June 22, 2008
Welcome to Hong Kong!
Posted by Gordon Smith

I arrived in Hong Kong on Sunday night and promptly took 10 hours of sleep. It's Monday morning, and I haven't felt this rested in weeks!

I will be giving a couple of lectures and presenting a working paper while I am here. My oldest son is accompanying me, so we will do a bit of sightseeing and shopping on the off days. Tips, anyone?

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May 22, 2008
American Airlines to Implement New Luggage Policies Just to Annoy Us Into Driving
Posted by Christine Hurt

In the next two weeks, I am traveling on American Airlines twice:  once with my daughter to Montreal for the Law & Society Conference and once with my family of five to Washington D.C.  We return on June 9.  Whew.  On June 15, American is going to begin charging a $30 fee to check your bag round-trip if you are flying coach.  Second bags cost $50 round-trip.  Third bags cost $200 round-trip.  Yikes.  For our family's American History tour of Washington D.C., Gettsyburg and Northern Virginia for a week, this would easily cost us an additional $120 for all ticketed passengers to bring one bag, and another $50 for an additional bag I'm sure we'll need for the baby's paraphrenalia.  Then I began to hyperventilate because we have to take a car seat and a stroller.  Thankfully, the policy does not include car seats and strollers, or we'd be out another $100.  So, if we could keep our stuff down to five bags for the five of us, our additional cost would be a mere $170.  (If they were going to charge $100 for car seats and strollers, I'd start a business renting these items right outside airports just like the Cracker Barrel books-on-tape program.)

Aside from just the annoyance of the extra costs (and don't try to suggest that we try to carry-on these five bags, hauling them through the airport with three kids in two), this NYT article asks the most important question:  How, when and where will they collect this charge?  If you go to the ticket counter to check your bag, then the attendant will just accept your payment there, slowing down the ticket line considerably.  And what of all those who check in at home, because they are just carrying on?  As this policy is implemented, everyone will try to carry on more and more luggage.  Then, just as you (who paid $170 at the ticket counter an hour ago) are trying to board, there will be a line of people in the gateway with their oversized bags trying to figure out how to pay the $15 one-way charge.  If the flight attendants don't have change for a $10 for a $5 sandwich, then how are they going to manage these transactions?  American will have to arm them with credit card readers, and that's going to be speedy.  Or, American will have to require everyone to check in, so they can make sure that all bags either fit or have been checked and charged.  Nice.  And let's not forget the overflow at the gateway when every single passenger has a carry on bag, so overhead space disappeared with "Group 1."  I hope that someone looked to see whether these charges are actually worth the extra costs.

OK, enough ranting for me.  I guess I should just be happy planes still fly into Champaign-Urbana.

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April 23, 2008
Social Networking and Travel
Posted by Gordon Smith

Today on my walk home from work I finished listening to "Social Networking 3.0," a podcast over at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. Several young social networking executives talked about the future of social networking (a term they all seemed to dislike), and I was struck by this point of view: social networking can enhance any website.

This was striking to me because I find most online social networking (besides blogging, to the extent that this constitutes "social networking") so clunky and burdensome and unrewarding. I have tried MySpace, Facebook, Ning, LinkedIn, etc. but none of those services has attracted a critical mass of my family and friends. So while I can imagine how online social networking would become meaningful to someone, at the moment the thought of making social networking a pervasive part of the online experience is not appealing to me.

Then again, maybe I just have the wrong attitude about social networking. I am looking for something to enhance my existing relationships, rather than something to find new relationships. This point comes home to me as I read about TripSay, a new travel site out of Finland, which promotes itself by stating: "Tripsay is a community of travelers, where you are presented with tips and ratings based on similarities to other users' profiles." On the one hand, I like the idea of getting tips and ratings from people like me, but I don't want to actually interact with any of those people. Unless I already know them. In short, I don't go to travel sites to meet new people.

So I probably will be avoiding WAYN ("Where Are You Now"), which also emphasizes new relationships. The front page of the site screams, "Make New Friends!" and "Meet people who will be in the same place as you!" Yikes!

Dopplr, "an online tool for frequent business travellers," sounds like a site that is more aligned with my perspective because it is designed primarily as a tool for enhancing existing relationships. As the site states, it works best when "you've already created some trips and have some trusted friends and colleagues with whom you're sharing some trips, and vice versa."

But my new favorite travel site may be the blandest of the bunch. TripIt, a "personal travel assistant that automatically organizes all your travel plans," emphasizes the function of the site as a place to store all of your travel information. The social piece ("Share your trips and see where you overlap with friends and colleagues") seems like an afterthought. With a summer full of travel ahead of me, TripIt seems like just the thing.

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April 09, 2008
Dealing With Air Travel
Posted by Gordon Smith

Better safe than sorry? That's the way American Airlines is pitching the flight cancellations today, but the dramatic action of canceling over 1000 flights was the result of years of maintenance neglect. And American isn't the only culprit.

At this point, adding another complaint about the airline industry would be little more than piling on, so I am taking a different tack. What are my options?

I am told that the railroad industry is booming, at least for freight. How about train travel?

Being a Europhile, I enjoy train travel, though living in the West, I am not well situated to execute on this strategy. A round-trip ticket to Chicago costs only $230, but it's 34 hours each way.

When I told my wife the price, she suddenly got interested in visiting a friend in Nashville. Hmm. Nashville doesn't have a train station, but she could get to Memphis ... via Chicago! That means 34 hours to Chicago, then another 10.5 to Memphis.

We could drive, of course, but with the price of gasoline, that doesn't seem like a terribly attractive option.

Plan C: stay home.

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February 02, 2008
Posted by Gordon Smith

Yesterday I drove into the Uinta National Forest, not far from here, for a Boy Scout winter camp, which insiders call a "Klondike." I am not in the habit of camping in February, but my twin sons were excited about their first winter camp. As I was packing, I asked my wife, "Who in their right mind would voluntarily leave a heated home for the sole purpose of sleeping in the snow?" As it turns out, a couple of hundred Scouts and adult leaders ... though I am not sure any of us was in a right mind.

The other adults in our group were thrilled by the weather: lots of snow and temperatures in the 20s. I grew up in Wisconsin, but even we wouldn't call this "camping weather." Anyway, my boys made a snow shelter (quinsey?), but I opted for a tent. It didn't matter. In the morning, we were all frozen stiff. After some time thawing in front of the fire, we participated in a series of exhilarating activities -- like constructing a tent blindfolded and learning to throw a rope to someone who has fallen through the ice. We ended the day with some hot chili, which was very tasty and a most welcome body warmer.

On the way home, one of my boys observed, "I learned one thing from this: I don't like winter camping." He's a chip off the old block.

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August 07, 2007
Charging Credit Cards in Dollars Rather than Euros
Posted by Gordon Smith

When I rented my automobile in Germany last week, the Avis representative noted that he was charging my credit card in dollars rather than Euros.

"Why are you doing that?"

Blank stare. He was a trainee, and apparently, he had been told to do this.

The office manager, perceiving the standstill, rushed to his aid. "Because some credit cards charge a currency conversion fee. This will avoid that."

"My card doesn't charge that fee. I would like to pay in Euros."

I blogged about such charges after an earlier trip to Germany, after which I acquired a Capital One No Hassle cash Rewards Card. As noted in my prior posts, Capital One not only does not charge a foreign transaction fee, but it also absorbs the fee charged by Visa and MasterCard. (I love it!)

Even if you ignore the fees, it appears that Avis was trying to pull a fast one. After the foregoing exchange, I decided to keep the initial receipt (which showed the charges in dollars) so that I could compare it with the final bill. The actual cost of my one-week rental, including insurance, was $515.26. The cost in dollars would have been $577.39. The primary difference was the result of the poor exchange rate Avis had used to calculate the dollar charge. (Not as bad as exchanging cash in a train station, mind you. That is the traveler's equivalent of a payday loan.)

By the way, the car was the new Ford Mondeo, which got up to 200 km/hr on the Autobahn without any trouble ... other than the fact that it freaked me out to drive that fast. Of course, the German cars were still flying past us.

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August 06, 2007
Finding Hotels
Posted by Gordon Smith

After the LSA conference in Berlin, I spent a week touring northern Germany with my oldest daughter, who plans to minor in German at BYU. We rented a car and logged over 1,000 miles -- much of it in one long day of driving in search of a particular souvenir for my wife. Our stops included Luebeck, Hamburg, Hannover, Cologne, and Wiesbaden (because it is close the Frankfurt airport).

In planning the trip, one of the biggest challenges was locating hotels with a decent combination of location, quality, and price. I found this task was aided immensely by TripAdvisor, which ranks hotels based on user reviews. And unlike many sites that depend on user ratings, TripAdvisor actually gets a critical mass of helpful reviews for many hotels.

But the coolest thing about TripAdvisor is the "Check Rates" button. Once you have found your hotel, click the button and get rate quotations from Hotels.com, Expedia, Priceline, and other booking services. After this latest experience, I am sold on Hotels.com, which not only has the best rates, but also sends a reminder email a few days in advance with weather forecasts and other helpful information. Very nice.

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July 19, 2007
Freedom from the Tyranny of High Airfares
Posted by Lisa Fairfax

Since I have been spending time in airplanes, one of the things I like to do is read the in-flight magazines, which actually have a lot of interesting stories. The Southwest in-flight magazine began with a letter from Colleen Barrett, president of Southwest. The letter talked about how the company was celebrating July 4th, including various activities occurring during “Freedom Week”—the week of June 28-July 5. What struck me was this paragraph: “Our theme for Freedom Week is “Let Freedom DING!” because we are proud to have brought the Freedom to Fly to America. Of course, that Freedom pales in comparison to those outlined by Thomas Jefferson 231 years ago, but Southwest has freed the skies of the tyranny of high airfares.” As a slogan, it certainly makes a statement.

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Blogging Goes International: The Berlin LSA Happy Hour
Posted by David Zaring

Join your friendly bloggers at Conglomerate, along with others from Prawfsblawg and Opinio Juris, for a LSA annual meeting drink on Wednesday night, July 25, at 9. We will be at Delponie No 3. More below the fold ...

It is our first international happy hour and we are pretty excited about it. The locale has food as well as drink, so do come by and say hello, have a bite, or enjoy a lager or a fizzy water.

Here are the details:
Deponie No. 3 is located directly behind Humboldt – in the "Passagen" of the S-Bahn tracks
(i.e., under the tracks). It is at Georgenstrasse 5 (Berlin, Mitte). Here is the website link with a little map showing the location.


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June 04, 2007
Lubbock or Leave It
Posted by Christine Hurt

You may have noticed my blog presence missing last week as I took the kids to see family in my hometown of Lubbock, Texas.  When I was in grade school, a popular bumper sticker said "Lubbock or Leave It," and the Dixie Chicks grabbed on to that challenge in a scathing song of the same name on their latest album, Taking the Long Way.  The lyrics present Lubbock as a hypocritical Peyton Place under a thin Bible Belt veneer.  After getting brushed up on the goings-on in my hometown, I would say the veneer is getting thicker and thicker.  Interestingly, I read an article in this month's Texas Monthly on the plane about how The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, campiness aside, was a rather true depiction of the Texas struggle between live and let live libertarians and those who would legislate morality and possibly religion.  At least in Lubbock, the libertarians are losing.

After taking office as mayor, David Miller, was criticized in the media for very quickly going back on campaign promises not to raise taxes.  In response, Mayor Miller asked the area churches to "[p]ray for the media to report  fairly, accurately, fully, and unemotionally. Commentaries from both TV and radio have been less than any of these. I don't mind the heat, but our city doesn't benefit from such divisive and slanted editorializing."  (Last summer, he also declared a day to pray for rain.  This summer is actually too wet, so maybe he'll pray for clear skies.)  In February, the Chippendale's dancers, who had sold out three shows, were arrested after starting their first show.  In May, Lubbock police used a dusty Texas law to arrest the clerk of a lingerie store for having six or more sexual devices for sale (Class A Misdemeanor).  If the clerk is convicted, he will have to register as a sex offender.  Lubbock County had also denied renewals of sexually oriented business permits to three "strip clubs," but a federal district court judge last week granted the clubs an injunction allowing them to continue operating after finding that the plaintiffs were likely to be able to prove that the renewal process was unconstitutional.

Interestingly, the letters to the editor of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal were virtually all against the new priorities in Lubbock's small law enforcement budget.  Some even pointed out that with so many unsolved murders, particularly murders of women, this war against sex toys and shows was a waste of resources.   

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December 17, 2006
Airport Security "Theater"
Posted by Gordon Smith

Randall Stross retells the story of Christopher Soghoian, a Ph.D. student in the School of Informatics at Indiana University and his "Northwest Airlines Boarding Pass Generator": "A visitor to the site could plug in any name, and Mr. Soghoian’s software would create a page suitable for printing with a facsimile of a boarding pass, identical in appearance to one a passenger who had bought a Northwest Airlines ticket would generate when using the airline's at-home check-in option."

Soghoian wanted to "demonstrate that the T.S.A. Boarding Pass/ID check is useless." Indeed.

We have been harsh critics of our silly airport security system (here and here), and Stross offers this suggestion for improvement from Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at BT Counterpane, a security consulting firm in Mountain View, California:

When I asked Mr. Schneier of BT Counterpane what he would do if he were appointed leader of the T.S.A., he said he would return to the basic procedures for passenger screening used before the 2001 terrorist attacks, which was designed to do nothing more ambitious than "catch the sloppy and the stupid."

He said he would also ensure that passengers' bags fly only if the passenger does, improve emergency response capabilities and do away entirely with ID checks and secret databases and no-fly and selectee lists. He added that he would shift funds into basic investigation and intelligence work, which he believes produces results like the arrests of the London bomb suspects. "Put smart, trained officers in plainclothes, wandering in airports — that is by far the best thing the T.S.A. could do," he said.


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November 14, 2006
More on Flight Delays
Posted by Fred Tung

Further to my earlier rant on flight delays and airlines' failure to disclose them in timely fashion, Delta has just started a new service that reports flight delays to your designated phone number or email address.  According to a press release, the new service

will notify customers when their flights are delayed and provide continuous, real-time updates when operational changes occur, such as rebooking options or gate changes.

I've just subscribed to the service, so I can't yet say  whether notifications will be timely.  But it's certainly a step in the right direction.  As I wrote previously, this seems in the airline's interest as well as the passengers': 

[I]s it that costly to disclose the departure delay in advance? Presumably, some passengers would find alternative flights, and Delta couldn’t impose cancellation penalties for flight commitments it couldn’t fulfill, right? Even assuming that’s right, it seems to me that it still might be profit maximizing for Delta to disclose early. First off, under current pricing practices, it would probably be difficult for most passengers to find a palatable fare on an alternative airline on such short notice, so there won’t be many cancellations—except for those passengers who simply decide not to fly that day.  Second, wouldn’t a policy of early disclosure offer enormous marketing advantages? If an airline always disclosed flight delays as early as possible, I would certainly favor that airline over its less helpful competitors. Even if it didn’t enable me to switch flights, I would appreciate the information for planning purposes.

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November 01, 2006
Speaking of Business Travel. . .
Posted by Christine Hurt

The NYT has an article today about how working moms view business travel as mini-vacations away from household obligations.  While killing time between appointments, moms may see old friends, get haircuts, or just enjoy peaceful downtime in quiet hotel rooms.  The flipside of this article is a statement about how women multitask even business trips -- getting things done on trips that otherwise are harder to get done.  I know that while on business trips I have done some shopping (kid's clothes, gifts) that was on my global to-do list.

However, when my children were very small, I remember the joy of sleeping in a king-sized bed all to myself, all night long, without anyone trying to sneak in and sleep sideways the rest of the night.  I also enjoyed going to restaurants and not having to eat quickly (just entrees, and may we have the check now please?) before the youngest one melted down.  Even now when my homelife isn't in baby survival, lock-down mode, I find myself on business trips laying awake in my hotel room watching Law & Order until 1:00 a.m. just because I can.

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October 02, 2006
Flight Delays
Posted by Fred Tung

I had the displeasure this weekend of flying Delta to Toronto (for CLEA), and having my early morning flights delayed both coming and going. What was unusual, in my experience, was that in both cases, Delta personnel informed us passengers that the reason for the delay was that the flight crew hadn’t shown up, and the reason they hadn’t shown up was that they had gotten in late the night before. Because flight crews are required to have a certain number of hours of rest between flights, my flights were delayed because the assigned crews could not (legally?) work the flights at the scheduled times. 

Now, in these situations, presumably Delta knows well in advance of the scheduled flight time—at least sometime the evening before the flight, and perhaps even earlier—that the assigned crew cannot work the early morning flight at the appointed time, and that if unless another crew is substituted, the flight has to depart late. But on my outbound flight, no advance announcement of any departure delay was ever indicated on the flight schedule, either on Delta’s website or in the terminal. Instead, the gate agents simply kept pushing back the departure time in fifteen-minute intervals—five or six times—explaining each time only that the crew had not arrived. So at the time, I’m thinking, “Gee, usually when you show up really late for work, they fire you.” It wasn’t until we eventually got on the plane that the pilot explained over the PA system why the crew was late.  At least for my 6:20AM return flight the next morning, the delay was posted on the internet flight schedule. Except I didn’t check it until I had already woken up at 4:00AM, showered and gotten dressed and packed for the airport. Ugh.

So this experience prompts a few questions. First, is it out of the question for Delta to find a substitute crew to work the early flight? Do (all) other airlines put the risk of insufficient crew rest hours from the previous day on the next day’s morning passengers? Note this is a little different from having to wait for your plane to arrive and unload its arriving passengers. Here, the airline has at least a good 8 or 10 or 12 hours’ notice of the possible delay, and presumably finding a substitute crew is easier and cheaper than finding a substitute plane. Sure, finding another crew in these situations will increase operating costs. But I’m sure as heck not going to choose Delta next time if another option is available. (It might turn out to be no better—or even worse—than Delta, but I’m happy to give it a shot.)

Second, is it that costly to disclose the departure delay in advance? Presumably, some passengers would find alternative flights, and Delta couldn’t impose cancellation penalties for flight commitments it couldn’t fulfill, right? Even assuming that’s right, it seems to me that it still might be profit maximizing for Delta to disclose early. First off, under current pricing practices, it would probably be difficult for most passengers to find a palatable fare on an alternative airline on such short notice, so there won’t be many cancellations—except for those passengers who simply decide not to fly that day.  Second, wouldn’t a policy of early disclosure offer enormous marketing advantages? If an airline always disclosed flight delays as early as possible, I would certainly favor that airline over its less helpful competitors. Even if it didn’t enable me to switch flights, I would appreciate the information for planning purposes. I’m no expert on the cost structure. Am I missing something?

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October 01, 2006
Autumn in Wisconsin
Posted by Gordon Smith

Having grown up in Wisconsin, I cherish the autumn colors. So this afternoon I took some of my children on a drive to the central part of the state, where the trees are still a week or two from their peak colors, but still beautiful.
We passed by some cranberry bogs, which are very close to being harvested. When you look closely, you can see thousands of red berries nestled beneath the vines. At harvest time, the bogs are flooded, and the berries rise to the top. In the meantime, we caught these three Great Blue Herons moving from one field to another (leaving a baby bird, outside the photo, in their wake).
Perhaps the most exciting sight of the day, however, was a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers, working over a dead tree alongside the road in the Necedah Wildlife Refuge. One of the birds flew across the road as I was driving, and I immediately whipped the car around for a closer look. We were quite close, in fact, but it was dusk, and my lack of skill as a photographer resulted in this blurry photo of one of the birds.

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