Where do guidebooks fit in the world of apps, review websites, social media, and podcasts? Planning for a trip to Iceland got me thinking about how to make sense of the explosion of travel tips. And then, after giving my thoughts about my new Bluesmart “smart connected suitcase”, I talk about how idiosyncratic frequent travelers are about packing strategies and their choice of suitcases. There’s also follow-up about foreign exchange apps, and listener comments about digital travel security and Spirit Airlines’ growth. 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 #120:
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL, after a much longer-than-intended break. Looking back at the Google Docs revision history for this episode, I started it on Feb 2, so I had the best of intentions. But I’ve been traveling almost non-stop since then. At which point you might reasonably say “But you have all that time in airports and hotels to write” — which should be the case, but I find that I have to remove all possible distractions before I can write. Hence my lack of a journalism career.
- So instead, I keep jotting down ideas in Evernote, feeling like I’m making progress, but not ever buckling down to actually write an episode. Until last Weds, when Dan Gradwohl sent me an e-mail with the subject line “Mark, where’s the next TravelCommons?”, asking in a very nice way — when are you getting off your duff? I snarled back at Dan a bit — more at frustration with myself than anything he wrote. But it got the intended result. So, I dedicate this episode to Dan.
- The travel that got in the way wasn’t anything exotic — just the usual bouncing around — New Orleans, Vegas, Atlanta, Boston, New Jersey. But it was the tail end of 7 weeks of straight travel — which is right about the time I hit my fun quotient. My patience dives and my bitch tweeting climbs. Of course, the fact that my American Airlines flights were hitting a 50% on-time rate didn’t help. I think I finally tipped over when I found my EWR-ORD flight was an ancient AA MD-80. Trying to wedge my bag long ways into the short overhead bin on the AB side was a complete throwback to when I first started traveling for business — in 1985, on American Airlines, out of DFW, on MD-80s. 30 years later, I find myself on the same plane — with less legroom and no peanuts.
- I am gearing up for some fun travel in March, though. Trying out Iceland Air’s new Chicago-to-Reykjavik service with my son, and then trying out Iceland’s budget carrier Wow Air to meet up with my wife and daughter in Spain. I’m hoping it all works fine, but I’m preparing myself to having to call a couple of audibles.
- Bridge music — Making Circles by the Seldon Plan
- Peter Zurich sent a great note, adding onto the digital security topic in the last episode
- “Your suggestion to switch to cellular network as opposed to airport wifi is okay but it is becoming easy to obtain technology to set up a rogue cell site that will silently capture traffic — your data will be caught and you will be none the wiser.
- “Thus, in my opinion, it is still very important to only use HTPS encrypted web sites and I would still add on the VPN if you have one available. Bottom line when using any website where you need your password to access sensitive information, make sure the computer is trusted (no public access/borrowed/loaner computers) and make sure the website is HTTPS. If using Outlook or other applications than the web browser you should be on your company’s VPN.
- “Second thing, people should be aware that tearing a 2-D barcode in half doesn’t necessarily render it undecipherable. 2D barcodes have a configurable level of redundancy built-in so that even if part (or possibly most) of the barcode is missing/unreadable it can still be decoded. My personal policy is once we have confirmed our FF miles have posted, the BP’s go in the shredder.”
- Peter, thanks for these. Last week’s story about the USA Today columnist whose e-mail was hacked while he used Gogo’s WiFi service on an American Airlines flight demonstrates again the potential dangers of using public WiFi. It takes a bit of spelunking through the columnist’s Twitter feed to figure out how that happened — he was using an Earthlink e-mail service that didn’t encrypt traffic back to the mail server. Technical listeners would be right in saying “Well, there you go. What did you expect doing plain-text comms over public WiFi?” Indeed, when we talked about this in the last episode, I specifically called out the need to encrypt e-mail protocols — POP, IMAP, SMTP — over SSL. But that’s not the default configuration for many e-mail clients, including Outlook and, the last time I checked, the iPhone mail client. You have to go poking around in the settings, changing ports. I know how to do it — but it’s nothing my wife would. Building on Peter’s suggestion, probably the easiest thing to do is use a web e-mail client like GMail over https — when the green lock shows in the browser address bar. Next easiest is to set up your e-mail client to encrypt its traffic. Most e-mail providers have instructions on their sites. Perhaps the fiddliest, but the most secure is to install and use a VPN. If your company device comes with one already installed, then it’s easy — though remember VPN web traffic is usually tracked just like it is in your office. If it’s your own device, then you’re probably going to want to buy a service. They’re not overly expensive — $3-8/month. I use ExpressVPN, which is on the pricer side, but their VPN client is easy to install and use. And it has the side benefit of letting me watch NCAA March Madness video streams when I’m overseas. In March, I’ll be trying out a hardware-based VPN solution — AlwaysHome, which sets up a VPN with matching USB dongles. Could be an easier solution. I’ll report back in the next episode.
- Dan Gradwohl, before he poked me into action, had a “Hmm…” reaction to a comment in the last episode about Spirit Airlines passing Delta as the 3rd largest at Chicago O’Hare. Looking at January schedules, he found Spirit had 29 daily departures to Delta’s 52. Would seem like Delta is still larger. However, the Crain’s Chicago article said Spirit carried more passengers than Delta — which could be since some of Delta’s 52 departures were co-branded smaller regional jets. This is not a new thing. For a long time, O’Hare continued to claim the title of World’s Busiest Airport based on number of takeoffs/landings (which it reclaimed in 2014) after Atlanta Hartsfield passed it on total passengers handled. Using that stat, ORD is the 4th largest after ATL, Beijing, and Dubai. All that being said, Spirit is ramping up hard in the Chicago market, hiring new flight attendants ahead of plane deliveries, and pushing the city for more gate space. And Delta and American are rolling out new Economy Basic fares to fight them. Might not be too long before Spirit passes Delta on both measures.
- Back in Episode #117, I talked — raved, actually — about a FinTech company called Revolut. It offered a convenient and low-cost way to exchange, transfer, and access money internationally. I started using it last September when my daughter started up at University of St Andrews. I used it to convert and push money to her UK bank account, and used the Revolut chip-&-pin debit card to avoid the hassle of US chip-&-signature credit cards. Last week, though, the low-cost component of their value prop disappeared — at least for US customers, when they added a 3% fee when you added money/”topped up” your Revolut account with a US debit card. They said they were passing through the fees they were being charged, a claim I don’t doubt. However, it started me looking for cheaper foreign exchange options. Which lead me down quite the rabbit hole — sorting through the differences in transaction costs and exchange rates quickly led to an Excel modelling session, which is just how I want to spend a Saturday morning. If you look at my Twitter feed, there’s a string of tweets walking through my analysis, but for my case, TransferWise, another UK FinTech startup, and Xoom, owned by PayPal, were much cheaper than Revolut after considering their new 3% fee. I expect that I’ll still use the Revolut card a bit when in Europe — at self-service check-outs or gas pumps — but nowhere near the volume I was using it before last week. But, I’m glad to have options and do a bit of math so avoid a $50 bank wire fee or Western Union’s 7% premium from market exchange rates.
- 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 — Oh Yeah by Eliyahu Sills
Where Do Guidebooks Fit In?
- As I mentioned in the opening, my son and I are hitting Iceland in a couple of weeks for a 4-day weekend. We’ve never been before, so I needed to figure out what to do and where to stay. Right about then, someone from what I used to know as Dorling Kindersley — now shortened to DK — pinged me about the February relaunch of DK’s Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Guides — one of the first 10 is for Iceland. It started me thinking about where guidebooks fit in these days of in the world of apps (Yelp, Foursquare, Untappd), podcasts (Amateur Traveler, Indie Travel Podcast), websites (TripAdvisor), newspaper articles (NYTimes’ 36 Hours in Reykjavik) and friends’ social media posts on Facebook and Instagram.
- When I want to torture my kids, I do the “when I was young…” thing. But going back to our honeymoon 25 years ago (this November — need to get on that planning!), I cashed in a slug of British Airways miles to fly us first class to Pisa for a touring holiday in Tuscany. The only plans I had made were to rent a car (a Fiat Panda) and book our first night’s room (via Telex) in Lucca. We ran the rest of the vacation off of a set of Michelin guides — the red one to find hotels and restaurants and the green one to figure out what to see. Between those and reading “A Room With A View”, we were set. We exchanged American Express travelers checks at the bank for lira, took pictures on Kodak and Fuji film, navigated using a paper maps… Whoops, got off track a bit there. I think my kids are somewhere screaming “Stop!”
- I think like everybody, I start with a Google search — “What to do in Iceland in March”, limit the results to the last 2 years and start clicking. Lots of articles from UK papers (I think because of Wow Air, the Icelandic version of Spirit or EasyJet, flying into London Gatwick) which I clip over to Evernote using their nifty little Chrome extension. Then I narrow the search down to specific interests — like “Iceland craft beer” and a few more article get sync’d to Evernote. I stack up a bunch of facts — a sort of pointillist view of what to do in Iceland.
- Every survey about how people go about travel planning will tell you that personal recommendations are the far and away the most important source of travel planning information. Which makes sense — you know the person, how their interests, ways of travel align with yours. We have good friends that we’ll take restaurant recommendations from, but not hotels. We share the same tastes in interesting food, but they like to stay in hotels with nice pools. We’re tend to stay a bit more “closer to ground” — choosing vacation rentals over the Westin resort.
- And once people find that you travel a lot and to different/interesting places, you get hit up — a lot — for recommendations. Friend and long-time T/C listener Allan Marko curates a set of notes for his favorite European cities, places like Paris, that he regularly e-mails out. After a couple of visits to Spain, I’ve taken it to the next level of geekdom — embedding my recommendations on a Google Map page and sending out the URL. For this trip, a friend from work sent me the itinerary she and her family did last summer. Not sure that she and her husband would be search out craft beer bars with 2 young kids in tow, but I did take her recommendation for the Hotel Geysir at the top of the Golden Circle route, and hitting the Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport.
- I like The NY Times’ 36 Hours and United Airlines’ 3 Perfect Days series. They’re focused on the long weekend getaway — if you have a limited amount of time, here’s what to do. These are the sorts of articles we used to rip out of the Sunday travel section of the local newspaper or a travel magazine and stash in a travel folder. The Internet has shifted that behavior just a bit — we now search for them when we right when we need them. Perhaps more for travel planning than for inspiration, but they serve the same purpose as the green Michelin guide did for our honeymoon — a curated list of things you ought to see.
- The DK Top 10 Iceland guide seems to fit into this “hit the highlights” mode — top 10 highlights by region and by thing (top 10 churches, waterfalls, volcanoes, bars, cheap restaurants…), 2-day and 7-day itineraries, which is nice because the 36 Hours in Reykjavik article I pulled up was from 2013, maybe on the ragged edge of up-to-dateness. And the DK guide has everything nicely packaged, which I remember from the Dorling Kindersley books of old — all the lists in one place wrapped in a sturdy cover that has fold-out maps in the front (Iceland) and the back (downtown Reykjavik) — which is handy if you didn’t plan ahead and cache Google Maps data before leaving the hotel wi-fi bubble.
- There’s another kind of guidebook that I’ll use, though I couldn’t find one for Iceland. They’re less about lists and more about stories — think Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island about the UK, or more recently, Rice Noodle Fish an Anthony Bourdain book by Matt Goulding (whatever that means) about Japan. I read those more before I travel than packing them in my bag. They’re about context/texture — kinda like what “Room With A View” was for us about Florence 25 years ago — that prepare rather than guide you, and maybe give you a bit more appreciation when you’re running through those Top 10 Highlights lists.
- Maybe it comes down to the kind of reader you are — are you someone that likes things more tangible than electronic. Do you like to flip pages rather than screens? The Kindle cannibalized a good-sized chunk of the demand for physical books, but didn’t replace it. Just like overall book market, recent numbers show the demand for physical guide books has stabilized albeit at a lower level. I sorta split the difference. I like paging through my Evernote virtual travel folder when I’m back at the room, but like to have a physical map and list when I’m out walking during the day. Maybe that physicality keeps me more engaged with where I am. Or at least looking up and forward, which should help keep me avoid that new travelers’ epidemic — Death by GPS.
- Bridge music — Is That Called Love by Liquid Zen
I Hate Shopping for Suitcases
- I’ve been traveling for a few months now with the Bluesmart suitcase. I’ve mentioned it in a past episode when I pre-ordered it through their Indiegogo campaign. And now that they’re shipping, they’re making a lot of Top Traveler Gadget lists.
- It claims to be the first piece of “smart” luggage to hit the market. It pairs with my iPhone through Bluetooth. It automatically locks when I step away from it and then unlocks itself when I return. It has a built-in battery to power itself and charge personal electronics through a couple of USB ports. It also periodically sends out its location when I can then check through the iPhone app. And it has a cool front light that glows blue when it’s paired with my phone.
- Aside from all the electronics, it’s a hard-shell wheelie bag with nice-sized wheels that roll easily — sometimes too easily. It fits perfectly into American’s and United’s luggage sizers — at least the ones in Boston Logan airport. (Some blogger who reviewed the bag raised a bit of a ruckus saying that the bag dimensions on the website were too big for carry-on. I guess he doesn’t travel enough to go an airport and check it out himself). The iPhone app is getting better — Bluesmart is doing a nice job of reving the app frequently to stomp bugs, though the location alerts — “You’re leaving me behind” are still a bit wonky.
- All in all, it’s a nice enough bag. I had been thinking about getting something a bit smaller for 1-2 night trips and this fits the bill. I’m kinda “meh” on all the electronics. The large battery is fine, but I already carry a recharger in my backpack that will top up my iPhone or tablet a couple of times — good enough and more accessible in-flight. The location functionality seems to work only when I press the button to “wake up” the bag — which means I’m right beside my bag and know its location. And since it’s the perfect carry-on size, it’s usually right above me in the plane cabin. So it’s a nice enough hard-shell wheelie bag with a couple of bells and whistles that don’t necessarily wow me.
- Which shouldn’t be interpreted as a knock against Bluesmart. I’m sure there are a number of travelers who love every one of those bells and whistles. It’s not so much a criticism about Bluesmart as it is how personal and idiosyncratic frequent travelers are about suitcases. It’s gotta fit your packing strategies, which are also very idiosyncratic. Some people love compartments to help them structure their packing. Me? I’m all about the flexibility of a single open space — I build my own structure with shoes and different kinds of clothes depending on the trip. And even though I see more and more hard-shell bags — and now own one, I’m not completely sold on it. I still like the ability to bulge when I need to. And the two- vs. four-wheel thing. Pushing a 4-wheel through the airport seems easier on my wrist, but sometimes they roll too easily and won’t stay put. It’s the reason I’ve been walking around with a ripped backpack for 4 months — I really hate shopping for travel bags. And am very happy that leather wallets last a really long time.
- Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #120
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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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