Back in front of the mic after summer vacation, I’ve continued the heavy travel schedule — New Orleans mostly with a week in Amsterdam for a family vacation. I talk about the exposure of staying in a houseboat on an Amsterdam canal and run through my personal “Best of” list. Flying out of the Gulf Coast in the summer with its afternoon thunderstorms has forced me to become a weather geek. I run through the weather apps I religiously use. Bad weather also caught up with me in Europe, but Lufthansa did a great job of taking care of us. I’m still in love with TSA’s PreCheck. I may make Southwest’s A-List once PreCheck comes to Chicago-Midway airport. And we wrap with restaurant trends seen at this year’s National Restaurant Association show. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.
Here are the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #106:
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Back in the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago. I sorta took the summer off — working, biking, reading, drinking beer. Nothing really exciting, which meant, I guess, that I didn’t have anything new to podcast about.
- Which doesn’t mean I haven’t been traveling. I’ve been in the air almost every week since the last episode — New Orleans mostly, with a few trips to Houston, and a week in Amsterdam for a family vacation.
- The New Orleans trips have taught me a key life lesson — don’t try to fly out of the Gulf Coast after 4:30pm in the summer. New Orleans in the summer is 91 degrees and 91% humidity. And so you sit in the airport terminal and watch the line of thunderstorms cross the runway at about 4pm — just bucketing down rain with lightning strikes that keep the ground crews inside. That’s about the time you walk over and get another beer ‘cause you’re going to be there for a while.
- Of course, it could be worse. You could be on one of the planes that managed to land right before the squall line hit. You’re sitting on a plane that’s pulled up to the gate, but you can get off because there’s no one to pull the jet bridge up because of the lighting. You get the same wait, but no beer.
- So if you don’t want to torture yourself, you don’t fly out late afternoon, but the other problem is that, after 7pm, MSY is a ghost town. The last flight that will get me to Chicago — even with a connection, leaves at 6:30. Save for the odd SW hop to Houston, there’s nothing going.
- So, if I have a late afternoon meeting, I have to stay overnight. And then head over to the French Quarter, or the Garden District, or the Bywater district for a cocktail and some fresh oysters, maybe a bit of gumbo or cochon… OK, so maybe the lack of late night flights home isn’t so bad after all.
- Bridge Music – Drops of H2O (The Filtered Water Treatment) by J Lang
- So all this dodging summer Gulf storms has made weather apps join airline and trip mgmt apps in the critical travel apps folder on my iPhone and Nexus 7. Actually, it starts on my laptop where I have WeatherSpark on an open tab at all times. In one browser window, I get radar, temperature and precipitation forecasts. On my iPhone, it’s Forecast and the rebuilt Yahoo Weather apps which really represent two ends of the design spectrum. Forecast has very minimal aesthetic — lot of white space; focused quickly giving you what it thinks most people want to know — what’s the forecast for the next hour; and the next 24 hours. Tapping and reveals current weather conditions — humidity, pressure, wind; another tap the 7 day forecast; tap one of those days drills down to its hourly temperature and precip forecast. Yahoo Weather is less tappy — you start with current conditions and a big picture from Flickr and then scroll down for forecasts and a radar map. On my Nexus 7, SkyMotion is focused on short-term forecasting — it gives me current conditions and a forecast as far ahead as it can see (No Rain for the next 115 min) and then counts down the next forecast — I have mine set to update every 5 minutes. I tend to triangulate across all of them for sort of a consensus forecast, but that’s because, in trying to get home at a reasonable time every week, I’ve become a bit obsessive about the weather.
- Maps, of course, are the critical travel app. And I don’t know about you guys, but for me Apple Maps is still lousy. I hadn’t used Apple Maps ever since Google launched their IOS Maps app, but a few weeks back, landing at ORD, I was in a rush to get directions and travel time to a meeting. The address was in the appt so I just clicked on it and it popped up Apple Maps. A couple of clicks and I had directions, or so I thought. As I skimmed the turns, I thought “This can’t be right”. I looked at the address in the pin — it was Michigan Ave in Evanston, IL not Chicago — even though the address on the appointment included Chicago. So I manually edited the address, specifically typing in Chicago and hit Return. But Apple still wanted to send me to Evanston. I re-opened the appointment, copied the address, pasted it into Google Maps and I headed to Chicago.
- Playing around later that day, I found that Apple Maps just isn’t as smart as Google Maps about my location. Standing in the Loop, I put a street address into Google Maps — 525 Monroe — and Google assumes that, since I’m in standing in downtown Chicago, I want to find 525 W Monroe in Chicago. Apple Maps will tell me “Address not found” if I don’t specify Chicago. Remember when this whole debacle started — Tim Cook said Maps would get better the more people used it. I haven’t seen it, but thanks to Google, I’m not too worried.
- In the last two episodes, I talked about, when traveling internationally, buying a SIM card in country to save on voice and data roaming charges. In Amsterdam, the story was no different. After landing in Schiphol, I searched out the Lebara Mobile booth in the shadow of the Burger King. It wasn’t the biggest booth, so it took me a bit. But once I found it, it took the guy all of 5 minutes to get my unlocked AT&T iPhone 4 registered on the KPN network. For €20 (about $26) I got 1 GB of data, unlimited texts, and enough voice minutes to make a half-dozen restaurant reservations. Compare that to $30 for 120 MB of international data. The web site http://prepaidwithdata.wikia.com is a great site to prepaid plan comparisons. Should be a top bookmark for any international traveler.
- The Saturday we flew back from Amsterdam was the one day of bad weather — rain and low clouds. I’d booked our flights using United miles, so while the flight over from Chicago was a non-stop United flight, the flight back was on Lufthansa with a connection through Frankfurt. We got to Schiphol a bit early, and seeing delays, we tried to get on an earlier flight to Frankfurt. We weren’t the only ones with idea; the flight was full. “No worries,” said the counter agent, “your flight is only delayed 20 minutes. You’ll still have an hour to make your connection.” 45 minutes later, the delay is now an hour. “No worries,” the gate agent said, “you’ll still have 20 minutes to make your connection.” I study her face for signs of irony or sarcasm, but I don’t detect any. Boarding time comes and goes and we’re still in the gate area. The fuel truck is MIA and we can’t board while the plane is being fueled. I’d already talked to United. The connection we will now miss is the last flight to the US from Frankfurt and there’s no room on any nearby United flights to the US until Monday. I figure there’s a better chance of us getting to the US from Frankfurt, Lufthansa’s main hub, than Schiphol. We board the flight knowing we’ll be overnighting in Frankfurt.
- On approach to Frankfurt, the flight attendant reads off all the connecting flights — the gates for the connections that are still make-able, and the rebookings for those that weren’t — more information than I typically hear on a delayed flight into ORD. According to this, we were rebooked on the next morning’s flight to ORD, which was great news because United said it was booked up. We head over to Lufthansa’s customer service desk. Not much of a line. The agent quickly finds us in the system, looks at me, my wife and my two kids and says, “So you’ll need two or four rooms this evening?” “Two will be fine,” I tell him. He gives us vouchers for two rooms at an airport hotel, which includes €20 a piece for dinner, and also includes breakfast. All on Lufthansa. And remember, we were flying on award miles. Now think about this for a minute. If this was the US, we would’ve been told “It’s weather. Not our fault. You’re on your own.” And re-booking on award miles? I think we would’ve ranked lower than non-revenue employees. All of this, plus the really nice service in coach on the way back to Chicago has my wife telling me — the next time we book flights with United miles, avoid them; book all the legs on Lufthansa.
- One thing United does do right, though, is TSA PreCheck. As I’ve said in previous podcasts, PreCheck is wonderful thing — keep your shoes and belt on, keep your liquids and PC in your bag, stroll through the metal detector; no full body irradiation, everybody — the passengers and the TSA agents — are happy and smiling, there’s a rainbow over the exit of the X-ray machine, and a sparkly unicorn happily gives you your bags at the end. OK, I exaggerate — but just a bit. Anyhow, TSA PreCheck is a wonderful thing and United does a good job of it in ORD and IAH. American, though, seems to have its challenges. Their PreCheck line at ORD can get very long — not quite sure why — and now somehow, they’ve screwed up my PreCheck status because on my last 3 flights to New Orleans, I’ve been shunted over to the regular status line. Missing the unicorns and rainbows, I called up American. Yes, I know that PreCheck is not guaranteed and that randomly I’ll have to go through the regular line — it’s happened before, but not three trips in a row. I got shunted between Customer Service and the Platinum Desk — don’t understand it; everything looks fine. A Twitter conversation with American earlier this week asked that I compare the name on my AAdvantage account with my Global Entry account. I also looked at my United account. Both Global Entry and United have my middle name spelled out; my American account just has my middle initial. I updated my American account — we’ll see if this solves the problem.
- On a recent flight down to New Orleans, I took Southwest out of MDW. No PreCheck there. And with all the families and leisure travelers who use MDW, and the way security is configured — everyone funnels into a single massive multi-lane security checkpoint — I avoid MDW at all costs. So during this rare flight through, I asked a TSA guy when they’d be getting PreCheck. “End of the year,” he said. “They’ve been reconfiguring a bunch of lanes on the right hand side to handle it.” Well, now. I had just spent 20 minutes getting through security vs. what is usually 5 minutes in United’s ORD PreCheck line. I might be a lot more accepting of a Southwest flight with PreCheck. Provided that Southwest doesn’t do PreCheck just for its A List members.
- And finally, I had a nice social media serendipity moment last month. I was at the Oak Park Microbrew and Food Review. I think this was the 6th year was on, but the first time I’d gone. It was a spur of the moment thing, so I was by myself. I was checking in my first couple of beers on Untappd, which is something like beer geek Foursquare. And up pops a comment on one of my check-ins — “Come find me, I’m in a Red Hat Linux hat”. Another Untappd friend, and long time podcast listener Rob Auch was there too. It wasn’t too crowded yet, so we managed to find each other fairly quickly, and then hung out for an hour or so tasting beer together. It’s kinda fun when the virtual world intersects the real world.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org — 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 – Test Drive by Zapac
Summer Vacation in Amsterdam
- I’ve been burning through the award miles recently — I drained the American bank for a spring break trip to Spain, so it was United’s turn for summer vacation. Since my daughter got to choose the spring break location, my son got the choice for summer. We could only carve out a week, so Asia was out which nixed his usual choice of Japan. Let’s look at Europe “but”, I said as he was opening his mouth, “not Russia. I might be interested in St Petersburg as part of a Baltic thing, but for the rest of Russia, no thanks. You can do that on your own dime.” “Fine,” he said, “then Amsterdam”.
- Really? Why? “I dunno; just a place I want to go.” OK. Actually, as I thought about it, I got more interested in it. I’ve done a good bit of work around Amsterdam — in Haarlem, Utrecht. I’ve flown in and out of Schiphol a bunch of times, but save for one windy afternoon, never really spent any time in the city itself. This could be fun.
- As I mentioned in the last episode, we’ve pretty much converted from hotel rooms to vacation rentals for our family vacations. For about the same price as two hotel rooms, we get that and more — a kitchen, living room — places to sit and hang out other than beds and concierge lounges. We also like to shop in local markets. And with a kitchen, this is a lot more fun. We get to buy and try things rather than just doing grocery tourism.
- Normally, this works out very well. But the end of July was warmer than normal in Europe. We had expected weather in the mid-70’s — we got high 80’s during the day and maybe dipping into the mid-70’s at night. Wouldn’t be bad if we were staying at a hotel with air conditioning, but we had decided to do something a bit more local — we rented a houseboat on the Prince’s Canal. Which didn’t come with air conditioning — nor great cross-ventilation since you’re kinda down below street — and breeze level in the canals.
- The first morning in the houseboat, I woke up and headed to the kitchen to figure out the Nespresso coffee machine. I opened the canal side door and windows to let in the morning breeze and started rummaging around for the coffee capsules. I heard a noise behind me; I turned and saw one of those big canal tour boats passing within a couple feet of our houseboat; full of tourists, wielding cameras, many pointed through our open door, looking straight at me in my boxers. I waved — really, what else could I do? — pressed the Brew button on the Nespresso, and headed back to the bedroom for a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. A bit of a shock at first, it became a game for us the rest of the trip. Now purposely walking around in the most colorful boxers my son and I could find; pointing our cameras back at the tour boats. The tour boat traffic on the Canal was heavy — I posted a Vine video on my Twitter feed of passing tour boats – but that was part of the fun. We would hang out on the little porch at the end of the day, eating some cheese, drinking a beer. It felt like we were part of the Amsterdam vibe, not just observing it.
- One of the best days of the week, though, was spent turning the tables — piloting ourselves through the canals and peeping into the other houseboats. Social media serendipity hit again, this time through Twitter — by way of Untappd, again. Arnoud Heijnis, a long-time TravelCommons listener, follows me on Twitter. Untappd pushes beer drinking badges to Twitter. Arnoud sees the Weiss beer badge I earned from a check-in at some canal-side bar and shoots me a great e-mail with a fantastic list of suggestions. The one that immediately catches my eye is renting a boat for your own canal tour. I get on line, book a boat, hit the grocery store from some snacks and walk to the rental place in Westerpark. We hop in an aluminum boat with an electric outboard motor, lay on the bottom of the boat to clear what we’re told is the lowest canal bridge in Amsterdam, and then go out for a 3-hr cruise. Bopping around the canals, dodging the big tour boats — it was a great time.
- We also spent a couple of days being part of the bicycling culture in Amsterdam. I think it’s impossible to say you’ve truly visited Amsterdam without renting a bike and spending the day cycling around. I’ve spent time in Portland, OR, Seattle, and Boulder, CO — three of the top US biking cities in US — and they pale compared to Amsterdam. Until you get in the midst of it, you can’t really appreciate that bicycles are on the top of the Amsterdam transit pyramid — cyclists, then motorists, then pedestrians.The bicycle lanes near the Central Station are the craziest — a mosh pit of cyclists and foreign pedestrians coming out of the train station sprinting for their lives across car and bike lines, chased by honking horns and ringing bells. But get outside town a bit, as we did biking up to Marken Island, and it settles down a lot. And it’s pretty easy cycling — except for bridges, the country is pancake flat.
- Other tips?
- I already mentioned hitting the Lebara stand in Schiphol for the “€20 for a gig of mobile data” plan
- The train into Amsterdam from Schiphol is dead simple — take it if you’re staying in the city, but be ready — it’s so dead simple that it gets crowded.
- The family and I loved the Van Gogh Museum — it’s rare to be able to trace an artist’s development in such detail. But understand that a lot of other people love it too. Go on-line and book a specific date and time for your visit. It’s a lot shorter wait.
- Skip the new “Heineken Experience”. It’s just not worth the money. Hit Brouwerij ‘t IJ on one of your bike rides. Drink better beer outside under a windmill. Or hit Proeflokaal Arendsnest in the Jordaan district for their selection of Dutch microbrews
- We stayed in the Jordaan district and definitely recommend it. We hit the Noordermarkt farmers’ market on Saturday to stock the houseboat kitchen, shopped down Haarlemmerstraat , stopped in at the neighborhood restaurants and bars. We found it the right mix of happening but not too raucous — which, from walking down the Damrak or around the Red Light district, seem to put us in the minority.
- Bridge Music – Black Rainbow by Pitx
- This week’s trip to Atlanta will make it 9 straight weeks that I’ve been on travel. So not only do I get to know airports, and airplanes, and hotels, but also restaurants. And for the past couple of years, I’ve attended the National Restaurant Association‘s’ annual show in Chicago to walk the floor and see what trends we can expect to see when we’re eating on the road.
- In episode #98, I talked about last year’s show, where technology seemed to be the trend — mobile apps to let you pay your tab, iPad digital menus, smartphones replacing pagers for queued-up guests,…. This year there was still a technology bent — yet more permutations on digital menus (though this time featuring cheaper Android tablets as well as iPads) and a whole lot of social apps — seems everyone wants me to check-in, upload pictures, and leave comments (good ones, I assume) on their site. I gotta tell you, though, I sorta full up with social networks. Personally, I have zero interest in donating free content to yet another social network. Twitter, Facebook, Untappd, Foodspotting, TripAdvisor, and now a friend just talked me into Yelp. That’s it — I’m over-socialed.
- Luckily this year’s NRA floor — remember, I said Restaurant, not Rifle Association — had, well maybe not new food trends, but some clearer, perhaps more consensus trends. Two that jumped out at me were Mediterranean and Japanese foods. Now, I know, how new is Mediterranean? But if in years past, Mediterranean was a label used to push more expensive Italian food, I felt like I saw more of the Mediterranean this year — specifically, more of the Eastern Mediterranean — Greek, Turkish, Lebanese. Different, interesting flavors — sumac, pomegranate, tahini; less basil, more oregano; less pork, more lamb. Nothing against Italian — I love it — but anything that brings more flavor choices, I’m all for.
- Japanese flavors also had a big presence this year. But not sushi — although someone was demoing a very cool automatic sushi maker. Instead, it was about the broader spectrum of Japanese flavors — noodles, green teas, and umami — the newest basic taste — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and now umami — sort of a meaty, savory taste that is at the core of many Japanese flavors. Japanese noodles seem to be all the rage now — ramen, udon, soba, …. On the floor of the show, a Japanese company had an entire automated noodle making assembly line running. Watching those big fat udon noodle roll off made me hungry.
- Anything that adds variety is a great thing. I remember some years back traveling every week to St John, NB. I won’t bore you with the hassles of getting there from Chicago — suffice it to say that, with no customs in St John airport, it wasn’t a simple trip. St John is a nice town, but the choices were a bit limited. Monday night, we’d have salmon — very fresh, very good. Tuesday, we’d have mussels — over from nearby Prince Edward’s Island, again very fresh, very good. Wednesday, we’d have a hamburger — less fresh, but washed down with fresh Moosehead beer from next door Nova Scotia. Thursday — well, it was back to the salmon — still fresh, perhaps a little less good.
- I’m certainly not having that problem on my weekly commutes to New Orleans, but for those travelers heading to less culinarily interesting destinations, I hope the variety I saw on the floor of the Restaurant show reaches you real soon.
- Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #106
- I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
- Bridge music from ccMixter
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