Frank Chen

Frank Chen

email newsletter #13

travel packing, hotel eating, european toilets

travel packing

Every time I travel, I end up thinking about the whole experience of going to an airport. Flying used to be a luxury. People used to actually dress up for flights, board on the tarmac, and enjoy a spacious, non-crowded journey with plenty of legroom and attention from flight attendants.

Nowadays, the experience has turned into a continuous train of anxiety around checking in, arriving way too early to battle the unpredictable nature of lines and queues, breezing through security or randomly getting cavity searched, and finding myself locked in a strip mall lookin' place with overpriced food and drink, all the while observing an awkward combination of suits and sweatpants pass me by.

Granted, the planes of yesteryear weren’t all good, people could smoke on flights, there weren’t headphones, and flight tech wasn’t as good, so you were faced with a significant amount of turbulence, noise, and smoke. Planes also just crashed more often back then. Oh, and before all the assholes who decided to hijack planes, bring bombs in their shoes, and sneak dumb shit past the metal detectors, security probably was also more lax, which probably meant a more relaxed airport experience.

So what tradeoffs are we making? Today, we’re technologically more advanced in terms of catching bad actors, so safety is much higher (guy sitting next to you is probably not a hijacker), flight tech is better (flights crash less), and because of deregulation (a move from public to private sector) in the 80s, the average flight is about 35% more affordable than before. But, there’s been a smashing decline in service and hospitality (queues on queues, entitled assholes, overworked flight attendants, paying for absolutely everything on a flight, cramped seats, etc). So there’s a lotta people flying, but not enough people or resources serving the people flying. This creates a volume problem, which means a fucking queue for pretty much everything - checking in baggage, the security line, the boarding process, the de-boarding process, and the customs line.

The federal government and TSA will say it’s a staffing issue. There’s only so many checkout counters and TSA lanes that can be open at one time, and that’s based on how many people can man the stations. However, TSA and the airlines operating the lines don’t care how efficient they can get you through the airport. Their priority is “safety”, but it’s probably really profit, and employing bodies cuts profit, so they’re not going to go out of their way to train up more TSA officers for you. Also, the average tenure for one of those positions is horrendously low. I’m not surprised.

Perhaps all of this is ripe for technological disruption, since we’ve got an AI wave and you know, algorithms for detection, blah blah, maybe robots can help. I’m sure there’s a solution there. For the sake of keeping things simple, let’s say we can’t improve on staffing and technological disruption is further away than we think.

What’s the easiest thing to improve on? I think stricter limits on what the hell you can actually bring on a plane can drastically cut down on time. There’ll be time savings everywhere, as there’s so much time wasted with stuff:

  • people reorganizing their shit for weight limit, playing fucking clothes Tetris at the airport
  • the weighing and reweighing of shit
  • the more shit people bring, the more fuel the plane needs, the higher the prices for everyone
  • the checking in of multiple bags - there’s a carry on, a personal item, a checked bag, maybe two - what the fuck are people bringing?
  • the loading of bags into the overhead bins, waiting to board
  • the taking of bags out of the overhead bins, waiting to de-board
  • people being impatient because they absolutely need overhead bin space resulting in people being douchebags in trying to get on the plane, breathing down your neck while boarding, being rude to gate attendants
  • the unpacking, packing, and repacking of shit at the security line because people need to dig through and bring out liquids, laptops and more shit
  • the dreaded waiting at the baggage line for your mistreated bag to magically appear - sometimes it doesn’t and that funnels into…
  • the dreaded time wasted dealing with insurance and the airport trying to get your shit back

I’ll say it here: “if we all just collectively carried less fucking shit, then we’d save on a fuckton of headache and time.” But, we’re creatures of habit and comfort, so I understand. But damn, minimal travel feels great. You just feel light. You might not have all the materialistic comfort, but you still got yourself. 😉 As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gone from 40L to 25L and am at currently at a small 16L backpack. I’ve contemplated 9L but that might be overkill.

A good way to do it is to assess what you did or didn’t use the last time you traveled. Before you unpack everything when you get back from a trip, separate things into two piles. One pile is the stuff you used, another pile is the stuff you brought but didn’t use. Eliminate the latter pile, travel again, do the same. I guarantee you’ll bring less and less. Maybe not 9L, but if you don’t cut down at all, I’d be surprised.

Try it. I think it’d save time and headache for all of us collectively traveling together.

hotel eating

I notice that every time that I stay at a hotel, I tend to ignore all the food offerings they have, maybe with the exception of breakfast. I never questioned why. It’s probably because as an eater, I’m more focused on standalone restaurants rather than hotel restaurants because they specialize. Hotels do a lot, restaurants just do food.

I wonder what hotels think of people who stay at their hotel but don’t eat at the hotel restaurant, and instead opt for something outside the hotel. It seems like such a lost opportunity.

The last time I traveled, I finally did dinner at the hotel restaurant. I enjoyed it very much. The food was tasty and the convenience was quite unbeatable. I lost out on some of the exploration and serendipity of night life, since I just went back to my room after I finished, instead of wandering the streets. That was the only downside. It was midnight though. But also, it was Spain, so midnight probably was when the parties just got started. 😐

Convenience is value, but perhaps not one I value above a more colorful experience. In the right context though, I now won’t shy away from hotel eating.

european toilets

I learned that European toilets were designed to have a “poop shelf”, with the goal of allowing you to analyze your shit for gut health. This is why European toilets are more square and have seem to have so much “above water” space as compared to American toilets.

Problem is, it smells (because it’s not dropping into water). American toilets go straight into the water with no shelf (it’s like we’re talking about the ocean floor 😆). My guess is that American toilets optimize for not stinking.

What’s interesting is that one design optimizes for self-care, the other, for external perception. Do we see that reflected in national cultural values? 🤷‍♂️