Friday, May 25, 2012

The e-Hell of e-travel

So I'm on holiday. Florida, since you ask, Miami should you care. More of which to come in the days ahead.

Anyway, as I was commencing my journey yesterday, enduring all the trauma that comes with long-distance travel in the post-9/11 era (e.g. being able to take a bottle of water onto your plane in Paris, but not being able to transfer it to your next flight in London. What could I honestly have done to it between cities?), I was struck by how modernity has complicated the holiday experience.

This then prompted one of those discussions common in the inner conversation of the forty-four year-old - how much easier things were "in the olden days".

For example, milk. In Britain, it was delivered to your doorstop by a jolly, whistling fellow who was partly dressed as a scientist (white lab coat), partly as a sailor (captain's hat) and partly as an early metrosexual (black leather man bag strapped across his front). The milk, itself, was delivered in glass bottles which were taken away to be reused when empty. I believe they call it now "recycling". However, today milk has to be bought from a supermarket, which many people go to by car (whereas the milkman drove an electric cart) and it comes in cartons which end up in landfill degrading with a slower half-life than used plutonium.

Holidays were simpler when I was a child. For a start, my dad booked them, and my mum did the packing. I just had to be out of bed at four in the morning because, apparently, Wales is further from south-west London than the Moon, the Severn Bridge is a nightmare if you get to it after nine (in 1976) and Saturday mornings in Abergavenny will slow our journey even further.

Today, however, heading on holiday is the tenth circle of Hell that Dante clearly couldn't bring himself to describe. Firstly, you have to pay for it yourself. Secondly you have to spend hours online taking care of your flights, hotel, hire car, taxi transfers, insurance, extra insurance for the hire car and medical insurance in case your travel insurance won't cover anything more than a plaster.

Because this is 2012, and not 1976, and you are flying to your week or two of stress-free indulgence, you must check in an hour before you were told to check in because you simply don't trust the "wait times" for security your airline 'advised'. And thus you are proven right. Because there, between you and your window seat is an experience that makes Monty Python's version of the Spanish Inquisition - replete with comfy cushions - infinitely more agreeable than the real thing.

This is because you must now rid yourself of anything and everything that could be used as a bomb. Shoes, belts, chewing gum, pens, watches, jackets, underwear...all so you can walk through an X-ray machine that will mentally undress you in any case. Mark my words: there will be a noticeable uptick soon in the number of compensation claims from traumatised airport workers "forced to see things no human should be exposed to".

If you're a frequent traveller you will have a partially stoic attitude to all this malarkey. You will be savvy enough to be holding your belt, jacket, laptop, iPad, "outer garment" and shoes in your hands before you reach the X-ray conveyor belt.

For the most part, your stoicism will accommodate the infrequent flyers who have no idea why doing all this will help your fellow travellers, but may be stretched to breaking point when a small arsenal of liquids are removed from hand luggage along with items like nail clippers (which reminds me of Robin Williams on this topic: "What can you do with nail clippers? Is there a terrorist planning to bring down a plane screaming: 'Do as you're told or the bitch loses a cuticle!'?").

Eventually you will reach your boarding gate. Here, your airline has prepared one last humiliation: the e-ticket. Because no-one has actual airline tickets anymore, there's a chance you won't have been given a boarding pass. No, it has been sent to your smartphone. And so, at the point of departure, you and every other travelling tech-head has to go through the ritual of trying to flip over an iPhone without it auto zooming or changing orientation in order for your electronic boarding pass to be read. Flipping pancakes is a lot easier.

Assume, then, that you have surpassed departure stage, endured the flight and all its inhumanity (including - as happened yesterday with British Airways - running out of the meal choice by row 14 of a Boeing 747), and have landed at your chosen destination. Then what?

The first priority of any holidaymaker getting away from it all is to immediately reconnect with home. In the olden days, this meant a postcard for those who mattered a small amount, and queuing up at a phone box clutching a handful of pesetas to inform those who mattered that much more. At the other end of the phone will be a clearly indifferent loved one who will, through gritted teeth, feign delight that you've landed safely and have bothered to call at almost midnight to inform them of such.

Today, there is a different scramble, as I heard yesterday at Miami International Airport from, surprisingly, a late-middle aged couple: "I can't get a bloody 3G signal on my BlackBerry - how am I going to update my Facebook status to say we've landed?".

Here we must recognise how social media is both blessing and curse. Facebook has seen off the postcard, though you would never have dreamed of sending a stream of postcards giving incremental updates:  "Simon...has landed...and it's bloody hot!!"; "Simon...has arrived at the hotel....and it's bloody hot!!"; and then, ad nauseum for the remainder of the holiday, reports that Simon " at the cathedral - and it's bloody hot!!", " the beach....bloody hot!!", "...Turkish steam room...bloody hot!!", "...volcano's edge...bloody hot!!". I think you get the pattern.

Twitter might serve you better if you wish to offer footstep-by-footstep coverage of the queuing process for that big theme park attraction - a painful-enough experience if you're in one of those parks where you wait for two-and-a-half hours for a 30-second ride.

For the shutterbug, there's Instagram and Hipstamatic, which spare us all from the once annual torture of an evening in front of a projector watching Dave's "hilarious" holiday slides ("Here's the one where Sheila's bikini almost came off, ha, ha, ha, ho, ho, had to be there...."). And then there is the beautiful-looking Path, which limits you to 150 contacts and seems to exist purely for the purpose of creating a photographic timeline of your travels.

All this is, indeed, marvelous, but their flaw is that you need the Internet to make use of them. And with roaming charges for smartphones something close to a Mafia shakedown, and hotels gouging horrendous charges for WiFi reception so poor it would be easier to connect via a dial-up modem, you're stuck. You could try finding a shop to sell you a pre-paid SIM card for your mobile phone, but what's the point in losing precious hours of your holiday so you can connect with the very place you've just gotten way from?

Maybe the postcard wasn't a bad invention after all. Even if it did arrive two weeks after you got back...

1 comment:

  1. Fab Post. Happy Hols Simon!
    I hope my comment is not too e-troubled.