Podcast #126 — Beating the Traffic; Rethinking Carry-On Luggage

Car trunks need carry-on luggage limits too

Seems like I’ve been doing as much driving as flying since the last episode, so I’ve switched from apps that track flight delays to those that help me dodge traffic backups. I talk, yet again, about buying pay-as-you-go SIMs while traveling, but the need to do that may be ending. And I’ve reshuffled my carry-on luggage as the airlines have changed their rules. 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 #126:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL, hoping that everyone had a Merry Christmas — or Happy Christmas if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic — Happy Hanukkah, and a Happy New Year. I’m personally in trying a combo Dry-ish and Sugar-Free January in an attempt to drop 10 lbs of holiday weight that managed to sneak on-board — the downside, I guess, from staying off the road for the back half of December.
  • I eased back into travel mode with my usual Charlottesville trip the first workday of the New Year. I didn’t mind it too much since Charlottesville was about 20 degrees warmer than Chicago. It was nice to walk outside with just a scarf and a tweed jacket.
  • Between the last episode and my Christmas travel break, I did almost as much driving as I did flying. I drove down to Nashville the Friday after Thanksgiving to see my mother. That drive wasn’t so bad, The Sunday drive back to Chicago, though was a whole ‘nother matter. Then that next week, I had meetings in Richmond, VA, Baltimore, and Charlottesville. I didn’t even bother to look at flight schedules. I knew nonstop RIC-BWI and a BWI-CHO flights were non-existent and the 2-2.5 hour drive time was within my fly-or-drive tipping point. Neither drives were bad. The only hassle was the Hertz rental car. Since it was a one-way rental — I was picking up in RIC and dropping off in CHO — they gave me a beater car, an older Jeep Patriot that I think was the only car on their lot without Bluetooth, which made listening to podcasts or doing phone calls a bit less convenient.
  • It did give me a chance to explore Baltimore and Charlottesville a bit more than usual, though. On my past visits, I wouldn’t bother with a rental; would just taxi in from the airport, and then walk or Uber to places. But with the beater Jeep, I could wander with a bit more range. In Baltimore, I drove around the Fells Point neighborhood, ending up in the Thames St Oyster House, then threading through some waterfront areas that I had been a bit hesitant to walk through. In Charlottesville, I wandered through the countryside until I found Starr Hill Brewery. Kinda empty on a rainy Weds night, which meant the bartender had time to take me through a flight of her favorite beers. Maybe I’ve found the source of a few of those holiday pounds.
  • Bridge Music — ABANDONED BUTTERFLIES by THE_CONCEPT_OF_ENERGY (c) copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Ft: Doxent Zsigmond, Snowflake

Following Up

  • I’ve talked a couple of times in the past episodes about the benefits of buying a pay-as-you-go SIM when traveling internationally — $20 for a GB of data vs. AT&T’s $60 for 300 MB is easy math. The only hassle is buying the SIM. First, you have to find the phone store, which can be a bit of an Easter Egg hunt. Back in November, our first day in Italy was in Pisa. We land, get the car, and head to the city center to find the phone store. However, the easiest one to get to was closed — at 1 in the afternoon. Luckily, the next closest one was only a 10-minute walk and it was open. This time, I’d done my research before we left, purchased the SIMs online, and had printed out vouchers with bar codes, and instructions in English and Italian. I was ready for a quick and easy transaction. And yet again, I was wrong. The clerk knew nothing about the vouchers, didn’t know how to process them, and had to call around to other shops to figure it out. And then, each of the SIMs had to be registered and activated. Over an hour later, we’re sprinting out of the shop so we can make our time slot to get into the Leaning Tower — which we’d also pre-paid. And this was a pretty typical experience. Which was why I was really excited a telecoms industry consultant told me that the virtual SIM, or the e-SIM was getting close to launch. Apple took the first crack at this back in 2014, but it’s been a slow ramp up. The iPhone 7 I picked up back in Sept still has the classic SIM. But this guy was telling me that going SIM-less is just about possible. He said it’ll be like signing into a WiFi hotspot. The next time I land in Italy and turn on my phone, I’ll be presented with a sign-in screen where I’ll be able to select my carrier and plan, and charge it to my credit card. Now given how wonky some WiFi gateways are, I’m not sure that this is the best comparison to sell me on the service, but if it saves me a couple of hours of frustration when I’m at my most jet lagged, I’ll figure it out.
  • My age odometer clicked over again last month — which I guess is a good thing, because if it didn’t click over, I be… dead. So, unless I find that Dorian Grey portrait at a garage sale, getting older is better than the alternative. I try not to let it bother me — with varying levels of success. One thing, though, this does frustrate me is the need to bring my glasses into hotel bathrooms with me. Because it seems just as my reading vision is deteriorating, hotels are reducing the type size on their shampoo and conditioner bottles. As they try to go upscale with their toiletries, the bottle designers are taking the regular sized fancy labels into Photoshop and shrinking them down to fit on the front of a much smaller bottle, resulting is minuscule type that I might’ve been challenged to read in my 20’s let alone now. So my drill is to wear my glasses into the bathroom, figure out which bottle is shampoo, which is conditioner, and which is soap (or shower gel as they call it), and then line them up in order on the soap dish in the shower. Then take my glasses off, turn on the water, and hope that my lined up bottles don’t fall. The Hyatt Place that I stay at in Charlottesville is one of the few that doesn’t require this drill. They have a big “1” printed on the shampoo — it runs about ¾’s the length of the bottle — and a big “2” printed on the conditioner. And they’re in different colors. No need for glasses there. I love that hotel.
  • It’s accepted wisdom that the most disgusting place on an airplane is the seat back pocket, and it just keeps getting worse. As airlines try to tighten up their ground turns — how long a plane is on the ground before it takes off again — the amount of time the cabin clean-up crew has to do its job continues to shrink. I was reminded of this by a Chicago Tribune article right before Thanksgiving when many airport workers — cabin cleaners, baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants — threatened to strike during that busiest travel week. The reporter interviewed a cabin cleaner who recently moved to Chicago from San Juan, PR. She said her crew of four are given 7 minutes to clean the cabin; no where near enough time to clean up all the crumbs, spilled drinks, and wrappers ground into the carpet, let alone time to clear the junk people leave in the seat back pocket. “I don’t know what is wrong with passengers nowadays,” she said. I won’t even pull out the safety card when I’m sitting in the exit row. A buddy told me a story about flying Tunisair from Brussels to Tunis many years ago. After the meal service, when people were done eating, they just shoved their trays into the seat back pocket. I’m not sure it’s all that different today.
  • 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 — A Foolish Game by snowflake (c) copyright 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. Ft: Admiral Bob

Beating The Traffic

  • As I mentioned earlier, I’ve done a bunch of travel by car lately. I talked in the last episode about driving through Tuscany. I was pleasantly surprised when Hertz upgraded us to an Alfa Romeo sports car, but when we had to drive through the rutted dirt back roads outside of Greve in Chianti, I was left wanting for something with a bit more ground clearance.
  • The Thanksgiving drive down to Nashville was a lot smoother. They finally finished the years of construction expanding the I-80/94 constriction point around Lake Michigan in Northwest Indiana, and the traffic from there to I-65 south flowed smoothly. We made good enough time to make a couple of beer stops — in Columbus, IN at a new Upland Brewing restaurant, and in downtown Louisville at Against The Grain Brewing.
  • The drive back would be a whole other matter — and I knew it and dreaded it. We drove down on that Friday, sailing through downtown Indy, Louisville, and Nashville because everyone was on vacation or shopping. Driving back Sunday though, we were right in the thick of the busiest travel day in the US. And while I always avoid flying on this day, I had managed to put myself on one of the US’s main north-south interstates. It would’ve only been worse if we’d been on the East Coast driving I-95 or the Jersey Turnpike. And it was the beat-down that I’d expected. The start of the drive out of Nashville was fine, and a bit pretty, going through rolling hills up to Louisville. The traffic was steady, but flowing. But we kept picking up more traffic as we headed north. We took a break in Indy this time, stopping off at Sun King Brewing right off the interstate, and then coffee-d up at a nearby Starbucks. North of Indy was when it really hit — more and more cars and trucks heading up to Chicago, but still just 2 lanes. And so when the inevitable accident happened — as it did many times that Sunday — closing down one of those lanes, cutting the already clogged road by 50%, Waze became, if not a life saver, a time saver. I was running 3 nav systems, Waze, Google Maps, and the in-dash BMW nav. All had real-time traffic, but Waze seemed to be the quickest in sensing the need for a reroute. A couple of times that Sunday, it would direct us to take the next exit after traffic had stopped, and would vector us around the bottleneck and back onto the interstate, saving us 15-20 minutes of crawling and at least 70 points of increased blood pressure. I did skip the recommended diversion through the south side of Chicago, though. Given the record number of shootings in Chicago, stop-and-go traffic didn’t seem quite the burden that it did in rural Indiana.
  • The next week’s triangulation across Richmond, Baltimore, and Charlottesville found me on I-95 having to make 2 passes around Washington, DC on the Capital Beltway, always a brutal 8-lane chokepoint. Heading up from Richmond Tuesday night, Google Maps told me to take the clockwise/west route around DC while Waze told me to go east. Odd since Google owns both. A friend said that he researched this a bit and found some articles claiming that Waze’s algorithm weighs current information more than historical trends; Google Maps tips the scales the other way. I don’t know if this is true — I haven’t been able to find anything that says this — but I often see different rush hour recommendations. Since Waze served me well on Thanksgiving Sunday, I went east and took the counterclockwise path around. It was a rainy night, but traffic flowed better than I expected and I made it to Baltimore in time for an oyster dinner.
  • In spite of juggling nav apps, I found that I was more productive driving from Richmond to Baltimore to Charlottesville than I would’ve flying. You’d think it would be the other way around, but lack of direct flights would’ve mean going up and down, connecting through Washington Dulles. And on those few minutes I might be able to work, full planes and tight seats make it seem almost anti-social to try to open a laptop. On my 3-hour drive from Baltimore to Charlottesville, though, I was able to hammer through 2 conference calls and an unhurried, wide-ranging conversation with my boss. He called me. I told him that I was having a nice drive through Virginia horse country. “Good,” he said, “I have you captive.”
  • Bridge Music — H2O by Doxent Zsigmond (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Having to Think about Carry-on Luggage

  • I don’t usually think a lot about packing or luggage. And sometimes I think that puts me in the minority of frequent travelers. I know guys who obsess over their Tumi bags and specific packing systems. I used a grey Samsonite roller until the New Orleans sidewalks beat the wheels out to a 30 degree splay, and then I went back to my old black Victorinox with customs stickers from Thailand and Vietnam.
  • However, a few things in 2016 got me thinking about carry-ons — my carry-on experience with Wow Air in Iceland that I talked about in an earlier episode where I had to pull out half my clothes to meet the weight restrictions; my daughter’s light blue carry-on catching the eye of seemingly every gate agent she tried to pass, being forced to check it, and then having it lost 75% of her flights in 2016; and most recently, enduring long and often cold waits on a jet bridge waiting for my “valet checked” carry-on bag when flying regional jets
  • Starting from last to first, this regional jet thing kills me. It used to be that gate checking for a commuter flight wasn’t a big thing — the bag would be waiting for you on the jet bridge before you got off the plane. Now, as regional jets have gotten larger, they put the gate checked luggage in the same hold with the regular checked luggage, the only differentiating factor being the tag they put on at the gate. I’m typically waiting around 10 minutes with 40-50 other passengers, lined up on one side of an unheated jet bridge leaning over to see if my bag has come up yet. It’s gotten bad. On some of the larger Embraer jets flown by JetBlue, the overhead bins are large enough for regular bags, but on most of the regionals, you’re standing in that jet bridge line. After a while, this got real old, so I scrounged around through the old luggage in the attic to find a smaller duffel for 1-2 night trips that would fit in the overhead. I found a black nylon duffel from a 2007 National Retail Foundation tech conference that was an attendee giveaway. It had all the sponsors names stenciled across it — Oracle, Infosys. I kinda felt like a Nascar racer. But it did the job. I could squish it into the small overheads of the regional jets and so walk past the line of folks waiting for the “valets” to bring their luggage. But it still looked cheesy. So when I was in Italy in November, I kept my eye out for a nice leather bag. One rainy day in Florence – not unique on that trip — we dove into a covered outdoor market. Wandering through the stalls, I found a beautiful leather bag for 100 euros. My wife pointed to a bag the next size up — “Don’t you want this bigger one? It’s only 20 euros more.” Nope, that would defeat the whole purpose. I posted a picture of that bag on Twitter. Every time I walk up the ORD jet bridge when returning home from Charlottesville, I love that bag even more.
  • I remember when I first started traveling, you’d never see a hard-sided carry-on. Now it seems at least 30% of the carry-ons are hard-sided. I think a lot of it is fashion — they come in much cooler designs and colors, but there is some functionality to them. If you’re flying an airline that’s aggressively using a baggage sizer, it’s much easier to stay legal with a hard-sided bag. You can’t overstuff them to bulging like you can a soft-sided bag, and the polycarbonate shell slips much easier in and out of the metal baggage sizer. This is why I suggested to my daughter that she start using a hard-sided bag. And in a bit more muted color — something that wouldn’t grab the gate agent’s eye.
  • But if you’re working against weight limits as well as dimensions, like I was with Wow Air, you want the lightest, most stripped down bag possible. I haven’t experienced a carry-on weight limit in the US. Some US carriers post a 35 or 40 lb limit — even Spirit is at 40 lbs — but I’ve never seen a gate agent weigh a carry-on. The international carriers are where this comes in. Wow Air’s carry-on size dimensions are about the same as US carriers, but their weight limit is much less — 10 kg or 22 lbs — which seems like the consensus number for non-US carriers. In this case, you don’t want the extra weight of the hard siding. You probably don’t even want very sturdy wheels; just the lightest covering around your clothes that you can get. I know guys who’ll brag that they can fit everything they own into 2 suitcases. These guys are obviously aren’t doing carry-on.

Closing

  • Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #126
  • 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 ccMixter.org
  • Find TravelCommons on Stitcher, SoundCloud, and iTunes
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  • Direct link to the show
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2 Comments.

  1. Not many people are courageous enough to admit what a time sink it can be to find, purchase and setup a local SIM card. Sometimes it’s easy, the many Heathrow SIM vending machines being a great example. And Austria is a breeze.

    But outside of western countries, I’ve had to hand over my passport, stand in long lines, and try to explain “no, I need the one with data” to clerks whose language I don’t speak. Once I found out after leaving the store that my SIM was not properly initialized. Please go back to square one.

    I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but the Verizon Travelpass is a great alternative for those 2-3 day trips. It’s often less expensive than the local SIM and it’s about as painless to enable/disable as you can imagine. I’ll spare you the technical details.

    Please keep up the good work, the beer tips, and the warm sentiments from the road. Your podcast has become an old friend that I have over for dinner every once and a while.

  2. Agree with your Verizon comment. For me, the hassle-vs-cost break point also 2-3 days. I did a long weekend in Iceland and just used an AT&T global package. AT&T’s package isn’t as good as Verizon’s. I hope competition pushes them in that direction.

    Glad you’ve enjoyed the podcast over these many years 😀