In this episode, I dive deep into our Dutch tulip-themed trip last April. Before the tulip festival stories, I randomly wander through a potpourri of travel topics — TSA passenger volumes returning to pre-COVID levels, having a surprisingly satisfying customer service experience with American Airlines, Hertz’s EV push, and a bit of a chuckle about the misplaced visa panic in the news coverage of the EU’s impending ETIAS system. 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 #195:
Since The Last Episode
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios in Nashville, TN after a triangulating drive — Nashville to Annapolis, MD to New York City and then home. And in doing so, I have managed to miss/skip(?) the completion of the post-COVID travel recovery — at least according to TSA checkpoint passenger volumes. The TSA website continues to update a website page with numbers from 2019 to yesterday 2023 in a convenient table format for easy copy-pasting into Excel. Crunching the TSA numbers starting the Friday before Memorial Day, the generally accepted start of the summer travel season, passenger volumes are up, on average, 11% over last year and equal to pre-COVID 2019. So volumes have recovered, but on the airlines’ Q2 earnings calls, the CEOs again reminded their listeners that not all passengers are equal. Southwest’s CEO said “It’s clear that travel patterns post-pandemic are not what they were pre-pandemic,” as the airline said they’d shift planes from business-oriented short-haul routes to longer routes aimed at leisure travelers, and move some flights from start and end-of-the-day departures that flyers like me would book for same-day out-and-back trips.
- I’ve talked in previous episodes about how one of the things I really miss moving from Nashville to Chicago is direct flights to places. The other thing I miss — and pretty much on an equal weighting — is good Chinese food. I’ve found good Vietnamese food, solid Mexican — but haven’t found anything like what we would get in Chicago’s Chinatown. So when we hit New York City, we quickly found our way deep into Chinatown, joining the 20-30-person queue in front of a storefront bakery, Mei Lai Wah, for char siu bao, BBQ pork buns, one of our favorites — hoping they wouldn’t sell out before we got to the front of the line. Minutes tick by; the lines not moving. Then someone pops out of the bakery and yells “Anyone paying with cash, come up to the front!” As regular listeners know, I’m a knuckle-dragging cash carrier. My wallet full of twenties and I sprinted to the front. I studied the menu; the cashier said “All we have left is #1, #5, and #20.” “Fine, I’ll take two of each.” I gave her one of my twenties and walked back out to the street where my wife, my daughter, and I inhaled those fresh buns while the credit card gang kept waiting. It’s good to have options.
- Bridge Music — Brilliant Day by Hans Atom (c) copyright 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/hansatom/47919 Ft: Lisa DeBenedictis
- Long time listener Aaron Woodin left a comment on Twitter, or X, or whatever Elon is calling it this week…
- “Excellent podcast, Mark. I agree about Rotterdam – amazing city, underrated by tourists. I took a freighter cruise from there 5 yrs ago. Love that word Flâneuring – my pet term is “walk and gawk.”
- Aaron, thanks for that. A freighter cruise… that’s gotta be very cool. And “walk and galk” — I like that. But I think I like it even better if I can shoehorn the word “entropy” in there because it makes me feel that suffering through engineering thermodynamics was worth something. Maybe “entropic walking and galking.” Yeah, I like that!
- TravelCommons contributor Chris Chufo forwarded me a tweet saying “The way you say ‘representative’ to an automated system is the real you” and, as folks say nowadays, I felt seen. Mine is a crisp, demanding “Agent”, trying to pitch the tone and volume in just the right way to interrupt rather than wait through the 3 minutes of recorded verbiage. So when I had to call into American Airlines last week, it pulled me up short “Hi, Mark. In a few words, tell us what we can do for you?” And that was it. No long announcement, no litany of number presses, just silence… waiting…. “Uhh, I’d like to talk to an agent about a reservation.” “I’ll connect you to an agent. Your expected wait time is 1 hr… and 14 minutes.” OK, some things will never change.
- I had to call American because in their most recent retumbling of their JFK flight schedules, they’d shrunk the connection time to our flight from JFK to LHR from 6 hours (way too long!) to 1 hour — a bit too snug for my liking, especially given the delays at JFK — and LGA and EWR — caused by the ongoing shortage of air traffic controllers. In the last episode, I talked about the cascade of tiny delays that caused me to lose my wager on a snug sub-2 hr connection on our way home from AMS. But it was the end of our trip, so annoying, but not critical. Here, though, missing our outbound flight would absolutely not be a great way to start the trip. Though after reading about last weekend’s 60-plane departure queue at LGA, even a more reasonable 2½-hr connection time didn’t feel safe.
- So I skipped the hour-plus live agent queue for the chat feature in American’s app. I was pleasantly surprised to get connected to an agent in just a couple of minutes. I banged in my confirmation code and my ask — put us back on our original flight to JFK; I’d prefer to entertain myself for 6 hours rather than miss our flight. “Please give me 3-5 minutes to review your reservation.” Felt like a canned response the agent hit a button to send — which was fine with me. Being on chat rather than a live call, I could wander around, get other things done while checking the screen every now and again for a response. Which I eventually got — “I’ll have to transfer you to one of my colleagues”. That’s fine. We’re 20 minutes in, so even with this, I’m still doing better than the live call queue. And, in a couple of minutes when the next agent popped on, asking me how he could help, I just copy-pasted my answers to the same questions from the first agent. And then I waited for it — one second, two seconds, “Please give me 3-5 minutes to review your reservation.” Just like clockwork. Eventually he came back “As your original flight isn’t available, would the direct BNA-LHR flight work?” Uh, yes, but it’s actually a British Airways flight. I’d looked at that flight, but it has a boatload more fees — fuel surcharges, landing taxes. “No additional charges?” I asked. “No, it’s free of cost,” he replied. I screenshotted the chat screen and told him I’d take it. Problem solved with an even better option — a direct flight — and all in less than the hour hold time for a live agent. Maybe not quite as personal as talking to someone, but it got it done.
- I’m flying up to Portland, Maine and need a rental car for a side trip further up the coast, to Bar Harbor, to Acadia National Forest for a bit of hiking. So I hit the Hertz site and got a big push to rent an EV, an electric vehicle. Looking at the prices, it was more than a standard car, but not that much more. So I was intrigued. But as I walked down the booking path, it was the same as a regular car; no guidance on what I think of as EV-specific things, like how do I pay for charging — do I need to set up an account with someone, maybe download an app — and what’s the EV equivalent to having to return the car with a full tank? So I backed out, did a Google search which, as I’d expected, did a better job of landing me on the right pages on Hertz’s website than Hertz did. It’s interesting. If you use a Tesla Supercharger, Hertz passes through the charge to your card, but without a mark-up — unlike what they do with toll charge transponders. And returning the car full? Hertz wants it above 70% or they’ll charge you $35 for the EV version of a refill charge — which I didn’t think was unreasonable. So now I hit Tesla’s website looking for chargers. There’s one at a shopping mall in Portland, but nothing near my hotel downtown. And the ones around Bar Harbor are at hotels that I’m not staying at. I’m tempted, but it feels a bit more of a hassle than I want to sign up for. But it feels like they’re getting close, at least Hertz is. Maybe it’ll work out for my next rental.
- I got a bit of a chuckle out of the recent flurry of travel stories about the coming of ETIAS — the European Travel Information and Authorization System, the EU’s version of the US’s ESTA, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, a pre-departure authorization for travelers who aren’t required to have a visa. I chuckled because we talked about this back in January, in episode #192, when I dug into ETIAS in case we needed it for our April tulip festival trip to the Netherlands. I found out we didn’t — by that point, the May 2023 go-live had been pushed back to November 2023, and looking at the ETIAS website now, it’s been pushed again, now to much more ambiguous “sometime in 2024.” So I’m not sure what caused the sudden interest, but the number of news stories that were just plain wrong — incorrectly wailing “Oh, now we’ll need a visa to go to Europe” in spite of what is said in the first paragraphs of just about every EU website page about ETIAS (phrases like “The ETIAS authorization is not a visa”) — just makes me shake my head.
- And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along to firstname.lastname@example.org — you can send a Twitter (X?) message to mpeacock like Aaron did, post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page or the Instagram account at travelcommons — or you can skip all that social media stuff and post your comments on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
- And a quick program note – at the end of this episode, there’ll be a bit of a meta-discussion — the podcast talking about the podcast — about having to DIY my own podcast metrics reporting. Probably not terribly interesting for most folks, hence me stuffing it in the ending, the part most folks skip over. But if you’re interested, hold off on hitting the “skip track” button when you hear the “Pictures of You” wrap-up music.
- Bridge Music — Natchoongi (New Hope Remix) by Suenjo (c) copyright 2007 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0)
Notes on Holland’s Tulip Festival
- As I mentioned in the last couple of episodes, Irene and I did a 10-day swing through the Netherlands in April, all centered around the tulip festival — the tulip parade, the tulip gardens — and then building other stuff around that. Which meant that the usual Holland tourist destination, Amsterdam, wasn’t; and instead our entry and exit point with a night or two tacked on to make the logistics easier; especially after we couldn’t score tickets to the big Vermeer (Girl with the Pearl Earring) exhibit at the Rijksmuseum. Having said that, we still managed to hit a couple of places for some unique Dutch-ness — Van Dobben, a 70-some-year-old sandwich joint that’s known for their beef croquettes which, I’m told, is classic Dutch bar food — a 3-4 inch long rectangle of deep-fried, breaded creamed beef served on a bun with mustard. They were fine, though they seem like the kind of food best appreciated at 2 in the morning rather than noon. The better thing about Van Dobben was sitting at the counter, watching the waitresses give their customers — a mix of construction workers, local shop owners, office workers, and not too many tourists — a good natured hard time. We then had to walk off those little gastric depth charges because we had dinner that night at Vinkeles, a great restaurant that received its second Michelin star the week we visited. The food was great — highly recommended. We showed up early for a pre-dinner cocktail at the bar, which Irene did. But I audibled at the last minute, telling the bartender I’d never had genever — the Dutch ancestor to gin — and asked for his direction. He brought over two small tulip glasses filled to the rim, one with a clear liquid, the other a light amber, a barrel-aged genever. There was no room for ice in those little tulips; the genevers were served neat, at room temperature. It was a nice introduction. I managed to fit in a few more of those full little tulip glasses before the end of our trip.
- We actually organized the whole itinerary around Haarlem because it seemed more or less ground-zero for our tulip-ing: the Tulip Parade, kinda the Dutch version of the Rose Parade, ended there Saturday night after an all-day wander through villages to the south; and it wasn’t far from the big tulip displays at the Keukenhof Gardens. Heading down to the Keukenhof was the only time app-based travel payment didn’t work. The bus line had an app, but it didn’t seem completely connected to their web site, which is where I bought our tickets. And the web site said we had to have physical printed tickets; showing the PDF on our phone wouldn’t work. Lucky for us we were staying at a hotel in Haarlem rather than an Airbnb. The desk clerk happily printed our tickets for us.
- Ticket hassles aside, the Gardens were great. Walking through the parking lot, through the ranks of tour buses; I started to appreciate what a big thing this tulip festival is. But I also had a building sense of dread. Is this going to be a repeat of last year’s shoulder-to-shoulder crowds in Italy? No, it wasn’t. The Keukenhof was a big enough place to absorb everyone, with tulip beds everywhere, to spread everyone out across the grounds.
- But we didn’t really need to stay in Haarlem just to see these gardens; half the tour buses in the parking lot were day trips from Amsterdam. The next day, Saturday, we took advantage of Haarlem’s location, renting bikes and riding back down toward Tulip Ground Zero. Doing a spur-of-the-moment bike ride in the Netherlands is so easy — lots of bike rental places with reasonable day rates, lots of bike lanes (and bike-aware drivers), and mostly flat terrain — means you can have a good day out without needing to pack the whole Mamil — middle-aged men in lycra — kit. We headed southwest, pointed vaguely in the direction of the Tulip Barn, a tulip farm where you can pay to go wander and Instagram your way through their tulip fields. But a couple of miles from the Tulip Barn, I stopped at a big cycle network map to figure out our next turn. I could figure out that the red arrow labeled “U Staat Hier” meant “You Are Here”, but was taking a little longer to figure out the rest. In the meantime, Irene looked past the trees down one of the streets and saw a huge tulip field. We parked our bikes and joined, for free, the maybe 30 other people — families, couples — wandering around the tulip beds. Pink, red, orange, yellow, white — it was rows of tulips to the horizon. But it was also a working tulip field. Guys were putting on and pulling off bed covers, and, wildest thing, driving a little machine through the beds that snipped off the tulip flowers, leaving the tall stems; friend-of-the-show Chris Chufo said it looked like a tulip zamboni. I mean, “What the hell?” Turns out that this field and all the outdoor fields we saw, raise tulip bulbs, not flowers. The cut flowers are grown in covered fields and greenhouses. The tulip zamboni knocks off the outdoor blooms so the plant puts its energy into growing the bulb. I’m glad we got there when we did, and that there was only one guy running the zamboni. Check the show notes; I’ll see if I can post my video of the tulip topping.
- Later that night — much later, the Tulip Parade finally made it to Haarlem. A band warmed up the waiting crowd playing ‘50’s and early ‘60’s rock-and-roll using a vintage Cadillac convertible as their stage — which would’ve fit in in, say, Nashville, but seemed a bit odd in western Holland. But only to me, I guess, because the crowd loved it. When the floats finally arrived, they did not disappoint. The craftsmanship was excellent; they were all decorated, their surfaces completely covered with floral materials — tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, even cut-up bulbs and nut shells for brown and black colors, hence my earlier comparison to the Rose Parade. It also reminded me of smaller Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans — the float sponsors seemed very local — nearby car and farm equipment dealerships — local marching bands. No bead tossing, but a lot of folks running over to hand out things to the people lined up along the route. It was just the right size — big enough to support the craftsmanship needed for high-quality floats, but not so big that the local sponsors get elbowed out by big multinational corporations. One more advantage of our Haarlem location — at the end of the parade, they parked the floats along the road at the end of the route. At the end of the night and again the next morning, we were able to walk up close to them, which made me appreciate the craftsmanship even more.
- I’m in no way, shape, or form, any sort of gardener. I have, at best, a black thumb. And I’m not a big flower guy. I saw lots of guys with big full-frame digital cameras setting up tripods over tulip beds for what I can only imagine was an effort to capture the perfect flower pic — whatever that may be. But I came back way more impressed than I expected to be with the beauty of the flat Dutch countryside in bloom.
- Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #195
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- OK, now to the promised meta-content. I’ve used Chartable for a couple of years now to give me some basic episode download metrics — how many downloads in the first 7 days, in the first 30 days of an episode posting, in total — whatever comes with the free version. Nothing fancy — I’m not trying to sell ads; it’s for my own edification and enjoyment. The standard pattern is a big spike in downloads on the day I post the episode and then a steady growth after that. Usually the total downloads after 7 days number is 40-45% of an episode’s total downloads after a year. So anyhow, for the last episode, the Day 1 number was 6. Huh. Maybe Chartable is having some backend hiccups; I’ve seen it take a day for numbers to start populating. So I look again the next day — same thing. Huh. Same thing every day that week. Now this behavior I haven’t seen before. Where did everyone go? I recheck all my podcast apps — Overcast, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Podcast Addict — yup, the episode is there. So what happened? Since I self-host TravelCommons — because back in 2005 when I started, there was no other alternative — I can look at the server logs. So look at the June and July logs — yup, I can see more than 6 downloads of episode #194. Which then sends me down a new rabbit hole — why rely on Chartable when I can do it myself, maybe write my own download counting program? But I’m not any sort of programmer… which led me again to ChatGPT. Everyone’s talking about how generative AI will replace programmers, so I thought I’d give it a go. I typed “Write a python program to print out total counts of downloaded podcasts reported in an Apache web log file” into the box at the bottom of the ChatGPT web page, clicked the little arrow icon, and Boom!, out burped a program. And it actually ran, and did what I asked. Turns out my ask needed a bit of refinement, but after maybe 30-45 minutes, I had a pretty solid output, which I then pulled into Excel to slice and dice and graph and pivot because I kinda got tired of torturing ChatGPT… or myself; I’m not sure which. But anyhow, generative AI won’t completely replace programmers and the like (at least not yet), but it does work… at, maybe, 80% of its current hype. Just thought I’d share a little of my own personal experience.
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