Podcast #112 — Holiday Airport Etiquette; Travel Tax Pile-Up

That's Gonna Make for a Long Walk

Need More Taxes To Fix This

Here’s a new episode to keep you occupied if you’re stuck in a line somewhere while traveling Thanksgiving week. There are tips for the non-frequent traveler on how to avoid major airport faux pas and a review of how travel taxes will soak you when you get to your destination. We also talk about a high-tech suitcase that’s blown through its Indiegogo funding campaign, hackers emptying out Hilton Honors accounts, and an overseas WiFi session that emptied out someone’s wallet.  You can listen to all this and more using 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 #112:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios outside Chicago, IL. Giving you something new to listen to if you’re stuck in a line somewhere while traveling Thanksgiving week. Don’t look for me, though. I got home Weds night and won’t be traveling again until the crowds clear out.
  • I was going to open up this episode with kind of a joke sponsorship, something like — “Brought to you by People Express, thanking Spirit Airlines for making people nostalgic for us and Newark’s North Terminal”. For anyone old enough to have flown People Express in the early ‘80’s, I thought it would be a bit of a chuckle.
  • But last week, walking through New Orleans airport, I saw a People Express counter. Wait, what? Turns out that some group picked up the name for a new airline hubbing out of Newport News airport in southern Virginia. Service started this summer only to stop three months later after a ground truck hit one of their two planes. They were supposed to relaunch last month, but that didn’t happen. And then last month, Newport News airport evicted them for failure to turn over the Passenger Facility Charge that People Express collected on ticket sales over the summer.
  • So maybe my fake promo should go the other way, with Spirit thanking the new People Express for letting Spirit say to their passengers “Hey, you could do worse…”
  • Bridge Music — You are (funky mix) by Zapac

Following Up

  • A couple of comments from the last episode…
  • On the TravelCommons’ Facebook page, Steve Frick said “Listened to your latest episode last week flying into Atlanta. As walked down Concourse A, I saw TAP,  the craft beer bar you mentioned…it looked like an aquarium full of smokers”. I rummaged around the file folders of my mobile phone and found a picture of that bar which I posted on Facebook under Steve’s post. He nailed it. I couldn’t have come up with a better description.
  • Following up on the description of my first MARTA ride from ATL up north, Dan Gradwohl sent a note pointing to the website toandfromtheairport.com. He just returned from 5 weeks in the Balkans and said used the website for all those trips, and has used it to plan upcoming trips to Panama City (the one in Panama, not on the Redneck Riviera) and Santiago, Chile. I’d used it a couple of years ago when looking at rapid transit from Beijing airport into the city (I ended up punting and taking a cab, an adventure in its own right that I describe in episode #109). It’s a great resource, but, as you can imagine, tough to keep updated. Looking at the page for ORD, the train section doesn’t reflect the recent surcharge for L rides originating at ORD, and the taxi section doesn’t describe the logistical differences between getting a cab into the city (just get into the cab rank) vs. one to the suburbs — which involves calling one of the cab companies, getting an assigned number, and then waiting one lane over, unless you want to pay meter-&-a-half to one of the city cabs — Welcome to Chicago.  I sent a note a week ago to the site owner, Steve Pells, with these updates but haven’t seen them reflected yet on the site.
  • Turning to my Twitter notifications, Chris Christensen of the Amateur Traveler podcast sent a quick Twitter message on last episode’s seat recline rant — “I agree with your assessment of the knee defender story, I am 6′ 3″ and can work on a laptop in United‘s Economy Plus seats”
  • Last month, Arnoud Heijnis pointed me to the Bluesmart carry-on bag, the roller board with its own app, allowing you to track it, lock it, and getting notifications when it moves out of range from you. It rocketed past its $50,000 Indiegogo fundraising goal. The last time I checked, they had $1.1M in pledges. The crowdfunding closes Mon, Nov 24. Their Indiegogo page is really good — nice video, good description of the product, timeline laying out the steps between now and their July shipping date. They definitely hit that sweet spot of travel technology lust. Arnoud and I traded tweets on whether or not to pull the trigger. Arnoud makes a good point about wanted to see how the inside is laid out — there’s no picture of that on the Indiegogo page. I’m in the market for a new suitcase anyways. But can I wait until July? I’ll probably pull the trigger this weekend before it closes.
  • As I continue to prattle on about the wonders and benefits of TSA PreCheck, I came up with a new one early Monday morning — since I don’t have to take my shoes off, I don’t have to risk waking my wife up by turning on the light to make sure I don’t pick a pair of socks with a hole in it. Yeah, it’s a nit, but it’s one less little thing to spike my morning. And I do have to give the TSA credit for adapting to its popularity. Monday morning in ORD’s Terminal 1 — the United terminal — definitely rush hour with all the consultants flying out to their client sites — they had 4 lanes of PreCheck, shuttling the non-PreCheck Premiere fliers to another line nearby. It could’ve been ugly, but I was through in 5 minutes. I’ve bashed the TSA enough; I also want to give credit where credit is due.
  • Don’t know if you caught the news at the beginning of the month that the Hilton HHonors program was hit by hackers. After getting replacement credit cards sent to me after the Target and then the Home Depot breaches, I gotta say that I’ve become a bit complacent about these announcements. Hilton had weak security, allowing the use of a 4-digit PIN instead of a strong password, allowing is suspected to be a brute force attack — not a problem with just 4 numbers. Once in, the hackers drained the accounts, most of them swapping points for gift cards, or selling the points on hacker forums for pennies on the equivalent dollar, though there were a couple of cases of thieves redeeming the points for nights — one victim found that 250,000 of his points had been used to buy $1200 worth of nights at low-end Hilton brands along the East Coast. Hilton hasn’t said how many points they’ve had to reimburse.  Many people treat their award points accounts like savings accounts for travel — banking miles or frequent sleeper points for a summer vacation. But until recently, airlines and hotels haven’t secured them with anything close to bank-like security. Hilton and Delta allowed 4-digit PINs (Delta is switching over to strong passwords), United still allows 6-character passwords. But it’s changing. Before Delta’s switch, I noticed American and Marriott forcing the use of slightly stronger 8-character passwords. And Hilton has now added a captcha to slow down brute force attacks. It’s certainly not banking-style 2-factor authentication, but it’s a start. Another good start would be to change all my travel site passwords to something other than ABC123.
  • There was another story I tweeted out this week involving in-flight WiFi. Some guy racked up an almost $1,200 bill checking e-mail and downloading PPT files on his LHR-SIN flight — $29 for the initial 30 MB and over $1,100 in overage fees. The guy gets the e-mail receipt and is probably stunned. Then, this being the age of social media, he appears to have immediately created a little picture with his receipt and an Sing Air plane and posted it on Twitter with the first word in all caps — Gouged! And then put together a blog post. The guy, Jeremy Gutsche, bills himself as Innovation Expert, Author, Keynote Speaker & Chief Trend Hunter (CEO) at TrendHunter.com. If he’s that hip to trends, you’d expect him to know how expensive in-flight overseas internet connectivity is. The WiFi provider, OnAir, says he has to pay the bill saying that the process for purchasing its services is “entirely transparent.” Passengers can choose to end their sessions when they reach a certain price limit, a graphic shows data consumption at all times and users can disconnect whenever they want. Gutsche said he only sent some e-mail, uploaded a 4 MB PPT file and looked at 155 web pages. OnAir said “To consume several hundred megabytes during one flight takes much more than basic email viewing, for example downloading heavy attachments, cloud access and using Skype”. I think the cloud access might be the culprit. While I love having all my documents sync’d to the cloud — to get at them from any device and for backup — I’ve found that it can quickly chew up bandwidth. When I first got my Verizon WiFi hot spot, I found myself easily chewing through 6-10 GB and just couldn’t figure it out. Until I remembered that I had my 2 GB Outlook archive pst file set to sync to Microsoft’s OneDrive. Now, when I switch over to the hot spot, I kill off the OneDrive sync app. No more nagging e-mails from Verizon. Would’ve been a much more expensive lesson at 35,000 ft.
  • And if you have any travel experiences — technology or otherwise, or just general observations, thoughts, 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 — Two Guitars by Admiral Bob

Holiday Airport Etiquette Refresher

  • Unless you’ve been catatonic for the last week, you know that we’re creeping up to the busiest travel day of the year — Travelgeddon as one local TV reporter called it, causing me to do an Elvis and throw something large at the hotel TV set (luckily today’s flat screens are much more resilient than tubes of Elvis’ day). Yes, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is nigh.
  • I also know this because, right around this time the TravelCommons mailbox gets filled with helpful story ideas from PR firms along the lines of this one from Energy Water — “The day before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year—between the kids, pets and luggage holiday travel can be a hassle. These 6 travel must-haves take the stress out of traveling to see family and loved ones.”
  • Top on the list, Energy Water, of course –which seems to be another twist on caffeinated water. Go ahead, give it to the kids and see how popular you are with your seat mates in the back of a Spirit Airlines plane. #2 — noise cancelling headphones. Always a popular item, especially when surrounded by kids hyped up on Energy Water. #3 — Therapeutic eye mask. Hmmm, I don’t see too many of those on my flight. #4 — Portable power charger. One of those batteries-in-a-box things with a couple of USB ports at the end. I’d move this above the eye mask. Very handy, especially around holiday time when families will be huddling around airport electrical outlets the same way the forefathers would huddle around a fire while out on the hunt. #5 Packing cubes. Nah, never used them. They take up space that could be used for other clothes. #6 — Portable UV germ sanitizer. Probably a bit more popular in these Ebola-paranoid times. Instead of swabbing everything down with hand sanitizer (which I’ve seen people do on airplanes), you just wave the UV wand over it. I dunno seems a bit too easy. I think I’d want to see some efficacy data before putting money down.
  • So while there are tons of  “bring this” lists running around, I haven’t seen an advice list of what’s really the problem during holiday travel — airport etiquette. It’s not just the crowds; it’s the crowds of, well what some might call “clueless” travelers. I think “amateur” is certainly a nicer and probably more accurate term. So for those amateur travelers, or folks who’ve been off the road for a bit and need a refresher, here’s a list of key etiquette tips, that from my recent travel observations, need to be said…
  • Let’s start at the front of the airport — the security line. The TSA is pushing PreCheck so you may get lucky and find it on your boarding pass. Or, a TSA person may randomly pull you out of the regular line and send you over to PreCheck. It’s your lucky day! Don’t spoil it, though, by not knowing the PreCheck rules. Put your phone away and read the signs — don’t take off your shoes, don’t pull your liquids out, keep your jacket on, …. Read the signs and don’t slow it down for everyone else.
  • If getting to your gate involves a moving platform or an escalator, stand to the right because people are walking — usually quickly — on the left. Traveling with others, you’ll naturally want to stand abreast, but then you’re blocking everyone else. Don’t do it unless you want to get run over.
  • When you hit the airport Starbucks for your pre-flight coffee, remember that this isn’t your neighborhood Starbucks run by friendly Starbucks-trained baristas. It’s run by Sodexo Marriott that don’t care quite so much about coffee training. And they’re not quite as efficient. And there are usually a lot of people behind you in line. Keep your order to 3 adjectives or less. Tall skim latte is good. The half-decaf 3-pump no-foam vente vanilla latte — not so much.
  • Queuing up at the gate, don’t try to cheat on the boarding. Everyone’s looking at each others boarding passes, and airlines are telling their agents to get more strict. On almost every flight, I’ve seen the boarding agent direct someone over to the wall of shame to wait for their boarding group to be called. Don’t embarrass your family. Wait your turn.
  • And if you’re using an electronic boarding pass on your smartphone, turn off auto-rotate. If you don’t, odds are that your screen will start oscillating between portrait and landscape while you’re trying to get it on the reader. Those readers are picky enough; you’ll delay the boarding line and quickly earn the enmity of your seatmates — even before you sit shoulder-to-shoulder with them for 2-4 hours.
  • And finally, and this is a big one, don’t put your small bag in the overhead. I don’t care if you checked a bag, don’t be that person who puts a purse or a briefcase in the overhead. Show a little holiday spirit — put ‘em under the seat in front of you and leave space for one more roller board for the poor urchins in Groups 3, 4 or 5. When that person’s bag doesn’t get dropped on a tight connection through DFW, and they’re able to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner in something other than day-old sweats, they’ll thank you.
  • Bridge Music — Garden Of The Forking by J.Lang

Travel Tax Pile-Up

  • I ought to title this episode “Mark’s Rant” ‘cause I’m rolling right from “Hey you, once-a-year traveler, get outta my airport” to “Hey you, politician, get outta my wallet.”
  • Looking at my last couple of hotel bills in New Orleans — room tax state, room tax city, occupancy tax, convention and visitors bureau assessment — it adds 15% to my room rate; just a bit more than the regular New Orleans sales tax rate of 9%.
  • Last year, a trade association — the Global Business Travel Association — put out a list of the top 10 worst cities for what they called “discriminatory travel taxes” — those specifically on travel services (hotels, rental cars) above and beyond general sales taxes. New Orleans didn’t make the cut. Top on the list — Portland, OR at $23/day in extra travel taxes. Boston is second at $19/day, with those welcoming Midwest cities of Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Chicago rounding out the top 5.
  • We all know why this happens — ‘cause travelers don’t vote, at least in the places where they get charged these travel taxes. So for local politicians, raising the hotel or rental car tax generates much less blowback than a property tax bump. For example, of the 150 largest US cities, 120 of them have some sort of dedicated tax on hotel rooms. And there’s real money there — $487 million of travel taxes in 2012 for New York City; $240 million for San Francisco. For hotel taxes, St Louis, surprisingly, has the highest rate — 22%, with the average being about 13.5%. SFO has the highest rental car tax rate — 24%; the average is 12.8%
  • Of course, on top of these taxes, they stack additional line items. New Orleans’ hotel tax is 13%, just below the average. But then they tack on a dollar for city occupancy tax and another $2.50 to fund the convention and visitors bureau, which bumps up an average 13% tax rate to that 15% rate. I gotta say, though, that these add-ons pale in comparison to the 14% tourism tax that I got pegged with the last time I was up in Napa.
  • Rental cars, though, are the worst. In one of my rare TravelCommons blog posts, I looked at a string of 4 rental car receipts and saw taxes and state surcharges and airport facility charges increased my final bill by 27-51%!
  • What do you do about it? Well, with rental cars, I work my damndest to skip them. In New Orleans, I pick hotels that let me walk to and from my client’s office — skip the rental car fees and get exercise. A two-fer, ‘cause given the food in New Orleans, I need all the exercise I can get. Hotels — it’s a bit tougher. You might think about using Airbnb, but that loophole is getting closed. Starting last month, Airbnb is collecting San Francisco’s 14% hotel tax and is getting squeezed by most other cities. And Couchsurfing, at least for business trips, is, for me, not worth the hassle.
  • So whenever I pass the tourist kiosk in New Orleans airport, I always make sure I take something, even if I don’t really need it — because I’m gonna be paying for it whether I take it or not.

Closing

  • Closing music — iTunes link to iconPictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #112
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • 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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