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.

Where to Eat at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport

By Robert McGarvey

More of you lately have been asking me the same question: where to eat at Sky Harbor Airport, Phoenix – which, for the record, is the nation’s 13th busiest airport – just behind Newark (11) and Orlando (12) and ahead of Miami (14) and Houston (15).

Makes sense that the questions are getting asked now, too. This is Phoenix’s busy season, the town is hopping with meetings, events, and Spring Training ball. There also have been recent, big culinary changes in Terminal 3.

Mainly, too, Sky Harbor is a pleasant facility. I can rant about JFK and am no fan of BWI but Sky Harbor usually seems well run, even calm.  I cannot even complain about the TSAs at Phx.

Can similar be said about the food?

Commendable is the airport policy to nurture local chefs.  Certainly there are the national chains – sometimes I believe there is a law requiring Starbucks at all airports – but in Phoenix your best choices may be places you’ve never heard of, by chefs you’ve also not heard about.

Thus the real need for local guidance.

Sky Harbor has three terminals and they are not equal. Terminal 4 is the busiest by far, handling perhaps 70% of Sky Harbor’s passengers.  

The best food choices, not surprisingly, are found in Terminal 4.  

By far the best.

AZCentral.com reporter Lauren Saria even managed to file a piece on the top 10 dining choices at Terminal 4.  There actually are good options.

A top choice is Barrio Cafe via chef Silvana Salcido Esparza who may be cooking the most thoughtful Mexican food in Phoenix.  

Also a good idea is Zinc Brasserie. Wrote Saria, “Zinc easily exceeds most expectations for an airport eatery. For a starter don’t skip the French onion soup gratinee, and for a more affordable entree the Zinc Burger can’t be beat. It comes with your choice of bacon and blue cheese or truffled gruyere and a side of crispy shoestring frites.”

It’s breakfast time?  Lucky you. Eat at Matt’s Big Breakfast, the airport outpost of a downtown Phoenix classic that has won its fame by serving very good breakfast staples such as scrambled eggs and bacon, what I always order.  The execution just is precise.

Save room for a stop at Sweet Republic – an outstanding local ice cream maker.  Really good ice cream.

And have a cup of coffee at Cartel. Wrote Saria: “When it comes to craft coffee, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more serious operation in greater Phoenix than Tempe-based Cartel Coffee Lab.”

If you have to eat at the airport in Phoenix, you will do well in Terminal 4.  You will do less well at the other terminals but you won’t starve.

Terminal 3 is a lesser used terminal. I can recall flying out of it only a few times.  That is reflected in the dining options.  But the good news is that, lately, there’s been a rush to open new venues. That’s giving diners much better choices.

Right now I would recommend Shake Shack and the Parlor Pizzeria (the airport location of a much praised Phoenix pizzeria that has sometimes been called the town’s best and that means better than Chris Bianco’s joints which is something. I don’t agree with that but Parlor is very good indeed).

I am also a longtime Shake Shack fan – so I won’t grumble when I can eat there.

Otherwise, Terminal 3 has a lot of blah choices – Starbucks, Habit Burger, Panera, and you get the drill.  Here’s the complete list.  

My advice: flip a coin. Heads you go for pizza, tails for a burger.  Forget the other options.

Stay tuned however because shortly a new Terminal 3 restaurant created by James Beard award winner Christopher Gross – called Christopher’s – is slated to open. That will demand our interest. I know I will give it a try.

Also slated to open soon is The Tavern, a new restaurant via Mark Tarbell, a local Phoenix celebrity chef. Mainly a burger, sandwich and salad place but Tarbell will try to lift it beyond the humdrum. I’ll stop here too when it opens.

Terminal 2 also is a lesser used terminal.  The best choice is NYPD Pizza, and fans of chef Silvana will want to stop at Barrio Avion.  Other choices include Wendy’s and a grab and go.

Terminal 2 is a backwater. Obviously. But at least you can get a decent burrito.

At what cost? Excellent question. Consumer alert: in December the Phoenix City Council repealed a policy that set airport restaurant prices at street plus 10%.  Restaurants may now set their own prices. So regular airport diners almost certainly will detect higher costs.

Is the food worth it? Remember my rule about inflight food: just don’t. Don’t eat the stuff, certainly not on any domestic flight.  So that often means eating at the airport.

The Inflight Retail Hustle


By Robert McGarvey

Have I stumbled onto Canal Street?

That thought popped into my mind on a recent flight as I witnessed attempt after attempt by the flight attendants to sell me stuff, lots of stuff. Everything from a credit card (note: I already have the thing!) to food (note: I don’t eat airline food) to alcohol.

Can’t a passenger get a little quiet?

The facial expressions of the crew are worth observing.  Some really get into this – presumably there’s a spiff system where the more they sell, the bigger the bonus – but the majority seem downright embarrassed.

As they should be.  I would not want to do the Canal Street hustle and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody else.

Then a Skift story popped into view: “In-Flight Pandering Erodes Airline Passenger Loyalty.” That’s because crews are turning up the heat.

According to Skift, “Several reports on social media share that captains and first officers on American are now making announcements on behalf of flight attendants while last week, a blogger on Boarding Area documented a credit card pitch that was flat-out wrong.”

Ouch.

It gets worse. On Frontier flight attendants now are actively soliciting tips. Bloomberg even asked the airline if, what the hell, is this sanctioned behavior and oh it is.  According to Bloomberg, “‘We appreciate the great work of our flight attendants and know that our customers do as well, so [the payment tablet] gives passengers the option to tip,’ said Frontier spokesman Jonathan Freed.”

Word of advice: just don’t. Don’t tip. I have long advocated – indeed lectured on — the importance of tipping hotel housekeepers, bellmen, et. al. but inflight is off limits in my mind. What, should we throw a deuce at the flight attendant when he/she bring us a glass of water? No.

Of course too we are getting ripped off when we buy stuff on a plane. The UK Independent, using data gathered by Kayak, wrote this about inflight purchases: “The report from travel search engine Kayak focused on the food and beverage offerings on Ryanair, easyJet, Jet2, FlyBe and British Airways, comparing staple items on the airlines’ menus with the equivalent at supermarkets Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s. Some of the biggest mark-ups were on drinks. A cup of tea on Jet2 was marked up by 8,900 per cent (£2.70 compared to 3p at the supermarket); coffee on a flight with the same airline had a 1,321 per cent mark-up (£2.70/19p).”

The report continued: “EasyJet were found to sell muffins with a 900 per cent mark-up (£2.50 compared to 25p) and chocolate bars for 260 per cent more (£1.80 compared to 50p).”

And then a tip on top makes sense?

You think it’s bad on United, American, BA, et. al.? It could get worse. Korea Air apparently wins the title as the most successful inflight shiller, garnering some $143 million in 2018 inflight sales.

Mainly Korea Air rings its cash registers selling cosmetics, booze and health supplements.

Don’t think this goes unnoticed in Chicago, Atlanta, or Dallas. The Big 3 US carriers have to be enviously eyeing this easy money. That’s why my guess is that more of this 30,000 ft retail is coming our way as carriers look for ever more “imaginative” ways to sell to a captive audience. Of course nobody reads the seatback shopping catalog anymore – is there still one? – and nobody reads the inflight magazine, so now the airlines have decided to put stuff to buy in our faces, literally.

But I can tell you this: I do not remember the last thing I bought on a plane.  I have a faded memory of buying a carton of Silk Cut smokes on a BA flight years ago but that was when smoking inflight was okay and also when I still smoked (I quit in 2001) so forgive my haziness.

If we don’t buy stuff they won’t try to sell it to us.

Say that again, say it loud, say it proud.

Just don’t buy and they will quit.

Eventually.

Meantime, earplugs will block the din out.  That’s my advice.

Welcome to the Circus: The Carrier Pursuit of Irrelevance


By Robert McGarvey

Don’t mind me, I’m only yawning.

The headline in trade pub Travelmarket Report triggered yawns in me: Major Airlines Duke It Out For Free Live TV Supremacy.  

For a brief second I was puzzled: what year is this?

I remember maybe 10 years ago when Continental, with much fanfare, introduced DirecTV and since I was flying business class in that era, it was free. In coach it apparently cost $6 and I’m sure I wouldn’t have paid for it because TV remains Newton Minow’s vast wasteland.  The less I watch the happier I am.

So of course I am not thrilled that now United, American and Delta apparently are battling to see which can offer free TV to more passengers. Call this the airline homage to Juvenal, the first century AD satirist who said the masses could be sated with bread and circuses —

iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli / uendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim / imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se / continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat, / panem et circenses

Translation:  Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

Call more TV at 30,000 feet circuses and even tho in coach free bread is but a memory, the executives at the carriers must think that maybe we’ll be sated with the circus, at least placated enough not to notice how dismal back of the bus carriage has become.

And I also scratch my head at how, well, primitive free TV on the seatback is. As Travel Market Report noted, “some airlines are choosing to remove seatbacks [that is, screens] altogether; after it acquired Virgin America, known for the quality of its inflight entertainment, Alaska Airlines said it would ultimately phase out the seat back screens in favor of better WiFi and streaming choices vis passenger devices.”

Many other carriers are said to be kicking that idea around, especially as they confront the coming era of pricier jet fuel. When fuel is expensive weight matters and, yes, a screen weighs little but multiply it by the number of seats and the weight begins to exact a fuel toll.  Thus the interest in eighty sixing seatback screens – and putting the onus on passengers to tote their own devices (iPads, laptops, even smartphones) and to watch them.

Makes sense to me.  Other than some glances at DirecTV on Continental a decade ago, I cannot recall even noticing the seatback screen on flights.  My m.o. is to bring an iPad with a loaded Kindle app and to use flight time to read.  

But that’s only after handling accumulated email because a principle I travel with is arriving home with a clean desk – and that means responding to all emails received when on the road during the homeward bound flight.  If I have working WiFi – always a question and, yes, I’d be all in on an airline campaign to upgrade WiFi into a usable tool but we seem rather far from that — I’ll send off those emails from the air. But if not I’ll just backlog then and send when I land. Either way I’ve abided by my rules.

Which brings us to something that genuinely needs fixing: Most flights continue to lack WiFi and few have WiFi that is better than a nuisance.  If carriers touted a rollout of usable WiFi – not free TV – I’d be first to applaud.

But, apparently, carriers think we are so dimwitted that we’ll be sated by the flickering TV screen and may even forget that we still don’t have WiFi worth spit.

Sigh, at least I have my iPad with roughly 1000 books downloaded. I know I won’t be watching the free TV and if enough of us don’t, will carriers get the message that TV is not an adequate substitute for working WiFi? Nah, I doubt it.

But it’s pretty to wish as much.

Business Travel, Climate Change and You


By Robert McGarvey

We have met the enemy and he is us (apologies to Walt Kelly).

Travel is an enemy of the environment. That is fact.  And we are in the equation.

Skift recently had a piece on the scramble of hotels and airlines to respond to global warming which, by the way, is an undisputed reality – ask NASA.

And that got me pondering what I could do – what you could do.

It can’t entirely be on the hotels and the airlines. There’s a part in this for us too.

Of course we’ve known for some time about the link between business travel and global warming. No news there. Except matters just keep getting worse. A recent article in nature climate changeThe Carbon Footprint of Global Tourism” pulled no punches.  Wrote the authors: “We find that, between 2009 and 2013, tourism’s global carbon footprint has increased…four times more than previously estimated, accounting for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.”

They added: “The rapid increase in tourism demand is effectively outstripping the decarbonization of tourism-related technology.”

(Reporting on the paper is here in the UK Independent.)

Of course we’re not tourists. But, in my mind, business travel is a big part of this problem – especially as more of us are flying longhaul flights to Asia, Africa, etc.  It is becoming one world, and – increasingly – I find myself feeling out of it because I am becoming the only person I know who doesn’t have a 10 year Chinese business visa.

Think about how much pollution goes into that longhaul trip. Air travel is a significant polluter – accounting for upwards of 2% of global carbon dioxide.  

Ditto those x-country trips in the US.

Yes, there are many carbon offset programs and some, if not many, business travelers and their employers and clients participate.  And in some cases, the costs of an offset may be tax deductible.  

But is that enough?

Let’s be honest. Hotels are negligible contributors to global warming and many now are scrambling to further cut their emissions.  Of course we also can stay at LEED certified hotels but we probably can do a lot on our own in any hotel just by turning off lights when we leave the room, setting summer temps at 78 and winter at 68, re-using towels, and you know the drill.  All good steps, if symbolic in many respects, but we know what to do and more of us are doing it.

The carbon culprit is air travel.

A solution, where possible, is to take a train because it is vastly less polluting.  Many multiples less.

That’s very possible – indeed preferable – in Europe and it is increasingly a good option in Canada (read Chris Barnett on travel from Toronto and Montreal).

But it’s not a good option in the US, other than the short Acela route (Boston to Washington DC) and when I lived in Jersey City I often took the train to DC or Baltimore.  

Don’t think about trains on many other US routes however – they just don’t cut it. As far as I know there is no train stop in Phoenix, for instance. The nearest is in a town called Maricopa which, oddly, is in Pinal County, not Maricopa Cty where Phoenix is. It’s a town of 50,000, 35 miles south of Phoenix, and, nope, I’ve never been. I see an Amtrak train, costing $90 to LA, that will take 8 and a half hours. I can fly American non stop, roundtrip for $167 and the flight is under 90 minutes. I guess I’m not going to Maricopa anytime soon.

And tell me about the train from LAX to Shanghai. Or Paris. No can do of course.

On the ground, increasingly, I use mass transit (subways preferably or light rail).  Sometimes Uber. But I’m cheap and also honestly like subways, can’t think of any I disliked.  So usually you’ll find me in mass transit on the ground when I travel.

Oh, and always walk when that’s an option. Better for you, better for the planet.

Here’s the bad news: the single biggest step the business traveler can take to cut his/her carbon footprint is to travel less – specifically, to fly less.

That’s really the only step that matters.

And often flying is the only real way to make the trip.

Before every flight, ask: do I need to go? Will a Skype video call suffice?  

Does your company need to send three execs when one would do?

Can you piggyback trips – so that flight to Shanghai leads into a train trip to Hong Kong. Thus cutting out one air roundtrip.

Bottomline: cutting the carbon cost of business travel means doing less of it. Sure, that is a kidney punch to our elite dreams. But so what?

This mean utterly rethinking how we travel and, more to the point, how we do business.

Less face to face isn’t a bad thing.  In fact it’s just reverting to how it was pre WW II. And that wasn’t so very long ago. It worked then. It can work now.

Heck, maybe we’ll also start sending letters via post. Wouldn’t that be something?

The Best Credit Card for Business Travelers


By Robert Mcgarvey

Put three business travelers at a Holiday Inn bar and around 9 p.m., after drinks have flowed for maybe three hours, toss out this topic – what’s the absolute best credit card for business travel, the one you won’t leave home without – and then hastily back off.

That’s because fists and bottles may start flying.

Nobody gets worked up debating the best domestic carrier – they all suck so why fight.

Or the best business travel hotel. Who gives a whit about Hilton vs Marriot vs IHC?

With the best bank there may be a little debate but, really, we all know the big banks stink and therefore the best answers are going to be curve balls. (Here’s my answer by the way.)

But the real fisticuffs come out when the debate is about credit cards because we all have them and we all have opinions.

The trigger for this column was a recent New York Times story headlined “Best Credit Card for Travelers? Probably Not One From an Airline.”

And right at jump I had to disagree.

Sort of.

According to the Times, your best bet for a travel card is Amex Platinum ($550) or Chase Sapphire Reserve ($450) — “they provide hefty credits that can be used with any airline to cover expenses like checked bags and in-flight purchases, along with other benefits like access to airport lounges.”

Personally I’ve had the Platinum card for years and I swear by the Centurion lounges, I like the annual $200 credit for Uber (dribbled out in monthly $15 tranches and a year-end bonus), the $200 airline fee credit (against checked bag fees, etc. – applicable only to one airline designated annually), free Priority Pass membership, reimbursement for Global Entry or Pre (I used it for Pre), and free Boingo Preferred WiFi access at many airports. There’s also 5x points on air and hotel expenses. And still more stuff.  It is indeed a feature rich card that returns what I pay for it and more.

But it is not quite enough for me.

Maybe I do not think they are the best credit cards for travelers. But I do also have a United World Explorer card – $95 per year and for that I get 2X miles at restaurants, hotel, and United purchases. There’s a free checked bag.  $100 towards TSA Pre or Global Entry (I used it for the latter.) A couple club passes annually. And no foreign transaction fees.  

There’s also priority boarding which is why I have the card in the first place. That gives me the key perk that comes with low level elite status which I no longer have because I have no airline loyalty.  None.

I also have an American Airlines AAdvantage Aviator card.  Also $95.  2X miles on American purchases. Free checked bag. No foreign transaction fees.  

And, again, priority boarding.

If you don’t have elite status – and unless it is easy to get why bother? – an airline credit card gives you what you most want from status.

Do I need both the airline cards? Probably not. I got the United card (nee Continental) when I lived in Jersey City NJ, flew out of EWR and always flew Continental.

I now live in Phoenix and usually fly American, thus that card.

But until Platinum gives me priority boarding – and I do not see that day coming – I will have at least one airline credit card. When you do carryon and only carryon, which is how I’ve flown for over a dozen years, early boarding is a must.  Hanging out at baggage carousels to collect a gate checked bag just is so uncool. And a complete waste of my time.

So I pay a small fee (tax deductible) for a card that gives me early boarding and that combination of an airline card with Amex Platinum is to me just about perfect.

Except — there is one perk I definitely think a travel card ought to include and that’s free access to Authentic 8’s Silo or a VPN, to give travelers much better Internet security at airports, inflight, at coffee shops, and also hotels. Public WiFi is a trap, simply awful. I do not use it. And recommend others don’t unless they take security precautions. Sure, a decent VPN or Silo can be yours for under $15 monthly – Silo is better, but it doesn’t run on everything – but as a perk I’d take either over Boingo any day. Just saying, Amex.