31 August 2005

Morons from Planet La La

Living in an internet world full of spam and viruses is something we all have to do. So why do so many people behave as if the script kiddies and spammers don't exist?

My anti-virus and anti-spam systems are up to date and pretty effective, but dodgy emails still get through.

They are pretty easy to spot: an unlikely-looking address/id. "Re" a subject you've never heard of. That sort of thing.

Why would anyone with half a brain - PR companies take note - send out a press release as an attachment to an email and nothing in the subject line? What do they imagine will happen when an email shows up in somebody's intray from 'katrianaNeverHeardofHerBefore@trendyname.com' with an unidentified attachment, and a blank subject line??

(If you're wondering, I'll tell you. I close down the preview mode so it doesn't trigger a virus payload, select and delete it. How often does that happen? Oh, 2/3 times a week.)

I'm mentioning it today because last week I bought £90 worth of gear online from an outdoor equipment warehouse. I got an email confirmation by return from the net bank, but nothing from the retailer.

It turns out they did send it, but surprise surprise.... an email "Re: order" from "newserver" never made it past my defences!

Morons from Planet La La!

21 August 2005

The cruising fear that dare not speak its name

The weekly travel trade newspaper, Travel Trade Gazette (TTG), is headlining cruise industry fears after Princess Cruises were forced to divert their ship Grand Princess away from her scheduled visit to the Turkish port of Kusadasi last week - on a warning from the US State Dept - and news that a Syrian man was arrested in Turkey for plotting to blow up an Israeli cruise ship.

These are nightmares which the ever-growing cruise industry has had for years now but dare not speak about for fear of scaring away passengers in their droves.
In fact it is amazing that nobody has really discussed it openly. I can remember thinking about, and talking with colleagues about the obvious opportunities that cruise ships present for terrorists even before Sept 11 2001.

Just imagine: thousands of westerners, particularly Americans who love to cruise and whose cruise companies dominate the industry, all crammed together in one metal box and remote from immediate assistance... which Al Quaeda operative's murderous black heart wouldn't beat faster at the thought?

Of course, cruise ships have now beefed up their on-board security in a big way. Crew and passenger boarding routes are bristling with detectors, so it is more difficult to smuggle a bomb on board.

That would be the most obvious type of attack and simplest. If there's a range of mission alternatives for attacking a cruise ship, the top end might be to try and launch an (ex-Soviet/Chinese) anti-ship missile... but that's way too complicated and prone to mishap or discovery.

So the thing that must absolutely terrify cruise companies and their officers at sea must be the prospect of a small boat, maybe a fishing boat packed with explosives, approaching them while they are offshore - a skill that terrorists and militia in the Middle East have demonstrated before in attacks on tankers in the Gulf and on the USS Cole.

As James Hart, Commissioner of the City of London Police, said earlier this month about the prospect of an attack on his patch: the question is not "if it'll happen". It's "when".

20 August 2005

Air passenger watchdog sides with airlines

A very interesting article by Miles Brignall in today's Guardian, So, Just what are your rights when you fly? highlights the sticky grey areas that consumers are getting bogged down in when it comes to the new EU regulations on delayed flights.

He certainly got his head bitten off by not just the airlines but also rather surprisingly by the Air Transport Users Council (AUC) - who are supposed to be on the side of the consumer - when he suggested that the EU statement:

"When the delay is five hours or more, the airline must also offer to refund your ticket (with a free flight back to your initial point of departure, when relevant.)"

When the delay is five hours or more, the airline must also offer to fully refund your ticket, and if stuck abroad or away from your start point, must also offer a free flight back to your initial point of departure, regardless of whether your ticket(s) was a 'return' or two 'single' flights.

It's worth reading.

What do search engines know? Part 2

A follow-on thought from the What do search engines know? post a few days ago...

A yardstick for judging whether search engines are improving is the 'hotel test'.

Search for a specific independent hotel and see how many pages of online accommodation agencies you have to wade through before you actually come to the website of the hotel itself.

Tarnished Image?

I'm not sure how long it's been going on (9 months / a year?) but most days I get emails 'returned' to me because they've been rejected by the recipient's security systems. They are 'undeliverable' either because there is no such person at that address or a virus has been detected. Usually it is one or two emails. Sometimes more, sometimes none. This morning I've had four.

As most people know, 'spoofing', is rife. Clearly script kiddies are sending out dozens of virus-laden or spam emails in our name (purporting to be from admin or somebody@travel-lists.co.uk). We are certainly not alone in suffering this curse. There's nothing to be done about it, and it's not worth bothering about.

But, what interests and irritates me is the way they seem to target victims in the same industry sector. Many/most of the recipients tend to be in the travel industry or media. The scum who send them are not using our own address books or anything. Many of the recipients are companies or organisations we've never dealt with or heard of. But they are targeting companies/organisations we could be likely to communicate with.

Although 'spoofing', like 'phishing', is a well-known computer phenomenon/irritant, I wonder what damage it actually does to our image. If I intercept a virus in an email from a company or organisation (as opposed to an individual hotmail/yahoo/aol/etc address) I assume it is not really from them.... but how many other people do?

19 August 2005

Three strikes and you're out

Now that British Airways have got their flights, if not food, back in order, they'll be trying to assess what long-term damage last week's strikes caused.

I fear, and I suspect they fear, that it will be disastrous. That's because this is the third peak summer season strike they've had in a row. Whatever the background to the strikes, holiday-makers will see one disrupted holiday as bad luck. Two will be forgiven as a horrible co-incidence. But three strikes and you're out. Very many British travellers will not forget and will not fly with BA in the summer months for a long time to come.

You have to feel sorry for BA, but not much. Quite what possessed them eight years ago to outsource such a mission-critical part of their operation as catering, completely mystifies me. A large part of the business logic behind outsourcing is that you squeeze best prices and quality from a number of suppliers. If you simply sell your own catering division to another (foreign) company who are then your sole supplier, you gain nothing and lose...control.

18 August 2005

Hooray! We've got ibanking

Barclays finally came through this morning. I received part of the login in yesterday's post and the password in this morning's. So I've been able to check up on the state of our finances in 'real time' (and they are pleasingly better than I had expected, too!)

12 August 2005

Barclays update

Made the call. Got more apologies.

I don't really mind the apologies. At least they do it. In the old days companies never apologised. Maybe they thought it was an admission of guilt. Now it's the first thing they do. Which is fine, but not what I'm after.

Later the Personal Business Manager called to say that the online dept (in India?) had told him it was all set up, but he could now see himself that it wasn't. He says he'll fix it.

At the end of the day I got another call from a Barclays manager who was "following up a complaint I made". Every time you talk to them they ask you if you want to make a complaint. The first few times I didn't bother, then a few weeks ago I said ok. All the times after that I told them not to worry I'd already done it! I explained to this manager the history (again). She apologised and said she would oversee it.

Yeah right! I told her not to apologise, not to promise, just do it.

From now on, anybody from Barclays bank who does not give me a login name & password for my account is simply wasting my time.

How could Barclays Bank be SO inefficient?

It seems a bit silly that an online business like Travel-Lists should have a bank account that is not online - especially since most of our income is paid in electronically. It would be nice to be able to check that invoices have been paid, and maybe to pay some bills electronically.

That was my thought back in June. So I phoned the Barclays Business Banking Call Centre and asked if we could get online access to the business account we have had with them since Dec 1999.

"No problem. The registration paperwork should be with you in 7-10 day" said the nice woman.

Two weeks later I remembered it and called again. They were mystified but promised to send it straight away.

A week later I phoned again. Much mystification & apologies.

Another week goes by. This time I speak to a manager who will get it sorted. Many apologies. He gives me a reference number for the phone call. (Which I lose).

More days/weeks. More calls. This isn't vitally important. We've been managing without online banking for five years, but it is beginning to irritate now.

Last week I happened to go into my branch to pay in a cheque and saw somebody sitting at the business desk, so I asked him about it. He checked to see who my 'Personal Business Manager' was. It turned out it was him. He said he get it sorted.

This week I phoned the call centre again. More grovelling apologies and an attempt to call my business manager to see where it was held up. No luck. I was left with a promise that my business manager would call me.... yesterday.

I'm about to call the call centre again, but my heart really isn't in it anymore. I'll have to go through the same endless story again, listen to the same heartfelt apologies... for what?

All I want is a login to my account. If they can't do that, God help us if we need something important.

Dialling now. Wish me luck.

09 August 2005

What do search engines know?

I just checked out a keyword phrase on MSN search that Travel Lists has always ranked high on in google & yahoo (in google it has not moved more than one place in two years - a useful benchmark) and couldn't find Travel Lists anywhere on the first five/six pages. Stopped looking after that.

The relevant page in Travel Lists matches the keyword phrase EXACTLY - it is a comprehensive answer to the search being made. However the results in MSN are junk. Some good and rather obvious sites languish on pages three and four, and sitting in pole position on results page number one.... is my pet hate.

I'm not going to name the site (which is why I'm not detailing the keyword phrase) because I don't want to slag them off in public. But it is another travel directory, and one which 'punches above its true weight' in SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) on all the search engines. It carries quite a lot of destination content - which is not particularly unique - but very little on travel providers. Often listings of travel providers for a particular destination are either non-existent (blank page) or, as in this case, are limited to two companies who sponsor the page. Particularly irritating when Travel Lists lists 22 specialist operators from the UK and 23 local travel providers.

It always winds me up when I see this site high in the SERPS for a destination or subject on which it has no information. I won't publish a list of travel providers until I am satisfied it covers all or nearly all the key players. If Travel Lists has any shortcoming it is that it doesn't cover enough destinations (it's ok on holiday types). There are plenty of obvious missing countries in the directory, but that's because there is a huge quantity of pages 'under construction' with already sizeable listings... but still not good enough to publish yet.

There are those who think that web directories are being made obsolete by increasingly clever search engines... and you can understand how they look at the development of the semantic web and the sophisticated ways in which google et al are processing and sorting web pages, and see that happening.

But then, thankfully, you are brought back to earth with a bump. In this case MSN is producing rubbish SERPs in response to a search for travel providers, but none of the major search engines are good, or even close to good. If a searcher uses a search engine (on its regional setting) to find a list of travel providers for a particular destination they will get appallingly bad results: just a few specialists (ironically some of the most useful ones will be paid-for listings), some travel giants, and hopefully a couple of proper directories like Travel Lists, Travel Quest, or Tuttinsieme to get the searcher back on track!

"...and the travel associations' directories!" somebody will be thinking now.

Yeah, and them too. The ABTA, ANTOR, AITO, ABTOF directories, which are all excellent and comprehensive directories.... but,caveat, of their members only.

04 August 2005

Explore are exploring the blogosphere & the planet

Explore, or Explore Worldwide as they used to be, have always been a pioneering tour operator.

I think that spirit probably comes from their remarkable founder & MD, Travers Cox, (now sadly no longer with us) and Derek Moore their tireless Operations Manager, who from its launch in the eighties quickly turned it into one of the most successful and inspirational tour operators in the UK...and most comprehensive. I remember sitting down with Travers one time in the early nineties and trying to think of destinations they didn't have in their programme, which in that year featured something like 160 countries.

These days they have a a dedicated family adventure programme, which for 2005/6 they have doubled in size to 32 adventure trips. These include the chance for families to meet Borneo's orang utans; go on safari in Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia or South Africa; sleep under the stars on a Greek yacht; go cycling, canoeing, walking or fishing around the lakes & mountains of Macedonia, Slovenia or the Pyranees; explore the wonders of Egypt; or go dog sledding in Sweden; or watch the Aurora Borealis in Iceland. Magical, life-changing holidays for kids!

And I've just found the blog that one of their staff, Tanya Durkin, is writing as she accompanies five families on the current tour of Borneo. It's a great way to draw people... customers... into what they are doing.

Well done Explore!

03 August 2005

Co-incidence? I think not

Blimey! That's interesting. My stats for Travel Lists are showing referals from dmoz. It appears that the site has finally been listed.

I'm a bit shocked because it's been a long wait - over two years since the site launched and I made a first submission (or one year and eleven months since my second submission. Not that submissions are terribly important since dmoz editors work pro-actively).

Could the sudden appearence of Travel-Lists have anything to do with the blog entry I made a week or so ago about dmoz, and the comment posted by KC?

I think so.

To be honest I didn't really understand what KC meant, and read his "take note that your blog entry has been noticed" as slightly sinister. In the light of today's discovery I'm reconsidering my opinion of him. Thanks KC!

01 August 2005

EUjet - a reminder

This is not an original thought - plenty of travel editors and organisations with an interest, like AITO & ABTA, have been saying it in recent days - but the collapse of the low-cost carrier EUjet a week ago, leaving thousands stranded, is a reminder that financial protection for holiday-makers is not automatic, as many people assume.

If you book your holiday through a tour operator or bonded travel agent (eg ABTA) you will be rebooked, refunded or repatriated at no extra cost if your airline goes bust.

DIY travellers are on their own.

If you are thinking: "that's no prob because I used my credit card to book", think again.

Firstly, your ticket must have cost more than £100. Then, normally it is only the credit card holder who is protected - not the rest of the family/friends booked in the same transaction. Nor will the credit card company refund payments made outside the UK, so you won't be covered for the extra accommodation & tickets needed to sort yourselves out and get home. And, if the airline was not based in the UK you may not be covered anyway.

That's why the 'local' lists on Travel Lists warn: 'You may not enjoy the same level of financial security and protection if things go wrong when you book directly with an overseas company'.