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Rrrrrrrracing in Finland!!

Speed! Power! Adrenaline! Action!

None of those words really applied to the racing event I went to on Saturday February 10th, 2018.

Mind you, while the speeds don’t get up to formula 1 standards and the power doesn’t match up to drag racing cars, it’s actually really a lot of fun to see all the racers go round. Everyone was really friendly and some teams made efforts to put some humor into their lawn mowers or outfits ūüôā

On that day I attended the 12 hour Snow Lawn Mower Race, which was part of the Baltic Cup. That’s right, a 12 hour race that started at 9 am. Which means that there are people that are pretty serious about this thing! I wasn’t so serious about it though so I wasn’t getting out of bed at 6 am on a Saturday morning to make the 3 hour drive from where I live to Lavia, where the race took place on a frozen lake, mostly because I had a long day and a late night just before.

Baltic Cup Snow Lawn Mower Racing in Lavia, on the frozen Karhijärvi lake

On the frozen Karhijärvi lake to be precise, at the end of Susiniementie road. One of the more than 187,888 lakes in Finland larger than 500 square metres (5,400 sq ft). This one near the town of Lavia, a good example of a quaint little town like so many others in the country, more or less in the middle between the bigger cities Pori and Tampere.

From the air the track looked like this :

Bird's-eye view of the track

Bird’s-eye view of the track

The organization for the lawn mower race was pretty good, there was a seating arrangement and food for sale on site. And when I emailed them with some questions they answered quickly and politely. It shows that Lawn Mower Racing Finland has done this before.

Anyhow, on to the pictures!

I didn’t spend all day at the event as I went on to Pori and N√§rpes and had to make it to a dinner reservation in the evening. But another photographer, Joe Szpara, seems to have been there the whole day and has uploaded a whopping 544 pictures of the event to a Facebook album. So head on over there if you want to see more.

And for some video, head on over to the page of DriveTribe, who seem to have picked up footage that was made at the event, compiling moments from start to finish. And of course YouTube is full of clips too of course!

If you missed this occasion, don’t worry, you can attend more races on¬†12/5/2018 in Kose (Estonia), 16/06/2018 in Stelpe (Latvia), 20/10/2018 in Ristiina (Finland).

And if that doesn’t do it for you but you feel more like exciting sports like wife carrying, swamp soccer or beer floating, than here’s a page for you to check out!

Clearly, when you visit Finland there are plenty of opportunities to attend a crazy event ūüôā

Visa trouble

When travelling you will be met with countries for which¬†you need to have a visa to be able to enter the country. Usually these are valid for 1 to 3 months or just the duration of your stay. I’m talking about the regular tourist visas here, not work and diplomatic visas.

Depending on the relations between your home country and the country you want to visit, you may be able to get a visa on arrival. If not, you need to get one upfront. For this you will have to work with the embassy or consulate of the country you want to visit.

You can check here to see for which countries you need a visa. However always make sure and check other sources as well as information can be outdated. Ultimately you can check with the embassy/consulate of your home country.

Be aware of the difference between single and multiple entry visas. If you plan to visit a country and stay inside that country until you leave again, you only need a single entry visa. This is cheaper than a multiple entry visa, which you will need if you plan on entering the country, leaving it again to visit another country, and then coming back to the first country. In my case I need a multiple entry visa as during my stay in Vietnam I will exit the country to go to Korea for several days.

Embassy vs consulate

What is the difference between an embassy and a conulate? Well, there are differences for sure. And I don’t want to bore people too much with details. But here are a few points:

  • an embassy is the place where the ambassador to another country is located
  • the embassy is responsible for all official communications between the foreign and hosting country
  • an embassy often has a consulate in it. This is what confuses some people. Often a consulate is housed inside the embassy to reduce costs. It’s cheaper to have just 1 building for both embassy and consulate together than to have 2 separate buildings.
  • it is actually the consulate who deals with matters of visas
  • a host country can have multiple consulates, but only 1 embassy

I guess those are the most important parts for the average traveller. But honestly the difference is not really important as you will most likely be dealing with the consular section without fully realizing it. Even if you are inside an embassy.

Visa trouble

Vietnam_visa_1

A Vietnamese visa

Now why am I telling you this? Well, I had some issues with my Vietnamese visa. The embassy is pretty far away from where I live and there is no consulate nearby either. So I had to send them the application, passport etc via post. According to them procesing would take just 5 days. However I had to wait much longer and I finally got my visa just 4 days before leaving (I sent it 15 days before departure). Much to my dismay, upon checking (ALWAYS CHECK!) I noticed that they made a mistake. The visa specified entry and exit months which were exactly 1 month later than my actual trip. This was frustrating because I had communicated with them several times, mentioning the exact dates and  had checked my visa application form carrefully before sending it in.

Unfortunately, with just 4 days left before leaving (really actually just 3¬†and a half as half a day had already past when I got my passport back) there was no time to send the whole thing back by post to¬†have it corrected. It also didn’t help that the Vietnamese embassy was closed for 2 days for a Vietnamese official holiday. And the third day it was closed due to an official holiday in the hosting country (Finland). I tried reaching out to the embassy but I could not get hold of them of course. I was finally able to reach one person, who tried to be very helpful. But as this turned out to be a dead end I won’t go into that here.

Online visa service

And so we come to the reason why I make this post. But let met first say the following:

I do not work for and am not associated with the service I will speak about. I have not been paid or otherwise incentivized to write about it. I am writing this for people who may be in a situation like me and have concerns using an online visa service.

Ok, so I have little time, an incorrect visa and the only option left for me is to now get a visa on arrival. To do that, for Vietnam, one needs a “letter of approval”. It looks like this:

Visa_approval_letter_sample

Vietnamese letter of approval

It is very normal for you to see your full name, date of birth, nationality and passport number among several other people. The reason being that agencies request visas in bulk. If you do not want this for privacy reasons, you will have to request a visa upfront with the embassy/consulate.

Here is the issue: I had to work, I couldn’t reach the embassy at first and before I knew it another day was gone. Only just over 2 days were left now before leaving. However getting a letter of approval the standard way takes 2 days by itself. And if you know a little bit about Vietnamese government agencies, you know that you can’t rely on that time frame 100% ūüėČ

So I turned to an online service that offers a rushed visa (really a letter of approval). There are various online places where you can get a visa. And there are several scams among them. I chose one that looked reliable, https://www.vietnamimmigration.com, and started a hasty check.

Vietnamimmigration.com site

Vietnamimmigration.com site

First, a quick Google search like “is <site> safe to use” or “is <site> a scam” turns up mixed results¬†with pages of people asking the same question without getting an answer.

Then I checked if the site was listed as a scam, to do that, I used a site called Scamadviser. At the time of writing the result (http://www.scamadviser.com/check-website/vietnamimmigration.com) had a high trust rating of 93%. I made sure to also drill a bit deeper and checked the site details. Information about the site owner had been hidden, but this is not uncommon.

scamadviser.com site

scamadviser.com site

I performed the same check for http://www.vietnam-immigration.org.vn which also scored a 93% and looks to be registered and owned by the Vietnamese government. However I chose for the American service because they offered a secure connection (https) and were also just a little bit cheaper.

For comparison, at the time of writing, the scam site thbn.co.uk had a high risk / 0% trust rating. Which is a good result as it is a real scam site. Scamadviser seems to work.

Next I sent an email to their info@ address to see if they would reply quickly and professionally. I have to say that they did just that. I received a reply within minutes and after explaining my situation they assured me that they could help. From that point on communication was quick, clear and to the point. I got more confidence in the service at this point and went with it. There were a few delays because I was working but all together I think the whole process took less than half an hour from first contact to the finalized request. (I did the request all by mail, I did not use the online form on their page)

I opted for a “rushed” service which meant I got the approval letter the next morning, it costs a bit extra but I didn’t have the luxury of waiting. There was another even faster rushing option that would get me the letter of approval in just a few hours, but it was more expensive and I didn’t need it that fast. The prices¬†are listed on this page.

After finalizing the request I got sent a payment link which used the onepay.com service. This is a trustworthy site, so I paid the fee and got a confirmation mail sent to me. Now all I had to do was wait until the next morning. I would get sent the letter of approval before 8:15AM the next day. They said that if I did not receive the letter, I should contact them.

Well, I did not get the letter. I waited a bit longer, I gave it about half an hour more. Then I sent them an email saying that I did not receive the letter.¬†Again¬†I got a quick reply, saying I should¬†wait a bit longer. So I did, as it was all I could do. And then, 2 hours later, I got an email containing the letter of approval as well as the form that needs to be handed over to the immigration officers at the Vietnamese airport. It is good to fill this out up front and have it ready. These forms are available at the airport immigration service. But why waste time and effort filling it out there if you can do it in a relaxed manner at home ūüôā

Be aware that you need to print out this letter of approval and you need to hand it over to the immigration service at the airport to make a valid visa on arrival request. In some cases they even ask to show the letter of approval when boarding the plane. So it is best to have it at hand. Colour print is good, but black and white poses no problem.

You can only get a visa on arrival at the three major airports in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Da Nang. If you want to enter Vietnam over land you must get a visa upfront!

Anyway. All I have to deal with now is packing, charging batteries, preparing a number of electronics, a GoPro that has the “helicopter sound” issue (I already had one returned, the new one has the same issue) and then I’m off to enjoy some ¬†sun!

Hanoi, Phu Quoc, Korea, Jeju, Sapa and other places: here I come ūüôā

As always: happy travels!

TravelTom where are you?

When I see this picture I took of my camera with my phone, I think two things:

  1. That is why you buy a more expensive camera with decent build quality and sealing
  2. I miss travelling like this so much

I took this picture when arriving in Lone Ton in Myanmar after a 41 kilometer (25.5 miles) trip from Hopin on the back of a motorbike. There is only one dirt road crossing the mountains that links the two towns. I took that road together with people I met along the way, during which I took pictures and video of the scenery and my fellow travellers riding  along on the other motorbikes.

To the best of my Google Maps road measuring capabilities, this is the road from Hopin to Lone Ton measured out. Lone Ton is is on the upper left, Hopin on the lower right.

Road from Hopin to Lone Ton

Road from Hopin to Lone Ton

The ride looks something like this. This is on the flats, you can see some of the mountains up ahead.

I also spent some time pushing the motorbike up hill, as the one that I was getting a ride on had some issue and was underpowered. So it did not do well up hill. Which is kind of important when you need to cross a mountain ūüėČ These things happen and you just have to take them in stride, don’t get angry or upset about it. Just deal with it when it happens.

As you can see, it’s no wonder my trusty Canon 5D Mark II ended up looking like it did. I still have it to this day, although I don’t use it much anymore as I bought a Mark III. But it works just fine, and looks a lot cleaner now ūüėČ

I’m making this post¬†because I miss travelling. I miss having the unknown ahead of me, the discoveries I make, the people I meet, the conversations I have, the lessons I learn about a country, a culture and myself. I even miss having a face so full of dirt after getting from point A to point B that it looks like you have a unibrow. Point in case:

Dirty-_face_TT

It’s not like I didn’t travel since my last post here. In fact many things happened. The biggest one being that I moved to another country and started a new life with a new job. I travelled to the Czech Republik twice, the U.K., Germany, Vietnam, The Netherlands, France and Portugal. I also travelled inside the country I now live in and of course to my home country, which recently suffered a terrorist attack. Aside from travelling I am studying a lot these days for both work and a new language to better deal with my new social environment and integrating.

Life has been crazy since last posting here, but mostly in a good way. And now that things are slowly settling down, I can get back to making new posts every now and then.

Now here’s some good news. I still have a lot of pictures and videos that I haven’t posted yet. And I have made more during the time I didn’t post here.

But best of all, I will soon be on a 5 week vacation and I’ll be heading to Vietnam and Korea, and¬†maybe¬†Japan if time and money allows for it. So there will be more stories and pictures coming from those places as well.

Times are still pretty busy so posts won’t be coming very quickly or one after the other. I just want to let you know that TravelTom is not dead, it was just sleeping ūüôā

Have a nice day all, see you in the next post and keep travelling ūüôā

Is it safe to travel to Paris?

Personally

I would say yes. But the truth is that this is a very hard question to answer.

What kind of safety?

Wikipedia defines safety as: “Safety is the state of being “safe” (from French sauf), the condition of being protected against physical, social, spiritual, financial, political, emotional, occupational, psychological, educational or other types or consequences of failure, damage, error, accidents, harm or any other event which could be considered non-desirable.”

That’s a whole list of things! Let’s take accidents for example.

Paris has a lot of traffic. It’s not like in many¬†Southeast Asian countries mind you, but driving on the¬†p√©riph√©rique, especially at rush hour, is not for the faint of heart. Yours truly¬†has personal experience with this after getting hit by a truck changing lanes. Though as¬†most tourists don’t drive in Paris, traffic safety is probably not what you’re thinking about.

Source: http://www.hdrshooter.net/

Source: http://www.hdrshooter.net/

Looking at that list again there appear to be a number of types of safety that can be measured relatively well. The¬†police has statistics on physical and traffic safety, the government has numbers on social safety and the banks will try to convince you of financial safety. But I’m sure those things are still not what you’re looking for when you read the title of this article: is it safe to travel to Paris?

Here’s the thing

The type of safety people are thinking of is “perceived safety”. A situation that one person perceives as safe can feel unsafe to another. This all depends on the age, personal or group status, gender, ethnicity, personal physique, time of day, being alone or not, travel experience and knowledge of the city, it’s history and culture.

You’re not going to answer the question… are you?

Of course I am. I just want you to know that there is no clear answer to the question and opinions may differ.

Although it may be difficult to measure this “safety”, that doesn’t mean people don’t try. People are people and they love numbers! And so do the people at Numbeo. According to themselves they are: “the world‚Äôs largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide” and they “provide current and timely information on world living conditions including cost of living, housing indicators, health care, traffic, crime and pollution”.

They keep an updated list of the Crime Index Rate¬†per city (not all cities in the world are included). This may not sound like what we need. But the opposite of their crime index rate is the safety index rate. And that sounds a lot closer to a number we’re looking for!

Their algorythm for calculating these¬†numbers is of course not ideal, but probably as close to anything else we’ll get. And they base it on:¬†the crime level, increase/decrease in crime, daytime safety, night time safety, burglaries, robberies, car theft, car robbery, attacks, insults, racism, drug issues, propety crimes, violent crimes and corruption.

That is another list that involves some personal ideas and feelings when it comes to safety. But by crowd sourcing the data things should level out.

How does Paris score on the Safety Index Rate?

The safety index rate for Paris is, at writing, 44,84.

That doesn’t sound like much does it? To put things in perspective, Rome scores lower with 44,02 on the index and Rotterdam falls down to 42,72.Brussels scores only slightly higher with 47,15, Amsterdam goes up to 66,86 but Munich¬†seems to knock it out of the park with a safety index rating of 85,67!

Having been to all those places myself, I can say that the order of safety does seem rather correct to me but the differences are far too big. I would agree that Paris feels somewhat less safe to me than Munich, but not necessarily less than Brussels.

Again, feelings are subjective and the Numbeo index rating does not aim to be a purely objective one. So make of it what you will.

What makes Paris unsafe?

Exactly the same as what makes any other city in the world unsafe. Crime is everywhere and goes from petty theft to white collar and everything in between. Stealing, muggnig, violence, drugs, … it happens everywhere. It’s simply more noticeable in larger populations. And with about 2,5 million people living in it, Paris is a large city. A group of people that large has a bit of everything, rich, poor, sane, crazy, locals, immigrants, employed, unemployed and all of those people have different backgrounds, religions and beliefs. It makes for one interesting meting pot out of which anything can rise up. Any kind of crime but just as well great art.

And isn’t that just the issue? You don’t know. You as a tourist don’t know the situation, people, areas, … This is enough to make anyone feel somewhat unsafe already. But not to worry. Although Parisians¬†are seen as unfriendly I have never had any problem getting help from a local. As anywhere in the world, a friendly face and a smile will get you quite far!

Unfortunately not everyone has good intentions, so …

Things to look out for

Pickpocket-Signs

  • As with all cities, it’s usually more safe in the city center than in the suburbs (banlieus). If you want to check out the suburbs you should take a local with you or if you do it alone than you should do it in the daytime
  • Use common sense and don’t wear expensive jewelry, easy to snatch bags, cameras or other devices. Especially at night and in places like the subway (m√©tro)
  • ¬†If you carry a bag, keep it closed and close to your body. Don’t let it hang on one shoulder as that makes it easier to snatch. Put the strap over your head so that it runs across your chest
  • If you sit down next to the door on the subway don’t put your bag right next to the door. Thieves can take the bag at the last second when the doors close and you’ll be riding off while your bag is going another way
  • Be wary of people in and around the subway. Especially the ones close to you. Try to avoid letting people pass through¬† turnstiles with you (Paris m√©tro uses a door mechanism). It’s often a ruse to pick your pockets in the confusion
  • Don’t speak loudly on the subway. You’re making it rather clear that you are a tourist. Parisians tend to speak with a somewhat lower voice while commuting.
  • Using a (tourist) map is of course another way of advertising yourself as a tourist. Figure out where to go before you actually use the subway. And when you are in the subway there are maps on the walls and the stops are indicated inside the subway cars just like anywhere else. You can glance at them to check where you are but try not to look like you’re studying them
  • If it’s late and you don’t feel like taking the subway (it can feel rather daunting when you’re alone on the platform and a few strange characters show up) arrange for a taxi to pick you up. More expensive but you’ll have peace of mind
  • Don’t bring things you don’t need. I have heard of many tourists losing their passports for example and one of the things I keep thinking is “why did you have your passport with you in the first place?”. Leave things in the hotel safe (or another safe place). They can’t steal what you don’t bring.
  • Be wary around ATM machines. Check the machine you are using for skimming equipment BEFORE putting your card in and cover the numeric pad when entering your pin code. Take out the cash and put it away quickly
  • For that matter, be wary of using your debit/credit card anywhere. If you need to give your card make sure you can see how they use it to avoid your card being copied and keep a list of places where you used the card
  • Stay alert at big sightseeing spots where lots of people hang around. Obviously the Eiffel tower but also inside the Louvre! You wouldn’t think it but because children get into the museum for free a lot of “little thieves” roam the place. In fact the problem became so big that in 2013 the Louvre guards went on strike in order to try and get more staff to combat the issue.

I think this covers the basics and they all fall into the “common sense” category.

There two special ruses to look out for in Paris. Perhaps they are used somewhere else too, but I know from personal experience that they are being used in Paris.

  • “Sign the petition”
    You know those people with clipboards, coming up to you in the street and start chatting you up, trying to convince you to sign up, usually for a good cause. Obviously Paris has them too. And though a lot of them are actually for a good cause this scheme is being abused. Mostly younger women and men. If you sign up the money will never reach the advertised good cause. Instead it will be used for illegal purposes. If the person with the clipboard is not at least wearing a jacket or t-shirt with the logo of said organisation, there’s a high chance you’re getting tricked. Keep walking, wave them away or pretend you don’t speak English (or French for that matter).
  • Ring
    Two options here – ether someone “finds” a ring on the ground and asks you if it is your ring. You will probably say it is not. The person “finding” the ring comments on the ring, mentioning it’s beauty and quality and whatnot. Since it’s not your ring and the finder doesn’t need it or can’t return it (no inscriptions on the ring) the finder will offer it to you for a good price. Don’t be fooled, any price is too high as it’s just a cheap fake ring.
    The second option is similar but the ring is offered to you for good luck. If you put the ring on your finger to try it on the finder will accuse you of stealing it.
    In short: don’t accept jewelry from strangers! Just keep walking ūüôā

If you are a victim of any of those or other crimes, do go to the police to report the crime. You may not ever see your stuff again but at least the future statistics will reflect a more accurate crime incidents number ūüėČ If you do not like to take a trip to the police station or if you don’t have the time you can file an online complaint.

Je suis Charlie

je-suis-charlie

Of course this article could not be written without mentioning the terrorist attacks. I won’t write about the attacks themselves. This is not the place for that and unless you’ve been living under a rather large rock lately you will have heard about it through just about any and every media channel.

The relation to this article is safety. Do the recent attacks make Paris less safe to visit? One could argue that it makes Paris more safe to visit now in the post-attack phase as everyone and every force is on high alert. This can’t always be the case and after enough time has passed everything will be back to how things were before.

Aside from the Safety Index Rate there is the Global Terrorism Index by the Institude for Economics and Peace. You can download the 2014 report here.

Click to go to an interactive global terrorism map

Click to go to an interactive global terrorism map

This index lists France at number 56 out of 124 countries with a score of 2.76.

Terrorist attacks have happened in far more cities than most people are aware of. But we only remember the big ones, or more correctly, the ones most talked about in the media. Paris just had it’s own terrorist attacks and you may ask if it’s less safe now. You could also ask if New York (9/11, 2001), London (bombings, 2005) or Boston (marathon, 2013) are less safe. in fact you could ask that question about all the 31 places where terrorist attacks happened in 2014. 31 is a lot more than we know of, simply because most of them do not happen in the Western world. And those are the ones people were bothered to list on Wikipedia. The Global Terrorism Index 2014 report states that in 2014 there were 2.491 attacks and that 80% of all terrorisk attacks happen in just 5 countries.

What’s important to remember is that terrorist attacks are carried out by terrorists. These days many people are quick to say it’s muslims who are the terrorists. But just like the¬†Ku Klux Klan doesn’t represent all white or catholic people, Islamic terrorists do not represent all Arabs or Muslims. Terrorists abuse their religion as an excuse to murder others in order to force their ideas onto the world.

You may or may not have seen this image going around, but it sums it up nicely :

Ku_Klux_Klan

By far most people, of any faith, are just normal people trying to make a life. Don’t let the small minority who gets the attention in a negative way fool you into thinking otherwise ūüôā

In conclusion!

My opinion has remained the same. Paris is, like any other regular city and if you travel there with some common sense, a safe destination. There is no reason why you should not go there. The food is good, the atmosphere is romantic, the people helpful (well, most of them anyway ūüėČ ) and there are a lot of cultural and sightseeing activities! You won’t be bored or regret your visit to this beautiful city and go home with fond memories ūüôā

By far the worst thing about Paris … are the prices ūüėČ

MH17 is not alone. Commercial flights that got shot down

The world was shocked to learn that Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine. ¬†A big enough plane crash always makes the headlines. However the violent method involved in MH17’s crash is what people talk about most now and will remember for a long time. But how long will the world¬†remember?

Not the first time

Do you remember any other commercial flights that have been shot down? Because, unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time something like this happened. The good news is that it doesn’t happen often.¬†Including MH17 I’ve found 6 flights that have been shot down. And one of them is a very special case that the world seems to have forgotten …

4 October 2001 – Siberia Airlines Flight 1812

The plane left from Tel Aviv and was heading to Novosibirsk. It crashed in the Black Sea, not that far from where MH17 crashed. Because it happened just a month after the 9/11 attacks it was suspected to be a terrorist attack by Chechen rebels. The following investigation showed that this was not the case. It found that the flight was shot down by accident during a Ukrainian military training exercise.

A drone had been launched and the point of the exercise was to shoot it down using an S-200 surface-to-air missile (SAM). However, at the same time of launching the S-200 an S-300¬†SAM had been launched. The S-300 destroyed the drone, so the S-200 continued it’s flight. Instead of self destructing, the S-200 locked on to flight 1812 and ultimately destroyed it. All 66 passengers and 12 crew members perished.

29 September 1998¬†–¬†Lionair Flight LN 602

You may remember Lionair from the previous post. It was a Lionair flight that ended up in the water while attempting to land in Bali. Luckily nobody died during that crash.

The 48 passengers and 7 crew on board LN602 weren’t so lucky. The plane left¬†Jaffna Airport in the North of Sri Lanka and was heading to¬†Ratmalana Airport in the South West of the same country. Sri Lanka is a small country and the Antonov AN-24 wasn’t a huge plane. So it didn’t need to climb to great heights.

Since the beginning it was suspected that Tamil rebels had shot down the flight. Initial reports also state this, however technically this event is still under investigation. The rebels had sent a letter to the airline office at Jaffna airport saying that if the airline did not stop carrying military personnel they would shoot down a plane. The letter was ignored, as it was believed to have come from a competitor.

Sadly the rebels kept their word and the plane was shot down using a shoulder-launched SAM (MANPADS). This is not a hugely powerful rocket with a long reach. But as it was a smaller plane that didn’t fly very high, it was sufficient.

Example of a MANPAD system

Example of a MANPAD system

Even though this event occurred in 1998, the wreckage of the plane was only discovered in 2012.

1 September 1983 – Korean Air Lines Flight 007

A¬†Boeing 747 carrying 269 passengers from New York to Seoul was shot down by a Soviet¬†Sukhoi Su-15. Russians? Yes, the flight had a stopover in¬†Anchorage, Alaska. After leaving Anchorage it’s incorrect¬†flight path put had put the plane¬†in Soviet¬†air space. Prohibited airspace as it turns out. As this was in the cold war era it didn’t help that the U.S. was doing a¬†reconnaissance mission in the area at the time or that the Soviets were performing missile tests on the same day as the flight.

The official flight path was correct and outside of Soviet air spave. But the plane was far off course due to pilot error or because of incorrect use of the autopilot system. It was spotted by the Soviet Union but because of some problems it wasn’t caught before it got back over neutral waters. The Soviets however decided that because the flight had crossed into the prohibited zone it should be shot down. Even if it was back over neutral waters, and worse, without checking if it was a civilian plane.

Korean Air flight 007 – planned and actual flight path

Like with MH17 there was much politics involved. The Soviet Union first denied they had anything to do with the shooting. Then they stated that they shot down the plane, but that they were provoked by the U.S. deliberately to test their defenses and preparedness, and that the plane was a spy plane. The U.S. from their side blamed the Soviet Union of obstructing the investigation and hiding evidence, mainly the black boxes. The black boxes were finally handed over in 1993!

In a 1991 interview the Sukhoi SU-15 pilot said¬†“I saw two rows of windows and knew that this was a Boeing. I knew this was a civilian plane. But for me this meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use…”

27 June 1980¬†–¬†Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870

The remains of Itavia Airlines flight 870 in an aircraft hangar in Rome

The remains of Itavia Airlines flight 870 in an aircraft hangar in Rome

This one was an internal flight in Italy and a bit of a mystery. The Italians say it was shot down by a missile launched from a French navy airplane. But this was never really proven. There was no final report of the investigation and so all the Italians have is a claim.

Aside from some conspiracy theories there are also a few real theories that the investigators came up with. One of them was a terrorist bombing, another was a missile strike during training exercise and lastly a missile strike during a military operation.

In 1994 the British and Italians performed a joint investigation and found serious evidence that a bomb had exploded in the rear lavatory. They also found some evidence for an outside explosion. So, all in all, the case has been archived with no real conclusive report. As with all the incidents, none of the 77 passengers and 4 crew survived.

24 March 1968 – Aer Lingus Flight 712

Flight 712 may not belong in this list because the final reports concluded that the Vickers Viscount carrying 57 passengers and 4 crew crashed due to structural failure or a bird strike. Though initially it was suspected that the flight from Cork to London was shot down by a British experimental missile.

Over the years different people have come forward with different stories. Some claim to have evidence that it was in fact shot down by a missile. Another person claims that the plane was hit by another plane which was sent to check the landing gear which failed to lock into position.

3 July 1988 –¬†Iran Air Flight 655

So far we’ve been going from more recent to old incidents. But this one was worth keeping for last. This flight from¬†Tehran to¬†Dubai carrying 275 passengers and 15 crew was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf.

The USS Vincennes

The USS Vincennes

This time it was the Americans who did the shooting. What makes this one different is that they made an ugly mess of things. The U.S. tried to cover it up, lied in reports, lied in statements, lied about the flight transponder frequencies (military vs civilian mode), lied about the plane’s actions and tried to blame the pilot. The truth came out in the form of a 53 page report which found¬†that nearly all the initial details about the incident¬†to put all the blame on Iran Air‚Äôs pilot were wrong. To make things worse, the Vincennes was in Iranian waters when they fired the missile. When asked at the time they lied about that as well and stated the ship was in international waters.

Nevertheless, two years after the incident the captain of the¬†Vincennes received the¬†Legion of Merit ‚Äúfor exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service‚ÄĚ. An apology from the U.S. never came. Even worse, George Bush senior who was Vice President at the time, and trying to run for president, said in his campaign ‚ÄúI will never apologize for the United States – I don‚Äôt care what the facts are.‚ÄĚ

It was only in 1996 that president Bill Clinton’s office expressed deep regret for what happened, but still not an apology. They said¬†“…the United States recognized the aerial incident of 3 July 1988 as a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the loss of lives caused by the incident…”. ¬†Furthermore the United States did not¬†admit legal liability but did pay¬†$131.8 million in compensation, of which $61.8 million went¬†to the victims‚Äô families. In exchange, Tehran agreed to drop its case against the United States in the International Court of Justice.

And others …

While researching I found 25 flights that fall into the category of commercial flights having been shot down. The earliest one being in 1940 which was a flight from Tallinn to Helsinki. Almost all of the incidents have in common that they happened during war time or over a conflict zone. And they all got shot down by the military by accident, or by rebels on purpose.

If there is anything to learn from this unfortunate history it’s that it’s a bad idea for civilian flights to be anywhere near a conflict zone. When the two collide, lives tend to get lost.

Still no reason to be afraid of flying!

In Belgium the number of calls to help lines for fear of flying have doubled due to the recent incidents. But as mentioned in the previous article, flying is still the safest way to travel. Airlines generally avoid flying over conflict areas.

MH17 did fly over a conflict area, but outside (above) restricted air space. In the previous days more than 70 flights flew the same path as MH17 did. On the same day a¬†Singapore Airlines plane was at the same spot just¬†two minutes before MH17 was attacked¬†and six Heathrow flights were among 55 planes over Donetsk on same day. Any of those flights could have been the one that got shot down. It’s sad to say, MH17 was very unlucky.

It should be noted that most of the 25 incidents that came up happened somewhere in the Middle East or Africa. These areas have more conflict zones and uncontrolled rebels, militia or just military. This increases the chances of something bad happening.

But by far most flights go just as planned, taking off and landing without issue. Getting people to their vacation spots, business places and families unharmed, perhaps just slightly annoyed by the long flight or neighbour passenger ūüôā

So book that flight, go and as always, enjoy!

Is 2014 the year of the plane crashes?

What’s going on?

I can’t answer that question. I’m not part of the Air Crash Investigation team. But I can tell you that this will not be an article detailing what happened to the MH370, MH17, GE222 or AH5017 flights. There are enough articles, ongoing stories, speculations and conspiracy theories about those four¬†incidents all over the internet which you can easily find should you be interested. With this article I will attempt to shed some light on why 2014 seems to be such a bad year when it comes to commercial airline¬†incidents.

This article handles commercial airline incidents. In 2013 a total of 138 plane crashes happened, but just 12 of those were commercial flights.

So, is 2014 the year of the plane crashes?

It certainly seems to feel that way. First Malaysian Airlines MH370 disappears, then Malaysian Airlines MH17 gets shot down, shortly after TransAsia flight GE222 crashed due to bad weather and the very next day AH5017 crashes, also believed due to bad weather though this is still being investigated.

However, the short answer to the question is: no. Continue reading

Russia moves to permanent winter time

We all think of cold and winter when we think of Russia anyway, right? So why not just have winter time all year round?

Spasskaya Tower clock tower at the Kremlin

Actually, the entire country has been on summer time since 2011. Back then,¬†former President Dmitry Medvedev decided to stick to summer time to reduce the number of time zones in Russia. By eliminating winter time the number of zones went from 11 to 9. Eleven time zones is a lot for one country. But then again Russia isn’t just any slab of land, it’s the world’s largest country that¬†stretches across 10,000 km (6,200 miles) with northernmost reaches which see less than an hour of sunlight a day during the winter months.

But the move to constant summer time proved to be an unpopular one.¬†According to law makers, Medvedev’s permanent summer time policy caused stress and health issues for many Russians, especially those who lived in northern Russia. Medical studies showed an increase in morning road accidents in 2012 compared to previous years.

So a bill was introduced to revert the changes and move to permanent winter time. The votes were cast and the bill was approved. The actual change will happen in October. On the 26th to be precise, that’s¬†when most European countries will end Daylight Saving Time. The country will move the clock back for 1 hour and go back to 11 time zones.

By doing this Moscow time¬†will go from¬†UTC+4 to UTC+3, moving it 1 hour closer to many western European countries. And that’s good for business.

For travellers this means that they should keep one eye at the clock on October the 26th 2014. If you have a bus, train, airline, or any other kind of ticket you best mind the time. Better be an hour early than an hour late, as the clocks will be moved back, not forward!

Have a nice trip, don’t be late!

Venezuela, flights to Caracas suspended. But why?

To start off with, it’s not because the airlines are trying to annoy you. They are protecting their business interest and possibly writing off millions of dollars. As usual, it’s all about the money …

US dollars and Venezuelan bolivars

US dollars and Venezuelan bolivars

It all started with former President Hugo Chávez. In 2003 he initiated currency control measures in order to prevent capital flight. Capital flight just means that a lot of money is flowing abroad, leaving less money inside the country itself. The reason why this was happening was devaluation of the Venezuelan Bolivar (VEF). Since the currency control measures have been put into place, the Bolivar was devalued 5 more times. Which is kind of sad, because the Bolivar has been the strongest currency in the region for a long time.

To put it blunt, the local currency isn’t worth much anymore now. Much like in Cambodia, the American Dollar, which is a lot more stable, is worth a lot more. Theoretically this shouldn’t be a problem because every currency has an exchange rate. But as any traveller will know, there are always multiple exchange rates. And the one that is very interesting for the Venezuelans now is the black market.

So let’s get to the core of the issue, and explain this in a very basic way:

Officially –¬†1 USD is worth 6.3VEF
Unofficially –¬†1 USD is worth 73VEF

So people are flooding to the black markets to sell their dollars. And how do they get those dollars? They buy flight tickets to the US, get as many dollars as they can and fly back to sell them on the black market. This¬†maneuver is known as “el raspadito” or “the scrape”, because everyone is scraping to get a flight ticket/dollars. It’s even possible for Venezuelans¬†to go on holiday for free this way, because they are able to sell the dollars for more Bolivar than they used to paid their trip.

Flights are booked full months in advance. Travel agents even advise people who really do need to travel to take a boat instead of a flight because there simply aren’t enough seats … at least not on paper. Because you don’t necessarily have to actually get on the plane! Venezuelans can buy “cheap” dollars at the official 6.3 rate, but there is a limit to how many they can buy. However there is a way around that. You can buy up to $3000 dollars at the 6.3 rate if you are a traveller. And you are a traveller if … you have a flight ticket. You can see where this is going, right?

Maiquetia airport

Caracas Maiquetia airport

Venezuelans have become very good at working this dual exchange rate system to squeeze as much money out of it. Some will just send credit cards abroad so they can be swiped for cash advances. Financially, there are tons of ways to abuse this system, and the Venezuelans know it.

But so do the airlines. Because all flights have been booked “full” months in advance, the prices have been soaring. Depending on the destination, a return flight to/from Caracas can now set you back between $2.000 and $5.000. Part of the reason is the increased “popularity” in the destination (economics says when the demand is high the price will go up). But the airlines have another reason for this, they are trying to discourage people to buy a seat which they’re not going to use anyway. Airlines are tired of “fully booked” planes leaving almost half empty while real passengers have been unable to get a seat. So airlines have started to overbook flights. Not just by a bit, but¬†by a large margin.

When you¬†put all this together on the scale you¬†should look at it, the size of the country itself, you’ll see that this country is heading for large scale problems. The Venezuelan Bolivar is losing ground, the American Dollar is taking over and of course corruption is a big problem itself. The people can see what’s happening and there is civil unrest. Many Venezuelans have moved to Colombia. All this causes economical and political instability. The government tries to combat this situation before it all collapses.¬†The easiest way to do this is to get more money into the system and prevent money from going back out.

The Venezuelan government has taken measures and placed currency restrictions on airlines. That means that airlines are unable to convert their Venezuelan earnings into Dollars. The figures go into the millions of dollars per airline that are now stuck in the country. It doesn’t need explaining how the airlines feel about all this. So in order to try and limit the amount of money that they will possibly lose due to it being stuck in an economically unstable country and currency, they have reduced the number of flights or suspended them altogether.

Airlines that have reduced or suspended their flights do plan on resuming regular operations when they are satisfied that the situation has been stabilized. If you have a ticket but your flight has been suspended, contact the airline. They will refund you. Or if you are in Venezuela already, they will rebook you to another airline or help you in any way to get you back.

As always, enjoy!

In D√ľsseldorf a robot parks your car

At the D√ľsseldorf airport they have a new assitant: Ray the car parking robot. Looking at the video it seems that there are multiple Rays for the job. The service itself is called PremiumPLUS parking.

Passengers leave the car in a desginated spot.

Passengers leave the car in a desginated spot.

The idea is for passengers (who may be in a hurry) to leave their cars in a designated place where the robots are meant to pick them up. Ray then uses sensors and a laser scanner to photograph and measure the car so it can safely pick it up and park it in one of the 249 designated parking spaces.

The car gets photographed and measured

The car gets photographed and measured

And then lifted off the ground to be taken to a parking spot

And then lifted off the ground to be taken to a parking spot

On a touch screen located closeby passengers have to confirm that there is nobody left in the car¬†and enter the details of their return flight. That way Ray can monitor flight schedules and calculate when a car should be retrieved for it to be picked up. In case a passenger changes flights or general itinerary, Ray can be notified using an app. In case you need it, you can download the app¬†for iOS and Android. There doesn’t appear to be a Windows Phone version yet.

Of course, very few things in this life are free. The same goes for PremiumPLUS parking. Leaving your car in the D√ľsseldorf airport car park already costs at least ‚ā¨24.50/$33 per day.¬†Making use of PremiumPLUS adds an extra ‚ā¨4/$6 per day to that amount. Of course, you get something in return. The new parking is very near to the terminals, so you don’t have to walk far. The car is waiting for you when you walk out of the airport, parked facing the right direction. And all the while your car is parked it is insured.

The following videos explaining PremiumPLUS parking are in German. If you don’t speak German,¬†looking at them will be enough to give you the general idea ūüôā

Premium PLUS Parken am D√ľsseldorf Airport — So funktioniert es

Premium PLUS Parken am D√ľsseldorf Airport

 

As always, enjoy your trip … and parking!

Airbnb fined $40,900 in Spain. What are the alternatives?

Everyone loves to travel and even more so if the price tag for the trip is as low as possible. People spend a lot of time finding the cheapest or best value flights, tours, rentals, hotels, hostels or other places to spend the night.

For decades there have been cheap or even free alternatives to staying in hotels. People have been opening up their homes because they enjoy meeting other people or simply because they want to earn a little extra money. One of the more recent options is Airbnb.

airbnb_logo

As many others, Airbnb is a website where you can find a low cost place to spend the night as an alternative to a hotel. So it’s not free, but often much cheaper. It has the added benefit that you are in direct contact with a local who can tell you about the area you’re staying in, take you to nice places not mentioned in the guide, direct you to good places to eat or even share a meal.

This of course is not to the liking of the hotel industry. Over the past years websites like Airbnb and CouchSurfing have become very well known, popular even. The hotel industry has picked up on that and sees these alternatives as direct competition. This in itself is not news, many articles have been written about it.

However, this is the first time Airbnb has gotten such a fine in Europe. In Spain to more exact. And it’s not alone, eight other companies have been fined for similar practices. Users of Airbnb may be interested to know that it¬†has handed its¬†user list over¬†to New York state officials investigating illegal short-term renting.

I have personally enjoyed alternatives like CouchSurfing. However, with the rise in popularity the spirit of the organization has gone down. More and more people learned about CouchSurfing, but unfortunately most of them have the wrong idea. They see it as “a free place to stay”, not as a cultural exchange. This wrong idea has lead to a huge increase of new members who don’t host others, haven’t created a decent profile, don’t reply or simply haven’t even logged in for a long time. This makes it a tedious task to find a good host between the overload of results you can get when searching for one. The increased difficulty and mistrust that may have come from this could¬†been the cause of the rise in popularity for websites like Airbnb.

The new CouchSurfing logo

The new CouchSurfing logo

CouchSurfing has had and continues to have it’s own problems, internal power struggles in the company among other things. This lead to the creation of OpenCouchSurfing in 2007. OpenCS wasn’t able to make any changes and the founders ended it after CouchSurfing became a for profit organisation in 2012. This move was rather unpopular with the members, and it didn’t help improve the hospitality spirit.

As previously mentioned, Airbnb and CouchSurfing are not the only options you have. There are literally (yes, literally) thousands of websites where you can find free or (mostly) paid accommodation. I have compiled a list of the most known ones with a decent amount of users. It is categorized into free, rentals, exchange and special interest. Sometimes you need to pay a membership fee for the free ones.

Free

Exchanges

Rentals

Special interest

Whatever option you choose keep in mind that people are letting you into their homes. It never hurts to bring a small gift, cook a meal, share some ideas, teach them something or learn from them.

And as always, enjoy!