Podcast #181 — Travel Potpourri; 2021 Traveler’s Gift Guide

Jumble of Travel Signs

Post-Pandemic Travel Guidance

No travel since the last episode, so just talking through a random potpourri of travel stuff. There’s more travel planning; this time for a couple of weeks split between London and Wales which means sorting through a new set of COVID travel requirements. We look at some stats — Uber’s latest financials and how deeply last year’s lockdown hit Nashville airport vendors. I marvel at how much European mobile data rates have fallen, strip down my English to have a deeper chat with an Italian bartender, and wrap it all up with highlights from this year’s traveler’s gift guide. All this and more – click here to download the podcast file, go up to the Subscribe section in the top menu bar to subscribe on your favorite site, or listen right here by clicking on the arrow on the player.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #181:

Since The Last Episode

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois, only 2 weeks after the last episode. Decided to kinda short-cycle this episode, see if I can get in an actual November episode rather than wait for December like I said at the end of the last episode. And to think that I used to do these weekly when I started out in 2005. Oh, the enthusiasm of youth — and notebooks full of unused travel stories. I was going through some of those old episodes while doing a bit of website maintenance. The TSA gave me a lot of fodder for content back in the day. It was only 3½ years old when TravelCommons started, so I got to comment on (bitch about) all their growing pains — the start of the shoe carnival, the liquid ban, all the different tries at screening technology (who could forget those “puffer” machines?) and, of course, their stellar customer service. But once I started going through PreCheck in 2012, there wasn’t much more to comment/bitch about — which I know is a good thing overall, but it did leave me with a big content hole, kinda like in those TV series where the villain becomes one of the good guys in season 3 — what do you do next?
  • And 16 years on, as I slouch towards semi-retirement, my travel experiences are changing. I’m thinking less about clever new ways to navigate ORD’s Monday morning road warrior rush hour or about totaling up delays on a 4- or 5-city cross-country itinerary, and thinking more about planning for longer leisure(?)/experiential(?) travel. Though I guess that’s not a complete change.  
  • Going through those old episodes reminded me that, even back at the start, I was talking about leisure travel — to the point that episodes #8 and #9 were done while on vacation! I can only imagine what my family was thinking when they heard me nattering away in the bathroom of the Geneva, Switz Novatel and the Budapest Marriott.
  • But back to the present… Obviously, no travel since the last episode, just travel planning for our trip to the UK next week — a week in London and then heading out to southern Wales for a week of walking, hiking, pretty much just being cold and wet because I didn’t get enough of that while biking in Puglia. 
  • A big chunk of my time has been spent trying to figure out exactly what COVID paperwork we need to get into the UK. Since we’re vaccinated and coming from a non-red list country, we don’t need to show a negative COVID test before getting on the plane, but instead we have to get a test done in the UK and have to pre-pay for it so we can also fill out a passenger locator form 48 hours before departure. The UK government’s website is actually pretty good, with links to approved test providers. But most of them want to ship the test to a UK address, which is good if you’re returning home to the UK; less good if you’re staying in a hotel or Airbnb. So now I’m trying to figure out — do I risk a long line at a Heathrow test center when we land or do I find a place somewhere in London the next day? Kinda makes me long for the days when all I had to worry about was finding a bank before 3pm on Friday to cash an American Express Travelers Check so I had cash for the weekend…. Nah, who am I kidding? That was so much more of a pain than this. Worst case, I figure out how to eat a full-cooked English breakfast standing up while in line.
  • Bridge Music — Countryside Summer Joyride by Kara Square (c) copyright 2017 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/mindmapthat/56281 Ft: Javolenus

Following Up

  • This time last year, in the November 2020 episode, we talked about all the end-of-the-year “don’t leave me” offers from the airlines and hotels, 20-50% cuts in whatever metric they used to award status —  stays, nights, miles, stays, segments, spend. And at the end of that bit, I said “Maybe they’ll be doing it 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.” A year later, and after the Delta variant knocked down everyone’s Q3 revenues, I haven’t received any airline status sales yet, but I’ve already received status extensions from Marriott, Hilton, and, weirdly enough, IHG — weird ‘cause I don’t have any status with them… that I know of, maybe I need to check. They’re all extending status for another year, to February or March 2023. So everyone’s kept their 2019 status for 3 years now — 2020, 2021, and now 2022. And why not? Since a lot of the cost is concierge lounges that have been closed and free breakfasts that are now boxes with a yogurt and an orange, it’s probably the cheapest way to buy continued customer loyalty.
  • We’ve talked a lot in this podcast about Uber and Lyft. Back in episode #154 in August 2019, I asked “Will We Still Love Uber and Lyft When The Prices Go Up?” after both CEOs talked about getting to “rational pricing” — “rational” being CEO-speak for “higher”. And then this year, talking about their post-pandemic driver shortages, customer service issues, and rising prices — a pretty common topic. The Times of London asks “Is Uber Dead?” and the Chicago Tribune says in an editorial “We were wrong to abandon Chicago’s taxicabs for ride-shares and the city now needs to find a fix” which is a bit of a laugh because 4-5 years ago, everyone here complained that you couldn’t get a cab other than downtown or the airports, and definitely never in the poorer neighborhoods of the South and West sides.  If you read the highlights of Uber’s Q3 financial results released last week, they’re not quite dead. They trumpet that Q3 was their “first Adjusted EBITDA profitable quarter as a public company” Adjusted EBITDA – a fun accounting construct meaning “earnings before taxes, depreciation, and all the other bad stuff” and that the number of active drivers is up more than 65% since January. But what was interesting to me — their delivery business, like Uber Eats, now generates more revenue than their traditional ride business. And maybe competing for drivers? Does make some sense. As the Times’ writer put it, “Food doesn’t complain about the route and parcels tend not to throw up on the back seat.”
  • Back in episode #170 last December, we talked about how the CEO of Qantas had stirred up a good bit of controversy saying “We will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft” and the resulting land grab in vaccine passport apps. United and Lufthansa were testing out the CommonPass app, Delta and Alitalia (may they rest in peace) the AOKPass from the International Chamber of Commerce, and British Airways and Iberia the Travel Pass from an airline industry group. I said back then that it was a little messy, but it made sense since I didn’t think the handwritten card the CDC was handing out was going to pass muster at a boarding gate. Now, less than a year later, the Qantas CEO’s quote is pretty much standard operating procedure for international travel.  But vaccine passport apps? It’s a bit more mixed. Last month I flew Air France, United, Lufthansa, and ITA, the successor to Alitalia, and was never prompted to download any apps. Instead, I pulled out my trusty CDC card many times to prove my vaccination status, and for my flight home, opened Gmail on my iPhone a couple of times to show the PDF of my negative COVID test.  Pretty low tech, but honestly, at least in Italy, it worked faster than the EU’s Green Pass QR codes. We’d show our CDC cards and after a second or two be waved through while the Europeans were still trying to right-size the QR code on their phone screens so the scanner would register it. Upgrading to iOS 15.1 on my iPhone let me add a digital vaccination card to my Apple Wallet, but I don’t know where I’ll actually use it.
  • And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along to comments@travelcommons.com — you can send a Twitter message to @mpeacock, post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page or the Instagram account at travelcommons — or you can post comments on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music — Jester of the Golden Apocalypse by Super_Sigil (c) copyright 2011 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/Super_Sigil/34750

Travel Potpourri for $600

  • Regular listeners know that, every now and again, usually when I’m scraping for content, I gather up the odds-‘n’-ends from my travel notebooks that I can’t get “grow up” into a stand-alone topic and just string ‘em together into a Jeopardy-like topic “Travel Potpourri”. 
  • I recently read some stats about how the March 2020 lockdown impacted Nashville’s airport — daily passenger count went from 50,000 to 500, and only 8 airport concessions out of a pre-COVID count of 52 survived. And now, 20 months later, passenger counts are pretty much back to pre-pandemic levels, but the concession count isn’t. They’re only back to 34 — 18 food places and 16 shops, newsstands and other things. It takes more time to start things up than to shut them down — especially when you have to get all your workers and supplies through TSA security every day. I’ll keep this in mind the next time I want to complain about a 10-deep line for a cup of coffee.
  • Traveling to Europe again means re-bookmarking the Prepaid Data SIM Card Wiki so I can research mobile data plans again. For 4 years, I didn’t have to worry about it. The EU had outlawed roaming charges and so I’d just use the UK SIM I bought the first time we took our daughter over to Scotland for college. That worked well until Brexit day last year. So on our first day in Bari, I searched out the nearest TIM store — stands for Telecom Italia Mobile, I think. I wanted one of Italy’s big networks because our cycling tour would be taking us into the countryside, and so was OK paying a bit more for better coverage.  The last time I bought a mobile SIM in Italy was 5 years in Pisa and it was a huge hassle. But in Bari, we walked into the store, and the clerk was great. She kinda figured we were looking for SIMs, knew about the international plan I’d found on their website, and got the whole thing done in maybe 15 minutes. The price — €25 ($30) for 70 GB of data, which, for all practical purposes translates to unlimited data — meant the break-even point vs. paying AT&T $10/day for international roaming was 3 days. Since we were in Italy for 16 days, it was a well-spent 15 minutes. I was amazed at how far mobile data prices have fallen. The last time I was in Europe, the fall of 2019, I put £10 on my EE SIM (about $12 back then) and got 3 GB. I just topped up that SIM again for our UK trip and got 15 GB for £15 — 500% increase in data for 50% more money. That should hold us for 2 weeks. 
  • In many past episodes, I’ve talked about how my search for local craft beer has taken me to places outside the typical travel bubble. And, for me, this is even more important since I’m doing less (no?) business travel. Because the nature of business travel — traveling to work with clients who live there — makes it easier to connect with that place, even if it’s just through hallway conversations like “What’d you do over the weekend”, but most times, it’s them saying “Oh, you gotta go to my favorite place while you’re here.” Our Puglia bike tour ended in Lecce in lousy weather. The rain had started the night before and continued dumping the next morning. We skipped the last ride. You could say we were lightweights, but we didn’t want to have to figure out how to pack soaking wet biking clothes. I wanted to walk around Lecce a bit before our dinner reservation, but Irene was cold from the wind and rain. So she headed back to the hotel while I searched out a beer bar I’d found on Untappd.
  • The place was pretty empty when I walked in; 7pm, it was early by Italian standards. The draft handles were all from a local Lecce brewery, so I asked the bartender, a young guy, his favorite, and he pointed to the IPA tap — of course, but it was a pretty solid session IPA. He offered me a table, but I asked him if I could just stand and drink at the counter. We started to chat a bit (“Why have you come… to Lecce?”) His English wasn’t great (though orders-of magnitude better than my Italian, which is sorta damning with faint praise) so I started stripping down my English — no slang, no contractions, clean articulation, simple declarative sentences. But in maybe a verbal corollary to the Mark Twain-ism “I would have written a shorter letter if I had the time…”, I find it takes a lot of thinking, a lot of mental work to do this, to strip my English down to something easily understandable. And the bartender appreciated it. “English people talk so fast,” he said. “I have a hard time understanding everything they say.” And by making my English more understandable, he gained confidence in his, and pushed it into more interesting topics like the split between Northern and Southern Italy (“They hate us!”) and even within Puglia (“We hate Bari and Bari hates us!”).  And why he wants to work on his English (“It’s so much more useful than Italian. A German person, a Swedish person comes into the bar; we all talk English)”. He was happy to get to practice his English. I was happy to oblige, and get a little peek at non-tourist Puglia without knowing any Italian.
  • Bridge Music — South Texas Cowboy Blues by texasradiofish (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/texasradiofish/52030 Ft: unreal_dm, ElRon XChile

 2021 Traveler’s Gift Guide

  • Last week, I posted this year’s traveler’s gift guide. You can find it on the front page of the TravelCommons’ website; I’ll also put a link in the episode description so you can click to it straight from your podcast app. If last year’s gift guide was about helping people travel handle last-minute lockdowns with suggestions like bring-your-own dining sets and upscale in-room coffee brewing kits, this year’s guide is stacked with the gift ideas to help cope with all the predicted airline meltdowns when holiday passenger traffic smacks straight into crew and ground staff shortages. 
  • I’m not going to run through the whole list — you can hit the website for that — but I’ll hit a couple of highlights. Top of this year’s list is battery packs. We talked in the last episode that we just can’t easily travel anymore without a working mobile phone. It holds our boarding passes and our proof of COVID vaccination, gives us gate change and flight delay notifications, and routes us around traffic jams. A dead phone while flights are being cancelled is more than just a bit of an inconvenience; having that second or third charge immediately available is critical when trying to swerve a long delay. There are a lot of choices; just pick one. I carry Zendure and Anker power banks; they’ve served me well. (And thanks to Jim McDonough for QA’ing the power bank links in the original blog post!)
  • Number 2 and a perennial favorite – Noise Canceling Headphone or Ear Buds. Whether you’re sitting in a noisy airport waiting out a delay or are up in the air, it’s great being able to cut out all the background noise and find your Zen place with the flick of a switch. I’ve been carrying Bose headphones for at least 15 years and am now on my 3rd pair, the Bose 700’s. They’re not compact yet they continue to earn their space in my travel bag. I find over-the-ear cans more comfortable, but if you can handle in-the-ear buds for extended periods, Bose does ear buds, or for Apple ecosystem diehards, my kids recommend the AirPod Pros.
  • Another suggestion for Apple ecosystem inhabitants is Apple’s AirTag. They have a lot more range than straight Bluetooth trackers like Tile because AirTags can ping off of any nearby Apple device, not just yours, to report its location. Putting an AirTag in your checked luggage can you see if your bag is joining you on the new flight the airline just rebooked you on, or you can hang one from your backpack to track it if it somehow wanders off down the concourse while your eyes are trying to find your delayed flight on the airport’s departure board.
  • Back in the July episode, episode #177, I said my USB-C to HDMI cable was the most important piece of travel kit on my trip through the Northeast because, it let me mirror my MacBook Air on the hotel and beach house TVs so I could sit back with a beer and comfortably watch YouTube highlights of the Euro 2020 soccer tournament and the Tour de France on 40-60” flat screens instead of hunching over a 13” laptop screen.
  • And at number 9, a smartphone tripod. My Square Jellyfish phone tripod is light and doesn’t take up much space, but came in very handy while doing my COVID test video session in Italy the morning before my flight home. The eMed test proctor wanted to watch me swirl the cotton swab in my nose and then insert it into the test kit. I’m not sure how I would’ve done that while holding my phone. I use it a lot more than I thought I would for video calls and to watch quick videos on my phone.
  • So there you go, something to fit all sizes and budgets in time for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, or if you’re just killing time waiting for your Thanksgiving flight to leave.

Closing

  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #181
  • I hope you all enjoyed the show and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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