Spring Break in Iceland

Spring Break in Iceland

Watching Iceland makes its Cinderella run in the Euro 2016 soccer tourney got me thinking back to my March trip there. It is one of the hot travel destinations — maybe too hot? Could be, but the descriptor I keep coming back to is “dramatic.” And it seems that on every trip I make out of the country, I get surprised by the amount of data my iPhone consumes — in spite of flipping every Settings switch I can find. 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 #122:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you once again from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL, on a week off of the road. I hate to say “a rare week”, but looking at my calendar, it is. For the first half of the year — 26 weeks — I didn’t get in an airplane during 2 of them. This week, the first of the second half of the year, is my 3rd non-travel week. Now absolutely some of them are self-inflicted — 2 to be exact — one week in Spain and one in Portugal. That’s an intense travel schedule, even for me. I usually find a way to take a break at least once every 6 weeks, but it just hasn’t worked out that way this year so far. Sometimes you control your schedule, while other times it controls you. I’m definitely been on the wrong end of the leash since January.
  • Since the last episode, I’ve been traveling pretty much exclusively between Chicago and Charlottesville, VA. Now Charlottesville is a nice town, but it’s a pain to get to every week. The first direct flight from Chicago leaves around 11:30am, landing around 2pm — not exactly convenient for the business traveler. Other earlier options are to fly into Washington-Dulles and drive for 2 hrs, or fly into Richmond and drive an hour and a half. What I’ve found myself doing for the past couple of weeks is flying in Sunday night — which I absolutely hate — on direct flight that leaves Chicago around 9:45pm, lands in Charlottesville around half past midnight and puts me into my hotel around 1am. There just doesn’t seem to be an easy way around this one.
  • At least the flights back home are convenient — 3:15 and 6:30pm. And it’s not a crowded airport. I think last week was the longest TSA line I hit — 3 people were in front of me.
  • And as I start to think about a September trip to Scotland to take our daughter back to University, I’m taking advantage of the post-Brexit exchange rate to stock my Revolut account with some much cheaper pounds. Though it’ll be another week on the road, I’ll be significantly upgrading my Scotch choices.
  • Bridge music — Revolve mix by His Boy Elroy

Following Up

  • Last week’s attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport begs the same question as March’s Brussels bombings — does more airport security actually make us safer or just move the target around? I said in the last episode that the long TSA lines on the land side of security caused by stricter TSA inspections weren’t making the traveler any safer. Instead, they were make us less safe/more vulnerable to a Brussels or Istanbul-style attack. And while the TSA has fixed (at least for now) some of the worst lines, the issue is going to pop up again. And someone is going to suggest — again — that they move the security perimeter back — say, checking itineraries and IDs at the terminal door like they do in India? The justification will be that a little bit more inconvenience is more than worth the price of safety. But, if they don’t staff it right (which was and will alway be the core problem), all you’ve done is just move the target — the line of passengers — out by another 1,000 feet. It’s less about location and more about execution. And given the TSA’s track record of execution over the past 15 years, I’m not optimistic that they’ll get to the right answer.
  • I got a e-mail a few weeks ago that my 5-year Global Entry membership expires on my birthday this December. I don’t know exactly when Customs and Border Patrol started Global Entry, but 5 years ago, I was one of the early adopters. Back then, there weren’t that many interview centers. I was lucky that Chicago had one, but I had colleagues in Phoenix who had to fly up to Las Vegas for interviews. The renew process was pretty easy. I logged into GOES — Global Online Enrollment Systems — clicked the blue Renew Membership button and then cycled through all the profile screens — but this time the screens were pre-populated so I only had to make updates. In my case, it was updating my job history for my current job and, the toughest part, entering all the countries I’d visited in the past 5 years. Normally, this would be pretty simple — thumb through your passport pages and write down the country stamps. However, back in 2012, my backpack with my passport was stolen while on the train from Brussels city center to the airport — a fun time I recount in episode 98. Luckily, I do a decent job of cataloging travel pics. Flipping through 2011 reminded me that we’d visited Venice that year and that I’d traveled there by train from Paris after a couple of days of customer meeting. The renewal cost is $100 — $20/year is worth the price. Even more so when it’s free — I charged it on my Amex Platinum card and immediately saw a $100 statement credit. Now I’m checking GOES every couple of days to see if Customs just waves my renewal through or if I have to talk again to the nice people in the bowels of ORD Terminal 5. I’m hoping that with the crush of new PreCheck applications, they’ll take the easy route.
  • And as we’ve talked about before, I’m not really sure why anyone would sign up for PreCheck instead of Global Entry. Global Entry is just $15 more — $100 instead of $85 — the price of a beer at ORD.
  • But if you’re not up for the $100 passport check line cut, Arnoud Heijnis, a long time TravelCommons listener, pinged me on Twitter about another option — the Mobile Passport app from US Customs and Border Patrol. I haven’t used it because I have Global Entry. My wife tried to get my son to download it before his return flight from Reykjavik, but he never got ‘round to it, and he said the early evening lines at ORD weren’t that bad. So while I don’t have any first- or second-hand experience with it, one of the tech writers at WSJ wrote up a glowing review of the app a few weeks back. Check out the show notes for a link to the article. And if you’ve tried the Mobile Passport, shoot me a note with your thoughts.
  • During my flight back home last Weds, we were coming in on approach, you could feel the gradual descent — slowing, descending, slowing, descending — and then, all of a sudden, I’m pressed against the back of my seat as the plane rotates in the wrong direction — up, that is — and the engines roar with thrust. The experienced travelers know that the pilot had to abort the landing, but those who haven’t gone through this drill before are looking around, wondering “what the hell…?”. After about 5 minutes, the pilot came on “The plane in front of us hit a bird. They have to physically inspect the runway before another plane can land, so we had to fly around. We’ll be down in 10 minutes”. That was a nice announcement. I learned something new — I didn’t know they had to inspect a runway after a bird strike, though it makes a lot of sense. Too often pilots or gate agents don’t take the time to explain the cause of a delay or a fly around, or don’t want to deal with the follow-up questions that may come — and so I appreciate those that do. I remember a Southwest flight out of New Orleans. The plane lands — it was a bit late — but we’re not boarding right away. You could feel the impatience building in the gate area. The agent got on the PA — “Sorry for the delay in boarding, but the plane was struck by lightning on its descent. The pilots have to do a physical inspection before we can board”. OK, that makes sense — and just as you could feel the impatience build, it immediately drained away with that announcement. Maybe it’s because these delays weren’t the airline’s fault — no negligence or bad judgement on American’s part for a bird strike or Southwest’s for lightning. Bit tougher to suck up when it’s the third delay in a row caused by maintenance issues — spend some of those record profits on preventative maintenance — or a missing crew — maybe you should put a bit more slack in your scheduling. But as always, more transparency is better than vagueness — even if it’s not the best story for you.
  • 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 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 — Earth Soda by septahelix

Data-Hungry Phones

  • I met up with a friend at Empirical Brewing, one of 3 microbreweries along Ravenswood Blvd in that Chicago northwest side neighborhood. I hadn’t seen him since he had gotten back from a trip he and his son did to Helsinki, St Petersburg, and Moscow. Among other things, he had problems getting his son’s AT&T iPhone to work in Helsinki. That’s odd, I said. I’ve never had a problem with AT&T’s GSM iPhones in Europe. AT&T told him to reset it, which he did, after which it promptly downloaded a gig and a half of apps and data over the cellular data network. As you might guess, he’s disputing that couple of hundred dollar bill.
  • I am always surprised at how much data my phone uses when I travel outside of the country. Now I’m sure that one reason for this is that it’s about the only time I look at my data usage since I’m grandfathered into one of the old AT&T unlimited data plans. I don’t know how much I use, and don’t make a big effort to limit it. So when I travel overseas, I get to see my kids live their mobile lives trying to stay under a 300 MB data cap.
  • International mobile data has gotten a bit cheaper. T-Mobile offers a reasonable unlimited international data plan if you can live with slower 2G-style speeds. I’m not that patient, so I tend to get the AT&T 300 MB package for $60 because it also comes with free access to a decent set of wi-fi hotspots.
  • Living on a data budget means thinking which apps really need mobile data — which is not that many. So while I’m sitting on the plane waiting for everyone to board, I pull out my iPhone, go over to Settings | Cellular and start turning off cellular data access for most of my apps. I’m not quite sure why the healthcare flexible spending app or the app that came with my sous vide immersion heater ever need cellular data — in the US or internationally. Anyhow, I spool through the last, turning most of them off and certainly that damn “Wi-Fi Assist” and then, after I’ve sent my last Snapchat, I hit “Reset Statistics” so I’ll have a clean view of how I’m burning through that 300 MB and then click over to Airplane mode.
  • And then, when I land, I come out of Airplane mode, go back into Settings | Cellular and turn Roaming On, and catch up on the overnight e-mail while waiting to get off the plane. At some point that morning, I’ll look at the Current Period data usage and see that I’ve burned through, say, 75 MB of my 300 MB — 25% of my total package — in the first morning. Holy crap! I immediately dive back into Settings | Cellular and turn off Roaming. What happened?
  • This is where, on the iPhone, you begin having to spelunk through the mess that the Settings app has become. You scroll down past all the apps you shut off from cellular access and look at the last entry — “System Services” — and see that it’s consumed at least half of that 75 MB. What the hell? You click through. Why has this phone used that much data on “Time & Location” or “General” or “iTunes Accounts” (huh? I thought I shut off iTunes in the last screen). This is when you start to dig deep — Settings | Privacy | Location Service and you find another list of apps — kinda like the one you used to turn off cellular data, but this one is for accessing your location. Look, as much as I love the Tortas Frontera restaurants in ORD, I’m not sure why their app needs to pull my location information. And then you go to Settings | General | Background App Refresh for yet another list of apps where you shut off their permission to update themselves in the background. And then you go over to Settings | Mail and turn Fetch New Data to Off to keep your iPhone from constantly pinging your Exchange server.
  • It’s kinda like whack-a-mole, and you’ll be sure to miss something because these phones and the apps we load on them are, for the most part, built on the assumption of ubiquitous unlimited data access. So changing that behavior, those assumptions — to severely limit the data the phone inhales and exhales — takes work. Which is why, if we’re going to be somewhere for more than 4-5 days, I’ll invest the hour it takes to find a phone store and $25 per phone to buy a local SIM with a gig or two of data. When I was in Iceland for 4 days in March, it didn’t seem necessary. But when then I flew down to Spain for 8 days, my first stop was the Orange store because I knew my phone couldn’t hold its breath for that long.
  • Bridge music — Hear Us Now by scottaltham

Dramatic Iceland

  • Watching Iceland makes its Cinderella run in the Euro 2016 soccer tourney — right up until the time they faceplanted into France last weekend — reminded me of the trip my son and I took in March. Some reaction shots ESPN did from Reykjavik were places we had been — saw a coffee shop we hit trying to stay awake on our first day, and a square that one of our hotels was on. Not that surprising since downtown Reykjavik isn’t that big. If I’d paid more attention to the people sitting next to me in the bars off that square, I’d have probably recognized some people in those shots too.
  • Iceland is a hot tourist destination — especially for people looking for something a bit different. And if I didn’t know already, when the Dorling Kindersley folks sent me review copies of their relaunched Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Guides, in among the usual suspects — New York, London, Paris, Barcelona — was Iceland. In 2015, there were 1.3 million foreign tourists in Iceland — almost 4 times the population of 329,000 — and a 29% increase over 2014. It’s a hot destination and getting hotter — perhaps even to the point of overheating?
  • Especially with Wow Air, a kinder and quirkier Spirit or Ryan Air, expanding the number of North American gateway cities. We ran into lots of folks who had seen ads for cheap Wow air fares and flew over for a 3 or 4 day weekend on a whim, without really thinking about what to do. We’d see folks walking up and down the downtown shopping and entertainment district in Reykjavik, and then figuring out some day trip bus rides out to the Golden Circle hot spots. And this was in March, not exactly the garden time in Iceland. But there were a lot of folks there. And so in that way, Iceland felt small.
  • On our second day, we picked up a rental SUV — a Dacia Duster, a great vehicle — and headed out of town. Once we got out of Reykjavik’s catchment area, Iceland opened up quickly. The drama of the scenery, the spaces carved out by volcanos and glaciers — “Land of Fire and Ice” it likes to bill itself — make it feel much bigger. Of course, you could see this same space from the seat of a tour bus, but I was glad we rented a car. We got off the well-worn paths. Not too far, but when driving across a plain on a 2-lane highway with no traffic to speak of, the vistas did open up in front of us, which made me glad I was able to look forward and enjoy them through the expanse of the front windshield instead of looking off to the side through a motor coach window. And when we did some of the typical stops — Þingvellir park, Gullfoss waterfall — we could ride out the ebb and flow of the tour bus traffic, and have these spots pretty much to ourselves, even for just a little while. Or the time when we were driving toward the south coast, running through a series of rain bands — in and out; in and out. I was starting to get annoyed until I looked out the rear view mirror and saw a huge double rainbow. I immediately pulled into a gas station and got out of the car. The landscape was wide open; we could see that rainbow from end to end. It was a phenomenal sight. And the smoked lamb sandwich we bought afterwards in the gas station wasn’t bad either.
  • I struggle sometimes when asked about Iceland. Would I recommend it? Reykjavik is nice enough, but it’s a small town. I’m not a museum guy, so there was probably a day-and-a half of stuff for me to do. And Iceland is expensive. I had good fish and lamb, but it wasn’t cheap. And hotel rooms were tight in March, so I gotta figure the country is completely sold out in July and August.
  • But the scenery outside of Reykjavik, I keep coming back to that word “dramatic”. I’m not sure it does it justice, but it’s all I got. If you get a car, then the trip starts to make sense.
  • Well, that and the fermented shark chased with shots of brennivín — Icelandic schnapps — because, I dunno, how can you not?


  • Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #122
  • 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
  • Bridge music from the ccMixter site
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