What Better Way to Test Travel Management Apps than a Nor’easter in New York?

Traveling to New York earlier this month, I missed Hurricane Sandy but took the full brunt of the follow-up nor’easter that the Weather Channel helpfully named Athena. The travel havoc wreaked by the wind and snow was a perfect setting for a side-by-side comparison of the free versions of the leading trip management apps — TripIt, TripCase, WorldMate, and Kayak. Looking at three use cases, pulling together travel plans into a single itinerary, sharing that itinerary with others, and flight tracking when bad weather hits, TripCase came out on top. I also talk about the TSA’s latest scanner debacle and the changes since I took listeners on a tour of my briefcase in Episode 33 back in 2006. 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 #102:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you again from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago after an uneventful Thanksgiving Day weekend. Uneventful for me at least because I was able to hold fast to my rule of no travel during the Thanksgiving holiday. I woke up last Weds, the day before Thanksgiving, to see nothing but grey out my windows. Heavy fog hit Chicago. Not a normal event. But, with a nod to Murphy, if it was going to happen, why not on the busiest travel day of the year? About 1,500 flights were delayed or cancelled. Ugh…
  • Earlier in the month, though, I did get slightly winged by the weather gods. I traveled to New York the week after, what is it Hurricane or Superstorm Sandy? I thought it was a Category 1 hurricane when it hit New Jersey. What’s with all the superstorm stuff? What is a superstorm? Anyways, I land at LaGuardia the following Tuesday morning. I’m expecting a real hassle getting into midtown, but no, to my very pleasant surprise, there were loads of cabs and no queues. Talking to a colleague later in the day, he’d flown into Newark the night before and waited two hours for a car. Timing with these travel things is everything — often better to be lucky than smart.
  • And pretty soon I thought I’d used mine up in the cab line because, while I’d dodged Superstorm Sandy, I had just landed 18 hours in front of the follow-up nor’easter that the Weather Channel decided to name Winter Storm Athena. OK, now we have hurricanes, superstorms, and winter storms all with names. Go figure. All I know is that I land in perfect weather on Tuesday morning and by Weds afternoon, I’m watching snow blow sideways on Central Park South.
  • Of course, in this age of airlines maxing out seat occupancy, they start pre-emptively cancelling flights the day before Athena hits. Tues night, American and United were already canceling flights from Weds afternoon to Thurs morning — United a bit more cautiously starting their cancellations at Weds noon while American, perhaps trying to squeeze out a bit more revenue, waited until 2.
  • Actually, my luck was holding. I wasn’t scheduled to fly back until Thurs at 3. So, if this nor’easter hits when it’s supposed to, and moves through as fast as it’s supposed to, I could come out of this OK. On Weds, I kept looking out the windows of the conference hotel. About 3 — a bit ahead of schedule — I started to see snow fly. And by 5 when I walked out of the conference to meet a friend for a beer, it was a full-on blizzard. It was a sloppy walk back to my hotel — seems that nobody in Manhattan owns a snow shovel. But looking out the hotel window Thurs morning, it was clear sidewalks and sunny skies. My flight out of LGA was delayed 40 minutes, which even on a good day qualifies as on time for a LGA-ORD flight. Lucky, ‘cause I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried…
  • Bridge Music — Mo Shang by Soli

Following Up

  • Got some good comments on the ORD layover video. Jeanette Irwin left a comment on the website asking
    • “I’ve often wanted to take advantage of long layovers by making a quick trip into the city the airport in, but have never been able to figure out what to do with my luggage (if I can help it, I don’t check my bag, but bring it on the plane with me). Do you have this issues as well, Mark? If so, what do you do about it?”
  • Jeanette, I think any experienced traveler is going to have this issue because we all pretty much break out in hives and a cold sweat at the idea of checking a bag. However, with increased airport security post-9/11, short-term luggage checks are scarce if not extinct in the US and increasingly expensive in places like Heathrow. I’ll grit my teeth and check my bag if I know I’m doing a layover tour (I did this for my Frankfurt sprint). If it’s a more spontaneous excursion, I’ll try to check my bag at an airport hotel or a hotel near my first stop. I’m usually successful. I just tell them I’m checking in later and my room isn’t ready, but I also generously tip at the front end — to the guy taking my luggage — to help grease the skids.
  • Gary Learned and Steve Frick gave answers to the question I posed in the last episode — how many of  the top 10 US hubs — ATL, ORD, DFW, DEN, PHX, MSP, IAH, DTW, EWR, SFO — could you do a 5-hour city/neighborhood tour through without needing a rental car? After checking off the easy ones — ORD, EWR (New York) and SFO — I asked for thoughts on the rest.
  • Gary Learnedweighed in on MSP via Twitter —
    • You can take the light rail into downtown Minneapolis or over to Mall of America
  • And then once you get to downtown Minneapolis, you never have to come outside — you just wander building to building through the 8 miles of human habitrails called the Skyway. Some people go weeks in the winter without venturing outside.
  • Steve Frick said
    • “You could Marta up to downtown Atlanta, there’s plenty to do in a 5 hour time span”
  • Steve must’ve followed the link to the TravelCommons Flickr page in last episode’s show notes because he also commented
    • “I was looking at your Flickr pictures, take a look back at your My Briefcase picture from 2006 technology certainly has evolved in the last 7 years”

      My Briefcase circa 2006

  • I did go back and look at that picture. It’s the first picture in the TravelCommons’ Flickr photostream — from February 2006. It accompanies an audio tour through my briefcase that was in Episode #33
  • Yes, using a Bluetooth dongle to push photos from my Motorola clamshell phone to my ThinkPad. That was cutting edge pre-smartphone stuff. The U2 clickwheel iPod also has a bit of a vintage feel, though when I heard “Vertigo” on the radio the other day, it didn’t seem that old. Some things haven’t changed though. I still record my podcasts on that little iRiver — much to my chagrin. I still use Pilot G2 gel pens, and I still carry a tin of wintergreen Altoids to get rid of that plane nap taste in my mouth. I think about half the stuff in my briefcase has stayed the same since 2006.
  • One of the things that has changed since ‘06 is the creation of a whole new class of travel electronics — the tablet. The iPad and the Kindle are the two defining devices in that category. Just before Thanksgiving, I picked up a Google Nexus 7 tablet — the competitor to the Kindle Fire and iPad Mini. The WiFi-only version has been out since the summer, but I waited to buy until they released a version with cellular data and I’d seen Apple’s 7-inch offering. I’ll do a full review in a later episode — after I’ve had a chance to travel with the Nexus 7 for a bit, but after a week-and-a-half of use, I really like it. The hardware is nicely put together, the price is right — about $260 cheaper than a similarly kitted-out iPad Mini, and the latest version of Android — 4.2 or “Jelly Bean” — is hugely better than the first tablet version of Android — 3.0 or “Honeycomb”. Very positive first impression.
  • 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 Easy Voice Recorder on your Android phone to record and send in an audio comment; 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 — You’re the Big Sky by Derek K. Miller

Trip Management App Comparison

  • Back in the golden age of travel, when everyone dressed up to fly (or at least showered and shaved), flight attendants still had their pensions and so were more pleasant, first class food was served on china with real silverware, and there was leg room in coach, frequent travelers used travel agencies to book their travel. Before you left on your trip, they’d send you actual physical plane tickets and a printed itinerary that consolidated your flight, hotel, and car rental reservations onto a single page. They usually gave you 3 copies of the itinerary — one for your admin, one for your spouse, and one for you.
  • In today’s DIY (do it yourself) age of travel, where people are searching and booking their own travel a la carte — using Hipmunk for flights, Orbitz for hotels, and booking a car directly with Avis — and then want to share these plans with 450 of their geographically distributed “friends”, there is a need to update those paper itineraries with something a bit more interactive — that leverages the billions of dollars of mobile stuff we’ve bought over the past few years — certainly since I took that picture of my briefcase in 2006.
  • I’ve used a number of these travel management applications — TripIt, TripCase, WorldMate — since I got my first iPhone, but had never really compared them to one another. I eventually settled on TripIt for no other reason than the travel management software my company used, Concur Solutions, bought them and integrated them into their offering. It’s been awhile, so I thought it a good time to give them all another spin.
  • I used my Winter Storm Athena New York trip on United and an upcoming SLC ski trip on Southwest as test beds. I loaded the free versions of TripIt, TripCase, WorldMate and Kayak apps on my iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy tablet running the most recent version of Android — Jelly Bean. Kayak wasn’t in my initial pass of apps — I think of them more as meta search than travel management, but Gary Learned pointed me to them via Twitter and I added them to the mix. Adding to the fun, I ran the Flight Track Pro and United Airline apps on my iPhone and used the Passbook app new to iOS 6 to hold my United boarding passes. I was fully apped-up and ready to go.
  • All the apps hit the base use case of aggregating trip information and effectively displaying it on the screen of a smartphone or tablet. Everyone correctly parsed the United and Southwest confirmation e-mails and noted the Vegas stopover on the return leg of the Southwest trip with TripIt, WorldMate and Kayak expliciting calling out its 40-min length.
  • Most apps also have some ways of automatically ingesting your travel plans. If your business uses Concur, you can have it send all your itineraries to TripIt. TripCase, owned by the Sabre travel system, can automatically pick up trips made by a travel agent in Sabre. I assume WorldMate will soon have something similar with Carlson Wagonlit. And though I didn’t try it, I’d guess that Kayak automatically loads trips you make through them. You can also authorize TripIt to scan your GMail account several times a day for confirmation e-mails.
  • If aggregation is the first use case, sharing itineraries is the second. Now, in this day and age, people immediately translate that into social media posting — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn — but there are different levels of sharing needed. I might want to post to Facebook and LinkedIn that I’m planning a New York trip, trolling for some serendipitous beer drinking, but not so sure I want to widely broadcast flight and hotel details. However, someone scheduling my meetings or meeting me at the airport (not to mention my wife), not only do they need all those details, they could probably use delay/reschedule updates also.
  • Everyone handles what I’d call the base social media sharing — publishing to Facebook and LinkedIn, though it didn’t appear that WorldMate pushed to Facebook automatically. I like TripIt’s two pushes — “I’m planning a trip” when I book the trip and then “I’m leaving” the day before departure. Kayak’s pushes bothered me — they were URL links to the itinerary, which makes way too much information available. TripCase and Kayak could push to Twitter; TripIt couldn’t, but could push to enterprise apps like Salesforce Chatter and Yammer.
  • TripIt, TripCase, and Kayak all published web calendar feeds you can pull into Outlook or Google Calendar, which would allow your spouse or assistant to get regular updates of your detailed travel plans. WorldMate calendar sync isn’t available in their free product.
  • Which is a nice-to-have, but basic gut-level e-mailing of itineraries is key. And I gotta tell you that I was a little surprised at the results. You’d think this would be easy. And for WorldMate and TripCase it was — click on the Share button and they quickly shot out a one-page e-mail with all the trip details in a nice table. I was surprised, though, that TripCase was the only one where I could, as a global default, set up an e-mail address (my wife’s in my case) to automatically receive all my trip updates. However, to do so, she had to become a TripCase user. Not quite what I had in mind.
  • Kayak and TripIt sent out e-mails with web links to the information. Clicking through Kayak’s got to a nice clean display of the itinerary. TripIt, though, made you sign-up as a TripIt user before you could see the travel details. Way too much work if I need to quickly share my travel plans with a colleague.
  • So far, everyone was able to aggregate travel plans, with some apps having a convenience edge if you book through their partners — Concur for TripIt, Sabre for TripCase, Kayak for… Kayak. TripIt and TripCase do the best with social media publishing, though TripIt wins if you’re a Yammer or Chatter user. TripCase and WorldMate win itinerary e-mailing, which TripIt epicly failed.
  • So that’s mostly pre-trip stuff. The final use case is while you’re on the trip and something happens — what airlines euphemistically call “irregular ops”. The sorts of things that happen when you’re traveling through LGA in the midst of, say, a winter nor’easter big enough to get it’s own name from the Weather Channel.  Flights are delayed, gates change…
  • Since I was only using the free versions, TripIt and WorldMate didn’t help. You have to upgrade to their paid versions for updates and flight status. Having said that, WorldMate Gold is $10/yr while TripIt Pro is $49. Not huge numbers, especially WorldMate’s. Somewhere along the line, I’d bought Flight Track Pro for my iPhone. It’s a $10 app, but I gotta think it was cheaper when I bought it. Anyhow, it syncs with TripIt, so I was kinda getting updates from TripIt that way. In the same way, WorldMate’s free app provides a nice deep link into Flightstats.com from the trip page — two clicks, no typing, and you get real time flight info for your flight. Not as good as a push notification, but it’s something.
  • From free services, I got the best notifications from TripCase and Kayak — TripCase through iPhone notifications, Kayak via e-mail. And both of them were faster than the airline — United, in this case. I couldn’t even get gate information updated on my United boarding pass in Passbook, and trying to get push notifications from their app is a random walk through a bunch of screens. Though it’s a paid app, Flight Track Pro did a great job of pushing gate change and delay notifications to my iPhone, and the app does a nice job of displaying current weather, which can give you a sense of how much trouble you’re in.
  • TripCase wins the the notification use case with timely gate change and departure time push notifications. Kayak does a good job with their e-mails, but I think a native smartphone app should be able to push notifications to the screen.
  • Sorting this all down, TripCase wins as the best free smartphone app.  It was at the tops of all three use cases — itinerary building and sharing, and real-time flight status updates. However, it doesn’t have a tablet-specific app — it just scales up the smartphone app.  Which looks awful on my 10-in Samsung Galaxy Tab. WorldMate, Kayak and TripIt have good iPad apps, but only TripIt and Kayak have apps specifically for Android tablets. I like the TripIt screen widget better than Kayak’s, so I’ll give the Android tablet win to TripIt.
  • This was a good exercise. As a long-time TripIt user, this kinda surprised me. But after Angry Birds, travel management is probably the most important app a frequent traveler uses. Let me know your thoughts — Twitter, Facebook, E-mail, Web Site Comments, Carrier Pigeon — all the usual comms channels are open…
  • Bridge music —Sliding into Slumber Land by Little Stevie and the Fatratz

TSA Scanner Shuffle

  • And just when you thought I’d make it through a podcast without a TSA item, here it is — my favorite topic, full-body scanners. We’ve talked many, many times about the full-body scanners used in US airports. For the sake of long-time listeners, I won’t summarize my rants. Suffice it to say, I’m not a big fan.

    TSA Backscatter Scanner Sample Images

    TSA Backscatter Scanner Sample Images

  • Now, there are two kinds of full body scanners — backscatter that use X-rays to produce the near naked images we’ve seen in newspaper articles and millimeter wave machines that produce more generic stick figures. A few months ago, the TSA started swapping backscatter for millimeter wave machines at high-volume airports like Logan, LAX, and ORD to speed up security lines. Though you still have to pull everything out of your pockets, the processing time for millimeter wave machines — from scan to “all-clear” — is, in my experience, at least half that of backscatter. The slower backscatter machines were said to be redeployed to smaller, lower-volume airports.
  • However, just before officials testified before Congress two weeks ago, the TSA announced that these 91 backscatter machines worth $14 million were actually bound for a Texas storage warehouse. Space constraints in the smaller airports and suspicions of manipulated test results by the backscatter manufacturer around new privacy software are to blame. Of course, this is the second multi-million dollar mistake the TSA has made with passenger screening technology. If you traveled through SFO in the mid-2000’s, you might have walked through a Puffer machine. It worked well in the lab, but completely failed when it faced the muck that floats around a real-world airport. The TSA spent $30 million on 94 Puffers, deployed less than half of them, and pulled the last ones out of airports in 2010.
  • No wonder the Congressional subcommittee chairman said during the hearing that he is “really aggravated” by the situation, saying that the country is “really struggling with some tough budgetary decisions and it’s … really hard to understand how this happens.” It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. You just have to be disgusted with the waste. It reinforces the sense that the TSA has never been much more than a real expensive piece of security theater. As the US shambles toward the brink of a fiscal cliff and has to make hard decisions about raising taxes and cutting entitlements, we can no longer afford to let the TSA take another $14 or 30 million away from schools or Medicare or out of taxpayers pockets. It’s a money pit we need to walk away from. And now I’ll tuck my soapbox away… until the next episode.
  • Frequent travelers tend toward a rhythm, a pattern that allows them to quickly and efficiently navigate the hassles of today’s travel experience. There’s a thin line, though, between, efficiency and a rut, and the travel bubble straddles that line. It takes some effort to pop that bubble; good food and beer can help…


  • Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #102
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • Bridge music from Mevio’s Music Alley
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