Podcast #167 — 6 Months On; Why Keep Travel Cards?

I seem to have put on a Quarantine 15

Spent a week in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula hiking, biking, kayaking, and running into a lot of other people getting away to do the same, which got me looking back six months to the start of the pandemic. I talk about a surprisingly good flight cancellation experience with American Airlines, and figuring out how to download 12 years of TripIt data. We wrap up talking to Matt Schulz of LendingTree, asking him what are we doing with travel credit cards that are generating frequent traveler points we can’t use? All this and more – download the podcast file, subscribe on your favorite site, or listen right here by clicking on the arrow below.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #167:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois after a week’s tour of the UP — Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Did a counter-clockwise circle route around Lake Michigan. Headed out east on Friday morning; stopped at a brewery in Grand Rapids for lunch; drove the 5 miles across the Mackinac Bridge just before dusk; and had my first UP pasty (the first of many) and a local beer for dinner that night in Sault Ste Marie. Spent a couple of days in Soo; watched 700-ft lake freighters make their way through the locks that connect Lake Superior to Lake Huron; I’m still enough of an engineer to geek out on that kind of stuff. We then drove west to Marquette for 3 days and again west to Houghton for 2 days before heading home through Wisconsin down the west side of Lake Michigan. It was all outdoors stuff — hiking, biking, kayaking; the things that last-minute COVID closures or restrictions won’t muck up.  The UP has always been on my list of places to visit, but it’s always on sorta the B-list, and so plans to go someplace else — Spain, Napa, Ireland — would always push it down the list. But now, with most places blocked off with travel restrictions and quarantines, the UP — drivable with lots of outdoor activities — bubbled to the top of the list.
  • And I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. The guy renting rowboats at Tahquamenon Falls State Park looked at our release forms and said “We’ve had a lot of people up here from Chicago. It’s been crazy busy. We can’t get enough people to handle it.” And biking around Presque Isle Park in Marquette, we got talking, in a socially distant way, to a biking couple up from St Louis. It was also their first time up. A bunch of their friends and family had been up earlier; they’d seen nothing but UP pictures in their Facebook feed for the past month.
  • The husband said that he had an underlying medical condition and so they were looking for places away from people; they’d rented a cabin in the little town of Au Train. Which got me thinking about the place we stayed in Soo — the Plaza Motor Motel. No lobby, no elevators, no hallways; no places to run into other guests; no need to have to remember to mask up when you leave your room. Just open your room door and there’s your car. Most frequent travelers would never think of voluntarily staying in a motor inn, a mo-tel. But with so many things changing in these unprecedented times, maybe COVID will have folks give motels another chance.
  • Bridge Music — Funkist – cdk dub mix by cdk (c) copyright 2007 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.  Ft: teru

Following Up

  • First, a big shout out to the folks in Hanoi, Vietnam listening to TravelCommons on Soundcloud. One of the fun things about the podcast is looking at where people are listening from. For the most part, the stats make sense — most of the listeners are from the US, and then English-speaking countries — the UK, Canada, Australia. But every once in a while, there’s a spike that I just can’t figure out. I’ll see it, go look at the episode notes to see if I’ve mentioned that country, but I usually can’t make sense of it. Last fall, it was Argentina., but over the past couple of months, it’s been folks from Hanoi, primarily listening to April episode, #162, about post-lockdown trip planning and keeping a travel journal. Not sure why, but if you’re in Hanoi and you’ve made it to this episode – Hi! And thanks for listening!
  • Dan Grabon sent me a note at the beginning of the month about my lockdown reading that I mentioned during last month’s interview with Dr Emily Thomas
    • “Mark,  I feel your pain. I started re-reading Walden back in April, and I just passed the halfway mark at the end of August. This was part of an overly ambitious effort to read one great book a month from a literary calendar that I bought. The Brothers Karamazov took up January through March, and even though COVID should have meant more time to read, it just hasn’t turned out that way.
    • “Writing this from a long overdue vacation near Lake George, where I saw the book Cabin Porn in a gift shop. Good timing.
    • “Thanks for keeping the podcast going— helps keep me going in this time of not going much of anywhere!”
  • Dan, Thanks for the note. The Brothers Karamazov — you are a better man than I.  I swore off of Russian fiction after suffering through Crime and Punishment in high school. That and Charles Dickens, just can’t do ‘em. And I am still working my way through Walden. Just got through his half-dozen pages on hoeing his bean field. I find if I try to read more than a dozen pages in a sitting, I just start skimming — or sleeping. Glad you were able to get away to the wilderness of Lake George. Feel like the perfect place to find that Cabin Porn book.
  • Jim McDonough hit the TravelCommons Facebook page, following up on my comment in last month’s episode about my disappearing American flight from ORD to BCN. Jim writes…
    • “We were going to Barcelona and Madrid with Rick Steves Europe in October, but of course Rick has canceled every tour for the rest of the year. Interestingly, AA says we are still booked on a BA 747 from SAN to LHR as part of this trip. BA has no more 747’s and doesn’t serve SAN any more.”
  • I sometimes think any of the airline’s schedules more than one month out are more like aspirational projections than reflections of reality. Especially given how fast they’re shifting schedules to capture any sort of bump in passenger volume. Like United having some transcontinental flights stop in DEN to pick up a bump in volume from people visiting national parks — there’s that outdoor activity trend again.
  • But back to that BCN trip, I should be getting things here in Chicago sorted before heading off for 2 weeks in Catalonia, but you’ve probably already guessed, that trip isn’t happening. Not a surprise. The EU still isn’t letting US travelers in and the case count in Spain’s second COVID wave has gotten worse in the last month. So at the beginning of the month, I gritted my teeth, called American and cancelled the flights. Actually, American had called me the prior week while we were in the UP, but I let it go to voicemail. We were in a taproom in Marquette and I didn’t feel ready to have that conversation. I wanted to have all our booking info in front of me and be clear minded (tough during a taproom session) and mentally girded for battle. So when I returned their call the next week, I was sitting in front of my laptop with all my itinerary documents up and was ready to go. It was a quick trip through the automated phone tree to a very nice woman in Dallas. No hassles with canceling. I was asking her about the logistics of the travel credit – how long will it be good for – when she said, “Since your flight was canceled and you were re-booked, you can get a refund if you like.” Wow. “Uh, yes,” I quickly said, not wanting her offer to disappear, “I think I’ll take the refund instead.” That was not what I expected from all the stories about American trying to keep as much cash as possible. It took her a couple of minutes to process the refunds during which we compared the weather between Chicago and Dallas. The refunds hit my credit card the following week, so full kudos to American on handling this. I’m hoping I don’t need to repeat in November for my Thanksgiving trip to London.
  • A couple of weeks back I was trading notes with TravelCommons contributor Allan Marko about United’s new SFO-Bangalore non-stop. It’ll be their longest flight at 17½ hours. My immediate reaction was, of course, “that’s a helluva long time to wear a mask.” United is using a 787-9 with a special engine enhancement that makes the flight possible. Which got me thinking about what planes I’d flown into BLR. I’ve been using TripIt since 2008 when it first broke out of the Silicon Valley venture cap bubble, so I logged in, clicked over to Past Trips and started clicking back through the pages — and clicking and clicking because the last time I was in Bangalore was April 2014. I kept looking around the screen – there’s gotta be a way to export all my trip data; but I couldn’t find anything. So I sent a note to support@tripit.com. And, to my huge surprise, Andy from the Tripit Help Center replied in 15 minutes saying “We currently do not offer customer driven travel data export capability. We have passed your suggestion on to the appropriate team for review.” Having run a software product team, I knew what that meant — never. But, in the next paragraph, Andy offered a solution — “You can check out a third party app Openflights. They have an API with TripIt that will allow you to import trips from your TripIt account to their site. From there you can create a list of all of your flights and download them to a csv file. Their basic account is free to use.” Sweet. I thanked Andy for his quick reply and hit Openflights. I set up an account, hit the “Import” button and connected to my TripIt account. The import was a touch kludgy — I had to go page by page, review each trip, and mark it to import. After 88 pages, I had imported 1006 flight segments, which they displayed on a world map. I clicked on BLR and a little card popped up. I clicked on the first option and it listed the 8 flights I’d taken to and from BLR. Turns out I’d mostly flown Airbus A320s, though I did once fly a 747-400 in from FRA. It has a couple of analysis buttons — like my longest flight — Joburg to IAD at 17:40 (ha! 10 minutes longer than the SFO-BLR flight); and my shortest — IAD again, but this time a 44-minute flight to CHO. And of course, I was able to download all my trips into Excel so I can noodle around to my heart’s content. Openflights is free, but I’m going to donate to help keep them going. Openflights.org — definitely recommended. I’ll put a link in the show notes.
  • 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 — Jolanta Blues by Doxent Zsigmond (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.  Ft: Admiral Bob, Martijn de Boer

6 Months of Pandemic

  • Finally giving into reality and canceling my Barcelona flight 6 months after booking it got me thinking back on these — you know what’s coming — unprecedented times. Airlines canceled flights to China at the end of January, then to South Korea, Iran, and Italy in February, until, by the beginning of March, airline traffic joined the stock market in a free fall. But back then, we thought it was a one-off event, kinda like Sept 11th; a sharp, scary event that came out of nowhere with no warning but that would soon pass. So taking advantage of one of the many March fare sales to book a flight at the end of September didn’t seem that risky.
  • I was talking to one of my consulting friends a couple of weeks ago. His travel schedule was similar to mine – a week without seeing an airport was a rare exception. He hasn’t been on a plane since March and doesn’t know when he’ll get on one next. He just started a project with a manufacturer in Cincinnati. Most of the project will be virtual, but he’s pretty sure he ought to at least put eyes on their plant. He lives outside Detroit. In the past, he’d be flying down every week. Now, he fires up Google Maps — it’s a 4½ drive down I-75. He’ll drive down once, stay a couple of days, and then head back home. 
  • I can’t say that anyone I’ve talked to misses the act of business travel — getting up at 0 dark 30 Monday morning to get to the airport, shuffle through the PreCheck line for 15-20 minutes, and then shoehorn into a full flight for an hour or 3.  But we did it because that was part of the job. But now that it’s not, at least for now and what seems like (for now) through the end of the year, everybody is taking full advantage of sleeping in — in their own beds.
  • Which explains why, of all the US airlines, Spirit Airlines, with its complete focus on low-cost leisure travelers, is the only one sounding even somewhat non-negative.  And hotel chains like Choice, focused on what they call “drive-to” locations and extended stay properties getting occupancy rates over 50% while center city hotels like Chicago’s Hilton Palmer House are missing rent payments and slouching towards bankruptcy.
  • Irene and I were sitting outside at a microbrewery a couple of days ago, enjoying a sunny afternoon full in the knowledge that we have maybe 4 weeks of outdoor eating and drinking left in Chicago. We talked about what kind of travel we would do over the next 12 months, figuring travel restrictions and periodic lockdowns are going to be the norm for at least that long. No big plans; nothing that COVID could blow up but seeing some new places — some skiing, maybe trying out Montana; some hiking, maybe checking out the Texas Hill Country. But next month, we’re trading Barcelona for Philadelphia; now that they’ve opened up the restaurants again, check out our old neighborhood and visit with some friends. It’ll be Irene’s first flight since February. It took a bit of talking, but I really think the threat of a total of 22 hrs in a car with me — alone — tipped her over. 
  • Bridge Music — Nube – Djiz Rmx by Kwame (c) copyright 2007 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.  Ft: SylviaO

Do We Keep Travel Credit Cards?

  • Last week, Delta used their SkyMiles program to back $6.5 billion in debt, running the same play that United and American did in June. What caught my eye was some of the stats that came out with the debt filing — that SkyMiles had about $6.1 billion in revenue in 2019, about two-thirds from American Express which issues a co-branded Delta card, and that total miles redeemed fell by 78% in the first half of this year. The big carriers are leaning on their loyalty programs for cash, their biggest customers are credit card issuers, but those card users – us – are generating points that we’ve stopped using. 
  • It’s against this background that I called up Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at LendingTree, and to ask him — do we want to keep travel credit cards?
    • Mark: Matt, a lot of folks carry at least one travel credit card and I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb guessing that damn close to every TravelCommons listeners carry them. We’re 6 months on from the COVID lockdowns and the resulting cratering of the travel industry. But with travel not recovering — airline demand is still just a third of pre-pandemic levels and United Airlines’ CEO said last week it could be 3-4 years before it’s back to 2019 levels — what are card holders doing with these cards generating frequent traveler points that they can’t or don’t want to use?
    • Matt: An awful lot of people are closing them simply because they may need to use those points that they had been planning to go on a trip to Paris or to Hawaii. But they need to use that money or those points to keep food on the table. Our survey that we just did found that about 30% of respondents with travel rewards card said that they had closed one and that number is even higher for Millennials. And that’s got to be something that that scares the banks to death. It’s not terribly surprising for all the reasons that you that you ticked off a minute ago, and I don’t think that’s going to slow down anytime soon either.
    • Mark: So, people are closing them out, so they’re not taking those annual fees.
    • Matt: Our survey found that about half of those who had been laid off or furloughed had cashed out some of their points or miles. And again, it stands to reason because when you’re trying to keep the lights on and keep food on the table, there are things more important than travel rewards. And I think that’s a lot of what this comes down to — if you are somebody who feels pretty stable in your job, has a decent emergency fund and generally feels kinda OK about things despite all of economic chaos, you’re probably going to try and hold on to those miles
    • Mark: Back in March and April, it seemed the strategy for the big travel card issuers — Chase, Citi, Amex — seemed to be to sacrifice revenue to hold share — statement credits for annual fees if you called them to cancel, new bonuses for stay-at-home purchases to keep wallet share — seemed like 5x bonuses for grocery and gas was the most popular. Made sense when everyone was talking about 2-week shutdowns and a V-shaped recovery. But, as we said before, travel is gonna stay depressed for a while — between state and country quarantines and many people not wanting to get in a plane — how are travel card companies going to handle the next round of renewals? When I call Chase and Amex again, do I get more statement credits — do they continue to fight for share? And if they don’t, what do I do with the balance of Ultimate or Membership Rewards points that I’ll lose if I don’t re-up and pay the fee?
    • Matt: I think what’s gonna happen is that issuers are going to continue to tinker around the edges to see what people like and what is impactful. And the truth is that issuers desperately want to keep the customers on cards like Chase Sapphire Reserve, Amex Platinum — all the high end and the next-step-down cards because those customers are so valuable from a lifetime value perspective. You may get a travel card when you’re 25 and the bank will do what they can to keep you around to try and upsell you to other products that they might have. The issuers are going to try and do what they can to figure out how to make you stay. And right now, that may not look like giving a ton of travel rewards points.
    • Mark: Any recommendations for travel card holders as we’re going forward to the end of the year and into the beginning of next year?
    • Matt: You really have to know your situation and understand it, and you also have to not feel guilty if you have to cash in your points that you had been saving up for that dream trip in order to help you extend your budget. Nobody gets a high-end travel card with a high annual fee hoping to eventually cash that in for groceries at Walmart, but sometimes these things have to happen. If you have the financial wherewithal and you can hold on to those points, I think it’s worth doing because we are going to travel again. Nobody knows when. But we are going to travel again and assuming that your whole financial situation is generally OK, I think there is value in holding on to those points as something to look forward to in the future.


  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #167
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