Podcast #127 — Critiquing My Top 10 Travel Tips; Reviewing VPNs

Last generation digital security

In this episode, I talk again about digital security on the road, especially the use of a VPN. I review three VPN products, including NordVPN which is giving away a year’s subscription to a TravelCommons listener. I dig into the process of generating the Top 10 Holiday Travel Tips listicle I do every couple of year, and follow up on stories from Uber and Lyft drivers. 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 #127:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL, in the midst of my third straight week at home. It is yet another sign of the impending apocalypse. All just can’t be right with the world – the office manager is nervous that I’m in the office for days in a row, my friends are shocked that I’m available during the week for a beer, my wife is tired of cooking dinner for me, and the cat is visibly pissed (in his own kitty way) that I’m taking up space on the couch. But, I am getting current on my doctor and dentist appointments, and I was able to get a haircut in a timely manner. Though these may seem little things, they can be a pain to get done when you’re traveling every week, and weekend appointments are a scarce commodity. Convenient, if not a bit boring.
  • It also means I’ve missed 1 Delta and 2 United system outages and the associated ground-stops and cancellations, as well as getting stranded in last weekend’s East Coast winter storm. Those of you who follow me on Twitter have got to be happy about the lull in bitch tweeting.
  • And I’ve also been around to provide real-time advice and counsel to my wife as she’s been planning our family spring break trip — this year we’re skipping the Iberian Peninsula and going to Paris. I’m not sure how much she really appreciates my immediate reactions, but…. The house is awash with guidebooks — except, of course, for Rick Steves. I pulled out the 2016 review copy of DK’s Top 10 Paris, the credenza looks like my wife cleared out the local library, and we have print outs of a bunch of web pages. I dunno,I guess I’m a visual and tactile person. When I’m trying to wrap my head around a bunch of disparate data sources, I still have to go physical — print it out and spread it out. Or maybe this is just a fancy way to say I’m old.
  • Bridge Music — Ianiscus by Javolenus (c) copyright 2013 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. Ft: Wired_Ant

Following Up

  • Just a heads up, I’ll be announcing a new giveaway later on in this episode. And since I can’t figure out how to create MP3 chapter marks in Adobe Audition, you’ll have listen all the way through.
  • Rummaging through the mailbag…
    • Dan Gradwohl dropped me a line agreeing with my complaint in the last episode about the small print size on most hotel shampoo and conditioner bottles. And, like me, he like Hyatt Place’s solution — print a big “1” on the shampoo, a big “2” on the conditioner, and a big “3” on the shower gel. No need then to wear your reading glasses in the shower then. Dan also said that he “really liked” the music in the last episode. I can’t take credit for that. I outsourced the music search to my daughter Claire who was home for Winter Break. Since she received what may be the first positive comment about the music in 12 years, I asked her to to help me with this episode too.
    • Long-time listener Robert Fenerty hit the TravelCommons website to comment on my pay-as-you-go SIM travails — “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. 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. 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 in awhile.”
  • Robert, thanks for that post. What a nice way of putting it — the podcast becoming an old friend. I haven’t heard it put that way before, but it’s a huge compliment.
  • Looking at SIMs for our Paris trip next month, the new upstart network provider sells their SIMs through vending machines, so I think I’ll skip the Orange phone store and give the new guys a try. I’m not a Verizon phone customer, but many of my Verizon-using friend swear by Travelpass as being dead-simple. AT&T finally matched that offer last month with their International Day Pass — $10/day and it looks about as simple. An AT&T-using friend who’ll be on an Asian cruise next month plans to use it. And that seems to be a perfect use case — he’ll be in a different country every day.
  • One of things we’ll be working on before the Paris trip is not to forget anything critical when we leave for the airport. Many years ago, we get out of the cab at ORD’s International Terminal for a family trip to London. I’m pulling the bags out of the trunk …and there’s one missing. I send my family through to check-in and boarding while I hop back into the cab to run back home. I open the front door, and there’s the forgotten bag in the middle of the hallway. We only live a 25-min drive from ORD and luckily there was no traffic, and I had status on Virgin Atlantic at the time. I made it to the gate just before boarding was called. That memory seared in our brains, we never make that mistake again… until Sept when we were heading over to Scotland. We’re in the cab and my wife asks me “Do you have my passport?” Nope, thought you had it. At least we figured this out before we hit the airport. The driver makes an illegal U-turn across the tollway media and we sprint back home to find the passport sitting on my desk. It was only a 15-min backtrack this time, so we still got to ORD in time to get a sandwich at Tortas Frontera. But it was a wake-up call — never be complacent about stupidity.
  • We were in San Francisco a few weekends back. Always an interesting time, especially with 80,000 people marching through the center of town on Saturday. We stayed at the Westin St Francis on Union Square — decided to go old-school for the weekend. It rained most of the weekend, which emptied out the cab rank outside the St Francis, which meant we did more ride-shares and less walking. I have both Uber and Lyft on my phone, so I’d pop them both open and compare wait times and pricing. Even with the rain, the wait times rarely topped 3 min — which is almost instantaneous in the traffic around Union Square. I was amazed at the number of animated cars swarming the area. Continuing my research from a couple of episodes ago, I’d talk with each driver about how their gig was going. I was surprised at the overwhelming preference for Lyft over Uber. Lyft pays more than Uber, they said. Many said they only take Uber rides when they think they can hit Uber’s incentive bonuses. If not, they tend to Lyft. And they said the Lyft riders tended to be nicer, more considerate. Since I was using both apps, I didn’t quite know what to make of that. Our Sunday morning driver told us he drives solely for Lyft; he quit after Uber trialed driverless cars in San Francisco. He said it was just another proof point that Uber doesn’t care about its drivers. We ended up taking mostly Lyft that weekend.
  • This echoed what I’d heard from an Uber and Lyft driver in Charlottesville, VA last month. This guy was a super driver — he’d done 85,000 miles last year. He also preferred Lyft because they paid more, but said that he gets more rides from Uber. He lives in Charlottesville, but heads over to Richmond to drive when UVa is on break. He was planning to head up to DC for inauguration weekend, figuring the surge pricing would make it worth his while. I’ve never talked to anyone who is working the system as hard as this guy.
  • Back home, telling our son Andrew about all this, he came down firmly on Uber’s side, because Uber can’t cancel a ride. He’s had too many Chicago Lyft drivers cancel on him. He deleted the Lyft app off his phone and is exclusively Uber.
  • Last month, I was back flying one of my usual routes from the ‘90’s — ORD-DTW — complete with the original aircraft — an AA MD-80. That 2-3 cabin configuration and the what-now-seem-like half-height overhead bins. At least it was an original American MD-80, not one of TWA ones they held onto after that merger. The AA ones are actually not a bad plane if you’re toward the front, away from the engines in the back. They seem to have more rows of extra leg room Main Cabin Extra seats than the newer A319s and 320s. At some point during the flight, my row mate looks down at my phone and asks “How are you charging your phone? There aren’t any plugs here”. She was kinda right — no regular two-prong AC plugs. But I knew from years of flying these planes (I first started flying American in 1985 — when these MD-80s were in their prime), that down between the seats, I’d find an old cigarette lighter outlet. And I still carry a lighter power adapter for that 10% of the time Hertz sticks me with a beater rental that doesn’t have a USB plug — or for times like this when I’m flying AA’s beater plane.
  • 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 — In Peace (Somewhere Else Mix) by cdk (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. Ft: Snowflake

Critiquing my Top 10 Travel Tips

  • Every couple of years, I bow to the search engine gods at Google and create a listicle — an awful mashup word of list and article. They’re kinda click-baity. You see them on places like Mashable — “Top 10 Ways to Hack Your Morning Routine” or “The 10 most cringeworthy advertising fails of 2015” (I didn’t make these up). But they exist because people search for them. So in December when my last listicle has rolled off the front page of TravelCommons, I create another one titled just like the last one — “Top 10 Holiday Travel Tips”. And how do they score? When I searched just now for “Top 10 Holiday Travel Tips”, a Google+ posting for my 2013 edition made the first page of results — albeit the last entry — and last December’s, the most recent, made the top of the second page. Not too bad…
  • When I write each new edition, I do try to think about what are today’s top 10 rather than just blindly copy-pasting the last post, although there is a good chunk of repetition — “Fly Non-Stop” and “Skip the Tight Connection” are as valid today as they were 12 years ago when I started this podcast.
    Though they might also seem a bit obvious to even a slightly seasoned traveler. So I also have tried to weave in a few, if not Pro Tips, then at least a next level of insight. In 2013, I suggested buying status for the lead adult in the travel party. The rationale went like this — for $20, you can take your whole family through the status security line and early boarding because I’ve never seen a security screener or gate agent split up a family.
  • I’ve also consistently recommended that people use Twitter as an alternate way into customer service, “at addressing” an airline or hotel as a way to jump what might be a long queue in front of a gate agent or front-desk clerk. I don’t think a lot of folks realize the sophistication and focus that many companies put on monitoring social media. My tweet about that American MD-80 generated a quick reply from American — “We’re currently working on updating our fleet, Mark…” And while not exactly travel-related, AT&T has now followed up with me twice over Twitter about a cellular service problem I was having last week. I gave this advice to a friend who called me from ORD on Christmas Day. Korean Air wouldn’t let him and his family board their flight to Hanoi because they didn’t have Vietnamese visas — a new requirement that had just hit a couple of days earlier. They couldn’t find anyone to help them. Between the “at” Tweeting and sheer persistence, they finally found a way to get on the plane.
  • I used to have “bring a portable battery pack” — like a lipstick charger — or a small power strip on my list because of the dearth of electrical outlets in airports. One listener recommended stalking cleaning crews to find hidden outlets. But now — finally — with long overdue gate area refreshes, airlines are adding accessible outlets — either in new work areas or power “pylons” sponsored by Samsung or Verizon. So while I still carry a battery pack and often find it useful, it’s fallen out of the Top 10.
  • Back in 2014, I did break it up a bit. Instead of a classic “Top 10” listicle, I offered Airport Etiquette tips — things like “when traveling with your family, don’t stroll 4 abreast down the concourse” and “the airport Starbucks isn’t like your neighborhood one; keep your coffee order to 3 adjectives or less”. That article is nowhere to be found on the Google search page.
  • What is the top travel pro tip that you’re handing out to your friends? Sending one in will be part of the giveaway I’ll announce in the next topic.
  • Bridge Music —Blue Like Venus by spinningmerkaba (c) copyright 2012 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. Ft: Admiral Bob

Reviewing VPNs

  • Back in episode #119, I talked about digital security on the road, and the topic has turned into a persistent thread across episodes, which makes sense given the Chinese water torture-type steady drip, drip, drip of cyber breach announcements. Frequent travelers could be considered a high risk group because, being away from their homes and offices, heavily rely on public networks — airports, hotels, Starbucks — to work (and play) in today’s digitized — what, economy, society, street corner?
  • VPNs — virtual private networks — have two main use cases for the frequent traveler — privacy on public networks and location shifting. VPNs accomplish these by altering the routing of the network traffic in and out of your PC, tablet or smartphone. What you’re putting out onto the Internet is encrypted so eavesdroppers — like the guy wearing the hoodie in the dark corner of the Starbucks (to truck in stereotypes) running a packet sniffer — can’t read what you’re browsing or e-mailing. And then the VPN routes your encrypted traffic to that it looks like you’re using the Internet from a different location — what’s called the VPN “endpoint”
  • So how much privacy do you really need, and is it worth the additional hassle of using a VPN? Like everything, it depends. Being a consultant, you’ll forgive me for giving into my reflex of distilling it down to a 2×2 matrix — on what you’re doing, and how paranoid you are. In the low paranoid/high privacy need box I put things like on-line banking and filling out your Global Entry app. Lots of personal information there that you don’t want Mr Hoodie to hoover up and post on some dark web hacking site. In the low privacy need/high paranoid box, I’d put reading Mashable listicles or browsing porn site — embarrassing if someone posted that info on your Facebook page, but they couldn’t drain your bank account.
  • The location shifting use case — I’m in Beijing but the Internet thinks I’m in Chicago — only really comes into play for international travelers. Like when I’m in Madrid but wanting to stream the NCAA basketball tournament, or when my daughter in Scotland wants to watch “Friends” reruns (don’t ask me why) which is only on US Netflix. I also use VPNs whenever I’m in Beijing to hit Facebook and Twitter which are blocked by the “Great Firewall of China”.
  • I looked at two highly rated software VPNs — Private Internet Access (PIA) and NordVPN — and a Kickstarter hardware-based VPN, AlwaysHome, that I reviewed last fall in episode #124.
  • PIA and NordVPN are quick to set up — go to their website, buy a subscription (promotions change all the time, but when I’m writing this, PIA has discounted their annual subscription to $40 while NordVPN’s is at $79), download, install and run their software (VPN client), pick a VPN endpoint (which country do you want the Internet to think you’re coming from), and off you go. And the next time you access the Internet, you need to remember to start the client and pick an endpoint, unless you set the client to start automatically each time you log in.
  • AlwaysHome, the hardware VPN, takes a bit more planning. You need to buy a pair of USB dongles and a service subscription (right now $180 for the dongles and a year’s service), plug one into your home router, and then take the second with you in your laptop bag.
  • I tested the software VPNs on three platforms — a Windows 10 PC hardwired into a network, a Samsung tablet running Android 6.0.1 (Marshmallow) on WiFi, and an iPhone 7 running iOS 10.2 on WiFi and AT&T LTE mobile data.
  • I first looked at performance — how much speed was I giving up for the additional encryption and routing that gives me privacy? The Windows PC had the lowest penalty — both VPNs cut upload and download speeds by about 6%. They also the same on the iPhone on WiFi, though the download penalty increased to 11%. Don’t know if this is an iOS limitation or something else. On the Samsung Android tablet on WiFi, NordVPNs download was on par with Windows PC — about 6% on downloads — while PIA was 25% slower on downloads. This one has to be marked down to PIA’s Android client.
  • The really interesting result was on the iPhone on AT&T’s LTE service. The download penalty on LTE was around 83% for both NordVPN and PIA. Must have something to do with AT&T’s LTE service. And while interesting, it probably has the least practical value. Other than triple-paranoid people, I’m not sure why someone would tack a VPN onto their cellular connection.
  • Accessing US Netflix from abroad is kinda the acid test for location shifting. Netflix, prompted by their content suppliers, has been the most aggressive service in blocking VPN endpoints; blocking people from outside the US streaming content that Netflix has only licenses in the US. I asked my daughter Claire, who’s at University of St Andrews in the UK, to test each VPN with her Netflix “Friends” test. PIA failed; Netflix served up its “blocked” screen. NordVPN let her log into US Netflix, though she said the connection was slow; probably the result of the lousy BT service coming into her flat over a chip shop. AlwaysHome did the best — no Netflix blocking because it looks like she’s logging in from our house, and the best connection over the BT service because the AlwaysHome hardware lets it do accelerate network traffic in a way that the software VPNs can’t.
  • I also asked Claire for her thoughts on the NordVPN and PIA software clients. She liked the NordVPN client better — more graphic, easier to understand. The PIA client is a bit more stripped down. But she also liked that, with the AlwaysHome VPN, she didn’t have to install any software — just connect to its WiFi.
  • Sorting it all out, it you want an easy VPN solution that allows you to use Netflix when you’re overseas, go with NordVPN. If you want the cheapest solution that’s a bit more stripped down and you’re not running Android, then go with PIA. If you want the best Netflix experience from, say, a vacation rental that doesn’t require you to navigate WiFi login pages and you can plan a couple of weeks ahead, try AlwaysHome.
  • NordVPN provided me a free month of their VPN service for testing purposes. I purchased a PIA subscription with my own money. 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. 
  • Now, for the giveaway. NordVPN has given me a year’s subscription to give away to one lucky TravelCommons listener. Go to the TravelCommons website and check out the top post to enter the raffle. It’ll be open for 10 days from the posting of this episode — which, if I have my calendar math right, is March 2. Come by the website and enter for a shot to be more cyber-secure for a year. And thanks to the folks at NordVPN for this giveaway.


  • Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #127
  • 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
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