Brushing aside the cobwebs to make my way back into the TravelCommons studios, we talk about the growing importance of TripAdvisor hotel reviews and the checklist I walk through when writing a review. I also continue to gush about the TSA’s PreCheck program, even if this autumn’s rapid expansion seems a bit rough-&-ready at times. A listener lists out the critical travel apps on his Android smartphone and I talk about being stalked by an airline on Twitter. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below. » Read more…
Snow, ice, and cold temperatures have hit North America a lot earlier this year. With the crush of Christmas/New Years travel starting this weekend, here’s the TravelCommons’ top holiday travel tips…
- Fly Direct — This is the top tip every time I put this list together. Holiday travel stacks up problems — high passenger load factors combined with winter weather disruptions almost guarantees late arrivals and missed connections. Pay the extra $100 for a direct flight.
- Skip the Tight Connection — If you can’t fly direct, give yourself enough time to survive a late inbound flight. Take the 90- or 120-minute connection. Worst case is you get to try some great Mexican food in O’Hare or barbecue in Memphis.
- Catch the Early Flight – Delays stack up as the day wears on. As your airplane goes from airport to airport, the probability of it getting stuck increases. Overnight, airlines have a chance to recover – late planes finally get their destinations and operations groups can reassign planes. So while the last flight out can be a crap shoot, I’ve rarely hit a delay on the first flight out.
- Use Multiple Flight Tracking Apps — Use your smartphone to keep track of gate changes and flight delays. Sign up for text notifications from your airline when you book your ticket. However, I’ve often experienced long delays with the airlines’ services or changes that were never sent out. So I also use TripIt, WorldMate, and FlightAware. It means multiple notices, but it also means I don’t miss anything.
- Use Twitter as a Concierge Service — Most airlines have social media teams monitoring Twitter. Before you leave, find and follow your airline’s Twitter customer service account. “At naming” them in a Tweet (e.g., “@united what’s happening with UA 4286 MSY-ORD that it’s 1:45 hr delayed?”) usually gets a response in a couple of minutes. Following them allows you to exchange personal information such as record locator numbers via direct message (DM). It’s usually faster than queuing up for a frazzled gate agent and the results can be better.
- Carry On your Luggage — Unless you’re heading to the slopes for Christmas, everyone in your travel party should be able to fit into a carry-on sized bag. You can save $25/bag and increase the probability of having clean clothes at your destination. If you’re seating area 3 or higher, odds are there’s no overhead bin space for you. Let the agent gate-check the bag for you. You won’t have to pay a checked bag fee and it’s very unlikely that they’ll lose your bag – it’s only traveling a couple hundred feet from the jet bridge to the luggage hold.
- Spread Clothes Across All Bags — If you have to check your bags, split everyone’s clothes across all the bags. It’s rare for an airline to lose all of your checked bags.
- Buy Status for 1 Person — Airlines will sell you anything, including one-off access to the special security lines and early boarding calls normally earned by flying 25,000 miles. The airlines will tell you that everyone in your travel party needs to pony up for status. In practice though, if the lead adult’s boarding pass shows priority/premiere access, the overworked minimum-wage airport staffers guarding the status security lanes will let the family tag along. And at the gate, I’ve never seen a family split up across boarding groups.
- Know Your Geography – Knowing alternatives to your destination airport gives you more flexibility dealing with cancelled flights or missed connections. In New York, the LaGuardia to Newark pivot is easy, but others aren’t so obvious. Everyone knows that Chicago has two airports – O’Hare and Midway. But what about Milwaukee’s Mitchell Field 80 miles north? If PHL is in trouble, how many folks think about Harrisburg or BWI? Or Sacramento as an alternative to SFO? I think about alternatives in two rings – within 60 miles – SNA and LGB for LAX; and then within 100-120 miles, which now picks up Palm Springs and San Diego for LAX. Someone will drive a couple of hours to pick you up if it means getting you to Christmas dinner on time.
- But above all, be realistic — It’s gonna be a zoo. Steel yourself; get your inner karma tuned for it. Pack a snack and a book, and practice deep cleansing breaths.
Here’s a 3-minute summary of what I liked best during my Spring 2013 visit to Madrid, Spain.
Some of the places mentioned include
- Reina Sofia museum
- Plaza Mayor
- Mercado de San Miguel
- Mercado de Antón Martín
- Viandas de Salamanca
- Malasaña District
- Fábrica Maravillas
- Madrid Food Tour
Back in front of the mic after summer vacation, I’ve continued the heavy travel schedule — New Orleans mostly with a week in Amsterdam for a family vacation. I talk about the exposure of staying in a houseboat on an Amsterdam canal and run through my personal “Best of” list. Flying out of the Gulf Coast in the summer with its afternoon thunderstorms has forced me to become a weather geek. I run through the weather apps I religiously use. Bad weather also caught up with me in Europe, but Lufthansa did a great job of taking care of us. I’m still in love with TSA’s PreCheck. I may make Southwest’s A-List once PreCheck comes to Chicago-Midway airport. And we wrap with restaurant trends seen at this year’s National Restaurant Association show. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.
Been traveling non-stop since the last episode. One destination was a family Spring Break vacation split between Madrid and Barcelona. I talk about our experiences with booking a vacation rental and how I’ve learned to give up complete spontaneity and enjoy a couple of guided tours. I also do a mea culpa for bitch-tweeting about flight delays, but don’t think the airlines’ response to my tweets represents an effective social media strategy. Instead, I highly recommend the flight tracking website Flightaware. And I end with some thoughts about the resurgence of the hotel lobby. Here’s a direct link to the podcast file or you can listen to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.
Travel has been a bit less glamorous since I’ve fallen from the top tier status, especially when I’m doing “stupid” travel — up-&-backs across the continent in 48 hours. One of my recent flights was on a new United 737-900; the interior is a significant step up. Prepping for a vacation in Spain, I find it’s easier and cheaper to get an unlocked phone to use with a local SIM card. And it wouldn’t be a proper TravelCommons episode without a TSA story — the fight over the new knife rules misses the point. Here’s a direct link to the podcast file or you can listen to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.
This Week in Travel hosts Jen Leo and Chris Christensen invited me to this week’s episode along with Corey Taratuta of the Irish Fireside podcast. Though it took us a second time to get all the Google Hangout technology to work, we had a good time. We start with a rundown of this week’s travel news headlines. Corey then talks about The Gathering, this year’s big tourist program in Ireland, which reminds me of my favorite Ireland travel moment — finding a laundromat next door to a pub in Cork. I also talk about the explosion of tablet sizes and form factors, a topic also covered in TravelCommons #103. And just to be clear, I did not choose the thumbnail for the YouTube preview.
Doing a bit more travel since the last episode, so have more to talk about. First business trip of the year started out great, but quickly deteriorated as weather delays forced me to make quick changes. I update my trip management app recommendations after TripCase released the latest rev of their app, and talk about good mass transit experiences in Portland, OR and Park City, UT. A new behind-the-scenes book on the hotel industry shows how important people are to the travel experience. And the explosion of tablet form factors makes me re-think why I carry a tablet — comparing Apple’s iPad Mini to Google’s Nexus 7. Here’s a direct link to the podcast file or you can listen to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.
I read Jacob Tomsky’s Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality during my Christmas ski vacation in Park City, UT. It’s a fun, easy read. Just looking at the cover, you can tell that Tomsky wants to give us the hotel version of Anthony Bourdain‘s Kitchen Confidential — the flawed insider with a heart of gold giving us a snarky behind-the-scenes tour.
Tomsky’s story has two very distinct parts. The first third of the book tells us how Tomsky fell into the hospitality industry and began to make it a career. A degree in philosophy in New Orleans wasn’t generating any meaningful employment, so he took a job as a parking valet. Working hard and being earnest (he cleans up well, doesn’t try to kill his co-workers), he gets promoted to front desk agent and then into management at a new luxury hotel. The second part of the book is set in a gone-to-seed Manhattan hotel where Tomsky reluctantly lands, broke after 9 months touring through Europe and 3 months searching for a publishing job in New York.
The New Orleans story is certainly the sunnier of the two parts; a young man finding his niche in the world and working his way up. It also gives a more interesting behind-the-scenes view if you’re interested in how big hotels really work. Tomsky does a great job of describing the amount of planning and effort it takes for a Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons to provide their levels of hospitality. I wished this part lasted longer.
The Manhattan story seems less about the hotel business and more about Tomsky abandoning, bit by bit, the Ritz level of service he was so proud of, becoming more focused on hustling tips than helping guests. As he slides down that slippery slope, the snark level increases… as does a sense of self-loathing. The big confrontation scene with the evil manager is less of a climax and more of a denouement.
Much of the press coverage of Heads in Beds has focused on the insider advice Tomsky dishes in the book’s appendices – “Things a Guest Should Never Say,” “Things a Guest Should Never Do,” “Things Every Guest Must Know”. It’s all pretty common-sense, distilling down to: 1) Don’t be a jerk to the staff; 2) Tip everyone well; 3) Staff can and will screw you over if you don’t follow the first two points.
Heads in Beds is no Kitchen Confidential, but it’s a fun read and a good story told with heart. Recommended.
In the last podcast, I did a side-by-side comparison of the free versions of the leading trip management apps. In an article on the Tnooz website, I dug deeper, expanding my comparison to the free and paid versions of TripIt, TripCase, and WorldMate. My conclusions didn’t change much.
THE TCRITIC TAKE: TripCase for smartphone only; WorldMate Gold for iPhone + iPad
If you only use a smartphone, the free TripCase app is the best choice. It was in the top of all three scenarios: itinerary building and sharing, and real-time flight status updates. However, it doesn’t have a tablet-specific app, just scaled up the smartphone app. iPad users should pay the $9.90/year for WorldMate Gold’s universal (iPhone + iPad) app. There’s nothing in TripIt Pro that justifies it’s $49/year price tag. The handful of Android tablet users should just accept the scaled-up TripCase app and hope for better treatment in 2013
Click here to read the full article.