Friday, 5 October 2018
A review of the Gemini PDA
In September 2017, I wrote one of the first hands-on reviews of the prototype and plans for the Gemini PDA after I was part of a small meet-up in San Francisco with the CEO and CTO of Planet Computers Ltd. and a few backers of the Indiegogo project.
My Gemini arrived in San Francisco in March 2018 as part of the first production batch shipped to Indiegogo backers by express mail directly from the factory in Shenzhen. I've been using the Gemini intermittently since then, and took it with me on a two-month bicycle trip in Europe this summer. (I also brought my usual mini-laptop and Android smartphone, so I could see which devices -- if any -- were redundant, and which I would use in which situations.)
A year after my initial review, and six months after I received my Gemini, here's a detailed update on what works, what doesn't, what Planetcom needs to do to deliver on the promise of the Gemini (and the promises made to Indiegogo backers), and -- most importantly -- how to decide whether you should buy a Gemini to use on your travels.Continue reading "A review of the Gemini PDA"
Sunday, 9 September 2018
How to get money from an airline
Once upon a time, airline passengers could expect that if an airline cancelled a flight, the airline would arrange and pay for meals and hotel accommodations for stranded passengers until it was able to get them to their originally ticketed destinations on its own or other airlines' flights.
Today, it's become increasingly common for airlines to cancel flights preemptively, or to delay departures for hours, if they fear that flights might be delayed or diverted by adverse weather, air traffic congestion, unavailability of flight crews, or other circumstances. But it's no longer routine for most U.S. airlines, on most routes, to provide hotel or meal vouchers to passengers holding tickets on cancelled or delayed flights.
U.S. Federal law entitles ticketed passengers to cash compensation if, but only if, they are involuntarily denied boarding because a flight is "overbooked". But airlines are usually able to evade cash payments by bribing passengers on overbooked flights with airline scrip, not cash, to "voluntarily" give up their seats.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's guide to flyers' rights doesn't even mention airline-paid hotel accommodations as a possibility, and describes meal vouchers or any other compensation as an "amenity" entirely at the discretion of the airline:
Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport; there are no federal requirements. If you are delayed, ask the airline staff if it will pay for meals or a phone call. Some airlines, often those charging very low fares, do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers. Others may not offer amenities if the delay is caused by bad weather or something else beyond the airline's control. Contrary to popular belief, for domestic itineraries [within the U.S.] airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or cancelled.
That's an accurate statement of U.S. law. Fortunately, consumer protection law is much better in many other countries than it is in the U.S.
As the check pictured above shows, there are still times when airlines, including U.S. airlines, pay cash compensation to passengers with tickets on cancelled or delayed flights. In some cases, passengers are legally entitled to cash compensation as well as food and lodging while they are delayed. Often, all you need to do to receive accommodations and/or compensation is ask.
But many, perhaps most, U.S. travellers have given up hope of ever getting cash rather than scrip from an airline, don't realize that they may have more rights under foreign law than under U.S. law, even when they are flying on a U.S. airline, and don't know what to ask for, when, or how.
I got the check from Delta Air Lines pictured above for US$735.15 (for one passenger, on one cancelled flight), as well as vouchers from the airline for a night in an airport hotel outside Paris, transfers from the airport to the hotel and back, and dinner and breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I got where I was going a day late, and had to rearrange some of my plans, but US$735 is enough that I felt fairly compensated.
Getting paid by the airline wasn't hard, but I wouldn't have gotten anything if I hadn't known to ask.
Here's how getting compensated worked for me, and what you need to know:Continue reading "How to get money from an airline"
Sunday, 29 July 2018
Thoughts from Berlin on the Stasi and the TSA
Most of the writing I've published during the last couple of months has been on the Web site of the Identity Project (PapersPlease.org).
I don't usually repost those articles here, but today's includes more than most about my recent travels.
Some excerpts (full article here):
Jana Winter has a detailed investigative report on the front page of today's Boston Globe about a previously secret TSA program of illegal surveillance of innocent air travelers, "Quiet Skies".
According to the story in the Globe, based in part on descriptions and documents apparently leaked by dissident Federal Air Marshals, the "Quiet Skies" program selects certain airline passengers, who aren't on any blacklist ("watchlist") or under investigation for any crime, on the basis of algorithmic profiling, countries previously visited (merely traveling to Turkey has been enough to get some people selected), phone numbers or email addresses, and/or other factors in DHS files about them.
A team of FAMs is assigned to follow each targeted traveler from the time they arrive at their airport of origin (which the TSA knows from its access to airline reservations through the Secure Flight program), onto and on the plane, through any connecting airports, and until the unwitting target of their surveillance leaves the airport at their final destination.
The FAM gumshoes are required to file detailed reports on each traveler they are assigned to stalk, including a checklist of details such as whether the person being tailed used the toilet in the airport or on the plane, whether they slept for most of the flight or only briefly, and whether they had "strong body odor" or engaged in "excessive fidgeting."
Is this the reincarnation of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, the (re)emergence of an American Stasi, or standard operating procedure for a government that regards travel as inherently suspicious, rather than as the exercise of human and Constitutional rights?
All of the above, unfortunately.
The story in the Globe speaks for itself, and is worth reading in full.
But lest it be misunderstood, here are some key points about what today's news reveals, what's new and what isn't, and why it's significant:...
Until now, there has been no Edward Snowden from within the TSA or DHS, despite the numbers of people involved in travel surveillance and control.
Thousands of Federal Air Marshals have been ordered to inform on anyone they overhear saying anything suspicious on an airplane. Tens of thousands of TSA employees and contractors, and a similar order of magnitude of CBP staff, have been ordered to carry out suspicionless searches and profiling of travelers. An unknown number of programmers, at a cost of billions of dollars, have coded the DHS into the ecosystem of airline reservation data, giving the DHS root access to reservation data and positive control of boarding-pass issuance. An unknown number of "analysts" at the "National Targeting Center" and in airports in the US and around the world spend their days reviewing secret dossiers about innocent travelers and deciding, on the basis of secret criteria, which of them to allow to board which flights.
Until now, none of these people has spoken out against being ordered to spy on travelers or to control who is and who isn't allowed to travel where....
I'm writing this on a peaceful sunny Sunday morning in Berlin, in a pleasant modern hotel a few blocks east of the former course of the Berlin Wall. I've spent the last several weeks in the former DDR and neighboring former members of the Warsaw Pact. I've been talking with people I meet, visiting museums and memorials, and reading translations of local writing about the legacy of the former secret police of those countries.
Today, the Stasi isn't bugging my East Berlin hotel room, and local people can talk with me, a foreigner, without fear that they will be called in for questioning about what we talked about or that someone who overhears our conversation will inform on them to the secret police, with subsequent adverse effects on their ability to get permission to work or travel.
But the DHS has all the details of my airline reservations home to the USA, even though I'm flying on a foreign airline by way of a third country. And data such as what phone number or email address are reported to the DHS by the airline, on this or any previous trip, could cause me to be shadowed and reported on by Federal agents, or for airlines not to receive DHS permission to transport me. Just as nobody could travel from the DDR to the West without permission from the Stasi, granted or denied on the basis of a secret dossier maintained about each individual, nobody today can leave or return to the US by air without permission from the DHS, granted or denied on the basis of a similarly secret dossier and subject to no statutory standards and, to date, to no judicial review.
East Berliners no longer have to apply to the Stasi for permission to cross to West Berlin or to travel abroad. But each US or foreign citizen who wants to travel by air to, from, or within the USA has to get permission from the DHS before the airline is allowed to issue their boarding pass. And there are DHS "advisors" permanently assigned to sit behind the scenes in German airports, making "recommendations" to German authorities, on the basis of secret DHS dossiers and secret DHS algorithms, of who those German authorities should -- and should not -- allow to board flights from Germany.
There are places of remembrance in Berlin and elsewhere dedicated to preserving the memory of what was wrong with the Stasi and its counterparts in neighboring countries, that their evils neither be forgotten nor be repeated. But we have nothing like that in the USA, much less a monument on the Mall in Washington to the victims of COINTELPRO -- an FBI program for surveillance and suppression of dissent that was exposed only by illegal direct action, not by any mechanism for self-correction within the government.
We hope that the latest expose on the "Quiet Skies" program will be seen not as evidence of an aberration or an excess that should be "corrected" or an agency that should be "reigned in", but as further evidence of the fundamental character of the TSA as a lawless agency dedicated in practice, notwithstanding its rhetoric of "security", to surveillance and control of the movements of US citizens and foreigners alike.
The TSA can no more be "reformed" than could the Stasi. Nor can many other DHS components. We look forward to the day when they are abolished. Then their archives can be thrown open to the public, as those of the Stasi have been, to serve as a library of techniques of government surveillance and control against which we must be vigilant.
In the meantime, the secret police should be mocked, shamed, denounced, exposed, and defied both by those who are asked to submit to, and those who are asked to become perpetrators of, their evils.
We commend each of the Federal Air Marshals whose leaks contributed to the report in the Globe today. We celebrate their whistleblowing, and hope it will be emulated by others throughout the DHS.
And we hope that more people will say, "No," to the entire police-state enterprise of government surveillance and control of travel of which "Quiet Skies" is just a small part.
Friday, 20 April 2018
Testimony and reports from the hearing of the National Commission on Military Service in Denver
[Some of the opponents of military conscription who attended the hearing in Denver, 19 April 2018. Left to right: Matt Nicodemus (publicly refused to register for the draft, 1980), Edward Hasbrouck (imprisoned for refusing to register for the draft, 1983-1984), Mary Beth Kern (Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center), Doug Rippey (refused unlawful order to report for induction into the military, 1969), Paul Jacob (imprisoned for refusing to register for the draft, 1985-1986)]
- "Public Comment at National Commission Hearing Denounces Draft" (The Nation Report)
- "Public Hearing on the Future of the Military Draft Held in Denver" (KGNU Radio)
- Commentary by Edward Hasbrouck & Matt Nicodeums: "What should be done about Selective Service?" (footnoted PDF)
- Commentary by Paul Jacob: "Leave Those Kids Alone" (PDF)
- Written testimony by Edward Hasbrouck (Resisters.info)
- Written testimony by Matt Nicodemus
- Testimony of the Boulder Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)
- Statement of the War Resisters League (PDF)
- Leaflet: "Support Legislation to End Draft Registration" (PDF)
- Podcast: "The Future of Draft Registration in the U.S." (Courage to Resist)
I testified at a hearing Thursday in Denver before the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Below is my oral testimony (I also submitted a longer written statement for the record), followed by some notes about the hearing. Note that the Commission has scheduled seven more hearings around the country, the next of which will be 9 May 2018 in Boston, and has extended its deadline for accepting written comments through 30 September 2018.
Continue reading "Testimony and reports from the hearing of the National Commission on Military Service in Denver"
My name is Edward Hasbrouck, and the service of which I'm most proud is that in 1983 and 1984 I served 4 1/2 months in a Federal Prison Camp for refusing to register with the Selective Service System.
At that time the U.S. was backing fighters including those who would later call themselves the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The U.S. government put me in prison for refusing to agree to fight on the side of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. What does that say about whether we should allow the government to decide for us which wars we should fight, or on which side?
I came here today from San Francisco to point out that, like it or not, draft registration has failed. Most of the people subject to draft registration have violated the law, and most induction notices would end up in the dead letter office. Draft registration proved unenforceable, and the Department of Justice gave up trying to prosecute registration resisters 30 years ago.
One of the questions for this Commission is whether a draft would be feasible. As I discussed in my more detailed written comments, the historical evidence is clear that no draft is feasible today because noncompliance would render any attempt at a draft unenforceable.
Draft registration has continued only because there's been no face-saving way for the government to admit that its power to conscript is constrained by the willingness of potential draftees to submit.
I urge this Commission to look closely at the issues of noncompliance and enforcement, and to report back to Congress and the President that, whether or not you agree with or even understand the reasons for our resistance, a draft is not feasible and draft registration should be ended.
Friday, 6 April 2018
Hearing on the draft & draft registration, Thursday, April 19th in Denver
The "National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service" has announced that the second of its open-mike public hearings throughout the US on whether registration for a military draft should be ended or extended will be in Denver, Colorado, on Thursday, April 19th, from 3-5 p.m.:
Open-Mike Public Hearing
National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service
Thursday, April 19, 2018, 3-5 p.m. (doors open at 2:30; members of the War Resisters League and other witnesses will be available for interviews outside the City Park entrance to the Museum at 2 p.m.)
Denver Museum of Nature and Science
Schlessman Lobby, Entrance 5 (West side of the Museum facing City Park)
2001 Colorado Blvd., Denver, CO
Matt Nicodemus (phone 720-979-9967) in Boulder is organizing local folks to attend the Denver hearing. Please let Matt know if you plan to attend or can help with local activities. Some readers of this blog will remember Matt's public refusal to register for the draft in 1980, and his work as an organizer with the National Resistance Committee and as co-editor of Resistance News.
At the Commission's first hearing, in Harrisburg, PA, on February 23rd, each witness was allowed 2 minutes to speak. Time limits weren't strictly enforced, but might be reduced depending on how many people show up.
If you want to say more, or you can't make it to Denver on April 19th, you can submit written comments to the Commission through April 19th, or possibly later. [Update: The Commission has extended the deadline for submission of written comments through 30 September 2018.]
The Commission has said it plans to hold more hearings including at least one in in each of the nine US Census regions. [Update: See the schedule of approximate dates and locations through September 2018. Look for any announcements by the Commission of details of hearings here on the Commission's Web site.]
- Background on this Commission and why it is holding these hearings
- Podcast overview of what's happening with the draft, and why
- Web form for short written submissions
This is your chance to tell the Commission what you think about the draft, draft registration, and/or compulsory national "service".
Denver is an apt site for one of the Commission's first hearings. As recently as 2016, the Denver Post editorialized, "It's time to abolish the Selective Service and end the draft". Two Denver-area members of Congress, Jared Polis (D-Boulder) and Mike Coffman (R-Aurora), sponsored a bill to end draft registration and abolish the Selective Service System. That bill never made it to a floor vote, and died at the end of the 2015-2016 session of Congress. But this bill, or a similar one, could and should be reintroduced, and the Commission could and should recommend that legislation along these lines be enacted.
Wednesday, 21 February 2018
The Amazing Race 30, Episode 8
Chiang Mai (Thailand) - Hong Kong SAR (China) - San Francisco, CA (USA) - Alameda, CA (USA)
Comments to the U.S. DOT on airline deregulation
I was on an overnight flight to Europe on an airline that doesn't have live TV available as part of its in-flight entertainment when this episode of The Amazing Race 30 was first broadcast. CBS tries to block streaming from its Web site to IP addresses outside the U.S. So I won't be able to watch this episode until I get back to the USA.
But there are more important things for world travellers to think about this week. As this season of "reality" television travel makes its way to the finish line with a final series of long-haul flights, it's a good time for travellers to turn their attention to real-world developments in U.S. government policy that could significantly affect air travel in the future.
As I've noted before, deregulation of private businesses, including airlines, is a high priority for President Trump as a business person and the former owner of a (failed and bankrupt) airline. So is repeal or nonenforcement of antitrust laws.
Whatever you think of deregulation in general, the combination of deregulation, government-tolerated oligopoly, and government subsidies and grants of special privileges is a recipe for windfall profits to the owners of major airlines, and higher air travel costs to taxpayers and consumers alike.
Businesses that accept government subsidies and special privileges must accept the obligation to serve the public, enforced by government oversight. For an airline, like any other transportation company, those obligations take the form of the legal duty to operate as a "common carrier". This is one of the conditions for the issuance of an operating permit.
The Trump Administration signaled its attitude toward airline consumer protection when it aborted its review of airline truth-in-advertsing rules in late 2017. According to a report by Scott McCartney in the Wall Street Journal, "The agency has also signaled to airlines [that] enforcement is changing by inviting suggestions on rules to quash."
Airlines got the message, and seized their next chance to propose a sweeping rollback of Federal regulations protecting air travellers. When the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a routine request for comments on its regulatory agenda, airlines and their U.S. and international trade associations responded with an astonishingly brazen "wish list" of consumer protection rules they want repealed, including some of the most basic elements of what it means to be licensed as a common carrier: non-discriminatory adherence to a published tariff of fares offered equally to all would-be passengers:
- Proposals from the International Air Transport Association
- Proposals from Airlines for America, Part 1 of 2
- Proposals from Airlines for America, Part 2 of 2
Numerous individual airlines endorsed these calls for deregulation, and added their own pet peeves at having even minimal obligations to treat consumers and air travellers fairly.
Given the length and breadth of the airlines' wish list for "freedom" to defraud, discriminate against, and mistreat travellers, it was impossible for consumer advocates to respond immediately or in detail to all of their proposals. But our submission to the DOT provides an overview of why continued and enhanced Federal regulations, and enforcement of those regulations, are essential to protect consumers and travellers and ensure that airlines continue to justify their use of public resources by serving the public as common carriers.
Some of the airlines' proposals, such as their long-standing desire to replace publicly-disclosed tariffs of ticket prices with personalized pricing, go beyond the DOT's regulatory authority and would require changes by Congress to Federal laws.
As of now, this is all just preliminary jockeying for position. The DOT has not (yet) agreed to include any of the airlines' requests in its regulatory agenda. The real battles will be have to be fought rule by rule in the months and years to come, if and when the DOT opens "rulemaking" proceedings for piecemeal or wholesale repeal of its current, already inadequate and largely unenforced, framework of consumer protection rules. And if the DOT sells out to the airlines, we'll have to take this fight to Congress.
Airline passengers are a relatively wealthy and privileged class of consumers, not the most needy. This isn't, in itself, the most important of current consumer issues. But common carrier laws are some of the oldest and most basic consumer protection laws. Whether they survive the Trump Administration is likely to set an important precedent for the future of consumer protection regulations in other industries.
Friday, 16 February 2018
Public hearings and written comments on draft registration
- Podcast (35 min.): The Future of Draft Registration in the U.S.
- Testimony and reports from hearing in Denver, CO, 19 April 2018
- Schedule of locations and dates of all hearings through September 2018
- Deadline for submisison of written comments extended through 30 September 2018
For the first time in decades, a Federal commission is holding open-mike public hearings throughout the USA (starting next Friday, 23 February 2018, in Harrisburg, PA) and taking written testimony (through 19 April 2018, Patriots' Day) on whether draft registration should be ended or extended to women as well as men; whether there should be a draft of people with medical or other special skills regardless of age or gender; whether a draft would be "feasible" (it wouldn't, because so many people haven't registered with the Selective Service System, have moved without notifying the SSS, and/or would resist if drafted); and related issues.
Despite some problems, this is by far your best and most open opportunity in decades to tell the Federal government to end draft registration. Read more for background on the National Commission on Military, National, and National Service and an update with the schedule of dates and locations of hearings through September 2018.
The Commission wants to know what we think about the draft, draft registration, andr compulsory national "service".
I think the most important thing for the Commission to hear is that people subject to draft registration, and people who would be subject to a draft (including older health care workers and people with other specialized skills who might be subject to an expanded draft) would refuse to go, and that other people would support them in their resistance.
Whether or not the Commission agrees with the reasons people don't and won't comply with registration or a draft, the Commission needs to be brought to realize that a draft is not "feasible" because so many people would not comply, and because noncompliance would render it unenforceable. The Commission to recommend that Congress enact legislation to end draft registration and abolish the Selective Service System.
That's the lesson of the last 38 years of failure of draft registration. We need to teach that lesson to the National Commission on Service.
The Commission needs to hear from men who didn't register for the draft when they were supposed to do so, men who registered but have moved without telling the Selective Service System their new address, men who are registered but would refuse to go if they were drafted, parents who would tear up any induction order that came for their son or daughter (shifting the risk of prosecution from their children to themselves), and women who would refuse to sign up if draft registration is extended to women.
The Commission is also supposed to report on, "the feasibility... of modifying the military selective service process in order to obtain for military, national, and public service individuals with skills (such as medical, dental, and nursing skills, language skills, cyber skills, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills) for which the Nation has a critical need, without regard to age or sex." So the Commission needs to hear from people in all of these occupational categories who would refuse to be drafted.
The inquiring minds of the Commission also want to know what the government could do to encourage "service". Here are some talking points about that:
- "Compulsory service" is, by definition, slavery. If you want to encourage any positive definition of service, it must be voluntary, and completely separate from any system of conscription. You cannot have a system that serves both conscription and positive "service".
- "Military service" is service to the cause of war. If you want to encourage any positive notion of "service", you need to separate it completely from military recruiting or incentives for military enlistment.
- People can best "serve" by making their own choices. "Service" should not be limited to options approved by the government for nonprofit status.
- The greatest limitation on the ability to "serve" is student debt that forces people to seek higher-paying jobs. This is the new form of the "channeling" of young people's choices by the Selective Service System. The best way to enable more people to "serve" is to free them from student and vocational-training debt by recognizing education as a human right and shifting funding for education and job training from loans to grants.
Wednesday, 14 February 2018
The Amazing Race 30, Episode 7
Harare (Zimbabwe) - Manama (Bahrain) - Chiang Mai (Thailand)
This week The Amazing Race passed through Bahrain. Bahrain is a small desert island city-state, but the teams of travellers faced unexpected difficulties finding their way around, both driving and on foot. I've had some of these same problems finding my way around in places like this, and have written about them when previous seasons of The Amazing Race have passed through similar nearby countries.
What was new, as the voiceover narration pointed out, was that this was the first time The Amazing Race had visited Bahrain, despite multiple previous visits to other countries of the Arabian peninsula and the Arabian/Persian Gulf: the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait.
That's typical, as is the fact that the racers flew in and out of Bahrain via Dubai even though there are direct flights from Addis Ababa (the foremost African air hub) to Bahrain, and Bahrain to Bangkok, which would have spared the racers a change of planes on each leg. Today, Bahrain is both less visited by tourists from outside the region and less well-known as an air transport hub than several of its neighbors. Despite the glitzy technopolitan skyline that provided the backdrop to this TV episode, the reality is that Bahrain is playing catchup to its neighbors for airline transit traffic and destination or stopover tourism.
It hasn't always been that way.
Bahrain was the first international airport in the region and an important refueling stop between Europe and India as early as the 1930s, and grew in facilities and importance as a military transport hub during World War II.
The story of post-World War II civil avation in the Gult and the founding in Bahrain in 1950 of the airline that eventually became Gulf Air is told in fictionalized form (and with an overlay of pure fantasy) in Nevil Shute's best-selling 1951 novel, Round the Bend. Nevil Shute is best known as the author of On the Beach and other novels, but his first career was an an aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer, as chronicled in his non-fiction memoir, Slide Rule: The Autobiography of an Engineer. Many of his novels were set in the milieu of aviation and engineering.
Gulf Air was the first, and for decades remained by far the largest, passenger airline in the region. By the 1980s, it was the jointly-owned national "flag carrier" of the U.A.E., Muscat and Oman, and Qatar. While the headquarters remained in Bahrain (BAH), it was also the dominant airline for both regional and long-haul services to and from Dubai (DXB), Abu Dhabi (AUH), Muscat (MCT), Doha (DOH), and Sharjah (SHJ).
The consortium of hereditary monarchs and ruling families that owned Gulf Air began to break up when the emir of Dubai decided to start his own airline in 1985, and sold back his share of Gulf Air. Emirates was followed by Oman Air and Qatar Airways in 1993, and Etihad (based in Abu Dhabi) and Air Arabia (based in Sharjah, where the airport is primarily a cargo rather than a passenger hub) in 2003. That left the government of Bahrain holding the bag as the sole owner of Gulf Air, saddled with an older and less-efficient fleet than any of its newer competitors.
Unlike Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways, Gulf Air never extended its route system to the Americas, although it has flights to places in Australia as far from Bahrain as the US West Coast would be. Not trying to compete on trans-Atlantic routes may be a sound business decision, but it has left Gulf Air and Bahrain even further behind in American mindshare than airlines and cities promoting direct flights to and from the US, Canada, and Latin America.
Bahrain's efforts to attract a larger share of tourism from outside the region isn't helped by its geography. Bahrain is a small cluster of connected islands -- the smallest of the Gulf micro-states -- linked to Saudi Arabia by a 25 kilometer (16 mile) chain of bridges and causeways. Saudia Arabia is of course the big visitor draw in the region, but mostly for Hajj and Umrah pilgrimmages to Mecca and Medina. It's difficult for non-Muslims to get visas to enter Saudi Arabia as tourists, so most non-Muslim visitors to Bahrain aren't allowed across the causeway.
As in Saudi Arabia, the ruling family of Bahrain professes Wahabbi fundamentalism. But the enforcement of religious law is significantly less draconian in Bahrain than in Saudi Arabia or some of the other Gulf states, making Bahrain attractive as a recreational and shopping getaway destination for visitors from elsewhere in the region. But Bahrain has never developed much, if any, global image.
Of all the around-the-world travellers to whom I sold tickets on Gulf Air with connections in Bahrain, I can't remember any who chose to stop over any longer than necessary to catch the next onward flight. They were more likely to complain about long connections in Bahrain (Gulf Air flights tend to be scheduled for the convenience of locals, not to optimize connections between other places) rather than welcome them as a chance for a stopover tour of the city of Manama and other parts of the island of Bahrain.
Places that are cosmopolitan by regional terms, but have few US or "Western" visitors, can be quite interesting. I wouldn't go out of my way to make Bahrain a destination on its own, but I wouldn't pass up a chance to stop over for a few days if I found myself changing planes there.
Have any of you been to Bahrain? What was it like?
Wednesday, 7 February 2018
The Amazing Race 30, Episode 6
Prague (Czech Republic) - Harare (Zimbabwe) - Marondera (Zimbabwe) - Harare (Zimbabwe)
There was a new twist on this week's episode of the The Amazing Race. For part of the episode, the teams had to swap partners, so that each of the racers had to complete one of their assigned tasks with someone other than their regular travelling companion.
That led to complications for some of the racers who had counted on one member of the pair being able to handle certain tasks, such as driving a stick-shift car, for which their partner didn't have the knowledge, skill, and/or confidence.
In a race, or in a real-world travel situation where accomplishing some task quickly or getting it right the first time is of the essence, it's important to have an accurate shared understanding of which travel companion is better at, or will take the lead at, which tasks.
Even when you aren't in a hurry, dividing up tasks makes sense, and can make preparing for a trip with a companion or a group a lot easier. Perhaps one of you has been studying maps and planning transportation, while the other has been studying the local language(s) of your destination(s).
While there are times to double-check your travelling companion, there are also times to trust their judgment in areas where you know they have more expertise. Sometimes you have to go along, even if you are uncertain about the best course, recognizing that uncertainty is inherent in travel decision-making and trusting that mistakes are more likely to lead to annoyances or adventures than to catastrophes.
But there's a catch, as the racers found out in this episode. Your partner may not always be available to do things for you both.
I've arrived in the middle of the night in a country where I didn't speak the language, expecting to be met by someone who had been studying that language, and discovered that my companion had been hospitalized and couldn't meet me. I've had to come back to the U.S. unexpectedly in the middle of a trip, leaving my travelling companion by themself on another continent. Medical and family emergencies at home and on the road make this sort of unplanned separation more common than most travellers predict. I've gotten separated in a crowd without a cellphone.
And that's without even considering the relationships between travelling companions that break up on the road (not always a bad thing), or the times that you and your travelling companion(s) want to do different things for a day, or one of you wants to take an overnight side trip.
There's a tricky balance between trusting and being willing to rely on your partner's ability (good), and being dependent on someone else to the point where you can't cope, or don't have the self-confidence to try to cope, on your own (bad).
How can you prepare for the possibility that you might get split up, one of you might get sick or hit by a car or break a leg, or you might want to separate for some reason?
Here are some things you can do before you find yourself travelling on your own or with a stranger or strangers rather than your expected companion:
- Take turns. Practice when the stakes are low. Let the partner who is less fluent in the language do the talking for both of you some of the time. They will learn a little more of the language, and -- perhaps more importantly -- they will gain confidence that they can manage on their own if they have to. Let the person with no sense of direction lead sometimes, when you can afford to enjoy getting lost.
- Split up sometimes, for an hour or a day. Get some practice doing things on your own. It might be scary at first, but if you are like most people, a little experience by yourself will do wonders for your self-confidence. Getting to spend more time with your travelling companion can be one of the joys of travel, if you don't get enough time together at home. It's easy to take that too far, though, if one (or both) of you lacks the confidence to go out alone. You don't have to spend every minute together. On an extended trip, there can be many benefits to planning some occasional time apart.
- Be prepared. Think about, "What if...?" List the travel tasks that you mostly leave to your companion, and consider how you would deal with each of them yourself. If you have to split up, do you each have your own stash of emergency money, and your own ATM card? The details of your itinerary and key contacts (and not just in your phone, which could get lost or stolen)? A map? The address of where you are staying? Are there passwords you both would need, that only one of you has? What if they are unconscious? Do you have a plan (not involving cellphones or e-mail, which could both get hacked and erased) for how you would reconnect if you get separated in transit, or if one of you is delayed or diverted or has to stay behind? It can be as simple as agreement on which friend or family member you will both call, but talk about it and have a plan before you set out on a trip together.
Wednesday, 31 January 2018
The Amazing Race 30, Episode 5
Les Baux (France) - Marseille (France) - Prague (Czech Republic)
Product placements on The Amazing Race are usually just extra advertisements for whichever brand of car the racers have been provided to drive from Point A to Point B, or the prize for the pair of racers that finishes first in the episode.
However, one of this week's product placements on The Amazing Race 30 might give real-world travellers a bad idea: the racers were required to use the Travelocity app to choose and reserve flights from Marseille to Prague.
Marseille is one of the places on the short list of favorites from my most recent trip around the world. One reason it remains underappreciated and under-visited by foreign tourists, despite its many attractions and despite being a hub for surface transportation and flights across the Mediterranean to and from the Maghreb, is a paucity of long-haul flights (none to or from the USA, although Air Canada and Air Transat have seasonal summer services to and from Montréal) or even short-haul flights to or from many places in Europe.
Most of the racers ended up making connections through Brussels, one of the small number of major European hubs served from Marseille. The venerable Belgian national airline Sabena was one of those that went bankrupt after 11 September 2001. Brussels Airlines, which inherited Sabena's "SN" code, has only a handful of long-haul flights. But Brussels' role as the de facto capital of the European Union supports flights between Brussels and more other cities in Europe than one might expect for a city its size.
Travelocity won't find the cheapest or any of the direct flights from Marseille to Prague. If you rely exclusively on Travelocity, you won't know they exist, and you will pay more for less convenient connecting flights than you could have paid for a nonstop flight. The same thing is true for many city pairs within Europe.
Travelocity is an online travel agency that is based in the USA and was founded by the Sabre computerized reservation system (CRS). Travelocity is now a division of Expedia (it's generally a waste of time to "comparison shop" between Expedia, Travelocity, or other brands owned by the same parent company, although for marketing reasons they sometimes offer different prices on their different Web sites), no longer part of Sabre, and has built direct connections to some airlines that bypass the CRSs. But Travelocity still relies primarily on CRSs as information intermediaries between it and airlines. Travelocity's priority for negotiating direct connections or agency appointments to sell tickets for flights on airlines that don't participate in the major CRSs like Sabre is Travelocity's customer base in the USA.
Online travel agencies and Web sites with more customers in Europe have more of an interest than do their U.S. competitors in finding ways to include information about airlines that operate only within Europe and not to the USA. Almost anywhere in the world, you are better off starting with whatever Web site, app, online travel agency, or aggregator of travel information has the largest local user base and scope of information, rather than relying on U.S.-based sources. For flights within Europe, you'd be better off starting with the Europe-centric Skyscanner Web site or app than with U.S.-centric sites or apps like Travelocity or Kayak.
No online travel agency offers tickets on every European airline, however. Many new airlines, including many within Europe, only sell tickets directly and not through any third parties.
For the cast of The Amazing Race, price is no object when it comes to airline tickets. The TV producers pay for their tickets at any coach fare. For real-world travellers, self-described "low-fare" airlines aren't necessarily any cheaper than "legacy" airlines. But within Europe, as with Southwest in the USA, they offer direct point-to-point flights on many routes between secondary cities and airports where "legacy" airlines with hub-and-spoke route systems only offer connecting flights.
Volotea, which operates the only direct flights between Marseille and Prague is typical of this new crop of European airlines. You've probably never heard of Volotea or many other new airlines like it, and you won't learn about them from the likes of Travelocity or Kayak.
How can you find these airlines and routes? Flylc.com offers one of the more comprehensive directories of intra-European airlines and flight routes. Once you choose a departure or arrival country, you can pick airports from a map -- a helpful feature if you don't have a mental map of the locations of obscure and provincial airports.
If you have a specific airport in mind, Wikipedia's crowd-sourced lists of airlines and routes, like this example for Marseille (MRS), are often more comprehensive than any other single source. Don't count on the existence of a flight listed on Wikipedia, though. Some flights are seasonal but not labeled as such, some services were announced but never materialized, and others have been discontinued. Wikipedia is generally much more quickly updated when a new route is announced than when plans for a new route are abandoned or service is temporarily or permanently suspended.
Do your homework before you buy airline tickets to or from an unfamiliar provincial airport. Public transit and intermodal connections (trains, buses, rental car offices, etc.) to and from smaller European airports vary from excellent to abysmal, and may not operate frequently or at all hours of the day and night.