Podcast #146 — Rental Demolition Derby; Traveler Gift Guide

But I filled up the tank

Getting this posted just in time to give you something to listen to while jammed up in Thanksgiving traffic, be it on the road or in the airports. We talk about working the angles to maximize credit card benefits, which leads me to one more story from my fall trip to Europe — a rental car scrape that my Chase Visa card just paid off. We also talk about the Wall Street Journal’s new ranking of US airports and compare it to Skytrax’s international rankings. And we wrap up with my Christmas gift suggestions for the frequent traveler on your list.  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 #146:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you today from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL, trying to give you something to keep you entertained? Or at least occupied as you thread through the Thanksgiving travel traffic — be it airports, trains, or roadways — the forecasts are for a 5% increase over last year.
  • I’ve been trying to get this episode done for the past 2 weeks, but I just haven’t been able to make it happen. Since we last spoke, I’ve been in the midst of a weekly commute between Chicago and Dallas. It’s the standard consultant commute — leaving ORD Monday at 7am, leaving DFW Thursday at 5pm — the consulting rush hour. The lounges are packed, the Starbucks line tails way back; no matter what status, you’re in a middle seat if you don’t book 3 weeks ahead of time, and for a mere Advantage Platinum person, there’s no chance of an upgrade. I do click through American’s website to request an upgrade every week — more for the entertainment value than any expectation of getting a seat. This week, I was #35 on the upgrade list.
  • The traffic between these 2 American hubs is pretty amazing. The first week of this commute, taking the 6:30p flight back to Chicago, it was a fully-packed 787 Dreamliner. So I’m thinking — hey, I gotta have a good shot at an upgrade on this flight, with all the first and business class seats. Nope, though I did get up to the teens on the upgrade list — #15 to be exact. I counted myself lucky to get out of a center seat at the last minute.
  • I’m not a huge fan of DFW Airport. It’s a massive, spread-out place with a $4 toll charge to just to drive out of the place. The semi-circular terminals are also spread out affairs, with 3 security checkpoints arrayed around each perimeter, only one of which has PreCheck and really not well-marked. I tweeted that out in frustration a few weeks back after trundling around from checkpoint to checkpoint. The DFW Airport Twitter account quickly came back with a link to their website that has the location and hours of each checkpoint, with the PreCheck one bolded. Very useful. I have bookmarked on my iPhone now.
  • The next day, back in Chicago, I was downtown, getting a afternoon espresso jolt at Intelligentsia Coffee, not a completely full-on hipster joint — there no turntable playing vintage vinyl — but they are a bit fussy about their coffee. You place your order, they ask your name, and then you mill around a bit waiting for them to “craft” your coffee. I’m scrolling through e-mail, the barista is calling out names in the background. He calls out “Marco”. Completely on reflex, my inner child responds “Polo” and not quietly or under my breath. The guy sitting across from me looks up from his MacBook and starts laughing. The guy getting his coffee, Marco, apparently, turns around and gives me a slightly nasty look. Or maybe just puzzled. Or more likely a bit of both.
  • Bridge Music — Superstring by Indidginus

Following Up

  • Allan Marko, a long-time listener, posted a travel story on the TravelCommons Facebook page –
    • I flew from SFO to MUC with a colleague last month on UAL Business Class (my first trip on a 787 – nice plane, and decent service from the UA team) We had an early morning arrival, and an hour to kill before our transportation arrived. My colleague’s 1K status couldn’t get us into the Lufthansa Arrivals Lounge for showers. I pulled up the Priority Pass app on my iPhone (membership came with my Chase Sapphire Reserve Card) and saw there was an Atlantic Lounge over in Terminal 1 that had shower facilities. We took the bus over to Terminal 1 which serves many European, Middle East, and other second-tier airlines. Pulling out my physical Priority Pass card (as opposed to the one in the app) I got both of us into the lounge and their two shower rooms. The lounge only offered the basics and needed of refresh, but we were happy to find it that morning (including the free beer!).
  • Allan, thanks for that, and good on you for figuring that all out. There are so many nooks and crannies in the card benefits world. There’s real value there, but you have to think about it and dig in a bit. The last time I used my Priority Pass (which I got with my Amex Platinum card) was last summer when I was connecting through DUB on my way to London. That lounge was similar to Allan’s MUC experience — pretty basic, a bit threadbare, but a reasonable place for a cup of tea and breakfast. My son Andrew used his Priority Pass card (also from his Chase card) to get a $28 credit at a restaurant in BOS which paid for a pre-flight meal and a couple of beers. “For the two of us, I think we were due $56 credit, but we wanted to be able to board the plane, so we cut ourselves off.” A colleague of mine told me that, in LGA, after Amex’s Centurion Lounge closed, his UA Gold status got him into the Air Canada lounge to wait out the rest of a long flight delay. “I only thought they let in Star Alliance Gold passengers for international flights, but let me in for my LGA-ORD flight.” And then there’s things like the 10 Gogo in-flight WiFi passes that I get every year with my Platinum card that I never burn through, or the $200 in annual statement credit that I think I get on UA and am always surprised when I see the charge for the in-flight tapas box reversed. And I’m reminded that I gotta pay more attention to this stuff because I hate leaving money on the table.
  • I will say that there are 2 good things about doing trunk line, hub-to-hub commute vs., say, my last regular commute, between ORD and Charlottesville, VA: great flight frequency — between AA and UA, there’s a flight at most every hour and that’s not even looking at SWA’s schedule out of Love Field; and, no RJs, no regional jets. I had forgotten how nice it is to be able to stand up straight in the aisle, let alone in the toilet. I take happiness in the small things.
  • I was talking to a colleague about this — flying AA, and UA, and SWA based on the most convenient times and price, and then maybe equipment (avoiding those RJs when I can). He said “I’m always amazed at how promiscuous you are in your airline choices.” It was an interesting word choice; one that kinda speaks to how invested people can get in their travel choices. Though it can also be a bit of Stockholm Syndrome for folks who have to fly out of fortress hubs, like this colleague who is in a very conflicted relationship with United out of Newark. “I think you’re more right than me,” he said. He’s 1K on United, their top tier. I’m mid-tier on United and American. Comparing notes, he hasn’t gotten any more upgrades than me, and though I board after 1Ks (or Exec Platinums on AA), I haven’t yet had a problem finding overhead space, even on packed flights to DFW. I’ve said it before — I don’t think there’s all that much difference between mid- and top-tier loyalty ranks; certainly not enough to take less convenient flights to earn the extra miles needed to stay top-tier.
  • A study of US airport growth hit the TravelCommons inbox on Halloween, saying that the two airports with the biggest drop in traffic are Memphis and Cincinnati. We talked about this back in the August episode when I was flying in and out of Cincinnati for 4 weeks straight. Nice airport, but I said back then it felt a bit overbuilt, and how both it and Memphis felt empty after after being “de-hubbed” by Delta. I wasn’t wrong. This new survey ground through 10 years of FAA traffic data and came to the same conclusion. Memphis lost the most traffic, down 62%. Cincinnati was second, losing 51% of its traffic.
  • So you can guess that neither made the Wall Street Journal’s ranking of the 20 largest US airports. Denver, Orlando and Phoenix at the top 3 finishers while the three NYC airports — LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark — brought up the rear, numbers 18, 19, and 20. Surprises? I dunno — maybe that LaGuardia wasn’t in last place given all the construction disruptions, that LAX was higher at #9 than Minneapolis-St Paul at #11, and that O’Hare is one spot higher than San Francisco, 15 vs. 16. That’s probably as much to do with their methodology as anything – how they weighed all the different score components, things like on-time arrivals, average TSA wait, cost of on-prem parking, average ticket cost. It’s interesting, though, to compare this ranking with Skytrax’s ranking of global airports. Denver, the top US airport on both lists; at #28 on Skytrax’s list. Cincinnati is the second US airport on the Skytrax list at #34, which makes sense when you look at the methodologies. Skytrax is focused on the in-airport experience — terminal seating, cleanliness, queue times, friendliness of staff. With these criteria, I don’t doubt that Cincinnati should rank high — it’s probably helped by now being a bit overbuilt — lots of space and fewer people to clean up after. The Journal’s is a bit more wide-ranging, looking both inside and outside the terminal, including things like average fares, rental-car taxes and fees, number of nonstop destinations and dominance of the largest airline to its rankings. I’ll put links to both in the show notes for those interesting in a deeper dive.
  • 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 send in an audio comment; a Twitter message to mpeacock, post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page or our new Instagram account at travelcommons — or you can always go old-school and post your thoughts on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music — Suerte Mijo by Arthur Yoria

Rental Demolition Derby

  • I’ve rented a lot of cars in my business travel and have never crashed one. I drive them off the lot, use them for 3-4 days, fill them back up with gas, return them to the lot, and walk away. So when I picked up a car from Hertz at Edinburgh airport back in September, I skipped all the insurance coverages, took the keys to a brand new Toyota hybrid cross-over, and drove off the lot. This was my fourth September in a row renting from the Hertz and had never had an incident — even when driving a manual on the left side of the road while shifting with my left hand — well, other than a Fiat that dropped its transmission, but that wasn’t my fault. So, no need to waste the collision damage waiver charges.
  • You can see where this is going. The next day, I was driving a narrow road in St Andrews, heading south out of town to go knock around the fishing villages on the north bank of the Firth of Forth. Roads in Scotland can get narrow. Driving the one-lane roads in the Highlands are an acquired talent, but this road is in a residential neighborhood, and I’ve driven it many times. So I couldn’t believe it when I heard a big thump as I drove past a van. Damn, I thought, had I drifted over to the left and popped the van’s rear view mirror? I pulled over and hopped out of the car. No, it was worse. There was a huge crease along the left side of the car; just missed the front wheel, so still driveable but very ugly. I walked down to the van. It belonged to a nearby community center. In a hurry to pick up kids from school, the driver had pulled out into me as I drove past. I pulled out an accident report form that Hertz had helpfully put in the glove compartment. We filled it out, skipped calling the police since no one was hurt.
  • So, again, not my fault, but I’m still, a few days later, I’m turning in a car with a full tank and some extra body work. I point out the damage to the Hertz guy. He pulls up a different tab on his Samsung tablet — click, click, click — damage, front left wing; damage, front left door; damage, rear left door — took a couple of pictures, and because I’d skipped the CDW, out burped the bill — £780 or about $1,000. They ran it through on my Chase Sapphire Visa card.
  • Which I gave to Hertz because, as I was poking through the nooks and crannies of the Chase website before I left home, I confirmed that card would cover UK rental car damage for rentals charged to it. The next week, back home, I found where to file a claim. They didn’t make it easy, but Google eventually uncovered it. I created a claim, uploaded a scan of the accident report, the Hertz receipt, and a couple of iPhone pictures of the damage. And then waited. The website said they’d take 2 weeks to review and get back to me. Three weeks later, I called. A guy said they’d sent me an email asking for two more documents from Hertz. Hmmm, never saw that, but who knows what gets caught up in the Spam filtering. They wanted a copy of the original Hertz agreement, which I had left in the car, and Hertz’s repair cost breakdown. OK, that was reasonable. I called Hertz and a very helpful woman put in a request and said get it in a week. Within a couple of days, Hertz sent me what I needed. I uploaded them to my claim and waited another 2 weeks. On Day 2 Weeks + 1, I called. A woman looked at my file, said it was still being reviewed by management, but said she’s put me on hold and ring them for status. Two minutes later, she picked up and they’d approved my claim. 48 hours later, the $1,000 showed up in my bank account. It took me a bit over 2 months, but Chase paid my claim with a minimum amount of hassle.
  • Now, while I’ve had a good rental car record in Scotland, my record in Hungary is not quite clean. Indeed, every time I’ve driven there, it’s been something. The last time I drove, we were a couple of blocks away from the rental return next to the Marriott on the Danube. Pulling into an intersection after stopping at a Stop sign, a motorcycle messenger plowed into the front of my car, flew across the hood, and landed in the street on the other side of the intersection. Luckily, he was in a full helmet and leathers and unhurt. The rental car, not so lucky. The entire front end was ripped off. The rental car guy showed up as the police were finishing their report. I pulled out suitcases out of the trunk and gave him the key. He looked at the front of his car in disbelief. We wheeled our bags down the sidewalk to the Marriott because this time, I had bought the collision damage waiver.
  • Bridge Music — Inception by Artemis

Traveler Gift Guide

  • As we come into the Christmas shopping season, I thought it would be useful to pull together some suggestions for the frequent traveler in your life. Or, if you are the frequent traveler, a list of hints you might want to drop on family members looking for ideas.
  • Top of the list is a good battery charger. Whatever the size or form factor — slimline, lipstick, high-capacity brick — having that second or third charge readily available is critical to get notified of gate changes and when you’re using electronic boarding passes. It saves you from stalking cleaning crews to find a live power outlet on your layover, or negotiating with your seatmate for possession of outlet between you. I’m always looking to shed weight, so I retired the heavy no-name pack I picked up in the depths of Beijing’s Pearl Street Market for an Anker lipstick sized charger. I bought three and gave one to my wife and daughter. It’s cheap peace of mind.
  • On my shopping list, trying to catch up to what’s already a cold winter, is one of those puffy coats — but one of the thin ones, like the Patagonia Nano Puff, one that will smoosh down to nothing in the front pocket of my suitcase, or will fit in the crevices of a jammed full overhead bin. Right next that on the list, a man’s scarf is an incredibly undervalued piece of intermediate winter wear. In an airplane cabin or hotel room where a coat is too much (especially in a middle seat), but there’s a draft that chills you, a scarf around the neck is just enough without being too much. You may have to teach him how to wear it, but you can have fun with colors.
  • For someone just embarking on the road warrior life, how ‘bout a black 20-inch hardsided carry-on. Black not only makes you look thinner, it makes your bag look thinner to gate agents hunting for bag-sizer bait. Black also doesn’t show stains. A 20-incher should get on-board for 90% of airlines, and the hard sides are the easiest to get in and out of a bag sizer if the not-yet-statused traveler gets waylaid by an over-zealous gate agent.
  • If you’re going big for someone — or for those December babies, combining Christmas and birthday gifts — noise canceling headphones are a statement gift. The good ones — the Bose or Sonys that make the drone of the jet engines disappear with the flick of a switch — are a $300 number. But the drop in stress level and blood pressure that accompanies that flick of the switch — you don’t realize how much that drone affects you until you turn on your Bose — makes it worth the number. Everything in my briefcase has to earn its space. I’ve been carrying Bose headphones for, I dunno, 10, 15 years. They’re nowhere near compact, but I’ve never thought of leaving them behind.
  • Another idea for the music — or podcast lover, is a small portable Bluetooth speaker. I’ve started packing mine again for trips of a week or longer. For a couple of days, I’m fine with wearing headphones or using the phone speaker. But longer than that or if I’m with the family in, say, an Airbnb, I want something a bit more social. I’m still using my 6-year old Jambox speaker, the one that kinda created this category. The maker, Jawbone, went under last year, but the speaker still works. There are newer, better ones out there now, at all sorts of price points. The ones that can act as speaker phones are a nice to-have if they fit your budget.
  • And finally, a stocking stuffer idea — a travel notebook, something to jot down thoughts, ideas, observations, to do lists while waiting for the flight to board, the train to come, or the room to be made up. Nothing extravagant — no leather embossed cover — but it should be small enough to fit in a pocket, but substantial, something that can survive being knocked around in the bottom of a briefcase, and with paper quality that will hold onto those thoughts for a while. I used to use a Moleskine 3½x5½” notebook but have switched over a similar-sized A6 Clairefontaine. The soft cover fits better in a jeans back pocket, and the paper is more fountain-pen friendly. It’s $10 for a Moleskine, $7 for two Clairefontaines. Or go a bit more whimsical and get a 3-pack of Field Notes for $13. It’ll fit your budget and the stocking.
  • So there you go, something to fit all sizes and budgets in time for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, or if you’re just killing time waiting for your Thanksgiving flight to leave.


  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #146
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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  • Bridge music from Magnatune
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  1. It sounds like you’ve also entered the “Fountain Pen Zone” as well, they’re like tattoos, you can’t have just one.
    I had used a Mont Blanc rollerball that I purchased in 1991, it’s been broken and repaired several times and it had been my go-to pen… until someone gave me a fountain pen. Now several years later I have a collection on fountain pens, as well as inks. Ughhhh just what I needed another obsession. Great episode!