Podcast #164 — First-Post Lockdown Trips; Travel Credit Cards

Can I leave my house now?

I broke Chicago’s containment for my first post-lockdown trip, a fast drive down I-65. We talk about hotels swapping hospitality for sanitation, Hertz’s bankruptcy, and tips for travel credit card usage from Brett Holzhauer, the travel card expert at ValuePenguin.com. 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 #164:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois, as the lockdown here is starting to lift. What’s open and what’s not is still a bit spotty, though I’ve managed to hit a couple of microbreweries with outdoor patios. The opening in Chicago is not dissimilar to what I experienced down in Tennessee last month. I was down in Spring Hill, south of Nashville, two weeks after the non-urban lockdown lifted — for every place other than the cities of Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. It seemed that everyone was still trying to figure out what to do — the bar/pizza joint next to my hotel was fully open, but the local bar-be-que joints and the Starbucks were still only doing take-away. Which makes sense; it’s not like there’s a standard playbook on how to re-open an economy. And throughout my consulting career, I’ve learned it’s always easier to shut things down than to start them up.
  • The drive south on I-65 from Chicago is one that, I’m not gonna say I can do with my eyes closed, but I’ve been doing it for almost 40 years, starting when I was in business school at the University of Chicago and my family was living in Louisville, KY. I mean, there’s a clump of trees in the median between West Lafayette and Crown Point that’s a milestone for me; I know I’m an hour from home. Which just goes to show you how boring the drive through northern Indiana is when trees in the median are a notable feature.
  • The drive between Chicago and Nashville, while not the most exciting, especially through Indiana, it does usually require a bit of timing to thread through Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville, and Nashville to avoid rush hour in each. On this trip, not so much. I left Chicago after breakfast and was driving 80 mph most of the way, maybe dropping down to 70 through the cities. And I was still getting passed by guys going aggressively faster. And the only time I saw police or state troopers was in front of big road construction sites, cars running with all their lights flashing in front of big barriers, more as a warning to speeders than an attempt to get them. It was, hands down, the easiest drive down I-65 I’ve ever done.
  • That wide-open drive may be one of the few things I’ll actually appreciate about this lockdown. Well, that and the $2/gallon gas along the way…
  • Bridge Music — Brilliant Day by Hans Atom (c) copyright 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/hansatom/47919 Ft: Lisa DeBenedictis

Following Up

  • First up, thanks to the TravelCommons listener who goes by the handle Abe Froman, Ferris Bueller’s sausage king of Chicago, for dropping a 5-star review on our iTunes page. Abe writes:
    • “I have been a fan of this podcast for many years. If you are a road warrior or a mileage runner, you will love the tips to make your travel easier.”
    • Abe, thanks a lot for this.  I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the podcast
  • Last year in episodes 153 and 155, we talked about American Airlines’ retirement of their MD-80’s, the “Mad Dog 80”, the plane on which I earned my first Advantage status — Gold, and there wasn’t anything higher back then. Last week, Delta finally retired their last Mad Dogs — MD-88’s and -90’s. They were supposed to run through the end of the year, but with late ‘80’s technology and fuel efficiency, they were among the first planes in the fleet to be grounded when the lockdown hit. Delta said that “at their peak, the planes accounted for 50% of Delta’s arrivals and departures from” their Atlanta hub.  Which will be a relief to longtime TravelCommons listener Darren Mak, who tweeted at me back at the beginning of March, a picture out the window seat of a Delta MD-88 just in front of the engine cowl, thanking me for mentioning, in episode 155, that whenever I would end up in that same seat, I would wonder — if that engine blows up, will the shrapnel blow out or blow into the cabin. Well Darren, no more worries. We both survived the Mad Dog’s back seat.
  • We’ve talked in the past couple of episodes about the first post-lockdown trips would be by car — more schedule flexibility; no worries of a stranger in the middle seat exhaling 18 inches away from you.  CNBC ran a story last week analyzing the change in the number of requests for directions on Apple Maps in 2020. Using January 13th as the baseline for their comparison, requests for driving and walking directions dropped by 50% in the first month of the lockdowns, but had recovered by May 29th — the last day of the data series. Transit direction requests had dropped by 75% and were still more than 50% down by the end of May. Now, using January 13th as the baseline probably exaggerates the recovery — you’d think the number of walking and driving direction requests on a normal Memorial Day weekend would be hugely higher than for the second Monday of January when it was in or below the 30’s for about ⅔’s of the country — but I don’t want to kill a green shoot with too much skepticism.
  • American talked about their own green shoots last week, saying they would be operating 55% of last year’s schedule in July, up from 20% in April and May. Driven mostly by demand from states opening up — Texas, Florida, and Arizona — rather than cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco that are still under stricter lockdown orders. If I keep pulling on this trend line, I’m thinking by September all those voluntary capacity limits and empty middle seat promises will have faded away.
  • The absence of update emails from airline and hotel CEOs this week I think is another green shoot. If things are starting to look up, no need to send me an email extending a bonus award offer or cancellation fee waivers. This has cut into a new hobby of mine, though — comparing the use of “in these uncertain times,” “in these challenging times,” and “in these unprecedented times” in these emails. I have a stroke count going. Right now, “unprecedented” is the runaway leader, with “challenging” second, and “uncertain” third.
  • I’ve been a Hertz customer on and off over my 35-year travel career — mostly on. I started my business traveling when I was at IBM, and in the mid-80’s, they had negotiated a smoking rate with Hertz. In episode 144, I talked about getting to know the woman working in the little Hertz hut at SJC back then, when SJC was still an outdoor airport; and before Hertz Gold, that’s all I needed to get an upgrade. And more recently, I’ve, on balance, had good experiences with Hertz. So I was bummed for a moment when I saw they filed for bankruptcy last month. It wasn’t surprising, though. Hertz was still carrying a big debt load courtesy of a 2005 PE leveraged buyout, and we’ve talked in past episodes about how Uber and Lyft have been eating away at its core airport rental market. So, when travel stopped in March and used car auction prices cratered in April, Hertz tipped over. By now though, we’re kinda used to big travel companies cleaning their debt problems in bankruptcy — United and American Airlines the most recent examples. So I’m not too worried about losing the rest of my Gold points. In the short term, though, I will be paying more attention to the mileage on the Hertz cars in the Five Star aisle. That’s where I usually see signs of financial distress — a lot less 500-mile cars and a lot more 25,000-mile cars. And while 25,000 miles on a car doesn’t seem like a lot, remember that rental car miles are kinda like dog years — you gotta multiply them by, like, 7 to get to regular car miles.
  • 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 —  Natchoongi (New Hope Remix) by Suenjo (c) copyright 2007 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0)

First Post-Lockdown Trips

  • As we talked about a few minutes ago, travel is starting to pick up as the lockdowns ease and people want to see something other than the 4 walls that have surrounded them since mid-March. 
  • TravelCommons listener Mark Skinner dropped me a line towards the end of May about his first lockdown trip. You may remember Mark from episode 157 back in November when he wrote in to tell us about his day trip from Washington, DC to Hong Kong — flying out Monday afternoon, returning Tuesday morning — to take a NASA cosmic ray detector on an over-the-pole flight.  This time, Mark writes –
    • So I had my first trip this past week, since the “before times”. On the way back, I was listening to your recent podcast. Yes, my first trip was via automobile, down to the outer banks of North Carolina. Dare County had recently opened up (the day before!) to allow visitors into the county. 
    • Stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn. No servicing of the room, and after a few days at this hotel on the beach, things were looking a little dingy. Tropical Storm Arthur squashed any hopes of long walks on the beach. Departed a day early because the storm wasn’t letting up. I thought this was a good use of Hilton points… Take-out only that week, and hotel not helping out by lending any china, glass or utensils. Ending up getting a couple of sets at a dollar store… I contrast this to my last trip in the before time, to Maui, just as things were buttoning up. The Grand Wailea was happy to provide all sorts of stuff to enjoy one’s take-out on the lanai! That trip got cut short as well, due to flights evaporating. 
    • A highlight of the trip was stopping for lunch in Virginia Beach, which had recently opened out-door seating at restaurants, and enjoyed lunch at a seafood restaurant at an outside table, by the ocean, and greatly enjoyed ordering food and having it brought to the table! The previous “normal” meal had been first evening on Maui, before they went take-out only. 
    • Next trip that is getting kicked around is Hilton Head in June…. that would involve flying. Crossing fingers about a trip to Austria in August…
  • Mark, thanks for sending that along. Your experience on the Outer Banks was similar to mine down in Spring Hill, TN. I went back and forth about staying in a hotel vs. an Airbnb. Airbnb — not as many people passing through the property and some time buffer (24 hours, 72 hours) between guests in the same rooms, but a major hotel chain should have the corporate resources to build out and maybe test a more thorough cleaning program for its properties; maybe with access to stronger, more industrial cleaners. Procrastination ended up making my decision — while I was going back and forth, the Airbnb property in Spring Hill I was looking at got booked for the front of that week, so I ended up in the Spring Hill Hampton Inn — another Hilton brand.
  • That Monday morning, right before I left Chicago, I checked in on the Hilton app. It even let me pick out my room. This may be old news to Hilton Diamond listeners, but I haven’t stayed in a Hilton for at least a year, and so haven’t been tracking their app improvements. When I arrived at 5:30pm, the front doors were locked, but opening up the app showed me a digital key that opened the front door and my room door. I didn’t have to physically check in at the front desk which only struck me odd later that night. Whenever I’ve checked in on a hotel’s app before, I’ve still had to go to the front desk so they could see my ID, which was why I’ve never paid much attention to app check-ins. But at this Hampton Inn with full check-in and digital keys, it worked the way I’d always thought it should.
  • My in-room experience was the same as Mark’s — nobody servicing the room, though a guy did stop by the room every now and again asking if I needed extra towels; no morning coffee or breakfast buffet, and eating mostly take-out in the room with some cans of local craft beer bought from the liquor store a couple of doors down. I was pretty rigorous about dumping the food trash right after eating. Waking up to the smell of 8-hour-old bar-be-que rib and cole slaw remnants is never a good start to the day. Hotels are saying it’s all about cleaning and sanitation, but I can’t say that I saw any out-of-the-ordinary efforts while I was there. Maybe what I was experiencing was the cost reductions to fund that behind-the-scenes deep cleaning.
  • While Mark’s highlight was his lunch in Virginia Beach, mine was being able to walk into a little family-owned craft beer joint in a strip mall on Spring Hill’s Main St, order a beer, and then sit down and drink it at the bar. I go into this place every time I’m there to visit my mother. Seeing them open was a nice little bit of normality — especially since Chicago didn’t start opening up until last week.
  • Don’t know my next trip yet, but I’m keeping my eye on Spain, hoping there’s no second wave before our trip to Barcelona at the end of September.
  • Bridge Music — Fistful of Dub (Feat. Snowflake and DJ Vadim) by spinningmerkaba (c) copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.  Ft: snowflake and DJ Vadim

Travel Credit Cards

  • As we start traveling again, we’ll start pulling out those travel cards — Hilton or Delta Amex, United or Southwest or Marriott Visas, American MasterCards — and so I invited Brett Holzhauer, the travel card expert at ValuePenguin.com, a site that goes deep into these cards, to give us some of his advice as we “un-lockdown” ourselves. First up, he reads out the results of a recent survey on travel planning, and then talks about travel cards
    • Mark: Brett, thanks for joining us on the TravelCommons podcast.
    • Brett: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited
    • Mark: Brett, I wanted to talk to you about a recent survey that ValuePenguin.com has done on travel planning. And we’ve had sort of an arc through the past couple of episodes of the TravelCommons podcast around travel planning. As we think about post-lock-down/pre-vaccine where people are still concerned about coronavirus and Covid, but they gotta move on with their lives. So, in the survey that ValuePenguin did, where are people going?
    • Brett: One of the biggest notes was the amount of people going to Florida, and it’s a couple of reasons: 1) good weather; 2) it’s affordable; 3) there’s a lot of the older generation that lives in Florida, so maybe people are itching to see their parents or grandparents or just older relatives. So, it’s a mixture of all of those things leading to people wanting to travel to the beaches and get outside.
    • Mark: I think that kind of ties into some things we’re seeing, which is more of a focus on outdoors with the theory that coronavirus transmission is less efficient outdoors than indoors. As a travel card expert, as people begin to travel again, what are some of the strategies as far as being able to maximize the value of the travel credit cards? Because really most frequent travelers already have got them in their wallets, at least one if not multiple award cards, but they’ll tend to focus on maximizing award points.
    • Brett: So one of the biggest things that’s gonna eventually happen is huge bonuses. These companies like Chase and American Express. They’re gonna really incentivize people to get back on the road. So if you’re brand new into the Points and Miles game, this is a very good opportunity to start understanding how this whole thing works. So that way, when these big bonuses start coming out, you can find some really great bonuses to start your travels once again, maybe late 2020 or early 2021. So that’s one thing, Number two, obviously, the uptick in in travel insurance. People can get travel insurance through credit cards.
    • Mark: Typically, what are the travel insurance capabilities?
    • Brett: A lot of credit cards beyond the big sign-up bonuses have travel insurance, and a lot of consumers either don’t know that they have it, they forget, or they just don’t really pay too much attention to it. I’m going to use a personal example. My wife and I both have the American Express Platinum Card. It’s a $550 annual fee, and your first thought is — that’s a lot of money to invest in a credit card. Is that really worth it? And beyond all of the perks and the sign-up bonuses, the travel insurance through that specific credit card is comprehensive. You get trip cancelation, trip interruption. Also, you get rental car insurance, and so it’s it’s important to know the difference between primary and secondary. If you do have a credit card that has primary car insurance, that will go first so your personal car insurance will not be affected.
    • Mark: I’ve talked in a previous TravelCommons episode about my own personal experience with using the Chase Sapphire Visa that ended up covering an accident and St Andrews, Scotland. When I got back home, I filed with Chase. Took me a little bit, but I got full coverage on it.
    • Brett: There’s also baggage insurance. Those are kind of the big ones. There’s also emergency medical assistant. It’s important to know that consumers have these protections. I just feel that a lot of times we have these cards in our wallets. We’re overlooking the value proposition of what these cards can really do.
    • Mark: Let me pivot to your set up as a digital nomad. What are what are you up to?
    • Brett: My wife and I, we met in 2015. I knew on the first date that I was gonna marry her by some way, somehow and sure enough ended up happening.
    • Mark: Did she have that same sense, or was there some selling involved there?
    • Brett: No, we definitely sold each other. And we walked away from that first date knowing that what she sold me on was traveling. I had a traveler’s itch. She had the traveling bug. So really sold me on the idea of doing this full time travel. In July of 2019, we officially sold everything. We drove back to her parents house in Los Angeles. Then in August of 2019, we took a one way flight from LAX to Fiji. We bounced between 10 countries in 3.5 months. We returned home in December for the holidays from Japan back to Los Angeles. And we had the plan of leaving again in February, and everything unfortunately started to melt. So now we’re stuck in Los Angeles just itching to get back on the road. But yeah, we love taking advantage of rewards. If it wasn’t for credit card points of miles, we wouldn’t be able to afford these types of travels.
    • Mark: So, when do you think you and your wife will head out next?
    • Brett: Yeah, so our plan was to go to Europe. Obviously, that’s been immensely hit by Covid-19. So for us, luckily, so I’m 26 years old, she’s 24. We’re both very healthy, we’re of the mindset that life is a little bit risky, and you have to take those risks to get those rewards. So, we approach travel with that mentality that it is a risk. Everything in life is a risk — walking across the street, driving your car So, there’s always a risk to it. I think if I had to guess, probably August. But again, God forbid there’s a second wind of coronavirus. We might be here for extended period of time, But, you know, we are very blessed and very privilege that we have parents that will take us in. And we have a free place to stay, which is nice to save up more money for travel and pay down on my student loan.
    • Mark: Brett Holzhauer, travel awards expert from ValuePenguin.com Thanks very much for taking the time to join us on the TravelCommons Podcast.
    • Brett: Thank you so much


  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #164
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