Podcast #109 — ‘Round the World in 8 Days; Beijing Mass Transit

I confess... I'm carrying a concealed Totes

Yes, I’m carrying a concealed Totes

Just when I’d reset my body clock after a trip to Beijing, I headed off for an 8-day around-the-world itinerary. It was 44 hours of flight time, setting a new personal record for stupid travel. I learned a few new things along the way — Singapore Air flight attendants get grumpy when you don’t let them serve you, and Manila Airport considers a Totes umbrella as lethal as a box cutter.  We also talk about the reason Beijing has scored second to last in taxi service, the difference between United and Delta Twitter service, the secret to buying Bose headphones, and my switch from an iPhone to Android. 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 #109:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago. I’m back at my normal commute — Chicago to New Orleans with the odd stop in Memphis —  after a couple of big Asian trips in April and May. I talked a bit about my Beijing trip in the last episode, and then at the beginning of this month, I flew around the world in 8 days — some flash travel for meetings in Bangalore and Manila.
  • As you can imagine, it took me a couple of weeks to recover from that trip. That amount of airtime — I added up 44 hours in the air — was a push, even for me, and I’ll regularly do up-and-backs between Chicago and San Francisco, and you may remember a while back when I talked about doing an up-and-back to London — leaving Chicago on the overnight flight to Heathrow, showering and changing in the airline club, taking a car out to Reading for a lunch meeting, then heading back to Heathrow in time for the afternoon flight to Denver. That trip had been my most stupid piece of travel — until this one.  This one, I think aged me in dog years.
  • Bridge Music — Stinky Dog by Music Inside

Following Up

  • Back in December, in my Top 10 Travel Tips article, I talked about using Twitter as a concierge service. I suggested “at naming” them in a tweet, which I found tends to generate a response in a couple of minutes. However, in the 5 months since I made that recommendation, I’ve seen the quality and usefulness of that response degrade almost exponentially. “At naming” United almost inevitably results in some cut-and-pasted pre-approved apology — “Sorry, we hate delays as much as you do” or “Our apologies for the delay in your travel. Safety is our utmost  priority”, My frustrated response  – “Oh stop! If you were concerned about safety, you’d spend more on preventative maintenance to avoid these delays in the first place” — generated nothing but silence.
  • Delta’s Twitter account, on the other hand, did quickly solve a problem that I couldn’t figure out elsewhere. I mentioned in an earlier episode that I hated having to fly Delta because I couldn’t get Pre-Check. Facing another Delta flight out of New Orleans, I thought I try one more time to fix it. I found what I thought was the right Delta Twitter handle — @DeltaAssist — and tweeted them the message “How do I get my Global Traveler # associated with my Delta profile so I can get PreCheck for my MSY-DTW flight tomorrow?” A couple of minutes later, I got a reply “Please DM me your info and I’ll proceed”. Within 10 minutes, it was done. When I checked in 30 minutes later on the Delta app, there was the Pre- Check symbol on the boarding pass. So perhaps the usefulness decay is airline-specific, perhaps with some direct connection with United’s low score on the latest JD Powers’ customer satisfaction survey. Perhaps.
  • As I have mentioned many times on this podcast, Bose noise-canceling headphones are the mark of a true road warrior. Sure, you seem some new Gen Y analyst types sporting Beats or maybe some audiophile wearing some big Sennheiser cans. But still, by and far, Bose is still number 1. But they’re expensive — $300 and never on sale, not even in the Bose outlet stores. And so, about once every six months, I have this conversation with a seatmate — “Do you like your Bose?” “Yup, I think they’re great” “Yeah, I’d love to get a pair, but they’re so damn expensive” — also most word-for-word, every 6 months, right down to the “damn” in front of “expensive”. And here’s what I tell them — No one ever buys Bose headphones with cash. Nobody. That’s what Membership Miles are for. If you’re traveling for business, odds are you have a corporate Amex card on which you’re racking up Membership Miles for plane tickets and hotel bills, and you never quite know what to do with them. What you do is splurge on travel luxuries for yourself like Bose headphones. They’re for your miles; you suffered to earn them. Go on, get a little something that will make that middle seat a bit more bearable. But whatever you do, don’t tell your spouse about them. They’ll want to buy something sensible for the house. First, buy the Bose. After than, maybe one of those road warrior Tumi carryons…
  • And one last travel technology bit…finally, as I’ve threatened for many episodes, I ditched my iPhone 5 for an HTC One Android phone. I just got completely fed up with the lousy, unpredictable battery life on the iPhone 5 after upgrading to iOS 7. Maybe iOS 8 Apple announced this week will fix things, but I waited as long as I could. I got tired of being psychotic about battery life — about making sure I topped off my battery before boarding a plane, watching the battery meter drop 10% in the time it took to taxi from the runway to the gate — just not being able to be away from a charging cable for more than 2 hours.
  • And one last travel technology bit…finally, as I’ve threatened for many episodes, I ditched my iPhone 5 for an HTC One Android phone. I just got completely fed up with the lousy, unpredictable battery life on the iPhone 5 after upgrading to iOS 7. Maybe iOS 8 Apple announced this week will fix things, but I waited as long as I could. I got tired of being psychotic about battery life — about making sure I topped off my battery before boarding a plane, watching the battery meter drop 10% in the time it took to taxi from the runway to the gate — just not being able to be away from a charging cable for more than 2 hours.
  • Now I’m not a stranger to Android. I’ve used a Google Nexus 7 for a couple of years and a Samsung tablet before that, so I’m comfortable with Android. Indeed, I’ve said on past episodes that I prefer Android tablets to iPads because I can do more with them — get to the directory structure, attach files to e-mails. For me, Android tablets are closer to a PC replacement than iPads. But phones are different — using it to talk and text is more important than editing a document. I had been on iOS since the iPhone 3G, so this is a bit change — Android hides settings in different places than iOS, so it’s been a learning experience. The same with the mail and calendar apps, though with Android, there’s more of a choice. I have 4 mail apps on my phone now, figuring out which one I like the best, and then I’ll blow away the other three. I gotta say though that I’m very happy to be rid of that lousy iPhone podcasting app.
  • But the most important thing is battery life. I’m no longer waiting ‘til the last minute to board my plane, trying to push that iPhone battery meter up one last percentage point. And with the bigger screen — 5-inches vs. 4 on the iPhone 5 — I find myself reading more stuff on my phone and leaving my tablet in my backpack more often. I’m still tweaking things, but am very satisfied with the change.
  • 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 — Locovenido by Falik

 ‘Round the World in 8 Days

  • I think it’s a given that your mind is more of a barrier to doing something than your body. I always surprise myself when, once I’ve pushed through what I thought was a major barrier, how normal or ordinary it seems on the other side. I do that with road biking all the time — thinking a 50-mile ride, or a 100-km or 100-mile ride is a big deal… until I do it.
  • Flight times are that way too. Early in my career, I remember thinking that the 3-4 hours from Chicago to California was huge, and that the 14 hrs it would take to fly to Tokyo was inconceivable. But then I flew 7 hrs to London; 10 hrs from Europe to South Africa. Then a big jump, 17 hours from New York to Joburg every 6 weeks for a project. With that experience under my belt, that 14 hr flight time to Tokyo — or to India or China — was no longer unthinkable, just long.
  • So when project requirements and the May Day holiday forced me to compress trips to India and Manila into a single week, I gulped but thought “What the hell?”  Cutting HG Wells’ time by an order of magnitude, my itinerary took me around the world in 8 days — Chicago to Newark to Delhi to Bangalore to Singapore to Manila to Tokyo to Chicago. 44 hrs of flight time — that’s in-the-air time. Doesn’t count wait time or layover time. That 44 hrs at 39,000 ft in a week.
  • I left Chicago Saturday afternoon; touched down in Delhi Sunday night. I was fine on Monday and Tuesday. There wasn’t much down time — we meeting people pretty much straight through from 7am breakfast to dinners ending at 11 at night. I think people would’ve followed me into the toilet if I didn’t give them a stern look. Wednesday, we hit the wall but because of the impending May Day holiday shutdown, we couldn’t stop. So we doubled down on caffeine consumption and pushed through.
  • Because we had a break on Thursday, May 1. While everyone was celebrating the workers’ holiday, we hopped Singapore Air to Manila. SingAir is always at the top of any list of the best business class cabins. Unfortunately, I can’t opine on that, because I think I slept all but 45 minutes of the 7-8 hours I spent there. Which I think really frustrated the flight attendants. They kept trying to give me food and drinks whenever I opened my eyes. I would just ask for more water and then go back to sleep.
  • All my Manila to Chicago flight options connected through Tokyo. I could’ve flown United, but I’m on a bit of a United strike right now — I’m just not happy with how many delays and cancellations I’ve taken from them — so I decided to try a new airline and flew ANA — All Nippon Airways. I’d never flown a Japanese airline before, so it would be something new. And since they were one of the first airlines to buy a 787 Dreamliner, I was hoping to one of those would show up on my route. No luck on that, it was Triple 7’s on both legs. But what was fun was mealtime. The menu has two sides — a Japanese menu and “International” menu — American and European food. I figured I should go Japanese — eat as local as possible at 39,000 ft — and so was a little disconcerted when I saw most of the Japanese passengers ordering the International menu, but hey….  It turned out fine for me, though. Half the value of airplane meals, especially on long-haul flights, is the distraction; the entertainment value. A good business class meal service should keep you occupied for at least an hour — between perusing the menu, choosing a wine, have the meal coursed out, then the dessert trolley, then the liquor trolley. The Japanese meal was the best ever at that. Every tray they put down in front of me had at 6-8 different little cups or boxes of food on it, none of which I recognized, and I eat Japanese food pretty regularly on the road. So they’d put the tray down, I’d look at it, then I’d look through the menu and try to match each line on the menu with a box or cup in front of me. And not all of them were easy — “oh, that’s the custard with the snow crab…”. Which was great, because the menu matching kept me even more occupied than normal. Lotsa fun. And the food was pretty good too.
  • Of course, when you travel to a new country, there’s always something that can trip you up. I’ve traveled to India a number of times over the past 3-4 years, so I know some of its eccentricities, like needing a physical print out of your itinerary to even get into an airport terminal, and the separate men and women’s security lines because every passenger gets wanded and patted down after walking through the metal detector. It makes TSA PreCheck seem like a morning walk that’s been momentarily interrupted by a couple of nice mall cops.
  • But the Philippines were new. We landed in Manila at 11pm Thursday night. Immigration was a bit of a goat rodeo, and the ride to the hotel felt like we were passing through some just-this-side-of-dodgy parts of LA. Much more “normal” than our first night in Delhi. The way out was where the bumps showed up. First is the exit tax — they like to call it an “airport fee” but you can’t leave until you pay it, so it feels like an exit tax. It was 500 pesos — about $14 — in cash. Not a big thing — if you know about it ahead of time. Which I almost didn’t. We were having some beers before dinner Friday night and somebody asked a question about the Manila airport. I don’t remember the question, but none of us knew the answer, so, of course, we all whipped out our smartphones and revved up Google. Somewhere on one of the web pages I was scanning, I saw a comment about the exit tax. Whoa! We ran over to the concierge. Yup, it’s true. I have 750 pesos on me from an earlier trip to the ATM, so I was good. The other guys had no Filipino currency, but got the front desk clerk to give them cash and charge the 500 pesos to their room. Crisis averted.
  • The thing that did catch me, though, was the sign at the check-in desk Saturday morning saying portable umbrellas were prohibited in carry-ons. Wait, what? I’ve carried this bag on three-quarters of the way around the world and now I have to check it because I have a 10-in Totes umbrella in the front pocket? Did these guys watch too much Batman when they were kids and now are having flashbacks to when the Penguin used a machine gun umbrella? And this in a country where it dumps rain every afternoon, so you really need an umbrella! But from the look on the agent’s face, I could tell — Yes, it’s for real, and No, I don’t agree with it either. So, I reluctantly checked my bag and headed off to security… Where none of the security screeners seem to be paying much attention to any other security signage. In spite of signs to the contrary, I’m waved off from taking my PC out or taking my blazer off. Could I have sneaked my lethal Totes through? Probably. But I just wanted to get on the plane so I could go back to sleep.
  • Bridge Music — Just Don’t by Lie Big

 Beijing Mass Transit

  • One of the things I didn’t get to in the last episode when talking about my April trip to Beijing was to report out on mass transit. It’s been an on-going thread in the TravelCommons podcast, probably for the past couple of years, about getting around cities — did videos for Frankfurt and Chicago, and have talked about Portland, San Francisco, Amsterdam… So let’s add Beijing to the mix.
  • We got to the other side of customs in Beijing Airport late — 10:30, 11:00pm local time after a 14-hr flight. We saw signs for an Airport Express, but since it was late, we couldn’t figure out the particulars of the Airport Express — most importantly, where it would drop us in relation to our hotel — and the cab fare was only about US$15, we headed toward the taxi line.
  • Which offered its own kind of challenges. The line overflowed the regular switchback corral and past a sign that said “60 minute wait from here.” Great. And then there were what they call “black cabs”, non-licensed guys, walking up and down the back end of the line soliciting rides. But when I saw the locals blowing them off, I did the same. A couple of times, the airport police walked down the line, and the black cab guys ran off — literally — though we did see a couple of guys melt into the line, standing behind a concrete pillar out of the cops’ line of sight. In the end, it wasn’t that bad, 20 minutes and we were at the front of the line.
  • Which then meant we could get our first experience with the hassle of dealing with Beijing cab drivers. They’re picky and incredibly argumentative. And, of course, since they’re arguing in Chinese, a language I don’t speak, it can be a challenge to actually get going. At the airport, the cab rank people waved me toward a cab. I had printed out the directions — in Chinese — of the Marriott from their website, complete with a small map. I showed it to the cab driver. He took the paper, looked a bit puzzled, showed it to another guy, who then tried to wave me over to his car — a black cab — while my assigned cab driver wandered away. I went back to the cab rank guy, showed him the directions. He then started yelling at the cab driver, which finally got the cab driver to start loading our bags into the cab.
  • This scene would be repeated almost every time we caught a cab from the hotel. We would have the concierge book us a table at a restaurant, write the address and directions out in Chinese characters, we’d show it to the cab driver, who would then look puzzled and start arguing with the doormen. One time, I had to pull up Google Maps and do a bit of a pantomime with the cab driver — here’s where we want to go — before he would head off.
  • The only thing that was worse than this was trying to hail a cab in town. Cabs would have their “available” sign showing in their window but wave me off when I tried to hail them. It would usually take 3-5 attempts, before one stopped. But then about half of those wouldn’t want to take us where we wanted to go. I tell you, I’ve had better luck getting a cab from mid-town Manhattan to LGA in the rain during rush hour than I had getting a taxi in Beijing. So it made perfect sense when I read TripAdvisor’s survey a couple of weeks ago saying that Beijing was second only to Moscow as the worst city for taxi service.
  • Which really made us appreciate how great the Beijing subway is. It’s cheap, clean, modern, station announcements in Chinese and English — leftover from the 2008 Summer Olympics? — we took it all the time. The only downside — it’s jammed. You think the London Tube at rush hour is crowded; the Chicago Red Line during a Cubs home game? Subway riding in Beijing is a full contact sport. But with 25 million people in the city, I’m not sure I should be surprised. I think I sat down in a subway car once in all the rides I took. But even crowded, it’s a great system. Except maybe for having to pass your bag through an X-ray machine before entering the station. But at least the Chinese didn’t want to take away my umbrella.

Closing

  • Closing music — iTunes link to iconPictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #109
  • 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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4 Comments.

  1. Hi Mark-

    Long-time listener. I enjoy your podcast.

    Just listened to the latest on a BOS-IAD flight (connecting to IAD-FRA-VIE).

    A few comments (edit, of course, as you see fit).

    1] A couple of years ago I had a 7 day around-the-world flight. OGG-HNL (overnight)-SFO-SEA (overnight, meetings), -IAD-DAKAR-JNB-CPT (meetings & conference)-JNB-SIN-NRT-HNL-OGG

    I had to return early from my conference to brief a VP visiting our Maui operation, and noticed that if I came east, I could pick up a day crossing the date line that direction. I was in biz or UA Global First most of the way, so not too shabby. I hit the wall in SIN, and had trouble finding the right terminal for my flight to NRT, but I got there. When I arrived in OGG, my truck wouldn’t start; it took me 45 minutes to get it going, but I was successful in the end. Made the briefing, and even took some customers out to dinner that night! I was a zombie for days afterwards, however.

    Living on Maui, my “normal” first flight is usually 5 hours to the west coast. I’m usually stopping there, or at least over-nighting, before I head further east. The short domestic red-eyes (HI-west coast, or trans-cons), even in domestic first, don’t make it for me. Flights over 8+ hours are OK, but only if in BF or something with a lie-flat bed. I’ll have dinner beforehand, and then take an ambien, and sleep for the flight.

    About the iPhone: Compared to my BlackBerry, the battery lasts for 1/10th the time, but on the otherhand, I get 10x the performance out of it. What I have found is to 1] reign in Siri, she sucks up battery power, and 2] put it into “airplane mode” ASAP, and turn off the display. Then it lasts forever. The worst situation it to get off a 5-7 hour flight, with no charging, and then have to use the TomTom ap for directions. That sucks down the battery in no time flat. But happily, I travel with a “12-V DC” adapter for the rental car, and that allows the phone to be used otherwise.

    I agree that UAL is having a bad season, with some issues, but I’ve not been on strike yet.

    Mark

  2. Mark -

    I think I’d be willing to do 5 hr trips if I was coming home to Maui :grin:

    Mark

  3. Thanks for the advice about the Bose headphones. I am an ex-pat living down under and I survive the Syd-Lax flight by watching movies(cannot sleep on flights). I have been debating about purchasing the Bose headphones and I have decided to purchase them with my delta miles.

    Thanks again for the advice.

    Tony

  4. Welcome to the wacky world of Manila Airports. All exactly the same surprises I had years ago, but now got used to. It makes travelling interesting at least!