Podcast #149 — Dining Single; Airlines Need To Tell Us More

Not Looking Friendly for a Solo Diner

I dusted off the mobile rig to record this episode in Happy Valley, the home of Penn State. And I am kinda happy with some travel to Phoenix and Florida to thaw me out after Chicago’s run in with the polar vortex. In this episode, I talk about budget airlines, stepping down in Hertz status, why I bought physical guidebooks for a trip to France, the challenges of being a solo diner, and then dig into the archives for a classic travel story. 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 #149:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you today from the Hyatt Place in State College, PA, feeling a bit more positive about life after a couple of warm weather getaways — an afternoon meeting in Phoenix that I happily turned into a 3-day stay by flying in early for a “prep” session and staying late “in case our session ran long”; and then a long weekend with friends on the Gulf side of Florida. It was a nice break to walk outside without layering up coats, and scarves, and hats, and without taking an Arctic blast in the face. Not that it was toasty in Phoenix, but I was walking around downtown in a blazer, passing people — natives, I’d guess — in puffy down jackets. Not that they were wrong; it’s just that my reference point was that -22 degree polar vortex day.
  • Reminds me of a time many years ago when I was doing a project in J’burg South Africa in July — our summer, their winter. We’re going to a restaurant for dinner. The inside is full, but the outside tables are available. The owner apologizes, offers to bring us blankets. My colleague from Detroit is wearing a polo shirt; I’m in dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. “Thanks, but we’re fine,” we tell him. Halfway through the meal, he comes out, offering to move us inside now that a table has freed up. He’s wearing a parka. “No, really, we’re OK,” we tell him. Different reference points on what’s cold.
  • Both trips — out to Phoenix and down to Ft Myers airport, were full of young families, also getting away from the cold, maybe to stay with parents/ grandparents who’d retired in more reasonable climes. I flew Southwest to Phoenix and United to Ft Myers, and I came to appreciate what, before this, was, to me, an undiscovered benefit of Southwest’s open seating. Because I was in the B boarding group, those families with young children boarded before me. Walking down the aisle, I could spot the crying babies — there, and there, and there — and could just keep walking, until I was behind them all. Sure, I was in the back of the plane, and it took me a while to deplane, but that was a very small price I was willing to pay for 3 hours of relative peace.
  • Bridge Music — Paint the Sky by Hans Atom (c) 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://ccmixter.org/files/hansatom/50718 Ft: Miss Judged

Following Up

  • In past episodes, we talked about the bare bones budget airlines — Spirit and Frontier in the US; Ryanair and EasyJet in Europe, and Wow Air and Norwegian as the second coming of Laker Airways, doing TransAtlantic budget flight. Of those, I’ve flown Frontier, EasyJet, and Wow Air which, as a group, seems like the less severe set of the budgets. Ryanair and Spirit always seem to have a harder edge about the “budget-ness.” And then there’s their impact on the mainline carriers — United, American, and Delta’s basic economy fares. Usually, when I look at a mainline carrier’s basic economy fare, the difference vs. their regular economy fare isn’t big enough to make up extra hassles. But booking our trip down to Florida, the difference on United was over $100 a ticket. Irene and I figured we could put up with a few hassles for over $200. But as dug a bit further, we didn’t find as many hassles as we thought. Because we’re both United Gold, there was no limitation on carry-on bags and we boarded in the usual Group 1. The only downgrade was that we had to pay to reserve seats and we couldn’t book them in Economy Plus — the aisles with the extra legroom. Even after paying for reserved seats, we still saved enough to pay for a couple of nice dinners of grilled grouper.
  • Our friends who joined us from Milwaukee flew down on American through DFW without a hassle. Their flight back — a direct to Milwaukee on Frontier — not so much. Their flight was supposed to leave at 7:45pm. Around lunch, they received a note that their flight was delayed by 5 hours. What? We checked that again. We pulled up the FlightAware app, searched for their flight, and then started walked its planned flight legs back, hitting the “Where’s My Plane?” button until we found it — still on the ground in Milwaukee 6 hours after its scheduled departure time. The weather wasn’t that bad, so it had to be a maintenance problem, which is a huge problem when flying budget and regional airlines because their model is to bounce a plane from place to place rather than flying it out of a hub where they could swap out a busted plane if need be. So that 6 hour delay was going to cascade through that day’s schedule. Our friends finally left Ft Myers at 2:45am. Which is something I’ve noticed about Frontier — I’ve never seen them cancel a flight no matter how late they leave. A regional airline would’ve cancelled that flight way earlier, but not Frontier. I don’t know how their crews don’t time out, but I kinda admire them for getting you home no matter what time. Would be way better not  to take a 7-hr delay, but at least they get you home.
  • This year, I got dropped a status level on Hertz, from President’s Circle down to Five Star. I didn’t do 20 rentals last year, and I missed an offer back in December to pay some points to keep my status. But, I can’t say that I notice the downgrade too much. When I was in Phoenix, I snagged a great Chrysler 300 with custom black rims. In Ft Myers, I got a brand new GMC Terrain SUV that held 4 adults very comfortable… Though I have to say that the Terrain through me for a loop when I got in. I’ve rented all sort of different cars. I get in, pair my phone to the Bluetooh, adjust the mirrors, put it in Drive, and pull out. With the Terrain, I was good with all of that right up until the “put it in Drive” step. I look down at the console — no gear shift, no gear dial (the Chrysler experience talking). Then grab the stalk on the right side of the steering column and turn on the windshield wipers. I’m looking all over — “WTF? Where is the damn gear shift?” From the back seat, Kristin points under the climate control “It’s right there”. And then I see, a line of buttons — P, R, N, D. I push the D button and off we go. The last time I saw a push button gear selector was when I was a kid, riding in somebody’s old Plymouth. I mean, come on GMC, do we really need another type of gear selection? Searching the Internet later for the Terrain’s gear buttons yields a whole slew of “Worst Shifter Design” article featuring these buttons. I don’t know which was worse — the actual buttons or me, the alpha road warrior, getting back seat instructions on how to put a rental car in gear.
  • Another new thing I learned at Hertz Ft Myers — besides where to find gear buttons — is that, for Hertz Gold customers, there’s no additional driver fee for your spouse. I’ve been in Hertz Gold since it started, but I never connected to this benefit. It’s saves real money — additional driver fees can run $10/day — and hassle. Another reason to like the Hertz Gold program.
  • TravelCommons made our little local newspaper in an installment of their “Ask The Expert” series with the sub-headline “How can travel be more relaxing and fun?”  When Sandy, the reporter, emailed me to schedule the interview, she wanted to talk about advice for successful spring break travel. So I started off talking about how those spring break families should avoid traveling during road warrior rush hours — Monday mornings and Thursday evenings. “Boarding a plane filled with busy professionals can quickly rob you of that pre-vacation high,” Sandy wrote, “Peacock advise leisure travelers to avoid sharing a plane with these potential buzzkills.” Such as me. The last thing a family heading for Disney wants to encounter is people like me powering down the concourse. I also recounted some of the tips that you’ve seen in my Top Holiday Travel Tips posts — fly early in the day, avoid regional jets, and no one-and-done outfits so you can get everything you need into a carry-on. And I talked about turning long layovers into mini-vacations with our upcoming Stockholm layover as an example. Of course, I didn’t mention that a lot of these layovers turn into taproom crawls, like in last year’s video of the Midway layover taproom tour, and potentially this Stockholm stop thanks to TravelCommons’ listener Rob Cheshire’s custom Google map. No, I figured than might be a bit much for our nice local paper. Sandy turned our 45-minute conversation into a nice article. I posted a picture of the article on the TravelCommons Facebook page since they don’t seem to put their issues on-line.
  • In episode #120, back in March 2016, I asked the question — Where do physical guidebooks fit in the world of apps, review websites, social media, and podcasts? Back then, I was planning Andrew’s and my visit to Iceland. Now, getting ready to head over to Brittany, France for 10 days, I bought two physical guidebooks to take with us. Irene wanted DK’s Eyewitness Travel; it was her favorite out of the stack of guidebooks she checked out of the library. While I did a throwback, picked up our go-to book from our PK (pre-kids) days of travel, Michelin’s Green Guide. The DK book is definitely more visually punchy, but I figured Michelin, a French company, should have Brittany covered pretty well, and they published this new edition just last month. Maybe I’m getting lazy in my old age, but I’m kinda glad to have everything in one spot — a bit of local history, touring maps, city guides — rather than having to rummage through multiple PDFs in an Evernote folder. However, I took a pass on Amazon’s recommended add-on of Michelin’s Brittany Road and Tourist Map No. 512. I’ve topped up my local SIM for 2.5 GB of mobile data; I’m sticking with Google Maps. I maybe old school, but I’m not going back to the Dark Ages.
  • And if you have any travel rants, 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 Instagram at travelcommons — or post your thoughts on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music — Perfect Stranger by stellarartwars (c) 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://ccmixter.org/files/stellarartwars/45510 Ft: TheDice

Dining Single

  • Our daughter Claire is heading down to London for her first week of Spring Break and will then meet us in Paris for our Brittany trip.  Planning it, we got talking about eating alone on the road. Years ago, it used to be more awkward – escorted to the small table off in the corner, a server a bit ticked off at the small check and therefore small tip. You’d read the newspaper or a book between courses to keep yourself occupied, wrap it up pretty quickly and head back to the hotel.
  • For guy travelers, the sports bar was (and still is) the exception to that rule. Fine, sit me in a booth alone as long as I have a clear view of walls of TV screens showing all ESPN all the time – ESPN, ESPN-2, ESPN-3, ESPN-U, ESPN News… No need for a book, especially over the next few weeks watching the opening rounds of the NCAA tournaments when I can watch a couple of games at once. Rush out? Hell no, give me another large Coors Light, we haven’t even hit half time.
  • Most restaurants now serve a full menu at the bar, complete with a full set up — placemats, maybe a bread basket. Might be a touch cramped at happy hour, but it’s usually nice to be in the main flow of things rather than off in the corner. The trend toward shared plates , while getting a bit tired when dining with a group (“OK, what can we all agree on?”) works great for the single diner. If I want a bit of variety without overeating, I now have choices beyond sushi or tapas bars. Not that those are bad choices. I have no doubt that Claire will find her way to the bar at Barrafina in Soho.
  • Sitting at the bar also gave you a chance for a little social interaction, some serendipity; with the bartender, maybe with the guy sitting next to you. Some years ago, on my 2,100-mile circle tour through the South, a guy next to me at a Louisville bar told me to check out a restaurant in the not-yet-hip Bywater neighborhood in New Orleans; turned out to be a great recommendation. But I get less and less of that as people eat and just interact with their smartphones. Maybe Claire wouldn’t be keen on random bar conversations, but I kinda miss it.
  • Nowadays, where I do find that interaction is microbrewery taprooms. Sure, people still have their phones out to check their tasting flight into Untappd, but there’s an acceptance, almost an expectation, that people will “nerd out” about hops and malt and yeast esters with each other and with folks behind the bar. During one of my Dallas trips, I found my way to Grapevine Craft Brewing on a rainy Weds night. The brewmaster was pulling the taps, passing out some barrel samples, and we all spinning our beer nerd propellers real hard.
  • Bridge Music — Foolish Game by copperhead (c) 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://ccmixter.org/files/copperhead/46390 Ft: Snowflake,Sackjo22

From The Travel Story Archives — Airlines Need To Tell Us More

  • Prepping for that interview with the local paper had me spelunking deep into the TravelCommons archives, fixing some broken links and listening to some of those early shows for the first time in a long time. A couple of things struck me — the really poor sound quality I got from the little iRiver MP3 recorder that I was using, and how good some of those early travel stories were.
  • So here’s one from episode #15, very long-time TC listener Allan Marko talking about wanting to know just a little bit more about what an airline maintenance guy is doing.

Closing

  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #149
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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  • Bridge music from dig.ccmixter.org
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