Results tagged “travel”

A Little Bit of Control

October 19, 2012

When I used to fly a lot, people would ask me why I was such a big fan of Virgin America. Some of it is the usual stuff — they have wifi and power outlets, and travel to the cities I visit most often. But the crux of why I like their brand taught me a good bit more about the obligations companies have to their customers, and what institutions can do to be more humane in general.

The typical flying experience, especially for regular travelers, reduces adults who are used to a high degree of control over their lives to having fewer choices about their actions than a room full of kindergarteners. When we fly, we're told when we can sit down, when we can stand up, when we can listen to music, and we basically can't even get up to go to the bathroom without asking, just like a 5-year-old.

It's even more egregious an affront in the more minor areas: When we fly, we can't have a drink when we want.

Pushing Our Buttons

Virgin's touch-screens invert that model, as the best and most empowering experiences do. I can tap on the screen, order a drink, and a few minutes later, someone shows up with my beverage. There's no waiting for the cart, and it feels much more personal and accommodating to boot.

Now, obviously, this is only giving people the illusion of agency over their actions when they fly. We still can't stand up or sit down or read an ebook whenever we want. And frequent fliers are often among the worst-behaved, most over-entitled people in society, so we have to be careful exactly how much we want to indulge the desire to appease their every need.

But fundamentally, giving people a little bit of agency over the small actions that bring them joy can do a lot to mitigate the countless indignities that they're forced to suffer by big bureaucracies and inflexible institutions. An airline can't make the TSA's policies more effective or sane, but they can help us regain a bit of our feeling of control and dignity by assuming we can be trusted to ask for a can of Coke when we need one.

I'm trying to keep this small lesson in mind, as I think about the many big companies and institutions that visit unkindnesses upon us every day. There are accommodations they could all be making which could be as minor as letting us push a button to get a drink, but too often they get stuck thinking about the impacts to their own processes rather than how much those little things can mean to the people who are stuck in their machines.

In Defense of Security Theater (Sorta)

November 15, 2010

I travel often, and until relatively recently I was doing over 100,000 miles a year. I've cut back a lot because my jobs have changed and I felt bad about my carbon footprint, but the bottom line is I've spent a lot of quality time with the TSA. And amidst all of the recent (often justified) blowback against their more-intrusive personal pat-downs, I thought I'd articulate a little bit of why overall, the security theater we go through at airports these days doesn't really bother me.

First, some important points:

  • I'm not suggesting that taking off our shoes at x-rays, or having our testicles tapped, or not having more than 3 ounces of liquids actually keep us safe against any innovative new attacks.
  • There are absolutely documented cases of a few of the many thousands of TSA agents out there abusing their stations, with infractions ranging from questionable to egregiously immoral.
  • I'm not in favor of a police state, and strongly support civil disobedience and effective attempts to change overbearing security policies.
  • TSA security policies are ridiculously over-focused on the last attempted attacks, instead of future ones.

With all that being said, I don't think our current system of security theater as practiced by the TSA is necessarily the wrong thing to do.

The Hand You're Dealt

The TSA lists their mission as "protect[ing] the Nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce." A mission like that is a bit like the mission of our financial regulatory agencies after the recent market meltdowns — some of it is about putting in place better preventive policies, but a lot of it is also about managing perceptions. Free movement of people essentially relies on the largest number of those people feeling safe to move.

And many people, frankly, are pretty stupid about air travel. They don't do it often, don't have a mental model of how air travel really works, aren't particularly educated about the security processes they have to participate in, and aren't logical in the way they respond to security measures.

I don't say any of these things as criticisms, just as observations based on experience. More often than not, the person behind me or in front of me in the security line at an airport seems to be unsure of some part of the process, not just at the level of "is it time to take our shoes off now?" but at the deeper sense of "what is this process I'm taking part in?" And often, their behaviors are similarly uninformed. Sure, I've gotten annoyed at having to go through random secondary screening, but that's frankly only happened a tiny fraction of the time I travel. By contrast, every single time I get on a plane in the U.S., I see at least one person studiously watching me put my belongings on the conveyor belt, as if they're performing an act of heroism by personally observing me. Sure, I look a lot like Marwan al-Shehhi, but I'm not sure their memories are that good.

I don't point that out in order to (merely) begrudge them their prejudices, though. I point it out because the TSA has to serve those people, too. Most of us who control the conversation on social media or in the rarified air of traditional media are experienced flyers, who pride ourselves on the logical rigor of our analyses of TSA technique. But we're not the majority of flyers. And some large percentage of people who travel, in order to feel safe, have to see or feel an experience that addresses their fears about traveling, regardless of whether that experience is based in logic or rationality.

Enter The Theater

This is where the "theater" aspect of security theater comes in. Any theatrical performance is designed to elicit a feeling in its audience, even though that's obviously a manufactured or even emotionally manipulative process. In the case of security theater, part of the TSA's mission is to elicit the feeling of safety from travelers. This is a good thing. As much as it pains those of us in the media establishment to say so, it is just as legitimate for the TSA to have "make people feel safe" as a goal as it is to have "make people actually be safe".

In the particular case of invasive body-scanning technology, this obviously raises the question of what we mean by "safe". There's safe from people hiding secret explosives or weapons, and then there's safe from the prying eyes of government employees. The majority of travelers, who aren't always savvy or logical in their evaluations of such processes, and who only rarely have to face the indignities of the situation anyway, don't see governmental intrusiveness as being nearly as "unsafe" as the other form of potential risk.

So, if you were in charge of the TSA, which audience of travelers would you piss off? I think the only reasonable choice you could make would probably look something like the current compromise, once you consider the different segments of the public you have to address, the level of training and experience of current field staff, and the variety of threats that are actually being attempted.

Keep in mind: If someone did get through with another shoe bomb, or someone successfully made a liquid explosive after that potential risk had been identified, or body-scanning technology was made available to stop certain types of attacks and the TSA knew about it but didn't use it, they'd be subject to far more criticism than they're getting today.

Almost any institution, when faced with a situation where they'll get harshly criticized regardless of their choice, is going to choose the option that lets them accrue more power as an institution. That's true of government agencies, corporations, and any other organization that can make itself part of society. This situation simply will not ever change until such time as Americans are willing to accept that a certain level of risk of aircraft-based terror threats always exist, and Americans have consistently indicated they're not willing to live with air travel being a fraction as deadly as, say, traveling by car. It's especially unlikely to change as, at a broader level, we encourage corporations to define our policy. The TSA is a symptom of the fact Americans like to think they're going to live forever, and that they trust corporations more than their government regardless of the track record of either. Change those facts, and then maybe we can change the TSA.

A Really Crappy Job

I'll admit, part of my willingness to partially exonerate the TSA for the current levels of stupidity at airports is because it's a really, really tough job for an agency to have. While airport screeners are obviously trained, any large force of employees who deal with the public turing times of stress are going to be constantly making egregious mistakes. Hell, there's a complaint about a McDonald's worker probably every other minute, and they're not involved in examining people's bodies, just giving them french fries.

Some of the people at the agency are also trying really hard. If you look at the TSA blog, which was one of the earliest blogs launched by any federal agency, and still remains among its best, there's a concerted effort to engage the public in a smart way. When attention-seekers exaggerate their mistreatment at the hands of the TSA, they don't get engaged in a back-and-forth, they just post footage of the event in question. When TSA agents screw up, they don't publicly shame them, they just talk about what their standards are for employees. Obviously, the range and scope of current complaints have overwhelmed their social media staff of late, but part of me thinks they'll have either reasonable answers for many situations, or take accountability for the times when they were clearly wrong. I recently answered an Ask MetaFilter question about how to contact the TSA to object to current screening procedures, and was pretty surprised at the range of options available to a citizen who wants to contact the agency, as well as the likelihood of getting a thoughful response.

All of that being said, obviously I still have misgivings about the awful experience so many of us have at the airport. I'm especially affronted because I know many of the common forms of objection, including merely opting out of the body-scanning devices, would earn me far more of an inconvenience or delay at the airport than the other folks who are protesting, simply because of how I look.

But the worst excesses of the TSA are caused by our culture, and the agency is responding to our culture's values. If you want them to change their behavior, you'll have to engage with your neighbors and fellow citizens about their fears, and evolve the way we all respond to them. They may find that conversation to be far too invasive, and you'll have to decide what to do when they ask to opt-out.

Rain, Rice, Gods and Gems

April 13, 2009

Shiva Temple

For the first two weeks in February, I joined my family in a trip to India. Though I was born here in the U.S., we used to go back to visit family in India pretty regularly when I was a kid. But then I got older, was always busy, and before I knew it, it had been 25 years since I'd visited. It was well past time to remedy that oversight, and perhaps the single thing that drew me back the most was the idea of visiting the village where my father was born and raised.

During our brief visit there, my father and his brothers took me on a walk through the rice paddies that surround their village. Our family owns all of the paddies from their house until the nearby river. Along the way, I stopped to quickly take this shot of the Shiva temple that the village uses for worship.

I still have vague memories of accompanying my grandfather once or twice on his near-daily walks to this temple when I was a kid. His walks to the temple continued until he was well into his 80s and perhaps his 90s.

The green in the foreground is unretouched, the actual vibrant color of a newly-planted second crop of basmati rice. Historically, this region of western Orissa was plagued by recurring droughts. A single rice crop was a blessing, just enough to provide sustenance in an area where a family of four often earns the equivalent of less than $500 a year.

But in recent years, a combination of government-planned irrigation projects and the serendipitous discovery of some precious gemstones in the region funded a pump system that enables a second annual crop. This second crop meant many villagers could go from just putting food in their mouths to actually making a little bit of money. Nearly every home in the village was made of mud when I lived there as a child, but on this visit nearly every home had been rebuilt with brick, with some even sprouting second stories. The village school had been rebuild and classes extended all the way to high school instead of ending at the fourth grade.

The style of temple shown here is very typical of the architecture of village temples in our state; We saw similar mandirs in honor of Shiva, Rama, a few Krishna temples, and other various deities in the many villages we drove by during our trip. I didn't actually go in this temple, but I spend some time walking in the nearby rice paddies that are still being planted and harvested in my name.

Unsolicited Testimonial: ZipCar

December 7, 2007

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What It Is: ZipCar is a car sharing service, which lets you rent (or share, if you prefer) a variety of cars by the hour for a low fee that includes everything -- even gas. ZipCar recently acquired Flexcar, so they've got cars in a good number of cities, and I've been able to live in both San Francisco and New York without owning a car at all, thanks to mass transit and ZipCar.

The Experience: ZipcCar's got a great website and a really easy signup process. You put down yer credit card and some ID and choose a plan. The bigger plans are good if you use the cars frequently, but even the most expensive plans are so much cheaper than owning a car it's ridiculous.

The cars themselves are great, too. Though I lament the fact that they've phased out XM radio in the vehicles, the amenities are great, with the higher-end cars having gadgets like GPS and all the cars being zippy and fun-to-drive.

We tend to get the little errand-running cheap cars, like a Toyota Matrix, or even a Scion, and those work perfect for stuff like taking the dog to the vet or visiting big box stores in the suburbs once in a while. On my birthday last year, we got a convertible Mini Cooper to zip around the coast in Marin, and I can see getting a BMW or something if it were a special occasion. (Fancier cars cost a little more, naturally.) One amusing bit of branding is that the more you pay for the car, the less obtrusive the ZipCar branding is. Cheap econoboxes have big ole' ZipCar badges on the side, but the BMWs only have a discreet little sticker on the bumper.

ZipCar ends up being a lot cheaper than regular car rental for any duration up to a day, especially if you factor in gas. Buying gas with a ZipCar is a simple matter of using a special payment card that's kept on the visor of your car. Even getting into the cars is easy -- the ZipCard you get with your account just gets swiped over a card reader on the dashboard and the locks pop open.

In the cities where I've gotten ZipCars, there are lots of parking lots with many cars available. The variety and number of cars probably varies a lot by city, though. I've also found that if I want a particular style of car, especially during a busy time, I might have to travel a little further to get the one I want, but it's still just a matter of a few blocks. To get a truck or van for a trip to Ikea, I might have to hop on the subway or go across town, but that's no big deal. And I never feel too worried about having to have a car back by a certain time -- if there's no reservation after yours, you can call and extend your reservation on the phone really easily.

ZipCars are even cheaper than a taxi for a lot of options; When we lived in San Francisco, a cab from the airport to home was easily $40. But getting a pretty nice ZipCar for the jaunt down to SFO and back home was about $12, with no tip required.

And of course, there's the green factor. It's unquestionably satisfying to not own a car and not have to be responsible for all the attendant hassles. But the truth is, having not owned a car for a decade now, the idea of buying literally tons of metal and glass and plastic so that it can sit idle most of the time, rapidly losing value and only being of use when it's burning increasingly costly fuel just seems like some kind of punishment. Granted, it's an important and practical consideration outside of urban areas, but in a city with a world-class mass transit system like New York's, having a car would just be an unjustifiable indulgence for the way I live.

The Gotchas: Of course, ZipCars aren't perfect. If it's a weekend or some other busy time, you might have trouble finding the car you want at the time you want. If you're looking to grab a car for a long block of time, like a weekend, it can be frustrating if someone's booked your favorite car for one hour right in the middle of that time.

And of course, the cars are shared. I haven't encountered a dirty or damaged car, but I'm sure that could be an issue for people. There certainly are times that the gas tank was a little on the empty side and I had to make an annoying stop at a gas station at the beginning of a trip. But the one time that a car I had reserved was being returned late by the person who had it, ZipCar actually called me proactively, let me know about the issue, automatically moved me to a reservation in the next nearest lot, and upgraded me to a slightly fancier car for no charge.

What It Costs: Cars vary in cost, but the ones we book most of the time are less than $10 an hour, and having a car to use whenever we want cost less than $600 last year, including gas and insurance. The basic application fee starts at $25.

Recommended If You Like: Changing cars to suit your mood, using mass transit, the Earth, spontaneous little road trips


This post is one of a series of unsolicited testimonials. Please view that introductory post for more background information.

Unsolicited Testimonial: LimoLiner

December 6, 2007

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What It Is: LimoLiner is an executive-class bus service from New York to Boston (or vice versa) that gets you from the center of one city to the other in about 4 and a half hours, for less than a hundred bucks. If you count getting to the airport early and taking a cab, it ends up being about the same amount of time as flying, but you've got wifi and power and more room.

The Experience: I first heard about LimoLiner years ago, when I was spending most of my time on the West Coast. Since I've been back in NYC, I've used LimoLiner for every trip that I've made to Boston, and it's unquestionably the best way to make the trip.

Flying to Boston from New York really sucks. Aside from the rank incompetence of most everyone at Logan Airport, getting to and from Boston and NYC airports is brutal. Most Boston flights leave New York from JFK, which is a solid 45 minute (and $60) cab ride from Manhattan. Sure, you could take the train to JFK, but then you're adding an hour on top of having to be an hour early for your flight. Tack on an interminable cab ride on the Boston end of things (especially since the Big Dig is a failure) and you're easily equalling the time it takes to take LimoLiner.

It's easy to have misgivings about riding a bus for a couple hours, especially if you have any flashbacks to miserable Greyhound trips in college. East Coasters also know about the legendary Chinatown buses, which promise fast service that's as cheap as $10, at the expense of your safety, hygiene, and sanity. (Tales of livestock and fowl sharing the trip abound.)

LimoLiner ain't like that. All the seats are captain's chairs, complete with power and lots of legroom and recline. The ride is full-service, too, with a host (Drive Attendant?) who brings you drinks and a snack (usually a packaged sandwich) and whatever else you want. The bathroom on the bus is downright dignified. And the back cabin of each bus is a quiet area, with no cell phone conversations allowed. You can even kick up the footrest and watch a movie on the ride.

Best of all, LimoLiner is a small company. I once had a reschedule a trip, and called back a few hours after I'd booked my ticket. I started to say "Hi, my reservation number is..." and the woman on the other end said, "Don't worry, honey, I remember your number on the Caller ID." Can't say that's ever happened with an airline.

The Gotchas: The only shortcoming with LimoLiner is that I wish they offered service more often; There's a limited number of trips each day, and the timing isn't always ideal. I am also still holding out hope they'll expand service to Washington, D.C. and I can totally eliminate the once-great, now-pathetic Amtrak Acela experience from my travel routine.

They also recently raised prices by $10, but it's still so much cheaper than flying or Amtrak (and not much more than gas prices for driving yourself!) that it's a non-issue.

What It Costs: LimoLiner is $89 each way, and you get a sandwich and drinks. You can book reservations online.

Recommended If You Like: The Sox-Yankees rivalry, I95, making the honk-honk arm gesture at semi drivers, being able to do email or surf the web while you travel


This post is one of a series of unsolicited testimonials. Please view that introductory post for more background information.

Unsolicited Testimonial: Virgin America

December 5, 2007

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What It Is: Virgin America, the latest (and greatest) low-cost, low-hassle air carrier in the United States. It's an American corporation, though of course it shares its branding and company attitude with Virgin Atlantic.

The Experience: It's hard not to feel like Virgin America is all-but-explicitly trying to be Austin Powers Airline. Just like the movies, despite our better judgment, it works and it's downright entertaining.

The fundamentals from a business standpoint are a lot like JetBlue or even Southwest Airlines. You don't have to buy tickets a million years in advance, the website is really good at helping you do things like picking seats, and the attitude of the marketing, staff, and overall experience is friendly and fun.

I generally fly on major carriers -- one of the things that's really distinguished old-school airlines like United (which I usually fly) from the upstarts is that loyalty is rewarded. Frequent flier programs are kind of half-assed, even at an otherwise-great airline like JetBlue. Perhaps as a result, the low-cost carriers are also usually full of what I call "amateurs" -- families travelling on vacation, or those insufferable people who stumble through airports looking as if they've never heard of air travel before. For those of us who fly a lot, having amateurs in the way when you're trying to get to a meeting or an event is one of the worst things about flying.

Unlike JetBlue, Virgin is launching with a frequent-flier program from day one. It's not clear whether it'll be a substantial perk on top of their experience, but it's definitely worth watching.

virgin-cabin.jpg

Virgin makes up for any overentitled frequent-flier concerns. The planes are fancy as hell -- snazzy, fancy, brand-new Airbus 320s. These are the same planes that JetBlue flies, but apparently the state of the art at Airbus has advanced a good bit in the past few years. Every seat is covered in leather. The planes are noticeably quieter than the notoriously loud cabin-noise standard set by other A320s. The interior lights on the VA planes are also, rather famously, a pink-purple color. I'm a Prince fan -- this is exactly the sort of over-the-top ridiculousness I appreciate.

And Virgin is rather explicitly going for the geek audience. The touch-screen in flight entertainment screens at each seat, which VA calls "Red", are really well executed. The navigation for the system is pretty good, if a bit sluggish, but you can use it to watch first-run movies (for a fee) or student movies (which they should pay you to watch) or a bunch of the most popular cable networks. There's a really extensive library of songs that you can make playlists from, and the collections of songs for each of the artists seem to actually be curated by someone with some taste. I listen to mostly pop, rock, soul, and hip hop, and I could probably get the whole way across the country without having to take out my iPod.

How geeky is VA? They not only invited bloggers on their inaugural flight, the in-flight TV lists BoingBoing.tv as a premium video option. Gotta give them points for that.

The touchscreen perks don't stop there. VA's US CEO is Fred Reid, the same guy who launched Song at Delta. Song was perhaps best described as "JetGreen", a major carrier's attempt to clone the success of JetBlue. Delta has kept the Song planes, and some even still have the Song livery, and the experience on those flights is terrific. I loved it for the great digital seatback system, complete with the ability to play a trivia game against your fellow passengers. (Fast Company did a great interview with Reid with more info, though Reid has since been required to step down as part of Virgin's certification with the Department of Transportation.)

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VA doesn't miss a beat in bettering Song. Every armrest has a tethered double-sided handset. One side has a game pad and good (old-school Nintendo-style) controller buttons so you can play a bunch of simple arcade games for free, including Doom. The other side is, incredibly, a tiny little full QWERTY keyboard. That's so you can use the in-flight chat room to talk to your fellow passengers, and the menus promise you'll even be able to email, send SMS messages, and surf the web in the future. Kickass!

Every seat has a full, three-pronged power outlet. There's powered USB ports for charging devices that use that method. And then there's the best use of the digital technology onboard: You can order food and drinks whenever you want.

It's a tiny little thing, but choosing when and what you eat is such a great example of undoing the powerlessness that makes air travel so stressful. Not having control over when you can sit or stand, when you can listen to music or make a phone call, or even when you can go to the bathroom is one of the biggest causes for people flipping out when they're flying. Add to that the capricious nature of airport security, and the fact that many frequent fliers are business people used to being control freaks at work, and it's a wonder there isn't more air rage.

So, the simple fix: I can make a few taps on the screen in front of me and they bring me a cup of tea. Goddamn, that's civilized. VA has also hinted that they'll be adding to their menu (all food costs on Virgin) with some higher-end options that might run as much as $20, but won't be shitty airline food. I think the logic there is perfect -- I'll gladly pay a few extra bucks for something edible.

In short, Virgin executes perfectly on the classic low-cost carrier model that makes airlines like JetBlue so beloved, with even more in the way of personality and panache. The amenities make coach flights on VA feel like business class does on other airlines, and the promise of ongoing improvements means they might even extend their lead.

(Thanks to Alanna Spence for the photos.)

The Gotchas: Virgin America doesn't fly many places. I tend to bounce back and forth between New York and San Francisco, so that works fine for me, but it could be a big concern if you're elsewhere. Also, Virgin isn't the rock-bottom cheapest airline around, so if you're really price-sensitive, you can probably go to Kayak.com and find a better deal, especially if you know your travel plans well in advance.

What It Costs: Flights are surprisingly affordable -- a cross-country round-trip flight, purchased on short notice, was about $500. In flight meals are additional, and priced a little under $10.

Recommended If You Like: Song Airlines, shagging, Richard Branson, mood lighting, Mark Frauenfelder


This post is one of a series of unsolicited testimonials. Please view that introductory post for more background information.

Unsolicited Testimonial: Clear Card

December 3, 2007

Clear

What It Is: The Clear card is designed for frequent travelers, to let you skip the line at airport security (You still have to go through security, of course) in exchange for a fee. This one I was fascinated by as soon as I heard about it. I fly a lot -- about a quarter million miles in the past two years alone -- and I have a bad case of Flying While Brown, so this was right up my alley.

The Experience: This is some straight-up James Bond shit right here, people! I filled out an application online, with an appropriately intrusive set of profile questions and some nicely reassuring fine print on their site making me feel fine about any privacy concerns. A couple days later, I got word that I was good to go, and could proceed to step two, the physical registration. This is where it got seriously cool.

Clear registration points are either at the airports they serve or at other locations that frequent travelers might find themselves. In my case, I went to the Hyatt in midtown Manhattan, right above Grand Central Terminal. They have a machine set up in an alcove off the lobby which is slickly futuristic, with the overall vibe being brushed metal and blue LEDs. After showing my passport and driver's license, I was walked up to a really freaking cool machine to have my fingerprints digitally captured and my retinas scanned.

In all the bad dystopian future scifi movies I've ever seen, they never mention that the mysterious private corporation that will be performing the biometric scans would be so upscale I'd felt underdressed for my retina scan because I wasn't wearing a tie. Seriously -- this was the fanciest invasion of privacy ever.

It gets even better at the airport. I finally got to try out the card itself on my way through airport security today, and it was the worst-case scenario. I was held up and got to the airport a scant 30 minutes before my flight was supposed to take off -- way late, and this was on an airline where I don't have frequent flier status, so they probably weren't inclined to indulge me.

clear-card.jpg I wasn't even at the place where the security line begins when I took out my Clear card, and a really nice guy in a suit and tie came over and shook my hand. He glanced at the card, and immediately greeted me as "Mr. Dash", and then scurried me past the entire line. He handed me off to another equally formal Clear staffer, who apologized for the fact that I'd have to wait about 30 seconds for another Clear member's passport to get checked by the TSA. After that, I was whisked to a walk-up Clear security verification machine that looked like it was something out of The Incredibles. (The guy had some nice banter about San Francisco without being annoyingly overbearing on the friendly chit-chat.) A quick scan of my left index finger, and the Clear guy grabbed two of the x-ray trays for me, helped get my laptop into them and made sure all my other stuff was safely on the x-ray belt, and then walked me right up to the metal detector, saying "have a nice flight to San Francisco, Mr. Dash!"

It was fanastic. In literally less than 3 minutes, I'd gone from frantic about making my flight to all the way to the metal detector, and they were even discreet enough the way it was implemented that I didn't feel like some line-jumping jerk. Even if, you know, that's essentially what you pay Clear for.

Even the card itself is cool -- it looks a lot like an American Express Blue card, mostly transparent with a little set of metal contacts on the side so the machine can read the card's chip. High-tech.

The Gotchas: There's a couple weird things about Clear. First and foremost, it's absolutely ridiculous that our TSA and Federal Government are so incredibly fucked up that this has to be handled by a private company instead of, you know, by our tax dollars. That's not Clear's fault, though, and I commend them for doing what must be the world's most ridiculous set of paperwork.

Second, anybody who's a privacy zealot is not gonna be able to get behind the whole Clear thing. Fingerprints, retina scans, background checks, two forms of photo ID -- they do the works. If you can't trust a company with that kind of info, then Clear isn't for you.

Third, I think any feeling person's gonna have a little bit of guilt using this Clear to skip the security line. There's no more straightforward expression of class inequity than the fact that I can use my disposable income to get treated better in a situation that is mandated and policed by our federal government. We all reckon with these things in our own way, but this falls squarely into the category of things make you confront your privilege in an unsubtle way.

Finally, Clear isn't in every airport yet. It's not even in most airports yet. I live in JFK and SFO, and end up in La Guardia a lot -- those are all on the Clear list. And they're doing a commendable job of getting new airports online with the system all the time. But if your local airport isn't covered, this isn't going to be a great deal for you.

What It Costs: Clear is $99. If you fly from one of the Clear-covered airports more than 2 or 3 times a year, I think it's a no-brainer, and in fact is actually a bit on the inexpensive side compared to a lot of other amenities like airport lounges or flight cabin upgrades. If you sign up, you can use my referral code and we both get a free month -- just email me for it.

Recommended If You Like: Showing up late, getting upgraded on a flight, James Bond movies, "Catch Me If You Can".


This post is one of a series of unsolicited testimonials. Please view that introductory post for more background information.

More on How To See NYC

July 18, 2007

Didja like the series of posts on How to Visit New York City? Then you might want to check these out:

  • Mark Dominus has a lengthy, well-considered view of New York Tourism, centered around the maxim that I “…may be a little misleading when he says ‘the natives are friendly and helpful.’ I would say not. Neither are they unfriendly or unhelpful. What they mostly are, in my experience, is brusque and in a hurry.”
  • And Monsur takes a run at the Apple, too: “New York City never ceases to surprise you. Toss aside the map, walk around, and let the city reveal herself to you.”

How To Visit New York: Outside Opinions

July 12, 2007

As I’ve been sharing my opinions about how to visit New York this week, I’ve been lucky enough to get some great responses from other people on the web, and to find some terrific resources for visitors to check out. So far my own series on how to visit New York I’ve covered what you can skip, what you must see, and the basics.

  • New Yorkology posted a nice link to my series, but Amy Langfeld’s New York Travel Guide is indispensable for anyone who wants to visit the Big Apple, and well deserving of its many accolades. Tips are organized by geography, by topic, and by convenient groupings like “Kids” and “Romance”.

  • David’s thoughtful response, with the wonderful introduction stating, “I am adding my own two cents here, because the great thing about Manhattan is that it is a different experience everyday, for everyone. So, here is my Do-It-Yourself Manhattan Tourists’ Guide: What to do before and when you get here.”

  • And then, perhaps most amusingly, Mike Monteiro’s inimitable How to Visit San Francisco over on the Mule Design blog. Not merely inspired by my post, but just plain inspired: “Try to remember that they don’t mean to be rude, they’re just thinking of the excellent gas mileage they’re getting on their Toyota Prius.” You can also see Mike’s initial response to my series. The only things I’d add are bring a sweater, and the place you’re going is closed.

  • Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the invaluable resources at Ask MetaFilter, one of my favorite sites and quite simply one of the best sites on the web. Check out the questioned tagged New York or NYC or New York City (or, uh, just “york”) and you can harness some fantastic collected wisdom from lots of knowledgeable contributors.

Update: Here’s an awesome sneak preview you should check out — TravelFilter for New York, NY. It’s a collection of all Ask MetaFilter posts geocoded for New York City, nicely displayed and complete with a map. Very cool.

How to Visit New York: The Must-Sees

July 9, 2007

After yesterday’s look at the basics of visting New York City, it’s time to move on to some more ambitious, and more contentious, topics. I’m going to start with my short list of the sights you simply must see if you get to the city. Knowing already that this isn’t even a complete list of my own recommendations (I’m sure I’ve forgotten some), I am certain you’ll all have your own must-see additions — let me have ‘em!

Perhaps one of the hardest parts of visiting New York City is that there is so much to see. That means a truly definitive “must-see” list is pretty much impossible, and depends on your preferences and interests. But there are a few signature places in the city that are unique in the world, and so broadly appealing they should offer something to just about anyone who visits. If you’ve only got a short amount of time in the city, or you want to make sure to get the most indispensable stuff first, here’s a good list to begin with.

  • The signature skyscrapers. The Empire State Building may be the most famous building in the world, and it’s well worth its reputation. However, it was built primarily as an office building for the garment trade, so it’s better to look at than to look out from, though the owners have done an admirable job of retrofitting it with all the necessary tourist trap/gift shop accessories. If you’re trying to make good use of your time, don’t go up the Empire State Building, just get a good look at it from Top of the Rock. If you’ve got time to wait, you certainly won’t regret seeing the view from the ESB. The Chrysler Building is the prettiest peak in Manhattan’s skyline, with its distinctive hubcap spire. There’s really no easy way to go up there as a tourist anyway, so just make a mental note to look out for it when you get to the Top of the Rock. Which of course brings us to Top of the Rock itself. This is the newest skyline viewpoint for tourists, having been completely refurbished after sitting in mothballs for three decades. Top of the Rock is a great vantage point for looking out at the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and Central Park, and it’s at the top of 30 Rockefeller Center, which means you can check out one of the city’s great plazas on the way in. If you go to the top of only one skyscraper, this should be it, and if you can time it right, get there a little before sunset and linger until after the sun goes down, so you can get both a great look at the city and the magic of the city’s lights at night.

  • Grand Central Terminal. You probably know this one as Grand Central Station, the “Terminal” name is technically correct because it’s the end of the line for the commuter rails that bring hundreds of thousands of people to work in Manhattan every day. Sadly, most of them trudge through the train station on their way to work without looking up at the most beautiful indoor space in the city. The building was lovingly restored to its original lavish condition a decade ago, and anybody who loves architecture, transportation, history, or just people should find something to love in the space. If you can, check out one of the free walking tours (more on that later), poke your head into the mini Transit museum on the western side of the building, and maybe even stop for some food; Between the Oyster bar, the food court downstairs, and a few other pricey but pleasant dining choices, it’s not a terrible place to grab a meal. It’s also got a great secret place for drinks that are worth the exorbitant price.

  • The Museums. It’s impossible to narrow down the full list of New York’s great museums, but the most prominent ones in the city are world-famous for a reason. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The American Museum of Natural History. The Museum of Modern Art. The Guggenheim. Any one of them can easily take up a full day. I’m the kind of guy who didn’t go to college and rolls his eyes at pretentious “experts”, but these places are mesmerizing. Approachable without being dumbed-down, fun without being frivolous, they’re all worth a visit, but if you want to start with a sure crowd-pleaser, or you’ve got kids who are finicky, the Natural History Museum, home of The Whale and The Dinosaur Skeletons and The Planetarium, is just one of the most satisfying places in the world. The Met is its slightly more serious sister, across Central Park, and I’ve found the exhibits there so simple and smart that they’re just plain profound. If you don’t check out at least one of the great museums of the city, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. Or at least until you come back to New York.

Thanks to Tom Karlo for the beautiful photo of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center at the Natural History Museum. To see all of the posts in this series, check out the archive of How To Visit New York.

It's Springtime. Paris?

May 29, 2007

If you have the particularly first-world American problem of trying to find your way Europe, and then, say needing a place to stay while in Paris, don't worry: My friends in the blogosphere have got you covered. Here's some good advice from people who know what they're talking about.

Cameron Marlow on planning a trip to Europe:

Going to Europe in the summer is about as much as you can ask for out of travel. Most people will tell you to stay away during the tourist season, but if you want to be there when the weather is great, you’ll have to put up with some other Americans making you want to wear a Canadian flag pin.

And Nelson Minar on renting an apartment in Paris:

If you're going to stay in Paris for a week or more, conside renting an apartment. Particularly if you're travelling in a group that would benefit from 2-3 bedrooms. Apartments are generally cheaper than hotels and integrate you more into the day to day life of the city.

I've never been to Paris, but I do hope to get there someday. Fortunately, I've got these links saved for future reference.

The Cities of 2006

January 2, 2007

After seeing the lists made by a number of friends, I thought it'd be fun to post my own record of the cities I visited in 2006. I believe the canonical rules state that only cities where I spent the night count, and cities that were visited on more than one discrete trip are designated with an asterisk. Thus:

  • Anchorage, AK
  • Aspen, CO
  • Boston, MA
  • Camp Hill, PA
  • Cary, NC *
  • Chicago, IL *
  • Dallas, TX
  • Half Moon Bay, CA
  • Las Vegas, NV *
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • New Orleans, LA
  • New York, NY *
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Portland, OR *
  • Sacramento, CA *
  • San Diego, CA *
  • San Francisco, CA *
  • Santa Monica, CA
  • Sausalito, CA
  • Seattle, WA
  • Taipei
  • Washington, DC *

Some of those are really exceptional because of the sheer number of times I visited (I live in San Francisco, and visited NYC five times this year, Vegas four, and Sacramento and San Diego three), so I realized the final tally put me in a new city, on average, every other week. I think I'm justified feeling tired about 2006 and happy to be in 2007.

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