Podcast #148 — Travel Potpourri for $200, Alex

Tough travel day when the deicing fluid freezes

Flying home into the teeth of the polar vortex that gave Chicago its coldest day since January 1985 took a bit of flight changing strategy and some incredibly dedicated United ramp workers. I get on-trend by “Kondo-ing” my old suitcases, worry about visiting Sweden as it rapidly goes cashless, and gather up some odds-‘n’-ends from travel notebook into a Jeopardy-like topic “Travel Potpourri”. 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 #148:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you today from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL, just trying to survive Nature’s mood swings — 16 straight days of snow, the much publicized polar vortex cold last week followed by a four-day 73 degree temp rise — from -22 on early Thursday morning (actual temperature; none of this wind chill guesstimating) to +51 degrees Monday afternoon, and then a 40-some degree drop back to the single digits by Friday. It’s climate change, alright. Just not all in the same direction. Last Wednesday was the second coldest day in Chicago history at -23 degrees. I was also here for the coldest day — January 20, 1985 — when it hit -27 degrees. I was just starting my last quarter at University of Chicago. It left an impression. After that, I didn’t interview with any Chicago companies. I took a job in Dallas and moved down in July — to temperatures averaging in the 90’s. Brilliant
  • I missed the wind-up to last week’s freeze fest. I flew out to New York on the Monday morning at the tail end of that 16-day snow fest. I had booked a Southwest flight from Chicago Midway to LaGuardia because Southwest now flies into the new renovated concourse in the otherwise Third World-ish Terminal B and, being that kind of travel geek, I wanted to check it out. Southwest had other plans though. Sunday late morning, about 18 hours before departure, Southwest emailed me that they were cancelling the flight. I was surprised at their proactivity, but it was a good thing, I guess, ‘cause it gave me time to move to United — no new terminal experience, but a lot better flight frequency.
  • Which turned out to be key on Wednesday, trying to fly home on that -23 degree day. Tuesday afternoon, I moved my flight home up from 3pm to 12 noon. I figured all the flights would be delayed and the later my flight, the worse the delay and the higher probability of cancellation. Looking at United’s flights, the 11am and 1pm flights were regional jets; the noon flight was a mainline Airbus. ORD was going to have to cut capacity on Weds — the ground crews could only be outside for short stretches, especially the guys on the deicing trucks. I figured they’d cancel the smaller regional jets first, which meant they’d move the folks from the 11am and 1pm flights onto the noon flight, meaning that flight might be delayed, but United wouldn’t want to cancel it.
  • And the next day, that’s pretty much how it played out. When I got to LaGuardia, those 11 and 1 flights were already cancelled. The noon flight still showed on-time, but checking the United and FlightAware apps, I could see that the Airbus was still in Chicago. That noon departure time was meaningless until that plane was in the air. I set up in the Amex Centurion Lounge, doing calls and emails, refreshing those apps every 10 minutes. The Airbus’ 8am departure time came and went, as did 9am, and 10am. It finally left around 10:40am Chicago time. I had lunch and a beer in the lounge — the food in those Centurion lounges is good… and free — and headed down for the gate. Walking down the concourse, I passed a Uniqlo vending machine selling “ultra light” down jackets for $70. (Amazing what they sell in airport vending machines) I thought for a moment about buying one to layer up when walking up the jet bridge in O’Hare. Given the extreme conditions, it was the most understandable 2½-hr delay I’ve ever had on United. I was incredibly grateful for the United ramp workers who were outside that day. I was happy to just get home that afternoon. Leaving the LGA Amex lounge for my gate, I ran into a Chicago colleague. He had 4 flights canceled on him already and, as I found out the next morning, didn’t get home until Thursday — after going through Richmond. Good thing for him the Amex Lounge drinks are free too
  • Bridge Music — Emily and the Djembe by mghicks (c) copyright 2008 Licensed under a Creative Commons Noncommercial Sampling Plus license. Ft: Emily via Briareus

Following Up

  • As promised, I expanded the Santa Fe topic in December’s episode to a full 1,800-word post on the website — which might help explain why this episode slipped from the end of January to the beginning of February. The Reader’s Digest condensed version (my obligatory Baby Boomer cultural reference) goes something like this — Friday: hike, drink beer, eat a green chile cheeseburger; Saturday: hike, drink beer, eat a green chile cheeseburger, then drink margaritas and eat local New Mexican dishes; Sunday: wake up a little later, walk rather than hike, eat tamales from a cart. I liked Steve Frick’s comment “When Road Warriors relax” on his retweet. I did try to write this a bit more like a travel article than a blog post — more of a story than a sequential list of the places we went. But I did make sure to include links to all the good places we hit. If you haven’t already, give it a read and let me know your thoughts.
  • When I was going through ORD in January, during the partial government shutdown, I thanked the TSA screeners for showing up even though they weren’t getting paid. If I’m reading the GSA salary band schedule correctly, the typical TSA screener makes between 29 and 44 grand a year. They could’ve called in sick to drive an Uber to make up for the missed paychecks, but they didn’t — as opposed to Atlanta where I stood in some long PreCheck lines because of sick outs. Not that I blame the Atlanta TSA folks, but it made me appreciate the ORD TSA people even more.
  • Right at about a year ago, I broke down and bought a new Victorinox suitcase. I had beat a grey Samsonite into submission after 2½ years of trundling across New Orleans sidewalks. My well-traveled Swiss Army roller became unusable when its retractable handle stuck in the extended position. And then my Bluesmart smart bag was banned from by airlines because its battery wouldn’t eject. A couple of weeks ago, my wife called me upstairs. “We’ve got to declutter this attic. You need to Kondo-ize your suitcases,” she said. Wha…? She pointed over to where I’d stashed the Samsonite, the Swiss Army roller, and the Bluesmart. “You should only keep the suitcases that spark joy,” she said. Again, wha…? How does a broken suitcase spark joy? “Exactly!” she said. I pulled the old luggage tags off and threw them in the garbage can before she forced me to binge watch that Netflix series.
  • Over a year ago, way back in episode #136 in December 2017, I talked about feeling like I’m the last generation of cash payers. My younger colleagues — and my children — not only do they pay for everything with a card, many of them don’t even carry cash. It’s happening even faster in Sweden, where 95% of purchases by Millenials is electronic; to the point that half the country’s retailers think they’ll stop taking cash in 5-6 years. So I got a chuckle when long-time TravelCommons listener Allan Marko sent along this notice that he picked up while touring Laos last month –
    • “Please note that only new crisp notes are accepted in Laos. US$100 notes receiving a better exchange rate; US$ notes of the series number before 1996 as well as US$100 notes with the series number CB, dirty and/or damaged notes, or notes with any writing on it are not accepted in Laos. Please bring some small changes with you for your convenience.”
    • Cash is king in Laos — but only if it’s neat, tidy, and young
  • Heading to LGA last Weds morning, traffic was bad in Manhattan and so the wait times for Uber and Lyft were a bit silly. So instead, I let the hotel doorman guide me over to a black car. I saw the driver tip him $10, but I didn’t care — it was a nice clean car — a Lexus hybrid — and the driver knew the back ways to LGA, so we didn’t get jammed up on the highway. Everything was good — until we parked outside of Terminal B. I had asked the doorman before getting in — “Does he take a credit card?” “Oh yeah,” he said. And to give the driver credit, he tried to take my Amex, but for some reason his iPhone couldn’t get data at Terminal B Departures, which meant he couldn’t connect to Square, which meant he couldn’t take my card. After trying for 5 minutes, he went palms up. Lucky for him, I am a cash carrier and I had just enough to pay the fare. His tip? He’ll have to take that up with his mobile carrier.
  • We were working on our Spring Break vacation a few weeks back — we’re going to Brittany France at the end of March because, well, who needs sun and sand when you enjoy rain blowing in off the Atlantic? — and the flights from Chicago to Paris were looking just ugly. So we started opening up the search filters a bit, looking at some extended layovers and overnight stays. If done right, it can be fun. Back in episode #130 (I seem to be digging deep into the archives on this episode), I talked about how my son Andrew and I skipped a reasonable 90-minute connection in Vienna airport for full-day 8-hr one; dropped our bags in held luggage and then hopped a cab to the city center for a beer-and-schnitzel crawl. On the way over to Paris, SAS showed an 8-hr layover in Stockholm. Hmmm… we hadn’t been there since 2006 when we went to Sweden to pick up my Saab convertible. But I remember Arlanda airport being a long haul from Stockholm. Would it take too long getting to and from Stockholm? Thankfully, no. It’s a 20-minute train ride, and the Arlanda Express runs every 15 minutes. So, we’re gearing up for this time for a beer-and-herring crawl thanks to a Stockholm Craft Beer Bar custom Google Map from TravelCommons listener and Untappd friend Rob Cheshire. Though this whole cashless Sweden thing has me a bit worried. I read that more than 4,000 Swedes have implanted microchips in their hands to let them pay for things with just a wave. I’m hoping that I don’t have to have surgery to order a beer.
  • On the way back, again, the direct flights, or even the 1-stops from Paris to the US were priced high, both in dollars and in points, and not having anything critical on the books for the Monday of our return, we looked at some overnight stays. We decided to skip London; our time in Brittany will span Brexit Day and so we thought, why risk it? The other overnight options that popped up were Frankfurt and… Vienna. I was in Frankfurt last summer, and while I’d done that Vienna layover 2 years ago, Irene hasn’t been in Vienna since 1992, and then, only in the train station making a connection to Budapest. So we bookend our Brittany vacation with a micro-vacations in Sweden and Austria, and save a little money in air fare — which, to be honest, we’ll probably spend and then some in food and beer.
  • Which would be better than taking up United on their offer to buy up from Premiere Gold to Premiere Platinum for $2,000. Not to say there aren’t some benefits from that jump — jump one level up on the upgrade list, a little better bonus miles multiplier, though I don’t ever use my current 2-free-bag allotment, so bumping up to 3 doesn’t do me much. And now that Gold has been moved up to Boarding Group 1, it doesn’t give me a better shot at overhead space. I’ve said it before in previous episodes, I don’t think the incremental benefit from higher status is worth flying weird itineraries or inconvenient times. And it’s certainly not worth 2 grand.
  • 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 — Dreaming by Astral (c) copyright 2013 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Travel Potpourri for $200, Alex

  • Doing a little start-of-the-year cleaning of my travel notebook. I always carry a 3½ x 5½ in notebook with me to jot down notes and thoughts. My current notebook is a stiff rather than a hard back so I don’t break it when I put it in the back pocket of my jeans, and has fountain-pen friendly Clairefontaine paper because, as I said in the last episode, it’s not like a lack for things to be fiddly about. This notebook has a couple of pages of letters and numbers written with different pens and inks, a few pages of Madrid beer bars with the ones we hit X’d, a half-dozen pages of really bad algebra when I was trying to help my daughter with a math test, and then the rest is bullet pointed blurbs, thoughts, observations that are the seed corn for the podcast.
  • Sometimes, though, there’s just not enough in one of those thoughts to grow it into an episode topic, not enough to get it beyond the 10-20 words that are already there. So, for lack of coming up with anything better, here’s a bit of a ramble through those stunted seed corns. Yeah, I’m selling this pretty well. I can hear you all reaching for the Skip button already.
  • Like, last fall when I was posing for my umpteenth identity badge at a new client, I thought I was given the camera a slight smile — like a passport photo smile, not showing teeth but a pleasant look. The security guard turned the camera around — it was deadpan neutral. If I hadn’t tried to smile, I would’ve been frowning. I reminded me to consciously make an effort to smile with folks like gate agents and TSA screeners because, as I get older, I must get more of a grumpy resting face. Which may explain some of the reaction I get from flight attendants.
  • One thought that almost made it out of the notebook — Hotels need to stop feeling the need to innovate in the bathroom. I remember writing this in the midst of a 4-day/3-hotel run where the taps and shower control in every hotel were different. I’m OK with innovating some parts of the room — like dropping in some cool new coffee maker, or an interesting radio or TV, or even a weird chair — but that’s gotta stop at the bathroom door. When I cross that threshold, I’m usually not completely awake, I’m often not wearing my glasses so can’t see real well if, indeed, I’ve actually turned on the light. And when I step in the shower, I’m definitely not wearing glasses, so small print instructions don’t go down well. I thought hotel showers had pretty much standardized on the single knob that turned on at Cold and got Hotter as you turned it clockwise, all the time delivering the same volume of water. But sometimes you move that knob back and forth to no effect, and you eventually figure out that you have to pull it to turn it on.  The worst, though, are the controls that go in the wrong direction — maybe counterclockwise, or push instead of pull. After I finally figure it out, I can understand what they were trying to do, and it might then make sense, but if it takes me more than 30 seconds to get my morning shower going, someone has failed — and I don’t think it’s me.
  • A year or so ago, when I was stuck for a half hour on a broken light rail train between the Atlanta terminals and the rental car center, I started wondering why the push for these trains; what’s the business case? ORD has shut down its train, the ATS, Airport Transit System, to modernize it and extend it to a new rental car center. The price? $800 million. PHX is spending $700 million to extend their SkyTrain to their rental car center. Tampa’s SkyConnect train that went in service last year cost over $400 million. And don’t get me started on Newark’s AirTrain. I mean, I get the need to cut down on diesel emissions from the rental buses, but it seems these airports could buy a whole lot of electric buses for less than that what their spending on a couple of miles of light rail. And when those trains break down, there’s no option but to wait — no other train can pull up beside yours and take everyone onward. You’re stuck until they figure it out.
  • Well, we’ve cleaned out the Travel Potpourri category, Alex. Let’s move on to Extreme Weather Delays for $200.


  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #148
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • Find TravelCommons on Stitcher, SoundCloud, TuneIniTunes, and now on Spotify
  • 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 the TravelCommons’ Facebook pageInstagram account,  or 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
  • Follow me on Twitter
  • “Like” the TravelCommons Facebook page
  • Direct link to the show