After two vacations to Europe and some full-contact business travel in-between, I found my way back into the TravelCommons studios. I talk about these recent trips — the awful timeliness of an American Airlines‘ regional jet partner, an incredible string of lost luggage, a meaningless baggage strip tease with Wow Air, and being surprised to still find some quirks when using ATMs and credit cards in Europe. And it wouldn’t be a travel podcast if I didn’t weigh in on the TSA’s “line-mageddon” — their meltdown at O’Hare. 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 #121:
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Coming to you once again from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL, after rewriting an episode I’d hoped to get done 3 weeks ago. I’d even posted on the TravelCommons Facebook wall on May 1st about having a new episode next weekend — a post I’ve since deleted. Seems to be a trend with me. I get started on a new episode, but then it gets elbowed aside by other things — like work. Maybe if I could just figure out a way to monetize this thing…
- I had hoped to record this episode halfway between two European trips. As I mentioned in the last episode, I had a weird Spring Break itinerary in April right before Easter — Chicago to Reykjavik, Iceland for a 4-day long weekend with my son, and then, as he headed back to Chicago, I flew down to Spain to meet my wife and daughter and some friends for a week in Andalucia. As you can imagine, packing for that trip in a 22-inch carry on required equal amounts of editing and physical force. And then in mid-May, we all headed over to Portugal for a week. The excuse being that we needed to shove all my daughter’s belongings into storage after her first year at university in Scotland, but decided that Portugal would have better food and wine than Scotland. So we headed to Lisbon as a family, and then my wife and daughter are flew back up to St Andrews to do all the packing stuff. I think I came out of this pretty good.
- Where this episode got shoved off the rails was the week before I left for Portugal. We all know that vacations aren’t free — that we pay for them the week before we leave and the week after. I was blissfully in denial of this immutable law, thinking that I could write, record, produce, and post this episode then. Cramming two weeks of business travel into 4 days (we were leaving for Lisbon Friday afternoon), that week’s travel itinerary was New Jersey on Monday, Boston on Tuesday, New Orleans on Wednesday, and Atlanta on Thursday. Across four airlines — United ORD-EWR-BOS, JetBlue BOS-MSY, Southwest MSY-ATL, and American ATL-ORD — I racked up about 2:30 hrs in flight delays with JetBlue being the only carrier without a black mark.
- Over April and May, what’s been particularly awful has been my run on one of American Airline’s regional jet partners Skywest. One Monday in April, Skywest lost voice and data connectivity at its Dallas dispatch center causing a ground stop of its planes. After two hours of hanging around the Admirals Club, watching my Newark departure time get pushed out every 30 minutes, I called Amex to get switched over to a real American plane flying into LGA. It added about 45 minutes to my drive after I landed, but at least I got there, especially since Skywest ended up canceling my original Newark flight. The next Monday, I ended up on another Skywest American flight; this time to Charlottesville, VA. Again, another 1+ hr delay. This time it was plane maintenance. Then that Friday, I get a text after lunch — my flight home was delayed over 2 hours. That was it. Three Skywest flights in a row that couldn’t get close to on-schedule. I called Amex again. Got on a United flight out of Richmond. After an hour-and-a-half drag race down I-64, I landed at ORD, drove home, ate dinner with my wife, and had a couple of glasses of wine before my original Skywest plane finally made it to Chicago.
- Now I’m not a airline ops expert, but when the women behind the desks in the Admirals Club tell you about SkyWest “They’re not our favorite”, you might think about finding a new partner.
- Bridge Music — Heaven by Electric Skychurch
- Steve Frick asked in a comment on the TravelCommons website about how I use Evernote. In the last episode, I talked about how I use it to in my vacation travel planning. I used to store all sorts of things in Evernote — scanned receipts, recipes, etc. Now I mostly just use it to store on-line travel articles using its Web Clipper Chrome extension which I really like. A couple of days ago, I was reading a 36 Hours in Philadelphia article in the NYTimes. I clicked the little elephant head on the Chrome bar and now I have it saved, and synced across all my devices. I know a bunch of folks who are big OneNote users. I’ve been thinking of looking at it, but it’s pretty low on the priority list since I’m good in Evernote’s free tier.
- Peter Zurich sent in a link to an Onion YouTube video about the Franz Kafka Airport in Prague. Now, the Onion is talented/notorious for writing absurd articles in a straight voice that’s just close enough to the truth to make people accept that it is true. This video is well done. Anyone who read Kafka in high school or college will get a kick out of it, and remind you how close to Kafka-esque absurdity the modern travel experience gets. And it did make me look up the Prague airport — did they really name it after Kafka? As great as that would be, the airport has been called Václav Havel Airport Prague since 2012 in honor of the Czech’s former president and leader of the Velvet Revolution.
- Dan Gradwohl dropped me a note regarding the “I Hate Shopping for a Suitcase” topic in the last episode where I talked about my difficulties in replacing my worn backpack.
- As for the backpack search, Sara feels your pain as she searched long and hard for a new backpack before settling on a Gregory for her upcoming trip on The Camino in northern Spain. Of course, her backpack needs differ from yours! For baggage, she uses the REI Tech Beast and loves it. She’s had it for 8 years, still going strong with 100,000+ miles per year easily on it. She has not found an overhead bin it does not fit in, from a CR9/170 to an A380/744.
- Dan, thanks for that. I just got a couple of REI coupons in the mail. I’ll have to go check out the Tech Beast
- In that same segment, I talked about my “smart” luggage bag from Bluesmart. I think I summarized my review as “meh” — nice enough bag, but all the electronics felt more like a gimmick than something I needed. I’m going to backtrack a bit on that — specifically with regards to its location finder capability. The bag has a GPS and global SIM card and through a deal with Telefonica transmits its location periodically which you can see on the smartphone app. As I mentioned in the last episode, the Bluesmart is the perfect carry-on size, it’s usually right above me in the plane cabin, so the location finder isn’t that valuable. Except recently, I’ve been flying regional jets a lot where I’ve had to gate check (“valet”) my bag. Normally I don’t worry about this — I’ve never had an airline lose my bag in the couple of hundred feet between the jetway and the plane. But one on of these recent Skywest flights, it was taking my bag a long time to show up at the gate after arriving. Hmmm, I pulled out my iPhone, hit the Location button on the Bluesmart app, and it showed me that my bag had updated its location a couple of minutes prior and was indeed here. A few minutes later, it showed up in the last tranche of bags heaved up into the jet bridge. Not critical functionality, but it moves up from “meh” to “kinda handy”.
- Which I guess would’ve been handy but not necessarily useful in the string of bad luggage karma that my daughter and her friends have experienced over the past couple of month. My daughter’s luggage has been lost on 3 out of 4 trips — Air Brussels lost it between EDI and MAD through BRU, KLM lost it on her return through AMS, and then AirFrance lost it between LIS and EDI through DeGaulle. And a friend of her had Ibera lose a bag between Seville and MAD. How does that happen? You have to really work hard to lose anything in an airport the size of Seville. And it’s not that my daughter wanted to check her bag. She wanted to carry on, But she has this short light blue roller bag that seems to pull gate agent eyes toward it. I gotta get her something more nondescript, like a black hardshell roller.
- But the thing that will catch you in Europe is that carry-on bags often have a weight limit as well as a size limit. Checking in for my Wow Air flight from Reykjavik to London, I arrived 2 hrs before check in to see what appeared to be a stationary check in line of a couple of hundred people. Reykjavik is Wow’s hub and, near as I could see, they have 4 agents checking people in with luggage. I hadn’t wanted to check my luggage since I had a weird connection in London en route to Madrid — no interlining between Wow and Ibera, so I would have to claim luggage in Gatwick, pass through Customs, and then recheck the bag with Iberia. And checking in with carry on was a separate and much shorter line. My bag fit — snuggly — in the sizer, so I figured I was good to go. No so fast. Wow also has a 7kg/15 lbs weight limit for carryons! Not even Spirit Airlines pulls that stunt. So I take my bag off the scale, pull some clothes out, zip it back up, and put it back on the scale. Not enough, the agent says. I do this 3 or 4 more times. The agent finally takes pity — or gets tired of me — and gives me the approval tag to put on my bag (saying “You shall pass” — Wow Air definitely pushes the “we’re quirky” image). I walk about 10 feet with my tagged bag and armful of clothes, open my bag and put my clothes back in. When I got on the plane, a brand new Airbus A321, my carry on fit perfectly in the overhead bin, just like it does for every other Airbus A321, A320, and A319 I fly in the US and Europe. So I’m not quite sure what the Wow agent and I accomplished with that baggage strip tease, but I got what I wanted — my bag right above me rather than trundling around Keflavik airport for the next couple of days.
- In the last couple of episodes, I’ve talked about the Revolut card which is a Mastercard pre-paid debit card with some very nice foreign exchange functionality. I loved this card when it first came out — first when I was traveling in the UK and then cheaply transfer money to my daughter studying in Scotland. Then I went very cold when they blew up the “cheaply” component , when they added a 3% fee when you added money/”topped up” your Revolut account using a US debit card. This episode, I’ve warmed up a bit. First, I discovered a way to bypass that 3% debit charge –I topped up my account in Euros with my US debit card. This avoids the 3% charge from Revolut, though the app does note that you’re not using the right currency with your card and asks you if you really mean to do this. My bank charges me less than 1% for the conversion, and though the exchange rate isn’t as good as Revolut’s, it’s not bad enough to cost-justify the 3% charge that USD top-ups attract. So, we’re back to a reasonably priced conversion — in a roundabout way.
- Which is good because, for some reason, my US ATM card never worked the whole time I was in Iceland. And I could never figure out why. I traded notes with my bank. They weren’t denying anything; they weren’t ever seeing the transaction show up at their end. I dunno, maybe it’s some residual wonkiness left over from their banking meltdown. I can’t remember the last time I had problems like that. Which, before I left for Iceland, made me wonder if I still needed to carry a wad of backup USD with me on this trip — given how ubiquitous and seamless ATMs are nowadays. I still didn’t need the Jacksons though because my Revolut card had no problem pulling krona from any ATM. In Portugal, I did hit a couple of different quirks. First, the train and Lisbon subway ticket machines don’t accept pre-paid debit cards which left me scrambling for exact change a surprising number of times. Second, a number of shops only accepted Visa cards, which blocked out Revolut’s MasterCard-based card. I used to see this more often in the past — shops only accepted cards on one network — Visa or MasterCard, and often didn’t take American Express — which has led me to always carry one of each card, but I thought the need for that backup had also faded. So I guess I’ll keep carrying a fist full of credit cards and USD for at least a couple more years.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org — 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 — Rocky Road by KCentric
- For much of March and April, I’d been traveling in and out of Newark pretty much every week which, I have to say, if you’re using Terminal A, is the worst airport in the country. Now, I know that Terminal B in LaGuardia gives it a good run with the ceiling tarps drained by garden hoses into trash cans in the middle of the terminal, but the TSA security set up in Newark Terminal A beats that. They’ve split the corridor, the hallway down to gates in two — the right side has the TSA stations, the left side the line for passengers waiting to be screened and the walkway for exiting passengers. The screening line is usually a bit of a cluster — you can never quite tell which screening station you’re waiting for — maybe #3 or should I scoot around to get in the line for #4. The really special feature of this configuration — what wins it the prize — is that you often have to wait in line to leave the terminal. Yup, more than a few times there’s a TSA agent holding up a line of departing passengers because of some confusion in the screening lines. It’s just awful.
- I just missed the TSA’s line-mageddon in O’Hare (I flew out the Friday before) where 450 American Airlines passengers got to experience Camp O’Hare cots after missing their flights because of 2-3 hour long TSA screening lines. But you could see it coming. My wife had spend 45 minutes in line in March, and the Monday morning rush hour had become a jumble of lines extending the length of the concourse. With summer travel volumes starting to build, it was a matter of when, not if, the whole thing imploded. And if I could tell this from my weekly flight out of ORD, you know the TSA folks on the ground knew it and were dreading it. So why didn’t they get in front of this instead of waiting until after the meltdown and the screaming headlines to replace management and add staff.
- Wading through recriminations about incompetence, baggage fees, gross misforecasting of PreCheck sign-ups, and the general cluelessness of infrequent fliers, I think a couple of economists get to the real answer in an article in Sunday’s New York Times — “the TSA has been acting as if there were no cost to tying people up for hours in security lines. In effect, all that time on line is “free” to the T.S.A.” “This glaring omission creates perverse incentives for government agencies. Cutting staff improves an agency’s bottom line, while wasting citizens’ time has little material consequence for it aside from expressions of annoyance and outrage in tweets and (newspaper) articles”
- I think that pretty much nails it. I retweeted a link to a Quartz article with a pretty self-explanatory graph. Air traveller volume has increased more than 10% over the past 12 months while the number of TSA screeners has decreased by more than that. Everyone knew this train wreck was coming, but there was no incentive to fix it — until the wreck happened and the volume of complaints and outrage became impossible to ignore.
- In the immediate term, the spectacle of those 450 filled cots at ORD spurred some good action — Congress let the TSA move some money around to hire more personnel, the TSA head of security got sacked, lines at ORD have shrunk, and a lot more people are ponying up the $85 for PreCheck (which is causing a whole other set of lines that I’m not going into).
In the short to medium term, maybe some new technology will help — automating checkpoints like they do in London Heathrow, posting real-time wait times so travelers can “self-balance” security lines.
- But not until the TSA explicitly considers the value of travelers time will we get to some semblance of realistic balance between the cost and risk of travel.
- Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #121
- I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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