Podcast #150 — Travel Interruptus

This guy looks familiar…

It’s been a tough month for travel. Not quite to Book of Job-level torment, but two of this month’s three trips spiraled into head-shaking metaphysical “What the hell is going on here” questioning of my decision to get out of bed that morning. I walk through the travel gods’ fun and games, as well as some new data on regional jet delays and buying a new travel bag. 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 #150:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you today from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL, as the weather begins to stagger unsteadily toward Spring — 74 degrees on Monday, 5.3 inches of snow (thundersnow!) on Sunday, then back up into the 70’s two days later.  April 14 — over 5 inches of snow, over 1,000 flights cancelled. A nasty surprise for folks who thought it would be safe to connect through ORD, but just validates a Chicago truism — don’t put the snow gear away until after Tax Day. Yup, welcome to the Midwest.
  • Have done a chunk of travel — there’s a unit of measure for you — since the last episode. A 2-day trip that hit 4 airports in the first day — Chicago-Midway, Las Vegas, Houston-Hobby, and Nashville. The next week, I squoze in a trip to a new airport – State College, PA — before heading out on vacation to Brittany, France. The squeeze wasn’t too tight — flew back from State College on Weds night and left on vacation Thursday night — but I did scout out a couple of backups in case the United Express regional jet went AWOL; a hour or so drive down to Harrisburg, a couple hour drive over to Pittsburgh. Luckily, I didn’t need them. United Express was having a good day, and therefore, so did I.
  • The next day’s flight to Paris on SAS by way of Stockholm went fine. We got in on time, found the left luggage lockers, and then the express train into the city all without much hassle. Arlanda Airport is comfortably sized and has good signage. The only real problem was that we got into center city Stockholm too early — around 8:30am — and nothing was really open. So we coffee’d up at one place, had some cardamom pastries at another, and generally puttered around until things started opening up an hour or so later. It was a sunny, if brisk, day, so walking around the Gamla Stan and Sodermalm was nice.
  • I always chuckle a bit when going through De Gaulle Airport, passing through the tangle of flat escalator walkway tubes that bridge the levels and open center of Terminal 1. The walkways are a bit awkward with wheeled luggage — going down and then up. An airport porter in front of us let a wheelchair go free on the downhill span — took a moment for it to register that it was empty — then it rolled back to him on the uphill. No knock against him; it was the end of the day.
  • The next day, we caught the train out to Brittany, to Saint Malo. We walked out of the train station and across the street to Europcar for what was one of the easiest rental car pick-ups I’ve ever had in Europe. No scare-tactic insurance upselling — just a look at my driver’s license and a quick pointer to where I could find the car in the train station parking lot. Five minutes, max. And dropping off the car a week later at Rennes train station? Absolutely the easiest rental drop-off — gave the guy the keys and a receipt showing I’d filled up the car and I was done. No waiting for him to go inspect the car, just a handshake and “Have a good day”.
  • The next day wasn’t near as carefree, but we’ll talk about that in a few minutes.
  • Bridge Music — Countryside Summer Joyride by Kara Square (c) copyright 2017 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/mindmapthat/56281 Ft: Javolenus

Following Up

  • I’ve been not-quite-hating on, but certainly have been down on regional jets for quite some time on this podcast. Given a choice, I recommend people avoid them — not because of their size, but their schedule dependability. Because the regional airlines’ model is to bounce a plane from place to place rather than route through hubs, they never recover from weather or mechanical delays. Those delays just cascade through the rest of the day. Now there often aren’t alternatives. Hence my earlier comment about needing backup plans for my regional jet flight home from State College. My flight was at the end of the day, the most vulnerable time to delays. Given my personal experience,  I wasn’t surprised to read that US Dept of Transportation data showed that regional flights were 2-4 times more likely to be cancelled than mainline flights. The Chicago Tribune dug into the DOT data and found flights operated by Delta’s regional partners were 4 times more likely to be canceled than flights operated by Delta, while American Eagle and United Express were 2-3 times more likely to cancel flights than their mainline partners. You can’t avoid regional jets when going to places like State College or Charlottesville, VA or Appleton, WI — but you can when flying to LGA or DFW or MSY. And in those cases, unless those RJ flights have exactly the schedule I need, I’ll suffer a bit of inconvenience for a lot more dependability.
  • On our travels through Brittany earlier this month, I found that we were getting a large number of “card declined” messages when trying to use our Chase Sapphire Visa card — at gas stations, stores, and in Paris when I tried to use my Uber app. Now this isn’t a new card — we’ve had it for over 5 years — and it’s not the first time we’ve used it on travels in Europe. But Chase fraud algorithm seems more sensitive, throwing more false positives, and no way to update things. On the way out of Brest, I pulled into a Total gas station to fill up on our way to the Crozon peninsula. We’d be there for a couple of days of hiking and I wasn’t sure many gas stations we’d see (turned out that I didn’t need to worry). I pull up to a pump, tap the Chase Visa, get a decline. Insert the card into the reader; get another decline. I do the same drill with my Citi MasterCard with the same result. However, I immediately get a fraud alert from Citi. I hit the big green “Yes” button on the e-mail — as in, “Yes, I do recognize this charge” — get an “all clear” response back, tap my Citi card again and fill up my tank. All this time, we get nothing from Chase. I open the Chase app on my phone; nothing there either. Same thing in Paris when I needed an Uber fast (more on that in a bit). Chase declined, but my Amex Platinum card went through. For me, it was just annoying; I always carry a full set of cards when traveling — a Visa and a MasterCard from different banks, and an Amex — because single points of failure when traveling are bad — I don’t want to be left hanging if one bank or one card processor drops their network or loses a data center. Oh, and I also carry cash. But, as we’ve talked about before, that’s ‘cause I’m old-school.
  • Brittany was a touring vacation, so we were moving every couple of days or so — packing, unpacking, repacking. During one of those repacking sessions, maybe in Morgat on the Crozon peninsula — I couldn’t find my Bose headphone case, which had my Bose headphones, in my backpack — and I didn’t remember pulling out. Where the hell did they go, I asked myself. I pull everything out of my backpack and — oh, there they are; they had slipped behind my camera bag in the bottom of my backpack. How did I lose my headphones in my backpack, you may ask — and rightfully so because it really sounds stupid. Probably the same reason I lost a Google tablet in there a few years back — too much black. The Bose case is black, the interior of Timbuk 2 backpack is black, my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be… I’d been toying around with getting a new bag, more of a messenger style — that I could sling over one shoulder and with a bit better waterproofing. And, after this little panic drill, a non-black interior. I ended up getting a small Timbuk 2 Classic messenger bag from the Outlet section of REI.com for $50. It’s not too big — holds my 11-inch MacBook Air, a couple of notebooks, an umbrella — and has a bright yellow interior. I haven’t lost anything in it yet — but I don’t trust myself. Maybe I need to get, like a white umbrella, and spray paint my Bose case red. I love black, but maybe I’ve taken that color palette a bit too far.
  • 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 our Instagram account at Travelcommons — or you can post comments on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music — Jester of the Golden Apocalypse by Super_Sigil (c) copyright 2011 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/Super_Sigil/34750

Travel Interruptus

  • A Greek tragedy in three acts where the travel gods toy with our anti-hero for fun and entertainment
  • OK, maybe not quite that bad, not quite Book of Job-level torment, but two out of the three trips I’ve taken in the past month spiraled into head-shaking metaphysical “What the hell is going on here” questioning of my decision to get out of bed that morning.
  • Act 1 – My Midway-Vegas-Nashville travel day. This trip didn’t start out to be stupid. It started as an easy day trip to downtown Nashville for a sales call. So many people are abandoning Chicago for Nashville, Southwest has non-stop flights every 90 minutes, so no problem with flight times. That works out fine — until someone books a sales call the prior afternoon — in Las Vegas. Hmmm, how do I get from Vegas after 4pm Pacific to Nashville in time for a meeting the next morning Central time? Southwest is about the only choice, connecting through either Denver or Houston. I go for the more direct routing through Denver — my first mistake.
  • Because, as it turned out, the March “bomb cyclone” — what the Weather Channel helpfully named “Winter Storm Ulmer” (who or what is an Ulmer?) — was going to shut down DIA that day with 80 mph winds. I got an e-mail from Southwest the day before canceling my connection through Denver — understandable — but nothing else, no rebooking, just “We’re leaving you in Vegas” — which I’ve found tends to be Southwest’s MO — pleasantly unhelpful. Especially when the website errored out when I tried to find an alternate routing to Nashville, and the automated message answering their 800 number was estimating 80-some minute hold times. After about 45 minutes, between banging on the website, our corporate Concur app, and tweeting at their customer service, I managed to get re-routed through Houston, safely south of the bomb cyclone.
  • The next morning, I show up at the gate at Midway to find my 8am flight to Vegas delayed by 2 hours — mechanical on the plane here meant they had to bring in a new plane and crew from somewhere else. Annoying, but not critical; I’d get into Vegas at noon for a 2pm meeting. I get another coffee, log into the Boingo hotspot and clear some emails. 9:40, we line up and board. And wait. Then the captain keys the mike, pauses (never a good sign) and then starts talking – he didn’t have time to do the walkaround before we boarded because they came in late. When they did, they noticed a problem with the front strut. Maintenance is looking at it, don’t know if they can fix it, but they need everyone off the plane. So we deplane for what is now my 2nd maintenance delay. We idle around the gate area. 10:30 and nothing. I start looking at my watch. If I’m don’t get into Vegas by 1pm, there won’t be enough time to get to my 2pm meeting, and so I shouldn’t get on the plane. Then they start to re-board us. What time will we get in? 12:20. OK, I’ll board. We all get back on — and for the most part retaking the seats we had, in spite of Southwest’s open seating. We are creatures of habit. I’m surprised no one moo’d. We’re all on, and we wait. The mike keys. There’s a slight moan rather than a moo from the cabin. We’re waiting on the paperwork. It’s always paperwork. I’m looking at my watch. It’s past 11am Central and the door is still open. A 4-hour flight means we’re now coming up against that 1pm Pacific arrive time. Do I stay on the plane? A couple minutes more and my decision is made for me; they close the door. I lean back, put on my headphones and hope for no headwinds. We get to the gate at 1:02pm. Vegas is always a maze; there’s no straight walkways; they always want to vector you through a thicket of slot machines. I head to the cab rank — shorter walk and no waiting — and I get a guy with a heavy foot. I’m at the client 5 minutes before the meeting. That was a bit too close.
  • My return trip to the airport and the flight to Houston are uneventful, not even any turbulence as we skirt that bomb cyclone. We get into Hobby maybe even a bit early. I grab a beer and then head over to the gate. They call boarding – just half the A group — 1-30 — because that’s all there is on this late flight to Nashville. The gate agent scans the boarding passes, saying “You’re in Row 3, you’re in Row 4, you’re in Row 5….”  We get all get in our separate rows, and then wait. The captain keys the mike, pauses, and then says “This plane had a bird strike on the nose on landing. There’s no damage, but Maintenance has to pull the nose cone off for a visual inspection. It’ll take about an hour, so you’re free to get off the plane.” But by now, everything in the airport was closed. “My 3rd maintenance delay of the day. Unbelievable!” I tweet out in frustrustration. Except that iPhone autocorrect turned “delay” into “deejay”. Hilary Baumann pointed it out with a nice emoji-laden tweet that gave me a good chuckle. I finally got to my Nashville hotel around 1:30 in the morning. I looked at the time, shook my head, and went to bed.
  • Bridge Music — South Texas Cowboy Blues by texasradiofish (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/texasradiofish/52030 Ft: unreal_dm, ElRon XChile
  • Act 2 – A couple of weeks later, on Sunday in Rennes, France. We wheeled our luggage the 2 blocks from our AirBnB to Rennes train station for the TGV to CDG. We stood with everyone else, looking up at the departure board waiting for the track to be posted. Departure time came closer and still no track — not a good sign. The crowd grew larger. There was an announcement in French and a scrolling message at the bottom of the departure screen. Irene banged it into Google Translate. The gist of it — a bomb threat had been phoned into SCNF, the train company, and all the trains in and out of Paris were halted. Given France’s recent history with terrorism, it was a reasonable response, but still…. They finally start posting delay times — 40 mins, then over an hour, but then it shrinks back. I pull up Google Maps. The drive to CDG is showing about the same time as the train, but we’d be in control of our own destiny. I walk down to the rental car offices. It’s Sunday morning; they’re all closed. They won’t open until the afternoon; too late for us to drive and make our flights.
  • Time continues to tick by, past the departure time for our flight. I call United — any other options? I get a phenomenally helpful agent. I can hear the keystrokes. Nothing else today Sunday, nor tomorrow, Monday. I wasn’t surprised about nothing available today, but was about the next day — until I got a text from Andrew. He was on this morning’s United flight to Chicago which just cancelled for a hydraulic problem and rebooked on tomorrow’s flight — which explains the lack of seats for us. I took the Tuesday seats. Now would we get to CDG in time for Claire’s EasyJet flight to Edinburgh so she can make class the next day. The trains finally start moving. We head down and board our train. And then wait, and wait some  more. And then the train starts moving. I look at my watch. I think Claire will be OK.
  • Until we come to a stop in the middle of a rail yard. I watch a couple of guys walk past our car — maybe a visual inspection? After a bit, we start moving — backwards. The conductor keys the mike, and makes an announcement in rapid French that we can’t pick up. I open Google Maps. I see we’re off to the east of Paris but can’t tell if we’re moving in the right direction. Until we pull into the next station — it’s for EuroDisney. I find our train route on the SCNF website and see this is one of the stops en route to CDG, so we’re going in the right direction. We get to CDG by 3pm, which means Claire can make her flight. Andrew comes over from the Airport Hilton, where United is putting him up for the night, and we head down to Paris for another dinner together. There are, after all, worse cities to have to spend an extra day or two.
  • Bridge Music — Parisian Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
    Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
    http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
  • Act 3 – Tuesday morning, Paris. Our forced layover in Paris yesterday had been a beautiful day, sunny and warm. We walked through the Marais, south across Ile de la Cite, taking the obligatory selfie in front of Notre Dame that we pulled out at looked at two weeks later during the news coverage of the fire, and then rattled around the Latin Quarter looking for a place with outdoor seating and a nice rosé. This morning, though, not so beautiful. It was dumping rain. So rather than trundle our luggage 10 min to the Metro stop, I decide to order an Uber — which takes a try or two when Chase declines my Visa again; and I switch over to Amex. A nice black Mercedes picks us up and heads for Les Halles — or at least tries to. The traffic is a crawl at best. I watch our buffer time tick away and we’re not  getting any closer. After sitting through a couple of traffic light cycles without clearing the intersection, we grab our bags and make for Les Halles on foot. We get there, a bit wet. We’re able to skip the ticket booth line; I have enough euros for the self-service machine, because it’s that or a chip-&-pin card we don’t have. We get on the train. I look at my watch – we should have enough time to check our bags (bringing back some liquids), clear security, and get to the gate without too much more agita.
  • Until the train slows to a stop between stops. The conductor keys the mike, and makes an announcement in rapid French. I look at the other passengers. They don’t seem too agitated. I figure it’s some congestion on the track ahead. And, sure enough, we start moving after a couple of minutes. But at the next stop, the train doors stay open and a train employee come on, saying in French and English — everyone has to get off, catch a bus outside the station to another station, then catch a different train to the airport. We head down the bus stop. There’s no one there to help; just a couple hundred people milling around.
  • Now I’m worried. We have no time to figure this out. The taxi stand is mobbed, I fire up Uber – 19-minute wait. Lyft? They’re not in Paris. I google to find taxi company but before I call, I try Uber one more time — a 5-minute wait for a €60 fare. I hit the order button — and then again after I swap over to Amex. €60 for a 15-minute ride to CDG is tough, but it’s cheaper than another night in a hotel. We get to the United desk 2 minutes before luggage check closes for our flight. The agent radioed down, checked in our bags, and then gave us the CDG version of Fast Track, so we could sidestep the long passport control and security lines. We board, sit down, but don’t really settle in until the plane leaves the ground. And when we’re finally at ORD, standing by the luggage carousel, our bags are the first ones to come out.

Closing

  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #150
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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