Podcast #169 — Pandemic Holiday Gift Guide; Year-End Status Offers

Locking Down The Christmas Tree

No travel since the last episode, so I had some time to think back through my post-lockdown travel and come up with my top 10 gift ideas for your pandemic travelers. We look at the start of the year-end efforts by airlines, hotels, and credit card companies to keep their grounded travelers, unpack the work-from-hotel offerings from Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt, and dissect the latest hotel reservation system data breach. All this and more – click here to download the podcast file, go over to the Subscribe section on the right to subscribe on your favorite site, or listen right here by clicking on the arrow below.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #169:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois. No travel, but a November week with temps in the 70’s felt like I was someplace other than Chicago. But the weather reverted to the mean yesterday, which chased me back indoors to finish this podcast.
  • Last week was a boon to Chicago’s bars and restaurants. The week before, the governor banned indoor service again as COVID cases began to rise. The bonus week of warm sunny weather gifted them with some needed outdoor dining revenue. Last Friday, a friend and I met for lunch at a neighborhood place that had been able to expand their outdoor seating by putting tables on the sidewalk in front of the shuttered retailer next door to them. We showed up at 11:30; the tables were full by 12.
  • One of the things we talked about was travel; how, over the past 8 months, we’d more or less adjusted to all of the COVID restrictions, the masks, the social distance, all of it — except for travel. Yes, we’ve done the car trips and long weekends, but we miss the big trips — I’d just cancelled our Thanksgiving trip to London and he’s trying to think through their annual Christmas trip to December. Now, I know this is definitely a “First World problem” for folks who’ve had families, friends, and even themselves hit with COVID, so I’m not trying to overplay this. But as the end of the year approaches, and I start hearing more public health experts reset expectation — for the worse, saying “Well, it’s probably more like the end of 2021 or maybe into the beginning of 2022 before things start feeling normal” — I dunno, for people who love travel, I don’t think they want to put it on hold for another year or two. You start hearing about people looking for openings — Mexico, Costa Rica — as they figure out their own personal risk profiles. Maybe United Airlines’ testing program that they’re trialing on flights to Hawaii and London is part of the answer; certainly Pfizer’s release of preliminary vaccine results on Monday got everybody hopeful again. I don’t think anyone expects — or really wants — an immediate snap-back to 2019. But the ability to stretch things a bit more would be greatly appreciated.
  • Bridge Music — Static by Darkroom (c) copyright 2010 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/mactonite/29469

Following Up

  • First, a quick program note. As I tweak things with the underlying TravelCommons infrastructure — the audio file, the RSS feed, the website — I’ll talk about the changes at the end of the podcast, so I don’t muck up the content that you come to listen to with the “inside baseball” sorta podcast stuff. If you’re not interested, you can skip to the end without missing anything. I will say, though, that I was pleasantly surprised when I looked at the Apple Podcast stats showing about 80% of you stay through the end of an episode. I’d fully expected to see at least 50% of folks hitting the “skip to next podcast” button when they heard the “Pictures of You” song clip. Thanks to everybody for sticking all the way through.
  • And congrats to Emily Thomas, our guest on the August episode, for winning the Leverhulme prize last month. The prize recognizes the achievement of outstanding researchers across a broad range of disciplines whose work has already attracted international recognition and whose future career is exceptionally promising. I interviewed Emily about her book The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad and had a great time talking to her. A well-deserved award. I just may go back and listen to that interview again.
  • I got an email from Marriott last week announcing their work-from-hotel offerings. We’ve talked about this trend in the past couple of episodes — first as a way for downtown hotels to do something/anything about their low occupancy rates, and then in the last episode with the FBI’s cyber security advisory to people moving from work-at-home to work-at-hotels. The Day Pass gives you a room from 6am to 6pm, wi-fi, bottled water, and lounge access if you’re a high-status Marriott Bonvoy member. They’re piloting it in Atlanta, Dallas, New York, and Phoenix. Scanning the pricing, the range looked to be in the $60-$90 range, though the Phoenician in Scottsdale did price out at $260. If you looked hard, you could probably get a day pass at a co-working place for cheaper, but if you can expense it, the Marriott offer is probably not a bad deal — especially for those days that you have a big sales presentation or maybe a webinar, where you need that guaranteed alone time to focus on preparation and then delivery, and a video backdrop that’s not your closet door or a semi-made bed or random people walking past. Hilton and Hyatt are also offering work-from hotel plans, but with different spins. Hilton’s WorkSpaces will give you 10,000 Honors points for your first booking and, unlike Marriott, is across all of their properties, but it doesn’t feel as put together as Marriott’s. You have to ring up the property directly; looks like Hilton can’t figure out a way to shoehorn this day rate concept into their reservation system. Work from Hyatt, on the other hand, isn’t so much a WeWork replacement as a digital nomad trial package with its 7-night minimum stay requirement and a focus on resort locations like the Grand Hyatts in Kauai or Vail, CO. Kinda the complete opposite of spending 12 hours in a room at the Marriott by DFW. They all feel a bit “toe in the water”, a bit opportunistic in their own way. 
  • At the beginning of this week, Candid Wueest, a cyber security researcher who joined us last year in episode #151 to talk about hotel websites that leaked traveler data, tweeted out a link to yet another hotel data breach. This time it was channel management software, something that hotels use to automate the task of updating room availability and rates across all the on-line booking sites like Expedia and Booking.com and Hotels.com and on and on. Turns out this channel manager, Prestige Software, stored 24 GB of names and emails and credit card data and reservation records — 10 million log files going back to 2013 — in a misconfigured AWS S3 bucket — storage space on Amazon’s cloud. The pandemic has massively accelerated companies moving from their own data centers to cloud services like Amazon and Microsoft. But sometimes it feels like the speed of that migration has overrun the skills of the teams supporting it.  What can you do about it? In this case, not much. You would’ve booked your room on Expedia or Trivago and not known anything about something called a channel manager piping your data down to the hotel. We’ve talked about these breaches in so many past episodes. What I said then still stands: you need to be realistic — it’s not if your personal data will get breached, it’s when. If you can, put your on-line purchases on a separate card and watch those transactions on the bank’s website or mobile app so you can quickly shut it down if you see something that doesn’t look right. I remember one time, years ago, seeing a Northwest Air flight from Tokyo to Beijing show up on my card. Struck me as odd because I was in Chicago with no plans to be in Asia. Immediately called the bank, disputed the charge, and they closed down the card. Interesting thing is that the crook had booked an economy class ticket. You’d think if you’re going to risk it, go big — book the front of the plane — business class if not first. 
  • The quarantine theater we talked about in the last episode just keeps keeping on. Chicago now has 43 states on its list, 31 of which have lower COVID rates than Chicago. And, I guess in admission that no one’s paying attention, they’re moving from weekly updates to every other week. I guess ‘cause there’s not that many more states they can add. New York gave up on its quarantine list when COVID rates in neighboring Connecticut and New Jersey qualified them for the list. “There will be no quarantine list, there will be no metrics,” Governor Cuomo says. Everyone needs to test negative, except for people coming in from Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania because, at some point, you just gotta be realistic. Especially in the face of this, what is it, a third wave? I’ve lost count.
  • And just to show how deeply all of this — the quarantine, the lack of travel has gotten me, here’s a fun game I now play with my Google Mini. I dug around in the Google Home app and found where I can change the voice. I’ll switch to the British Racing Green voice to check the weather in London and then click over on Sydney Harbour Blue to check the weather there. Then I flip back to the default voice to get the weather at the Googleplex. And, of course, I ask it to play TravelCommons.
  • And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along — text or audio 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 — Another Way by Psykick (c) copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/Psykick/52938

Holiday Gift Guide for the Pandemic Traveler

  • Like I mentioned at the top of the show, hearing public health officials saying things like “it will be easily by the end of 2021 and perhaps into the next year before we start having some semblance of normality” got my attention; got me thinking that this year’s travel gift guide needs to be a bit different. So I flipped through my 2020 travel journal, thought back through all of my post-lockdown travel to come up with my top shopping ideas for your pandemic travelers.
  • Check out this year’s pandemic gift guide on the front page of the TravelCommons’ website or here at http://travelcommons.com/2020/11/04/10-best-travel-gift-ideas-for-these-unprecedented-times/
  • Bridge Music — Slinky Blues by Admiral Bob (c) copyright 2010 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/admiralbob77/28792 Ft: unreal_dm

End of Year “Don’t Leave Me” Offers

  • Back in September, in episode #167, we talked with Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at LendingTree, about travel credit cards. Matt told us that their late summer surveys showed trends toward people canceling travel cards and cashing out points. But then earlier this week, American Express’ CFO said that their card customers weren’t cashing out points, and instead stocking them up to travel.  The two comments aren’t necessarily at odds. If you’re laid off, you can use those miles to buy groceries or clothes via gift cards or on Amazon. But if you don’t have to, the best value you’ll get for those points will be on travel. You’ll get less than a penny a point when cashing out Amex points on Amazon, but you can double that when you use them to book flights on, say, Singapore Air or KLM.  So the hoarding makes sense — if you can.
  • One of Matt’s points in our interview was that card companies will continue to tweak their rewards to keep people holding and using their cards because travelers are a valuable customer segment because, well, they typically spend chunks of money to travel. So as we come up on the end of the year, it’ll be interesting to see what those tweaks will be. Chase keeps extending the 5x grocery and gas bonus on their Southwest card while Amex just announced a 10x grocery and gas bonus as well as a 75K sign-up bonus for their Platinum card.
  • Airlines and hotels are also rolling out their year-end offers. Back in the spring, all the majors gave existing status holders a push, extending elite expiration dates to Jan 2022 to keep them in the fold. So that settled everyone down for 2020. But now, with 2021 coming up and travel still in the hole, we’re starting to see new offers. American opened the bidding last month, knocking 20% off of 2021 status qualifying mileage clip levels (e.g., 40,000 instead of 50,000 to qualify for AAdvantage Platinum) and trying to get whatever they can for this year by counting October (last month), November, and December flights  towards earning status in 2021, which is then good through Jan 2023. This afternoon, I got an email from United announcing their deal. United’s status qualification methodology has gotten ridiculously complex over the past couple of years, but by at least one of their metrics, it looks like they’re dropping their status qualifying point (PQP — don’t ask) clip levels by at least 30% and offering double points for flights taken in Q1 — January, February, March — next year. Hilton, though, made the simplest and deepest offer — knocking 50% off of all status qualifying measures — stays, nights, points — boom, mike drop.
  • It makes sense. Most statused travelers are business travelers and depending on which CEO is talking, business travel is down 85% (Delta), 90% (Southwest), and will be 3-4 years before it’s back to pre-pandemic levels (United). And those business travelers are the airlines’ and hotels’ most profitable customers. So expect to see Delta and Southwest and Marriott announcements soon, and maybe again this time next year if that “Well, it’s probably more like the end of 2021 or maybe into the beginning of 2022 before things start feeling normal” forecast turns out to be true.

Closing

  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #169
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • As I mentioned at the end of the last episode, I restructured the RSS feed a bit so that I shouldn’t accidently trigger any more episode re-downloads. And I moved the episode number from the title to its own XML tag just to clean up how everything looks in your podcast app. Also, a few months ago, I tweaked the production workflow to add chapter markers in each episode. So, if your app supports them (Apple Podcasts and Overcast do), you can skip forward to the next section or, if you wanted to go back and listen to, say, the interview with Emily Thomas, you can go straight to it.
  • Find TravelCommons on Stitcher, SoundCloud, TuneIniTunes, Spotify, and Amazon Music, as well as asking Alexa and Google to play TravelCommons on your smart speakers. The links, along with the RSS feeds, are on the right-hand side of the TravelCommons website, under the heading Subscribe.
  • Right below that, in the Social Media section, are links to the TravelCommons Facebook page, and Twitter and Instagram feeds.
  • If you’re already subscribed, how ‘bout leaving us a review on one of the sites.
  • If you have a story, thought, comment, gripe – the voice of the traveler — send ‘em along, text or audio file, to comments@travelcommons.com or to @mpeacock on Twitter, or post them on the TravelCommons’ Facebook pageInstagram account,  or website at travelcommons.com. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to send in e-mails, Tweets and post comments on the website
  • Follow me on Twitter
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  • Direct link to the show

Leave a comment

3 Comments.

  1. I often change the Siri voice for a bit of variety. Currently “Australian Female” is providing my CarPlay directions. you can also ask Siri to “Play TravelCommons”…

  2. w00t! I see that now digging thru Settings|Siri & Search|Siri Voice on my iPhone. I’m torn between the Irish and South African voice.

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