Podcast #79 – Skipping Rental Cars, WiFi or 3G?

Coming to you today from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, Illinois at the end of one of those travel weeks where I lost control of my schedule – DC to Dallas to Houston to LA. In this episode, we talk about the problems with LAX security, my choices for white noise when I’m trying to sleep on an airplane, and the reasons why I’m skipping rental cars. I also talk with Boingo WiFi about the choices frequent travelers are making in going wireless. Here’s a direct link to the podcast file.

Here are the transcript from TravelCommons podcast #79:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you today from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, Illinois, at the end of one of those travel weeks where I lost control of my schedule – the 6am flight to DC on Monday, the 6:30am flight to Houston on Tuesday by way of Dallas, the 6:30pm flight to LA, and then, refusing to take the red-eye, returning home Friday afternoon. Makes next week’s 4 days in Washington seem like a cake walk.
  • Seems like I’m getting more of those.Two weeks ago, my travel week was Monday in Stamford, CT; Tuesday in Providence, RI; Wednesday in Philadelphia; Thursday back in Chicago, and then Friday in San Diego, returning at 6:30am Saturday courtesy of the red eye. I used to be able to sleep on red eyes, but not so much anymore. And with a flight time between LAX and ORD of less than 4 hrs, there’s not a lot of time for sleep – even after scoring a first class upgrade. I was pretty worthless on Saturday – I went straight to bed after getting home and then took a nap later in the afternoon. The red-eye is false economy – I’m not saving time; just snowplowing the problem into the next day. Hence, my lack of enthusiasm for another red-eye this week.
  • I will say this, though. With winter coming in Chicago, I’m starting to look around for strategically located clients – Miami, Phoenix, LA. There are times when travel does have its rewards.
  • Bridge Music — You Are The Reason by C. Layne

Following Up

  • Robert Fenerty dropped us a line giving his point-of-view on many of the things covered in the last TravelCommons episode:
    • Mark, aboard a flight to Prague, and with 5 weeks of international travel ahead of me, I’m also peering ahead to Thanksgiving. On the other hand, I’ll soon have United 1k status and am looking forward to seeing Versailles, Madrid, and the Dominican Republic. As for keeping touch with my family, I really enjoy giving people a “Skype tour” of my hotel room. I find that the wet running clothes or the ironing board next to the TV provide an easy segue to the events of the day. I’m lucky enough to have a client that pays for resort hotels, so there’s usually something interesting to see and talk about. That could be a dinner plate-sized showerhead or a view of a golf course.
    • As for losing things and making mistakes, my weakness is at the moments of transition. As I leave the car to enter the shuttle, my mind is racing ahead to claim check, the coupon, the passport, and the luggage in the trunk. But not the headlights, which I’ve left on. Perhaps the answer is to pause, consider the requirements of the moment, and not the future. Incidentally, the parking attendant who jumped my car told me about a Prius that idled on and off in their parking lot for a week before running out of gas.
  • Bob, thanks for the note. Reading your itinerary — Versailles, Madrid, and the Dominican Republic – I get a bit jealous. But then I recall times when I had trip itineraries of Paris, London, Dublin, Zurich and other folks would say “Oh, that’s so glamorous”, but the reality was that I was spending my days in Paris, London, Dublin, and Zurich in conference rooms that looked very much like conference rooms in Cleveland, Nashville, Indianapolis, and Atlanta – except with different brands of bottled water and no air-conditioning. Of course, I’m hoping Robert is doing a much better job of work-life balance than I did.
  • Leo Vegoda “@-signed” me on a Tweet from Seoul’s Inchon airport. Leo wrote – “Check in & security at ICN a breeze. Noodles and beancurd delicious. LAX are you listening?”
  • I was thinking about this when I walked into LAX Friday morning for my flight back to Chicago. The lines in Terminal 7 were a zoo at all the screening stations. It looked like a number of Japanese and Mexican tourists weren’t completely clear on the TSA’s 3-1-1 liquid carry-on limits. I saw 1 TSA screener fill an entire gray bin with liquids – toothpaste, shampoo, water bottle, sour cream (?) – from one family. Another woman kept unlocking and relocking her pink rolling bag to pull things out – first, her PC, then a bottle of water, then a jar of honey (?). It was not pretty.
  • Of course, a big part of this is LAX with all its little terminals hanging off the access road, and none of them with enough real estate to house a proper screening set up.
  • Walking into this, I took a deep breath – I wasn’t tight on time, but shuffling through security lines wasn’t the way I wanted to start the day. Sometimes when the main floor of Terminal 7 is bad, I’ll go up to the screening station on the bridge over from the parking garage. I went to ask Airserv women – the contractors at the start of the line checking boarding passes – if that line was any shorter and she spotted the Global Services mark on my United boarding pass and said “But you’re Global Services so you don’t have to worry about that.” She took my boarding pass and driver’s license, walked me past all the lines, dropped the line tape, gave my boarding pass to the TSA guy and escorted me right to an X-ray machine. It was the ultimate – and very timely – line cut. No noodles and beancurd like Leo had (a bit too early for that), but it did give me time to grab a cappuccino before getting on my flight home. And reinforced, once again, the value of being “super elite”
  • I’ve talked in past podcasts about using white noise applications to drown out the cabin noise that my Bose noise-canceling headphones don’t cover. I use a couple of applications on my iPhone – White Noise and Naturespace. White Noise was the first one I used – I liked their Amazon rain forest.
  • But then I flipped over to Naturespace because I thought the stereo quality, “aural spacing” of the sound in the headphones was a good bit better. But now I’m back to White Noise after the latest upgrade because I really like one of the new sounds – the Tibetan Singing Bowl.
  • Maybe it’s just me, but this is the perfect white noise for me. Others I’ve played it for thought it sounded like a huge swarm of mosquitoes, but it’s come in very handy on the string of 6am Monday morning flights I recently had.
  • And just a quick note, for those of you who check out the show notes, I’ve switched over from summary bullet points to more of a transcript. It’s a lot more words, but actually a good bit easier for me. Since the show is usually just me talking – as opposed to many other shows that are interviews or conversations among multiple hosts – I script out a good bit of my show. That may be disappointing to those who thought I was naturally this glib, but it saves me a lot of post-production time – editing out ums, ahs, and narrative dead-ends. Since I have the script, I figured that copy-pasting it is easier than trying to summarize it – sort of the show notes version of Mark Twain’s “I’d have written a shorter letter if I had the time”. So anyhow, starting with TravelCommons #78, you can wade through the gory details of each show by clicking through the “Read the rest of this entry” to the show notes page.
  • If you have a question, a story, a comment – the voice of the traveler, send it along. The e-mail address is comments@travelcommons.com, you can send me a Twitter message at @mpeacock, or you can post them on the web site at travelcommons.com.
  • Bridge Music — Fire In The Day’s Field by the Seldon Plan

Skipping the Rental Car

  • Two weeks ago, I had to get from downtown Washington DC to a Northern Virginia suburb for a client dinner. I looked at the Metro map, rang up some car services, but finally gritted my teeth and rented a car. That’s pretty much my attitude toward car rentals these days — the choice of last resort. It wasn’t always this way. But with cost and fee increases, shrinking fleets, and more inconvenient locations, I work hard to skip the rental car counter.
  • The biggest issue is cost. Rental car prices have soared — increasing an average of 60-70% over last year. But prices are just part of the story. Additional fees and taxes can add another 50% to the number that finally hits your credit card. The concession recovery fee that airports and train stations charge is usually one of the bigger charges. Avis hit me with 11.11% concession recovery fees on recent trips through Seattle-Tacoma and LAX airports, and a 10% fee for renting at Philadelphia’s 30th Street train station. Picking up the car in town doesn’t always dodge this fee. Hertz leveled a 13% concession recovery fee on a rental from the San Francisco Marriott hotel. On top of that, the rental companies add on a customer facility charge, a vehicle licensing fee, and an energy recovery fee. And then the state and local governments’ turn. My Sea-Tac rental receipt shows a 9.5% sales tax plus a 9.7% rental tax. California adds 3.5% tourism assessment fee. My Philadelphia rental had 4% passenger car rental tax (split between the state and the city) plus a $2/day state surcharge. Just across these four examples, fees and taxes added 27-51% to the final cost of my rental.
  • Another problem is being able to get a car. The easiest way for rental car companies to make more money is to increase each car’s utilization — the number of days it’s rented. Makes sense, but when demand for cars increases just a bit, the pickings start to get slim. Last month, I flew from LAX to Washington-Dulles and planned to rent a car because it would be a bit cheaper than the round-trip cost of a cab to/from DC. I landed at Dulles around midnight. Wheeling my bag across the empty Avis Preferred parking spaces, I saw a huge Ford F150 4×4 King Cab pick-up truck. ”They can’t be serious,” I thought. Oh yes, they were — that was their idea of the intermediate size car I had requested. This wasn’t going to fit in a parking garage in downtown DC. I walked back to the rental bus and asked the driver to take me to the taxi line.
  • Of course, the drive back to the airport taxi line wasn’t a short one because airport authorities have been aggressively relocating rental car companies to “improved” consolidated facilities that are a 15-20 minute drive from the airport. Frequent travelers work hard to reduce the time spent getting from one point to another — maintaining airline status so they can use the short security line, carrying on their bags so they don’t have to wait by the luggage carousel. Renting a car used to be a quick transaction — walk off the plane, across to the parking lot, and into your rental car. It’s still that way at smaller airports like Nashville and Little Rock, but at airports like Cleveland, Baltimore-Washington, and Phoenix, you need to pack a lunch.
  • I used to enjoy renting cars. Now, I avoid it. Hikes in prices and fees have made taxis and private car services more competitive, and moves to push rental lots way off property have made the alternatives a lot more convenient. Last year, at the tipping point where the cost of rental car was the same or maybe even a bit more than the cost of a taxi, I’d take the rental car. I enjoyed the flexibility of having a car, and even looked forward to finding a fun car in the Avis lot or under the Hertz Gold canopy. Now, I’ll pay extra to avoid them. While I work every year to make sure I keep my Marriott Platinum status, I fell out of Hertz’s President’s Circle without a care.
  • Bridge Music — White Oak by Fernwood

The Best Way to Drop Wires

  • Working in airplanes, airports, hotels, Starbucks, and the back seats of taxis, frequent travelers are always trying to figure out the best way to work wirelessly.
  • This week, Boingo introduced an app on the BlackBerry platform for its WiFi service. At first, I didn’t think much of it, but then I got thinking – why would I want WiFi if I have 3G? I see more and more 3G modems hanging off of laptops. Is WiFi fading out?
  • I spoke with Christian Gunning of Boingo and asked him just this question as I was sitting in Houston-Hobby airport waiting for my flight to LA
  • “It’s not an either/or,” he said, “the two technologies are complimentary.” In high-traffic/high-“loiter” areas like airports, 3G cells get maxed out by people entertaining themselves with streaming multimedia. While one cell can handle 600 voice calls, data quickly consumes those slots, pushing the capacity down to 50-80 calls. Moving that streaming data over to a Boingo WiFi hot spot gives much better throughput.
  • Makes sense, but what about the cost? I can get a 3G mobile plan from AT&T or Verizon for $60/month. I can get close to that in a couple of days with WiFi – paying $10 for a day pass in the airport, another $10 at Starbucks, and then another $10 in the hotel at night.
  • Christian pointed out that Boingo’s monthly WiFi plan costs $10 for unlimited bandwidth – as compared to the 5GB caps typical for 3G modems –covers 58 airports, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and many hotels. Their smartphone plan – for iPhones and Blackberries – is 2 bucks cheaper. And as they continue to sign reciprocal agreements with other network companies, their coverage expands.
  • He makes a compelling case for the continued relevance of WiFi – it’s built into every recent laptop, its higher bandwidth is better for multimedia, and the performance isn’t as variable as 3G.
  • My cut at it is – unfortunately, a frequent traveler needs both. WiFi is great when you’re sitting in an airport or in a Starbucks; it’s no good when you’re inside the airplane waiting to take off or in long cab ride – because you’ve sworn off rental cars – or in a hotel with lousy broadband, because it’s not just 3G cells that can get flooded with streaming videos of , uh, artistic content.


  • Closing music — iTunes link to iconPictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #79
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • The bridge music is from Magnatune, the we are not evil label. You Are the Reason by C Layne, Fire in the Day’s Field by the Seldon Plan, and White Oak by Fernwood. You can find these and more at magnatunes.com.
  • If you have a story, thought, comment, gripe – the voice of the traveler — send ‘em along, text or MP3 file, to comments@travelcommons.com or to @mpeacock on Twitter, or post them on our website at travelcommons.com. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to send in e-mails, Tweets and post comments on the website
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  • Direct link to the show
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