Monthly Archives: October 2014

Joe’s guide to booking flights online: part 4 – flight search engines, the ugly, the good and the bad

In my first post on booking flights online I said you could never trust a single search engine for your flights, not even those who purport to search all the airlines. You do better making more searches.

In this fourth post in the series I want to give another example of how badly some search engines can get it wrong (“the ugly”) and then talk about some specific good and bad points of the various search engines available.

Auckland to Buenos Aires – going through London is ugly

Say you’ve decided to fill your late summer with delicious cuts of meat and implausibly cheesy pizza by heading from your home in Auckland to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Good call. If you jump on kayak.com, a search engine that purports to search all the airlines (and all the other search engines) you’ll be recommended this…

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Two problems with this fare:

  1. It’s British Airways, via Hong Kong and London! That’s an unnecessary trip to a whole other hemisphere and almost three times longer than the most geographically direct route.
  2. Trips across the South Pacific are seldom cheap (there’s very limited competition), but kayak is asking you to pay about $500USD more than if you went ahead and searched directly with Lan Airlines, or expedia.co.nz, for that matter.

Following the advice from my first post would have yielded you that saving. If you went further, per my third post, and looked to break the fare at intermediate stops, in this case Tahiti, you’d probably end up with further savings.

The strengths of different searchers

Much as I caution against relying on one search engine they are unavoidable tools of the trade. Knowing how to get the most of them means knowing which have particular strengths. And that’s the main purpose of this post. There are a range of search options that are fine, but do nothing special (orbitz, priceline, expedia, edreams), so I’ve left them out.

  • Kayak is generally pretty good. It has a nice feature called ‘hacker fares’ where it will suggest different airlines for different legs of your trip if that turns up a cheaper fare. It also uses an algorithm that tells you how likely the fare you are looking at is to increase, though I am pretty sure that’s rubbish. Sometimes, though, it really lets you down, like in the example above.
  • Skyscanner is generally pretty good too, and it makes less outright mistakes than kayak. One feature that is especially neat if you can search a country or even “everywhere” as your destination. This is great when you’re looking for ideas. It may be the closest thing you get to the dream we all have of walking into an airport, picking a flight from the departures board and buying a ticket. Skyscanner’s Achilles heal is that you can’t search multi-stop flights.
  • ITA Matrix is google’s product. It has the best search functionality. You can search date ranges easily and specify you’re happy with a range of airports or cities. This kind of thing is great when you’re planning a holiday and are prepared to be flexible. To get the most out of ITA you need to learn the advanced routing codes. ITA’s downside, and it is a big, bad one, is that you cannot book the fares it finds you. So you end up using it to scan the market, then search for bookable fares elsewhere. You can also try and take the routing codes to some unsuspecting travel agent. In my experience they look at you like you’ve practiced airline voodoo. There’s a 50/50 chance they can actually book the fare to which you point them.
  • Statravel genuinely offers different fares for students, teachers and young people. The different fares have different conditions, and some “youth” age brackets go as high as 32. So if that counts you it is worth a try for long haul travel. Also, for reasons I have never understood, it is the only site I know that bundles multi-stop Virgin Australia domestic trips with fares in and out of Oz.
  • Ebookers is where I often find myself booking. It has no special functionality to speak of but it seems to often offer fares that no other site does. It only quotes in pounds, which is annoying when you’re comparison shopping, but it often converts out as the cheapest option.

Two final cautions. One: always check the fare you find at any of these sites against what the airline offers on its own website. You might be surprised at how much you save. Two: these kinds of search engines take different approaches to bundling baggage fees up in their low cost carrier fares. Always check carefully over what you are actually buying.

We’re probably approaching the end of the online flight booking knowledge I can easily disperse here at this point. But please, ask me anything and I will share what I know.

A great place to be a cat

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Trabzon is a good place to be a cat for a couple of reasons.

First, there are lots of cats around. We’ve seen at least ten for every dog. There were similar proportions in Iran and we gather it is likely because dogs have historically been deemed unclean in Islam.

Secondly, it’s a big fishing town. There were lots of cats roaming around in the fish market. We followed our noses to understand why. Fishmongers leave plates of discarded fish heads and other fish junk out for local cats to enjoy. There are literally as many fish heads as they can eat. Despite the oversupply they still seem to have wee scraps with one another over particular bits. Economists might call this irrational. I suspect cats would just call it fun.

A rocking monastery

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About 1600 years ago two Greek orthodox monks found what they believed to be an icon of the Virgin Mary in a cave halfway up a massive cliff about thirty minutes drive from modern Trabzon. They thought the logical response was to construct a monastery there, and so their discovery gave root to Sumela monastery. Today the monastery still stands on an impossibly difficult site, but visitors are more likely to be tourists than monks.

My lingering question is why the monks were wandering in the cave to start with. Maybe they were looking for icons but it would have been a helluva climb (and making chocolate may have been just as prodctive). Even today, with the aid of a road and a staircase or two, the monastery is still tough to get to. And the fact that something so grand was built there is nothing short of extraordinary. It stands on a beautiful bluff, looking out over the valley. Inside, a range of frescoes are still more or less intact, though many have suffered graffiti. I guess that’s what you get for being a Christian sight in a predominantly, and at some points in history fiercely, Muslim country.

Charging ahead: we should have these at home

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On the streets of Trabzon you can put a little money in a machine and give your mobile a quick charge. In this world of smartphone that gobble up battery life all too fast, and when a dead battery significantly diminishes your enjoyment of your commute, I say these machines are an excellent development. We should have them at home. In train stations, cafes, at bus stops…

If someone could figure out an easy way to allow you to lock your phone to the machine for the duration of the charging (so you could go about your business while it charged) that would be excellent. Kthanksbye.

The colour of the Black Sea

Turns out the Black Sea is pretty well the colour of all other seas: a bluey greeny grey. False advertising. I suspect I would feel similarly resentful to the Red Sea, White Sea and Yellow Sea, should I ever have the chance to visit them.

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But Trabzon, a major Turkish port on the Black Sea coast, has been a much more pleasant surprise.

It is a compact city of 300,000 people and it rises on hills that extend right down to the rocky shoreline. That feeling of being high and by the sea is uncommon, except in New Zealand where it informs the geography for lots of our cities: Wellington, Dunedin, Nelson, Napier. Parts of Trabzon are crumbling a bit, which I guess makes Dunedin maybe the best New Zealand comparator all round.

Also, in a trend we have keenly observed, and expect to continue the further we head West, it really feels European. It is hard to put your finger on why, exactly, but the concentration of people walking the streets around the central square at night, the clothes they wear and the food they eat all contribute to the feel. The patchy grey skies probably help, too.

Quality pizza toppings: big barrier to Turkish EU membership, or biggest barrier?

I haven’t been able to find it, but I am sure that somewhere in the EU’s web of bureaucracy there are rules for acceptable pizza toppings. And I am similarly sure that Turkey doesn’t comply. That’s because I imagine they include, for example:

  • An expectation that that there is a discernible difference between “pizza sausage” and peperoni.
  • A prohibition on luncheon in place of tomato sauce.
  • A general expectation that meat products taste different from newspaper.

You might think that this concern is just a coded complaint for the absence of pork products in Turkey, or even the Muslim faith it results from. It isn’t. I’ve enjoyed very credibly pork alternatives in Malaysia, Dubai, even Pakistan.

It is simply a complaint that the pizza we had was loaded with sausage that would be only marginally acceptable to a dog. And an opportunity to poke fun at the most overbearing parts of the EU project, classically satirized by Yes Minister when Jim Hacker managed to beat back Brussels’ stipulation that British sausages instead be called the “emulsified high fat offal tube”. I fear Turkish bureaucrats would be less successful, because that’s the truth about their pizza toppings.

Pomegranates as a job hunting aid

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There are a lot of pomegranates in this part of the world. In Iran they are among the most common fruit. Before tomatoes came from the New World they were a mainstay of Iranian cuisine. One traditional dish still sees them smashed up with walnuts and served over chicken and rice. In Turkey and Pakistan they’re a little less common in the shops and markets, but they’re the kind of thing you might grow in your garden, like feijoas at home.

And they’re pretty excellent eaten straight from the tree. The small seeds taste something like a mandarin, though maybe I’m just inferring that because pealing them is a little like eating a mandarin too. Maybe green apple is a better analogy. Certainly they’re sweet and tart and fresh.

Pomegranates are also good for memory, at least so the story (and complimentary and alternative based medical community) goes. They might even be good for Alzheimer’s sufferers.

Only a year out of the workforce our memories of what we were doing and how we did it are still fairly fresh. But even we could probably use a little pomegranate to stimulate recollection of the more minor details that you might like to throw around in a cover letter or interview for colour.

The bigger point is that we have developed a serious sympathy for people trying to come back into the workforce after a longer break, like parents returning after years at home with kids, or the long term unemployed. It must be a tough process to get re-energised, and to re-engage memories about what you did when you last earned a crust. We offer a metaphorical glass of pomegranate juice to wish them well.

Yusufeli’s nice (though less like an Italian restaurant than it sounds)

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We spent a few days hanging out in Yusufeli. It’s a nice little town, spanning a waterway that’s in between brook and river, and in between babbling and raging. We’re taking things relatively slowly through Turkey, there’s no reason not to after ten months on the road, so we mooched around in our hotel a little, strolled the streets and accepted cups of tea from locals who picnicked on the riverbanks. On one walkabout we came upon an unexpected castle, and that was excellent.

Because we’ve spent a lot of time in the tropics this year, and because we’ve constantly been moving from one place to another, there have been few occasions where we have noticed a change in seasons. But it is decidedly autumnal here in Turkey. We’re enjoying the autumn colour especially, and the satisfaction of having reason to put an extra blanket on the bed.

Turkey’s pumped up on petrol tax

Generally we’ve found Turkey great value for money. Most things are between 50-60% of their cost in New Zealand and they’re often of a similar quality.

Transport is the exception. Buses between and within cities seem to be approaching New Zealand prices. The prices seem especially high because in Iran they were exceptionally low. You might reasonably expect to pay $1USD per hour of bus transport in Iran. In Turkey we pay about five times that.

Petrol prices
Source: World Bank

The price of petrol here is a big driver of costs. Per the World Bank’s most recent data, Iran is among the ten cheapest countries in the world to buy petrol. A litre will set you back about $0.33USD. Turkey on the other hand is the single most expensive with a litre here a whopping $2.54USD. For reference, in New Zealand you’ll pay a middling $1.77USD.

Exchange rates mean prices bop around a bit, and I gather Turkey may have been surpassed by Norway, the Netherlands and Italy. Factor in that the average Turk earns much less than the average Norwegian, though, and it still gets some kind of prize.

PAYE at the pump

Oil is bought and sold on a global market. Delivery costs have some minor impacts on  variation between countries but mostly it is about government policy. Some countries offer subsidies. Venezuela, for example, subsidises fuel down to a ludicrous $0.02USD/litre. Many others, including Turkey, tax petrol. When you buy a litre of fuel in Turkey about 60% of what you pay goes to the government.

These petrol taxes are not to try and reduce consumption, nor to provide dedicated funding to improve Turkey’s roads. The reason for the petrol taxes is simply that they are easy to collect, hard to evade and hard to avoid. People buy petrol under almost all eventualities, and their consumption isn’t very sensitive to price. Plus, as most of Turkey’s petrol is imported, checking tax is paid on importation is relatively easy, certainly easier than checking up on individuals’ income.

Turkey has income tax too but levels of compliance are abyssal. Something like 45% of Turkey’s national wealth is produced through the informal economy. That’s around four times higher than the EU average. Until tax compliance improves, it is unlikely that Turkey will significantly decrease its petrol taxes.

This situation isn’t great for us. As tourists we are effectively paying tax for travel that we might not if more Turks made good on their income tax obligations. That said, in a move that has probably bolstered an already booming airline industry, jet fuel is exempt from government taxes. That must be part of the explanation for why flying here is so comparatively cheap. We’re paying as little as $25USD for a one hour flight. That’s less than by bus.

Ani: the forgotten capital of Armenia

Out of Kars, on Turkey’s Eastern frontier is Ani.

Around 1000 CE Ani was capital of the Armenian empire and had inhabitants and wealth rivaling Byzantium. It stayed an important stop on the silk road when it was taken over by the Byzantines and then the Persians, Georgians and Kurds. In 1239 the Mongols turned up and, being a nomadic people who didn’t see much point in cities, cleared everyone out.

What’s left today is a collection of extraordinary ruins. Sure, Ani isn’t as old as Persepolis, or as completely preserved as Machu Picchu, but it is easily as mesmerising. Its set on a glorious expanse of steppe, and the winds that whip down from the mountains give the kind of ghostly feel you really want when you visit a deserted town.

When we visited, as  the seven of us that arrived in the mini van were the only visitors to the site. As we spread out across tracks that take three hours to circumnavigate, it really felt like we had the place to ourselves. Maybe because the structures and layout were slightly more modern, it was easier to believe that the ruins did indeed used to be a thriving trading point, and to marvel at a great city lost.

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At its height, Ani was called the city of a hundred and one churches. There certainly aren’t that many now, but the churches, and the mosques that superseded them, are the main structures that have survived a millennia or so of earthquakes and degradation. Its a testament to the faith of the people who lived there, and the care they put into constructing their religious buildings.

There’s a stream that cuts a steep gully on one side of the sight and also marks the border between Turkey and Armenia. The border is about where the iron curtain might have gathered if you’d drawn it down towards the Mediterranean sea. Through the latter half of the twentieth century the border between Turkey, a NATO member, and Armenia, a Soviet State, were on the edge of a highly miliatrised frontier.

Ani: not the only Armenian thing destroyed in Turkey

The Cold War is over, but the border remains closed and heavily guarded, because of events that predate it.

Armenians, and the overwhelming majority of historians, say that during the first world war the Ottoman Empire killed around 1.5 million Armenians as part of a programme to, one way or another, remove this economically powerful, ethnically different, and Christian minority group. This was genocide and, some claim, inspirational to Hitler in his planning of the holocaust.

Turkey maintains that, while there was an attempt to forcibly deport Armenians, deaths that occurred were not deliberate, much smaller in number, and part of a broader picture of WWI tragedy that also included the slaughter of Turks and Kurds at the hands of the Russians. Turkey vehemently denies that what occurred was genocide: claiming as much can even land you in jail.

There have been periodic efforts to normalise diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey, and they seem to have increased in frequency since Turkey got serious about joining the EU. But the whole “You killed 1.5 million of my people and I can prove it”/”Did not!” continues.

If Turkey ever manages to confront this ugly chapter in its past, I’ve got an idea of a sweetener to show some good faith to Armenia. Let the border wiggle a little so Armenia gets Ani back. And then build a border crossing alongside. Return Ani to its former glory as a way-point for great journeys, and let people cross between Turkey and Armenia again.