Podcast #158 — Travel Potpourri for $400, Alex

Good End to 2019

Skipping the Chicago winter with trips to Phoenix and Sedona, Arizona, and a Christmas morning flight to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Talk about those trips, my good and bad Hertz experiences, and then gather up odds-‘n’-ends from my travel notebooks to see off 2019 in this New Year’s Eve episode. 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 #158:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you today from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois, just back from a bone-thawing trip with the family to Cabo San Lucas, sorta the Land’s End of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. We booked this trip back in May. Andrew has read on some budget traveler newsletter that Southwest was about to start service to Cabo. So the morning that the flights went on offer, we all went after Southwest’s website and snagged our flights for just over 30,000 points a person. We flew down early Christmas morning, connecting through HOU, and, thinking back to how empty ORD was last year at Thanksgiving, I was stunned that both of our flights were completely full. It seemed that half of our 6:45a flight out of MDW was also walking over to the Cabo gate. Guess that once the kids stop believing in Santa, Christmas morning travel is fair game.
  • Flying back out of Cabo last Sunday, I walk up to the gate and don’t see the usual Southwest boarding number pylons. It’s just a typical shared gate with the Southwest flight to Hobby at Gate 4A and a Delta flight to maybe Salt Lake at Gate 4B. And no plane, because there’s no jetway. It’s a bus. Southwest’s open seating works because everyone enters the plane in numerical order. Squeezing all the A group and half of the B group onto one bus… this’ll be interesting. It’s a 3-minute bus ride around the corner of the terminal. The doors open; we pour out. A ramp worker is trying to recreate the Southwest boarding process on the tarmac, asking everyone to line up in 3 lines — pre-boards, A1-30, and A31-60. It kinda works, for the most part… until another ramp worker says “Hey, we’re boarding through the back door, too” just as the second bus opens its doors. Then it just devolves into a free-for-all. I imagine that first ramp worker looking like Kevin Bacon in “Animal House”, flattened by stampeding passengers. I was the first one through the rear door, so I was fine with it, but it does feel like Southwest needs to re-engineer how they board from shared gates.
  • I say “bone-thawing,” but it’s not like I was suffering too much from the Chicago December. I’ve been in Phoenix most of the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, walking around in shirt sleeves in 65 degree weather, topping up my Vitamin D levels while kinda chuckling at the locals hurrying  by in their puffy Patagonia parkas. I even extended my stay through one of the weekends — doing some more of that “bleisure” travel, this time a hiking weekend in the Red Rock Country around Sedona, Arizona.  An hour or so before picking up a car from Hertz for the weekend, I got an e-mail from the Hertz PHX station manager saying they’d upgraded me as an early birthday present. With equal parts anticipation and trepidation (I remember DFW Hertz “upgrading” me to a Ford F-150 pickup) Irene and I rolled up to spot 43 to find a Mercedes A220 sedan under a “Happy Birthday” sign. OK, now this is an exciting upgrade. Once we fought our way through the Phoenix traffic, the A220 made the 2-hour drive up I-17 a fun run, especially with a 75 mph speed limit.
  • Bridge Music — Earth Soda by septahelix (c) copyright 2011 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial Share-Alike (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/septahelix/34050

Following Up

  • I pushed a picture of the Hertz car under the Happy Birthday sign to the TravelCommons Instagram Story roll. Steve Frick replied, saying that a friend of his had gotten a Hertz birthday upgrade too, to a Jag. Not to throw any shade, but I definitely think the PHX team did me a bit better with the Benz, but it’s nice of Hertz to give their customers a bit of a birthday surprise. With so many travel providers working hard to squeeze, to optimize, and then to charge for every little thing, getting a birthday present from one of them with a bit of luxury — and in my case not an insignificant upgrade — it’s a pleasant throwback to what travel was like when I started business travel coming on 35 years ago. 
  • But all that love was blown away less than 2 weeks later when the Hertz team in Cabo put me through a 20-minute hard sell on insurance — $85/day on a $50/day rental — and then charged me $14/day for something called “Credit Card Care”, all for a beat-up VW Passat with 50,000 hard miles on it. Ugh.
  • Steve also hit the TravelCommons website to talk about mileage runs. In the last episode, I said that Mark Skinner’s DC-HKG up-and-back to carry a NASA cosmic ray detector on United’s over-the-pole route was one helluva mileage run. Steve said –
    • I haven’t done a mileage run in years but came real close to losing my Southwest companion pass status for 2020. I had to change a few of my travel website profiles to use my Southwest card over my Hilton American Express card in order to hit it for 2020. It’s always a tough decision do I want 12 points per dollar at Hilton properties or free Southwest flights for my wife
  • Thanks, Steve. I’ll tweak my travel credit cards now and then to hit some goals, but I hadn’t thought of it as an end-of-year mileage run. But it does make sense, especially with Southwest which counts credit card spend toward Companion Pass. I like that, a credit-card mileage run — definitely more climate friendly.
  • I was talking about my flights to and from Phoenix a couple of weeks ago with one of the guys on the project team, a younger guy, and the look he gave me suggested that I’d hit peak travel nerdery — at least in his eyes. I was telling him that I fly out to Phoenix on United from ORD because United has an 8am flight out, it’s easier to get a morning coffee at ORD than MDW, I get a free upgrade to Economy Plus which makes it easier to sleep, and because United uses PHX in Terminal 2, the older “slum” terminal that, because it’s separate from the main terminals, makes it easier to get an Uber or Lyft. But then I fly back to Chicago on Southwest because they have more flights back in the afternoon which gives me some flexibility with last-minute meetings, they don’t charge a change fee, they fly out of the newer Terminal 4 in PHX which gives me a much better selection of restaurants and bars than Terminal 2, and it puts me into Chicago-Midway where the wait for an Uber or Lyft is always shorter than at ORD. To me, it was a completely reasonable thought process — optimizing each leg for the amenities I’d use. I turned to one of the other guys — a guy who’s been traveling 20-some years — “Yup, makes perfect sense to me,” he said. The younger guy was just shaking his head; probably muttering “OK Boomer” under his breath. But he’ll learn.
  • Back in November, during one of my semi-regular spelunks through Google Analytics, I noticed that the November 2018 episode – #146: Rental Demolition Derby and Traveler Gift Guide – was one of the top 5 pages on the TravelCommons website. I couldn’t figure how stories of rental car wrecks would get a lot of Google hits, so it must be the gift guide. Which suggested that maybe I should update it for 2019, but more as a blog post this time. I read through a half-dozen or so other gift guides, looking for some ideas I could steal, but they got pretty repetitious pretty quick — pushing Away luggage, Huzi infinity pillows, and Aesop travel kits, which suggests to a cynical mind that these companies must’ve been splashing a lot of samples around the blog-o-sphere. And maybe didn’t age all that well after the Verge published an exposé on Away’s toxic work culture. But anyway, I wanted something a bit different, and on one of my flights got thinking about a chat I’d had with a friend a while back. She was looking for gift ideas for her daughter who, a couple of years out of college, was starting a new job with a lot more business travel. Replaying that chat in my head, and thinking about the younger guy on my project team, I started going through my travel kit — rummaging through my messenger bag and then cycling through my suitcase — mentally, though; not enough space to physically pull it down from the overhead and open it up; and that would’ve looked a bit weird. I built a list of the things I really use on my trips, and that I miss when I forget to bring them along. Then I winnowed it down to 10 — because “Top 10” is a key search term — and there you have it. If you haven’t looked at it yet, give it a read and leave a comment with your suggestions.
  • Number 2 on my list of ideas, after a 20-inch black roller bag, is picking up the application fee for TSA Global Entry for your new traveler. For $100, or for free with many airline and hotel reward credit cards, you can gift them with 5 years of hassle reduction with PreCheck for domestic travel and a fast path through Customs when they travel internationally. Coming back from Cabo, we connected again through Houston-Hobby and so had to clear Immigration and Customs there. It was my first time through Customs there, so it took me a minute to find the Global Entry kiosks. The interface was a bit different from the ORD ones. Instead of asking for my passport and prompting me for the fingerprint pad, it asked me to fit my face inside a red box before taking my picture. The camera didn’t look adjustable, so I squatted down ‘til my face was in the frame and then clicked the Take Photo button. A couple seconds later, the kiosk spit out my receipt and I was off to the exit — no passport or fingerprint scans, no clicking through questions. Quick, but odd. Some Google searches when I got home told me that I’d hit the new generation of Global Entry kiosks — Global Entry 2.0 — that uses facial recognition to match the kiosk picture with my passport and Global Entry application pictures. Given how crappy the kiosk picture looked on the receipt — and that I hadn’t taken my glasses off — I’m either really impressed or really concerned about the accuracy of their facial recognition algorithm; I’m not quite sure which.
  • 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 — Absolutely Clear (ft Jeris & Goldfish) by SackJo22 (c) copyright 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/SackJo22/45578 Ft: Jeris, Goldfish

Travel Potpourri for $400, Alex

  • Here it is, the last episode of the year that I’m trying to get out before cracking the Vueve and trying to stay awake until midnight. With the clock ticking, instead of a proper topic, all I can do is gather up some odds-‘n’-ends from my travel notebooks into a Jeopardy-like topic “Travel Potpourri”
  • And writing in my travel notebooks is something I like to do. I have a couple: a small one — a 3½x5½-in or A6 size that fits in my back pocket — to jot down notes, bullet points; and a larger one that I use as a proper travel journal. For that, I was using a B6 Muji notebook that I picked up in Lisbon 3 years ago. After I filled that one up, I switched to a taller, thinner Japanese traveler-sized notebook because… that’s what I had laying around. I’ve been writing in travel notebooks since I’ve started the podcast — gotta feed the beast — usually in public places — in bars, a lotta bars, while drinking beers, or on planes, a lotta  planes, though turbulence can be a problem. And for some reason, I’ve found that this act of writing in public generates a bit of interest, and a chunk of questions. Back in October, on the Finnair flight back from our Baltics tour, I was catching up, writing up my thoughts on our couple of days in Helsinki when the guy a few seats over started asking me what I was writing. He was a younger Finnish guy. He and his girlfriend and a group of 5 or 6 others were connecting through Chicago to Miami for a cruise, and they started their cruise party the minute the drink carts rolled. But he wanted to know what I was writing and why. The what was easy; he wanted to know what I thought of Helsinki; where I’d been, how I liked it. He was intrigued by our Baltic Riga-Tallinn-Helsinki itinerary, in kind of a “that’s weird, but interesting” way. The why I’m not sure made it through translation. It’s not a pure travelogue — not a “we did this, and then did that”. It’s more about impressions; what I found unique; what caught my eye. Writing it down makes me think about it, and when I go back and read those pages, some 2 or 10 or 20 years later, it reminds me of that place, that time, those experiences. 
  • And when I talk about travel with folks, when I tell them how often I travel, I’ll often get a story — in a bar, on a plane, or… while getting my hair cut. The girl who does my hair told me about her trip to Peru with a yoga group. Not the whole trip (I don’t have that much hair), but on their flight back, out of Lima, the plane took off, rotating up, while the flight attendants were still in the aisle doing the final check. It was a bit of mayhem, she said. That had to be one quick taxi out and take-off, I thought, because you’d think those flight attendants would be sprinting to their seats once that plane started rolling down the runway. Which I have seen before, especially when the captain gets a quick release from a ground hold and wants to get airborne before the tower changes their mind. But I’ve never seen them leave the ground with anyone still in the aisle.
  • Maybe the pilot was distracted — a message from the tower, an animal on the runway, a sudden thought crossed his mind. I thought about pilot distraction when walking the Airport Mesa trail in Sedona earlier this month. The trail name says it all — it’s a 3½-mile loop around the mesa where Sedona’s general aviation airport is. The hikers aren’t the potential distraction, though. It’s one of Sedona’s famous energy vortexes that’s right next to the airport. The Airport Vortex is, according to one website, “an Upflow area (also called Electric or Masculine) that helps your spirit soar for a higher perspective and/or greater oneness and serenity.” Watching a couple of private jets take off while on our hike, I wondered what would happen if the pilot suddenly achieved greater oneness and serenity while rotating off the top of that mesa. For someone as unenlightened and non-serene as me, that would be one helluva distraction.
  • I think for many, maybe close to most frequent travelers, Uber and Lyft have replaced taxis, at least in the US, when not renting a car. So it got my attention when I hit a weird Uber app failure at ORD at the end of October. Coming back from Charlottesville, I light up both Uber and Lyft while getting off the plane to compare wait times and fares (you’d think their surge pricing would be consistent, but it rarely is for me). Uber is a bit better, so I go to book a ride. Except that the Uber app wouldn’t pick up at the domestic terminals, just the separate international terminal, Terminal 5. I check Lyft again; yup, they’ll pick me up at Terminal 2, so I book with them instead. But it’s weird, so I keep checking Uber. I walk out the door to the rideshare pick-up area. There’s nothing but cars with pink Lyft lights; not an Uber decal in sight. An older couple walks up to me — “Where does Uber pick up?” Normally here, I tell them, but they seem to have deleted it from their app today. It was a good night to be a Lyft driver. I wondered how long it took Uber to notice that they weren’t getting any pick-ups from one of the country’s busiest airports.
  • Tonight, though — New Year’s Eve night — I’ll be skipping Uber and their after-midnight price surges. I’ll be happy to hang out at home, to skip any travel, and just pop a bottle… or two of Vueve and wish all you TravelCommons’ listeners a Happy New Year and fun and safe travels in 2020.

Closing

  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #158
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