Podcast #107 — Serious About Hotel Reviews; TSA Gets Something Right!

Another Monday, another plane…

Brushing aside the cobwebs to make my way back into the TravelCommons studios, we talk about the growing importance of TripAdvisor hotel reviews and the checklist I walk through when writing a review. I also continue to gush about the TSA’s PreCheck program, even if this autumn’s rapid expansion seems a bit rough-&-ready at times. A listener lists out the critical travel apps on his Android smartphone and I talk about being stalked by an airline on Twitter.  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 #107:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Brushing aside the cobwebs to make my way back into the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago. It’s been a while — September — since the last episode. But I didn’t completely abandoned TravelCommons. In November, I put together a quick video with recommendations from my spring trip to Madrid, and last month updated my list of holiday travel tips, a post I do every other year.
  • The video — What to do in Madrid… in 180 Seconds, yes, the title bows to the gods of Search Engine Optimization — is a quick rundown — 3 minutes for the math-challenged — of what I enjoyed most in Madrid. Seeing Guernica, walking through the markets, finding a microbrewery run by a Michigan ex-pat, and eating in restaurants. It’s a bit different from the podcast — about a destination (Madrid) rather than the journey — and video rather than audio which are the reasons I didn’t push it out on the RSS/iTunes feed. I’ll probably do another one for New Orleans sometime soon. I figure I ought to have something to say since I’ve been traveling there since last April.
  • Doing the Madrid video reminded me, though, why I don’t do more videos. They take a huge amount of time. It easily took me 90 minutes of production time for each minute of video. And that doesn’t count the original content creation — taking the pictures, thinking through the content, writing the voiceover. My wife gave me a GoPro Hero camera for Christmas. Maybe I’ll clamp that onto the handlebars of a rental bike and pedal through New Orleans. Maybe that’ll make things go a bit faster. Or be a bit more exciting if I ride into some of the more interesting parts of town
  • Bridge Music — Planetenstaaten by Philipp Weigl

Following Up

  • A couple of good comments from the TravelCommons website I’ve been saving up since October. In the last podcast, I walked through the current load of weather and mapping tools I’m using on my iPhone and Google Tablet. Rich Fraser had the following comment:
    • Thing that struck me during the episode (and you’ve mentioned before) is how our tools have evolved over the years. Here is what I am using on my Android smartphone.
    • For maps, it’s Google Maps, although their latest release hasn’t been the most user friendly compared to the replaced version. Nice thing about it is that it leverages your other Google searches in other devices. For example, the Map that I created on my laptop is now accessible on my smart phone.
    • For flight information, it’s FlightAware all the way. I have learned of flight delays on FlightAware before the airline posted them. In most cases you can find out where your connecting equipment is coming from, so that even if the flight you’re on is running behind, you can also find out if the connection will be delayed. That is huge peace of mind. That said, all of the airlines’ mobile apps have gotten much better at relaying flight information than even a year ago.
    • For weather, it’s largely a matter of taste. I am a pilot myself, and there is an app called Aviation Weather that gives me the plain text Terminal Area Forecast for airports I am flying to. It’s a good way of predicting delays at places like Newark or O’Hare.
    • For traveling as long as I (we) have, you have to admit that with all the information at one’s fingertips has removed most of the stress from traveling.
  • Thanks, Rich. I was bouncing between FlightAware and FlightStats, but have settled on FlightAware just because of that connecting equipment information. When I have a flight that posts a delay, my first question is always “Is the inbound plane in the air?” because until it is, the estimated departure they post isn’t much better than a finger in the air. Once it’s on the way, though, I’ve found the departure estimate might slip another 15-20 minutes, but it’s usually pretty good. United’s iPhone app does this also. And given United’s recent on-time performance, it’s one of the more useful part of the app.
  • The reason I was talking about those apps in the last episode was because trying to fly out of the Gulf Coast during summer makes you a weather geek just out of self-defense. Lori Humm, another long time TravelCommons listener who travels in and out of the Southeast had these thoughts:
    • Hi Mark! I’m still doing the gulf coast run, moving between Baton Rouge, LA and Jackson, MS so I concur with your summertime travel warning. However, as I also want to get home on Thursday night and staying over would get me home Friday noon, I have just learned to be patient and where possible work the Delta Diamond line for my backup flights. The one drawback is in Jackson, the Delta side of the terminal (they have two security access points; the airport is one long building) has no restaurant or bar! I often remark to TSA about the cruel joke that is putting a Starbucks right at the entry to security
  • Back in September, I waited out an 5½ hr delay on my United flight from New Orleans to Chicago. The only saving grace was that United sent me a delay notice before I left for the airport. The e-mail said my flight was delayed 2¾ hours but that I still needed to be at the gate for the original departure time. Doesn’t that kinda defeat the purpose of the delay notice? Having spent more than my fair share of time in the MSY bars, I stayed in town, walked down to the Hyatt next to the Superdome. The ground floor restaurant Borgne is part of the John Besh empire — the guy must have a dozen restaurants in New Orleans and I think I’ve eaten at damn close to all of them. I sat at the bar and worked my way through the $5 tapas menu — crispy turkey necks, duck liver crostini — and good beer. I wasn’t leaving until the inbound flight left the ground at ORD. The topper of it all was — when I finally hit the ground in Chicago and turned on my phone, the first e-mail I received was from United, asking me to “Tell us about your trip.” Now that was a survey I couldn’t wait to fill out.
  • We’ve talked in past episodes about how airlines have really amped up their social media presence especially on Twitter. In my Top Holiday Travel Tips post last month, Tip #5 is “Use Twitter as a Concierge Service”. “At naming” an airline in a tweet — something like “@united what’s happening with UA 4286 MSY-ORD that it’s 1:45 hr delayed?” usually gets a response in a couple of minutes. Not always helpful, but there’ve been times when I’ve gotten information that the gate agent didn’t. It can get a little creepy though. At one point during that epic 5½ hr delay, I tweeted out “Burning off a 4-hr @united delay in @chefjohnbesh ‘s Borgne restaurant. Much better than MSY food” and included a picture of the tapas menu I was working my way through. A couple of minutes later, United comes back with “@mpeacock We know delays aren’t fun, but it looks like you found a great place to grab a bite and relax from your picture.” There’s no place to hide with social media.
  • Way back in April of 2012, I wrote a TravelCommons post disagreeing with surveys from TripAdvisor and Hotels.com saying the most popular hotel amenity is free WiFi. In my mind, it is a free breakfast. It’s a great convenience — swinging by the concierge lounge to quickly grab an egg, a couple of slices of bacon and a cup of coffee while I cool down from 30 minutes on the elliptical. So I haven’t been thrilled when the Renaissance Hotels — where I usually stay when I’m in New Orleans — closed their lounges and moved the free breakfast to their main restaurants. I understand it from an operational point-of-view — it’s more efficient to serve statused guests off the regular buffet than to have to schlep pans of eggs and bacon up to some lounge at the top of the hotel. But while my eggs and bacon are probably fresher, it’s not as convenient. I can’t just swing through the lounge, grab my breakfast and bolt. A hostess now needs to seat me, I wait for a server to bring coffee, and then I wait again to sign a zero dollar check. It’s more efficient for the hotel, but not for me. Kinda feels like the hospitality concept kinda got lost in translation.
  • 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 — Suerte Mijo by Arthur Yoria

Getting Serious About Hotel Reviews

  • It’s no secret that reviews are a big thing in travel. Scads of studies show on-line reviews are usually second or third in importance, ranking right behind personal recommendations from a friend.
  • TripAdvisor remains the biggest player, accounting for 32% of hotel reviews in North America according to a study released this week. Other OTAs (online travel agents) — Priceline, Expedia, Booking.com — have added reviews with varying degrees of success.
  • It’s easy to see this behavior first-hand. Many of my colleagues will scan TripAdvisor before booking a new hotel. And my wife scours it before booking our vacation rentals. If you think about it, TripAdvisor replaced the other side of a travel agent that the OTAs missed. Expedia, Orbitz automated price searching and booking, but couldn’t replace the advice a good travel agent could give, the information she collected when she followed up with her customers — “So how was that Marriott?”, “What did you like best in Madrid?”
  • I have a TripAdvisor account and occasionally contribute reviews — mostly hotels, though I have done a couple of restaurants in resort locations and some activities (like the Madrid food tour that I mentioned in a past episode). My first couple of reviews were typical — I talked about how nice the desk staff was, or got overly indignant about some incident; the kind of reviews I filter out when I’m scanning a property’s page.
  • C’mon, I can do better than this. I mean, I’ve been in consulting for 22 year; I’ve been doing a travel podcast for almost 9 year. So over a couple of beers one night I got to thinking about what’s important to me when I stay at a hotel. Since we’ve moved pretty much to rental properties for vacations, my hotel stays are just me, solo, on business. Taking safety and general cleanliness as table stakes (though there have been those times when they were sadly missing), the things I tick through when thinking about how many stars to award are:
    • The bathroom — We talked about this in an earlier episode. It might be the most important part of the hotel room. I look for good water pressure and enough counter space for my toiletries — I really hate having to put my toiletries on the toilet lid like I did last week at the Sheraton in New Orleans.
    • Room size — Is there enough room for a chair — other than the desk chair? A comfortable chair where I can read or watch TV so I don’t have to sit on the bed all the time
    • Workout room — Here’s where I see a lot of variation — from a couple of treadmills stuff in a dank room to a full blown fitness center.
    • Location — Am I within walking distance of restaurants, good bars, interesting things to see?
    • Service quality — Not just a welcoming front desk — though that’s important, most places are training for that and have it down. How about the service quality in the restaurant, or if they keep the workout room stocked with water and towels?
  • That’s a bit better. Or at least I think so. Though when I decide I’m going to review a hotel, my visit is a bit different. I’m not cruising through the lobby on auto-pilot. I’ve got my list; I’m a bit more aware. Is that a lipstick stain on my water glass? Do the hallway carpets look a bit more beat-up than usual? It changes things. I have a responsibility to observe. And it probably affects my satisfaction with that hotel, paying attention to things I might normally let slide by.
  • And I don’t seem to be alone in this, at least according to the TrustYou survey. They found that hotels got fewer five-star reviews than a year ago. Their hypothesis — As travelers read and use reviews more, their expectations of hotel service change — toward what they’re reading in the reviews. They become more discerning consumers of hospitality services.
  • Which isn’t so bad, until it goes too far — like it has with the explosion of food bloggers. If I see some guy setting up a tripod to photograph a particularly clever lobby check-in kiosk… that’s the day I delete my TripAdvisor account..
  • Bridge Music — One by Cargo Cult

TSA Gets Something Right!

  • OK, I know that I’ve been fixated on PreCheck over the past couple of episodes, but I really think it’s one of the best things the very maligned agency has ever done. A year or so ago, a survey found it had the worst public perception of any part of the federal government — lower even than the IRS, which is pretty amazing if you think about it. Expanding the PreCheck program could help pull the TSA out of the cellar.
  • Going through the PreCheck lane is like traveling in pre-9/11 days — no shouting, no pulling everything out of your bag, no emptying your pockets, no taking off your shoes, no full body scanner…. Indeed, just about everything you hate about the TSA goes away. The screening is quick, the TSA staff is nice — it’s like flying in the last millenium, in the 1990’s.
  • Of course, the reason you get to saunter through the checkpoints unmolested is that you’ve given up $100 and a chunk of privacy. I was in the first batch of TSA PreCheck people because I’d already gone through the Global Entry program. Global Entry is the US Customs and Border Patrol’s program to reduce the hassles of US immigration lines. In return for a background check, an hour-long interview, and fingerprints, you get to use a kiosk rather than queuing up for an immigration agent when returning to the US from international travel. In an encouraging display of common sense, I guess the TSA figured that, since their Border Patrol brethren had already screened, interviewed and approved me for a light once-over at the border, I’m probably low-risk for blowing up an airplane.
  • Since the fall, the TSA has been rapidly expanding PreCheck — adding lanes at existing airports like ORD and DFW and expanding to it to airports, targeting for 100 in total. I was pretty thrilled when they showed up at places like PDX and MSY. I’m happy to say that I can’t remember the last domestic airport I flew through that didn’t have PreCheck. The expansion has looked a bit rough-&-ready in some places though. Lori Humm wrote about PreCheck in Jackson, MS:
    • In Jackson, they don’t have a body scanner – they still have the metal detector – and if you are pre-check, they hand you a plastic card that allows you to to bypass the procedures, even though you are in the same line as everyone. This process is laughable as it just serves to confuse the large number of leisure travelers in line. It also holds up the line because the TSA agent is explaining the process every single time.
  • I had a similar experience in New Orleans last week. In the New Orleans airport, none of the three concourses are connected — kinda like LaGuardia in that way. Concourse B which has Southwest and Concourse D which has United and Delta have multiple TSA lanes and separate PreCheck lines. In Concourse C which has American, I’ve only ever seen one security lane running (though they have equipment for more) and there’s no PreCheck. So last Weds, I was ready for the full stripdown. But then the guy checking my license and boarding pass gave me a manila square of paper — actually, it looked like they’d cut up a manila folder — with “Pre” and a checkmark handwritten on it with a Sharpie. I got in line and showed it to the guy running the body scanner. I had to pull out my laptop, but got to leave my shoes and belt on and walk through the metal detector. Everyone else had to strip down for the body scanner. It felt very ad hoc, but I was happy not to have to pull everything off and out.
  • If the additional lanes feels a bit loose at times, the expansion to non-Global Entry flyers is interesting also. When my wife and I checked in for a November flight from PDX to ORD, both boarding passes had TSA PreCheck printed on them. My wife had never gotten that before. She hadn’t applied for anything. It just showed up. We were wondering if there was some mistake. We both walked into the PreCheck lane. The screener put her boarding pass on the electronic reader and there it was, the three beeps that say PreCheck Approved. Off she went through the PreCheck lane.
  • The TSA has said it’s randomly selecting regular passengers who, as a TSA spokesperson described it, “show up clean.” “The more information you give us about yourself, the more likely you will be selected,” she said. Again, that privacy/convenience trade-off. This might give some people pause But since the Edward Snowden affair has showed us we’ve already given up most of our privacy to another federal SA agency — the NSA, we might as well get something back for it from the TSA.


  • Closing music — iTunes link to iconPictures 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 Magnatune
  • If you have a story, thought, comment, gripe – the voice of the traveler — send ‘em along, text or audio file, to comments@travelcommons.com or to @mpeacock on Twitter, or post them on our website at travelcommons.com. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to send in e-mails, Tweets and post comments on the website
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  1. Great episode….
    As far as travel apps I still like TripIt just for the fact that it organizes and places everything in my Google calendar.
    I have also been using Google Now when I arrive it lets me know whats going on locally.
    I’ve been an UrbanSpoon contributor for years and have just this past week starting adding reviews to Yelp, we’ll see how it goes.
    As far “What’s Important When I Stay At A Hotel” we just recently had this discussion around the office. Breakfast is very important, I spent two mornings this week eating powdered eggs at a Fairfield Inn, not a great way to start my day.
    A decent workout area is something I also look for, I get really aggravated with treadmill belts that slip and causes me to wrench my back.
    I also use the FitDeck app for working out in my room; Runkeeper is another great app for tracking.
    Finally, I want the desk to have a clear view of the TV, yes nerdy, but it’s important.