Podcast #192 — New Year Travel Planning Tips; Gin Conquers the World

Cat with paw on the rim of a gin tonic glass

Can’t get to the artisanal garnish

With COVID travel restrictions gone, I expect people to revert back to their old ways where January is the biggest travel planning month. I wade into the debate between booking direct with travel providers vs. booking with agents and 3rd-party sites. I see how well my travel tips did during the Southwest cancellation chaos, and then pull out a little more of my conversation with Jeff Cioletti, author of the new book Imbibing for Introverts; this time about how gin is going global with a local twist. 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 #192:

Since The Last Episode

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios in Nashville, TN. Haven’t done any travel since the last episode. Instead, I’m starting the year off, as many others do, by doing travel planning, trying to lay out a 2023 travel calendar so we don’t slouch past the days and then, in say August, look back and say “Where’d the year go?”  Back in episode #159, I talked about how travel planning would traditionally kick in the week after Christmas — although I’ll say that given episode #159 was posted in January 2020, 2 months before the first wave of COVID lockdowns, my timing on that probably wasn’t the greatest. A year later, January 2021, in episode #171, I tried it again, ticking through 5 travel planning tips for COVID times. They were all about agility — paying attention to cancellation rules, monitoring last-minutes changes in lockdowns and health requirements…. 
  • But now two years later, with COVID cases down and travel volumes pretty much back up to 2019 levels, I expect folks will revert back to their old travel planning patterns. Back in my travel tech CIO days, right before Christmas, we’d always lock down our systems and put on extra capacity (which, let me tell you kids, back in the pre-cloud days, meant rolling actual servers, real live physical equipment uphill, through the snow, onto the data center’s raised floor) so we could handle the spikes in search volume. And while we’d see some minor spikes from the systems that travel agents used, the biggest volumes came from on-line sites like Expedia and Booking.com, sites more popular with leisure travelers than business travelers.
  • But now in 2023, I’m guessing that the Chinese are chief among those rushing back to their pre-COVID travel planning after the government quit their zero COVID policies. Indeed, on December 26, within a half an hour of the announcement that China’s borders were fully reopening, searches for international travel on China’s biggest on-line site, Trip.com, surged back to pre-COVID levels. The top search destinations were Southeast Asian countries, the US, and the UK. Now remember, before the lockdowns, the Chinese were by far the largest source of international tourism spending — $255B, 70% more than second-place US, which was at $150B. So if you, like me, thought popular vacation destinations were crowded last year, just wait for this summer — for what I’m guessing will be a second wave, maybe a Chinese tsunami of “revenge travel.”
  • Bridge Music — Earth Soda by septahelix (c) copyright 2011 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial Share-Alike (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/septahelix/34050

Following Up

  • Back in August, episode #188 was all about tips for avoiding travel chaos. I recorded it at the tail end of a summer of travel woes, after a July 4th holiday weekend that was seen as a complete train wreck with 1,100 canceled flights and 4,000 delays — to which, as we all know, Southwest said “Hold my beer” and canceled almost 16,000 flights between Christmas and New Year’s — to which the FAA said “Wait, I wanna play too” and disrupted over 11,000 flights in one morning. And when the root cause for both was found to be old technology, all the gray-haired IT guys nodded to each other and repeated their mantra — “technical debt is a bitch.”  Southwest has estimated a profit hit of as much as $825 million from their debacle. Just sayin’– even just half that would’ve funded a whole lot of fixes to their old scheduling system.
  • But looking back at those summer tips, pack so you can carry on and if you can’t, then spread everyone’s clothes across all your checked bags were pretty much spot-on. As was the discussion in episode #190 about how adding Apple AirTags to my travel tech stack saved me time and agita when United lost my luggage. With all the stories about piles of stranded luggage from the bomb cyclone and Southwest cancellations, AirTags have proven to be a critical “must-have” if you have to check a bag, and have an iPhone. For Android users, you’ll have to wait a bit longer; people who spelunk through new Android code think Google is working on its own AirTag-like tracker
  • But I think I missed a couple of things. First, I should’ve pointed back to and recapped my conversation in episode #164 with Brett Holzhauer, a travel credit card analyst now at CNBC, about the trip cancellation, trip interruption, and baggage insurance that many people don’t realize they get by charging their trip on a travel credit card. Maybe the tip there is, before you book your trip, pull out the credit card benefit summaries so you know which card will give you the best protection.
  • The second tip I’d add is — take pictures of your checked luggage, outside and the contents inside. The pictures of the bags will help you answer the “describe what your bag looks like” question on the airline’s lost baggage form. The pictures of the inside will help with that baggage insurance claim. But just the fact that we’ve got to think about all this just to have someone take us and our stuff from Point A to Point B… Jesus, what a broken system.
  • In what has become a going on 2-year thread about international travel planning, I’ve talked about COVID travel rules, testing, Global Entry, passport applications… And so one of the trips we’ve been planning is to hit the tulip festival in Holland — the country, the Netherlands, not the town in Michigan, which can screw you up if you don’t look closely at your Google search results. The tulip festival in the Netherlands is in April while the one in western Michigan is in May.  And that initial lack of Google input box precision, using Holland rather than the Netherlands, which surfaced the May date, sent me down a whole ‘nother search path because, deep in some random brain fold, I remembered a May start date for ETIAS — the European Travel Information and Authorisation System which is the EU’s version of the US’s ESTA, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization. Now this whole E-acronym soup is pretty much just electronically plugging the travel information gap for folks who don’t need a visa to enter a country. The US started it first, another recommendation from the 9/11 Commission, but unlike Real ID, ESTA actually got implemented — in 2009. It started off free but is now $21 per person for two years, with most of that going to fund Brand USA, the US tourist promotion agency. The EU’s ETIAS is cheaper – €7 per person for three years. It got started later, in 2018, and its go-live date has been kicked down the road a few times now — from 2022 to May 2023 as that random neuron of mine recalled, but I guess I missed the latest push, which happened back in August, that delayed ETIAS another 6 months. So now go-live is November 2023 — still nothing like the 17-year-and-counting delay for Real ID. So, as it turns out after losing a couple of hours of my life in a click spiral, nothing to worry about ‘til next year.
  • And if you have any travel worries… or 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 — Generic Apologies by Speck (c) copyright 2022 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/speck/65664 Ft: jaspertine, Zenboy1955, Admiral Bob, Apoxode

Travel Planning — Book Direct or through a Third-Party?

  • Chris Chufo, long-time friend of the podcast, pointed me to a Washington Post column by Christopher Elliot on the “great debate” (as he put it) between booking direct with an airline or hotel or car rental company vs. using a 3rd party, a travel agent or an on-line site like Booking.com or Airbnb. It’s an ongoing debate because there’s not a straight-forward answer, and it’s one that I personally straddle when booking travel. But when I think about it, and what the Post column didn’t really articulate, is that the decision point hinges on relationships and leverage.
  • When booking flights, trains, rental cars, I almost always book direct because if there’s a problem — a delay, a cancellation — I can work directly with the airline or rental company to figure out an alternative. When I booked through a 3rd party — most recently, back in 2019 when Amex was giving a 5x multiplier on Membership Rewards points for booking through them — and then had a flight cancellation in Charlottesville, VA, the carrier wouldn’t talk to me — “You need to call your agent.”  Which I did, while standing in front of the ticket counter at the airport, looking at the flight status display saying “Canceled” and telling the Amex agent the current situation because the flight status has been updated in their system yet. After which the agent said “Hold on, I need to call the airline because it’s so close to departure, I can’t do anything in the system” — basically making the same call I just got off of. Third parties really don’t have much leverage over carriers — airlines, trains, or even rental cars — and there’s no real value in putting them between me and the carrier when I’m trying to move fast to swerve a delay or cancellation. Especially a carrier where I’ve got status; that marker of a relationship often delivers more than an agent can.
  • Hotels can be a bit different. I’ll book directly with the big chains — Marriott, Hilton — again, places where I have status. My experience has been that the reservation agents are more flexible when I need to make a change, and it feels like (though I don’t have hard data on this) I get upgraded more often by the front desk. And if I have, say, a billing issue with a Marriott property, Corporate Marriott will look at my lifetime titanium status and give me the benefit of the doubt. However, with independent properties where I haven’t stayed before and this is a one-time transaction, and so don’t have any leverage from an on-going relationship or, say, the potential for future business, the situation is murkier. An Airbnb or an Expedia, who can see future revenue from me, might be more willing to help me out with a problem. But the property has a financial incentive for me to book directly with them — it saves them commission that could be as high as 40%.  So if I’m going someplace new, I usually start off searching on a 3rd-party site — Airbnb, Booking.com — to see what’s available. If I narrow down to an independent place and I’m going to stay there for more than a day or two, I’ll flip over to their web site — can I get a better price booking direct? I check out TripAdvisor — can I trust them? If both are “yes’s”, then I’ll book direct — because I still have one fall-back protector, my credit card company. 
  • Last year, our last night in Sicily, we booked a hotel room that was maybe a 5-minute walk from Catania airport because we had an early flight out the next morning. We found it and booked it on Booking.com — the path of least resistance. So on that last night, driving back with our friends from Taormina (before The White Lotus put it on the map), we got to the airport but couldn’t find the hotel. Google Maps landed us in front of some apartment buildings and a big dirt parking lot. A couple of laps around the block and a long WhatsApp message stream later, we found out that what we booked wasn’t a hotel room, but one of these apartments; and when someone remotely unlocked the door, it looked a bit (no, a lot) like a Third Rate Romance, Low Rent Rendezvous sorta place. Our friends said “We’re not leaving you here” and we bee-lined over to a real airport hotel where I grabbed one of their last rooms while Irene canceled the Love Shack on Booking.com. Now, as you might imagine with the late cancellation, the Shack didn’t want to refund our payment. Not surprising. However, I was a bit surprised when Booking.com didn’t help us — in spite of me pointing out the property description on their site was completely false.  So, last resort, I disputed the charge with Chase. They called me. I told them the story, sent them screenshots of the property listing (which surprising(?)/ unsurprisingly(?) was still up, unchanged, on Booking.com) along with a couple of pictures I’d taken — just in case. We’ve had this Chase card for over 10 years; it’s our main credit card so we spend a lot on it; and we’ve never disputed a hotel stay on it before. Leverage from what, for Chase, has been a profitable relationship. Two weeks later, we got our money back.
  • Bridge Music — Absolutely Clear (ft Jeris & Goldfish) by SackJo22 (c) copyright 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/SackJo22/45578 Ft: Jeris, Goldfish

Gin Conquers the World

  • Here’s a bit of a change-up. Usually, when I talk about drinking on this podcast, it’s about craft beer. There’s even a Beer tab on the top of the TravelCommons website that takes you to a page with all the podcast episodes and blog posts that talk about beer — “What Makes a Great Taproom”, “My Best Restaurants, Bars and Taprooms of 2021” (note to self, gotta write the 2022 version of that). But back in October, when interviewing Jeff Cioletti, editor-in-chief of Craft Spirits Magazine about his new book Imbibing for Introverts for episode #190, we got talking about how gin has spread across the globe:
    • Mark: Let me ask you this… Through your travels, have you noticed any changes, any trends over the past few years as you’ve been sitting at bars drinking alone?
    • Jeff: One thing that I find incredibly striking, and this is worldwide, I had mentioned, gin.  Gin has reconquered Europe. I was in Berlin, and I was on a panel with somebody, he said that now Germany has got 1,000 gin brands. Like five years ago, they had barely any.
    • Mark: I’ll tell you, for me it’s gonna either be craft beer or gin. I just think about it, in Scotland and Spain…. I was just in Croatia a few weeks ago; a guy walks out, has some Croatian gin. They were doing gin tonics, so the big Spanish goblet style. I said, “Well, I’d really like to taste that gin without all the tonic and everything. I want to see what you guys are doing with it.” And back to your point about endearing yourself sometimes, the guy was like “Really? You really want it”, and I said, “Yeah, absolutely. Just gin and glass, just give me a little bit” and he said, “Oh no, that’s great.” And off he came and brought the regular gin tonic and then there was a little sidecar of just gin neat so I could taste it along.
    • Jeff: I was just in a bar in Stuttgart on Saturday night. It was called Botanical Affairs, a tiny kind of corner pocket little bar and all they have is gin. I mean it’s not even like you go in there or you can have a beer, but they specialize in gin. I mean everything was a gin cocktail; that’s all you could order, and they had so many different brands from all over the world. And you mentioned Spain; they get most of the credit for elevating the gin cocktail and turning it into kind of a luxurious drink. It really is, it’s an experience now.
    • Mark: Yes, it’s something, with the goblet glass and the garnish and all stuff.
    • Jeff: Yes, and a lot of people have adopted that; even places here in the States that are using it now. I’ve found it in a lot of places in the UK that use it And the Spanish get all the credit for that. They didn’t use it in Germany though, which I found interesting but everywhere else seems to.
  • Now there are always local/regional spirits to drink — bourbon in Kentucky, malt whisky in Scotland and Ireland, soju in Korea, the whole range of Eastern European fruit brandies; palinka in Hungary, I mentioned Croatian rakija (pronounced rakiya) in the last episode. But it seems that gin has become the canvas, the freshly painted side of a building that younger distillers want to tag with their sense of what’s local. Maybe because it’s easier — they don’t have to wrestle with expectations or regulations about what the local traditional spirit is.
  • Also maybe because it’s easier to make. Back in 2013 on our first visit to University of St Andrews with our then-high-school junior Claire, I found a local microbrewery, Eden Mill. Their story was that they wanted to be a Scotch whisky distillery, but since whisky is legally required to age in an oak barrel for at least 3 years, they needed something else to generate cash now. And since the front-end of making beer and malt whisky are pretty much the same, craft beer seemed a pretty logical way to bridge their cash gap. Fast forward a couple of years to Claire’s first year at St Andrews, Eden Mill is still making beer, still waiting for their whisky to come of age, but now they’ve added gin. The updated story — since they already had a distillation column to make whisky, they had everything they needed to make gin. They trucked in neutral spirits — similar to the Everclear of my college days, but I’m sure a bit classier — run it through the distillation column over a basket of botanicals, dilute it to the right strength, bottle it, and sell it — right away. If I’m an artisanal producer, maybe I don’t have to think as much about funding stainless steel and storage, and so can think more about how I want to express my locality, my culture in that basket of botanicals. Eden Mill, for example, sitting on the east coast of Scotland, uses local sea buckthorn berries. On a trip to Spain, I was served Nordés gin from Galicia, the most northwest part of Spain, the bit that sits on top of Portugal; it tasted of lemon verbena and eucalyptus and bay leaf, botanicals native to the Galician forests. The Croatian gin I talked about with Jeff Cioletti was all about the local, native juniper berries.
  • It’s an interesting twist on the complaint about global homogenization, that the world has been becoming more the same now because of — pick your favorite bugbear: the spread of global brands, Instagram, the ubiquity of English…. Gin is the latest; starting to crowd out the local native spirit, but with a twist with the focus on native flavors. And so with all the effort put into expressing these local botanicals, I’m always surprised when bartenders want to serve them in the Spanish-style gin tonic that Jeff rightly notes seems to have taken over. After giving me a whole spiel about the care the distiller has taken to infuse the locality into the gin, they then smother the one-and-a-half ounces of that locality with 6 or 7 ounces of imported tonic and a slice or two of imported orange or lemon or lime. So no, for me, give me that local gin straight, maybe over one of those huge ice cubes so I can taste that local flavor the distiller has been working to present. I guess I’m swimming upstream against today’s cocktail culture — more interested in the distiller’s art than the mixologist’s.


  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #192
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