Podcast #105 — Traveling in Spain; Return of the Hotel Lobby?

Stickers Covering a Restaurant Window in Barcelona

Should we look it up in TripAdvisor or chance it and walk through the door?

Been traveling non-stop since the last episode. One destination was a family Spring Break vacation split between Madrid and Barcelona. I talk about our experiences with booking a vacation rental and how I’ve learned to give up complete spontaneity and enjoy a couple of guided tours.  I also do a mea culpa for bitch-tweeting about flight delays, but don’t think the airlines’ response to my tweets represents an effective social media strategy. Instead, I highly recommend the flight tracking website Flightaware. And I end with some thoughts about the resurgence of the hotel lobby. 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 #105:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago. No, I did not fall off the face of the earth, though I have felt like I’ve been clinging to the edge at times. I started writing this episode in April, and then work got in the way and it slipped to May.
  • I’ve been on the road every week since the last episode, though that hasn’t been as bad as it sounds. Two days after I posted the last episode, I headed out to Spain with the family for Spring Break — 10 days split between Madrid and Barcelona. The weather wasn’t great until the last couple of days — it was mostly rainy and about 10 degrees colder than we’d packed for — but it beat the occasional snow showers that were in Chicago then..
  • Coming back, I headed back out to Portland to wrap things up out there and then started traveling to New Orleans weekly. I did have a day trip to Cleveland, which gave me a quick reminder that there are worse places to be traveling to than Portland and New Orleans. And though it may not seem so, the weather is pretty similar — Portland is 58 degrees and rain; New Orleans is 78 degrees and rain. Though the New Orleans rain does seem to have a bit more “umph” behind it.
  • But it hasn’t been Gulf storms that have delayed my two of my flights home by over two hours. The delay on my American flight was caused by rain — Chicago was being pounded by 5-7 inches of rain that day, rivers and roads were flooding. My only complaint was that American showed on-time until an hour before departure. Given all the delays at ORD, you can’t tell me they didn’t know way earlier in the day that there was going to be a delay. Instead, I had to sit around MSY — which is a surprisingly dumpy airport — for another 2 ½ hours.
  • The 2 ½ delay on United two weeks later had a much weaker excuse. The plane started the day in Denver where it was delayed by a spring snowstorm and the delays just cascaded through the day — Denver, St Louis, Chicago, New Orleans, and back to Chicago. United couldn’t scrounge up a plane somewhere to stop the cascade? Well, perhaps United could, but United doesn’t run the Chicago-New Orleans service. It’s run by GoJet, a 8-9 year old regional jet company that subs for United and Delta. United has 706 jets, GoJet has 66. Kinda explains the day-long cascade.
  • United started sending delay notices earlier in the day than American — but they all came with the caveat that you still needed to be at the gate at the original time just in case. A 1 hr delay cascaded into 2. Felt a bit like Groundhog Day. The only consolation was that the food choices are much better in MSY Terminal D. I had a nice boudin blanc and a big Abita beer. My waitress told me that I could take my beer to the gate if I wanted to. I looked at the plastic cup — of course, it’s New Orleans, why wouldn’t I get served in a go cup. She said most people did that; made them feel more comfortable that they wouldn’t miss their flight; but make sure you finish it before you get on the plane. Right about then I got another delay notice from United. The waitress was looking to close out. I packed up my kit and headed out to the gate with a fresh beer. You can never be too careful.
  • Bridge Music — Hear Me by DJ Blue

Following Up

  • I have to fess up to something that those of you who follow me on Twitter already know — I’m one of those who bitch-tweets about flight delays. I get frustrated and instead of taking out on the gate agents — which we all know is wrong — I whine to the Twitter-sphere, which means I take it out on all my followers. I recognize that this too is wrong. People don’t follow me to get a whinge-stream, so I’m working hard to stop. I think I’ll need to carry a stress ball this summer.
  • In my flight delay bitch-tweets, I typically “at name” the airline — United and American in these past weeks — which nowadays generates a tweet back within a couple of minutes. I guess this is nice, but it’s typically meaningless.  The usual response asks me to direct message — DM — them with my confirmation number which I used to do, hoping that they could do something that the gate agent couldn’t — though I’m not sure what that could be given that the gate agent is right in front of me and the Tweet wranglers are probably in Manila or Chennai.  Maybe a bit more information or deeper insight into the cause of the delay, a better forecast of the actual departure time rather than the rolling 60 minute delay that never ends? Nope, none of that. Just multiple versions of “we’re really sorry”, which actually is more frustrating than if they didn’t respond. I know they’re trying, but I’m not sure that this is an effective social media strategy
  • Trying to work my way through all these flight delays, I found the Flightaware web site invaluable. It provides real-time flight tracking information, which is critical if you’re trying to figure out how real the posted flight delay is. Before I found Flightaware, my usual drill would be to work my way up to the gate agent, smile, and ask nicely if the inbound flight was in the air yet. If they had time (a growing rarity), they’d look it up — “nope, still loading” which means the posted delay is going to grow — they’re always too optimistic; they don’t want you pestering them to transfer your ticket to another carrier. Flightaware has all that information. Put in the flight number and it gives current status and scheduled arrival time. Hasn’t left yet? Hit the “inbound flight” link and now you get the information you used to have to beg the flight agent for — is the inbound equipment in the air and when it’s scheduled to arrive. Keep hitting that inbound flight link and you can page back through the day to figure out when your schedule came off the rails. That’s how I found out that my United MSY-ORD flight delay started that morning in Denver. Highly recommended.
  • A couple of weeks back, I walked up to American’s status security line in ORD for one of my flights down to MSY and noticed they’d completely reconfigured it. They quadrupled the amount of line space for PreCheck people. Basically, they just swapped the PreCheck and non-PreCheck line space. Tells you how many people are willing to trade privacy for convenience. And I’m enthusiastically one of them.
  • Though you can get caught short when having to go back to a non-PreCheck airport. For a while, I was doing nothing but PreCheck airports — ORD, PDX, CLE.  On my first flight back from MSY, I completely booted it — left my laptop in my backpack, left stuff in my pockets going through the full body scanner… I was a mess. Luckily, it was the middle of the day and hardly anybody going through the security line, so my cluelessness didn’t really hassle anyone. I apologized to the TSA screeners. I told them that this was my first non-PreCheck line in over a month. They got it. They said they were hoping that PreCheck shows up there soon. Even the TSA folks like PreCheck.
  • The mail bag filled up nicely since the last episode, though given the gap between show, folks probably forgot they’d written in. Nick Gassman, a long time listener, listens to podcasts while he swims — cuts the boredom he says — and he recently caught up with the episode 103 from January. Commenting on the segment about all the different sizes of tablets hitting the market, Nick writes:
    • “I don’t see the problem making calls on large phones or tablets. It’s so easy and cheap to pair a bluetooth headset to make a call. You also see people at airports making facetime calls on iPads, and I Skype on the Nexus. The issue seems to be with holding it to your head, rather than using it for calls.”
    • “I was interested in your reviews of apps. Do you use any airline apps? How about for checking in and boarding passes, and have you used Apple’s Passbook at all.”
  • Actually, I was all the airline apps — United, American, Southwest, Delta — mainly because, with a couple of design cycles behind them, it now seems easier/quicker to check in on the apps than the web site. And I do use Apple’s Passbook to store the boarding passes. I like the quick access from the iPhone lock screen — one swipe and I’m laying my boarding pass on the TSA reader.
  • Dan Gradwohl corrected my assumption in the last episode that a Delta MD-80 out of MSP was an old hushkitted Northwest DC-9 that I used to hate when I lived in the Detroit area. He writes:
    • “Northwest’s MD80s were retired in 2000 and the DC9s fly out of ATL, there’s none in MSP.  So, I suspect that you were on a former Delta MD88 which are very reliable, I’m on them all the time.”
  • And he adds:
    • “I totally agree with you on the TSA’s new knife policy, just adopt it and don’t make a big rollout with it.  Nobody is going to take down a 767 with a pen knife!”
  • Ken Okel wrote in to ask about any recent experiences with CATSA — the Canadian version of the TSA. He’s heading up there — probably around now — to do some training. I think the last time I flew out of Canada was when my wife and I spent a long weekend in Toronto, and we woke up to the CBC talking about a second outbreak of SARS in Canada. I think that news crowded out any observations about airport security. But if any of you have some thoughts to pass along to Ken, I’ll put a link to his web site in the show notes.
  • And if you have any travel observations, questions, a story, a comment, a travel tip – the voice of the traveler, send it along.  The e-mail address is comments@travelcommons.com — you can use your smartphone 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 — Madrugada by Savoyard

Traveling in Spain

  • At the end of March, my wife, daughter, and I met up with another family from the Chicago area for Spring Break in Madrid and Barcelona. The weather was slightly marginal — we were carrying umbrellas as a defensive measure for all but the last day or so in Barcelona — but we had a great time and are looking forward to going back again. Now I’m not going to tell you what to see — I’ll leave that to my friend Chris Christensen and his Amateur Traveler Podcast. Instead, I want to talk a bit about how we did it.
  • It started way before we left when we started looking for accommodations. A few years ago, the search for a place to stay would’ve been very similar to the search for flights — look at the awards points balances for each chain — Marriott, Hilton, Starwood — and start cycling through their websites. We still did a little of that — our flight from Chicago to Madrid had us overnighting at Heathrow, so we burned through some frequent sleeper points at the Heathrow Marriott. But for the past few vacations, we moved from hotel rooms to vacation rentals.
  • Once you move, as a family, from one to two hotel rooms, the economics for vacation rentals starts making sense, even without factoring in the savings from being able to make your own coffee or meals. And there’s the non-price benefits of things like having more than one room so you don’t have to spend all your time sitting on your bed.
  • However, booking a vacation rental place still isn’t quite a seamless experience. We’d booked what looked to be a great place in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona, right next to the Picasso Museum. Once we arrived, we were to call this number and someone would meet us at the property with a key. Seemed easy enough, but you can probably tell by the tone of my voice that it didn’t quite work out that way. We get off the train from Madrid, ring the number. Oh no, we no long handle that property,  you need to ring this number. OK, we ring that number. Do you have the confirmation number from our e-mail? No, that can’t be it, all of our confirmation numbers start with the letter Z. You get the drift. Took us 30 minutes, half a dozen phone calls, and me beginning to raise my voice before we finally got through to the owner who apologized profusely, saying that he’d told the vacation rental company 6 months ago that he’d dropped that property manager. Not a smooth “check-in” experience. 20 minutes later, he meets us at the apartment — a great place that fit two families. But now one last hurdle — to pay. We knew when confirming the rental that he wanted to be paid in cash. It’s Spain, what can you say? So the past three days, the adults had been maxing out their ATM withdrawal limits to amass enough cash. Would’ve been a bit easier — and safer — if he’d taken a credit card, or at least PayPal.
  • Before leaving we also decided to book a few “cornerstone” activities — a market food tour in Madrid, a cooking class in Barcelona, a wine tour in Priorat. This is a big change for me. I used to run as far as possible from any sort of structure in my vacations. One of the best trips we took was driving through Tuscany without an itinerary or reservations, just a Michelin Red Guide (this was pre-Internet) which we pulled out to find a hotel in whichever town we decided to stay that afternoon. But when we went to Vietnam a few years back, I pre-booked the whole trip — you needed to — and include some private tours — a drive through Saigon, some temple trips, a night on a junk on Halong Bay. I found that instead of feeling like I was choking off spontaneity, I felt like we got to see things we wouldn’t have found on our own. And that it also got us up the learning curve quicker — having someone show us kinda the structure of a city rather than us piecing it together on our own.
  • So along those lines, I booked a food tour of Madrid’s markets on our first evening in Madrid. It solved a few problems. It helped keep up awake that first night — always a key to fighting jet lag. It had us walking through some of the neighborhoods of central Madrid, so we started to get our bearings. And it fed us, so we didn’t have to figure out a restaurant our first night. But if the vacation rental industry is a bit unstructured, the local tour operator business is a complete shot-in-the-dark. TripAdvisor can be some help in avoid bad operators, but I think it’s lousy for search and discovery. I ended up using the same method I used for finding people in Vietnam — e-mails to everyone I knew who might know something about Spain. A former employee who now distributes Spanish wine in Chicago connected me with a wine tour outfit run by an American and a French woman. And Craig Martin of the Indie Travel Podcast pointed me in the direction of an American woman who lives in Madrid doing food tours. Lauren took us through two food markets, did a comparative tasting of Iberian hams, and got me drinking Spanish sweet vermouth which I would’ve never ordered on my own. A couple of days worth of experiences in what could’ve been a wasted night. I’ll put a link to Craig’s interview with Lauren in the shownotes, as well as links to the food tour and wine tour web sites.
  • All this coordination requires communication which, in this day and age, assumes a mobile phone. Which can get expensive fast if you’re roaming on your US plan. Just working my way through all the calls for the Barcelona rental would’ve been $100. Again, I did a bit of pre-work, which in this case involved getting AT&T to unlock my old iPhone 4. Once on the ground in Madrid, my first stop was to a mobile phone store to buy a pre-paid SIM card. We were staying just off Puerto del Sol, a popular shopping locale that had just about every mobile carrier represented with a shop. I went to the Orange store — the first one I hit and also carrier recommended by Craig Martin. For 15 euros, I got a card and a weekly plan that included 50 text messages and free data. And the Orange guy clipped down the full-sized SIM so it would fit in my iPhone.
  • 20 years ago, going over to Europe would mean a booking hotels via Telex, calling up friends for tour advice, and making sure we were in a decent-sized town by mid-morning so we could cash our travelers checks. Today doesn’t feel too incredibly different.
  • Bridge Music — Crazy Love by DJ Lang

Return of the Hotel Lobby?

  • I remember, many years ago, being dropped off by a taxi at what purported to be The Royalton Hotel in New York. The Royalton was the latest hip, cool, and edgy hotel from Ian Schrager, and a colleague had insisted we stay there. I get out of the cab; it’s late and it’s raining. The place doesn’t look like a hotel — I guess that was the point — it wouldn’t have been hip, cool or edgy if it looked like an Embassy Suites. There’s a little plaque to the right of the door that says “Royalton”, so I trust the cabbie and trundle up the stairs. I walk in the door. It’s dark, there’s some bass-heavy house music thumping, and the couches in front of me are full of people drinking and general pre-hook up positioning. I check the address again. Nope, this should be the right place. I see a woman at a desk at the other end of the room. Perhaps the front desk? I trundle down. Nope, she’s the hostess. I had passed the front desk — it was tucked into the wall halfway back to the door.
  • The Royalton was kinda emblematic of the idea that the traditional hotel lobby was a waste of expensive floor space, a revenue dead zone. So you saw places like the Royalton convert their lobbies into nightclubs while budget chains downsized them to a couple of chairs across from the check-in desk.
  • But soon after hotel were downsizing their lobbies, companies were downsizing their real estate. Companies like IBM kicked people out of their offices, told them to telecommute and saved millions in real estate cost. However, for all the advances in instant messaging and desktop video conferencing, people still want to meet face-to-face. But if you’re both working out of home, where do you do it?
  • Starbucks was, and really still is the default answer for the casual/quick fly-by meeting. But as they’ve shut down underperforming stores and shrunk the footprint on others, Starbucks are becoming less ideal. And at some point, you get tired of shouting above the din of the steam milk frother.
  • Which got me thinking again about hotel lobbies. In Portland, I was staying in the Hotel Monaco downtown and I really enjoyed their lobby. It isn’t an extension of their restaurant or of their front desk. It is its own space, with couches and chairs that aren’t bolted to the floor, so you can slide them around and have a conversation with someone. I like the lobby at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York for the same reason. The furniture is not all pointed outward to watch the passing parade of people; it’s arrayed so you can talk with someone face-to-face.
  • Some of the newer Marriott Courtyards seem to be re-investing in lobbies, but with big screens showing the weather forecast and news headlines and a row of PCs, I’m not sure if they’re trying to provide a conversation place or a different take at a Kinko’s.
  • But then again, the last Marriott Courtyard I was in had a Starbucks in the lobby, so perhaps we’ve just taken this whole meeting place search thing in one big circle.


  • Closing music — iTunes link to iconPictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #105
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • Bridge music from ccMixter
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