Podcast #89 — Trains Over Planes; Fit 2 Weeks in 1 Carry-On

Danish Train © Hunter Desportes

My business-vacation combo trip to London, Paris, and Venice provides the source for most of this episode’s content. Wanting to pack light, I had to figure out how to pack for 10 days, 3 cities, two business meetings and a week’s vacation in a single carry-on bag. After landing in London, I skipped the airports and used trains for all my intra-European travel, not boarding another flight until we were heading home from Venice — though not before having to wrestle through a randomly rebooting kiosk. I also talk about toothpaste tablets — another way to avoid liquid in your carry-on, and a great restaurant in O’Hare’s Terminal 1. Here’s a direct link to the podcast file or you can listen to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

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Here are the transcript from TravelCommons podcast #89:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you yet again from the TravelCommons studios. I know, I’m getting a bit bored with it too.  I tried to record this last week in the Doubletree Suites in Naples, FL, but couldn’t get everything written in time. I even downloaded Garageband for my iPad 2, but found that it has a time limit on its recordings – too short for the podcast, unless I wanted to be doing a lot more editing and stitching.
  • I’ve racked up a bit of mileage since the last episode – doing my usual runs to Phoenix – where I did catch my first spring training baseball game, the White Sox and the Giants sitting on the lawn on a beautiful afternoon — and to Naples, FL.  There were also some new runs to London, Paris, and then to Milan on my way to a vacation rendezvous with the family in Venice.
  • It was kinda fun to meet up with my wife and daughter in a new city.  I’d taken the train over from Milan and got to our hotel first, so I was sitting on the patio drinking a cappuccino when they pulled up in their water taxi. I saw them coming down the canal and waved to them, but they didn’t see me until they were right at the hotel.  Indeed, my daughter took a picture of the hotel as they were coming up to it, and if you look closely, you can see me in the corner, waving from my table.  It’s pretty funny.
  • It doesn’t slow down going forward.  I’m off to the UK, and then, the last week of April in India, bouncing across the usual suspects – Bangalore, Pune, and Chennai – with a weekend in the Kerala backwaters.  I get back, take a week to adjust to Central Time, and then head out to San Francisco for the Google I/O conference.
  • Bridge Music – Planetenstaaten by Phillip Weigl

Following Up

  • Nobody sent in an audio comment this month, so you’re stuck with the sound of my voice all the way through.
  • So let’s get the obligatory TSA rant out of the way.  When I saw the video of the TSA doing a “grope-down” of a 6-yr old girl in New Orleans airport I wasn’t shocked, I wasn’t outraged – I just shook my head at the mindless stupidity of it, numb to yet another of the endless stream of senseless TSA acts. When the screener is executing the grope-down while being filmed by the parent and, off-camera, the supervisor agrees with the action, and then in a follow-up statement, the TSA says “Yup, the screener did the right thing” — this incident is a proof point that it’s not stupid acts of individual screeners.  The TSA as an organization is fundamentally broken; it’s developed a culture that can’t use common sense. The only successful thing the TSA has done is replaced the IRS as the most reviled part of the federal government.
  • OK, glad to get that out of the way.  Let talk about something more fun.  In the last episode, I talked about stuff that caught my eye at last month’s Travel Goods show.  One thing I forgot to mention was Archtek Toothpaste Tablets. Now I’ve talked in the past about switching from toothpaste to toothpowder some years ago to avoid the liquid ban, and then keeping it to avoid having to pull out a baggie full of toiletries at the screening point.  Archtek has a different spin.  You put one tablet in your mouth, chew it up, and then start brushing. I was a little skeptical at first.  Indeed, I had to remind myself not to swallow – it felt like a chewable vitamin.  But once I started brushing, it foamed up way more than any tooth powder I’ve used.  If you can find Archtek Toothpaste Tablets, buy ‘em.  Definitely recommended.
  • Also in the last episode, I talked about dropping status, specifically how United didn’t soft-land me from 1K status – they dropped me all the way from 1K to Premiere.  This had a big impact on accruing mileage – 1K’s get a 100% mileage bonus while Premieres only get 25%.  Another big impact is who you get routed to within United’s customer service network.  1K’s talk to United employees in corporate headquarters near O’Hare.  They’re the most experienced and best trained customer service agents.  The Premiere desk – when I had to change an award ticket to accommodate my London trip, I found out it’s in Cebu City in the Philippines.  It wasn’t a major problem – the agents were pleasant, spoke understandable English, and were able to make the changes that I needed.  But again, it was a bit of a jarring experience and reminded me once again of the little niceties status brings.
  • A point that was brought home to my 17-yr old son when he traveled without me on his German Club trip to Germany, Switzerland, and Austria – while the rest of us were in Venice.  Picking him up at the airport, he said, “I hate traveling without you, Dad.  I treated just like a peon.”  I’ll take that.  As any parent will tell you, it’s nice to wanted by your teenager – even if it’s just for pre-boarding and access to airport clubs.
  • So, in three groups — my son, my wife and daughter, and me — left for Europe out of O’Hare’s Terminal 1.  And all of us made time to stop off in Rick Bayless’ new Mexican tortas — sandwich — place Frontera Tortas in the front concourse, Concourse B.  Bayless is one of the most famous chefs in Chicago – he won the first season of Bravo TV’s Top Chef Masters contest and runs Barack and Michelle Obama’s favorite date-night restaurant Topolobampo. I’ve eaten at his Frontera Grill since it opened in the mid-80’s and have yet to have a bad meal. So when he opened Frontera Torta, I had to try it.  The lines can be long, but the food is great.  I had the cochinita pibil torta – pulled pork and pickled red onions with a habanero salsa on the side.  Good thing – that salsa was the spiciest thing I’ve ever had in an airport anywhere.  They did warn me, though.  Anyhow, great food – good place to kill a United Airlines delay in ORD.
  • When I was flying out to London on United, I found it easier to check in with the self-service kiosks even though I was flying business class.  The line for business class check-in was at least 5 deep, but there were a half-dozen open kiosks.  I fired one up, put my passport on the scanner, and within a couple of minutes, was on my way to the security line.
  • It was not that easy, though, on the flight back.  We were flying Lufthansa back by way of Munich. After catching a water taxi from our hotel – much cooler, and much longer than the water taxis to and from Logan Airport in Boston – I queued up for the kiosk. It was taking the people in front of my much longer than a couple of minutes.   But, they looked like tourists.  Finally, I worked my way to the front of the line – not exactly a linear process in Italy.  I started checking in.  The workflow wasn’t as straight forward/as well-designed as the United kiosk, but that wasn’t the problem.  It was that the kiosk kept re-starting/re-booting halfway through the check-in and the passport scanner was very fiddly.  It took me at least 15 minutes to get my wife, daughter, and me checked in.  There wasn’t another alternative.  There were only 2 desk agents but they were just checking luggage for those who had checked in with the kiosk – and they had no interest in coming out from behind their desk to figure out the rebooting kiosks. I don’t mind self service – when it works.
  • And finally, going all the way back to episode 86, from last December… Prompted by a question from a listener, Betty Boyd, about the podcast’s closing song, Pictures of You by the Scottish band Evangeline, I dipped into the archives and played an interview with the band’s manager that gave some back story on the song.  A couple of days ago, the song’s writer dropped this comment on the TravelCommons website:
  • “Hi Mark. I’m John Naismith songwriter with the former band Evangeline, I’m so glad you enjoy the song Pictures of You, it’s also good to know that people like Becky from Carolina can identify with the song because that was the intent when writing it, life on the road is hard and leaving your family behind is hard! Anyway, a million thanks to you for using this song for so long I wish you and your show all the best for the future.Love and friendship from Scotland.”

  • John, thanks for stopping by the site and leaving the comment.  And also, thanks for letting me use your song. It has always been, in my mind, the perfect song for the frequent traveler.
  • If you have a question, a story, a comment, a travel tip – the voice of the traveler, send it along.  The e-mail address is comments@travelcommons.com — use the Voice Memo app on your iPhone or something like Virtual Recorder on your Android phone to record and send in an audio comment like Lori or Gary in last month’s episode; send a Twitter message to mpeacock, or you can post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page — or you can always go old-school and post your thoughts on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music – Suerte Mijo by Arthur Yoria

Trains Instead of Planes

  • My Spring Break vacation plans for Venice, Italy got munged up a bit when a customer in London demanded my presence the Wednesday afternoon before we were to fly out from Chicago.  Doing a one-day up-and back to London didn’t make any sense – though, as long-time listeners will recall from episode #70, that hasn’t stopped in the past.  So instead, I visited staff in our Kew office on Thursday, a customer in Paris on Friday, and then vectored through Milan on Saturday to meet up with my family in Venice Sunday morning.
  • Since I wasn’t on a tight schedule, I decided to skip the airports and do all these legs on the train.  No lines, no grope-downs – just glide from center city to center city.  In past episodes, I’ve talked about my preference for Amtrak’s Acela when traveling the northeast corridor from New York to Washington, so I decided to try the same thing in Europe.
  • Last month, I tweeted a link to a graph showing that, in Europe, rail is becoming the preferred method of transport when trip time drops below 3 hours.  Indeed, before digging the Chunnel – the Channel Tunnel, London to Paris was one of the world’s busiest air routes.  But now, air travel has dropped to less than 20%. Since I needed to get from London to Paris on Thursday afternoon, I decided to start my train journey with the Eurostar.
  • It wasn’t cheap – premium economy was $250.  I couldn’t in my mind justify the $400 business class ticket.  Rolling my bag through St Pancras station in London felt a bit like an airport experience – queue up, waive your boarding pass in front of a reader, put your bags through the X-ray machine, walk through the metal detector, go through passport control (you go through French immigration in London, kinda like going through US immigration in Toronto airport)… but it was definitely a bit more laid-back — nothing like the full-on insanity that is Heathrow.
  • It was at boarding time that I really felt the difference.  No calling out groups, no jockeying around the jet bridge door – we just walked up the ramp and found our car.  And pulling out, no PA announcements scolding us to immediately take our seats, no flight attendants giving us the once over to make sure we’d turned off our cell phones – people were still wandering around, and I was cranking on a document when I noticed out of the corner of my eye the platform slipping away.
  • The journey under the English Channel – I guess I was surprised at how uneventful it was.  Indeed, I was in the toilet when we entered the Chunnel.  No announcement, no ear-popping from going down – just a 15-20 minute journey though a dark tunnel and  “pop” you’re up in France.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but I guess I thought there’d be a bit more to it.
  • Saturday’s ride on the TGV – France’s high-speed train — from Paris to Milan was a good bit different. The price was good bit lower — $150 for business class. The ride was longer – 7 hrs instead of 2.  But the scenery was much better – up over the Alps instead of a tunnel under the ocean.
  • Being a Saturday, it was more families, less business – kinda like my Southwest flight this week back from Ft Myers, FL.  In some ways, it was worse.  Once the kids were seated on the Southwest flight, they stayed there, buckled in.  On the TGV, the entire car became the playground for this one toddler – he kept racing down the aisle from one end of the car to the other.  This went on for hours because the train ride was more than twice as long as the Ft Myers flight.
  • All that being said, I enjoyed this train ride too – it was an easy cab ride from my hotel to Gard du Nord, there was no security on boarding, it was able to get up and buy a beer whenever I wanted – provided I could dodge the running kid. I was really glad I brought an extra battery for the Bose headphones and had something to look at out the window.
  • Bridge Music – Violent and Beautiful by the Union Trade

Travel Challenge — Fitting Two Weeks into One Carry-On

  • The night before I left on my European trip, I tweeted and posted on the TravelCommons Facebook page – “Today’s travel challenge — How to pack for 10 days, 3 cities, two business meetings and a week’s vacation in a single carry-on bag.”
  • Lori Humm wrote “My number one travel rule: pack light and buy what you need when you get there” while Allan Marko commented “Depends on how often you want to do laundry on vacation”.  Chris Webb tweeted back asking to know how it all came out.
  • Actually, it wasn’t as tough as I thought it might be.  The challenge was packing for business and for tourism without looking out of place in either.  Lucky for me I was only covering one climate – European spring, and I’d be vacationing among Italians – probably the best dressers in Europe.
  • My packing strategy always starts with a single color family, and usually that’s black.  Black jacket, olive and tan slacks, an assortment of shirts, a red pattern tie if absolutely necessary and I’m good for a week.
  • But what about the second week.  When I would do two-week stretches in South Africa, I would pack a week’s worth of clothes, send my shirts to the cleaners on the weekend, and stomp on my understuff and socks while I was in the shower.
  • For this trip, though, I took a different tack.  I kept the color wheel on black, but left my workout gear at home.  I figured we’d be walking all over Venice, so that would give me enough exercise.  Gym shoes take up a huge amount of space, which I filled with a couple of sweaters and another week of socks and understuff.  With a week’s worth of shirts, but two weeks of undershirts, I figured I could get two days out of each shirt – I didn’t think I’d be sweating too much in London and Paris in March. And most of the extra undershirts and socks were on their last legs.  I left a trail of Jockey t-shirts from London to Paris to Milan, making room for some souvenir Carnivale masks for next year’s Mardi Gras party.
  • It ended up working well for me.  I didn’t return with one clean piece of clothing, but didn’t have to do any laundry for the two weeks.  I’m not sure I can use the same strategy for next week’s trip to India though.  With a forecast of 90 degrees and 90% humidity, that “no sweat” assumption just doesn’t seem realistic.

Closing

  • Closing music — iTunes link to iconPictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #89
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • Bridge music from Magnatune
  • 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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