Podcast #184 — Figuring Out Stealth Travel Inflation

Gonna need to spend a lot more time here

In the travel world, what goes up — rules, fees, prices — often stays up. It’s the ratchet effect and it’s a theme running through this episode. Inflation is on everyone’s mind, and so we dig into travel inflation, comparing today’s prices with pre-pandemic levels. We also talk about US passport renewals ahead of the summer vacation season, and some good Cuban food in Louisville and a questionable food trend in London. 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 #184:

Since The Last Episode

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois. Sorry about getting this episode out late. I pushed it out a couple of weeks for a trip down to Louisville for a wedding; so I didn’t have to say “No travel since the last episode” again — tough to do a podcast that’s “more about the journey than the destination” if you’re not journey-ing. And also to give my voice some time to recover from something I picked up down there. I can write a great episode, but if all I can do is croak it out and no one can stand to listen, it feels a bit like a podcast version of “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound?” And, I have to be honest — my heart just couldn’t get into trying to be snarky and witty as the Russians launched their invasion of Ukraine. But here we are, a week or so into it and, with a heavy heart, need to move forward. 
  • So back to travel. I used to get a serious cold at least once a year when traveling non-stop; to the point that, every time I bought something at CVS, at least 4 ft of the usual 6 ft of coupons printed out with the receipt were for cough and cold medications. But after the March 2020 lockdowns, nothing; a nice side benefit of masks and social distancing. But now, maybe in a sign that things are creeping back to normal, I’ve got that old feeling again — a runny nose, a cough,… So back to CVS for the usual boxes of 12-hour Sudafed and maximum strength Mucinex. And there, at the check-out counter, is a stack of Abbott Binax COVID tests. I throw one of those into the basket because there’s a bit of symptom overlap between omicron and a cold. But 15 minutes after violating each of my nostrils in the CVS parking lot, no second line appeared on the test strip. No omicron; I’m just back to my usual cold. The next week I had a couple of in-person meetings and, since I had one more test in the Binax box, decided to ping those nostrils again, just to be safe. Bam! So that’s what a positive test looks like. The sample pink line showed up immediately, even before the second, higher control line did. The instructions may say to wait for 15 minutes, but I knew within 2. Not that much changed — other than canceling the in-person meeting. I just kept popping the Sudafed and the Mucinex.
  • We were lucky with the timing of our drive back home on I-65, threading the weather needle between two snow storms that shut down parts of the interstate north of Indiana. Even with reasonable weather, Waze and Google Maps pointed us toward the exit a couple of times to vector around accident slow downs. It’s kinda funny to see which cars and trucks are using Waze, because we’re all getting off at the same exit, and all making the same turns onto seemingly random county roads running through flat snow-covered farm land, pretty featureless save for a couple of farm houses and stands of gigantic wind mills.  But, there were no multi-hour back-ups that would’ve forced us to break out the bourbon bottles to stay warm which, this winter, marks this down as a successful drive home.
  • Bridge Music —   I Will Writhe by SackJo22 (c) copyright 2010 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/SackJo22/26739 Ft: Soundprank

Following Up

  • In the last episode, we talked about COVID test anxiety; not being able to start a vacation or come back home from one due to a positive test. With the omicron wave having crested, some countries — the UK, France, Ireland, but not Italy — are dropping inbound test requirements for travelers who are fully vaccinated, with the caveat that “fully vaccinated” for these countries includes a booster. I was pleasantly surprised by this. Usually, travel requirements ratchet up; new ones stick and old ones never expire. If you don’t have TSA PreCheck, you’ve been walking through security in your stocking feet for over 15 years now. Maybe because there’s a real cost that travelers can see — ranging over $100/person sometimes — as opposed to 5 minutes of inconvenience.
  • But as with dropping the initial travel bans, the US is the laggard. Drop in-bound test requirements? The US hasn’t even relaxed the 1-day testing window put in place at the beginning of December to try and keep omicron out of the US. We all knew within 2 weeks that didn’t work, but here we are 3 months later and there’s no movement back to the pre-omicron 72-hour testing window. It’s that ratchet again. In the last episode, I mentioned that, at the end of December, I’d written up a detailed blog post on how to order and use the Abbott BinaxNOW testing kit to easily hit the US’s 1-day testing window. Allan Marko, occasional TravelCommons contributor, clicked through to the eMed site to order a 6-pack so he could take a couple tests with him on his February getaway to the Yucatan as backup, in case the resort ran out of tests — those damn supply chain issues. As it turned out, the resort had ample tests — at $100 a pop, which is… a number. Allan used his Abbott tests — at $25 each — instead. Leaves a little extra cash for a good-bye margarita or two… or three.
  • And speaking of margaritas, you can get one again on Southwest Airlines. They  finally blinked, restarting their in-flight alcohol service, giving up their linkage with the in-flight mask mandate. No surprise, really. No one sees an end in site for in-flight masking. Indeed, European airline execs from Ryanair and TAP, the Portuguese airline, have said they expect masks to be one of the last things dropped and could be around for years. It’s that ratcheting thing again. Glad I kept hold of my old drink coupons. Southwest extended the life of 2020 and 2021 coupons ‘til the end of this year. 
  • In the last episode, I talked about sending my passport into the void that is the US Passport Agency for renewal. My passport didn’t expire until April, but since a lot of countries won’t let you if your passport has less than 6 months left on it, and with all the State Department’s warnings about extended processing times, I figured I should renew it sooner rather than later. The Passport Agency is quoting 8-11 weeks processing time and, here’s a little twist, they’ll only accept your application via US Postal Service. Now I don’t know about you, but the Chicago branches of the Postal Service haven’t exactly been covering themselves in glory over the past couple of months. So, I sent in my application Priority Mail and paid the Passport Agency extra so they’d send it back the same way. Priority Mail did the job getting my application there in a couple of days, and then I was able to track the progress on the Passport Agency’s website. The only glitch was the email update function, where they send you an email each time your application status changes, doesn’t seem to work. But anyhow, the Passport Agency processed my renewal and put my passport in a Priority Mail envelope right at 7 weeks. So good on them coming in under their time quote. But then the Postal Service couldn’t quite get it done. From the tracking history, my passport appears to have hung out a few days in a Chicago transit facility before finally making it into my mailbox. And it’s a bit different from, say, my wife’s passport that she renewed a few years ago. The page with the picture and all the personal information is no longer a kinda sealed paper page. Now, it’s a heavier, thicker piece of plastic, and some data like the passport number and the expiration date are raised. It seems a quantum step up in non-tampering/forgery-proof technology. Now I’m keeping my eye out for my old passport which they send back to me separately because it has my still-valid India visa in it. I don’t have any plans to visit India right now, which is a good thing since the Passport Agency is sending it back via regular post, which means it should get some time, maybe, this spring.
Yorkshire Pudding Wrap
  • And as I promised in the last episode, I finally finished updating my Best Restaurants, Bars, and Taprooms of 2021 post, adding sections for Chicago and London. One of the things that didn’t make the London section was Yorkshire pudding wraps and burritos. I saw these on menus all over the place, where they’d basically take a whole Sunday roast dinner — roast beef, vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy — and wrap it in a flatbread made out of the same ingredients as a Yorkshire pudding — eggs, flour, and milk. Honestly, it was like shame-watching a car crash. I knew I shouldn’t, but I ordered one anyways, and immediately hated myself for it. So any place with this on the menu; immediate disqualification from my list.
  • Also, I unfortunately had to delete a great little corner dumpling place in New York’s Chinatown that’s “reconcepted” itself since last May. Which was the reason I started that running list last year — the pandemic closings were happening faster than the guidebooks and blogs could keep up with. Indeed, I went back through the TravelCommons archives and was striking through at least half of my earlier recommendations. So anyhow, I gave the 2021 post a new date of Dec 31 so it would be easy to find; it’s showing up right now on the TravelCommons homepage and at the top of the Blog page. I’m also doing a better job of keeping a running list of my 2022 recommendations. In Louisville, we ate at a great Cuban restaurant, La Bodeguita De Mima, next door to the AC Hotel in the NuLu district. Apparently, there’s a huge Cuban immigrant community in Louisville, which I can tell you was not the case when my parents lived there in the early ‘80’s. And La Bodeguita De Mimi is just the latest of many Cuban places to open. Highly recommended, especially the Lechon Asado, the roast pork. I’ll post the first cut of my 2022 list in April, after our trips to Brooklyn next week and Santa Fe at the beginning of April
  • 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 — August (Reggae Rework) by el-B (c) copyright 2008 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/elB/16075 Ft: Calendargirl

Stealth Travel Inflation

  • For those of us of (and past) a certain age, the last 6 months of inflation news is flashing us back to the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, and there’s certainly no sense of wistful nostalgia coming from it. Maybe not abject terror, but it’s not a comfortable feeling. The US Travel Association unpicks the US Department of Labor’s consumer price index (CPI) report and publishes its own monthly travel price index (TPI). I started looking through their latest TPI which is for January 2022 and, among other things, it compares this current travel price index to January 2021 and to pre-pandemic January 2019, before any travel restrictions were in place. Tough to remember, but back then, everybody was traveling. And while all the current inflation headlines prepped me for the current travel price index being 14.5% over last year’s, I was surprised when I saw that current prices are 11.6% higher than January 2019. I guess I anchored a bit too much on those rock-bottom airfares and hotel rates and gas prices in the Spring and Summer of 2020 when no one was traveling. But digging through the detailed line items, it turns out I’m not entirely wrong — the Airline Fares component of the TPI is still 15% below 2019’s and hotels are only up 6.5% three years on. I couldn’t figure out which line has car rental prices, but it’s no secret that those blew up — when you could actually find a car. The biggest jumps over 2019 that show up are Food & Beverage, up 13%, and Motor Fuel, no surprise there, up 44%. 
  • But here’s where we get into the stealth components. Let’s start with hotels. There are cuts in service, getting less for the same price, what’s now being called shrinkflation, that I don’t think is reflected in that 6.5% inflation number. The most common of these are pandemic service cuts that have never gone away. In 2020, when we were still figuring out how COVID spread, how long the surfaces could stay infectious (remember people leaving their groceries outside for 3 days?), it made sense to stop daily room housekeeping. The first post-lockdown trip I made, I stayed in a Hampton Inn and never saw anyone. The Hilton app let me remotely check-in and gave me a digital key, no one serviced the room during my stay, and no free breakfast. And I was fine with that; it made perfect sense given how much we didn’t know in May 2020. 
  • But now, almost 2 years and 3 vaccination shots later, the AC Hotel in Louisville has a sign taped to the desk in our room saying housekeeping was limited to every 3rd day because of COVID. No, it’s not because of COVID anymore; it’s to improve margins. Comparing this to our stays in similarly-priced hotels in Italy and the UK last fall where service was pretty much back to pre-pandemic standards (the main exception was you couldn’t serve yourself from the breakfast buffet; you pointed at something and a server put it on your plate), it’s that ratchet again; the US chains are working hard to keep those early pandemic service standards. Though with Hilton, there seems to be some play in that ratchet. Rather than a hard “we’re only servicing your room every 3 days”, it’s a softer “our housekeeping is now on request.” So, I guess I could request it every day. For me, it’s not about fresh towels; it’s about getting those little garbage cans emptied. They don’t hold too many empty 16-oz craft beer cans.
  • On first look, you’d think that restaurants are doing a bit of their own shrinkflation by continuing their contactless service tactics — using QR codes for menus and having people order and pay through apps like Toast instead of waiters. Now maybe it’s me, but I don’t see it as reducing service. Instead, I see it as improving productivity through automation. But the stealth inflation that I’ve noticed is the COVID add-on fees that started showing up in post-lockdown 2020 — 2-3% for extra cleaning or personal protective equipment — are sticking around. I’m not arguing that they are not real expenses, but so are, say, janitorial service and property taxes but they’re not showing up as additional fees. Roll it into the price of your burger like you do with every other business cost.  
  • It’s kinda like they’re trying to run the same play the airlines did back in 2008 with baggage fees. American Airlines was the first of the big carriers to do it, charging $15 a bag, saying they needed it to cover the high cost of jet fuel when oil hit $145 a barrel that summer. But 3-4 months later, when oil prices were half that, the baggage fee stayed and even increased; American doubled it. Again, it’s that ratchet; the excuse goes away, but the fee doesn’t. Which means it’s really just a price increase; it’s just more inflation.


  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #184
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