Podcast #153 — Travel By Algorithm; Leaving Places Behind

What’s Behind Me Is Not Important

Going upscale, recording in the podcast studio at the 1871 tech incubator in Chicago, I talk about my surprising smooth 2-week trip in Ireland and Scotland. We also note the retirement (finally!) of American Airlines’ MD-80 jet, a very interesting new social media app, talk about how algorithms are changing the way we travel, and the melancholy of leaving familiar places for the last time.  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 #153:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you today from the podcast studio in the 1871 tech incubator in Chicago, IL. I have to say that this is the most professional studio I’ve recorded in since my high-school radio days in Memphis. I mentor here once a month and so get to use this bang-up studio. This sound ought to be phenomenal. It’s a few weeks after our 2-week Celtic jaunt — a week touring in Ireland and a week of graduation festivities at University of St Andrews in Scotland. I’ve talked a bit about the planning for this trip in the past couple of episodes — wrestling through the Avios website to kludge together flights on Aer Lingus and burn off some of my Avios balance that’s been sitting around for, I dunno, 5-10 years; and trying to sift through the horror stories of Irish car rentals. There were a whole lot of places where this trip could’ve gone bad… but it didn’t. The flights on Aer Lingus were fine; nothing special, but they were serviceable. Our Budget Car rental experience was the same — a basic Renault compact with 30,000 km on it, but no issues with the folks on either the pick-up or the drop-off in Dublin airport. All the places I booked in Ireland were fine — the B&Bs on the west coast were great; the hotel in Dublin was, again, serviceable. And, we didn’t really have any rain to speak of until our last day in Dublin.
  • The flights between Dublin and Edinburgh were on turboprop planes — ATR-72-600s to be exact. I can’t remember the last time I was on a prop plane — even the quick 30-min hops I’d do occasionally between IAD and CHO are on Embraer jets. But I remember way back in my early flying days, American Eagle used to fly a lot of these ATRs. Once those props started turning, I popped on my Bose noise-cancelling headphones. Those American Eagle ATRs were one of the main reasons I invested in my first pair of Bose.
  • But other than a bit of a rainy walk to and from that plane in DUB and EDI, they were fine flights. Indeed, if there was any hiccup, it was on arrival in DUB from ORD.  We’d checked luggage, even though one of my regular top travel tips is to carry on. I knew the plane was full, and since Aer Lingus isn’t part of OneWorld or StarAlliance, neither my American nor my United status was going to get us pre-boarded. Rather than worrying about having to jockey for overhead space, we checked our bags – and anyways, it was free; it was included in the fare. So, low-hassle boarding. In DUB, I stood at the luggage carousel, watched it heave out a dozen or so bags, and then nothing. No worries; seen that before; the guys must be driving the tug back to the plane. And then the carousel stopped. Not too worried; seen that before too; just saving a little energy. And then the lights above us went out.  OK, this is a new one. I have to say that I started to worry a bit — until I saw our pilot also looking around for his luggage. After 20 minutes, the lights came on and the carousel started burping up bags again. And there was a simultaneous sigh of relief from all the chaperones accompanying the half-dozen student trips that had packed this flight.
  • Bridge Music — SP*ANK Vox by Loveshadow

Following Up

  • Biggest travel news — at least to me — since the last episode — American announced the retirement (finally!) of the last of its MD-80s, the “Super 80s” or the “Mad Dog 80s” with the last revenue flight planned for Sept 4th from DFW to ORD. Which for me is very apropos because I spent a lot of time in the mid-80’s flying MD-80’s between those two AA hubs. I thought the 737 Max grounding might delay the final MD-80 flight, but it looks like American has scrounged up enough 737-800s to fill the gap. I posted American’s announcement on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page. Jim McDonough commented – “Flew the Mad Dog many, many times. My wife and I would select row 9 on the 2 seat side, flying, usually, DFW/SAN. She’s tiny, so I felt like I was in first class.” The left-hand 2-seat side was great for couples — got a window and an aisle seat without having to guess if the center seat would be filled. But then you had to deal with the short overhead bins on that side where you could only fit your bag in sideways, and usually no power supply. The cigarette style power adapters were on the other side, the 3-seat side, but only in every other row. It was a unique plane…
  • Back in May, in episode 151, TravelCommons listener Mika Pyyhkala sent in a note about his great experience with a flight rebooking service, Freebird. This week, I was booking a trip to CHO on the Amex Travel site with my Platinum card. At the end of the booking, it offered me free Freebird coverage for the trip. I had to check a box to opt in, so I read the fine print closely to make sure it was really free, but it was. Seems Freebird and Amex are doing a free trial. Don’t know how long it lasts, but I’ll opt in — with the hope that I don’t actually have to use it.
  • Some bits ‘n’ bobs observations from my Ireland-Scotland trip…
  • Like so many other folks, I’m carrying my own water bottle on flights. I started last fall. The big Amazon Web Services conference gave everyone a refillable water bottle, replacing barrels of iced single-use water bottles with refilling stations. Most airports now have refilling spigots next to regular water fountains. Irene has carried one forever. It came in handy when Aer Lingus wanted to charge her €3 for water on one of our flights. Now, I lost that original AWS water bottles a few months back — matching my usual 6-month time-before-loss metric. No big deal; it was just a plastic bottle with a screw-on cap. But I wanted a new one. So for Fathers’ Day, Claire gave me a new souped-up 20 oz. water bottle with a push-button pop-up drinking spout and a carabiner loop — very nice. I pulled it out during one of our Aer Lingus flights, skipping their €3 charge, hit the button for the spout and immediately get hit square between the eyes with a fat stream of water from my bottle-now-turned-water fountain. Apparently this new fancy water bottle seals airtight, meaning the water in the bottle stayed at ground pressure while our cabin was now lower, at something between 6 and 8,000 ft. I’m used to that with foil-sealed yogurts, but not my water bottle. A surprise not just for me, but also the Irish guy next to me who was napping before he caught some shrapnel from my portable water cannon.
  • One of the things I look forward to when staying at bed-&-breakfasts in the UK and Ireland are… the breakfasts. And the breakfasts we had in Ireland were at least one order of magnitude better than the best concierge lounge fare at a Marriott — which may be damning with faint praise, but I don’t mean to, we had great breakfasts. For most of our time on the west coast, we hubbed out of Galway, staying in the same place for 3 nights, or more importantly, 3 breakfasts. The first morning was easy; the full cooked breakfast — eggs, bacon, sausage, black and white pudding, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans, and toast. We were doing a good bit of hiking that day and I wasn’t hungry until 3. Doing that two days in a row, though, felt like I was tempting fate — or at least an arterial blockage. So the next morning, I went with the healthier choice — oatmeal porridge. The presentation is pretty typical — a big bowl of porridge with little cups of raisins, brown sugar, and cream. I mix in the raisins, a touch of the brown sugar, and a bit of the cream to loosen up the porridge. Except it doesn’t smell like cream. I taste it — it’s Bailey’s Irish Cream. I dump the rest of it in. I figure porridge with a Bailey’s topper is kinda the Irish version of a Bloody Mary.
  • One of the big differences for me between renting a car in the US and in Europe is the pre-car inspection. You get the keys, the rental agreement, and a form showing the condition of the car before you take if off the lot — pre-existing dings and scratches. I always give this form to Irene — she’s much pickier than I am. She walks around the car, making note of anything missing, while I figure out the rear-view mirrors and pairing my iPhone to the entertainment system. So I was kinda surprised to get an e-mail from Hertz before getting on our flight to EDI with a bunch of pictures of a Kia wagon. Here was our car; here was the documentation of its condition. We walked straight to the car, loaded up the luggage and drove off. No walkaround inspection. It makes sense. We had gotten to the point, on our last couple of rentals, where we were taking pictures of dings and scratches as well as marking them on the form. Now here, Hertz was doing it for us. Not sure if I got this because I have Hertz Gold, but it certainly was a big improvement in the rental experience — though I still had to figure out how to pair my phone.
  • The timing on international connections in Europe always feels a little bit of a crap shoot because there doesn’t seem to be a consistent rule about having to pass thru security again. Amsterdam, no security. Frankfurt, no security for a European connection, but security if you’re flying to, say, India or the Middle East. London, security every time, maybe even a couple of additional passes just for kicks. Dublin, though, had a new twist. Go thru the usual drill — pull out your electronics, take off your belt, push your bags thru the X-ray machine, but then — where’s the metal detector? Just walk past the security guy and put my PC back in my bag. I looked back. There was a metal detector all the way at the end of the security hall, but only one. The rest of us were acting like we were walking thru a metal detector, except there wasn’t one. That was just odd.
  • We were in Scotland for Claire’s graduation from University of St Andrews. Hanging around, drinking beer with folks a couple of generations younger than you — this group was right on the Millennial/Gen Z boundary — is always an educational experience. But when the conversation turned to their new favorite app — Poop Map — I thought they were leading this old guy on. An app where you and your friends share the places you’ve pooped, complete with star ratings and comments, seemed too much like an Onion headline — social media taken to the absurd extreme. Except is wasn’t satire; it was real. They all pulled out their phones, fired up the app, and showed me their check-ins. OK, then. But I think checking in beers on Untappd is as far as I want to go.
  • And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along — text or audio comment to comments@travelcommons.com — you can send 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 —  Bored on Your Backside by Trifonic

Travel by Algorithm

  • On the rainy Monday we flew from DUB to EDI, I drove us downtown to meet some friends for the day. The rain was beginning to muck up traffic, so I was kinda glued to Google Maps to help route us around some of the traffic tie ups, which meant we weren’t on the usual route take in from the airport, which meant I was just about completely dependent on Google; completely trusting that algorithm. Which was kinda broken when I followed Google’s directions through a warning sign and onto a “Buses Only” road. Google directed me to keep driving down the road, but since I was only a single-decker Kia wagon, I didn’t think any attempt to masquerade as a bus was going to survive our first police encounter. So I took the first left (much easier when driving on the left side of the road) hoping the algorithm would produce a bit more legal routing.
  • Not overly shocking. There have been a steady stream of stories for years about GPSs leading people astray — this was a topic way back in the early days of  TravelCommons, episode #36 in 2006 to be exact, when they were called SatNavs, I told the story of making a dash to SFO after a sales meeting. I’m riding shotgun, tracking our progress on a one of those paper maps that Hertz used to put in every car. But we also had a Hertz NeverLost. It seemed about 10 seconds slow to me. I spotted our turn on I-580, but Hertz said nothing. “Turn,” I said. “No,” Brian said, “You need to trust the technology.” And so when Hertz said to turn 10 seconds later, he did — right into a gas station. Not as bad as stories of people driving across closed bridges, into rivers, up unpaved mountain roads… But in the subsequent 13 years, with SatNav, now GPS, moving from our cars to our pockets, we’re lean on those algorithms more than ever. Now living in Chicago, I haven’t bothered to learn any of the public transit routes; I just use Google Maps or the Transit app to tell me what bus to catch when.
  • Sometimes I’ll use Hipmunk to look at flight options to a new city, or a place I haven’t been in a while. They promote their Agony sort, where their algorithm rates flight by a combination of price, duration, # of stops, and dependability. I’m heading back to CHO and since I haven’t been out there for 6 months, I hit Hipmunk to check out American’s and United’s current flight offerings, scrolled down from the non-stops thru the 1-stops. I thought it was interesting, though, that Hipmunk’s algorithm scored a 24-hr hour Amtrak ride with a 3-hr layover in DC’s Union Station as less agonizing than a 6-hr 2-stop trip on United Express with connections in Columbus and IAD. But given some of my United Express experiences, who am I to second-guess that algorithm?
  • One of the things I liked about the soon-to-be-turned-off Google Trips app, is how it would auto-magically generate itinerary recommendations for a city. It would pick out points of interest with high Google review scores, and then combine the hours each would be open from the business listing with the typical amount of time people would stay there, and location and traffic data from Google Maps to generate the best itinerary. This fascinated me. It sucked my into a click hole of academic papers presented at the International Conference on the Practice and Theory of Automated Timetabling and the International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining talking about how the “Tourist Trip Design Problem (TTDP) is a route-planning problem on multiple Points of Interest. TTDP can be considered as an extension of the classical problem of Team Orienteering Problem with Time Windows.” I want to use this to automatically generate microbrewery taproom crawls but the math made my eyes bleed.
  • But back to that rainy day in Edinburgh, Google Maps redeemed itself at the end of the day. There was so much rain that Monday, our usual path out of the city, the A90, was at a complete standstill because of flooded underpasses, and stalled cars that tried to make it thru the flooded underpasses. Google Maps guided us past a gridlocked traffic circle, winding us through some apartment complexes, bypassing the flooded parts, and putting us right onto the M90 so we could head out to St Andrews. Better travel through algorithms.
  • Bridge Music —   Bogi Beat Budapest by KarmaHacker

Leaving Places Behind

  • Driving out of St Andrews that last time was a bit melancholy. We’d spent the last 4 September there, saw things change — restaurants open and close, Edinburgh airport get spiffier — but also the familiar things stay the same — The Keys, my favorite dive whisky bar; St Andrews Brewing Company or “Stabco” as my daughter would call it, always with a great beer selection from across the UK; and Jahangir, an Indian restaurant we found our first year because they were the only place we could find a table that Friday night… and we kept going back because they had great food and we never couldn’t get a table
  • The melancholy was that we probably wouldn’t be back; at least not for a long time. It’s out-of-the-way — which is part of its charm, but it’s why we probably won’t be back for a while.
  • I felt the same way when I finished a project in Portland, Oregon some years back. I was in Portland every week for 3-4 months and got to know it pretty well. I explored new places, but developed some favorite spots I’d hit every week — Clyde Commons for dinner at the bar, Bailey’s Taproom with a new beer selection every week. When that project ended, I knew I wouldn’t be back to Portland for a long time — as opposed to New York or San Francisco. Wrapping up a project there, not really a big deal because there’s enough business to bring me back. New Orleans was kinda in the middle. I’d been there almost non-stop for 3-4 years, but while I didn’t think business would bring me down there again, it’s not out of the way, and I’d be down often for vacations or conventions — which is how it’s turned out.
  • Some of that melancholy comes from regret — from things you always meant to do but never made time for — “I’ll do that next time,” you’d say to yourself, but never get to it. The last time I was in Charlottesville, VA, I was finishing up what had been another 3-4 year stream of work and wasn’t sure when I’d be back. For me, Charlottesville was a bit like St Andrews, an out-of-the-way college town (though only a 2-hr flight from Chicago rather than an 8-10 hour fly-and-drive) and wasn’t sure when — if ever — I’d get back. Over those years, I’d always plan to take a half-day and drive the 15 minutes from the client to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, and take the tour. It’s always written up as a must-see, and I’m right here. But every time I was going to do it, something would come up, and I’d say “I’ll do that next time.” And so here I was, the last time — I didn’t know when the next time would be. And I really didn’t have much time in my schedule, but after lunch one day, I walked out, taking calls all the way to the Monticello parking lot, and then turned off my phone and had a great tour. And flew out the next morning without that regret. 
  • But now 6 months later, I’m heading back to Charlottesville. So maybe I’ll get back to St Andrews sooner than I thought. Maybe I should see if Stabco needs an old-guy bartender.

Closing

  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #153
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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