Doing a bit of winter travel, the bar tab from waiting out a weather delay got me rethinking the economics of airport lounge memberships. Doing yet more travel planning but with a focus on making the most of the points and miles we accumulated on credit cards during the pandemic. And after eight months in Nashville, I compare the two sides of the local music scene — the Nash-Vegas honky tonks vs the smaller, eclectic off-Broadway scene. 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 #193:
Since The Last Episode
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios in Nashville, TN after a couple of bits of travel; to Chicago at the end of January because, really, that’s the garden time of the year in Chicago — waking up to subzero temperatures, wind howling off the lake. Yup, good times; really missed it. But the next month, flying to and from Albuquerque, NM for some skiing in Taos, reminded me of something I really miss about Chicago — direct flights to almost everywhere in the US. ABQ is about the same distance from Chicago as it is from Nashville. But what’s a 3¼ hour direct flight from Chicago turned out to be a 6½ hour journey from Nashville, complete with a coffee stop in Houston. Back in episode #187, I talked about having to adjust my mental travel calculus, my travel reflexes, to not living in an airport hub city — for the first time in about 40 years. Those extra 3 hours made that adjustment very real.
- When we landed, we met up with our daughter Claire and hopped the bus to the rental car center to see what Hertz had waiting for us. There were 5 of us skiing, so I wanted to get the biggest vehicle they had, but I was playing a bit of chicken with Hertz. I had enough Hertz points to cover a large car for the week, but they’d only let me cover 1 day of a specialty class like an SUV. With all the car rentals quoting $100/day, I slammed my points down on the large car and hoped there was some sort of an SUV in the Five Star row when we got there. So when we rocked up to the Hertz lot, my heart sank just a bit; there was nothing in the Five Star row. After a minute of staring at the empty spaces, a woman came out of the office “Oh, we’ve upgraded you to President’s Circle. I turn 90 degrees and see an entire row of SUVs. We picked the biggest one, a Ford Explorer with 16,000 miles and captain’s chairs for everyone. Started the trip off on the right note.
- The trip home at the end of the week, everyone’s flight was blown sideways by the big winter storm two days before. It didn’t surprise us; it had blown off the mountain with 50-70 mph winds, so we weren’t surprised when the flight delay notices started dinging our iPhones. United hit us with a 2-hour delay (our plane didn’t make it out of Fresno the night before), but since we had a 3-hr layover in DEN, the only thing that changed was which airport bar we were killing time in.
- Claire caught the worst of it, though, trying to get home to New York. With no direct flights between ABQ and LGA, she had to connect through ORD. The flight out went without a hitch. The flight back… the first leg, ABQ-ORD, was fine. It was the ORD-LGA leg that went badly wrong, which surprised me because those flights, between ORD and LGA, are like a shuttle, every hour, like clockwork. But for Claire, the shuttle broke… literally. After an hour delay, they loaded up the plane, de-iced the wings, and then found out an engine was broken, so back to the gate where — you guessed it — it can’t be fixed. 2½ hours past departure time, Claire pings me — “it’s starting to snow; I doubt I’m getting on any plane tonight.” “Don’t write it off yet”, I told her. “It’s not a weather issue, so American will have to pay for a hotel and breakfast for the 120 or so people on that plane. That fact alone will cause them to look hard for another plane for you.” And that’s exactly what they did. It took them a few hours to scrounge one up but Claire got home that night… or rather that morning, at 3am. Always amazes me how an airline can figure out a solution when it’s their money on the line.
- Bridge Music — Ianiscus by Javolenus (c) copyright 2013 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. Ft: Wired_Ant
- Back to waiting out that flight delay in ABQ, my bar tab from waiting out the 2-hr delay got me re-thinking my stance on airport lounges, especially now that the US ones have upped their game on food and alcohol. It wouldn’t have changed anything in ABQ. It’s too small; no lounges. Indeed, I think we were at the only bar. But elsewhere… when we fly internationally, I usually get lounge access through my United or American status. In the US, I gave up my American and then United lounge memberships years ago because I wasn’t using them. I love American Express’s Centurion Lounges but charging $50 to bring a guest in and hiking the annual fee for the Platinum card to $695, the math just didn’t work for me. I could just do day passes; maybe use Loungebuddy for that. Or run the math on the not-quite-Platinum cards from Chase and Capital One, the ones that include Priority Pass membership. I dunno; a couple of avoided bar tabs may cover their annual fees.
- In the last episode, wading into the debate between booking direct with an airline or hotel or through a 3rd party, I told the story about how a — how do I say this politely? — false/misleading/just plain wrong property listing on Booking.com tricked us into booking a night in a place that looked to be much more geared to hourly stays, if you know what I mean. And how Booking.com did absolutely nothing to resolve our dispute. Long-time listener Nick Gassman pointed me to a Guardian article where a Booking.com customer wrote to the consumer affairs reporter with a very similar experience (dare I say “scam”?) — misleading listing, shock when opening the door to the actual place, walking/running away to find another place to stay, getting dinged with a night’s charge for being a “no show”, and then Booking.com going “palms up” when asked to fix it. The interesting twist on this one was — with the host reporting them as “no shows”, they couldn’t leave a review on the property to warn others. Nick also sent me a link to a Reddit post about a guy going to arbitration with Airbnb, also disputing a “no show” when he canceled a place that had security cameras on the inside of a studio apartment. These are reminders that, for all their web pages and press releases with large boldface headlines, “trust and safety”, their legal terms & conditions in a much smaller font says that all they do is connect hosts and guests; they’re not party to that transaction and don’t have any control over the quality or safety of your experience. I’m not saying don’t use them. We use Booking and Airbnb all the time, and have had 1, maybe 2 or 3, bad experiences. What I am saying is, go in eyes wide open. In this very hot travel market, Booking and Airbnb feel they need to take care of hosts right now more than they do guests.
- In episode #191, I said “In more travel document good news, the US State Department opened up on-line passport renewals on what they’re calling a ‘limited release’.” Well, listener Rob Holbrook isn’t feeling the good vibes. Rob said “I tried the renewal portal but it was constantly down, and then they shut it down completely. I’m not sure if the pilot outlived its usefulness, if passport renewal is too complex to do on-line, or if it opened up unexpected security risks.” The State Department shut down the renewal portal in early February to “implement customer feedback to improve the process.” Back then, they said it would be back up in March; now they’re saying “TBD” I’m just hoping they’re not using the same IT gang that coded up the first version of the Obamacare HealthCare.gov site. So we’re back to sending paper forms in, and the wait time is slowly creeping up — before spring break season, State was saying 8-11 weeks; last week, they added 2 weeks; now estimating 10-13 weeks. If you’re planning to hit Europe this summer, you need to sprint down to Walgreens for that passport photo right now!
- And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along to like Nick and Rob did 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 — In Peace (Somewhere Else Mix) by cdk (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. Ft: Snowflake
Still Overthinking Travel Planning
- Last summer, back in episode #188, I talked about getting a great frequent flier deal on my Croatia-Italy flights, completely busting through the traditional 2¢/mile benchmark. It got me thinking that maybe the inflation in award redemption requirements hadn’t kept up with the real dollar cost increases for flights, and that I was shooting that gap to get a smokin’ deal. Well, when booking flights to go over to the Netherlands next month, I’m here to tell you — that gap has snapped shut. I first started looking at KLM, the Dutch airline, and its SkyTeam partner Delta in hopes of a decent flight selection and, as importantly, I have a slug of Amex Membership Rewards points I’m looking to burn off, and KLM and Delta are transfer partners. But after a couple of hours of twisting our travel plans in knots around their flight matrices, the best I could get was ¾ of a cent/mile — so those Amex points are still there. Next up, British Airways because they have a direct flight to LHR from Nashville, but I quickly ran into the same problem I always have with BA Avios points — they don’t cover fuel surcharges and, for some reason, BA prices their fares low and slams a big fuel surcharge on top of it. I dunno why they do it — maybe there’s a tax angle there somewhere. The final ticket price comes out the same as other carriers, but a flight booked with a similar amount of miles ends up requiring a huge cash payment, like 2-3 times what other carriers want. So the Avios points also stay put; maybe I’ll push them over to Iberia for a trip to Spain or Portugal next year. What started with a couple of numbers scrawled on a piece of paper quickly turned into a spreadsheet with columns for the different possible travel windows — leaving on a Weds vs. a Thurs, returning on a Fri vs. Saturday — 3 rows for each carrier, the first cell in the matrix the cost of buying the ticket straight out, the second cell split between miles and cash payment, the third cell the cents per mile calc — is it worth burning the points or just buying the ticket. After all that, the best deal was on United at 1.54¢/mile — a bit off 2¢/mile, but looking at valuation tables on The Points Guy, Bankrate, and Frequent Miler websites, I could see it was a solid deal and booked it.
- Although, I have to say that I paid more attention than usual to the United routings after reading a NY Times article that long-time listener and contributor Chris Chufo sent me about the hassles people are having getting refunds or compensation from Lufthansa, United’s trans-Atlantic Star Alliance partner. Reading through the litany of complaints surprised me. I’ve flown Lufthansa a lot — I feel I know their hub, Frankfurt Airport, better than any other European airport — and I can’t recall any big issue I’ve had with their service. Indeed, back in 2013 when flying Lufthansa home from a family vacation, a weather delay in… Amsterdam caused us to miss our connection home from Frankfurt. I talked about it in episode #106; we had no problem getting hotel and food vouchers and getting re-booked on the next morning’s flight out. Great service, no arguments — and we were flying on United miles. It was the complete opposite treatment we’d expect from, say, United. But that was then. This NY Times article quotes a German travel industry exec saying that Lufthansa got aggressive about swerving EU customer protection laws during COVID. Was this just their reaction to a pandemic-caused cash crunch? Or is it a new set point, cutting costs in customer service to fund lower fares to match up better with European budgeteers like Ryanair and WizzAir and Easyjet? I hope not. But still, when booking this trip to Amsterdam, I clicked through to the flight details to make sure I hadn’t booked a Lufthansa code-share, that I was flying on United metal. Which is quite the change; 10 years ago, it was the other way around; when I was looking for what I thought was much better Lufthansa service.
- Bridge Music —Blue Like Venus by spinningmerkaba (c) copyright 2012 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. Ft: Admiral Bob
Nashville vs. Nash-Vegas
- As I mentioned at the start of episode #188, in July we relocated the TravelCommons studio — and the rest of our worldly belongings — from Chicago to Nashville. After 25 years into my 4th tour of duty in Chicago, I wanted a change of scenery. And it definitely has been that — moving from the 3rd most populous city in the US to the 20th; from the 8th highest population density to the 178th most dense of the US’s top 200 cities. We joke that whenever we put an address into Google Maps, it could be completely on the other side of the city, but no matter how far away it looks, we’d hit the Directions button and be told it’s only a 15-minute drive. It took us 15 minutes just to get out of our neighborhood in Chicago.
- When we told friends our move plans, just about everyone replied, “Oh, we love Nashville. We look forward to visiting.” Once we got down here and started knocking around, we realized that what they were all talking about was “Nash-Vegas” — the 5 blocks of honky tonks on Lower Broadway, the 3 blocks over to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the open-air party buses cruising the perimeter full of bachelorette partiers yelling out at every red light. It’s definitely something to be seen, and it brings a steady stream of tourists. I’m always amazed how full the Broadway sidewalks are at, say, 11:30am on a Tuesday. As you might’ve guessed, we’re not often on Broadway.
- But that’s not to say the tourists have it completely wrong; Nashville is Music City with a capital “M”. If you fly in on Southwest or American, it starts with walking past live music at Tootsie’s as you walk up Concourse C. And then it just continues. Irene and I are convinced that there’s a law requiring any gathering of 10 or more people to have a stage with a live performer. The first couple of months we were down here, we hit all the area farmers’ markets we could find, and just about every one had a stage with a singer/songwriter and a guitar or a full-on band. Peak Nashville for us was when we were in line at a local hot chicken joint watching a guy with a guitar set up his gear and start to place just inside the entry door. It was like having live music at a McDonald’s. I was talking to a bartender at an East Nashville place called Vinyl Tap — a beer bar/vinyl record store/live music venue (of course). We got talking; he’d moved down from New York City to be a session trombone player. And that’s not an uncommon conversation. In New York and LA, bartenders are working between acting gigs. In Nashville, they’re musicians between sessions.
- And so we’ve waded into the live music scene, much more than we did in Chicago. In January, we made the rounds of Monday night singer/songwriter open mic nights. Some were pretty informal – at a microbrewery, Tennessee Brew Works, the MC put out a legal pad at 5pm for people to sign up and then took them in that order, each person doing 2 songs. At Bluebird Cafe, very famous place, a bit more structure — on-line sign-ups opened at 11am. That night, there were two lines to get in — to the left of the front door, the folks who made it on the list, lined up to play their best song to the people who lined up to the right of the door, who showed up to listen. And everyone, listeners and signers, sat together in the audience. Irene and I ended up at a two-top right in front of the stage. On our left was a guy who drove in from Clarksville, TN to play and his wife. Behind us was a table full of Canadians including a woman from Quebec who sang in French, and a guy who’d flown in from Vancouver that morning just to play his song on that stage. And he wasn’t the only one; there were people on the stage who had driven in from Houston, Little Rock, Michigan, Nebraska…. I hadn’t realized how big a draw this music scene is.
- Maybe 3 weeks ago, I saw a blurb on Twitter about a show put on by the “Pedal Steel Guitar Arts Council.” Now that felt very Nashville. At $15/ticket, how could we go wrong? Plus, it was at the performance space at Jack White’s Third Man Records which had been on Irene’s list of places to check out. So, we went. Back to my bartender discussions, one thing I noticed early on going to shows in Nashville is how many working musicians there are here — not hobbyists, not passion project people, but people whose main paying job is to play music — session musicians, live backing musicians. And some of these smaller shows are session musicians getting up on stage with their friends to play, often to an audience of other friends and family. At this show, when the first steel guitar player hit the stage, a little girl behind us called out “Hey, grandpa!” It ended up being a very interesting show, one that immediately attacked the stereotype of pedal steel guitars as twangy country music instruments. Grandpa was followed by a father-and-son pedal steel-and-cello duo, who were followed by a guy doing pedal steel ambient music. Very interesting stuff, and stuff I’m not sure I’d see anywhere else.
- Maybe it’s those Broadway honky tonk cover bands and the mainstream country music recording sessions that pay the bills, and so let’s these musicians play different (some might say “weird”) stuff on their own time. But if/when you get down to Nashville, spend an afternoon, a night on Lower Broadway — because how can you say you’ve been here and not do that — but save some time to check out the smaller places, the open mic nights. Make sure you see the Nashville music scene, not just the Nash-Vegas one.
- Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #193
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