My son joins the podcast to talk about hunting down craft beers. I then talk about a few “a-ha” moments from my recent trip to Scotland, my on-going struggles with bitch tweeting, a VPN hardware product that could come in handy, and why I’ve come to hate the Rick Steves travel juggernaut. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or you can listen to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.
Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #124:
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Coming to you from the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center in Framingham, MA. Just back from 10 mostly beautiful sunny days in Scotland. Flew United to Edinburgh via Newark on the the way out, but on the way back, paid an extra $200 for the luxury of skipping the Immigration lines there. Given my weekly experiences in Newark’s Terminal A at the beginning of this year, I can only imagine the Immigration hall as being a mash-up of the dungeons from all the Saw movies done in that frighteningly absurd sort of way that only the TSA can pull off. Think the LAX security lines without laid-back people, with that Jersey edge. Even with the Global Entry line cut, that was not the final memory I wanted from what had been a nice trip.
- My wife and I kinda ran the same play we did last year when we dropped our daughter off at University of St Andrews. Grabbed a car — Hertz gave us a new Nissan X-Terra — nice car, enough space for the bags my daughter brought over with her, but would be a lumbering beast among Fiat 500s later in the week when driving some of the single lane roads in the Highlands. I like to think I’m getting better at driving in the UK — driving on the left and shifting with my left hand. No curb bumping or wide left-hand turns this time coming out of the airport. Stopped off at the mall 5 min from the airport for a Starbucks coffee and a couple of EE SIM cards — £15 for 2GB of data, unlimited texts and, I dunno, 500 voice minutes, which for a week, is pretty much unlimited — $20 at the current post-Brexit bargain basement exchange rate.
- After lunch and unloading our daughter, my wife and I drove up the coast for a few days of walking — not hiking with packs and crampons, but trail walking. We stayed the weekend in Aberdeen because… we’d never been there before. It was a nice town. Went out to the Brewdog brewery for a tour and a couple of beers and then out walking it off along a North Sea trail. We also spent time in Cairngorms National Park on Balmoral getting blown out of our jackets by gale force winds while looking for the Queen in her Range Rover, and then straight up north to the coast — through Banff, Portsoy, and Cullen for a bit more coastal trail walking. And then back down to St Andrews for the last couple of days doing the typical stuff parents do when they visit their kid at college — take them out to nice restaurants, buy them groceries, and in our case, say good-bye until Christmas break.
- Flying out of Edinburgh airport on Saturday morning was surprisingly not a hassle. It’s not a huge airport — mostly seems to be mostly budget airlines — Ryanair, easyJet — but United and American fly a couple of 757s in, and I saw an Etihad 787 — jealous. The ticketing/check-in area is a bit of a cluster; gives a bad first impression. But once you get up the escalator and headed toward security, it’s much nicer — a low hassle pass through security, and good shops and restaurants.
- It always strikes me how much more automated some of the European airports have become. At Edinburgh, there’s no security person checking your ticket before security. Instead, there’s a gate and a bar code reader. You scan your boarding pass. If it’s valid, the gate drops and you walk through. There are security people watching for gate jumpers and tailgaters, but there’s about a half-dozen automated gates, so there was no queue. And then at the X-ray machines, no TSA-like person bringing tubs to the front of the line. Instead, a person points you to one of 5 loading stations, a conveyor system spits out a bin, you load it up, and push it onto the belt that feeds the X-ray machine. Again, less waiting because, instead of a single person loading their tub and putting stuff on the belt, you have 5 people in parallel. If one person is slow, it doesn’t hold up the line. Not quite sure why the TSA, with all its budget and management staff, can’t just copy this.
- Bridge Music — Velvet Green of Mystery (Instrumental) by Doxent Zsigmond (c) copyright 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. Ft: Kthugha, Jeris, Martijn de Boer
- Not to turn this into a complete Caledonian podcast, but I did have a few a-ha moments from this trip –
- The spread of contactless card readers at stores in the UK has spread the acceptance of Apple and Android Pay, which makes not having a chip-&-pin card much less painful (remember, the US cards are chip-&-signature because, I guess, we can’t be trusted to remember 2 4-digit codes). It used to be painful — or perhaps just embarrassing — to wait for the Tesco self-service attendant to look at me a bit confused as she gave me a receipt to be signed. Now it’s even faster than a chip-&-pin card — tap my phone on the card reader, beep, and I’m done. Now they need to replace the little mobile card readers that restaurants use…
- It’s really tough to find a good cup of brewed black coffee in Europe. Now call me a red-necked Midwesterner, but there are times that I don’t want foamed milk, I don’t want a just a swig of coffee, and I certainly don’t want that swig of coffee — espresso — diluted with hot water, I just want a cup of black coffee — filter coffee as I’ve learned. Impossible to find in Spain and Portugal and many places in the UK, except at Starbucks. There have been many European mornings after a late night that I thanked God (and Howard Schultz) for their aggressive international expansion. So I was surprised and thrilled (ecstatic, really) to find an actual Portlandia-like coffee pourover place, complete with Chemexes and Hario kettles, in Aberdeen on Saturday morning. Foodstory Cafe. I found it by Googling “Hipster Aberdeen”. Yes, really. Sounds silly/absurd but it works. I’ve used that search term in many cities and more times than not been happy with the results.
- Our hotel in Aberdeen was nice, except for one thing. The tub had one of those little half wall tub screens instead of a shower curtain. There should be a YouTube video on how to shower in those, because everytime I try, I hose down the sink and everything on it. Perhaps I’m too large. Why this instead of a shower curtain?
- Sitting in a restaurant our last night in St Andrews, our waitress — very nice person, very good service — had just a hint of an Eastern European accent. I wanted to ask her where she’s from, but in post-Brexit Britain, it felt rude to ask that. Now that’s not a snarky comment about the results of the vote — the tough thing about democracy is that everyone’s vote counts and needs to be respected, not just the people who agree with us. But you can feel a change — just a bit…
- Back in the US, I continue to struggle with my tendency to bitch tweet. On one flight, I was able to hold back during a 20 min wait for a gate on United, though I did provide “frank” feedback on the customer service survey they sent me a couple of days later. But the next week, on my third straight delayed United flight, I just couldn’t control myself. I understood when we had to return to the gate to manually start the remaining engine — jets often taxi out using just one engine in order to save fuel, which makes perfect sense. United did a good job of finding us a gate — not easy at ORD — and was pretty quick with the maintenance crew. Where I lost it, though, was when it took longer to download the updated data to the plane computer than the whole return to the gate and manually start the engine bit. To the pilot’s credit, he did a good job of explaining the situation and the status, and didn’t hide in the cabin when we were de-planing.
- Marc Loehrwald, a long-time listener, sent me a note asking “Would you consider this gentlemen solving his problems with Verizon over speakerphone in the otherwise quite empty and peaceful Lounge at JFK worth bitch tweeting…?” accompanied by a picture of a guy sitting alone among couple of dozen chairs. Bitch subtweeting! I should’ve done that to the guy behind me who had his feet up on the back of my seat the entire flight from BWI to ORD. Not a kid, a guy in his mid-50’s!. Marc, you’ve taken my bitch tweeting to a whole new level!
- Over the past few episodes, we’ve been talking about VPNs — virtual private networks — as a way to improve your security when you travel. VPNs encrypt your network traffic — always a good thing over public and hotel WiFi — and will also “tunnel” your traffic through the Internet, making it look like you’re accessing the Internet from the VPN end-point. For corporate users, this makes you look like you’re accessing the Internet from your office, allowing you to use systems inside your corporate firewall. For many international travelers, it gives you a way to watch, say, TV shows that are licensed to Netflix in the US but not in other countries. All the VPN products I’ve used have been software-based — my company uses a Cisco VPN, while on my last trip to China, I used ExpressVPN to tunnel under the Great Firewall and post pictures to Facebook. A company called Homing Systems used Kickstarter to launch a hardware-based VPN product called AlwaysHome. They sent me a sample to try out. It’s a pair of USB dongles. You connect one to your home router — I have it plugged into my Uverse box. I plugged the second one into the BT router in my daughter’s flat in St Andrews. She fired up her Netflix account and was able to continue her “Criminal Minds” binge, a show not on UK Netflix, without a problem. In earlier testing, I found AlwaysHome was a bit more fiddly when it needed to connect first through a password portal — the typical set up at a hotel. It would connect, but took a bit more work. When the connection nailed up, though, the performance was solid. Homing Systems’ web site calls it “Space Shifting”. I think that’s the right positioning. I think it’s quicker to fire up a software VPN client for a quick session at Starbucks. The AlwaysHome dongle setup seems more suited for a more sustained session. Check out the show notes for links to Homing Systems.
- Homing Systems sent me a AlwaysHome Duo free of charge for me to review. I was not paid for this review. The opinions expressed in this episode are my own.
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- Bridge Music — Somewhere by spinmeister (c) copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. Ft: DJ Vadim
Craft Beer Hunting
- My son and I hang out in his apartment in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood and talk about finding good beer in out-of-the-way places
- Bridge Music — Like Music (cdk Mix) by cdk (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (3.0) license. Ft: Phasenwandler
I Hate Rick Steves
- Not personally, of course. I’m sure he’s a nice guy who doesn’t kick dogs. I guess to be more precise, I hate what he’s done to some of my vacations.
- Portugal is the most recent example. Preparing for our trip, my wife read a number of Lisbon travel guides, include Rick Steves. Rick advises his Lisbon travelers to do the day trip out to Sintra, the castle-filled UNESCO World Heritage Site, on Mondays when all the Lisbon museums are closed. So Monday morning, we get up early, go across the street for our standard breakfast of coffee and pastel de nata (egg custard tarts to die for), and hit the train. Standing room only. We get off the train in Sintra. All we see are older Americans with sensible haircuts, plastic rimmed glasses, and hiking shoes. It’s like we walking through an NPR listener convention in Ann Arbor, MI. And they’re all wearing their backpacks swung around in front to protect themselves from pickpockets and thieves. Except no local could penetrate the phalanx of blue book-wielding Steve-heads. Lucky for us, most of them followed Rick’s advice to catch the bus to the top of the hill. We decided we needed to work off that egg custard, and so broke away from the blue book brigade and walked up the road.
- I don’t begrudge Rick Steves his success — good for him; he seems to have worked hard for it. But his motto — “Europe through the back door” — can’t really apply anymore when he has millions of readers trying to walk through it. The same thing happened to Lonely Planet. What was once the hip, backpacker’s guide to cool spots now leads people to mainstream tourism spots just by its recommendations because it’s Amazon’s best selling travel guide series.
- I think we successfully avoided the Steve-o’s on this trip to Scotland. Aberdeen and the Northeast Highlands are nowhere to be found in Rick Steves’ Scotland, and I can’t say that I heard too many North American accents during that part of our trip — save for the one day we drove down to Dunnottar Castle, but that’s got to be one of the main tourist draws in that part of Scotland. I heard almost as much German as I did American twang.
- I’ve tended, more and more, to use local Google searches rather than guide books. Google often surfaces more local content, and limiting the results to the past year makes sure it’s current. But even this might not be “back door” enough. The barista in the Aberdeen coffee shop that I found through my “Hipster Aberdeen” Google search did mention seeing a surprising number of Americans recently. I wonder if my “Hipster” search strategy has gone mainstream.
- Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #124
- I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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- Bridge music from ccMixter
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