All the Stuff I Learned
On the Road This Year
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 17, 2020 -- Stumbling around a dark and unfamiliar hotel room in search of the bathroom on one of this year's few business trips, I vowed never to be without light again.

The next day I went to a junk store nearby and splurged on a $2 nightlight. There was light! No matter that the bulb shattered in my kit bag on the trip home and I spent an hour vacuuming up shards from the bottom of the bag.

But I learned something. I mean, something besides the fact that my long-held antipathy to bringing a mobile phone into a bathroom extends even to using the flashlight app to guide my path to the loo. On a lockdown-supply run to Walmart several weeks later, I turned a corner and ran into an end cap with LED puck lights. Five bucks a pop, push to illuminate, complete with external suction cup, magnet and retractable hook that doubles as a stand. Small, unbreakable, light in weight, bright as all get out. One problem solved and a lesson learned. Now there's one in my shard-free carry-on bag.

I tell you this because every year I write a column explaining that a life on the road is okay so long as you can look back at the end of the year and say you learned something. And even in this most awful year for business travel and most dreadful year for the entire planet, I learned stuff. Maybe they aren't earth-shattering revelations as in years past, but that matters less than the learning.

When you live your life on the road you can't worry much about the history of business travel. History is for historians. You have a life to lead, flights to catch, hotels to survive. But me? I have to do both and this I know: 2020 marks the passing of another business travel era.

Anything that happened before deregulation is meaningless now. Consider it our prehistoric era. The period between, say, 1980 and 9/11, is hardly important anymore. Consider it the Deregulation Era. The years between 9/11 and the Great Recession can be considered business travel's Reconstruction Era. Since 2012 or so, we've lived in the Era of Good Feelings. (Not good feelings for us, but for airlines and hotels.)

The pandemic closes the book on that era. What lies ahead of us will be a different epoch, a completely new regime of pricing and practices. It's rare when you know an era is ending, of course, but 2020 has been so stunning and immediate in its effect that everyone can see and feel it. Come the second half of next year--when we hope the vaccines will loosen Covid-19's grip on our lives and our travels--we'll have to learn the rules of business travel all over again. So will the travel industry. It's going to be interesting, to say the least.

Forrest Gump's mom was wrong. Life is not like a box of chocolates. Life--at least life on the road--is a tin of mints. Literally, the tin.

I don't know what you do with all your empty Altoids tins, but I clean and reuse them. They are the perfect containers for small screws, thumb drives, memory cards and all sorts of easy-to-misplace items. My wife even bought me a lovely vintage tin labeled Tabloid Tea. That led me down the research rabbit hole and I learned Tabloid was a late 19th-century brand that offered tea, medicine and even first-aid kits packed in miniature tins for the convenience of travelers.

So I began reusing tins to reorganize my kit bag. (Q-Tips, for example, fit perfectly.) Tin-sized first-aid kits have made a comeback, too, and Coleman sells a branded model. But even I was shocked when my insurance company recently sent me a gift: a pulse oximeter, a non-contact thermometer gun, masks--and an Altoid-sized tin stuffed with disinfectant wipes and the like. That went right into my kit bag.

Generally speaking, the travel industry isn't creative. Flying is basically a tube with seats and little has fundamentally changed since the aforementioned prehistoric era. For all the frills and frippery, hotels remain little more than boxes you rent while you're someplace you don't live.

But the pandemic has led to a modicum of creativity from the travel industry. How else to explain this truly amazing video from Alaska Airlines? It takes a dreary necessity--explaining the new reality of flying during Coronavirus--and makes it fun. The early 80s synth-pop Safety Dance was already deployed once this year in a video put together by Jimmy Fallon and The Roots, but the Alaska Air version is a full-on music video. It's so good that even Adweek took notice. This is clever stuff, all the better executed since the "talent" is Alaska Airlines employees.

Meanwhile, hotels are doing interesting stuff, too. I don't know who came up with the idea of renting reconfigured guestrooms as private dining suites, but that is smart thinking. The Detroit Foundation Hotel isn't the only one doing it, of course, but it helps repurpose rooms and keeps the kitchen staff working. Sadly, not a long-term solution for an industry struggling with 38 percent occupancy, but better than giving up.

Remember how we obsessively checked our airline and hotel balances? Remember how elite status defined our lifestyle? Now, be honest: When was the last time you even checked your accounts? (Pro tip: Check your accounts to make sure you weren't hacked.) And isn't it distressing to learn the Home Depot clerk doesn't care that you are United 1K or Marriott Titanium?

Airlines and airports are getting better consumer ratings than ever if you believe the latest report from a well-known survey outfit.

Travel Insider David Rowell suggested it was because "no one likes crowded airports and planes, delays and hassles" and those problems have largely disappeared during the pandemic. I suggested to David an even more cynical assessment: "The less you travel, the better your life seems to be." I stand by that conclusion. I personally don't care if I never see the inside of an airplane or airport again. Flying for me has always been a means to an end and not the goal.

That said, however, I admit I've missed the hell out of airport clubs this year. It may be a lifestyle flaw or some deeper-seated problem. But I love airport clubs. Good ones. Great ones. Even bad ones. I just sit there and watch the travel world go by and I learn stuff.

And learning stuff is what the road is supposed to be about.