redesign | travel: Amex tries to reinvent the airport lounge

The phrase “airport lounge” can mean very different things, depending on what country’s flag flies at the airport in question.

Centurion Lounge SFO entranceIn Europe and Asia, many lounges are indulgent retreats with hot food and complimentary top-shelf wine, beer and booze. In the United States, they generally stop at free snacks and rail drinks — but anybody can buy a membership, instead of that privilege being reserved for premium-cabin and exceptionally frequent flyers.

American Express’s small network of Centurion Lounges (Las Vegas, Dallas-Fort Worth, LaGuardia and San Francisco, with Miami coming this spring) aim to bridge that gap. They offer the cuisine and cocktails of a lounge you might find at Heathrow or Frankfurt at roughly the price of an American Airlines Admirals Club, Delta Sky Club, or United Club membership — with an Amex Platinum card included.

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redesign | travel: How would you improve this St. Regis hotel bath collection?

The big issue here is that all three bottles look alike. There is shampoo, conditioner and body wash. But it’s not easy to tell which is which without picking up the small, likely wet bottles.

That’s bad enough for the typical person. But for people like me, who are blind as a bat, it is a serious issue. Without my glasses or contacts — the standard when I’m taking a shower — I couldn’t read the text until the bottle was within 5″ of my eyes.

Unfortunately, this is the status quo at hotels. They all have tiny bottles that are impossible to read. Some hotels have their amenities in clear plastic bottles, which makes it easier to distinguish the blue shampoo from the white conditioner. But you still have to figure out which is which.

My ideal solution has two parts:

  • Large letters on each bottle. S = Shampoo, B = Body wash, C= Conditioner.
  • Different shaped bottles. For example, circle for shampoo, square for conditioner, triangle for the body wash.

Changing the labels is relatively easy. Changing the shape of the bottles is more complicated.

Because chains use standardized toiletries, learning one would help you at multiple hotels. (On the flip side, it makes the roll out process longer.)

This isn’t just a usability issue; it could be an issue under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This quiz was so easy that a lot of people got the correct answer:

Which is why it’s odd that hoteliers don’t seem to see the problem.

But at least St. Regis hotels have a sense of humor. They responded to my question:

AT&T’s 180,000% markup

One of the challenges of international travel is getting access to communications. I’ve gotten used to being able to check email, look up restaurants, find maps and communicate with friends from anywhere in the U.S.

Take your iPhone overseas and all of this can get really expensive, really fast.

At AT&T’s pay-per-use rates, you’re charged $19.97 per MB. It’s cheaper to buy and send a physical post card to friends than it is to send a digital picture.

The only way around that is to buy a local SIM and use it on an unlocked iPhone. This process varies from country to country and can be quite a challenge if you don’t speak the local language. It also means that you don’t have coverage the moment you step off the plane.

I got lucky on my recent trip to Italy. The first store I walked into had a clerk who spoke English and understood what I needed. For 2 Euros ($2.76) a week*, I got up to 250 MB of data usage. At AT&T’s a la carte rates, that same usage would run $4,992. If you plan ahead, you can get 200MB for the low, low price of $199.

Even ripoff hotel minibars only charge 3x-4x street costs for convenience.

AT&T’s data markups are even way out of line with its international voice roaming rates. With voice,  AT&T actually provides some value in that phone calls to your number get routed by AT&T to your phone overseas. With data, the only convenience over a local SIM is that you don’t have to seek out a local provider.

The pricing is so absurd that the only people who would do this are business travelers who must be connected at all times, the fabulously wealthy or everyday customers who don’t understand the charges and will further resent AT&T when they get the bill.

AT&T’s the company that pioneered Digital OneRate, which eliminated nationwide roaming charges. I’d like to see them do something rational for international roaming.

* For comparison, this is also much less than AT&T charges for domestic data usage. With a contract, AT&T charges $15 for 200 MB of data. This works out to about $11 for 5 times as much data.