race”) in spite of, or perhaps because of and to try to counter the effects of, a recently-upgraded CDC advisory against all cruise travel.

Just days earlier, the corporate parent of another major but smaller cruise line, Crystal Cruises, filed for bankruptcy liquidation. Crystal Cruises canceled all future sailings, and one of its ships returning to its home port in Florida was diverted to the Bahamas with hundreds of passengers aboard to avoid a U.S. court order to seize the ship for unpaid fuel bills.

Aside from the questions of what sort of repo man gets sent to seize such a vessel or who buys tickets from a bankrupt company for a cruise during a global pandemic, this prompts me to consider the larger issues of the future of cruising and of former cruise ships, many of which are idle.

Predicting the future of pandemic and post-pandemic cruising requires a basic understanding of the economics of the cruise industry.

Despite the language of the CDC advisory against “cruise travel”, most cruise vacations at sea aren’t primarily a form of travel at all. River cruises are typically quite different, and a small minority of ocean cruises are to destinations that are otherwise difficult to get to, such as Antarctica, some small and/or remote islands, or the fjordlands of Southeast Alaska and Norway. But most ocean cruising, by the numbers, isn’t a form of transportation at all. Cruisers are paying to be on the ship, not to get from one place to another.

If you are taking a 3-night cruise from Florida to the Bahamas, Galveston to the Yucatan, or Los Angeles to Baja California, the point of the cruise isn’t the nominal port call in Grand Bahama, Cozumel, or Ensenada. Most “passengers” on such a cruise are paying for three days in an all-inclusive resort that could, from their point of view, be anywhere or nowhere, on land or at sea, as long as the price is right for onboard food, accommodations, entertainment, and other services.

Why is the price of a cruise so attractive compared with a similar package holiday at a land-based resort in the USA? Because foreign-flagged vessels transporting international passengers are exempt from the labor laws of the countries they serve. This loophole has been pointed out to Congress by critics of cruise ship owners, but Congress has not chosen to close it. Why would members of Congress want to stop super-exploitation of cruise ship workers, most of whom are from the global South with the largest fraction from the Philippines, so that cruise line owners can make more money and U.S. tourists can take cheaper vacations?

The value proposition and competitive advantage that has led to the explosive growth of cruising and to its domination of the package holiday market in the U.S. derives almost entirely from the laws that enable international cruise lines to arbitrage international differences in labor costs.

It would probably be cheaper to build a resort on cheap land in the desert in Nevada, or in a swamp in central Florida, as developers of other destination resorts that compete with cruise lines for package-holiday business have done, rather than to build it on a seaworthy floating platform. It would be cheaper to moor a floating hotel in the harbor or close offshore, or to cruise slowly to nowhere, than to cruise to a foreign port.

But foreign-flag vessels aren’t allowed to carry passengers between points within the USA. And no cruise line could compete in the U.S. market if it flagged its ships in the USA and therefore had to pay its workers U.S. minimum wages. The only reason to burn enough bunker fuel to push the whole hundred-thousand-ton resort back and forth across an international border to a foreign port every couple of days with each load of guests is to escape from U.S. minimum wage and other labor laws.

Where does that leave cruising in the time of COVID-19?

Coronavirus infections have been detected on every recent cruise from and/or to the USA. That’s scarcely surprising. Even if there are fewer guests, so they can be less crowded in dining rooms and other onboard spaces, passengers inevitably share the ship with service workers for whom social distancing is impossible in cramped crew quarters. Regardless of pre-departure testing, anyone onboard can easily be exposed and infected in mid-voyage.

So regardless of what you think about the health risks of a cruise to yourself or others including the ship’s crew, its value during the pandemic has to be discounted by the unavoidable risk that you might have to spend the entire cruise shut in your cabin even if the ship makes any port calls, which it might not. Cruise lines always reserve the right to change or eliminate port calls or quarantine potentially contagious passengers. So you won’t be entitled to a refund or any compensation if all port calls are cancelled and/or you are confined to your cabin for the duration of the voyage.

That’s bound to reduce the amount the average customer is willing to pay for a cruise, which translates into reduced daily revenue per cabin for the cruise lines. It remains to be seen which cruise lines can afford to keep sailing, or for how long, on their present itineraries.

If the pandemic continues, either (1) cruise ships will be scrapped for the salvage value of their steel, (2) existing cruise lines will find new business models to keep their ships financially afloat, perhaps on new routes and/or with a different mix of customers, or (3) other companies will buy up some of those ships and put them to new uses.

Many cruise ships idled by the pandemic decline in demand for cruises are already being broken down for scrap, and there is already speculation that Crystal Cruises’ ocean-going ships may meet a similar fate.

Other cruise ships have recently been sold to new owners, mostly other, perhaps more optimistic, cruise lines.

I’m more interested, though, in what new business models might be possible, and what new services might be provided, by companies that can buy up recently-built cruise ships for barely more than scrap-metal prices.

As I’ve noted before in assessing possible new business models and uses for distressed surplus inventory of cheap airplanes and hotels, the risks of pandemic travel have reduced discretionary recreational travel most of all, and travel to visit friends and relatives — the “VFR” travel that most people perceive as most essential — least. Business travel is somewhere in the middle between vacation and VFR travel: much more generally disliked by workers than before the pandemic, and recognized as less necessary or valuable than it had been thought to be, but still demanded by some employers.

If there is little demand for cruises purely for the onboard experience, might some of the surplus of cruise ships be repurposed for ocean transportation? Ships have largely lost out to planes for trans-oceanic travel. But there are still a scattering of overnight or longer-duration ocean-going ferries in service around the world. If second-hand ships can be bought for a song, are there some of these routes on which service might profitably be expanded, or new routes on which the price might be right?

The world’s largest operator of ocean-going passenger ships is the Indonesian national shipping company PELNI (Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia). In recent years, PELNI has modifed some of its ships to carry more cargo and fewer passengers. With passenger demand down during the pandemic, PELNI converted one of its ships into a floating COVID-19 isolation hospital.

In addition to competition from airlines, PELNI has suffered from a vicious circle: With aging ships built for economy-class mass transportation, PELNI hasn’t been able to charge high enough fares to afford to buy newer, more luxurious vessels that would command higher fares. A few second-hand ships with first-class accommodations might be just what PELNI needs to attract enough of a market sliver of higher-paying passengers, if it picks a few of the right high-volume routes, to operate those vessels profitably.

It’s hard to say what might be the best such routes. One possibility would be to offer premium service on some of the existing PELNI routes with the most wealthy travellers, such as Singapore-Jakarta-Surabaya-Bali and vice versa. A more exciting possibility might be to expand PELNI’s international connections — currently limited to Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei — to other countries.

I think PELNI could make money operating a repurposed cruise ship back and forth on an “island-hopper” route between Singapore and Darwin (Australia) via Jakarta, Surabaya, Bali, Lombok, Labuanbajo, Kupang, and other intermediate ports.

I know from my experience fielding inquiries for around-the-world tickets that there is demand for a service like this, from travellers who have money and aren’t in a hurry. Airlines don’t really offer a ticket — at any price — that could compete with an ocean line on a route with these stopover options. The biggest barrier to setting up such an ocean line would likely be Australians’ fear that it could be a vehicle for Indonesian immigration.

It might also be profitable to offer deluxe PELNI services on a few key routes to Borneo and Sulawesi, and/or to extend PELNI service to some of Indonesia’s ASEAN neighbors, especially the Philippines.

This is just one fantasy. What are others? For example, Brexit has increased demand for direct transport between Ireland and continental Europe, to avoid U.K. customs and immigration delays and hassles. Might there be a market for additional service on existing or new overnight ferry routes between Bilbao (Spain), Brittany (France), and Ireland? For an ocean liner between Penang and Chennai? Mumbai and Mombasa? Piraeus and Alexandria (if the Greek government isn’t too afraid of it bringing in refugees)? An island-hopper through the Antilles between Miami and Venezuela?

Where do you think that cruise ships could make money as ocean liners, if they could be acquired — as seems now to be the case — for little more than scrap value?

Link | Posted by Edward, 26 January 2022, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (1)

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