Recorded at the JW Marriott in New Orleans together with a GoPro video capturing all the unedited bits. We go deep in a comparison of public transit and drive times to US airports, shed a tear for SkyMall magazine, and marvel at the stack of lost Android tablets at American Airlines’ ORD lost-and-found. We talk about what has been an awful start to the travel year in the US east of the Rocky Mountains, and wrap up with some observations about how hotel perks have become more important than points. 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 #114:
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Which made me happy to head to ORD when I was flying south — mostly to New Orleans, but the flight to Phoenix made me really smile. I think it was 15 degrees when I left Chicago and about 70 degrees when I landed. I spent at much time as possible outside, trying to resolve what I figured had to be a Vitamin D deficiency. I did get a chuckle on my last night there. I was sitting outside at a bar, must’ve been the low 60’s and they had the heat lamps on.
- I also flew through Memphis this past month. The flight selection in and out of there just gets worse. That airport is becoming a ghost town since Delta dismantled the hub that Northwest had there. Indeed, they have a 2-year project to shrink the airport — demolish half the A and C concourses, mothball what remains, and consolidate everyone into the B concourse. Kinda surprising when some airports are at capacity with people sprawling on the floor, there are other airports with concourses that could double for bowling alleys. How much does the economy have to improve for it make sense for the airlines to start adding back some capacity?
- This coming week has me tempting the travel gods, hoping for better weather, with two up-and-backs to the East Coast — a day trip to Newark and an overnight to Philadelphia. Perhaps a precautionary sacrifice is in order, but what? Maybe a sacrificial offering — I dowse my travel size tube of Crest toothpaste with the extra bottle of Dewar’s
- Bridge Music — 10p Mix by amplifico
- Spelunking through my Twitter feed…
- Another thing that made me smile on my flight down to PHX last month wasn’t that I scored a 1st Class upgrade on American — it was that the upgrade let me hear a woman ask, as she walks on the plane, to be reseated away from the plane’s WiFi access point because she’s allergic to WiFi. Just when you think you’ve heard everything on a airplane… This seems absurd in just so many ways. Like, how did she make it through the terminal without going into anaphylactic shock? Run a WiFi analyzer app on your phone or tablet the next time you’re in an airport and you’ll see that we’re wading through a sea of WiFi signals. And what about the passengers sitting all around her — because nobody remembers to shut off the WiFi on their laptops or tablets. And I guess she didn’t stop off at Starbucks on the way to ORD. As it was, the flight attendants just looked at one another — like they (or anyone) would know exactly where the GoGo access point was located on a 737, and like they’d want to rejuggle seats on a 737 completely full of families heading out on Spring Break. They just mumbled “We’ll ask someone” and gently pushed her down the aisle.
- Taking mass transit to and from the airport is a running theme (fixation?) here at TravelCommons, so I immediately clicked through a tweet from Nate Silver’s 538 blog that went geekily deep on that, comparing public transit and driving times from the airport to downtown for the 40 busiest US airports. Only in Minneapolis, Honolulu, and Chicago (both ORD and MDW) is public transit quicker than taking a cab. If open the range a bit — saying anything within 5 minutes is a toss-up, the list gets a lot longer — Washington Reagan, Atlanta, San Diego, San Francisco, Austin. Open it to 10 minutes, which could be worth it given the cost difference, brings in Boston, Charlotte, Seattle, San Francisco but from OAK this time, and New York’s JFK. A number of these work because they’re close-in airports — Chicago Midway, Washington Reagan. Others because the highway traffic is so bad — most notably O’Hare and JFK. The list is ranked by public transit time and for the top 15 — plus JFK which is #30 — public transit times are reasonable enough to make the cost-convenience trade-off compelling. Some of the airports below that line that I know — New Orleans, Orange County Calif, Detroit — I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a public transit sign in those place. PDX jumped out at me. I talked about taking that airport light rail in an earlier episode. It’s a nice service, but it takes a while — it makes a lot of intermediate stops — and so it doesn’t compare well to a cab ride that takes half the time. Of course the gold standard is London’s Heathrow Express — a 15-minute straight shot from Paddington Station vs. an hour cab ride. But that’s not a real apples-to-apples comparison — a Heathrow Express ticket is £21.50 (over $30) vs. $5 for ORD or $7.50 for JFK. The better comparison might be the £5.70 ($8.50) ride on the Tube’s Piccadilly Line that takes 50-60 minutes, which would fit in at the bottom of the top 15 US list.
- Waiting out an unbelievably long delay on a United ORD-DEN flight, I ran through all of my reading material — electronic versions of the Wall Street Journal and NY Times, physical version of the Chicago Tribune, my Feedly newsreader stream, multiple refreshes of Twitter — and so had to dive into the seatback pocket, the emptiness of which reminded me of SkyMall magazine’s bankruptcy at the end of January. SkyMall was always good for at least 15 minutes of entertainment, along the lines of “who in the world would buy that?” — the zombie statue crawling out of your garden, the kickboard suitcase, the NFL wine shoe holder…. until last Christmas, when a friend bought my present out of SkyMall — a 6-bottle leather wine holder for my bicycle. Stunning. I can’t wait for the snow to melt to try it. I only fly Delta when I absolutely have to (like to ATL or MEM) so I didn’t notice when they canned SkyMall back in Nov — “We saw a decline in customer use,” they said. Yup, every electronic thing I read prior to reaching for SkyMall — the WSJ, NYT, Feedly, Twitter; I could add Facebook; if I was younger I could add Tumblr. I think the minute the FAA allowed us to keep tablets on during take-off and landing, SkyMall was a dead man walking…
- And speaking of tablets, last month I thought I’d left my Google Nexus 7 behind on one of my American flights home from New Orleans. It was one in what seemed to be a stream of stuff I’d lost on the road — a couple of pairs of sunglasses, earbuds, and now this. I went to the American’s lost-and-found in ORD. The woman came out with a stack of 10-12 7-inch Android tablets — Lenovo’s, Samsung’s, but not mine. I could see she had a similar sized stack of iPad Mini’s. Looks like this happens a lot. I think the move from solid to mesh seat back pockets is a good thing. But that weekend, as I continued to steal my wife’s Nexus 7, I realized how much I used that tablet. So Sunday night, I hopped on Amazon and found a refurb 8-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro for $200. Sold. I bought it on my son’s Prime account for cheap next day shipping. It’s a nice piece of kit — bright screen, quick performance, which was a very pleasant change because after Google pushed the latest Android update (Lollipop) to my Nexus 7, its performance cratered to the point of nearly being unusable. It was nice not having a 2-3 second lag between screen touch and reaction. That following week, as I was adjusting my backpack contents — notebook, Bose headphones, and now my Samsung tablet, I was having problems getting things to fit. I reached in to move some stuff around — and found my Nexus 7. I hadn’t left in a seat-back pocket. I’d just lost it in my backpack. I gotta get a non-black case next time.
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- Bridge Music — Emily C by Fiasco
Awful Winter Travel
- Now that the US snow cover appears to be retreating — though Boston did get some more snow last weekend — I’m hoping that we can bid farewell to what was a really lousy start to the year — at least from a travel perspective. It kinda caught me by surprise because the start of the winter season — end of Nov and through December — wasn’t bad at all. But January started to have it’s problems, and then February — it was 4 weeks of travel hell for just about everywhere in the US east of the Rockies. Cold, Snow, Ice, Wind — kinda the 4 winter horsemen of the travel apocalypse.
- Every week seemed to have yet another disruption. I think it started with the Snopocalypse that wasn’t in New York and New Jersey. Mayors, governors closing offices, schools, roads, towns on the forecast of massive/huge/historic (they started to run out of adjectives) snowfall — only to see, what, 4-6 inches? But everyone had flights delayed, cancelled — it seemed to take the next couple of days before everyone got back in the traces. Only to have a real snow storm blow them back the next week. I had a string of I think 3 Mondays of flight cancellations. I’d get on a weekly conference call and half of everybody was not where they were supposed to be — cancelled flights, diverted flights, working from home,…. One colleague trying to fly from Ft Myers, FL to Memphis (for work obviously) on Delta. Lands at ATL only to find they’d cancelled his MEM flight due to an ice storm. “When can I get there?” “We don’t know”. He turned around and went back home for the week. His clients couldn’t get to their offices for 3 days.
- As I mentioned in the last podcast, I tried to be a bit more strategic in my travel — picking some warm spots when I could, avoiding known trouble spots. I cringed whenever I had to fly to the East Coast, but sometimes I got lucky — I hit San Antonio on a 70 degree day. The day after I left, it dropped down to 40. I managed to wrangle a half-week in Phoenix in mid-February. Mid-70’s and sunny — I was outside every minute I could. Flying home, it was 77 degrees when I left PHX; -2 degrees when I landed at ORD. I thought I was going to shatter when I walked onto the jet bridge.
- I think the pinnacle was when the Delta jet slid off the LaGuardia runway, hit a fence, and came within yards of dumping into Jamaica Bay. Landing at any of those small, near-in airports — LaGuardia, Washington Reagan, Chicago Midway — are like putting down on an aircraft carrier, not a lot of room for error. Add snow or ice — I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. Luckily, this one wasn’t fatal — not like the Air Florida crash out of what was then Washington National on a snowy January, or the Southwest 737 that slid off the end of a Midway runway, through a fence and into a street intersection, crushing a car waiting at the red light, killing a small boy. This was just more inconvenience — closing LGA for 7 hours, taking a big chunk of capacity out of what is already the most crowded/overtaxed airspace in the country. A friend trying to fly home to New York that afternoon boarded her flight, it pushed back, only to pull back in after it was cancelled. It was just one more delay, one more cancellation. I was a little luckier. Even though I was flying from Memphis to Chicago, some piece of my flight — the plane, the crew — got caught up in that East Coast mess. But thanks to the wonders of mobile message updates, I was able to track the delays from the relative comfort of a Mexican bar in East Memphis. One margarita with an high-school buddy turned to two turned to dinner with his wife joining us. I, unlike so many others, got home that night and had something other than bad airport food to show for it.
- The next week — yet another delay on my New Orleans-Chicago flight. Late inbound aircraft. But why? ORD and MSY were fine; all the weather was again in the East. No one knew, not even the pilot. When we finally boarded the flight, he keyed the mic and said, “I’m awfully sorry about this delay. I wish I could tell you why, but I have no idea. The plane arrived Chicago on time from San Antonio and then just sat there. I wish I could tell you why.”
- I dunno — maybe they lost it behind a snow drift.
- Bridge Music — Keep Your Motor Running by Dave Hole
Hospitality Beats Points
- One morning in some concierge lounge in some Marriott or Sheraton that I can’t quite place, I opened my umpteenth warming dish, looked in at yet another pond of runny scrambled eggs and wondered “Really? How difficult is it to properly cook institutional egg mix?”
- Just about every poll of statused hotel travelers rank free WiFi and free breakfast as the top amenities, the ones that keep travelers working to maintain status. But when you actually use those amenities, they’re often not so great — slow WiFi (even the “enhanced speeds” that Marriott promises their gold and platinum members), semi-liquid scrambled eggs and stacks of over-cooked bacon.
- Which is a problem, because just about every hotel chain in the past couple of years has raised the number of points needed for a room and also created a new top tier for the best/most popular properties — added, say, a Category 6 so they could charge even more points for that Maui property — devaluing that big point balance — your vacation savings account — that you “road warriored” so hard to build.
- So if the points aren’t worth as much anymore, what keeps travelers loyal to a brand, what keeps you staying in, say, a Marriott 75 nights or 25 stays in a Westin to make top-tier platinum? It should be those amenities — but how loyalty are those scrambled eggs worth? They’re convenient, but don’t differentiate much.
- Some places are ditching the whole lounge idea. I’ve been in some Renaissance hotels and Marriott Autograph hotels that serve the free breakfast in their restaurant — there’s the standard-looking buffet, but if you have the time, you can order anything off the menu. Blows my diet a bit, but beats 4 mornings straight of scrambled eggs.
- I have noticed, though, that I’m being offered more specialty perks at places that I’m staying a lot. The Sheraton on Canal St in New Orleans will occasionally offer me basketball tickets — the Pelicans are actually doing well this year — and had some special grandstand deals to watch the Mardi Gras parades in front of the hotel. I didn’t take them up on either of their offers — I had other commitments — but it was nice to get the offer.
- I call it the “Cheers” effect — you want to go where everyone knows your name. When you’re away from home, you want someone to smile and ask how you’re doing. And it’s not just hotels. The morning barista crew at the Starbucks on Canal St and St Charles fire up a spinach feta wrap when they see me walk through the door, even when it’s been a couple of weeks since my last visit.
- Of course, there is a fine line that can be crossed. Like a friend of mine, she received Christmas presents from a front desk clerk for years (!) after about an 18-month gig that had her weekly at the Trumbull CT Marriott. Or when I first started traveling for business, I was commuting between Dallas and Chicago, passing through the DFW Admirals Club every Monday morning. After about 3 months, one of the agents who’d I’d gotten to know asked me if I’d like to meet her daughter. Awkward. But in what I still think is one of my best moments, I asked her “Do you really want your daughter dating someone who travels as much as I do?” She thought for a moment, “No, not really”. Awkwardness averted, and we went on to have a nice friendship until I moved back to Chicago a year later.
- Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #114
- I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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- Bridge music from Music Alley
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