Travel news: hurricanes, cellphone invasions and a flyer revolt

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The world of travel can be a complex place. Sometimes it feels like travellers have to run a gauntlet of obstacles as they make their way around the world. And looking at the travel news in the past few days, it seems that things have gotten even more complex. The weather, the airlines and the border security people are throwing us enough new curves to make you wonder if travelling is really worth the trouble.

One of these stories has been in the headlines big-time, but the others have pretty much been under the radar until now. So here’s the travel news you can use for the week of September 18, 2017.

Hurricanes crash the cruise season

It’s going to be a long, hard winter for those living in many of the Caribbean islands. Hurricane Irma ravaged Cuba, Antigua, the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and a number of other islands, damaging vital infrastructure and leaving thousands homeless.

To its credit, the cruise industry, one of the region’s biggest business partners, has pitched in to help. Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Carnival cruise lines have used their ships to deliver supplies and rescue people trapped on affected islands. However, with Hurricane Maria now bearing down on the islands, the prospect of anything like a Storm at the beach normal cruising season this year is doubtful at best.

So far, the ports of St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Tortola and Key West are closed indefinitely; when they’ll reopen  is anyone’s guess. On the good side, some major ports came through Hurricane Irma with little or no damage and are open — at least for now. These include San Juan, Havana, Grand Turk, Nassau and Freeport in the Bahamas, Labadee in Haiti and most, if not all, the private islands the cruise lines use for their beach days. All the Mexican ports are in good shape, and the eastern Florida ports are operating at full speed.

However, as I write this post, Hurricane Maria is threatening some of the same islands that were hit by Hurricane Irma — it hit Dominica last night with catastrophic force. So things could change again once it has blown through. So far, the cruise lines have managed to keep some cruises in the water by rerouting them to islands that are still open for business. Norwegian has shifted some eastern Caribbean cruises to the western Caribbean, while Royal Caribbean and Carnival have also rerouted several of their cruises. But the situation is still changing day by day.

If you’re booked for a fall or winter cruise, you’ve likely already checked with your cruise line so see how it will be affected. But keep checking: it’s quite possible there could be further changes. And if you’re tempted by the cheap prices being offered on Caribbean cruises right now, take a close look at the itinerary before you book. While the ports may be open, the islands you visit may not resemble the Caribbean paradise you envision. National parks and the other sites cruisers like to visit have been flattened in some places. So make some inquiries if you’re still intent on cruising this winter.

Now they want into your cellphone

The U.S. government caused an uproar early this year when it forced air passengers flying from several majority Muslim countries to put their laptops in their checked baggage. But until now, there hasn’t been much publicity over another controversial policy, and one that’s far more intrusive: the practice of U.S. border officers delving into people’s cellphones and other devices when they enter the country.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has just launched a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security protesting the practice. The suit notes that there were 15,000 searches in the first six months of 2017, up significantly from the same period in 2015 and 2016. In some cases cellphones have been seized and held for weeks or months; a filmmaker returning from Canada was manhandled when he resisted giving up his phone. The ACLU wants to require that the border service have a warrant based on probable cause before it seizes or pokes its nose into someone’s device.

Meanwhile, the move to expand the carry-on laptop ban seems to have ended, since Homeland Security devised new, more rigorous security measures for airports and airlines to use. So far, several airlines have instituted the measures and gotten a reprieve from the ban. In time, all the major airlines are expected to comply — thank heavens for small mercies.

Basic economy backfiring

As I reported in a January post, the major U.S. airlines have come up with another way to make flying an ordeal: the basic economy seat. That’s like a regular economy seat, only you don’t get to bring a regular-sized carry-on, choose your seat or buy an upgrade. In the case of United Airlines, you don’t even get access to the overhead bin — talk about being aAn airplane seat diagram from the Seatguru website third-class citizen.

This pricing gimmick rolled out across the U.S. this year, but according to the travel news from industry site Skift and other sources, it’s been a bumpy start. Aside from widespread criticism from flyers who already feel squeezed in a regular economy seat, it turned out that these seats provided skimpy savings. As I predicted, they were really no cheaper than regular fares — they just allowed the airlines to raise those fares so basic economy looked cheaper. In some cases, things went awry and they were actually more expensive than a regular seat.

Significantly, though, the latest travel news indicates that the airlines are starting to feel the squeeze as well. Reports say that United Airlines found the basic economy ploy was actually driving customers to other carriers, costing it more than it was making. The airline is now reducing the number of domestic flights with this type of pricing. The news is not all good, however: American is reportedly expanding its basic economic program and may apply it to international flights.

Basic economy? Haven’t we suffered enough? Just say no.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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