Apologies in advance because this is pretty much a stream-of-consciousness episode, with semi-strung together thoughts about eggs, car rentals, seeing the Pope, travel food, and stuff from my September trip to Scotland. I talk about how handy I found the new Revolut service for spending and sending money in Europe; recent good and bad experiences with Hertz and other car rentals; most bad experience with British Airways; and how true-to-life the Doritos Super Bowl commercial portrays the Southwest boarding experience. 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 #117:
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Coming to you from TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL. I was trying to do this from the Bally’s Casino in Las Vegas where I was earlier in the week, but it just didn’t work out. I was there for business, not pleasure, but I always feel that I should stay in a casino hotel when in Vegas. I dunno, staying in a Westin or Marriott up by the convention center just doesn’t feel Vegas. When I was here last year for a business convention I stayed in the MGM Grand. Years ago, though, when I’d do regular booth duty at technology shows, I would always stay at Mandalay Bay, which I really liked.
- The more I know about hotels, the more I’m impressed by Vegas hotel operations. Caesars, the MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay — they’re huge mini-cities — orders of magnitude bigger than couple-hundred room hotels I’d stay at in Denver or New Orleans. And yet the service, the execution is almost always way better than those smaller hotels. If you’re any sort of an operations nerd, you gotta give ‘em a nod. Though on the other hand, when you head to the gym at 6am and pass by the old guy dragging on a cigarette playing the quarter slots, it kinda makes you wish they were a little less good…
- As I mentioned in the last episode, the big travel for me was at the beginning of September when we were in Scotland for 2 weeks getting my daughter situated at Univ of St Andrews. Now while I say “getting my daughter situated,” there were equal parts getting my wife situated with the idea of her youngest child being an ocean away — a big difference from when my son was 90 minutes up the road in Milwaukee.
- The following week’s travel had a nice difficulty factor. Weds morning, I flew from Chicago to DC for the papal Mass on the campus of my alma mater, Catholic University of America, and then back to Detroit that evening for meetings first thing Thursday morning. The difficulty factor was my luggage. No back packs, no selfie sticks, so certainly no roller bags were getting through the security checkpoints. Finding a checked luggage place is a real challenge anymore. I thought about checking my bag into my DCA-DTW flight, but I was too early — 8 hours prior to flight time max. There is a checked baggage place at Union Station — DC’s train station — which is conveniently located a couple of stops south of Catholic on the Metro Red Line.
- Freed of my baggage, I emerged from the Brookland Metro Stop to an unbelievable combination of people and fencing. Incredibly long lines of people corralled in by what had to be miles of fences. I was lucky; I somehow got into a quick security line — only 45 minutes. After finding my seating section, the gates were closed and we were sealed in our sections until the Pope arrived and did a couple of laps around campus in the Popemobile. After Mass started, they opened up the gates again. Which was great, because while the music and the liturgy were top notch, I wasn’t queuing up for communion with 25,000 other folks. After the homily, I was one of the trickle of folks making an early exit to beat the rush. I had a flight to catch. I’m sure the Pope understood.
- Bridge Music — One Day by Hollow Horse
- OK, just as a warning, this section is going to ramble on for a while. I have a random walk of comments/opinions that I just can’t seem to synthesize into coherent topics. So here it goes…
- First stop in the mail bag, I was pleasantly surprised to receive this audio comment from Linda Martin of the Indie Travel Podcast
- Linda, thanks for that. The thing with eggs — you can tell I’ve thought about this way too much — it’s a trade-off between good eggs and time. It takes time for a cooked-to-order egg, but in the morning, I don’t often have that time. Usually, I’ve worked out; I’m cooling down during breakfast, then hitting the shower and off to work. When I stayed in one of the Renaissance Hotels in New Orleans, they didn’t have a separate executive lounge. Breakfast was served in the restaurant. They had the typical lounge buffet set up, but you could also order off the menu, which I think I did once in a dozen stays. It was a nice egg, but it took an extra 10 min that usually wasn’t in my morning schedule. Definitely a 1st World problem
- Lisa Walls wrote on the TravelCommons Facebook Wall
- “Hey Mark, I love your podcast, especially the comments on food and craft beers. Other than the Altoids, do you carry any food in your briefcase, such as protein bars? I am always looking for something that is shelf stable that tastes good and travels well.”
- Lisa, thanks for the note. I usually keep 1-2 KIND bars in the bottom of my bag. The fruit-&-nut ones seem to hold up to weeks of getting crushed by my PC power supply. They’re also not too sweet the way some other granola and power bars are.
- I know I’m about to lose any foodie cred I may have built up over the years, but I gotta say that, for me, the McDonald’s grilled chicken Snack Wraps are just about the right amount of food to cover a 2-hour flight. They’re quick to buy, and compact to bring on board and eat. I find it tough to manage a salad while sitting in a center seat.
- I’m not sure if I mentioned this last episode, but I’m flying Southwest on this week’s Vegas-Denver-Chicago trip to click over A-list status. It kinda crept up on me — I don’t typically fly SW enough to make status, but apparently I have this year. As near as I can tell, this means I won’t have to pay the $12.50 Early Bird fee or be staring at my Southwest app exactly 24 hours before flight time in order to get a decent boarding position. Which, as we all know, is critical on Southwest since there’s no assigned seating. An A or early B boarding group number is necessary for an aisle seat. On my Vegas flight, hitting the “Check In” button maybe 2 seconds after the 24-hour window got me B 7, so I got an aisle seat in the back half of the plane. It was a full flight, so after that, I was living last year’s Super Bowl Doritos commercial — looking down, trying to avoid eye contact with potentially bad seat mates while looking friendly to attract good ones. Here’s a link to the commercial. It’s spot on.
- In the last episode, I talked about travel amateurs clogging up the PreCheck lanes. These would be people getting PreCheck as part of the TSA’s “Managed Inclusion” program, where they randomly shunt travelers over to PreCheck to balance screening line loads. This to the utter frustration of travelers who paid $85 for PreCheck screening or $100 for Global Entry. You might recall long-time listener Rich Fraser saying he was getting PreCheck about 75% of the time so why should he pay? But now the TSA says they’re throttling back on “Managed Inclusion”, driven at least in part by the publicity generated by auditors finding that travelers on various watch lists were being given PreCheck. I’ve certainly noticed the length of PreCheck lines dropping.
- Also in the last episode, I talked about luggage trends. One trend that sorta hit the cutting room floor is the move to fully rotating twirly wheels. Certainly handy in getting your luggage down a tight airplane aisle, but to my eye, most of them look a bit tinier, a bit flimsier than the standard roller-blade style wheel partially embedded in the back of the suitcase. The twirly wheels don’t seem rugged enough to survive getting pulled down Manhattan sidewalks or some of the ruts in New Orleans. And to allow full rotation, the wheels stick out of the bottom of the suitcase making the bag longer. This tripped up my wife on our flight from EDI to LHR. The BA gate agent asked my wife to put her bag in the luggage sizer. It would’ve fit — except for the twirly wheels. Now we have to gate check it — which means standing off to the side of the gate pulling some stuff out, transferring it into her shoulder bag. Understandable — until we get on the plane and see it’s a half-full 767 and there are fully empty luggage bins. Really? So as is my wont, I vented my frustration on Twitter rather than any BA employees. BA’s social media department responded pretty quickly saying they needed to check all luggage to be fair to all passengers. But how would allowing a bag that was, at most, an inch over-long because of its twirly wheels on a half-full flight with empty overheads cheat any other passengers? It’s an over-officiousness that just doesn’t make sense. And it’s the reason I avoid BA now whenever possible. Which is a real shame, because back in the early ‘90’s when I was doing a lot of travel to Europe, I prefered BA. But that was 20 years ago and, it seems, a different BA.
- There is another reason I avoid BA — officiousness and Heathrow. Again, another thing I loved in the ‘90’s, I now avoid whenever possible. Heathrow is a complete nightmare. You land, you trundle along through corridors, down escalators, into a bus, get a tour of the Heathrow back alleys, stop at another terminal, fight through security again, and then end up in the midst of a packed retail space where you wander through the shops because there’s no place to sit. It’s gotten to the point that I’ll fly the extra hour to connect through Frankfurt or Amsterdam just to avoid Heathrow. We were doing this St Andrews trip on AA miles. We were fine on the way out — ORD-JFK-EDI all on AA. But coming back, it was EDI-LHR-ORD with the first leg on BA. Just ugh! I still keep thinking about how to get something out of my 300K BA Avios miles. Maybe I’ll make my daughter fly BA.
- On a brighter note, I tried a new financial service during this trip and it worked really well. It’s called Revolut — as in Revolution cut a bit short. It’s a FinTech start up based in the UK that gives you a virtual and real debit card with really great exchange rates. As with all the cool start-ups nowadays, everything is done through a smartphone app — which, to stow the snark for a second, makes a lot of sense for any travel app. I opened an account before I left and funded it with $200 from my regular ATM/debit card. I could then convert my dollars to pounds or euros at what appeared to be just about the market rate — there didn’t seem to be a lot of margin taken on the buy or sell sides. I also instantly had a virtual debit card with which I could use those new pounds or euros to buy things on the web — like train tickets or top up a phone card. I then requested a physical version of my card, which took about a week to show up from the UK. Now I had a proper European chip-&-pin card that I could use at an ATM or, say, the self-serve checkout line at Tesco’s without waiting for a clerk to take my signed receipt. It only hiccuped one at the Costa coffee shop in St Andrews; I still don’t know why. Poking around a bit more, I found that I could send pounds to my daughter’s RBS account with a day or so lag. Now, none of this functionality is necessarily new, though being able to do it all through a slick smartphone app is very handy. The real innovation is the cost. Funding my Revolut account from my debit card cost me less than 1% — less than $2 for the $200 transfer, which is cheaper than most non-network ATM fees. After that, no transaction fees to move money between currencies or to withdraw. Compare that to hitting a foreign ATM with your US card. My personal bank is very reasonable, only charging me Visa’s 1% transaction fee, but many big banks will hit you with a $5 non-network fee on top of any transaction fees. And then transferring money to my daughter’s account — wire transfers can cost $25-30. Revolut has well-packaged functionality delivered at the lowest costs I’ve seen. I don’t know how long they’ll keep this price point, but right now, it’s the best deal I’ve seen for money needed for international travel. Here’s a link to the Revolut web site.
- And if you have any thoughts, questions, a story, a comment, a travel tip – the voice of the traveler, send it along. The e-mail address is email@example.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 — Clear My Head by FIASCO
Random Thoughts about Car Rentals
- I guess I could’ve cut two or three comments out of the last segment and labeled them “Random Comments about My Scotland Trip” but that just seems entire too gratuitous. But I have been collecting car rental experiences in my TravelCommons Evernote drop file and I think I now have enough for make up a topic — or at least what might marginally pass for a topic
- As I’ve mentioned in past episodes, I really don’t like to rent cars. I much prefer to use rail or a cab in from the airport and then walk to where ever I need to go. That works well in New York or Chicago or San Francisco, not so much in Denver or Detroit. So I’ve been renting a lot of cars over the past 6 months.
- So many in fact that Hertz bumped my status up to President’s Circle. Not quite sure that gets me, but it sounds status-y. Though right after my congratulatory e-mail, I found a dumpy Toyota Corolla in my Hertz Gold spot, so maybe it’s not anything special.
- But in times like those — when I get assigned the 45,000-mile Toyota with crumbs still in the driver seat, or a Ford F-150 king cab pick up truck in Boston (?) — I’ve come to love Hertz Gold Choice. If you rent a mid-size or above — and for our corporate rate, the price of a compact and mid-size are the same — you can go to the Choice aisle and take one of those cars instead. I left the dumpy Toyota and took a new Nissan instead.
- I have started to make note of differences in service and attitude across locations. I never rent from Hertz at Detroit airport anymore. I’ve yet to get a non-dumpy car there and the attitude is not great. Though I think Hertz’s Newark station is the worst. A recent example — a colleague was driving his car toward the lot exit when a low tire pressure alarm lit up. So he asked the guy at the exit gate where he could get some air to top off the tire. “Try a gas station,” the attendant told him. That was helpful.
- I’ve had challenges with car rental web sites — Hertz, Avis — when my pick-up or drop off time didn’t match the hours of the office I selected. I get the error notice and then when I go back to try another site or time, these websites will randomly select another date or location. I had this happen to me in Edinburgh on the second car we rented. We were training from Lockerbie back to Edinburgh where we’d done 4 days of biking while our daughter was going through freshman orientation. I’d booked a car on Hertz’s web site to pick up at the train station and drop off at EDI 5 days later. It took me 5 tries to get it right — each time I re-started, it reset the pick-up location from Waverly Station to EDI. And each time I’d correct it. Except, it seems, the last time. When we arrived in Waverly, there was no car. I looked at the res — pick up at EDI. Ugh. Not the end of the world — we could’ve taken the new light rail out to EDI, but it was aggravating. I searched through the Hertz.co.uk website for a phone number — that itself being a little extra helping of aggravation — and called the res center. The woman on the other end was inordinately calm and helpful. 3 minutes later, she’d moved my pick-up to Waverly. I thanked her — a lot. I should’ve booked with her instead of the website.
- We rented our first car in Edinburgh from Enterprise. It was a great car — a Fiat 500 L. All the bags fit easily in the hatchback. Nice nav, nice sound system, clean…. Drove to a near-by shopping mall — grabbed a coffee at Starbucks and phone SIMs at the ee store. Next stop, IKEA to buy things we didn’t pack — like towels and hangers. Coming off the motorway, through a traffic circle, the clutch crapped out. I’d put it in gear, let out the clutch pedal, nothing. 3 hours later after Enterprise, the auto club and Fiat scrummed about who was supposed to pick up the car, the tow truck dropped us back off at EDI where the Enterprise folks apologized profusely and gave us an even nicer Nissan. A couple of weeks, I noticed the Pope used a Fiat 500L to drive from Andrews Airforce Base to the Vatican Embassy. The next day, though, he was in a Jeep Popemobile. I could sympathize.
- Bridge Music — Lonely Dog Blues by Tobin James
- Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #117
- I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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