Meetings WiFi Sucks – So What?

by Robert McGarvey

The question isn’t does meetings and events wifi suck – of course it does – the real question is why and maybe, honestly, the realer question is so what?

Let’s unravel this. For at least a decade event attendees have kvetched about wifi – mainly its slowness, sometimes its plain unavailability. I still recall, with a crooked smile on my lips, a travel tech conference I attended around 10 years ago at a plush Scottsdale meetings hotel where even the press table lacked wifi. Picture a half dozen travel tech reporters cursing and, well, you have the picture. Personally I giggled because I knew what I was witnessing was a lot better story than what I would have filed had the press table been equipped with functioning wifi.

The venue simply had underestimated demand for wifi and the demand crushed the inadequate signal that was provided.

How funny is that at a tech conference? Of course even I started to curse when I discovered my cellphone hotspot had no signal in the hotel basement where this event was held.

Incidentally, I don’t think that hotel was doing anything nefarious to block my hotspot – I believe it was just the location. But know that in the past some hotels in fact have blocked hotspots and had their wrists slapped by the FCC. Marriott even paid a $600,000 fine for such misdeeds.

Flashforward to now and I believe the usual wifi problem remains too many devices accessing too anemic a signal. Why? Usually it’s an unwillingness to spend what would be required to provide an adequate signal. That was true in 2009 and it is true today. In fact not much has changed over the past decade. Ask event planners and some 58% of meeting planners say weak or unavailable wifi has negatively impacted their events, according to data via EventMB.

This is an occasion for much teeth gnashing – vide the recent Skift article, Why Is Wi-Fi at Events Still So Bad? Reported Skift; “Sluggish internet speeds, a network that suddenly cuts out, and odd corners of the room that somehow have adequate service as long as you hold your phone at a specific angle. These are the problems that nearly every conference attendee, trying in vain to use the provided Wi-Fi, has faced at least once, especially at a large event.

“In fact, providing good Wi-Fi is one of the top challenges meeting planners face, with over half reporting ongoing issues with it.”

But maybe it is for the better entirely.

How so? There’s a long history of fake and malicious event wifi that usually aim at harvesting user log in data, sometimes have loftier aims such as downloading malware to users’ computers. It’s easy enough. Under $1000 in gear, usually put in a cheap travel bag, will create the wifi network, then name it, Free Event WiFi or [Hotel] Meetings WiFi.

If you build it, and say it is free, they will log in.

There’s also no real guarantee of safety when using genuine event wifi. Public wifi networks – especially at hotels (airports too) – have a long history of hacker eavesdropping. Public wifi just is not safe. Is it fine for checking scores on ESPN and the front page at WAPO? Probably. How about your checking account? Nope.

What about company email? Nope.

Here’s the deal: I don’t whine about feeble event wifi because, very probably, I won’t use it. I prefer to use a cellphone hotspot. Sure, I pay a few cents in data use – but to me that is a small price to pay for enhanced security.

When the cellphone hotspot isn’t powerful enough, lately I’ve used the built in VPN on my Google Fi phone to add protection to wifi access. Sure, I know VPN isn’t the security fix-all – but when public wifi is all I have on my cellphone I will use VPN to add at least a little security. And I will still mind what sites I access. My rule of thumb: if you don’t mind if a cyber criminal is looking over your shoulder as you surf, the sites are fine for access via public wifi with a VPN.

Bottomline: event wifi sucks. But that is okay by me. I don’t trust it, I urge you to similarly approach it with suspicion, and that is how to stay safe. If use it you must, use a VPN – even better use a secure browser such as Silo.

But stop complaining. Accept that wifi at your next event will suck, and be thankful. When you don’t use it you are safe.

Can Air Travel Make You Sick?

by Robert McGarvey

It’s that time of year: wherever I fly to it’s as though the plane is a sick ward or so it seems amid the coughs and sneezes that fill the air. The question is: can flying make you sick?

I ask the same question in church, at theaters, wherever I will sit for an hour or three amid people who are coughing. But I especially ask it on planes because the quarters are snug, the air is recirculated, and at one point I kept track of diseases and my flying and it honestly seemed that about half the time I in fact came down with a cold or flu after flights in the prime cold and flu season. Was this in my mind? Or do we in fact expose ourselves to disease when we fly?

Understand, airlines can and sometimes do refuse to board an ill passenger. According to the World Health Organization, the judgment hinges on whether the passenger “is fit to travel, needs medical attention or presents a danger to other passengers and crew or to the safety of the aircraft.” The decision rests with the captain. And of course we all remember flying with obviously ill people so enforcement of this right to exclude is not consistent. I do not personally know anybody who has been denied boarding due to illness, at least nobody has told me they have been and people tell me all manner of airline horror stories, just not one about exclusion due to illness.

Also know that airplanes are filthy in many instances. Travelmath sent a microbiologist to collect samples from five airports and four flights and it reported “airports and airplanes are dirtier than your home .”

It elaborated: “Surprisingly, it is the one surface that our food rests on – the tray table – that was the dirtiest of all the locations and surfaces tested. Since this could provide bacteria direct transmission to your mouth, a clear takeaway from this is to eliminate any direct contact your food has with the tray table.”

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, in a broader study, concluded similar. But it found that the headrest is the most contaminated item on a plane.

It added: “the most concerning finding…was E. coli bacteria detected on both the seat pocket and the headrest. The presence of E. coli indicates fecal contamination, and the bacteria can cause intestinal infections, with symptoms that can include diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain.”

It is a very good idea to bring wipes on a flight and to wipe down the tray table, headrest, and the arm rests. Sure, you may look kooky to fellow passengers – but you are disinfecting and they probably aren’t. Who’s more likely to get sick?

And be meticulous about washing your hands.

The omnipresent airplane contamination sets the stage for the big question: if you fly on a plane with passengers suffering from infectious diseases (colds, flus, etc) are you likely to get sick? Researchers have looked at exactly that question. Their paper starts this way: “With over 3 billion airline passengers annually, the inflight transmission of infectious diseases is an important global health concern. Over a dozen cases of inflight transmission of serious infections have been documented, and air travel can serve as a conduit for the rapid spread of newly emerging infections and pandemics.”

The upshot, per the Telegraph, is that it’s not our imagination that we can get sick because we flew: “if you are seated within a row or two seats of an infected passenger you have an 80 per cent chance of catching a bug.”

Another take-away: “the study showed that a sick cabin crew member was likely to infect an average of 4.6 passengers per flight, and that those seated in the middle and aisle seats, due to their proximity to crew, were at the greatest risk.”

Remember that: it’s not just fellow passengers but also crew who may be infectious.

Bottomline: you are not imagining that you caught a cold on your last flight – not if you were seated next to a cougher.

Can you protect yourself? If you can, change seats. Get yourself at a remove from a person you believe to be ill and that is buying yourself some better health because just about all research indicates that proximity is key in spreading diseases inflight.

Put aside the scare headlines and, really, flights are not that risky for our health, not even in cold and flu season. Take a few precautions and probably you’ll be fine – especially if you can keep a distance from obviously ill passengers and crew.

Flight Shaming Takes Off

by Robert McGarvey

Just when you perhaps thought it safe to shrug off flygskam – aka flight shaming – a new investor note out of Citigroup is a slap in the face. The Citi bottomline: this stuff is serious and it will impact you.

Per Bloomberg, “The cost of offsetting planes’ carbon emissions could become as much as 10 times higher than the airline industry currently estimates, Citi analysts including Mark Manduca said in a note on Wednesday. For economy seats alone, the cost could balloon to $3.8 billion a year by 2025, hurting airlines’ earnings, they said.”

Germany, meantime, is boosting carbon taxes on air travel by as much as 75% in 2020.

Sweden has had a tax for over a year.

Other nations will follow.

At least some men apparently have a problem accepting Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen who has become the poster person for the flygskam movement, but face up to the fact that we have significant environmental issues that need dealing with. And air travel is part of the problem.

Yes, I know there are political figures who don’t see matters this way and, no, I don’t care what they think anymore than I care what flat earthers or anti-vaxxers think.

Besides, the Citi note changes the equation. What it says is that flygskam is no longer a fringe issue, that in fact it will impact all of us who climb on airplanes.

The Bloomberg piece continued: “‘The so-called winners of this generational shift will likely be the rail operators, governments, forest owners and carbon schemes,’ the Citi analysts said.”

Meantime, at least some researchers are saying airlines should be coerced into ending frequent flier mile awards mainly because this causes bad behaviors. Suggested one report on its list of recommended actions: “Introduce regulation to ban frequent flyer reward schemes that stimulate demand. “

Do I think we will soon see a drop in business travel via air? I see companies trimming the number of trips – and making contributions to carbon offset funds. I also see companies nudging more of us to climb behind the wheel of our cars or, even better, hopping on a train (read this Chris Barnett column on the glory of train travel in Canada).

Mainly, though, I see business travel carrying on – there will be reductions in the number of flights, very possibly some private plane shaming (said to produce 10x more carbon per passenger than commercial planes), and many companies will mount PR campaigns to highlight the good they will tell us they do for the environment.

Frequent business flyers – who log 6+ trips per year – individually produce a staggering 3.1 tons of carbon annually. There will be pressure to reduce that number and there will be public shaming. When everytime you say you are off on a trip, a child or grandchild sends you a photo of a starving polar bear, at some point you will cut back.

But that will be small changes to what I think may soon become a cataclysmic impact on leisure travel.

With business travel there are rationales – it is good for the economy, creates jobs, spreads the wealth, etc.

With leisure travel, good luck with the hunt for defenses.

Reported the New York Times: “Our climate just can’t tolerate widespread frequent flying,” said Dan Rutherford, a director at the International Council on Clean Transportation . “At some level we need to figure out, collectively, which flights are necessary, and which are luxuries.”

Leisure fights, they are talking about you.

Have you ever whimsically hopped on a plane from Newark to Madrid, mainly because the price was so low and it’d been a while since you toured the Prado? I have (it’s one of my personal favorite trips of all time) and I have impulsively flown across the Atlantic to Dublin, also to Berlin, many times to both in fact.

How cool was it when you are asked how was your weekend and the answer is, ah, the Guinness was grander on the banks of the River Liffey.

And now you just may get booed or mocked, maybe bombarded with skinny polar bear pix.

The days of impulsively flying 3000 miles to start a four day weekend are over.

Face reality: when the Wall Street guys go bearish on air travel because of carbon concerns, it’s time for a rethink. And the real question now has to be: Do I need to go? The other question: Do I have to fly? And in 2019 expect to hear as many no’s as yesses.

A Fraud Epidemic Engulfs Airlines

by Robert McGarvey

Online fraud in the aviation sector is up – by a lot. 61% to use the number offered by Forter. “The fraud prevention specialist says the rise can be attributed to loyalty programs as well as data breaches, such as that suffered by British Airways just over a year ago,” reports Phocuswire.

Last week I reported that airlines were doing better than hotels in fighting cybercriminals. But just maybe the fortunes of airlines have shifted from positive to a shambles. Forter’s new numbers tell the sad story.

What’s stunning is that in 2018 fraud attacks on the airline industry in fact went down, 28%.

However, Forter plainly said this was no cause for joy. In its report the company noted: “This indicates that the large data hacks within the industry, some of which made passport information available along with other stolen data, have yet to be reused to commit air travel fraud. This data is valuable enough to be leveraged for fully fledged identity theft (which may have many stages) rather than ‘thrown away’ on a single fraud attempt.”

That prophecy has come true in 2019 with the steep jump in airline fraud – particularly involving miles and loyalty, according to the just released numbers.

Forter especially highlighted this fraud in its most recent fraud index: “Loyalty fraud increased by 89% year over year, while the total dollar amount in online fraud increased by 12% year over year. “

In some respects this is not exactly news. As I wrote last week, “Loyalty programs have for some years been hacker targets. ” The reasons are plain. Most of us are lax about keeping tabs on loyalty accounts and the miles and points are easy for a thief to turn into cash equivalents. Airline tickets are always salable – but so are airline points and miles because they readily convert to air travel.

Loyalty programs are especially vulnerable because companies strive to deliver a frictionless experience – and where there is no friction, generally the on ramp for fraudsters is that much more welcoming.

Said Forter: “As a result, loyalty point programs become more vulnerable to opportunistic fraudsters. Points accrued in a customer’s account are treated like digital goods — redemption is wholly conducted online, and requires no stolen credit card information to execute. Fraudsters are thereby able to leverage these points as ‘free’ funding sources and given the minimal
mitigation efforts by merchants, are able to consistently do damage without raising suspicions.”

The massive BA breach of course fueled much of the jump in airline related fraud. About 500,000 customer details were harvested in the breach.

Land travel incidentally also saw a jump in fraud, up 38%. Said Forter: “This increase is attributed to the fact that car rentals and ride services apply less friction in their platforms (ease of pick up in parking, no ID required, etc.), in order to remain competitive in the market and for the perceived better customer experience. The push for an excellent and friction-free customer experience has created vulnerabilities in these platforms, which fraudsters have been targeting.”

Protecting your accounts – especially your loyalty accounts – is squarely on you. Regularly check balances and, hey, I know it’s tempting not to bother until you want to cash in miles but wait until then and when you look, the miles may be gone.

Now also is a good time to log into any car rental accounts you have. Ditto Uber, Lyft, etc.

Focus in on the loyalty accounts because that’s where fraudsters are hunting. Personally I have in the past couple weeks set up new, complex passwords and I have also set up four airline accounts to work on biometrics. The goal: to never actually input the password and always to use the biometrics.

What to do if miles have in fact been pilfered from an airline account?Prepare for what may turn out to be a prolonged battle. Particularly when many months have elapsed between when a theft occurs and when it’s reported, some airlines are proving to be stubborn about restoring miles. You may get them, you may not, and a real key to success is quick notification on your part.

Which bring us back to our core advice to regularly check balances. How often is good enough? Personally I aim now for once monthly. You may check more frequently with high balance accounts, you may want less frequently with low balance accounts.

But know it’s up to you. Use a very strong password, use biometrics, and stay aware of account activity.

That’s how to protect what is yours. Because – plainly – it’s on you because you can’t depend on the airlines’ defenses.


The Safest Cities…and the Worst

By Robert McGarvey

Is Hong Kong safe? Seeing that headline in a travel publication I almost spit my coffee on the computer screen.

Understand, I would go to Hong Kong without hesitation.  There are places I would avoid – including the airport, on some days – but Hong Kong remains one of the safest cities I have spent time in.  

There are many very, very dangerous cities on this planet – many I would not want to go to – but in making such judgments I always remember that from 1973-1975 and again in 1977 I lived in Washington DC which at the time was a perennial contender for murder capital of the nation.  Was DC dangerous? Sure. Was I fearful? Nope.  I stuck in neighborhoods I believed to be safe and I was never a victim.

I also spent many nights in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the period 1989 to 2005 and were people murdered there? Personally, though, I again never felt frightened, never was a victim.  I was careful about where I went and I was very careful about my comportment (it would have been unwise to walk the Shankhill Road at night singing IRA songs). But with a modicum of prudence and discipline I found Belfast a pleasant place to spend time.

So I take sweeping characterizations of cities with a bit of suspicion.

But you want a crib sheet of cities to avoid? A starting point is this list of the most dangerous cities, according to the World Population Review.  

The worst 10:

Los Cabos

Caracas

Acapulco

Natal

Tijuana

La Paz

Fortaleza

Ciudad Victoria

Ciudad Guayana

How many have you been to?  Hell, I don’t even know where some are (Ciudad Victoria?).  I have been to Acapulco and Tijuana, and thought briefly about going to La Paz but never did.  The others hold no charm for me and probably not for many other travelers. 

The only city on the list that I have spent much time in is New Orleans and, you bet, it’s dangerous – but pick your places and I never felt frightened there, never was a victim, and I have walked a fair amount from the French Quarter through the Central Business District, at various hours of the night.

Pick your places, pick your routes, and for me that is a formula for safety. Guaranteed? Of course not.  But it’s gotten me through a half century of walking.

Along the way I also learned to disregard broadbrush labels. I use the same awareness in Phoenix as I did in Washington DC 40 years ago.  And I’d use the same awareness walking around Moscow…or Los Cabos…or Notting Hill.

As for the safest cities, the Economist offers up its list and, buckle up, here are the top five for personal security:

Singapore

Copenhagen

Hong Kong

Tokyo

Wellington

Yes, you read right. Hong Kong claims the third slot (and of course this list was compiled before the recent protests). Sure, the protests and the government reactions have complicated the formulas and expectations. But I’d still bet heavily I could walk for hours in Hong Kong and would encounter no threats.

You want to know where else is safe? Across multiple safety parameters (including digital, infrastructure, personal security), here are the top five cities per The Economist:

1. Tokyo

2. Singapore

3. Osaka

4. Amsterdam

5. Sydney

But I still think most places are safe enough. Use your eyes, use your ears and probably you will be safe.  When I don’t like how a specific neighborhood looks, I make haste to exit in search of safer ground.  

Back to where we started: is Hong Kong safe? Definitely a person could go to Hong Kong and have a very high risk stay.  Head for wherever the nearest largescale demonstration is and that will be a wish granted.

Me, I’d head in the opposite direction.  And I’m pretty sure I’d stay safe.

Hong Kong is too dangerous? Rubbish. That’s hysterical thinking, rather like saying Paris is too dangerous or New York is. Keep your wits about you and cities like that are usually very safe.

At least that has been my experience.

Why Hospitality Companies Are Cybersecurity Laggards

by Robert McGarvey

For some years I have reported on cybersecurity fails on the part of airlines, hotels, and miscellaneous other travel players. In the background always a question haunted me: why are so many travel companies so bad at cybersecurity? Sure, hackers hack just about everything but travel companies seem favorite targets, in part because they are indeed sources of valuable data of affluent people but also because, somehow, they just seem less capable at protecting their digital valuables (our digital valuables).

And now there’s a suggestion from Bitglass, a cloud app security broker, that just maybe hospitality companies are in fact utterly deficient in cybersecurity. In its report An Analysis of Cybersecurity in the Fortune 500, Bitglass said it “conducted research on the 2019 Fortune 500 in order to identify whether the world’s leading companies are prioritizing information security and customer privacy. Their websites were scoured for keywords, phrases, and executive security personnel in order to learn about the steps that they are taking to protect personally identifiable information (PII) and customer privacy.”

Bitglass added: “The results demonstrate that many organizations lack an authentic, lasting commitment to enhancing cybersecurity.”

It gets worse. Bitglass found that 77% of Fortune 500 companies “make no indication on their websites of who is responsible for their security strategy.”

Guess what sector is most derelict. Hospitality. 0% – none – have a named executive in charge of cybersercurity on their websites. And that’s despite the industry’s many breaches. Eight hospitality companies are in the Fortune 500, all failed.

Manufacturing is next worse. Only 8% name a cybersecurity exec on their websites. Telecom comes in third worst with 9%.

Hair splitting time. In this context “hospitality” refers mainly to hotel companies and some restaurant groups. Not airlines which are grouped under “transportation.”

Hospitality also comes in at the bottom regarding the percentage of companies with website info “about how they are protecting the data
of customers and partners.” Just 25% of hospitality companies offer this info, tied at the bottom with oil and gas companies and construction companies.

That double fail wins hospitality a starring role in Bitglass’ list of least security conscious industries.

Transportation, by the way, does much better. 57% list an executive in charge of cybersecurity and 36% have a statement. This is not to say breathe easily at airline sites (loyalty programs have had their hacker problems). But they do do better than their hotelier brethren.

Here’s the question that matters: What are we to do to stay safe? The start is accepting it is our job. Hospitality companies don’t have our backs. If we are to be safe it is because of what we do (or don’t do).

Rule one: Assume that any hospitality site you use will be hacked. Take that seriously. It means that any data you leave at the site may end up in criminals’ hands. Personally I am just as suspicious of airline sites. I follow the same precautions at both kinds.

Never use passwords that are used at important accounts – a credit union or bank, for instance – at a hospitality site. Hackers use computers to automate testing of stolen passwords at leading banks precisely because they know many of us are lazy and dumb and use a password at multiple locations. Just don’t.

Personally I use Google generated passwords at most hospitality and airline sites, mainly because I generally log in on a mobile phone with a fingerprint and a long, complex password is fine. Either way, though, remember that a hospitality site probably will be hacked.

Do keep tabs on anything of value that you have at hospitality websites. Loyalty programs have for some years been hacker targets. Your points may already have been stolen. A corrective is to regularly monitor balances. How often is enough? It depends upon how valuable a stash is. I think I have some Delta miles but couldn’t tell you when I last looked because I know there aren’t many.

But with the sites where I have large deposits of loyalty points I log in at least monthly. I can’t say I have personally seen miles stolen but I nonetheless do check regularly.

While you are at this, stop using hotel WiFi – it’s dangerous.

Personally, just this week I ignored my advice because my cellphone hotspot was anemic and I had free hotel WiFi via Hilton Honors and I was traveling with an old Chromebook that had no personal data on it. I also didn’t access any sensitive sites (banking for instance).

But whenever possible, use something safer than hotel WiFi.

Can you travel and not get hacked? Maybe. Sure in fact. I don’t believe I ever have been. But my inflexible advice is to always assume you will be hacked. That’s how to stay safer on the road.

Who’s Dumber – Us or Hoteliers?

by Robert McGarvey

Hoteliers know they have a problem in their little used lobby spaces and their similarly unused business centers but now they believe they have a solution and it involves a bet that we are dumber than they are. Here’s the Travel Weekly story. The subhead lays it out: “Hotel companies, recognizing that their public areas are often used as coworking venues anyway, have followed the example of WeWork and its temporary office spaces by renting out portions of their facilities as communal workplaces. But will guests pay to use space that has been free until now?”

It’s that last sentence that boils my blood.

Understand, I do not dispute that hotels might – perhaps even should – seek to impose charges on non guests that use their public spaces as offices. It is one thing to stop into a hotel lobby and have a coffee or a cocktail and do a little business. It’s another thing to park in the space for six hours and do a full day of work. A hotelier has every right to seek to monetize that occupancy. But charging guests?

I applaud the hotelier quest to monetize otherwise under-used spaces – but not at the expense of paying room guests.

Fine by me, too, if hoteliers want to open their fitness centers to the public. Most aren’t much used anyway and if the public can be lured in, why not?

But charging guests for what has been free is where a line needs to be drawn.

Personally I prefer working in my room, I also do not much use hotel wifi and instead create a hotspot on my phone – it’s much more secure internet access. So I’m not exactly the target market for this use of public spaces.

Indeed, I have never parked myself for a workday in a Starbucks – although I know many who do and who enjoy it.

At least one hotel group seems to be doing this right: Crowne Plaza. The chain’s Plaza Workspace program offers – free – access to spiffy work pods. But for those who need more privacy there’s The Studio which is available for booking by the hour (and there’s a dandy online tool for that). Cost where I looked was $50/hour – but, remember, there’s no need to incur those costs unless you need that privacy. The free workspaces look quite inviting and comfy.

Why do some hoteliers believe they can gouge guests for use of what amounts to public meeting spaces? Don’t ask me, ask them. All I can guess is that they think we are dumb enough that we will pay for spaces that had been free (and largely underutilized in recent years – despite the outlier and outsized successes such as enjoyed by Ace Hotels). And to pay when there almost certainly is a Starbucks, or other coffee shop, a block away from the hotel and with free work space in the bargain.

Travel Weekly did quote one skeptic about our willingness to pay, Filipa Pajevic, a grad student at McGill’s School of Urban Planning: “Coworking has already been happening at hotels, in the sense that they’ve already been providing people a place to work while they’re away from their official workplace or home. So for hotels to say, ‘Look, we’re also going to offer coworking spaces,’ I don’t know if that’s going to necessarily go well. You’re asking me to now pay extra for something that I’ve already been doing in your hotel for free.”

And that just may apply to non guests as well. Why indeed would a person who has been using a nearby hotel for business meetings in the lobby – something done for many years by Manhattan dwellers, also San Franciscans – now suddenly dip into his/her pocket for lobby access? I don’t begrudge hoteliers their desire to nick those non guests for $20 or $50 – it’s just that I don’t see people doing this when there are those other nearby, free work spaces (Starbucks).

The bottomline here, however, is that when you are a guest don’t even think about paying to use hitherto free public spaces. Just say no. And walk outside and into a coffee shop (and, yeah, the java probably is better than the hotels’ too).

A Kinder, Gentler United?

by Robert McGarvey

Just when it seems United had resolved to being crowned the most despised airline – it’s lowest ranked in the recent J D Power survey – the carrier may be making a break in the direction of kindness. Will we be persuaded?

Two recent events have me pondering whether it’s time for me to give United another chance. Hear me out before deciding I am nuts. And, yes, I remember JoeSentMe columnist Ralph Raffio’s apocalyptic pronouncement: “United is a bad airline run by bad people and it’s dead to me forevermore.”

But, still, hear me out.

Exhibit A: yesterday’s email brought me this tantalizing subject line: “We’re upgrading you to Economy Plus for your Chicago flight.” Say what? I am flying to ORD imminently, I am booked in economy, and that subject line on a United email got my attention.

The email continued: “To thank you for flying with us, we invite you to enjoy the comfort of an Economy Plus® seat free of charge on your upcoming trip.”

I do not recall the last time I flew United. In days past I frequently flew Continental and I know my frequency plummeted after the merger and then hit bottom when I moved to Phoenix a few years back. However, when Chicago popped up on my travel schedule I checked the United schedule out of PHX and it worked well for me, and the prices worked for the client. So I booked the ticket. Why? I can’t say I have been especially pleased with any recent economy flight, United has ORD covered well, and why not roll the dice and see what I get? Call it a journalist’s duty to investigate.

Odder is that I won’t take the free economy plus seat – which, as far as I can tell, genuinely is free. I have an aisle seat a few rows back and mainly I saw free middle seats in economy plus so I passed. A quirk of mine is that an aisle seat is non negotiable, or as close to that as we can get in today’s aviation world.

But the United offer intrigued me. I had not earned it based upon recent behavior. Why me? Is this just a random act of kindness? It can’t be, it’s an airline. So why?

Call this a riddle I don’t know the answer too.

Which bring us to Exhibit B, detailed in a Skift story headlined, “United Airlines Simplifies Seat Upgrades With Points Incentives.” The story’s gist: “Many flyers stick with an airline not because they want miles, but because they hope they can upgrade to a flatbed to Europe or Asia for free, saving thousands of dollars per trip.

“United Airlines knows this, and on Tuesday, it outlined a new program executives claim will make it easier for the carrier’s best customers to sit in premium seats. Starting Dec. 4, United no longer will award frequent flyers chits they can use for upgrades, replacing them with a new proprietary currency, called PlusPoints.”

I agree that the perk of frequent flying with one airline is that, when enough miles are logged, the upgrades are the reward – until, in recent years, they slowed significantly as carriers decided they would rather monetize front of the cabin seats. Better to sell a seat for $100 than give it to a frequent flyer has become the carrier philosophy. As Scott McCartney observed in a 2017 Wall Street Journal column, “the most important loyalty benefit—an upgrade—has gotten much rarer because airlines are selling more first- and business-class seats, auctioning them off, and in some cases shrinking those cabins and reducing legroom there as well.”

Just maybe United is giving a little back to frequent flyers with this new policy. According to the press release, “On December 4, United will replace Regional Premier Upgrades and Global Premier Upgrades with PlusPoints. Each RPU will be worth 20 PlusPoints and each GPU will be worth 40 PlusPoints. Members using one RPU today to upgrade from Economy to United First on domestic U.S. and North American flights will use 20 PlusPoints from their banks. A member using one GPU today to upgrade from Economy to United Polaris business class on international long-haul flights will use 40 PlusPoints.”

How to earn points? Skift explained: “Customers will start earning points when they fly 75,000 miles in one year, with United giving them 40. But they won’t start racking up a lot of them until they reach 100,000 miles. Then, they’ll get another 280 points.”

A bottomline: the United promise is that the new plan will give elites much more flexibility about how they spend their elite status and, to my mind, that is a very good thing.

United also stressed that you can still try to depend upon the luck of the draw – that is not spend your new points and pray for upgrades. Per the carrier, “PlusPoints does not replace or change United’s Complimentary Premier Upgrades benefit. In recognition of their loyalty, all Premier members will continue to be placed on upgrade waitlists for flights operated by United and United Express when available.”

Right. But for those who have given up on the quest for free upgrades, the option to spend earned points just might be a tempting offer. It isn’t a magic bullet. But it just might be a better deal for many. As Gary Leff observed in View from the Wing, “This is basically the same program (with a few tweaks) but a new currency that allows members to spend fewer points for less valuable upgrades, more points for more valuable upgrades.”

Stay tuned. I may be giving a United another chance. At least I am flying it next week and, you know, I hope it works out.

Business Travel’s Wellness Hoax

by Robert McGarvey

The Skift headline got me smiling: “Wellness for Business Travel Is An Uphill Slog.” You betcha.

From my perspective of perhaps 45 years of business travel, I’d say the industry can measure its wellness progress in centimeters. No more. We drink less booze – certainly I do – and eat fewer steaks and for that we can congratulate ourselves (and maybe mourn the passing of the “good times”). But as for a real wellness commitment, who is kidding whom?

Hoteliers and event planners talk a good wellness game. Just about every chain now has a “major” wellness initiative. But talk is still cheap. It’s the doing that matters.

Or the non doing in this case. Both on the part of the hoteliers and – truth be acknowledged – us.

I am just back from three nights in Las Vegas – a conference hosted by a financial technology company – and I returned a pound or two lighter than when I left home. But I skipped dinner every night, I also skipped the event cocktail hours, and every day I logged about 10,000 steps, just walking around a huge Strip resort.

But was my trip healthy? A role model for wellness?

Don’t be silly. I swilled maybe six large cups of coffee daily – at least double my norm – to keep me fueled up for long meeting days; I ate more scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage in three mornings than I had in the three prior months; and I also ate close to zero fresh and raw vegetables and fruit.

The breakfast buffet stands as an exemplar of progress not made. Sure, there was a platter of beautiful melon slices, an artistic palette of green, orange, yellow. It remained largely intact throughout service. I am not pointing fingers. I too admired its looks but otherwise ignored it. I dove into the scrambled eggs, the crispy bacon, the sausage links and, shudder, also grabbed a croissant one morning. The bread wasn’t good so I skipped it the other mornings.

Don’t tell my cardiologist about that morning feast. He would double my statin dosage.

Lunch – another buffet line. Fresh salads to start, also largely ignored. Visually appealing but shunned. Onto the chicken, the steak, and – of course – a small heap of cooked veg, just for appearances sake, no need to actually eat them.

The good news about lunch: desserts were at a separate table which I never visited and, by all means, give me applause for my discipline.

Or, more to the facts of this matter, question what happened to my culinary sanity as you review my daily intake of cholesterol, fats, and stuff that we know isn’t good for us.

Note: this was at a lovely, upscale Strip hotel. No faulting execution. It’s the underlying concepts that I question. The concepts are ours, by the way. Hoteliers are giving us what we want.

Here’s the reality: we all are talking a dandy game of enhanced wellness on the road but it is a mirage. Very little has changed in a half century. Perhaps a few more of us use the hotel or resort gym (although I am skeptical about that as are Cornell researchers). But we are a heckuva lot more obese than we were a half century ago. Maybe 10% of men were obese in 1960. Now it’s nearing 40%. Around 15% of women were obese in 1960. Now it is over 40%.

If it had been available, would I have eaten a bowl of oatmeal with almond milk and a handful of berries for breakfast? A feast at home. But on the road?

For lunch would I have eaten a veggie burger on a whole grain bun with an arugula, tomato salad on the side? Well, yes, actually. That’s become a personal favorite meal.

But count me as a no on the oatmeal. What about you?

We – most of us – are wellness laggards.

“The business travel industry is taking baby steps to incorporate more wellness, but there is a ton of room left for growth,” Sahara Rose De Vore, founder of the Travel Coach Network,told SKIFT. Indeed.

It’s not their fault, however. It’s ours. They are giving us what we want.

Are You Covered for Medical Issues on the Road?

by Robert McGarvey

The United States Travel Insurance Association (USTiA) just issued a report that says only 6% of us buy travel medical insurance. Are we all fools?

Uh, no. Answer a few questions to start.

Question: how old are you?

Another question: where do you work?

A third – crucial – question: Do you travel out of the US?

The last question sets the table. If you don’t, or rarely, travel out of the US, you probably have little to worry about especially as regards emergency care. Even if you are in Medicare Advantage – a managed care approach – you are covered for emergencies in the US even if your network has no presence. Ditto for holders of other managed care policies: you probably are covered for emergencies in the US.

So this story tosses a match on fears but there may be nothing to fear here but fear itself.

But probably, like me, you travel outside the US occasionally. Maybe once a year. Maybe a bit more often.

Listen up: that foreign travel could wreck your bank account if a medical emergency hits. Few policies cover foreign care. Not even emergencies.

Even some domestic medical treatment may ding your wallet if it happens away from home. Read that again. If you live in the Bronx the care you get in Bayonne may not be covered. Ouch.

First the good news. Most of us in fact are covered for emergencies in the US. Then there’s the fine print. The word to notice is “emergency.” If you break your arm, it’s an emergency. It’s probably covered. What if you sprain it? What if you really only pulled a muscle? Hang tight because you may be getting billed personally if you are out of network.

Be very cautious about seeking care when you are away from home and out of network, even if you are in the next state. Many plans will deny coverage for what they deem routine care that’s delivered out of network. Said Consumer Reports: “if you have a relatively minor problem—say, you sprained your ankle or suspect your child has strep throat—how much of your bill is covered can depend on where you seek care and the type of insurance you have, says Cathryn Donaldson, director of communications at America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade association for insurance companies.

“Your insurer may treat your out-of-town healthcare as an out-of-network claim. As a result, you could be on the hook for a larger portion of the cost or the whole bill.”

If in doubt – and you often should be – contact the insurer for advice before seeking out of network care.

The bigger problem is with foreign travel and, yes, we hear stories of travelers with significant medical issues, a broken limb for instance, getting dinged for several thousand dollars in US cash before a hospital will admit the patient. These stories aren’t in Europe or Canada but traveler beware in a lot of the world.

Which brings us back to the money question: are you covered abroad? The first step: if you are an employee, ask your HR department. Also ask if you are covered when traveling for work and how about on vacation. The answers may differ.

Don’t be surprised if a rider covers business travel incidents – but not personal travel. For that you may need special coverage (see below).

You have a personal, Obamacare type policy? Check the fine print but the odds are high it offers no coverage outside the US. You too need special coverage.

What about Medicare recipients? A very, very few Advantage plans offer international coverage. So do a few traditional plans. But the vast majority provide bupkis. If you are on Medicare and you travel outside the country – and that means exactly what it says: you ordinarily aren’t covered in Canada or Mexico either – get travel medical insurance unless you know your plan specifically says otherwise.

Can you count on the kindness of strangers, that is, hope you will get gratis emergency care? Stories of same were numerous a generation ago, especially among travelers to European Union countries where the hospitals generally do not bill patients and many simply winked when a US patient came in. Do not count on that nowadays as many national health programs are straining under use and lack deep pockets. Ireland for instance says forget about it.

Bottomline: most of us need to take special steps to be sure we are covered when we travel abroad. That usually means buying a policy.

Want coverage? JoeSentMe subscribers get a deal on MedJetAssist Global Evacuation. That’s a $35 discount on a personal policy, $50 on a family deal.

Many others offer one-off policies for specific trips. Shop carefully, buy only from names you know and trust. This is a space with a lot of hucksters and you don’t want to find out you got fleeced when you are on the operating table in Rome.

Personally, for years, I have had a medical protection policy via American Express that provides up to $50,000 in expenses per incident and, no, in today’s medicine that isn’t a lot. But the policy costs me just a notch above $100 annually. Alas, that policy may not be available to new customers, but other outlets offer similar.

Just don’t go out of country without knowing you are covered. And don’t go out of network domestically without knowing similar.