Podcast #141 — When You Think the TSA is Bad…; Expired Money

Effects of Extended Exposure to TSA Scan

A last-minute trip to Pune, India provided more than enough material for this episode — a visa dash, very hands-on airport security, worthless rupee notes, flight disruptions…. We also read the obits for a couple of smart bag companies and hear why MSP’s T2 isn’t so ghetto after all. 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 #141:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL. Not much travel since the last episode — just driving up to Wisconsin — until last week when I did a 5-day trip with a client to Pune, India. Left ORD Friday night, landed in Frankfurt late Saturday morning, heard the announce a flight to Pune before my flight to Delhi. Arrived in Delhi at 1am Monday morning. Overnighted at the airport Radisson Blu (not a bad hotel), and then caught an afternoon Jet Airways flight to Pune. Note to self: you don’t always have to fly the client’s itinerary. In spite of all those legs, those multiple points of potential failure, everything went relatively smoothly.
  • Not so much on the way home. The itinerary was to take an Air India flight from Pune to Delhi at 7pm Thursday night, then the United flight to Newark, getting back to ORD around 9:30. We passed on a 5:30p Jet Airways flight fearing Pune rush hour traffic. And that’s where the itinerary fell apart. While waiting for the client team to check their luggage — I decided to ignore Air India’s 8 kg carry-on weight limit — I get an e-mail from Air India with a 2 hr delay due to “operational reasons” which usually means a broken plane. Great. What was a reasonable 2½ layover was suddenly an unrealistic 30-minute dash off the plane, through the standard Indian airport itinerary check, then passport control, full patdown security, weave through the terminal and to the gate. And the inbound Air India plane hasn’t left Delhi yet. I call our Amex travel number — any room on that Jet Airways flight because it hasn’t left yet. Nope, sold out. I briefly think about 3-hr drive to Mumbai but decide to keep heading to Delhi. I bang “flights DEL ORD May 24” into Google. I filter the Google Flights results for one-way and shortest duration, and then call Amex back. When the agent stopped after listing the limited United options — I guess because it’s less work for them to keep me on the same airline — I asked her to check on the non-United options that Google Flights listed. There’s the direct Air India flight to ORD getting in around 7:30a or a Lufthansa connection back through Frankfurt arriving around 1pm. I have her book both, knowing that I can cancel one well within the 24-hr no-penalty window.
  • Pune Airport is a dump. I’m trying to think of a worse airport I’ve been in and I’m drawing a complete blank. Weak air conditioning failing to fight the 95 degree day, 3-4 food stands against the wall, and no bar. With nothing better to do, I bang “Air India ORD DEL business class review” into Google. The results were not kind. But I still think – how bad could it really be? This seems like a bad karma travel day; skipping the FRA connection, avoiding another point of failure, seems to be good idea. But then I finally got on the Air India plane to Delhi. It was also a complete dump. It was a bad 2 hrs; I couldn’t do another 15 hrs with them. I decided to risk the Frankfurt connection. At first it went well; breakfast beer and pretzel in the lounge, on-time boarding. But after boarding, we sat and sat. The captain came on. The good news? The luggage was finally loaded and the cargo doors buttoned up. The bad news? Our pushback time is an hour from now. There was nothing I could do. I pulled out my iPhone and buried myself in the zen of Solitaire. As it turned out, we didn’t take the full hour delay and the pilot juiced the engines so we arrived only 15 minutes late. And after looking at in-flight pictures from the gang that took the Air India direct flight, that 15 minute delay was trampled by the arrival of full-on schadenfreude. I had definitely made the right decision
  • Bridge Music — Gargantua by Admiral Bob (c) copyright 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/admiralbob77/46361 Ft: My Free Mickey, Martijn de Boer

Following Up

  • The airlines’ smart bag ban claimed a couple of casualties this month. Bluesmart posted its blog obituary first — “the banning of smart luggage with non-removable batteries put our company in an irreversibly difficult financial and business situation”. selling their IP, their intellectual property to TravelPro, one of the “legacy” suitcase brands they used to dismiss. A few weeks later, Raden posted a similar obit — “We sincerely apologize to those who chose to travel with us, our intent was to add ease and simplicity to your travel experience and this unforeseen policy change has made this impossible.” Both companies said they’re no longer honoring warranties though Bluesmart says they’ll still provide some level of e-mail support. And the smartphone apps if you want to use your grounded bag on, say, a train or a bus. The bag maker Away is still in business, though, even developing a free kit that retrofits their first generation smart bag with an ejectable battery, making them compliant with the airlines’ rules.
  • Gary Learned tweeted back a solid counter-argument on last episode’s rant on MSP’s Terminal 2. After waiting for a Southwest flight back to Chicago, I added it to my “ghetto terminal” list — the terminals for non-hub airlines — like O’Hare’s Terminal 2 and Detroit’s North Terminal. Gary has a different take, though. He writes –
    • I respectfully disagree on MSP T2. Surdyks has some great taps and wine as well as good small bites. Barrio is a nice little Mexican local restaurant. I can go from car to gate in 5 min. Now MDW on the other hand …
  • Car to gate in 5 minutes — that’s a selling point right there that you won’t pick up Uber-ing in and out of a place. That used to be Midway before it blew up — little parking lot in front of the terminal and walk right in. I won’t defend Midway now — it’s a bit of a cluster, though I’m hoping that the pending reconstruction of the security concourse sort of “un-clusters” at least that part of it. Gary, thanks for giving us the contra view of MSP T2. I’ll give Barrio a try the next time I’m there.
  • And since we’re talking about ghetto terminals, when choosing among the client-selected itineraries to India, a connection thru Munich was one of the options — which long-time listeners know I immediately skipped. Skytrax again named Munich the top European airport. God only knows why, though I know they certainly didn’t ask me. Instead, I connected through Frankfurt, which while not a “wow-sy” airport, is efficient, not a hassle, and gets me on my way. Normally, I’m flying over to FRA from ORD and connecting to some place in Europe, often in the Schengen zone so I don’t have to go through passport control. Connecting to India, though, was a different matter. According to my iPhone’s Health app (admittedly not the most accurate), I walked 1.6 miles that Saturday morning between my ORD and DEL flights. I drug my bag down long corridors empty except for some black plastic chairs fixed in a semi-reclined position surrounded by black cloth cots. FRA airport really missed the chance to strategically locate some little beer stube kiosks along the way. I would’ve stopped at least a couple of times on that trek for some breakfast beers.
  • The India trip was a bit of a last-minute thing which necessitated a scramble for a new Indian visa. This would be my 3rd Indian visa. My first one was a 5-year visa that I lost when my passport was stolen in Brussels. My second one was only for 6 months; I can’t remember why it was so short. This time, I decided to avoid future scrambles and apply for a 10-year visa. Because there’s an Indian consulate in Chicago, I didn’t have to hassle with postage or third-party passport services. The day before, I sent notes to our US HR department and the admin manager in our Hyderabad office asking for the necessary letters of guarantee and invitation, and then did the application online, printed it out and signed it, and then booked an appointment the next morning. I didn’t actually go to the consulate. I’ve always gone to an outsourced visa processing company that handled the front end administrivia, with, near as I can tell, the consulate just approving and signing the visas. Each visa has been with a different processor. For my first visa in 2010, I dropped my forms and passport off at an office in the morning, and received a text at the end of the day that it was ready. In 2014, a different processor gave my wife a hard time — trying to upsell her on expedited handling charges that weren’t needed. This time, Cox and Kings was a surprisingly painless experience. I went in Thursday after lunch; there was no wait, the people were pleasant. End of day Thursday, I received an e-mail and a text telling me that my application had been processed and was heading to the consulate. On Friday morning, I received and e-mail and text saying that my application had arrived at the consulate. Another message at lunch said that it was being processes, and a last message on Friday said that it was back at Cox and Kings. Monday morning, another message told me it was being packaged up, followed by a message with a UPS tracking number. Tuesday afternoon, my passport landed on my front porch with my 10-year visa. I was incredibly impressed… and feeling a bit spoiled comparing this level of customer service to what my non-US friends tell me they have to go through to get a US visa.
  • And if you have any travel 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 Zep Hurme (c) copyright 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://ccmixter.org/files/zep_hurme/46448

When You Think the TSA is Bad…

  • A week of flying around India is always a good sanity check for me — that no matter what crankiness I’m have about the TSA, airport security in the US is so much easier than in India. When I was talking at the start of the episode about how the delay of our Pune-Delhi flight blew up the rest of our itinerary home, the main reason we immediately starting working alternative flights was because how long we knew it would take to work our way through the different layers of security in Delhi. It started when trying to make our way from domestic flight arrivals into the international departures area so we could re-ticket our flights. We had to pass through the usual itinerary check. I show the army guy the boarding pass for United flight we’d missed — it was all I had. But since that flight had already left, he wasn’t going to let me through. Luckily, one of the group I was flying with was United Global Services, and two customer service staff had met us as we got off the Air India flight. Even then, it took her a good bit of time to explain the situation to the army guy and convince him to let me through. But for that, I would’ve been idling around baggage claim on my own trying to figure out how to get to a ticket counter.
  • Passport control was pretty efficient, but the security scans — not so much. After you unpack all your electronics and push everything through the X-ray machine, you walk through the metal detector for your gender — different scanners for “Gents” and “Ladies” because there’s a full wanding and patdown on the other side. Indeed, the “Ladies” go into a little curtained booth for their patdown. Not normally too much of a hassle, unless the “Ladies” patdown line backs up, and a back up of women’s luggage in the X-ray machine is blocking mine — which happened that evening. None of the security people moved to clear things. Nothing to do but stand there and wait. Our flight from Pune landed at Delhi at 11pm. When looking at flight alternatives, I’d seen an Air Canada flight leaving at 12:10pm and passed right by it. I knew there was no way we’d make that flight.
  • The security checks in Frankfurt, while much more efficient, were still more than you’d get in the US. On the way over to India, after passing everything through the X-ray machine, I was intercepted after collecting my bags, directed over to a cubicle where all of my bags were swabbed and checked for explosives residue. All done with a German sense of politeness, but I was glad I wasn’t in a rush. On the connection back home, it was a different security line, with a body scanner instead of the walkthru metal detector. No big deal, but just different enough to be awkward. Instead of the TSA’s hands up “don’t shoot” pose, it was an arms down-elbows out pose, kinda like you’re holding luggage. The guy working the scanner was visibly annoyed that he had to instruct me on the pose — to hold me arms further away from my body. But then there was no luggage swiping on the other side.
  • Picking up my bags, I maneuvered around three officers cradling automatic rifles; they were standing there chatting, but watching. No big deal now, but I remember when I first starting traveling through Europe — London Heathrow and Frankfurt in the mid- to late-’80’s and being taken aback by the army guys walking around with unslung M-16s and the like. This was pre-TSA time in the US, when it would be out-of-place to see anything more than a rent-a-cop in an airport terminal and you could still turn up 30 minutes before departure time and make your flight. Back then, the difference was eye-opening for a twenty-something traveler. Of course, none of us knew that it was a preview of what flying would be like 20 years later.
  • Bridge Music — Melt Away by Kara Square (c) copyright 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://ccmixter.org/files/mindmapthat/46605

Expired Money

  • In last December’s episode, I talked about how I need to have some cash in my pocket when I travel. I know it’s a generational thing; many of my younger colleagues don’t carry any cash, but going “cash naked” just makes me nervous. Assuaging this anxiety on international travel means fills one of my desk drawers with random bits of currency. That’s not a big deal for countries that I or my family visit often. Before my daughter flew back to the UK for her spring semester at St Andrews, I rummaged through the desk and found a £20 note; it bought her breakfast when she landed in Edinburgh.
  • But for countries I visit less often, the money just sits there. I have 350 Mexican pesos — about $18 at today’s exchange rate; I can’t remember the last time I was in Mexico. I have 400 Chinese yuan — over $60 — left over from my last trip to Beijing 4 years ago. At the end of that trip, I thought I’d be going back within the year, so didn’t work hard to spend down those notes. But that next trip didn’t happen, and so there those yuan sit.
  • Before the India trip, I hit the cash drawer and pulled out €12 in notes and coins from our trip to Spain last March, that was for my connections through Frankfurt, and 200 rupees — about $30 — left over from my 2014 trip to India. I didn’t spend any of the euros; I spent most of my time either walking through concourses or drinking beer in the Lufthansa lounge. But the rupees came in handy for tipping all the guys at the hotel who insisted on helping me with my carry-on bag. Here’s a 100 for you, and you, and you, and, oh, you too.
  • One night in Pune, we were at the JW Marriott rooftop bar for hors d’oeuvres and pre-dinner drinks. The catered bar on our side of the terrace has the usual Kingfisher beers. But then I saw someone on the other, the non-catered/public side of the terrace with a different, non-Kingfisher beer. It was a Bira 91 Blonde. I headed over to the main bar to get one. Now, because this was the main bar, not the catered one, I was going to have to pay for the Bira 91, but that wasn’t a problem because I had rupees in my pocket. Yes, they also would’ve taken my Amex card, but I had a 1,000 and a 500 rupee note that I needed to break for more luggage tips, so I laid the 1,000 note on the bar next to my check and then wandered over to the edge of the rooftop to look over the city. A couple minutes later, a guy taps me on the shoulder and gives me back my 1,000 rupees. The note was no good. And then I remembered. Back in Nov 2016, the Indian government made a snap announcement to replace the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes to fight counterfeiting. $20 of my rupees had expired while sitting in my desk drawer. Lots of apologizing, and I ended up pulling out my Amex card after all.
  • When I got home, I took a deeper dive through my cash drawer. Luckily, I didn’t have any old £10 notes, the ones with Charles Darwin on them. He expired a couple of months ago in March, replaced by a new tenner with Jane Austen. I did find a 1,000 Italian lire note with Maria Montessori on the face, which must’ve been left over from, I dunno, maybe our 10th anniversary trip to Tuscany because lire notes were replaced with Euro notes in 2002. My 1,000 note was worth maybe half a euro, about 60 cents when it expired: not a big loss. But today, when I searched on eBay, I saw it selling for $2-3. That’s a 300-400% return. So maybe I’ll just stuff these rupee back in my drawer and check back in, oh, 2035 and make a killing.

Closing

  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #141
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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