Podcast #189 — Why We Travel; When The First Flight Isn’t Best

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There Are Rules About Why We Travel

Lots of different voices in this episode. Listeners adding to our list of travel tips, and conversations with Dr. Sheldon Jacobson about why one of those tips — always catch the first flight out — isn’t always right, and Patricia Schultz about her new book, Why We Travel: 100 Reasons to See the World. 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 #189:

Since The Last Episode

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios in the Gulch neighborhood of Nashville, TN. Not a whole lot of travel since the last episode. Was back in Chicago after almost 2 months away. As a tourist this time, staying in a hotel just off the Michigan Avenue Mag Mile strip, a neighborhood we’d actively avoid when we lived in Chicago — too crowded, too many tourists. But now that we are tourists, maybe it fits a little better. We ended up here more out of convenience than anything else. It was the furthest north in the city that I could find a place to burn off some Marriott points. 
  • It’s been another month where I’ve spent more time planning travel than doing it; stitching together the itinerary for an almost 3-week trip — Nashville, connecting through Chicago (‘cause I’m no longer in a hub city) and Frankfurt, to Split, Croatia; then over to Rome and a train to Naples to get to Positano; then back to Naples for a few days; then to Rome; then to Florence; then back down to Rome to fly home by way of Newark. That looks kinda silly just typing it out. TripIt ended up being a very valuable tool. I forwarded all the various confirmation emails to it, and it did a damn good job of sequencing everything into a single itinerary, which helped me spot holes where I’d screwed up, say, a departure date or had just completely forgot about a trip leg.  But it’s all done; I leave next week. And writing this episode is giving me another good excuse to put off thinking about packing — 3 weeks in a carryon. “Has a washing machine” might’ve been my most critical Airbnb search criteria.
  • Bridge Music — Like Music (cdk Mix) by Analog By Nature (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/cdk/48915 Ft: Phasenwandler

Following Up

  • Yup, we have mail … and comments.
  • Let’s start with two comments on the TravelCommons Facebook page. First up, Jim McDonough tagged the post for episode #187 with his experience moving to a non-hub airport. Jim writes…
    • “We moved from a hub (DFW, 7 parallel runways plus one other) to a non-hub (SAN, 1 runway). Clearly we were tied to American at DFW (both lifetime Gold), and there really is no single dominant carrier at SAN. We do have some sneaky long non-stops from here, though, like to Hawaii, London, Munich, Boston, New York. None of these on American, though. We are trending towards Alaska Airlines, which has pretty good service and Boeing airplanes, and if there’s an Admirals Club around we can use it flying Alaska. I was among the people who switched to cash-back credit cards during the pandemic when no flying was happening, but I’m rethinking that position with an eye to using miles to go places.”
    • Jim, thanks for that. The American-Alaska relationship has always been good for West Coast fliers. I remember, years ago, flying Alaska from Long Beach up the coast to San Jose. I could never figure out why Alaska was flying that route, but it was handy with my American status.
  • Next up, Thelma Smith adding a travel tip to the post for last month’s episode
    • “Good episode. I don’t travel a lot but one thing I do is if I have to check a bag I use the sky cap. I don’t have to be lugging anything through the airport and the cash comes in handy to tip them.”
    • Thanks, Thelma, for that tip. I’m a big sky cap fan when I have to check a bag — like when I’m loaded up from a big wine country trip — and, yes, cash is absolutely required for their tip!
  • Moving to the TravelCommons website, Geoff Slater left this comment
    • “Excellent return podcast! A very frequent traveler, I agreed with everything. A quibble however was the advice to take a nonstop. While I don’t disagree, I fly in and out of Burlington, VT, so that’s rarely an option. So for me, I also consider my options for connecting airports. As a United flier, Denver in the summer when it’s an option, and then IAD, and trying to avoid EWR. Getting a bit more esoteric for the non-frequent flier, I also consider plane type. And with United 1K status, I also take advantage of the same day change to avoid weather problems.”
    • Geoff, thanks for the comments. Kinda back to my pre-break episode about moving from to a non-hub airport — most of your direct flight options are to hubs like DEN and IAD. Your strategy on hub selection is smart; pick hubs off by themselves with long well-separated runways. When I was doing work in north Jersey, we used to joke that anyone spitting on a runway at EWR would mean an hour delay; the runways are too close together to allow parallel take-offs and landings in all but the best of weather. Your comment about plane type — rather than esoteric, I think it’s more of a graduate-level flight planning tip. The first cut is regional jet vs. main-line jet. I’ll always pick the, say, United Airbus 319 over the American Eagle Embraer. Making a choice between main-line jets can be a bit more subtle; different fliers will make different trade-offs between size — flights with smaller capacity jets might be sacrificed when storms reduce flight slots but they’re quicker to get out of if a delay has tightened your connection. Again, graduate-level linear programming optimization algorithms for flight planning.
  • On Twitter, Kendra Kroll offered up a travel tip
    • “Know names of cities in local vernacular. I’ll never forget when folks on our Southbound train to Rome missed their stop by several hours as they didn’t realize Firenze = Florence!”
    • Ouch! That’s a good tip; probably a next-level version of my Know Your Geography tip. For extra credit, be able to recognize your destination in the local non-Latin alphabet. I was in Tokyo back right before they moved the old Tsukiji Fish Market. The morning after I arrived, I was up early with jet lag and so walked over to the market. Someone had recommended a small sushi joint there, so I went looking for it. The recommendation gave the name in Latin characters but the signs in the market were only in Kanji. I eventually found a guy at an information desk who gave me directions to the place, but something to keep in mind when I travel to, say, Greece or Georgia — the country, not the state.
  • And finally, Aaron Woodlin responded to my re-tweet of an ORD TSA post with a picture of what one passenger pulled out of their carry-on and put in a bin to pass through the X-ray machine — a meat cleaver, a couple of knives, a couple of saws… Somebody who’s definitely unclear on the concept of “no sharp objects in your carry-on.” Aaron’s cut –
    • “What I really don’t get are people who don’t keep their range bags and carry-on luggage separate, and end up unintentionally packing heat at the checkpoint.  If you can afford plane fare, guns and ammo, you can spring for separate bags!”
    • Range bag, tool box… I can just imagine being the TSA guy shaking his head as the image of a bin full of knives and saws comes across the monitor. The guy is aware enough to know that you need to pull metal stuff out of your bag, but not hip to the fact of why. And now you’re the TSA guy who has to explain it all to him. 
  • And as always, thanks to all of you for the comments! Some great stuff here.
  • I think I’ve mentioned in prior episodes that I’m on Apple’s iPhone upgrade plan. Every year I get the new phone, send in my old one, and it resets the payment clock. Kinda like leasing a car but with lower monthly payments. Anyhow, a few weeks back, I’m scrubbing through Apple’s hour-and-a-half long announcement video — skip all the Apple Watch stuff, slow down on the new AirPods, and then settle in for the iPhone 14 walk through. Nothing earth-shaking; I’m liking the new purple color. But then, as they were wrapping up, I had a record-scratch moment — no SIM tray! What, what? Yup, for US iPhones, no more SIM tray; it’s all internal eSIMs! Isn’t that great? No more searching for a paper clip to pop out the tray, losing the little nano-SIM, …. No, it’s not great, at least for those of us who travel internationally. I’ve talked many times over the years about using local SIMs. Most recently, in episode #181, I talked about, at the start of our Puglia bike trip, spending 15 minutes and $25 in a Telecom Italia store for a SIM that gave me a local phone number (very handy for restaurant reservations) and 70 GB of data. And now next week, all I have to do is load some money onto that SIM through the Telecom Italia website, and I’m good to go when I connect thru Frankfurt, and land in Croatia and Italy. But what about an eSIM? I couldn’t find any mainline Italian mobile carrier that offered a prepaid eSIM. Same with the UK. When I bitch-tweeted about this, aloSIM, a company that sells eSIMs for many countries, quickly responded “Well, our Italy eSIM data packages start at $4.50 for a week of data…” I hit their website. Their $4.50/week gives 1 GB of data. For an extra 50¢, I can get 10x that — 10 GB of data for $5/week. I tweeted that back. As you might guess, no response from aloSIM’s social media team. So, I’ve dropped off the iPhone upgrade wheel. I know I’m an edge case, and I think this could accelerate the push toward eSIMs. But like when Apple dropped the headphone jack, I think they’re 12-18 months ahead of the curve for frequent international travelers and I need something that works today, where the curve is right now. So I’ll wait a bit, like TravelCommons listener Jerry Sarfati who said he’s waiting for the “iPhone 15… with a USB-C charger.” I really hope it comes in purple too.
  • 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 — Somewhere by spinmeister (c) copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/spinmeister/53428 Ft: DJ Vadim

When Not To Take the First Flight Out

  • Moving to the mail portion of the episode, a day after I published the last episode, I saw an email in the TravelCommons inbox with the subject “Is the first flight of the day still the best one? No. – air travel scientist for interviews.” This caught my eye because the 5th of the 13 tips to avoid airport chaos I’d just published was “catch the earliest flight you can”. So I replied to the email “Tell me why I’m wrong!”
  • Which led to this conversation with Dr. Sheldon Jacobson, Professor in Computer Science at the University of Illinois. Over the years, Dr. Jacobson has done projects using operations research models to optimize aviation security. But most recently, he wrote about how the received frequent flier wisdom about catching the first flight out might not always be right. So I started our discussion asking him “Where did I get it wrong?”
    • Sheldon: When you’re flying in and out of hub airports, conventional wisdom is, in fact, correct. You do want to take the first flight of the day because at a hub airport, there’s a lot more flexibility once a plane arrives at the end of the day. It’s going to be cleaned, it’s going to be maintained. Its gonna be fresh for the new day. If it turns out that some of the crew members become unavailable, you have alternatives because so many people have bases. So, this is in Chicago and Dallas for American, For United, you also have Washington Dulles as well as Chicago. For Delta, of course, it’s Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit. So that’s a great strategy. But what if you’re not in a hub airport and that’s when things start to get more nuanced. And the best way to think of this is that every airplane as well as every crew when they fly from city to city, they are a link in a chain. At the end of the day, you think, “Okay, the chain ends.” Actually, it doesn’t. because the first flight of the day is the connection and the link from the last flight of the previous day. And all of this comes out and starts to impact that decision of the first flight of the day. Because if that flight comes in late, remember the last flight of the day, that’s going to be the first flight out of a regional airport. So as a result of that, you actually want to take the second flight of the day out of a regional airport or a smaller large airport. That’s the best strategy when it comes to these secondary and tertiary airports.
    • Mark: Actually, what you’ve said, I’ve seen that happen in smaller regional airports, say Lexington Kentucky, Appleton, Wisconsin, where that first flight of the day is not on the ground, so it’s got to come in from a hub. Is there a split where, say, larger non-hub airports, the conventional wisdom still holds? Say where I am now in Nashville, or something like in Indianapolis? Where do those fall as far as the conventional wisdom on catching the first flight out?
    • Sheldon: Yes, certainly when you come to Nashville, Indianapolis, Columbus,  Ohio, Pittsburgh,  Pennsylvania — some of these have been de-hubbed over the years. You’re getting into a point that you have a lot of choices available. So then it becomes a little more nuanced because you could book the first flight on, let’s say American and that one may have difficulties because that plane came in overnight and it was delayed because of storms in Chicago. But on the other hand, if there are options on Delta which are coming from Atlanta where there were not storms, you can always then get switched over for it. So when you get into those middle airports, they’re not full hubs, but they’re not the small regionals that have two flights a day, then it becomes a little more nuanced. And then you start to look across airlines as opposed to just within the airline.
    • Mark: Now if we pivot just slightly and think about different types of airlines. So if I think about hub-centric airlines, like the traditional United, American, Delta versus, say, a Southwest, which I’ve joked in the past feels like they’re running milk runs across the country. So there’s not necessarily a hub, just that plane is running a line. Is there a difference between those two types of airlines on that first flight out?
    • Sheldon: There is, for a variety of reasons. With Southwest, they’re trying to pack as many segments or links per day for every airplane. That’s how they stay profitable. Their turn times are tremendous, but it also makes them more vulnerable to any kind of mechanical or weather delays or air traffic control slowdowns because they don’t have the slack built into their system in their links. As a result of that, when you get to the end of the day, they still have to abide by the FAA regulations in terms of crew rest. And the question is, even though they are in some sense of point to point airline, they have areas of the country that have a concentration of flights like Dallas Love for example, like Chicago, like Baltimore-Washington, where they traditionally had a lot of flights. So you do have to look then, even though they aren’t traditional hubs, they operate similarly. Where is the crew located; where they choosing to live? And that’s an important component because when you’re trying to reschedule because of delays, the flight that you’re going to take out at 6 am may have come from a city where the plane only arrived at midnight. The flight crew needs the rest. They will not be able to leave on time. But if you switch crews and you have the flexibility because you have a sufficient number of crew members. It solves the problem. Is that going to exist in your city? So even though Southwest doesn’t have the traditional hub and spoke system, they have airports that, in some sense, act like their hubs.
    • Mark: Sheldon, how much of this do you think is a function of the current tight labor market that airlines say they’re operating in?
    • Sheldon: Now the situation we’re in, which was brought on by COVID, of course, meant that they had a tremendous amount of layoffs and looking down the road, they were trying to survive financially. And now they’re in a situation where they have to rehire but retrain all of these pilots. People think “Oh, you haven’t flown for 8 months, 9 months? We’ll just put you in a cockpit and you’re fine.” It doesn’t work that way. Once you’ve been off for 6 months, it’s as if you’ve never flown. You still have the 1,500 hours which are required to fly, but you get rusty. And the pilots themselves say “I’m really not as comfortable as I used to be,” especially on landings, which is the most critical activity that they do once they’re in flight, it’s pretty much status quo. Taking off is reasonably straightforward, but landing is the tricky part. And they just feel a little less comfortable unless they have the training. And the fact is they want to be safe as much as the passengers and the airline’s want them to be safe. Getting these people back in the cockpit training and they have so many flight simulators. So much training that needs to be gone through. This is a non-trivial process.
    • Mark: Sheldon, thank you very much for that. That’s very helpful. Any last thought, any last tips as people are looking to navigate through the back end of the summer season and into the holiday flying; things that you use to avoid airport chaos?
    • Sheldon: Well, we’ve just now entered the post-summer/fall travel period and I check the numbers daily in terms of screenings at TSA checkpoints and the numbers are trying to come down, which means that there’s gonna be a lot less stress and strain on the system. The airlines are starting to ramp up their schedules. I’ve booked some things out for later in the fall and they’re already changing the schedules. So, I know that they’re starting to add more flights and more opportunities for people. For the holiday travel season this year, Christmas and New Year’s fall on a Sunday. And that means that people are going to be traveling on Friday and Saturday. If you can travel on Thursday or Wednesday, you may find it a lot less taxing. So, thinking a little bit ahead in that regard may be very helpful. You can’t predict weather storms, a nor’easter is going through, you know, it’s late in the year. The other strategy that I’ve used because I’ve mostly lived in non-hub cities is that there’s always been a dominant airline and a non-dominant airline. And the strategy I’ve always used is to always become loyal to the non-dominant airline. And the reason being is that when the non-dominant airline had problems, they were always gracious to put you on the dominant airline, which had much more choices. And as a result, I rarely got stuck because if I was on the dominant airline, trying to find a plane on the non-dominant one was much more difficult to get the seats available
    • Mark: That’s an interesting strategy. Kind of counterintuitive, but as you explain it, it makes sense.
    • Sheldon: I have never gotten stuck because by flying the non-dominant, even out of a hub airport. You think of a place like Detroit where they have Delta as the dominant airline. If you fly American out of there, the people are working extra hard to get your business. And as a result of that, I’ve always found service is better in the non-dominant airline, even in the hub cities where they’re competing.
    • Mark: That’s a good tip. Thanks for that Sheldon. Dr. Sheldon, Jacobson at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Thank you very much for joining us on the TravelCommons podcast.
    • Sheldon: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be with you.
  • Bridge Music — Hear Us Now (poptastic mix) by Scott Altham (c) copyright 2009 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/scottaltham/20747

Why We Travel

  • Some years ago, on some milestone birthday (I’m not saying which), my kids gave me the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Hmm… was there a message somewhere in that gift? Not that they would admit. But it was a fun book flip through — to remind me of past trips and give me ideas of places to go next. So when the TravelCommons inbox offered up an opportunity to interview the author, Patricia Schultz, about her new book, I jumped at it.
    • Mark: Patricia, thanks for joining us on the TravelCommons podcast. Your new book is Why We Travel: 100 Reasons to See the World. That topic — why we travel — has been a common one here on TravelCommons; how travel expands our horizons, our perspectives, helps us connect with others and with ourselves as we lose ourselves in the “otherness” of a new place. So Patricia, help us. What’s your take on why we travel?
    • Patricia: Well, I used this period of the pandemic to have that conversation with myself. This moment of COVID allowed me this unprecedented moment where suddenly I was very stationary. I thought it was very important for me, as a travel writer, to reassess all over again the importance of travel. But the “why” needs to be kept very forefront, so that we have that appreciation, and we understand that we’re privileged and it’s an honor and it’s something that you need to travel meaningfully and not just on automatic pilot. And I think first and foremost it’s, for me, it’s food for my soul. And as you said, it opens our perspectives and it opens our heads, it opens our hearts. You mentioned connecting with other people. That’s part of opening your heart with that exchange with your Uber driver or your guide or the lady in the open-air market who’s selling her tomatoes and whoever you have that moment with. It’s all the people along the way that you meet and accrue and collect all of these experiences that are life lessons. Not just the logistics and the details of trip planning, but life lessons as they pertain to what you bring home with you and how you deal with life and how you’ve become more resourceful and the “daily-ness” of life is dealt with in a different way. I know I’m more tolerant. I know I’m more respectful in general. I know that I’m more curious and that’s what gets you out the front door at the end of the day, which is often usually the most difficult part of all of this — getting going.
    • Mark: Absolutely. Patricia, the book is a great mix of beautiful photos and quotes about travel. Definitely a book that you need to have in your hand rather than on your tablet. What was your curation process? How did you pick the pictures and the quotes that went into the book?
    • Patricia: I’m so glad that you touched on that because I myself thought that a book that seemingly this simplistic would just kind of write itself.
    • Mark: It’s never that simple though. Right?
    • Patricia: No. One of the quotes I used is by Beverly Sills, the great operatic singer, who said there are no shortcuts to any place worth going to or anything worth doing, I might add as a postscript, and writing one of them. But the photos, which are not mine I’m sorry to say, they’re colorful and they’re energetic and they’re vibrant and there’s a great sense of place and excitement to them, I think. And that’s what we were aiming for to have this book, everything, kind of jump off the page at you because that’s part of the message, the message of how exciting and exhilarating travel can be and then to match it with the appropriate message. The message that is embodied in a quotation or in an aphorism or in a list that I make up or in an anecdote that matches what the photograph recounts. So, it all was a real departure for me because my books until now have just been a kind of encyclopedia of 1,000 places around the world. But that same broad, comprehensive mix of experience and geography and message and importance of travel that I tried to infuse throughout 1,000 Places is the same mix that I tried to embed in every aphorism and in every photo and in the sequence of the book. It’s not a big book. It’s a hardcover book. It’s not oversized and it’s not all that many pages; it’s somewhere over 100 pages. But there’s a lot that can be said because travel means many, many, many different things to many different people. But at the end of the day, it makes us better people and that’s kind of Period, Amen!
    • Mark: And it’s certainly more focused, as you said, on inspiring people to travel, to pull their bag out from under their bed rather than a tour guide’s list of where to go, or some expert’s advice on how to pack that bag. But some might see this collide with the ethics, the concern about climate change. How do you square that circle?
    • Patricia: If you travel with respect and with that, conviction to see the world for all the right places, and not because you’re checking off countries or you’re filling empty time. But if you want to experience another culture and bring those experiences home with you, ultimately, probably the best thing we can hope to take away from travel is that when we return to our homes, we are equipped to make your best life for yourself and your neighbors and your community and the world at large. And also, the very notion that travel isn’t inherently international or a 12-hour long haul flight to get you to the other side of the world. You know, you can walk out your front door and walk around the block in midtown Manhattan where I live and that’s travel enough for many people. The people watching, the theater of the street or filling your car or charging your car and taking that road trip to the local state park. So, there are all kinds of ways that you can easily accommodate all of those concerns if you travel well. And I don’t mean five-star deluxe and I don’t mean remote dream destinations of Mongolia and Africa, although those are all pretty fantastic as well. Travel well in that you really maximize the time made available to you and the money that’s in your budget. But I think you just need to go with the right head and the right head to me has always meant curiosity and respect. And if that’s the case then you will travel respectfully, and you will address climate change in a way that as an individual we can.
    • Mark: Fantastic. Well, Patricia Schultz, author of the new book Why We Travel: 100 Reasons to See the World. Patricia, thanks for stopping by the TravelCommons podcast to give us your thoughts on why we should travel. Really appreciate the time.
    • Patricia: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.


  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #189
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