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Travelling by Train This Christmas? Good Luck

Are Britain’s railway companies finally waking up to the notion of customer service? We say this because several, including Virgin Trains, are entering into the spirit of Christmas and offering discounted tickets.

Yes, you read that right. Discounted train tickets. Apparently, the best day to book them this month will be on Friday 24th November when their equivalent of the Christmas Sales start.

Tickets will start from as low as £5 for those booking during the winter sale, for journeys made between Monday 18 December 2017 and Sunday 14 January 2018.

Some tickets will be discounted by more than 50 per cent, including a London to Manchester Standard Class ticket, which the train operator claims originally costs £23 and will now cost £11.

Further, the ever optimistic Virgin marketing team claim for those looking to travel on Christmas Eve, Christmas or Boxing Day, ‘you’re in luck’. ‘Discounted tickets will be available for all three days, meaning you can visit both sides of the family on opposite sides of the country if you need to’.

Well yes and no. And they don’t spell out what sort of luck you’ll have. Being more Scrooge like, we say it’s more likely to be bad luck than good luck, given how few trains will actually run then.

In fact National Rail has warned that nearly all the train operators have made very early announcements of significant engineering work and timetable changes over Christmas, including ‘CrossCountry, Gatwick Express, Greater Anglia, Great Western Railway, Heathrow Connect, Heathrow Express, London Overground, Southeastern, Southern, TfL Rail, Thameslink and Virgin Trains’.

Wait, was that Virgin Trains we saw tacked on the end of the list there?

We think the Virgin marketing team might have got stuck into the Christmas sherry a bit early this year.

 

Scotland Is Hot. Yes, Really

It’s that time of the year again. Well, yes, Christmas is fast approaching; less than forty days in fact. But we were talking about the growing number of articles that travel magazines that are publishing giving their predicted ‘hot’ travel lists for 2018. These are now nearly as ritualistic as wearing appalling Christmas jumpers or giving wildly inappropriate presents in office secret Santa parties.

Of all the travel titles that publish these articles (and watch out, there will be many) we do have a sneaking regard for Wanderlust, one of the best travel magazines around and which always contains impressive photography as well as usually contains several articles that leave you thinking ‘I want to go there. Now’.

Their ‘travel hot list 2018’, which has just been published, is no exception. Of the eighteen destinations tipped by the magazine’s writers as worth visiting next year – and given that this team regularly travels all over the world – four are in Europe, including somewhere very close to home; Scotland.

The travel writers included Scotland because its ‘wild west is within easier reach’ now pointing out that the renovation of the Caledonian Sleeper now puts London in touch with Scotland’s northerly tips including Fort Williams, Inverness and Aberdeen.

We’re delighted to see the Royal Family’s favourite holiday destination rubbing shoulders with the likes of more exotic places such as the Patagonia region in Chile or New Zealand’s South Island, which also both made it into the list.

We’re also delighted to see Portugal get a mention. Why is it hot? ‘Moorish marvels, river escapes and the end of the world minus the crowds’. Although as the article does point out 7.1 million people visited Portugal last year so the only truly crowd-free area to visit is Cape St Vincent, on the very south-west tip of Europe.

The Continent with the greatest number of destinations is South America (with four of the eighteen), including Buenos Aires in Argentina, which was tipped largely because the imminent arrival of low-cost long-haul carriers such as Norwegian Air means that tourists can actually get there and so ‘discover barrios on a budget’.

Clearly, Patagonia aside, tipping destinations as being hot but impossible to get to makes no sense. So we were equally heartened to see the Baltics make it (‘Why it’s hot…Celebrate 100 years of the Baltic States!’).

No doubt believing, like Henry Ford, that ’history is bunk’, none of these publications ever seem to go back to check whether the destinations they tipped last year as hot remained hot or just, well,  cooled down as they failed to live up to the hyperbole.

 

 

 

India Stirs The Senses

India. The land of tigers, elephants and…British tourists. The UK is emerging as an important source of tourists for the country, helped by the Indian government’s decision to introduce a new e-visa system, more regular flights between the two countries (Jet Airways recently introduced a new third daily flight between London and Mumbai) and numerous highly popular TV programmes (BBC’s ‘The Ganges with Sue Perkins’) being just one in a long line of programmes including the inimitable Joanna Lumley.

The Indian government’s tourist authority is also making more money available to each of the country’s 29 states which are, in turn, ramping up their own tourism marketing plans.

Any visitor attending this week’s World Travel Market exhibition will have seen how diverse this massive country is. From the Himalayas in the north, to the former tea plantations dotted around Kerela in the south, each state is now highlighting its own unique offering. Given the country’s long history, most states can also boast a world heritage site or two as well as a national park teeming with wildlife which, unlike many in Africa, are adequately protected from poachers.

India’s culture lends itself to welcoming tourists too. Each invader left their stamp on the country which now manifests itself in architecture, language (the constitution recognises twenty two languages in addition to English) and religion. And this continuous stirring of the DNA melting pot leaves the vast majority of Indians extremely tolerant and respectful of others, including tourists.

Of course, a country this size is not without its problems and very few first time visitors from the UK would fail to be moved by the plight of the poor, but this is a country that embraces life and is looking to the future with optimism.

 

200 Items In a Suitcase. Now That’s Packing

Holidays should be sources of great joy and anticipation. But if there’s one thing that can cause an upset, it’s how much luggage to take. These arguments can be between family members or travelling companions or, of course, between passengers and the airlines. They usually happen in full view of everyone at the check-in desk and, although a source of amusement for everyone else, can be stressful for those involved.

The solution, of course, is not to take as much as you first thought and to weigh everything before you go.

Visiting the airlines’ website to check on their luggage policy might not be a bad idea either as weight restrictions can vary from airline to airline.

(Although we were pleased to see that arch villain Wizz Air – which once charged passengers to take hand luggage on board – has now backed down and introduced a new policy allowing a 10kg piece of hand luggage free of charge).

But if you’re the type of person that just has to have lots of everything on holiday, the other solution is to be a better packer. A great video has just gone viral on YouTube which shows how this can be done. Actress and former Bond girl Rachel Grant can be seen packing an entire wardrobe (consisting of 200 items) into just one bag! Not surprisingly, the clip has gone viral with 31,000 views so far. You can click here to view it.

Although the video is essentially a plug for luggage manufacturer Biaggi Luggage, it does highlight that, with a little ingenuity, you can pack an awful lot more into your case. Rachel’s advice includes using ziplock bags and good old elastic bands (these help compress bulkier items).

An earlier video, which shows Rachel packing 100 items into a carry on bag , garnered over 3,000,000 views!

YouTube being YouTube, as soon as you watch Rachel’s video, it then shows you clips of other packing experts giving their tips. Be warned, these can become quite compulsive viewing as each one offers something different.

Although having now watched several (OK, loads and loads), we’re pleased to report that there are some tips that crop up on a regular basis; such as rolling your clothes rather than packing them flat, filling shoes with smaller items and shaking the bag once you’ve packed it. (This creates even more space apparently).

Or you could just pack as you normally do then argue the toss with the airline.

 

 

Slowing Down Traffic The Icelandic Way

The more powerful cars get the more calls there are for them to slow down.

Most local authorities in the UK seem to think imposing 20 mile an hour speed limits or putting in speed bumps will do the job, but they don’t seem to have any impact on reducing traffic related injuries (there was 186,209 casualties of all severities reported in 2015).

Some local authorities are trying to be more creative. Iver Parish Council in Buckinghamshire recently resorted to installing childlike safety statues near schools in their area, only for their local residents to label them ‘creepy’. (The bollards are dressed up in school uniforms). But they also cost £5,000 which sounds expensive.

Perhaps they should look instead at what a small village in Iceland has come up with. The local Councillors in Ísafjörður have let a local company (Vegamálun) paint an ingenious 3D pedestrian crossing on the road. The remarkably clever (and remarkably cheap) idea has already had the desired effect in making motorists cut their speed.

What impressed us was the speed (no pun intended) it took for the local council to agree to the idea. According to a press report (in Cycling Weekly naturally), the company’s CEO, Gauti Ívar Halldórsson said that the company had only come up with the idea at the start of the September, but that it was ‘only a couple of weeks for the local authorities to give the go-ahead for the scheme’.

Wish our local authorities could make potentially life saving decisions that fast.

 

 

Move Aside Heathrow, Southend is Coming Through

 A ‘Golden Mile’ of amusement arcades and attractions, Peter Pan’s Adventure Island and the longest leisure pier in the world. Many would argue that Southend has everything a holidaymaker would need.

But apparently not, which is why Southend residents – and those living nearby – can now fly to the United States, from Southend Airport. The new service, taking off at the end of this month, will allow US-bound travelers to fly to New York, Boston, Washington and even Los Angeles, for as little as £199. The service involves two airlines, Flybe providing the first leg from Southend to Dublin and Aer Lingus providing the longer, transatlantic, leg across the ‘pond’.

Not only does this new service mean those living near Southend no longer need travel to Gatwick, Luton or Heathrow to get their flight to the States, but as Dublin Airport is operated by US customs and border staff, on arrival in the US these visitors will be treated as domestic passengers and so can avoid lengthy delays at the airport.

Those twin virtues could represent massive savings in time as well as money and for that reason, we think Flybe and Aer Lingus should be congratulated. As well as Southend Airport itself, now owned by the Stobart Group.

We won’t be surprised if this new service is a success when you consider just how popular regional airports have become in recent years. According to a survey carried out by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) last year, a whopping 95 million holidaymakers hopped on a flight at a regional airport – a nine per cent increase compared with the 87 million people who used a local hub only two year previously.

And growth at the bigger airports, such as Heathrow, saw a much slower rate of growth – indicating that an increasing number of travelers may be ditching the major hubs for somewhere closer to home. Like Southend.

 

 

So Long Jumbo. You’ve Been Enormous

A familiar sight will soon disappear from the US skies. No, we’re not talking about the sun but the jumbo jet. Having been the mainstay of most airlines for almost fifty years, the iconic 747 now faces retirement.

In its heyday, the numbers used by US airlines peaked at 130 (in 1990). Today, they’re down to just 27 with Delta and United the last remaining passenger operators to use them. Delta is soon to swop its last remaining 747-400s with Airbus 350-900s and United will retire its last 747-100 next month.

Their retirement brings to an end one of the most successful aircraft of all time. The longest-range commercial airliner (capable of flying 13,300km) the Jumbo opened up air routes between the US and Asia, as well as Europe. And although air crew probably resented the fact that the -400 could be flown with just two pilots, most have gone on record saying what a great plane it was to fly.

Not surprisingly, using an engine that was developed over half a century ago means that airlines can now use aircraft that offer considerable fuel and cost savings. United predicts that  the move to the Boeing 777-300ER  from the 747-400 will result in about 20% more fuel efficiency per seat; a huge saving, while the improved operational reliability of the more modern aircraft should add an extra percentage point in savings too. And given that some airlines have stopped carrying olives onboard in an effort to save money then these sorts of savings can make all the difference.

The airline industry is noted for being extremely competitive but its senior  management clearly have hearts too. Scott Kirby, the president of United Airlines told his staff that “it’s a bittersweet milestone – [the 747] with its unmistakable silhouette once represented the state of the art in air travel”.

So farewell Jumbo. And thank you. It’s impossible to estimate how many miles you’ll have flown or how many passengers you carried. But by helping international meetings and reuniting friends and families, your impact on people’s lives has been immense.

 

Right On Time, Jet2

Punctuality is one of those ‘key performance indicators’ loved by regulators. It’s a sign that the service provider – be it an airline or train operator – is efficient, professional and well run. The trouble is, there are so many factors beyond their control that achieving a decent level of punctuality is nearly impossible. If it’s not the weather conspiring to delay things, it’s having other people’s aircraft parked where you want to park.

So a hearty three cheers to leisure airline Jet2 which has just been ranked one of the most punctual airlines in the world. The airline was awarded a 5-star rating by air travel intelligence company OAG with 87.5% of its flights running on time. That ranking earned it an “excellent performance” by OAG. More importantly, Jet2 is one of just 14 global airlines to achieve the 5-star accreditation.

Given that it flies to and from some of the most congested airports in the world, its management team must be commended on a job extremely well done.  If only the same could be said about Monarch’s. Had the airline remained airborne, it could have picked up the award for being the next most punctual UK airline with a 4-star ranking – the only UK carrier that would have received a 4-star rating.

British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and easyJet all received a 3-star rating with between 70% and 80% of flights departing and arriving on time, although to be fair to both BA and easyJet, they operate many more flights than Jet2 and Monarch (used to).

But let’s not take anything away from Jet2’s achievement. Getting nearly 90%+ of all flights away on time is no mean feat. Especially when you consider all the bits and pieces that have to fit together to make it happen, such as getting all the passengers on-board, plus their luggage, as well as the fuel, booze and food. And not forgetting the aircrew themselves.

Jet2 knows that punctual flights leads to happy holidaymakers which leads to more customers. Other airlines know that too but clearly struggle to make it happen. So take a timely bow, Jet2.

 

Welcome Back, St Helena

All being well, this weekend sees a brand-new international tourism destination arrive on the scene. St Helena, one of the remotest islands in the world, will start to receive visitors by air following the opening of its new airport and the start of a regular air service.

The new weekly service, provided by Air Link, a subsidiary of South African Airways, will fly a weekly service from Johannesburg to St Helena, refueling in Windhoek, Nambia along the way.

The five hour flight time will replace a five day journey; the time it took for visitors to travel to the island on the ageing RMS St Helena, one of  only four ships left in the world to carry the prefix, Royal Mail Ship.

Visitors to the island are in for a treat. Or a shock. A British Overseas Territory, the island’s remote location (1500 kilometres west of Africa and located in the middle of the South Atlantic), made it an ideal location for a prison, not just for Napoleon, but Boer prisoners of war and even Zulu kings.

The island’s heyday was in the eighteenth century when thousands of Royal Naval ships involved in catching transatlantic slave ships called in there for fresh water and other supplies. Ever since then, the the island has slipped into relative obscurity. Of course, having a population of only 4,000 and no real economic activity doesn’t help. The last major industry, supplying twine made from locally grown flax to the Post Office,  collapsed when the Post Office replaced string with nylon.

The new airport, built using UK taxpayers’ money has not had an easy beginning. Excessive ‘windshear’ meant that the original air service provider, who had hoped to operate a larger aircraft, had to be replaced with one who could bring in a smaller one, so guaranteeing safe landings but bringing fewer tourists.

However. Welcome to the modern world, St Helena, maybe it’s your time again?

 

Those Canny Scots Do It Again

Over 2.7 million international tourists visited Scotland last year, a testament to the country’s tourism body and to the 200,000 Scots employed in the tourism industry. And all their hard work pays off; £4 billion was spent in the country last year.

Given their success, it would be easy to rest on their laurels, but that’s not the Scots’ way and so we were intrigued to see how their tourism body has continued to innovate, in this case setting up a pop up Instagram travel agency. The idea behind it is to allow people to create their holiday based on images displayed on the social-media platform.

Temporarily based in London – until the 21st October –  the ‘pop-up’ agency features a floor-to-ceiling screen on which Instagram photos of Scotland are displayed. Potential visitors can then select their favourite images of sights, restaurants, experiences and hotels and the travel agent will then use the chosen images to ‘curate’ a Scottish holiday.

Pretty cool, huh?

As if that wasn’t geeky enough, the space also features a Virtual Reality headset so customers could experience the various destinations and landmarks in a more immersive way.

Of course it helps that VisitScotland  has one of the biggest tourism Instagram account in Europe, with more than 370,000 followers. (For those wanting to visit their Instagram site, click here) And that its magnificent historic buildings and scenery provides the basis for some fantastic photos, but we think this is pretty cool for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it shows that VisitScotland really has its finger on the pulse and is reacting to how people now use all types of social media- including Instagram – in a way that other marketers simply haven’t cottoned onto yet.

Secondly, we love the idea of a millennial seeing a photo of, say Loch Ness, and the travel agency immediately sorting out for them to visit there. This must result in their achieving more bookings more quickly and is a world away from high street travel agents handing out glossy brochures, usually containing out of date photos.

Thirdly, we noted the word ‘curate’ here. VisitScotland’s travel agency is effectively building a tailor-made holiday for each visitor, something that only those involved in the luxury travel sector used to be able to afford.

And finally, this initiative seems to mark the continuing move by marketing folks to use images and pictures instead of words to promote their goods and services. People no longer seem to make purchase decisions based on reading things but by watching videos or looking at photos.

Now, how can we turn our insurance policies into a cracking film?