A backpack stolen from the train to the airport — or more specifically, passports inside the stolen backpack — unexpectedly extends a beer-tasting weekend in Brussels. During my recent international trips, I find that Apple’s FaceTime and iMessage aren’t working reliably — could be because of hotel WiFi bandwidth constraints. TSA’s PreCheck expedited security screening feels like you’ve passed through a time warp and landed back in 1999. Walking the floor of the National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show, it looks like restaurants are banking on their customers carrying smartphones and want to use them for wait list paging, bar tabs, and payments. 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 of TravelCommons podcast #98:
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- It was 7 years ago this month that I recorded the first TravelCommons podcast in the bathroom of the Wardman Park Marriott in Northwest Washington DC on May 15, 2005. If I were just a little bit better at right-to-left planning I would’ve had this be episode 100.
- I was in DC a couple of weeks ago, staying in Chevy Chase this time, a couple of stops further up the Red Line, because the Wardman Park was sold out. But getting off at the Woodley Park Metro stop to walk over to Adams Morgan reminded me of how long I’ve been doing this. Long time listeners will remember when this was a weekly and then a biweekly podcast. In that first year, I did 39 episodes. Quite a difference to this year when I’m working to get them out bimonthly
- Not for lack of travel, though – or maybe because of it. I got some personal travel in – a long weekend in Brussels to drink some beer – OK, a lot of beer – with my son, and then a week in Puerto Rico with my wife, daughter, and some friends. And business travel to Phoenix, Florida, New York, DC (which I mentioned), San Francisco, and a couple trips to Dallas. So less international travel than before the last episode; instead flying domestically during the huge smear of Spring Break family vacations that the month of March has become.
- Other than jam-full planes, though, I don’t remember being too annoyed with the families. Except perhaps in Ft Myers, FL where Spring Break families plus full body scanners plus no status line made for a long wait.
- I don’t know if the parents are more vigilant or I’m more self-absorbed, but, other than Ft Myers, it felt less painful than past Spring Breaks. Perhaps the spate of airlines booting off families with unruly kids has led to some throwback parenting – a quick nip of brandy at the gate before pre-boarding. Just a nip, though, ‘cause it couldn’t be more than a 3 oz bottle to make it past security.
- Bridge Music — Another Girl by duckett
- Speaking of throwbacks, on one of my flights down to Dallas, I had what could only be called a throwback security experience in the TSA PreCheck line. I walked up to the status-only line in ORD Terminal 3. There’s usually someone at the entry point looking at boarding passes, checking for status. But this time, she had a desk and a barcode reader like the TSA use at the ID check. She scanned my boarding pass and waved me over to the left. I walked past a PreCheck sign, but it really didn’t register – for morning flights, I don’t get my first cup of coffee until I’m on the other side of security. The line moved quickly. As I started to run my drill – take off the shoes, drop the jacket from my shoulders, pull out the laptop and iPad – the TSA person told me – and every other person in the PreCheck line – to stop. Put your bags through the Xray, leave your shoes and jacket on, walk through the metal detector and move along. It was too easy. I felt like I was back in 1999/2000 – the turn of the century; a nostalgia moment.
- Walking through Old San Juan, I walked through one of those gourmet condiment shops – the kind that sells hot sauces and mustard and the like. This one was called “Spicy Caribbee”. What caught my eye, though, was the package of three bottles in a one-quart plastic bag. The shelf tag had a picture of a plane and said “Onboard friendly. Meets TSA 3 oz size limit”. Just brilliant. I can’t tell you how many times I pass up buying things like that because I’m doing carry-on. As we were doing in Puerto Rico. But my wife bought the 3-pack as a gift for her brother. The TSA guy at San Juan airport gave it a second look as it came out of the X-ray machine, but let it pass. If you didn’t see the picture on Twitter or Facebook, I’ll post it in the show notes.
- Apple has been launching a new data service with each iPhone release – FaceTime video calling with iOS 4; iMessage, a replacement for SMS in iOS 5. They work pretty well in the US, but they really don’t add that much value here – I have an unlimited family texting plan and am usually not gone long enough to have a burning need for video calling. When I’m overseas – in Europe or Asia – that’s when I really need these products to work – shifting calls and texts from expensive roaming to less expensive data – hotel or office WiFi, or even AT&T’s reasonably priced buckets of international data. But I’m not finding it that reliable – Beiing, Vienna, London,… I dunno. These Apple data services just don’t feel completely baked in the middle.
- Trolling through the Apple support sites, the consensus seems to be that FaceTime requires 100-150 kbps of network bandwidth up and down to work. For most hotel WiFi that I’ve seen – and measured using Speedtest.net – getting the 100-150 kbps download speed shouldn’t be a big problem, but getting that on the upload site – could be a bit dicey. Most broadband is designed to be asymmetrical – it assumes that you’ll be downloading a lot more than you’ll upload. But video chat services like FaceTime and Skype don’t fit that assumption – you’re sending as much as you’re receiving.
- With this in mind, I paid extra for the high bandwidth WiFi at the Brussels Marriott when I was there in March with my son. I figured we’d be FaceTiming or Skype-ing back to my wife and daughter in the US, so I ponied up the extra 4 euro for the 1 Mbps service. But it Skype was still lagging and stuttering when we’d use it in the evening. Firing up Speedtest, I quickly saw why – we were only getting 256 kbps – the basic service, not the upgrade I’d paid for. Calling down to the front desk, I got the typical runaround – oh, we’re sorry we don’t know anything about the Internet service. Here’s the number of the vendor help desk…. I’ve been down this 3-hr rat hole before. I skipped it, went out for another beer, and skipped the meaningless upgrade the next day.
- One of the things I did like about the Brussels Marriott’s WiFi service was that my payment covered three simultaneous connections — in my case, my iPad, my iPhone, and my son’s iPhone. It was, from my experience, a rare acknowledgement to today’s reality – that just about every traveler has a bunch of devices that all need Internet access to completely do their jobs. The Best Western in Brussels wanted 10 euro a day for each device.
- And with everyone posting experiences and photos on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram, TripAdvisor,… you could say that multi-device network access is more important to vacationing families than business travelers. In the US, this isn’t a problem for me because I travel with a Verizon 4G mobile hotspot. Plug it in (because the battery life is just this side of miserable) and 5 devices are on-line. And, more often than not, at much faster speeds than hotel WiFi, free or not.
- Traveling internationally, the Verizon hotspot is a nice paperweight. Some folks I know carry their own mini wireless access point to extend their room’s wired Ethernet. Apple’s AirPort has been a popular one. Rather than carry an extra piece of equipment, I use my MacBook Air for the same purpose. Most Windows 7 PCs will do it to. It takes a couple of steps – enabling Internet sharing and the like – as is well-documented on the web. You are, however, back to being dependent on the hotel’s bandwidth.
- When I was in China, where I used this trick, I could see the hotel network speed crash at around 6:30 every morning. I don’t know if it was all the guests waking up and checking e-mail or the hotel was sending their overnight financials back to the home office, but Skype calls home would pixelate, lag, and then just give up. Luckily, I never really got onto local Beijing time and was up at 4:30, 5:00 every morning. Sometimes it good to have a bit of jet lag.
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- Bridge music — The Long Goodbye by John Pazden
Airport Train Robbery
- I have to be honest with you. I have been putting off writing this segment for over a month. I’ve written blog posts on the web site about free hotel breakfasts and how American Airlines is suddenly increasing their customer outreach, posted more stuff on the TravelCommons Facebook page… Just procrastinating because I really don’t want to write this segment, but I know I need to.
- Let’s start out with stipulating something – I was stupid. Now that’s not the hard thing to write. I own up to do doing stupid things on a regularly scheduled basis. The procrastination comes from how deeply embarrassed I am by my stupid act. Here I am – supposedly an experienced world traveler, seen/done most things many times over, gives advice to others – making the rookie-est of rookie mistakes. The shame and anger and more shame that burbled up every time I started thinking about writing this made me push it away
- Early Sunday morning in Brussels. My son and I finish our coffee in the Starbucks in the train station, unplug our variety of mobile devices, and head down the stairs to catch the train to the airport for our flight back to Chicago. We’d been in Belgium for 3 days eating and drinking beer. Mostly drinking beer. The train is a little late, but that’s OK because this is an earlier train than we’d intended to take. We’ll get to the airport in plenty of time.
- My son and I each have a rolling suitcase and a backpack – no need to check luggage for a 3-day beer drinking expedition. I put his suitcase on the rack overhead. The car got crowded as the train made more stops. I put my backpack in the rack also. I was reading the Sports section of the USAToday on my iPad, catching up on the first two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, trying to figure out how badly my bracket had been blown up by some of the upsets.
- The train pulls into the airport station. I reach up to pull our bags out of the rack. I see my son’s suitcase. I don’t see my backpack. Instant shot of panic. I look down – was I mistaken, did I not put it up there? I look around – did someone pull it down by mistake? I walk over the seats to scan the people queued in the aisle – can I catch the thief? I try to ask the train conductors. I run off the train, scanning passengers as they stream off the platform.
- No luck. My backpack is gone. And so is my Nikon camera, my Jawbone Jambox speaker, my Bose headphones, my United Airlines drink coupons, my Moleskine travel journal with notes from vacations over the last 6 years, and our passports.
- So let’s recap the key elements of my stupidity in some sort of time order… putting our passports in the backpack instead of my coat pocket; putting the more easily grabbed piece of luggage in the overhead rack; having my nose stuck in my iPad instead of paying attention to my surroundings. All things I knew then and have diligently avoided before.
- I eventually go upstairs to the United ticket desk and confirm what I already knew – we can’t get back into the US without passports, so we weren’t going home today. The ticket agent was as helpful as she could be – pointed me to the police station in the airport so I could file a report and rebooked us without any hassle even though we were on rewards tickets.
- We walked down the terminal to the police station. We only waited a couple of minutes. The officer was a great guy. Took my statement, quickly created the report – it was a painless 15 minutes. “We get 10-12 of these a day,” he said. Guess I’m not alone in my stupidity.
- While he was typing up the report, I called the embassy and got through to a live person. Not quite sure where this live person was, but she put me through to the on-call duty officer who, again, was very helpful. Police report – good that I was getting it; it would be necessary for the replacement passport. He would have our names on the embassy admissions list for tomorrow morning, and told me where we could get passport pictures taken on a Sunday afternoon.
- I hit Booking.com site on my iPhone and booked the Best Western right by the train station and not far from the US Embassy. With all that done, there was nothing left to do at the airport. We headed back down to the train station and went back to Brussels.
- Monday morning we packed again, hoping that we’d be able to get our passports in time to catch the 11am flight to Chicago or the 11:30 to DC. We got to the embassy 20 minutes before it opened and were the first in line by 3 minutes. A pleasant security guard had us queue a couple hundred yards away from the door until opening time. People in line were either replacing stolen passports (again, not alone in my stupidity) or applying for visas. We walked to the security gatehouse at 8am. Good thing the duty officer had put our names on the “admit” list. They screened us one family at a time – everything X-rayed, but no full body scanners. Backpacks, briefcases, luggage all stayed outside as did all electronics – no mobile phones, iPads, laptops. Luckily, I had printed everything out at the hotel. They seemed to call the numbers quickly, though the folks for visas seemed to move through quicker. We watched the clock. We had to leave no later than 10:30 to have a shot at the 11:30 flight.
- Our number was called. We went into a small room – my son and I on one side of bullet proof glass, the consular officer on the other. He was a good guy. He asked us what happened; walked through our replacement application – he was nicely probing, checking that our facts aligned. He gently jammed me (rightfully so) about taking better care of the replacement passports and told us he’d have us out shortly. I looked at the clock – we had a shot to make the flight to DC.
- We went back to the main room and waited. And waited. And waited. Watching the clock, I saw our chance to get home slowly dissolve. We waited an hour for our replacement passports. We walked in at 8am and walked out at 11am. Not bad turnaround time, but not good enough to get us home that day.
- It could’ve been much worse. Everyone I dealt with was very pleasant and helpful. My son and I took advantage of our extra time to sample just a few more Belgian beers. I had a very nice cassoulet for lunch on Monday that took a bit of the sting out of not making the DC flight.
- But added up, my rookie mistake – paying more attention to the USAToday than my backpack — cost me about $2,000 in stolen goods, 2 days additional room and board, and expedited passport fees. As my dad always said, in life, there are no cheap lessons.
- Bridge music — Slinky Blues by Admiral Bob
Restaurants Want Your Smartphone
- Earlier this month, I spent a Sunday afternoon walking the floor of the National Restaurant Association’s annual show in Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center. If you need reminding of how big the restaurant business is in the US, this show is huge. There’s everything from a shrimp purveyor from the Mississippi Gulf Coast handing out samples to a commercial pot and pan seller with one of the Top Chef contestants looking lonely in their booth.
- I went with a vague idea of checking out new breakfast food trends, perhaps for a follow-up to my blog post about free breakfast being the best hotel amenity. But as I started wandering (and sampling) around, I found myself in the technology corner of the show. It felt a little like the nerd ghetto, stuffed in the most remote corner of the smallest show floor.
- The most obvious trend was iPad menu – replacing the simple, cheap printed menu that can be tossed, dropped, and used as a coaster with a $400 piece of computer hardware. This trend had an accompanying trend – a slew of vendors selling all shapes of metal to lock down these now very expensive menus.
- What was more interesting to me were the offerings that replaced pagers, punch cards, bar tabs, and credit cards with smartphones.
- The pager one has always seemed a no-brainer to me – replacing those light-up, vibrating pagers that tell you your table is ready with a text message. Systems with 15 pagers can run $1-2,000 and replacements for the pagers that walk off run around $100 apiece. Replace that with text messages sent from a low-end smartphone at the hostess station – the cost savings are obvious. The offerings I saw weren’t quite so DIY – they combined waiting lists, wait time tracking, and text messaging into a single iPad app (of course).
- TabbedOut is an interesting app, basically extending the restaurant or bar’s order and cash register system to your smartphone. Download the app, load it with your credit cards and you pay your bar tab from your phone – with the de rigour integration to Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter.
- LevelUp is another smartphone payment app. It’s kinda like the Starbucks app – link the app to a card – the Starbucks app links to one or more of your Starbucks cards; LevelUp to a credit card – when you’re ready to pay, the app generates a bar code or QR code for the cashier to scan and you’re good to go. I use Starbucks app all the time to buy a coffee after I work out – don’t have to carry cash or a Starbucks card. LevelUp looks to be as convenient, but they don’t have the coverage yet – I’ve only seen them at a couple of food trucks.
- This push, moving pagers, bar tabs, credit cards – the assortment of physical bits and pieces that restaurants handle – into the virtual realm makes sense as more people carry smartphones. It assumes, though, that everyone can grab enough bandwidth for these transactions to happen. Which may explain another trend I saw on the floor – lots of booths peddling low maintenance ways for restaurants to offer WiFi to their customers
- Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #98
- I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
- Bridge music from the ccMixter
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