Hard up against the Christmas deadline, we compare long-distance drive times between gas and electric cars, and my travel tips vs. those from the ChatGPT AI chatbot. We talk about the latest Real ID deadline delay, and impressions from my trip to Positano, Rome, Florence, and Split, Croatia. 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 #191:
Since The Last Episode
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios in Nashville, TN at the tail end of the “bomb cyclone” that blew up a huge number of Christmas holiday plans for a huge number of families — including ours. Our daughter Claire beat the bomb by flying down at the beginning of the week out of LaGuardia; thank you, hybrid working arrangements. Our son and his wife were going to head down from Chicago on Thursday, but near-white-out blizzard conditions canceled that. So now we’re recalibrating the size of Christmas dinner and figuring out how to get presents to the right places.
- While our usual “Not traveling at Christmas” rule has served us well, we did hit the road earlier for some Thanksgiving triangulation travel — from Nashville to Annapolis, MD for a week to celebrate Thanksgiving with some friends, then from there to Chicago for another week to visit family, and then finally back home. The drive out to Annapolis was the best. We swerved the holiday traffic by driving out Monday instead of waiting for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and leaving a bit later in the morning so we could miss the agony that is Washington, DC rush hour. It was certainly the most scenic of the 3 drives, skirting the Great Smoky Mountains and then up the Blue Ridge Mountains. It reminded me of my drives to and from college, between Memphis and DC, though a lot more enjoyable not having to worry if my ‘72 Buick Electra was going to overheat hauling itself over the mountains.
- The drive to Chicago was the most boring; a 12-hour drive with most of it being through the extended flatlands of the Ohio and Indiana Turnpikes. It would’ve put me right to sleep if I hadn’t figured out how to stream the BBC Radio’s World Cup play-by-play from my phone through the BMW’s speakers. What would’ve been worse, though, is if I’d tried to do that drive in an electric vehicle. California will ban new gas cars in 12 years, and New York and other states are looking to follow suit, so I wanted to see what my driving future will be. Cox Automotive says the Tesla Model Y was the best selling car through Q3, the end of September this year. So I hit the Tesla trip planner to see what my trip would look like if I swapped my BMW X3 for a Tesla Model Y Long Range. The trip would be almost 2½ hours longer due to the 4 supercharger stops I’d need — 2 45-minute charges in PA and OH and 2 25-minute charges in Indiana — a bit longer than the couple of 20-minute restroom/gas-up pit stops we made on the turnpikes. The first stop in PA and the last one in IN would be in turnpike rest stops. The other two would require leaving the turnpike, winding through the ticket booths to find the chargers. Actually, I’m not sure which is worse. Hanging out for 45 minutes at the North Somerset, PA rest stop Roy Rogers or leaving the Ohio Turnpike to find my way to Strongsville, OH, plug into the supercharger behind the Sheetz convenience store, and then walk over to the Applebee’s knock-off to kill the 45-minute charge time with a Bud Light and some chicken tenders nachos. They got 12 years to either cut that charge time in half or significantly improve the food and beer options at those superchargers.
- Bridge Music — God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by copperhead (c) copyright 2012 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. Ft: Admiral Bob, Javolenus , Sackjo22
- The last half of our Chicago visit we stayed downtown at the Hyatt Regency, a big convention hotel that, in pre-COVID times, always had all sorts of mid-sized business conventions; things like the Midwest Dell Computer Users Group meeting, the IAAO (Int’l Association of Assessing Officers) National Conference. Now I’m old enough to remember way back to 2020 when “everything changed” and “this is the new normal” meant these mid-level gatherings were past history, that in the new normal, we’d all meet over video or in the metaverse — which kinda spooked me because everybody seemed cut off below the navel — and so never be tempted to shake hands. So when I walked into the lobby one morning to see signs welcoming ASTA, the American Seed Trade Association and the elevator doors wrapped in signs pitching BASF’s Poncho Votivo seed treatment, it reminded me once again that reversion to the mean is a strong, almost irresistible force. I walked into the elevator with a guy wearing a vendor badge around his neck. “Conference travel back?” I asked. “With a vengeance,” he sighed. Business travel may still be a bit below 2019 levels, but it’s clawing its way back.
- Last May, back in episode #187, I said “A quick public service announcement — the COVID Real ID extension expires in less than a year.” Well, scratch that. The beginning of this month, DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, kicked the Real ID deadline down the road again, 2 years this time to May 7, 2025. Good news for procrastinators everywhere. They said the extension was necessary because the pandemic has made getting a REAL ID more difficult. I have to tell you; I just don’t buy it. Last year, December 2021, I had to go to a Chicago DMV site to get a new driver’s license. I made an appointment, showed up on-time, and was in and out in 30, maybe 40 minutes, including the 3 extra minutes it took them to scan my social security card and the documents to prove my address. I mean, come on, it’s been 17 years since the Real ID act was passed. It’s a law no one thinks is needed any more. Somebody just man up (in a completely gender-neutral way) and cancel at least this act in the long-running post-9/11 security theater.
- In more travel document good news, right before Thanksgiving, the US State Department opened up a portal for on-line passport renewals on what they’re calling a “limited release”, which sounds like government speak for a beta product — limited volume and possibly not the smoothest user experience. But you gotta give them credit for getting this far. I renewed my passport last February the old-fashioned way — finding a Walgreens that still takes passport photos, stapling them and a check to the renewal form. I’m hoping that in 9 years’ time, all the sharp edges will be buffed off this limited release and ready for prime time. I know, it’s the government; but a guy can dream…
- I’ve never been too proud not to chase a trend in the service of search engine optimization and so I wrote a blog post last week on ChatGPT, the AI chatbot that was released after Thanksgiving and simultaneously thrilled and horrified people — mostly thrilling students and mostly horrifying teachers and writers. I decided to give it a try, typing into the prompt box — “write a blog post with the top holiday travel tips.” One thing that was immediately obvious — ChatGPT is a lot faster than me. It cranked out 350 words and 5 travel tips in a second or two. The tips, though, “Plan Ahead,” “Pack Light,” “Stay Organized,” “Be Flexible,” and “Stay Connected” weren’t wrong, but they weren’t all that insightful; they weren’t anything that even the occasional traveler, someone taking just a couple of flights a year, wouldn’t already know. So then the next step is to compare those tips, generated by artificial intelligence, to 5 tips generated by my 35 years and a few million miles of travel experience — “Figure out if you want to fly or drive,” “Fly Non-Stop,” “Catch the Early Flight,” “Carry On Your Luggage,” and “Bring a Battery Pack.” You be the judge, but I think my tips are a bit more specific, a bit more actionable; probably just good enough to keep me in this unpaid travel podcaster/blogger gig — at least until ChatGPT gets its next upgrade.
- In the Travel Tech Stack topic in the last episode, I talked about travel apps I use, and specifically Tripit which I use to consolidate all the plane, train, hotel, and Airbnb confirmations into a single itinerary. The Monday before Thanksgiving, I started getting e-mails from them — 50% off TripIt Pro; $24 instead of the usual $49. That first one was targeted at Thanksgiving fliers. Then came another 50% off email, but this time it was a Black Friday e-mail. Then came the Cyber Monday pitch, again 50% off. I got a message from Allan Marko, long-time TravelCommons listener. “What do you think?” he asked, “Do you use it?” I quickly responded “Nope. Haven’t used Pro for many years. Don’t see the value of the additional features. If I was going to pay for one, I’d go for Flighty.” I was able to respond at near-ChatGPT speed because that text was pretty much verbatim what I said about Tripit Pro in the Travel Tech segment. The next day, Allan messaged me back “Just listened to the episode. You went through exactly what I was asking about TripIt.” TripIt ran that 50% off e-mail campaign right through last week, so almost a month — which leads me to believe that there are a lot of other travelers who share my views.
- And if you have any travel stories, comments, tips, rants, or a question like Allan or like Twitter follower @Ab3Fr0man (I’m always a sucker for a Ferris Bueller reference) whose question back in June led to last episode’s Travel Tech Stack topic, send it to email@example.com, ping me at @mpeacock on Twitter message or post a comment on the TravelCommons website for the quickest response. I’m a little slower responding to Facebook and Instagram. And if you don’t want your name mentioned on the podcast, let me know. Everyone’s got different sensitivities around privacy nowadays.
- Bridge music — O Tannenbaum / Oh Christmas Tree by Martijn de Boer (NiGiD) (c) copyright 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. Ft: Admiral Bob (admiralbob77)
Notes on Split, Croatia and Italy
- I mentioned at the start of the last episode that I rummaged around Croatia and Italy for 3 weeks at the beginning of October, starting in Split, Croatia and then running up the Italian peninsula — Amalfi Coast, Naples, Rome, Florence. When I’ve talked to folks about this trip, most everyone is much more interested in our time in Split and in Italy. Which makes sense if I think about it; lots of people interested in travel will have hit those Italy highlights — Rome, Florence, the Amalfi Coast — early on in their travels, but not so many Croatia (at least travelers from the US). But they’ve heard a lot about it, especially the Game of Thrones stans, which maybe has bumped it up on their list of places to visit; maybe high on the “B” list. And so the interest I was getting might’ve been a combination of a polite “How was your trip” with a dash of “Hmm, any reason I should bump it up to my ‘A’ list?” I found myself summing up our Split visit saying “Good times, good wine, good seafood; though I’m not sure I know anything more about Croatia having spent 4 days there.”
- I felt like I was another one of those guys who hop a cheap Ryanair flight to some city like Budapest or Tallinn for a lads’ weekend — which was pretty close to what we did. But even when we ventured out of the old city (which is very cool and very pretty), out of the cruise passenger blast zone that would jam up those cool, pretty, but very narrow streets and alleys between, say, 10am and 5pm every day, I still couldn’t get a deeper feel for the place. We’d post up at some bars, but got much less conversation with the bartenders than I would in, say, Italy. I dunno — maybe Croatians are more taciturn than Italians, or the folks in Split have to deal with so many tourists every day that they need a break and just want to chat with their fellow Croatians. Either — or both — would be very reasonable explanations. Indeed, the closest I came was a non-conversation in the main farmers’ market on Saturday morning. I was walking up and down the rows of stalls — fresh vegetables, sundries, other random bits and bobs — and noticed an older guy by himself in a small stall off to the side. Walking up, I could see he was selling smoked pork loin and some aged sheep’s cheese. He spoke no English; I spoke no Croatian, but with a bunch of gestures and finger measurements, I managed to buy some of everything he had on offer. I must’ve paid a good price because he pulled out a plastic 1-liter bottle and poured me a capful of what I figured was home-made rakija, a Croatian fruit brandy. It was good, very smooth; a nice 11am eye opener.
- After 4 days of wandering around, Split seemed a pretty standard European large town/small city with fresh seafood and good wine for, if not cheap, then a reasonable price. The only kinda wacky thing was the Croatian currency, the kuna. The exchange rate was around 7.50 to the dollar; a slightly awkward exchange rate to do in your head on the fly — which we didn’t need to do because everything was dual priced in kuna and euro in preparation for their move next month (January 2023) to the euro. So you’d think (or at least I thought) that there’d be parallel usage of kunas and euros in the lead-up. But you (and me) would be wrong. There were signs everywhere “Kuna only” and “Cash only”. Which meant a lot of hunting down ATMs and a last-minute spending spree in the Split Airport bar and duty-free shop.
- Just short of 70 years ago, John Steinbeck wrote an article about Positano, Italy for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. The most popular pull quote is “Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real…” He then goes on to say that Positano would never be overrun by tourists; it’s too steep, there’s no room for visitors, and the locals don’t give a damn. Steinbeck was right about it being steep, but he was dead wrong about the rest. The view from our balcony was beautiful when I looked up at the hills and out at the water. But then my eyes would drop a bit and I’d see the stream of ferries docking and disgorging full loads of daytrippers. I waded into it one morning to see the local church and got stuck in a conga line of tourists walking one of the narrow streets — one single-file of people walking up from the beach, another single-file walking down; a young couple carrying a stroller up the sets of stone steps; the almost-Three Stooges-like people bumping into the back of each other when someone in the single-file stopped to look at a shop and didn’t step into the doorway. That was it for me. I was one and done. After that, I’d just sit on our balcony with a bottle of local wine, situated so my eyes wouldn’t drop from the beautiful view.
- I don’t want to bang on about the crowds too much, but it’s a major through-line of this trip. Maybe the combination of the strong dollar, no COVID restrictions, and no mask rules was all it took to uncork 2 years of pent-up travel demand. In Rome, I made the mistake of meeting someone at the Trevi Fountain and got trapped in a horde. The Trastevere neighborhood where we stayed — the streets were a bit thick with tourists during the day, but was complete gridlock at night with people overflowing out of the bars, into the plazas drinking what must’ve been truckloads of Peronis.
- Having said this, I really liked Rome. Before this, I was always a bit ambivalent about Rome; would always tend to head north — to Tuscany, to Milan. But this trip, maybe because we’d spent the prior week or so in smaller places, the big city energy of Rome was a pleasant, an energizing change. People talk about Rome being chaotic; I didn’t think it was any more chaotic than any other big city. Maybe because I wasn’t driving — just walking or taking a cab or trying to kill Irene while driving a Vespa scooter.
- Could also be that there was more space to spread out, to swerve the crowds. I found a walking and bike path sunk down below street level along the banks of the Tiber River. There was fairly steady bike traffic, but I could walk freely, no dodging on-coming tourists. I made my way through the Testaccio neighborhood — definitely no tourist traffic here — to a local market that was full, but not crowded; I was able to get a table with my beer and porchetta sandwich.
- But I picked up a verve in Rome — some combination of the energy and “don’t screw with me” of a big city, but also something more welcoming, a bit warmer than I’d get in, say Manhattan or London or Frankfurt or Paris. Maybe a bit more down-to-earth, something you get in the outer boroughs of New York and London; a friendly confidence. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would.
- But not every crowd was bad. The last stop on our Italian tour was Florence. While I’d never been to Rome before, this was our fourth time in Florence. Irene and Claire wanted to shop for jewelry on Ponte Vecchio; the thought of wading back into those crowds sent me in the complete opposite direction, toward the Basilica of Santa Croce. Walking down the road, I noticed more and more guys wearing the same soccer jerseys funneling onto the road, some with plastic bags full of beer bottles. When the street ended at the Piazza di Santa Croce, the big open plaza in front of the basilica, it had been taken over by a huge crowd of Scottish soccer fans who’d followed their club, Hearts of Midlothian, from Edinburgh here to Florence to play the local team. They’d set up camp in the plaza, hung their club supporters flags from plaza railings, building scaffolds, and pretty much anything else with a vertical structure. And they were having a great time pre-gaming the match — drinking beers, banging drums, and most of all, singing songs. At the other end of the plaza, about 6 carabinieri were standing in front of what looked like a paddy wagon. As I rounded the corner of the basilica, a couple of Florence metro cop cars joined them. They weren’t doing anything; just hanging back, just in case.
- I left the drums and singing behind and wound my way up to a craft beer bar. I bought a beer and sat on a stool just outside the bar door — just in time to see a stream of Hearts supporters take over the street which was, I soon found out, the main path from their pre-game piazza to the stadium. I have to say that, after 5+ hours of drinking, I was a bit nervous about this crowd, but I didn’t need be. They were loud, enthusiastic, maybe a bit bumptious, but never nasty or threatening. They were just there to have fun with their fellow supporters and watch the match which, one guy told me, they fully expected to lose (and which they did 5-1). Through it all, I was most impressed by the Florentine bar owner. Amid all the drunk Scotsmen singing and yelling and drinking, he was unflappable — serving beers, keeping glasses out of the street, and occasionally taking group photos. He smiled and told me, “The boys just want to have some fun.” And they did. And they dragged me along with them — not to the stadium, I had other plans, to meet up with a big slab of beef, a bistecca alla fiorentina– but to enjoy a crowd rather than fight it.
- Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #191
- Merry Christmas to everyone who celebrates it and hope you all have a great new year. Sorry I couldn’t get this out earlier to give any of you trapped in an airport this week something to listen to, but hey, now you have something for Christmas dinner clean-up.
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