Back in the TravelCommons studios after a 2,100-mile drive through the Mid-South. We genuflect quickly to the milestone episode number and then move onto the topics at hand — best piece of hardware schwag from Google I/O 2012, a slightly icky subway ride from downtown San Francisco to SFO, a grab bag of observations from my southern road trip, and why I find myself breaking up with American Airlines after almost 30 years of travel. 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 #100:
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Well, here we are at a milestone episode number — number 100 — 7 years and a couple of months after I started. It took me 1½ years to do 50 podcasts… and then another 5½ to do 50 more. Looks like my podcast productivity is exponentially decaying…
- But you people still keep hanging around! I do appreciate the kind words that you’ve sent along via FaceBook and Twitter. I am glad that so many of you find this podcast interesting/entertaining. It’s that more than anything else that keeps me plugging away.
- Changes on the job front have kept me off the road for business travel, but I’ve managed to fill a couple of the weeks since the last episode with some personal travel.
- At the end of June, the family and I headed off to San Francisco. My son scored an academic ticket to the big geek-a-palooza Google I/O. I think this year’s event sold out in 20 minutes and there were a very limited number of discounted academic tickets, so getting one was a bit like getting one of the golden tickets in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. So while my son watched videos of guys skydiving with Google virtual reality glasses, and dove into the intricacies of Google Maps APIs and the latest whizzy things that Chrome does, my wife, daughter and I did San Francisco tourist stuff — rode bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge, rode cable cars, hang out in hipster coffee joints — the sort of stuff that I’ve never quite found time to do in the 10-15 years that I’ve been going to SF for business.
And then last week, I decided to do a little trip on my own — a 2,100-mile loop through the South. I ran I-65 from top to bottom — from its start in northern Indiana down to Louisville, Nashville, and Mobile, AL; across the Mississippi Gulf Coast on US-90 to New Orleans, up I-55 to Memphis, up US-51 to Dyersburg, then across I-155 to Sikeston, MO, and then finally up I-57 back to Chicago. But more about that later in the show.
- I have noticed though that whenever I travel for leisure, I don’t travel quite as sharp — I don’t feel as tightly wrapped, as “in the zone” as I do when I travel for business. On my flight out to SFO, I hit a new level of bad planning, of “non-preparedness.” I had to reach for the SkyMall catalog before the plane even left the taxiway…
- Bridge Music — Awel by Stefsax
- I wrote a blog post last month about tipping. I received a link to a nice infographic from somebody from Hospitalitymangementschools.org — a web site that I still can’t quite figure out what it is. It seems like a legit web site with information about the hospitality management industry, but there’s no contact information — just a web submissions form, and the domain name is held in proxy by GoDaddy. I dunno — it feels just a little fishy.
- Anyhow, the tipping guide infographic was good, if a little wonky on the iPhone, and seemed to offer reasonable advice. There is a surprising amount of emotion wrapped up in figuring out a tip amount. You want to appropriately acknowledge the service someone has just given you, and that then gets combined with the image you want to portray — am I a nice generous person, am I a sharp you-won’t-get-anything-by-me person?
- Looking at on my own tipping, I think I do well when dealing with a service person face-to-face — a waiter, a car valet, a hotel bellhop — but not so well with tipping people I don’t see — like a hotel maid.
- Rich Fraser is in the same place — both about not tipping cleaning staff and feeling slightly “off” about that
- I agree with your take on tipping the housekeeping staff. I’m probably totally off base, but I always considered housekeeping to be a service inherent to my stay. I get that service whether I ask for it or not, as opposed to the bellhop, bartender or concierge, which are optional services.
- And that’s just dealing with the US. Don’t get me started about international tipping — which countries it’s an insult to tip, it’s an insult not to tip, which countries you just round the tab up….
- One of the highlights of our SF trip was, at the end of each day, seeing what schwag my son hauled back from Google I/O. These developer sessions have become quite the giveaway spree as companies try to recruit independent developers to their platforms. Microsoft gave away Windows 8 tablets at its last conference, but Google is the one that goes the deepest. Over two days, my son got an unlocked Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone, a Chromebox, the Google Nexus Q media streaming device slash bocce ball stand-in, and a Nexus 7 tablet. $1,200 of hardware for a $300 academic ticket. No wonder it sold out in 20 minutes.
- The Nexus 7 tablet was the highlight of the schwag bag. $200 for the 8 GB model, it directly competes with the Kindle Fire and blows it out of the water. It runs the latest Android version– 4.1 or Jelly Bean as the droid-heads call it — while the Fire sits at a custom version of 2.3 or Gingerbread. In those intervening versions, Google has smoothed off a lot of Android’s sharp edges and has significantly improved performance. For the first time, I could see an Android tablet being a real competitor to the iPad.
- I also like the 7-inch form factor. Steve Jobs is famous for dismissing anything less than the iPad’s piece-of-paper size. I was surprised, though, how much easier I found reading and web-browsing on this much lighter device. And since most of what I use a tablet for is media consumption — rather than as an executive laptop replacement — I’m thinking I may downsize my next tablet. I’ll see if the rumored iPad “mini” appears and then, if not, I may head down the Google route too.
And continuing on my periodic trains-to-airports thread, when leaving San Francisco, I took BART — Bay Area Rapid Transit — from downtown — we were staying at the St Francis in Union Square — to SFO for my flight home. It was a Sunday — the last Sunday in June — and a nice sunny, warm day — a rare event in SF — which brought out in full force the standard SF mix of street performers, cup rattlers, and tourists. Getting through this melange with my rolling bag was my first challenge. Once I got down to the station and in front of the fare machine, I got a bit of sticker shock — it was $8.25 to get to the airport. Sure, you pay a lot more for London’s Heathrow Express, but it’s a private train company with just one stope. The BART fare is one of the bigger numbers I’ve hit for a subway system — Chicago is a flat-rate $2.25 from the Loop to O’Hare; Washington’s Metro is $3 from downtown to Reagan National. Sure, $8.25 is cheaper than a $40 cab ride, but still…
- And that sticker shock only sinks in deeper when you get on the train and see how beat-to-hell they are. They’re the same style trains as the Metro, but they’re in much worse shape. Who thought it was a good idea to put cloth seats on a public transit train? I wished I had a plastic sheet to sit on. And I made a bee line to a restroom once I hit SFO to I could wash my hands — it was just that disgusting. I’m back to taxis when next in SF.
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- Bridge music — Steam Train by John Williams
Drive South — A Southern Road Trip
As I mentioned at the top of the show, I did a “great circle” road trip of the Mid-South earlier this month — me, a full-up old 30 GB click-wheel iPod, a list of restaurants and bars, and a suitcase of nothing more than shorts and polo shirts all loaded up into my Saab convertible. I started off by running I-65 from top to bottom — from the Indiana Toll Road to Mobile, AL, with stops in Louisville, Nashville, and Birmingham. I jogged over to the state line to Florida, passing the huge rebuilt version of the Florabama Bar & Grill, for a weekend on the Gulf at Perdido Key.
- I then drove across the Mississippi Gulf Coast, past the re-built casinos in Biloxi, and then past the not-so-rebuilt towns of Gulfport and Pass Christian. Here we are 7 years after the eye of Hurricane Katrina made landfall at Bay St Louis, MS and the vacant lots along the coastal road – US-90 — far outnumber the rebuilt homes. Indeed, the For Sale signs on vacant lots — many of them hand-made with “Make me an offer” scrawled across the front” — outnumber the rebuilt homes.
- I eventually ended up on I-10 and drove into New Orleans for dinner, reloaded on beignets and chicory coffee the next morning, and headed up I-55 with a lunch stop in Jackson, MS before landing in Memphis for a couple of days. The final leg was Memphis to Sikeston, MO and then up I-57 back home to Chicago. A 2,100-mile loop through what many people consider “fly-over” country.
- The first reaction that most folks have to this itinerary is — Why? It’s certainly not on anyone’s top 10 scenic drives list. But it’s always been on my list of trips to-do — to stop off on “drive thru” cities and spend a little time exploring, even if only for a couple of hours. And to do a bit of a nostalgia tour — visit places I lived 25-30 years ago. And to catch up with old friends — physically rather than just over Facebook. But while I’ve been thinking about it for a while, it’s always been on the “B” list — always getting bumped by something else. Well, as I hinted at the start of the show, my professional situation has changed, providing me a bit of a summer sabbatical. With a suddenly open schedule and nothing else planned, it’s the perfect time to work into that next tier of things to do.
- I took a week to do this great circle route — not too fast, but not dawdling either. I had a great time. And came away with a few observations…
- First, that drive is not as boring as you might fear. Now, I don’t want to sugar-coat it — I-65 through northern Indiana and I-57 through Illinois are brutally mind-numbing — flat unending fields of corn and soybeans, the monotony of which is occasionally broken by a unending rows of wind generators (they’re just too huge to be called windmills). But past that, the landscape does have character. The low-lying clouds tight against the hills, resting in the valleys in Southern Kentucky. Driving long causeways over the marshes and bayous heading south into Mobile on I-65 or coming north out of New Orleans on I-55. The red clay of any turned over ground in Alabama. The forests of Southern Mississippi. It’s certainly not the Big Sur Coastal drive, but it’s not (except for Illinois and Indiana) hundreds of miles of sameness.
- Second, with all that windshield time, I finally found a good use case for Apple’s Siri. I’ve seen the Samuel L Jackson and Zooey Deschanel commercials, but have never gotten Siri to be more than an annoyance — I can always find something faster myself than repeating my question 3 times. But with both hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road, Siri was very good at reading and replying to the daily flow of text messages. The results of “Read new message” was unintelligible only once, and given my sister’s tendency for random punctuation and abbreviations, it was understandable. Siri’s still not the virtual assistant Apple keeps pitching her as, but she does have her uses on a long drive.
Third, there’s good local food and beer everywhere. Call it the “Brooklyn-ization” of America, but every decent sized city I visited had its own hipster neighborhoods with restaurants serving local artisan foods and local craft beers. Louisville has its unfortunately named NuLu neighborhood, Memphis the better-named Cooper Young at the intersection of Cooper St and Young Ave, and New Orleans has the Bywater district a good bit away from the French Quarter.
- You expect good food in New Orleans, but I had very good food and beer in every other place I stopped. An example of that Southern local focus is restaurants using country ham in place of prosciutto — which makes sense if you think of proscuitto as just another kind of air-dried ham — but from Italy instead of Virginia. At the Garage Bar in Louisville, they had a ham bar with a choice of f country hams from farms in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. At the Beauty Shop in Memphis — a great Twitter recommendation from @denrael — country ham, cantaloupe, and an arugula salad made a great appetizer on a hot day. I also hit on a string of locally sour brown ales at breweries in Louisville and Birmingham. Definitely not lawnmower beers and as good as any I had in Brussels last spring. Finding these restaurants and breweries had the side benefit of taking me out of the normal tourist spots — leaving behind the French Quarter and Beale Street. Just look for art galleries, record stores, tattoo parlors, and people in skinny pants riding bicycles without helmets.
- Another observation — waiting for the last minute to book a hotel room with Priceline’s Negotiator app works — sometimes. I’ve never used Priceline’s “opaque” pricing before — naming my price for an unnamed hotel room. If I’m traveling on business or with my family, I typically want things nailed down a bit tighter. I have a much lower appetite for risk; am willing to pay more money to insure a good experience. But on this trip, I’m by myself and am only looking for a clean bed and decent water pressure for the morning’s shower. Seemed like the right time to give Bill Shatner a try.
- My first try was Friday night around 7pm in Louisville. Sitting in the Garage Bar after my serving of Kentucky country ham, I fired up the iPhone, got a sense of that the going rate at reasonable hotels was in the $75-110 range, and then bid $50 for a 3-star place near the airport. “Whoa, that’s a low bid” said a pop-up screen on the Priceline app. Yup, that’s the idea. After working through a few screens, I had a great room at a very nice Holiday Inn. I ran the same play Sunday night driving into New Orleans and got a room at the Marriott on Canal St for $60.
But during the week while in Memphis, no luck. No one bit on my lowball bids and I ended up in a very substandard Hampton Inn and not so clean Comfort Inn. Apparently there was some Little League tournament in town. Don’t know others’ experiences, but the risk-reward trade-off with Priceline bidding is real. Which confirmed my initial instinct — useful tool when traveling by myself with no rigid itinerary, but not so much for family or business travel.
- And finally, if I do this trip again, I’m packing some statins, some Mevacor. After my fourth straight day of barbecue, I could feel the pork fat thicken my blood. Not that that kept me from ordering one last slab of ribs on the drive home…
- Bridge music – Bubbly by Ruben van Rompaey
Breaking Up with American Airlines
- My relationship with American Airlines began June 1985 when I flew from Chicago to Dallas to start my first job out of school. And now here I am, 27 years and about 2.5 million miles later and I’m feeling just done with them.
- I wasn’t always like that. It’s easy enough to fly American out of DFW — indeed, it damn close to impossible not to. But I went out of my way to fly American after I left Dallas — first back in Chicago, and then in Philadelphia. Not too tough in Chicago; ORD is another AA hub. But sticking with them while flying out of US Air’s Philly fortress hub — that took some commitment.
- Over the past, say, 5 years, though, things have changed. American’s competitors declared bankruptcy, cleaned up their balance sheets and bought new planes. Lousy if you’re an investor with stock, an executive with options, or a creditor taking a haircut on loans, but for a customer it works out. American seemed proud of not going bankrupt, but as their planes got older and dingier, and fuel prices got higher, something had to give.
- And give it has, not just renegotiating plane leases. At a time you’d think American would want to take extra care of customers, their service taken a dive. And they’ve gotten more aggressive with add-on luggage and seating fees. And now combining older frequent flyer miles that had no expiration date with those that expire in 18 months. For me, it’s not a big number; it’s the change in attitude; the final break in what I thought I could expect from American.
- Will I stop flying American? No, unless they go completely under. Or worse, merge with USAir. They’ll keep a big hub out of ORD and I have lifetime Platinum status with them — unless that too becomes a casualty of their new “take away” mentality. What will stop, though, is giving American the benefit of the doubt, of having them be my “default” choice. After 27 years, they’re just another uncomfortable plane seat.
- Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #100
- I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
- Bridge music from the ccMixter web site and from Magnatune
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