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Happy 19th Birthday Google

Google turned nineteen earlier this month. It’s difficult to imagine what life was like before it came into existence, suffice to say that students used to have to do their home work using things called books and most of us got to where we were going using things called maps. (Or didn’t, depending how good we were at map reading).

Love it or loathe it but Google is now here to stay and it will keep on churning out new stuff that it deems we’ll find useful. Most of the time they’re right and we suspect one new feature that they recently announced – without much fanfare, it has to be said-  we think will catch on once it’s better known. Users enrolled in their Local Guides programme will now be able to upload video clips within the Google maps app.

For some time, businesses have been able to upload images onto Google maps so that navigating to them within the app could bring up street views or even photos of the building itself. But these businesses will now be able to upload 10 second film clips too. Google thinks this will prove a hit and we’re inclined to agree.

Photos of the outside of a pizza restaurant won’t cut the mustard once the owner learns how to upload a video of a pizza being made, or being put in a wood burning oven. Hotel owners too, may want to capture footage of one of their bar staff knocking up a signature cocktail or the chef delivering a flambé to a table.

Naturally, some hoteliers may see this new development as more of a threat than an opportunity. For instance, disgruntled former guests could easily enrol in the service and share video footage of the different types of insects that they’re sharing their bedroom with or the actual view of the sea taken from their bedroom.

Because all this transparency and sharing can be a good thing, especially if it drives up standards and forces suppliers to be more truthful in their marketing.

Just another example, perhaps, of the Google’s shiny new ethical mantra; ‘Do The Right Thing’, at work?

For The 184th Time, Prost!

The 184th Oktoberfest has started! Don’t worry if you missed the first day (it opened on the 16th September) as it will go on until the 3rd October. So you’ve still got plenty of time  to book a flight to Munich and take part in the world’s largest beer festival.

Oh, and don’t worry too much about the beer running out. The organisers estimate they’ll shift six million litres by the time the event ends.

And it’s not just beer that will get shifted. You can add in a mind boggling 95,000 litres of wine and 42,000 litres of sparkling wine, as well as half a million chickens, 280,000 sausages, 75,000 pork shanks, 44,000 kilograms of fish, 116 oxen and 57 calves. It looks as if they don’t count vegetarian meals but, heh, it’s a beer fest. And the waiting staff will need their protein, as they will regularly carry up to twelve litres of beer at a time, in mugs known as a Maß.

The original and the first, Munich’s beer festival is now copied the world over. There’s even one being held later this month in London; in Millwall Park in fact. Not quite Munich but then each litre of beer there will cost you around £9.62 this year. That eye watering price hasn’t put people off going, an estimated seven million people will pass through the gates, squeezing into 14 large tents (which each hold up to 11,000 people) and 21 “small” tents that hold around 2,000.

The festival goes back to 1810, when the Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. Clearly, it was some wedding as the public celebrations went on for five days and were so popular they have been repeated every October ever since. (And you thought the last wedding you went to was a good one?)

In the early days, those attending the festivals wore the traditional Bavarian footwear called ‘Haferlschuhs’ but luckily for today’s beerfest goers, Adidas has rushed out a new trainer that fits with a traditional outfit. More importantly, it is also beer and vomit-proof. And this being Germany, there is also a ‘municipal cleaning hotline for residents’.

But don’t let all that put you off going. Prost.

Here We Go. Here We Go. For 7,000 Miles

Fans of the Newcastle Falcons rugby team are used to travelling long distances to see their team play. As part of the Aviva Premiership, all their away games are played ‘down South’ including as far as Exeter.

But this weekend sees them travel further still; to Philadelphia in the US in fact, where they’ll see their team take on rivals Saracens. Both team – and their supporters – are making the 7,000 mile round trip as part of the game’s attempts to introduce it to a bigger fan base.

Saracens are particularly savvy here and have put on games in France as well as the US. Last year, they played an ‘away’ match against London Irish at the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.

Rugby fans are not the only ones used to long distance travelling. Football fans living in Wimbledon and hoping to support their local team have, since 2003, had to travel to Milton Keynes when their team relocated there following the sale of their ground. MK Dons, as they are now known, play in Football’s League One.

Of course, these trips would be considered as nothing by fans of the MLS in the US. For them, 1,000 miles is considered a short trip! To put this into a UK perspective, Portland Timbers supporters (based in Oregon) intent on watching their team play in New York would travel the same distance as going from London to Baghdad. Watching LA Galaxy play Boston means making a longer trip than Tokyo to Manila!

US sports fans are also used to their teams packing up and moving out of town. And not just out of town, but out of the state too.

But Canadian fans, in particular, must feel especially aggrieved at their teams’ willingness to up sticks. Consider these examples. In 1995, local hockey team, Quebec Nordiques moves to Denver to become the Colorado Avalanche, while six years later, in In 2001, professional basketball team, the Vancouver Grizzlies moves to Memphis to become the Memphis Grizzlies. And then in 2005, Major league baseball team the Montreal Expos moves to Washington, D.C. to become the Washington Nationals.

Of course it can work in their favour too. In 2011 hockey team, the Atlanta Thrashers moves to Winnipeg and is now called the Winnipeg Jets.

 

 

 

British Beds Are Calling Us Home. Shame About Our Kids

If you believe what you read in the press then British business travelers are a heartless bunch. A new survey from Egencia (Expedia’s business travel arm) apparently shows that they miss their beds more than their children when away from home.

According to the newly published fourth edition of the Business Travel and Technology Survey, children and beds are missed equally around the world; apart from the UK whose business travelers put missing their beds above missing their offspring (42 per cent compared to 33 per cent).

French children, on the other hand, should count themselves considerably luckier; the research shows French business travelers missed their children more than their beds (42 per cent think of their kids compared to 28 per cent thinking about their beds).

Of course, it could just be that British beds are more comfy than French ones,  in which case, our sleep deprived travelers would miss them more. (British bed makers take note, please).

If we appear to show less love toward our offspring than our international peers, the research indicates we might show more love towards our spouse than the rest of the world. ‘Spouses’ topped the list of things we most missed while travelling, recorded at 50 per cent on a global basis, but this moved up to 55 per cent in the UK.  So perhaps we’re not so heartless after all.

And our employers definitely are not. 42 per cent of UK firms offer time off work as compensation for travel over other perks such as in-flight wifi, non-stop flights and class upgrades, compared with 33 per cent on a global basis.

Perhaps they know how much we love our beds?

 

 

Three Travel Tech Start Ups Worth Watching

76% of UK holidaymakers booked their holiday online last year. Further proof that, as a nation, we are pretty net-savvy (or know a good deal when we see one). All this online travel activity translates into hard cash, not just for the existing players like Expedia and, um, Explorer Travel Insurance, but for new start ups too.

According to CB Insights, 200 travel tech businesses attracted over £2.5 billion of funding in 2016. Some of that funding may, of course, never see the light of day as the investment either turns sour or consumers just don’t get the value of what is being offered.

US Forbes Magazine recently published an article on seven travel tech start ups which they predict will ‘take Europe by storm’. We’ve selected our top three which we thought just might catch on.

(OK. Truth to tell we didn’t really understand what the other four were talking about but these three we got!)

We understood what VizEat was on about. Its a new ‘social eating platform that connects travelers and local hosts who provide authentic and immersive food experiences in their homes: dinners, cooking classes, food tours and so on’.

The company pitches itself as ‘offering a unique way for travelers to engage with locals from all around the world and to discover new cultures around food’.

This we get.

And clearly so do others, including Apple, which selected VizEat as one of its top three apps of 2016. Set up in 2014, the founders have raised $5.5m to date and their platform now has more than 25,000 hosts across 130 countries.

Zizoo’s proposition seemed pretty clear too. It sells itself as ‘the leading global boat rental platform and community, providing a global digital booking platform and website connecting charter companies to travelers worldwide’.

Naturally, its founders believe they are ‘disrupting the boat rental industry’ . (Does this mean they are rocking the boat? Sorry, we couldn’t resist that one). The Austrian start-up has secured $2.75m in funding to date and its platform already boasts 11,000 customer-reviewed boats in over 30 countries.

Finally, we were intrigued by Gopili, which began life in 2009 as KelBillet and which is marketing itself as ‘a site for buying and selling unused train tickets’. Naturally, and thanks partly to a €2.2million investment it has ‘morphed into a multi-modal travel search engine, presenting data on domestic and international travel (including rail, bus, car-shares and planes)’.

Clearly, selling on old bus tickets is good business. Last year the business processed more than €70m worth and its platform now boasts 100 million users in UK, Spain, Germany, Italy and Russia.

What struck us about these start ups was their apparent simplicity; putting travelers in touch with other people who can then offer them meals at home, boats or unused train tickets. Or are we missing something here?

Celebrating A British Triumph in Engineering

Given what’s happening around the world right now, finding ‘good news’ stories in the media is getting tougher. So the opening of the new Queensferry Crossing is one that we should talk up, if only because it’s already been called ‘one of the world’s great bridges’.

OK. So the person who said that was the man in charge of the project, Michael Martin, but why shouldn’t he be proud? The new bridge is an immense achievement and a credit to the 15,000 people who worked on it.

 

It’s the largest infrastructure project carried out in Scotland for a generation and the facts and figures surrounding its building are mind boggling. The bridge deck weighs 35,000 tonnes, the equivalent to 200 Boeing 747s while the southern tower alone needed 16,000 cubic meters of concrete.

Now that it’s open, the bridge will be expected to earn its keep. As the main road route between Edinburgh and Fife, it will carry up to 24 million vehicles a year.

You could excuse the Queen for suffering from déjà vu when she came to officially open it recently. She officially opened its predecessor (the imaginatively called Forth Road Bridge) in 1964, just fifty three years ago and which is already showing it age. Corrosion was found in its steel trusses some time ago which meant it had to be replaced.

This would have brought a wry smile to the Scottish engineers who built the original – and now iconic – rail bridge in the 19th Century and which, apart from needing lots (and lots) of paint, is still going strong today.

We’ll leave others better qualified than us to argue about whether ‘form follows function or function follows form’ because not only is the bridge very functional, it is also, well, very beautiful. Some of the early photos of the bridge showing its elegant three towers and lattice work of cable stays proves what British engineers can achieve when they set their minds to it. (Of course the £1.35 billion they were given to build it might have helped).

But let’s not be churlish. Let’s celebrate something of which we can all be proud. A British bridge.

 

Take Your Photo Then Move Along

Elderly aunts often offer good advice. One of their favourites is ‘you can have too much of a good thing’. And some tourist chiefs around the world know what they mean.

Having spent years and millions of dollars/pounds/euros trying to persuade tourists to visit their towns or cities, they’re now having to find ways to deter them.

‘Over tourism’ is the new buzz word that describes this phenomena and we think it’s one we’re going to hear a lot more of in the future. Consider these examples.

According to reports in the Greek press, the beautiful island of Santorini is said to be ‘buckling’ under the pressure of too many tourists.  Although the estimated 30 million tourists who’ll visit this year will bring much needed euros, they’ll also put the island’s infrastructure under intense pressure; water consumption, for example, has increased by 46% this year alone.

Venice loves saying Ciao to the 25 million tourists it welcomes every year but as a result is also now saying addio (goodbye) to over 1,000 residents who leave the city each year because living there is becoming intolerable.

Scotland’s tourist chiefs have done a great job but are now being accused of turning Edinburgh into a ‘tartan Disneyland’. The Island of Skye has already erected a ‘full up’ sign as they found too many tourists, unable to get hotel accommodation, were being forced to sleep in their cars.

And finally, to Dubrovnik, where cruise ships unload thousands of visitors at a time, where the mayor has introduced cameras to monitor the number of visitors in its Unesco-listed old town, so that the flow of people entering can be slowed – or even stopped – once a certain number is reached.

We’re not sure what advice these aunts would offer these under-pressure tourist chiefs. Perhaps it would be, ‘you’ve created this mess, now you clear it up’!

‘Is It A Bird? No, It’s A Flying Tourist’

Zip line enthusiasts make a note. This December sees the opening (unzipping?) of the world’s longest zip line in … Ras Al Khaimah. Yes, we had to reach for our school atlas too but RAK is the United Arab Emirates’ most northern emirate and its tourism department is determined it will enter the ‘major leagues of global adventure tourism and cement Jebel Jais as the region’s leading active adventure tourism destination’.

The new zip line is being built on the top of Jebel Jais, which is the region’s highest peak. Although the tourism department won’t say exactly how long the new line will be yet, they have confirmed that it will beat the current holder for the Guinness world record for zip lines, one aptly called ‘The Monster’ which is located in Puerto Rico. The new line currently doesn’t have a name yet (‘Daddy Monster’?) but will reportedly be longer than 28 soccer fields laid end to end.

According to the tourism body, it will be the closest thing to flying. Their press release states that, “Once harnessed to the zip line in a horizontal superhero position, participants will soar through the sky as if they’re a bird”.

However, a word of warning. they also think the zip line ‘will be able to accommodate 250 people a day, or 100,000 in a year’. So that superhero flying experience could get little crowded. (A flock of superheroes?) Unless, of course, you take advantage of the helicopter transfer service that is being built to transfer VIP flyers straight to the start of the line.

(which sort of begs the question, if you can afford to fly in a helicopter, why do you need to fly along a zip wire?)

Time Out. Even If It’s Just For Twenty Four Hours

Is it time to say goodbye to the mini-break and say hello to the micro-break?

The mini-break might have had its day. Because relaxing they are not. Not only do they mean trying to squeeze as much into forty-eight or seventy-two hours as you possibly could (including getting up at a ridiculously early time and running everywhere for the entire time) they also need a fair bit of advance planning, including finding babysitters for the children or the dogs. As well as finding somewhere that isn’t ruinously expensive – or overbooked. Hoteliers and airlines had wised up to them too and jacked up their prices accordingly.

A micro-break however, according to those who’ve been on them, is an entirely different affair. Knowing that you can’t do so much is, well, liberating. It means travelling at a more reasonable time and pacing yourself when you’ve arrived. It could include a long leisurely lunch or even an afternoon nap.

Not surprisingly, those taking micro-breaks recommend travelling by train. Even a short air flight can involve lots of waiting around at the airports as well as the time spent travelling to and from the airport and city center. Time that could be spent chillaxing.

Staying in a central location is an important part of the micro-break too. As it’s only for one night, it means you can spend a bit more on the accommodation as well as be close to where it’s happening.

Having a theme for the micro-break is useful as it means you can focus on just one thing and ignore everything else. That means leaving off the list anything that involves a queue, however small. A themeless mini-break, on the other hand, involves plenty of queues as you spread yourself – rather thinly – between culture, history, retail therapy, nightlife and sightseeing. No wonder it can leave you exhausted.

Because of Eurostar, Paris is emerging as a good destination for micro-breakers, but those prepared to transfer to other rail lines can go further afield too. This makes Bruges a possibility (total travel time: 3 hours, 30 minutes) or even Strasbourg (Travel time: 4 hours 45 mins).

 

“My Name Is Chip. Have A Nice Flight”

For those travelling by air, give an extra friendly smile to the staff on the check-in desk. Why? Because you may not see them much longer. Not if Air New Zealand has its way. The airline is this month trialling a new robot at Sydney Airport that can check in passengers and wave them goodbye as they board a plane.

Called Chip (surely they could have come up with a better name than that?), the robot has two eyes and no mouth, as well as two hands and no legs and can ‘read’ the passengers’ boarding passes through its eyes.

The airline has created the robot in collaboration with a bank and the robot’s maker. According to the airline, Chip is part of its attempts to ‘push boundaries and stay at the forefront of technology in travel’. If the five-day trial is successful, then the airline will use the robot on a permanent basis at the airport. And if that’s deemed a success then presumably we can expect to see other airlines adopting them too.

We at Explorer Travel Insurance take a keen interest in how the travel industry is using technology; much of which benefits travelers, either by making things easier, or cheaper, or better still, both. Potential new developments on the horizon, such as replacing passports with microchips, could significantly cut down on time spent waiting in lines which we think would be great.

But replacing check-in staff with robots? Really? We’re not entirely confident that Chip would succeed here in the UK. For several reasons.

  1. We quite like the cheery ‘goodbyes’ that the check-in staff give you at the gate when you board and which, Chip, having no mouth, can’t do.
  2. We’re not sure that Chip’s makers have seen what happens when an EasyJet flight number is called but we’re pretty sure that no passengers will see him waving at them, so focused are they on getting a seat
  3. If they haven’t seen an EasyJet flight flight depart they probably won’t have seen other European budget airlines too. So the thought that Chip has no legs could be a real concern, given that he won’t be able to move out of the way when the boarding stampede starts!