Instant Upgrade: 13 Ways to Improve Travel

Few things suck more for the traveler than nasty surprises. Yet we keep traveling. Not simply because we like to travel or, in many cases, we must travel, but because as rational beings we accept that the world is an imperfect place and that we shouldn’t expect too much in the way of personal attention from the colossus of modern travel.

In offering the travel industry at large, the following suggestions for improving its product—some revolutionary, some disarmingly simple—I’m not asking for the stars. I seek neither the impractical (first-class leather seats in coach), the implausible (teleportation), nor the unrealistic (airport concourses that demand less walking than a breast cancer fund-raiser). Instead, I’ll simply hand over ideas that, implemented with minimum effort, are conceived to save the industry money as $4-a-gallon approaches, while making the travel experience more pleasant for all. And by “all” I mostly mean “me.” Since none of these brainstorms are protected by patents, licenses, or other legal restrictions, Big Travel can feel free to begin making my life better right away. I’ll start with a few easy ones and work up to the big-ticket items.

1. Fall out of love with your own voice
“On the left side of the aircraft, folks can get a nice view of the Salton Sea.” “The captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign.” “We’ll be coming through the cabin shortly with a choice of beverages.” “In just a few moments we’ll be starting our descent into the Newark area.” “We know you have a choice in air travel and we thank you for choosing us.”

On a two-hour, fifteen-minute flight from Dallas to Chicago I once kept a running tally of every piece of patter that came over the intercom. No more than nine consecutive minutes ever passed without a superfluous announcement of some type. Almost all of these concerned matters passengers would have figured out anyway, such as, “In just a few minutes we’ll begin our video programming” (more on this shortly) and “You can stow your larger items in the overhead bins.” I get that any job on an airplane is tedious and repetitive, but take away his entire collection of Spiderman videos and Ben 10 figurines and my seven-year-old nephew still demands less attention than pilots and flight attendants. Intercom use should be reserved for three circumstances: departure safety briefing, landing announcement, and emergencies.

2. Don’t make us ask
Nothing spoils a meal like being held hostage to an uppity or lackadaisical waiter’s notion of when you’ll be allowed to leave the restaurant. Checks should be delivered with the final course, at least for businesses lunches.

3. Abolish institutionalized taxi rape
One the enduring mysteries of travel is the overwhelming percentage of municipalities that allow the first impression of their cities to be an extortionate $45 cab ride from the airport to downtown. Does the Mafia run every taxi company in the world? Is it too much to ask that visitors to major cities be spared from getting fleeced as if they’ve concluded a transaction with a twenty-dollar streetwalker as soon as they get to town? Affordable rides into the city would eliminate a significant amount of the stress and hassle endured by visitors coming to a place for the first time. If private enterprise can’t responsibly accommodate tourists, local legislation should be employed to force them into it.

4. Retire the beverage cart
Responsible for more mashed toes, shin splints, and dislocated elbows than the WWE, these two-hundred-pound chariots of doom present passengers in aisle seats with a constant danger, cost airlines money, and keep me from taking a piss at precisely the moment I most need to. To shave expenses, airlines have already done away with most food. The next logical step is ending the tiresome drink service that creates more trouble than it’s worth. For flights of three hours or less, hand out bottles of water and sell beer, wine, and booze in the departure lounge. This will save the airlines money and labor and, for customers, eliminate the risk of being sideswiped every five minutes by the polyestered haunch of an exhausted stew horsing a Sisyphun weight up and down the aisle taking drink requests and barking orders—“Keep your feet and knees in!”—with all the élan of the guy who sits in the booth and weighs me in at the dump.

5. Or at least eliminate the paper trail
Why do I need a tissue-thin napkin every time someone on an airplane hands me four ounces of water in a urine-sample cup? Former American Airlines chairman Robert Crandall once famously saved his company $40,000 a year by eliminating the olive from salads the airline once served onboard. A small redwood forest could be recycled from the napkins airlines plow through each year.

6. Update hotel check-in times
In 1946, the Tote’m convenience-store chain extended its hours from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., announcing its groundbreaking move by changing its name to 7-Eleven. In 1974, the company now known as ACCEL/Exchange booted up the world’s first twenty-four-hour ATM network. In 2005, England and Wales ushered in the era of never-ending public drunkenness by granting licenses allowing pubs to serve liquor round-the-clock.

Yet as nonstop commerce has created a sleepless planet, hotels remain mired in conventions of the 1800s, when the stagecoach or steam train rolled in and out of town once each afternoon and again the following morning. With airlines cleaving away from the hub-and-spoke system (which once rigidly controlled arrival and departure times) in favor of more or less continuous schedules and red-eye flights, the hotel industry needs to restructure its own arrival and departure policies to reflect modern traffic flow. Few miseries compare to landing in a city at 6 a.m. only to while away the morning in traveler’s purgatory awaiting an “early” one o’ clock check-in that you had to grovel to get. The major hotel chain that figures out a way to implement anytime check-in will become the new Hilton. Unless, of course, Hilton gets to it first.

7. Address us like adults
One of the best things about leaving the United States is being spoken to like an adult. Once overseas, the quick temper, simpleton instructions, nursery-school tenor, and scripted happy talk that exemplify the American travel industry’s idea of “service”—the chirpy banter from flight attendants on Southwest Airlines being the pinnacle of infantilism—are replaced by straightforward, competent voices delivering information in a crisp, capable manner. I love England because it’s like a grown-up America, a fact I’m reminded of as soon as I get on a British Airways flight or hop into a London cab. We’ve come to expect politicians and media to speak to us like we’re children—people who fly our airplanes, drive our busses, steer our ships, and run our hotels shouldn’t talk to us as though we just learned to finger paint.

8. Stop the parade
For safety and security purposes, the FAA requires flight attendants to perform a visual check of an aircraft cabin every fifteen minutes. Airlines make use of these mandated rounds by coupling them with a spate of busy work that’s become the bane of passengers who just want to read, work, watch videos, or sleep without interruptions from flight attendants who march up and down the aisles like North Korean border guards. Passengers can’t “sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight” (While we’re at it, how about killing off that overused nugget of twaddle?) if the entire cabin crew is acting like Mom at Thanksgiving, running around so much that the rest of us can’t just relax without someone haranguing us every twenty seconds with more food, drink, or whatever. All we want is to be left alone.

9. Blow us (or at least our wives and girlfriends)
The hotel industry could instantly delight half the population by making blow dryers mandatory in every hotel room in the world. In addition to creating much-coveted luggage space, this simple addition would all but do away with the “God, my hair looks like shit in this picture” regret that vexes females for decades after otherwise pleasant vacations.

10. Decommission wide-bodies
If airlines are going to insist on aisles that are fewer than seventeen inches wide, they should also insist on employees who are fewer than seventeen inches wide.

11. No more enforced TV viewing
As anyone stranded for more than ten minutes in a departure lounge knows, the CNN Airport Network and its eight-minute programming loop is the most excruciating torment devised since CNN International, the channel dubiously famed for its passionate coverage of Lithuanian soccer league injury reports and Formula One qualifying heats from Macau. It may be too much to ask airports to stop assaulting innocent bystanders with piped in CNN weather updates from Guillermo Arduino. But once onboard, when I turn off the tiny monitor embedded in the seat nine inches from my face, it’d be nice if the damn thing stayed off instead of constantly reawakening itself to taunt me into becoming acquainted with the thrilling shopping opportunities in my arrival city, watching bad movies edited to protect the sensibilities of ten-year-old Mormon boys, or staring numbly at the monotonous progress of a little icon representing my boredom traveling across the Great Plains or Atlantic Ocean.

12. Open the damn door
Some propositions that seem fifty-fifty really aren’t. Like dropping a piece of buttered toast. We all know the minute it goes down that it’s not coming off the floor without a collection of lint, dirt, and hairs stuck to the golden half. Same principle applies to double doors, one side of which hotels, restaurants, and other businesses are obsessed with keeping locked, so that patrons inevitably clank up against the locked side. Unless you’re managing a prison, there’s no reason to infuriate the luggage-hauling masses unfamiliar with the particulars of local door management.

13. Let babies be babies
With a few exceptions, this list of suggestions doesn’t seem all that onerous, but I do acknowledge that travel is a two-sided arrangement and that if travelers are going to make demands of the industry we should be willing to give something in return. Yes, we’re the ones paying the bills, but most of us need travel more than travel needs us. By way of finding a negotiating point, perhaps we as travelers could begin by correcting some of the behavior that aggravates an industry already worn to the nub by the non-stop demands of a complaint-minded public who loves nothing more than pointing a litigious finger of blame every time a fly winds up in an ice cube or a drunk is refused a drink. I’ll get the ball rolling by identifying an area of passenger comportment in critical need of improvement.

Although babies who belong to people I don’t know are often a pain in the ass, I accept that they are necessary to the propagation of the species, that spending my tax dollars on their future schools indirectly benefits me by helping to maintain a working and literate society, and that apparently they must all now fly like Saudi royalty everywhere they go. (I personally didn’t see the inside of an aircraft until my parents were confident that I knew how to feed myself and shut up the instant I was instructed to do so, but they were of a lost generation to whom things like social manners and public dignity actually mattered.) I also accept that babies, particularly when exposed to the dry and pressurized stress of an airborne environment, have a tendency to cry and are deserving of my sympathy.

What I find intolerable, however, is a solution that’s worse than the problem. By this I refer to the incessant shushing and cooing of parents who, primarily for the benefit of annoyed fellow passengers, put on a showy though inevitably vain effort to quiet the uncontrollable, twenty-two-pound monster forced to sit in their laps for the entire journey from Skowhegan, Maine to Kauai because they were too cheap to buy it a separate ticket. No amount of baby talk or off-key lullaby’ing has ever stopped a single baby on an airplane from doing everything it could, for as long as it could, to sound like Christina Aguilera sticking a butter knife in a light socket. A baby will stop crying when it’s fed or when it’s good and ready to stop crying. Screaming infants I can take. This—“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! I don’t know what’s gotten into him, he’s never this fussy! Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”—I cannot. Nor should the flight attendant who just ruptured my knee with the beverage cart have to.

« Random Music-related Conversation Starters

Bill Simmons Will Not Die in Peace »