Category Archives: travel

“Why are you in Fargo?”

It’s not an existential question, it’s what happens when the TSA encounters a Nobel Prize medal.

“They’re like, ‘Sir, there’s something in your bag.’
I said, ‘Yes, I think it’s this box.’
They said, ‘What’s in the box?’
I said, ‘a large gold medal,’ as one does.
So they opened it up and they said, ‘What’s it made out of?’
I said, ‘gold.’
And they’re like, ‘Uhhhh. Who gave this to you?’
‘The King of Sweden.’
‘Why did he give this to you?’
‘Because I helped discover the expansion rate of the universe was accelerating.’
At which point, they were beginning to lose their sense of humor. I explained to them it was a Nobel Prize, and their main question was, ‘Why were you in Fargo?’”

I’m not entirely convinced that they had a sense of humor to begin with, but we’ll let that one slide.

the user experience of buying airline tickets

I’ve been in love with the user experience of Hipmunk.  They’ve quickly become my go-to for flight searches.  I love their data presentation.  They show you, clearly and crisply, how long your flight will take, when and where your layovers are, and how much your flight costs.  And their default sort is by “agony”, which they say is a combination of price, duration, and number of stops.  Seriously: go try it.  I’ll wait.

My husband‘s mother is currently visiting, and decided at the last minute that she wanted to visit Las Vegas.  So I went to Hipmunk and looked at flights.  Neither SFO nor SJC were great.  I tried OAK, which I never use, just in case something awesome came up.

And something awesome did come up: $103 from OAK to LAS.  That was less than half than what I was seeing from SFO or SJC, so I booked it for her.

Now, one of the things that I like about Hipmunk is how good they are about showing me information that I care about.  This screenshot doesn’t show it, but they show which flights are wi-fi enabled.  I love that they show which airline handles each leg and what the layover looks like.

But this time, Hipmunk let me down.  They left out a piece of crucial information: Spirit Airlines hates its customers.  Spirit has a whole page on its site dedicated to its optional fees.  Somehow, in Spirit’s world, carry-on luggage has become optional.  It’s thirty bucks for a carry-on bag, and it took quite a lot of digging for me to determine what carry-on bag means.  This site says that it doesn’t include “personal items” like purses, briefcases, and small backpacks.

Baggage fees became the norm some time ago.  But carry-on fees are unique to Spirit, and Hipmunk should’ve disclosed that to me so that I could factor that into my purchase decision.  For that matter, given how utterly obnoxious it is to charge a fee for carry-on luggage, I think that should be considered as part of their “agony” algorithm.

Now, Hipmunk doesn’t actually do the sale of the ticket.  To complete the transaction, they sent me to Orbitz, which shows me this:

Orbitz flight results

Orbitz tells me that “additional baggage fees may apply”, which is what they say for pretty much every itinerary that you could purchase from them.  They had an opportunity to tell me about Spirit’s customer-hating policies, but instead they wimped out behind their generic link.  That generic link, by the way, takes you to a page where you have to select your airline to view their baggage fees.

At no point in this process was it disclosed that Spirit’s policies are quite different from other airlines, even though there were multiple opportunities to do so.  I only happened to find out about it because a news article went by on twitter which mentioned that Spirit is raising its carry-on baggage fee.  That prompted me to go look, and thus find out.  I’m glad that I found out in advance, otherwise my mother-in-law would be standing at OAK on Sunday paying $40 to carry her bag on board the airplane.

The carry-on fee fundamentally changes the cost of the airline ticket.  I think that the vast majority of travellers have both a personal item and a carry-on.  Personally, the only times when I’ve travelled with just a laptop bag as my personal item were the days when I would fly back home that night.  So if we add in $30 each way for her flight, the cost of the flight just went up 60%.  Yes, it’s still less expensive than the other airlines.  Had the real price of the flight been disclosed to me up-front, I wouldn’t be so cranky.  I’d still be appalled that there’s an airline doing such a thing, but I wouldn’t be upset about finding out about it after the fact.

Hipmunk, Orbitz: I expected better of you.  I hope that you update your results to show that Spirit behaves in this fashion so that I can know the true cost of the ticket when I book.

And now, I’m off to explain to my mother-in-law that she’s got to pay a bit more for her flight, and try to come up with a way to explain Spirit’s policies other than “pure evil”.

my bag of holding

A few months ago, Rands in Repose had a great post about a bag of holding: the necessities of his laptop bag.  This post resonates for me strongly, since I feel like I’m always in search of a great bag.

Like Rands, I settled on two bags.  I have my everyday get-to-work bag, which is currently an Eco Portile Grande by Zaum.  I love that it’s cherry red, since I’m bored with plain black bags.  It’s a messenger bag, and it’s pretty minimal.  It has room for my laptop, iPad, iPhone, a small bag of cables, my wallet, and not much else.  This is perfect for just getting back and forth to the office: it’s light, it’s comfortable to carry, and it holds the necessities.

However, it doesn’t work as a travel bag because it doesn’t zip closed, so I’m not comfortable just stuffing it under a seat or in the overhead.  Things will fall out, and I’ll either lose something or have to dig around for that pen that fell out.  It takes a few too many motions to get my laptop out of the bag for security screening.  Also, if I pick up anything, it probably won’t fit very well into my messenger bag.  Overall, it’s just not a good bag when I’m travelling.

My travel bag is a backpack.  It’s currently the VMworld 2011 backpack, which is quite well-made for conference swag.  I settled on a backpack for travelling because it makes getting around an airport a lot easier.  It’s also got the right number of pockets, and in the right locations, which is necessary for finding that one thing (wallet, phone, pen, whatever) very quickly.  It’s big enough to hold a lot, even a day or two of clothing, but still be carry-on size and still fit under my seat.  I also like that it’s VMware-branded, since it gives me an extra little boost of credibility when I’m conducting research.  If I’m talking to someone who was at VMworld (or who wanted to go but couldn’t), my backpack starts off the conversation, which functions as an icebreaker.

But this isn’t a daily bag.  It’s so big that it’s overkill for my daily needs (which is mostly just iPad+iPhone+wallet), and I don’t need all of that space.  Plus, I have to admit that I like that my daily bag is more stylish than the VMworld backpack.  The VMworld backpack wins lots of points on practicality, but it’s not winning any style awards.

So: two bags, each for their own purpose.  I can switch between them at a moment’s notice, which makes life that much better.

the user experience of lost luggage

Last week, I travelled to my hometown to visit my family for Thanksgiving.  On the way home, the airline lost my luggage.  Lost luggage is a bad experience all around.  It’s been some time since my luggage has been lost (of course, I also usually don’t check bags), so I was surprised at how bad the user experience is for this occurrence.

There’s no status indicator for the luggage coming off the plane.  You’re left to guess whether all of the luggage is off of the plane.  This is especially difficult when you’re directed to a baggage claim that’s in use for multiple flights.  It’s not really a lot easier when it’s just a single flight, though, since luggage appears in fits and starts.  In any event, you have to guess whether you’ve waited long enough for your luggage to fail to appear.

Then it’s time to chat with the lost luggage guy.  I consider that job to be akin to tech support, since you never call tech support when everything’s going well.  There’s probably a queue, and it’s slow-moving.  But this guy at least has some status information to share.

Problem is, his status information isn’t necessarily correct.  In my case, he said that my bag had been placed on another flight.  That other flight had originally been scheduled to leave before mine, but had mechanical issues and would instead land 45 minutes after my flight.  I elected to wait to get my bag, learning an hour later that his status information was wrong.  My luggage wasn’t on that flight, either.  After checking again, his status information said that the luggage was lost.

Then I was directed to a kiosk to enter in my information for the bag to be delivered.  I was appalled at how badly-designed it was.  Amongst the questions that it asked was whether they could use a courier service like FedEx or UPS to deliver my bag.  My reaction to that was that it meant that I wouldn’t see my bag until the next day, since the fastest shipping that they advertise is next-day delivery.  I selected “no”, but then it didn’t tell me how or when my bag would be delivered.  I was just prompted to enter my name, address, phone number, and email address.  All of this is information that they already had on file.  Instead of making me suffer through entering all of that data using the on-screen keyboard, it would’ve been nice if they had simply displayed the already-known information and asked me if that’s where I wanted my bag delivered.

At home, the bad experience continued.  The website showed that my bag’s whereabouts where unknown.  I finally got a call from the courier company, 6 hours after I’d landed, saying that they could deliver within a couple of hours.  They did.  Even after I had the bag, the website continued to show that my bag’s whereabouts were unknown.

In short, the lost luggage experience violates several user experience principles:

  • show status information
  • (corollary: show correct status information)
  • provide accurate progress indicators
  • minimise the amount of data entry required from the user

While none of these will make my luggage appear any faster, at least this would make me feel more confident in the ability of the airline to recover from their error and deliver my luggage to me in a timely fashion.

the window vs aisle debate

I saw a link on Upgrade: Travel Better to a travel survey that attempts to understand the differences between those who sit in the window and those who sit in the aisle.  I’m firmly in the window camp — in fact, I vastly prefer the starboard window to the port window.  This is a result of an old injury to my right shoulder, sitting in the starboard window seat means that no-one can accidentally bang my shoulder.

Aside from protecting my bionic shoulder, I like the window because I like looking out the window (especially on evening flights returning home from Redmond — I love watching the sun set from the plane.)  The window seat is easier to nap in because I can lean on the window.  When I get aisle seats, I’m forever getting whacked in the head by someone who isn’t paying attention with their bag or their coat.  I’m even writing this blog post from seat 16F on Virgin America using their in-flight wifi.

For the most part, I match the aisle dweller much better than the window dweller:

  • I am married.
  • I have given a speech to more than 100 people (and I wonder how big my audience will be at Exchange Connections next week!).
  • I habitually check email — it’s a Big Deal if I turn off email sync on my iPhone.
  • I view “roughing it” as “staying in hotel that isn’t a very good Westin or W”.  I’m not sure that it would be possible to convince me to go camping.
  • I have subscriptions to Rolling Stone, Food and Wine, and Wine Spectator.
  • I have lots upon lots of books.  I’m currently reading Being Geek.
  • I’ve voted in every federal, state, and local election since I turned 18 (and filling out my California absentee ballot is on my to-do list for this weekend when I get home from this trip).
  • I have Premier status on United, and I’m a member of several other airline programmes (including my current favourite of Virgin America — love them!), and I have elite status with both Starwood and Hyatt hotels.
  • I don’t like camping, and I haven’t been on a cruise either.  The concept of a cruise mostly isn’t very attractive to me, although I would like to go on an Alaskan cruise.
  • Yes, I’ve eaten caviar, and will do so again.
  • I have a total of three college degrees, one of which is a MS.
  • I can’t stand Ikea.  I’ve been in Crate & Barrel lately, but all of their sofas are either tan, a slightly-padded rectangular box of boring, or a sectional (or all of the above), so I’m in the market for a brightly-coloured sofa that has a nice shape, is comfortable, and is emphatically not a sectional.
  • I mostly find New Yorkers fine, although I refuse to drive in Manhattan.  That’s not really about New Yorkers, though, but rather about being in a city with both useful public transit and lots of cabs everywhere.
  • I just got my passport renewed, and am headed to Sydney for the holidays so that it will get its first stamps.
  • I have two AmEx cards (one business, one personal).
  • I have a well-stocked bar, I have several Riedel glasses for different varietals.  On my last trip to Sydney, I brought back four cases of wine after a couple of days visiting wineries in the Hunter Valley.  I just finished the last bottle from one of those cases last week.
  • I’ve been on the internet since 1993 (and BBSes before that).

So where do I match up with my fellow window-seat lovers?  Well, I am female, and I’m 34 so I’m just barely still in the right age range.  I use a manual toothbrush.  I bake frequently (including peppermint-mocha cupcakes earlier this week).  I don’t wear a wristwatch, although I do admit to coveting a co-worker’s Lego watch.  The aisle profile is much closer to me, but I avoid the aisle if at all possible.

What about you?  Where do you fit into the great window/aisle debate?