Is checking luggage a life hack?

I don’t currently own a suitcase small enough to serve as a carry-on for most domestic flights. For my work travel, then, I typically check my bag—and cough up the thirty-dollar charge (thank goodness for reimbursable expenses).

For most people, though, that checked-bag fee has changed air travel. To avoid paying extra, many passengers opt for carry-ons instead. On every flight I board, the overhead bins are jam-packed.

The bag fee’s side effects extend beyond the cabin. Because there are fewer checked bags, tarmac employees have less unloading work to do after a flight arrives. They can quickly clear the plane’s luggage compartment and promptly deliver the bags (via carts and conveyers) to the baggage claim. In fact, by the time I’ve disembarked from the plane, stopped by the restroom, and found my assigned baggage claim area, my bag is often already there!

This is a stark contrast to years past, when retrieving a checked bag guaranteed a twenty-minute, shoulder-to-shoulder wait, glumly watching as other people’s bags toppled down the chute.

Now, though, there’s no real penalty to checking a bag (beyond the added cost). There’s no extra travel time, since I have to pass through the baggage claim to leave the airport, anyways. And my journey is more convenient; I don’t have to clear a suitcase through security, or keep tabs on it during airport bathroom breaks, or maneuver it through the Starbucks queue, or steer it down the narrow plane aisle.

Eventually, I’d imagine that airports will reconfigure themselves to accommodate the new luggage economy. Does it really make sense to build and maintain twelve baggage claim stations that barely get used? Do you really need the conveyor belts at the check-in counter, or could you have passengers haul all their luggage (whether carried-on or checked) straight to the gate?

Until that happens, though, I’m reaping the benefits of an air travel infrastructure built around checked luggage. ■

travel Uncategorized

Charmed To Death

I dread visiting bed and breakfasts.

Don’t get me wrong; when I’m traveling, I’d much rather support a small business owner than some “hospitality conglomerate.”

And, in some ways, the B&B experience trumps any cookie-cutter hotel:

  • First, the food is better; many B&Bs prepare homemade morning meals with fresh, local ingredients. At hotels, you’re lucky to get waffles from a bag mix.
  • Second, B&Bs have charm. Often, the owner packs each room with skimmable books and interesting local knick-knacks. Meanwhile, hotels settle for sterile blandness; a room in Akron boasts the same wall art as a room in Portland. You’re stuck with the same worthless TV channels you’d watch at home.
  • Finally, at B&Bs, everyone you meet is genuinely friendly…

… But that’s the problem; they’re too friendly. See, there’s an unspoken understanding at B&Bs; guests are expected to spend some time making conversation. For example, there’s the obligatory twenty-minute check-in chat, in which you dutifully describe the details of your trip for the proprietor. You’ll then repeat that spiel for each of your fellow guests. When you return to the house at day’s end, be prepared to discuss your outing. And, worst of all, many B&Bs force strangers to take seats around the breakfast table and endure one last chat with people you’ll never meet again.

Some travelers relish these chance encounters with strangers; they want to meet new people. But for introverts like me, small talk feels like a resented chore, antithetical to rest.

Give me the quieter, antisocial experience of the average hotel chain. I want a staff who treats me with indifference and prefers not to hear from me at all. I love how fellow hotel guests avoid eye contact in the dining room or fitness center.

At the soulless hotel, there are no social gatekeepers and no conversational tolls to pay.

travel Uncategorized

Coach class manifesto

Yesterday I flew across the country, from Dulles to Seattle. The United flight lasted five and a half hours—a tough slog even in ideal conditions.

Worse? I was flying coach, which multiplies the suffering. Like many airlines, United seems determined to nickel-and-dime their passengers to death (or at least to discomfort). Every nicety that once made air travel bearable now costs extra. Want to watch live TV? Slide your credit card. Hungry? Buy a $10, disgusting meal. Need an amount of leg space that won’t induce deep vein thrombosis? That’ll be $89.

In this passenger-hostile environment, every last dignity deserves to be defended. Yes, flying is miserable, but by following an unspoken social contract, you can at least make it bearable for your fellow flyers.

Here’s my coach-class manifesto:

  • Other passengers’ personal space is sacred and inviolable. Your seatmates are already crammed into a unhealthy, inhumane amount of space. Don’t make it worse by invading that precious little room. A few guidelines: as a courtesy to the beleagured middle-seat passenger, that person gets first dibs over both armrests, on either side. This is fair; the other passengers own the outer armrests and can lean away, but the middle passenger has nowhere to go. An addendum, however: no one should ever allow his or her arm (let alone belly or other body part) to pass over a shared armrest. (I’m talking to you, dude in 28E yesterday.)
  • Along the same lines, passengers own the space in front of them. Reclining seat backs spur many arguments over traveling etiquette. But the rule is simple: never recline your seat back without permission from the passenger behind you. That person may resent having his knees crushed. If you don’t get consent before catapulting yourself into his personal space, your victimized rear neighbor is free to kick, knee and shove your seat at will. There is one exception to the seat-back rule. If your rearward neighbor has already reclined her seat—and especially if she’s sleeping—you may recline yours without asking first.
  • The space beneath the seat in front of you is yours. If another passenger’s belongings slip into that space, you can claim them as your own.
  • Don’t be over-friendly. Greet your seatmates courteously when you first sit down. If they’re responsive and talkative, feel free to continue the conversation. If not, let them suffer the indignities of air travel in silence. Never look directly at your seatmate when talking to them. And never (ever!) touch your seatmate—even passive contact may be intensely uncomfortable for others.
  • Don’t do anything gross. On my flight yesterday, my seatmate would occasionally self-administer a sadistic sort of chiropractic treatment. He’d grip his head with both hands, then violently wrench his neck from side to side. He did this at least once an hour, and it freaked me out every time. Along these lines, don’t trim your fingernails, pick your nose, scratch, or do anything else that could potentially bother your neighbor. If you feel any of these urges, visit the lavatory, so that your fellow passengers don’t need to witness.

Air travel is awful, but it helps to remember that it’s awful for everyone else, too. You aren’t suffering alone! Be conscious of other passengers’ comfort, and we’ll all get through this together. Then, happily, we never have to see each other ever again.

internet technology travel Uncategorized

Apple Maps & the long road back

I had planned to write a short piece ridiculing iOS’s default mapping app.

The title? “Rural iPhone users should avoid Apple Maps.” I assumed that Apple couldn’t match Google’s ability to collect and crunch location data. Google Maps (I was certain) was superior—boasting faster routes, newer maps, and more accurate business listings.

I’d even identified the perfect test case. The West Virginia Division of Highways just opened a five-mile stretch of highway near our home in the Potomac Highlands. “Surely,” I thought, “Google will incorporate this new route before Apple.” Apple would ignore our remote swath of rural Appalachia, focusing its limited efforts on population-dense urban areas instead.

I was wrong. Firing up both apps on my iPhone last night, I was surprised to find that Apple had discovered the new four-lane stretch before Google. In the side-by-side comparison below, Apple Maps (on the left) correctly routes me to the north, onto the recently-completed US-48. Google Maps (on the right) steers me south, apparently unaware of the newly-opened section.

Apple and Google Maps
Apple (left) and Google (right) route around the Mount Storm Power Plant in West Virginia.

Can one Apple Maps victory woo me away from Google? Probably not; Google still boasts newer satellite imagery and slightly better point-of-interest data for our area. Plus, this correct route may not reflect any intensified mapping efforts on Apple’s part; the update might have come from partner TomTom (whose route planner also shows the change).

Still, at the very least, Apple’s no longer a punchline in the navigation space. I’m intrigued enough that I’ll continue to compare the two services’ results—instead of automatically defaulting to the Goog.