My growing transit-card collection

TORONTO–I’m coming home from here with an unusual souvenir: a plastic card with embedded electronics.

Transit cards in TorontoThis city made me do it. Buying a Presto Card to pay for transit, even with its $6 purchase fee, made sense factoring in the slight discount it gets on the Toronto Transit Commission’s streetcars and subways and the much larger break it gives on the Union Pearson Express airport train. With the Collision conference ensuring I’ll travel here for the next three years, I would be crazy to pay cash fares.

The same logic has led me to build a collection of transit smart cards beyond my Metro SmarTrip card. I’ve got a CharlieCard for the T in Boston, a Clipper card for BART and other Bay Area transit agencies, and a TAP card for L.A.’s Metro. The MetroCard I keep for the NYC subway and the Viva Viagem card I use on Lisbon’s Metro aren’t as smart, but they do the same job of freeing me from fumbling with cash at faregates.

And having all these cards handy doesn’t just feed my transit snobbery; eliminating a barrier to hopping on a subway, streetcar or bus saves me real money when I travel.

This isn’t quite the future of transit payments I had in mind when Metro rolled out the SmarTrip card in 1999. But until more transit systems follow the examples of Chicago and London and let passengers pay via NFC with their phones, I’m stuck on this track.

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Covering conference costs

My travel for work often involves a four-word question with a one-word answer. As in, somebody asks me “Who’s sending you here?”, and I reply by saying “me.”

Self-employment usually means self-financing of travel. Except for when speaking somewhere gets my travel comped or a conference organizer offers a travel subsidy (or the very rare times that a client covers my travel costs), I have to pay my own way.

When I started freelancing in 2011, I didn’t worry too much about how. I was blessed with clients overpaying me, and I was so tired of having the Post deny my travel requests–like the three years in a row they wouldn’t send me to South By Southwest–that I chose to spend some money to see what I’d missed.

I’m more practical these days: If I go somewhere, I should sell enough work based on things I learn during that trip to cover my costs. As long as I can find a scarcity to exploit, that should be doable. Google I/O and Mobile World Congress, for example, either limit press access or take place in locations where tech-news sites don’t have anybody based full-time–leaving me less competition. So did the Falcon Heavy launch.

To be honest in my accounting, I also have to consider how much I would have written and sold on a normal week at home, when my expenses amount to Metro fare and part of the utilities bills. In other words, I didn’t write five Yahoo posts from CES just for my health.

Most of the time, I do sell enough from out of town to get my above-baseline income to meet travel costs that I already try to ratchet down with my Airbnb and public-transit habits. What I still need to address: not slacking off the week after a mega-gathering like CES or MWC, a pattern you’ve probably noticed in my weekly recaps of my work.

Some trips, however, are worth doing even at a loss, and I appreciate that self-employment lets me make that choice.

For example, the XOXO conference in Portland was so mind-expandingly great in 2013 and 2015 that I paid not just for airfare and lodging but even for the conference pass–and I only sold a single post from it each time. Friday, the organizers tweeted that after taking 2017 off, the conference would return this September… so, you know, my financial realism may have to take a break that week.

SXSW scheduling: indecision is the key to flexibility

AUSTIN–Looking at the glut of invitations to South By Southwest events that have landed in my inbox in the past few days, two things seem clear: Many publicists think this event starts and ends on Saturday, and I shouldn’t have bothered scheduling anything until this week.

SXSW 2018 logoI know from prior experience that this conference attracts a silly amount of marketing money that gets lit on fire in various #brand-building exercises–most involving the distribution of free tacos, BBQ and beer.

But this year–much like at CES–some sort of happy-hour herd instinct has also led many companies to schedule their events on the same day, in this case Saturday. Looking over the possibilities, it appears I could spend that entire day–starting with a 7:30 a.m. mimosa breakfast–drinking on the dime of one corporate host or another.

(I won’t. I have panels to attend, people to interview, and probably one post to write. I may need a nap too.)

And, yes, a huge number of these invitations came in the last 72 hours. Far be it for me to criticize other people’s just-in-time conduct, but weren’t all of these bars, restaurants and other event spaces booked months ago? I have to assume that after not enough of the A, B and C-list guests responded affirmatively, the sponsor reluctantly decided to invite the D-list.

Considering that you can’t tell which events will be mobbed and how you might be waylaid by random meetings at them, your only safe response is to RSVP to everything and leave your calendar looking like a game of Tetris that you’re about to lose. Then decide where you’ll go based on where you’re standing and what looks interesting nearby–as shallow and impolite as that is.

And that’s how I came to a conclusive answer to this question: What’s a less reliable indication of somebody’s attendance than an Evite response?

Last-minute MWC advice

Having to spend a week in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress ranks as one of the easier problems to manage in the tech industry. I mean, would you rather go to CES?

But if you’re new to MWC, as I was only five years ago, the wireless industry’s global gathering can have its confusing moments. If so, the following advice may help you navigate your way around this trade show.

Fira Gran Via: MWC’s primary venue is a set of eight large halls that you can traverse much faster than the Las Vegas Convention Center, thanks to the overhead passages–most with moving walkways–that knit the Fira together. To get there, take the train: The L9 Sud Metro stops at the Europa | Fira and Fira stations, to the north and south of the Fira, while frequent commuter-rail trains from Espanya also stop at Europa | Fira.

Power and bandwidth: In addition to a plug adapter (you already have that in your bag, right?), you should also pack your laptop’s charger’s extension cord if it came with one. Distance from an outlet has nothing to do with that; a laptop power brick plugged into a plug adapter plugged into a wall outlet can easily fall out, but the extension cord will distribute that weight away from the outlet.

I hope you won’t show up to MWC with a locked phone that will prevent you from popping in a cheap prepaid SIM. But if your locked device is on Sprint or T-Mobile, you at least get free, slow and adequate roaming.

Eating and dining: Barcelona is one of the world’s great cities to eat and drink. Unfortunately, the press room in the Fira does not provide lunch, so you’ll have to forage elsewhere on the show floor (FYI, Ericsson’s exhibit in Hall 2 has offered a great free lunch the last few years). The press room does, however, offer an apparently inexhaustible supply of coffee from a bank of Nespresso machines, and plates of cookies occasionally show up there too.

Remember that dinner happens late in Spain, so don’t turn down a late-afternoon snack.

Getting around: Your MWC registration comes with a transit pass good Monday through Thursday; don’t just use it to commute to the Fira. Railfan tip: Because the L9 Sud line is automated, standing in the front of the train lets you enjoy the view of the tunnel ahead. Cheapskate tip: That line is also the most cost-effective way to and from the airport.

If you normally rely on Apple Maps, set it aside for the duration of MWC. This app still doesn’t offer transit directions in Barcelona–two and a half years after Apple bragged about adding transit navigation, which itself came nearly eight years after Google integrated the same in its own maps.

Barcelona has a not-undeserved reputation for pickpocketing. Don’t leave your wallet in an exposed and open pocket, and hang on to your bag or purse.

Other details:

If you’ve never seen Whit Stillman’s 1994 indie classic Barcelona, try to fix that before you depart. It’s not available on Netflix and Amazon’s free streaming, but you can rent it on Amazon, Google, iTunes and Vudu.

If you have some free time–by which I mean, if being six to nine time zones ahead of your editors gives you unsupervised time–try to spend some of it visiting architect Antoni Gaudí’s masterpieces. The Casa Milà apartment building and the Sagrada Família basilica aren’t as far out of your way from MWC as Park Güell; they all have a kind of magic about them.

On your way home, if you have mid-tier or higher status on American, Delta or United or have a Priority Pass membership, you’re eligible to visit the Sala VIP Miro lounge at BCN, upstairs to the left and downstairs after passport control for non-EU flights. Nobody will mistake it for a Lufthansa Senator Lounge, but it works for a pre-departure snack and a drink or two before a long day spent over the Atlantic.

Updated 3/1/2018 to correct and expand lounge-access directions.

Launch logistics: Booking a trip to see Falcon Heavy fly on three days’ notice

I’ve had the idea of covering the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket in the back of my mind for the last few years, but I didn’t book my travel for Tuesday’s launch until Saturday afternoon.

I was waiting for a confirmation of the schedule from the company that would be more solid than a notional “No Earlier Than” date, and which would then let me know if I could still attend a Yahoo Finance cryptocurrency conference in New York on Wednesday. Besides, I knew that D.C. and Orlando often represent a cheap city pair.

The schedule details I needed from SpaceX arrived shortly after noon Saturday, so I got to work–one travel component at a time.

Having to reach the Kennedy Space Center by 1:15 p.m. to visit Launch Complex 39A ruled out some decent mid-day fares. But Southwest’s site showed a 6 a.m. nonstop out of National for only $50. Sold!

Then I canceled the D.C.-NYC Amtrak reservation I’d had for Tuesday night (I appreciate that the railroad still lets you do that for free until 24 hours before departure) and booked a Tuesday-night flight from Orlando to New York to replace it.

I went with United for that leg, spending a little extra (a still-reasonable $155) to fly on an airline where my frequent-flyer status would allow a free same-day-change to a Wednesday flight to Newark if a launch scrub required that. A few more clicks to book a rental car and one night’s lodging, and I had launch travel solved… or so I thought until an hour after a liftoff that got pushed back to 3:45 p.m. by upper-atmosphere winds.

At that point, the “OMG! OMG!” shaking had stopped, I’d filed my copy, and Google Maps indicated that the usual 45-minute drive from KSC to Orlando would run an hour and 15 minutes. Nope! As horrendous post-launch traffic dragged Google’s arrival estimates past my flight’s boarding time, I called United to see if they had space on the morning’s first MCO-EWR nonstop, a 5:36 a.m. departure. They did.

After dropping off my rental car and getting through a mercifully quick security checkpoint (is there a better exhibit for TSA Pre or Clear than MCO?), I ran to my original flight’s gate and saw for myself that the plane was gone. I called United back, the rep bailed me out of the consequences of my overly-optimistic travel tactics by putting me on that 5:36 a.m. flight for free, and then I opened my laptop–tethering off my phone because the airport WiFi didn’t let me connect–to book a hotel barely two miles away for $90.

By then, it had been some 10 hours since I’d last eaten, so I treated myself to a nice dinner at the airport. (If you, too, get stuck at MCO and want something more original than the terminal’s fast-casual brands, head upstairs to McCoy’s in the Hyatt Regency). After a prolonged wait for the hotel van, thanks to no visible signage indicating that these shuttles could pick up at either of two spaces on the B side that sit maybe 800 feet apart, I was in bed by around midnight.

I somehow woke up one minute before the 4:15 alarm I’d set on my phone and was through security 40 minutes later. You can image my relief at seeing my upgrade clear, then having a quick NJ Transit ride from EWR to Manhattan help wrap up this prolonged commute by 9:10 a.m.

A long and informative day ensued with Yahoo colleagues, most of whom I hadn’t seen in months, and various cryptocurrency experts. But then my travel luck ran out again when my train to D.C. left more than an hour and a half late. Twitter, not Amtrak, informed me that this was the result of a tragedy–a northbound Acela striking and killing a person walking along the tracks in the Bronx, which led police to close the railroad for two hours.

That meant I didn’t get home until nearly 1 a.m, almost 21 hours after my day had begun. But I did get to sleep in my own bed, and I came home with two posts filed from KSC that more than covered my travel costs as well as dozens of photos (since edited into a Flickr album) and one unusual recording that you can hear after the jump.

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2017 in review: This has not been easy

This year has been lousy in a variety of ways.

On a national level, the Trump administration luxuriated in lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. We learned that even more men in power had spent decades inflicting or tolerating vile sexual harassment. And widely-distributed firearms ownership left us with another year of American carnage that featured a few mass shootings so horrifying that Congress did nothing.

On a personal level, the worst part of 2017 was the day in March when I learned of just one of those tens of thousands of gun deaths: the suicide of my old Post friend Mike Musgrove. I think about that almost every day and still don’t have good answers.

But I have had meaningful, paying work, and for that I’m grateful.

Most of that has taken place at Yahoo Finance, where I easily wrote 8,000 words on net neutrality alone.

I continue to appreciate having a widely-read place at which I can call out government and industry nonsense, and I wish I’d taken more advantage of that opportunity–the second half of the year saw me let too many weeks go by without any posts there. But 2017 also saw some overdue client diversification beyond my usual top three of Yahoo, USA Today and Wirecutter.

I’ve done more wonky writing for trade publications, which tend to offer better rates (even if they sometimes pay slower) and often wind up compensating me for the kind of research I’d need to do anyway to write knowledgeably for a consumer-focused site. This year has also brought about the reappearance of my byline in the Washington Post and the resulting, thoroughly enjoyable confusion of readers who hadn’t seen me there since 2011.

Once again, I did more than my share to prop up the travel industry. Conferences, speaking opportunities and story research took me to Las Vegas, Barcelona, Austin, New York (only once, which should have led Amtrak to e-mail to ask if I’m okay), Lisbon (twice), the Bay Area (three times), Shanghai, Paris, Berlin, Cleveland (being driven most of the way there by a semi-autonomous Cadillac was one of those “I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this” moments) and Boston.

(See after the jump for a map of all these flights.)

Tearing myself away from my family each time has not gotten any easier, but at least all of last year’s travel put me in a position to make myself more comfortable on more of these flights. As an avgeek, the upgrade I most appreciated is the one that cleared 36 hours before my trip to Shanghai in June to put me in the last seat available on the upper deck of a United 747–barely five months before the the Queen of the Skies exited United’s fleet.

Almost all of these international trips involved concerned queries from citizens of our countries about the leadership of my own. I understand where they came from but wish they weren’t necessary. Someday, that will happen–but not in 2018.

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The two kinds of Airbnbs I rent

No travel site has saved me as much money as Airbnb–the 10 rooms and the two apartments I’ve booked through the site represent thousands of extra dollars I didn’t have to spend on overpriced hotels at events like Mobile World Congress and Google I/O. But no other travel site has left me thinking so much about its effects on the places I visit.

The vision that Airbnb sells, and the reality I’ve seen in half of those 12 stays, is somebody renting out a room or (when they’re traveling) their entire residence to make extra money on the side. I always appreciate the effort these hosts put in–the labels on everything, the well-placed power strips that hotels often forget, the advice about places to eat and drink nearby–and I like the thought that I’m helping people stay in their homes or apartments.

(A friend in Brooklyn has rented out the extra room in his apartment for years; seeing him favorably review an Airbnb room in Denver put me at ease with staying there for last year’s Online News Association conference.)

But Airbnb also features many other hosts who list multiple properties and, in some cases, have purchased many or all of the apartments in a building to rent out to budget-minded travelers like me. In the latter case–like the room in San Francisco I rented this week that appeared to have once been a single-room-occupancy apartment–you can easily imagine that without an Airbnb, people who live near those places would have more housing options.

That concern, sometimes pushed by the hotel industry, has led many cities to try to restrict Airbnb. In Barcelona, that crackdown meant the apartment in the Gothic Quarter that I’d stayed at for three years in a row was off the market this February because the host couldn’t get the required tourist license (I found another apartment that did have it, or at least said it did). In San Francisco, it’s led the company to start collecting occupancy taxes (which is fine with me).

I don’t want to overstate Airbnb’s effect on a housing market–certainly not in the Bay Area, where development policies founded on delusional entitlement have done far more to jack up residential costs. But I do worry about this.

And then I continue to book on Airbnb when crashing with friends isn’t an option. When the alternative is eating $200 or $300 a night on a hotel room or staying in distant suburbs, what else do you expect me to do?