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.

Why Business Travelers Are Tired and Hungry

by Robert McGarvey

Two facts about my state when I return home after a multi night business trip: I am tired, exhausted if the trip has been over a week, and I am hungry for a decent meal.

You probably are too. Exhaustion and hunger are baked into today’s business travel.

Tell me again about the sybaritic joys of business travel.

I still hear people describing business travel that way. I just don’t see it in my life.

Did I ever? You bet. Forty years ago, when I was introduced to business travel as a cog in the oil industry, we lived pretty good. Our hotels were mainline brands – think Hilton and Sheraton and Hyatt — but we ate well indeed and we drank very, very well (too much, honestly, but this was the Mad Men era).

No more.

We stay in the same level hotels – in my world a J.W. is a stretch and don’t ever try for a Ritz Carlton – and the big brand hotels are fine, honestly, at least by my standards.

I do grumble about how little I sleep and I am not alone. None of us sleep well, apparently.

That’s partly why I am so tired when I return home after a trip.

A new Intercontinental survey reports that we sleep on average five hours and seventeen minutes per night on the road. Some of that sleep deprivation is just our discomfort in an unfamiliar environment but a lot of it is because our schedules are jammed nowadays. Yes, I am old and I recall when the work day on a business trip ended at 5 p.m. when it was time to occupy the hotel bar (and when employers did not question bar tabs, they just reimbursed them).

But we are in a different era where every business travel day is scripted and long.

But the impact on sleep is just the start of the impacts on how we live on the road.

What has really plummeted downhill is the eating and drinking.

I wish I could say, oh, on my latest trip to New York, I dined on a great steak at Wolfgang’s but that rarely happens (in fact I recall the last time I did, maybe seven years ago).

Time is the issue. Not so much money but time. It goes back to the heavily scripted days which, for me, usually start around 5 a.m. Why so early? There’s email that needs replies, new emails that need to be written, and I know if I don’t get them handled in the early morning they won’t be done. So I am accustomed to waking up when it’s still dark, fiddling with the inroom coffee maker, and getting on email.

About 7 a.m. I am out and looking for a bagel or a hard roll, usually for a solo breakfast, sometimes with a business contact.

Then on to meetings.

Lunch? You bet. According a report from business dining consulting firm Dinova, dining is the third biggest category of business travel expenses (after lodging and airfares); it totaled $77 billion in 2016. So eat we do on the road.

Eat what? Per Dinova, ” For many, local experiences and flavors top the list; a full 77% of business travelers said they prefer to ‘eat like a local’ while traveling. Another 52% said they search for restaurants that are popular with locals, and 49% research food that is unique to their travel destination.”

Sigh. Not me.

Sure, when I can, I head to Katz’s in New York for a pastrami, or I grab a hot dog at Pink’s in LA, or an Italian beef sandwich in Chicago.

But often I can’t. It’s about time. Time that I don’t have.

The Certify expense analysis report more accurately reflects where I eat. Starbuck’s is its number one dining venue. McDonald’s is number two. And I am baffled that my go-to doesn’t place in the top five: Subway. That’s where I eat pretty much every day on a business trip.

Could I expense more than I do? Yep. But I don’t have the time to eat fancier meals. Many nights I’ll grab a Subway sandwich and a diet soda, head up to my room, and work on email and blogs between bites.

Glamorous? If you say so.

But that’s my travel reality and it’s the reality of many of the travelers I know.

Ask me where I’ve eaten my best meals on business trips in recent years and the answer is loud: the Centurion Lounge in Las Vegas or Dallas, where I have supped many times.

How good is the food? Why ask me. I already told you what my best is and that should tell you my qualifications.

For Whom Does the Hotel Phone Ring?

By Robert McGarvey

Is it time to hang up on inroom hotel phones?

Honestly: I do not answer the inroom phone.  Nor do I check the messages. I assume the call isn’t for me and if it is, it’s unwanted hotel sales and marketing.  Easier just to ignore.

As USA Today reported last May, “The hotel guestroom telephone is being ignored more and more these days.”

You bet.

So for some years I have advocated yanking the things out of rooms – and
what’s caught my eye is there now, finally, is a rush to reinvent inroom phones and some of the ideas seem plausible.

But are the phones themselves too late to save?

Stop for a second however. Answer a key question: Would you miss the inroom phone if it vanished? Some say we would.

“Imagine walking into a hotel room that had no phone,” Chad Collins, VP of sales, Americas for VTech Communications, told Hotel Management for an August 2018 article. “While millennials and gen X guests are quite comfortable with emerging technologies and may not notice, the baby boomers and [the general public] are generally more comfortable with technologies that they are familiar with (i.e. guestroom telephone) and would consider it a fail to not have a phone in their rooms. This will remain the case for many years.”

Nah. Personally I would not notice that the thing was gone and I’m a leading edge Boomer. No fail in my scoring.

What about you? Do you really, truly, want that antique in your room?

I emphatically do not.

Even so, I am open to a reinvention of the inroom phone and at least some companies are trying. The exhibit here is an article in Hotel Business, What does the guestroom phone’s future look like?

Accepted by most experts is that we no longer use inroom phones to make outside calls. Maybe for inhouse calls. But outside, not so often.

In fact I cannot remember the last time I used an inroom phone to make an outside phone call.  I would say it certainly was in the last century (I started carrying a cellphone everywhere in 1999).  And, yes, I have more recently used an inroom phone to make a dinner reservation at an on property restaurant. But not to call other restaurants.

So the inroom phone makers are deep into a rethink of what functionality the device needs.

Joe Zhang, president, Bittel Americas, told Hotel Business: “We see the telephones in the future becoming simplified—speakerphone modules equipped with a number of one-touch, guest-service keys, with or without the physical dial pad.”

I like that – it might even persuade me to use the phone.

The key will be simplicity of use. If I have to think about how to use the thing I assure you I won’t – I won’t think about it and I won’t use it.

But very probably what I would much prefer in my room is an Alexa or Google Home device – and, yes, they can be put to use to make calls too.

I have both at home, use both daily, and would welcome seeing them in my next hotel room.

Can they be made easy to use? Sure.  

And we know how to use them anyway. Amazon claims it’s sold over 100 million of them.  We’re comfortable with them – concerns about spying aside – and it would be easy to build into an Alexa skills for opening hotel room blinds, adjusting the thermostat, turning on and off lights, and, yes, calling room service.

In my home I use those devices to turn lights on and off, to tell me the weather, to set a wake up alarm, to make phone calls, and it’s easy enough to set up to turn on the TV, to adjust the room temperature, and down the long list of proposed to-do’s for inroom phones.

There’s a pointed respect in which rethinking the inroom phone is a bit like rethinking the horseshoe in 1927.

Especially when the smart home devices are maturing fast and winning lots of users.

That’s my vote. Yank the phone – even if it’s a reinvented edition – and give me Google Home or Alexa.

The Irish Border and You and Me: The Wall Report

By Robert McGarvey

I remember sitting in my rental car, typically for an hour, maybe longer, just waiting to get through the Newry border crossing that separated Northern Ireland from Ireland.  It was always tense. That’s because, occasionally, bombs detonated and I did not want to be there when it happened.

Checks at the border, at least as regarded me, were always perfunctory.

It was the wait that got to me.

The drive time from Dublin to Belfast – my usual route in those days – is about two hours.

Plus the wait at the border.

Wasted time.  Pointless anxiety.

I cheered when the border checkpoints came down 20 years ago.

I’m not cheering anymore.

That’s because, as part of the Brexit deal or no deal, the specter rises of the 310 mile border again sprouting check points and, yes, fences, maybe even walls.  At one point there were 208 crossings and, over the years, I probably crossed at 20 of them and they all were nerve wracking and a time waster.

A hard border is very possible and even if you have no plans to go to Ireland and cross into the six counties, or vice versa, this just may impact you.

Pretty much everybody knows putting in a hard border in Ireland is nuts – but the EU and the UK are playing a game of chicken and it’s hard to say who’ll blink.

So a dumb border may in fact go up.

Exactly as steeper walls between the US and Mexico may.

Suddenly there appears to be a lot of interest in wall building.

Who knows where wall mania will erupt next?

As a business traveler, I just hate that. I remember – it wasn’t that long ago – when we had essentially no border controls with Canada.  Maybe some people were stopped but I know I wasn’t. I did not even show a passport on the first trips to Canada and I know that because I did not have a passport in those years.

Ditto Mexico.  I vividly remember walking into Juarez from El Paso and an hour later, walking back across the border. No stops. I didn’t have a passport but it didn’t matter because nobody asked.

Europe of course used to have thousands of border checkpoints but the 1985 Shengen agreement wiped out most of them.  You can cross from Austria into Germany, or Sweden into Denmark without a pause. And of course right now you can do similar crossing from Ireland into Northern Ireland.

Personally I have an Irish passport which wins me free passage into the Shengen countries – just about all of Europe – but now probably not into the UK.

Politicians – in Dublin and Downing Street – are gnashing their teeth. Many support what’s called the Irish backstop which says that if the UK and EU can’t come to a better agreement, the UK will remain in the EU customs union and, therefore, no hard Irish border is needed.

Isn’t that nuts? At least in the eyes of the people who voted for Brexit?

Pretty much.  

Invoking the backstop voids a lot of the insularity Brexit supporters had wanted.

But the backstop may be the best deal on offer for the UK.  Many warn that were a hard border restored in Ireland there would be a revival of so-called sectarian violence.  That’s difficult to predict and the generation of hard men, on all sides, that fueled “the Troubles” has aged out.  So who would pick up arms (and where would they get them)?

The violence in my mind is uncertain. The economic calamities that would afflict both Northern Ireland the Republic are certain however.  

A hard Brexit would be a catastrophe for the Irish, north and south.

It would also wipe out the nascent Northern Irish tourist business which has edged up in the 20 years of peace and for good reason. The Giant’s Causeway alone is worth the drive but, personally, I love the Antrim coast, walks in central Belfast, and a lot more.  Northern Ireland has been one of my favorite places to go over the past 30 years.

But put up a hard border and, guess what, it all goes poof.  

Walls are bad – bad for travel, bad for tourism, bad for economies.

I continue to think the UK will blink and will make a deal, however bad for it, that avoids a hard Irish border. The consequences of that border are too stark.

Yet I initially thought the English could not be so dumb as to think Brexit a solution to anything.

I just hope I’m not wrong again.

And I hope the rest of the world’s leaders get the message: Walls are bad.

Bonus: Here is an album of grand Northern Ireland photos by Toby Binder.

Are You a Typical Top Tier Traveler?

By Robert McGarvey

Just how typical are you? Travel data co-op ADARA set out to portray what makes top tier travelers special and the result is a paper titled Understanding the Secret Lives of Top Tier Travelers: Uncover search and booking behaviors of loyalty members.

So the obvious question is, am I typical?

The other question is: do airlines and hotels really understand top tier travelers?

Exactly what is a top tier traveler? Here’s the answer to the last question: “ADARA defined top tier as members with higher than basic status.”

Personally I’d quibble with that. To me top tier is platinum and higher (such as United’s 1K). But ADARA throws in Gold too, to use United’s classifications.

According to ADARA, 22% of airline loyalty members are top tier. 46% of hotel members are too.

ADARA explained that top tier status just is easier to earn at hotels. It said: “People can drive to hotels, they don’t need to live in a hub city to rack up status on a program, and most hotels base tier qualification on either stay activity or spend, while most airlines have adopted qualification policies requiring both.”

ADARA added that when it looked at all people who booked air between May and July 2018, just 17% had any loyalty status at all.

A curious factoid is that just 12% of all basic airline loyalty members belong to multiple programs.

17% of top tier airline members belong to multiple programs.

Color me surprised. I belong to three – the big three US carriers – and although I have status on none, membership is a convenience and the miles do add up. Why not grab them when I can?

44% of people who booked hotel rooms in that same time window had loyalty status, per ADARA. 12% of basic loyalty holders belong to more than one program. 24% of top tier holders belong to multiple programs.

Personally I have gold status with Marriott and Hilton but only because Amex Platinum delivers it as a perk. I belong to many hotel loyalty programs, however, usually because a useful perk is given to members.

ADARA elaborated on why so many of us belong to multiple hotel programs: “there are more hotel chains than major airlines in the marketplace. Also, there are immediate perks consumers get from enrolling in hotel programs (for example, free wi-fi, or a loyalty member discount that can be over 10%) which are strong incentives to enrollment before arriving and at the time of check-in.”

Loyalty – especially top tier loyalty – genuinely seems to create consumer loyalty, according to ADARA. Its data show that 49% of basic airline loyalty members searched multiple carriers before booking. Just 40% of top tier members did likewise.

With hotels loyalty means not so much. 54% of basic members searched multiple brands. 50% of top tier members did likewise.

ADARA also sorted the data to focus just on high frequency travelers – who booked four trips in the first six months of 2018 – and it found that 47% booked air with their loyalty program carrier and 63% booked their rooms with their hotel loyalty program.

Meantime, per ADARA, hotels and air carriers are getting more creative in efforts to boost loyalty program participation. It said: “Airlines and hotel chains are both increasing the range of redemption options for their services (wifi on United) or for partners (Hilton points applied to Amazon purchases). The winning brands are employing these approaches alongside auctions for exclusive events–such as back-stage passes to concerts–to ensure their programs have both broad appeal for infrequent travelers and a powerful draw to satisfy their elite members.”

ADARA argued that, to step up loyalty program participation, the big travel brands need to hone in on personalization. Send me photos of upgraded hotel gyms and I’ll yawn – I never use the things – but there are some others who always use the hotel gym. The key is knowing which is which and the data usually is available. But travel brands often just don’t use it.

Said ADARA: “Brands know that they must keep pace with changing consumer needs. Top tier travelers come in all stripes, and good customer service means a prompt Twitter conversation to some and a free martini to others. Loyalty members also expect their brands to truly understand them, and provide a level of relevant service in order to keep them loyal.”

Sounds right to me. Brands that genuinely know me just are the ones that I typically go to. Travel brands, mainly, seem laggards in this regard, or so I think.

What about you? Do you think the travel brands you use really know you? The comments are open.

In VPN Should We Trust?

By Robert McGarvey

Mea culpa.  I probably have misled you about road warrior Internet security in the past. But today I am here to make amends.

The problem is the public WiFi so many of us use daily. In coffee shops, hotel rooms, meetings venues, airplanes – we hear the Siren call of public WiFi and often succumb to the temptation. We tell ourselves we will be safe because we use VPN.

For some time I have said that probably is good enough protection.

Now I am rethinking that position. A small project I’ve done with Authentic 8, a security company that has developed Silo, a secure remote browser, is what’s persuaded me that oftentimes VPN just isn’t good enough.

The problem with computing on the road starts with public WiFi which is – well documented – a hacker’s paradise.  Noted Kaspersky: “The biggest threat to free Wi-Fi security is the ability for the hacker to position himself between you and the connection point. So instead of talking directly with the hotspot, you’re sending your information to the hacker, who then relays it on.

“While working in this setup, the hacker has access to every piece of information you’re sending out on the Internet: important emails, credit card information and even security credentials to your business network. Once the hacker has that information, he can — at his leisure — access your systems as if he were you.”

If that didn’t scare you, read it again.  It’s saying that when using public WiFi you are a sitting duck.

Enter VPN, the putative magic bullet.  Many believe it makes public WiFi safe. I wrote as much myself. What VPN does is create a so-called secure tunnel and, they say, that’s ample protection against hackers.

Is it really?  That’s not what I discovered. In fact VPN often is hacked.  Here’s one write up that documents five ways VPNs can fail to deliver protection.

Here’s a headline from ComputerWeekly:  “VPN hacks can be lethal, warns security expert.”  

Here’s another headline: “DEF CON Update: Researcher Shows How To Hack VPN Services Via VORACLE Attacks.”

VPN can be hacked, it can be used to distribute malware, and, even worse, there are ever more bogus VPN apps that exist to herd the unwary sheep to hacker wolves.

Understand, I use VPN probably daily. It’s set up to self deploy on my Pixel phone when I’m in range of a public WiFi network.  I agreed to that offer from Google Fi, my cellular provider. But I am very cautious about what info I access under that arrangement. And it’s a Google VPN in the bargain.

If you are accessing public WiFi and all you have is VPN, use it.  Most of the time VPN will probably be good enough. And it’s definitely better than nothing.

But be very careful about what you access. Stay aware of VPN’s limits.

What if I want more access, and to access more sensitive data? For looking at brokerage accounts, company financial data, maybe even loyalty program balances, personal bank and credit accounts, VPN alone may not be good enough. That’s where I now say a user ought to deploy the secure, remote Silo browser or similar.  Advantages are plentiful. With it, the user location is opaque. No Web data ever touches the endpoint – what’s distributed are pixels, no more.

This document tells you what you want to know about Silo.  

What Silo does is process all web data remotely, inside a cloud container. It then transmits an encrypted display of the data back to the user. And when it’s done, Silo destroys the browser session, leaving no traces on the user’s device.

That’s the beauty of it. The web data is handled inside a secure, web based container.  There can be all manner of bad stuff in it and it won’t matter to your user session because it will live only in the cloud.  

Oh, and in my tests, I don’t see speed losses when using Silo. There of course are usually significant speed losses with VPN. If there’s a reason users don’t deploy VPN when they have it available, it’s the speed bump.  That isn’t a problem with Silo.

Note: Silo does not run on phones. For them, you will still want to use VPN. It does run on iPad. Also laptops of course.

The key point is if you want something better – more secure – than VPN, know it exists.

Full disclosure: I have done contract writing for Authentic 8, which is how I grew aware of Silo. I was not paid by Authentic 8 for this column, which I wrote on my own initiative, in large part because I remember the many cases where I scolded friends and colleagues about public WiFi and told them they needed VPN.  So I was half right. But also half wrong. Mea culpa.

Does Your Comfort Trump Travel Costs?

by Robert McGarvey

Does your comfort – or your employer’s costs – come first in making choices about business travel?

Every trip of course involves a panoply of choice. Fly economy or premium economy (or, lucky you, business class)? Stay at a Marriott or a Courtyard? Take Uber on the ground or the subway?

In recent years many business travelers have grumbled that to their employers, cost always prevails. But just maybe that is no longer true.

Certainly there’s a positive sign: many travel managers had already indicated they weren’t buying airline basic economy fares for business travelers. The gripe there however is that in many cases the total fare actually edged higher when travelers were coerced into flying basic economy.

The bigger news out of a recent survey of Global Business Travel Association buying members – conducted by GBTA, in association with Travel and Transport and Raditz – suggests that many companies are more broadly embracing higher comfort for their business travelers. The survey’s topline finding: “60 percent of respondents said that traveler satisfaction is the most important factor when evaluating corporate travel.”

The survey continued: “Traveler satisfaction beat out hard dollar savings (47 percent) and policy compliance (40 percent), which were the next two considerations. Interestingly, traveler satisfaction remained the number one factor.”

“The best policies are in place to protect employees and help a business achieve bottom-line growth, but when road warriors are running on fumes, they can’t deliver those wins that businesses need to remain healthy. When they’re satisfied and feel supported, they’re more productive and the bottom line is healthier as a result,” said Joel Bailey, SVP, Customer Solutions with Travel and Transport.

Absolutely right.

And companies, flush with profits in today’s economy, are apparently recognizing that a comfortable employee is a better employee. Will they think that way in the next downturn? Almost certainly they won’t but at least enjoy today’s largesse.

Fly from Newark to Shanghai – 15 hrs, 5 minutes on United – in economy and you will not arrive in China rested and ready to battle. You will arrive seriously disadvantaged.

There just is much more space in premium economy – wider seats – a tastier menu, and it simply is a less hectic setting. The price difference is $1000 for the basic to maybe $1800 to $2000 for premium economy.

But there really is no number to reflect the much higher employee comfort.

That’s probably why – in my impressionistic surveys – premium economy is selling out of many Shanghai runs this winter while plentiful coach seating remains. Many employers are bellying up to this bar and parting with the shekels for better employee comfort.

As for hotels, frankly I don’t need a five star hotel on the ground – but I sure prefer a three or four star over a no star or one star. If I were flying to Montreal tonight I’d stay at the Hotel Nelligan, at maybe $175, even though in Montreal winters there are plenty of rooms in town for under $100. I just know where my comfort zone is. And note I don’t need the $300+ hotels either; neither do most business travelers.

But I much prefer quiet, well located, well run hotels over their bargain brethren.

As for ground transportation I am a pennypincher’s dream. In Phoenix, where I live, I take the light rail to/from the airport. In San Francisco I take BART. At Newark Airport I’d probably take the PATH. Often public transit simply is faster than a taxi or Uber and it sure is cheaper.

When it comes to food, people know I’m a skinflint on business trips. A Shake Shack supper is a splurge. A Starbucks breakfast is the norm. Of course if it’s a shared business meal, that stinginess is discarded.

So maybe my expenses balance out. Some columns are slim, others a bit more plump.

Either way, though, I know that those who pay for my travel get a much better deal when I am a cheerful traveler. Put a frown on my face and my value plummets. So there is more value to be had when I am cosseted than when I am tossed stale bread crumbs and a sleeping bag.

Probably true for you too.

Just saying. Employers might take note. It’s how to get value for money.