Back behind the microphone after a couple of months of setting up the new studios in Nashville. I’ve been dishing out travel advice to friends and family swept up in this summer’s travel chaos. I’ve distilled all those texts and messages down to my top 13 travel tips to help those traveling through the rest of the year. We also talk about the countries that have dropped all of the COVID testing requirements for inbound passengers, noodle about the rationale for JetBlue’s dogged pursuit of Spirit Airways, Delta’s new time limits for their Sky Club lounges, and why frequent flier award travel is suddenly a bargain again. 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 #188:
Since The Last Episode
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Back after a June/July hiatus to relocate the TravelCommons studio — and the rest of our worldly belongings — from Chicago to Nashville, Tennessee. So that’s been the most recent travel, the drive down I-65 and then digging into the different neighborhoods and brewery taprooms here. You know you haven’t been on the road when Lyft pushes you a coupon for just opening their app and Uber sends you emails like “You haven’t taken a ride with us in a while, so we’re checking in to ask for some feedback…. Let us know why we haven’t seen you in a while.” The right response was “I haven’t had a reason to use Uber” but I was really tempted to hit “Prices are too high” or “ETAs are too long”. I dunno, my next Uber ride will probably be one of the Lime e-scooters I’m seeing all over town here.
- Of course, if there was a time to drop off the road, this summer was it. With flight cancellations rising — the US July Fourth weekend a train wreck with 500 flights canceled on the Friday and then 600 on Saturday, accented by 4,000 delays. And then record-high gas prices and still screwed-up rental car fleets make for the chef’s kiss on top of it all, turning the fly-vs-drive trade-off into some witches brew of partial differential equations. At some point, you just throw the suitcase back in the closet and treat your Weber to a load of premium lump charcoal. As if the frequent traveler rule of “Avoid holiday weekend travel” needed another proof point.
- So while I wasn’t in that maelstrom — though I’m not sure unpacking a hundred or so moving boxes was all that much better — I have been an interested, maybe even involved observer with friends and family calling me, messaging me — “Hey, Mark! I have a question for a travel guru and thought of you first”– trying to help them navigate as best I could. And after I dished out the same advice more than a couple of times — indeed, often copy/pasting the same suggestion from one text stream to another — I decided maybe this would be a good time to pull it all together in a single place, maybe even a podcast with, better yet, some written show notes for easy reference. Stay tuned; it’s coming up in a couple of minutes…
- Bridge Music — Revolve mix by cinematrik (c) copyright 2005 Licensed under a Creative Commons Noncommercial Sampling Plus license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/hisboyelroy/430
- In June, while I was wrapping myself in bubble wrap and packing tape, the US, Canada, most European and Latin American countries dropped their inbound COVID testing requirements. I mean, it makes sense. These testing requirements were put in place to keep COVID at bay, and they failed miserably. At the beginning of last December, the US tightened its inbound testing requirement to try to keep out the then-new Omicron variant, but by the end of the month, it was rampant. And yet the US kept that 24-hour testing requirement for another 7 months — long after the rationale had been overrun by real life. But, give credit where credit is due, they did finally drop it. One less thing to cause back-ups at airports and border crossings, I guess. It’ll be interesting to see if the testing requirements start cropping up again if we get another autumn surge.
- The Spirit-Frontier-JetBlue Dance Macabre seems to have finally ended with JetBlue’s escalating share price offer trumping Frontier’s more obvious business case of merging two ultra-low cost (and ultra-low service) US carriers. JetBlue’s desperation just didn’t make sense to me — so yes, maybe they expand their Florida footprint — always important for an East Coast airline — but at what integration costs. I’ve always enjoyed flying JetBlue; it felt like they tried to add just a touch more to their service to differentiate themselves from, say, United or American. So now merge that with Spirit, which seems to be a kinder, gentler Ryanair, or maybe a Ryanair but without the chip on its shoulder? Where’s the sense in that? Then someone suggested that I had completely missed the plot. It’s not about Florida; it’s not about low-cost; it’s about the pilot shortage. JetBlue and Spirit both fly Airbus. JetBlue’s other growth option would be Alaska Airlines, which is a Boeing shop. It’s much easier to cross-train and leverage pilots across, say, an all-Airbus fleet than a mixed one. It’s the same reason Southwest and Ryanair are so rabidly focused on the Boeing 737, and Spirit and Frontier on the Airbus A320. OK, got it. But I’ll be a bit sad if this whole mess ends up “Spirit-izing” JetBlue.
- “We’re not a WeWork,” said the head of Delta’s Sky Club lounge system as they put new limits on lounge access. You can’t get in earlier than 3 hours before your departure time. So no more checking out of the hotel to post up in the Sky Lounge for free food, drinks, and WiFi until your afternoon flight. I gotta tell you that this wouldn’t be a big thing for me if I was a regular Delta flier. I’m always trying to figure out how to spend the least amount of time in the airport. Maybe a couple of times, I’d set up camp in the Admirals Club for a morning of calls before, say, a noon flight out. But I’d much prefer working my hotel status to get a later room check-out and then take my calls there, by myself, instead of hoping to find a club workstation that wasn’t next to some sales guy loudly regaling somebody about the deal he just closed. Now to me, though, the more interesting piece of this story is the other limit they wanted to put in but couldn’t — no lounge access after your flight had landed. Now that one would’ve left a mark. Lots of times, I’d wedge my flight into a 2, 3-hour calendar window between phone calls. And for me, it was those after-flight calls where the lounge was critical. I’m not surprised that Delta had to quickly back off of that rule. But they had to do something because, as the main floors of the terminals have become more of a zoo, and as the lounges have added more free stuff — better food, free drinks — they’ve become jammed. It’s tough to find a place to sit before the morning and evening flight banks, let alone a place to take a call. Amex is upping their price, starting this February to charge $50 to get your guest into a Centurion Lounge with you. Looks like Delta is pivoting the other way and trying rationing instead. It’ll be interesting to see which way American and United go.
- There’s been a good bit of commentary over the past few years about the devaluation of frequent flier miles, that they’re worth less than they used to be, that the old benchmark of 2¢/mile no longer holds because airlines are pushing up the number of points needed for a flight, in large part because of the increased supply of points sloshing around the system from when airlines sold huge tranches of points to credit card companies for cash. The comparison to the real economy — how expansion of monetary supply leads to inflation — is left as an exercise for the listener. But I noticed something as I was working on flights for an autumn trip back to Europe — a week in Croatia at the end of September and then a couple of weeks back in Italy. It seems that the cost increases in frequent flier miles haven’t kept up with their real dollar cost increases for flights, and the resulting gap had me busting through that 2¢/mile benchmark on every flight I booked. Maybe if I was more ambitious, I’d find an arbitrage opportunity somewhere in there, but for now, I’m just happy to get some decent deals with my United miles. Now if the euro-to-dollar parity exchange rate holds, it’ll be a real bargain trip.
- And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along to email@example.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 – Velvet Green of Mystery (Instrumental) by Doxent Zsigmond (c) copyright 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/doxent/48114 Ft: Kthugha, Jeris, Martijn de Boer
My Top Travel Tips for Avoiding Chaos
- As I mentioned at the top of the show, I’ve gotten pinged a bunch of times over the past couple of months by friends and family who, stuck in the midst of some travel challenge (not an uncommon event this summer), pinged me on Twitter, Facebook Messenger, iMessage asking “What do I do?” I thought this would die down come Labor Day with kids heading back to school ending the summer travel season. But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been seeing a steady stream of articles headlined “Travel Woes Won’t End This Summer,” saying an extended collision of staff shortages and “revenge travel” traffic will keep things gummed up until at least October, after which we’ll slam right into the Thanksgiving and Christmas travel rush. Lovely. So in the spirit of those “I’m a flight attendant and here’s what you should do ” articles that have popped up this summer, here’s my “I’m a 37-year road warrior; these are my tips for handling travel chaos” list.
- Most of this list are things you do before the day of travel — planning and preparation. That colonial era road warrior Ben Franklin said “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Not sure if he wrote that about his trips to England or France, but it still applies to travel. What you do the month or two before travel day is way more important that what you do that morning. So let’s get into it.
- First, figure out if you really need to fly. My normal fly-vs.-drive tipping point is 350 miles; anything less and I’ll drive it. But, all this travel chaos might change your calculus. If you fly, figure the airport logistics will add 3 hours to your in-flight time. Maybe the stories of baggage check and security lines have you thinking of arriving 2 hours before your flight. And when you arrive, the crowds mean it could take you another hour to de-plane, collect your luggage (if they haven’t lost it), and find your rental car or wait for an Uber. And that’s if there are no flight delays. Maybe the sum of all this starts to bump up your fly-vs.-drive breakeven point to something closer to 400 or 500 miles.
- If you’re flying, sign up for TSA PreCheck. It’s $85 for 5 years of hassle reduction or better yet, if your revenge travel is international, sign up for Global Entry for $15 more and get Pre-Check plus no line at US passport control. And a lot of travel credit cards will credit you the $100 as one of their benefits. Just do it; the difference between a 5-minute and 45-minute line at the start of your trip is huge.
- Fly Non-Stop — It’s obvious because it’s the cardinal rule of air travel. High passenger load factors combined with summer thunderstorms almost guarantees late arrivals and missed connections. And an intermediate stop adds one more point of failure, one more place your luggage could fall off the trolley, one more opportunity for the airlines to screw up. Pay the extra $100 for a non-stop flight.
- If you can’t fly non-stop, skip the tight connection; step away from anything less than an hour. Yes, we usually want to get to our destination in the shortest possible time, but accepting a connection of 1 hour or less…. Think about it – a 15-minute delay on your flight into a big hub like Chicago or Denver or Detroit (which is as good as on-time for most airlines nowadays) and you’re sprinting across terminals and concourses just to beat the closing door.
- No matter non-stop or connection, catch the earliest flight you can. Delays stack up as the day wears on. As your airplane goes from airport to airport, the probability of it getting stuck increases. Overnight, airlines have a chance to recover – late planes finally get their destinations and operations groups can reassign planes. So while the last flight out can be a crap shoot, I rarely hit a delay on the first flight out.
- So you’ve done a good job of planning, so the night before you leave…
- Pack so you can carry on your luggage. It’s summer, so no sweaters, no coats; you’re packing your thinnest clothes. I mean, some years back, I got everything I needed for a 10-day trip in March to Iceland and Southern Spain into a 22-inch carry-on. So unless you’re doing multiple formals, everyone in your travel party should be able to fit into a carry-on sized bag. You can save $25/bag and increase the probability of having clean clothes at your destination.
- And if you are doing multiple formals or for some other reason need to check your bags, spread everyone’s clothes across all the bags. It’s rare for an airline to lose all of your checked bags. This way, no one is having to show up at the first formal in an outfit from the nearest Walmart.
- While you’re packing, charge up your battery packs. We can’t travel easily anymore without a working mobile phone. It holds our boarding passes, 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 canceled 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.
- And then download your carrier’s app and an independent flight tracking app. Carriers have been pushing more and more functionality into their apps — boarding passes, one-day lounge passes, real-time gate change and flight delay notifications, canceled flight rebookings…. — so if you haven’t already, you’ll want to download that and log into it. But I also run a couple of independent apps as back-up, maybe to get a “second opinion” on delays. The free FlightAware app has been my go-to for years. Last spring, in episode #186, I talked about another flight tracker app, Flighty, that I tried out on our April trip to Santa Fe, NM. The Pro version is nice if you’re willing to pay $50/year, but not enough to get me to ditch FlightAware.
- And now we’re here, travel day. You’re all ready; your flight hasn’t been canceled or delayed… yet. Here are some “day of” tips if things start to get a little bumpy…
- Keep moving forward – if you hit a delay, always keep moving forward, in the direction of your destination; the closer you are, the more options you’ll have. Last month, my daughter Claire was flying from Denver to Manchester, NH, a tough itinerary, especially now with carriers pulling back from smaller airports. She found a route on American – Denver to Charlotte to Manchester, though it left much later than the rest of her team, so she had some hours to kill at DIA. And pretty soon, she started to get alerts from the American app — storms were forecasted in Charlotte, so if her plans were flexible…. Well, they weren’t completely flexible; she needed to get to New Hampshire that night. She pinged me – “They’re offering me a standby seat on an earlier flight to Charlotte. Should I take it?” she asked. “Absolutely!” I said. It gets you out of the Rockies and onto the East Coast. Still not drivable, but if your Manchester flight gets canceled, maybe you can get close — like to Boston or Portland, ME and then drive from there. This is another good reason to do carry-on; it’s tough to call a quick audible like this when someone else has your bag.
- And this leads me to my next travel day tip — know your geography. Claire and I joke about this. All that time she spent learning new and unique ways to do arithmetic (something about columns and diagonals; I could never figure it out), so she’d have a better feel for numbers. It crowded out those grade school geography and map lessons us Boomers took all those years ago. Came in handy when I was helping her think about what New England airports would be good alternatives to Manchester, to give her flexibility if her flight got canceled. In New York, the LaGuardia to Newark pivot is easy, as is the SFO to Oakland or San Jose redirect, but others aren’t so obvious. Everyone knows that Chicago has two airports – O’Hare and Midway. But what about Milwaukee’s Mitchell Field 80 miles north? If PHL is in trouble, how many folks think about Harrisburg or Allentown? I think about alternatives in two rings – within 60 miles – say, SNA and LGB for LAX; and then within 100-120 miles, which now picks up Palm Springs and San Diego for LAX.
- And when something goes sideways, don’t wait; hit every contact channel the airline has immediately — dial the customer service number while standing in line for the agent. Hit their airline’s Twitter account too; it can be a good side channel into customer service. You never know which one will open up first. Indeed, I often find I’ll get what I need from “at-ing” and DM’ing the airline on Twitter before the hold music stops playing on the 800 number. Bonus pro tip — have your confirmation number easily available. It makes it much easier for the agent to find your reservation and help you out.
- And one last thing, bring cash. Way back in episode #136, I talked about what seems to be a generational split, between residual Boomers like me and older Millennials, on the need to carry cash. No matter which side you sit on that split, it’s a fact that cash can get you out of a packed airport bar quicker than a card if you need to bolt for your flight — maybe a delay got pulled up, your gate got moved to the next terminal, or you just misread the boarding time. Being able to lay down, say a twenty and 3 ones, on the bar with your check is a whole lot quicker than waiting for the waitress to show back up, take your card, walk to the back to run it, and then bring it back again for you to sign.
- So there you go, all the things I’ve been texting folks this summer, and then some. I hope it helps you too. If you’ve got a tip, a tactic I missed, please send it along. We’ll add it to the list and talk about it on the next episode.
- Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #188
- I hope you enjoyed the show and I hope you decide to stay subscribed. Sorry for the June-July gap. It took me longer than I thought to pack and then unpack all our worldly belongings.
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