Back from 10 days in Tuscany where, among other things, we thought we’d avoid all the noise of the US presidential election. We succeeded… almost. One of my latest travel hobbies has been to quiz Uber drivers for their life stories. It makes for interesting rides to and from the airport. We also continue the ongoing thread about travel safety. This time, we talk about using Bluetooth in rental cars. 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 is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #125:
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL, with a new episode just in time for the TSA Thanksgiving lines. I’m once again thankful that I’m able to avoid O’Hare this week — the busiest travel week of the year. Since the last episode, I’ve been in Boston, Baltimore, Charlottesville, Hoboken, and, for the first time, I landed at Lehigh Valley Regional Airport in Allentown, PA. I was surprised how nice an airport it is. I was expecting something smaller — just a handful of gates — and perhaps a bit dingier — maybe something along the lines of White Plains, NY. But it was clean and bright with big concourses — not a lot of people, but a lot of space.
- Then I had 3 weeks at home — my longest non-travel streak this year. There is something relaxing about not packing and unpacking. It also makes you realize how much time you lose in the act of travel — standing in lines, waiting for security, to board the plane, to check in to your hotel, to get a cup of coffee…. The whole time, though, I was looking forward to getting back on the road — because my next trip was with my wife to Tuscany for our 25th anniversary, revisiting the scene of our honeymoon.
- We flew into Pisa by way of Munich, another new airport for me. But I was much less impressed by this one. Things were going fine — nothing special in typical German airport style — until we hit security. There were a dozen lines that were just crawling. There weren’t that many people trying to go through security — it was 10 or 11am on a Friday — but maybe the security union was on a work slowdown because they had to be going out of their way to work that slow. As is my wont, I bitch tweeted that out. Colin McDowell tweeted back — “Totally agree. Slowest security of any major airport, like Gatwick in the ‘80’s. Shops must be suffering”. And the bars too. I didn’t have time for my traditional German airport breakfast beer.
- Things got better at Pisa Airport though. This was not a new airport; we had flown in here for our honeymoon. I had booked a Fiat 500 from Hertz for kinda old times sake; we’d driven a Fiat Panda 25 years ago. I was pleasantly surprised to find an Alfa Romeo in the parking slot. Definitely a move up from the Panda. And it was an automatic — the first time I haven’t driven a stick in Europe. At first I was kinda disappointed, but later, when I was winding through the Tuscan hills and picking my way through rutted dirt roads, I was happy that the car was doing the shifting.
- Bridge Music — Heaven by Los Lonely Boys
- A few episodes back, I complained about having to do an interview for my Global Entry renewal. I’d read online about others getting renewed without the interview, so I was a bit peeved to have to make my way past the lines at the McDonalds in the lower lever of ORD Terminal 5 yet again. But, other than the smell of fries at 9am on a Friday (I’m too old to start my weekends on Thursday nights), it was a fairly painless experience. I was ushered back less than 5 minutes after I’d arrived and had a very straight forward interview with the Customs and Border Protection agent. He was a great guy; good conversation. Asked me a couple of questions — including one about my stolen passport — took a new picture and a new set of fingerprints and I was done. 10 minutes later, I was making my way past the McDonalds again. As I thought about it, I had no reason to be peeved. Seems reasonable that they’d want to put an eyeball on me after 5 years.
- Jim McDonough posted a comment on the TravelCommons web site about my Rick Steves rant. Jim writes:
- My wife and I love Rick Steves (we call ourselves Rickheads) and use his books all the time. But I know what you mean about his fans overwhelming a particular place. It’s funny how many people in the States have no idea who he is, but in Europe, Rick Steves sits at the right hand of the father. Get your restaurant or hotel into his book, and you have it made
- And while I was able to dodge the Rickheads in Aberdeen, I knew I was toast in Tuscany. Even in November, I was shoulder-to-shoulder with older, sensibly dressed, empty-nester Rickheads toting their blue bibles through Pisa, Lucca, and Florence. Only when we were staying on a farm in Chianti a couple of miles up a rutted dirt road were we free of them.
- David Glickman sent me a note recommending a more detailed guide of Scotland for my next visit:
- Living just outside London I am not sure I have never read a Rick Steves Guidebook, but what I recommend getting hold of Peter Irvine’s really excellent guide ‘Scotland The Best’ before your next trip to St.Andrews. My wife and I are regular visitors to the States, and my wife travels to Madison Wi about 6 times a year through ORD so we really enjoy your podcasts. We have just returned from a trip and boy is your country now expensive to us poor post-Brexit Brits!
- I immediately hit Amazon and ordered the new 2016 edition of Scotland The Best. Very detailed, with lots of suggestions. Looking forward to giving it a workout on my next visit. And I can imagine the US looks very expensive for pound- and euro-based tourists. The euro dropped another 5% in the week-and-a-half we’ve been back from Italy.
- About a year ago in episode #117, I first talked about Revolut, a virtual and real chip-and-pin debit card with great exchange rates. I first used it last fall on a trip to the UK. I’d transfer funds into it using my US debit card and manage conversions with a smartphone app. It was great. But note my use of the past tense. Over the past 3 months, the service has been deteriorating for US users. First, they began charging a 3% fee on fund transfers using US debit cards. I soon found that they only charged the fee if those transfers were in dollars. If I transferred funds in euros or pounds, there was no charge. Weird, but OK, it still worked. But when I tried that trick before my trips to Scotland and Italy, no dice. All US debit transfers were blocked. I suppose I could’ve tried an interbank transfer using something like TransferWise, but that’s way too much of a hassle. They say they “aim to change it ASAP” but it’s been 3 months now and no update. I have to retract my praise for Revolut and delete the app from my iPhone.
- I mentioned in the last episode, that the lack of a chip-&-pin card in Scotland has become less of a hassle with the spread of contactless card readers that let me use Apple Pay on my iPhone. I didn’t find that same convenience in Italy. I didn’t see one place with a contactless reader. Other than large restaurant bills (we managed to find tables at a few Michelin starred restaurants during our stay), I paid mostly cash. It seemed much less of a hassle.
- Over the last 3-4 episodes, we had one blurb that’s talked about travel security. Last episode was VPNs, the one before that video jacking. So in this installment of Travel Security, I want to talk about car rentals; specifically, about when you use Bluetooth to pair your smartphone with your rental’s audio system. I do this all the time. It’s safer — let’s me talk handsfree, avoiding wrecks and tickets. And it lets me listen to podcasts or Pandora or Spotify when I’m driving instead of fiddling around, finding a local radio station that I don’t hate. However, if you do this, you need to remember to delete your pairing when you return your car. There hasn’t been one time when I haven’t gone through and deleted 3-5 pairings before pairing my own. And if you scroll through the devices, they all have personalized names like “Timmy’s iPhone”. And most phones by default will download your contacts to the car when paired. You can turn this default behavior off in an Android phone, but I haven’t found that capabilities with iPhones. Instead, every time I pair my iPhone, I have to remember to flip the switch that prevents it. So for most people, they leave behind a profile in their rental with all of their contacts and phone numbers. That is just bad in so many ways.
- 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 — Heaven by Electric Skychurch
Uber Driver Stories
- I find myself taking more and more Ubers as opposed to regular taxi cabs. I like cabs, I like cab drivers, but Uber is usually a better experience. Thumbing the app is so much easier than trying to hail a cab, or finding the number of the local cab company and then dealing with an often(?)/usually(?) cab dispatcher. And the condition of the car is, 9 times out of 10, vastly superior to the beat-up cab I usually get. The Baltimore cabs I’d take from the Inner Harbor to the airport were some of the worst. But then in Chicago I got picked by an Uber driver in a BMW X3 and by a spotless Mercedes SUV at EWR. Indeed, 9 times out of 10 is giving cabs way too much of the benefit of the doubt. I’ve yet to ride in an Uber that was worse than a cab.
- But the best thing about taking an Uber is driver stories. Every Uber I take, I ask the driver how he/she likes it, how long they’ve been doing it, and what else they do — if it’s not their full time gig (which is the definite minority)
- A lotta drivers I talk with are retired. One guy in Vegas told me he was a bit lonely and bored. He wanted to get out of the house, but really had nowhere to go. He didn’t want to gamble or sit in a bar at 10 in the morning, so driving Uber gave him a reason to get off the sofa.
- A Charlottesville, VA retired fireman drives the late night weekend shift when kids from UVa are willing to pay anything (or willing to charge anything to their parents’ accounts) for a ride home from the bars. He told me he gets huge surge fares, but he’s driving ‘til 3 or 4 in the morning.
- A woman in Baltimore is a retired teacher and principal. She drives to take a break from studying for her PhD. She too gets bored sitting around the house, and she likes to drive. She told me that it was her husband who got her to sign up for Uber. She was driving him crazy around the house. Another guy, non-retired, who is studying full-time for his CFA exam — chartered financial analyst — does the same thing, drives during his study breaks.
- I find that many morning drivers — the ones taking me from my hotel to a client site — are doing a little moonlighting; fitting in a few rides before they go to work, and then again at the end of the day. I was surprised to find out that Uber drivers don’t know your destination until they accept the ride. Thinking about it, it makes sense; keeps drivers from cherry picking, say, rides to the airport. But one woman told me about accepting a ride and finding out it was to some suburb 40 minutes away — and she only had a quarter tank.
- Of course, there’s more to ridesharing than Uber. I’ve also used Lyft. During busy times, I’ll fire them both up to see which has less of a surge charge, or a shorter wait time. Most drivers will drive for both. In my unscientific polling, most prefer Lyft but get more traffic from Uber. One driver told my wife he prefers Lyft because the Lyft riders talk more. And then he proceeded to unload his life story on my wife and her friend for the next 40 minutes as they battled traffic into Chicago.
- I’m always interested in how the gig economy is working for them. For a while, we were reading that the sharing economy, the gig economy of Uber and Airbnb was the next wave. The froth seems to have worn off of that wave, but a lot of the Uber drivers I talk to need that extra money, though often they wonder if it’s worth it. The Mercedes SUV driver who took me from EWR to Hoboken wondered if it was worth hassle of waiting for an airport fare. The only full-time driver I had was in Baltimore, and she said she makes more money delivering packages for Uber than she does delivering passengers, and the packages are much quieter and more pleasant.
- But as good as these stories are, the best one I recently heard wasn’t from an Uber driver; it was from the manager of the Chianti farm we stayed at for a couple of days during our trip to Italy. He had lived in the Chicago area for about 10 years. He got his PhD in geochemistry at Univ of Illinois and then worked at Argonne National Labs doing research. After a while, he missed his family and the countryside where he’d grown up, so he moved back to Tuscany, married, had a kid, and now manages a cattle farm with a growing sideline in agritourism. Forget driving for Uber. I want to be this guy.
- Bridge Music — Shadows by Antardhyan
Overseas for the Election
- My wife and I flew to Italy the Thursday night before the election. We both voted early, so we didn’t shirk our civic duties. What we did do, though, was leave behind the last blast of election ads and media coverage. I mean, the one bad thing about Game 7 of the World Series going into extra innings was that it gave more time for political ads. We were very happy to leave all that noise behind us.
- On Election Day, we had dinner in a nice restaurant in a small town that was 45 minutes of switchbacks and rutted dirt roads away from our hotel. On the way back, I think we dodged a boar and a deer as we crossed back over the ridge of hills and headed down to our hotel. We went to bed while the polls in the US were still open and didn’t really think a thing about it.
- I woke up around 7 on Weds morning; Tuesday midnight in Chicago. I glanced at my iPhone and saw a cascade of notifications from the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune about the election results. The election still hadn’t been called, but by the time we sat down for breakfast, it was done. Donald Trump had won.
- The Austrian guy working the desk and the breakfast (it was a small hotel) laughed when he walked up — “At least you guys aren’t having a do-over” The July Austrian presidential election was set aside for problems with absentee ballots and they still haven’t done the revote. “Or Spain, going through two elections without getting a government.”
- Now, TravelCommons has never had a political point-of-view and I’m not about to change that here. I have good friends on both sides of the debate. What I will say is that I, like many others, was surprised by the results given all the predictions we’d heard right up until we were wheels up at ORD. All through breakfast, we refreshed our Twitter feeds and hit the Wall Street Journal and New York Times apps, trying to catch up on the coverage we’d slept through the night before. Where the night before, we were happy not to hear about politics, now we were digging for an explanation for this upset.
- After an hour of this, and an extra cappuccino, we set the phones aside again. It was nice that we could do that — walk away from the disbelief (and some might say panic) at the result that was spreading over the media (social and traditional), and schools, and I imagine in the workplaces. Instead, we were driving our little Alfa Romeo through some beautiful Chianti vineyards that were brilliantly yellow with the vine leaves changing colors. We stopped off at the Antinori winery for a bit of a tasting and then continued our drive to Florence. We knew we’d eventually get pulled into the post-election vortex, but we knew we were lucky — we would be in a cone of silence for another 3 days.
- Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #125
- I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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