29 July 2008

BA plans merger with Iberia

It's not the first time British Airways and Iberia have flirted. Their affair started a decade ago when both companies were part of the Oneworld Alliance. Perhaps it is a bit more aggressive than flirting, but BA did consider a possible takeover of the Spanish national air carrier, but ended up pulling out of the whole affair, while both companies hold stock in each other. But this time talks are bilateral and it seems it will help both sides in the new transportations landscape being formed around us in a world of ever increasing fuel and raw material prices.

According to statements made by BA's CEO Willie Walsh, a merger looks like an attractive option, offering both sides the potential to enlarge their networks and it would benefit the shareholders of both companies. In fact, BA stock rose by 7.5% and Iberia by 15% when the talks were announced, even though they will take several months and regulatory clearance will be necessary. Even in the case of a merger, the two entities would continue to exist separately, thereby each country would keep its national air carrier, just as it happened in the case of Air France and KLM. No statements have been made as of yet on the possibility of redundancies.

As the economy worsens this move will help both companies continue to fill their planes, as BA will most probably use its Heathrow base as a gateway to the Middle East and the US and Iberia's base in Madrid will provide services to Africa. An interesting fact is that despite all their difference in value and fleet size, both companies transported more than 30 million passengers last year. Competitors will undoubtedly voice concerns on consumer choice and ticket prices as this new company would fill up nearly half the slots at Heathrow. However, regulatory bodies will surely have to approve the move and make sure that consumers are protected.

28 July 2008

Qantas, when it rains it pours

Rainman is a great film. The name "Qantas" became synonym in my mind for safe flying from before I had ever got on an airplane. And now part of their plane falls off? Well this is all Qantas needed at the moment. Having followed the company quite closely over the last few months and seen all their problems, it does seem as though they are having a streak of very bad luck. But is it just a question of luck?

Apparently the whole drama was caused by a ruptured oxygen bottle that shot into the cabin. The force of the explosion at that height, caused the shrapnel to travel through the storage compartment, the luggage and end up in the business class food preparation area. Fortunately nobody was hurt. But is this just more bad luck or is there a reason behind it? Surely there is some safety check pertaining to those cannisters that would make sure this did not happen.

It was not long ago that I covered the strike that Qantas' safety technicians went on, demanding a pay increase. It has only been a few days since the company had to announce that there would be cuts in staff and then there was the whole price fixing situation in late 2007, all to be crowned by ever increasing fuel prices.

Is there a danger that these increases in fuel prices are in some way connected to this accident? If staff are unhappy and not doing their jobs properly because the company cannot afford to pay them as much as they would like, are we now in danger? I have not of course lost faith in air travel, it is by far one of the safest ways to travel, but I cannot help but wonder what effects the rise in fuel prices will have in general. I am sure that this is a one time only accident, the exception that proves the rule that Qantas is very very safe, but there are other smaller companies out there who might have to adjust to higher prices by cutting corners here and there. Can prices affect our safety, and if so, what do we do about it?

25 July 2008

Catch a music festival in the UK

Although most people don't think of the UK as a prime location for a summer holiday, there is one thing that England has in abundance. No, not just rain, although there is plenty of that, even in the summer. What the UK has to offer is a large number of incredible music festivals that all take place over the summer months. Now it's too late for June and July, which means you have missed Download and Glastonbury, but there is still plenty to look forward to, both major events and smaller local festivals.

So this August you can still catch V Festival, which this year will feature Muse, The Stereophonics, The Kooks, Maximo Park, Lost Prophets, Alanis Morisette, and The Prodigy. The V Festival is held at Hylands Park in Chelmford. They have organised themselves very well this year and their site offers links for train tickets, accomodation and security while you are there. If you want the real deal you should of course camp at the festival site for a couple of days and just enjoy the relaxation and party atmosphere of the event.

Nut the event of the summer this year has to be Reading Festival, which I was lucky enough to attend last year and hear some incredible music. This year the line up is even more impressive: Manic Street Preachers, Bullet For My Vallentine, The Babyshambles, The Fratellis, Dizzee Rascal, Editors, the Killers and Bloc Party, but I must say I am holding out for the louder and harsher bands headlining the various stages. The bands that I am going to Reading for are Slipknot, Tenacious D, Serj Tankian, Queens of the Stone Age, Metallica and Rage Against The Machine. It is the last two bands that are drawing the most attention, Metallica because of their history and contribution to the metal scene, and Rage Agains the Machine because they only got back together recently and many people thought they would never get the chance to see them.

So book a flight to the UK while you still have time and there are still tickets available and have a rocking summer!

23 July 2008

Villa or hotel in Corfu?

My holiday in Corfu while I was in university had been almost entirely erased by my boss in a London law firm post room a few years ago. He was a mean old man who would spend all day sitting around while we ran like insane little ants delivering paperwork and half the time he would stop anyone who made the mistake of entering his office and show them a 30 minute video from his holiday in Corfu and then about a 100 pictures. The other half of the time he was planning his next holiday there.

But I have to admit, having seen the video quite few times (and laughing at his flat jokes) that he had just as good a time as I did. Back then I was on a trip organised by uni so we were running from room to room in the hotel, getting into trouble and being told that making noise at 3am is not acceptable, even in Greece.

But this guy, my old boss, he had booked a villa. Now that is style. You book your own villa with some friends, split the costs and enjoy the amazing views, the pool, and the absence of anyone telling you that it's too late to party or that you just missed breakfast. Sure, you have to cook for yourself, but you can opt to eat at the various tavernas nearby.

On the other hand, you can always go for the hotel option, and be nearer to the larger towns and clubs. Corfu is used to catering to tourists and is one of most popular destinations for tourists from the UK. British Airways does flights to the island's Kapodistrias airport and you can reach other destinations on the island by bus or car.

There is a reason Corfu is such a popular destination. It has a strange mixture of culture and architecture because of its proximity to Greece and Italy, and the contact it has with both cultures. Although it is unequivocally Greek, there are still elements from back when the Italians were in charge. Elements of its beautiful architecture have been retained, in contrast to other large islands in Greece, such as Crete, and it is an island where you can enjoy the architecture in the towns just as much as the beaches, bars and resorts.

22 July 2008

Aerolinas Argentinas back in government hands

Well, it didn't work out very well for Spanish travel company Marsans, after they bought Argentina's national airline Aerolineas Argentinas about 20 years ago. To say that the company is not doing well is something of an understatement. Losing $1million a day and being $900 million in debt might make you a bit glum.

However, the government has decided to buy back and renationalise the airline as it is in danger of folding and you can't really let your country's main airline collapse. It's a matter of pride. But no matter how romantic the government's intent, the troubles Aerolineas Argentinas is faced with will take a lot of work to solve.

The Argentine government seems to have put themselves into something of a pickle. The airline is overstaffed and all of their staff are represented by at least one, in some cases more, workers' unions. Making cutbacks in staff will pretty much immediately result in strikes, especially as the government will be the new boss. Add to that the fact that more than half of Aerolineas Argentinas' 67 strong fleet has been grounded in recent years, and you get yourself a great catch 22.

The company is in debt and needs more airplanes so it has to cut costs. But in order to do that they will most definitely have to fire people. And then the rest of the employees will go on strike, and then income will stop. However if cutbacks are not made, debt will continue to accrue. That's a precarious situation if I ever saw one. Maybe the only way out of this is some drastic expansion.

Well I wish them all the best and I hope they have some great business minds on the job because it's a tough one.

21 July 2008

Travelodge by the sea, in Spain, everywhere...

You can't really blame anyone for being comprehensive about taking a holiday abroad this year and over the next few years. The price of petrol alone will make travelling by plane prohibitive in the near future. The strength of the euro, which until recently made your pound go further, has now increased to the point where it is more expensive to get a beer in Athens than it is in London.

So it is a clever move on Travelodge's part to invest in a number of hotels on the UK coastline. Apparently, the hotel company is going to open 55 new hotels near the sea by 2015. Travelodge itself has started promoting UK breaks, now that people are trying to find a way to save money, while still getting some rest from their busy lives. Apart from that, the increasing strength of the euro should make the UK more attractive to visitors from the continent. After all, the UK has a lot to offer, with its beautiful forests, water sports, and many museums and historical sites. Sure it will not be sunbathing on a beach in Spain, but if these hypothetical tourists wanted to do that, they would have stayed in Spain, or Greece or France.

Apart from trying to attract customers to the UK however, Travelodge is also very cleverly opening 100 hotels in Spain. This move should attract Spanish and UK customers, and could be the beginning of a move to make the brand more international. The hotel company already has two branches in Madrid, but with this increase will become a much more widely recognisable brand. Travelodge could be pulling an Easyjet move, providing basic budget accomodation, at several destinations.

Clever branding and developing I think. Lets see what else they come up with...

18 July 2008

Qantas to cut 1,500 jobs

The last 12 months cannot possibly have been fun for Qantas, what with strikes over pay, the whole cargo price fixing debacle, the Australian airline has now announced it will be cutting 1,500 jobs from their workforce, due to their difficulty in dealing with soaring fuel prices.

Fares have been raised, their projected growth for 2008-2009 has been reduced to 0%, the hiring of 1,200 new staff has been thrown out the window and there is no guarantee that there will not be any further job cuts. A lot of the jobs that are being cut are in management, offices and call centres, mainly in Australia, the US and the UK, and it is all due to the rise in the price of oil, as is the trend in everything recently.

The Australian government have stated that they are very disappointed with the decision to axe so many jobs, but they will do their best to help those affected. Other airlines that have had to cut flights, budget branches of their company, fire staff or stop development include British Airways, United Airlines, Virgin, and many many more, all over the world. The price of oil is affecting all transportation branches and it will affect domestic and international tourism in every country.

17 July 2008

Tour Japan by train. Blink and you'll miss it.

My own reasons for preferring rail travel have been mentioned time and time again. Perhaps it's the romantic notions of Victorian ingenuity and invention or having watched Crime on the Orient Express once too many times, regardless the subconscious reason, I still love train travel.

There is one type of train that I have yet to ride, a train that has reached cult status around the world, due to its futuristic nature and the incredible speeds it reaches. You may not have time to enjoy the views in this Japanese speeding bullet train, but it will get you from one side of the country to the other in a fraction of the time it takes most trains or cars.

There are several rail cards one can purchase in order to tour the land of the rising sun. For a more complete trip, covering the whole of the country, what you are looking for is the Japan Rail Pass. This little wonderful ticket is only available to tourists and for purchase outside Japan, and offers you coverage on the entire rail network as well as affiliated ferries and buses. You definitely get your money's worth seeing as some same day return tickets cost the same as the week long version of this pass. You also get discounts to selected hotels through this pass.

The Japan Rail East Pass lets you explore Greater Tokyo and the locations such as Nagano, Niigita and Misawa. For a more traditional experience of Japan, you might want to try the Japan West Railway Pass (Kansai area). The pass allows you to wonder through areas that are renowned for their traditional character and which allow you to experience Japanese culture as it was in Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and other wonderful destinations. Confusingly enough, there is another Japan West Railway Pass (Sanyo area), which also covers Osaka, but gives you the opportunity to visit Okinawa and Hiroshima, an experience worth remembering.

It is as far to the East as you can go before you hit the west again, culturally speaking, and merits a visit. And if you are going to make the effort of travelling to a country so far away, you might want to be able to see as much of it as possible, with as little hassle as possible.

16 July 2008

Venice city break, I'll get you next time

I was so excited to go to that wedding in Venice last year! One of my best friends decided she wanted a proper princess wedding in one of the most romantic settings in the world. So off we all went to Venice. Arriving there was strange. We were sailing along the water and out of nowhere buildings sprouted out of the water.

We got off the shuttle boat that took us to the city from the airport and walked on to a grand square lit up beautifully, and wandered through to the sound of string bands playing classical pieces, a different band for each of the restaurants. We then proceeded to find the palazzo where the bride to be was staying, through a maze of narrow alleys, between buildings that rose many floors above. These alleys led to bridges, dead ends, canals and doorways, but eventually we found our way to the palazzo.

We spent the next couple of days wandering the streets like the other tourists, taking pictures, buying mementos, but my favourite experience had to be getting up early the morning of the wedding and getting a cappuccino in a local cafe with a group of builders and plumbers. It is by far the best cappuccino I have ever had.

Unfortunately, on the day of the wedding and the party that followed it, I stayed in the sun for far too long, which resulted in my passing out shortly after the speeches were made by the best man and the in-laws. It also stopped me from drinking bellini after bellini like the rest of the guests, however the unequaled beauty of the city stayed with me and I feel the urge to go back and visit those narrow alleyways again, perhaps because I did not enjoy myself as much as I would have liked and it was my own fault. So I've been checking out hotels and hostels and you can find some very good deals at AccorHotels, Expedia and Ebookers.

15 July 2008

Sunblock or Sunscreen for this summer?

Its a sunny summer day and you casually engage in a light and trivial office conversation, say around holidays for instance. How on earth, did you end up in the middle of an out-of-the-blue office crisis over a trifling matter?

Well, at least we gained something out of the argument, everyday you learn something new. And that is merely because, especially in the office you get more stubborn and take it to placing a bet with the Internet playing the referee’s role.

So, is it sunblock or is it sunscreen? Many use the terms interchangeably causing distress.
The fact of the matter is that sunscreens function very specifically; they protect you by absorbing the ultraviolet light from sunrays not to harm your delicate skin. Sunblocks though, do something rather different and that is literally blocking UV rays. Although more efficient sunblocks might be, most products are still messy and visible because of their thick consistency.

No sooner had we discovered that experts totally refrain from using the term sunblock as there is no product in the market able to block sunrays in their entirety, that even clothes allow a percentage of radiation to reach your skin and wearing a t-shirt is like wearing a week sunblock than we got completely confused and frustrated with the whole sunblock – sunscreen bet.
The situation was finally resolved when we found out the following; although some products are simple sunscreens, regardless of the sunblock label they carry, most top label products integrate sunscreening and sunblocking qualities for an efficient protection.

So, there you go! No winners but no losers.
My piece of expert's - as I have become - advice? When investigating the market for your next sun lotion purchase look for ingredients which sound like titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, Mexoryl SX or Tinosorb and you will be cool under the sun...

10 July 2008

Rock Climbing Holiday UK - Can I just chill by the pool?

I know that many of you out there are totally confused with this year’s summer in the UK. Many of you believe summer came and went urgently in those couple of weeks in June, while others more optimistic, believe we haven’t seen anything yet, nevertheless my roof window was dripping yesterday from the “summer” rain. Anyway, for those sun-hungry souls out there I say: summer hasn’t arrived yet, so get prepared.

You might love getting barbecued under the scorching sun of Greece or Portugal over a book or engage into underwater voyeurism – snorkeling as some prefer to call it. But I bet many of you can’t believe many dare-devils out there anticipate summer time to start climbing up sharp, steep rocks jeopardizing ending up in scattered pieces. Yep, its all about rock climbing.

I have personally experimented with rock climbing a couple of times and I can say that it is very enjoyable but definitely very demanding sport from both a physical and a psychological perspective.

I was quite amazed, as you can imagine, finding out that many Britons actually practice it in the flat as a pancake UK. Apparently, and I was shocked to discover that, there are plenty of ideal locations in a close proximity to London as well; Somerset, Bristol, North Wales, Dartmoor, Portland & the Peak District attract thrill-hungry Brits who mistake themselves for mountain goats.

Of course the whole thing is heavily regulated. Prior to attending a training course you must be registered with the Mountain Leader Training Board (MLTE) and have received a logbook while there are other qualifications as well in regards to locations and skills like the SPA.

So there you go, if you fancy Tom Cruise-in-mission-impossible-style vacation go ahead, I have given you the heads up... and by the way you will find me chilling by the pool.

02 July 2008

An explosive holiday. Nuclearly explosive.

Well I've heard of a few crazy things you can do on your holidays. Parachute out of airplanes, dive off cliffs, run in front of really angry bulls. But with most of these options (even though I consider them completely insane) at least you know it will provide an instantanteous or relatively quick death. But now a whole new way to die whilst on holiday has become available: Radiation!

I jest of course, who would want to go on holiday and have something terrible happen to them? But nuclear tourism has become a sort of extreme holiday, possibly because even though you don't get the adrenalin rush of a base jump, you have an equal amount of danger involved.

This type of tourism is most developed in the US, where one can visit one of many nuclear related sites, including the world's only public underground missile complex, a fully restored Nike missile complex, the first place plutonium was ever made, and above it all of course the National Atomic Museum. For a full list of atomic locations in the US one can visit the Bureau of Atomic Tourism.

That is not to say that the States have the only places worth visiting if you like your plutonium. How about one of the most infamous nuclear accident locations? That's right, if you're quick you can book a holiday to Chernobyl. To be fair, you can probably still book it if you move really slowlly and put it off for a couple of times. There are several groups of tourists in the area every year, equipped with their own geiger counters and you need to get scanned and greenlit before leaving. Apparently it is a very impressive site, an entire abandoned city, a nuclear reactor encased in cement and steel and thousands of acres of countryside where humans are no longer present and despite the radiation animals and nature are in complete harmony.

I thinkl what is probably the biggest appeal for this sort of destination, is like any other visit to a great site of technology, like a massive bridge or a towering cathedral. These sites are reminders of our limitless potential as a species. At the same time, sites like Chernobyl are reminders of all the other things we are capable of. If nothing else it would make for interesting conversation...

01 July 2008

The pound goes down, but holidays keep going

I have had the same conversation with so many people returning or planning their holidays recently: What on earth is happening to the powerful Sterling? It is becoming more and more expensive to travel to the continent. It became most evident to me on my last trip to Greece about a month ago, when I suddenly realised that the amount I was given in Euros was very close to what I had just given them in Sterling. Surely that can't be right. I remember the tenner my grandmother gave me in my birthday card when I was 11 made me feel like a millionaire in Greece. Not any more...

And so it has been for many of my friends who for years have been used to getting at least 50% more punch from their pound. Nonetheless, Reuters reports that the Great British public has not followed the American trend of the "stay-cation" (thankfully, because I would go crazy if one of my mates mentioned his stay-cation while we were in a bar). There has been just a 1% decrease in bookings abroad in comparison to last year, and that is also down to another talent the English have: bargain hunting.

So what if the GBP is at a low in comparison to the Euro? All you have to do is simply avoid destinations in the Eurozone. That is not to say that it is expensive everywhere in the Eurozone. There are still countries that recently joined where you still get more for your hard earned money (take Poland for example). At the same time this can be viewed as an opportunity. An opportunity to take a trip to a place you hadn't thought of going in the past. Leave the continent behind and embark on a trip a bit further East, North or South. It might even be worth it to try further West (the dollar is not doing great).

So maybe you won't be "following the herd", like the Blur song says, but pick a more interesting destination...