Flygskam: Why You Are Grounded

Words we don’t know may still bite us.  Meet Flygskam.  What language is it?  Swedish. And it means “flight shame.”

In Sweden today increasing numbers are ditching planes in favor of trains – even 15 hour trips such as Gothenburg to Lulea (1-½ hours by air).

They cite flight shame as the explanation.

Are they crazy?

Nope. Swedes are throwing flight shame in the faces of flyers and the hot button is how polluting planes are. A New York Times headline spelled it out: Flying Is Bad for the Planet.

The Times’ lede smacks you in the head: “Take one round-trip flight between New York and California, and you’ve generated about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that your car emits over an entire year.”

Don’t even ask about the airlines’ plastics problem. It’s huge and not shrinking.

What happens in Sweden doesn’t stay there. Know this: Flygskam is heading at you. If you haven’t heard displeased snickers about your frequent flying yet, you will – at the office, at the fitness club, at your community meetings. What had been a badge of honor – platinum elite status – is getting transformed into a badge of shame.

Environmentalism has caught up with frequent flying and it will exact its price.

The driving force behind Flygskam: Greta Thunberg, a 16 year-old Swedish school girl.  Don’t scoff. She and the movement she has launched will change how we travel – certainly how often we travel.

According to the South China Morning Post, “A recent survey conducted by WWF found that 23 percent of Swedes were opting out of air travel to reduce their impact on the climate, and 18 percent of those polled had chosen to take a train rather than fly. ‘Flygskam’ (‘flight shame’) has taken off on social media across Europe, as has the inversely correlated ‘tagskryt’ (‘train bragging’), and the phenomenon is making a difference on the ground.”

The Morning Post continued; “According to a recent Bloomberg report, Swedavia AB, which operates 10 Swedish airports, has seen year-on-year passenger numbers drop for seven consecutive months, while state train operator SJ moved a record 32 million people around the country last year.”

Rick Steves, the PBS travel guru, has acknowledged that flyers are “contributing to the destruction of our environment.”

In Europe, flygskam has spread beyond Sweden. The United Kingdom is a hotbed,

And “the Finnish have invented the word ‘lentohapea’, the Dutch say ‘vliegschaamte’ and the Germans ‘flugscham’, all referring to a feeling of shame around flying.”

An Instagram account that exists to shame boastful travel influencers about their gallivanting – #StayOnTheGround — has over 60,000 followers

Certainly Donald Trump believes climate change is hokum but he probably also has doubts that the Earth in fact is not flat and that the Moon is not made of cheese.  Nobody with the slightest familiarity with climate science doubts that in fact climate change is real and a corollary is that air travel is highly polluting – and much air travel also is not exactly necessary.

Which brings us back to flygskam and us.  The money question is this: what will you do about this at your end?

Me, I’ve already decided to eliminate air travel that can be easily eliminated. I have not modified my position. If a trip can be replaced with a phone call, I’m all in.

And a lot of business trips can be eliminated.

What about vacation travel?  This year I find myself planning vacation trips from where I live in Phoenix to San Francisco, Texas, northern New Mexico – and, yep, I see all happening in a car.

Can I go the next six months without once boarding a plane?  I’m not prepared to promise that. A family emergency could trigger a flight.  So could the right business proposition. I am not for hurting myself.

But I am for doing what I can do to save the environment and part of that is indeed eliminating superfluous air travel.

Are you down for likewise?

Or are you pinning on a “smygflyga” button?

That’s flying in secret of course.

And isn’t that a change? A generation ago we might have lied that we’d flown from LA to Vegas because driving seemed so lame.  But now we lie and say we drove.

Climates change. So do customs.  

For the environment let’s hope this change sticks.

Show Us Your Tweets Before Entering the US

By Robert McGarvey

The US government now has announced a policy where applicants for US visas are asked to disclose their social media handles. Apparently about 15 million foreign visitors will be impacted annually.

Would you disclose your Twitter, Facebook, and other accounts to a foreign government?

My Twitter account is @rjmcgarvey, ditto on Facebook, and I have never posted on Instagram, Snapchat, et. al. I have nothing to hide. But I do have questions about this new US information grab.

Is the US overreaching in its paranoia? Should what you post on social media figure into your ability to travel the world? And remember that others will follow the US policy – that is, many nations will start asking for social media handles on visa applications.

So US citizens too will be impacted.

Which brings us to the question: why did the US make this change?

According to TIME, the US explained this thusly: “National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications, and every prospective traveler and immigrant to the United States undergoes extensive security screening. We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect U.S. citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States.”

The free speech advocate inside me recoils at yet another government act that may stifle speech.

Even so, I have assumed for some years that the big governments – especially the US, China, possibly Russia – routinely sift through all social media postings.  I would also assume that many who post inflammatory stuff do so under pseudonyms. So a visa applicant might have a humdrum account on Twitter in his/her real name – and another account full of hideous nonsense under a fake name.  Which account would you guess he’d disclose on his visa application?

Is there any point to this new government intrusion?  Will demanding social media handles deliver anything of value?

Then, too, many millions of foreigners enter the US under a visa waiver program that allows passport holders from countries such as Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom to enter without a visa.  

In FY 2015, about 22 million came in under the visa waiver program (Japan was the leader with 3.7 million).  That’s half again more than will come in with a visa but that makes sense because most developed countries are in the waiver program (and in most cases US citizens do not need visas to enter these countries).

As for the new US demands, civil liberties folks are up in arms.  Per the New York Times, “This seems to be part and parcel of the same effort to have an extraordinary broad surveillance of citizens and noncitizens,” Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, said of the latest development. “Given the scope of the surveillance efforts, it is hard to find a rational basis for the broad surveillance the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security have been doing for almost two years.”

Probably, too, this search won’t actually prevent any terrorism. A Washington Post story from a few years ago took up exactly this question and said, naw, it won’t work.  Why? The vast majority of posts are about the same old stuff – “Almost all were about traffic, celebrities or the weather. Discovering whether a visa applicant has ever voiced suspect opinions will require searching through acres of haystacks in the hopes of finding a few needles,” said the Post as it reviewed Ukrainian posts after Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Note that timing. Even tho war was breaking out, the overwhelming majority of social posts were about the same old trivialities of everyday life.

Then, too, added the Post, the Internet is awash with hate speech – vide Trump’s Twitter account.  There’s a lot of bluster, a lot of ranting, and a lot of plain hate. That means “identifying suspicious social media activity cannot be conclusive without additional labor. Whittling hundreds of thousands of flagged accounts down to a manageable watchlist will be an expensive and time-consuming human effort, not the work of algorithms.”

So probably this is actually just a Washington DC witch hunt not worth the time and effort.

Taking the Measure of Your Meetings: Pass/Fail?

By Robert McGarvey

By now it’s cliche: meeting attendees are ever younger (think Millennials – born 1981 through 1996 – and a sprinkling of still younger Gen Z) and, therefore, meetings have to evolve to satisfy new expectations.

But have they evolved? Really?

Are they that much different from what they were in 2009, 1999, or even 1989?

Reading an interview in Meetings Today with Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC (International Association of Conference Centers), I was struck by how often I agreed with him – but also how often it seemed to me that meetings I attend fall very short of what Cooper put out as necessities of a well run 2019 meeting.

For instance: Cooper said, “Today’s delegate seeks an enriching and memorable experience from all aspects of the venue, from design to features.”

He then ticked off some essential features and he started with WiFi. I am so with Cooper on this – good WiFi is a sine qua non for me at a meeting.

But often we are talking non because the WiFi isn’t there.

Question: when was the last time you had adequate WiFi at a large meeting?  I cannot think of any time which is why, typically, I create my own hotspot and connect via my phone. Partly I do that because I am wary of public WiFi – remember the fake free WiFi network erected at the 2016 Republican National Convention.  

But I started doing it because in most hotels and meetings facilities I have used, the WiFi sucks.  It’s slow, the signal sometimes drops, sometimes I cannot connect at all (a problem that seems chronic with an iPad Air 2 I commonly bring to meetings).

For years I have whined about inadequate hotel wifi and, sure, they keep upping their capabilities – but we keep connecting more devices. And the hotels never really get ahead because they do not want to spend the money it would take to offer truly adequate WiFi. They are pinchpennies when it comes to broadband and we pay the price in woeful connections.

Next on Cooper’s must list is: “Inspiring and healthy food and beverages (including interesting alcohol-free options).

Agreed at my end.  

But I cannot say I typically see that at the meetings I attend.  The food is neither healthy nor inspiring. It is same old. A blah chicken breast with a few roasted potatoes and a handful of carrots and green beans or maybe it’s a blah salmon fillet on a bed of rice with some peas.

Hotels have talked about upping their meetings food game for as long as I can remember and that’s a commendable goal.  But this is aspiration. Not reality at most venues.

There are exceptions. I recall a lovely Beard House dinner or two with chefs from Benchmark’s conference centers.

But for most meeting venues tasty, smart food is all talk, no action.  

Cooper’s next point leapfrogs off the food grumbles because he said attendees “will also be watching the waste that comes from their event and will not tolerate full buffet tables of spent food being swept into the trash bag.”

Except, very typically, that’s precisely what happens to food waste at meetings: it goes to the dumpster and from there into the landfill.  

Two years ago I wrote a column headlined: “It’s up to you to stop food waste at conferences.”

It still is.

If you know you won’t be eating the meeting lunch – and there often is good conversation at those lunch tables but good food not so often – tell the meeting planner and ask that your lunch be donated to an organization that serves the needy. In many big cities such groups exist and they will accept the donation.  Most won’t take food that has been plated and put on a table – but if it has stayed in the kitchen they will be glad to have it and it will help fill a hungry belly.

A last point made by Cooper that interested me regards wellness at meetings. He said: “Personally, I think more can be done for delegates during break-out sessions and refreshment breaks, whether that’s hosting food demonstrations, yoga sessions or giving delegates the chance to enjoy a group meditation session to re-energize ahead of the afternoon agenda. I’d also like to see more events promoting walking meetings to help attendees get in their 10,000 steps a day.”

I definitely agree with him but I also agree that most venues are more talk, not much action, when it comes to building wellness into meetings.  And attendees know this.

Bottomline: I strongly agree with IACC’s Cooper. Meeting attendees want better WiFi, better food (and more vegan options!), they want reduced waste, and they want more and more convenient wellness activities available at meetings..

I just am not seeing many facilities that are delivering on these priorities. Do you?

How Typical Are You: The CWT Traveler Barometer

By Robert McGarvey

An infographic via Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT) gives us a quick, easy way to measure just how typical we are.  Granted, frequent flyers, as a tribe, have shared idiosyncrasies – a strong fondness for lots of accessible plugs in a hotel room and, always, a desk in the room – but then there are datapoints where I have to scratch my head and wonder who are these people?

CWT starts out with a softball – 9 of 10 travelers are willing to share travel preferences. You have to wonder about the 10% who decline. Too busy to bother? OK, that makes a kind of sense to me.  But if it’s just preferring to be private, nah, that seems dumb to me. Whenever I have the time I provide travel preferences just to get what I want on the record and I will do this free of charge. If you want to know my preferences in banking, in mobile payments, in computing, bring a checkbook or at least an Amazon gift card. That’s info I charge for but when it comes to travel and the pains I feel, ask and I’ll tell because I am hoping for more comfort as payback.

Here are the salient CWT datapoints:

66% of travelers prefer a window seat.  Do you?

I do not. I strongly prefer an aisle seat and will grumble, loudly, if put in a window seat. Why? I have written often about deep vein thrombosis and air travel and swear by the advice to walk every hour.  Climbing over two fellow travelers to exit from a window seat is rude and, well, who does it except in an emergency?  Sitting on the aisle, tho, I get up pretty much every hour and walk up and back, maybe a couple times.

Perhaps I am paranoid about DVT.  Perhaps. But this is a better safe than sorry choice and for me, the aisle seat is the ticket.  And it is very good news in my mind that most of you want the window seat. Take it, it’s yours.

Per CWT, btw, “Window proponents like control of the window shade, a fuselage on which to rest their sleeping head and ample opportunity to fill their Instagram feed with obligatory shots of the plane wing in the clouds.”

64% of travelers prefer ground transportation vs. public transport.  

I do not. In San Francisco I’m on the BART.  In Phoenix, I light rail home. At Newark Airport, I usually catch a train and I am joyous about the PATH extension that’s probably coming to the airport.  At CDG in Paris, I’m on the Metro. For my money, public transit usually is not only cheaper but faster when it comes to exiting an airport.

52% would rather miss a flight than lose luggage.

Not me.  But maybe I cheat here. I don’t check bags and therefore find the concept of lost luggage to be alien.  And I don’t recall ever missing a flight in decades of flying. Flights were cancelled, sometimes abruptly, but I never missed one on my own doing.

Baggage of mine has gone astray, and that indeed is annoying. But on the three or so occasions this happened, it always found its way to me within a day or so. I don’t fret much about baggage.

65% would rather fly international than domestic.

Not me.  I suppose I prefer domestic because the flights are shorter.  And, sure, the inflight service is better on international flights. But short still trumps better service.

CWT, incidentally, pointed out that there are regional differences in traveler preferences. In Asia, for instance, 71% want the window. In the Americas it’s just 59%.

Regional differences are especially sharp when the question is taxi vs rideshare. 54% in the CWT poll plunk down for taxis. But in the Americas that number plummets to 37%.

Don’t ask me about that one. You’ll find me in public transit.  

How typical are you regarding the CWT questions?

I’m an outlier but I knew that at the get go.

What about you?

Is It Time to Trust TripAdvisor Again?

By Robert McGarvey

Finally TripAdvisor is back in the news for doing something that looks to be right. The Detroit Free Press, which had investigated TripAdvisor’s apparent burying of reviews that alleged sexual assaults – sometimes by resort and hotel employees – tells the story that TripAdvisor now vows it’s mapped a different course. The Freep headline shouts: TripAdvisor will now flag sexual assault warnings on travel reviews.

The promise: a simple click of a filter will bring up reviews that claim sexual assaults and other safety related complaints.

According to the Freep, TripAdvisor admitted that an internal investigation had found 1100 reviews that claimed sexual assault had been posted on the site in the past year. But it wasn’t always easy to find them

Indeed,a 2017 investigation by the Milwaukee Sentinel found that TipAdvisor had a pattern of deleting posts alleging rape or assault.  

Along the way I had personally declared TripAdvisor to no longer be trustworthy.  Once I had seen it as the go to site for hotel reviews but I stopped.

Now TripAdvisor screams: trust us, we’re changed, we’re different!

Color me skeptical.

Probably the real driver for TripAdvisor is that it had found itself playing catch up – and failing – in surveys of hotel review sites.  Google had in fact galloped into a huge lead over TripAdvisor and probably TripAdvisor saw only darkness at the end of its tunnel.  

Flashforward and now TripAdvisor says it has had an epiphany.  It told the Freep: “When your article hit, we started re-evaluating our policies,” said TripAdvisor spokesman Brian Hoyt, noting the 1,100 reviews citing sexual assault raised eyebrows. “One incident is horrible — 1,100 is horrific. Having read through many of these accounts, it really motivated us at TripAdvisor to make sure we do right by these survivors and help them find a way to share this information with others.”

Here’s what visitors to TripAdvisor will now find, per the Freep: “Rather than have to dig through tens of millions of hotel reviews in search of rape complaints, TripAdvisor users will now be able to click through a filter on each property to see if there are any reviews with safety warnings involving rapes, robberies or druggings.”

TripAdvisor pointed some media to the Palm Beach Hotel in Vietnam as a case in point of its get tough policies. In my clicking it indeed was easy to see there were safety concerns and it was also easy to pull up two very tough reviews.

TripAdvisor itself explains what changes it has made here.

There’s a lot to like about what TripAdvisor says it is doing.

The money question of course is do you now trust TripAdvisor?  With its history of burying and simply deleting reviews alleging crimes at hotels?

Remember, in 2017, Senator Tammy Baldwin asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate TripAdvisor. Per the NY Times, “This may be a case of putting profits over providing an open, honest forum for traveler reviews on TripAdvisor,” Ms. Baldwin said in a tweet on Nov. 26. “I called on the F.T.C. to look into this and they should get to the bottom of it.”

And yet the beat went on at TripAdvisor: there persisted an unwillingness to wrestle with the reality that some resorts, in some parts of the world, seem to have persistent issues involved a failure to provide for the safety of guests.

I absolutely understand the difficulties in accepting as true unproven allegations about a hotel employee and the hotel itself.

But, remember, TripAdvisor won fans because it published negative reviews about bad dinner service, clogged toilets, stained bedding, and other unpleasantries. It won our trust because it let travelers dish about the bad and the ugly at hotels and not just the good.

And then to find out that apparently many, many reviews that claimed rape were deleted because they weren’t “family friendly,” where are we to put our trust?

As recently as this year, the Guardian ran a piece that said some women still had loud complaints about the fairness of TripAdvisor’s handling of rape allegations.

So now we are supposed to believe TripAdvisor has gotten religion about helping travelers stay safer?

My advice is to remain skeptical of TripAdvisor. The NY Times too has reservations. I want to trust the site – I truly do – but the history tells me to go slow here. It has to re-earn our trust. I for one hope it does.

Have Amex Points, Will Travel Upfront – Maybe Not

By Robert McGarvey

File this American Express innovation under not for me.

The travel press is abuzz that Amex has rolled out a new feature where you can spend your membership rewards points to bid for upgrades on your existing airline reservations.

According to Skift: “Twenty-one airlines including Air Canada, Qantas, and Singapore Airlines have partnered with Plusgrade and American Express to launch the product. Currently, no U.S.-based airline is part of the program, but several North American carriers participate.”

Of course you’re familiar with similar with the many airlines points programs you belong to.

But here’s the difference: Amex points still have a kind of value whereas airline points, as vividly documented in multiple columns by Joe Brancatelli, lose value just about daily. With airline points the wise soul burns ‘em as they are earned.

Amex points are a bit better.

I still have a stash of Amex points, hundreds of thousands, I don’t know how many because I don’t spend them.  I will and I have but I am stingy with them because they can rather easily be converted into plane tickets on multiple carriers, even for short notice travel (visiting ill friends and relatives for instance).  

Should I play with Amex’s upgrade offer?

It works like this: visit Upgrade with Points in the MembershipRewards page.  Select your airline, input your rez to see if it’s eligible, if eligible bid for the upgrade, twiddle your thumbs until you hear if the airline has accepted your offer.

The official Amex spiel is here.

Some journos like the Amex program. Said Godsavethepoints: “This is cool because it often works even when you’re traveling on the lowest priced economy fares, and sometimes the accepted bids can be super low. Now that Amex has partnered with Plusgrade, you don’t even have to bid using your cold hard cash, you can bid using your Amex points instead.”

Count me as not enthused about it however.

Sure, if you have time to kill (sitting in an airport lounge for instance) and feel mischievous, put in a bid of 1 membership reward point.  If the airline accepts it, pat yourself on the back.

But most – possibly all – airlines will have a minimum bid, just as they do for cash bidding schemes. They are not chumps and they won’t let us turn them into chumps.

That means very probably you will have to bid substantial chunks of miles and color me unpersuaded that this is a good use of those hard earned miles.  

Skift dug into the mechanics and reported back that “Reached for comment, a member of the team at American Express confirmed that through the program, 1,000 Membership Rewards points would equal $10 in upgrade credit. For a $400 bid, a reasonable offer for a short-haul upgrade, it would thus cost an American Express customer 40,000 points. Those same 40,000 Membership Rewards, however, could also be deposited into a frequent flyer account directly through a transfer partner and be used to book an economy or premium ticket (a one-way, first-class, domestic ticket on a legacy U.S. carrier typically costs 25,000 miles).”

Onemileatatime calculated that probably Amex cardholders who bid miles in this program would get a value return of “0.5-1 cents of value per point, which isn’t great.”

Nope, it isn’t. Onemileatatime calculates the value of an Amex mile at nearer 1.7 cents per mile and that is substantially more.

The Points Guy says he values Amex miles at two cents apiece.

Milestomemories gave its verdict on the scheme in its headline: “Amex Introduces New Program That Sounds Great But Offers Terrible Value.”

The verdict: Save your membership rewards miles for better, more generous uses.

Solving the Airport Shoe Puzzle

By Robert McGarvey

Essentially since the rollout of the TSA pre-boarding security check I have wrestled with an issue that on the one hand seems mundane but at times has vexed me as much as the hardest logic problem ever.

What are the best shoes to wear to the airport?

Keep in mind, shoes have to be removed for ordinary TSA security checks – unless you are TSA Pre and a Pre line is operating and your carrier participates in Pre.

Sometimes I forget and show up at the airport wearing lace up shoes and then discover there is no Pre line and, what do I do, I uncomfortably get my shoes off (and the belt! And the computer out of my bag!) and then after passing through, there’s the reassembly process.  Awkward. Uncomfortable.

So for years I have been on a quest for the perfect shoes.

At last I found them. Quite by accident really. I bought them to serve an entirely different purpose and then it struck me that this was the answer to my airport dilemma.

For starters, I agree, completely, with this piece on the absolute worst airport shoes – flip flops. They have a superficial appeal – talk about easy on, easy off.  The good news ends there. You wear them sockless so when you take them off for the TSA, you are barefooted.

And they provide absolutely no support. None.  I find them uncomfortable to wear walking across my city apartment.  In some airports I log as much as two miles – going through security, trekking to a club, finding the boarding gate, etc.  Distances mount. At Kennedy a few months ago I wondered if my gate was in fact in Montauk, I walked so much.

Flip flops are fine to wear to the pool and, definitely, in a community shower room (as at an athletic club) – those are reasons I have a pair.  

But they are a really bad idea at the airport.

What about Birkenstock Arizona sandals? New York Magazine likes them a lot as airport shoes. I own a pair and I don’t like them much for the airport. The fit isn’t especially snug, it’s hard to walk fast in them (as in rushing to board), and I flat out believe the better airport Birkenstock is the Milano, with more strapping and a much more secure fit. I own a pair of Milanos too – but they are not my top airport pick.

Probably the runner-up. But not number one.

But I do disagree with the Points Guy’s comments: “Flip-flops and sandals pretty much break all the rules we’ve established so far, so don’t wear ’em. Well, yes, they do breathe, but they offer no support and don’t really function as a shoe in anyway except technically keeping the soles of your feet above the ground by a mere butter pat’s depth of rubber.”

That is, some sandals work.  Flip flops don’t. But let’s not ignore all sandals.

That’s all the more important because over many years I recognized that loafers too don’t really work.  They don’t have laces but the on and off can be tricky. Especially when you are in the rush we always are going through TSA lines.

If you have nothing else and don’t want to splurge on a pair of good airport shoes, by all means, travel in well broken in loafers.  They will probably be fine.

But here’s the better solution that I just discovered: Chaco Z cloud sandals – also for women – around $100 at REI, where I prefer to shop because it’s a cooperative with a good selection of clothes and shoes that wear well.

I got the idea listening to a podcast with Twitter ceo Jack Dorsey where he talked about daily power walks in San Francisco wearing athletic sandals.

I hadn’t even known that kind of shoe existed. But I was intrigued. I walk six miles every morning in Phoenix – on city sidewalks – and my feet and back take a beating.  I continually cycle through footwear.

I wasn’t immediately wowed by the brand of sandals Dorsey favors so I went to REI and explored walking/running sandals.  

I walked out with a pair of Chaco ZCloud sandals which permit wearing socks (and I want to wear socks on long walks).  I’ve logged about 50 miles in them over the past week and this morning it dawned on me that these are my ideal airport shoes.

A snug fit – good for fast walking.

Thick soles, good support.

Easy on, easy off.

Accommodate socks.

Would I wear them on a January business trip to Montreal? Sure, why not, it doesn’t snow in the airport and generally a taxi gets me right near the hotel door.  I’d pack other shoes for walking around town but the Chacos still could be my airport shoes of choice even in a snowy winter.

That’s my recommendation.

Hotel Reviews: Who Do You Trust?

By Robert McGarvey

New research via hotel CRM company Revinate makes multiple points about us and hotel reviews and the big takeaway is that there’s a new sheriff in town and you probably can guess who.

First, however, know that Revinate says there’s evidence our mania for filing reviews is diminishing. Noted Revinate: “The number of reviews published on review sites and OTAs continues to grow year-over-year, but there is some indication that the popularity of writing reviews may be waning. In 2018, travelers wrote nearly 95 million hotel reviews. While this number is staggering, the number of new reviews only grew by 8% in 2018, compared to 27% in 2017.”

The growth in the numbers of reviews may be slowing but the numbers remain staggering.

Revinate continued: “While the average number of reviews per month per hotel increased 6% in 2018, from 53 to 56, growth has slowed significantly. In 2017, we noted a 34% increase in reviews per month per hotel. This suggests that review growth is slowing across the industry.”

I choked on that. The average number of reviews per hotel per month now is 56!

Where the data get really interesting is in the counting up of where reviews appear. Big changes are afoot.

Regular readers will recall that I long was a fan of Tripadvisor – until I stopped in 2017 amid a flurry of accusations that Tripadvisor had deleted reviews claiming rapes and other major crimes and problems at hotels.  

Tripadvisor also has had issues with fake reviews.

And the service still has problems with reviews claiming rapes.

Frankly I did not have a suitable replacement for Tripadvisor. But now there is one: Google.

Google, by Revinate’s accounting, is now the 900 pound gorilla, garnering an industry leading 30.1 million reviews in 2018.

In second place is with 28.3 million.

Tripadvisor is in third with 11.3 million.

Noted Revinate: “In 2017, the top 4 sites contributed 74% of the review volume Revinate analyzed. This year, a greater percentage came from just the top 3 sites. In other words, a few aggregators at the top are contributing the lion’s share of reviews—and those reviews are continuing to concentrate in fewer places.”

With review sites there’s an inevitability about the big getting bigger because the volume of reviews increases utility and validity.

But the story is Google which, out of nowhere, has vaulted into a leadership position. It makes sense. Many of us use Google multiple times every day. The last time I looked at is, well, I don’t remember because I rarely use it.

Ditto Tripadvisor nowadays.

To get to either service I have to make a special trip.

Whereas Google is in the fabric of my every day.

I’m looking up San Francisco hotels where do I start the search anyway? Google of course. Up pops the Phoenix Hotel in the Tenderloin, a personal favorite neighborhood and an appealing price ($209).

Then there are the reviews which Google gathers up from multiple services and calculates an average score. The Phoenix is 4.3 out of a possible five.

Even better I don’t actually have to read any reviews because Google has read them for me.

If I want to read them, however, they are a click away on Google.

Meantime, Google also is winning over more of us who want to book rooms on Google – and why not? We’re on the site researching the hotels so why not make it one stop shopping and book there too?

As for Google and reviews, Revinate numbers show it is on a tear. In 2017 its reviews increased by 207%. In 2018 that dropped to 75%. saw just a 10% bump up in 2018.

The bottom fell out at Facebook, incidentally. Per Revinate, “Facebook, which was #4 in 2017 and contributed 8.3% of reviews, dropped to the 6th spot and saw a 51% decrease in reviews.”

My bet: Google will solidify its lead in reviews in 2019. And it just may become our go to place for booking rooms too.

Is that good? Bad? What I can say is that it definitely is convenient and that is why Google is winning. It’s hard to see who can come along and offer more convenience. That’s why I say Google is undisputed champ. With no contenders in view.

How to Cross Borders with Cannabis, Maybe

By Robert McGarvey

The sign smacked me in the face in Montreal’s airport: Crossing international borders with cannabis is illegal.

You won’t miss that sign. It’s big and there are many for instances.  I also saw similar in the Halifax cruise port.

Pot is legal in Canada but what you buy there you smoke there.

And as for cruising and pot, it’s a line by line thing but the country’s biggest, Carnival, has issued a definitive ban:

What happens if a guest gets caught smoking marijuana?

Any illegal substances will be confiscated and the guest will be reported to the appropriate authorities.  Additionally, the guest may be subject to a $500 charge, risks being disembarked from the ship and may not be allowed to sail with Carnival in the future.”

Welcome to the smoke gets in your eyes weirdness of today’s laws and rules where it may seem this all has become a Cheech and Chong movie.  In my other role as a credit union commentator I have created a two part podcast on Cannabis Banking where the problem is that in some states – California, Vermont, Maine and a number of others – marijuana is legal for adult use, no questions asked.  In most other states it is legal for medical uses and generally that requires a prescription from a physician. A state by state map is here.  

But and it’s a huge but cannabis is illegal under federal law and assets can be seized from those engaged in cannabis businesses.  Ouch. Yes, there are indications that the law won’t be enforced but this is a fickle Washington DC where things can and do change.  So the biggest financial services players are holding back from pot accounts.

Those uncertainties don’t directly apply to consumers – you and me – but they highlight exactly how confusing the legal realities around cannabis are.

For instance: question – is it legal to transport marijuana across state lines?  Say you legally score in Blythe CA  and you drive onto I-10 and head into Arizona.  The purchase was legal but Arizona allows only medical marijuana, so are you ok? In a word, no.  Here’s the legal reasoning.

Cautious experts even advise against crossing from one all legal state – California, say – into another – Nevada, say.

It’s not just leaf that’s involved. The Canadian government for instance warns against transporting cannabis oil cross border.  

At least some experts insist it is legal to fly in the US with cannabis oil however.

But the TSA says nope, don’t fly with pot or with CBD oil.  

Matters get murkier when international travel is involved.  The CDC has a useful sheet about travel with prescription medicine and, really, the same issues arise with Oxycontin, Vicodin, methedrine, and a bunch of sleeping pills as with marijuana and related products.  Just because you have a US prescription does not mean the drug is legal in your destination country.

Notes the CDC: “Medicines that are commonly prescribed or available over the counter in the United States could be considered unlicensed or controlled substances in other countries. For example, in Japan, some inhalers and certain allergy and sinus medications are illegal.”

The CDC advice is to contact the embassy of the countries you plan to visit and specifically inquire into bringing prescription drugs in.  Be persistent and specific. Some countries are more helpful than others.

Also consult the country by country reporting of the International Narcotics Control Board.  

Might it be simpler to travel with no drugs and to get a prescription from a local doctor on arrival (a hotel doc for instance)? Maybe yes.  But before counting on this ask your hotel about availability of a local physician and also find out if the drug you want is in fact sold in China, Russia, or wherever.  And bring a note from your physician that explains why you need the medicine.

All this also applies to CBD oil where matters get murkier still because some oil has essentially zero THC content (the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) and other samples have measurable THC which could make the oil illegal. The zero THC oils *should* be legal just about everywhere but, remember, this is all the stuff of Cheech and Chong weirdness where nothing is really certain.

And the stakes get higher when international borders are crossed.

In much of the world marijuana and related products are illegal – or at the very least not legal.  

About now you need a big toke because all this vagary is driving you off the edge? Understandable.

Question: you want to use CBD oil when you are in county X – should you bring it with you or buy it there?  Consistent advice is don’t bring it with you. It very likely is legal where you are heading – here’s a list.  Everything from China to Ireland and Slovenia makes the list.  

But crossing the international border makes this a different, iffier matter.

Again, ask at the embassy – be persistent. And don’t be shy about asking for help at the hotel where you will be registered.

And if you say you remain confused, join the club.  It is confusing. But by asking lots of questions you very probably will stay on the safe side of the law.

Travel Companies Are Hacker Targets Because You Are

By Robert McGarvey

Probably your principal travel providers – airlines, hotels, online travel agencies, and the like – know a lot of information about you, very sensitive information, perhaps including passport number, driver’s license details, credit card information, and loyalty program details.

The bad news is that, increasingly, travel companies are hacker favorites, ranking second or third among the chief targets.

You already know that hotel restaurants, bars, and gift shops are under relentless assault – so much so that my loud advice is to never use a debit card in them, really try hard not to use a credit card, and pay cash to maintain safety.

And then there have been the many attacks on hotel loyalty programs.  

But what IBM is talking about is something different.  Sophisticated nation state players are suspected of hacking into travel company databases in a  search for information about travelers.

“I don’t see that slowing down any time soon. If you’re a nation state, you’re building large scale databases of people because the more you understand about people, the more you can manipulate and extort,” said Caleb Barlow, an IBM vice president, at a recent Amadeus event in Madrid.  

He added, according to Phocuswire reporting on the event,  “Not all attacks want to leverage the information straight away. Nation states might want to use it in 20 years.”

That has to scare you.  

Do you want a nation such as Saudi Arabia or Hungary or Russia to have your travel history and preferences at their disposal?

Do you want the US to have it?

A morsel of good news is that, recently, per IBM’s Barlow, many hackers have shifted from data exfiltration to cryptojacking, which is putting victim computers to use mining cryptocurrencies for money.  

Travel sites too appear to be victims of this. What impact might that have on travelers? Hard to say, since currency mining as such shouldn’t impact a consumer’s data. But when a hacker has control of the computers it stands to reason he/she would also pull out useful data to keep or to sell, simply to optimize the financial return of the hack.  So I don’t see cryptojacking as mutually exclusive with data exfiltration. Not hardly.

Exactly what can you do to protect yourself in an age where travel sites are getting hacked?

I play with the idea of registering under a false identity, using, say, a good quality but fake Irish driver’s license and a fake passport.  The problem of course is that fakes won’t pass scrutiny by government employees such as TSA.  At a hotel, sure, I believe fakes generally will work fine.  Note: I am not advocating scamming hotels, just creating false data trails that when stolen by a hacker will deadend.

But then there’s the problem of my data that already is in the system at multiple hotel groups, airlines, and assorted other travel vendors.  A new, fake identity won’t erase the past, accurate data.

So here’s what I am doing in response to the epidemic hacking at travel providers: going online, stripping out all data that isn’t needed and filling in false data where possible — challenge questions for instance. There is no need whatsoever to use your father’s real middle name in a challenge.  The only requirement is knowing what fake name you used.

My sense is that it is easier and safer to use substantial fake data with hotels.  Not so much with airlines.

And keep remembering that ever more travel company data is in the hands of hackers.  

Remember too that the hackers often appear to be highly skilled and that means the worse news is that very possibly there are plenty of hacks that so far have gone undetected. But our data may be leaking out.

That puts the burden on you.  Keep monitoring financial accounts and regularly – at least yearly – look at a credit report.  I also check my credit score monthly (free via various banks, credit unions, and credit card issuers).

But the sticky issue is if the thefts are by nation states with no intent to monetize the data via fraud it just may be impossible to divine what data has been copied.

That’s maddening.

But it also is reality.