Podcast #136 — Is Cash A Waning King; Don’t Make It Hard to Cash in on Loyalty

A C-Note for you, and you, and you…

After traveling with younger colleagues who pay for everything with cards, I wonder if I’m the last generation of cash payers. I also talk about the upcoming smart luggage ban on US airlines and a long Saturday afternoon trying to redeem some British Airways Avios points. All this, a new Uber driver story, and a few Christmas carols 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 #136:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL on what has been a very light travel month, just one trip to New York and then back down to Charlottesville, VA before an early wrap-up of my 2017 travel. I wanted to avoid flying into LGA because of the construction, but UA’s EWR monopoly jacks the price difference way beyond what I can justify, so I gritted my teeth and booked the LGA flight. It was amazingly smooth for Monday morning rush hour in ORD. Walked straight into the PreCheck line. There were a ton of people there — as is typical on a Monday morning, lots of professional travelers — but everything moved smoothly. The TSA stations were fully staffed; there was a minimal number of amateur travelers in PreCheck, and so what appeared to be a very daunting line was an easy 5-minute exercise. After that, I walked straight up the Starbucks register and ordered a coffee, and had a easy walk down to the gate. We left ORD on-time and landed at LGA 30 minutes early! I checked my watch again to make sure it was right. On a good day, I consider an flight between ORD and LGA to be on-time if I’m not more than 30 minutes late. I’m not sure I’ve ever arrived early. Indeed, somebody sent me a press release last month with stats saying that Chicago-New York is second only to SF-LA in the list of most disrupted air routes. All this joyousness hit the wall, though — almost literally — when I walked out of LGA Terminal B smack into the cab line which, for those of you not familiar with LGA, should not be see when you walk out the front of Terminal B because the cab rank is on the side of Terminal B. Well, maybe they moved it for the construction. Nope, it was where it always has been. So my time budget balanced out — 30-minute early arrival funded the 30-minute cab ride. Easy come, easy go.
  • I was only in New York for Monday day — arrived at 11am and left at 8pm — which meant trying to find a cab on 5th Ave to take me to LGA during rush hour. Or used to. Whatever your opinions on Uber or ride sharing in general, the ability to easily get a ride from Manhattan to LGA without dancing into the street, hiding your luggage behind a trash can, and pleading with the one guy who finally stopped is justification enough for its existence. And I’m obviously not the only one who feels this way, so there are gobs of Uber drivers on, say, 5th Ave at rush hour, making it hard to spot your ride and easy to get into someone else’s. Monday night, I noticed a new option on the Uber screen that was showing my driver crawling toward me through Midtown traffic. “Click here to change the color of your driver’s Uber badge”. I clicked and got a color spectrum slider, which kept me occupied while I was waiting. I changed the color to red, then blue, then yellow, and then Uber said he was a block away, to some shade of lime green. I looked up, and there was an SUV with a lime green Uber badge in the window. I hopped in and off we went. I asked him how his evening was going. “Fine,” he said, “though I think this Uber light is acting up. Just now, it started changing all sorts of colors.”
  • Bridge Music — God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by copperhead (c) copyright 2012 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.  Ft: Admiral Bob, Javolenus , Sackjo22

Following Up

  • Roger Nash sent a note on Twitter with a pointer to the Transport for London’s new Oyster app. In the last episode, I talked about my growing stack of contactless — tap ‘n’ go — transit cards, and difference between re-loading my Chicago Ventra card with a smartphone app vs. having to queue at a machine to top up my Oyster card when we were in London last summer. TfL launched their Oyster app a few months back and seem to be aggressively rev’ing it to add features. The only problem for me — it’ll only take a UK-based payment card. So I’ll have to sponge off my daughter if I want to skip the machine. That’ll be a fun role change…
  • Also got a good run of comments on the Airport Bingo topic.
    • An anonymous comment asking “Since when do bingo cards have a story arc?” Fair point…
    • Donna Smith Pleiman on Twitter suggested a square for “sweaty guy racing onto the plane at the last minute plops down next to you, proceeds to take his shoes off.” Yeah, that one happens a little too often — because once is too often
    • Rob said: I like the “3-adjective rule”. I’ve always said, “If you have to inhale to finish your drink order… you don’t actually like coffee.” Good point, if you have to use circular breathing in the Starbucks line, you need to re-think your beverage choices.
    • And Steve Frick built his own card in a post on his Back and Gone Again blog. “Since not everyone travels by air, we’re focusing on travel in general,” he says and then spins through his set of 25 spaces. I’ll post a link to it in the show notes.
    • And with Steve throwing down that challenge, I stole a couple of his squares so I could expand my Airport Bingo card to the full 25 spaces in a blog post on the TravelCommons site last week. Check it out; I hope it keeps you entertained on your trip to Grandma’s house.
  • The smart luggage ban announced by Delta, American, and Alaska with the other US oligopoly members United and Southwest expected to follow shortly caused a bit of a Twitter storm. Next month, January 15 to be exact, smart luggage without removable batteries will be banned. And if your smart bag is checked, you have to remove battery before it goes in the hold — which negates one of the key benefits pitched by smart bag sellers — the ability to track your bag through built-in GPS and cellular data. No battery, and it’s just another bag left behind on the tarmac, or as one of my funnier Twitter followers @ThankYouLeetch replied that the airlines were hard at work — “We’re GOING to lose your bag, and we’ll be damned if we let the likes of YOU find it! If you must know, we are just REALLY into this monopoly thing.” Kinda blows if you just dropped $400 on one of these bags.
  • This would seem to cause an existential problem for category pioneer Bluesmart because none of their bags — the original one nor the recently released Series 2 — have removable batteries. I backed Bluesmart’s initial Indiegogo campaign back in November 2014 — longtime podcast listener Arnoud Heijnis pointed it out to me — and received my bag a year later. I reviewed it in episode 120 after a couple of months of use — my take: “I’m kinda “meh” on all the electronics, so it’s a nice enough hard-shell wheelie bag with a couple of bells and whistles that don’t necessarily wow me.” Though I did amend that “meh” in the very next episode saying “the Bluesmart is the perfect carry-on size, it’s usually right above me in the plane cabin, so the location finder isn’t that valuable. Except when I have to gate check my bag on a small regional jet. On a recent Skywest flight, it was taking my bag a long time to show up at the gate after arriving. Hmmm, I pulled out my iPhone, hit the Location button on the Bluesmart app, and it showed me that my bag had updated its location a couple of minutes prior and was indeed here. A few minutes later, it showed up in the last tranche of bags heaved up into the jet bridge. Not critical functionality, but it moves up from “meh” to “kinda handy”.”
  • The real pain for me is that I now have to shop for another suitcase which I really hate. I finally put my 10-year-old Victorinox bag out to pasture because the handle locked itself in the extended position, and so I’d switched over to my Bluesmart for these recent trips. My last flight back from CHO was on an American Eagle regional jet. I’m waiting along the side of a cold ORD bridge with about 20 other passengers for my bag. It comes out second because, even though there’s not First Class on this plane, I’ve clung to the yellow gate check tag that I got with a First Class upgrade last month. Sparky, the young gate agent, looks at my bag as he’s handing it to me and says “Is that a smart bag? Did you take the battery out of that?” “No, because I don’t have to until January 15,” I shot back. Don’t push it, American. You’re forcing me to scrap a 2-year-old bag; I got that. But don’t make me go luggage shopping the week before Christmas.
  • One of the topics back in episode 125 was life stories from my Uber and Lyft drivers. I still do ask most of my drivers how they like driving, how long they’ve been doing it, and what else they do — if it’s not their full time gig. Last month, we were taking an Uber into the city on Saturday for a beer festival. The driver was great — very personable guy. So I ask him about his gig. He’s been doing it full-time for 2 years now. Before that, he was a hotel manager. He quit because the stress was too much — late night calls about guests, bedbug infestations,…. He said that driving Uber in Chicago was much less stressful. Think about next time you’re about to light into the assistant night manager about a missing towel — their job is more stressful than driving full-time in bumper-to-bumper traffic. That was an eye-opener to me. I’ve gone out of my way to be more pleasant to front desk folks ever since.
  • 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 — O Tannenbaum / Oh Christmas Tree by Martijn de Boer (NiGiD) (c) copyright 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial  (3.0) license.  Ft: Admiral Bob (admiralbob77)

Is Cash is a Waning King?

  • As I said at the start of the show, my last trip this year was ORD to LGA to CHO. I didn’t arrive too late so there were a couple of cabs waiting — no LGA-style lines, I just hopped in. It’s a $25 flat rate to downtown Charlottesville. We pulled up to my hotel, I gave the driver a 20 and a 10 and got out of the cab. “Cash? Thanks!” he said.
  • I’ve said this before; I try to pay all of my cab fares in cash ever since one cab driver walked me through why he hates cards. There’s a timing problem– he has to pay for gas, tolls, airport access fees, and the taxi company that day, but he doesn’t get his money until a couple of days later. And then there’s the high fees the processing companies charge taxi drivers.
  • But when traveling with younger colleagues, I feel like I’m the last generation of cash payers. Not only do they pay for everything with a card, many of them don’t even carry cash. Maybe I’m just getting old, or maybe I remember when you couldn’t use cards everywhere.
  • Especially in Europe in the late ‘80’s/early ‘90’s when I would be in a different country every day on sales calls with distributors. There weren’t international ATMs — or really ATMs of any kind. We’d get a wallet full of American Express Travelers Checks before flying out and then typically cash a $100 check at the airport currency exchange after customs. This was before the euro, so we’d juggle D Marks, Belgian and French francs, British and Irish pounds, pesetas, lira,…. Almost all of the hotels we stayed in took credit cards — except for this one random mom-&-pop place outside of Munich; nice people but they screwed up my D Mark budget — but not all restaurants and none of the taxis did. So our currency exit strategy — so we didn’t pay double the exchange fees for having to go in and out of a currency that we might not use for another year or so — was to throw down most of our excess cash at the hotel in the morning, saving enough for a sandwich, the cab back to the airport and a beer at the bar — and then put on the Amex the balance of the hotel room. It usually worked well — except for the one time that I mixed up the exchange rate between the Swedish krona and Swiss franc. Not an unreasonable mix up — both countries start with an S and have a lot of snow — but the krona exchange rate was about 6 to the dollar at that time while the Swiss franc was at 1.3 to the dollar. That one definitely screwed up my end-of-day cash strategy.
  • But I absolutely understand the use case for going all plastic. First, you’re not having to float the money between travel and reimbursement. But I gotta think convenience is the bigger play. Many companies pipe their company card transactions straight into their expense reporting systems. Makes it incredibly easy — log into Concur or whatever, assign each charge to an expense code and submit. Nothing forgotten and you’re done in 5 minutes. With cash, you have to remember what you spent, enter it, and probably submit a receipt too. I’ll never pay for my $2 ORD Starbucks coffee with my Amex card, but when the cab fare get above $50, even I’ll charge it.
  • I do think it’s a bit of a generational thing, though. I remember my dad always walking around with a bunch of 50’s in a money clip in his pocket. And my kids always getting a $100 bill from their Hungarian grandparents for Christmas — we’d call it the Eastern European C note. I now have a Venmo account, but I still like paying people back in cash. Feels like I need say “Get off my lawn” but I may not have completely aged out yet. When paying my daughter’s tuition at Univ of St Andrews, one sentence on the web site caught my eye — “Ideally tuition and accommodation fees should not be paid in cash” — which means that someone or multiple someones has done it. It’s not a travel expense, but the image of someone walking into the St Andrews bursar’s office and stacking piles of 100 pound notes just makes me smile. Makes me want to drop a C note on my next big cab ride.
  • Bridge music — What Child is This (Instrumental) by Doxent Zsigmond (c) copyright 2013 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial  (3.0) license.  Ft: Jeris

Don’t Make It Hard to Cash in on Loyalty

  • Back in October, in episode 134, we talked about the value of loyalty. In November, JD Powers released their 2017 Airline Loyalty Program Satisfaction Study. Powers measured satisfaction “based on four factors (in order of importance): earning and redeeming rewards; program benefits; account management; and member communication”. Not a surprising list, and placing “redeeming awards” at the top makes sense since that’s sorta the core of a loyalty program — here’s something to incent you to fly us more.
  • A couple of years ago, in episode 116, I talked about why, for me, British Airways’ Avios program has been the worst program for redemptions. I had over 300,000 points sitting there because it never made sense to use them. When I’d price out an award ticket between Chicago and London, the addition cash I would owe for BA’s fuel surcharges (which made sense when oil was at $120/bbl, but much less so at $50) and Heathrow landing taxes would just about equal what I’d pay for a ticket with another airline — so the miles were worth nothing. Not exactly a best practice for an airline loyalty program.
  • But, when BA and Iberia, both owned by the same corporate parent, kinda combined their programs into, not a single but a sorta interchangeable Avios program, I thought there might be a way to finally get some value from my forlorn BA points. I said kinda interchangeable because I now have 2 Avios accounts — a BA Avios account and an Iberia Avios account. And since I have had my Iberia Avios account for over 90 days, I can convert my BA Avios to Iberia Avios, which let me use points for a direct ORD-MAD flight this spring at a small fraction of the cash for fees and taxes that BA would charge.
  • OK, good. I’ve found the flights, I’ve found the page on BA.com to transfer. I enter all the account info, press the button, and get a big red error screen. Hmmm… I try it a couple of more times, same result. Different browsers, same result. In incognito mode so there’s no legacy cookies, same result. Hmmm…
  • So I dredge around BA’s site and find a technical support number. It’s Saturday afternoon Chicago time, but after a good bit of music, I get a live guy. And he’s a good guy. Here’s the problem, your name doesn’t match on your accounts — it’s Mark Peacock on your BA account, and Mark Peacock Peacock on your Iberia account. You’ll need to call Iberia to change that, then the transfer will go through. OK, seems reasonable enough. So I call Iberia, again listen to music and again get a live person. Good guy, but he can’t help me. Here’s a number in Spain; give them a call. Which I do, a bit more music, and then another guy. We’ll need some documentation to make that change, send a picture of the first page of your passport to this Iberia email address and we’ll make the change.
  • Lots of calls, spoke to some nice people, but I still can’t break these BA Avios points free. So I send the email, but I don’t expect this to get resolved soon. I open another beer and gear myself up for another fare search, but decide to give BA one more call. This time, I connect with a woman with a proper northern English accent. It felt like I’d somehow overflowed into a high status group; like when I was Global Services on United and agents picking up my calls were sitting in the corporate center near ORD and could make anything happen. I relate my tale of woe; “Oh, that’s no problem,” she says. Five minutes later, it’s done. Thanks to her, I got to redeem 100,000 Avios points and am feeling a bit more hopeful about the remaining balance. The only downside — I didn’t get the woman’s name so I could give her a shout out. By the way, 3.5 weeks later and still no response to my email to Iberia.

Closing

  • Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #136
  • 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 dig.ccmixter.org
  • Find TravelCommons on Stitcher, SoundCloud, and iTunes
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  • Direct link to the show
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