Toolie Travel Blog

A million-mile flyer talks about the life of a business traveler.

Newsletter - Airline Booking Apps for the iPhone

Last month I reviewed 6 hotel booking apps for the iPhone (and other platforms) and talked about how user-friendly they are (or not).  This month I'm reviewing airline booking apps that are tied to major airline websites whose names you'll recognize.  My interest is in how easy it is to access airline information while on the go as a business traveler.

I don't necessarily think you'll change the airline you fly based on the user-friendliness of their mobile app.  But if you read here about a feature that is not available on the airline app of YOUR choice, you can post feedback about the app on the app marketplace for your device, and encourage the app developers to "get with the program."

I have selected 9 airline apps for the iPhone, and my assessments of them are below.  Besides the obvious uses for check-in and booking flights, I'm envisioning you running down the concourse while thumb- tapping your device, to find out whether you have any chance of making your connection.  In that scenario, it better not take more than a few taps to get the answer!

Air France


Opening Screen: has two sections, Manage My Flights, including check- in, flight status, and bookings; and Prepare a Trip, including Book Flight, Contact Us, Flight Schedules and a link to Flying Blue, their frequent flyer program.

Checking flight status by flight number requires only a few taps, and you could probably do that while walking.  If you don't know your flight number but you know the Airport code, finding it can also be done single-handed while dragging a bag.  The app displays a list of cities, but if you type the code, it will also narrow the list so you can make your selection.

The rest of the interface is pretty easy to use.  I have large hands (years of piano lessons) so I'm always struggling with tiny buttons.  These buttons are big enough to be quick to use.

Alaska Air


Opening Screen: The first thing you're offered is a login box with two buttons: Sign In and Not Now.  I don't have an Alaska Air account, so I chose Not Now, which brought me to the next screen.  There are 3 big buttons: Reserved/Track Flights, My Account, and Contact Alaska Airlines.

Choosing Reserved/Track Flight brings up Schedules and Tracking, and Existing Reservation.  Tapping Schedules and Tracking gives me large buttons to choose the departure city and the arrival city.  I tapped in the airport codes and the app immediately filtered out all but the correct location.  I'm pleased with the ease of use once you get to the screen, but not how many taps it takes to get there.

American Airline


Opening Screen: I saw 6 buttons right away, but they were blocked by the login screen.  Tapping below the login screen made it switch to another screen; tapping the Back button got me to the first 6 choices: View Reservation and Check In; Check Flight Schedules; Check Flight Status; Book Flights; Aadvantage Enrollment; and Play AA Sodoku.

There is a row of icons across the bottom: Home, My Flights, My Account, Flight Status, and More.  I tapped the Flight Status icon and was offered a chance to check status by Airport, Flight, and Departure Date/time.  Exiting the application and starting it again brought up the first six choices and 5 icons, so it's mostly 2 taps to get to flight status -- very good.

Air Canada


The first screen I was offered had 3 buttons: Introducing Mobile Booking, with a subsequent choice to Tell Me More or Go To App.  I chose the latter.  The next screen had three choices: Air Canada, Air Canada Cargo, and Air Canada Vacations.  I chose the first one.

The app told me I didn't have any flights added, and that this was the place to do so.  Across the bottom of the app were "My Flights" (the current screen), Book Flight, Check In, Find Flight, and More.  Tapping Find Flight brought up the search feature by Flight Number, City, and Booking Reference.  Exiting the app and restarting it brought me to the My Flights screen, so with 2 taps I can get to flight information.

British Airways


The opening screen had two choices: Executive Club members could log in to see their bookings.  The other selection, All Customers, could find their next booking.  Icons across the bottom were Book Flight, My Flights, My Home (current screen), Flight Info, and More.  Again, just 2 taps to get to Flight Information, with the options to search by route, flight, or airport.  A fourth selection, Search Timetables let me look at flights for a city pair with departure and return dates.  It's a quick way to search flights without immediately committing to booking, which I appreciate.

Fly Delta


Delta immediately asked for permission to push notifications to my phone.  Since I am only testing, I declined.  The next screen was the SkyMiles login screen, but above it I could tap Continue as Guest, which I did.  I was then offered 5 choices: Find My Trip, Check Flight Status, See Flight Schedules, Track My Bags, and Traveling With Us.  Three more icons across the bottom provided Settings, Log In, and Contact options.

Tapping Check Flight Status provided the search feature by Flight Number, leaving Today (as the default).  It's the most compact of the search buttons I've found.

It's nice that Delta offers a "Track My Bag" feature, but it makes me wonder how often they lose bags if they felt the need to offer this as an option.  Feedback on their track record, anyone?

Jet Blue


The first screen I saw on Jet blue also requested the permission to push notifications to my phone.  Next it asked to use my GPS location.  I declined both because I was just testing their app.  Next the home screen had a large area inviting me to sign in or join their mileage program, TrueBlue, with smaller areas to tap for My Trips, Book a Flight, Flight Status, and Notifications.

I tapped Flight Status, and was offered a place to search by City or by Flight.  I also noticed a section for "Flight's I'm Watching."  To test this, I went to my laptop and found an actual flight I could search for, then tapped that into my iPhone.  It found the flight and offered me two choices: Receive Notifications, or Save to My Watchlist.  I chose the latter, then went back to the home screen and tapped Flight Status.  Sure enough the flight I had selected was now listed in the Flights I'm Watching area at the bottom of the screen.  I tapped that flight, and it updated the flight status for me and displayed it on the next screen.  I like this feature a lot, because then I imagine I wouldn't have to keep typing the number in

Lufthansa


Lufthansa's clever home screen resembled a flight instrument panel, with 3 choices: Timetable, Flight Status, and Check in.  Four more icons across the bottom offered me the Boarding Pass (with QR code), Favourites (British spelling), Settings, and More.

Tapping Flight Status offered me a chance to search by Flight Number, Route, or Airport, and by date.

I tapped the Boarding Pass option, and it informed me that no boarding passes had been loaded.  It offered me instructions on how the storing of mobile boarding passes worked, so I tapped the options.  Apparently, you can having your boarding pass stored during check-in using the mobile app; or you could do so manually if you checked in on your laptop.  Pretty cool!

Singapore Air


The opening screen asked me to agree to Terms and Conditions before showing me any data.  I tapped Yes, then was asked for my country code and phone number.  I went ahead and typed them in even though I wasn't a member of their frequent flyer program.

The next screen offered me a chance to Book a Flight, Manage My bookings, Check In Services, Retrieve Boarding Pass, KrisFlyer Services, and Flight Schedules.  I tapped Flight Schedules and was told that I would be leaving the SIA application and be transferred to the WAP application.  Choices there were for Flight Schedules, Contacts, About, and Agreement.  I tapped the Flight Schedules link and was finally given a chance to enter the departure and arrival cities and the date.  This app needs a little more work.

Thai Airways


I was immediately asked to allow the use of my GPS location, which I declined.  The first thing I saw after that was a search box for Flight number, so this app wins the prize for getting me to my Flight Search the quickest.  Icons across the bottom included Flight Info (the current screen), Schedule, Passenger, Cargo, and Location.

As an alternative to a flight number the dropdown below the search box let me choose Departure: Domestic, etc, and I could see a list of all the departures from what I am assuming was Bangkok Airport -- it didn't really say.  So some work needed on that interface as well.

United


Last but not least was the airline I fly the most.  In this case I allowed push notifications.  The first screen I saw had choices like Book Flight, Check In, Flight Status, My Account, Airport Maps, and More.  I could also sign in from this screen, check on mobile boarding passes, reservations, and Flight Status Push Notifications.  The buttons were a bit small, but usable still.

Got a favorite travel app for iPhone, Android, or other smart phone?  Use the comment section on this newsletter's blog post to tell me which apps you like to use.
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Newsletter - 6 Hotel Booking Apps for iPhone

Happy New Year to you all!  I hope that the year is progressing as you would have to be, including all of the business travel you enjoy.

Having fallen in love with my iPhone at this point, I've decided to periodically review groups of iPhone apps that are applicable to business travelers.  My interest in reviewing apps is not just about the deals you'll find, but how easy the apps are to use.

This month I'm reviewing a hotel booking apps that are tied to major travel websites whose names you'll recognize.  I was prompted to pursue this idea by a hotel booking advertisement on TV that features two skydivers booking their hotel reservations just after jumping from their plane.  While we get to stay on airplanes until they land, I thought the metaphor of booking one's hotel room while "flying" through the airport to grab a cab was appropriate.  Can I thumb-tap my way through the booking app while dragging my bags to the taxi stand?

The apps I have chosen to review are for aggregator sites.  As a business traveler I don't usually use this type of site to book travel, unless I'm on a spontaneous or previously unplanned trip, where finding a deal on a hotel immediately is more important than finding a specific hotel in a particular neighborhood.

Six Hotel Booking Apps for iPhone


What startled me most about comparing these 6 apps is the wide variety of what they assume are traveler priorities.  This means that home screen layouts, navigation buttons, and how quickly one arrives at search results varies widely.  I've listed as bullet points the aspects of each app that made an impression as I tapped my way through them.

Note: these apps are mobile versions of websites that aggregate listings from multiple hotel sources, not apps for specific hotels.  I'll review hotel-specific apps in a future newsletter.

www.Hotels.com

The app took 45 seconds to configure itself before displaying information the first time.  The app immediately asked to use my current GPS location.  Has Tonight's Local Deals button on home screen Easy to filter by name, price range, rating, etc. Easy to sort by rating, distance from current location, guest ratings, etc. Regular search picks up current location, assumes 1 person for 1 night, but it's easy to increase the number of nights, rooms, and people with a quick screen tap.  Results viewable as a list or as map locations.  Sign-in available to your existing Hotels.com account, or sign up on your iPhone.

www.Priceline.com

The app took 30 seconds to configure itself.  It asks to use your current location via GPS but doesn't show local deals as a result.  Clicking the map locator button will then show local deals.  The app has 3 main navigation buttons:

- Negotiate: gets you prices for hotel rooms and the areas where they're available.

- Radar: this feature (including a pinging sound) shows recent winning bids in the area and their prices.

- Browse gets you prices and locations for a "book immediately" option as opposed to bidding blindly.  You can filter by popularity, star rating, and neighborhood.  Prices shown are before local taxes.  Sign-in makes booking go more quickly, but booking without sign-in is available.  The home screen also has a car deals button.

www.Hotwire.com

The app takes about 30 seconds to configure itself.  It asks to detect and use your current GPS location.  The app immediately starts with requirements: assumes check-in date is today for 1 night, 1 person, 1 room, all easy to change from drop-down lists.  Shows number of results, then asks to list by price, star ratings; to filter by neighborhood or amenities.  No photos: this is a blind search.  When selecting by star rating, it shows price and neighborhood, but no hotel name or photo.  Amenities are listed.

www.Expedia.com

The app took 15 seconds to configure itself.  The app immediately asked to use GPS Showed hotel availability first based on GPS location rather than asking any details; 1 night, 1 person assumed, but buttons there to change those details.  Names, photos, ratings and prices are all immediately visible Sort and filter available Same list viewable as pins on a map Nice size photo slideshows; link to reviews on same screen Red pins indicate that prices are currently discounted

www.Kayak.com

Didn't ask first for GPS, asked to send "push" notifications: alerts, sounds, and icon badges.  The app includes search for hotels, flights, cars, and a flight tracker.  The Hotel search came up with Los Angeles as the starting city, but when I challenged the location by tapping on the name, THEN it offered a GPS fix as an option.  The search assumed 1 person/night/bed.  The remainder of the list included thumbnail photos, prices, locations, and star ratings.  Buttons include Filter, Sort, Map, and Compare.  Filtering by stars meant UN-checking the star ratings you don't want to see.  Filtering options included price, brands, and name but NOT location!  I was seeing Seattle hotels despite my Bellevue specification, and there are 15 miles and a body of water in between the two cities.  Half of the results listed were links to Hotwire deals.

www.TripAdvisor.com

The app took 15 seconds to configure itself.  The app asked to use GPS fix, and asked to send Push notifications.  This site relies heavily on user ratings.  Search menu options include hotels, restaurants, things to do, flights and a link to their user forum as a link to write a review.  Home screen buttons include Home, Near Me Now, and Faves buttons, with the search box at the top.  Hotel search asked for city, zip, address, or the option to use a checkbox called Near Me Now.  Ratings take precedence -- links in hotel listings also to guest ratings are right there on the same screen.  Checking rates brings up tabs for Hotels.com, Expedia.com, Venere.com, Orbitz.com, the hotel's website, Priceline.com, and Travelocity.com, each with their own deals listed.  Not all sites showed the details for the hotel you select; some provided their own listings for other hotels instead.  I would use this for ratings, but probably not for directly booking the room, since TripAdvisor is only a ratings service NOT a booking agent.

From a usability standpoint, I think the Hotels.com mobile site has the best, most compact design.  I found it easy to, with one or two taps, find a deal for the night.

Got a favorite travel app for iPhone, Android, or other smart phone?  Use the comment section on post to tell me which apps you like to use.
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Newsletter: Remedies, the Media, and the Airlines

The power of the media is undeniable, especially these days when everyday people have access to a public platform, be it Facebook, Twitter, or their own websites and blogs.  Just a few days ago, Verizon Wireless announced that they were going to charge a US$2.00 convenience fee if their customers used a credit card to pay a single phone bill (as opposed to signing up for auto-pay).  In LESS than 24 hours, Verizon backed off and changed their minds about adding this fee.  Why?  Because the customer backlash was so great that it wasn't worth the bad publicity.

As a business traveler, you probably have had more than one opportunity to grouse about the fees airlines have tacked onto the cost of travel.  Since we're frequent travelers, we probably encounter them less often because our membership in mileage programs alleviate some of those fees.  But leisure travelers encounter them all the time, everything from asking for a real person at check-in to baggage fees to cancellation and rescheduling fees.

The Silent Traveling Majority?


So why don't we hear about passenger backlash regarding fees?  Well, for one thing, leisure travelers aren't "organized" -- by definition they travel only occasionally, and usually accept what is imposed on them because they don't have any leverage with the airline.

However, in the fall of 2010, a website called www.MadAsHellAboutHiddenFees.com used their website and media attention to put together 50,000 signatures and deliver them to the Department of Transportation in time for the close of public comments on a potential change of rules about airline fees.  In April 2011, the DOT issued a new set of rules that took effect in August 2011.  In case you missed hearing about them, here's a short list:

  • Bumping: The new rules raise the amount airlines must pay for "involuntary bumping of passengers."  For short delays, you'll be entitled to up to twice the amount of your ticket, up to $650.  For longer delays, you can get up to four times the ticket price, or up to $1,300.

  • Tarmac delays: The new rules impose a four-hour limit on the time international flights can sit on the tarmac before allowing passengers to get off.  Domestic flights are limited to three-hour delays.

  • Refund of bag fees if luggage is lost, but you'll get your checked- bag fees refunded only if the airline permanently loses your luggage.


Two other rules were delayed until 2012:

  • Advertised fares must include all government taxes and fees -- no more misleading advertising that leave those fees off!

  • Travelers have 24 hours to cancel non-refundable tickets without penalty.  Some airlines already do this, though you might not discover that fact unless you've had to cancel and you tried calling the airline hoping for mercy.  Now it'll be a rule.


You can get a more detailed description here: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/travelwise/2015938600_trpucci21.html

Handling Grievances with the Airlines


Trying to get the attention of an airline when you have a problem can feel like being David and taking on Goliath.  Arm yourself with facts and knowledge of your airline's procedures, and you stand a good chance of getting the remedy you seek.  Remember, David won over Goliath with a few well-placed stones!

Ticketing: Most airlines post links to Customer Service on their websites.  Among those pages you'll find procedures for ticketing and pre-flight changes or refunds.

Baggage: Not every business traveler checks a bag or two (I usually have to), but if you do check yours and they go awry, it's essential that you head straight for the baggage claim office and report it.  Thank goodness for bar-coding -- most of the airlines can tell you WHERE your bag is, even if it's not going to arrive anytime soon.

During Travel: If you don't already have the phone numbers for your airline in your phone or PDA, take time before you leave to add them to your contacts.  Trying to track down that information is frustrating at best, and really inconvenient in the middle of a travel crisis.  When you fly internationally, be sure that you have the numbers on paper as well as in your phone/PDA, in case your battery runs out.

Be Persistent!


Don't give up on getting a remedy for your issue with the airline.  Document every conversation (date, time, person you spoke to, etc.) so that you can impress the next person you talk to.  Be polite, be firm, and be consistent in your follow-up.

As for using the media (local consumer advocate, Facebook, Twitter, etc) to air your grievances, use that only as a LAST resort.  If you put something on the Internet, it's there forever, and your angry words will probably come back to haunt you, even on an unrelated topic.

Got a travel horror story for which you eventually GOT a remedy?  I'd love to hear about it through your comments on this newsletter.
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Newsletter: Best Sites for Holiday Shopping on the Go

It's that time of year again when our thoughts turn to gift-giving. Most of us in the USA grew up with the concept of Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when workers who have the day off get out to the malls to take care of their shopping. With the arrival of Internet shopping, the idea of Cyber Monday was born. That's the Monday after Thanksgiving, when we turn to the Internet to order gifts that we couldn't find in the stores, or for gifts that are only available online. Buying on or around Cyber Monday ensures that your gifts will arrive in time, and you won't be paying exorbitant shipping costs to get them there on time.

Cyber Monday was two days ago, so if you're planning on ordering online, now's the time. As business travelers, we rarely have time to sit still and focus on shopping. I decided to check out the websites of my favorite vendors to see if their mobile versions are up to snuff. Here's what I found that you may also find useful. Some of these sites have gifts for family; some have gear for next year's round of travel.

www.Amazon.com

What can you say about the world's biggest online bazaar? When I first visited the website on my iPhone, I noticed their button advertising their Apps for Amazon. Below the Cyber Monday banner, the Kindle Fire ad, and the Apps button, I found a neatly organized list of categories, complete with sub-categories and a Search Amazon.com box right at the top. Tapping the Books category, I was taken to the Bestsellers list, from which I could also tap Search or Newest (list).

Having a compellingly well-organized mobile site makes it much easier to find what you're looking for especially with a site the size of Amazon. Be careful what you purchase there, though; not everything is hosted AT Amazon. Items shipped by third-parties may take longer to arrive.

I did visit the iTunes store to see what apps they offered, but the only one that caught my interest enough to download it is their Amazon Fresh app. We here in the Seattle area are lucky enough to enjoy Amazon's home grocery delivery service, Amazon Fresh, and I will make good use of that app year round.

www.BHPhotoVideo.com

I bought my big camera and most of my photography equipment from B&H Photo/Video out of New York. While I wasn't crazy about paying for cross-country shipping, their service and selection are among the very best in any industry, so they are worthwhile. Like Amazon.com, they have a HUGE inventory, so searching and shopping requires you to use good keywords to find what you want.

Unlike Amazon, B&H doesn't (yet?) Have a mobile version of their website, so be prepared to zoom and scroll a lot while shopping.

www.Buy.com

This website is one of two sites I check when it's time to buy electronics and hardware over the Internet. Buy.com consistently has the best prices with the lowest shipping, and over time they've maintained that reputation.

The mobile Buy.com site is very compact. You're immediately presented with a search box and an opportunity to browse by category. Buy.com also has an iPhone app.

www.eBags.com

That's right eBAGS.com: this is one of my favorites shopping sites for travel gear. EBags' success comes largely from their selection and their liberal return policy. In other words, order 3 of something if you're not sure what's going to work, and they'll take the other 2 back (in good condition), no questions asked. The eBags mobile site is compact and well-organized, so you'll be able to see decent sized images and details.

www.Ebay.com

Ebay has been doing a lot of television advertising around their mobile website, so I'm not surprised to see their long list of categories come up right away. They too have a mobile iPhone app. I might consider loading that one on my phone if I'm selling on Ebay, but as a buyer, not so much. One thing I do appreciate about their mobile site is that they include a link to their "classic" site, so that you're not limited to the mobile version if you'd prefer to use the main site.

www.NewEgg.com

This is the other site I use for buying hardware, in particular. NewEgg has been around at least as long as Buy.com, and they're usually very competitive in terms of price and service. As expected, they too have an iPhone app, which they offer you immediately on the home page. Below that are buttons for shopping the main site or shopping the mobile site. I chose the Mobile version, but was redirected to the same screen, no doubt hoping to induce me to download their iPhone app. I'm not going to load my phone up with shopping apps, so save NewEgg for a time when you can visit the site on your laptop.

www.LandsEnd.com

This website is my source for both comfortable clothing (I'm allergic to nearly everything except cotton), and great luggage. I've owned 2 complete sets of Lands' End luggage and been very happy with both price and wearability. Their mobile site has finger-friendly categories, making it easy to browse the site without going somewhere you didn't mean to visit. They too have a link to the full website.

www.Zappos.com

I have not purchased shoes myself from Zappos, but McAlister got a pair of steel-toe work shoes for his seasonal job this past summer, and he was able to find what he wanted in the sizes and colors he wanted from Zappos. I'm encouraged to try buying from Zappos myself; I have a hard time finding shoes I like, especially for travel.

Zappos also has an iPhone app, which they offered with a Download Now button. Below it they have a "No Thanks, I'll just use the Browser" link, so I tapped that one to get started. With a series of dropdown selections, I was able to start browsing for a comfortable set of flats in no time.

What is your favorite mobile shopping website or app? Use the comments section below to submit yours, and I'll add them to the resource list.

Toolie

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Newsletter: Real-time Transit Info in the Palm of Your Hand

I have long been an advocate of using mass transit while traveling. I've been on trains and subway systems all over the world. I know most of you would prefer to rent a car to get around, but sometimes that's just not an option.

For me, planning a transit excursion was fun; coordinating time schedules, locating bus stops, determining connections and layovers. Transit schedules have been readily available on the Internet for close to 10 years now. Even in countries where English is not the primary language, signs are often posted in English as well for the convenience of visitors. I've been all over Hong Kong island by bus, and it's a great way to see the city and feel like a local, even if you don't look like a local.

I recently acquired a full-time, on-site consulting contract near my home and decided to use mass transit rather than commuting by car through what is one of the worst highway bottlenecks we have around here. The bus to my client's location uses surface streets and back roads, so the commute is quick and painless. Of course getting up at 6 am is challenge for me, but one I am committed to overcoming.

Naturally I began planning for my commute using the online transit pages. I remembered that a colleague on my last contract mentioned an iPhone App that delivers real-time bus information to your device. I installed it then but didn't have much use for it until now. Having figured out the route, the iPhone app would be helpful in knowing exactly when the busses would arrive.

That one "timeliness" feature turns out to be a godsend. It removes the anxiety and frustration of wondering 1) whether you missed your bus, and 2) when it's really going to show up. What's nice about this particular application is that it not only shows you the bus you're expecting, but every arrival at that stop, in case using an alternate bus is an option.

Timeliness is Next to Godliness


For business travelers, getting there on time is everything. We usually schedule our trips down to the last minute if we can, hoping that everything goes as planned. I think more travelers would consider using mass transit as part of their plan if they knew that the transit was reliable and timely. There is good news on this front; the increase in smart phone usage has encourage app developers to produce more of these real-time transit applications for our use.

Seattle is a high-tech town, so I would expect there to be coverage like this available. I went searching through iTunes, though, to see what other cities might have apps covering their territory. Naturally, having apps developed would depend on how much the local population depends on mass transit and/or how good the transit coverage is. As you might expect, the larger metropolitan areas have many apps available for download (most of them free). For example:

New York City Subways
Long Island Railroads
New Jersey Transit (Rail)
New Jersey Transit (Bus)
PATH Train (New Jersey to New York)

SE Pennsylvania Transit (SEPTA)
Washington DC Metro
NextBus DC

Chicago L (eLevated trains)
Chicago Transit Authority (CTA)
METRA: Long-distance Northeastern Illinois trains

San Francisco (bus)
CalTrain: SF commuter rail
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) around San Francisco
San Jose (bus)

But there are applications available for other metro areas as well.
Here is a partial list:

Denver
Los Angeles
Greater Boston (MBTA)
Miami-Dade County
Sacramento
San Diego
Seattle/Puget Sound

And don't forget cities outside the USA:

Taipei
Bangkok

These are just the cities whose applications included the name of the city. There are dozens more applications in the list that didn't include the city or region name, such as mine, titled "OneBusAway."

These are just the iPhone applications -- I saw many of the same apps in the Android Market as well.

Most of us travel pretty compactly, so hoisting a bag onto a transit bus isn't any more difficult than hoisting it onto a hotel shuttle (except that you have to do it yourself). With the availability of this real-time transit information, the option to use mass transit on your next business trip should be seriously considered.

I invite you to jump on and enjoy the ride.
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