Back in February, I read this ‘ask me anything’ on Reddit. Reddit users group-interviewed a former airline pricing analyst, asking questions about fares, overselling and luggage. This answer, about when to book a flight, particularly interested me:
Generally, months in advance. About five months from departure we get an idea of how flights are filling, so we might launch a promotion for sales (say) 6 to 8 weeks prior to departure, which is lower than the ‘default’ lowest fare. Unless you can buy standby tickets, tickets bought late will almost certainly be the most expensive bought for that flight.
We had plans to fly back to Vancouver from France in June, so I decided I’d try to track a couple of flights to see how their pricing behaved. I’m aware that there are sites like SkyScanner that do this automatically, but I had the foolish notion to do it myself.
I picked two departure dates in May, and tracked two flights–the from Air Canada and one from Lufthansa–for each date. I checked the price of the flights every other day. These are the results (click to enlarge)
This is strictly anecdotal, of course, and I didn’t faff about with clearing cookies and such. I don’t pretend that there’s much here that we can apply to buying future tickets.
I was surprised to learn that you could have bought the May 7 Air Canada flight the day before you left for just $50 more than if you’d bought it three months earlier. I’d assumed that flight prices generally trended upward as they approached the departure date. Evidently, that’s not always the case.
It’s 2012. You would think that by now, we’d have worked out effective solutions so that we could use our phones in more than one country. Of course, that’s not the case. Despite the more than 600,000 Canadian business trips to the US every year, sorting out a phone or data plan for the US is unwieldy. Prices areextortionate, and the average traveler isn’t savvy enough to swap SIM cards on their phone. And, in truth, they shouldn’t have to. Their phone should just work, wherever they take it. And that’s just going from one country to another.
I was reminded of this when, earlier this month, we traveled to Ireland. Rental car companies have begun renting out mobile Internet (or ‘mifi’) units along with their car. For a reasonable fee–I think we paid about €5 a day–we got mobile Internet access nearly anywhere in the country. You get a little mifi unit that comes with a wall and car charger. We have a similar unit for France, for when we’re traveling within the country or on the rare occasion when our local Internet access goes down.
By the way, it’s non-trivial to sign up with one of those units in the US, Canada or France. It’s not simply a question of buying it and then getting top-up cards. In the US and France when we’ve bought them, there was a fair amount of paperwork. And in Canada, where I had to buy one out of desperation earlier this year, there was no pay-as-you-go option available. I ended up signing up for a monthly plan with Bell, using it for three days, and then promptly canceling it.
Because we’re self-employed, a certain amount of any leisure travel is usually sacrificed to the Gods of Finding the Internet. Can we find a cafe with Internet access (particularly in the off season)? Does the hotel access actually work? A very first world problem, I know, but it’s a routine concern. Happily, this little mifi unit–we named it Dougal–spared us this inconvenience.
But what if we were just visiting Dublin for a week, and not renting a car? Or what if we were taking the train around Europe and traveling on foot? Where would we turn? Most travelers don’t absolutely need web access on the go, but increasingly they want it.
Thus far, the options look kind of dubious. There’s services like this one–that site feels a little sketchy. They charge $15 per day, plus another $13 or so to ship the device to you. You get ‘unlimited’ data access, except that after you use up 500 MB, you’re downgraded from 3G to a 2G network. Their coverage in Europe looks decent, though interestingly you can’t use one of their devices in Canada. Trustive seems like a similar product. Worryingly, I couldn’t find reliable pricing information on their site. I wouldn’t trust either of these services without a recommendation from somebody I trust.
It seems like there’s a sizable opportunity for somebody with a recognizable brand to step in and own this space. In Europe, I could see somebody like Orange, who has presence in a lot of countries, offering a mifi solution to the city-bound tourist. Or maybe there are solutions on the horizon that I haven’t heard of?
It was not until I stood waist-deep in Desolation Sound that I truly felt like I was home. The Milky Way stretched across the star-filled sky like God’s wispy white mohawk, and an orange moon rose, The bioluminescence sparkled like a thousand tiny camera flashes around my legs. It was cold, but not viciously so, and my friends and I had just come down to the beach for a quick dip.
Our backs were to the shore, the beach and Hollyhock beyond. I’d come to Canada to attend another Web of Change–my fifth, I think. It was as challenging and insightful as it usually is–a welcome time for conspiring with colleagues and thinking big thoughts.
The evening before I’d had an eerie walk to a party down a dirt road in the dark. I was arriving late, and so walked over alone. The cedars crowded in on either side, leaving just a narrow band of stars to light my way. Rationally, I knew that death by cougar or wolf attack was highly improbable. My lizard brain, however, is not rational. I walked as fast as I could without running. You know, running like prey would.
I then traded the towering cedars of Cortes Island for Vancouver’s towering glass towers. It’s a cliched comparison, but doesn’t driving down Georgia Street feel like you’re traveling through a great, grey forest?
Coming home is always a little odd. It’s not so much the change of language that feels strange, but a shift in perspectives. I live in a warm, rural place, and now I’m a little chilly (despite the gorgeous Vancouver weather–one’s temperature settings change so quickly) and surrounded by skyscrapers and millions of people. The days are suddenly shorter, and the nights never really get dark in the city.
Home also highlights the little foreign habits one acquires. When I’m walking around our village, I greet nearly every person I pass with “bonjour” or “bon soir”. I actively had to prevent myself from doing this during my first couple of days in Yaletown. Similarly, my mind has now switched so that when I see somebody, I greet them in French. In Vancouver, you do that and you just seem effete.
These differences seem obvious, but they’re the ones that matter. Similarly, my fresh eyes observed just how many cars there are on the roads in the city. In our village, the horses and boats nearly outnumber the cars. It’s like we risk death every time we step off the curb. This was doubly the case for my first trip back from Ireland. I’d trained myself to look the other way when stepping off the curb.
The longer you’re away, the weirder it is. This is my third trip home to North America since February, so the cognitive dissonance was very manageable. We’re clearly not designed to be removed from one place and plopped, as if by disinterested aliens, on the other side of the world. If you did it to any other animal, it wouldn’t survive the afternoon.
Still, it’s always a pleasure to see friends, family and big trees on the West Coast. I return now to France, my bag full of red licorice, Stanfield’s underwear and over-the-counter drugs for which I don’t know the French name.
Last Friday, myself, Julie and two friends set off for a 106 km bike trip along the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to Carcassonne. Although the weather has been mostly agreeable this spring in the south of France, the forecast foreboded a lot of wind and rain. Nonetheless, we rented bikes from Mellow Velos and set off.
The first 50 km of the canal path is paved, so the first day was reasonably straightforward. We wove between strollers and joggers, and passed Europe’s first electron microscope. City gave way to suburbs and then countryside as we rode east against a strong head wind. It didn’t rain on us, though, and we actually caught some sun as we paused by a lock along the route.
The canal is an engineering marvel. It stretches about 240 km, connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Designed, constructed and mostly funded by Pierre-Paul Riquet, it’s been an important transportation route since it was completed in 1681. These days, the only commerce on the canal is from tourists in rented boats and hotel barges (my friend operate a particularly classy one).
The canal has 91 locks along its length, and the maximum speed on the canal is 8 km/h, so nobody goes anywhere very fast on the waterway. The locks are quite remarkable to watch in operation, as they shift a boat 15 or 20 feet up or down. There are also a number of spots where the canal crosses another river. It’s a bit headwrecking to think that you’re riding a bike beside a canal which is on a bridge that’s over a river.
After resting our weary bones at a chambre d’hote in Gardouch, we braved colder and wetter conditions the next day. Happily, the wind had shifted and was now a welcome helping hand at our backs. The paved path ended, and recent rains had made several sections of the canal rather muddy. It was more BMX track than solid cycling path. If you’re considering this route, I’d recommend waiting until a little later in the year. It will be busier–we saw few cyclists outside of the cities–but the clayey soil will be drier and much harder.
We soldiered on, though, and arrived at Castelnaudary on the second night. Castelnaudary is a charming town where the canal widens into a basin. It’s also the heart of cassoulet country, so we replaced our expended calories with a hearty bean, rabbit and sausage casserole.
The third day of riding was the longest–42 km into Carcassonne. We eventually abandoned the canal’s towpath for the smooth tarmac of a nearby road. After picking our way among roots and mud puddles on the canal, it was a curious pleasure to fly down the road at 30 km/h. I appreciate that, to the experienced cyclist, these numbers aren’t particularly impressive, but they’re long and fast enough for me and my aging quads.
I have mixed feelings about Carcassonne. The fortified old city is very striking, and the basilica inside is gorgeous. However, the interior has been entirely transformed into a desperate more-French-than-France cluster of tourist businesses. You can eat lousy meals, buy all kinds of Carcassonne-themed crap and take tacky tours within those stout walls. For stony fortifications and history, I prefer the working walled city of Valetta in Malta, or the tiny village of Minerve here in France.
I’m very fond of the pace of a cycle trip. You’re neither trudging along without much sense of progress, nor flying through the countryside in a car, disconnected from the sounds and smells around you. If I were doing the ride again, I might have actually started the ride at Gardouch or Villefranche-de-Lauragais, and carried on passed Carcassonne for another day or two. The paved surface out of Toulouse was welcome, but its suburbs were not.
I’m already planning another bike trip in the fall that will cover the westerly half of the canal, which would have us finishing near the Med at Sète.
The second and third photos on this page are by Monique.
Last night I told a story at Raincity Chronicles, Vancouver’s answer to The Moth. I was last on the docket, and humbled by the great storytellers I shared the stage with. I was also really impressed by the organizing, wrangling and general finessing by Raincity organizers Karen and Lizzy. I’ve been an organizer, speaker or attendee many times, so I know how much work it takes to get all the little details right.
On a whim, I used the Voice Memo app on my iPhone to record my story. It worked out surprisingly well, considering that it was sitting on the arm of a seat in the middle of the venue. The auditorium at the Museum of Vancouver has a kind of clinical lecture hall feel, but it has superb acoustics.
My friend Rachael snapped a photo of me, so I combined the audio track with the photo and posted the story to YouTube. It’s audio only, and the sound isn’t great, but feel free to give it a listen.
The Written Version
As I sometimes do when giving talks (particularly those outside my comfort zone), I wrote out the story first. We were supposed to tell a story five to seven minutes in length, and my first version of this story was 1500 words, about 500 too long.
For some reason, knowing that I’d have a strict time limit made me extra-judicious in editing. I was reminded of a lot of trusty rules of rewriting–start as close to the end as possible, end as quickly as possible and, most painfully, you almost always have to cut out the bits you love the most.
Here’s the written version of the story.
Julie’s Black Tongue
The day my wife almost died began with a boat trip. We arrive at our jungle camp in Costa Rica, after a morning of river-rafting. We’ve been backpacking through the country, and are staying over night deep in the Costa Rican wilderness.
We arrive at this clearing that’s been cut into the jungle at the river’s edge, revealing rustic huts on platforms. It’s the off-season for tourists so, with the exception of our guide, a Costa Rican native Indian named Paco, we’re the only people staying there.
The ripping sound was barely audible, like a whisper in my ear. It’s as if my pants were saying, “I’m going to seriously complicate your afternoon.”
I’d just passed through airport security. Having slipped on my shoes back on, I looked around for a free chair where I could sit down and tie them. There were none. It’s a Barefoot genetic deficiency–none of the men in my family are good at tying our shoes standing up.
As I usually do, I hunkered down to lace up my shoes. That’s when the back of my trousers split–there’s no other way to say it–from belt to crotch.
I should interject, here, that I’ve actually lost weight in the past couple of months. So this was not a Darren’s-fat-ass problem, but rather a suit-pants-structural-integrity problem. That suit was neither cheap nor old, so I’ll be having a sharp word or two with my tailor.
My first thought was of my underwear. The trousers are charcoal-coloured, so the contrast could have been worse.
My next thought was that I was facing ten hours of travel across the continent, and my luggage had been checked through to Vancouver. This was bad.
My next thought was “Pants splitting? Seriously?” This is the stuff of Tom and Jerry. It’s up there among the great 20th century comedy cliches, right next to “stick finger in electrical outlet” and “football to groin”.
I finished tying my shoes, stood up, and put my back to the nearest wall. I subtly explored the damage, which was severe. I untucked my dress shirt and shifted my satchel to hang over my back. This, for the moment, protected me from any more immediate humiliation.
I made a quick, furtive lap around the retail outlets in my immediate vicinity. I wandered into the Harley Davidson store, checked out the generic duty free shop and poked around the Puma store.
Do you know what they don’t sell in airports? Pants.
Then I had my best idea of the week. I hustled over to the local Hudson News and Gifts, and bought myself a sewing kit. Then I retreated to the closest men’s room.
I spent the next 25 minutes doing the world’s worst sewing job on my trousers. Using what I believe is known as a basting stitch, I first sewed the outside, and then went back over it on the inside. This is the result (click for high-resolution repair action):
It wasn’t pretty, but you’d have look quite carefully at my butt to spot it. I silently thanked Carla, the Head of Wardrobe in my theatre school. She taught me the basics of sewing in first year university.
The worst part, as you might imagine, was spending that much time standing in my underwear in a busy airport bathroom stall. I’m surprised that I didn’t get propositioned or arrested.
To my relief, my poor stitching withstood two flights, a layover and a taxi ride home.
William Gibson once wrote that jet lag is the result of soul not being able to travel at airplane speeds, and you need a few days to recover it after you arrive. I feel the same way about my dignity.
Can I blame the Transportation Security Administration for this? They made me take off my shoes in the first place.
We’ve been a member of the Vancouver car co-op, now named ‘Modo’, for about a year. Aside from the new prominence of their branding on cars (I signed up to use their cars, not advertise the service), I’ve been a happy car co-op member.
The other day, though, I was talking to somebody considering their car-sharing options. Now that a third option, car2go, has come to town, they were complaining about the complexity of the car share pricing models.
There are sign-up fees, and then costs based on time, day of the week, distance traveled or a combination of all these. I thought it’d be a good idea to look at how we’ve used our co-op car, and compare the price paid with the other services.
To start, let’s examine how we currently use our Modo membership. I looked at three recent typical months–we used cars for a few hours, usually to drive to some Vancouver suburb. All amounts are before HST:
Each month’s cost includes a $6.00 administration fee and something called ‘Fuel Fluctuation Adjustment’, which seems to be a few cents per kilometre, based on the changing price of gas.
Average trip = 22 minutes
Now that we’ve got those numbers, let’s compare them with Modo’s competitors, Zipcar and car2go.
To further confuse matters, car2go works slightly differently than the other two car shares. Car2go works much more like a bike sharing program. You don’t have to drop off the car where you pick it up. So, it will be somewhat tricky to make exact comparisons.
I happened to run into a car2go field marketer yesterday, and she told me that the average trip on their service is 22 minutes. That sounds about right for us–some are ten minutes, while others are forty. Based on the data above, our average one-way trip is 7.3 km, which one could easily do in 22 minutes in the city.
I’ll spare you all the math (if you’re feeling masochistic, here are the pricing breakdowns for Modo, Zipcar and car2go). Here are the results when I apply the aforementioned three month’s worth of driving to the other car shares’ pricing models:
Other cost considerations:
Modo is a co-operative, so you need to pay a refundable $500 as a ‘shares purchase’ when you join. Other family members can be added to your account for $250. There’s also a $20 registration fee.
Zipcar charges an annual fee of $65 and an application fee of $25.
Car2go charges a $35 application fee.
I should emphasize that this is strictly a price comparison. Each service has its own particular benefits, drawbacks, fleet size, geographic distribution and so forth. Please shop around.
Despite car2go being seemingly cheaper, I don’t think we’d consider switching. We’ve been happy enough with Modo, and they’ve got a dozen vehicles within a block of our home. Even on this sunny Saturday morning, we were able to book a car just two hours before we needed it. I also like the variety of cars that Modo offers–sometimes we need a Nissan Cube and other times we want to drive a Mini Cooper. I also appreciate one under-promoted Modo perk: you can park their cars in any permit-only street parking in the city. This has been handy when driving to the Vancouver East Cultural Centre or Empire Field, where public parking is expensive or hard to find.
On the other hand, I did have to remove a banana peel from the backseat of the car we booked today.
But it wasn’t my intent to boost Modo with this analysis. I was really just interested in decoding the baroque pricing as the Vancouver car share market grows up.
To me, all the services are being overly transparent with their pricing. They should make all these details available, but then they should just offer some abstracted, straightforward pricing. Why doesn’t somebody offer a $29/month, a $49/month and a $99/month plan? The car shares all seem to be making it the consumer’s problem, which strikes me as the wrong approach.
Are you a car-share customer? Have you ever considered becoming one?
UPDATE: I snapped this photo of the parking lot where we usually pick up our cars. It’s interesting that the other two car shares appear to be annexing sections of it. The cars on the left are from Modo. You can spot the Zipcar spots by the metal signposts at the end of the row on the right. And I suspect that those newly-painted spots where the cones are now belong to car2go. Click to enlarge:
I had the notion in the Sahara desert. Julie and I were sitting on a sand dune at sunset, and I had the notion to collect some of the fine, red sand in a pill bottle.
I was probably inspired by this scene in The West Wing. President Bartlet visits the home of a former, recently-deceased president. In his retirement, the former president travelled the world, collecting dirt from battlefields where Americans fought and died.
I had no such high-minded ideas–I just thought I’d collect some sand.
Since then, I’ve tried to remember to gather sand from beaches and river beds whenever I’m travelling. I’ve been keeping the sand in random bottles and jars, but I recently bought some old miniature gin bottles from an antique store in Quebec City.
Today I transferred the sand into my new bottles. Here’s the result (click to enlarge):
Here, from left to right, are the sources of the sand:
A beach on Cortes Island.
A beach near Bocas Del Toro in Panama.
A beach in Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island
A beach just outside the Old Town of Dubrovnik, Croatia
The shore of the Pedernales River in Texas
The shore of the L’Orbeau River in Lagrasse, France
The Sahara Desert
I need to find some little rubber or cork stoppers for them, and eventually a box or rack to hold them.
An odd thing to collect, I suppose, but cheaper than watches or, I don’t know, Hummel figurines.