Tag Archives: #travel

Burg Hohenzollern: a nearly impenetrable castle

Castle Hohenzollern in Germany
Burg Hohenzollern

Burg Hohenzollern is one of the oldest fortified castles in Europe. Burg is the German word for fortified castle. Burg Hohenzollern is located in the German state of Baden-Württemburg between the counties of Hechingen and Bisingen The exact date of the castle‘ s construction is unknown, but is believed to be around the year 1061 C.E. The castle can be divided into three distinct periods. The first period from 1061-1423.  The second period from 1454 until 1634, and the third period is from the restoration in 1850 until the present.

The First Castle period

The First period
The first known resident of the Castle was recorded in 1061. The Castle Hohenzollern certainly lived up to it’s name because from as it was able to protect it’s inhabitants for 156 years and was only breached in 1423 after nearly a year long siege by the Swabian imperial cities, the Hohenzollern surrendered the castle, which was promptly destroyed. After the Hapsburg allies and the Francian branch of the Hohenzollern intervened, the castle was once again returned to the Hohenzollern family.

The Second Castle Period

Burg Hohenzollern was reconstructed in 1454 with improved fortifications and again inhabited by the Hohenzollern family. The Castle survived the 30 years war and remained in the Hohenzollern family until 1634, when it was conquered by the Kingdom of Württemberg and then by the Hapsburgs in 1744 in the war of Austrian succession.

The Third Castle Period

The castle then fell into disrepair and by 1798 only the chapel remained usable. Under King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, reconstruction began in 1850 and was completed in 1867 by King Wilhelm I. Though the castle was once again returned to the Hohenzollern family (Francian-Prussian branch), the castle never again became a residency of any of the Hohenzollern.

A brief history of the Hohenzollern

The Hohenzollern are one of the oldest noble families of Germany. The family originated in around the town of Hechingen and took the name of the Castle Hohenzollern. The family then split into two distinct lines with the Swabian branch remaining Roman Catholic while the Frankish and later Prussian branch became Protestant. The later branch went on to unify Germany, creating the German Empire in 1871.

Burg Hohenzollern: A nearly impenetrable fortress


The Hohenzolern Castle, like the Castle Lichtenstein, designed to survive military conflict in the middle ages. The outer walls are 10m thick at some points with tunnels going through the castle walls. Breaking the castle walls down as portrayed in the movies are works of fiction, and this is assuming the invading army makes it to the top of the 855m high peak with a winding road through the forest. In Game of Thrones, Ser Jamie Lannister beseiges House Tulley at Riverrun. Though that castle had a moat, what the enemy had was a nice flat field to dig trenches and set up support well out of the way of any archers. The terrain surrounding Hohenzollern castle is far less forgiving leaving little room to set up any siege equipment and plenty of room for forces loyal to the castle lore to set up ambushes. Any approaching army would be at a severe disadvantage as ambushes could be set to weaken the approaching army.

Difficult to reach
The unfriendly approach

 

When I first heard that the outer castle walls were 10m thick, I was skeptical, until I walked through the castle walls. Walking through the castle walls you can get an idea of just how formidable the castle’s defenses are. The weapons of the day were no match for these defenses. This is also an excellent place to store provisions for a long wait.

The main gate gives archers perfect firing position while keeping the distance from the main wail to prevent it from damage. This windows are perfect for raining volleys of arrows on a besieging army. Keep in mind, that in the middle ages, it wasn’t just the wounds from arrows which were dangerous. Defending armies often dipped arrows in human waste so that if the puncture didn’t hit a vital organ, the infection almost certainly killed the enemy soldiers. So in the end, the residents of Castle Hohenzollern have the advantage. They can weaken an approaching enemy and leisurely kill off any enemy outside of its gates. The only way to win for an attacking army is to starve the residents into submission and even then, it took nearly a year the only time siege was successful against the castle.

Inside the Castle Walls

 

After Hohenzollern castle was rebuilt, it never again became the residence of any Prussian Hohenzollern, except briefly in 1952 when the Crown Prince Wilhlelm, the stayed in the castle while fleeing Soviet forces at the end of World War II.

Chappels

On the grounds of Castle Hohenzollern, there are three chapels for the Catholic, Protestant and Russian Orthodox denominations.

The oldest chapel is the Catholic chapel St. Michael. This building is the only structure which dates back to the second castle period and was build between 1453-1461. An interesting feature is the stained glass windows which date back to 1280 which were taken from a former convent of Stetten (now a district in Hechingen).

The Protestant chapel is the Kaiser-Wilhelm memorial chapel, modeled after the Naumberger cathedral. The apostolic gate is from the Kaiser-Wilhelm memorial church in Berlin.

The Russian Orthodox chapel was build by Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia for his wife Kira who was Russian Orthodox.

Armory and Treasury:
Crown of King Wilhelm II
Crown of King Wilhelm II

This room contains an assortment of medieval weapons and armor. It also contains personal belongings of the royal family including a gown from Queen Louise, a tunic which Friederick the Great wore in the battle of Kunersdorf, Also on display are his crutches, two flutes. Also on display is the King Wilhelm II’s crown which contains 18 diamonds (pictured above). For those interested in the American Revolution, there is original letters between Friedrich von Steuben and President George Washington. The letter from Friedrich von Steuben is pledging his financial support and military knowledge in exchange for receiving a commission as a General in George Washington’s army. The letter from George Washington is thanking Friedrich von Steuben for his service and support.

Of all the castles, this is easily my favorite. Burg Hohenzollern contains lots of priceless paintings and medieval artifacts. Walking around the castle grounds gives you the feel of living in the middle ages. This castle is a must see for anyone traveling to Germany.

Good bye from Hohenzollern!
Good bye from Hohenzollern!

 

Sources:

http://www.burg-hohenzollern.com/startpage.html

http://www.sirtripsalot.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=515&action=edit

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burg_Hohenzollern

Schloss Lichtenstein: an authentic medieval castle

Castle Lichtenstein
Schloss Lichtenstein

If you’re not from Europe and never visited Europe, your perception of a castle is probably very different from the reality of medieval castles. Thanks to fiction castles are often portrayed as as old fashioned mansions for the handsome prince and to whisk the princess to live happily ever after. They were luxurious for their time, but castles had one main purpose: battle. This will be part of our ongoing series of authentic medieval European castles. The Castle (Schloss) Lichtenstein is a small castle near the German city of Reutlingen which I can only recommend for any traveler for an inexpensive, yet educational visit.

Castle Lichtenstein
Schloss Lichtenstein-Old Castle

A brief history of Schloss Lichtenstein

After 50 years under construction, the castle Lichtenstein was completed in 1150 CE and first inhabited by the Knights of Lichtenstein1. The same noble family continued to possess the fortress at Lichtenstein until the last of their linage died fighting the Turkish invasion of 1687. Throughout its history the old castle was destroyed twice in battle between the citizens of the free city of Reutlingen and the lords of the castle in 1311 and 1388. After the castle was destroyed a second time, a new fortress was constructed. The new fortress was considered one of the best fortified castles and was never again destroyed. After the last of the Lichtenstein family, Ensign Anton of Lichtenstein died fighting the Turkish invasion of 1687, the castle was abandoned until King Friedrich of Württemburg purchased the castle in 1802 and turned it into a hunting lodge. King Wilhelm I of Würtemburg later sold the castle to Duke Wilhelm of Urach and the castle is still owned by the Urach family.

Castle Lichtenstein Armory
The Armory at Schloss Lichtenstein

Inside Schloss Lichtenstein

Above pictured is the armory with original weapons and body armor. One of the things that striking is how poorly nourished people were in the middle ages. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of this particular piece of armor but visitors can view a display of a set of small squire’s armor. In those days, most boys became squires at 14 or 15. This particular armor would be about perfect for a modern 10 year old boy, but certainly wouldn’t fit a healthy 14 year old.
Chapel

The Chapel. Most of the noble class had a chapel for them to go to church within the castle.

Visitors to Schloss Lichtenstein can view centuries old, hand carved wooden alter decorations and medieval paintings.

Above you’ll find the family’s dining area and the lord of the castle’s bedroom.

Outside Schloss Lichtenstein

 

I really enjoyed my visit.  I visited the castle with my parents who’ve never been to Europe.  My dad is in the picture  in front of the castle gates.

Main gate Schloss Lichtenstein
Main gate Schloss Lichtenstein

Admission to the castle costs on 7 Euros for a guided tour and is a nice educational stop. There’s also a great beer garden to have lunch.

Fun facts about Schloss Lichtenstein:

1) A recent german language version of Sleeping Beauty was filmed at the castle in 2009.

2) The Castle was the primary inspiration for Cammy’s stage in Super Street Fighter II2

Footnotes

1http://www.schloss-lichtenstein.de/en/history-family/history
2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lichtenstein_Castle_%28W%C3%BCrttemberg%29

Airlines offering first class more likely to have Air Rage problems

Did you know that airlines which offer first class flights are 3.84 times more likely to have problems with air rage?  Who’d have thought that cramming folks into seats like canned sardines while rich blowhards get luxury beds on long haul flights might tend to tick people off just a little bit.  Sounds intuitive, but here we have some scientific evidence1. Researchers at the University of Toronto studied thousands of documented air rage incidents, anything from cursing at flight attendants to tampering with smoke detectors in the restrooms to smoke, to refusing to sit down and found that all had a common theme.  Namely the presence of a first class cabin. The incidents were further aggravated when economy class passengers were forced to board by passing through the first class cabin. When Economy class passengers are forced to pass through the first class cabin, the risk of air rage incidents increased a further 2.18 times2. An interesting finding was that the incidence was not purely out of envy on the part of economy class passengers. According to Dr. Katherine DeCelles, the awareness of the higher social status of first class passengers actually encourages some first class passengers to treat economy class passengers in an anti-social manner3 and display attitudes of entitlement. This provocative behavior increases the likelihood of conflict.

Air Rage
Fasten Restraints

What would be some possible solutions to reduce air rage incidents? If the findings, which are being published in the national academy of sciences prove to be correct, a possible solution would be to de-emphasize the disparity between first and economy classes. Having a duel boarding, where the economy class passengers don’t pass through first class would relieve the congestion and wouldn’t serve as a constant reminder to passengers of the inequality of passenger statuses. For more information on this study please check the published paper here.

1.http://www.rotman.utoronto.ca/Connect/MediaCentre/NewsReleases/20160502

2http://www.sciencealert.com/air-rage-is-almost-4-times-more-likely-when-a-plane-has-a-first-class-cabin-study-finds

3http://www.sciencealert.com/air-rage-is-almost-4-times-more-likely-when-a-plane-has-a-first-class-cabin-study-finds

Why we still like JetBlue

JetBlue

I admit it, I took pleasure, you might say glee, in the irony, that the two biggest US low cost carriers offered service which was superior to the traditional airlines. While US low cost carriers were eliminating luggage allowances, overcharging for refreshments, and overall offering less for more money, JetBlue and Southwest Airlines continued to include luggage and overall better service. To our disappointment, JetBlue decided to eliminate the free baggage.1 Though at $20 dollars for the first bag, Jet Blue is cheaper than United2, American3, or Spirit (which charges for carry on bags as well)4, we think luggage should be included on trips. We don’t approve of their decision to eliminate the free checked luggage, but we still regard JetBlue as one of the better airlines, because they continue to offer better services such as their new wifi and in cabin entertainment.

JetBlue Entertainment
JetBlue’s new, redesigned in flight Entertainment Screens

JetBlue’s new state of the art WiFi, allows the user uninterrupted service from the moment they arrive in the terminal, throughout the flight and continuing to when the passenger arrives at their destination5. If you’re business traveler and you need to maximize your time, this feature will let you keep working uninterrupted. Most airlines airlines require their passengers to switch off electronic devices during takeoff, however JetBlue’s WiFi will remain active through the enter flight. The new WiFi is quick too at 12-20mps, your internet access is faster than most residential internet access. However the speed and uninterrupted performance isn’t the best feature. While other airlines are charging ridiculous fees per hour for on board internet access, JetBlue is offering WiFi free of charge.

If you don’t want to access the internet, at least the in flight entertainment selection is enough to pass the time. Jet Blue’s in flight entertainment runs on an android based, touch screen operating system. The customer has the option to watch over 100 Direct TV channels or choose from a library over 300 movies. To make the flight even more enjoyable, JetBlue plans to retrofit it’s plans with new 10.1” touch screens.

We like that JetBlue is innovating. Though the Airline is considered a low cost carrier, their services are still considerably better than the completing legacy carriers. Now, if only we could convince Jet Blue to bring back the complimentary checked bag.

1http://dealswelike.boardingarea.com/2015/07/02/jetblue-eliminating-free-checked-bags/

4https://www.spirit.com/OptionalServices.aspx?_ga=1.98083291.594628770.1454275428#Fare-Price

5https://www.yahoo.com/tech/ll-never-without-wifi-fly-224526666.html

America’s Crumbling Air Infrastructure

America’s Air Infrastructure was once the envy in the world

When discussing aviation  in a historical context, it is difficult to deny the influence and importance of the United States in the development of commercial aviation. From the time of the Wright Brothers first flight to the first solo Atlantic crossing by Charles Lindbergh, the pace of innovations made by the United States created the first standards for both pilots and eventually airlines that we recognize as modern aviation today. The development of commercial aviation sprang from the profitability of private pilots carrying mail for the US Post Office, which then led to passenger service between important cities. Airports and the associated infrastructure grew and changed to meet the needs of the expanding field of commercial aviation. For many years the US air infrastructure was the envy of the rest of the world, but in the last twenty years, the US has begun to lose its place as the airports in the US have started to age.

What happened to our Infrastructure?

For many years following World War II, US commercial airlines were strictly regulated by the government and this made air travel very expensive. By 1975, the US finally decided to deregulate the airlines which resulted in much lower ticket prices for passengers, but also made the industry itself much more volatile financially. As a result, airlines tried to minimize operating costs in every conceivable way, while at the same time, government levied more taxes on every ticket in an attempt to maintain the infrastructure necessary to keep the system running efficiently. This has predictably led to the current state of aviation where forty percent of the fare price for a ticket is taxes, where the airlines’ themselves have the smallest profit margin (3%) and the airports’ themselves must beg to keep the tax money allotted for improvements, but even the amount of facilities fees and other taxes are inadequate to keep up with the costs.

Newark International Airport, an example of Americ's crumbling infrastructure
Newark International Airport


As recent as 2013, the infrastructure of the US air transport system has been rated as D overall.1 The low grade is largely due to the facilities themselves, and critically, the aging and inefficient air traffic control system. For every successful, new, and well-designed airport, such as Denver International Airport (DEN), there are two dilapidated poorly designed airports in need of major renovation or replacement like NY Laguardia (LGA) or Newark Liberty Airport (EWR). Both the latter airports have horrible reputations among the flying public and in the Air industry. Even airports that have been recently renovated like Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) which had the entire terminal rebuilt in 1997 and was expanded in 2001, are limited not by gate space but by the number and length of their runways. As was the case with the recent new runway built at Boston-Logan International Airport (BOS) in 2006, the original plan was submitted in 1973 but was continually delayed by legal wrangling. It is nearly impossible to get approval and funding for airport expansions, even though the number of air passengers increases every year. In fact, it has been estimated that the infrastructure shortfall for funding for all commercial airports is about two billion dollars annually between 2002 and 2020 and during this time (up to 2013) Congress has actually cut funding for the Airport Improvement Program.2 Some of the nation’s busiest airports are not only horribly out of date, they are confusing, unattractive, and inefficient. It seems almost embarrassing that a country like Singapore, with far less wealth than the United States, has a more modern and better run airport in Kuala Lumpur than the US has in many of its largest cities.

One of the key areas of concern relating to airport infrastructure is the air traffic control system used in the US. According to Gary Kelly of CNN Money, the US is basically using 1950s technology in its air traffic control systems and these outdated systems are not only less safe than satellite-based systems, but they are far less efficient.3 The advantages of satellite-based systems are they are more precise and use airspace more effectively by charting routes more directly and by spacing planes more accurately. The result would be less flight delays, and better fuel consumption. The Federal Aviation Administration has a plan called NextGen, that is supposed to change over the to the newer technology, but the implementation has taken longer than expected and despite the fact the program was instituted in 2003, it has yet to be completed and is likely not to be completed before 2025.4

America’s Infrastructure needs an overhaul

It is a simple fact that improving the air infrastructure in the US would not only benefit the airlines and the flying public, it would provide many jobs and increase investment in other areas of the economy. For too many years, the federal and state governments have been complacent, and in many cases neglectful of heeding the importance of a properly funded and maintained air infrastructure; now many years later, the chickens have come home to roost and the costs have ballooned tremendously. If these deficiencies are not corrected, it could eventually affect the entire air industry and severely impact tourism as well as general airline safety.

1.Aging Infrastructure (October 2014), XL Group Insurance, Construction Insider, by Shannon Lawless and Bob Storey

3. http://money.cnn.com/2011/04/27/news/companies/air-traffic-control-modernization/index.htm, We need 21st Century Air Traffic Control, Gary Kelly, April 27, 2011.

4. Aging Infrastructure (October 2014).

Giving your luggage a voice

Wouldn’t it be great if you could monitor how your luggage is handled?

We’ve all been there. We travel and our luggage looks like it’s been through a war zone. After you check your bags and buy overpriced Starbucks coffee, your bag is being punted like a 50 yard field goal. Your souvenir precious moments, coo coo clock or whatever valuable souvenir from your trip is now in a billion pieces. Worse yet, you bought a valuable gift such as jewelry for your wife or girl friend and the noble TSA agents or baggage handlers open your bags for an “inspection” only to make off with your gift. How can you prove it? Without evidence or luggage insurance, you’re just out of luck. Statistically speaking, it’s inevitable that something will happen to your luggage as every year 24 million bags are mishandled. If you fly long enough, eventually something will happen. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a nanny cam for your luggage?

Bag Sentry Luggage Protection Device
Bag Sentry or Sentinel with Android App

There’s a new start-up project for a device called “BagSentry” also known as a “Sentinel”. The device is a USB powered monitor with a light sensor and motion sensors which record whether the bag has been opened or jarred while the luggage is being processed. The Sentinel can even detect if the bag has been left out in the rain or out on the hot tarmac, cooking your belongings. Other features are its ability to track airports, so you know exactly where your belongings have been. Anything that happens to your bags during the trip can be accessed via an android app. If a detailed report is required, such as claiming compensation for lost, stolen or damaged luggage, the Sentinel can be plugged into any computer’s usb port and produce a detailed pdf file of everything happening to the luggage.

Bag Sentry informs you if your luggage is disturbed.
BagSentry has a Luggage monitoring app

Critique of the BagSentry luggage monitor

Though this is a brilliant product, and would certainly help make baggage handlers and TSA agents more accountable, there are still some drawbacks. The first and most important downside is the price. Each Sentinel is expected to retail for $130 a piece. If you are a family of 4 that’s $520 right away. The pdf reports are not gratis. If your luggage is damaged, BagSentry charges $4 for a complete report to turn into the airline for compensation. The second suggestion would be to add a small camera to the device which will take a picture should the bag be opened. If something is stolen, it’s important to have evidence as to exactly who opened the bag. Hopefully future versions will include a camera and market competition will bring the price down so we can all secure our luggage.

A big thank you to Gizmoeditor.com for bringing this product to our attention!.

Ask Sir Trips a Lot: Incorrect Billing Address while booking.

Question: What happens if you attempt to make a booking and the airline or online travel agent’s website won’t let you enter your billing information correctly?

I recently was asked a question by a friend of mine who wanted to book a flight within the continental United States. He had already booked his international flight from Austria to the UnitedStates and he planned to be in several different locations throughout his business trip. Unfortunately when this friend of ours proceeded to try and pay for the flight at United Airlines’ website, he noticed that Austria wasn’t a valid country he could enter in his billing address. My friend being the cautious person that he is, and given that the United States government is over paranoid about security, decided to check with me to see what would happen if he entered say “Germany” as the billing address. Would he have trouble with the TSA or other US immigration authorities?

Error on United Airline's website.
Error on United Airline’s website.

Well this is an excellent question. First of all, I have to say it’s both sad and hilarious that a major airline like United left off a country like Austria off of their list. Perhaps they think Australia and Austria are the same place like in the movie Dumb and Dumber. That said, not putting your the correct billing address in won’t cause any problems whatsoever with the government authorities, assuming you’re able to make the booking. I’ll explain in a minute. When you make a booking, it’s very important that the passenger’s name, gender, and date of birth match the passport or official identification (if it’s a domestic flight). This is because the airline has to submit a passenger manifest to the appropriate authorities, and of course the security check is conducted to make sure you’re not on the “no fly list”. The security standards are much higher if you cross an international border and if your boarding pass (the name which is on the passenger manifest) isn’t the same as your boarding pass, you could be denied boarding. What isn’t checked is the billing address of the person who pays. This is just common sense if one thinks it through. The airline allows one person to purchase airline tickets for another party all the time. So it begs the question. Why ask for the billing address at all?

The answer of course has to do with the Airline’s online payment processing system. When you enter your payment information, the payment service provider cross references the given address with the address the bank has on file for your credit card. It also checks your IP address to make sure your location is where you say you are, and of course patterns of behavior which are highly probable to be fraud. E.g John Q. Smith lives in Austria. However the person making the booking enters a different address from what the bank has on file, the routing is Lagos, Nigeria to Bangkok, a route that Mr. Smith is unlikely to book, and his IP address is outside of Austria. This is a way of

pre-screening potential fraud. So what is our friend supposed to do if he wants to book a United flight, but can’t enter his billing address correctly. Well there is a much higher chance that Mr. Smith will either have his payment rejected if he instead puts “Germany” as his country, or at the bare minimum, the transaction will be held up for extra scrutiny, delaying the transaction and causing the lower priced fare to no longer be available.

What’s the solution?

In this case of such a blatant screw up. Call the airline and make the booking over the phone. This way you will bypass the online security and hopefully the agent will pass this problem on to United’s IT department. I hope this was helpful and thank you for reading!

What You Should Know About Frequent Flyer Programs

Airline_Frequent_Flyer_Program_Credit_Cards

In this installment of the Sir Trips-A-Lot Blog we will discuss Frequent Flyer, or airline loyalty programs. For purposes of this blog, the subject matter will be of a general nature, there are many differences from airline to airline in their programs so it would be nearly impossible to accurately describe them all. For the uninitiated, this entry will provide an overview of the basics of frequent flyer programs.

As long as I have been an adult, there have been frequent flyer programs offered by the airlines. It had to be around the mid to late eighties when they started to become increasingly popular, and nowadays there are few people who do not understand the basic principle of airline loyalty programs. A customer becomes a member of the program offered by a particular carrier, and each and every time the customer flies with that carrier, the miles accrued are added to the passenger’s milage account. When enough miles have been collected, the customer is eligible for an award, which is normally a free flight, or an upgrade to a higher cabin class. In reality, this is no different from your hairdresser or a sandwich shop who rewards you after a predetermined amount of purchases, except that when it comes to airline travel the rules are far more complicated.

All miles are not created equal. In the beginning, all miles were counted based on the statute distance between cities according to airline routes. For example, the distance between Denver, CO and Chicago, IL is 920 miles. Depending on the airline, they would give you either 900 miles or the full 920 miles for this flight. If you had a round-trip flight, that number would be doubled. It seems pretty straight forward, but even back then, there were exceptions. Let’s say that you were flying with United. United maintained hubs in both cites and so there were/are direct flights between those hubs. But, what if you were flying with US Airways? US Air does not fly directly from Denver to Chicago, you have to make a connection in Phoenix, where US Air has a hub. That means that the actual distance flown would be greater than the 920 miles as the crow flies, but it would be at the discretion of the airline as to what miles would be given for that flight. The distance from Denver to Chicago via Phoenix is 2040 miles total, because you are flying roughly 586 miles in the wrong direction to get to Phoenix. Naturally, the airlines would want to count only the direct distance because it is shorter. Fast forward to the present and you will find that most airlines now “award” miles based on the class of fare that you have purchased, and the numbers are rounded off. For example, if you are a member of Miles and More with Lufthansa, the miles for flights within continental Europe have been rounded off and are based on the booking class of the fare you have purchased; the more costly the fare, the greater the amount of miles. For the cheapest economy fare, you could get as little as 250 miles for the flight, while a person who purchased a business class fare for the same flight may get 1,500 bonus miles plus the actual distance traveled. I am not just singling out Lufthansa here, most airlines have moved to this type of mileage calculation for their frequent flyer programs. In addition, they have raised the mileage required to attain an award.

There are two reasons for the inflated mileage levels for awards: the first is that previously, the miles expired and it made people very angry when they saved up for years to get a free flight only to find that once they reached the award level, the miles had expired. The airlines had done this as a way of limiting the number of free flights they had to give away. Once airlines decided miles did not expire, they raised the amount of miles needed to attain an award. The other reason for the inflated award levels is due to the way miles were now accrued; with the advent of credit cards where the dollar value of purchases were counted toward membership miles rewards for airlines, the logical result was the airlines raised the amount of miles needed for a free flight or upgrade.

The new economy: miles as a form of Currency. The use and value of frequent flyer miles has become so ubiquitous in recent years that miles have taken on the feel of an actual currency. To some degree, this is exactly what the airlines and the credit card companies want. The lure of free airfare has created an entire economic niche where accrued miles can be exchanged for real goods and services. The airlines have created a synergy with the banks who issue credit cards that allow the user to accrue miles for travel or upgrades, and increasingly other retail items as well. The result can me people who are so “miles obsessed” that they make every purchase with a credit card, even menial grocery purchases. With the explosion of consumer credit card debt in the United States looming over the entire economy like a ticking time-bomb, it is perhaps not such a good idea to encourage people to take on more debt. It is likely that the airlines have created derivatives based on the outstanding airline miles awards, or potential awards not claimed. It seems like an unholy alliance for the average traveller, who in his desire to earn that free trip to Las Vegas, has purchased everything from underwear to gasoline at 18% interest. The airlines do not care, and the banks definitely do not care but the marketing machine continues unabated. The truth is that very few average fliers will ever see a milage reward, that only businesses and business travelers really have a change to benefit from these frequent flyer memberships.

Who wins in the end? Remember that airlines have now based miles on the fare rather than the actual distance between to cities so in essence they have severely curtailed the value of long distance trips if the customer has booked a cheap economy fare. Combine this with the fact that they have universally raised the award levels needed and the average Joe has a real mountain to climb before he will ever see a reward. For example: with Lufthansa, they claim it is possible to upgrade to business class from economy for as little as 10,000 miles. This is true, if the flight is within Europe and is flown with Lufthansa or its partners within Europe. The reality is: who wants to waste 10,000 miles for an upgrade on a short-haul flight with a flight duration of less than five hours? The cost in miles to upgrade for a flight from the US to Europe is 35,000 miles, more than three times as many miles, for Asia from Europe it is 50,000. In the end, the airlines benefit the most from their membership programs because they put you the customer on a treadmill trying to reach for that ever-elusive carrot.

The Truth About Meta-Search Engines

Common Metasearch Engines in the Travel Business

In this installment of the Sir Trips-a-lot we take on the subject of meta-searchers. First, you probably are very familiar with various meta-searchers but are only vaguely familiar with what they do; how they work. So, prepare to be enlightened about a corner of the online travel market that gets way more attention than you probably would expect.

What are meta-searchers? The simplest explanation is to give you a list of the most popular ones in the travel industry: Skyscanner, Kayak, Momondo, Dohop, Hipmunk, Travel Zoo, and Trip Advisor. Chances are you have probably heard of one of theses sites, and the chances are good that many of you have actually used them; but what do they do, and are they really useful? The meta-searcher is an aggregator of fares from many different sources. Without getting into the complexities of explaining how fare prices are determined and why they vary so much from one provider to the next, the meta-searchers assemble a list of fares and display them in ascending order from the cheapest to the most expensive price based on the travel sites who pay to list with them. The meta-searcher “scrapes” the fares from many different pages constantly so that the fare information is continuously updated. Now, from what I have explained so far, it seems as if this is the best way to find the cheapest fares, but what you may not know is that not everyone who sells airfare online is listed with the meta-searchers, so it is not a completely representative sample of all the fares available; furthermore, you are also paying for this service and you do not even know it.

This technology has only been in existence for about fifteen years, and has only been made popular in the last five to seven years. As with all new technologies, it has its positive aspects and it has drawbacks as well. Many online travel sites, focusing mostly on flights, are clamoring to be listed on these meta-searchers because of the enormous volume they can drive to a particular site. The rankings in these meta-search results can be a tremendous advantage for a particular website if they can reach the top of the results or even the first page. The down-side of this arrangement is the hidden costs involved. While you as a customer might find a flight that is $10, or even $20 cheaper than the same fare on the airline’s own website, the reality is that you are paying at least $10 and probably more likely $20 dollars to the meta-searcher. Of course you do not know this because the website offering the fare has added the meta-searcher’s fee to the price of the fare. In reality, it is possible that you could find this flight for cheaper than it is listed with one of the meta-searchers, but you have to know where to look, and therein lies the rub. The meta-searcher is “easy” but you are paying for them to do the leg-work, and sometimes there are huge potholes on the tech-superhighway.

The worst problem with meta-searchers is that the information must be constantly updated, and it becomes a question of the periodicity of the scraping. How often the results are updated is critical because flight availability changes minute to minute. For example, the meta-searcher may scrape sites every fifteen minutes, or every five minutes. The negative result of this can be that flights are listed on the meta-searcher that are not actually available when you go to book them a mere five minutes later. This phenomena is incredibly irritating if you are a customer, because it smacks of false advertising, or that you have been conned into a bait-and-switch type situation. The reality is less sinister (in most cases), but still quite frustrating. The technology employed by the various meta-searchers attempts to attenuate this problem, but it is not possible to eliminate it completely.

What the meta-searchers do not want you to do is use their sites to find the cheapest price, and then to go to the website offering the fare and book it directly with them. The meta-searchers do not make any money in this case. In essence, if you have done this, you have outsmarted them and used their resources for free and then left them in the lurch. In fact, some travel website offer some fares very cheaply and list them on the meta-searchers hoping that you will go to their site to see the rest of their fares, or that you will go directly to their site the next time because you remember you got a cheap fare there the last time you booked a flight.

Selling airfare online has become a very cut-throat business in the last decade. The rise in popularity of meta-searchers has only accelerated this trend. In some cases this has led to manipulation of both fares and listings with the meta-searchers. I personally worked for a company that was selling published fares that were marked down, which is strictly verboten in the industry and they were eventually served with a cease and desist order from British Airways. Everyone is fighting to be listed as high as possible and some companies with less scruples will employ such tactics to entice you to buy with them. Programmers can write algorithms to undercut other prices by a few cents just to be listed higher in the results. Some sites will tack on rather exorbitant credit card processing fees, and even booking fees that are not included in the listed price because they are only required to list the fare and not their fees, thus increasing the price sometimes as much as $30 or $40. Be cognizant that price is the overriding factor in listings and that most people do not pay particular attention to anything else when buying flights. Certain airlines and websites know this and they offer extremely low priced flights but the flight times are really terrible or you may have a very long layover. Turkish Airlines is notorious for offering low fares where you leave Europe in the afternoon and then you have to spend the night in Istanbul before taking your onward flight the next day.

In the interest of being brief, I have tried to limit the amount of detail about some of the other unsavory aspects of dealing with meta-searchers. Working as a travel agent, you get to see how the system works from the other side and it can be more frustrating for the travel agent than the customer in some circumstances. The important point I have tried to make is that the customer should be aware that the meta-searcher is also a vehicle for profit and act accordingly. As always, the point of this blog is to give the flying public the best and most accurate information available so that they can make informed decisions about flying.

Our trip to Cuba

As the travel ban between the US and CUBA has been lifted, I assume many Americans will be finally making the journey to the country. In planning my trip, there are a few things you should know. I wanted to see as many cities from different areas of the country which would give me a well-rounded view: city, beach, and country experience. I also wanted to have the authentic “Cuban” experience and went with the “Casas”, which are accommodation in local’s homes, usually with separate bathrooms, homemade dinner, and breakfast and sometimes a small lunch.
The following choices were made: Varadero for 2 days (Beach), Havana for 2 days (City), Vinales for 2 days (Exotic Scenery), Cayo Levisa (Secluded Island), and Trinidad (Small City).
I found our Casa’s were found using “cuba-junky.com” and by using Trip Advisor. I advise these methods as you want a Casa well located with a great host.

Varadero
Varadero

Varadero is a peninsula of approx. 20km with a width of 1.2km at its widest point. It is well known for its resorts and beautiful beaches. I must say, that we were expecting to see a beach community filled with tourists, but it was a most pleasant experience. The beach was sandy, long, not overrun, and as we stayed at a casa at the beginning of the peninsula, we were not subject to an overly touristy experience.

Havana
Havana

Havana was very disappointing as this city is under full-tourist attack, not by tourists but by locals who see so many great opportunities to make some money. It was very hard for me to get around the city without being approached every 5 minutes or so. Keep in mind, I’m 6’1”, tall and have blonde hair. You might as well just hold up a sign that says “foreigner” so it was even worse for me. After sometime, one just does not want to answer where one is from, if we want a cigar, taxi, accommodation, or a restaurant recommendation. Don’t get me wrong, the people were nice, but there was a line of them always trying to make a cent. The highlight to Havana was Hotel Florida Salsa, great mood, great dancing, and a good Cuban experience, where you can dance with locals. The city itself is still stuck in the 1960’s as architecture, cars, and the economy has been on a stand-still since the revolution, this was great to see, but I recommend a simple day-trip.

The highlight of the trip was Vinales; a small city set out along a valley. The valley was beautiful and the scenery was amazing. The foliage was very exotic, where you can see mango trees, pineapple bushes, visit tobacco fields, see sugarcane, coffee, and even coco trees. We rode horses through the valley for 4 hours, which gave us a very local experience. The national park is a place where you should purchase your cigars as it is not possible to use chemicals in the valley as it is a national park and also a Unesco World Heritage site. This was one of the best places I have visited in my life.

Calley Pinar del Rio in Vinales
Calley Pinar del Rio in Vinales

I would skip Cayo Levisa completely if I were to re-do the trip. The hotel was over priced, it was touristy, the buffet was not tasty, and there was simply no culture to the island. Pretty views could be found when we took a hike away from the hotel where no-one else could be found, but it was not worth the extra money paid.

Cayo Levisa
Cayo Levisa

The last city was Trinidad; it was a small city with beautiful small houses and lots of Cuban culture. I would recommend this as a city to visit instead of Havana, the Cubans do approach you a lot, but with much less vigor as in Havana. It has many beautiful streets to wander around in and lots of shops to purchase your Cuban trinkets.

Trinidad in town
Trinidad in town

So, if you plan on visiting Cuba, I hope this helps!