Podcast #96 — Eating and Drinking with Social Media; Frequent Flier Alliances

On Tap in Edinburgh © Mark Peacock

On Tap in Edinburgh © Mark Peacock

Finishing up my annual 2-week travel sabbatical in an unseasonably warm Chicago. In this episode, a listener asks about if and when to use travel compression socks, we discern the popularity of in-flight Wi-Fi service from Gogo’s IPO filing, and dissect a recent article on the best airports for tech users.  We look at the new wave of social media dining apps such as Untappd which helps you drink beer socially, how they’re taking advantage of smartphone cameras and location services. We wrap up with a look at how airline alliances are changing the frequent flier’s experience. Here’s a direct link to the podcast file or you can listen to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

Here are the transcript from TravelCommons podcast #96:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Happy New Year to everyone! Returning to work after my 2-week sabbatical from travel in unseasonably warm Chicagoland.  I was out in Phoenix for the first two weeks of December, where it was only 10-15 degrees warmer than Chicago.  Then I did a quick up-and-back to DC and was home for good by the evening of the 16th.  Though we didn’t have a white Christmas, I did have an amazing run of on-time and even early arrivals at ORD – a pleasant change from past December travel odysseys.
  • Indeed, my trips at the beginning of December were some of the easiest, most pleasant I’ve had in a while – combination of mild weather and light crowds made travel a breeze – short security lines, non-cranky TSA screeners, plenty of overhead space, and the reappearance of that rarities of rarities – an empty middle seat.
  • It feels like from the Tues or Weds after Thanksgiving to the week before Christmas is a bit of tourist dead zone and so the only ones traveling are the professional road warriors trying to close those last few deals, tie up those remaining loose ends before everyone and everything shuts down for the holidays.
  • Or it’s frequent fliers doing one last mileage run to get them to the next status level.  I didn’t need to make any mileage runs per se, but I did need those last two Phoenix trips to re-up my Hilton Diamond status and to get me back on United’s red carpet with 1K status.
  • Making 1K — or more importantly, getting the systemwide upgrades that come with United’s top status was very timely.  I’m heading over to Beijing in January and being able to confirm an upgrade on United’s 14-hr Chicago-to-Beijing flight – which was one of the best Christmas presents I received…
  • Bridge music — Exit by Saurab Bhargava

Following Up

  • All the bridge music on this episode from Saurab Bhargava’s new album Chromatique.  Saurab is a friend and long time TravelCommons listener. I’m happy to feature his music. That cut is Exit, which interestingly enough is the first cut on the album.  Here’s a link to where you can buy them.
  • Tony White wrote in to ask about travel compression socks…
    • I am not sure if you covered this topic or not.  Do you have a preference of a minimum amount of hours of travel you choose to wear travel socks?
  • Tony, thanks for the question. No, I haven’t covered this topic before — because I’ve never used travel socks.  Compression socks squeeze the feet and calves – to improve circulation, which helps fight feet swelling and deep vein thrombosis – blood clots in the lower legs.  When I’ve flown business class on long flights, I haven’t felt much swelling – even on the 16-17 hour NYC to J’burg flight.  I think the lie-flat or near-flat seats reduce the distance between head and feet and so minimize the blood pooling in the lower legs.  Even in coach, I haven’t felt the need for them on an 8-hour flight to London or Honolulu. However, on a flight back from Hong Kong last year, I wasn’t able to score an upgrade.  During the 15 hours in coach I definitely felt swelling in my calves.  It was a full flight, so I couldn’t lift my legs up for any length of time. Indeed, I saw a couple of guys lying on the floor in front of the exit row with their legs in the air.  On my upcoming trip to Beijing, I mentioned that I scored an upgrade to business class on the way out, but my upgrade for the flight back is still waitlisted.  If that second upgrade doesn’t come through this week, I think I’ll be doing some After Christmas shopping for compression socks.
  • Two days before Christmas, Gogo, the dominant in-flight Wi-Fi provider, filed paperwork with the SEC for a $100 million IPO.  The filing provided some interesting stats.  Gogo sells Wi-Fi on 4,000 flights a day on 9 out of the 10 North American airlines that offer Wi-Fi, though Delta represents 45% and bankrupt American 18% of their volume.  Gogo is available on over 1,100 planes, which they say is 85 percent of all Wi-Fi-enabled planes in North America, and they’re signed up to add another 525 soon. Impressive on the face of it, but if you start tumbling the numbers, you quickly find that only 3-4% of passengers are buying – which syncs up with my experience.  We’ve talked about this in past episodes – while in-flight Wi-Fi has good use cases, especially when you don’t want to go radio-silent for 3-4 hours in the middle of the day, it’s a niche offering.  I’ve used it maybe half-a-dozen times in 2011.  From my anecdotal observations – looking over people’s shoulders walking to and from the aft toilets – most people are enjoying the unconnected time to watch a movie, read an e-book, or play Angry Birds (amazing how long that streak has been going).  Doesn’t seem that most folks are willing to pay $10-12 a flight to update their Facebook status.
  • A PCWorld article on the best airports for tech users ranks the 40busiest US airports on outlet availability, speed of Wi-Fi service (either free or paid), and strength of cellular signal – a good set of basic tech criteria.  DFW ranks #1 – it wasn’t #1 on any single category, but earned above average marks across the board.  ORD, my usual hangout, ranked #34 out of 40, which I think is about right.  Finding an available outlet at a gate is like a grown-up Easter Egg hunt – complete with crawling around and looking under chairs. Everyone wants to board with a full battery pack, especially iPhone users. Apple still hasn’t gotten iOS 5 battery life back to where it needs to be.  And for me, cellular signal is much more important than Wi-Fi service because I tend to use my iDevices much more than my laptop in airports.  At ORD, the AT&T 3G service is unbelievably bad.  I’ll have 4 or 5 bars on my iPhone but can’t pull anything – e-mail, web pages, nothing!  Which is the reason I travel with a Verizon 4G hotspot.  After I’ve gotten tired of watching the “Checking for Mail” circle impotently spin, I fire up the hotspot and – Bam! – I’ve got mail.
  • But I dunno, hitting #1 for having visible electrical outlets and decent data signal seems damning with faint praise.  To really be a top tech airport, I think you need to have something like Qantas’s set up at Sydney airport – using RFID technology to make check-in, bag check, and plane boarding 5-second events.  I posted a link to the WSJ article on the TravelCommons Facebook page and Lisa Besso commented, saying that it’s a great system.  I’d be willing to suffer through ORD’s lousy AT&T service is United did something like this.
  • Early in December, when my family was trying to get their Christmas shopping done, they started bugging me for gift ideas. Sitting in my room in the Scottsdale Hilton Garden Inn (which, by the way, isn’t a bad place), paging through the USAToday, listening to a podcast on my wireless Motorola headset, I thought a wireless speaker would be nice.  Now I realize that a lot of alarm clocks in hotel rooms have plugs that let you play your iDevice through their speakers, but the quality is marginal at best (except for those few hotels that stock iHome alarm clocks) and you’re stuck in the bedroom – not great if you’re in something like an Embassy or Doubletree Suites.  I asked the Twitter-verse for suggestions and ended up with a Jawbone Jambox under the tree.  My wife said she bought the special edition yellow one so that I wouldn’t miss it when packing up, though the fact that Jawbone donates $50 from each purchase to charity:water didn’t hurt.  The Jambox isn’t cheap, but it puts out a lot of sound from a small package and has the easiest Bluetooth pairing I’ve seen.  Again, not cheap, but I recommend it.
  • Bridge music — Yours in Mine by Saurab Bhargava

Dining With Social Media

  • Finding interesting places to eat is always a challenge for frequent travelers. When you’re traveling to the same place a lot – like I do to Scottsdale – it’s easy to fall into a rut, going to the same places near the office or the hotel every trip.
  • When I started traveling, way before Al Gore invented the Internet, you’d rely on recommendations – from folks in the local office, the front desk clerk, a cab driver, a bartender, whomever you ran into.  Or maybe you pulled a top restaurant list out of the local paper or a guidebook.  I remember one project in SF in the early ‘90’s.  The project partner had a list of the top 100 restaurants in SF.  Don’t know where he got it, but it was a Bible to him.  We started at #1 for the project kick-off dinner and started working our way through the list.
  • And so here we are, 20 years and billions of dollars of venture capital investment later, and we still rely on personal recommendations.  But on steroids.  The first wave of food social media was powered by the multiplier effect — you weren’t limited to people you physically meet; you could tap the expertise and passion of a broad group of diners and foodies for broad set of recommendations. Chowhound, a food discussion board I’ve mentioned in past episodes, is a perfect example of that.  I’m still a heavy user.  On my second trip to Phoenix last month, I was on my own for dinner every night.  Around 5 every night, I’ve hit the Phoenix board on Chowhound and start paging through the entries until I found a restaurant that hit my tastebuds.  One night I ended up eating a green chile pork stew in a post Scottsdale place; the next night I had a bowl of pho at a Vietnamese strip mall in Mesa.
  • But if the first wave was discussion board-based, the current wave is smartphone-based, using the GPS and camera to build on the personal recommendations
  • Those of you following my Twitter feed may notice the occasional tweet that I’ve earned a badge from Untappd. Untappd is a social media app for beer drinkers, or should I say people who enjoy drinking good beer.  Instead of checking in locations on FourSquare, I check in my beer on Untappd.  It keeps track of the beers I drink and where I’m drinking them, allows friends to see what I’m drinking, and awards badges for “achievements” like checking in 200 unique beers or drinking a stout on Nov 3rd, what someone designated International Stout Day.
  • The whole check-in thing gets me out of my hotel room to search out local beers wherever I’m traveling.  On that same trip to Phoenix, I found Papago Brewery in a Scottsdale strip mall and tried their El Robusto Porter. It wasn’t the best beer I’ve had, but it was something different.
  • But when I’m on the road, the best use of Untappd for me is discovering bars with interesting beer selections. One night in New York a couple months back, I was wandering around Midtown looking for a good beer bar.  Standing in some ersatz Irish bar, I fired up Untappd; it used the iPhone GPS to display nearby check-ins.  Paging down, I saw interesting beers being checked in at place called the Rattle and Hum. A couple of clicks and I have it on the Maps app –it’s about a 10 block walk.  It was a pretty nondescript place.  Indeed, I walked right past it the first time.  I go inside – it’s jammed and has a great beer selection.  A great find courtesy of a dozen people I’ve never met, and through GPS I quickly found it.
  • Another app I use is Foodspotting.  It also uses the iPhone GPS.  But rather than just showing a list of near-by restaurants, it cycles through pictures of dishes from those restaurants uploaded by diners.  Reading recommendations and menus are helpful in choosing a restaurant. Actually seeing the dishes takes a whole lot of the guesswork out.  My favorite use case is to park my car in a restaurant-rich neighborhood – I’ve done this in old town Scottsdale and in downtown Bethesda, MD – fire up Foodspotting and start cycling through the pictures.  Pretty quick, I get a sense of what place near-by is best matching my hunger pangs, and then map it with a couple of clicks – or screen presses, I guess.
  • I’d like to personally thank all the venture capital firms that have invested billions of dollars over the years in all of this to help me quickly vector in on the perfect cheeseburger.
  • Bridge music — Through The Line by Saurab Bhargava

Frequent Flier Alliances

  • I mentioned earlier that I’d returned to 1K status on United; returning to the red boarding carpet at the United gates.  I also keep the 100% mileage matching – getting a bonus mile for each mile flown.  The 2012 changes to United’s awards program appear to reduce the bonus match for the mid-tier Premiere Exec’s –down to 50 or 70% depending on which of the new mid-tiers you hit.
  • The interesting thing is – I didn’t fly that much on United last year – less than a dozen flights.  Just enough status miles to make Premiere – United’s entry-level status tier, which you can get the same benefits – free luggage, early boarding – free for a year by signing up for United’s Visa card.
  • I earned most of the 100,000 qualifying miles on US Air and Lufthansa.  So I really didn’t earn 1K on United as much as I earned it on the Star Alliance.  Not that this is anything new – some chunk of my 2.5 million lifetime American Advantage miles are from British Airways.  However, with airlines rationalizing/reducing their number of seats; more tightly coordinating flight schedules and code sharing with their alliance partners, these partnerships – Star Alliance, OneWorld, and SkyTeam – become more of a way of life for frequent travelers, especially in those critical areas of status recognition, mileage credit, and mileage redemption.
  • It’s not a simple situation.  There are core alliance members – United, Lufthansa, US Air in Star Alliance; Delta and AirFrance in SkyTeam; American and BA in OneWorld.  And then there are the “other” partners, and these can move around.  Aer Lingus, for example, was part of the OneWorld alliance with American, but left in 2007 to go independent, and is now matched up with JetBlue and United (but not Continental), while Virgin Atlantic is matched up with Continental, but not United.  There are promiscuous partners – Hawaiian Airlines and Jet Airways seem to be on everyone’s list – while others like Southwest remain single or assemble their own little group like Emirates.
  • International travelers been stringing these beads for 20+ years to assemble their itineraries, but to have to do this domestically is a newer thing.  Because United and US Air are both Star Alliance partners, United has cut back their Chicago-Phoenix service, relying instead on code-sharing with US Air. I book the flight directly with US Air instead – one less step to traverse when something goes wrong – but give them my United Mileage Plus number instead of a Dividend Miles number (do I have one of those?). I still get to pre-board and, most importantly, concentrate my miles to maximize my status level.
  • The downside? US Air doesn’t take the free drink coupons United sends out to its 1K members.  If they could get that redemption thing integrated, then it would truly be a seamless partnership


  • Closing music — iTunes link to iconPictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #96
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • As I mentioned earlier, all the bridge music on this episode from Saurab Bhargava’s new album Chromatique.  The tracks were Exit, Yours In Mine, and Through The Line.  Here’s a link where you can buy the songs or the entire album.
  • If you have a story, thought, comment, gripe – the voice of the traveler — send ‘em along, text or audio 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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Leave a comment


  1. I was back on the road yesterday morning and listened to your latest episode….Already one missed flight and a rental car with no GPS, I hope this isn’t a sign for the years travels.

    I loved Untappd and it is a great way to find out a bit more about the city that I’m staying. Now I seek out different beers instead of the same 5 or 6…plus I like getting awarded badges, I’m not sure if my doctor would agree with that last statement.

    Keep the podcasts comming…

  2. Some Foodspotting photos are minor works of art. Their photos are also nicely integrated into the $10 Fodors app. Fodors reviews are edited and tend to be less extreme than say, Yelp, where so many reviews are either “awesome, 5 stars!” or “The waiter looked at me askance, 1 star.”