Tag Archives | Travel

Something Special–and Wireless–in the Air

American AirlinesThis better have nothing to do with April Fools’ Day: American Airlines has announced that it’s going to equip more than 300 planes with in-flight Wi-Fi service, bringing Internet access to most of its domestic flights. The airline will work with Gogo to implement the service. And along with recent announcements by Delta, Virgin, Southwest, JetBlue, and others, it means that a meaningful percentage of the plans flying around this country will eventually be Internet-enabled. (It’s going to take awhile, though, and I predict delays.)

I’m used to news about airlines involving new fees for pretzels and air-sickness bags, so this is exciting stuff. I’ve hankered for connectivity in the air for years, but the only times I’ve actually experienced it were on a test flight using Boeing’s Connexion service (which barely worked) and one flight on a Lufthansa plane with Connexion (right before Boeing killed it).

The Gogo technology only works for domestic routes, but the USA Today story I link to at the top of this post reports that Southwest is experimenting with satellite-based Internet access that would work even on international flights. Which is a little confusing given that Southwest only flies domestically, but maybe some other airline will pick up the service for globe-spanning routes.

It’s obligatory in any mention of Internet access in the air to point out that planes have been one of the last zones where you’re free of Internet distractions, and can therefore relax with a good book, chat with loved ones or friendly strangers, and avoid your boss. It’s all true, and I confess that I’m usually really productive on airplanes, especially on those six-hour flights between the coasts. (It’s a lot easier to write thoughtfully when you can’t check e-mail, engage in instant messaging, or check out blogs.) I don’t care, though: I look forward to the day when I can write to you from 10,000 feet in the air. And I can’t see any scenario when I’m going to opt for an airline without Wi-Fi when one that has it is an option…


Note to Self: Don't Pack Tech When Flying

airplane_movie2One of the stories linked in today’s 5Words had me grumbling.

A Yale University student is suing US Airways for losing his Xbox 360, which was packed among his checked bags. But it’s not a simple matter of lost luggage; the kid opened his suitcase after pulling it from baggage claim to find all his belongings inside except the console and accompanying components. He wants $1 million for damages, but that’s not the part that shocked me.

In the story, reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer, a US Airways spokeswoman said the airline isn’t responsible because “publicly available baggage policies specifically exclude liability for electronics checked in luggage.”

Is this common knowledge? I know most people understand that fragile items may not survive the rigors of baggage handling — we’ve all seen luggage carelessly tossed about the tarmac — but the idea that airlines take no responsibility whatsoever, even if the item magically disappears from a suitcase, seems pretty wild to me.

I pulled up the baggage liability limitations for all the other major U.S. airlines — American, Continental, Delta and United — and they all say the same thing. To paraphrase: You’re welcome to bring your electronics on board or in checked baggage, but don’t blame us if anything goes wrong. Continental’s policy even excludes liability for CDs, DVDs and cell phones.

The other factor, besides the airlines, is the Transportation Security Administration. Travel writer Christopher Elliott wrote a lengthy article filled with horror stories of TSA agents swiping things (“Taking Something Always,” he calls the administration) and tips on how to hang on to your stuff. Basically, it boils down to one piece of advice: Keep it in your sights, or leave it at home.

Duly noted.


I Gripe, Orbitz Reacts. Sort of. Well, Not Really. But at Least They Noticed.

Orbitz LogoA couple of days ago, I bought an airfare-and-hotel package for a business trip to Las Vegas, and was annoyed by the way the travel merchant tried to slip a $14 bus ticket and $19.50 travel insurance plan into my order even though I hadn’t asked for them. An Orbitz customer-serve representative (who asked not to be named) saw my complaints and gave me a call. She didn’t make me happy–because she couldn’t explain, really, why it’s appropriate to put unasked-for things in a customer’s shopping cart. But she did provide some background.

The automatic addition of a $14 bus fare, she told me, is a recent addition–and it’s one that Orbitz is only tacking on for Vegas and a few other destinations. She said that those locales have been singled out because most hotels don’t offer shuttle-bus service. (Which explains why you might offer bus pickup and dropoff…but not why you’d charge a customer for them unless that person specifically asked otherwise. After all, I don’t know of a single hotel anywhere that tacks a shuttle-bus fee onto your bill.)

“I can understand why you wouldn’t like that–‘hey, I didn’t even want this,’ said the rep sympathetically. But she told me that Orbitz has received very few complaints about the Las Vegas bus fee, and that some of the company’s competitors were similarly adding charges.

As for the travel insurance, the rep said that it’s mostly offered on highly restrictive plane tickets which are hard to make changes to without penalty–often international flights. The insurance allows travelers to get refunds even if the airline won’t oblige. Again, fair enough–except for the part about having to notice the fee and sidestep it if you’re not interested.

“I don’t like it myself,” she said of the automatic insurance. And she added that travelers should read the policy carefully, since it doesn’t cover some stuff she thinks it should, like airline bankruptcies.

I was irritated in part because the Orbitz site has fine print telling you that you can’t get a refund on the items you didn’t ask for in the first place. But the rep said that if you accidentally ended up paying for them and called right away, Orbitz would help you get a refund.

She also told me that she felt my pain, but that Orbitz wasn’t trying to scam anyone (note: I didn’t say it was) and that the policies I found so offensive weren’t going away. And then she backpedaled a little–she said that Orbitz appointed a new CEO in January (Barney Harford) and that he was a “high-tech” guy who wanted simplify the process of buying travel from the company. Who knows, she said–maybe he’ll change things.

We can only hope–but I still think that maybe it should be the FTC, not Web merchants, who get to decide what’s appropriate here.


Orbitz Sales Tactics: "Convenient!" And Sleazy!

Orbitz LogoI’m planning a business trip to Las Vegas for the CTIA Wireless Show at the end of this month. After starting my research at the wonderful Kayak travel search engine, I ended up at Orbitz, which offered some attractive-sounding package deals for a flight and hotel room. I started clicking my way through to buy.

A few pages into the purchase–Orbitz makes you burrow through a lot of stuff to book–I noticed something over on the right-hand side of the page:


Orbitz had added a $14 bus pickup and dropoff to my order. One I hadn’t asked for. And it told me it was doing it “for my convenience.”

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It’s a Best Buy! Except at an Airport! Inside a Machine!

A couple of weeks ago, Best Buy announced that it was working with a company called Zoom Systems to install electronics vending machines inside airports. I blog to you this afternoon from the international terminal at San Francisco’s SFO, where I’m waiting for a plane–and where I just spent some time with one of these “Best Buy Express” kiosks.

Zoom Systems has been installing automated electronics kiosks in airports and other locations for years now. (There’s one in my local Macy’s.) So the Best Buy news is more about a marketing partnership than technological innovation of any sort. The machine is the standard Zoom Systems machine, with Best Buy signage and a touch screen that has some of the look and feel of BestBuy.com:

The kiosk I saw was almost always been gawked at by one or more curious travelers:

In fact, the throngs of spectators were thick enough that if you wanted to buy something, you might have had to wait, or elbow your way to the front of the line. In the ten minutes or so that I hung around and watched the scene, several people seemed to ready to buy, but didn’t–one family seemed within moments of buying a Nintendo DS Lite, then walked away. The one real customer I saw–he bought some headphones–seemed tickled. But he also seemed to have trouble with the touch screen: He kept pounding away at on-screen buttons, and they didn’t respond. And at the end of his transaction, the kiosk asked him to take a survey; if I’d been waiting to buy something, I’d have been ticked off. (Seems like anything that encourages people to move at a leisurely pace at an airport is a mistake.)

I suspect that I’m not alone in being instinctively suspicious about merchants of any sort in airports: I assume that the stuff they sell sports rip-off pricetags until proven otherwise. So I jotted down some prices at the kiosk, then compared them to BestBuy.com once I got to my gate. (Yes, I’m a nerd.) The bottom line:

–nearly everything cost the same at the airport and online, including iPods, the DS Lite, a Nikon Coolpix S550 camera, and an unlocked Sony Ericsson phone.

–The Pure Flip DV camera was $149.99 at the airport; that was the standard price online, but it was on sale for $129.99. Apparently, Best Buy sale prices don’t apply out here.

–a FujiFilm J10 camera was $129.99 at both Best Buy incarnations, except it was on sale for $116.99 online.

–A pair of portable Sony speakers were $29.99 at SFO, and $34.99 online. Even a sale price on the site–$33.24–wasn’t as cheap as the airport price. Take a trip, save a few bucks!

I hereby declare my suspicions mostly invalid in this case–for the most part, Best Buy Express prices are Best Buy prices.

A few other notes:

–I’m confused by the idea of buying an iPod at the airport, since it’ll be empty. Do people pick up one for a trip, then realize that it’s useless until they can fill it with music? Wouldn’t it be neat if you could buy a pre-filled iPod for such occassions?

–Anyone who’s ever bought a bag of pretzels or a soft drink from a vending machine has seen instances when a balky product gets wedged in the machine and doesn’t tumble into the dispenser. The Best Buy Express kiosk tries to assuage any fears with a note saying that if your product isn’t properly dispensed, you won’t be charged;

The touch screen provides some buying advice, including something called “Digital Cameras 101.” If you need something by that title, you shouldn’t be buying a camera as you’re about to hop on a plane. And I wouldn’t want to be in line to buy something while another customer in front of me learned the basics of digital photography;

–Right next to the Best Buy Express here, there’s something called Sony Access–an identical Zoom Systems machine that sells only Sony stuff. It was out of order, but people were gawking at it, too;

–This terminal had a third Zoom Systems kiosk that sold mostly snacks–Wheat Thins, Pringles, and Starburst Fruit Chews. Wonder if Zoom has approached 7-Eleven to open 7-Eleven Expresses?

Would I use a Best Buy Express? Maybe. If I did, I’d probably be like that guy who bought the headphones, and pick up something cheap and small I’d forgotten to pack. How about you?


New Airport Security Laptop Rules: Simpler? Maybe!

“Good news from the TSA” sounds a tad oxymoronic, but I guess that’s what we have here: The organization charged with protecting the nation’s skies has announced that it’s loosening the rule that has made laptop-toting travelers remove their notebooks from their cases before putting them through the X-machines at airport security lines.

If you own a case of a certain style–essentially one that’s simple enough that the X-ray machine can clearly see the laptop within it–you won’t have to remove the computer. Here’s the TSA’s infographic on good and bad laptop case designs:

The TSA says it’s working with bag manufacturers to put labels on bags that are security-friendly, and also tells travelers to make sure that:

–Your laptop bag has a designated laptop-only section that can lay flat on the X-ray belt
–Your laptop bag has a designated laptop-only section that can lay flat on the X-ray belt
–There are no metal snaps, zippers or buckles inside, underneath or on-top of the laptop-only section
–There are no pockets on the inside or outside of the laptop-only section
–There is nothing in the laptop compartment other than the laptop
–You have completely unfolded your bag so that there is nothing above or below the laptop-only section, allowing the bag to lay flat on the X-ray belt

The organization describes the new procedures as being simpler but that’s up for debate, I think. Until now, everybody’s known exactly what to do with a laptop: take it out of its case. From now on, presumably, some people will try to send their computers through the X-ray in the case and learn that they’ve got the wrong kind of case only once it’s inside the X-ray. And the rules about other stuff in the case seem like they’ll lead to people frantically repacking their luggage while in line.

Me, I usually double-pack my laptop–I put it inside a sleeve, which I then slide into a traditional briefcase. I’m reasonably sure that I’ll have to remove the sleeve from the briefcase, but it sounds like even the sleeve may be a no-go: It’s got pockets on both sides, which usually have stuff such as power cords and earphones in them. I guess I’ll learn the ropes as I go.

If the time ever comes when the TSA can keep us safe without making anybody do the laptop shuffle at all, it will be a great day–I speak as someone who once managed to leave a laptop at Logan Airport in Boston, and only realized what had happened when my plane touched down in San Francisco. (I’m still amazed that I got it back.)

I tend to be a grim pessimist about security lines and rules, but you never know–the liquids-in-Baggies rule is pretty darn complicated, and it doesn’t seem to have bogged the traveling public down too much. Once people know the rules, they have an impressive ability to follow them in a reasonably efficient manner…

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