Tuesday, 10 December 2013
Call for U.S. DOT to act on travel privacy
There is virtually no legal protection for the privacy of personal information about travelers on U.S.-based airlines:
- There is no general consumer privacy law in the U.S. like those in Canada or the European Union. Businesses can do pretty much anything they want with personal information, as long as they don't violate specific contractual promises or lie about what they are doing.
- None of the sector-specific consumer privacy laws in the U.S. apply to travel information.
- The Department of Transportation (DOT) has lagged far behind other Federal departments, especially the Federal Trade Commission of the Department of Commerce, in its enforcement of existing laws against fraud, as they apply to fraudulent claims about privacy practices.
- The DOT has exclusive jurisdiction over airlines and other common carriers, and many practices of airlines and computerized reservation systems have fallen through the cracks between DOT and FTC jurisdiction.
Four years ago, a coalition of consumer groups joined me in urging the FTC to act on this issue. But while the FTC was willing to work with the DOT, the DOT has yet to act.
In May of this year, I was invited to present testimony from a consumer perspective on privacy and air travel before the DOT Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection (ACACP).
Next Monday, 16 December 2013, the ACACP will meet again to consider what actions to recommend to the Secretary of Transportation. Pursuant to the law which mandated the establishment of the ACACP, the Secretary must report to Congress on what the ACACP has recommended, and what, if any, action the Secertary has taken on those recommendations. So unlike many advisory bodies, the ACACP can set its own agenda, and can't be completely ignored.
In an unprecedented call for DOT action on consumer privacy, a list of organizations and individuals including the ACLU, National Network to End Domestic Violence, Consumer Travel Alliance, Consumer Federation of America, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Consumer Action, and others have submitted a joint letter to the ACACP calling for action in line with the recommendations in my testimony to the ACACP in May:
As organizations and individuals with expertise and experience relevant to consumer privacy, we welcome the interest of the ACACP in the privacy of air travelers as a consumer protection issue.
The exclusive jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation (DOT) over many of the activities of travel companies preempts action by the agencies with primary responsibility for protecting consumer privacy in other industry sectors, such as the FTC and state attorneys general. That makes ongoing attention to this issue and action by the DOT essential to protect air travelers' privacy.
In light of this, we are particularly concerned by the lack of clear information provided to embers of the public by the DOT, making clear the DOT's jurisdiction and procedures with respect to privacy violations by airlines, travel agencies, and computerized reservation systems.
Consumer privacy is not mentioned anywhere on the DOT website, complaint forms, or reports. The DOT website provides no information on what sorts of privacy violations fall within its jurisdiction, how or to whom such violations can be reported, or how such complaints are handled.
We urge the ACACP to recommend that the Department add a "privacy" tab to the DOT aviation consumer protection website and add privacy as a category in DOT complaint forms, logs, and reports. And we urge the Secretary of Transportation to act promptly to adopt and implement that recommendation. The DOT website should provide clear information on DOT jurisdiction, policies, and points of contact and procedures for complaints with respect to the privacy obligations and practices of airlines, travel agencies, and computerized reservation systems.
We also urge the ACACP to establish a permanent subcommittee or working group on consumer privacy, to ensure that the work of the DOT on this issue is reviewed on an ongoing basis and that further actions are recommended as necessary to protect air travelers' privacy. Among the issues for such a subcommittee or working group would be periodic review of DOT reports (once they begin to include privacy complaints and enforcement activities as a distinct reporting category), whether privacy policies should be required to be included in airline conditions of carriage, and what structures for liaison and coordination with other agencies and departments (such as the FTC and DHS) can best facilitate investigation and enforcement action and avoid jurisdictional gaps in cases that implicate the jurisdiction of multiple agencies – as is likely where personal information related to air travel is commingled with data related to other travel services outside the jurisdiction of the DOT.
We would welcome the opportunity to work with the ACACP, the DOT, and the air travel industry, and to share our experience and expertise in consumer privacy norms and best practices.
These would be only first steps, but they would be important ones.
PG&E reverses "SmartMeter" opt-out charge after complaint to CPUC
More than a year ago, I applied to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for rehearing of the CPUC's decision, over my objections, to approve surcharges for customers of Pacific Gas & Electioc Co. who don't allow PG&E to install transceivers and antennae for PG&E's wireless mesh data network, without payment to the property owner, on or in their homes -- regardless of whether PG&E has acquired any siting rights for that equipment, or whether the utility customer(rather than the owner of the property) controls those siting rights and is entitled to grant an easement for them to PG&E.
My petition for rehearing remains pending with the CPUC, with no visible indication that it is even being considered. There's no statutory deadline for the CPUC to act on my petition.
I heard nothing (other than normal bills) from PG&E for almost a year after filing my petition for rehearing with the CPUC. But in October of 2013, I got a bill from PG&E that suddenly listed me as "enrolled" in the "SmartMeter Opt-OUT program", and assessed a $75 initial opt-out fee.
I have never opted in to such a program, but neither have I opted out. The (analog) gas and electric meters for the house where I live are located inside the building, as is typical of San Francisco row houses. So far as I know, PG&E has never tried to break in to install a "SmartMeter".
I was able to get this charge reversed by complaining to the CPUC. Here's how:Continue reading "PG&E reverses "SmartMeter" opt-out charge after complaint to CPUC"
Monday, 2 December 2013
"No-fly" trial in San Francisco this week
Courtroom sketches from day 4 of the trial by kind permission of Jackson West, twitter.com/jacksonwest, instagram.com/jacksonqwest: Judge Alsup (left, rear), Prof. Sinnar (top right), Ms. Lubman (center right), and Mr. Cooper (lower right)
This is the first lawsuit challenging a U.S. government "no-fly" order to make it to trial.
Cellphone coverage and Internet access in the courthouse are unreliable, but I’ll be tweeting updates when possible in additional to posting daily reports on the trial in the Identity Project blog at PapersPlease.org.
I'll add links to my daily updates as they are posted:
- 1 Dec. 2013: First "no-fly" trial to begin this week in San Francisco
- 2 Dec. 2013: Witness in "no-fly" trial finds she’s on "no-fly" list too
- 3 Dec. 2013: "No-fly" trial, day 2: Dr. Ibrahim gets her (virtual) day in court
- 4 Dec. 2013: "No-fly" trial, day 3: Why and how was Dr. Ibrahim barred from the U.S.?
- 5 Dec. 2013: "No-fly" trial, day 4: Why can’t the plaintiff (or a witness) be at this trial?
- 6 Dec. 2013 (a.m.): "No-fly" trial, day 5, part 1: Closing arguments
- 6 Dec. 2013 (p.m.): "No-fly" trial, day 5, part 2: What happened to the plaintiff's daughter?
- 9 Dec. 2013: "No-fly" trial: What happens now?
- Follow @ehasbrouck on Twitter
(n.b. you don't have to accept cookies or register as a Twitter user to view my public Twitter feed)
- Search PapersPlease.org for all articles mentioning "Ibrahim"
- Public mirror of Ibrahim v. DHS court docket (via RECAP)
- Official court docket via PACER (US$0.10 per page)
- PACER users: Please use RECAP!
If you need to reach me during the trial this week, phone or text me -- I don't expect to have access to e-mail during the day -- and I'll get back to you after court recesses for the day.
Sunday, 17 November 2013
The Amazing Race 23, Episode 7 (FAQ: Riding Skills for Bicycle Travel)
Abu Dhabi (UAE) - Al Ain (UAE)
FAQ: Riding Skills for Bicycle Travel
This week the teams on The Amazing Race 23 "made their way" (in product-placement SUVs, fittingly for visitors to the oil sheikhdoms) from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain, and then to the mountaintop luxury resort hotel next to one of the Emir's palaces at the end of the Emirate's highest road. The racers' problems in finding their way resembled those contestants on The Amazing Race have had, and that I've talked about, on previous visits to the cities of the Persian/Arabian Gulf.
Al Ain is the largest city in the UAE not on the Gulf coast, and the largest not to be the capital of its own Emirate -- Al Ain is part of the domains of the Emir of Abu Dhabi. It's not, in general, a tourist destination. The biggest attraction for visitors is the chance to drive up and down the mountain road to the 1300 meter (4000 ft.) summit of Jebel Hafeet, as fast as possible.
The Jebel Hafeet road is a public highway, to the extent that anything can be called "public" in a land where everything including ownership is subject to the king's will or whim. In a land where driving is a major form of recreation, it's also one of the the pre-eminent joyriding routes for drivers of every conceivable type of wheeled conveyance: cars, motorcycles, bicycles (go up at night or early in the morning, to beat some of the heat, or have someone drive you to the top so you can coast down), even skateboards (notice the amount of body armor the skater is wearing!).
Jebel Hafeet is often used as a location for car-ad photo shoots, and the racers had to drive up the mountain in product-placement SUVs. That left me wondering if they would show up in future advertisements for this model of vehicle. Sometimes there's a good reason to seek out roads that show up in ads: One of my favorite roads to ride is Ridgecrest Boulevard on Mount Tamalpais, which may have been used to film more car commercials than any other road in the world.
The pavement on Jebel Hafeet looks beautiful, and the road looks perfectly built for a fast descent, but I imagine there's a fair amount of danger from oncoming motor vehicles crossing the double yellow lines on the hairpin curves. That's likely to hold true whether you are going up or down, in or on any sort of vehicle.
There's also danger to bikers from their own lack of skill. Search for news reports or helmet-camera videos of two-wheeler crashes on the Jebel Hafeet road, and you'll find plenty. Many of them are single vehicle wipeouts, as are a large percentage of bicycle and motorcycle crashes everywhere. Many of these are by inexperienced riders, or by riders who are attempting something -- such as a more difficult road, heavier traffic, or a heavier bike -- that they haven't yet learned to handle.
Training in "how to ride a bicycle" typically ends as soon as someone is capable of starting, stopping, peddling, shifting gears, and staying upright without training wheels. Much more advanced training in bike handling, road positioning, and maneuvering in traffic is available, and even routine, for motorcyclists, but rarely available or even considered for bicyclists.
First-time touring bicyclists -- even cyclists with extensive recreational riding experience -- are apt to get in over their heads (or fall on their heads) in one or both of two ways: (1) riding in heavier and/or different traffic than that to which they are accustomed, and (2) riding a loaded bike that handles differently and can't maneuver as quickly as a bike without a substantial load.
If you're lucky, you can learn these things on the road. But you really don't want to have to try out some maneuver -- crossing an intersection with a limited access highway, for example -- for the first time when you're tired and it's getting dark and starting to rain. Better to make at least modest efforts to prepare and practice under more controlled conditions, before you leave. If you are going to spend time "training" for your trip, as many people do, I think it's worth spending some small fraction of the training time you spend on physical conditioning on learning bike-handling and traffic skills. Even a few hours of reading and practice can make a big difference in what road and traffic conditions you can safely and confidently handle.
I'm trying to convey what may seem like two contradictory messages, but both of which are consistent with my advice about independent travel in general: Travelling by bicycle is easier, more feasible for non-athletes, and much safer (and much more fun) than most people imagine who haven't tried it. It's also something which will be easier and safer (and much more fun) if you invest some time and effort in learning how to do some things you may have taken for granted, may regard as "child's play", or may think you already know all about.
You don't need, and aren't likely to acquire through any crash course, the bike handling or traffic reading skills of a professional rider (whatever that means). What's most important is to have a realistic sense of the limits of your capabilities and, secondarily, those of your bike. Most bicyclists get in trouble because they overestimate their own skill, and/or because they panic when they get into a situation that calls for a level of skill that they don't have.
How can you (safely) improve your skills at riding in traffic and handling a loaded bike, before you set out? Reading, practice, and learning from other riders can all be helpful, as discussed in the rest of this article.Continue reading "The Amazing Race 23, Episode 7 (FAQ: Riding Skills for Bicycle Travel)"
Thursday, 14 November 2013
"Ed Hasbrouck versus the TSA"
Kelley Vlahos, who's been covering "homeland security" and civil liberties since before 9/11, has a sympathetic portrait of me and my last dozen years of work, particularly with the Identity Project, in her column today at Antiwar.com (a Web site which was itself wrongly investigated and surveilled for years by the FBI for its journalistic work):
..."This is essentially about rights," he told Antiwar.com in a recent interview. "This is the government claiming that you have no ‘right’ to travel and that travel is a privilege that they can grant or withhold on a whim, and impose whatever [conditions] they like on it." That of course, is an anathema to a man who spent his entire adulthood globetrotting. Early on, he focused his writing and researching on helping consumers get the cheapest airline tickets and to be astute and safe travelers. But a couple of years before 9/11, he noticed red flags going up regarding passenger privacy and the kind of personal data the government was canvassing and collecting in massive databases in the name of "security."...
Hasbrouck once predicted to this reporter that the government would begin collecting and keeping "dossiers" on each passenger. Each revelation, each new "program" at the TSA only confirms his worst fears. Most recently it was revealed that the TSA is conducting a more expansive pre-screening of passengers not voluntarily signed up with the "Pre-Check" program.
It’s a data feast, and unfortunately, we are the main course. "They are doing two things – they are expanding the degree of ‘dataveillance’ and they are expanding the degree of pre-crime profiling," said Hasbrouck, who spends much of his time these days researching and writing briefs for The Identity Project. He has taken to comparing the whole screening process to the "pre-cognitives" or "precogs," who in the movie Minority Report, psychically predict actual crimes with precision accuracy, requiring the "PreCrime" police unit to engage a super-massive data and surveillance network to stop events before they occur.
"There’s no such thing as a precog," he said simply, and algorithms and robots that are designed to pluck out potential terror suspects can be wrong, very wrong. But at this point, "I would say this is what we’ve been predicting – it’s a step along a path they’ve been on for a while. The question is, how far are going to go on this road before people get more up in arms than they already are?"...
Like many civil liberties advocates, Hasbrouck rankles at the idea of having to show "papers" to travel, and the sense that one is "guilty until proven innocent" in the airport security culture today. He doesn’t like it. Anyone who has read his writing or heard him speak knows he doesn’t mince words when this topic is raised.
"I think that most people believe, at a fundamental level, that we have a right to travel, and the government needs a good reason to interfere with that. More and more conditions are being placed on it, and not all of these are rules or law laid down by judges," Hasbrouck said.
"I have to say the place I find the clearest [analogy to] this is reading the history of the Stasi (East German police during the Cold War), and the process the East German people had to go through to travel. They had to apply to the government, and the government would decide."
Sunday, 10 November 2013
The Amazing Race 23, Episode 6 (FAQ: International Bicycle Travel)
Vienna (Austria) - Abu Dhabi (UAE)
FAQ: International Bicycle Travel
In this week's episode, for the first time in 23 seasons (several of which have included visits to places where mosques are major tourist attractions), The Amazing Race visited a mosque. There's a common misperception that non-Muslims aren't allowed in mosques, but with the exception of the holy (to Muslims) cities of Mecca and Medina, that's generally not true. I have yet to visit a mosque where respectful non-Muslim visitors weren't welcome. (Unlike at many Mormon and some Hindu, Parsi, and other places of worship.)
Afghan-American cousins Jamal and Leo finished first in this episode, and emphasized how much "at home" they felt in Abu Dhabi. That might seem strange. They both say they speak only "a little" Arabic (at the mosque, they say their prayers in Farsi), and neither of them is of Arabian ethnicity or ancestry. But it makes more sense when you realize that Abu Dhabi, like most of the other apartheid monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, isn't predominantly an Arabian country by any demographic measure. Only about 20% of the population are citizens, and most of the "foreign" residents are non-Arabs, predominantly from South Asia. There's a particular sort of cosmopolitanism to a place like Abu Dhabi, but only in part is it "Arab".
In the real world, travellers are much more likely to use bicycles (or to consider doing so) than to ride in racing cars around an actual Formula One course, as the racers did this week in Abu Dhabi. In Montreal, for what it's worth, you can ride your bicycle around such a track, as I did last summer. The Formula One racecourse in Montreal is open to bicyclists for most of the year as a public velodrome, whenever it isn't in use for motorized racing.
In recent columns, I've talked generally about travel by bicycle and how to buy a touring bicycle. In response to comments, I've added some notes on a few specific models of new touring bikes to consider.
This week, I'll look at some of the bicycling issues -- including those related to transporting your own bicycle or procuring a bicycle locally to use while you are abroad, and choosing bicycles and components suitable for use while abroad -- that are specific to international travel.Continue reading "The Amazing Race 23, Episode 6 (FAQ: International Bicycle Travel)"
Sunday, 3 November 2013
The Amazing Race 23, Episode 5 (FAQ: Buying a Touring Bicycle)
Gdansk (Poland) - Vienna (Austria)
Viewers of the most recent episode of The Amazing Race 23 may have been surprised that it took the racers 22 hours to cross Poland (and the smaller Czech Republic) from Gdansk to Vienna. That's partly because of the limited frequency of long-distance international trains (most of which are deliberately scheduled to operate overnight) and the consequent long layover between trains in Warsaw, and partly because trains in Poland, like most of those in central and Eastern Europe, are still generally slower than those in Western Europe. But it also takes more time to cross Poland than you might think because Poland is bigger than many people think.
Yet while Poland today (after, of course, multiple historical revisions of its borders and even its definition as a country) is only slightly smaller than Germany (ditto) in area, Poland's population (38 million, twice that of the next largest EU member state) is slightly less than half that of Germany. In other words, Poland is only about half as densely populated as Germany, or of the UK or Italy.
As in Spain and France, much of the population of Poland lives in the big cities but much of the land is rural. The land is generally a level plain except along the southern and southwestern borders, with numerous rivers, ten thousand lakes, and some of the largest forest preserves in Europe. Think of a European counterpart of the farms, lakes, streams, woods, and small towns of Minnesota. Average temperatures across Poland are even similar to those in Minnesota, although typically with less extreme highs or lows and less daily or annual fluctuation.
Most visitors from the USA to Poland are visiting friends and relatives and/or exploring family history. Other than among Polish-Americans, however, Poland has a lower profile in the USA as a tourist destination than any other similarly large or populous European country. Most US tourists (except those with family reasons to visit a specific village or small town) focus on the cities.
It's the lakes, forests, rivers, and countryside, however, that are the destination of most domestic Polish vacationers and a growing share of tourists from elsewhere in Europe. Poland markets itself as a preferred European destination for outdoor activities: camping, canoeing, hunting, fishing, and, yes, bicycling.
The terrain is largely flat, and there are dense networks of campgrounds, hostels, and home-stay accommodations. I haven't been to Poland (yet), but it sounds like an attractive place for rural meandering by bicycle, without the need to reserve or plan your route too much in advance. Potential drawbacks include a high language barrier (German and/or Russian might be more useful than English) and the sometimes poor condition of any roads or paths except those with heavy truck traffic, as highlighted in this page of advice for foreign cyclists from a local Polish advocacy group for bicyclists.
Supposing the idea of travelling around Poland by bicycle, or a trip by bicycle someplace else like the ones Phil Keoghan of "The Amazing Race" and I both took this past summer, catches your fancy, and you haven't done anything like that before, how do you get started on bicycle touring? Get a bike and go, obviously. But what sort of bike, and how do you find it? That's the question I'll try to answer below.
Crossing North America by bike, I met too many people who said they fantasize about long-distance travel by bicycle, but assume that their dream is impossible. As with the dream of a trip around the world, I want to help people realize their travel fantasies. This will be a longer article than most of my columns about The Amazing Race, but given Phil Keoghan's and my shared interest not just in cycling but in travel by bicycle, I hope fans of the race and my other readers will forgive my taking some time to explain just how you, too, could travel by bike. This is a topic I haven't seen treated well elsewhere, and that isn't covered in previous editions of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World, which focus more on bicycles for local sightseeing -- for which you can make use of pretty much any kind of bicycle that's locally available -- rather than long-distance travel by bicycle.
Touring bike buying guide FAQ:
How to buy a touring bicycle
What sort of a bicycle do you need for touring, and how do you go about procuring it?
First, get a bike (get the bike you already have out of storage, borrow a bike, or get an inexpensive second-hand bike) and start riding as much as you comfortably can. Not so much to get into better shape -- as I mentioned in one of my columns earlier in this season, you can start a tour slowly, and work yourself into better shape as you go, as long as you aren't in a hurry and haven't committed yourself to a schedule or pace -- but in order to find out what bike will fit you best, and how you want it configured.
Start early. Don't wait until spring to start shopping for a bike for a summer tour. Your riding style, the type of bike you want, and its proportions and details are likely to change significantly as you ride more and get into better shape. A bike that you find comfortable at first, if you haven't been riding much recently, may be very different from the bike you pick out after six months of riding regularly for a few hours a week. What feels good for an hour's ride may not feel so good for an all-day ride.
There's a whole universe of bicycles for different people and purposes, with no single dimension along which they can be ordered, either literally or figuratively. Some aspects of a bicycle's fit can be adjusted after you buy it, but many others are set in steel when the frame is built. The best starting point for fitting a new bike is a bike you already have, and have adjusted and adapted as well as possible so that you know (or a bike fit expert can tell) what fits, what doesn't, and what needs to be different, and how, for your new bike to fit you better than the one you are using as a prototype.
If you are lucky, have proportions that are a close fit to some manufacturer's template, and find a knowledgeable and trustworthy bike shop or freelance bike refurbisher, you could buy a bike they have in stock, with the components and accessories that come standard or that the shop or mechanic recommends, and ride happily ever after. Or you could find that no matter how much time and money you spend tweaking the bike, swapping out components, adding accessories, etc., it's never going to fit right or be suited for your riding and travelling tastes.
Unless you are already riding a lot, and already have some experience with the sort of travel by bike you plan to do, you probably won't find the perfect touring bike for your needs and wants with the first bike you buy. That's true no matter how carefully you shop, or how much you spend. Plan accordingly. Treat your first touring bike as an experiment and part of a learning experience that will prepare you to find the right bike on your second or third try.
How much should you budget? And how should you figure out what to spend it on?
Don't spend too much at first, but don't expect to learn much from riding or customizing a piece of junk, either. It's worth spending US$500 on a first bike that will enable you to make the right US$2,000-$4,000 purchase of a second bike you can pedal happily for most of the rest of your life.
For that second bike, good new bicycles designed for touring start at about US$1,000 plus tax, for a total starting from about US$1,500 including racks (some models include a rear rack but rarely a front rack), front and rear panniers, and a handlebar bag. US$2,000 gives you a margin for swapping out, customizing, and adding components and accessories for better fit and to suit your tastes.
That may seem high if you think of a bicycle as a children's toy, but it's mostly a one-time expense: costs of routine maintenance and consumables for bicycles are low. And it compares favorably with what you might spend on motorized travel (I've never owned a motor vehicle, but I could easily have spent more on a second-hand car for a road trip than all the bicycles I've owned in my life) or on gear and lift tickets or greens fees for, say, a season of skiing or golf.
Buying a used bicycle and setting it up for touring, or buying a used one that someone else has already set up for touring, requires more knowledge and a lot more effort than buying a new bike, but can be cheaper if you know what you are doing (or have the help of a knowledgeable Friend) and can afford to be patient.
Depending on how much (if anything) you spend for a used bike, and how much (if any) of the work you do yourself, and how much you pay a bike shop or a freelance mechanic to do, you could get a serviceable old-school bike for touring for US$500 or less, a very good one for US$1,000, or a semi-modernized and professionally overhauled one for US$1,500.
The sweet spot in vintage bikes for touring is in those made from the early 1970s through the late 1980s. Within this large range, my personal preference (in which I'm far from alone) is for mid-1980s Japanese-made bikes from what the late Sheldon Brown called the glory years of Japanese bicycle in the US market: "The Japanese tourers of this era were a value unequalled before or since."
Derailleur bicycles had no mass market in the USA before the explosive 1970s "bike boom" in sales of ten-speed drop-handlebar "racing" bikes. Before that, most bikes sold in the USA were Schwinn and other domestic single-speeds, while the "high-performance" segment was dominated by Raleigh three-speeds (90% of the bicycles imported to the USA in the 1960s).
Starting in the mid to late 1980s, most bike sales in the USA (and then the world) shifted to mountain bikes. Aluminum and later carbon fiber largely replaced steel as a frame material, except on the lowest-quality department-store bikes. The doubling in value of the Japanese Yen against the US dollar in 1986-1988, and continued appreciation of the Yen against the US dollar in the 1990s, rendered Japanese bikes -- which had been some of the best bike values in the world -- so expensive outside Japan that sales crashed and by the mid-1990s they largely stopped being exported.
During the second bike boom in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s (the first bike book was in the 1890s, and was worldwide, which is a fascinating but different story, and the third in the USA is ongoing), US economic prosperity and the strength of the US dollar relative to the currencies of Japan and the European countries where most bikes were being built meant that baby boomer teenagers, college students, and young adults in the USA who weren't even serious bicyclists could afford to buy bikes almost as good as (although designed somewhat differently from) those that were being ridden by top international racers.
Tens of millions of these bikes were imported to the USA. Millions of them are still in use or still potentially serviceable but gathering dust in garages, basements, and storage sheds. Prices are low but rising as the finite pool is depleted, especially in major urban areas and centers of bicycling. There is growing interest in vintage bikes, and recognition of their value. People who don't give a hoot about pedigree are finding them practical for transportation (often, but not always, after they are converted to single-speeds). Craigslist (and to a lesser extent, because shipping bicycles is a hassle, eBay) have created a new business niche for freelance mechanics who buy bikes "as is" at garage sales and thrift stores, overhaul them, and re-sell them.
Some of these "flippers" are better mechanics, while some are better at marketing. Caveat emptor. Buying a used bike has all the pitfalls of buying a used car, although the amount of money is likely to be less and the defects are usually easier for an expert to spot. If at all possible, bring a knowledgeable Friend to help you check out the bike before you buy.
The best source of parts and expertise for overhauling a vintage bike is probably a local bike repair collective, if there is one near you. Most of these (here's one incomplete list for the USA and Canada) are nonprofits or worker collectives. Typically they provide members with bike repair classes and/or personal training, workspace, tools, and access to their accumulated collections of spare parts.
Two significant but potentially costly areas for modernization of a used bike for touring are indexed shifting and new panniers that are waterproof rather than requiring separate rain covers and that attach with quick-release latches rather than bungee cords and hooks.
You can find old-school panniers cheaply on Craigslist or eBay, and perfectly sound old racks for next to nothing at garage sales, swap meets, flea markets, etc.I started out with old-school racks and panniers on my touring bike, but eventually decided it was worth replacing them with new racks and new panniers, each of which cost more than the bike had cost me. I've converted one of my five vintage bikes to indexed shifting, but not my touring bike. Old ("friction") and new ("indexed") drivetrains each have their pros and cons.
Adding fenders ("mudguards" in UK usage) is a necessary but fairly inexpensive nuisance. Most bikes other than "mountain" bikes come with insufficiently low gears for loaded touring, but with older friction shifting that too is relatively inexpensive and straightforward to change.
Whether you buy a new or used bicycle, and whether you buy your dream bike right away or experiment with a cheaper bike first, your most important resource is that Friend I've mentioned a few times already. Even if you rely primarily on the expertise of a local bike shop, you'll still need that Friend (unless you're pretty knowledgeable yourself) to find the right shop.
Most bikes sold in the USA are throwaway toys sold at department stores. Most of these, as well as most bikes sold by bike shops, are "mountain" bikes.
These aren't necessarily or primarily for going up or down mountains, and you might want a mountain bike for touring on routes or in regions where the roads, even if level, are sufficiently rough. The French name for such a bike, vélo tout terrain ("all terrain bicycle"), seems more accurate than the English "mountain bike". Confusingly, though, the French abbreviation "VTT" can mean either vélo tout terrain or the very different, véhicule tout-terrain ("all-terrain motor vehicle" or ATV in English).
Of the remaining minority of bike-shop bikes, most are either "city", "comfort", or "hybrid" bikes (comfortable for short distances, but not for long ones), or "racing" or "road" bikes completely unsuitable for touring. Often the latter are made wholly or partially out of unsuitably fragile materials like carbon fiber, with no way to mount fenders or racks or carry luggage and no clearance for sufficiency wide and sturdy tires for a heavy load or an occasional necessary mile of unpaved path, gravel highway shoulder, or dirt lane leading to a campground or bed-and-breakfast.
A dented or bent steel bike can usually be rendered rideable again. If a carbon fiber frame or fork gets cracked or scratched from a crash or a brush with a passing motor vehicle, you have to throw it away and buy a new one. Aluminum is less fragile than carbon fiber, but if it fails, it too does so catastrophically and usually irreparably.
Bike shops in the USA mostly cater to people who ride for recreation, not transportation. Since touring bikes are such a small share of even the bike-shop bicycle market, hardly any shops specialize in them or keep more than a couple in stock. Most bike shops know little or nothing about steel touring bikes (or, for that matter, any quality steel-frame bikes), and have none in stock. If that's the case, go elsewhere. Don't tempt the staff to try to sell you what they have, or what they can order for you, just to make a sale.
Ideally, you want to find a shop that sells more than one make of steel touring bicycles, has at least one in stock, will order one in your size for you to test-ride before you commit to buy it, and where the staff rides steel bikes (new and/or old) and has experience travelling by bike.
I can find several shops like that in my neighborhood in San Francisco, one of the epicenters of the current Third Wave of bike booms in the USA (and specifically a boom in bicycles for transportation). You probably won't be so fortunate elsewhere, but you should try to find a bike shop where somebody on the staff has some bike touring experience. The less relevant expertise and experience the shop has, the more important it is to bring that knowledgeable Friend I keep talking about with you, or at least to get their advice on which shop to go to.
Ask your friends, family, and other networks of contacts, and you might be surprised to find someone whom you didn't realize has fond memories of their own bicycle travels, and will be willing to help you prepare for similar adventures. A bicycle touring enthusiast might actually take vicarious pleasure in helping you find a bike and get started on your own bicycle travels.
Don't look for just anyone who rides a lot, but a bicycle tourist: someone who travels by bike, and has some knowledge and experience with touring bicycles. Most similar and next best: Someone who commutes by bicycle, in all weather, the longer their commute the better.
Someone who rides a lot for recreation, but only on a carbon-fiber "road" (racing) bike without any luggage or only off-road on a "mountain" bike, may not be of much help in shopping for a touring bike, or may give you well-meaning and authoritative-seeming but inappropriate advice.
Bicyclists and their tastes vary, and ideally you want to find someone to advise you who rides the way you plan to. But it's equally important to find someone with awareness of, and tolerance for, the diversity of bicycling tastes -- as well as knowledge of which choices are likely to be categorically wrong for any would-be bicycle tourist.
You might also find such a Friend, or at least get a recommendation for a suitable local bike shop, through a local cycling club (including randonneuring clubs: "randonneurs" typically ride steel bikes, although some of them shade off into bicycle ultra-marathoners and quasi-racers) or bicycle transportation advocacy organization. Some cycling clubs are mainly for racers (or would-be racers) in training, but others emphasize mutual support and skill-sharing. It's pretty easy to tell if you go on one of their rides. Look for riders on steel bikes, especially bikes with fenders, racks, lights, and/or panniers, and ask them where they would go to buy such a bike or have it serviced.
The Adventure Cycling Association (originally the Bikecentennial organization) publishes an annual Touring Bike Buyer's Guide, current and back issues of which are available online. Over the years, the authors of these guides have included some of the leading experts on bicycle design, and it's worth reading through the collection (skipping or skimming the reviews of specific brands and models) to get a sense of their varied opinions and the different features they think are important in choosing a bike.
Raymond Bridge's Bike Touring: The Sierra Club Guide to Travel on Two Wheels (make sure you get the 2009 second edition, not the 1979 first edition) focuses on bicycle, component, and other gear choices. Inevitably, given the number of details on which Bridge makes recommendations, I disagree with some of his specific advice. But in general, Bridge's book is excellent, and noteworthy for acknowledging and trying to explain the pros and cons of alternate choices.
Despite their usefulness, however, these guides overlook the basics of buying a bike. They talk about brands of complete bikes and frames, and component choices, but not about the general factors that you should look for in any bike, new or used, regardless of brand or price point.
What are the most important things to look for in a bicycle to use for touring?
Look for a bike that fits the following criteria, in order from most to least important:
- Of adequate quality, made to be maintainable and to last at least a lifetime.
- That fits you, or that can be made to fit you without impairing its performance. (Not a simple or unidimensional question, and one of the largest reasons you probably need expert help.)
- That's suitable for touring and for the sort of touring, with the amount of gear and on the types of roads or surfaces, for which you expect to use it.
Basically, a "quality" bike means the sort of bike that is, or was, sold primarily in bike shops, not the sort of "throwaway" bike sold in much larger numbers and for lower prices in department stores, toy stores, and the like. Department-store bikes aren't made to be maintainable or to last. If you want a cheaper bike than anything available new in a bike shop, get a used bike of the sort that was originally sold in a bike shop, not a department-store bike.
With respect to suitability for touring, the bad news is that only a very small proportion of new bikes, even of quality new bikes, are suitable for loaded touring.
The good news about new touring bikes is that because touring bikes are made of cheaper-to-work-with steel rather than expensive-to-work-with carbon fiber, even very high-quality new touring bikes are typically cheaper than comparable-quality new "racing" bikes. You can get a touring bike custom-made in the USA to your measurements by a top name in frame-building for US$4,000 all-in -- less than the base price of many mass-produced carbon-fiber road bikes.
The good news about used bikes for touring is that a much larger proportion of older bicycles than of new bikes are suitable for touring. That's largely because bicycles used to be designed for more "all-purpose" use, while newer bicycles are typically more narrowly optimized for a single specialized use. Most "racing" bicycles sold in the USA and Canada in 1970s and 1980s that you could find in a friend's basement or garage or on Craigslist -- steel-framed, with 36-spoke 27" wheels -- are more suitable and readily adaptable for touring than a random new bike you might buy for US$1000 or more.
Why is this? Buyers may have liked the image of a "racing" bike, but bike manufacturers used to recognize that most buyers weren't really going to race these bikes. Older bikes all had at least 36 spokes per wheel (sometimes 40 in the rear), while contemporary racing and "sport" bikes use lighter wheels wtih 32 or fewer spokes that are much more likely to fail under a heavy load or over the course of a long trip. Typical 70s-80s "racing" bikes actually had frame proportions more like what would today be called "sport touring" or "club riding" geometry. With a steel frame, unlike a carbon fiber or even an aluminum frame, you can clamp rack and fender mounts onto the bike, even if it wasn't designed with brazed-on mounting eyelets for these touring necessities -- without risk of breaking the frame. And with old-school non-indexed shifting, it's not difficult to add a smaller third "granny" front gear (chainring) for climbing long hills or fighting headwinds with a heavily loaded bike.
Any bike that was originally sold with 27" diameter wheels -- even those with side-pull caliper brakes -- was designed to fit the then-standard 1 1/4" (32 mm) width tires, in contrast to contemporary racing and road bikes with 700C diameter wheels and clearance for tires no wider than 25 mm. Your tolerance (and bike-handling skill) for narrow tires on rough surfaces may vary, but for many people the difference between 25 mm and 32 mm width tires is the difference in whether they are willing to take their bike off pavement when necessary. Indeed, you could argue that the 1 1/4" (32 mm) tire width that was standard with 27" diameter wheels is the sweet spot between fast rolling and the ability to ride safely and comfortably on both paved and unpaved roads. If you start with a vintage bike that was built for 27" wheels, you won't have to change a thing to be able to use tires wide enough for at least some off-pavement use. I rode more than 500 miles last summer on 27" (diameter) x 1 1/4" (width) tires on crushed-rock trails on former railroad rights-of-way, as well as shorter stretches of dirt and coarser gravel. I wouldn't have chosen that route with a fully loaded bike on tires only 25 mm wide.
Unlike buying a new car, as should by now be clear, buying even a new bicycle isn't predominantly about choosing a brand and model. [In response to comments, however, I've added some suggestions of models to consider in a follow-up comment below.] Bicycles are essentially modular, and there are potentially far more combinations of components you could choose for your bicycle than there are option packages offered by any car manufacturer.
Bicycles come in sizes, but that can be misleading. A person on a bicycle is a cyborg that functions as a single entity. To function optimally and in synergy with your body, each dimension of the bicycle needs to be properly matched to the shape of the rider's body, not just their overall body size.
Some dimensions of an assembled bicycle can be adjusted (within limits) by moving a slider or turning a wrench. Others can be changed (again, within limits) by substituting components, such as handlebar stems that extend forward different distances. Others are fixed by the geometry of the frame tubes. Two people with the same leg length and total height, for example, may have different torso and arm lengths, and require bicycles with different frames.
Just as some people with proportions that don't match manufacturers' standards have to sew their own clothes or have them custom made if they want them to fit, some people can't find any mass-produced bicycles that will get them well. Fortunately, high-quality "production" bicycles are made in such small quantities with so much hand labor that made-to-measure custom or semi-custom steel bicycle frames don't cost as much more than good production steel bikes as you might expect.
Even if you are ready to buy the bike of your dreams, it's impossible to tell from catalog descriptions which model(s) might be well suited to your proportions. And even if a particular frame can be adjusted to fit you well, you can't expect any bicycle to fit you out-of-the-box. A bike may come with a "standard" set of components, but most bike shops will allow you to substitute other components for only the difference between the prices of the components, as long as you tell them what you want before they assemble and adjust the new bike: shorter or longer cranks, a shorter or longer stem, differently sized and/or curved handlebars, a different saddle, smaller chainrings for lower gears, and so forth.
Because so much of the fit is determined by the frame geometry, and can't be adjusted after you've bought the frame, a good bike shop will measure you (and your present bike, if you have one) carefully, before they begin to recommend which models might fit. Some shops include fitting with the sale of a new bike, while others charge for a fitting but will apply the cost of the fitting to the price of the new bike that you subsequently buy from them.
Even adjusting and setting up a demo bike for a test ride could take a bike shop half an hour or more, while a full-fledged fitting could involve an hour or two with the bike shop's fit expert watching you pedal and measuring you on a special adjustable stationary bicycle that allows the seat, pedals, and handlebars to be moved up and down, forward and back, and in and out relative to each other.
Do you have to go through all this to buy a bike? No, but if it's done right, and you end up taking the bike on a long tour, you won't regret it. If you spend a lot of time and money trying to make a bike fit, only to find that it's impossible to make that frame work for you, you will regret it. If you are going to need a custom bike for proper fit, it's better to learn that early in your bike search. Women with short torsos are especially likely to need custom bikes, because most off-the-shelf bikes are designed for typical male proportions and it's harder to make a bike fit a smaller person without using smaller-than-standard wheels.
Some people are less sensitive to small variations, but the longer you spend on the bike, the more you'll notice even the most minute deviation from perfect fit. Get the seat and handlebar height vaguely right, and I can ride almost any bike for ten miles or so without undue discomfort. After twenty miles, I'll feel it in my knees if the seat height is off by a centimeter. After fifty miles, I'll feel it in my wrists if the brake levers -- where I rest my hands most of the time -- are mispositioned on the handlebars by a couple of millimeters.
If you're not yet ready to pay for a professional fitting, and don't already have a bike that fits you perfectly for all-day loaded riding, to use as a dimensional model, you should think carefully about whether you are ready to commit to the price of a new bike that might not fit -- or whether, as discussed above, you might be better off experimenting with a cheaper bike first. As I noted earlier, you can give bicycle travel an initial try on an overnight or weekend trip on almost any half-decent bicycle that more-or-less fits and that you or someone you know has lying around, or that you can pick up second hand for a couple of hundred dollars (or less).
And if this all seems hopelessly complicated, find that knowledgeable Friend I keep talking about, to help guide you through the process or at least steer you to the right bike shop. There are also links to some books and online resources that I find useful in the sidebar of this blog under "Bicycle Travel".
Most of this is the same regardless of where you plan to take your bike, in your home country or overseas. Next week, I'll have some tips on those bicycle and component choices that are specifically influenced by whether you plan to travel internationally with your bike.
Bon voyage, et bonne randonnée!
Sunday, 27 October 2013
The Amazing Race 23, Episode 4
Sintra (Portugal) - Bodø (Norway) - Svolvær (Norway) - Henningsvær (Norway) - Bøstad (Norway) - Svolvær (Norway) - Trondheim (Norway) - Gdansk (Poland)
In northern Norway at the middle of the latest two-part episode of The Amazing Race 23, host Phil Keoghan handed each team a clue directing them to Gdansk, Poland, and letting them know that when they arrived at the Lech Walesa International Airport, their first task would be to find their way to the Solidarity Monument in Solidarity Square, in front of one of the gates of the former Lenin Shipyard. (I wouldn't usually choose to link to Wikipedia rather than to a more authoritative source. But I'm doing so here to show how readily this information is available from even the most obvious sources.)
Yet at least four of the nine teams arrived in Gdansk without having any idea where they were going. They asked taxi drivers (in English) to take them to the shipyard, not the monument. They hadn't learned how to say the name of the monument, or the square, in Polish. They didn't recognize the monument when they drove past it or were standing in front of it. And they didn't use the one word which, even in English, might have gotten their meaning across: "Solidarity".
This is, in part, a useful reminder that times change, and with them the way places are perceived. The sites in some foreign locale that we remember hearing about in the news may be ancient history of little significance to local people, especially locals who have grown up since those events.
I was in college in Chicago during the Lenin Shipyard wildcat strike of 1980 that brought Lech Walesa to prominence as the leader of an independent labor union challenging the company (and state, since the shipyard was government-owned) union. There are more people of Polish ancestry in greater Chicago than in Gdansk or in any city in the world except Warsaw (and possibly, in recent years, London), and the events in Gdansk (and then throughout Poland) were front-page news for months.
The first thing that comes to mind what I hear the word "Gdansk" is the image of Lech Walesa speaking to a crowd of fellow workers with Solidarnosc banners in front of the shipyard gates. Of course I'd want to go to the memorial on that site, and to the Solidarity museum (originally nearby, but being moved over this winter to a new location elsewhere in Gdansk) if I visited Gdansk as a tourist.
Nobody under 45, however, has any personal memory of these events. They are only history, "remembered" only from lessons in school (how differently the same history is taught in different places!) or the stories told by older family members and acquaintances. To younger people, in the USA or in Gdansk, Lech Walesa may be better known from a different, much later period, as a professional politician and as the president of Poland from 1990 to 1995, rather than a grassroots activist.
But if the younger teams of racers can be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the significance of the location of their next clue, they had ample opportunity to figure it out before they got off the plane in Gdansk. The racers had a 34-hour ferry ride down the coast of Norway from Svolvær to Trondheim, followed by a flight to Gdansk.
For more than a decade, I've been getting regular queries and requests for coaching from prospective racers studying my columns about previous seasons of The Amazing Race as part of preparing for their own appearances on the reality-TV show. Not this season, apparently. I wrote about the opportunities presented by transit time, particularly on long ferry rides and in waiting rooms and boarding areas, in one of my columns about the very first season of the race:
The journey -- even the waiting -- is part of the trip. Often, "getting there" is most of the trip. So make the most of it.
There was lots of "hurry up and wait" in this episode: some teams arrived at the dock in Marseille as much as six hours ahead of others, but all the teams ended up on the same ferry for the 18-hour Mediterranean crossing. Seemingly, the racers all saw those hours -- wrongly -- as enforced waiting time when they could make no progress.
Instead of just repeating, "Are we there yet?", until you get there, use your time in transit to plan, or to meet people, or both. I can't imagine that if any of the teams had spent their 18-24 hours in transit chatting up their fellow passengers in the waiting area and on board -- especially the homeward-bound Tunisians -- they wouldn't have been able to change money, get directions and at least a hand-drawn map to their destination, and quite possibly arrange a ride or and/or a guide directly there from the dock.
Your instinct may be to talk to the other foreigners on the plane, train, bus, or ferry, if they are more like you than the locals. Of course, you have something to talk about: your shared anticipation of arrival in a place you don't know. But other foreigners probably know no more than you, and have the same mistaken preconceptions. (Exception: expatriates who live in the place you are headed, who can be a useful if biased source of advice.) The most valuable people to talk with are typically the people from where you are going, who are headed home.
You can't count on anything, but you never know what you'll be offered. My travelling companion and I arranged a ride from the airport to our hotel in Shanghai, without speaking a word of any Chinese dialect or recognizing a single Chinese character, in the departure lounge before our plane left San Francisco. When our train from Tashkent let us off at 3 a.m. at Bukhara station, 18 km (11 miles) outside the city in an utterly empty desert, we already had a ride lined up with a well-to-do fellow passenger from Bukhara who was being met by her jeep and driver. When our flight arrived in Paris after all the currency exchanges at the airport had closed, we were able to use a coin phone to call the friend we were staying with because we had changed a few dollars (always carry a few cash dollars, the most widely-accepted if not universal currency) for French Francs while we were still being delayed on the ground at the airport in New Delhi....
In a video clip on the CBS Web site for The Amazing Race, Brennan and Rob are shown in their cabin on the ferry, trying to figure out whether taxis or guides will be available at the dock in Tunis -- without it having occurred to them, apparently, to ask any of the hundreds of Tunisians on board, at least some of whom surely spoke English.
There's ample time to sleep, eat, relax, watch the scenery, and look for a travelling Pole who could help you prepare for the next leg of your adventure on a 34-hour ferry ride like the one the racers were on in the latest episode of the race.
(Why would someone from Poland be on a domestic ferry in Norway? Because Poland's entry into the European Union gives Poles the right to work throughout the EU, but Poland remains poorer than any western European country, so huge numbers of Poles work in Western Europe. Polish guest-workers and immigrants are as ubiquitous as maids, kitchen staff, and maintenance workers in London tourist hotels as Mexican-Americans in similar jobs in the USA -- with the difference that by dint of EU membership, Poles in the UK all have legal residence.)
It would have been even easier to find Poles able and willing to give travel and translation advice while waiting for the flight to Gdansk from Trondheim. Everyone is bored and happy for a diversion, and most people are happy to help someone who is interested in visiting their country. It's usually pretty easy, in a situation like that, to tell the people going "home" (in this case, the Poles) from the people waiting for a flight to a (to them) "foreign" destination.
"Excuse me. Are you from Poland? I'm sorry I don't speak Polish, but do you speak English? This is my first trip to your country. Can you help me? Thank you! How do I say, 'Thank you' in Polish? How about, "Hello'? And 'Please'? Let me practice: 'Hello'. And 'Thank you' again. I'm trying to find this place. Do you know where it is? Can you show me a picture of it on your phone? (Their phone might work, and have affordable local data service, even if yours doesn't.) Can you help tell me the best way to get there from the airport? Can you write that down in Polish for me to show to the taxi driver or the ticket clerk in the train station? Thank you!"
Even if you aren't in a race, and have your route mapped out, this is the best chance you have to get someone -- who is likely to be bilingual or multi-lingual (since they are travelling abroad), who isn't busy with something else, and for whom it will help kill the waiting time -- to help you with your cheat sheet of most important words or phrases in the local languages(s).
"Can you tell me how to say, 'I can't eat meat'? (or, 'I'm allergic to dairy products', or whatever.) Let me try to pronounce that. Did I get it right? Can you write that down in Polish so that I can show it to people in restaurants? Thank you!"
You might be tempted to rely on a translation app, but (1) it might not be available when you need it (does it work offline, when you are in a place with no data service?), and (2) it's much less likely than a local person to give the correct expression in the current local idiom. For example, many dictionaries and apps translate the English "bicycle" into French as "bicyclette", and that's technically correct. If you say, "bicyclette", Francophones will recognize your meaning. But it doesn't work the other way, in this example: The only word for bicycle that's in common contemporary French (or Québecois) usage is "vélo", and that's what you'll need to look for on signs. If you are looking for "bicyclette" on signs for bike shops or bike routes, you'll miss the "vélo" signs and stay lost. This sort of discrepancy between dictionary definitions and real-world local usage is more common than you might think, and can be crucial.
Serendipity is the spice of travel. But to best enjoy the opportunities it presents, take Tom Lehrer's advice and "Be prepared!"
Monday, 21 October 2013
"Security Check Now Starts Long Before You Fly"
"Security Check Now Starts Long Before You Fly" (by Susan Stellin, The New York Times, 21 October 2013, page A1):
The Transportation Security Administration is expanding its screening of passengers before they arrive at the airport by searching a wide array of government and private databases that can include records like car registrations and employment information....
"I think the best way to look at it is as a pre-crime assessment every time you fly," said Edward Hasbrouck, a consultant to the Identity Project, one of the groups that oppose the prescreening initiatives. "The default will be the highest, most intrusive level of search, and anything less will be conditioned on providing some additional information in some fashion."
More from the Identity Project:
- "TSA proposes arbitrarily individualized surveillance-based searches"
- Comments filed with the DHS in response to the latest proposals for the TSA's "Pre-Check" (Pre-Crime) databases
- "We call bullshit on the TSA’s lying "response" to today’s story in the New York Times"
- Background on how the system works and what information the government uses (video; slides)
I'll be talking about this on KPCC (Southern California public radio) at noon Pacific time on Wednesday, Oct. 23rd, along with former DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy and current lobbyist for the travel industry and travel technology companies (U.S. Travel Association, Sabre, etc.) Stewart Verdery: Would you rather be physically searched or electronically searched before boarding a flight?
I'll also be on the nationally syndicated America Weekend radio show with Paul Harris on Saturday morning, Oct. 26th, from 8:15-8:45 a.m. Pacific time. Podcast and streaming audio archive: Now TSA's Checking You Out Before You Fly
Sunday, 13 October 2013
The Amazing Race 23, Episode 3
San Alfonso (Chile) - Santiago (Chile) - Lisbon (Portugal) - Sintra (Portugal)
Portugal made the short list of places I liked best among those I visited for the first time on my most recent trip around the world:
If you are wondering where you can still afford to travel in Western Europe with devalued U.S. dollars, put Portugal at the top of your list. Friendly people, great food and wine, great scenery, few crowds (even in the summer, most foreign visitors to Portugal stick to the beach resorts of the Algarve, in the far south), and the price sinkhole of the Euro zone. The climate is mild enough to be pleasant even in winter, and gorgeous in "shoulder" season in spring or fall. [The photo above was taken in late November.] Like Ireland and perhaps Greece, Portugal combines a proletarian identity (as a country whose main export used to be migrant labor) with modern European infrastructure. Lisbon and Porto are charming cities -- big enough to be exciting, small enough to be accessible.
The Amazing Race 3 visited Portugal, with challenges for the racers in Porto, a "pit stop" in Lisbon, and the finish line for the 4th leg of the race at the Tower of Belem in Lisbon near the mouth of the Tagus River estuary:
The Amazing Race didn't return to Portugal for 20 seasons and more than a decade. That's typical: Portugal (especially its major cities, as noted above, and espcially in the off seasons) remains under-visited and under-priced.
This time, the racers had to take one of these trams up the hill to the castle:
Where they got to enjoy the panorama of the city while they collected their next clue:
The racers' clues directed them to challenges which included arranging typical blue-and-white azulejo tiles, jigsaw-puzzle style, to form one of the portraits that are so characteristic of Portuguese architectural ornamentation:
Like the racers, we arrived in Lisbon from Brazil, and like most of them we did so on TAP (the Portugese national airline) from Brazil.
The racers connected from Santiago, Chile, via Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city. We arrived in Lisbon from Recife. Recife and Natal, the easternmost cities in South America, have long histories as trans-Atlantic aviation gateways, especially for delivery and other ferry flights by short-range planes. Portugal is the tail wagged by the Brazilian dog of the Lusophone world, though, and the most important overseas destination for the Portugese airline. In addition to two nonstops daily to and from Sao Paulo, TAP has nonstop service between Lisbon and a other cities throughout Brazil, from Porto Alegre in the south to Belo Horizonte in the interior and Fortaleza in the far northeast. That shouldn't be surprising if you are familiar with the scale of "provincial" cities in the superpower of South America: Each of TAP's Brazilian destination cities has more residents than the city of Lisbon.
The deciding factor in this episode was which teams were able to get seats confirmed on the TAP flights from Sao Paulo. Ephraim and Chester, who weren't able to get on either of the direct TAP flights that night and had to connect through other cities in Europe, got delayed and were eliminated at the airport in Lisbon, before they had even attempted to find the first clue.
Getting on a "full" flight is a widely-misunderstand art, not a science, and the success or failure of the teams on "The Amazing Race" appeared to have more to do with luck than skill.
To get on a full flight, you first have to get your name on a "waiting list", and then you have to get yourself confirmed from that waiting list.
How does that work? In addition to the advice on waiting lists in my books, here are some tips:
- You can't put yourself on a waiting list online. Airline reservation and ticketing Web sites don't even mention that waiting lists exist, much less which flights, or which booking classes on those flights, are open for waitlisting. That goes for airlines' own Web sites as well as travel agency Web sites and third-party "metasearch" sites. If a flight is available only on a "request" basis, almost all Web sites will show it as "unavailable" or "sold out" -- neither of which is necessarily true. You can only get your name on a waiting list by contacting a human travel agent, an airline call center, or an airline ticket counter.
- The sooner you get on a waiting list, the better. Some of the racers thought that they couldn't get on the "standby" list until they got to the check-in counter, but that's almost never the case. All else being equal, and in the absence of some manual intervention by a supervisor, if additional seats open up (through cancellation, no-show, etc.) names will be confirmed first from the highest-priority waiting list for the booking class for the highest fare, in the order that those names were placed on that list. It's usually much easier for airline staff to move you from one list to a higher priority list than to rearrange the order of names on any one list.
- There are many waiting lists for each flight. There are separate waiting lists for each cabin or "class of service" (first, business, and coach). Within each cabin, there are separate waiting lists for each of up to about a dozen different "booking classes" corresponding to different levels of fares. For each of those booking classes, there may be three or more different waiting lists with different levels of priority. In general, every name on the highest priority waiting list for a given booking class will be confirmed before any of the names on the next lower priority list. So the key thing in "working a waiting list", if you can't get the person you are talking to to confirm you immediately, is to get your name moved to a higher-priority waiting list. In general, the higher the priority of the waiting list, the higher the level of supervisory authority within the airline is required to move names onto that list.
- Each airline has its own waitlist procedures, priorities, and criteria for confirmation. You can't assume that what worked with some other airline will work with this one. With some airlines, all decisions about confirmations from the waiting lists are made by the capacity and revenue management department at the airline's headquarters. With other airlines, the "station manager" for that airline at that airport, or in that city, has the final personal say on which waitlisted would-be passengers get on each flight. Some airline staff can be bribed, at varying levels, to confirm waitlisted passengers. Most can't, and offering a bribe for confirmation is usually counterproductive. (None of the racers have yet been shown offering bribes -- perhaps that's forbidden by the secret rulebook.) From time to time, a handful of travel agents have figured out how to hack reservation systems to get their customers confirmed on flights that airlines have tried to designate as "unavailable". If your flight is full, your best bet is either to work through a travel agent with whom you (or the company or organization paying for your ticket) has clout and/or who has contacts and clout (i.e. a large volume of sales) with that particular airline. Sometimes they may be unable to get you confirmed, and will suggest that you contact the airline directly. But your chances are best if you start with a travel agent. They are more likely than you to know the optimum strategy for getting you confirmed: Who can confirm you, how to get your request considered by that decision-maker, and what arguments to use or favors to call in on your behalf.
- Waitlist confirmations are always unpredictable. Airline personnel, or travel agents who do a lot of business with a particular airline, may have a good idea what your chances are of getting confirmed from a waiting list for a particular flight. But you never know for sure until you are confirmed or until the flight takes off without you. I've had the check-in counter re-open for me, and been told to run (escorted through the security checkpoint by two airline employees in high-heels-and-short-skirts uniforms running alongside me!) for the plane waiting for me at the gate, after an overbooked flight from which other passengers had been turned away was shown on the displays as "departed". If a travel agency or airline is working on getting you confirmed from a waiting list, make sure that they can contact you to let you know if they are successful -- and that you are prepared to act quickly if that happens, before the seat goes to someone else.